“Uganda is from end to end a ‘beautiful garden’ where ‘staple food’ of the people grows almost without labour. Does it not sound like a paradise on earth? It is the Pearl of Africa”. (Sir Winston Churchill)

I almost wasn’t going to write this post, and I’m still not completely sure why I am. I think it’s my internal blog clock announcing ‘Your audience, whoever and wherever they are, await’. Ten days have passed, but not a whole lot wildly exciting has happened on the road since then.

Can you believe I saw Hiromu again? Well this deserves a mention. For those who don’t know, this is the Japanese cyclist I travelled with for a number of months in west and central Africa. We parted somewhat awkwardly in the Congo after he’d read some negative comments I’d made about him in several blog posts. I apologised and we made up, but things were never the same again. I guess I couldn’t get over feeling like I’d been a shit, which I had. At the time he asked me to remove the negative comments. It’s about time I got round to doing it.

I suppose that’s one of the frustrations of having a blog such as this. There are events that take place and people one meets that are best kept secret for reasons of privacy or fear of causing offence. Perhaps those bits fit better in a book.

Anyhow, this time around we ignored each other. Well actually it was me who did all the ignoring. He was totally unaware that I watched him walk across the road in Fort Portal, minutes after I’d emerged from an Internet Cafe. Had I walked out on the road thirty seconds later I would never have seen him.

My first instinct was to call out after him, but then I just froze in motion. I think once you’ve said goodbye and parted from someone on slightly awkward terms, then unexpectedly met again and done another painful goodbye, it just seems easier to avoid a confrontation if at all possible, which it was. Cowardly I know. I soon regretted my decision and wished I’d crossed the road or caught his attention. He must have recently entered Uganda from Congo DRC.  When we last met briefly in Bukavu (something I didn’t write about here) his plan had been to head through northern Kivu and follow the Congolese side of the Rwenzori mountain chain. I later e-mailed (although I didn’t explain I’d seen and ignored him) and he replied to say he’d been in Fort Portal for ten days and all was well. Dare I say our paths will cross again between now and South Africa.

Main highways leading to capital cities are usually unpleasantly busy for the touring cyclist. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to find that the tarmac road which links Fort Portal to Kampala is not. Verdant green hillsides blanketed with tea plantations started the show – very scenic with the Rwenzoris rising high above in the background. I stopped to watch teams of young men and women clip their way through the neatly manicured rows that flanked the roadside. One man told me they received 69 Ugandan Shillings for every kilo, and that the wicker baskets on their backs would hold roughly 20kg. “How many baskets can you fill in a day” I naturally asked. “Between 15 and 20” was the answer. Assuming I got all the figures right that works out at about $8-12 per day. Not bad by African standards.

Tea plantation near Fort Portal

Beyond the tea plantations the Ugandan countryside loses none of its lushness, especially so now that the rainy season has just finished. Banana trees dominate the scene. What cassava is to Congo DRC and the Central African Republic, and yams are to Nigeria, bananas, or rather Mattoke, is to Uganda. I read in the paper a few days ago that the average Ugandan consumes between 200-250kg of Mattoke every year. Peeled or unpeeled that’s a lot of bananas – plantain to be more precise. Mattoke in its usual form best resembles mashed potato, and most Ugandans eat a plate of it, accompanying something else, at least once a day. Well at least it has more nutritional value than cassava. I think the sight of an old Chinese single-speed bicycle lugging several branches of plantain on the back is about as common and iconic a Ugandan image as one can find – as evidenced by photos in both this and the last blog post.

