Off all the islands on Lake Victoria, Bulago is not particularly well-known. Water-sports and swimming are out of the question as the island is currently home to an enormous crocodile, rumoured to have eaten residents’ dogs, sheep and even bitten off fishermen’s feet, hands and buttocks! Bulago isn’t very developed, doesn’t draw hoards tourists and you won’t read about it in a guide book. So obviously, I wanted to go.
A family friend, Tom, is building a fishing lodge on the island and invited me to visit for the weekend. Eager to escape the hustle and bustle of Kampala with its relentless noise, chaotic streets and choking dust, I jumped at the chance to experience the tranquillity and rugged remoteness of an island free from boda boda drivers, matatus and imposing shopping malls.
Getting there is no easy feat. Tom and his friend, Alex, had visited the mainland to pick up his weekly supplies and so I hitched a lift with them from Kampala. A private car got us to the shore and we were quickly greeted by a crowd of locals all eager to earn a few shilling in return for helping us aboard Tom’s wooden fishing boat. I watched in awe as they waded into the filthy, bilharzia-infested water and loaded Tom’s supplies onto the vessel. Next they came for us. The boys were hoisted onto the locals’ shoulders and carried to the boat. I suddenly regretted wearing a short, flimsy dress for the crossing! But before I had chance to contemplate how I was going to conceal my modesty with my legs wrapped around a man’s neck, I was scooped up like a child and carried through the water to the boat. My main concern became avoiding all contact with the filthy water which I could only hope the locals had built up a tolerance too.
Aboard, we started the engine and the fishing boat roared to life. Only to quickly cut out 10 metres from shore. A crowd of spectators quickly assembled to watch in bemusement as 3 mzungos attempted to identity the problem. Without a paddle to help us, the locals waded to our assistance once again and brought the boat back to shore. It was getting late and we were losing both light and patience – the crossing seemed treacherous enough without having to do it in the dark. I was quickly losing faith in our rudimentary mode of transport. The boat was simply not starting. After buying a few replacement parts, which miraculously appeared from local houses on demand, Tom opened up the engine to discover that in his absence, the local guys had taken to dismantling the engine and putting it back together again. Apparently they like to do this to learn how to fix up boats and therefore have a trade. After a heated argument and protests of innocence from the suspected parties, our engine finally spluttered back to life and we were off. It was dark and choppy and the rain had started, but we had warm beers and just about managed to make the crossing before the storm set in.
There is an eerie remoteness to Bulago. The wind and rain battered the windows and from my window I could see nothing but the moon reflecting over the vast darkness of the water. It kept occurring to me that if something went wrong or someone fell sick, you’re a long way from the mainland and there is no Doctor on the island, which consists only of a few houses, a settlement of locals, a hotel and a guest house. It’s a secluded and unspoilt patch of paradise to some, an isolated and underdeveloped no-mans-land to others.
When I woke up the morning, a heavy head from too much waragi (local gin) on my first night, I immediately understood the island’s appeal. The view is hard to beat. Who could tire of waking up to this every day?
It may not have Kampala’s raucous nightlife, restaurant offerings and abundance of markets, shops and street hawkers, but it offers a simple way of living which is enviable peaceful and staggeringly beautiful. We walked to the highest vantage point to take in the view and went fishing in the protected waters for Tilapia, Nile Perch and Catfish. We cooked Tom’s spoils from the mainland and had alfresco meals looking out on the world’s second largest freshwater lake.
We circled the small island on his fishing boat looking for monitor lizards and crocodiles. And we swam at the gorgeous infinity pool at One Minute South, a stunning guests house reminiscent of a Spanish Hacienda adorned with quirky art and unusual African sculptures. What’s most impressive is that every item has been brought to the island in the modest wooden fishing boats we used to get there.
The advantage of life on Bulago is that you are surrounded by natural beauty and have an unparalleled level of privacy, but the disadvantage is that you are cut-off from civilisation and surviving there requires regular trips to the mainland to pick up supplies. And as with every micro community, it’s a place where gossip is rife and newcomers treated with suspicion. I couldn’t live there, but I certainly see the appeal of those who do. One day the secret of Bulago will get out to the masses, but for now it’s a place where the inhabitants cherish their little slice of paradise and self-imposed seclusion. I’d highly recommend experience it while you can.