Exploring #Uganda one last time before the #COVID19 onslaught


(Posted 08th April 2020)

The last trip abroad I had planned before #COVID19 reached the East African shores in earnest, was another visit to #MagicalKenya.
I was due to finally stay at the DusitD2 on invitation of their management, wanted to check out the Azure Hotel in Westlands after PrideInn Hotels had taken over the management (Reported by ATCNews via https://atcnews.org/2020/01/21/breakingnews-as-prideinn-hotels-conferencing-takes-azure-hotel-on-management/), wanted to pay a visit to the newly (part) opened Pullmans Hotel in Westlands, also see the new Best Western in Westlands and sit down with several General Managers and Marketing Directors of ranking hotels in Nairobi to take the pulse of the industry.
The Silole Conservancy was as much on my programme as was a flying visit to Limuru and Naivasha and even a quick trip to the coast was on the programme.
The Kenyan government’s decision, in the face of massive opposition, to let 239 Chinese passengers arriving on China Southern Airline get into the country and literally ‘melt away‘ then put a stop to my plans. With two young grandchildren at home was there simply no way I would endanger them by returning with an ‘unwanted present‘ for them.

But travel is ingrained in my fabric and so I was prompt to look for an alternative somewhere in Uganda, where at the time one could still safely travel to, without the current movement restrictions.

I decided to return, once again, to the Observatory by GeoLodges, to not only still my hunger for travel but also to enjoy the solitude I find there – which everyone can find there.

The seven hour drive from Kampala to the Observatory in Rubirizi District, formerly known as Bunyaruguru, is scenic and worth it any time. Given the improvement on the roads and highways, and the bypass around Mbarara, which saves travelers going further upcountry at least an hour, are journeys into the South West of Uganda much easier than even two years ago.

Once out of Kampala and on the open road, can one enjoy the drive through patches of forests, swamps and wetlands which go on all the way to Lukaya – formerly a toll station and now a weighbridge – and continue to the town of Masaka. Plenty of police check points have been established on that route under project #FikaSalama, aimed to improve road safety. Radar speed checks by mobile police units make sure one stays within safe speed levels, though I literally saw one and at times two cars nabbed for putting the foot down too hard on the accelerator pedal.
After Masaka does the landscape begin to gradually change and a shift from agriculture to ranching becomes apparent. The clearly drier climate made the route from Masaka via Lyantonde a region for cattle keepers and only closer to Mbarara, the second largest town in Uganda, do matooke plantations take over again, spreading from horizon to horizon and up and down every hill.

The new Triangle Hotel, a huge investment for a town like Mbarara, dominates the view when taking the bypass around Mbarara, which shaves off plenty of time from the journey to Rubirizi.

Between Mbarara and Bushenyi are ranchlands and farming making way for each other and upon reaching Ishaka is the Kampala International University’s campus and teaching hospital the main landmark.

It is here that sections of the road are still in need of upgrading but work is ongoing as the Ugandan government is making good of their promise to connect key tourism destinations across the country with good roads and highways.
Once through Ishaka is cruising becoming a joy, on an all new highway with climbing and parking lanes, winding its way through the tea plantations right to the edge of the ancient Maramagambo Forest, which at one point comes up the rift escarpment and borders the tea estates.

And then, hey presto, was the signboard coming up to the Observatory, well before reaching the Kyambura escarpment into the Queen Elizabeth National Park proper. It does take a wide turn to make it without having to reverse, so readers intending to follow my footsteps take notice.

A narrow path leads through homesteads and small scale farms and drivers should take care not to drive over produce laid out to dry, nor hit any of the chicken or goats roaming freely along the two kilometres from the main road to the Observatory.

The new paved driveway from the gate to the parking area below the swimming pool and sauna building is now ready – during my last visit they had only completed a section of it – and while rough does one no longer sink into the soft mud after a heavy rainfall had lashed the property.

The climb up the hill to the main residence at the Observatory is short and when reaching the top is the view across the rift valley below, with lakes Nyamusingire, Edward and George, the sight of the Blue Mountains in the Congo and of course – weather permitting – the Rwenzori Mountains the reward for many hours of driving.

The staff at the Observatory, now led by Prisca, take care of bringing bags and cases, food supplies and cool box to the house from the car and of course is the solar powered fridge / freezer running and ready to keep supplies cold or frozen.

The gas bottle is always full enough to sustain a stay of a week or even longer and some basic supplies like tea leaves or salt and even a few dried herbs are ready to use.

I normally bring my own supplies of sugar, salt, pepper and other spices, herbs and chillies but also some of the veggies one might not get directly in the area where the Observatory is located.
I am talking of peas or broccoli, fresh mint, garlic or sweet peppers while of course eggs, matooke, sweet potatoes, cassave, tomatoes and onions are available – and so are bananas and pineapples.
Prisca and her staff are ever ready to shop for supplies and if needed can even procure a chicken – which mind you, might arrive alive and not in the Kampala format of chicken breast or legs …

The staff can go as far as preparing some basic meals but a visitor best is his or her own chef to whistle up some more sophisticated fare – and take note I always prepare enough so that the staff and askaris too can have their fill.

