• Beers and braais on the Zambezi April 17th, 2012

    I saw elephants on the road out of Zimbabwe. They saw me too. First it was the back end of one, and metres later the front end of another. They were only 10-15 metres away, munching away where the edge of the bush met the roadside fire-break. I wouldn’t have seen them in a car, and it was only at the last second as I turned to make eye contact and receive a startled ear flap did I suddenly think “Shit”.

    Well I had been warned. There was plenty of fresh poop on the road and the folk from Vic Falls had told me to be vigilant.

    Seen from a distance and within the safety of a vehicle, elephants appear prehistorically majestic and peaceful. Up front without warning they are massive and scary.

    It was probably a good thing then that when I continued into Botswana and arrived at the gate of Chobe National Park the following morning, the security guard yelled at me to stop. The main road that connects Zimbabwe with Botswana and continues onto the Ngombe bridge border with Namibia some 70km later cuts through the northern stretch of this wildlife rich wilderness.

    At first I was a bit annoyed, and probably would have stayed that way had I seen nothing from the pick-up I was asked to load my bike into the back of. Instead I soon lost count of the number of elephants crossing the road, not just in their twos and threes, but herds of one or two dozen. Now that would have been scary alone on the bike. No lions mind you.

    And that was the end of Botswana. One night camping in the popular Chobe Safari Lodge and then several hours in the morning before I was receiving an exit stamp and entering Namibia. In total I cycled some 20km in Botswana.

    It will be considerably more here in Namibia. The World’s second least populated country (Mongolia is the first I think?) contains just over 2 million people and has a lot of long distances between places.

    I biked the first 70km in less than 3 hours. It was Saturday, I needed to change money and the banks close at midday. It didn’t make any difference “These notes are old”, said the Standard Chartered clerk holding up a moderately grubby $5 bill, “and we’re not buying small notes”. In Malawi they would have salivated at the sight of US$, be they big or small in denomination, clean or mildly grubby. Here in Namibia it seems not.

    Fortunately another foreign cyclist bought some off me in exchange for South African Rand (used here in Namibia as well as the Namibian $, which is tied to it).

    Shane and I have been in contact for some months now. In November last year he flew to Cape Town with his bicycle, and is cycling in a roughly opposite route direction from me back to the UK.

    “This town is about the most African feeling place I’ve been to”, was one of the first remarks he made about Katima Muillo, where we had agreed to meet. Well other than the sand encroaching on the roads, for me it felt like one of the most western. Large supermarkets, service stations with enormous forecourts and what appeared to be a lot of Chinese-run shops dominated this riverside town.

    What the town lacked in character though the campsite setting and company easily made up for. Shane had already been lazing on the banks of the Zambezi all week, and would spend another 4 nights there when I arrived.

    One thing I’ve missed cycling alone in Africa is a drinking partner – someone to share a cold beer with at the end of a day of cycling, and who enjoys the real atmosphere of Africa away from the western comforts of backpacker hostels and tourist lodges. Shane easily fitted the bill, and as he planned his route north into rural Zambia I pondered for more than a brief moment during those blissful several days of drinking and barbecuing what it would be like to turn back around and join him. Why not? Zimbabwe, with its prices and history of southern African influenced segregation has already given me a feeling for what I imagine aspects of life in Namibia and South Africa to be like. Or perhaps I’m just sad that his real adventure is just starting and mine is coming towards its end? I’ll be keenly following his progress as he slowly heads north.

    For me the road out of Katima Muillo led in one direction – west, a long, straight, flat and largely featureless ride of 500+km through the Caprivi Strip. Geographically this looks like an exciting part of the country – wedged as it is like a dagger between Botswana to the South and Angola to the north. On a level of mental stimulation when seen over 4 longish days from the saddle of a bike it’s hard-going. Highlights include a couple of elephant crossings, some beautiful cloud formations, wild camping made so easy by lack of people that I could almost have done it blind-folded, and a wonderful tailwind. Long may the latter continue throughout the rest of this country. I have 470km separating me from Oshikati to the west of here, and then it’s on into Himba country– land of the scantily dressed.

