Has anyone stayed at the new Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge near the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest?
We stayed at Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge in July 2009 as part of a 3 week African adventure. This being our first trip to Africa, and this lodge being quite new, we didn’t quite now what to expect, but by the time we reached Clouds we had been to several other lodges in Kenya and in Rwanda, some of which were very nice and we were accustomed to the rather nice accommodations with respectfully attentive hospitality, and we expected to sleep well, eat well and be treated well – but at the same time, the other places we stayed were so nice, we actually could not have imagined it could get even better.
We had run into some road closures en route to Clouds, and our journey ended up taking longer than we expected (on our return trip I think we will fly, it is possible to get a small plane to a nearby airfield). We were tired when we arrived, but not too tired to hold out our hands to a welcoming and relaxing hand massage after which we were ushered into the lobby for a refreshing mountain gorilla cocktail filled with passion fruit. Now as I write this, the word “lobby” doesn’t quite fit the “common” house of this lodge. It’s a large homey building, which a number of seating areas, giving it a cozy feeling despite its size. As we settled down with our drink, Gary, the South African manager, greeted us and the staff gathered round. We were assigned our rooms, and each room was assigned a butler and a housekeeper. Everyone on the staff is local, as the lodge is actually owned by the community, who has leased the property for 15 years (I think) to a professional hospitality management company. Gary was brought into run the lodge, and I think he serves as a model for community development projects like this (more on that later). Our butler, Innocent, brought us and our bags out one of the side doors of the main house, round a slightly downhill path, to our “room”. I need to put “room” in quotes, because after Innocent left us, I promptly photographed the bed, decorated with rose pedals and beans to form our “Welcome to Clouds” message. My caption for the day’s Facebook message? I’m certain we have scored the honeymoon suite! (I later found out I did not, we just had a regular old “double” room, same as our traveling companions – needless to say, everyone was really happy with the accommodations.
Our room was actually a small, freestanding house. We had a large veranda with a comfortable seating area outside. Inside, our living room could have slept 3 more people in large oversized “stuffed” couch and chair, facing a two sided fireplace (which I would later be surprised to learn was rather nice during the cool evenings). Our bedroom was behind the fireplace wall, so we could lay in bed and watch the fire as well as being able to enjoy it from the living room. Our large bathroom had a big open shower, and large teak bench, in addition to the double sink. What I liked best was the glass wall feeling of the bathroom, outside was lush and green, and we seemed to be up on a mountainside, with nothing but lushness surrounding us, so it was like having the jungle as our curtain. Outside, from around our veranda, we looked out over the mountains surrounding us, perhaps to Bwindi, I’m not sure, and the site was breathtaking.
Did I also mention the great, comfortable bed?
It was late afternoon when we arrived at Clouds, and after Innocent showed us around our room he asked if we would like some tea. We’d gotten used to this very English custom during our African travels, and told him sure. He asked if we would like something to snack on with it, and we again nodded yes. We settled onto the veranda thinking of tea and cookies and the beautiful surroundings …
Imagine our surprise when he returned a short while later with a tray of tea and two large plates with chicken fajitas! We didn’t want to eat them all, dinner was only a few hours away, but it was soooo hard not to. They were, though, just a teaser for the remainder of our meals at Clouds. Three meals a day, all scrumptous to eat and beautiful to look at. Great (mostly South African) wines. Even the cheeseburger we had one day for lunch was a work of art. Breakfasts of mouthwatering fruit and cooked to order omlettes, it’s also a foodie’s heaven.
Innocent’s job was not limited to bringing us too much food, he also made sure we got up in the morning with a freshly brewed pot of coffee, that we also had a crackling fire waiting in our room at the end of the day, and that we got to know a bit more about him. Again, there is something about the connections between us and the staff that makes staying in this lodge so very special. We were well treated, even pampered, without feeling awkward or put off by it.
Since we had done our gorilla treks in Rwanda, this was to be our “down time”. Most people who stay at Clouds come for the gorillas, and we figured a few days of nothing would be good (we were in between treks, our next stop would be trekking monkeys, rest was a good thought, and this seemed like a good place for it.
With that in mind, we talked quite a bit with Gary about the concept behind the lodge, community development, how the first year had been going. (It is a testament to him and his management style that though he over-hired when they first opened, expecting attrition, everyone had remained and the staff had actually grown).
