• Some Stats: Mwanza-Muscat Part 18 April 10th, 2016

    Before I head off on another adventure I thought it would be interesting to post some statistics from my recent tour, alongside a few comments and reflections:

    Duration of tour: 238 days

    Total distance cycled: 10,375 km

    Total distance on unpaved roads: 2071 km. In northern Kenya and South Sudan I had no other option but to ride on dirt tracks. In other countries – Uganda, Ethiopia and Oman for example, I sometimes chose to take dirt tracks as a more adventurous/quieter alternative to the paved roads.

    Climbing away from Jebel Shams

    Number of non-cycling days: 106. I spent 3 weeks working in Tanzania (not in the original plan when I planned the trip) and took long rest stops in Kampala and Addis Ababa. Fortunately I was not bound by time constraints, so had the luxury to tour slowly and take as many rest days as I liked.

    Mean daily distance cycled: 78 km. People often ask how far I cycle each day. My reply is an average of 80-100km. On this particular tour I did plenty of short days.

    Longest day: 144 km in eastern Ethiopia. I was riding until late hoping to find somewhere to camp – never easy in Ethiopia as so much of the roadside was cultivated and populated. I ended up in a cheap Guest House.

    Highest altitude cycled: 3300m in eastern Ethiopia.

    Cost of visas: £410. Visas in Africa are almost always paid in US $ and the cost of mine as the trip progressed goes as follows: Kenya – $50 (3-month on arrival), Uganda – $100 (3-month on arrival), South Sudan – $100 (applied and paid for in Uganda), Ethiopia visa extension for 3 months$150. (I already had an original visa for Ethiopia that I had bought in London – £60 for a 6-month multiple entry – this needed extending when I was in Ethiopia as it was already 4 months old when I entered the country) Somaliland – $70 (1-month visa bought in Ethiopia), Oman $50 (1-month on arrival which I extended by another 1 month for an additional $50).

    Total cost of tour (including visas): £2450. When I left Tanzania for the final time I emptied my local bank account and changed all the remaining Tanzanian shillings into US $ ($2200 worth to be precise). Carrying more cash than necessary is never really recommended, but this kept me going for some months before I relied on my UK debit card to make cash withdrawals. I expected Oman would be the most costly country to tour through, but I camped almost every night during my time here. This meant daily costs were kept to a minimum, particularly as I wasn’t drinking alcohol and tourist attractions were very cheap.

    Mean cost per day: £10.29. By camping or staying in simple lodgings, eating local food and avoiding expensive tourist activities, my daily costs were relatively modest on this tour.

    Total spent on accommodation: £637.50. Most nights in Africa I stayed in local lodgings, ranging in price from bed-bug ridden £1 Guest Houses in Ethiopia, to more comfortable rooms costing £8-12+ (the highest I paid was £18 in Kenya). During the 3 weeks I worked in Tanzania accommodation was paid for. I was also invited as a guest in several places and used the Warmshowers website when there were hosts on my route.

    Number of nights spent in tent: 59. Most of my camping was done in Oman where I slept in the tent on 41 nights. Only on 1 of these 59 nights was I in a campsite where I paid to sleep (Murchinson Falls National Park in Uganda). I mostly wild camped in Oman because camping here was so safe, easy and scenic. Accommodation in Oman, when it did exist, was also relatively expensive (typically £30 upwards).

    Camping on Mughsal beach

    Total number of beers consumed: 361. This number is about 90% accurate; the 10% uncertainty owing to the days when I drank too many beers to remember. Bottled beer is easily available throughout East Africa. I consumed more beers in Ethiopia than anywhere else, which is partly because the bottles were generally smaller (often 330ml instead of 500ml like Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda) and also because they were so easily available. Beer in Ethiopia was also cheaper than anywhere else (around £0.30 for a bottle) and the hardship of my days cycling here usually demanded I drink at least 2 every night.

    Harar beer

    Mean number of beers consumed per day before arriving in Somaliland: 2.2. Once I left Ethiopia and continued through Somaliland and Oman I went without a drop of alcohol for well over 2 months.

    Number of punctures: (2 in Tanzania 4 in Uganda, 1 in Ethiopia, 1 in Oman).

    Hardest country to cycle through: Ethiopia (by far). Almost every day presented a battle with people (mostly children) who took great delight in chasing and taunting me from the roadside.

    Easiest country to cycle through: Oman. Safe, friendly, easy to camp, scenic, great roads (some can be steep!) – the list could go on. A fantastic winter cycle-touring destination.