  • Harare and beyond March 20th, 2012

    “Having sniffed the air south of the Zambezi I felt Zimbabwe to be not a continuation of black Africa, but – both historically and emotionally – the beginning of South Africa”. (Devla Murphy)

    I’m blaming the cold shower for causing the testicular torsion. Those who have commented on my last post, and others who have written to me by e-mail, provided a convincing consensus that it was the cold water on my hot body, rather than the friction between body and saddle that led to me experiencing probably the most painful night of my life. It’s easy to blame the cycling, and an obvious conclusion to make, but why would it happen on that particular day when it could have been hundreds of others which were far harder?

    Now that the story has been told I ought to back-track a little. I did after all spend almost 5 weeks recovering in Harare, which is longest I’ve stayed and will stay in any place throughout this journey.

    My hosts during that time, who had been complete strangers at first, introduced me to a side of life that I’d probably never witness had I joined the few other low-budget travellers who most likely pitch up at a municipal campsite or backpackers hostel in the city.

    Martin, the husband referred to this as the ‘parallel World’ of life in Harare. First there was the Caledonian Society Burns’ lunch, where I ate haggis and heard the bagpipes being played, and then there was a Valentine’s dinner, a quiz night, a Welsh Society St David’s Day lunch and various other social events and introductions in surroundings that I would not associate as being like the Africa I know. Most of those I met were at least a generation or more older than me, and there was one thing on almost all of these occasions that was noticeably missing – a black face.

    Zimbabwe does indeed feel like a farewell to the more familiar atmosphere of black Africa and an introduction to the complex social segregation of South Africa. It need not be a farewell, but once you have found yourself invited into a certain sphere of society, and then inevitably introduced to others within in, crossing into the other side or moving freely between the two doesn’t seem so simple.

    Many of the people I met in Harare had lived there most of their lives. They’d speak fondly of the “good old days”, which most likely referred to the time when Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia and under white minority rule. Blacks or munts, a derogatory term I occasionally overheard in conversation, knew their place and the economy ranked as one of the strongest in the World. I was never sure what these white audiences I spoke to at various functions made of my experience travelling through an Africa often devoid of familiarly-raced faces. I’d often introduce myself as the crazy English cyclist who likes a challenge, then wait for more questions or allow the conversation to drift back into something far more familiar, such as pets. My hosts had 8 dogs and 11 cats, excessive by anyone’s standards, but it was amazing how much time could be filled by talking to people about the personalities of one animal or another.

    I heard more recent stories from the last decade when white-owned farms had been seized and the economy lay in a mess. Inflation was out of control as prices of foodstuffs increased between the time one picked something up from a shelf and paid for it at the checkout till. Not that there was much food on the shelves to buy then. Supermarkets were near empty for a number of years and people would rush down to the nearest shop when they heard that a vital commodity like sugar or toilet paper was available to buy. And then there was the fuel crisis where petrol stations witnessed day-long queues. To have lived through the economic hard times must have been tough for anyone. “We had to make a plan” is an expression I heard many times when talking to whites in Harare.

    Many white Zimbabweans left the country during those hard years, finding a better or just more stable life in the UK or Australia. For many of the older ones that have stayed I couldn’t help but feel how trapped and often out of place they seemed. This parallel World holds onto a lifestyle and time that has long since disappeared throughout most of the continent.

    Well at least the hard or the worst times, in many respects, have now past. Since 2009 Zimbabwe has stabilised its economy by introducing the US$. There is no fuel shortage and the supermarkets are stacked with mostly South African imported foodstuffs. The country’s ageing and infamous President is never left out long from a conversation about Zimbabwe’s problems, and most people reserve a bottle of Champagne in their fridge for a certain occasion.

    My hosts lived in what planners might refer to as a ‘low-density suburb’. High-density suburbs, (townships) lie around the periphery of Harare and I only visited one when I joined a group of keen birdwatchers who drove out to a spot where thousands of migratory birds (Falcon hawks?) from Siberia came to settle each night in an a row of trees. The locals were far too used to the sight of these hawks to regard them as anything more than a noisy nuisance.

    Houses in Harare’s low-density suburbs are large, by any standard. It is probably one of the greenest capitals on the continent and signs for tree-cutters and lawn-mower repairs appear everywhere.

