THE OBSERVATORY AND THE SILOLE COTTAGE – SOLUTIONS FOR SEEKERS OF SOLITUDE
(Posted 02nd November 2019)
I am sure you all have heard the sentiment, perhaps often expressed it yourself ‘I really need to get away from it all for a bit‘. Those of you who want to act upon such thoughts will then first have to figure out where that ‘get away from it all‘ place is located because, with due respect to the many top quality lodges, tented camps and resorts, few would actually tick the ‘solitude‘ box without ifs and buts though of course will they shower their guests with top of the range facilities and amenities.
Two months ago I revisited the Silole Cottage, located on the Silole Conservancy which adjoins the Nairobi National Park and is owned and operated by my friend Will Knocker. With, depending on traffic, just about an hour and a half’s drive from Nairobi and beyond Ongata Rongai close to the Masai Lodge, is the Silole Cottage definitely the closest to reach while getting to the Observatory can easily take 6 hours, and in my case actually seven – driving that is without counting any stops along the way.
When visiting Silole, even when Will’s entire clan is in attendance, I can find peace and quiet like in few other places, and with no TV do books come in handy to pass one’s time, when not going with Will on a walk across the sanctuary, walking to Nani Croze’s Kitengela Glass, which involves a balancing act across a suspension bridge or a game drive into the park – him being a superb guide game viewing success assured of course.
I always return from Silole refreshed in both body and mind and hence does that place welcome me back ever so often. While yet to reach my magic one week at a go am I working on that and will find the time sooner or later to do just that.
In Uganda is a very similar choice location available and for several years now. The Observatory by GeoLodges sits right on top of the escarpment, which is part of the westernmost arm of the Great African Rift Valley.
From there does one see lakes Nyamusingire, Edward and George and of course the Kazinga channel which links the latter two. Congo’s Blue Mountains rise beyond Queen Elizabeth National Park and on good days are the Rwenzori Mountains, aka Mountains of the Moon visible in the distance too.
The Observatory offers three bedrooms, two on the ground floor, one with a king sized bed, one with twin beds and one with a double decker bunk bed on the upper floor. Two bathrooms, an upper floor sitting room and viewing deck – including a massage table and a Jacuzzi – and on the ground floor a kitchen and dining section complete the house which runs on solar power, and when using it sparingly that can last all night.
An outside dining table and sitting arrangement on the front porch round up the facilities.
When I arrived at the Observatory this time was I greeted by sounds of nature, birdsong and cheerful calls from Priska and Catherine of ‘Welcome Back‘. In no time were my provisions, cool box content and bags transferred from the car into the house and deposited where they belonged, the food stuffs – the Observatory is a self catering facility just like Silole – in the fridge and the kitchen cabinets and the other bags in my bedroom.
The road out of Kampala is ok to start with and an early start of course helps to avoid some of the city’s major traffic jams. I used the Munyonyo to Kajjansi stretch of the new Entebbe highway and then branched off in the direction of Kampala, exiting at the Busega roundabout – which can also be reached through other sections of the Northern Bypass – and from there it was just half a kilometre to the start of Masaka Road where one leaves the city and begins the journey upcountry.
During some of my last visits I – rightfully – took issue with the Uganda National Roads Authority about the state of the road between Ishaka and Kasese and lo and behold, work is in progress and at a rapid pace it seems. The Mbarara bypass helps to avoid the eternal jams through that city and speeds up journeys further upcountry. Quality petrol stations along the way, like Shell and Total, are available at regular intervals, ensuring one does not run out of fuel or get stuck by filling up perhaps cheaper but with less than desirable quality.
But it is the work on the Kasese to Ishaka road which impressed me the most. First rate tarmac already on many sections, with climbing lanes making driving safer as one can overtake the slow trucks. While immediately after Ishaka there are still many potholes – construction work has not quite reached there as yet – they were filled with murram to avoid driving slalom on narrow roads and getting in the way of oncoming traffic. It remains bumpy but no doubt will road works reach there too in due course.
After Ishaka do tea plantations dominate the landscape, including tea factories, but also wooded areas and glimpsed of the Maramagambo Forest make the driver interesting. The turnoff to the Observatory was well marked and while it requires a sharp turn off the main road will the final two kilometres be on a fairly decent track right up to the gate of the property.
Visitors will along that road encounter plenty of children, coffee beans being dried on canvas spread into the track but friendly waves and careful navigation keep the children dancing with joy and the coffee owners happy. When getting inside the observatory compound will one see the first of the many improvements GeoLodges has undertaken over the past year, in as far as the driveway is now leveled with stones, making the drive to the cabin easier after heavy rains.
After 7 hours of driving with modest speeds – I did also stop to take pictures along the way – was I too tired to begin cooking a proper meal so I opted for a quick fix solution and made myself a soup, but not before taking a hot shower – the steaming hot water coming from the pipe within a minute or so of running it.
Spare blankets are available as the nights tend to be rather cool during the rainy season so no worry about freezing in bed even when a rainstorm lashes the house overnight. There are few sounds at night as the Observatory is set way back from the main road. That kind of silence can be both soothing as well as unsettling when not used to is but used to it one gets within a day or two.
At dawn did the birdsong begin again, which at one stage rose to a veritable crescendo before the birds began to feed and their chatter died down. Perhaps two dozen fire finches were feeding right in front of the house and remained regular visitors during my stay. Bring some seeds along and enjoy the presence of the birds on a large feeding and watering stone in front of the main terrace throughout the day.
New at the Observatory is a small plunge pool and a sauna – the latter attracts a nominal charge for the firewood – adding value to one’s stay while of course there are plenty of options to hike across the area, climb on top of the hills for an even better view or, just stay put, listen to music or read a book. There are a number of books available and one on one exchanges are welcome, and leaving more books behind for future visitors is even more welcome.
Seeing the valley below, the sun rises from behind the building and in the evening sets right across this Great African Rift Valley arm behind the Blue Mountains of the Congo, the views reveal the three lakes below in a different light spiel hour by hour, and when rain clouds move across can photo enthusiasts click away and capture the ever changing impressions. I was lucky to see elephant walk from wooded patch to wooded patch below in the valley, and a herd of buffalos, all visible with the naked eye and seen better of course with binoculars. Birdlife was varied at the Observatory itself though the park below is a better ‘catchment‘ area for birdwatching, given the vicinity of water. Queen Elizabeth National Park’s birding list now stands in the region of some 630 species, so definitely a top location for birders.
If the Observatory did not exist, I would have to invent it. However, Zahid Alam, the mastermind behind this property, got well and truly ahead of me and has created a sanctuary of sorts for those who seek solitude, but also for those who do not wish to pay over the top for accommodation and meals when visiting Kyambura Gorge or Queen Elizabeth National Park.
The guest book is testament to the wide variety of visitors, from Uganda, from East Africa and of course from overseas, all of whom enjoyed their stay and all of whom want to come back for more of the Observatory’s rustic charm. I certainly will come back again and again, for the view, for the solitude, for the comfort the cabin provides – all the essentials one needs are there – and for, last but not least, the friendly staff who made every single one of my stays most enjoyable.
For added information, or bookings, look up https://geolodgesafrica.com, call them via
+256-782-574-271, +256-701-563-437 or visit their booking office at 5th St, Plot 88-89, Casement Complex, City Street.