When the traveller first enters Uganda, his path seems to be strewn with flowers, greetings with welcome gifts follow one another rapidly, pages and courtiers kneel before him, and the least wish is immediately gratified. (H M Stanley)
Well that sounds very nice, but things have moved on a bit since 1871. Stanley would now just be another Mzungu in Uganda, and there are quite a lot here, comparatively speaking. But if 10 days in a country counts for anything, this one scores pretty high up on the friendliness counter.
The language makes a difference. Re-entering Anglophone Africa definitely eases things for someone whose French might now stretch to a Grade B at GCSE (I managed a C 16 years ago). That said I will boast a grade A at handling the questions Francophone immigration officials (and a whole score of other ‘bureaucratic’ time-wasters) have interrogated me with over the past several months.
The problem of communicating in Francophone Africa is the same problem a non-native speaker of English would have with travelling throughout Anglophone Africa. A Liberian speaking English sounds very different from a Nigerian, in the same way that a Senegalese market trader sounds different from a Congolese policeman. One might speak slowly, clearly and use the correct grammar, whilst the other blabbers out a lengthy sermon of incoherent gobbledegook and expects you to understand. So you just nod your head and pretend you know what is being said. Well at least that is what I did on occasions where I’d either given up on trying to understand or was too tired to try.
Now I no longer need to worry. Apart from Mozambique, where the Portuguese staked their imperial interests, I will be cycling through English-speaking Africa (the countries the British Empire painted pink if you were to look at a map of Africa 100 years ago) for the remainder of this trip. Hurrah!
It is not only the ease of communication that has made a day in the life of The Big Africa Cycle somewhat easier. I remember many days cycling through the Congolese jungle where I dreamed of being able to stop for a cold coke, or finish the day with a chilled Primus beer. Most of the time they were rarely available. As for food – well if something was available it was wise to take it, whatever it might be, for there might be nothing down the road.
Well travelling in Uganda, at least from this perspective, is a complete doddle. Coke and beer are available almost everywhere, and food, even it is only Matoke (a Ugandan stable which consists of mashed plantain) and beans, is never that hard to find. Accommodation is also a breeze to sort out. Every town seems to have at least one Guest House or Lodge, and the prices for a budget room are a fraction of those I often found in the Congo. Here one can find a clean, if basic room, for $4-5. If I was able to bargain this price for something in the Congo it would be a powerless cell, although I grew to become fond of reading under candle or parafin-lamp light at night.
My first proper conversation back in Anglophone Africa was not with a Ugandan, but another Englishman. An Englishman riding his bicycle from the UK-South Africa would you believe. I’m not the only one, although there aren’t many of us that I know of to be fair. In the 18 months I’ve now spent cycling through Africa this is the fourth foreign cyclist I’ve met (the others being Hiromu, Mick – an older English chap I wrote about in The Gambia and never heard from again, and a German I also briefly met in The Gambia).
Rob left England a year later than me and has come through the Middle east and East Africa, covering 130-150km on average per day. I can’t remember the last time I cycled more than 100km in a day. He contacted me by e-mail a few weeks ago with questions about the Congo, so we agreed to meet in Kisoro, the first town across the border in Uganda. Rob has another 3 months scheduled before finishing in South Africa, during which he plans to paddle the entire stretch of the Congo river from Kisangani-Kinshasa, and then continue south through Angola and Namibia. It’s not an obvious nor easy route, and I’m interested to see how his experience in the Congo will fair with the rest of his journey.
We hung out together for a few days, drank beer and played pool in Kisoro and Kabale, another town some 70km away where he’d left his bike. He too knew of a string of other cyclists pedalling different parts of the globe, and it would have been good to have spent a few days on the road together. But we were soon parting ways as I turned north towards two National Parks and he headed south into Rwanda.
Many people imagine Africa to be teeming with lots of large wild animals, but the truth is Uganda is the first country where I’ve really seen anything size-able that isn’t being sold as bush meat. In places like Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and the Congo, there has been so much conflict and instability in recent decades that most wildlife has disappeared. National Parks aren’t well managed and what animals might once have been present will largely have been poached for their parts or meat. Well East Africa does a better job at conservation and my time cycling through Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park didn’t disappoint.
The former is one of Africa’s oldest forests and contains over half of the World’s remaining mountain gorillas. I didn’t see any, but then I didn’t expect to, for $500 is the permit price to hang out for a short time with a family of these beasts. Instead I happily cycled along a scenic track, climbing to above 2500m in altitude. There were plenty of monkeys swinging from the branches above – black and white colobus ones I think, and lots of colourful musical birds. There was no traffic, other than one or two tourist-jeeps transporting fellow Mzungus, and I felt somewhat smug to be cycling through this forest alone and avoiding the $30 park entrance fee. No one asked for it. The road was passing through the forest and I was continuing north to Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Here too I saw plenty of wildlife without opening my wallet, which no longer contains any $ anyhow. There were buffalo, baboons, monkeys, antelopes, and finally towards the end of the day when I thought I wouldn’t see any – elephants and hippos. Encountering a family of wild elephants some 50 metres away from the roadside when you’re alone on a bicycle is a pulse-racing mix of excitement and fear. They look peaceful and nonchalant, but soon recognise your presence. You point your camera and then one turns to you and starts flapping its ears. Danger alert. Elephants can probably run faster than I can cycle, so rather than spending too long watching them graze in the long grass, I decided it wise to continue.
Many Ugandans, and probably Mzungus, would think it mad to cycle alone through a National Park. “Aren’t you afraid? You know there are lions” they might ask. Well I didn’t see any, which is probably a good thing, but I generally have a greater fear of wild people than I do wild animals.
Large mountains rise up behind Queen Elizabeth National Park. The largest mountain range in Africa. The Rwenzoris rise just north of the equator and present a formidable barrier and border between Uganda on one side and the Congo on the other. I think Stanley climbed one of these peaks. Well at least he left his name here. At 5109m Mt Stanley is Africa’s 3rd highest peak, and possibly one of the hardest to summit. It rains here a lot, which does a good job of making the surrounding landscape very green and scenic.
I’m now writing this from Fort Portal, named after some chap called Gerald Portal who was a consul here when Uganda was a colony. The town sits to the north of the Rwenzoris and is about a 3-4 day cycle from Kampala. I haven’t cycled into a busy urban area in months, and there aren’t many capitals in the World which are enjoyable to cycle into. Lets see how this city of 1.5 million+ fairs in comparison.