Saturday, February 21, 2009

In the lap of luxury

Bwindi, home of the gorillas, is not a short distance from Kampala.

It’s a gruelling 11-12 hour drive. And that’s without a car that’s falling apart…

So when we went, back in early January, we rather sensibly decided to break up the journey with a night staying at Lake Mburo National Park. And we rather wonderfully decided to have a night of extravagance in what is probably the best luxury retreat in Uganda - Mihingo Lodge. Halfway between Masaka and Mbarara, the lodge is approximately a third of the way between Kampala and Bwindi, and I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere more beautiful.

Perched up on a rose-tinted grey rock kopje, overlooking the grassy savannah of Lake Mburo with zebras at the water-hole down below the infinity pool, the lodge emerges from the rock-face, hidden into nooks and crannies around the kopje, with everything in its place.

Mihingo is magical. I expected to enjoy it, and I expected luxury. I knew the owners and expected a display of good taste. What I didn’t expect was such a kind and gentle marriage of the lodge within the landscape – such a vision that has been followed through to the last detail - everything seems to have a place and just fits. Even swimming in the pool feels like you’re taking a dip in a natural rainwater hole – somehow it seems to lack the scrub-tiled, chemical experience that you find it so many other places.

The rooms are all huge and beautifully appointed safari tents on top of mahogany platformed decking, under thatched roofs. The en suite bathrooms emerge to the side, built out of the gnarled branches of acacia and smooth, curved, hand finished plaster walls.

Some are like eyries, tucked up on rocky outcrops, with a private view. Others are nestled in grassy dells, with waterbuck and warthog grazing a few feet from where you may be sat on the hand-enamelled loo. Our loo seat had an antelope painted on it, with hoofprints on the seat.

The windows to the bathroom were not so much windows, as wide, rounded apertures that reached from knee height to ceiling, fitted with fine mosquito mesh but otherwise offering the perfect ‘loo with a view’. Which does of course mean that anything outside has just as good a view of you, as you have of it…

I ended up needing to go for a pee whilst there was a warthog rooting in the grass in front of the bathroom, just a few feet away. I pulled the curtain to that separated me from R and my sister who were busy admiring the rest of the room. Stupidly, I announced they should both watch the warthog to see how he would react when I dropped my trousers. Down went my trousers, up went the warthog’s tail, and with a snort, he turned and fled. I’m not sure who was more traumatised by the experience, me or him.

Apparently, warthog and waterbuck are not the only animal we get around the tents. At night you have to beware of buffalo, and once or twice, guests have spotted or heard leopards from the tents we were staying in. Chris, one of the Lodge Managers, was forced (under duress) to do an imitation of a leopard calling. It sounded like a heavy breather with asthma.

Later that night, after Kiki and I had ridden on horseback around the fringes of the park, wearing amusingly colonial style riding hats and riding through family herds of zebra, eland and impala, we watched the staff feeding bush babies in the trees surrounding the bar area and then got fed ourselves, with some pretty damn fine food.

After a couple of glasses of wine around a campfire, it was time to fall asleep. The beds must be eight foot wide, surrounded by posts and draped in mosquito nets. The tent itself is open mesh on all four sides, and although you can roll down the canvas, we chose to fall asleep staring out at the night sky, dusted with stars and the ethereal wisps of distant galaxies.

The next morning, the others has left for a dawn walking safari, whereas R and I had elected for a lie-in and I had a massage booked. We woke when the sun came out, around 7am, and lay there for a while watching the waterbuck grazing from our bed. R left for the bathroom at one point, but I stayed wrapped in the sheets, watching the antelope with their beautiful dark eyes and remarkably furry coats, like native ponies in the winter.

Suddenly, the waterbuck, as one, started and looked up from their breakfast. All of them were looking into the middle distance beyond the line of acacia trees surrounding the clearing our tent was in. And there it was, a low bass rasping breath, like an asthma sufferer making a dirty phone call. The leopard. I couldn’t see him, but I could hear him. He called a few more times before moving on, leaving the waterbuck to resume their feeding.

R came back from the bathroom and scoffed lightly at my story.

But I heard a leopard and noone can convince me otherwise.

Next time, I’ll just have to make sure I get to see one too.

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