Distance Cycled : 19,663km
Greetings from Uganda, where I am afraid we have not yet figured out how to say “hello”! Well, at least not in Luganda – (one of) the local languages – despite buying a phrasebook! Apparently the correct greeting depends on the relationship of the person to you and when you last saw them, so hailing a complete stranger may well be very different to catching up with your brother! Still, Ugandans don’t seem to mind and have been unfailingly friendly and helpful over these past few weeks – it feels like we have been here a lot longer and it’s a challenge just to cast our minds back to Kenya, the previous country…
Before leaving Kenya, we decided to inject yet more funds into the coffers of the Kenya Wildlife Service by visiting a small and swampy reserve… We were lured by the prospect if seeing a sitatunga, and we’ll forgive you if you haven’t got a clue what one of those might be! They are semi-aquatic antelopes. Despite a dawn start – the beasts are most active in the early hours – it was after 8am that we finally reached the swamp. This was in part due to the fact that the taxi driver, despite assuring us that he knew the way, had got himself hopelessly lost. After another muddy dead-end, Luke asked if he might be lost, to which the driver retorted that he certainly knew the way, we were just on the wrong road. It’s sometimes a great relief that we are on our bikes 99% of the time – we at least have some control over things when we are in the saddle and only ourselves to blame if we get lost. After the roudabout route, the sitatungas then proved exceedingly elusive! We managed to glimpse a couple of females slipping off into the reedbeds – proffering their rear-ends rather than showing us their faces. They are diminutive creatures, with a rich orangey-brown coat, flecked with white – a bit of a paint-spatter, as though the original designer of the sitatunga accidentally overturned a can of brilliant white gloss… Despite their small size, they made a lot of noise sploshing through the turgid waterways on their splayed hooves, and so we heard them more than we saw them.
It was sad to leave Kenya in many ways – the wild goose chase for the sitatunga was a bit of an exception as the rest of our time in Kenya seemed to be filled with fantastically worthwhile mini-expeditions. Over the course of five weeks, we’d come to like the country immensely, but we’ve long been looking forward to Uganda so were excited nonetheless as we approached the border. It’s amazing how many appalling roads you find close to international boundaries – perhas resources are focused on the highways linking major towns and maybe we have a skewed view in any case as we do tend to pick the most obscure crossings between countries to minimise the potential for hassle! The Kenyan side was a riot of colourful blooms – a beautiful flowerbed of bougainvillea, cannas, daisies and dahlias encircled the little customs post, which made a refreshing change from the more usual emaciated goats and rusting machinery that characterise quite a few African border posts. We were slightly less surprised to find that the office door was firmly shut and the immigration official nowhere to be found! A uniformed border guard materialised after a few minutes and kindly went off in search of the big man – apparently “on business” in the village above the road. Sometime later…we departed with a bit more ink in our passports and tackled the Ugandan side. The post here was also unmanned, and so we had ample time to sit on the grass and reflect on the rather ludicrous nature of out-of-the-way border crossings. We had come through a barrier that would probably have deterred a vehicle (though it looked flimsy enough to smash your way through, actually) but it certainly didn’t represent a major obstacle to anyone on foot. On the left of the barrier was a dense patch of woodland while on the right lay a steep hillside, terraced and planted with potatoes. A family was busy hoeing, weeding and generally tending the Ugandan, Kenyan, ugandan crop, the youngest kids running from country to country as they played in the sticky earth. All in all a far cry from the razor wire, concrete and rottweilers you associate with some of the worlds more sensitive borders!
