Sleeping Around Uganda

An African recap if you’re just joining the studio audience here: In 2008 I volunteered with the Jane Goodall Institute in Entebbe, Uganda for four months. I was responsible for editing a book on the tribes and totems of Uganda created by local children and members of the Roots & Shoots program. I illustrated and designed colouring books on the primates of Uganda and Rwanda, and quite frankly, had the time of my life.

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I first met Merryde Loosemore at the “Chimp House” (the Jane Goodall Institute headquarters in Entebbe where I also lived). Merryde owned the very posh Gately Inn just a 10 minute walk from our office. It became a favoured spot for Cobb salad, pad Thai, stacks of pancakes on Sunday and lovely Australian reds.

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The night we met, the Chimp House was full of various volunteers, coming and going—we covered all angles from Maine to Toronto to Australia. The universal tie was pizza that had been picked up for the crowd and tall Nile Special beers all around. Wagging dogs were afoot (Tinker, Levi, Scrappy) and even the Chimp House cats made an affectionate round. I had just arrived and was blinkered from the flight via Amsterdam. I hopped up to sit on the counter to take in all the accents and stories being swapped around me. Merryde made her way over and leaned between my legs, casually, as though we’d been friends forever. It oddly seemed that way, instantly. She had been a massage therapist in Chamonix Mont-Blanc (the Rhones-Alps region of southeastern France). She’d slept with the Bedouin (and unfortunately, scorpions) in Morocco. She had tromped around with gorillas in Rwanda and had relatives with a crocodile farm in Oz. I was hooked by her energy and tall tales—it was a soul-meshing night.

Which brings me to present day and returning to Uganda. It’s been 15 years since Merryde opened Gately on the Nile in Jinja and the sister property Gately Inn in Entebbe. It was seven since I’d gazed upon mighty Lake Vic. As Merryde was about to celebrate a landmark birthday in Australia in October, the timing was off for us to reunite in Africa. However, Kim and I would be staying at Gately, a place that is testament to the steely-nerved efforts and persistence of one resilient woman to own a successful boutique hotel chain in Uganda that catered to western appetites.

I told Kim we’d be rather ruined sleeping at the Gately properties at the beginning of our three weeks in Uganda. Aside from eating my way extensively through the Gately menus in 2008, I had also stayed at both hotels and knew of the opulence. Come see, and check out what it’s like to sleep around Uganda.

Gately Inn Entebbe

$269 double occupancy cottage, full board

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Entebbe has grown up remarkably from the dusty Russian pilot and UN outpost I remember it as. Gosh, a mall with all the mod cons is soon opening right across from Gately—with a Diesel store and McDonalds! Just a mile down Airport road there is now a KFC and IMAX. I couldn’t believe it—but, I also insisted that Kim and I and Gately’s manager, Helen, go to see Everest in 3D. The juxtaposition of seeing a 3D film about Mt. Everest in Entebbe floored me! (We skipped the bucket of KFC though.) The (also new) Victoria Mall even has a Nukamatt supermarket. To think, I’d squash into a crammed matatu and travel for an hour to the capital city just to buy bagels back then! Now bagels by the dozen (and donuts and Nutella and glossy mags) were a 15 minute stroll from the Chimp House and Gately.

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But, back to the hotel. What a sanctuary after 19 hours of flying from Toronto. The hot showers here are the type you can’t pull yourself out of. I know, it’s Africa, why are we having hot showers? I always do, even in the dead of summer. The towels were luxury, the linens and mattress all so dreamy after being curled up like a prawn on Ethiopian Airlines.

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Gately had even started bottling its own label of South African red wine. Fresh fragrant petals were strewn in colourful trails on the bed and table surfaces. Outside our cottage we had director chairs tucked just so, for optimal privacy. Our only visitors were sunbirds, dashing weavers, flitting butterflies and enthusiastic goodmornings from Jinja and Sippi, the Gately guard dogs. Plantain eaters gave belly laughs from above—these birds sound like monkeys—and there were monkeys too. From our gin and ginger perch we had a mini safari of marabou storks, hornbills and the odd Russian military plane.

