Uganda’s new appeal

Long riven by political strife and eclipsed by neighbouring Kenya and Tanzania, Uganda is back in the game, with elegant lodges, intriguing indigenous communities and a handful of intrepid wilderness experts shaping the country’s untapped bush experiences. Sophy Roberts reports

Zebras wander past Apoka Safari Lodge, in Kidepo Valley National Park
Zebras wander past Apoka Safari Lodge, in Kidepo Valley National Park | Image: Wildplaces Africa

I’m sitting in the lobby of Uganda’s Kyambura Game Lodge, waiting for Albert Besiga to deliver his “arrival briefing”. Besiga, who speaks with precise BBC World Service pronunciation, manages this recently completed eight-room lodge in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Tired from a long drive, I ask him to make it quick.

“One,” he begins, in the solemn tone of the hotel professional. “Five times a day you’ll hear the words Allahu Akbar. Do not be afraid. This is a Muslim village. Al-Shabaab is not based in Uganda. Two. During the night you may hear gunshots. Do not be afraid. This is to scare away elephants damaging crops. Three. We hold no responsibility for any possessions left in your room. But please do not be afraid. There are no thieves in Uganda. Four. At night you’ll hear bashing against your canvas walls, as though someone is trying to break in. Do not be afraid. It is the sound of insects. Five. You’ll find a beautiful pool beside the restaurant. Please do not go bare naked.” Tears of silent laughter are creeping down my cheeks. Rather than be offended, Besiga smiles. He tells me that people from my country know little about Uganda: “Everyone is afraid,” he says, “always afraid.”

A banda at Kyambura Gorge Lodge
A banda at Kyambura Gorge Lodge

I’ve come to Uganda with confused expectations. The country is landlocked by Kenya, South Sudan, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania, which accounts for peaks and troughs in perceptions of security, from al-Shabaab to the Lord’s Resistance Army to a mixed bag of rebels on the Congo rim, including génocidaires who fled Rwanda in the 1990s. I’ve seen The Last King of Scotland, depicting Idi Amin Dada’s years as dictator-president in the 1970s, which, despite Uganda’s shift towards democracy, still colour the country’s reputation.

Now Kyambura Game Lodge – not usually on the roster for the tour operator I’m travelling with, which tends to place guests at the elevated Kyambura Gorge Lodge nearby (and fully booked during my visit) – is contributing to my muddle. For one thing, it is conspicuously inexpensive. My thatched cottage has a fantastically comfortable four-poster wrapped in billowing mosquito nets. Taking in the elephants from my cliff-edge perch, I text a friend to tell him I’ve found the best-value lodge in east Africa. “Where?” “Uganda.” “Oh,” he texts me in return.

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If Uganda is an “oh” destination, it’s because it has long been seen as a second-rate safari alternative to Kenya and Tanzania. Visitors do their Mara-Serengeti Great Migration circuit, then zip in to see the mountain gorillas in Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla or Bwindi Impenetrable National Parks (which, along with the contiguous parks in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, harbour all 880-odd remaining members of this critically endangered species). If there’s anything more to the country, few would know it, a situation not helped by recent calls for a tourism boycott due to Uganda’s draconian attitude to homosexuality. Uganda’s tourism authority has failed to put money behind a purposeful campaign (in fact, the Ministry of Finance lobbed the threat of charging 18 per cent VAT on tourist accommodation, which was announced in June 2013 but, after an uproar from the industry, it was not imposed outside the capital, Kampala). It has also failed to attract east Africa’s super-lodge investors, such as Great Plains, Wilderness and Singita. Instead, it has relied on the efforts of Uganda-born pioneers, such as Praveen Moman, co-founder and managing director of Volcanoes Safaris, who owns and operates three elegant eco lodges in Uganda (Mount Gahinga, Kyambura Gorge and Bwindi Lodges), and Jonathan Wright, whose luxury-focused WildPlaces portfolio features Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge just outside Bwindi, Semliki Safari Lodge in the bird-rich Western Rift Valley, Apoka Safari Lodge in the north and Pineapple Bay Resort on Lake Victoria.

