Georgie, Chris, Leo and Indie

Georgie Higginson lives in Jinja, a large town on the edge of Lake Victoria, Uganda, with her husband Chris and their two children, Leo, 7, and Indie, 4. Together they run the lodge next to a small town called Buliisa

When we first arrived in Jinja it was known to be full of misfits, mercenaries and missionaries. It’s the second largest town in Uganda and is the second busiest commercial centre after the capital, Kampala. The population is over 100,000. It’s noisy, dusty and busy. Everywhere there is colour, shops spilling their wares out onto the pavements, people grafting, street food on corners where buses, cars and motorbike taxis all jostle for space. Employment ranges from selling market produce to jobs in construction, tourism, sugar and fishing.

Jinja is where we’re based and the the lodge is a 7-hour drive away, next to a small town called Buliisa. The contrast is extreme; the land drier, less fertile and it can be blisteringly hot. Life there is hard, rain is scarce, transport routes are few and cotton and maize are the main export. Tourism provides employment. Wildlife is plenty. Poaching is evident. Oil has been found in the national park, so what comes next may seriously change the course of Uganda’s future.

Everywhere there is colour, people grafting, street food on corners where buses, cars and motorbike taxis all jostle for space

I grew up in Suffolk in the UK. I travelled and worked in Australia and New Zealand when I was 20 and after returning to England I took a temping job at British Telecom where I had no idea what I was doing, but every Friday lunchtime we’d visit a local pub and then I’d be hungover for the entire weekend. During that time my mum saw an advert in the East Anglian Daily Times for a job with Dragoman, an overland company selling trips through Africa, Asia and South America. I immediately applied and having got the job as their UK booking consultant, I was hooked.

The endless possibilities this type of travelling offered blew my mind and it was here, on my travels, that I met Chris. He was driving a truck with 20 international passengers from the UK to Kathmandu and I joined the trip in India as part of my ‘educational’ overland experience. He picked me up from a tiny airport in Jodhpur and a few days later, rather predictably, I was sharing his ‘swag’ (a type of outdoor sleeping bag) on the top of the overland truck’s cab.

The family home, which Georgie and Chris built

Five years later, after moving back to the UK and working and living in Suffolk then London and Brighton, we flew into Cape Town. Chris had travelled through Southern and Eastern Africa before so we had an idea of the route we wanted to drive. Within 10 days we’d bought a 4×4 vehicle and armed with a map, a camera, a load of jerry cans and a sense of adventure we set off for Namibia. We continued driving through Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, TZ, Kenya and Uganda. We camped and spent days exploring. We went on safaris, ate meals over hot coals, met incredible people. We were regularly offered tea, cakes and a bed. 

I loved the architecture of Mozambique and the wildness of South Africa’s Transkei. Gorilla trekking in the rainforests of Uganda was knackering, but we were speechless when we finally came across a family of 12 gorillas, including the silver back. Swimming in the cool waters of Lake Malawi and camping in the high hills soothed us. The Serengetti National Park has a horizon that stretches forever, as do its vast herds of zebra. Zanzibar’s beaches were pristine, Stone Town filled with mystery.

Our vehicle broke down often and our patience was always tested. At one border crossing we didn’t have the correct paperwork and spent days kicking about waiting for it to arrive. We always seemed to avoid rain. Crossing into South Africa from Mozambique we were pulled aside at the border. We were suspected terrorists. A Land Rover 101 had been used in a Kenyan terrorist attack so all vehicles of that type were being tracked and the passengers questioned. After two hours we were finally released after having our details checked by the FBI. Without a doubt, sundowners taste their finest in Africa.

Crossing into South Africa from Mozambique we were pulled aside at the border. We were suspected terrorists

As soon as we crossed the border from Kenya into Uganda I was struck by how green the country was by comparison to Kenya – the humidity increased, the landscaped altered and people warmly welcomed us. We drove through the late afternoon sun towards our friend’s house in Jinja and toyed with the idea of staying put for the next 3 weeks. This would give us a chance to explore, spend time with friends and travel to Ethiopia.

