I’d never heard of Lake Bunyoni before I arrived in Uganda. It first appeared on my radar when researching how to travel by bus to Kigali, Rwanda when I saw multiple people recommend it as a nice stop to break up the long bus ride from Kampala. After a bit more digging, my partner and I decided we wanted to spend a couple nights there and booked a room at a small eco-lodge on the lake.
We had an incredible time and one of the wildest adventures of the year involving a dugout canoe! Here’s how we spent 3 days on Lake Bunyoni and what I’d recommend if you’re planning a visit.
Day 1: Getting to Lake Bunyoni
Christian and I left for Lake Bunyoni from Kampala, Uganda which was about a 7 hour bus ride away. We had booked tickets on the Jaguar bus line several days before to secure seats in the front. (Tickets were 35,000 UGX each from Kampala to Kabale.)
It was a decent ride but I had a slight stomach bug lingering from the weekend before. By the time we reached our singular bathroom stop, about 5 hours in, I was pretty desperate. I was greeted by a dark squat-latrine with no toilet paper, and of course I’d forgotten to bring my own. Rough.
Otherwise, we arrived in Kabale without issue in the afternoon. We had booked a room at Om Hostel Bunyoni and arranged a taxi to pick us up from Kabale, about 30 minutes drive away.
Note: You could certainly find someone to drive you once you get off the bus, and likely for cheaper than we paid (30,000 UGX all together). However, we weren’t sure if an unknown taxi driver would have issues finding where to drop us off which is why we wanted to pre-arrange a taxi. Our taxi dropped us off at the Rutinda boat dock where our hostel host, Andrew, was waiting to paddle us to our room via dugout canoe.
In hindsight, there seemed to be one main boat dock (Rutinda) and most taxi drivers are likely familiar enough with it to take you there. If you aren’t taking a canoe to your location though, it may be more difficult to communicate where your accommodation is on the Lake as there are accommodations all around the weaving coast lines.
For peace of mind, we prearranged the taxi, but if you’re on a tight budget I’d recommend waiting until you get off the bus in Kabale to arrange a ride.
From the dock, we had about a 50 minute canoe ride to our hostel. We dropped off our things in our Lake Cottage room right on the water and enjoyed the sights of the lake and green hills from our window for a few minutes. Then we climbed the few sets of stairs to the top of the property in search of food.
Om Hostel Bunyoni is a unique little spot run by locals but founded in partnership with Japanese staff who operate other hostels around the world. The food menu offers an interesting blend of local foods, Muzungu (foreigner) foods, and Asian Muzungu offerings – think Japanese omelet meets English breakfast.
That said, the property is very remote and there is extremely limited electricity. The rooms each have a light, but the only charging ports are upstairs in the dining area, and there may or may not have been a fridge on the property. Though we didn’t find this out until the next day, most items on the menu were not regularly stocked and the primary offerings seemed to share the same few ingredients not requiring refrigeration (tomatoes, onions, and peppers).
We had two giant veggie samosas and some dal curry and veggie curry dishes (though I’d argue they were more of soups than curries). The sun had set by the time we finished eating, so we spent an hour resting in bed, exhausted from our long day. We emerged a bit later to sit by the campfire that was stoked each night (weather permitting) and were treated to history and local legends by one of the hostel staff, Neville.
Neville told us of the history of punishment island (Akampene), leprosy island, and upside-down island in Lake Bunyoni which make up 3 of the 29 smaller islands inside the lake). We also got an insight into daily life for locals, who are all adept at canoe and use them daily to get to school, go to the main dock for market time, or even travel to the hospital to give birth. He told us there are two special names for children born in the gardens and in a canoe on Lake Bunyoni, but I lament that I didn’t write them down and can’t remember.
After our fireside chat, we fell fast asleep in our bed snuggling under the thick blankets provided and enjoyed the cooler lake temperatures for the first time since I’d arrived in Uganda two months earlier.
Day 2: Dugout Canoes on Lake Bunyoni
We woke up on our first full day around 8:30 for breakfast and played a game of Songbirds while we waited for our food. An aside – Songbirds is a super adorable card game I’d recommend to anyone.
After breakfast, we set off on a hike for the best viewpoints on our side of Lake Bunyoni (though there are many beautiful places to take in the views if you climb high enough). It wasn’t a long trek and it only took us about 30 minutes to get to the top of the hill, though it was super steep.
The route our hostel recommended took us near a few properties of locals on the way, and we met a young man named Apollo who was probably 17. He walked with us a bit and offered us some more info about Lake Bunyoni, telling us that he dreams of becoming a tour guide in the local area after he finishes school.
His mom and brother crafted items they sold out of their house in a small crafts shop, so we stopped by with Apollo on the way back down the hill for some souvenirs. We picked up a small kitenge drawstring bag, a set of woven earrings, and two bracelets made from magazine paper, all of which have been used regularly since our trip.
After hiking and a brief stop for lunch, we set out on our next big adventure – taking the dugout canoe on the water alone. We wanted to explore some of the 29 surrounding islands – specifically Kyahugye which is now home to several zebras, hob, and impala that were imported years ago from outside the Lake region.
We spent the first half hour struggling, desperately, to steer. We were basically spinning around, making larger and larger spirals out of the cove, all while Andrew stood on the dock watching us flounder. Eventually we began to get the hang of it (more or less) and made our way toward “Zebra Island”.
It took nearly an hour, but eventually we arrived and padded quietly closer to shore. I was ecstatic to see almost all the animals were out in the clearing on the side we approached, happily munching away on the grass alongside the locals who lived there, working the land.
