Visiting the ruins of Idi Amin’s favorite hideaway is a rare treat as there are just a few remnants left from Amin’s atrocious regime. Once the pride of Murchison Falls National Park, the grandiose Pakuba Lodge caught the eye of Idi Amin, who turned it into State Lodge, his private retreat. The legend has it that Amin spent much more time in Pakuba than in his official presidential residence in Kampala. Pakuba welcomed Amin’s inner circle as well as international guests of honor and is praised in several memoirs.
I saw a photo of the old Pakuba Lodge in some magazine years before visiting Uganda. The sight haunted me ever since. The lodge seemed to stand alone in the wilderness, upon the serene waters of White Nile, and the name of Idi Amin loaded the image with ominous enigma.
Finding the Way to the Pakuba through Murchison Falls
For understandable reasons, it’s kind of difficult to find any physical traces of Idi Amin’s bloody regime. Ugandans tend to fall silent about their memories as well. Amin’s eight-year reign of horror ravaged Uganda and caused deep scars: it’s held responsible for a half million deaths and bringing one of the healthiest economies in Africa to total ruin. Entire villages were wiped out. The ground was so full of bodies that gravedigging got to deadlock, and the corpses were fed to the crocodiles of Nile.
But even the crocs couldn’t handle it, and the bodies were seen at the shore in high numbers. The derelict of the historic Pakuba Lodge rests deep inside Murchison Falls National Park, in northwestern Uganda. The area has Africa’s highest numbers of Nile crocodiles—one of the predators that Idi Amin loved to hunt for sport, among lions and other big game. His rule led, for example, to the total extinction of rhinos and slaughtering 90% of the country’s wildlife.
Fortunately, populations have recovered. For us, Murchison Falls National Park offered great lion sightings along with the chance to admire a gigantic python from a zero distance. Pakuba Lodge is probably on your way if you’re doing a couple of game drives in the park. Your guide knows the way, and you can tour nearby bushes and riverfront making it a proper game drive with a break at the ruins. Visiting the ruins is allowed only with an armed ranger. We were accompanied by a tourist police from our hotel and our guide.
Touring the Ruins in the Footsteps of Big Cats
I had a vague memory of a majestic, low-risen, and wide stone complex that was standing alone upon the serene waters of White Nile. When you are visiting the ruins, you’ll approach the location from the opposite direction, seeing just some crumbling stone piles rising from the bushes. You’ll notice the isolation, though, as there are no other lodges nearby.
Our loyal Land Rover struggled to climb the steep, overgrown path leading to the hilltop. It was evident that the site doesn’t decorate the wish-lists of ordinary tourists: no-one had penetrated these bushes with a car for awhile. My mind was busy imagining the abandoned hotel in full colors without overgrown vegetation. I was already seeing the staff hurrying towards us with cool towels and fruit juices on their tray when we were told to jump out and start our exploration.
Off we plowed through knee-high vegetation, stylishly unprepared in our short skirts. Silent tourist police led us towards the northern wing, pointing where the kitchen and housekeeping facilities had located. He finally seemed to open up a bit, giving up to our visible fervor and answering our hesitant questions with short stories as we passed different sections of the hotel. When we came around the building, we could at last see the fabled view, which is praised in so many memoirs.
Pakuba Safari Lodge was built on the hilltop, facing the photogenic junction of the two Niles and Lake Albert. You can see all the way to the DRC, which was one of the reasons why Idi Amin loved this location. His tribe, Kakwa, originates from Zaire (now known as the DRC); it was also where he smuggled ivory and gold to trade arms. Murchison Falls used to be one of the most visited national parks in Africa and a mecca for hunting, which was obviously the other reason Amin was so fond of this hideaway.
It’s fairly easy to imagine the former Pakuba Safari Lodge in its heyday since a wrecked skeleton of the whole hotel complex rises from the high grass. The two-story building had accommodated 160 people, and each room had a balcony overlooking the Nile junction and Zaire. In the middle of the two wings was the main building with a restaurant, lounge, bar, and large terrace.
We strolled by the ruins, admiring the view and the quiet solemnity that surrounds the former State Lodge. Hippos were grunting at the shore, and a herd of elephants roamed in the distance. All of a sudden, the tourist police plunged through dense bushes then came back to tell us that we could follow him to the swimming pool area. He had just wanted to check that there weren’t any leopards or lions lurking at the site.
Vegetation was thick. We hopped cautiously upon a stone rail and went further while trying to keep the balance. It was worth the effort, though. The swimming pool was clearly the dilapidated heart of the eerie Pakuba Lodge. From there, the view is at its best: on a bright day Congolese mountains peek visibly upon the Nile junction. We could hear big cats roaring inside the ruins: the predators had taken over Idi Amin’s paradise.
Niina Lehikoinen is a travel writer and the other half behind Bizarre Globe Hopper, an adventure travel blog about off-the-beaten path destinations. Together with her partner Piritta, they have roamed forty-five countries in search of thrilling escapades. Last year they fell in love with Africa so crazily that they hiked to the endangered mountain gorillas of Uganda, conquered the lava-spitting Nyiragongo volcano in the DRC, and rafted through the raging rapids of Zambezi.