Uganda inspires Glass with more than just gorillas

UGANDA is not the first destination that comes to mind when contemplating a holiday in Africa but, as Victorian explorers found when they discovered the source of the 6650-km long river Nile there, the country is full of surprises.

Mercifully, reaching the country today does not entail gruelling slogs through jungle with unreliable maps. You can fly unerringly with Ethiopian Airlines to Entebbe and from there drive to the western half of the country, close to the equator, for revitalising walks and sightings of alluring wildlife.

Number 5 Boutique Hotel in Entebbe. Photographer: Sean Sheehan

Set in a leafy residential neighbourhood, Number 5 Boutique Hotel, only 5 km from Entebbe airport and equally close to the shores of Lake Victoria, is an enclave of tranquillity in a noisy city. Gazing through the open windows of the restaurant, decorated with colourful African art, at palm trees overlooking a pool prepares the mind for adventures to come. Having an ex-chef General Manager  helps explain why the hotel’s restaurant is a contender for being one of the best in Uganda. It makes good use of its sous-vide oven, cooking olive-fed pork belly for 72 hours; but vegetarians and vegans are not forgotten: fermented and roasted beetroot with seaweed oil, strawberries and roasted hazlenuts are also on the menu. A spa and a gym and, as a hotel that only opened last year, new mattresses that ease you into a restful night’s sleep.

Sunlit bedroom in Number 5 Boutique Hotel, Entebbe. Courtesy of: Number 5 Boutique Hotel

Devotees of walking holidays have yet to discover the Rwenzori Mountains in the northwest of the country, a region bursting with opportunities for short and not-so-short treks across a rugged but verdant landscape. It takes over a week to ascend the the highest, snow-capped peak on Mount Stanley (5,109 metre) but Rwenzorit Trekking Services have an undemanding one-day forest walk along the Munyamubuli River. A two-day trek climbs to 2,585m for a night in a mountain hut and, the next morning, a jaunt to a bamboo forest. The company also handles a Community Walk, led by a member of the local Bakonjo people, on a mountain slope dotted with small farms growing vegetables and fruits – avocado, cassava, mango, jackfruit, guava – as well as coffee and sugar cane. It’s a delightful walk, taking about three hours, with a picnic break for lunch by the side of a secluded waterfall.

Four spacious cottages, making colourful use of ethnic fabrics, make up the accommodation at the secluded Equator Snow Lodge, a convenient base for walking in the Rwenzori Mountains. The Mubuku River gushes past and at night the sound of the river is a comforting hum that could be mistaken for an air-conditioning unit. Walks can be arranged through the Lodge and relaxing before dinner in front of the log fire – you’re at an altitude of 1,600m and evenings are chilly –  is a satisfying experience in itself.

Bright and cheerful room at Equator Snow Lodge. Photographer: Sean Sheehan

You’ll know you’re in Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP) when you start seeing candelabra-shaped trees (Euphorbia candelabrum), a defining feature of the Park’s savannah landscape. So too are the waterbucks, warthogs, buffaloes, elephants and baboons that roam around at will. Your guide is likely to be an expert at identifying the photogenic birdlife (over a thousand species says my trusty Bradt guide to Uganda) that serendipitously comes your way. If you ask to go to Kasenyi fishing village, on the shores of Lake George, expect to see flamingos alongside a flock of hippos that emerge from the lake’s shallow water to graze on the village green. More wildlife is seen from the deck of the deservedly popular boat ride that glides along the Kazinga Channel, dividing Lake George from the much larger Lake Albert.

QENP’s premier experience is the tracking of lions – only around 20,000 are left in the whole of Africa – some of which are fitted with radio collars, making  the chances of finding a pride virtually certain. In the south of the Park there are the famed tree-climbing lions which are not infrequently seen from the road.

Colourful artwork enlivens No 5 Hotel in Entebbe. Photographer: Sean Sheehan

Lions can only be viewed from the safety a vehicle but chimpanzees can be tracked on foot and observed close up. Situated inside QENP, Kyambura Gorge, 11km long and less than half a km at its widest, is home to a group of 26 chimpanzees who have become habituated to human visitors. How long you walk before they come into view depends on their location inside the gorge but you’ll know well in advance because this is altogether an audio-visual experience. Their high-pitched screams may sound alarming at first but outrageously loud hoots provide accompaniment and the combination produces a strange symphony that you are unlikely to ever forget hearing.

Less than one mile from the equator, Elephant Plains Lodge is a new addition to accommodation available close to Kayambura Lodge.  There are eight thatched cottages, from the balconies of which there are grandstand views of open plains; and a decent-sized pool provides cool solace after a hot day’s safari.

Gorilla Safari Lodge at night. Courtesy of: Gorilla Safari Lodge

Saving the best for last: Uganda’s invaluable population of mountain gorillas. The country has at least 400 of these charismatic primates and, since neighbouring Rwanda suddenly hiked its permit charge, seeing them in Uganda has become a more attractive proposition than ever before. The time spent hiking up the side of a mountain to see them will vary, depending on their location, but it will seem a labour well spent after you’re spent the allowed one hour in their company of these gentle giants (up to 1.8m standing and weighing over 200kg).

One of Gorilla Safari Lodge’s cottages. Photographer: Sean Sheehan

Gorilla Safari Lodge, very close to one of the gorilla trailheads, makes a suitable end or beginning to any Ugandan odyssey. Its hillside setting and reposeful, landscaped garden complement the charm of the country as a whole. Unburdened by the heavyweight tourist industry, Uganda offers boutique safari experiences, friendly people and sweeping landscapes; a menu for the relief of jaded urbanites.

by Sean Sheehan

For more information, see Visit Uganda. Tailor-made trips that include Rwenzori Mountains, Queen Elizabeth National Park and gorilla treks are available from Rainbow Tours; packages from £4835 include flights, transportation on the ground, a driver-guide, gorilla and chimpanzee permits, accommodation and all meals. Ethiopian Airlines flies to Entebbe via Addis Ababa