Uganda: Welcome to the lakedom of eco-lazy

Lake Bunyoni Uganda eco travel Africa

A 'geo-dome' at  Byoona Amagara Island Retreat surveys Lake Bunyoni, Uganda  

The dugout canoe ride to the Byoona Amagara Island Retreat is free – but it comes with two rather large buts.

First, the moment after you cast off from the low wooden-slatted jetty jutting out into south-west Uganda’s Lake Bunyoni, your indigenous captain will thrust you an oar.

The second, related ‘but’ is that it’s a 50-minute paddle to your goal, often with a headwind and antagonistic current.

The paddle is an intense warm-up for a surprisingly affordable and refreshingly low-key eco-friendly respite from the hyper-exhausting life on the Ugandan tourist trail.

Lake Bunyoni has been labelled the “Swiss Alps of Africa”. The surging mountain range isn’t as brutally dramatic as the Alps, but the overall experience of remote relaxation probably exceeds it; after your initial exertion, life on Byoona Amagara is as slow as you want it to be.

You can hire one of the dug-outs for a paddle, if you want.

You can go for a swim, if you feel like it.

You can walk around the island and discover one of its relaxing nooks – greeted at one point by competing signs pointing “this way” and “that way” – if you can summon the energy.

You can play a game of backgammon with recycled beer tops, if you can be bothered.

You can borrow a book from one of the most thought-through travellers’ libraries in Africa, if you’re feeling literary.

Or, conversely, you can do diddly squat.

Luckily the accommodation here is fantastic at promoting sloth; feng shui for the lazy.

The open-fronted ‘geo-domes’ peer directly out onto the serene lake, meaning you can do exactly the same. They are bound-together banana leaves and reeds, wood, a bed, a couple of chairs and a mosquito net (although because of the altitude there’s not as many as you’d expect from an east African lake).

Save for the fluttering of the odd vibrantly coloured swallow or a fisherman gently stroking his dugout to market there’s little to disrupt the perpetual peace.  

While decadent in space and outlook, the geo-domes (and dorm rooms) sport low-watt bulbs, only just throwing enough illumination for a spot of evening reading.

The low-watt bulbs, run off limited solar power facilities, are the other main ‘but’ about the resort.

On the up side, Byoona Amagara is part of a programme called Sustainabilty Now!, endeavoring to “bridge the gap between tourism, education, agriculture and healthcare, in a location where all are essential to daily life.” The profits from your stay are invested into brilliant local programmes such as the ‘canoe school bus’.  

However, on the other side of the sustainability coin, a stay here involves a strong measure of compromise. 'The Complete Life' as the resort’s name translates in the local language, Rukiga, is certainly not a sanctuary for the high-maintenance traveller.

You will have to book ahead so the staff can heat some water for the funkily Gilligan’s Island-esque open-air showers.

You will to have to tolerate crapping in bio-dynamic toilets, which means no flush, just that long drop and nature’s helping hand in composting your waste (luckily they are relentlessly kept clean).

You will have to wait in line to recharge your phone/laptop and then pay for the sun-fuelled top up.

Of course, the resort is not 100 per cent eco-friendly. Much of the food (while genuinely taste-bud hypnotizing and reasonably priced) is shipped in from the nearest town; most people drink bottled water; and many people choose to be transported in by power boat (although in a polluter-pays policy it costs US$7).  

The resort doesn’t trumpet that it’s eco perfect, an impossibility given the small tariffs charged. “We’re not 100 per cent sustainable yet, but when we become rich we will,” one sign says.

Of 17 almost Stepford-Wife-friendly staff who work on the island, 12 live locally. I guess it's difficult to get agitated when your commute consists of a drifting across a lake.

Visually the resort offers more of a village personality, sympathetic to its surroundings, ten times more so than a couple of monolithically square hotels in the more accessible parts of the lake.

The beauty of my stay at Byoona Amagara was that I happily, and decadently, achieved not much, except relaxing, but I didn’t spend, expend or consume much either. For a shade under US$9 per person for a geo-dome (and a less for a dorm) it’s “grand value”, as an Irish fellow traveller pointed out.

You’ll barely notice that you are compromising in this superbly chilled resort that doesn’t feed its guest the patronizing hutzpah that often goes with sustainable and eco-friendly tourism.

Steve Madgwick

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