Once a cow had been persuaded out of the entrance to the shack, a young official was able to unlock the rubber stamp cabinet
and welcome us officially to Uganda – evidently to the annoyance of the resident wasps, which had been enjoying the cool dank office until our arrival. What appeared to be a farm track snaked up through the village of Suam, but sure enough there was a man with a wad of banknotes advertising his profession – a money changer. Rather confusingly we exchanged shillings (Kenyan) for shillings (Ugandan) and then pushed on along the track, which was in fact the road. The dwindling level of traffic spoke volumes – locals were much too sensible to use a bike on a road as rough as this. The rutted mud wasn’t the only challenge – with Mount Elgon looming ahead we knew we were in for some climbing, even if the road allegedly skirted mountain. Sure enough, we wound steeply up and steeply down, loitering in the skirt-folds of the massive mountain despite gaining quite a lot of height. We were aiming for a place called Kapchorwa but progress was slow and it became clear we weren’t going to make it that day, and dark clouds were rolling in as well. In a little village called Chesower we accepted the offer of a camping spot next to the teacher training college (a long way for a teacher to come to be trained!) and were immediately surrounded by the entire juvenile population of the village. Two hundred (no exaggeration) pairs of eyes watched intently as we erected the tent, unrolled sleeping mats, cooked…and eleced not to strip off to wash as we usually do when camping! The kids only dispersed when rain and darkness began to fall simultaneously, oh, and when we appropriated a maize stalk to wave at them. It was all a bit overwhelming and, perhaps to our shame, we got up at 5am the next morning in order to escape before they all awoke! Of course it didn’t work and as we sneaked out of town, the road was already bustling with brightly-uniformed children. School seems to start very early here in Uganda!
At Kapchorwa later that day we had our first taste of Ugandan tarmac (metaphorically) and our first taste of Ugandan tea (literally and very sweetly). Fortified by a few chapatis, we reached the town of Sipi by lunchtime and were soon pitching our tent at a spectacular campsite. From the tent entrance, we could see lush hills clothed with coffee groves and banana gardens, and a three-tier waterfall tumbled down through the greenery of the valley. Later in the day, the milky-white water turned the colour of strong tea, after a heavy downpour sluiced over the landscape, washing topsoil into the river above the falls. Since then, short, heavy downpours have become a feature of life in Uganda (it is the rainy season, after all) but it hasn’t been too bad given that the sun is usually out again within half an hour and the landscape steams dry within an hour. Obviously we haven’t washed our helmets in a while – the first few downpours while we were in the saddle caused some interesting brown liquid to ooze from them. This may explain why locals were then rather amused by our appearance when we stopped for a drink by the roadside and took off our helmets… Rain aside, Ugandan roads have sadly proved to even worse than Kenyan highways in terms of crazy driving. Coaches are possibly the worst offenders and at the first sight of them it seems wise to simply get off the road, even where there is no semblance of a verge. More so than in any other country we have visited, size rules here in Uganda. Coaches are king, though they may occasionally give way to tankers, while 4×4’s seem to have the edge over minibus drivers, who in turn terrorise ordinary cars. It’s a complicated hierarchy but one thing is sure – cyclists are at the bottom of the heap! Still, we made it without mishap to Jinja, on the flat lakeshore of Lake Victoria having descended a winding and steep road from Sipi Falls – we had to brake soo much that more than once we had to stop to let the wheels cool off! Jinja seemed laid back and quietly colonial in character, and we elected to have a few days off there.
As well as marvelling at how many foreign products line the shelves of African grocery stores, we are often amazed and a little saddened by how little local produce is consumed by local people. Of course, subsistence farmers (and that’s most people) grow their own bananas, maize or cassava and eat most of it, selling off any surplus in a local market. But crops like coffee, tea, cashew nuts among others, are largely destined for export. In Ghana, the average cocoa farmer wouldn’t be able to afford a bar of chocolate and those flower-growers we mentioned in our last update would never buy a bunch of Kenyan roses. In Uganda’s case, coffee is the crop we have particularly been thinking about. Around Sipi, steep slopes of slippery red earth were planted with coffee bushes, hung with brightly coloured coffee “cherries”. These start off green and go through a traffic-light spectrum as they ripen, eventually turning a purplish-red just before they are picked. The cherries ripen differentially and anyone who has ever spent a hot summer afternoon picking blackcurrants will be able to empathise with Ugandan coffee pickers! Walking along a jungly path by the falls, we passed an elderly man, sweating in the late-morning heat despite being in the shade, slowly filling a rusting paint tin with coffee cherries.