The restaurant at Gately has a thoughtfully crafted menu—Merryde had long ago hired a Thai woman named Nee to teach the staff how to prep curries, spring rolls, pad Thai and traditional soups. The menu now has whopping Nile burgers (with an amazing coriander-yogurt dressing), chicken lollipops and fun pub fare like tilapia fingers. It’s all divine.

The Gately Inn in Entebbe is the perfect crash pad, located just 10 minutes from the airport. Sleep off the fog of the flight and you’re walking distance to the ferry dock for Ngamba Island (a chimp sanctuary for 48 orphaned chimps), the zoo, the botanical gardens (where Tarzan was filmed in the 30s) and Anderita Beach (though the hydroelectric dam project has eaten up most of the beach and the bars and restaurants along the edge of Lake Victoria now have only about a foot of sand). If you’ve read or watched the Last King of Scotland and are familiar with Idi Amin’s reign of terror (his ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Uganda in 1972 involved the mass expulsion of Asians from the country) you can visit the dilapitated hijacked Air France plane on Aero Beach.

When you are in Entebbe, make sure it’s on a Tuesday so you can check out the night market. Prepare to be inundated by vendors eager to sell you everything from fried grasshoppers to shoe polish to knock-off cologne to lace panties to catfish and eggplants. It’s a dizzying display of entrepreneurial work and a jaw-dropping amount of stuff that explodes and disappears a few hours later in the haze of kerosene and fried chicken smoke.

Gately on the Nile, Jinja

$255 US, double occupancy Lakeside Lodge, full board

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Back in the day (2008), you could get to Jinja in a semi-smooth two hours. Now you have to bank on four or five with all the congestion in Kampala. A four-lane highway development is on its way which will make for a convenient artery from Entebbe to Jinja, and the next place you should sleep.

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Gately on the Nile is a completely different entity in atmosphere and vibration. Jinja is a little more relaxed (despite being the adventure capital of Uganda). Expats and travellers tend to hang here a little longer, finding the likes of bookstores, avocado smoothies, a yacht club and pubs serving Guinness and Euro soccer matches on the big screen.

The Gately property, in particular the Lakeside Lodge, has a primo view of the Nile. The spiral staircase to the upper deck leaves you sharing air space with hawks and kite birds, catching a current. The bay below is busy with tilapia fisherman and charcoal delivery. At night, the water is illuminated by fishing boats, the lake seemingly full of fireflies.

At the lodge, Jinja and Sippi’s dog duty is taken over by the lovey-dovey Chili and Beavis. Ferocious if needed, they are also instant love balls off-duty.

Room seven (which is temptingly available long-term) is what we want our future master bedroom to look exactly like. Why? The exposed stone walls and cathedral ceilings—live edge double stainless sink counter top, panoramic windows that allow for birdwatching while you brush your teeth! There’s a soaker tub and an open shower (there’s nothing I love more than reckless showering—ie. No glass doors to squeegee!).

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Merryde’s stealth design and attentive eye to detail are evident in all her choices from the goat skin chair covers to the poofy read-a-book-here love seats and doors that open wide to the exotica outside. We want our house to be this floorplan exactly. With a darling dog like Chili.

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Must do: have the Gately staff arrange for a sunset cruise to the source of the Nile. You will see the fisherman casting their nets, egrets, weavers and a serious kingfisherpalooza in the reeds.

Murchison River Lodge

$255 for triple thatched safari tent, half board (dinner, breakfast)

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Located close to the Paraa ferry, just outside Murchison Falls National Park, the southern bank river lodge is the first place Kim and I have ever slept where a hippo escort is required. At night, lanterns illuminate the path to the restaurant and bar area. You can hear the hippos snorting and chatting at the water’s edge. At our tent’s edge! Our driver expressed concern when he saw our sleeping accommodations asking, “What if the hiphops break your tent?”

