We’re in the land of mashed matoke (green bananas), gorilla tracking and markets selling handcrafted wicker baskets and cow-horn artefacts. Of children running around playing happily with nothing more than a stick and tyre. The air is filled with the sound of endless cars beeping and exotic birds trilling. And then there are the boda-boda (taxi) scooters – sometimes just one transporting four children, six bags of shopping and that evening’s (still live) chicken dinner. It’s a place of mayhem, but beautiful, exciting mayhem. Welcome to Uganda.
It soon transpires that there’s something here for everyone, no matter their age or interests. From white water rafting, horse riding, luxury hotels to camping, quad biking, abseiling down waterfalls, fabric shopping for hand-printed tribal textiles, trekking, bird watching, and fresh food markets. Uganda, a country known for its lush green beauty, and soon known by me for having the creamiest avocados in Africa if not the world, plus home to the humble ‘Rolex’ (an omelette wrapped in a chapatti) and, of course, the Silverback Gorillas.
Let’s wind back. We arrive from London – with a brief stopover in Nairobi – on Kenya Airways (think comfy bed-seats, a great array of movies and attentive flight attendants). Our eyes are held open with matchsticks after an international flight. On touchdown, we drive five hours or perhaps it is 500, I am so tired, near Mbale in Eastern Uganda. Our first night is spent there at Mt Elgon Hotel & Spa. The hotel boasts a beautiful view of Mt Elgon. The food is impressive (particularly the tilapia, a local fish…but then what do you expect from Italian owners?) and the Wi-Fi is fast, not always a given in Africa. All in all, a wonderful start to the trip.
Next morning, eyes held open with even more matchsticks, we rise at 5:00am to go camping. The promise of seeing cave elephants is enough to get most people – or certainly me – out of bed early, even though it turns out that the elephants have wandered over to Kenya. A note of warning here. Whenever previously I’ve agreed to such ‘adventures’, I’ve been spoilt with large tepees with blazing fire pits, being snug in a warm blanket, laying my head on a fluffy goose-down pillow etc (you get the picture). That’s the sort of camping I’ve been lucky enough to do in other parts of Africa. But this sort of ‘Glastonbury glamping’ has not quite made it to Uganda. So I will not sugar coat it. It is not for the faint hearted and remember to bring your own duck-feather-filled sleeping bag, Asprey’s tent and cashmere blanket.
It is also a tough trek (the Sasa trail, which starts at Budari) and quite frankly puts me and my fitness as a 22-year-old to shame. Well, for starters, there is a 1,650 metre ascent on day one. But the scenery, waterfalls, vegetation, panoramic views and sunrise and sunsets are, shall we say, out of Africa? Or perhaps out of this world? Much of it would provide the perfect setting for any Jurassic Park remake. And we have reams of porters, guides and a chef: the last a dab hand at cooking organic beans and rice over a blazing open fire. And there’s the day I hike up a 4,321 metre peak (after all this is the eighth highest mountain in Africa), and the day we walk across part of the world’s largest caldera (80km diameter), and then those 300 species of bird (I swear we saw them all).
We even walk to Kenya. Let me repeat that, we walk to Kenya. From the start in Uganda to our finish in Kenya, it takes us four days. It’s probably around a million-mile trek. It feels like it. You can Google it yourself if you’re that geekily inclined. (Oh OK, it’s actually around 55 kilometres in all but so much steep up and down.)
We arrive across the border (drenched by tropical rain, muddy and in need of a soak in Jo Malone bath oil) at Kenya Wildlife Services’ lodges at Mount Elgon National Park. Never has a shower and change of clothes (in what is fairly basic self-catering accommodation) felt like such a huge luxury. After a welcome sleep, we feast in a nearby lodge on a generous breakfast with a variety of tropical fruit, cereal and eggs. For dinner, we enjoy homemade soup followed by delicious local dishes of chicken stew, vegetable curry and spicy beans.
