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It was a rainy day outside Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Lydia Nandudu had recently graduated from high school. She and others are scrambling onto a taxi in the middle of a rainstorm. A stranger next to her strikes up a conversation and before the taxi has come to a standstill Lydia is offered a job in tourism.

Not yet a decade later she is the managing director of Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge, recently named Uganda’s leading Safari Lodge at World Travel Awards 2023 – all because of a moment’s trust between two strangers.

Lydia grew up in Luzira, a suburb of Kampala. Being the oldest of 10 children, she felt a responsibility to herself and her family to escape the poverty trap.

“It was always important for me to push myself. My parents struggled to put me through school, so I was motivated to make a success after completing my A Levels,” explains Lydia.

The stranger she met on the bus was *Robert Brierley. At the time he was running an online travel guide. He asked Lydia only a few questions, but her drive and will to succeed was so clear, that this short taxi ride was enough for him to trust her with a six-month paid assignment.

“My job was to travel around Uganda and find tourist destinations. He gave me a laptop, a camera, a six-month salary and then left.”

After six months Robert returned to check on Lydia’s progress, and just as he thought, she did a stellar job. “Me and Robert went on a road trip to visit the different clients that I had worked with.” And this is where the award-winning lodge had its beginnings.

“We arrived in Kisoro, a district between Uganda and Rwanda. It’s one of the places people go to see the mountain gorillas. We met up with two boys from the community running a struggling little campsite. They wanted support from us to help with marketing.”

At the time there was only one group of gorillas in the area and all the permits were allocated to a luxury lodge being constructed nearby. What did the two burgeoning entrepreneurs do? “We went to the lodge and we said: ‘If there are no gorillas, there is no business, so we have to be clever.’”

They launched Nkuringo Walking Safaris. People would stay at the basic campsite for a night and then head out on a walking safari to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to see the gorillas.

“It was a big success. People loved this off-the-beaten-track way of experiencing Uganda and seeing the gorillas.”

The campsite gained popularity, as it was the only budget accommodation in the area. At only U$20 a night, adventurers could pitch their tents and use the basic facilities, Lydia and the others would help them prepare a simple meal on the campfire.

“We got more and more interest from people who wanted to do the walking-safari and needed an affordable place to stay, so through the years we slowly upgraded and expanded.”

Yet the upgrades couldn’t accommodate all the interested visitors, so in 2014 Lydia and Robert committed to major renovations to make it appealing not only to backpackers, also mid-range budgets. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. “This is when Robert died of a heart attack. I was six months pregnant and in the middle of major construction work.”

Suddenly Lydia couldn’t imagine how she would make her and Robert’s dream lodge a reality. Yet the drive and passion she had as a young high school graduate was still in her heart. “I knew I had to do everything right to make sure the launch still happened because the neighboring lodge was my direct competition. I had to make it work.”

And that she did. Today the Lodge has six budget rooms, six luxury cottages and to top it all, it’s carbon neutral. “The Uganda Carbon Bureau calculates our footprint and the money we pay contributes to planting new trees.”

This is not a story of luck, but of hard work, a shared vision, and buckets full of trust. Yet luck also made its way onto Lydia’s path. “In the last three years, more gorilla groups were rehabilitated in our area and today this is one of the top places to see the gorillas. We didn’t think it would ever become such a success, but luck was on our side.”

Lydia and Robert always knew what they wanted the lodge to be and Lydia continued this vision after Robert’s death. “Our vision and goal has always been to be accessible to all budgets. Nine out of 10 people have Gorilla Trekking on their bucket list and we want to make that dream a reality”

Apart from ticking off the bucket list, Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge’s walking tours give travellers much more. They introduce people to community life. “We take them to the community to meet the people, see how they live and take rides in dug-out canoes. It’s a complete experience for those who want to escape the tourism bubble.”

The journey of Lydia Nandudu is a humbling, heartwarming story of trust and winning through dedication and humanity. Thanks to the vision and commitment of Lydia and Robert, we are all able to visit Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge and contribute to the conservation of the gorillas in their natural habitat.

Credit: PROF. DR. WOLFGANG H.THOME, ETN AFRICA CORRESPONDENT MARCH 31, 2014

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