    Most pleasant surprise: Being able to cycle freely in Somaliland without an armed escort, which I’d heard might be necessary.

    Country I would most like to return to: South Sudan. For reasons that puzzled me a little at the time, I was deported from the country on a remote road that felt as adventurous as anywhere else I’ve toured on the continent. Several months after leaving I read of another foreign cyclist who was robbed and left badly beaten at the roadside. Looking back, perhaps my desire for adventure had been sensibly curtailed by the police who found me. South Sudan was, and remains, far less secure than most of the other places I toured on this journey, but I’d seen so little of a country that looked like it had so much more to offer.

    Picked up by the Police

    Highlight of the tour: Spending 4 days at sea crossing from Somaliland to Oman with a crew of 15 Indians and a cargo of 500 cows. This was a timeless journey; detached from so many of the World’s problems one is witness to when on terra firma with an Internet connection.

    Sitting with some crew

  • Northern Uganda: Mwanza-Muscat Part 5 September 1st, 2015

    Not many people visit northern Uganda. This is understandable. For a number of years most areas were considered off-limits as a rebel group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army terrorised villages and communities, effectively dividing the country in two.

    The LRA and their infamous leader Joseph Kony no longer operate from Uganda, but places ravaged by years of destruction, child abduction and neglect don’t recover all that quickly, and memories for people don’t fade.

    I had this in mind as I moved north from Arua. The road was actually only a few years old – a smooth ribbon of tarmac cutting a wide swath through a peaceful countryside of conical straw-hut villages.

    Rural Uganda

    The larger settlements, still villages, but usually labelled trading centres in Africa, consisted of more concrete buildings. Most of these were covered in bright paint advertising the companies who had obviously paid for this lurid spectacle. Soap powder, mobile phone, solar panel and of course paint companies dominated. The scenes on the roadside could have been from a number of African countries.

    There would typically be a small shop of some description, a wooden bench or two outside and perhaps a tree providing shade nearby. Within that shade sitting on those benches would be anything from two to a dozen plus boys or men. A few motorbike taxis might also be parked alongside. The people were always male of course. Just sitting, passing the time. Sometimes there would be a game of cards taking place. Other times it just appeared like people were waiting for something to happen or someone to arrive. At least that is how I interpreted it. I imagined there must be hundreds of thousands of people in the countryside, maybe millions, doing precisely nothing for most of the day. Too hot perhaps, although the women  were working.

    None of it surprised me. I’ve seen it everywhere in rural Africa. I would wave, attempt a greeting and pedal on in the heat, wondering what discussion would follow in my wake.

    The languages in fact changed too often for me to keep track of. In an area where Uganda, DRC and South Sudan – countries with years of instability and the subsequent movement of people, come together quite closely, I suspected there must be a complete mix of ethnicities. At least where English didn’t work so well Kiswahili sometimes helped.

    The children mostly seemed to entertain themselves with what nature provided them with. Had the water been clearer and cleaner I might have joined an excitable bunch as they hurled themselves off a bridge near some rice fields one afternoon.

    Water acrobatics

    Watch me!

    Kids having fun

    One of the most noticeable man-made features in many of these settlements were the churches. Uganda is predominantly Christian and there were no shortage of large missions on the roadside. Each one seemed to be demarcated on google maps. Little else was.

    Uganda church

    The landscape remained green, but the sun became hotter as I left the tarmac and descended back towards the banks of the River Nile on a dusty track.

    Dusty road from Koboko-Moyo

    Grass huts in view of Mt Otzi

    Descending to the River Nile at Laropi

    I was hoping the heat would actually dry out my GPS. It had stopped working in Murchinson Falls National Park following the mother of all rainstorms. I’d left it on the bike under blue skies for a few hours when I’d taken a trip up the river. The following morning when I packed-up to leave it went into a beeping frenzy and then switched itself off.

    For the next few days I observed the screen fogging-up as I had it charged into the e-werk electrical converter that is connected to my dynamo hub. Power was obviously going into the device as the battery was charging, but none of the buttons were responding.

    Fogged-up GPS

    In the town of Koboko a guy working in a phone-repair shop opened it up with a tiny screwdriver. No sign of moisture so I followed the advice from others on the Internet which was to leave it in a bag of rice for several days. A 1 kg bag of local rice was duly purchased and I crossed my fingers that this would do the trick. To date there remains no sign of life.

    Fortunately my smartphone can easily log the rides using the GPS function and be charged from the dynamo hub.

