TOURISM NEWS from the Eastern African and Indian Ocean region
Reports, Travel Stories and Opinions
By Prof. Dr. Wolfgang H. Thome
Travel Report to Chobe Safari Lodge / Murchisons Falls National Park
A VISIT TO THE CHOBE SAFARI LODGE – THE UPCOMING ‘GEM ON THE NILE’
For those who remember the ‘old’ Chobe lodge and who came for fishing in the ‘old days’ to this beautiful spot on the Nile, there is news … the lodge is now in its soft opening phase, and while still a couple of months away from the official opening – due to pending exterior works caused by past bad weather – is now available for bookings by visitors.
Coined by the owners as ‘the Gem on the Nile’ it surely will be a very unique ‘precious stone in the Marasa crown’ when ‘polished’ a little more while some of the anticipated ‘sparkles’ already show during the soft opening phase … and for sure the setting cannot be beaten … a gem in the making indeed and undoubtedly worth the by-line when finally opened officially.
(Sunset as seen from the lodge’s terrace)
Like the Amazon in South America is the Nile THE river in Africa, lifeline for tens of millions of people living along its banks, from Lake Victoria through lakes Kyoga, Albert and the Sudd to the eventual meeting with the Blue Nile branch coming from Ethiopia, combining in Khartoum and then running along the ancient temples and monuments of the Upper Kingdom, down the famous cataracts, along Abu Simbel, Luxor and through today’s modern Egypt, past the pyramids to the Mediterranean Sea.
The mystique of the river is legend of course and anyone standing on the banks of it, anywhere along its course, can only be in awe, considering it is the longest river on the planet. This is particularly so along the ‘young’ and often ‘stormy’ Victoria Nile as it makes its way across rapids and falls, with much ‘white water’ from Lake Victoria into and through the Murchisons Falls National Park.
The river Nile in Uganda was in the early days of independence as much a source of water and fish for nearby communities as it was a source for leisure activities, and in Murchisons Falls National Park three lodges were built back then to tap into the tourism market, making Uganda in the 1960’s the leading East African safari destination, well ahead of Kenya and Tanzania at the time.
The Paraa Safari Lodge (www.paraalodge.com), located near the ferry crossing point in the heart of the park, was already reconstructed in 1995 from the ruin wreaked upon it by the disintegrating army of the former dictatorships, while the Pakuba Lodge – overlooking the river delta and Lake Albert – still lies as a wreck, waiting for an investor to restore it. Meanwhile though the Chobe Safari Lodge is now on course for a fully fledged reopening towards the end of the year, adding much needed extra accommodation to the park which has become increasingly popular with locals and foreign tourists in recent years again.
The concession was acquired by the Madhvani hospitality brand ‘Marasa’ already way back in the 1990’s but the prevailing insecurity in the North of Uganda, which extended into part of the national park, made it all but impossible to start the rebuilding of the lodge at the time [while having a massive impact on the financial performance of the Paraa Safari Lodge further down the river]. Hence it was only in late 2007 that intentions first became known to me of a planned reconstruction, but until all permits had been secured it took a further year before the company was able to think of breaking ground. Now, nearly two years later, the fruit of this long, hard and expensive labour is about to pay off.
Built initially as a fishing lodge along a stretch of river renowned for its huge Nile Perch and combative Tiger fish, the ‘new’ Chobe Safari Lodge is aiming to reclaim its glory of old and in fact do even better – only days before my arrival last weekend an 84 kilograms heavy Nile Perch was landed by a guest – and also become a conference venue, corporate retreat, getaway for Kampaleans and ‘must see place’ for overseas birders and connoisseurs of forest plants, medicinal plants, orchids, trees and shrubs, a rich variety of which can be found along the walking tracks management is establishing in the immediate neighbourhood of the lodge.
The largest Nile Perch on record was reportedly caught in 2002 not far from the bottom of the falls, weighing in at a massive 108 kilograms.
