Unlikely Uganda

by Emma Scragg

A bicycle tour through Uganda that kicked off with a ride on the back of a scooter-taxi to catch a leaky fishing boat across Africa's largest lake promised to be a unique adventure. And it was.

      

Our journey across Lake Victoria took three hours and unlike an infamous previous trip, the weathered Dutch captain remembered to put the bungs in this time. Pulling up on the shore of Bulaga Island in the Ssese archipelago, we celebrated our safe passage with a swim and cool beers on the beach. Chef and keen mountain-biker Manu prepared the first of many delectable camp dinners while we were introduced to a line up of generous dome tents - our homes for the next fortnight. Later our fearless leader and owner of Escape Adventures, John Etherington, described in more detail the route and adventures that lay ahead.

My cycling companions comprised three Poms, two Canadians and a Kiwi with ages spanning 20 to 70. The support crew along with myself, an Australian, made a total of eleven. It was a diverse and entertaining group of travellers. Normally an independent cycle tourer, I slipped easily into the comfort of having someone else design the route, negotiate permits, hunt 'n' gather and carry my gear.

Uganda did not feel overly threatening compared to other parts of Africa I have previously visited, yet we enjoyed an unconventional safety in numbers. Whenever we stopped curious locals would materialise and observe us with an unwavering intensity. Tricky when you're busting. We found that the group could conveniently distract the spectators while those in need found privacy behind a nearby rock or tree.

Our first day's riding allowed a pleasant reunion between our bodies and bikes, with all the usual mechanical and physical teething issues. Children shouted and waved at us while truckloads of men cheered, or perhaps jeered. Over and above their friendliness we were undeniably alien with slinky clothing, helmets and mud-splattered white skin.

Getting off Bulaga Island necessitated another boat journey - this time on a heavily overladen ferry. Like most public transport in East Africa, the maximum load stencilled on each bus, boat and truck is actually a challenge, to be at least doubled whenever possible. This trip was no exception as our support bus 'Sabrina' was somewhat precariously squeezed on. Like Dr Who's Tardis, 'Sabrina the Bike Witch' was a larger-than-life essential on our tour - constantly on our tail and ready to offer sustenance for the weary, shelter from rain or protection from wild animals.

Back on the mainland we headed west, away from the capital Kampala, towards Uganda's south west corner and the Rwanda border. Our route mostly avoided main roads with eighty percent of our riding on dirt roads peppered with the occasional singletrack. When arterial roads were unavoidable, we experienced African traffic from the safety of Sabrina's belly. When cycling, the main hazards were potholes, rocks, over-enthusiastic children and the odd chicken.

Alas gentle terrain seldom lasts forever. On the secondcycling day we left the steamy lowlands for the cooler, more temperate hills - known as Uganda's Switzerland. Our campsite at Lake Bunyoni was almost 2000 metres high. The lake stretched its watery fingers between steep slopes patch-worked with intensively farmed crops and small mud villages. The next morning, along steep and winding dirt roads, we made our way slowly through the folded landscape towards the border town of Kisoro. Beaming children in dazzling pink and blue uniforms called to us "Wazungu, how are yooooooooou?"

Neighbouring Rwanda enticed us with the promise of meeting our Darwinian forefathers, the gorillas. Apparently the first group of cyclists to cross the border for some time, we received a warm welcome from the officials. News of our arrival spread quickly and on the highway to Ruhengeri we felt like Tour de France stars. The road was lined with enthusiastic fans, waving and shouting "bonjour" while stretching out their palms to be slapped as we passed.

We were not disappointed by the substantial cash outlay required to obtain permits so we could visit the gorillas. One mesmerising hour with a family of 14 on a forested slope of the Virunga Volcanoes made our overnight diversion into this mountainous nation unforgettably worthwhile.

Back in Uganda, we pushed north towards Queen Elizabeth National Park. Villagers swarmed us to check out ourshiny bikes. Disc brakes, shocks, gears and computers fascinated them. So different from their own ingenious wooden bicycles... Flintstone-style wheels fashioned from tree rounds held together with old planks, saplings and vines.

Queen Elizabeth and Lake Mburo National Parks offered typical African sunbaked landscapes of fever trees and grasslands. The ambient grunting of nearby hippos made for a memorable evening at the end of that day's ride. Deceivingly cuddly, these lethal animals demonstrated their raw power late that night as they chased each other past our tents. At a fighting weight of around two tonnes they are frighteningly fast on their feet. Fortunately, that was our first and last close encounter with one of Africa's more dangerous animals.

Cycling through Uganda's National Parks was exhilarating with buffalo, baboons, grazing zebra, Ugandan kob, impala, giraffe and warthogs in attendance. With a mixture of trepidation and excitement we crossed damp elephant footprints at one point. Sabrina was always close behindthe peloton as an emergency refuge. Butterfly alley was a before-you-die magical wildlife moment - a stretch of damp dirt road where our whirring wheels stirred up clouds of butterflies. Just before we made camp, we were also lucky to spot a pride of lions hunting.

The last four days in eastern Uganda were far less wild. Life was dominated by espressos, fruit smoothies, luscious cakes, internet cafés, relaxation and a bit of cycling. We crossed the equator (an obligatory photo stop) as Sabrina carried us towards Uganda's adventure capital, Jinja on the Victoria Nile. The gushing waters attract foreign money and plenty of confusion as adrenalinjunkies and the good-willed live side by side. Our rest day options included r 'n' r in the city, rafting some of the best white water in the world, or helping out at some inspiring local community projects authored by www.softpowereducation.com

Our last cycling leg took us around the fringes of Jinja on hidden singletrack. John guided us througha labyrinth of mud huts, local meeting places and plantations of banana and cane. A lot of fun but all too soon we were back at the banks of the Nile, somewhat improbably piling our bodies and bicycles onto a long boat paddled by one man. It was a hilarious albeit slightly precarious crossing. However it softened us for an even smaller vessel that took us to our last stop, the secluded and totally idyllic Hairy Lemon island retreat. The perfect finish to an inspiring trip.

Uganda and Rwanda, both withunfortunate and bloodyhistories, may not be the first nations to spring to mind when planning a cycling holiday. However, both have bounced back from their tragic pasts with the same optimistic gusto and enthusiasm with which they greet tourists. Bicycles are highly valued and versatile tools in East Africa. Travelling by bike provides an instant connect with the locals. I can't think of a better way to experience these two spectacular nations.

Nitty Gritty

  • Uganda is 10% smaller than New Zealand but with almost seven times as many people. It offers a colourful diversity of culture, abundant friendly faces and rich, tropical landscapes. 
  • English is the official language in Uganda; French in Rwanda. 
  • Emirates offers the most direct routes from Australia or New Zealand to Entebbe via Dubai. Options abound from the UK. 
  • John at Escape Adventures made the trip fun and practical. Sadly Uganda is no longer a standard offering but they offer trips to Kenya and Tanzania from June to October.