“Though beautiful, the scene was not exactly what I expected…still it was a sight that attracted one to it for hours” (John Hanning Speke)

If I were to list the 10 worst roads that I’ve cycled on in Africa, which I may well do in a later blog post (along with the 10 best) then the 85km ride from Kampala to Jinja would probably make the cut. Too much traffic for a road which is far too narrow basically. And most of the vehicles characteristically travel too fast.

As Uganda is a landlocked country any import which hasn’t arrived by plane will be transported by truck along this road. Many will have started their journey in Mombasa, Kenya, east Africa’s busiest port. It is not only goods for Uganda that are transported along this highway, but practically everything for neighbouring Rwanda, Burundi and the whole of the eastern Congo. And so there are a lot of trucks to contend with – plus the ubiquitous east African matatu, or mini-bus, which shuttles people between towns at suicidal speeds.

The road was in fact so busy that I even failed to grab the attention of two foreign cyclists coming the other way. I’m still not sure how they didn’t see me waving from what was only 4 metres across the road, nor hear me yelling “Hey” as they kept their eyes clued to the tarmac directly in front of them. For a brief moment I wondered if they were purposefully ignoring me, which would have been absurd seeming how few foreign cyclists there are in Africa.

Had we stopped and chatted about roads, routes and bikes, which is the normal procedure in such circumstances, I would have asked their recommendation for a place to stay in Jinja. Well it didn’t matter. There definitely isn’t a shortage of places to rest one’s head here.

Jinja is one of Uganda’s principal tourist attractions, but not really for the reason that makes this town famous. When John Hanning Speke, (another one of Africa’s bearded Victorian explorers) stood here on the northern banks of the continent’s largest Lake and proclaimed the river flowing out of it to be the source of the River Nile, he probably didn’t foresee the hoards of fellow Mzungus who would come here a century and a half later. And come they/we do, but less to gaze at a ripple of water flowing past an island that signposts tell you is the Source of the River Nile (a massive anticlimax if there ever was one) but to throw themselves down a series of rapids in an inflatable dinghy.

Map of Uganda

Ten years ago I rafted down the Zambezi in Zimbabwe – emerging sun-burnt, stiff and relieved to be alive. It was a lot of fun, but having got the t-shirt so to speak I had little interest to spend $120+ to do the same again on another big African river.

Rafting is the principal tourist activity here, at least judging by the signs and red rafts sitting in the grounds of a hostel I poked my head into when arriving. This establishment was in fact not a hostel, but a backpackers – a place generally full of mzungus who will have arrived with a backpack on their backs. Quite simple really. Part of me had the idea that staying here would be interesting. I could meet fellow Mzungus and swap travel stories and information over a few beers. This is what travellers usually do in foreign places.  Yet rather than feeling at home the place somehow scared me. The only Ugandans here were the ones selling above-average priced beer and western food. The 8-bed dormitory was clean, but then almost twice the price of what I usually pay for a single room. Even camping was more expensive than a room. And so I realised that the only reason I would be staying in this  western enclave would be to find conversation with someone of the same skin colour and background as myself. Perhaps that’s reason enough, but it struck me as somehow desperate. I was being made to feel like a sheep, and besides, there were no good-looking girls. So I pedalled on into Jinja town and found a hotel with a large room and attached bathroom, where the staff were welcoming and attentive, making sure I had soap, a towel and so forth (you can forget this service in a backpackers).

Shortly afterwards it dawned on me that over the coming months I’m probably going to read recommendations in my Lonely Planet guidebook for places to stay which are quite similar to this backpackers I turned my back on. Perhaps the book will be a better guide of the places not to stay.

Well I did meet some more Mzungus – two more cyclists! This means that in the space of several days I’ve seen as many foreign cyclists in Africa as I have on the entire journey. Foreign cyclists in Africa, assuming they have some presence on the Internet in the sense of a blog or website (many but not all do) are quite a close-knit bunch. I’d already heard about these two young Germans from my friend Helen, who finished her solo cycling tour from England to Cape Town earlier this year. They were quite recognisable as I was aimlessly wandering along one of the main streets in Jinja. Tim and Fabian set off from Cape Town several+ months ago and are headed to Cairo. Well at least that was the plan. Both are now flying from Kenya to west Africa and continuing north. They had just taken a bus, perhaps wisely, from Kampala, where they met another cyclist “He was from Japan”, said Tim as we chatted over tea and come chapatis at the roadside.  I thought Hiromu wouldn’t be far behind.

Africabybike.de

Later in the day, having said our goodbyes with a few photos, I realised who it was I had passed on the road between Kampala and Jinja. This cycling duo. They’re facebook friends of mine – like many other cyclists on that site I’m happy to call a friend even if we’ve never met.

Well I’m hoping that the road east from here quietens down a little once I branch off the main thoroughfare to Kenya. In about ten days I will helping with a distribution of mosquito nets in western Kenya. Is this another request for a donation? Well yes, but I’m not asking you contribute much – the equivalent to a couple of cups of coffee or a few beers would be great.