(The river’s bank is never far from any part of the lodge)
62 rooms, tents and suites await the visitor and the choices are indeed impressive. The 8 standard tents, both twin and double, are already very well appointed and overlook the river from the bank high above, with tent number 8 admittedly providing the best ‘sound bites’ of the river’s currents and the water gushing over the rocks below. At the opposite end of the lodge a total of 13 tents are available on elevated platforms, all overlooking the river, with 7 very large deluxe tents at the ‘upper level’, while 6 absolutely supersized extra special deluxe tents are providing the ‘grand stand’ towards the river just metres away from the water. These particular tents are suites in their very own right and provide all creature comforts, including air-conditioning for those who cannot do without or an added ceiling fan for those who can. Pillows, mattresses and duvets are first class – I should be a good judge for this, being a frequent traveller and ‘sufferer’ of ‘cheap beds’ – and the bathrooms almost make one think that the location surely must be a top city hotel rather than a ‘tent’ in the wilderness of Murchisons Falls National Park.
(Stylish, Stylish … a fully fledged suite with ‘canvas walls’)
Such a ‘misconception’ however is swiftly corrected by the constant snorting and grunting of several hippo families ‘living’ in the river outside, or the buffalos which casually stroll through the grass, or the elephant coming from the forest to the river to still their thirst. From experience I can add to beware of strange looking ‘logs’ on the river banks with gaping wide mouths … yes, those would be Nile crocodiles, amongst the largest crocs on the planet and it is definitely advisable not to get too close or try to be friendly with them … sleepy as they may look they can accelerate quite quickly when they spot ‘food’ … and it is a national park after all, wilderness and wildlife of all sorts are ever present and in fact especially tricky when NOT easily seen. Walks must therefore be conducted with guides and guards, just to make sure the visitors get back to tell their tale and show the pictures and sport that newly bought T-shirt of the Chobe Safari Lodge. Yours truly of course as usual ‘buggered off’ on his own to explore but an eventual chance encounter with some buffalos on the airstrip did bring my common sense back real fast and prompted a hasty retreat towards the lodge’s bar to ‘celebrate’ my escape.
(Careful now … those buffalos are wild, REAL wild … time to retreat when you are that close)
In the main building 30 double and twin rooms are available on three levels, as are three ‘ordinary’ suites, a very special top floor honeymoon suite and a presidential villa set well apart from the main lodge which offers two bedrooms, sitting and dining and all other amenities expected by the type of top VIP’s staying in such exclusive surroundings.
On top of the newly added conference centre, set a little apart from the ‘main building’, a further 6 rooms are available, dedicated towards participants in corporate retreats so that such guests have only a short way to cover from their bedrooms to the meeting rooms. Not far away is the three tier swimming pool, where the second tier is connected through a water slide to the bottom pool, and a fully equipped Spa offers all the essential body treatments and yoga classes for the mind, a perfect combination for those really wanting to get away from it all AND enjoy some first rate body and soul ‘refurbishments’.
(The ‘poolscape’ is a major feature of the newly re-constructed Chobe Safari Lodge)
Impressive to me was the quality of the food served already at this early stage of soft opening, and my on the spot order of ‘eggs Benedictine’ was delivered without questions or fuss at my first breakfast, when I decided that the buffet was probably too extensive and I needed to restrict myself to something ‘simple’ … buffets are set up for breakfast, lunch and dinner and a variety of different main courses are available every day, including freshly cooked pasta tossed in one’s favourite gravy or condiments from a separate cooking station – ‘al dente’ of course and with fresh herbs. The vegetables in particular were absolutely fresh, as were the salads, and while much of the supplies come from Kampala, farmers from outside the park are already being encouraged to deliver their produce on a daily basis to the lodge, where the organic food grown by them makes all the difference when it reaches one’s palate. The bar is extensively stocked, needless to mention, and will undoubtedly be a magnet for visitors, considering the attractive setting indoors and the spectacular views outdoors across and along the river far below. Champers is chilled at all times in case guests wish to toast to a special occasion, or simply enjoy a treat while looking down at the gushing waters of the Nile.
(Bubbly anyone, or a brandy, whisky, G&T, B&B, anything … it is yours’ for the asking)
Going to sleep at night and waking up in the morning is quite a spectacle of its own and frankly best experienced and heard from any of the tents, although I am told that the sounds from outside can be heard in the main building rooms too although they are considerable higher up from the river … brace yourself for the snorting and grunting of hippos, their occasional fights over territory and the crescendo of humming and buzzing by a myriad of frogs, crickets and other insects which provides a sound level best described as ‘nature’s disco’ … add to this the mighty birdsong at dawn and nature’s symphony is well near complete, performed by all those little and big things, which are so sought after by the visitors coming to our part of the world, who are living in their cities and towns now almost bare of nature of this kind.
