Cycling Uganda

Emily was terrified. She’d been saying to me for weeks that she didn’t want to do it. And now, as we teetered at the top of a 10-foot drop, she was regretting that she’d ever followed my lead by agreeing to go white water rafting.

We were facing upstream but were stuck on rocks at the top of one of the most notorious grade 5 rapids on the White Nile near Jinja, Uganda. Behind and immediately below us, the water tumbled down as a ferocious force of froth and foam.

Further below, those in the other raft in our party looked up at us. For the group that had, up until now, been the boisterous banter boat, they were eerily quiet. Nervously watching us as we awaited our fate.

The guide had his leg out of the craft and eventually pushed us free from the rocks. The current caught us and we tumbled backwards down the rapid. A wall of water hit us full in our faces. Crouched low into the raft I clung on for dear life.

When the rush of water subsided I opened my eyes. Emily had vanished.

I looked across and I could see her head bobbing as she was swept along in the turmoil of the white water. Her eyes wide as she saw the rocks that were ahead. Emily was now being tossed about in what was known as “the washing machine”.

We all shouted for her to swim to the raft. As if a switch was flicked, she appeared to snap our of her panic and swim towards us. With a few powerful strokes, she was back at the boat and we hauled her into the raft.

After an age, we went down the rapid...backwards

After an age, we went down the rapid…backwards!

This was just one of the rapids on our daylong white water rafting trip on the White Nile. I too took many a tumble out of the raft on the trip. Although I’d rafted before, I’d never rafted it in warm water with warm sun on my back so I didn’t really mind if I fell in. In fact, on the traverse between rapids, we all got into the water and swam alongside the raft rather than cruising slowly.

Emily (in the blue shorts) manages to hold her nose as she takes another tumble form the raft

Emily (in the blue shorts) manages to hold her nose as she takes another tumble form the raft

We’d spent a few well-needed days off the bike at the Nile River Camp in Jinja, which is a secluded and peaceful backpackers that overlooks the White Nile. The rafting was of the many activities in the area they offered. I’d only ever rafted in the freezing waters of New Zealand, North Wales and Northampton before, so I couldn’t resist the warm waters and reliable rapids of the White Nile.

From Jinja, we made our way towards Kampala. But we had an important stop to make first.

When my camera smashed in Ethiopia, I needed to get a replacement sent to me quickly and, crucially, without being liable to a ludicrous amount of import tax. My mum swung into action and contacted Sister Mary Costello, a nun she knew from her time working in Zambia 50 years ago but who now lived in northern Uganda. Sister Mary put her in touch with someone she knew was travelling from Dublin to the convent in Mukono, near Kampala and also to another nun who was to travel from London to Dublin. The new camera thus made the trip from Hampshire to London, then from London to Dublin and on to Kampala.

We stopped in Mukono to meet Sister Mary – a name I’d heard over many years. It was great to meet her and learn of her order’s work with disadvantaged children across Uganda. Sister Mary also told us many stories from Lwitikila; the village in Zambia where my parents lived and where we are to visit in a couple of months’ time. Thank you mum for your work behind the scenes and to Sister Mary, Kay and the other nuns for welcoming us in Mukono.

After saying goodbye to the nuns and Kay, we continued our soggy ride towards Kampala. For the remaining 25km the traffic was some of the worst we’d experienced in the whole trip. Although the volume of traffic meant speeds were relatively low, the impatient drivers tried anything to make an advantage that meant they drove perilously close to us. We were limited to cycling well off the road on the potholed and rutted dirt. Progress was slow. On reaching Kampala city, it was rush hour so, instead of battling against the motorbikes, cars and trucks on the packed roads, we walked the remaining 3km to our central hotel on the pavement.

In Kampala we met with Anna, an old friend of Emily’s who just happened to move to Kampala a week before we arrived to start a new job. We’re thankful to Anna because she used some of her precious luggage allowance to bring out couple of essential items for us: we now have a chain whip!

We also met up with ‘Pikey’, another friend of Emily’s who’d made the trip down from his home in Juba, South Sudan, to see us for the weekend. ‘Pikey’ has been pivotal to our journey through East Africa and we can’t thank him enough for sharing his knowledge and contacts in the region. It was great catching up although quite a bizarre experience playing croquet in a garden in Kampala whilst being watched over the fence by the locals.

Whilst in Kampala, we visited the Rainbow International School to tell the kids about our trip. We knew that a couple of journalists would be there but what we didn’t expect was that a full press conference had been organized. We sat at a long table and spent half an hour or so fielding questions form the journalists lined up on chairs facing us. As a result, we made the Ugandan national TV news on their prime time news program. Sadly, the message about the charity element of our trip and the work of the Rainbow International School in supporting us was lost from the badly edited segment. And phrases such as “on the cusp of history” and “swashbuckling adventure” were used.

