Equal Hemispheres

I traveled over the Equator a couple weekends back. I have never been to the southern hemisphere of Earth, and learned it didn’t feel any different than the North. I also learned the monument was not tall enough for me.

The drive from Jinja to Kabale, the capital and namesake of the district where Lake Bonyoni and Bushara Island are located, was long and uneventful. Kampala was predictably jammed with traffic, and there were virtually no vehicles on the road after leaving Uganda’s capital city.

We reached the lakeshore amid bleating goats, cawing chickens, and shouts in rukiga (roo-chee-gah, the local language). It was market day. Animals, clothes, vegetables, and a hundred other things were traded, sold, bought, and boated to small communities around the lake.

Lake Bunyonyi lies between hills. Very steep hills, where even the most stable vehicle would fail to maintain its grip. Some roads existed on the peaks of each hill, but transport to everywhere near the lakeshore was by boat. There were some with fibreglass hulls and low-power motors. More common were dugout canoes; you know, canoes carved out of tree trunks using only hand tools.

We – two VIDEA interns stationed on Bushara Island, our driver, and my co-intern at Arise and Shine Uganda – used a massive dugout canoe to travel around the lake. I was told it could fit 20 people, if necessary, so our party of five was very comfortable. We visited another island, Byonna Amagara (boo-nah ma-gar-ah; the words spoken almost as one) for lunch on Saturday, and spent every free minute (every minute was free) talking about life in each of our slices of Uganda and our plans when we return to Canada.

Sunday was a hiking day. Previously, I mentioned that Converse All-Stars aren’t the greatest hiking shoes. Sunday June 5th was the day I tested that purpose, the steep hills around Lake Bonyonyi was the crucible.

Led by a tall, lithe gentleman named Enos, we hiked up and over one of Bonyonyi’s edges, climbing roughly 900m in what felt like a very short horizontal distance. The slope was slippery with loose gravel and dirt. A third of the way up, a pair of children moving faster than us despite carrying 20 litre jerry cans filled with water waited for us to pass and then began to follow.

Once on the other side of the hill, we descended a couple hundred metres or so, following a road until it reached a schoolhouse, and then continuing across the hill by way of paths barely wide enough for a cautious goat. Our descent resumed briefly as we wound through trees, Enos following a path I wouldn’t have seen without his lead. At its end we found a cave that made the Equator monument’s height seem palatial. Enos told us that women and children would hide in the cave in times of war, men standing around the hill to keep watch.

It was just before noon when we began ascending the hill to its peak, interrupted only by excited children shouting “muzungu!” and groups of men bearing loose-fitting suit jackets, slurred greetings, and wobbling gaits. The road snaking along the peak led to our next destination: blacksmiths who used techniques stretching back to the Bantu expansion 3000 years ago. A crowd formed as we watched the smith pound iron against a rock to form simple knives. I enjoyed the process, though I felt like we were a local attraction much as the blacksmith was a tourist attraction – persons walking or driving by stoped for a brief conversation or simply to look at us.

Trekking down the hill back to Lake Bunyonyi was on trails similar to the goat-paths already mentioned. We emerged from a field of tall sorghum to a view of the lake. We smiled in a moment of visual ecstasy. Continuing down, the path was no steeper than that which we ascended; it was littered with even more loose stones and dirt, making it much slower going.

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View from the top: Most of Lake Bunyonyi

Back on a more level path, we walked back to where our canoe was moored. For the second time, wobbly-legged men followed us repeating their sentences until we memorized every slurred word. I couldn’t manage more than an embarrassed smile – I’ll admit to a midday beer or two during vacations or party weekends with friends, but friends, family, and I tend keep that to ourselves instead of showing off to tourists. Enos greeted many community members along our way, but didn’t speak to any day-drunk men other than to shoo them away. We canoed back to Bushara Island, thanking Enos profusely for his excellent guidance. I was pleased to note that my Converse All-Stars had survived, though the soles of my feet would tell you a longer, less pleasing story about the hike.

My roommate and I asked for another tour the next day: a bird watching walk around the island. Eos obliged, arriving before 8am to begin. Binoculars in hand, we were introduced to a couple dozen species of avians ranging from miniscule bee-catchers to black kites and cormorants. I left my camera in its case; I was busy enjoying the birds.

We boated back to the mainland shortly after the end of the tour and group hugs with the Bushara Island interns. We reached the car and started the 10 hour drive to Jinja, eager to return home yet sad to leave the other IYIP interns behind.

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