A world apart from the game parks, NGO enclaves, and bustling business districts that characterize much of visitors’ perceptions of Uganda, one-of-a-kind Lake Bunyonyi offers a chance to disconnect and recharge in stunning beauty and supreme tranquility. And Byoona Amagara Island Retreat might well be one of the best places to base yourself out of.
Never one for having others do island retreat research for me, I set out to discover Lake Bunyonyi and Byoona Amagara for myself. And the results were nothing less than astonishing.
Visiting an Island Oasis on Lake Bunyonyi
At the end of a 48-day journey to nearly every corner of Uganda, my research partner and I sequestered ourselves at Byoona Amagara lodge on a tiny island in the middle of a large lake for the purposes of analyzing boatloads of data and writing a couple of field reports.
By that time, we had spent a combined 19 nights in Kampala and were eager to be working anywhere other than a hotel room in the capital city.
Via the miracle that is twenty-first century technology, we were able to bring our work to this remote corner of Uganda, armed with laptops, USB modems, a faint but adequate cell tower signal, and enough electricity in the evening to charge our gear.
If you’ve got to work, you’d be hard pressed to find a better office.
How to Get to Byoona Amagara on Lake Bunyonyi
It wasn’t all that difficult to get to Byoona Amagara, but there were multiple steps involved.
We took the trusty Post Bus from Kampala to Kabale for a cool 20,000 shillings each (US$7.60)…and a small piece of our souls.
If you’re ever in the market for an incredibly depressing movie, check out Darkness of Sorrow.
How does it end, you ask? Not to spoil it for you but pretty much after two hours of investing in an array of characters and an interesting telenovela style plot…
…immediately followed by the words “God be the Glory!”
…and then, cut to black.
Leave it to Ugandan filmmakers, and the Post Bus, for depositing us in paradise unquestionably traumatized.
Once in Kabale, we made our way to the field where the taxis gather and found one to take us to the dock/ carpark at Rutinda. [find on map]
This would have been much easier if we had gone with any number of drivers yelling at us as we got off the bus. But instead, we decided to grab a little lunch first in Kabale and get a cab later.
By the time we made it back to the bus stop, all the taxis had already dispersed. We asked around for a while until we were directed to a dusty lot down the road where drivers usually hang out and found one willing to take us. The taxi cost 25,000 USh for the two of us.
Skip lunch when you arrive in Kabale and take advantage of the gaggle of taxis waiting to whisk you away to where you need to go. Or, better yet, arrange a transfer through your lodge ahead of time if possible.
From the dock at Rutinda, a boatman sent from Byoona Amagara was waiting for us.
Within minutes we were off the dock and on our way, passing a village with a large market, though it looked as if we had missed most of the action.
We motored down one finger of the lake, around a few small islands and a much larger one until our island retreat came into focus.
In total from Kampala, it took us 8 hours on the Post Bus from Kampala to Kabale, 25 minutes in a private hire taxi from Kabale to Rutinda, and 15 minutes on a boat ride to paradise!
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Rather than me try and re-summarize a perfectly fine summary of this place, here’s the lodge in its own words from their website:
“Byoona Amagara Island Retreat is a traveler’s paradise located at Lake Bunyonyi in the southwest of Uganda. Situated on a peninsula alongside a protected cove at the heart of the stunning and serene island-studded lake, we cater to independent and budget travelers looking for serious relaxation, gorgeous views, unique accommodations and delicious food, all at the most affordable prices in the region.
“While tranquility and relaxation in a beautiful island setting is our main attraction, there is also plenty to do… from island-hopping by canoe, to trekking through the hills and villages around the lake, to birdwatching the 150+ species found here, or visiting various scenic and cultural hotspots of the area – either guided or unguided, or just swimming and hiking at the island itself… you will not be at a loss for a pleasurable activity when you are ready.”
I awoke early on the first morning of our visit for a sunrise swim in the lake. The air was warm but not yet hot, and the water was just the right temperature. Not a soul around. Perfection.
Amagara Family Cottage
We stayed in the spacious and lovely two-bedroom Amagara cottage overlooking the lake.