Fielding questions at a press conference at the Rainbow International School.

Fielding questions at a press conference at the Rainbow International School.

We spent the afternoon the as guests of the school’s directors, Mr and Mrs Kotecha and met the teachers and some selected pupils.

We are grateful for Mr and Mrs Kotecha for putting us up for the night in a great hotel that overlooked Lake Victoria and we returned to the school the next day to take part in an assembly that had been organized on our behalf.
Once again we were blown away by the facilities and ethos of an International School and how bright (and well-behaved!) the students were.

From Kampala we headed West towards Fort Portal. We spent nights in Mityana, Mubende, and Kyenjojo. The road was in good condition so progress was reasonable, although the terrain in Uganda makes cycling difficult. There’s no flat whatsoever and countless hills to climb – never more than 7% in gradient, but it meant that 50% of the days’ rides were uphill with no real time for recovery. For a 100km ride, 50km is uphill with no real time to recover on the disappointingly short descents.

The kids at the side of the road greeted us warmly although, in these Western parts, they tend to say “goodbye Muzungu” as we approach.

Friendly kids in Uganda. "Goodbye Muzungu!"

Friendly kids in Uganda. “Goodbye Muzungu!”

We passed miles of banana and tea plantations and also a forest reserve where the sounds of birds and monkeys in the trees made us feel as though we were deep into tropical Africa.

Banana Market

Banana Market

Tea pickers hard at work

Tea pickers hard at work



Now in Fort Portal, we’re staying two nights at the RuwenZori View Guest House; a beautiful and peaceful place. We sat at a huge table and enjoyed a sumptuous 4-course dinner whilst chatting to other guests about there travels and work in the area.

We've had some of the best fruit and veg we've ever tasted here in Uganda

We’ve had some of the best fruit and veg we’ve ever tasted here in Uganda

Electioneering is still in full force. And the government schools are closed until all votes are cast. We leave Fort Portal tomorrow and, for us, it’s a race to get cross the equator and reach the border of Rwanda before the election results are called because there’s talk of trouble on the streets regardless of who wins the election.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this blog post, please donate to World Bicycle Relief. Every penny goes to the great work the charity does in Africa – not to fund our expedition in any way.

What a difference a week makes! Cycling from Lodwar, Kenya to Jinja, Uganda

It’s strange to think that just over a week ago we were arriving back in Lodwar in Turkana, North West Kenya from Nairobi, as it seems like a world away from where we are now in Jinja, Uganda. Just 600km separate the two locations but it feels like we have travelled from one universe to another.

Arriving back in Lodwar we had that same feeling you get when you are about to go back to school – you’re excited yet apprehensive at the same time. It was a shock to the system as well. After nearly a week indoors in hospital and then having some time out in Nairobi to rest up, arriving back in 40-45 degrees Celsius heat was not so fun. We headed back to the Nawoitorong lodge which is a basic guest house that supports a local women’s community project helping get women into work. We were able to camp there and get ourselves ready for our journey ahead.

The next morning we were on the road once again and heading some 85km to Lokichar. We set off bright and early knowing that the road would be bad, but we were not quite prepared for just how bad it was going to be! The road is famously known as one of the worst roads in Kenya, we reckon it could be up for an award for one of the world’s worst roads! We believe that it was tarmacked back in the 60s but no attention has been given to it ever since which is evident by the islands of tarmac surrounded by sand and gravel, most vehicles choose to drive off road just to the side of the road – but as this was mainly sand, it was not an option for us! The worst bit were the relentless corrugations in the tarmac, which are like the ripples you get on sand dunes when it is windy formed by the heavy vehicles bouncing up and down on the road. Nearly an entire day cycling over these bumps made for the most uncomfortable day in the saddle yet, and I think it might take the rest of the trip to recover from!

Lodwar to Lokichar road
The shocking state of the Lodwar to Lokichar road made for some very uncomfortable cycling!
Encountering camels on the road from Lodwar to Lokichar

Once again we were cycling in an oven with temperatures soaring over 50 degrees Celsius and with no cold water available we were drinking boiling water all day, which makes you feel so sick. There is no surprise that we were feeling a little dehydrated at the end of the day however, considerably better than a week before thankfully.

