Archive for April 17th, 2017

The Observatory – where star gazing is only one of many options


(Posted 17th April 2017)

(The Observatory by GeoLodges Africa)

In my TripAdvisor bio I describe myself as an intrepid traveler, loving red carpets, flying in aircraft’s front cabins and enjoying 5 star luxury – but it also says I can rough it when needed.

The Observatory, perched on top of the Kichwamba escarpment, overlooking Queen Elizabeth National Park below with clear views of lakes Nyamusingire, Edward and George, the Kazinga Channel and, weather permitting, the Mountains of the Moon, is one place which has merged those two positions and bridged the gap of what some may think is an irreconcilable difference – 5 star and roughing it at the same time in the same location.

Owned and operated by GeoLodges Africa is this little gem only mentioned in passing on the company’s website – ‘GeoLodges have four lodges and an individual cabin, all set in pristine locations across Uganda‘.

That ‘individual cabin‘ shown below is in fact The Observatory, hardly mentioned in travel literature, not local nor international and not even found in TripAdvisor’s columns, yet, something I intend to change however.

(The Observatory perched right at the edge of the escarpment with Queen Elizabeth National Park spread out below)

The all tarmac highway from Kampala via Masaka, Mbarara, Bushenyi and Ishaka is easy to navigate even with a saloon car, though the stretch of road from Ishaka to the signposted turnoff turned out to be rough. The Uganda National Roads Authority clearly let this key tourism road slide into unacceptable disrepair, all the way down the escarpment, along the road on the Rift Valley floor and right to the junction where traffic to Mpondwe and the Congo border turns to the left.
However, careful driving – thankfully there is not too much traffic on the road after Ishaka – helps to preserve the shock absorbers and while twisting and turning around potholes it is less than an hour from Ishaka to reach the cabin.

A good track leads to The Observatory from the turn off and its signpost, through little farms where the kids treat the rare visitors to an almost hero’s welcome, their ‘muzungu muzungu‘ shouts echoing from homestead to homestead.

Three bedrooms – a fourth one can be made available on request – sleep 6 (or 8) in some comfort with the ground floor offering one bedroom each with a double bed, one with twin beds and a shared bathroom while upstairs is a room with a bunkbed, perfect for kids traveling with their parents. A second bathroom is across the corridor of the bunkbed room as is the optional fourth bedroom.

On arrival does the wide terrace impress and invite to sit down and just stare.
The view can best be described as that ‘Million Dollar View‘ which American visitors would promptly call ‘Awesome, just awesome‘ and which brought a big fat ‘WOW WOW WOW‘ across my own lips.

(Sunset as seen from the cabin’s front porch with Lake Edward in the distance while the sun sets behind the Congo’s Blue Mountains)

GeoLodges offers guests the option of a cook to prepare their meals – in fact is the construction of a small separate kitchen a short distance from the cabin underway – but visitors can also cook on their own as The Observatory is primarily a self catering facility.

A fully equipped kitchen, gas cooker, fridge, pots and pans plus kettle, cutlery, crockery and glassware included, makes cooking easy and the two housekeepers, Grace and Prisca, do the washing up after every meal.
The dining table sits six in comfort but even eight do fit and on the terrace are enough easy chairs and a sofa for everyone to find a corner to read a book or just admire the view.

(A glimpse into the kitchen which adjoins the dining area of the cabin)

Hot water – the lodge is on piped supply from National Water – comes from a solar water heater, enough to have all guests enjoy a hot shower and still leave some.
Electricity is generated from the solar panels on top of the roof and distributed across the cabin through an inverter, which, if lights are used sparingly after dark even allows the fridge to run all night, before a new charge kicks in after sunrise. I turned off the fridge twice a day for a few hours each, enough to retain the cold inside before switching it on again.

Basics like tea bags, sugar, salt, dry herbs and cooking oil are available in the kitchen store but guests should bring their own supplies nevertheless, like butter, margarine, bread, sausage and cheese cuts, meats and of course drinks of their choice. Drinking water from the tap, once cooked and cooled, is perfectly safe to consume so no cartons of plastic bottles need to be brought along, saving space in the car and reducing the waste.

Vegetables and eggs, even chicken are available locally and on request will the housekeepers send a boda boda rider to buy what is needed to prepare a balanced meal, from sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, matooke, carrots, green peppers, onions, tomatoes to of course fruits from nearby farms.

(Grace on the left and Prisca on the right keep the cabin in shape and do the daily housekeeping)

On the upper floor of the cabin is the common room found, with a desk where one can spread out a laptop and phone chargers – all well ‘fueled‘ by the inverter batteries – and those who prefer watching a DVD film – bring your own selection – find a wide screen TV at the ready.

THAT was no option for me though as the view from the upper balcony beat the view from the ground floor terrace and invited to just sit down and admire Uganda’s scenic beauty from this spot. I have seen many places in Uganda, and often said ‘This Is The One‘ but was time and again taught lessons that there is yet more to explore and Uganda seems to hold back its best always for the next trip.

At night is a telescope available to gaze at the star formations and especially when the lights are out and the area is entirely dark, will the ‘Milky Way‘ and galaxies as far as the telescope can reach come out in all their beauty, some stars close enough to almost touch.

(The scenery below The Observatory extends on clear days from horizon to horizon)

Notable is a massage table at the ready on the upper balcony – a half hour session goes for 35.000 Uganda Shillings – while a fully fledged Jacuzzi invites those who return from their hikes into the nearby hills with sore muscles.
One word of advice though, once the Jacuzzi has been filled with hot water do allow for some more daylight hours to replenish it for the evening showers.