On the ground floor of the Observatory does one find dining and kitchen, two bedrooms – a twin and a double – and a shared bathroom while outside two terraces offer plenty of space to lounge around or have a meal with a view.
Upstairs is the main lounge, another bedroom and bathroom and a terrace with a jacuzzi and a massage table, providing all creature comforts once comes to expect.

An extensive compound invites for strolls and the close by pool and sunbathing deck invite on warm afternoons – with the sauna being fired up upon request against a nominal charge for firewood.

The new VIP cottage is set on a lower level of the property, optically almost invisible from above and affording the kind of privacy, peace and quiet one can otherwise only dream of – combined with a billion dollar view from the front terrace. The foundations are almost ready but the current movement restrictions have brought construction for the time being to a standstill though owner Zahid Alam assured me that once the pandemic has been brought under control in Uganda the work will resume promptly.

From the Observatory are visits into the national park an easy proposition as the new highway down the Kyambura escarpment is in perfect shape. One can turn into the park already right at the bottom of the escarpment towards Lake Nyamusingire, enter into the northern part before even reaching the Kazinga Channel or use the main gate – or those beyond – to go for game drives.
Game viewing is rewarding, as is the tracking of the Chimpanzees along Kyambura Gorge.

I opted to just enjoy the view from the Observatory, saw game at the bottom of the escarpment, both buffalos and elephant and soaked up inspiration writers need which the right location can induce with ease.

The Observatory is affordable, offers a remote location with a view second to none and is a perfect retreat for solo travelers who want to write, prepare presentations or work related dossiers without interruptions (put your phone on silent) but also for families seeking to escape the mad rush of the city without having to mortgage their home to afford accommodation inside the park.
Connectivity is available through the main networks but like everywhere is signal strength fluctuating – enough though to stay in touch with the world, if one wants to.

With time up all too soon did I toy with the idea to stop over again at the Emburara Farm Lodge, a jewel in its own right and located just outside Mbarara, some few extra kilometres beyond the Mbarara Airfield.
The Emburara Farm Lodge, besides offering superbly appointed accommodation, allows guests to partake in the daily Ankole cattle movements, from their release in the morning out of their overnight enclosure, to the feeding, watering and milking – and those daring enough can try their hands on that.
Longer walks can be arranged and guides are available of course to take guests around the farm and explain in detail what is going on with the livestock and the farm.
A pool and gym help to stay fit and work off the side effects of rich meals from breakfast over lunch to supper and in addition snacks available throughout the day. The peace and quiet, only interrupted by an occasional aircraft overhead or the arrival or departure of a car or two, allows to listen to bird song.

Sadly did the COVID19 scourge nix my plans as a potential lockdown was looming and I would sit out its duration rather at home – though the lodge would of course be a perfect location to stay as far away as humanly possible from any connection with the virus.
The lodge, as shown in my TripAdvisor review, is a true marvel and shows how perseverance and determination can create something very special and still not fall into the common trap of doing a jua kali job and peddling it as luxury. Here promises are kept and standards exacting, a timely reminder for other Ugandan hotel, resort and lodge owners to take a leaf and upgrade and improve to the same levels of comfort, hospitality and looking after guests.

In closing: Looking back to my initial plans for a Kenya trip, as and when that happens will the tourism landscape there have been irrevocably altered.
The DusitD2 has closed for good, as the double whammy of a terror strike in early 2019, the cost of closure and rebuilding and then of #COVID19 proved too much for the owners to bear. As and when the hotel reopens, perhaps as a different brand – if at all – will ATCNews share the details of course.
The Pullman might now opt to first complete the hotel before relaunching and, in the absence of current feedback from some other hotels, I just have to wait until they return to operations and find time to respond to mails and messages.
Some of the newer restaurants opened in the weeks and months prior to the outbreak might also struggle to reopen and for those which do a new reality might dawn as the economy struggles to get back into gear and workers need to hustle to make up for lost income.

Other plans will remain such as my return to the Silole Cottage to see my good friend Will Knocker. I will go to the coast where in Diani a good friend of mine is now waiting for nearly 4 years to make good of a promised visit which will include practicing some chef skills, and then all the way to Mombasa, Kilifi and Malindi, where both Neem House and the Driftwood will be my destinations.

In a different article will I reflect on a long awaited family safari across Kenya and Uganda which too was laid to ruins by COVID19, so keep your eyes on ATCNews.org as and when that article will be published.

For now, read, close your eyes and try to teleport yourself to the Observatory by Geolodges – one of my all time favourite locations in Uganda.