In between, we visit Kitum Cave to see the elephants who are lured by the salt walls and come here to do tusking (artistic indentations on the wall in the pursuit more of sodium than art). But Babar and friends have gone AWOL. So we go on a search, driving to the other side of the park. And yes, we do find them. There we are greeted by 60 or so local villagers standing on the hill scouring the horizon for the elephants. There is a man standing in prime viewing position, at the top of a tree. And 12 young men and boys eagerly climbing up to join him. There are ringing bells from the collars of cattle wandering freely.
At last we spot the elephants. They are muddier than I expected – until I realise that these beautiful, slow motion Babars are, in fact, brown not, as I anticipated, grey. Soon I understand why the local farmers complain about them: it is like watching a very slow earthquake as they pull apart every tree, one branch at a time. There are babies, mothers and a few hundred yards behind lumbering along with his enormous tusks, is the pack leader, AKA Babar’s dad or is he grandpa?
After two days in Kenya spent elephant spotting and then horse riding amongst the monkeys, buffalo and zebras we head back to Uganda to Mbale – thankfully (given the state of my muscles) on wheels.
Back in the Pearl of Africa, we visit the three magical waterfalls that make up Sipi Falls, our final look at Mt Elgon and environs. It truly is as pretty as a picture, which must be why it’s on every poster you ever see of Uganda. We’re surrounded by luscious green plants, the blazing sun, and the soothing sound of fast flowing water. There’s a rainbow painted across the sky and the possibility of abseiling down the largest of the waterfalls. A combination of finding that pot of gold and potentially getting an adrenaline fix make this one of my favourite destinations so far. But that’s what I say each time we reach somewhere new on this trip.
After having upped our fitness to Iron-Woman level on the Ugandan hike and in Kenya, it is soon time for a well-deserved rest. This is a holiday after all. But first we have to drive the 168 km from Mbale to Jinja, the place known as the adrenaline capital of East Africa and famed for being at the source of the Nile.
We arrive at Wildwaters Lodge , a luxurious hotel built mid stream (guests reach it by boat) in the mighty Nile. It’s a collection of wooden cabanas accessed by walkways. The restaurant and pool look out over vicious curling rapids that are rather like a horizontal waterfall: for those white-water rafting lovers among you, it is actually a grade 6 rapid. A killer rapid in other words. To us it is relaxing, calming and exactly what we need as the river otters stick their head above the water. And guess what? There’s an al fresco bathtub on our terrace. So that’s where I lie beneath my bubble bath to watch the otters.
For those looking to take it easy on their honeymoon, it’s possible to relax and lounge about to the soothing sound of the river. For a family with children there are Nile riverside horse riding safaris nearby, and floating boat tours and crazy golf. For the adrenaline junkie on her gap year (or in my case, on her four hundreth gap year) there are quad-bike adventures and white water rafting and about a zillion other activities designed to set the pulse racing.
Our quad biking tour near Jinja takes us around the community, through maize fields, past children pumping their water for the day into jerry cans, to a local church and to a Canadian-sponsored football pitch (with a tethered cow mid field). The children – like all kids in Uganda – are friendly, smiley and eager to say hello. A few of them (well more like six or seven but I say a ‘few’ because I don’t want to be fined retrospectively by the village policeman) jump on the back of my quad bike, desperately excited at the idea of hitching a ride. Of course, I agree to take them for a quick spin. At 2 km per hour. It must be a Guinness record: seven (at a conservative estimate) on a quad bike.
Afterwards my companion and I enjoy a floating boat tour, which is to white water rafting what the Iron Man is to sitting. In other words, ‘floating’ is the geriatric version of white water rafting. It is very calming, relaxing and a good way to wind down. With a very long drive ahead, we are very keen not to get drenched. But, of course, even on a Grade 1 Rapid the water comes gushing in. But it’s worth it for seeing the exotic birds and mango trees and having four outriders in Kayaks, our rescue team.