We had resolved to eat dinner at a resort near the boat dock, aiming to set back for home before the sun set. Given our time crunch and poor canoeing skills, we didn’t have time to visit the other islands, and we set off toward BirdNest Resort. For some reason, our paddling skills began to suffer, and the final stretch was incredibly slow work, both of us growing more frustrated with each canoe of locals effortlessly gliding past us.
It didn’t help that there were ominous storm clouds rolling in over head as we sat, spinning left, then right, in the middle of the Lake.
By the grace of Lake Bunyoni, we reached the BirdNest Resort dock five minutes before the skies opened up on us. We settled in at a cozy table in the resort restaurant, ordered some drinks and fancy meals, and watched the rain falling on the lake so thickly you couldn’t see far beyond the shoreline.
The rain slowed to a drizzle about the time we finished dinner and though it was fairly dark, we decided to try and paddle home. Our canoe had filled with rain so we asked for a bucket from the hotel staff, feeling a bit ridiculous. After our canoe was reasonably water-free, we returned the bucket and set off in the canoe.
In our final minutes of canoeing earlier in the afternoon, we realized our issue was how we were padding – when you paddle far from the canoe, you turn the canoe, but when you paddle close to it you stay mostly straight. With this knowledge in mind, I let Christian do all the padding while I kept “bow watch” looking out for other boats or people and checking our GPS dot on my phone to ensure we were on track.
It was a fairly uneventful ride for the first forty minutes or so. Then we came across a man in a long-canoe, who pulled up beside us and began speaking quickly in Rukiga, the local language on Lake Bunyoni.
We’ve been working on our Lugandan while living in Kampala, but didn’t speak a lick of Rukiga, so we were fairly confused and a little anxious to be canoeing alongside a stranger in the dark. After a few minutes of poor communication, we surmised that he thought we were lost and was intending to escort us back to Om Hostel Bunyoni, which he seemed to recognize.
About 15 minutes later, we pulled up to our dock with our informal guide in tow, where Andrew came down to do some translating and welcome us back. Exhausted and chilly from the drizzling rain, we took a deep and victorious breath, thankful we made it back in one piece, and fell fast asleep.
Day 3: Lake Bunyoni to Kabale
Our final day on the Lake was rather uneventful as it rained nearly all morning. We enjoyed a last breakfast in the dining area and played another card game, and then packed up and played another card game in our room waiting for the rain to subside.
When the storm eased to a drizzle, we arranged a ride by motorboat to bring us back to the main dock. Luckily, the rain stopped half way through our ride (which went much quicker with a motor!) and we arrived to find the Friday market in full swing.
Canoes full of cabbage and carrots lined the shore and vendors with every manor of shoes, clothing, food, and other miscellaneous goods for sale were set up along the dirt roads, piled on tarps or hung from stalls.
Christian wanted a souvenir from our travels so he’d purchased an entire canoe oar from our hostel to take home with us. We needed to cut off the long handle since there was no way it would fit in the overhead compartment on our flight home weeks later. So, Andrew found a local with a saw and we followed him up the steep dirt inclines to his house where he quickly sawed off the handle and sanded it down for us.
Then, we met our taxi driver from our previous ride from Kabale (named Frank) and set off back for the Jaguar bus station.
From there we spent an hour waiting for the bus to take us on to Kigali, still giggling from our canoe adventure the night before. I wouldn’t recommend canoeing in the dark if you can avoid it – and we wouldn’t have if the storm hadn’t foiled our timeline. But the entire trip felt like one of those vacations we would never forget.
Other Lake Bunyoni Activities & Accommodations
Lake Bunyoni is a beautiful natural gem in Uganda and I would suggest everyone visit at some point if you love nature and history.
We were there during rainy season so our activities were limited to the patches of good weather and daylight we received but in good weather we would have taken advantage of some other activities.
What to do on Lake Bunyoni
- Taking a dugout canoe ourselves on the lake was such a fun way to explore but if you want to see more of the 29 islands or don’t trust your paddling, get a guide! Guides can show you most of the islands via motorboat and introduce you to the history as you go.
- Hiking is a wonderful option no matter where you stay on the lake. You’re guaranteed some great exercise and even better views, but make sure you’re aware of the route so you don’t pass through homes of locals who might not want regular visitors.
- If you prefer wheels to canoes or walking, mountain biking is also an option.
- There are so many species of birds on Lake Bunyoni that it’s a haven for bird watchers – bring binoculars and pass an afternoon seeing how many of the 200 bird species you can spot. Bunyoni even means “place of many little birds”.
- Unlike Lake Victoria, Lake Bunyoni is free of hippos, crocodiles, and the bilharzia parasite so it’s safe for swimming. Don’t forget your sunscreen – the sun is very strong!
- You can also book cultural and historic tours through most accommodations, but make sure to do your research and ensure that the tours are respectful and empowering the local communities, rather than exploiting them.
Where to stay on Lake Bunyoni
There are lots of options for accommodations which vary from budget to luxury. We chose a budget option, Om Hostel Bunyoni. It was a fairly basic accommodation and a wonderful way to detach from social media and enjoy the great outdoors. Our Lake Cottage cost us around $25 a night but there were cheaper dorm options available too.
I’d recommend checking Airbnb for local homestays and budget options.
We didn’t stay at the BirdNest Resort but we did dine there and it looked incredibly nice. The dining staff provided great service, and as a historic hotel in the area, you can be assured you’ll have a very comfortable stay. It’s also conveniently located a short walking distance from the Rutinda dock, making it very easy to find.
I hope you get the chance to visit Lake Bunyoni some day! It’s well worth the bumpy bus ride from Kampala.