We could hear the metallic “plink” of each fruit hitting the base of the can long after we had passed him. Up on the tarmac again, ladies were spreading out the cherries to dry in the sun, after which they are taken to be milled. Sipi had a tiny processing factory, so the old man by the falls didn’t have far to go but it must be a long walk for farmers in the remoter valleys. All this made us appreciate the fresh coffee served at a cafe in Jinja which stocks local blends and reinvests profits in the local community. The coffee came with a slab of banana teabread which was almost as good as the one Anna’s mum bakes. Delicious. It makes you realise why coffee is so expensive,especially when you factor in the profits that must be made by the bigger corporations. Where coffee does not dominate, the cultivated parts of the landscape are covered by banana groves, sugarcane and tea. Bananas are a staple here, and, as with rice in countries like Guinea and Mali, it’s not unusual for families to eat them three times a day! While there is lack of variety, there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of actual calories! Even with our appetites, the other day we struggled to finish a bowl of matoke (starchy plantain) with peanut-based sauce. Each of our bowls must have contained at least a dozen plantains – have you ever eaten a whole hand of bananas?
Jinja has a certain claim to fame – it lies at the source of the Nile, or at least at the point where the fledgling river emerges from Lake Victoria. The spot is peaceful (when the daytripping schoolgroups have gone home) and proved to be a good place to watch cormorants, kingfishers and egrets compete with their human counterparts in the search for fish. Slightly downriver are the Bujagali Falls, a series of rapids popular for white water rafting and kayaking. Something of a purist, where watersports are concerned, Luke vetoed the idea of doing a rafting trip on the river. Anna was rather relieved about this – flailing about in frothing water with a rubber boat bouncing off your head not really being her idea of fun. So we sat above the river and listened to the squeals of more adventurous souls as they annoyed the river. In the evening, the bar was filled with these rafters, and the rafters in turn were filled with Nile Special – the local beer, brewed at the “Source of the Nile” as it says rather cheesily on the bottle. There were two overland trucks at the camp that night, as well as independent travellers like ourselves, hence the number of wazungu (the often-heard KiSwahili term for “white people”. After so long in relatively little-visited regions, we are actually finding it a bit daunting to be surrounded by so many Westerners. In fact, we find ourselves watching their behaviour and interactions just as closely as we would that of local people – as though they were an intriguingly different and unfamiliar tribe, and not born and raised in Basildon. It’s quite easy to become a bit snobbish, but we do wonder how much contact you get with the local environment if you travel in a hulking great truck with 20-odd compatriots, overnight in foreign-run campsites and cook most of your own meals. If weight was no issue, we might well load a pannier with cheddar cheese, granary bread and juicy British apples but still we feel that’s not quite the same thing. It’s understandable that not everyone wants to strike out on their own, but the insularity of the “truckers” that we have met is rather saddening. Washing clothes in Kampala at an overlanders campsite, Anna chatted to a New Zealander in his fifties. Having left Nairobi seven days before on an overland truck, he said he had already seen some amazing things and had been lucky enough to see leopard. Anna asked which national park that had been in, and he couldn’t remember. She asked where they were headed to the next day…and he didn’t have a clue. That’s the beauty of it, he said, we just sit there and they drive us. We’d sooner have rough roads, matoke for supper and dribbly helmets, I think!
We left Kampala with a visa for Tanzania and a few packets of chocolate digestives from an expat supermarket (yes, alright, hypocrites that we are) and headed north on a smooth and blessedly untrafficked road. It took a while to fight out way through Kampala’s suburbs in fact, but then we were out among green fields and cattle. Uganda has some very impressive bovines, it has to be said. Nigerian zebu are an impressive sight, but the indigenous Ankole cattle here are even more special. Huge, beefy (well they would be) and chocolate brown and with horns that defy belief. Every beast seems to have slightly different horns – surely there’s a PhD somewhere on divergent bovine horn forms… On the adult males they can be over a metre long! The young ones have stubbier, cone-shaped horns and look quite comical, rather like someone has stuck a cornetto on each side of their head! All this makes for slightly nerve-wracking cycling when there’s a herd crossing the road – better to wait for them to disperse than risk getting caught by a horn!
