By Gilbert Mwijuke
The 420-kilometre journey from Kampala to Kanungu takes you through some of Uganda’s most remote, yet spectacularly scenic areas.
The trip is both pleasant and dreadful, the beautiful scenery scuppered by the final Rukungiri-Kanungu stretch which is unpaved, bumpy and extremely dusty during the dry season.
That is why, even though the distance between Rukungiri and Kanungu towns is just about 44 kilometres, the bus journey takes well over two hours yet it could have been less than an hour if the road were as smooth as other roads in different parts of the country.
To make matters worse, the road not only winds through very steep hillsides and atop cliffs, but is also too small that an instance where two big vehicles meet from different directions immediately conjures up images of one of them plunging several metres down the ravine — in case of a slight collision.
As you drive on the snaking road, you can clearly stare over hundreds of metres below on one side while a steep hillside stares at you on the other side.
On my recent trip, we met a truck at a corner that proved difficult for the two vehicles to negotiate and most passengers on the bus had to get off despite repeated assurances from the driver that everything was okay.
For a first time visitor, driving on this road seems like a very risky adventure. In fact, it’s little wonder that not many motorists seem to ply this route; one can drive for more than 20 kilometres without encountering other motorists on the road.
Still, as the terrain rises and drops on both sides of the road, one also appreciates this area’s magnificent scenery that is characterized by seemingly endless banana and tea plantations.
Economic activities in Kanungu
Kanungu district has two major towns: Kanungu, which is home to the district headquarters, as well as Kihihi, which is bigger and busier. But these towns are very small compared to other towns of Uganda, the reason being that Kanungu is traditionally home to subsistence farmers, not traders.
Nowadays Kanungu boasts large tea, banana and coffee plantations, but the remoteness of the area and its bad roads mean that farming here is yet to be seen a lucrative business since farmers are paid little for their produce because bringing it to the market is costly.
The district gets substantial income from tea and there are two tea factories here, Kayonza Tea Factory and Kigezi Development Tea Factory, which support thousands of local farmers.
Tourism is another huge source of income as travellers from across the world visit Kanungu every year in hordes to have a glimpse of the rare mountain gorillas that reside in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, home to about half of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas that can also be found in the Virunga massif, a volcanic range that straddles Rwanda, Uganda and the DR Congo.
Unlike other towns of Uganda, business is very slow here, perhaps the main reason there are only two commercial banks, two petrol stations and a handful of restaurants and guesthouses in the whole town.
Public transport is also a hassle. Only two buses leave from Kanungu to Kampala every day while travellers to neighbouring districts of Kisoro and Kabale have to travel by Boda Boda (motorcycle taxi), at a hefty fee.Even Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, which is just 45 kilometres from Kanungu town, is not easily accessible by public means. There is one bus that goes to Bwindi from Kanungu once a day, “but it’s not reliable.
The best option is to use a Boda Boda,” one Kanungu resident told me. The Boda Boda ride from Kanungu to Bwindi is a two-hour journey that will set you back Ush20,000 while a trip to Kabale or Kisoro costs up to Ush50,000.
Formerly part of Kabale district, Kanungu was created in 2001 and currently borders the districts of Rukungiri, Kabale, Kisoro as well as the DR Congo. Aside from Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, Kanungu is also famous for one of the biggest cult killings in human history.
In March 2000, about 1,000 members of the infamous Joseph Kibwetere’s Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God were burnt to death at his church, which was located about two kilometres south of Kanungu town.
Kibwetere, whose cult comprised over 30,000 members, had convinced his followers that the world would end in 2000, a prophecy that never came to pass.
There are only two public buses that ply the Kampala-Kanungu route every day, and both leave Kampala at around 6:00 am. The ride from Kampala through Mbarara, Ntungamo and Rukungiri is smooth as the roads along this route are all paved; the problem is with the final 44-kilometre Rukungiri-Kanungu stretch. The entire journey costs between Ush30,000-45,000, depending on demand.