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We laughed at the bed arrangement for three. All the single beds were pushed together and Helen (Gately’s GM), who we had just met (though her and I had corresponded for months prior via email), was staying with us. “Helen, do you want the bed in the middle?”

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The shower was gorgeous, we each took turns moaning aloud with enjoyment at the HOT water and pure joy of showering with the hippo soundtrack.

That night the River Lodge staff had the grills busy with beef, chicken and lamb kebabs. We grazed on fried chapatti chips dunked in guacamole, the sun already down and stars taking their place. There was no music in the restaurant which so impressed us—there was no need with the squeak of bats and couckals.

Rest assured, when you are booking a thatched tent here, it is a stunner! Not the crappy canvas tent that I imagined, reeking of mothballs and wet dog (guess I was projecting childhood memories of our big circus tent that we slept in). And, this is bush country—don’t expect air conditioning and telly. Try oogling instead of Googling here.

Fort Murchison, near Murchison Falls National Park

$200 US, triple room, half board (dinner and breakfast)

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I love that we had to stop for elephants en route. Though we were outside the national park, the local wildlife didn’t get the memo. Even after leaving the park gate, we were still seeing bounding Ugandan kobs and duikers and ellies on the move.

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The Fort is located on the eastern banks of the Albert Nile. Designed to appear like a remote outpost for Arab traders, we indeed felt like we had traveled long and far, in need of rest and Swahili care. The four course meal was a complete surprise—I was expecting a line-up of starchy blobs, maybe a fish with it’s eye still intact. Oh no. The server was swift and brought us an avo-beet-olive and caper salad to start, a giant bowl of buttery leek and potato soup, followed by lemon butter tilapia (no eye, filet) on a bed of steamed cabbage and onion. There was a dessert too, but I was ready to undo my capris as is.

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The hippo soundtrack followed us here. We had a laugh over the bed arrangement again—Helen’s option looking like a child’s fort with a makeshift mozzie net. She was the one laughing in the morning. Kim and I could hardly breathe because our mattresses were like bedrock. Really, I couldn’t feel my ear for a good hour, or my arms, because they (not me) had fallen asleep from the slate pillow. Helen’s mattress was a dream—and as we creaked about, she smiled after so many hours of blissful REM not tossing and turning on bedrock.

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But, coffee in the morning at the Fort? Go up top and take it all in. Lizards skittled out to join us on the fort walls, enjoying the warming movement of the sun. We did too. The jasmine in the air, mixed with the coffee was something that can’t translate in a postcard home.

If you’re looking for a firm sleep, a place to eat like a sheik and a surreal cup of morning coffee, this is it.

The Dutchess, Fort Portal

$80 US per night, includes breakfast and BRIE!

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I’ve already bitched about the hell ride on public transport in the previous blog, so I won’t repeat myself. Instead, I’ll say the reward was in finding all the pleasures of the Dutchess versus the first rat-hole hotel we looked at on the main drag. It was dumpy, frumpy and the kind of place where you might go to end your life. Ugh. But, cheap. But, no thanks.

At the Dutchess, I knew goodness was in store when I saw fair trade coffee beans, brie and salami for sale in the lobby. An older gentleman seated outside the Dutchess when we arrived said we’d made a great decision, we wouldn’t be disappointed. We joked that he was probably the owner (he wasn’t).

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The rooms are contemporary, with flat screen televisions even! We had filtered water provided (such a treat as you can go broke buying water in Uganda) and there was a resto below serving eggplant pizza and croc ribs and shockingly cold beer.

The staff slogged our bags to the room and finally, we could use our Visa card! Note to travellers: you will find yourself travelling with uncomfortable sums of money because a) ATM’s are few and far between b) sometimes there is no money left in the ATM c) often your card will be rejected). The hotel has free wifi and for Luddites like us, travelling without tablet or cell, they have two computers for use downstairs.