Part of the experience for us of staying in this lodge was to learn a bit more about their community involvement, (if you are interested in Mountain Gorillas you need to be interested in understanding the multifaceted approach to protecting them, and that begins with the local community).
Gary took us on a community walk, lead by a woman from the community. We visited the school,for which the lodge is currently raising money to build housing for the 4 teachers on staff (currently the teachers walk about 10+ km everyday to reach the school) and they’ve previously funded a full time “guidance” counselor / phys ed instructor who serves also as a counselor/support person for the girls in the school.
We talked about local tradition, which lead to Gary suggestion, in addition to the community walk he had initially planned to take us on, a trip to a local weaving group in the community. He had never taken his guests there before, but the connection our group made with this group of amazingly remarkable women will hopefully entice him to bring other guests there in the future. It was an amazing experience to meet the weavers, to see the expressions on their faces as people bought their baskets --- the women were at once amazed and joyful to see someone interested in their work, to have direct contact with the buyers. In the past the lodge had been ordering baskets, which the women worked on after a long day in the fields. Now, with the help of the lodge, the cooperative has leased a space in the village where they can work during the day. Their working conditions are vastly improved as they can work in a well lit space. They also benefit from working together, learning from master weavers, sharing ideas and styles. Their direct interaction with the buyer (which until our visit had been Gary and his fiancée, Tamar) has led to better quality baskets and has definitely had a positive impact on this little local community around the lodge. The emotion felt by these women from this interaction with us, which the Lodge continually tries to foster in the Community was palpable just by watching everyone’s conversations, but it reached a peak when the women suddenly broke into song, and soon everyone, locals and visitors, were dancing and singing together.
As if that was not enough, we returned to Clouds where we were brought to a ridge above the lodge for a sundowner. We were told we’d have a group of the kids from the school coming up to sing for us, and we expected it to be a similar performance to one we had in Rwanda. But these kids came dressed mostly in their school uniforms, no elaborate costumes like we saw elsewhere. They formed a semi-circle around us as there leader, a 26 year old man from the community, introduced them and told us a bit about the Orphans’ group he had started. They sang, and sang, and the sun slowly set, and it was a lovely evening. When they came to their last song, their “goodbye and thank you song” to us, and one of the teenage girls stepped out and began walking towards us, her hand outstretched towards one member of our group, and she sang “My name is … and my favorite is this one” and a chorus of voices sang out Good-a-Bye Good-a-Bye while the soloist sang along, holding the hand of her “target visitor”, letting go only as the next person stepped out of the semi circle and crossed over to our side, picking out another member of the audience for a personal thank you. And so it went, until each of us had been touched by one of these orphaned children. There was not a dry eye on the ridge that night.
For gorilla trekkers, the lodge has the “first dibs” on 6 (I think that’s the number) gorilla permits everyday. This is nice since it means you can make your reservations for the future knowing you will be able to trek. It’s a challenging trek, since you go down to the gorillas, unlike in Rwanda where we went up, but even if you don’t want to trek, this lodge is worth going to for the pampering, the spa they now have opened and for the cultural aspects of the experience. It’s an easy place to never leave, and we were really terribly sorry to have to go when our stay ended.
For those who like to shop the lodge also has a really nice collection of art, local handicrafts, textiles (mostly from nearby Congo) and of course, baskets. Each room has art from African painters, each with a different theme. Some of the same art decorates the lodge itself and if you like it, I am sure they can arrange for you to purchase something from the artist (or from their wall … I actually did my only shopping in Africa from the coffee tables around the main house area!)
Interestingly enough, having done a walking safari in Kenya and our gorilla treking behind us, we had thought we’d reached the “highlight” of our African journey, instead Clouds Mountain Gorilla Lodge turned out to be THE highlight of the entire trip and a place we dream now about returning to.
Nice report GVR. Clouds is in a nice place and well organised by all accounts. I have never actually been there. No doubt you will post a review.
My only adverse comment must be the 'first dibs' (lovely English Expression)for Gorilla permits. This is basically unfair to all the other trekkers and Lodges in the Bwindi. The Gorillas belong to the people of Uganda and to reserve them for Clouds guests smacks of preferential treatment. How this sits with UWA and Ugandan tourism I do not know. It does not help folks plan at all but merely ensures trekkers stay at Clouds to 'qualify' for a permit.
I know Gary reads this forum so maybe he would comment.
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