|Photos courtesy Serena
"I’m sorry. You’re going to do WHAT in Uganda?" "Play golf, of course!" was my indignant response. I was met with deliciously stupefied expressions upon uttering this sentence in the wake of my trip to the East African landlocked country "whose diverse landscape encompasses the famous snow-capped Ruwenzori Mountains and immense Lake Victoria. Its abundant wildlife includes endangered gorillas and chimpanzees as well as rare birds. The remote Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is a world-famous mountain gorilla sanctuary, while Murchison Falls National Park in the northwest is known for its 43-meter-tall waterfall and wildlife such as hippos." All in the words of my eloquent friend Wikipedia. No mention of little white balls. Yes. Uganda and golf are about as mutually exclusive to most people as "military" and "intelligence."
Yet, here we find ourselves, happily ensconced in Business Class on a four-hour South African Airways flight to Entebbe in Uganda. Destination: The Lake Victoria Serena Golf and Spa Resort. Mission: Spoiling a good walk. We all chose to accept. That is to say, six of us chose to accept.
It’s a bitingly cold afternoon in June and I look forward to three days of fun at a beautiful resort and being chauffeured on a little golf cart, zipping up and down fairways and laughing at men in funny outfits trying to play golf while sipping on a Mai Thai. So the first part came true. We land at Entebbe at just past 8 in the evening and the transfers to the hotel takes about half an hour, give or take navigating a few crater potholes.
The management welcomes us warmly - this is a very nice resort with very nice people. We are shown to our luxury lodgings and some of us almost trip over pythons on the way while others of us don’t, me being in the latter category, praise be to God. As attractive as it seems, I skip the buffet dinner in favor of an early night and truly enjoy the indulgence of sleep in my lovely, very wide bed with its percale linen.
Italian village replica
The following morning reveals the actual beauty of this fine resort. It’s massive - 124 rooms, 114 Standard Rooms, eight Executive Suites and two State Suites. Styled to replicate a pastel-shaded Italian hillside village, with mixed-results, the Lake Victoria Serena Golf Resort & Spa is set in terraced rose gardens above its own boating marina, which has been sculpted from the sparkling waters of Lake Victoria. A gently rounded bay, studded with acacia trees, the marina is encircled by the immaculate greens of the Resort’s own PGA-affiliated championship golf course.
Rising on slopes and terraces above the marina with long views across the lush greens to the lake beyond, the hotel itself has been styled to echo an Italian palace with its campanile, glittering mosaics, rustically arched pool terrace and shaded colonnades. Set within the grounds, amid water cascades and fountains, is a Roman coliseum for weddings and such. Now since, to my knowledge, no Italian colonialist ever set foot in Uganda, I am a tad mystified by the architectural inspiration, but it is very pretty nevertheless. Widely spaced amongst the shaded pathways of the gardens, clusters of pastel-painted villas house the rooms, all of which have panoramic views across the marina.
My particular room overlooks Lake Victoria and the morning mist covers the water like a satiny grey veil as I sit sleepily admiring this view, coffee in hand. But time’s a ticking as we have to meet at the marina after breakfast for a boat sojourn to the Ngamba Chimpanzee sanctuary on Pineapple Bay Island. So we go messing about in boats - on the Nile.
You see, Uganda is a well-watered country, with more than 30 lakes, hence it being in the cunningly disguised region of African Great Lakes . Nearly one-fifth of the total area, or 44,000 square km, is open water or swampland. Four of East Africa's Great Lakes - Lake Victoria, Lake Kyoga, Lake Albert, and Lake Edward - lie within Uganda or on its borders. Uganda also lies within the Nile basin - how cool is that? Lake Victoria itself is the largest lake in Africa and the second largest freshwater lake in the world. Time flies together with water in our faces but we’ve not a care in the world on this beautiful morning in Africa. Until we get to Pineapple Bay Island...
Established in 1998, the Ngamba Chimpanzee Sanctuary is home to 49 orphaned chimps rescued from throughout the country and we hear and smell them long before we see them. The guides are excellent, very articulate and clearly committed but the fact that tourists are allowed to feed them (for an extra $5) by throwing fruit and vegetables to them over fences resembling Guantanamo Bay type security - it is very disconcerting to me. The chimps eventually venture back to their huge jungle (95 acres of it actually) but there is no doubt they know where their bread is buttered. There is a cage for especially disturbed chimps and occasionally, like in a scene from a Jody Foster/Anthony Hopkins collaborative project, they do, yes, throw their faeces at you.
Still, it is a relief to know that they have this place to come to after the guides educate you about the various nefarious purposes for which they are being hunted, tortured and killed.
Apparently we share more than 98 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees, so in my eternal and selfless quest to educate others, I buy myself a T-Shirt (all profits going to the sanctuary) which says "98 percent chimp" on it. My jocular colleague finds it necessary to question the veracity of the science, wondering where the other 2 percent went in my case. He is a silly man...
Anyone for golf?