    Unless you enter through the guarded gates of a low-density suburb residence all you are likely to see is perhaps a rooftop when driving past. High walls crested with barbed wire or some electric cabling line most tree-shaded roads and the dense vegetation within helps screen out people trying to look in. All of these suburban side roads are paved, but many are badly pot-holed. The common joke is that you can always tell if someone is drink driving in Harare as they will drive straight, whilst a sober driver will swerve to avoid the potholes. In most African capitals I’ve been to these side roads would almost certainly be dirt-tracks. Many white residents in Harare have not seen life in countries north of Zambia to know just how civilised in comparison their city is, or at least was.

    High speed Internet at my host’s office helped pass the time in Harare. I e-mailed, photocopied, scanned, and posted various hospital receipts to my insurance company in the UK to try and claim back the $2000 or so of medical costs that had to be paid for upfront in cash. When the insurance company found out I’d bought the policy in Africa and not before I’d left the UK they finally wrote back to tell me I wouldn’t be covered. Well they paid out a measly sum last year when I was in Kenya, and that previous policy had been purchased when I was in Africa too. Several readers have mentioned offering to assist in helping to pay for medical costs, so I’d massively appreciate any donations here. I won’t be using Columbus Direct again, and neither should you.

    During the week before leaving Harare I’d been leisurely riding around the suburban back roads to get a feel for being back on the bike. I decided that paying the Congolese Urologist another $50 for a consultation when I felt fit to continue wasn’t worth it. And so I just set a date and left.

    The road out of Harare wasn’t all that enjoyable to re-commence the biking with. There was no hard shoulder for much of the way and the road was too narrow for the density of traffic. Even the scenery was a mostly featureless continuation of unremarkable bush, interspersed with what perhaps was once commercial white farmland. The familiar small mud-hut villages with waving children are noticeably absent in Zimbabwe. One passes the odd service station with a bottle store and butchery, but the social structure here with black communities living close to what were once commercial white-owned farms has changed the rural fabric. It’s quite dull to be honest.

    Having met various people in Harare (all white) I was invited to stay at a place mid-way between Harare and Bulawayo called Antelope Park. The idea had been to just pitch the tent for a night or two within the grounds, but the owner, who wasn’t there, had e-mailed and arranged for me to stay in a river-side lodge on a fully comp basis. For what would have cost me more than a week’s budget per night I was treated to more luxury than I’ve experienced on most of this trip.

    Antelope Park is privately run and kept busy by groups of young volunteers, almost all of whom are female and from Norway for some reason. Well I guess girls have more of an affinity for cuddling animals, and Antelope Park’s main focus seems to consist of raising lion cubs under captivity with the hope to release them back into the wild. Can this really work?

    For the 40+ volunteers, who each pay a small fortune for the privilege of being here, it appears more like a repackaged holiday, but at least the money goes into employing a large number of local staff, and the park is probably one of Zimbabwe’s premier tourist attractions.

    Shortly before arriving at Antelope Park I’d arranged to meet another UK cyclist here, who I’d been in contact with for several months. Ginger-haired Jack started his trip in Kenya on a bamboo bike, which had been designed and made as a prototype at Oxford Brookes University. It didn’t get far. The rear derailleur was damaged in the outbound flight from the UK, and by the time he’d got as far as Zanzibar he’d already ditched it and bought an expensive touring bike from a Dutch cyclist about to return home. The Africa leg of his trip will finish in Johannesburg in the coming weeks, from where he’ll fly to Istanbul and ride another bamboo bike, hopefully without too many glitches, back to the UK.

    Antelope Park’s staff included us in the various activities, which included riding elephants (incredibly uncomfortable), watching lions being fed and walking with lion cubs. African wildlife purists might scoff at the activities taking place here, and I for one never thought it possible to either ride an African elephant nor walk with lions. Jack and I had the idea that we could easily tell people back home of the day we encountered lions on the road, but the whole experience couldn’t have been tamer, and several Norwegian girls took the lion cub walk more as an opportunity for glossy sunset pictures than a serious exercise of rehabilitating lions back into the wild.