Matoke overload

But it’s not just bananas that grow in abundance here. I used to get wildly excited when I saw a single pineapple being sold in a Congolese village. Well now they’re everywhere, and just as cheap. I can’t in fact remember the last cycling day when I didn’t consume an entire pineapple. Then there are the mangoes, which are just coming into season, the avocados, which can be a meal in themselves, and that spiky green beast far too large and heavy to strap onto the bike in its entirety – the jack-fruit. It’s hard to find these in an English supermarket. I doubt most people in fact would know what they were. Their internal texture and appearance look more like some kind of alien-form excrement than a succulent and sweet tropical fruit, but then I suppose the inside of a passion fruit does as well. They’re everywhere too. To me jack-fruit has the taste of childhood bubblegum, and it leaves the same sticky residue on my lips as well. Well I think that’s fruit covered, and here straddling the equator Uganda produces plenty of it.

Pineapple on the road

Roadside fruit&veg in Uganda

There are no particularly interesting towns or villages between Fort Portal and Kampala. Shop owners in this country seem to have totally sold themselves out to offers of having their premises emblazoned with the names and garish colours of mobile phone companies and breweries. I wonder if these African multinationals actually pay money or that the offer of free paint is enough for a shop owner to happily find the walls of his premises change from plain grey in colour one day to bright yellow the next? All very colourful in one sense, but it becomes somewhat dull and monotonous after a while. Where is your creativity and defiance in the face of these capitalist bullies you want to say. I don’t think many people really care all that much.

Town of Mubende: Uganda

There are a lot of hills on this tarmac road to Kampala. Nothing overly strenuous, but enough to ensure a frequent shift of gearing and some level of interest to an otherwise unremarkable 300km of cycling.

It gets a bit more interesting and hectic as one enters Kampala. Well at least it did for me. Entering the city I witnessed a motorcyclist being beaten in front of me by a gang of armed policemen. What all this was about I’m not sure. “Welcome to Africa” shouted one passer-by as a crowd of people soon gathered to spectate. Police aren’t short in number on the streets of Kampala that’s for sure. In recent months they’ve been busy quelling protests about food and fuel prices in the wake of the country’s recent elections.

I got chatting to one of these policemen beside Uganda’s equivalent to Big Ben. “This was donated by your Queen”, explained the journalist interviewing me at the same time. “International Cyclist coming to Kampala: Press Release”, had read the title of an e-mail I’d sent to several leading newspapers before leaving Fort Portal. Nothing like a bit of shameless self-promotion to make you think someone actually cares what you’re doing. “Mzungu cyclist in Kampala” might well be the title of the article when it gets published (a week on Sunday in the paper’s colour magazine I’m told). Well that’s what the photographer had named his file of pictures I copied from him yesterday.

I’m doing the ex-pat thing again in Kampala. By that I mean I’m staying in an apartment that one would find hard to guess was in Africa. There appear to be lots of mzungus living and working in the city and it’s nice that I know a few of the faces here. Last weekend I found myself getting slightly disorientated inside a shopping mall. There seem to be a lot of these here too.

Usually it’s the mission for a visa that dominates priorities when I come to an African capital. From now onwards however it appears I can get most of my visas at the border,  and they’re a whole lot cheaper.

My bags will be a little heavier when I get round to pedalling out of here. A replacement mattress from Thermarest, (which is heavier than my last one and I’m crossing my fingers that there still may be a chance to replace it with a lighter model) an additional camera lens (70-300mm. Well I don’t want to get too close to those elephants in the National Parks) several books and an enormous camera tripod made their way, courtesy of my host, to me here. I’m doing everything I can to sell the tripod. It weighs around 2kg+ and is over 50cm when folded. Why I didn’t read the specifications in more detail when I bought it online a few months ago I don’t know. It has no place in my rig and I’ve already bought a lighter, smaller and cheaper one here (I never knew these malls existed in Uganda).

Looking ahead, it’s eastwards to Jinja and the slopes of Mt Elgon. Next month I hope to be involved in a distribution of mosquito bednets in Kenya. You can read more about it here. It’s a good opportunity to donate whatever you can to the against malaria foundation. Approximately £3 or $5 guarantees a mosquito net for someone whose life is seriously at risk without one.

As for that newspaper article, I’ll be sure to post something when it gets published.