Next stop is Kampala for luxury at the Sheraton Kampala Hotel. This five-star hotel, built in the ‘60s and looking over the city at 14 storeys, boasts an ice cream parlour in the lobby, a 24-hour fitness suite and a ginormous pool in which the late dictator, Idi Amin, used to swim. Best of all, the hotel offers Ugandan massages in its spa. My therapist applies a body scrub of bananas, avocado, ground coffee beans and salt. After leaving it to soak in, I shower until I’m gleaming and sparkling. And then she gives me an excellent massage kneading my tired muscles with lemongrass oil. Afterwards we eat at the Sheraton’s Seven Seas, its Italian restaurant. It provides a welcome break from Ugandan food. Its fresh fish (tilapia and Nile perch) and grilled vegetables hit the spot.
Soon it’s time for a full-on and chaotic day in Kampala city. We visit Kabaka’s Palace with its haunting reminder of Idi Amin’s reign of terror, with his subterranean torture and execution chambers. And we also look around downtown, including the two-acre, open-air fresh food market. You can’t get much fresher than a live chicken in a cage, slaughtered on demand. Or the trays of (a delicacy) just-caught grasshoppers ready to fry. There are also sacks filled with coriander, cumin seeds, star anise and cinnamon sticks the size of trees. It’s an unmissable experience. And yes, we also leg it around the city’s churches, mosques, cathedrals and tombs.
Then we lose ourselves shopping for African hand printed fabrics, wicker baskets, and hand-beaded walking sticks. We love African crafts at Banana Boat with its hand-sewn and beaded dog collars, rustic brass earrings and hand-blown, coloured glass fashioned from old wine bottles. We love Afriart Gallery too with its rotating exhibitions of contemporary African artists, the one we see being of acrylics on bark cloth.
Our final stop in our 17-day tour is the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest for the major lure of Uganda. Yes, the gorillas. It’s an 11-hour drive from Kampala – with a stop at the Equator – or a short hop in an internal plane. What an experience! If there is one thing you ought to tick off your bucket list, it is this. It’s hard to describe the thrill of trekking through the (almost) impenetrable jungle following the sound of “ooh-ooh-ahh-ahh” (that’s gorilla talk to the uninitiated) and the cacophony of birdsong and other jungle sounds. There’s the perilously steep climb, the guide with the machete cutting back the undergrowth and then the fact that we are allowed to stand for an hour looking at two families of Mountain Gorillas. They seem to have almost more human DNA than many humans as they pull facial expressions, lazily pick leaves for lunch and soothe their young.
Our hotel – Buhoma Lodge – is equally alluring. I really do not want to leave its ten exclusive tree houses (bandas) built in Bwindi’s Impenetrable Forest. Every detail has been well thought through: from the tented walls and African tribal artefacts to the local tribal fabric encasing the torch; from the woven papyrus ceiling and timber rafters and hardwood floors to the traditional African clay fire pots dotted around to keep guests warm over supper; from the hot water bottle in our bed to the freestanding claw foot bath and beautiful, rustic shower. I could go on…
All too soon it is time to return to the UK. As I sit in the Kenya Airways’ Simba lounge at our stopover in Nairobi scoffing a kilo of the complementary macadamia nuts and knowing that its VVIP area will be easier to penetrate than the Impenetrable Forest, I think: I’ll be back. Yes, Africa has wrapped me in its warm embrace. Yet again.
Mahlatini Luxury Travel (02890 736 050; www.mahlatini.com) offers a 15-night holiday in Uganda, including Mount Elgon, Kampala, Jinja, Bwindi and Kibale from £8,000 per person sharing on a full board basis. Includes international flights from London, light aircraft and road transfers, a gorilla trekking permit and scheduled activities.
Fares from London Heathrow to Uganda (via Nairobi) from £390 including tax on Kenya Airways: http://www.kenya-airways.com/. Reservations: +44 (0) 208 283 1818.
London-based Anya Braimer Jones writes about travel, interned at MailOnline and has been published in publications from The Telegraph and Family Traveller to the Luxury Channel. She’s a whizz at social media and has also dabbled in Public Relations.