However, on the second night of our visit we went to a bar overlooking the river Nile. It was there we caught up with a friend who we’d worked with at Dragoman. A year before she had set up an NGO, Soft Power Education, a charity that refurbishes the local government primary schools with the help of donations and volunteers. Within the hour she had asked us to stay and help – bearing in mind this was before volunteer tourism became a thing – we accepted! To this day the charity continues to provide local schools with refurbished classrooms and ablution blocks, water catchment tanks, resources and more.

After three months of charity work and making solid friends we continued back to South Africa via Mozambique. It was during this leg of the journey our friend contacted us to see if we would consider returning and project managing the charity permanently. She added there was a guy who was keen to sponsor a couple to work with her, all we had to do was meet him. We flew to the UK as planned, met with the guy who was great and within six weeks we were on a plane back to Uganda.

When we found the land, Murchison was re-emerging as a popular park having been closed by the government due to the risk of the LRA rebel group

Whilst working at the charity we noticed there was a gap in the mid-range tourism market for Ugandan-based safaris, so after a year Chris left the NGO and set up a tour company. I joined him two years later. We offered cost effective trips through Uganda and then expanded into Kenya and Tanzania. We had a cruiser and a van and later shipped an overland truck from the UK and bought a truck from Kenya. It was when Chris was on safari in Murchison Falls National Park (in the north west of Uganda) that he was approached by a lodge staff member asking if he was interested in buying some land close by. At the time, Murchison was slowly re-emerging as a popular park having been closed by the government due to the risk of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group in that area. The land was on the edge of the river Nile, overlooking Murchison Falls National Park and covered in elephant grass. We discussed whether it was the right investment and agreed that it was, although we had no immediate plans to do anything with it.

But in 2008 we experienced a personal tragedy that made us reflect what we wanted to do with our lives.

Leo on spotting duty

That year we discovered we were expecting a baby and at 21 weeks we were overjoyed to find out we were having a girl! Throughout the pregnancy there had been nothing to give us cause for concern until one afternoon when my stomach began to cramp. That night the pain increased and the following morning we drove to see our doctor. I remember being in a chair in her office and holding on to the edge of the table as the pain coursed through me as she uttered the words, ‘Georgie, you’re in premature labour’. I was eventually stabilised and put on bed rest.

On day five we drove to Kampala for a scan, and in that moment our lives flipped upside down. The monitor showed a baby moving, but at the same time amniotic fluid was escaping down my legs. Fast-forward 48 hours and Chris and I were on a commercial flight to the UK. We had been told if we were to stay in Uganda our baby wouldn’t survive, so we looked at every option and the one that screamed the loudest was to try and get on a plane to England. Never more than in that moment did we realise how lucky we were to have a choice. 

In 2008 we experienced a personal tragedy that made us reflect what we wanted to do with our lives

Upon landing my parents drove us to hospital where I was admitted and monitored. Five days later, on the eve of 26 weeks, labour pains struck and I was hurriedly told to prepare for birth. That night is as vivid as snow. Dark clouds billowed across town, machines were placed around the birthing room and a senior midwife, named Ali, was called in. She was tiny with red hair and wore jeans and a pink polo shirt. She walked towards me and said that my baby must have heard there was a shoe sale on such was her rush to get out… She held my hand before explaining what was likely to happen. A doctor was present. Ella was breech and as her heels burned down my spine a team of nurses pushed my legs up and into my chest. Chris held my hand.

Two blinding hours passed. Scissors were used. I remember falling out of consciousness and then a flurry of hands. Our daughter was gathered in a towel. Ali spoke tenderly explaining there had been a problem in the birth cannel and our daughter was not breathing. She handed our baby to the paediatricians who tried to resuscitate her. After the second attempt we quietly asked them to stop, bruising had started to bloom around her head. Respectfully everyone left the room and as Chris and I held our darling baby, our hearts fractured into a thousand pieces and I screamed the primal scream of our foremothers. 

The night of Ella’s birth I had surgery to remove my placenta and a week later I was back in hospital with an infection. I remember not caring if I lived or died. I was hollow, rotting from the inside out. We began to pick our way through our nightmare, returning to Africa and attempting to live as close to our normal life as before, only realising it was impossible.