Back at the Resort and finally some golfie thing ensues in the form of a drinks gathering and chat with the golf management team at Lake Victoria Serena Golf and Spa Resort, Cedric Brummer and Theodor Van Rooyen about the golf product. The Resort has a nine-hole golf course, said marina which spans more than 100 acres of pristine lakeshore, an Italian inspired club house with a restaurant, bar and a Golf Pro shop. But they’re not done yet... Sitting on some 83.5 hectares of prime lakeshore land, the par 70 course when completed, will comprise four par five, ten par four and four par three holes. South African Cedric Brummer has been recruited as golf pro and Golf Manager for the course and is happy to respond to any and all enquiries about the course, as well as discussing tournaments with interested parties.
Dinner back at the hotel is a rather fancy affair, with two guests from South African Airways joining our demure, shy little group. Much high-jinx and mirth ensues later as Cedric entertains us (yes, pun intended) with a myriad of stories about the colorful life of a golf pro.
Bleary-eyed we emerge for breakfast the next morning and the weather looks promising for our activity of - yes - playing golf. But lo! Thwarted once more! It seems that the ladies on our trip are booked in for Spa treatments, while the men on our trip get to play the nine-hole course. I have not much time for weeping and gnashing of teeth at this turn of events as my massage therapists sends me into dream land with her expert hands on my sore and tired back. When we emerge, the heavens have opened up and the torrential rains blow us this way and that. It turns out the men’s golf game had to be cut short because of the weather anyway. No matter, since we all pile into our van for a lovely spot of shopping and then a visit to Serena's Uganda flagship hotel, the five-star Kampala Serena Hotel
Kampala Serena Hotel
The lake is shrouded in grey mist as we set off to Kampala, stopping on the way for some good Ugandan coffee at a supermarket. I peruse my surrounds from the car window as we drive on. I had an image of the hotel being by a serene lake (which it is) in a wild, untamed, tropical African setting (which it’s not). The hills are dotted with shanty towns and the roads are lined with street vendors in tiny shacks selling all sorts of recognizable and unrecognizable items. There is clearly an almighty and inexplicable demand for popcorn machines in Uganda because every second vendor sells them - either that or this is the place where China’s surplus popcorn machines come to die. Uganda is poor. And as is the habit of many poor people, they flock to cities, where they become even poorer. Kampala has an estimated population of 11 million. Exactly 9.3 million of them are on the single lane road to Kampala with us today while the balance make up taxi motor cycles, more often than not carrying three people. The traffic is more frightening than the literary value of a Dan Brown novel and 38 times as slow. Also, the website will tell you in a breezy way that the Kampala Serena is a 20-minute drive from the Lake Victoria Serena. Not the case. Unless they have some strange mathematical formula this side of the world in which 20 minutes equates to two hours. I dunno, who am I to question cultural beliefs? Luckily, the Resort is shortly to be linked to the Entebbe-Kampala express highway that links Kampala and Jinja by means of a four-lane toll highway, perhaps nudging closer to that "20-minute" distance thing just a smidge.
We finally arrive at said Kampala Serena at about 4 pm, just in time for lunch, as one does. Our hosts are marvelous - friendly, knowledgeable and clearly the faces of a very elegant, reputable 5-star establishment. Lunch is quite a feast. Though buffet style, there is a wide selection of excellent food including consommé and prawn tails for starters and an assortment of good cuts of meats and poultry as well as a variety of curry dishes for mains. Post lunch, our epic site-inspection journey through the hotel begins. The place is simply gargantuan and stands amidst 7.2 acres of landscaped grounds and water gardens. An oasis of cool and green, encircled by the seven hills of Kampala, this 152-room world-class hotel is the focal point of national, regional, business, political and social life and has hosted presidents, prime ministers, princes and let’s not forget the Queen of England herself...
It is one of The Leading Hotels of The World and a very sophisticated offering indeed, featuring an international conference center, a garden auditorium, a roof-top terrace, a rock-sculptured pool terrace, three restaurants, two bars and the Moorish palace of the Maisha Mind Body and Spirit Spa.
It’s dark by the time we finally leave the hotel, but we stop off at a small arts and crafts street market before undertaking the arduous journey back. Even our jolly bunch of intrepid travelers can only keep the jokes going for so long before we succumb into a silent stupor during the last stretch of the journey, a dirt road at the back of beyond to get us to the hotel. It’s a very tired bunch of journalists who finally arrive back at about 9 pm and we all agree the one very negative aspect of the experience is the roads and the traffic.
Our flight leaves at about 7 the next morning so of course we have to get up at some God-forsaken time in the morning no civilized person has ever heard of, yet we don’t go to bed after dinner. None of us. And as our laughter rings out in this African night on the shores of Lake Victoria, I’m reminded of a Ugandan proverb that says: "He who has seen something good must narrate it."
There are no current flights between Chinese mainland and Uganda but Air China flies directly to Johannesburg, South Africa, several times a week.
From there, South African Airways flies directly to Entebbe and Kampala every day of the week. Go to http://www.flysaa.com/