Rather more exotically, and just to remind you that we are in Africa, here are some photos of the denizens of Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda’s largest protected area and home to a large number of mammals and birds. We took a rather genteel boat trip up the river (the Nile again) which was positively teeming with life – fat, ponderous hippos lounging around in pods of twenty or thirty animals, ferocious looking Nile crocodiles basking on the banks, grumpy buffalo wallowing in the shallows, while bee-eaters and kingfishers darted overhead and emerged from sandy holes in the crumbly riverside cliffs.
As we travelled upstream, flotillas of yellow froth and broken branches began to swirl around the boat, and the water became more turbulent. Finally we rounded a lazy bend in the river and could see the reason why – Murchison Falls, a frothing and powerful waterfall and the namesake of the park. In 1864, Samuel Baker “discovered” these falls and we had to agree with his description that upon rounding the corner in our canoes, a magnificent sight suddenly burst upon us. On either side of the stream were beautifully wooded cliffs with rocks jutting out from an intensely green foliage; and rushing through a gap that cleft the rock exactly before us, the river contracted from a grand stream, was pent up in a narrow gorge scarcely fifty yards in width; roaring furiously through the rock-bound pass… After our rather lazy day on the river, we were feeling rested and ready for the return journey to Masindi. It was a beautiful ride, along the shores of Lake Albert (rather a royal theme to lake names round here) and up a steep escarpment to
emerge from the Rift Valley. At the top, a breeze was thankfully blowing and so, having escaped the evil tsetse flies that proliferate within the park boundaries, we had a chance to admire the view properly. Beyond the billowing grass and the shimmery surface of the lake itself, a misty range of blue mountains was visible and it was tempting to take a side road and head for them. Territory on the far side of the lake, though, belongs to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and that was one border we didn’t fancy slipping across without a visa! So we made do with the hills as a spectacular backdrop while we devoured a rather odd lunch of chapatis filled with tomatoes and bombay mix. A cyclist’s appetite is rarely diminished by unusual sandwiches…
Luke has recently been having trouble not eating his beard while wolfing his food – it began as an “experiment” in Ethiopia but he finally decided that he had become too hirsute and so did battle with it here in Masindi. After ten minutes Anna went to check on progress and was slightly alarmed to find he had already used two disposable razors and looked uncannily like Giotto, the former family cat after it had been spayed – an operation that requires the vet to shave off a chunk of fur. So the bathroom door remained shut after that, but Luke thankfully emerged smooth and unbloodied half an hour later…but fear not, we recorded the beard for posterity with the aid of a camera…
We have enjoyed a few restful days in Masindi, benefitting from the hospitality of the Link team here! We are staying at the “Link House”, home to the very busy office as well as Sue, a VSO volunteer working with Link. The splendid gardens are brimful of birds – double-toothed barbets, whydahs, hornbills and many more as well as an avocado tree or two (no fruits, boo) and various neighbours and neighbours children too! Sadly, due to our tight-ish schedule over the coming months, and the vagaries of Muslim festivals and hence public holidays, we have not managed to get to a school for a visit. Still, if the hectic buzz and the enthusiasm of the Link staff here and in Kampala is anything to go by, we’re pretty convinced the money you have helped us to raise is making a difference here in Uganda. The challenges are formidable – as well as a lack of resources and skills in the region, the current campaign of terror being waged by the LRA in the far north of Uganda has caused a flood of “Internally Displaced Persons” to seek refuge in Masindi District. Already primary education is complicated by the fact that teaching is carried out in a local language rather than Swahili or English – imagine the complexity now, with the immigrant population pushing the number of recorded languages to almost fifty! To find out more details about Link in Uganda, you can look at their website – http://www.lcd.org.uk.
Well, that’s all for this edition! Tomorrow we head south once more, passing through the Kibale Forest where we hope to see some primates and then on into the shadow of the Ruwenzoris, before crossing into Rwanda about a week from now. We may update you from Kigali, partly because it makes us feel a bit like BBC foreign correspondents, but also because we might have something interesting to tell you about the country!