The Dutchess is the best place to decompress if you’ve travelled the 5 hour leg on bus from Kampala. If you’re heading to Kibale, the walk to the matatu stop is 10 minutes away and you can stock up on picnic stuff in the lobby, or at the supermarkets nearby en route.

Breakfast is quite the affair—let me just say this, god bless Gouda and the Dutch.

Chimp’s Nest, Kibale National Park

$120 per night, cottage for 2, includes breakfast

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This was my birthday pick and we had booked the Chimp’s Nest on booking.com prior to leaving Canada. I loved the idea of a wood-fired shower and the balcony overlooking red-tailed monkey territory. The hotel offers on-site night forest walks (where we saw bushbabies and sleeping kingfishers) and, if you jump on a motorbike you can be on the boardwalk of the nearby Bigodi Swamp in just minutes. The 8km walk is astounding and a bird overload!

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We had the Chimp’s Nest to ourselves, really. Travelling on the edge of the shoulder season has become more and more attractive. We spent idyllic days on the stone deck of the lounge area, ate strange spag bol (served with coleslaw?) and stale bacon and tomato sandwiches that exploded like pinatas when you bit into them. But, crappy meals aside, everything else here was off the charts. I’d sit on the toilet of our open sky (yes, no roof Dad!) en suite and often be calling to Kim to come see the moth show on display. I’d interrupt a pee to grab the camera in case something magnificent took off too soon.

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For privacy, romance, killer cat naps, monkey watching, bushbaby stalking and storm chasing—stay here.

Ihamba Lakeside Safari Lodge, Queen Elizabeth National Park

$139 US per night, includes breakfast and hippo escort

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“Oh no, I’ve pulled a Sandra.” A few years ago my mom booked a night at a hotel in Scotland for a steal of a price. She couldn’t believe it—it was a castle with a lake view and she was surprised the drinking water didn’t have flecks of gold in it. That is, until she checked out and learned that the price in euros was PER PERSON, not total for the room.

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I double-checked my scrawled notes and I had written down $139 US per nite several times. Was it really $139 PER PERSON? I swallowed my panic and my beer even faster as Fred showed us the grounds, our private chalet, King bed and slipper tub where we could watch the hippos emerge from Lake George. There was coffee service in the morning—meaning, they would bring it with hot milk to our door, at whatever time we requested. Holy crap. There were robes and all the finery that made me sweat. Oh well, it would be worth it for one night.

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Again, we had the hotel to ourselves. It was just Kim and I at the pool, pretending that it was our very own villa. Philemon brought us Tuskers before we could finish the last of the first.

I finally worked up the courage to ask Julius about the payment on the sly. “So, what would our total for four nights be in shillings?” This way I could do the math (or Kim could) and we’d know if I’d pulled a Sandra in Scotland or not.

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It was $139 per night, per cottage, not per person. WOW.

Deluxe. “Ihamba” means ‘wilderness’ and you will find yourself plunk in the middle of it. Though there are nearby goats that cruise through too (including two that were eager to have a swim in the pool). Cattle graze close to the hippos and we were told, “Please watch for hippos at night and give them 7 metres distance.” Right, where’s my tape measure?

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This place is straight out of the pages of Conde Naste. For the best dose of relaxation after lion stalking at Queen Elizabeth National Park, go here. If you are travelling sans group, as we were, the staff can arrange a driver and safari for you ($150US plus park entry fees of $40US per day, per person).

Listen for the tambourine doves (they sound exactly like the spinning wheel on the Price is Right). Don’t miss the crispy golden beef samosas (I think Kim had them three nights in a row) or fiery eggplant curry. Watch the fishing boats slide out and edge into the horizon. Sit on that perfect balcony and watch the bishop birds and wagtails and go away birds until dusk swoops in because you’ll miss every bit of this place and scene and sound as soon as you leave it.

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So, isn’t it time you slept around Uganda?

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