The City of Seven Hills and Le Pays de Mille Collines

Next week I pass a milestone… its been one year on the road, one year riding my bike and one year away from my friends, my family and my home. My bike has scrappy ribbons of electrical tape holding together the handlebar grip, there are scratches on the frame and tie wraps sit where long lost pannier clips should be. She wears the marks and scrapes of that year on the road, so do I. The contours of my legs have changed, I’m thinner, there are two small scars on my left knee following keyhole surgery and my hairstyle is bordering on full blown mullet. I can recall the word for ‘thank you’ in a dozen languages. I have memories from three continents, twenty one countries and hundreds of busy highways, quiet country lanes and baron tracks. I know that being one year in means that I’m still less than a quarter of my way through the journey, it’s a scary thought and one I try not to indulge in. The big picture is always terrifying, unfathomable, infinitely difficult, impossible. I think only of the present or the next few places ahead, occasionally I allow my imagination to drift to Cape Town, but I never let it creep away beyond Africa. I don’t know how I’ll feel about this life in another year or in two or three. It’s impossible to know. Perhaps I’ll be tired of moving, tired of not knowing where I’ll sleep and tired of always being immersed in the unfamiliar. Perhaps it will still feel fresh and exciting. I’ll stick to thinking in small chunks.

We crossed into Uganda whilst the country was in the midst of elections. People warned us to be careful, there had been many claims of election rigging and boxes of pre-ticked ballot papers had been discovered. We were worried about protests or an an uprising and perhaps violence. The incumbent has been in power for almost 30 years, as the populace went to the polls he mobilised the army and riot police which we saw almost everywhere we went, perhaps not the actions expected of a leader of a true democratic nation. Jinja was our first stop, the origin of the white Nile and an area well known for white water rafting. I side stepped thoughts of my budget and we both spent a day contending with the grade five rapids.

After Jinja it was Kampala, ‘the city of seven hills’ and one of my favourites so far. Wondering her streets is hassle-free and safe and it’s one of the best party cities in Africa. She’s busy, vibrant, welcoming, lively, Ugandan. In Kampala Nyomi’s new skinhead style had been attracting some attention. A Ugandan girl asked after her name and then retorted

‘Nyomi? So you’re a boy with a girl’s name?’

Nyomi laughed it off but when a Kampala taxi driver leaned out of the window and bellowed ‘Hey look, it’s Wayne Rooney!’ she lost the plot a little and gave him two fingers, which was the appropriate response for the society loathing anarchist she now resembles.

Between parties we zoomed around Kampala on ‘boda bodas’ or motorbike taxis. It’s often three on a bike and there’s rarely a helmet, some journeys can be quite hairy. One took me on a back route through Kampala, he zoomed down alleyways in the dark, over old railway tracks, through the slums and backstreets where groups of children huddled around small fires and cooked goat’s meat and liver. The driver played a jaunty brand of Ugandan pop music loud from the bike’s speakers. A sign sat on the front of the bike and declared ‘born lucky’. I had heard that around five boda boda drivers die every day in Kampala. I couldn’t help imagining a macabre scenario… the aftermath of a horrific accident in which I lay trapped in the burning wreckage of the crash. The jaunty music was still playing from the stereo but at a lower pitch and the drivers bloody corpse lay motionless next to the ‘born lucky‘ sign.

We rode towards Fort Portal, the gateway to several of Uganda’s national parks. I loved riding west, in the morning the sun warmed our backs and in the evening we rode towards the setting sun but then again tropical rain eventually caught us up. We found ourselves in another sudden hail storm after hours of warm sunshine. I took my sandals off so I could get some waterproofs on, the ground was hot, almost too hot to stand on in bare feet, yet hail fell all around us. Soon a dense silvery mist started to rise off the quickly cooling tarmac and the road became a spooky ethereal serpent winding through the jungle.

After three days we sighted the majestic Rwenzori mountains in the distance. Their immense looming silhoutte, vast compared to the surrounding hills, had an almost menacing air. The illusion was that they were moving towards us and not the other way around. Finally we arrived in Fort Portal and it was here we got our first taste of African wildlife up close. We were on our way to visit a swamp and nature reserve and were walking the six kilometres down a quiet track through a forest to the main gate. I heard some rustling in the bushes up ahead. Then, from just ten metres away, a large female African elephant stepped out in front of us and paused. We were both suddenly still and silent, waiting for the mock charge which never came. She slowly trundled off into the bushes and then from behind her two baby elephants emerged from the undergrowth. I snatched for my camera. Snap.

There was a lot to do around Fort Portal, we swam in crater lakes, went in search of Columbus Monkeys and ran into a group of brits from an NGO called ‘Cricket without boundaries’ who coach cricket to kids in Uganda. We took half a day to join them and get involved, it was hours of fun and games with a big group of rowdy children and I loved it. That evening we heard music coming from the hills behind our hostel. Determined to find the party we took a bee line towards the source of the sound. After an hour of trudging through the dark, through banana plantations and people’s gardens, we stumbled onto a field full of young Uganadans twisting, grinding and gyrating to home grown hiphop emanating from a large outdoor sound system. It was a free rave put on following the elections and we joined them and danced all night long on that field.

