Island hideaway

Already August and it’s the first blog piece I’m writing this year, to my chagrin. My intention is to write some other pieces retrospectively. The road to hell and all that… Work in Congo sucks me in and then I come up for air every six weeks, by which time I’m usually too knackered to think in whole sentences. A poor excuse for a writer I know.

The main picture of this piece is taken from one of the two hilltops on Bulago Island overlooking Lake Victoria in Uganda. This is the third time I’ve come here to watch the sun set in six days, and this afternoon I came earlier to write. I discovered this gem of a hideaway back in April, on the recommendation of Pamela and Johnny, who created a beautiful resort in one bay of the island and called it “Pineapple Bay”. I met Pamela (Canadian) by chance at the Boma Hotel in Entebbe on my return to Africa early November last year after my long sick leave. Six weeks later, I was back in Entebbe on R&R in the run-up to Christmas and received an invitation to visit Pamela and Johnny and their family in their sumptuous lodge-style home they built in a village about 20 miles east of Kampala. Johnny (British) was born and lived in Uganda until the age of about ten, then felt a strong urge to return there after finishing university. They have been here for 20 years and built up a business in the safari lodge line. Pineapple Bay is a bit different from their other enterprises, but it has their hallmark of tasteful design and solid wood furniture all over it. Having been requested to work over Christmas and New Year, I welcomed this breath of family and generous hospitality, eating good food, curling up on the cushions of the giant-size wood sofas and swimming in the company of Finn, their gorgeous black Labrador (who reminded me of darling “Mackie-boy” at my friend Sian’s Dad’s place in Derbyshire).

So fast-forward to April, when I finally made it to Pineapple Bay. I set off from Entebbe in a small but speedy boat, clad with life-jacket and too much luggage (very unlike me), having gone first to Johannesburg to pick up stuff I’d left there in February – and return Tony’s house keys (I will get round to writing a piece on Jo’burg retrospectively too!). Having made the detour, I now only had two nights on the island, and I was really in need of a longer rest. I vowed I would return. No cars, no motorbikes, no loud music in the early hours (or at any hour). Sturdy, spacious chalets on the lake; actually almost in the lake. Some photos B discovered yesterday made us realize that the lake has encroached considerably since they were built a few years ago. One speculation offered by the site manager is that it was due to a hydro-electric plant being constructed over in Jinja but that now the water is subsiding again. There used to be about 20 metres of sandy beach in front of them. Thankfully a bit of sandy beach remains on the other side of the swimming pool and in small stretches around the island, which is about 500 acres.

I have already fast-forwarded to now, August, and the island has not disappointed. This time I took the boat from Kampala (after the obligatory stocking up on food supplies for Kalemie) and I came with B, my sweetheart; that’s all you need to know about him! Pineapple Bay is restful, romantic with its swaying palm trees over the swimming pool, the borrowed landscape of the lake directly behind it, the hammocks on the beach and lawns all around. It combines a good dose of luxury and the ease of full-board with the simplicity and air of an eco-style resort. There is a flock of sheep in the gardens, rabbits, several families of ducks and a fascinating array of birds on the lake shore and hilltops of much character, who have provided round-the-clock entertainment: Egyptian geese, Hammerkops, Kingfishers, African openbill storks, crowned lapwings, black-and-white casqued hornbills, ibises, snake eagles, egrets and many others. You awake to the sound of the lake in the early morning breeze, and at night the pitch black remains unpolluted, with soft lights inside and oil lamps outside, guiding your path “home”.

Even though three or four outings pretty much covered the whole of the island, it was still fun to explore, especially in good company. Cycling through forest, climbing hilltops in the hot sun followed by an unruly descent back to base and a plunge into the pool is the stuff of good “R&R” I reckon. I was surprised to discover so many houses on the edge of the forest and along the lake on the other side. The first morning we went to the “village”, which comprised a cluster of huts in a clearing and seemingly very poor people subsisting from fishing. A man in bare feet wielding a bottle of beer sprang up from the rough outside table where he was sitting with an old woman, a younger woman and a small child perched on top of it, and proceeded to guide us through the village. He seemed drunk. He showed us the church, which was a dark stuffy room with stone floor, about eight chairs and a make-shift altar. Unable to converse with him or the other villagers we met, and being asked for money, made me feel uneasy. I also felt uneasy to experience that bizarre juxtaposition of wealth/luxury and grinding poverty, not for the first time of course. Does any of the money made in Pineapple Bay go towards improving the lives of people on the island? I don’t know. Maybe it provides a limited number of jobs. But then what about the people sleeping rough outside designer shops in Mayfair, London? Is that not the same phenomenon? We kept finding empty packets of (I’m assuming cheap) gin around the grassy paths. Is that the equivalent of the flagons of (also cheap) cider I used to swig on the old railway lines in the South Wales Valleys as a teenager?!

On a lighter note, apparently there is a resident crocodile at Pineapple Bay! B thinks he caught sight of him this morning when we were nosing around the end chalet which suffered heavy damage by the encroaching lake and is now being renovated. The water on the far side of the chalet has created a kind of swampy lagoon, perfect for prowling amphibians, as my memories of Tarzan serves me (there are some wonderful old posters of Tarzan films in the dining room). The reports of him gliding through the resort when the water is calm were confirmed by the Marine Police whose dwelling place we stumbled upon with our bikes. Another good reason not to swim in the lake.

The sun is starting to set to my right. By 7pm it will be more or less dark. One hour later than in Kalemie. That extra hour of daylight makes a difference I find. The pale moon is almost full to my left, ready to light up when dark will descend under the invisible snuffer. All I can hear are birds and noisy crickets. Am hoping that B – who wandered off with the camera to let me write – hasn’t been eaten by the crocodile. In my (albeit limited) experience, Africans are accustomed to walking in the dark; I’m not sure a Welsh woman on a bike with no lights wobbling down an uneven forest path in the dark is such a good idea, but we will see…. I am reluctantly reconciling myself with having to leave this haven tomorrow.

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