    Inside of a Garmin 705

    The Nile ferry crossing at Laropi departed 30 minutes before schedule. This rarely happens in Africa (it’s also a free service which is even rarer), but no-one seemed the least bothered because sitting in the heat beside a collection of wooden shacks serving tea and snacks provided little joy.

    Local cafe

    Boat across the Nile

    River Nile at Laropi

    I slept in simple lodgings most nights (£2-£5) and washed my shirt and shorts from dust and salt stains while I showered with cold water. It often seemed somewhat pointless as it would only take a few large vehicles to pass me the following day on the road to return my body and clothes to the state they were in before. Still, wearing something cleanish in the morning is a better start to the day than putting on dirt-encrusted clothes. When camping there is of course little choice unless one is fortunate to be next to a source of water.

    Dealing with dust

    I thought I heard a gun fired at my back one day on the road into Gulu. Within seconds the rear tyre had gone flat. I pushed the bike off the road and inspected it. A huge hole appeared in the middle of what are often dubbed indestructible tyres by touring cyclists. How had this happened?

    End of an XR

    For a number of weeks a split in the wall of the same tyre had occasionally pinched the inner tube and caused several punctures. Earlier on the same day the tyre blew-out I’d patched up a large tear in the tube and continued riding. Under what was obviously tremendous pressure I later cycled over a splint of metal, which not only caused the tube to pop again, but pop with so much force that it blew this hole through the tyre profile.

    Tyre wall split

    Fortunately I was carrying a spare, although hadn’t expected to need this for some time, if at all on this tour.

    North from Gulu I imagined a narrow bush track would lead towards Kitgum and the border with South Sudan. Several years ago that might have been the case. Now the track has been widened and graded. I suspect in the next few years another smooth black ribbon.

    Restaurant in Gulu

    Water collectors

    Rain ahead

     This track widening continued north of Kitgum – a new highway of sorts connecting Uganda with South Sudan, although for the moment there is practically no traffic other than work vehicles.

    Road construction

    Breakfast view

    Sign in Mada Opei

    I had no idea what the Ugandan border post with South Sudan was called or whether it even existed.

    I pulled over alongside a huddle of women beside a collection of grass huts. At first it looked like they were filling 20 Litre jerry-cans with water. But the jerry-cans were partly inflated and there was a sweet smell of alcohol in the air.

    ‘That’s gu’, said the immigration official as I at in the cool shade of another conical hut a short distance away some minutes later. ‘It’s a mixture of maize and sugar. Very strong. They will walk over there’. He pointed to a line of green mountains in South Sudan. It looked so far away.

    Ugandan immigration

    Ugandan immigration

    ‘So you’re a missionary’? asked the official as he continued to write down my passport details in a notebook.

    ‘Do a lot of missionaries come through this way?’ I replied, before explaining he could write ‘teacher’ instead.

    ‘They used to’. Just a few Ugandans come through here now.

    ‘So where is the South Sudanese border post?’, I asked another official as I stepped back out into the glaring sun.

    ‘It’s 22km away’, he said pointing down the road on which these women were now walking. I said my goodbyes and hoped the entry into South Sudan would be equally as smooth.

    Alcohol carriers

    The route for this section of the journey, up to Kitgum, can be viewed here

  • ‘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

  • Old roads and new: Mbeya-Mwanza Part 3 March 18th, 2015

    The tarmac stopped at the Tanzanian border. On the Burundian side the road was under construction. A man wearing a wide-rimmed straw hat was sat in the seat of a road grading machine. I waved at him as I slowly climbed up the steep slope that cut into the green hillside. Either he didn’t see me or pretended not to. I’m sure my bicycle must have been in his vision. I would have asked him many questions given the opportunity, but doubt he’d have understood them, unless I spoke Chinese.

    This was my second visit to Burundi and I was happy to be back. The African mainland’s second most densely populated country is a great place to cycle, so it’s a pity the country isn’t bigger.

    The photos in this final blog post cover the remainder of my journey through Burundi, Rwanda, a day in Uganda and then back to Mwanza in Tanzania. Lots more mountains, smiles, some great scenery and the usual great cycling.

    Chinese road construction

    Another new road in the making. Heading north from the Burundian/Tanzanian border to the town of Makamba, where the tarmac starts again.

    Burundian beer

    Now here’s a beer that’s worth drinking. It might not be African by name, but it’s brewed in Burundi and tastes great.

    Mission beside Lake Tanganyika

    One of the few flat roads in Burundi runs along the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

    North to Bujumbura

    Heading north to Bujumbura. I cycled this road in the opposite direction 18 months ago.

