x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Wet and wild in western Uganda

Known for its large chimpanzee population, the volcanic western region makes a dramatic landscape. Killian Fox checks into the Ndali Lodge and goes ape tracking.

Ndali Lodge's six thatched cottages are dotted along a steep ridge beside a lake.
Ndali Lodge's six thatched cottages are dotted along a steep ridge beside a lake.

When the Price family built Ndali Lodge on the rim of an ancient volcanic crater in western Uganda 15 years ago, they knew they were setting up on a beautiful spot. What they didn't know, until recently when a guest opened his wallet and pointed it out, was the status of the location.

It takes about five hours to drive to Ndali Lodge from Uganda's chaotic capital, Kampala. The farther west you travel, the more lush and verdant the landscape gets, and the more peaceful life becomes. Fort Portal, the nearest large town to Ndali, is at the heart of the country's most fertile farming area, the garden of Uganda. Take a left turn just before the town centre and head 15 kilometres along a red, iron-rich dirt road through rolling farmland, past tea plantations and clusters of banana trees and fields of maize, until you round a corner and see below you a deep crater lake bounded on every side by steep hills.

It's breathtaking, and whoever designed the Ugandan 20,000 shilling (Dh28) note must have agreed. Hold one up as you overlook the lake from this exact spot and you will see the view replicated in precise detail on the note, right down to the thatched roofs of Ndali Lodge on the far ridge.

Most people who travel to Ndali arrive in a private vehicle. I came by public transport, and getting there from Kampala by bus and motorcycle taxi cost me exactly USH20,000: a fair exchange. We passed the lakeside vantage point and the driver dropped me off at the entrance to the lodge. The primary school on the corner was closing for the day and children in flamingo-pink uniforms greeted me with laughter and choruses of "How are you?" as they flocked out of class.

The driveway to the lodge took me along a long, narrow ridge, like the spine of a tall, slender animal. On one side was a sheer drop to the lake; on the other side were the Rwenzoris, the highest mountain range in Africa. The mountains themselves were a hazy blue outline in the afternoon heat; the foothills in between were various shades of dark green. In the valley immediately below I could see a vanilla farm, with rows of wooden platforms where harvested pods are left out in the sun to dry.

The lodge consists of six thatched cottages dotted along the ridge and a main building with a dining room and a lounge area. Two patios overlook the crater lake. On the Rwenzori side there is a swimming pool and, below that, a sun deck with a view to marvel at. Farther down, hidden in the trees, is a state-of-the-art Finnish sauna.

A friendly host showed me to my cottage, which was comfortable and attractively designed, though lacking many of the frills you might expect at a $450-a-night (Dh1,652) lodge. No flatscreen TV, no internet connection, no minibar; nor, indeed, does it have electricity. There were solar lamps on the bedside tables, but otherwise Ndali relies on candles for night-time illumination, and the water for the en-suite bathrooms is heated by old-fashioned Tanganyika boilers, which billow fragrant woodsmoke across the grounds.

While I settled in, lunch was laid out for me on the patio. The meal was simple - chicken and chips, and banana fritters with local honey for dessert - but the backdrop was extraordinary. As I ate, the sky went suddenly dark, thunder rumbled somewhere over the hills and heavy tropical raindrops started to fall. The thick ceiling of vines overhead kept me from getting wet and I watched the surface of the lake turn green and silvery-white in the rain. Birds continued to sing. Flowers covered the hillside below and I could hear the constant hum of grazing bees.

After lunch the rain cleared and a guide called Robert took me down to the vanilla farm, which is owned by a cousin of the Price family. The lodge's four resident dogs came with us, delighted at the chance to stretch their legs and terrorise the local goat population. Robert showed me the storehouse where the vanilla is first steamed and then left to ferment in large, coffin-shaped wooden boxes. During the fermenting process it is taken out every day to dry for two hours in the sun. When the long bean-like green pods, which are grown organically in a local forest, turn black and pungent, they are packed up and shipped to Britain and the US.

In September 2006, Ndali Vanilla became the first Fairtrade-certified vanilla farm in Africa. More recently, the owner Lulu Sturdy has introduced her 45 employees to Isha yoga, a tough discipline developed in southern India in the 1990s. Those who accepted the challenge now practise yoga twice a day and gather once a week for a group session with Lulu and other members of the Ndali community. I didn't get a chance to witness a session but Robert, an enthusiastic advocate, told me that the yoga is having a positive effect among his colleagues.

When I got back to the lodge, the owners Aubrey and Clare Price had returned from Kampala, where they'd been shopping for supplies. I've heard Ndali Lodge described as "more Wooster than Jeeves", and that's about right. If you come expecting high formality and perfection at every turn, you may find yourself perplexed. The lodge is run to a high standard with great attention to detail, but the atmosphere is easy-going and the management is quite eccentric.

In short, Ndali has character, and it was very much in evidence that evening at dinner, a magnificent candlelit affair involving four courses and plenty of high-spirited conversation. A group of wildlife enthusiasts had turned up at the hotel an hour earlier and we all sat together in the dining area, with Aubrey presiding over a long table that stretched the length of the room.

The group was heading the next morning to Kibale National Park, home of the world's largest collection of chimpanzees, and I could sense their excitement as they talked through the day's itinerary in detail. My itinerary for the following day, by contrast, was completely blank, but I was on the lookout for options.