It wasn’t always thus. In the late 1960s, Uganda was one of Africa’s top destinations. Almost overnight the Amin regime threw out the Asian population (including Moman’s family) and let poaching run rampant. In 1986, the country began to stabilise under Yoweri Museveni, and by the mid-1990s tourism had picked up. Then some Hutu Interahamwe murdered eight tourists on a Bwindi gorilla-tracking trip in a terrorist attack. This was in 1999.

The central lounge of the nine-room Mount Gahinga Lodge
The central lounge of the nine-room Mount Gahinga Lodge | Image: Mount Gahinga Lodge

In the time since, tourism has muddled along, partly because of a troubled Democratic Republic of Congo, which occasionally flares up on the border, and partly because the government has been slow to put in the infrastructure that would allow Uganda to compete. Recently, the country has begun to see a steady increase in visitors, but still arrivals aren’t even close to what they could be. Besiga’s frustration at his country’s reputation is therefore understandable, even if there are signs that Uganda is poised for change. Because when I look over my itinerary, from south to north, a different and more promising story looks back at me. This is represented by dramatically improved logistics, efficient enough now to seduce the time-short luxury traveller. AeroLink has introduced a daily scheduled air service that takes in the country’s key destinations – Entebbe, Bwindi, Queen Elizabeth, Semuliki, Murchison Falls and Kidepo – and there’s also a private charter service, Fly Uganda, which launched lodge-hopping flying safaris, Safari Skies, a couple of years ago. “Ben Stiller, Tracey Emin, Stephen Fry, the man from Del Monte, Prince Philip – I’ve ’ad ’em all in the back of me cab, sir,” says Russell Barnes, a pilot and co-founder of Fly Uganda. I’m here to see whether the rest of us should follow.

“Because of the gorillas, people will come,” says Moman. “But Uganda is more diverse than anyone thinks, which also makes it complicated to digest.” Flying the country’s length makes an understatement of his remark. The landscape changes from green hills as rich and farmed as Herefordshire’s to impeccable tea plantations striped with narrow paths. There are hippo pools – the animals’ backs like polished stepping stones across the Nile – and the Virungas’ volcanic plugs blanketed in bamboo forest and balls of cloud. There are the austere Rwenzoris, or Mountains of the Moon, where forest elephants roam in large herds. There are turquoise lakes and dust devils dancing across the underpopulated north; through this empty landscape rain slides in slow-moving sheets to turn the grass a vivid jade and the sky inky black.

 Mount Gahinga Lodge
Mount Gahinga Lodge | Image: Mount Gahinga Lodge

This is big-picture Uganda: monumental, wild, full of life. But on the ground, the intimate encounter is even more unique, from looking eye-to-eye with silverbacks to coming face-to-face with “Pygmies” (the common name, now considered derogatory, for the forest-dwelling Batwa people). The gorilla experience should rightfully be top of anyone’s list. Meeting with the Batwa, however, proves even more compelling, which is not what I expect.

Steven, a Mutwa (the singular form of the word “Batwa”), describes how in 1991 the Ugandan authorities established Mgahinga as a national park. His people were moved out of the forest partly in order to provide a sanctuary for apes, yet they were compensated with neither land nor the knowledge of how to survive outside the forest (a few, however, work as tourist guides with a government programme). Many Batwa are now beggars and alcoholics.

Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge
Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge | Image: Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge

Unlike the gorillas – made famous by the movie Gorillas in the Mist – the story of the Batwa, who, according to Survival International, number 3,000-3,700 in Uganda, is completely alien to me. It turns out my ignorance is not unusual but institutional, since the state gives scant recognition to the Batwa’s customary rights to land. Moman himself originally missed the point. When he opened Mount Gahinga Lodge in 1999, it was intended to be a gorilla-tracking camp, serving both the nearby Democratic Republic of Congo, which proved too unstable, and Mgahinga, which lacked the gorilla densities of Bwindi. He subsequently switched the focus from apes to the Batwa, and is putting the finishing touches to a refurbishment of the nine-room lodge, which encourages these hunter-gatherers to preserve their traditions, helps them learn new skills and promotes engagement between visitors and the community. “The Batwa’s new weekly dances are like a drop-in daycare centre,” says Nicole Simmons, who heads up the non-profit Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust. “All the local children come to watch while their parents are elsewhere.”

