The sky is overcast and lightly raining, and our open wooden fisherman’s boat is ominously leaking with every bumpy wave.
We’re in the middle of nowhere on Uganda’s Lake Victoria and I’m now seriously regretting last night’s gin and tonics.
Finally, after an almost never-ending three-hour journey, we see a faint mass of green land on the increasingly clear horizon. This is our destination: a tiny and almost untouched island located right in the middle of the world’s second largest freshwater lake.
My first impression of Banda Island is of a strip of yellow sand, a whimsical white cottage, and a middle-aged man surrounded by a bunch of dogs.
The island’s caretaker, David, greets my partner and I with a warm smile, a helping hand, and a faint Australian accent.
It doesn’t take long to reach our accommodation. It’s literally five metres from the shoreline.
There are several accommodation options on the budget-friendly Banda, including basic beach cabins, dormitories and traditional camping. Our “lazy camping” selection features an already pitched two-man tent with a blow-up mattress, which turns out to be surprisingly comfortable. We quickly dump our backpacks and take a quick tour of our home for the next two nights.
Banda feels wild, remote and almost oddly quiet. There are only a few paths and the tropical forest is largely overgrown.
As dusk approaches, we head back to the beach and get chatting to the island’s other travellers around a bonfire. There are only six other tourists on Banda and they all seem well travelled, intelligent and very interested in Africa.
Just as it gets really dark, David calls out to us from the cottage to come inside for dinner and drinks. It turns out that Banda’s only resort comes with home-cooked meals that rival any restaurant in Uganda’s hectic capital, Kampala.
The night’s meal is fish freshly caught from Lake Victoria. It comes with a side of salad and animated conversation with David. After a while, conversation turns into a game of Jenga and trivia. Hanging out in the cottage feels a bit like school camp, albeit with adults and ice cold beers.
We eventually head back to our tent with David’s torch. There is no electricity or internet on Banda, and we quietly talk in the dark before falling asleep. I wake the next morning to the soft sounds of forest birds. It takes me a while to remember that I’m in a plastic two-man tent in the middle of Uganda.
My partner and I sleepily stumble to the cottage for fruit, eggs and coffee. As he serves breakfast, David tells us that all the other guests left Banda on a boat that morning. My mouth automatically grins as I realise that it’s just us, a few resort staff, and a disconnected fishing village. A few hours later, David takes us for a trek to the other side of Banda to meet these fisherman and their families.
As we walk up muddy hills and dodge cows, our talkative guide tells us about his decision to become caretaker on Banda.
“This place has got so much potential,” David says.
David hopes to turn Banda into a self-sustaining community, with help from staff and travelling volunteers.
He’s on his way to achieving this dream.
The resort features a water purification system and there are plans for a toilet compost system and solar-powered boats for taking travellers to the mainland.
When we reach the fishing village, a huge group of children come screaming out of huts and quickly demand piggy-backs. We hang out with the children by the ocean, and even play a few games of pool with some fisherman.
A few hours later, we’re back on the beach at dusk with beers, blankets, and some trashy books borrowed from the resort’s guest library.
We end our second night around the dinner table with David and two packs of playing cards. He’s an obliging host that’s patient enough to teach two novices to play a game called canasta. We take our new card skills back to Australia, along with special memories about camping on a secluded patch of Ugandan paradise.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Banda Island is a three-hour boat ride from Kasenyi in Western Uganda. Travellers should organise transport details in advance with Banda Island (bandaisland.biz.
Emirates fly from Australia to Uganda’s international airport, Entebbe.
STAYING THERE: Staying on Banda Island costs between $30 and $50 per night per person, depending on whether you camp or sleep in a beach cabin. Rates include all meals.
PLAYING THERE: Activities include volleyball, boating and swimming. If you ask nicely, David may take you to Banda Island’s fishing village or teach you how to play canasta.
* The writer travelled at her own expense.