By Jonathan Benaiah (The Ugandan Tourist)
I have created and now enjoy my own notion that, “travel awakens your senses, livens your imagination, makes you wiser, and it’s always fine to get overdosed with.”
“Bucketlist travel” is “what’s hype” today with “wannabe tourists” scouting places to visit, compiling a list of “the most desired” and then visiting while marking off destinations visited as well as activities done. It’s literally having a bucket of desired activities, adding new ones and dropping the already experienced. We call this “One’s bucketlist”.
As a tourism practitioner, I often find myself more on the “Tourism production” than on the”Tourism consumption” side, so I don’t get to travel as much often as a normal tourist would do, but I certainly have a bucketlist, a very long one actually, and when chance and time avail, I get traveling and certainly get to knock attractions and activities off my list of desired places to visit and things to do.
Speaking of outbound or international travel, I’m fairly well traveled, but my focus for now is on domestic travel. Exploring why Uganda is dubbed the “Pearl of Africa” and generously sharing with the world all my discoveries.
Last year I knocked off several places and activities, with the Nile high Bungee forming the peak of them all. This year my bucketlist has several activities including gorilla tracking, ziplining in Mabira forest, a hike to the top of the Rwenzoris, abseiling down Sipi falls and a lot more. Dates are already set so God willingly I’ll do some ticking off pretty much soon.
But outside the confines of my bucketlist I still get to do some general travel around Uganda once in a while, and the observation is that “tick places” are often not hard to find.
So by virtue of my humble position in Uganda’s tourism industry and particularly the Association of Uganda Tour Operators, I received an invite to coordinate 2 tour operators’ Fam trips to 2 gorgeous lodges, one within the neighborhood of the primate capital of the world (Kibale National Park) and the other “cheek and jaw” with the forested mansion that shelters the rare mountain gorillas (Bwindi Impenetrable National Park).
Fam trips or Familiarization trips are in the literal sense, sponsored visits aimed at having representatives from institutions and/or companies visit a place or destination, get acquainted with it and eventually market and sell it in a better way and from an experienced point of view. Fam trips are a marketing technique in their entirety and are a core point for generating leads while also strengthening business partnerships.
So the invite was from Crystal Lodges Uganda a locally owned hospitality brand that owns 2 stunning upcountry lodges that present themselves as high-end properties; the perfectly located Crater Safari Lodge and uniquely sitting Gorilla Safari Lodge. I had to pick between the 2 lodges and I eventually went to Gorilla Safari Lodge. Reasons withheld.
Both lodges have a maximum shared capacity of 22 guests per night, accommodated in private ensuite cottages, with warm showers, huge beds, plenty of linen and with gigantic windows that permit unobstructed views of the beauty that forms the surrounding.
At Gorilla Safari Lodge, where I spent the nights of 18th and 19th March, it was by far the chilliest point I’d ever been to in Uganda. This place called Rushaga certainly rekindled fond memories of frigid times on trips to the state of Oregon, and drives through beautiful British Columbia.
The hospitality alone at this lodge was enough to keep me warm, but the team went an extra mile to ensure that I had a warm shower the many times I needed one and that I had a hot bottle to keep me company in the night. It meant everything to walk to the butler time and again to get my gadgets charged, and to ask for a cup of tea, each time not getting a NO, but getting a smile with a quick interest to assist! It’s hard to teach this, some people naturally possess this level of conviviality.
Perhaps my only challenge was being completely without cell signal for close to 3 days which by the way resulted in a missed flight on Monday 20th March, but there was something called the experience that just sent my senses leeway and left them there. A feeling that had my phone lowered only to the level of functioning as a camera.
The icing on the cake for this Fam Trip was the list of activities. These included a visit to the Rushaga Women Community Group for a live performance of the energetic dance of Southwestern Uganda and the demonstration of “craftswomanship” where I had a try at weaving a little basket; a musical evening at a nearby primary school; and a short trip down memory lane with the Batwa pygmies that saw yours truly become a giant in “Batwaland”. This brought back memories of a book by Jonathan Swift, the famed “Gulliver’s travels”.
But the actual cherry atop the icing on the cake was a hike deep into Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (a world heritage site that shelters almost half of the world’s remnant mountain gorillas), not specifically in search of the iconic landlords of the forest (the gorillas) but in pursuit of the gorgeous “Bayenda” falls. Of course no one minds crossing paths with the gentle giants and I certainly would have become ecstatic to bump into them foraging or jiggling in the forest canopy, especially since I hadn’t purchased a permit to participate in the coveted activity of gorilla tracking.
Each individual step in the forest was loaded with a challenge to make the next one. Slipping, sliding, Sweat wiping quickly became the 3 S’s shifting from the contemporary Sun, Sand and Sea that tourists often expect on vacation.
Some points of the trek had steep climbs and threatening slopes. At some points my heart was humming a tune “welcome to your funeral” and at other points my mind whispered “welcome to your burial”. The hike was quite challenging, and the guide playfully made it even more challenging when he mentioned the possibility of coming face to face, eye to eye with a forest elephant; certainly an experience I would have looked forward to in the imagery but definitely not in the practical.
The hard stuff aside, being inside the “Gorilla Kingdom” was a feeling of complete royalty. Crossing streams of shimmering waters, watching birds of different colors flocking together, listening to calls of primates even when our intention was not to monkey around, and then there was the quickening of a heartbeat by crossing squirrels, while the green formed an abundant display, not forgetting the freshest air that filled every little spot in the forest. I could go on and on and on.
Although Kidepo Valley National Park is still my sweetheart, Bwindi and the entire region of Southwestern Uganda, with all its picturesquely terraced hills and valleys and gorgeous water captors could with little competition deserve to be branded “Uganda’s Holy Grail”. Places like these create the WOW!
While I intend to sign out and leave it at this for now, my plan is to make a return trip to the Gorilla Kingdom sometime later this year on a trip particularly to track the Mountain Gorillas, and I’ll certainly share when that time comes.
Till next time, I remain yours truly…