Cricket Without Boundaries
We rode through the foothills of the Rwenzoris, up and down, up and down, up and down. Sweaty, breathless and always hungry but moved by the sensational landscape. We cycled into Queen Elizabeth National Park, there was nobody to stop us. It was an eerie experience, I knew that lions, hyenas, leopards, buffalos, hippos and elephants all lived here, we were riding through their back garden without protection. When we set up camp Ny had a face-off with a hungry warthog and during the night a hippo passed right next to my tent, I could hear it breathing and stomping as it grazed. The next day we decided to save the ten dollars it cost for a nature walk and go off on our own without the mandatory armed guard. Our DIY approach may not have been an altogether sensible escapade but it was free and exhilarating.
A hippo shambles into camp
Nyomi verses warthog
A Flame Tree
We rolled on through Uganda, past papyrus filled swamp, dense jungle with bright green algae filled pools of stagnant water, verdant savannah and then back into the undulating banana and tea plantations which cover great swathes of the country, the occasional flame tree lit up the surroundings. Excited children would quickly encircle us when we stopped to eat, gorping and giggling. We munched on jack fruit and in the evening ‘matoke’, cooked plantains. After 110 kilometres of hills I was riding down the last one of the day, along a rough clay track two kilometres from Lake Bunyonyi and our campsite. Nyomi was riding just ahead when I spotted a motorcyclist coming towards us. He swerved past Nyomi putting himself directly into my path. I gripped my brakes and skidded as he continued to speed towards me.

He sees me, he’ll turn or stop
He sees me, he’ll turn or stop
He must see…

It was a head on collision. I was almost stationary on impact, he had hardly applied the brakes. I remember being catapulted off my bike and landing a few metres away on the roadside. The motorbike careered off a near vertical forested verge and the driver was flung over the vehicle. I caught sight of the end of his trajectory, his body arced several metres through the air before smashing into a pine tree and landing a long way down the slope. The crash was followed by the sort of deep silence that always seems to follow sudden accidents. Stunned I tried to work out if I was injured. There was a bloody laceration to my left shin but it looked superficial. My right thigh was painful but I stood up and the leg took my weight. I could hear the driver moaning but his body remained still. A bunch of young Ugandan men appeared and helped to get the driver and bike back onto the road, a task of many hands and much effort. I examined the driver. Unusually he had been wearing a helmet. He was alert but in pain. There was a boggy swelling over his left knee but he could flex it and weight bare. The motorbike had sustained some damage, both wing mirrors and the speed dial were in pieces. Then came the accusations. The surrounding band of local men decided quickly I was to blame despite not one of them having witnessed the crash. Perhaps this was because the driver had come off worse than me, perhaps because I’m a ‘mzungu’, a white man, and they saw pound signs. Usually the young men who drive boda bodas borrow heavily to cover the cost of the bike and repay the debt over time with money from the fares. I doubted he could cover the cost the damage and he also needed money to get to hospital and for treatment. They never have insurance. In the UK paying money after an accident is to admit liability. In Uganda you just pay up, regardless of who’s to blame. If I had not I feared the group of men would quickly transform into an angry mob, so we debated a price and I paid. I don’t know why he didn’t stop, he had plenty of time to react to me, but obviously things could have been a lot worse for both of us. I was just lucky to get out of there with a few cuts and bruises and a dent in my budget.

After a couple of days we reached Rwanda, ‘the country of a thousand hills’. It was as lush and green as its neighbour and the steep hills here were terraced for farming giving the country an extraordinary look and feel. The children were just as startled to see us and as we rode towards the capital Kigali they ran alongside laughing and asking questions like ‘How is Queen Elizabeth?’ In Kigali we met up with some Irish mates to celebrate St Paddy’s day and set off once again into the wet. In April we will be traveling through Tanzania, a month in which 400mm of rain is expected to fall, eight times that of London.
In the twelve months I’ve been cycling I know I could have covered more ground and I know I could be closer to Cape Town. Riding through Rwanda and Uganda was a loop I didn’t have to do, but I have never wanted to take the shortest or the easiest path. Loops are prettier than straight lines. So far we’ve met three cyclists aiming to ride the length of Africa in four months, many others are striving to break the world record for cycling around the globe. By setting a time limit you beef up the challenge but sacrifice something more important – the adventure. You may see a lot, but you experience little. The times I have felt most alive have not been on busy highways but on those rough tracks on the very edge of civilization, in those wild places. The times I’ve most enjoyed have been when I’ve taken up offers of hospitality from local people, offers which would have to be declined by the speed freaks. It’s a shame that we seem to have entered an era of fast and furious expeditions and adventures. Leave speed to the athletes. Explorers and adventurers of the past and present are rarely blessed with special powers or skills, they are often simply able to make the sacrifices needed to live and experience things that others cannot or will not. Take the dusty track, not the highway, or as Ralph Waldo Emerson said ‘Do not follow where the path may lead. Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail.’ Here’s to more loops, detours, baron tracks and adventure. Here’s to four more years on my bicycle.

Finally something of the ridiculous… Only in Uganda…

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Comments (2)

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    Thanks for offering the possibility of discovering Africa through your eyes. Your descriptions make it all so much more perceptible, even palpable… I can almost smell it… and hear the giggling of the children…



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    I'm very much enjoying your blog. You write very well and have an ability to somehow involve the reader the experience – a great read.
    I am involved with a charity that introduces Tag rugby in developing world countries. Too late to put you in contact with our guys in Uganda but if you find yourself in Zambia we have a host of folk who would love to meet you and host you if you're in need. Keep up the good work!


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