Amid Wild Waters
A Ugandan lodge unites beauty and adventure.
The roar of the Nile’s rapids is indeed loud and thunderous. But as I listen to the water crashing just meters away while lying in a claw-foot bathtub, part of me feels that I could easily drift off to sleep. The other part wants to stay awake to soak up the pure paradise that surrounds.
“I love the noise in the same way that I revel in a good storm,” says Cam McLeay, owner of this little slice of heaven in the middle of nowhere: Uganda’s award-winning Wildwaters Lodge.
Fascinated by the Nile River from an early age, McLeay in 1996 led a team of adventurers in the first known descent of the river in Uganda,before co-founding a commercial rafting company there. (He has since been described as one of the globe’s best whitewater rafters.) A decade later, McLeay led the first expedition to trace the Nile through five countries, from its mouth to its source in Rwanda’s Nyungwe rainforest.
Having spent so much time on what’s considered to be the world’s longest river, at some 6,650 kilometers, McLeay became passionate about preserving as much of it as possible while also supporting local Ugandans. He decided to build a lodge, aiming to employ workers from surrounding communities during construction and to run the resort long-term.
It took three years to obtain approval from Uganda’s National Environment Management Authority and the World Bank to build on Munyanja Island, located roughly 90 minutes from the capital of Kampala. About 150 locals joined in the daunting work of constructing Wildwaters between two extreme rapids.
Most of the materials, including gum poles up to 8 meters long, were ferried to Munyanja in wooden canoes that guests today use to reach the resort, opened in 2010.
“We used very few drawings, and the design constantly evolved,” says Cam’s brother, Brad, who served as co-architect, engineer and project manager. “Despite the challenges, Cam and I thrived on the organic design and construction.”
Today, elevated wooden walkways link Wildwaters’ 10 suites, all given local names and boasting spacious beds and washbasins carved from Munyanja’s pink granite. As guests weave throughout the lush, acacia-strewn grounds, they can encounter African grey parrots, African fish eagles or crested cranes (Uganda’s national bird). More than 50 bird species have been identified, and a White-throated cormorant frequently surfs the rapids in front of the lodge’s restaurant.
Situated near one of the two rapids, the restaurant’s setting is dramatic yet peaceful, inviting guests to gaze upon the rolling hills across the Nile while dining on a five-course meal. Dishes such as seared tilapia topped with lemongrass and ginger, as well as ravioli stuffed with potato, roasted red onion and thyme, entertain palates as much as the setting does the spirit.
“You really feel as if you are deep in the wilderness,” says Sian Wynne, a Brit living in Uganda who recently took her parents to the resort. “Everywhere around you are birds and butterflies and, beyond the white waters, the beautifully lush green banks of the Nile.
“The weekend was a complete escape.”
Besides sipping sundowners in the lodge’s rock pool, guests might be pampered with a spa or facial, enjoy a guided walk around the island, or share a beer with locals back on the mainland. The more adventurous visitors can brave the rapids, go for a jet-boat ride, or bungee jump over the source of the Nile.
The highlight of my own Wildwaters weekend, though, was being given a turn at the tiller — in the manner of screen goddess Katharine Hepburn — on one of the original boats used in the 1951 Hollywood classic film The African Queen.
In 2010, Cam discovered the old, diesel-powered boatlanguishing in a Nairobi garden trailer. He tracked it down, “took a punt on the investment” and had it restored.
Now, the boat’s skipper — dressed as Oscar-winning actor Humphrey Bogart — runs 45-minute tours of the river. Though my trip revealed no sign of the 2,000 cigarettes or tinned grub that Bogart boasts about onscreen, I was thrilled with the obligatory two cases of Gordon’s gin kept in stock.
“It is quite magical, steaming into the sunset,” says Cam. “I find my thoughts wandering back a century when I am on board.”
About half the visitors to Wildwaters are locals, according to Cam, although international tourists are increasingly being drawn to the lodge for its intimate, secluded nature and stylish appeal. “With hardly a dozen cabins it is never crowded, so you don’t get that ‘tourist-with-a-to-do-list’ feeling,” says Chris Luwaga, a Ugandan who lives in Kampala.
In 2013, the lodge was presented with the TripAdvisor Excellence award, which recognizes certain accommodations, attractions and restaurants that consistently show a commitment to hospitality excellence.
And of course there’s the sound of the water. Some guests have even remarked that a month after leaving, they can still hear the turbulent rapids, proving that although a stay at Wildwaters may fly by too quickly, it’s an experience that lingers for a long time to come.