Although this might sound like a gauche display for tourists, it’s anything but. The Batwa’s honest re-enactments enable them to take pride in their heritage while being paid for their efforts. Indeed, Mount Gahinga Lodge is far more than a place to see gorillas in the Virungas. There is also the lure of rare golden monkeys and an exquisite swath of country, with that perfect flat-topped cone of Mount Gahinga rising up from the lodge lawn. The camp service is warm and the food very good; we dined on fillet steak and sophisticated curries. The rooms with open fires are a masterclass in pared-back luxury, with hot-water bottles slipped between the sheets at night, as well as steaming showers. But in the end, what’s more impressive than the thread count of the linen is how Moman has empowered locals. This is what makes him stand out. He is a “show, not tell” kind of character, who is confident about letting the Batwa story do the work. Thus, without realising it might happen, I’m made to consider one of the biggest ethical questions of all: does conservation have a right to make refugees of men?

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None of this is to say that the apes don’t matter. They do. Up to 96 gorilla permits a day are being issued in Uganda, which has led to the blossoming of lodges in Bwindi, among the most upmarket of which is Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge, with its cream-upholstered furniture redolent of a fancy ski chalet, private butlers and masseurs. Nor does ape tourism stop here. In Queen Elizabeth National Park there are the 24 chimps of Kyambura, which you trek through gorge forest to find. To see them standing tall on two feet, using their long fingers to unpick a fruit from its stone, easily justifies a visit to the region. But for other game, I’m not so sure. There are lions and elephants, but also busy roads. For a truer wilderness, one needs to head north instead to Kidepo – occasionally following the line of the Nile and flying up over Murchison Falls (where a new luxury camp, Baker’s Lodge, is due to open in late July) – to one of the most romantic safari destinations I’ve found anywhere in Africa.

Apoka Safari Lodge is a little-known place with 10 grand stilted cottages inside the 1,442sq km Kidepo Valley National Park in Karamoja. The eastern boundary is a couple of kilometres from Kenya; the northwestern butts up to troubled South Sudan. For years these were the badlands of Uganda, where AK47-wielding Karamojong, disarmed from 2001 onwards, murdered each other for their cattle. Now that the fighting has dissipated, tourism is developing – just. In 48 hours mooching about Kidepo, I meet just two other visitors. Only our four-seater Cessna sits on the Kidepo landing strip, where herds of 300-odd Cape buffalo graze nearby. I see tree-climbing lions and healthy numbers of antelopes. The game is, of course, far richer in the Mara-Serengeti, but from my suite’s private terrace I’ve never seen savannah this close to heaven.

In my opinion, there are only a handful of lodges in east Africa that can claim a position such as this, nestled in a kopje with 360-degree views. Warthogs are running around outside my cottage, their tails erect like radio-control antennae, and beyond them is a bowl of craggy mountains, including the forbidding Mount Morungole. Inside these walls of highland montane forest is the sun-baked Kidepo basin. Spreading acacia, sausage trees and borassus palms pepper the ground, with wind ruffling the long grass, as if an invisible ribbon is being pulled across the surface of Africa all the way to Khartoum.

Perhaps I therefore shouldn’t be surprised when I come across Katurum Lodge, a half-finished building on a rocky escarpment inside the park. In the 1970s, this was where Idi Amin started to construct a lodge (renovations commenced under a new proprietor a few years ago; they are currently paused while a development agreement is reached with the Uganda Wildlife Authority). Wandering around the concrete skeleton, there’s something sinister about the graffiti and threat of leopards lurking in the darkened corners. Then later, as I’m flicking through Apoka’s guestbook, I notice an entry: “Now I know why my father was always here! Heaven on earth! The last wilderness! The final frontier!” The author is Jaffar Remo Amin, son of Idi Amin; the message was written on August 23 2013.

Uganda’s devastating dictator had the means to take possession of anything he wanted. Like his son, I understand why he was so fond of Kidepo. It is the jewel in Uganda’s crown, and now it has become easier to get to, the highlight of an east African odyssey combining amazing encounters with apes and humans. One just has to remember Besiga’s words: “Do not be afraid”. For the right traveller, Uganda’s time has come.

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