My options were several. From Ndali Lodge, you can day trip to the Rwenzori Mountains, where there is excellent hiking to be done: walks can extend over six or seven days and ascend to nearly 5,000 metres. Closer to home, there are waterfalls and hot springs and 34 crater lakes to explore in a more laid-back fashion. Visiting the chimps in Kibale is undoubtedly the main attraction, though, and guided walking tours ($90 plus $30 entrance fee) need to be booked ahead. Luckily for me, the visiting group had a permit to spare and they very kindly invited me to join them the following morning.

That night there was an incredible thunderstorm but, much to everyone's amusement at breakfast the next morning, I slept right through it. When I woke at 5.30am, everything felt newly washed by the rain. After a fantastic breakfast of fresh fruit and hot coffee, we hit the road. By the time we reached the national park an hour later, the sun was coming up.

Kibale boasts 13 species of primate, a diversity unmatched in any other national park on earth. On the long road into the forest, you can see the branches rustling with black-and-white colobuses and red-tailed monkeys and olive baboons.

The main draw are the chimps, though, and guided walks head out twice a day: in the morning and in the afternoon. I opted to walk in the afternoon and spend the morning at Bigodi Swamp, a watery wildlife trail just outside the national park.

At Bigodi, I met up with a knowledgeable young guide called Sophia who took me on a two-hour tour of the wetlands, through elephant grass and swathes of papyrus and densely forested jungle. In that time I spotted five primates, among them the reclusive L'Hoest's monkey, numerous birds including hornbills and blue turacos, and one very large snail.

It was a pleasant walk but really just the prelude to my afternoon date. When I returned to Kibale for lunch, the group was buzzing with excitement: they hadn't just glimpsed a chimp, they'd spent more than an hour watching a whole family close-up as they played around in the trees.

My expedition turned out to be less successful, sadly, but the experience was still thrilling. Twenty minutes into the walk, we heard animal calls in the distance and our tracker, Alex, sprang into action. He took us off the main path and we cut through the undergrowth, expecting to see chimps at any moment. But none materialised and our attention soon got diverted by bridal-veil funguses and giant buttress roots and a red duiker munching grass in a forest glade before we startled it away.

After an hour and a half we were ready to give up and turn back when Alex spied movement through the trees. We started to run, and a minute later I glimpsed what we were pursuing: a couple of female chimpanzees with two babies and a juvenile, moving rapidly away from us along the ground.

We trailed them for about five minutes, crashing through the undergrowth in their wake, our adrenalin driving us on, but then our tracker stopped and held up his hand. The chimps clearly weren't comfortable with us following them and Alex didn't want to upset them further. Reluctantly, we turned and headed back to base camp.

It was a memorable encounter but I felt unlucky: there is a 90 per cent chance of seeing chimps at Kibale and most people get to spend time studying them at close range. To make up for the disappointment, we stopped by Lake Nkuruba Community Camp on the way home for some proper primate face time.

Perched above a tiny crater lake about five kilometres from Ndali, this campsite boasts incredibly laid-back colonies of colobus, vervet and red-tail monkeys that play in the trees overhead and scamper over the lawn when they think no one's looking. After a day of excited half-glimpses in Kibale, it felt almost like cheating to see these creatures so easily and up-close, but it's such a charming experience - and Nkuruba is such a beautifully peaceful spot - that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it.

After a hot, itchy day running around Kibale, it was a profound pleasure to return to the comfort of Ndali Lodge. First I dived into the pool to cool off and do a few lazy lengths; then I descended into the forest at dusk for a sauna.

Chimp-watching and mountain climbing are all well and good, but perhaps the best thing to do during a stay at Ndali Lodge is to just stay there and take it easy while others are crashing through sweaty forests and lumbering up steep mountain paths. As well as the sauna and an ingenious hand-operated "plunge pool", the lodge has a masseuse on call, with two more in training, and right now it's developing some exotic-sounding spa treatments involving clay from termite mounds. You can hail the rising sun from an open-air yoga pagoda, or simply lounge around with a book and consider your next meal, while ibises roam the lawn and bees buzz in the flowers and monkeys shake the leaves overhead.

I would have done just that, at considerable length, if I hadn't been forced back to Kampala early the next day to catch a flight home. At 9am sharp, a motorcycle taxi arrived at the lodge to take me to the bus. I jumped onto the bike and we chugged off towards Fort Portal along the bumpy red-dirt road. Just before we rounded the corner, I glanced back and took a last look across the lake at the tree-lined ridge with the thatched roofs dotted along it. Then I turned the road ahead and we motored on.

 

If You Go

The flight A return flight from Dubai to Entebbe on Emirates (www.emirates.com) costs from Dh3,520 return, including taxes

The stay Double-room cottages at Ndali Lodge (www.ndalilodge.com; 00 256 772 221309) cost US$450 (Dh1,652) per night including all meals and taxes. For information on Ndali Vanilla, visit www.ndali.net

The package An 11-day wildlife tour of Uganda with the Uganda Safari Company (www.safariuganda.com; 00 256 414 251182), including two nights in Ndali Lodge and a visit to Kibale Forest Park, costs from $5,004 (Dh18,375) including taxes, based on three people sharing a twin room and a single room. Prices vary depending on the itinerary and the number of people on the trip

The info To find out more about tracking chimpanzees at Kibale, visit www.uwa.or.ug/kibale.html