    Sunset over Lake Tanganyika

    Sunset over Lake Tanganyika. The sky wasn’t clear enough to see the DRC on the other side.

    Burundian curiosity

    It’s hard not to draw a crowd when stopping on the roadside in Burundi. Few people travel here and people are curious to get a closer look.

    Bujumbura Coffee factory

    The mountains in Burundi produce some great coffee. By the end of my trip my panniers contained about 4kg of coffee from Malawi, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda. This photo was taken in Bujumbura. I stayed 2 nights and parted ways with Anselm here, who stayed on longer.

    Bicycle cargo

    Bicycles in Burundi are commonly loaded with all sorts of cargo. This is on the road north from Bujumbura to the Rwandan border post near Bugarama.

    House on wheels

    At least 100kg of bricks loaded up here. I discreetly took a picture from behind as I feared photographing from the side or front might cause this poor chap to loose his balance!

    An aged saddle

    An aged saddle with some serious character.

    Weld job on Surly front rack

    During the 7 week tour the brackets on both sides of the Surly front rack broke. It wasn’t hard to find a welder, but the welds broke on several occasions. I have new brackets back in the UK.

    Burundi Map

    Painted up on the wall of a bar. An outline of one of Africa’s smallest and most densely populated countries

    Lake Kivu

    On my first day in Rwanda I briefly passed Lake Kivu.

    Tea Plantation

    Tea plantations on the road east from Cyangugu at about 1700m in altitude.

    Above the morning mist in Nyungwe Forest

    Climbing up through the cool mountain air to 2600m in altitude, Nyungwe Forest remains a rare reminder of what so much of Equatorial Africa must have looked like before man started to deforest it.

    Big day of climbing

    Anything over 1500m of accumulated climbing in a day on a fully loaded bicycle constitutes a challenging one. Day 1 in Rwanda and typically it’s all up and down – mostly up.

    Morning sunlight in Nyungwe Forest

    Morning sunlight in Nyungwe Forest. This was the view from outside my tent, which was pitched on a rare flat space of land, fortunately invisible from the roadside. I had been told it was illegal to camp within the National Park. Had I been seen by Park Rangers I would have been fined and asked to move. The reality was there was no-where else to sleep.

    The Congo and Nile River watershed

    Some interesting African Geography I didn’t know. This was taken in Nyungwe Forest.

    Local bike

    Plenty of local wooden bikes like this on the road in Rwanda. Great for downhills, less so for up.

    Local bike

    Roadside spectators

    Children are everywhere in Rwanda – something that could be said about a lot of sub-Saharan African countries. Here however the population density is so high that stopping on the roadside is almost always associated with a collection of young faces.

    Project Rwanda: Coffee Bike

    I saw a lot of these ‘cargo bikes’ in Rwanda. I think they were designed with the idea of transporting coffee, but any load will do.

    French couple on tour

    They told me their names twice and I still forget. They were headed south towards Burundi – their English as poor as my French, of which I seem to have forgotten lots since west and Central African days on The Big Africa Cycle. When the crowd of kids got too much we bid each other bon voyage.

    Waterfall in Rwanda

    I don’t remember the name of the Waterfall – in fact I almost missed it on the road north from Kigali to Uganda. Fortunately it was only a few hundred metres from the road and easy to reach.

    Terraced slopes north from Byumba

    After climbing north from Kigali on the RN3 – one of Rwanda’s super clean paved roads, you reach a small junction town called Byumba with a lovely view north towards Uganda.

    Rwandan school student

    I was as much impressed by this Rwandan boy’s English as I was his motorcycle side-mirror.

    Kabale at dawn

    I am rarely awake and on the road at sunrise, but during the final days of this tour I was on a mission to reach Bukoba in Tanzania in time for work. And so it was that I pedalled out of Kabale shortly before dawn – a good reminder that this is the best time of the day in Africa.

    Katoro: Ugandan breakfast

    Ugandans consume more bananas per head than any other nationality in the World apparently. Katogo is a common breakfast – plantain, beans – and usually offal, the latter fortunately absent here. Great energy for the road.

    Roasted meat and phone charging

    Just one of those random signs that make you laugh and stop.

    Camping above the Kagera River

    Another special camp spot, of which there were many on this tour. The Kagera River is, for want of argument, the source of the Nile. Its headwaters drain from Rwanda and the river itself flows into Lake Victoria. This whole area on the Uganda/Tanzania border had a remoteness to it. My tent was pitched a hundred metres or so above the river, soothingly audible as I fell asleep early after 135km that day, mostly on a dirt track.