    From Antelope Park I had to take a bus 160km to Bulawayo in order to speak at a boarding school the same day. What should have been less than a two hour journey took more like six as the original bus never left the bus terminal in Gweru after the conductor ran away with everyone’s money. Police seemed utterly useless in assisting me to get a refund and once I’d finally given up waiting, got on another bus and paid again it was too late to reach Bulawayo in time. This is one of the few times I’ve used public transport with the bicycle in Africa and following this experience it will be the last. African time always applies and after a short period there is really nothing enjoyable about sitting in a hot, noisy and smelly African bus terminal for many hours on end.

    Fortunately a ride within Matopos National Park, just outside Bulawayo, provided a much needed change of scenery. I visited this park 11 years ago and remembered sitting atop Cecil Rhodes’ grave. Some Zimbabweans over the years have talked about digging it up – the name so embedded with the colonial history of the country, but the view from here couldn’t be removed.

    Here in Bulawayo I’m being hosted by more kind strangers within that minority sphere. Fundraising talks have been arranged for me at various clubs and schools before I cycle north from here later this week to Victoria Falls.

  • The Mambo Vipi test: Into Mozambique November 19th, 2011

    “Of the wide range of surface defects available in Africa, corrugations are, for the cyclist, the most uncomfortable though not the most tiring”. (Devla Murphy)

    There was no shortage of willing oarsmen waiting at the riverbank. This was the end of the road in Tanzania. Ahead lay the Ruvuma River, and beyond that Mozambique. Like many large African rivers it was difficult to see where the far side was. Islands of reeds, tall grasses and tidal sand bars made what was a massive waterway seem less dramatic. Seen from the air it would have been more impressive.

    I wasn’t paddled, but reassuringly punted across. Had the small rowing boat capsized I would at least have been able to stand up with head and shoulders above the surface. The thought always goes through my mind when taking a boat in Africa. What would happen if this thing sinks? I imagine trying to tread water holding onto all 50kg of my bike and luggage. I’d end up going down with it. Fortunately it was a peaceful crossing – at least once the fuss over who was going to take me had been settled.

    I paid around $5, which was what I had left in Tanzanian shillings. My punter was more ripped than a cover model of Men’s health magazine, but I still held my ground when he and his teenage mate demanded extra. I know I’d paid them more than enough for 30 minutes of their time, although the Slovenian motorcyclist I’d met near Lindi had paid $50, and I’d read of overlanders in 4x4s paying upwards of $250. Well life is always simpler and cheaper on a bicycle.

    I spent my first night in Mozambique camping outside the immigration post -something I’ve done at a number of remote African border crossings (Sierra Leone, Ghana, Kenya). There is usually never a problem, but bored immigration officials usually like to drink, and perhaps see some kind of trade-off that if you’re camping on their turf you won’t mind getting the drinks in. Best to yawn early and disappear inside one’s tent.

    Mural in Mocimboa

    Now that I’d entered a former Portuguese colony I assumed the Swahili I’d got used to speaking in the previous several months would be of no use. Fortunately not. Being at heart a coastal language, Swahili is probably equally as well understood on the shores of Somalia as it is here in northern Mozambique.

    One of the most enjoyable aspects of learning and speaking Swahili is the multitude of words used as a form of greeting, or as a reply to a greeting. Jambo, the first word a tourist might learn in east Africa, is rarely used in Tanzania. It is the informal ‘Mambo Vipi’ (‘how’s it going?’) that one hears commonly on the street. The most popular reply to which is ‘Poa’ (fine)) or any number of other words (nzima, shwari, muzuka, bomba, fresh, safi, kawaida, kabisa – I think that’s most of them?) Young children respectfully greet those older than them with a ‘Shikamou’, to which the reply is Marhaba, and then there is the widespread Islamic ‘Salama Aleikum’ should you wish to please/surprise one of the skull-capped men sitting in the village shade. Well they still apply, to a weaker degree, in northern Mozambique, and so my calling out of ‘Mambo Vipi’ continues to receive replies, albeit less so as I’ve come south.

