• ‘Watch out for the animals': Mwanza-Muscat Part 4 August 20th, 2015

    I slept on a vibrating bed during my first night out of Kampala. Slept would actually be the wrong description. I lay wide-awake with my fingers pushing earplugs ever deeper into my skull and a pillow pulled over my head.

    There had been a power-cut when I arrived in what seemed like a quiet roadside village some 90km north of Kampala. That of course is a minor problem when a generator is available. Had I seen the 1.5-metre high speakers in the bar when I rolled my bike into the £2 per night room out the back I might have enquired if there was alternative accommodation.

    $3 room.

    Given how cheap and basic the Guest House was there seemed little point in complaining when I decided to go and see who was appreciating the record-breaking decibels on the dance-floor behind my room. It was Wednesday – ladies night apparently, but when I poked by head into a dark abyss some time before midnight I realised I wasn’t missing much. Hardly a soul there. Loud music for the sake of loud music it would seem. Uganda does this well.

    The following day I continued north thinking how Uganda is possibly Africa’s greenest country. A cow’s paradise for sure. No wonder the quality of beef here is better than in Tanzania.

    Road north from Kampala

    Beef stew and matoke/rice/greens

    There wasn’t a lot of traffic on the road, but what there was seemed to pass me at suicidal speeds. Besides, main roads are never as interesting to cycle if there is a realistic alternative available.

    So I decided to call the Ugandan Wildlife Authority and ask if it was possible to cycle through Murchinson Falls National Park. I assumed the answer would be ‘no’, but when someone eventually picked up the phone and heard me explain what park gates I would enter and exit from the advice was simply to ‘watch out for animals’.

    I suppose that was a fairly obvious thing to say. Well it was partly the reason I wanted to visit Uganda’s largest National Park. Other than leaving the main road I also wished to see the waterfalls from which the park gets its name, and I knew that cycling through a National Park would provide scenery more reminiscent of a landscape that much of Africa used to resemble before people started chopping down trees, building houses and killing wildlife.

    Getting there required a little more distance to cover as the road headed west towards the small town of Masindi. From here a a dirt track led through cane sugar plantations and the edge of a large forest reserve, before dropping down to the shores of Lake Albert and skirting the edge of Bugungu wildlife reserve.

    Huts and sugar cane fields

    Through Budongo Forest Reserve

    Ugandan boys

    Above Lake Albert

    Puncture stop

    One thing I hadn’t been told on the phone was to watch out for tsetse flies. They descended on me almost immediately after I paid the $40 for a 24-hour permit to the park at Bugungu Gate. And so rather than pedal gently towards the River Nile and Paraa, where most of the park’s accommodation is, I raced like crazy for 15km in a vain attempt to out-cycle these bloodsuckers.

    They followed me into the bar at Red Chillis hideaway. I’d been told this was the cheapest place to pitch a tent ($7) and wondered why no one else I saw on arrival wasn’t squatting themselves like me.

    ‘They only like moving objects and are attracted to black and blue’, said one of the staff. Well seeming that my bike and panniers are black and I was wearing a blue t-shirt, no wonder I had quickly become a magnet out on the road. Within minutes they had fortunately disappeared and I found a shady spot to pitch the tent.

    Later that day I decided to sign up for a boat trip in order to see the park’s main attraction. So I paid another $30 and joined a merry-crew of camera-wielding wazungus on a memorable journey up the River Nile. This was far better value, as a few pictures here show.

    Lazying hippos

    Elephants in Murchinson Falls National Park

    Murchinson Falls

    Murchinson Falls

    For one reason or another there were no tsetse flies on the north bank of the river when I crossed early the next day. For this I was very glad, not only because I had almost twice as far to cycle to reach the exit gate at Tangi (25km), but the scenery was more impressive and there were many opportunities to stop and watch the wildlife. Giraffes, warthogs, large birds, various antelopes and a number of buffalo were all clearly visible, the latter fortunately at a safe-ish distance.

