Peggy Healy, of Montgomery Communications, our public relations partner, led 5 journalists on a trip to Uganda — here’s her report.
Five seasoned travel writers, a college journalism major and I left from Dulles Airport for Entebbe, Uganda on St. Patrick’s Day. The group arrived in D.C. from New York, Chicago, Denver, Seattle and Providence. We flew Business Class on Ethiopian Airlines to Entebbe, Uganda, a gloriously sybaritic flight, with super-comfortable seats, wonderful service from pretty and earnest Ethiopian flight attendants, and all the food and drink we could hope for. We read, watched new, Oscar-winning movies and slept.
The caravansary was comprised of photo-journalists Ted Stedman and Amanda Castleman, each hefting some 40 pounds of cameras and lenses; award-winning eccentric journalist Edward Readicker-Henderson; children’s book author and travel writer Peter Mandel, who leavened the trip with his wry humor; globe-trotter and Travel Weekly editor-in-chief Arnie Weissmann, and his aspiring journalist daughter Emma, a student at the University of Illinois, on assignment for the school newspaper. Writer/athlete and agent provocateur Kelley McMillan, joined us a day later.
En route to Kampala from Entebbe, the road is chock-a-block with bazaars, miles of merchandise being hawked – bicycles, autos, fenders, furniture, seeds, cement. We see entire cars perched precariously on roofs of jerry-rigged structures. We also see an amazing number of churches, chapels, mosques and religious sign boards. Our guide Mark tells us that 15% of Uganda’s population is Muslim, 10% “other,” 40% Protestant and the rest Catholic.
We overnight at the Kampala Serena, clearly the city’s finest hotel. The lobby is stunning – rounded columns of brick, marble floors, teakwood tables, rare sculptures, overstuffed rattan armchairs and huge ceramic vases filled with bamboo. The Maisha Spa is a garden of Islamic-motif mosaics and etched translucent glass panels. Bowls of rose and marigold petals perfume the air. The hotel’s fashionable Mist Bar, named after the film ‘Gorillas in the Mist,’ is decorated with sandstone frescoes of the beloved apes. Guests also drink and nibble outside on the Sesse Pool Terrace, overlooking beautiful grounds landscaped with masses of hibiscus, shrubs of small blue flowers and a cascading waterfall.
Jeremy Otter of Premier Safaris treats the always-thirsty journos to beer and wine in The Mist, before we head to dinner at a smashing private home set on a hill, a modern, art-filled house as white as alabaster: It glows in the night. We feast on a gorgeous India-style buffet beside the pool and below trees sparkling with little lights.
The next day we set out for the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, the only place in Uganda supporting wild rhinos. Civil unrest in the 1970’s left these leathery, Triceratopsian-looking creatures nearly poached out of existence by hunters desirous of their horns. The horns fetch thousands in the Asian market for their supposed aphrodisiacal or medicinal power and in Yemen, where they’re treasured as sheaths for daggers. (To prove the horns’ potency, wicked hunters these days doctor the horns with Viagra.) To help restore the dwindling rhino citizenry, the Ziwa Sanctuary brought in white rhinos from Solio Rhino Conservancy in Kenya, from Disney Animal Kingdom, from the U.S. and yet more from Kenya. White rhinos, which live up to 45 years, are the same color as black rhinos – gray! (“White” is a corruption of a Dutch word “wijd” for wide-lipped rhino.) Last year, when two white rhino calves were born at Ziwa, the population rose to a happy dozen.
Our ranger Opil briefed us before we trudged into the bush. “Pre-attack, white rhinos will roll tail, stomp the ground, and mock-charge three times. So: Walk in single file. Shut off cell phones. Whisper. If approached, don’t run: climb a tree or stand behind a shrub.” Is he kidding? A mad scramble up one of these scrawny trees would likely be a Titanic moment: not everyone would survive. As it was, we got very close to a rhino bull, a mama rhino and her calf and watched in fascination as the little group plopped down, galumphed up, reconfigured itself, all to the click-click of cameras. Confidence restored, we straggled back, talking in anything but hushed tones, and spotting a panoply of wildlife along the way. Opil tells us that olive baboon prey on young antelope; that the kob is featured on Uganda’s coat of arms; and that Ugandans believe you’ll live longer if you see an Aardvark.
It was late when we arrived at Chobe Safari Lodge, located in a little-known section of Murchison Falls National Park. From the property, the sweeping views of the roiling, white-capped Nile are breathtaking and at sunset doubly so. Even when you can’t see it, you can hear the roar of the river’s frothing rapids. While some of us avail ourselves of the infinity pool, Amanda, Ted and Kelley take photos of river life and the lodge.
Five-star Chobe comprises 36 guest rooms, 21 luxury tents, four suites and a Presidential Cottage (where Uganda’s President Museveni has stayed). General Manager Richard Hodgson, a Royal Navy vet, takes us on a tour: “Tented cottage 8 is ideal for honeymooners,” he suggests, “because it’s somewhat isolated.” He shows us the state-of-the-art Conference block that can host up to 100 guests and is fully equipped for business meetings. An 18-hole golf course is in the works, too. And the view from Chobe’s Health Club and Spa was picked as one of the top views in the world from a gym. We leave late morning and head for another Marasa property: Paraa Safari Lodge, further south in Murchison Falls National Park.
… next Paara Lodge on the other side of Murchison Fall.
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