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boisterous holidays

Just north of the Rwanda-Uganda border, a mere couple of hours’ drive from Kigali, lies Lake Bunyoni. One of the continent’s deepest lakes, Bunyoni translates in the local language as “the place of many little birds.” What better place to spend a holiday weekend, we thought.

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It took us less than two hours to drive to the Uganda border, and well over an hour to cross it. This owed partly to the crowds of travelers who were heading north to visit family over the holiday weekend, partly to the fact that we still don’t have our own car – and the vehicle we are renting elicited additional scrutiny – and partly to the fact that the border crossings are notoriously inefficient.

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The hotel where we stayed was nice enough – good food, sweeping views across the lake, easy boat access to Bunyoni’s various islands. The only thing we hadn’t anticipated was the multitude of other guests. It wasn’t the people who stayed overnight, but rather the day visitors who were a little too much. Ugandans as a general rule are more raucous than their neighbors to the south, and this was a holiday weekend. Each day, big groups of visitors descended on the lodge, arriving for lunch and then drinking beer and celebrating loudly well into the night.

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Whereas the lakeshore did not make for an idyllic Christmas getaway, the islands more than made up for it. Each day we would take a motorboat out across the lake to visit various islands. There is one island with some animals on it – a pair of zebras, some waterbuck, impalas, and a few Uganda kob. Another island – Bushara – is home to more than a hundred different bird species.

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There is also the so-called Leprosy island, which used to house a leper colony, and the Punishment Island. The latter consists of a tiny scrap of reed-covered land with a solitary tree. Up until about a hundred years ago, the lake’s inhabitants would maroon young unmarried girls who had gotten pregnant on the island. Some starved to death, others drowned trying to swim back to the mainland. The “lucky” ones were spared death by marrying one of the village’s poorer men – those who lacked the cows to marry properly would sometimes take a canoe out to the island to pick out a bride.

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Munchkin loved the motorboat; in fact, he wanted to go back into it almost as soon as we would arrive on one of the islands. He was somewhat more skeptical of the traditional dug-out canoes that we took for a spin around the lake our first morning. Though, to be fair, S was also nervous about setting foot in it. We didn’t make it very far on our one canoeing expedition, but we did see some sea otters frolicking in the lake.

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And, of course, we saw plenty of birds. The ones on the mainland were plentiful, but of a pedestrian variety – we had seen and photographed them before. D had despaired a bit until we got to Bushara. At first, his bad luck seemed to follow – within minutes of setting foot on the island he spotted a black-billed weaver. Most weavers are gregarious, and we have photographed dozens of different ones, but the black-billed ones are as shy and rare as they are stunningly colored. This was the first time D had seen one; unfortunately the bird shifted just enough when D pressed the shutter to throw off the camera’s focus and all we got was one horribly out-of-focus photo before he flew off.

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We made two trips to Bushara, walking all around the island on the 2-kilometer Eucalyptus trail and ascending to the top, which has a little restaurant and tented camp. All in all, we spotted about a dozen new birds, the white-tailed blue flycatcher pictured above being the most spectacular.

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