    Re-entry to Tanzania

    This was interesting. My GPS and map was telling me I was now on the border of Uganda and Tanzania, but there was no immigration post nor anyone in sight, just a rusted sign showing the distances to various towns ahead. Fortunately I have a Tanzanian residency permit, so wasn’t fussed that my passport wouldn’t be getting a re-enty stamp into Tanzania. Likewise I was never stamped out of Uganda, having paid $50 for a visa when I was only there 36 hours.

    Back in Tanzania I spent the first week dressed in shirt and trousers to attend a training workshop for Secondary School teachers. The plan after this had been to take a ferry from Bukoba back to Mwanza, but it was out of service and so I cycled the remaining 450km.

    Fish soup, chapati and chai

    Breakfast in a village cafe beside Lake Victoria. Fish soup, chapati and spiced tea.

    Young girl and her mother

    On the road from Bukoba to Mwanza.

    School transport

    It’s very common to see 3 or more people on a bicycle taxi in rural Africa.

    Petelol Station

    Rural Africa has lots of makeshift constructions like this selling fuel by the litre in plastic bottles. This however is the first Petelol Station I have seen.

    Timber being transported

    I wouldn’t want to be turning a sharp corner on this bicycle.

    Charcoal transport

    Charcoal is probably the most common source of fuel for cooking in Tanzania. Sacks such as these are transported from rural to urban areas, very frequently on the backs of bicycles.

  • Around Mt Elgon July 1st, 2011

    “After your first day of cycling, one dream is inevitable.  A memory of motion lingers in the muscles of your legs, and round and round they seem to go.  You ride through Dreamland on wonderful dream bicycles that change and grow. “ (H G Wells)

    Leaving busy highways is always a relief on a bicycle. When you hear your own tyres rolling over tarmac rather than the continuous drone of engines and exhaust pipes it’s one good measure of a cycle-friendly road.

    In my last post I described the road from Kampala-Jinja as being one of the worst  I’ve cycled on in Africa. Now I’m going to say something about one of the best roads. This one involves mountains, (the best always do) waterfalls, forests,  lots or smiling children, almost zero traffic and villages free from the garish colours of corporate advertising I’ve seen so much in Uganda.

    Colourful characters: Ugandan school children

    This road runs east from the town of Mbale and loops over the northern slopes of Mt Elgon (4321m), Uganda’s second highest mountain, It is an obvious route choice for anyone travelling in eastern Uganda and wanting to see some of the country’s best scenery.

    Sipi Falls, a series of three waterfalls, is the main draw-card to this region. I was told the place would be crawling with tourists, but unless I was staying in the wrong place it appeared I was about the only foreigner enjoying the sublime views from the porch of my tent. It’s the first time I’ve camped in Uganda and campsites don’t come much more scenic than Moses’ Campsite in the village of  Sipi (take note cycle tourers).

    Sipi falls

    Monkey at camp

    Moses' campsite: Sipi

    Around Sipi: Eastern Uganda

    The tarmac stopped beyond Sipi, but the scenery remained spectacular as a traffic-free track wound its way around the green fertile foothills of Mt Elgon towards the Kenyan border. If the reaction of children is any measure of how many Mzungus come out this way it’s fair to say this far eastern region of Uganda sees far fewer than other places I’ve come through.

    Climbing away from Sipi

    Through Mt Elgon National Park

    Mt Elgon National Park

    Village life

    Off to School

    Young boys: Eastern Uganda

    At some point as I was heading towards the Kenyan border it dawned on me that with only several dollars worth of Ugandan Shillings left in my wallet I didn’t have enough money to pay for a Kenyan visa. I needed $25, which I didn’t have. How I hadn’t thought and planned for this I’m not sure. Now I was faced with the decision of either leaving my bike in a village and waiting for transport back to Mbale to use a bank, or continuing to the Kenyan border and hoping the immigration officer would be friendly enough to allow me to take a bus into the first town in Kenya. I opted for the latter.

    Had this been any number of border crossings in west or central Africa I feel the demand for a bribe of sorts would have been on the agenda. But not here. The only concern after leaving my bike at the immigration post was surviving the mini-bus journey on a treacherously slippy track between the border and the town of Kitale.

    Well that’s where I am now, after having found a bank, returned to the border to pay for a visa and cycled back here. Next week I’m off to distribute a few thousand mosquito nets. Never too late to donate a few.

    Goodbye Uganda

  • Jinja and the source of the Nile June 22nd, 2011

    “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.

  • A post without much mileage June 10th, 2011

    “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.

  • 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