Indie collecting breakfast

With the loss of our daughter everything had changed; our future, our plans and our hopes had all been blown to pieces and it was during this time that we changed our lives and followed our hearts and built the lodge. But I remained raw with grief, anger and guilt. I blamed myself for the loss of Ella and the subsequent miscarriage we suffered 7 months later. I recall shouting at Chris that time wasn’t healing anything, nothing was working and him replying, ‘time doesn’t heal, with time you learn to live with the pain.’ And in that moment I understood I had to start accepting the pain otherwise I was going to let it suffocate me, because no one talks about pregnancies that go wrong.

No one gives you a book on loss, about grief, what to expect. I remember stumbling from the hospital the day after Ella was stillborn and in the top right corner of my discharge notes were typed the words ‘dead baby’. How on earth do you recover from that?

With the loss of our daughter everything had changed; our future, our plans and our hopes had all been blown to pieces

As time passed, and we returned to Africa, something shifted and neither of us felt any passion towards running safaris anymore so against the odds we threw in the towel and began to develop the land we had bought by the lake. It took two years of clearing, digging, camping, borrowing money, research and working with the local community, but eventually we built a safari lodge. We opened in December 2011 and although a continual work in progress, the lodge is testament to what we’ve been able to achieve with the commitment of great staff, a beautiful location and guests who appreciate the authentic experience we are able to offer.

We also offer English and health awareness lessons to the women from the local community and support the Uganda Conservation Foundation in their wildlife efforts. We built a playground for the community with the assistance of East African Playgrounds and support local businesses and artists by promoting their talents and purchasing their work; pottery, recycled glass, recycled paper, mats, art and steel animals can all be seen around the lodge. We offer a training scheme to young adults helping them to improve their knowledge of the tourism and hotel industry as well as provide them with new skills.

While we tried for another child, I knew my body was failing me but I didn’t know why. I looked at every option and in late 2009 a friend recommended a clinic in SA. After a laparoscopy and a hysteroscopy I was diagnosed with Asherman’s syndrome. We’ll never know, but it’s likely it came from the surgery to remove my placenta. Coupled with the Ashermans was the observation that my fertility was on the decline – to conceive naturally was going to be a miracle. I remember asking the surgeon after he’d removed the scar tissue if my uterus was now golden and he said with confidence that it was. It clearly worked because three months later, after a Kenyan road trip, I fell pregnant with our son Leo. I was in the UK for most of the pregnancy. I was given a cervical stitch and consultant led and for the birth I had a c-section. To have gone through what we had and to finally hold our beautiful boy on the morning of the 30th March 2011 was beyond believable. Love, adoration, hope, trust and fear engulfed us. We still look at him now and think ‘how!?’ 

The kids are comfortable in adult company as they are brought up in a culture where children are embraced and included

Two years later, after several miscarriages, I fell pregnant with again, with our daughter, Indie. Growing up in Uganda, unlike my own childhood my kids hardly ever wear shoes and they’re filthy most of the time. They have freedom and are lucky to be surrounded by people (who aren’t immediate family) who love them. They get to swim, kayak and ride horses. Leo has a motorbike and their deep love of going on safari is a joy to experience. We don’t have a TV but they watch wildlife documentary DVDs and Paw Patrol and Fireman Sam are firm friends. The British curriculum is taught at school and what’s lacking in some areas is made up for in others – Leo has just 12 kids in his class. Their friends are a diverse group from Europe, India and East Africa and playdates are loud.

It’s a different lifestyle to anything I had known as a child, but the biggest advantage I’ve noticed is how comfortable they are in adult company which I believe is key to being brought up in a culture where children are embraced and included. They are growing up to be respectful and kind and while they don’t see it yet one day they’ll realise how bloody lucky they were to eat their dinner while watching troops of monkey’s play on the front lawn!  And I’m just lucky to have them, which is something that’s never lost on me, because my life could very easily have been a different story.

Follow Georgie at @wildbythenile

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