Mweya Safari Lodge: room with a gnu
A sign at the entrance to Mweya Safari Lodge in southwest Uganda reminds guests that any wild animals seen on the grounds are exactly that: wild. It's worth keeping in mind. I've barely had time to open my case in my room when I spot movement outside - a tall, powerful-looking male waterbuck munching grass on the lawn. I grab my camera to take pictures of the animal, which is standing next to a seven metre high candelabra cactus, with the calm blue sheen of the Kazinga Channel in the background.
Uganda is an underrated wildlife destination, less known and less visited its neighbours Kenya, Zambia and South Africa. Mweya Safari Lodge is situated in one of the country's most popular and wildlife-rich areas - Queen Elizabeth National Park, which is home to lions, elephants, hippos, antelope and more than 600 species of bird.
The white lodge with thatched roof is built on a hilltop between two vast stretches of water: Lake Edward to one side, and the Kazinga Channel - shadowed by the jagged Rwenzori Mountains (sometimes called the Mountains of the Moon) - to the other.
The drive into the park itself is pretty wild, with a landscape of African scrub and savannah, graceful Ugandan antelope visible among the trees and black dots of water buffalo wading around the edges of salt lakes formed in volcanic craters. A life-sized model of an elephant greets guests at the lodge's forecourt, before Mweya's lobby makes a great impression with a giant window looking out from high up over the water and surrounding land. The lodge is designed so that each room looks out onto the same view - anything else would be a waste.
After a long drive, I'm greeted with a cool towel and welcome drink, then given a lift on a golf cart to my room. The rooms are decorated in warm colours, with paintings of grooming monkeys and a local turkey on the walls. There's a large comfortable bed in the room, and wicker chairs and furnishings. By contrast, the bathrooms are a bit plain, even drab, as if not much thought was put into them.
Uganda is still catching up with other safari destinations in terms of facilities. Many of the lodges across the country are rustic eco-lodges, with solar-powered showers and limited electricity. Not so at Mweya, where there's constant electricity, a welcome ceiling fan in the rooms and hot water at any time.
There's a big colonial-style bar to relax in after game drives, with leather sofas, the head of a water buffalo arranged over two giant elephant tusks above the fireplace, and large windows that, like everything here, look out onto the grand landscape. The mood is killed a little by bland, easy listening ballads with lots of guitar and sax solos. Some laid-back Ugandan or African music would be more fitting.
Staff are incredibly friendly. This is characteristic of Uganda as a whole, the first country in a while where I've enjoyed a chat and a few jokes with the customs officer at the airport and where, driving around the country, children wave and shout "How are you?" to passing safari vehicles to practise their English. At the lodge, I have conversations with staff that go beyond polite, professional small talk, and expand to learning about each other's countries and cultures.
The food in the restaurant is tasty and hearty, if not outstanding. It's an international menu, with burgers and pizzas; but more interesting are the Ugandan options, such as the locally caught tilapia fish, served with matooke (boiled banana), dodo (a green vegetable similar to spinach) and g'nut (ground peanut) sauce. Uganda has a large Indian population and the menu also offers delicious curries.
There's an indoor restaurant, but most guests eat outside on the terrace. That's the place, too, for sundowners. There's a good-sized swimming pool next to the terrace, useful for cooling down in the hot afternoons. Like everything here, the pool is positioned to make the most of the view of the lake and the channel, the lumbering elephants and the African sky.