Lake Bunyonyi is located just over the border in Uganda and makes a really great place to escape to for a few days or longer. The easiest part for Kigali residents to visit is near Kabale, a small city just 30 minutes from the Katuna border 1.5 hours north of Kigali. The lake is large and there are several parts to explore but we’ll just focus on the Kabale-area section because that’s the part I’ve been to.
I changed my mind at the last minute and decided to head to Lake Bunyonyi instead of Kampala. I already had a ticket to Kampala on Jaguar’s VIP coach (leaves at 9am each day, nicer and fewer seats than the regular buses) for Rwf 8,000 so I just got off early at Kabale. But this is a massive waste of money since you’ll only be travelling for about 3 hours instead of the 9 hour trip all the way to Kampala. So don’t be dumb like me and just get a ticket to Kabale.
Kabale is the first major town after entering Uganda and buses going to Kampala will pass all pass through. You can buy a ticket from Kigali to Kabale with several companies. Yes, I’m being vague because I didn’t research which ones and don’t know the exact price. But head down to the Nyabagogo bus station and ask around and you shall receive the information. It takes an hour and a half to get to the border, another 45 minutes to an hour for everyone to pass through immigration and then Kabale is another 25 minutes past the border.
Once you get to Kabale you’ll find a bunch of boda-boda (mototaxis – also Swahili for ‘death trap’) drivers waiting outside the door to the bus. They’ll all assume you’re going to Lake Bunyonyi and start peppering you with their best price. Boda-bodas are terrifying at the best of times (no helmets and the way the seat is makes you always feel like you’re about to do a backflip off the end) and the road to Lake Bunyonyi is no exception. It’s a dirt road and it can get pretty slick if it’s rained. There are potholes and the steep hills make it a treacherous ride that’s a bit hard on your back and legs. I also nearly got clotheslined by a small child who was playing with a giant tree branch… my driver and I had to duck as she lost control of the branch and it fell down towards our bike. Fun.
A boda-boda to the Lake Bunyonyi Overland Camp will cost Ush 5,000 (although they’ll ask for 10,000 at first). Finding a car is a better idea if it has just rained or if you’re a group of people and they can be hired for Ush 10,000. Just ask around and you’ll find someone willing to take you. It takes about 20 minutes to get to the Overland Camp so, all up, the trip should take about 3 hours. If you’re staying out on one of the islands you’ll have to add a canoe or motorboat into the equation. Canoes to many of the islands take about 40 to 50 minutes and motorboats about 10 to 15.
Getting back to Kigali is a bit more complicated as you won’t have a bus ticket. I ended up paying Ush 4,000 for some dude with a car and a bunch of passengers to drive me to the Rwandan border. Once I got there I wandered across, cleared customs and continued up the road, walking aimlessly hoping someone would take pity on my and drive me back to Kigali. Eventually a minibus came along and I got a lift back to Kigali for Rwf 1,800-ish. It took about 3 hours though.
There are a bunch of accommodation options both around the edge of Lake Bunyoni and on the many islands in the lake. I was thoroughly confused by my choices at first because I wasn’t really sure where anything was. Take a look at my map below to get an idea. A friend of mine stayed on one of the islands but said it was pretty quiet so if you’re looking for some party time, a quiet island might not be a good choice.
Single Room: US$110
Double Room: US$120
This is the place to come if you want to be pampered. It’s probably where the luxury safari groups stay. The rooms are really nice and well laid out, they have a very stylish-looking pool, and the staff are nice. While the places nearby have gone for a rustic feel, this place is upmarket and pretty swish but they do it without feeling sterile. Their patio has a great view and they’ve got a pretty badass fire pit which looks like a pretty amazing place to hang out. Room prices include breakfast.
Bushara Island Camp
Single Safari Tent: US$25
Double Safari Tent: US$30
Cottages: US$25-50 (depending on size and number of people)
This place is located a 50 minute (30 minute if you help paddle), Ush 3,000 canoe ride from the market (located down a road near Crater Bay Cottages). Actually, if you let them know you’re coming, the boat ride there is free. The island is beautiful with a couple of of swimming spots, a nice camping area, and several safari tents and cottages. I didn’t make a booking and got stuck in a dorm room which I think is actually reserved for staff or for large groups. Not the nicest but I guess it teaches me to book ahead! The dorm bed costs $15 and isn’t even on their price list. The showers don’t have doors so, if this is a luxury you like, I suggest booking a tent or cottage. The restaurant is a nice place to hang out with a fireplace and good food. The only place with power is an office down a path from the restaurant so if you need to keep things charged, this might not be the best place to stay. They run a bunch of interesting looking tours to keep you busy.
Bunyoni Overland Resort
Pitch Your Own Tent: US$8
Single Tent: US$20
Double Tent: US$25
Single Cottage: US$30
Double Cottage: US$40
This is where many of the major overland companies stop (Exodus, Kumuka, Dragoman etc) so you could find yourself sharing this accommodation with some rowdy youngsters on their big African adventure… depending on the tour company. This could also make for a lively atmosphere if that’s what you’re after. The accommodation is far enough away from the bar area that hopefully rowdy groups won’t be an issue. The setting is really beautiful with each of the tents having their own balcony facing the lake with a small table and two chairs to chill out in. They’ve also got a camping area and cottages. The toilets and showers are clean and the hot water was magically working even when the power was out. You can hire canoes here for $5 per day.
Crater Bay Cottages
Pitch Your Own Tent: US$8
Mobile Tent with Bedding: US$10
Double Cottage: US$43 (includes breakfast)
A nice, welcoming reception guy showed me around but he only showed me the cottages and said that the other rooms weren’t as nice. The cottages are pretty cute. The round rooms with grass roofs are a lot more spacious than they would seem when you look at them from the outside. The bar area is small but has comfy looking chairs. There are lots of other places around the property to hang out including a grassy area and a swimming dock. You can rent a canoe here for $6 a day.
Pitch Your Own Tent: Ush 10,000
Single Safari Tent: Ush 30,000
Twin Safari Tent: Ush 40,000
Single Room: Ush 40,000
Double Room: Ush 50,000
The rooms are nicer at Crater Bay Cottages and the tents at Kalebas Camp are dome-style which makes them a lot less spacious than those found at Bunyoni Overland Restort. But the guests I met there vouched for the food and friendliness of the place. Their sitting areas are among the nicest with a fireplace up top, a restaurant with a view, and a nice area down by the water. There’s also a lot of grass to lay on or to pitch your tent. It has a nice, laid back vibe that I really liked.
The main thing to do at Lake Bunyoni is to enjoy the lake! This means swimming (there’s no bilharzia here), canoeing and general lounging around in the sun. All of the places to stay I’ve listed are well-equipped with plenty of grassy areas to veg on (yes, it’s Uganda and you can walk on the grass!) and a bunch of them also have nice patios and floating swimming decks.
If you’d rather explore the lake by boat then you’ve got the choice of hiring a motorboat or paddling around (or in circles, depending on your canoeing prowess) in a dugout canoe. Your accommodation will be able to arrange a boat for you, or you can head down to the local market area (just down the road from Crater Bay Cottages) and find a boat yourself.
Unless you want to zip around to a bunch of the islands, I’d suggest hiring a canoe for the day and exploring at a slow pace. The lake is beautiful and calm and the canoes are sturdy and fun to paddle. The islands are close enough to the shore that visiting a few of them in the day is a possibility. If you’re staying on the shore, try to get out to at least one of the islands for a look around.
You can also do multi-day canoe treks with Edirisa Travels which look pretty cool.