Driving up the dirt road toward your temporary home in Uganda, you’ll be wondering when this bumpy ride along clay colored paths will be over. Then the driver makes the turn onto the driveway, and just few more bumps, and you’re there.
Mount Gahinga Lodge was the first lodge built by Volcanoes Safaris, which now has four lodges. Volcanoes Safaris is the only African safari company to have built its own exclusive eco-luxury safari lodges near a selection of the gorilla and chimpanzee parks of Uganda and Rwanda. Meaning, if you want more than an hour with the gorillas (the amount of time permitted per guest per day), this is the closest to spending the night with them that you’ll get.
Not only does Mount Gahinga Lodge get you up close and personal with gorillas and golden monkeys galore, it also gets you up close and personal with one of the native tribes in the region, the Batwa tribe. Those of you who know their African history—or have seen Sigourney Weaver play Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist—might recognize this name. This is the tribe that conservationists removed from the jungle in the 1990s in order to protect the gorillas.
And, to not take you out of your element, the lodge is designed and built using tribal traditions and a style that imitates that local pygmy huts, with modern touches and comforts, of course.
The tribal tone of the lodge is set immediately upon entering the driveway, where a straw hut awaits. Walk up a curving stone path and you arrive at a series of huts connected by straw-covered pathways. The first one you pass through is where you check in and shop for locally made souvenirs, and after walking down another path, you arrive at a yellow and red hut style house, the main lodge. A fireplace sits in the center of this large room you will come to know and love after hours and days spent trekking with the Batwa people and monkeys. The beams and papyrus that make up the roof are visible, giving it an au naturele feel, and wicker furniture surrounds the centerpiece. The Batwa tribe made the decorations featured in the main room, including wooden statues, paintings of huts and beaded string curtains. Behind the far couch that sits in front of the fireplace is a long dining table where you’ll enjoy filling and multiethnic meals all throughout the day (meals are included) with old friends and new friends.
To the right of the table is a door to the sunroom, where you’ll find more couches, outlets to charge your devices (there are no outlets in the guest rooms) and access to the vast sun deck that provides endless views of the two volcanoes right in front of the lodge. Grab a book from the small bookshelf that sits right next to the door to the sunroom, and enjoy some post-hike rays inside or outside.
The common areas are true to the area’s roots without sacrificing comfort—they set forth the message that educating about this part of Africa is important to Volcanoes Safaris, but they want to you be comfortable while you learn.
Each room is in its own hut, and each hut is referred to as a banda. There are nine bandas on the property and they are named after the mountains in the Virungas. Since the design takes elements from the Batwa tribal traditions, the huts are round and have minimal impact on the environment (hence the lack of power outlets and Wi-Fi in the rooms). Don’t worry; there are lights (and flashlights). But don’t expect central air. What you get instead is your own personal oasis with a thatched roof made of papyrus. We think it’s a fair trade.
The main part of the banda is your round room with hardwood floors, a stone framed fireplace and your bed. Each bed comes with its own hot water bottle, which the staff gets going while you enjoy dinner. The walls are painted bright colors, like yellow or turquoise, and the patterned bed linens tend to match the paint. So, while the very bare-bones accommodations have to be heavy in earth tones, VS added some color where they could. The same beaded strings that are in the main lodge drape the banda windows and woven wicker lanterns hang from the ceiling.
The bathroom extends off the room, and features a stone sink and stone-lined shower. The hotel does its part for the environment, as well; the bathrooms have eco-san toilets and biodegradable toiletries. Plus, the lodge runs on solar power.
Standing at the far end of the path that leads to the banda, looking up at your own personal Pygmy hut, you’ll feel like you’re in your own Ugandan backyard, because you can’t really see the other bandas over the tall shrubbery. So even though there are eight other bandas close by, it feels like the land is all yours.
What struck me the most about this hotel was its relationship with the Batwa tribe, and the staff’s dedication to telling their story. Sure, other hotels in the area have partnerships with other tribes, and if I stayed at all of them it might not seem like that big of a deal in the end, but unfortunately, I’m not that rich. So, maybe I fell victim to their sweet scheme but I don’t think so. It’s not like they got any more money out of me for teaching me about the tribe.
I guess part of the reason Volcanoes Safaris’ connection to the tribe is so powerful is because they run the Volcanoes Safaris Partnership Trust, a nonprofit organization that connects Volcanoes’ Rwanda and Uganda luxury safari lodges to the neighboring communities and conservation activities. The trust has set up several projects to help the tribe and help educate travelers about their diminishing culture. While I was there, the Batwa Dance Group visited the lodge and performed traditional dances and songs for our group (it wasn’t as corny as it sounds) before we went on a guided walk through the woods to learn about ancient Batwa traditions. However, the most eye opening part of the partnership was the ability to visit tribe members at their homes and see how they live today—with no electricity, little space and not nearly as much food as we consume. The Trust also recently purchased land near the lodge to build more modern (albeit, not exactly what you’re definition of modern is) homes for the tribe. Basically, their besties.
The Trust has also set up a vocational center nearby for the Batwa people, which Mount Gahinga’s Batwa specialist showed us. Here they learn skills like sewing and carving so that they can earn a living. This behind the scenes look at tribal life will open your eyes to a culture and way of living you didn’t think still existed.
Locals who are negatively affected by tourism and innovation don’t usually get anything in return, but Volcanoes Safaris recognizes what the Batwa tribe has had to sacrifice as the country developed and has worked to find ways to repay them respectfully. Try finding that at a fancy pool-covered resort with outlets in every room.
As you’ve probably guessed, there’s not a ton to do around the lodge aside from monkey viewing and tribal immersion activities. However, there’s plenty to look at, aside from the monkeys, thanks to its location at the foot of three of the most impressive volcanoes in the Virunga chain (Mounts Sabinyo, Gahinga and Muhuvura).
If primates are all you’re after, you can’t really get a better lodge location-wise; the entrace to Mgahinga National Park a 10-minute walk from Mount Gahinga Lodge. There are also bird watching opportunities in the park.
And, being in the middle of three volcanoes means there are plenty of hiking trails nearby.
Address: Mgahinga National Park, Kisoro, Uganda
Room Rates: $135-$216
Website: Mount Gahinga Lodge
Maggie Parker is Paste Magazine’s assistant travel editor.