The cottage itself is well-sealed and nicely furnished. Bear in mind, however, we are still on an island in the middle of a lake in the far reaches of Uganda, so we didn’t exactly have reliable 24-hour electricity and in-door plumbing.
But the cottage did come with a perfectly adequate outdoor latrine and solar-heated shower, in addition to solar electricity that worked well enough to keep our devices charged for work.
If you’re interested in booking your own island adventure, check the lodge’s current rates and availability for your travel dates.
Read on for more helpful tips on staying at Byoona Amagara and the rest of our trip report.
Around the Island
In between long bouts of report-writing, we ventured away from the lodge (which has no physical boundaries) and into the small communities around the island.
It’s impossible to find some vantage point around the island that doesn’t offer stunning views.
During our meander, we came across a couple of the island’s residents, John, a young man who mostly fishes and traps crayfish, and another who does a little bit of everything, it seems.
Large portions of the island are devoted to the production of sorghum. Sorghum is one of Uganda’s most important cash crops used to make flour, porridge, couscous, and even beer!
It’s a hearty, fast-growing crop that has seen its value rise considerably in recent years, largely due to increased demand from beer makers such as Nile Breweries (a subsidiary of SABMiller).
John, checking one of his crayfish traps at the water’s edge.
One more for the bucket! Crayfish are plentiful in Lake Bunyonyi and one of Byoona Amagara’s specialty ingredients. They’ll basically throw it in anything, including pizza!
Along the way, we spotted a variety of wildlife. Here, we encounter a large Hadada Ibis with its striking iridescent sheen. The Hadada is named for its loud and distinctive haa-haa-haa-de-dah call.
For whatever reason, I was really enamored by this lovely and stupid-looking bird (if you’ve seen them, they look like the epitome of a dumb cartoon bird character). S/he was a bit of a mysterious tease, appearing at odd times in random parts of the island (I’m convinced it was the same Ibis).
It’s hard to tell from the photo above, but the bird is fairly large, comparable to a turkey or peacock.
I’d be walking along and then not twenty feet away this guy would squak and stare me down, not unlike the naked indian in The Doors movie.
I’m not sure how many times this scene was repeated until I finally got a clear shot of the bird. After that, I never saw this particular Hadada again.
Another great thing about Byoona Amagara is the work they do in the local community, funding and implementing various grassroots projects that support rural education, healthcare, micro-finance, and organic agriculture training for local residents.
The lodge is a staff-owned, not-for-profit establishment and 100% of proceeds from the lodge go to support sustainable community projects.
In a perfect world, all tourism would directly benefit and positively impact local residents. Unfortunately, this is not the case in most tourism destinations across the globe, but things are changing.
Byoona Amagara stands as a model for how less can be more and how a tourist destination can positively benefit from foreign investors setting up shop in a remote part of the world.
Tips for Booking Your Own Stay
In the interest of sustainability and due to the realities of operating on an island in a remote corner of Uganda, some facilities are basic, but clean and comfortable. The lodge utilizes eco-san toilets and hot water is upon request for some accommodation types like dorms.
With that said, you’d be hard pressed to find another place on Lake Bunyonyi with the number of amenities on offer at this price point.
In addition to the family cottage (from US$97) and thatch geo domes (from US$28) described above, the lodge also has room blocks (from US$18), dorms, (US$8) and rooms in hand-hewn log cabins (from US$44). Many of the domes have lake views.
Prices above are current as of February 2020. Be sure to check current rates and availability for your travel dates.
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A Word About Health & Safety in Uganda
The majority of travelers to Uganda don't encounter serious issues with health and security, but stuff happens. Personally, we've had plenty of surprises affect our health and itinerary while traveling over the years — severe weather, road accidents, broken bones, and other nasties.
Each and every time, we've been very relieved to have a good travel insurance policy. We use and recommend World Nomads for all of our independent travel overseas. We also have close family who have had good experiences with Allianz, which might be worth checking out as well.
Be prepared, use common sense, and travel safe!
Have You Stayed at Byoona Amagara on Lake Bunyonyi?
What was your experience like? Let us know in the comments below.