    Crossing the River Nile at Paraa

    Giraffe in Murchinson Falls National Park

    Buffalo ahead

    Within Murchsinson Falls National Park

    I crossed the Nile again shortly after exiting the park, this time on a large iron bridge beside the town of Pakwach. Between Paraa and here the river makes a spectacular 90 degree turn as it enters Lake Albert from the east and then almost immediately flows out of the lake and turns north.

    The River Nile

    Canoe on the Nile

    Grass huts

    Sweet sap

    Chair stack

    It’s northwards that I’m heading again. I write this from the bustling town of Arua, which is a short distance from the border with the DRC. The Wikipedia entry for the town says there is a large influx of refugees from both the DRC and South Sudan here, which would probably explain why there are a number of NGO offices around.

    The £5 per night hotel I took a room in yesterday has since become £4 when I explained how loud the room is. Directly outside there is a mobile-telephone repair shop that plays loud music from 6.30am. That’s almost 2 hours after the call to prayer from several nearby mosques and just before the posho mill (maize mill) opens. I attempted to move into another room but realised there are mobile-repair shops and mosques on all sides.

    An interesting event happened to me this morning while I walked around a large covered market directly behind the hotel. It feels worthy of mentioning as I haven’t experienced it before in Africa, although I’ve since learnt it’s not uncommon.

    So I had walked into the market to buy a new hat, or rather find a second-hand one as many clothes items here are imported from abroad. This I did easily, before continuing to walk around with no real purpose other than see what else the market comprised of.

    The covered clothes market opened out into a different market full of motorbike-repair workshops, scrap-metal dealers and stalls selling tools. Like all markets and public places in Africa there were plenty of people standing and sitting around doing nothing in particular.

    As I moved on and headed out of the market a man walked past me in a hurry. In front of my feet a large wad of bundled bank notes dropped to the ground, having fallen from his back pocket. A split second afterwards another man, less well dressed and much younger, picks up the dropped bundle and quickly puts it in his back pocket.

    Thinking to myself that I can’t let this go unnoticed I pull this young guy aside and tell him that money isn’t his.

    ‘Let us share it bwana’, he says sheepishly. I continue to hold this teenager by the arm hoping someone will come and assist.

    Less than a minute later the man who dropped the wad returns in a rush. He walks past me again and I call him back.

    ‘This guy here has your money’, I say, releasing my grip on the teenager.

    He pulls the wad out of the back pocket and quickly puts it back into his.

    ‘Let me give you something for this’, insists the smartly dressed man, who then beckons me to follow him somewhere less public. I explain he can give something to the boy, who probably thought his luck was going to change with this huge amount of money.

    I then walk away thinking how I had done a good deed, although deprived some poor guy out of what was a small fortune.

    Back at the hotel shortly afterwards I start to explain the story to the receptionist who soon bursts into laughter. ‘Those guys are thieves. There is only money on the outside of the bundle. They wanted you to go with them. Not to give you some of the money but to rob you. It’s a popular trick here’.

    Well so much for my good deed. I now know it’s best to ignore bundles of money that fall at your feet in Africa. They can’t be real after all.

    You can view the route I have followed so far in Uganda at the bottom of this page.

  • New visas: Mwanza-Muscat Part 3 August 10th, 2015

    A refrigerator box made an excellent container to transport my bicycle on a plane out of Tanzania. Cycling away would have been preferable, were it not for the fact that in order to go north, which is the direction I’m generally going, I’d be re-riding some of the roads I’d already covered. This rarely has much appeal, unless the roads are stupendously scenic, which they weren’t.

    Fortunately FastJet fly from Kilimanjaro Airport to Uganda and tickets cost all of £20. Well that’s before tax, after which the price quadruples. Even still, with an extra £20 for the bike and several quid for the gear the total price made it an affordable option. I also had good memories of cycling in Uganda.

    Bike in a fridge box

    My 3-week stay at the Arusha Hotel finished with me signing a bill I was very glad I didn’t have to pay. Goodbye full English breakfasts and 5-star luxury. Goodbye bus-loads of safari-clad tourists who always filled the hotel lobby every morning to be briefed by tour-operators about their impending trip to one of the nearby National Parks. None ever seemed to venture onto the streets of Arusha. Well that wasn’t in the itinerary, and being hassled by multi-lingual touts would only mire what were probably very expensive holidays.

