The Perfect African Destination
by Michael Morcos
Sir Winston Churchill called Uganda the ‘Pearl of Africa’ and after a two week trip I knew he was dead on right! It is not often that I have seen such wonderful diversity in all in one country. Let’s just call it now the unhidden Pearl of Africa.
A dynamic and engaging city, Kampala has several worthy attractions to keep you busy for a few days. This capital has changed considerably, once a battered city in the 1980s, it is now a forward city. From a looted mess to a thriving, modern city and it’s streets are thronging with shoppers, hawkers, and the startlingly packed bus and taxi parks you’ll ever see.
Over Nakasero Hill you will find Kampala’s most expensive hotels as the urban centre fades into something of a garden city. This is where you’ll find embassies, government buildings, mansions, and some high-end restaurants and bars, popular with expats. Kampala has a vibrant night life for those who like dancing late into the night.
We stayed at the Speke resort, known as Uganda’s best hotel complex, and is a destination on its own. Luxury accommodations, on a lake with a privet beach on Lake Victoria, a marina, horses, convention centre and lush tropical gardens. The huge compound is impressive, diverse and breathtakingly beautiful, with several parks and green areas to enjoy. Aside from a private pool and access to a shared magnificent Olympic size pool between Speke and Commonwealth resorts, there is a lakeside private beach and marina. Activities include horseback riding and walks though tropical gardens. Rooms are a fair size, well decorated, spotlessly clean and gave us a great view on to Lake Victoria.
Our adventure started on our way to Queen Elizabeth Park, with a stop at Kyaninga Lodge for lunch. With the stunning Lake Kyaninga and the legendary Mountains of the Moon as a backdrop, Kyaninga Lodge is the spectacular result of one man’s vision. When Steve Williams first saw the lake on his way to visit the gorillas, there was nothing except unspoilt natural beauty. Six years and over a thousand hand-carved logs later, the stunning vistas remain, and thanks to Steve’s achievements, visitors can gaze off the rim of an ancient crater lake thousands of miles from anywhere. The lodge offers comfortable seating areas set around a huge fireplace where one can enjoy a cozy evening with a good book or a drink. But the restaurant has delicious meals that can compete with the stunning views on both sides. Two raised galleries provide comfy spaces for couples who want to enjoy the panorama in a more private setting.
Basket weaving artistes
After lunch we headed out for Rubona to learn about basket weaving and colouring with the Rubona Basket Weavers Association (RUBAWA). The association includes a group of 200 well trained and dedicated basket weavers. They use naturally dyed raffia to help create baskets of all sizes, which are then sold locally and internationally. A fascinating group, the fully self-sustainable project also offers grass-dyeing workshops where visitors who are interested to learn more are shown around the project premises on a guided tour.
Mweya Safari Lodge
The Mweya Safari Lodge, located on a peninsula within the heart of the Queen Elizabeth National Park, is an unforgettable experience, with wild animals walking by and even a Leopard that lived in a tree above the rooms! We enjoyed everything this lodge had to offer and the location was perfect. Perched on top of a finger of land overlooking the amazing Kazinga Channel, it is a priceless view. The rooms were nice but the park offers so much that you won`t be spending too much time in them.
The restaurant served some of the best tasting dishes from our trip in Uganda. We decided to eat outside on the veranda, with an amazing setting enhanced by the scenery and were thrilled to have been there for barbecue night that included traditional dancers for entertainment. This was an occasion to remember.
A safari – Giraffes ahead!
The Queen Elizabeth National Park is as good as any safari can get. We went for the early morning game drive. The floor of the Rift Valley teems with wildlife and nature. It is not only one of the treasures of the continent; it is a gift to the world and a wonder to behold. I was a little surprised to find out that guests can drive their own vehicles through the park with a ranger guide hired from the Uganda Wildlife Authority!
We chose the game drive using Mweya Safari Lodge’s vehicles and their knowledgeable drivers. We were up at the crack of dawn, as we were explained that the early morning game drive is the most rewarding. We did take a moment to have a tea and coffee in the Lodge’s reception area before we started.