    The roads, for the most part, have been terrible, although that is partly my own choosing. If corrugated roads, as Devla Murphy points out, are the most uncomfortable of surfaces in Africa, sandy roads are definitely the most tiring. Northern Mozambique has plenty of these. Whether cycling on a semi-compact surface or off the bike and pushing it through deep trenches of the stuff, the experience is a draining one. Throw 40 degree+ temperatures and a constant swarm of energetic flies trailing your back and dive bombing your ears into the mix and the experience becomes even less pleasant.

    Northern Mozambique

    Struggling in the sand

    What is it with flies in this part of Africa? They’re worse than anywhere I can remember. Worst of all are the tsetse flies, possibly the most annoying and curse-raging of all Africa’s cornucopia of flying insects. Tsetse flies (horse flies) don’t buzz. They just silently land on you and then bite – sometimes quite painfully. Historically it is the presence of tsetse flies that left many parts of the African bush undeveloped. My black panniers don’t help matters. Apparently tsetse flies prefer dark surfaces. Their presence on the small sandy tracks in the north of Mozambique is a reflection of how undeveloped this part of the country is. I could also say wild, for there was a fair amount of elephant shit to weave around on the tracks, which perhaps explained why some of the brave souls living in huts along the roadside had fortified their small compound with 10ft high poles of wood dug into the ground – the first time I have seen this in Africa. The elephants are probably sensible enough to stay inactive and rest in the shade during the day. I haven’t seen any.

    Pre-warning

    The first town of any significance one reaches coming south from the Tanzanian border is Mocimboa Da Praia, which boasts a non-functioning ATM machine and an Internet connection costing more than $1 for 15 minutes. There are a number of Portuguese-era buildings lining the orderly grid of roads, and socialist-style monuments to the country’s independence. Reasons to stay appeared short and I had a feeling there wasn’t much in the way of budget accommodation, an irony for a place that looked like it should have been brimming with it. I recall Mozambique being more expensive than the rest of southern and east Africa from when I travelled here 10 years ago. I don’t think things have changed. Western prices with African standards is what I read somewhere.

    Independence monument in Mocimboa

    I continued south from Mocimboa on the road my map was labelling as the 247. This was a continuation of the same road that had brought me from the Tanzanian border. I knew it was a dirt track, but the fact it bore a number gave me the impression that it was a ‘designated’ road. Perhaps at one stage in the past it was, but what began as a graded track soon gave way to sand and then a narrow track ending in a mangrove swamp. Fantastic. This was not in the plan.

    After the mangroves

    “You will have to cross two rivers” had said a perplexed teenager in the nearby village of Marare as I sipped sweet tea and dunked it with bread (chapattis alas are no more, but hurrah for the return of good bread!). His mate was beside himself in hysterics when I showed my surprise that there was no bridge or ferry.

    The wheel arches of my bike were jammed with soft sticky mangrove mud when I made it to the first river. To begin with it seemed a good idea to wash the mud off, but the water was brackish and I’ve had enough salt getting into the bike as it is in the past few months. As I had been warned there was no bridge, no boat and not a soul around to call for help. Going back would have been a serious detour, so I lay the bike on the sandy riverbank and waded across. If salt water crocodiles exist in Mozambique this looked like a great place for them to hang out.

    River criosing

    My first attempt at wading across the river was unsuccessful. I stepped into a deep channel and the water rose above my shoulders. I walked/swam out and pushed the bike upriver to where I could see an emerging sand bank. With the tide on the way out time was in my favour. This time round I made it across(60 metres to the sand bank and a further 15 metres to the far bank) with the river below waist-height most of the way. I transported the bags and bike in 4 journeys, careful not to lose my footing on the muddy riverbed. At high tide this would have been harder, and in the rainy season with a much stronger current I’d have probably detoured and gone back to Mocimboa, where a paved road runs inland and south.

    After reassembling the bike and cycling through harvested fields of rice I had to repeat the process again – more mangroves, mud and another river. As far as I could tell there was never a bridge across either of the rivers. Which foolish cartographer/planner had given this road a number? It would be inaccessible to any motorised transport.

    I spent the following 2 nights sleeping beneath palm trees on a stunning stretch of coastline. My host Ismail told me the village name was Nfunzi. The plan had been to reach Pangane, some 6km further on, where I remembered reading something about a campsite in a Lonely Planet guidebook. I never made it owing to all that sand again. When I saw the sea up close I stopped. A nearby woman laughed at me struggling. I asked in Swahili if I could sleep where I was and she led me to Ismail’s home.

