Photos by Nsereko Tom. Photo of Little Elephant Camp by LEC.
Photos by Nsereko Tom. Photo of Little Elephant Camp by LEC.
Two friends and I recently set off on a western tour.
Our goals were to explore one of Uganda’s newly “urban” settings, and then to search for lesser-known offerings of history, art and culture—combine them with stays in very-private accommodations in TWO NATIONAL PARKS, along with picnics and scrummy lunches out—as well as the more traditional components of a great safari; all in just seven days. Follow the map-bullets below.
Originally opened in 1954, this was the residence of the Ankole Royals until 1966—when then-Prime-Minister Obote introduced to the public a pigeonhole constitution which would lead to his presidency, abolish all kingdoms, send the kings into exile, and this home into ruin. Now being restored by the Ministry of Tourism, many of the palace’s original artifacts are also set to be returned from their current location at the Uganda Museum, completing this site as a museum in its own right. At time of print, visitors are welcome to tour the 12 acre campus for free. Buildings are not yet open, and no guides are on site, but I still found a short visit worthwhile. GPS pin not accurate. Find it adjacent to the main gate of the Makerere University Business School’s (M.U.B.S.) Mbarara campus.
ORDER THE LASAGNA. It’s huge! One of the best I have had in the region. Add a salad and parmesan garlic bread, and you easily have a meal for 3 or 4 people—all for only 70k TOTAL (not each). The pork ribs also nice. Vast menu with many options. Allow prep time, or order in advance.
A place so nice, we stayed here twice! Four very tastefully-appointed 3-bed, 3-bath suites (which can be rented as whole units, or as individual, en-suite bedrooms). Quality linens and mattresses. Extremely quiet location, yet not-at-all far from the main highway. Also a pleasant little restaurant and bar offering a variety of items including pizzas with generous toppings! Delicious breakfasts included, made-to-order. Staff are excellent communicators, and are clearly eager to please. This setting would also be perfect for small retreats or other group-stays. Definitely my new go-to in Mbarara. Easy to find. As you enter Mbarara from the east, look for their large sign on the left side of the road (though you turn right there). Once off the main road, do not follow GPS. Instead, stick with the larger road which curves behind ROOFINGS, and then follow the Nataaha signposts to the hotel.
As you travel north into Kibale National Park, you’ll again cross the equator. The marker here is subtle, surrounded by a stand of eucalyptus trees. We enjoyed an impromptu cheese-and-crackers picnic while listening to the whisper of the wind in the trees on this very quiet stretch of road. Bring a mat or blanket. It can be hard to find a roadside picnic spot which does not attract an audience, and maybe we were lucky, but this really was a peaceful respite. 90 km north of Mbra.
A flawless experience awaits you at this superb lodge—with more-than-competitive prices. The cottages and rooms are very private perches, just at the boundary of the national park (meaning no UWA fees to stay here). ‘Tasteful,’ ‘comfortable’ and ‘thoughtful’ are words which come to mind at every turn. Not to mention the word ‘delicious!’ The menu changes daily. For us, choices included a very tender bacon-wrapped beef fillet, veggie-wrapped zucchini with a yoghurt sauce, salads with treats unexpected upcountry—things like capers, pickles, and olives. Dinner’s dessert was a parfait with a chocolate-dipped banana—which might sound pedestrian, yet it was anything but! We all agree it was the most wonderfully decadent dessert we have had in ages. (All dietary restrictions can be accommodated with notice.) But the real star of the show, of course, is the forest in whose treetops you have nested. Do the forest-, swamp- and primate-walks, have a swim, and ride the mountain bikes—then drift off for a nap on any of the super-soft sofas on various decks and hideouts—or in your own luxurious bed—as you listen to the welcoming chatter of the many critters and birds who call the forest home.
Scenic Route from TT to Art Centre: Once you set off from Turaco Treetops, you’re sure to encounter troops of baboons along the highway. So fun! GPS then took us off the tarmac, and while we realized there was a “better” main-road-route to Kasese, we decided to stick with it, and we were enchanted by the result. We saw incredible vistas, homes of all types and sizes, villagers coming from church, waterfalls and streams, tea and banana plantations—all vibrant and beautiful. Took about an hour, but didn’t add time to the overall journey. High-profile 4WD required.
This vast campus is essentially a small botanical garden, their hiking trail into the Rwenzori foothills is accessible and worthwhile, the bronze foundry and the sculpture gallery do not disappoint. Coffee and cookies, too! Free admission to gardens and gallery. Foundry Tour $10. You really could make a nice half-day of the visit—with a foundry and gallery tour, followed by a coffee-and-cookie snack, and then the hike (as strenuous or leisurely as you like). This stop should not be missed. Best to call ahead.
Kasese Shopping and Fuel Stop: Kasese Town has a number of small supermarkets and shops. But note that Little Elephant Camp has an online food-shop, and they deliver right to your tent flap! See https://shop.littleelephantcamp.com. In Kasese, do consider filling up the fuel tank.