(The Observatory’s jacuzzi, seen both close up and from below)

Those hikes can be done with a guide who needs to be booked through the housekeepers and those fit enough can conquer the surrounding hills for even better views across this arm of the Great African Rift Valley.
Of course, those with 4×4’s can also venture into the national park below or visit the Kyambura Gorge for some chimpanzee tracking, again with prebooking via the Uganda Wildlife Authority much advisable due to the demand for those tours.
The Kazinga Channel only recently saw the introduction of a new launch boat, giving plenty of options how to spend the days either inside or outside the park.

Yours truly hung up the ‘Gone Fishing‘ sign at the gate, signalling to all and sundry not to bother knock and disturb that heavenly peace and quiet, the tranquility and solitude The Observatory provides for its guests.
At the crack of dawn does one hear the orchestra of nature comprising of birds but also livestock crowing, mooing and bleating in the distance to welcome a new day, a wake up call which most guests may prefer to the ringing of an alarm clock.

If anyone plans to write a book, this might be the place to start that quest as it both inspires as well as keep much of the worldly influences and distractions away – though MTN has a strong signal and with the help of a MiFi is connectivity assured to check for mails, messages or simply share pictures taken from the location with friends who will no doubt turn green with envy.

I had an invitation pending to visit the place for nearly two years and it is now a mystery to me how I could not have been here much earlier.

My experience though was that impressive – and believe me it takes something special to impress me after nearly 500 TripAdvisor hotel reviews and ratings – that I will return very soon, in part to do some writing on my book and in part to just get away from the hustle and bustle of Kampala, phones on silent and messages only responded to if the house were on fire at my lakeshores place.

The Observatory is a very credible alternative to ‘proper‘ lodges, in part because a cook can be available on site to prepare breakfast, lunch and supper albeit from the larder stocked by the visitors with the things they fancy.

Informal to the extreme with a location second to none is The Observatory my hot tip for 2017 and beyond especially as it is the guests who define the dress code.

For now, let me rush to get back there before the place is sold out for weeks to come, ‘punishing‘ me for the good deed to spread the word.

Rwanda – now among the global top ten safe destinations


(Posted 17th April 2017)

The tourism sectors in Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya all have some reason to smile as details begin to emerge from the latest edition of the World Economic Forum biennial report as the three countries have made significant progress in various areas of the report’s rankings.

Rwanda emerged in the global top ten countries as far as visitor safety is concerned while Kenya is now ranked third in Africa, edging out Namibia for third place, in terms of tourism and travel competitiveness on the continent.
Uganda has made the greatest advance since the last report was published in 2015, rising eight places to overall to position 106, yet still 26 places behind Kenya, a sign that while much progress has been made in the Pearl of Africa much more needs to be done to raise the country’s profile and competitiveness.
Notably has not one African country made it into the global top 50 overall, again laying down a challenge to the continent’s governments to listen to their tourism sectors and provide a more business and user friendly regime when it comes to tourism.

It also emerged, as repeatedly said here, that airport charges and aviation taxes in 20 of the 30 countries ranked are way above world average, something which makes travel more costly in particular for intra African travel.

The report also singles out ten countries in Africa which have lost over 7 percent of its forest cover from the 2012-2014 report period to the current 2014-2016 report, but again is it Rwanda which has dodged the trend as the country is on course to reach a 30 percent forest cover by the year 2020.

The quoted Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report ranks 141 countries across 14 separate dimensions, revealing how well countries could deliver sustainable economic and societal benefits through their travel and tourism sector. Spain’s leadership position is helped by a world class ranking in cultural resources (1st globally), its ability to support online searches for entertainment (4th) – a measure of how well the country has adapted to consumption habits brought on by the digital revolution – as well as excellent infrastructure (4th).

Traditional strong travel and tourism destinations such as France, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Australia, Italy, Japan and Canada complete the top 10. Of the large emerging markets, China (17th) and Brazil (28th) made it into the top 30, whereas Russia, South Africa and India ranked 45th, 48th and 52nd, respectively. While this made Brazil and South Africa the best placed in their region, Singapore (11th) came up top in South-East Asia, and the United Arab Emirates (24th) was the highest placed nation in the Middle East and North Africa.

The diversity in the top 30 shows that a country does not have to be wealthy to have a flourishing tourism sector‘ said Roberto Crotti, Economist at the World Economic Forum. ‘But many countries should still do more to tackle travel and tourism challenges, including visa policies, better promotion of cultural heritage, environmental protection and ICT readiness. This in turn would drive economic growth and the creation of jobs‘.

The report also identifies areas where tourism-oriented economies could do better in adapting to changing global trends as well as growing market segments. These include a growing number of middle class travellers from emerging and developing countries, senior consumers and millennials. It also finds a need for travel-reliant economies to adapt faster to online services and marketing, as mobile internet continues to define the way travellers select, plan and review their trips.

The global travel and tourism sector, which already accounts for almost one-tenth of global GDP, grew at an average of 3.4% per year over the past four. This compares favourably with the global economy, which grew at only 2.3% per year, indicating the sector’s resilience to economic shocks. In the coming five years, growth in the sector could accelerate to 5.2% per year, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.

The report contains detailed country profiles for the 141 economies featured in the study, including a comprehensive summary of their overall positions in the index and a guide to the most prominent travel and tourism competitive advantages and disadvantages of each. Also included is an extensive section of data tables that cover each indicator used in the index’s computation.

The World Economic Forum produced the report in collaboration with Strategy& and data partners Bloom consulting, Deloitte, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the UNWTO and the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC).

%d bloggers like this: