Best groups to visit: gorilla groups within Nkuringo & Rushaga
When rounding the last corner and getting my first glimpse of the Chameleon Hill Lodge, I must have made a sight to behold, mouth wide open, staring in disbelief, training the binoculars on the lodge, or was it a fantasy castle, an array of watch towers sprung from a tale, a field experiment for Robbialac or Berger Paints?
I am still trying to find the right or better words to describe what must be Uganda’s most unusual lodge … certainly not a lodge which looks like any other safari lodge I have ever seen, and those were plenty and then some. Art deco? Fashion statement? Architectural somersault? Or simply the dream of the owner turned into reality, no matter what looks of disbelief must have been thrown at her by plenty of people and plenty or critics who, truth told, might be more concerned about the superior competition she brought to the area than anything else. Take a bet that very soon those colour schemes and the creative tower design will appear somewhere else, sold as ingenious and original but then, we already know better.
I settled for the words Quirky and Funky and after long thought dismissed colour ful, which, though completely true, does so not describe the array of colours, of the buildings, the fabrics, the rooms, inside and outside.
Of course, like the lodge is the owner, Doris Meixner, not in any way or shape ordinary herself, as no amount of warnings and caution and perhaps shrieks of disbelief over her concept did in the end stop her from investing her life savings and then some more to turn her dream into reality.
Sitting pretty on top of an extended ridge, high above Lake Mutanda, the Chameleon Hill Lodge, which just soft opened its doors a month ago, only gets better as one gets closer to it and finally enters the imposing gate?
Three towers rise from the entrance hall, dominating the view from close up and from far away, and already are the colours apparent, which like the proverbial chameleon will mark every nook and cranny, every corner and every angle.
A large deck extends from the interior of the main building and offers, in fact demands of visitors to step out and stand in awe, as on sunny days the Virunga volcanoes form the backdrop of the vista of the lake and its dozen islands and even on a clouded day, the sight is still so compelling that, no wonder, some American visitor stood there and kept mumbling ‘awesome, awesome, just awesome’.
On entry, once through the reception with the high ceilings which offer a look up into the towers from the inside, one steps across an ingenious floor mosaic, designed and put together by Doris of course, and across a second one enters the bar and dining, which opens to the deck but also extends into the main lounge.
A fire place in the dining, roaring with a wood fire at night, is duplicated by a larger one still in the lounge, where cushions along the wall, sofas and arm chairs invite to put the feet up after a long day of hikes, having one’s favourite drink at arm’s length and either read a book – the ‘library’ is filling up already quite nicely too, chat with fellow travelers or just, chair turned to see across the lake, soak up the sights.
One often talks of the million dollar view but here, at Chameleon, I generously added some zeros and made it the billion dollar view, especially when the Virunga volcanoes are in sight. Mgahinga, Muhavura and Sabinyo mark the distant horizon, a landmark sight imprinted forever in a visitor’s mind.
The walk to the cottages, each, needless to say, decorated in a different colour, outside AND inside too, follows a series of stairs which are following the contour of the garden and to reach the last or 10th cottage it is a bit of a walk, which takes time, not for the distance but for the constant stopping, looking again through the spaces between the cottages, taking more pictures and then, almost reluctantly moving further.
Inside, the rooms are tastefully and artfully decorated, from little glass bead fish hanging from the windows to the matching cushion décor which sees it replicated in the paintings above the bed.
Good mattresses and excellent warm duvets – additional blankets are available in the rooms for cold nights – make sure that guests can rest well, after taking a shower with instant hot water courtesy of a gas boiler fitted outside. Everything is very functional, of excellent quality, be it bathroom fittings or the furniture. Everything is finished almost to perfection – but then, nothing ever is perfect and even I have to come to terms with that. All in all it gives the property its character, an interwoven fabric of art, colour, furnishings and fittings all aimed to either love it or hate it. What impresses me, I grant, may not meet the taste of others and there is therefore no middle ground about Chameleon Hill. I loved it, every bit of it, but others alas may not, not at first sight perhaps but then getting used to it and starting to develop a love affair with the place which in my case was instant. That is as far as the shapes, colours, decors and all is concerned.
When it comes to food though, attention is paid to details. Breakfast is a part buffet and part a la carte affair, lunch is served with salad and main course, home baked bread of course served warm and dinner is a three course menu, soup, main course and desert, prepared by a dedicated and keen chef who is at the end of the meal making the rounds with guests to get a feedback. The beers are cold, the tea is served steaming hot and those settling for some wine, mostly some great South African vintages, can be sure it is served at the right temperature too.
Well, on arrival, be it by car from Kampala via Kabale and Kisoro on a rather rough road, or per pedes apostolorum when hiking in from Nkuringo or on the back of a mountain bike, as more and more people do these days, the first thought will be on getting a rest and putting the feet up. But once that is done, many hikes and trails are available for visitors, to explore the neighbour hood, get down to the lake proper and take a canoe or motorized boat, round the many islands in search of birds and perhaps some otters. Not too far is Lake Mulehe, a five to six hour round trip on foot, and the staff is of course happy to provide a packed lunch and drinks so that a picnic on the shores of either Lake Mulehe or on Lake Mutanda can provide sustenance after putting in some miles.
Good hiking boots or comfortable walking shoes are a must, as is water proof gear like a backpack and a rain skin as even on bright days a thunderstorm can suddenly chase down on hikers, coming out of the depth of the distant Bwindi forest or from across the even more distant Congo rain forests. A handful of hikes are available I know of, perhaps more known by the local guides who should absolutely be used when talking extended walks and they of course are also knowledgeable about taking guests as far as to the Virunga volcanoes of Mgahinga, where Nyakagezi gorilla group can offer gorilla trekking experience and Golden Monkeys can be tracked in the park. The Nature Adventure Africa Safaris Ltd Company will be delighted to make arrangements for such guided hikes, the Lake Bunyonyi side of this part of Uganda and who offer multi day hikes which can, at the request of the guests, end at Chameleon Hill Lodge.
Aero link flies now daily from Entebbe via Kihihi to the Kisoro airfield and the lodge is able to arrange for transport from and back to the little airport at a reasonable cost. At present, give or take an hour and a bit for the ‘commute’.
Connectivity at the lodge is limited to a decent MTN reception though Airtel, stung by criticism about being forced to roam inside Uganda with their DRC and Rwanda networks, is in the process of putting up a tower too in the vicinity. That will allow visitors who have local phone connections to use data bundles on their smart phones to surf the web, post pictures on Twitter and Face book and even use a USB modem for their laptops, though the speeds, as witnessed, cannot be compared with those in Kisoro leave alone Kampala.
The lodge, now in the soft opening phase while the landscaping is maturing and final touches are made before the last of the contractor’s team are leaving, is a fine example of what an intrepid mind can conjure up and a hardy investor can accomplish. And not that there were no obstacles for Doris and her team. The stories told to me over lunch and dinner, about how difficult it was to clear her containers with customs speak volumes, sadly, for the way we treat serious investors in Uganda and how individuals, rotten to the core, are hell bent to eat where they have not labored. Doris however was not to be deterred and with perseverance and persistence brought her little ‘baby’ to maturity. Great to have this little gem on the gorilla safari circuit now, at a location second to none really as the pictures above will surely show and sooner or later, Chameleon Hill Lodge will have a faithful following of visitors, from within and outside Uganda, who come to Lake Mutanda for an active vacation or for gorilla trekking in both Mgahinga national park and Bwindi National Park.