MAGICAL! Comfortable and safe in the bush—this is glamping and self-catering made delightful in every way. Each tent is privately positioned and appointed—with comfy beds, quality linens, solar lights, charging stations, and en-suite bathroom with hot, outdoor shower. Your very own mess tent makes cooking a joy and a breeze. (They are also happy to deliver DELICIOUS ready-to-cook meals). Thoughtful staff members quietly appear on cue to light your campfire, lanterns, and grill, and to tend to housekeeping; otherwise it’s just you and the truly GREAT Rift Valley. The camp is just outside the borders of the park, meaning there are no UWA fees to access the camp.
As you proceed south, why not treat yourself to lunch on this quiet rise in a newly-styled space! The décor offers a subtle, modern, almost monochrome take on classic safari design. The fish is served with a tartar sauce which is among the best we have ever tasted, the fruit salad was well-chilled, the bar nicely stocked, and the view is sweeping and calming—complete with an intriguing intro-talk from the senior manager, and lots of happy butterflies! Pre-booking required.
This is the site where Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the park renamed after her in 1954. It’s just off the main road, and worth a quick stop for its 360 degree views of the park, and its nod to history. There’s also a nice banda perfect for a packed lunch or sundowner. Look for enhancements and additional offerings by the end of 2023. 10km north of QENP main gate. Queen’s Pavilion is operated by Conservation Through Public Health, an NGO.
Your own house on a cliff, literally at the edge of the Great Rift Valley! A wraparound terrace on the ground floor, and a covered deck above, offer endless views of the savanna, grazing elephants, and glorious sunsets. Everything from the vintage kilims to the weathered-and-comfy lounges seem eager to tell you their years of stories, while bookshelves offer a range of titles, periodicals, board-games and toys. Basic beds and linens. The kitchen is complete with a cooktop, refrigerator (remind them to switch it on at least a day before you arrive), pots and pans, blender, toaster, and more. Self-catering. (A cook can be arranged for a fee. Bring your own food, salt, pepper, oil, drinking water, etc.) The home is powered by solar. Splash pool on site (usage may be limited by issues related to powering the pump). You can load data onto their Airtel router for internet (spotty at times), but why not disconnect, and enjoy the view!
While your home and setting are extremely private, there are actually a number of lodges nearby (those on our map and others, too). Very easy to call one ahead, and book a nice lunch-stop on your way home from safari or trekking.
Descending into the “Valley of the Apes” is a once-in-a-lifetime experience which some say surpasses trekking the gorillas. Not for the faint of heart. Tours leave at 8am and 2pm daily. Pay in advance at a UWA office (nearest is in Katunguru Town, no cash).
After the trek, what could make more sense than a three-course meal at one of the park’s most exclusive lodges, right at the tree-line of the gorge! The soundtrack includes the warbling of both the Kyambura River and its many feathered and primate homemakers. For us, among the food offerings de jour were a hot watermelon soup, a chilled mint and pea purée served with rocket, tilapia with cassava and butternut squash (with orange and gooseberries), and an incredible, homemade coconut ice cream. This roost is also great for anyone who would rather experience the gorge only from the rim. Pre-booking required.
While we did not overnight here, it would certainly be a treat to do so. The deluxe cottages are nestled in a stand of trees right at the rim, treating you to even cooler temps. All of the lodge’s cottages are staffed with your own butler, and are stocked with red and white wine. The deluxe spaces also come with whiskey. The pool is very refreshing, and tucked just out of sight of other common areas, ensuring your privacy and relaxation.
A sweet stop for lunch or for a pleasant overnight as you complete our circular route. Just 25 kms southwest of Mbarara along the super-smooth Kabale Highway, happy signs direct you just two more kilometres into the village—through sweetly tended banana plantations—and right to Nyore’s gate. As it swings open, your discovery of this seemingly-secret space begins. A beautiful and diverse flower garden is terraced on a hillside also dotted with private, geranium-wrapped dining-bandas, arbours, swings, guest cottages, and camping spaces. The restaurant’s salads are presented with bright lettuces and fresh herbs, the locally-sourced meats are flavourful, and sandwiches are offered with a choice of four different kinds of bread. Place your food order, charge your devices, take a stroll through the flowers, and then enjoy your meal before you press onward in your journey—or simply settle in, and spend a relaxing weekend of rest. A retreat indeed, yet right along your way.
Easy to find right on the main road as you head back to Kampala, this museum and related monuments are welcoming and fairly-well-done.
A few steps north of equator line, one of Uganda’s few galleries of original art is also the equator’s only bookshop (with more than 130 titles), and all products are from East Africa—nothing imported from factories abroad. Craft and gift items range from cars made using recycled paint tins—to kitenge gift-bags filled with coffee and Equator Chocolates! This is also a great stop for a snack in the large garden or terrace. There are swings for the kids, too. Clean washrooms. AidChild is the only eco-friendly business at the equator, recycling plastics, discounting sodas bottled in glass instead of plastic, upcycling glassware, recycling paper for bags, and using clean-energy for power backup. Advance food orders encouraged but not required. (Full disclosure: this writer founded AidChild.)