The Observatory – where star gazing is only one of many options


(Posted 17th April 2017)

(The Observatory by GeoLodges Africa)

In my TripAdvisor bio I describe myself as an intrepid traveler, loving red carpets, flying in aircraft’s front cabins and enjoying 5 star luxury – but it also says I can rough it when needed.

The Observatory, perched on top of the Kichwamba escarpment, overlooking Queen Elizabeth National Park below with clear views of lakes Nyamusingire, Edward and George, the Kazinga Channel and, weather permitting, the Mountains of the Moon, is one place which has merged those two positions and bridged the gap of what some may think is an irreconcilable difference – 5 star and roughing it at the same time in the same location.

Owned and operated by GeoLodges Africa is this little gem only mentioned in passing on the company’s website – ‘GeoLodges have four lodges and an individual cabin, all set in pristine locations across Uganda‘.

That ‘individual cabin‘ shown below is in fact The Observatory, hardly mentioned in travel literature, not local nor international and not even found in TripAdvisor’s columns, yet, something I intend to change however.

(The Observatory perched right at the edge of the escarpment with Queen Elizabeth National Park spread out below)

The all tarmac highway from Kampala via Masaka, Mbarara, Bushenyi and Ishaka is easy to navigate even with a saloon car, though the stretch of road from Ishaka to the signposted turnoff turned out to be rough. The Uganda National Roads Authority clearly let this key tourism road slide into unacceptable disrepair, all the way down the escarpment, along the road on the Rift Valley floor and right to the junction where traffic to Mpondwe and the Congo border turns to the left.
However, careful driving – thankfully there is not too much traffic on the road after Ishaka – helps to preserve the shock absorbers and while twisting and turning around potholes it is less than an hour from Ishaka to reach the cabin.

A good track leads to The Observatory from the turn off and its signpost, through little farms where the kids treat the rare visitors to an almost hero’s welcome, their ‘muzungu muzungu‘ shouts echoing from homestead to homestead.

Three bedrooms – a fourth one can be made available on request – sleep 6 (or 8) in some comfort with the ground floor offering one bedroom each with a double bed, one with twin beds and a shared bathroom while upstairs is a room with a bunkbed, perfect for kids traveling with their parents. A second bathroom is across the corridor of the bunkbed room as is the optional fourth bedroom.

On arrival does the wide terrace impress and invite to sit down and just stare.
The view can best be described as that ‘Million Dollar View‘ which American visitors would promptly call ‘Awesome, just awesome‘ and which brought a big fat ‘WOW WOW WOW‘ across my own lips.

(Sunset as seen from the cabin’s front porch with Lake Edward in the distance while the sun sets behind the Congo’s Blue Mountains)

GeoLodges offers guests the option of a cook to prepare their meals – in fact is the construction of a small separate kitchen a short distance from the cabin underway – but visitors can also cook on their own as The Observatory is primarily a self catering facility.

A fully equipped kitchen, gas cooker, fridge, pots and pans plus kettle, cutlery, crockery and glassware included, makes cooking easy and the two housekeepers, Grace and Prisca, do the washing up after every meal.
The dining table sits six in comfort but even eight do fit and on the terrace are enough easy chairs and a sofa for everyone to find a corner to read a book or just admire the view.

(A glimpse into the kitchen which adjoins the dining area of the cabin)

Hot water – the lodge is on piped supply from National Water – comes from a solar water heater, enough to have all guests enjoy a hot shower and still leave some.
Electricity is generated from the solar panels on top of the roof and distributed across the cabin through an inverter, which, if lights are used sparingly after dark even allows the fridge to run all night, before a new charge kicks in after sunrise. I turned off the fridge twice a day for a few hours each, enough to retain the cold inside before switching it on again.

Basics like tea bags, sugar, salt, dry herbs and cooking oil are available in the kitchen store but guests should bring their own supplies nevertheless, like butter, margarine, bread, sausage and cheese cuts, meats and of course drinks of their choice. Drinking water from the tap, once cooked and cooled, is perfectly safe to consume so no cartons of plastic bottles need to be brought along, saving space in the car and reducing the waste.

Vegetables and eggs, even chicken are available locally and on request will the housekeepers send a boda boda rider to buy what is needed to prepare a balanced meal, from sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, matooke, carrots, green peppers, onions, tomatoes to of course fruits from nearby farms.

(Grace on the left and Prisca on the right keep the cabin in shape and do the daily housekeeping)

On the upper floor of the cabin is the common room found, with a desk where one can spread out a laptop and phone chargers – all well ‘fueled‘ by the inverter batteries – and those who prefer watching a DVD film – bring your own selection – find a wide screen TV at the ready.

THAT was no option for me though as the view from the upper balcony beat the view from the ground floor terrace and invited to just sit down and admire Uganda’s scenic beauty from this spot. I have seen many places in Uganda, and often said ‘This Is The One‘ but was time and again taught lessons that there is yet more to explore and Uganda seems to hold back its best always for the next trip.

At night is a telescope available to gaze at the star formations and especially when the lights are out and the area is entirely dark, will the ‘Milky Way‘ and galaxies as far as the telescope can reach come out in all their beauty, some stars close enough to almost touch.

(The scenery below The Observatory extends on clear days from horizon to horizon)

Notable is a massage table at the ready on the upper balcony – a half hour session goes for 35.000 Uganda Shillings – while a fully fledged Jacuzzi invites those who return from their hikes into the nearby hills with sore muscles.
One word of advice though, once the Jacuzzi has been filled with hot water do allow for some more daylight hours to replenish it for the evening showers.

(The Observatory’s jacuzzi, seen both close up and from below)

Those hikes can be done with a guide who needs to be booked through the housekeepers and those fit enough can conquer the surrounding hills for even better views across this arm of the Great African Rift Valley.
Of course, those with 4×4’s can also venture into the national park below or visit the Kyambura Gorge for some chimpanzee tracking, again with prebooking via the Uganda Wildlife Authority much advisable due to the demand for those tours.
The Kazinga Channel only recently saw the introduction of a new launch boat, giving plenty of options how to spend the days either inside or outside the park.

Yours truly hung up the ‘Gone Fishing‘ sign at the gate, signalling to all and sundry not to bother knock and disturb that heavenly peace and quiet, the tranquility and solitude The Observatory provides for its guests.
At the crack of dawn does one hear the orchestra of nature comprising of birds but also livestock crowing, mooing and bleating in the distance to welcome a new day, a wake up call which most guests may prefer to the ringing of an alarm clock.

If anyone plans to write a book, this might be the place to start that quest as it both inspires as well as keep much of the worldly influences and distractions away – though MTN has a strong signal and with the help of a MiFi is connectivity assured to check for mails, messages or simply share pictures taken from the location with friends who will no doubt turn green with envy.

I had an invitation pending to visit the place for nearly two years and it is now a mystery to me how I could not have been here much earlier.

My experience though was that impressive – and believe me it takes something special to impress me after nearly 500 TripAdvisor hotel reviews and ratings – that I will return very soon, in part to do some writing on my book and in part to just get away from the hustle and bustle of Kampala, phones on silent and messages only responded to if the house were on fire at my lakeshores place.

The Observatory is a very credible alternative to ‘proper‘ lodges, in part because a cook can be available on site to prepare breakfast, lunch and supper albeit from the larder stocked by the visitors with the things they fancy.

Informal to the extreme with a location second to none is The Observatory my hot tip for 2017 and beyond especially as it is the guests who define the dress code.

For now, let me rush to get back there before the place is sold out for weeks to come, ‘punishing‘ me for the good deed to spread the word.