    Like everywhere else in Africa I arrived unannounced. Ismail and his family spoke Kimwani, which is closely related to Swahili. On one side of their palm-thatched shack lay rice fields and on the other the turquoise shallows of the Indian Ocean. Carbohydrates from one source and protein from another. Life couldn’t have been simpler.

    Young fisherman

    Girl in Nfunzi village

    Beach at Nfunzi

    My surroundings were unexpectedly replaced with a dose of luxury when I continued south on yet another sandy track. “We’ve just come from Guludu Beach Lodge. You should go and say hi. There are some English people working there”. The news came through the window of a 4×4 transporting 4 white faces. They’d passed me several days earlier on a similarly terrible stretch of road and probably thought it time to stop and greet the crazy cyclist.

    I duly headed towards Guludu Beach Lodge and met another white face driving towards me in a land rover. “Just going to collect some sand. I’m Harry by the way”. I thought this was a joke on my behalf. Why anyone in this part of Mozambique would need to go anywhere to collect sand I’m not sure. “Isn’t it everywhere”? I suggested. “There’s a particularly sandy stretch up ahead. Go and meet my girlfriend and I’ll be back shortly”.

    Down at the beach I met 4 other young foreigners working at Guludu Beach Lodge – a simple, eco-friendly, beautiful and way-out-of-my-budget resort. There are lots of places like this in Africa, but Mozambique seems to specialise in luxury resorts – the type that appear in the Sunday Times travel section where you can experience the beauty of Africa and the Indian Ocean for the bargain price of something like £2500 for 10 days, excluding flights. It is another World from life on the road.

    The plan had just been to say hi and possibly get some information about the road ahead, but a very generous discount on a room had me content to pretend that I too could have booked my holiday through the Sunday Times. I’m not sure when the last time was that I slept on a bed with a proper mattress.

    Guludu Beach Lodge

    Harry and his girlfriend Caitlin had found jobs at Guludu through a website called escapethecity.com, and their surroundings were definitely a change of scenery from sitting at an office desk from 9-5.

    I would have stayed a second night had the local employees not told me that if I wanted to reach Quissanga and the road south to Pemba then I would have to take a boat leaving very early in the morning. There definitely was no road ahead, despite my map depicting one.

    And so the Guludu team waved me off the next afternoon before I rejoined the sand track for another 15km, bringing me to the village of Darumba/Mipange. Here the road really did end. I pitched the tent in a school teacher’s compound and set my alarm for 3.45am the next morning on learning that a boat would sail to Quissanga starting after 4am. Sure enough it did, with surprisingly few passengers – a peaceful journey between the mainland and the Quirimba islands.

    Dhow between the Quirimba islands

    Dhow to Quissanga

    Road to Pemba

    The following day I rolled into Pemba, where I sit now in a campsite/lodge I first came to 10 years ago. It’s a lot busier than I remember it to be. Down the road there is some American-financed mission with hundreds of young missionary volunteers. A group of them were having a discussion last night about whether there is a sushi restaurant in Mozambique. Apparently Maputo has one. I haven’t spoken to any of them. It would be interesting to hear what their impressions are of Mozambique and Africa. My tent resides under a cashew tree away from the bar and my stove for the first time in many months is getting frequent use again. In Tanzania or Kenya I could just pop out onto the street to find cheap eats. Not here it seems.

    For the first time in weeks my bike is now free of sand and salt. It’s tempting to finally use the paved road to take me further south, but I seem to be drawn to small roads that end at bridgeless rivers. There is another one between here and Nacala.

    Young Mozambican girl

  • Anglophone Africa again May 30th, 2011

    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.

    Banana boy

    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 the English cyclist

    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.

    Lake Bunyoni, western Uganda

    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.

    Road to Bwindi NP

    Edge of Bwindi Impenetrable forest

    Cattle herder

    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.

    Western Uganda

    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.

    Elephants in Queen Elizabeth NP

    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.

    Off road in western Uganda

    Pose on the Equator

    Crater lake, western Uganda

    Bike with bananas

    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.

    Impressive

    Overloaded bike