Wildlife on the North Kazinga plains closest to the Lodge includes elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, waterbuck, bushbuck and warthog. And the Kasenyi sector on the east side is best known for the lions preying on the large population of Uganda Kob that live in this area. What an amazing thing it is to see these magnificent animals in person and in their natural habitats. I particularly enjoyed the giraffes. Great day spent in the safety of a Land Rover!
Breakfast in the Wild
We packed a breakfast to enjoy in the in the wild, and were fortunate enough to meet up with some locals who had arts and crafts for sale. I even bought a wooden mask that is now in my family room with others in my collection!
We also had the opportunity to visit the actual exact point of the equator for a photo op. As a fun experiment, our guides enjoyed pointing out how water will drain clockwise or counter clockwise depending on which hemisphere we stood within! Very interesting and quite peculiar.
More beauty and amazement was waiting for us along Crater Lake Drive, whose incredible vistas from high above craters clearly showed the vastness of this country. A charming, old-fashioned boat offered us our final ride of the day. We had a leisurely float on Lake Edward to the edge of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where we were treated to a big herd of Hippos in the water and many buffalos drinking on the shoreline.
The Rujiha Lodge and Gorilla trekking.
The Rujiha Lodge was very rustic, with electricity provided by a generator that was turned off at 10pm. With no heating, and as we were high up the mountains by this point, it was pretty cold at night. We did not notice too much, as the wonderful drive getting there, with terrace style farms on hill sides and the mountainous terrain was breathtaking.
With our guides, a walk to the Ruhija ridge offered a clear view of the deep valley and its undisturbed rain forest. A further climb and through the bamboo zone we found panoramic views of both Lake Bunyonyi and the Mafuga forest.
What stays with you
Mountain gorilla tracking in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is certainly something that will stay with me. As much as this was a great trip as a whole, Gorilla trekking was the highlight. After all, it is one of the main attractions in Uganda and a big draw for tourists.
It was just like in the movies!
Our guide was steadily cutting a trail through tropical forest with a machete. These Park Rangers were fantastic, pointing out the flora and fauna – tree species, flowers, different lizards and mammals – until they found a family of Gorillas. It was a moment to remember. I had adult gorillas walk right by me! If they were nervous of humans, it did not show, as they were not giving us much attention and were very much at ease. An encounter with these rare and gentle creatures is Uganda’s most famous tourism attraction and a remarkable and exclusive wildlife experience. Truly moving!
Bird Nest Hotel
A slower pace was waiting for us at the Bird Nest Hotel, as well as a delicious assortment of food and mellow activities. Our room had a wonderful view of Lake Bunyonyi, and I was so inspired that I asked for a chance to go canoeing in a traditional wooden dugout canoe. It was very calm and very peaceful, plus it offered me a look into the daily lives of the locals.
Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary
Our next stop was pretty amazing as well, as we went by high speed boat on Lake Victoria to an Ngamba island to a Chimpanzee sanctuary. The ride was exhilarating and the captain enjoyed speed!
The sanctuary is surrounded by Lake Victoria and is home to 48 orphaned chimpanzees rescued from throughout Uganda. There are facilities that offer both day and overnight visitors an exceptional opportunity to observe and interact with these fascinating human cousins. Chimpanzee Sanctuary and Wildlife Conservation Trust (CSWCT), an NGO, is responsible for all aspects of the sanctuary at Ngamba Island and are committed to conservation. It shows, as the animals seemed quite happy and content.
Just as fascinating as Gorilla hikes and Chimpanzees, this wildlife sanctuary plays an important role in educating tourist and locals about the animal kingdom and our place within it. It is home to many different animals, including elephants, giraffes and birds. The biggest attractions however, are the two rare white rhinos. Although considered an ‘at risk’ species, efforts of countries like Uganda are helping them to recover.
“Egypt is the Nile, the Nile Egypt”
Nice quote, but we were able to visit the source of the Nile itself, in Jinja. John Hanning Speke was the first European to find the exact place where the Nile starts. We found it a bit easier, as the boat ride to see it was fun, and the sign indicating ‘source of the Nile’ was quite obvious.
Our last treat was a magnificent Ugandan band and dancers in traditional costumes. We were also granted the chance to participate in tree planting with locals. A wonderful way to say farewell to spectacular Uganda, the ‘Pearl of Africa’!