    The hotel must have been making an absolute fortune from this lot. Had I cared more I would have told the Indian manager to invest in some better customer service. It’s a concept that remains mostly foreign in Tanzania, even when people pay western prices. Instead I gave one of the security guards the two pairs of trousers I’d bought to work in and pedalled off to a Warmshowers host. Thanks for the fridge box if you happen to be reading this Eric.

    My short teaching contract provided a welcome break, as well as a good opportunity to be back in the classroom interacting with Tanzanian students. If I could live a life of cycle-touring for several months then pick up a 2 or 3-week well-paid teaching contract in an interesting location I might just spend the rest of my life doing that.

    Ugandan immigration had little time for my reasoning that I didn’t need a visa when I arrived. I was in Uganda for a weekend in late May and paid $50 for a visa which I hoped would allow me free re-entry to the country within 90 days. Tanzania and Kenya at least follow this policy. So much for an East African Union making it easier for people to travel freely around the region.

    Painting of President Musuveni

    Uganda now in fact charges $100 instead of $50 (prices changed on July 1st) and I was going nowhere until I paid it.

    ‘Don’t worry.You will enjoy Uganda. There is plenty of food and good security’, said a portly immigration officer as he relieved me of a crisp bill and stamped my passport.

    Ugandan lunch

    As international airports go, Entebbe’s is an easy one to cycle away from, located as it is at the end of a peninsula jutting into Lake Victoria. The main road from here, well pretty much only road, heads to Kampala, just 35km away.

    Kampala

    I hadn’t planned such a long stay here, but then didn’t anticipate the obstacles and delay in acquiring a visa for South Sudan. Fortunately, Kampala, despite the crazy traffic and near death experiences every time one gets on the back of a boda-boda (a motorbike taxi) isn’t such a bad place to pass the time. People are friendly, they speak good English and there seems to be less of the immature ‘Mzungu’ calling that accompanies a stay in Tanzania. There also happens to be a great selection of bars and restaurants. An easy place for a single man to get trapped perhaps, as I’m sure many have…

    Downtown Kampala

    Boda Boda Drivers

    Beer with a view

    Kampala bus park

    Kampala bus park at sunset

    When I first conceived the idea for this current tour South Sudan had never been on the agenda, fraught as the country is with Civil War. A quick look at the FCO website will confirm that the 4-year old country isn’t the safest on the continent to visit right now. But I’ve never used the FCO website as a means to plan where I go, recognising that conflict in one part of a country doesn’t necessarily mean everywhere is actually as dangerous.

           South Sudan FCO travel advice

    A friend in Tanzania had worked in the country a few years back and started convincing me, or rather helped convince myself, that it would be a challenging and adventurous way to enter Ethiopia, which remains the plan.

    A visa for South Sudan isn’t easily obtainable, requiring a letter of invitation from within the country. Anticipating this to be a minor hurdle I decided to write my own invitation letter and forward it to my friend’s colleague in South Sudan, who could then sign it, which he did.

    The problem is self-written invitations don’t look so impressive without official letter-heads and stamps. My application was quickly rejected.

    I returned two days later with what I considered a formal invite, only to be told that I now needed a ‘Certificate of Incorporation’ in order to prove that the company who had invited me were officially registered. The letter could also not be addressed ‘To whom it may concern’ but the ‘Visa section’.

    By this point I was close to giving up, which wouldn’t have been a huge issue as I can just cross back into Kenya and enter Ethiopia that way.

    The certificate was soon emailed to me with the necessary letter changes. I returned once again. This time the Consular wasn’t in the office, but I was assured the visa would be processed, which indeed it was. Same day service as well (normally it takes 3 working days). Another $100.

    I have until September the 6th to enter the country. Well I assume that the 1-month duration of my visa is from the day I enter the country rather than the day the visa is issued. Such trivialities shouldn’t matter in Africa. I have northern Uganda to explore first.

    South Sudan Visa

  • 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