(A view of the thick forest across the river with a huge thunderstorm moving in from the distance)
The forested part of Murchisons, incidentally the largest national park in Uganda and grown larger still when the Budongo Forest, the Bugungu and the Karuma Wildlife Reserves were made part of the Murchisons Falls Conservation Area, is almost totally undiscovered yet, with few motorable tracks expanding from the lodge into the surrounding forest, other than the 14 KM link to the main Kampala to Gulu highway. No high clearance 4×4 vehicles are needed unless one wants to go exploring into the lower section of the park, below the Nile falls. UWA sadly is still due to deliver on their commitment to open up this section of the park with new tracks and game viewing circuits and clear the main ‘road’ between the Chobe and Paraa lodges, and it can only be hoped that this is achieved sooner rather than later so that visitors can even more fully enjoy their visit this relatively unexplored section of Murchisons Falls NP and see the many endemic birds at home deep inside the forest, plus of course spot the game otherwise well hidden behind thickets and trees and otherwise hard to find
In fact, it is often their scent which precedes an encounter with buffalo or the sounds of breaking foliage by feeding elephant which gives the first indication that wildlife is close by.
(A big lone elephant bull demands the right of way – and get’s it)
It is thought by wildlife experts and the few well informed people and researchers in ‘the know’ of how to read the ‘signs’, that the upper part of Murchisons is in fact now one of the richest areas in terms of game numbers as over 3 decades of hardly any human intrusion into the forest have allowed wildlife to thrive and multiply. Suggestions heard therefore that Murchisons’ has ‘less game’ than other parks in Uganda, or in the region, are therefore only fit for the realm of phantasy but not reflected by the reality on the ground. During our visit over a long weekend we saw plenty of hippos in and out of the water, elephant and buffalo, but also bucks and antelopes near the lodge. During our drive to the lower section of the park and the launch ride to the falls we managed to see several hundred buffalo in separate groups, plenty of elephant, alone and in at times sizeable groups, lots of the endangered Rothschild giraffes and on one spot at least 1.500 if not more Uganda kobs, besides which plenty of hartebeest, bushbucks, oribis, waterbuck and warthogs were also spotted regularly. Some of the Patas monkeys found in the park also crossed our path as did baboons, vervet monkeys, mongoose and squirrels and birdlife was equally rich, especially along the river banks while on the ‘African Queen’ as the double decker launch operated by Paraa Safari Lodge is named.
Reaching Chobe is easy, by any standards. The 280 km distance from the Ugandan capital Kampala can be covered by 3 ½ hours of gentle driving along a recently re-carpeted highway, with only the last 14 km on an excellent murram track off the main road just before reaching the main T-junction where the road to Pakwach and the West Nile region branches off, and for those in a real hurry to get to Chobe a flight by light aircraft is the fastest option. A mile long airstrip where planes can taxi right up to the parking area of the lodge makes this possible and flying time – depending on the aircraft used from either Kajjansi or Entebbe – is between only 45 to 60 minutes and allowing for the bird’s eye view from high above across the park, the river and the falls, should the pilot agree to a little sightseeing detour.
The lodge uses modern golf carts to transport clients to their tents, due to the greater distance from the main building and probably for the safety of visitors too, and while presently two are available already, a further 4 will join the ‘fleet’ in a couple of weeks to guarantee swift ‘delivery and pick up’ of guests from their river side tents.
Having seen the lodge in the days it was a ruined wreck, and then followed its progress of reclamation and re-building, I was suitably impressed by what I saw and sampled during my three day visit. The new lodge is holding great promise for Uganda’s tourism sector, when finally fully operational – and surely then the by- line ‘Gem on the Nile’ will be as justified as the sister lodge Paraa is already called the ‘Jewel of the Nile’.
Safari vehicles are available for hire at Chobe for visitors wishing to do a day trip to the lower part of the park and or partake in a launch ride, which is operated from the sister lodge Paraa. Both can be booked through the Chobe guest relations desk or the reception.