Kenya Lokichar to Marich-0938
Several bridges on the Lodwar to Lokichar road had been washed away

We’d arranged to meet up with a new friend of ours, Matt, who works for Tullow Oil who have a huge camp just outside Lokichar as part of their oil exploration and production work in the Turkana region of Kenya. We’d planned to meet in town for an early dinner but sadly this got called off during the afternoon due to a busy day in the office. However, what we were not expecting was the message that arrived a couple of hours later inviting us to stay at the Tullow Oil camp for the night. Suddenly all was good with the world again and, despite the extra 9km out of town to get there which nearly killed me off, it was an incredible morale boost for us. Matt had told his boss about our trip and we were hosted for the evening, fed an unlimited supply of amazing food cooked in their canteen and, even better and thoroughly unexpected, we had a night in air-conditioned rooms in comfy beds, satellite TV and a hot shower. All this in the middle of nowhere. The icing the cake was the water filter machine that had cold water with ice, which was such a treat. They even have a ‘snake man’ in the campsite who’s sole job is to catch snakes from around the camp.  Although Matt told us he was just returned from sick leave having been medevac’d after being bitten by a snake!

Kenya Lokichar to Marich-0952
The huge Tullow Oil base near Lokichar had to be driven in on the same shocking road that we’d cycled. It’s incredible, though, that every creature comfort was catered for.
The interior of a bedroom at the Tullow Oil base. Air conditioning, Satellite TV and a comfy duvet. We imagined this might be what it would be like sleeping on a North Sea oil rig.
The interior of a bedroom at the Tullow Oil base. Air conditioning, Satellite TV and a comfy duvet. We imagined this might be what it would be like sleeping on a North Sea oil rig.

Thank you Tullow for inviting us to stay, you made two incredibly tired (and one rather teary) cyclists very happy!

The next section of the road had the long shadow of death and robbery hanging over it.

The whole area has been blighted by conflict between the Pokot and Turkana tribes for decades. Every so often one of the tribes will storm a village at night with the intention of stealing cattle. Guns are used and deaths are many. Miffed by the attack on their tribe, the affected tribe will launch a counter attack in their rival tribe’s territory. And so it continues. The attacks are almost always at night so residents of the villages have taken to excavating the interior floorspace of their straw/mud huts so that they can sleep below ground level to avoid the bullets that are showered over (and through) the huts.

Aside from inter-tribal conflict, some residents of the area have taken to holding up vehicles at gun point- and often using the gun to get their hands on their loot. The hold ups and shootings aren’t always for loads of high value either.

We asked around locally what the current situation was. “It’s definitely improving” our contact told us optimistically. “There haven’t been any reported incidents for nearly 2 weeks now.”

That wasn’t good enough for us; two vulnerable cyclists.

Our only option was to take an armed escort through this bandit territory. So, the next morning, we met our guards who were to drive us from Lodwar to the Marich Pass.

No fewer than 5 armed guards escorted us on our 'bandit transit' from Lokichar to the Marich Pass.
No fewer than 5 armed guards escorted us on our ‘bandit transit’ from Lokichar to the Marich Pass.
James fancying himself as an armed policeman
James fancying himself as an armed policeman

Thankfully at this point, the road was now around 50% tarmac so things were starting to improve.

As we passed through small towns along the way, we were shocked by the harsh reality of the level of AIDS in this part of Africa. The number of AIDS charity vehicles we had passed on the way was a reminder of how bad the problem was. We’d now met quite a few people who had lesions on their hands and faces, a common sign of AIDS. It’s desperately sad. We’d met a lady in Lodwar who told us how bad the problems are in the tribal villages in Turkana as young girls are often raped by infected men and then forced to bring up unwanted children who are often also infected – with no family support. Life is desperate for these poor women and children who face a lifetime alone.

From Kitale we were reunited with tarmac roads at long last and we were able to cover some better distances once again. The landscape was beginning to change once again. Thankfully we were finally out of the sandpit and into a lush, green, rolling landscape where the streets are lined with mangos, tomatoes, avocadoes and even the odd pineapple – we were getting close to Uganda! We’d also noticed a change in the people we were meeting along the way. Children cheered and waved at us from the side of the road – shouting “Go Muzungo!” (the local term for white person) and waving at us with a smiles on their faces. After our experiences cycling in Ethiopia, we were shocked that they did not want to run after us, ask for anything or throw rocks at us – they were just little bundles of joy. Everyone speaks amazing English here as well and we’ve met many incredibly nice people.

We spent the night in a new hotel that is semi-open in a town called Bungoma, around 25km from the Ugandan border. In exchange for buying dinner from them they let us camp in their garden for the night for free. Excited about the prospect of a peaceful night’s sleep in a quiet walled garden with our own security guard we ordered some food. Then the heavens opened and we saw the first rain (minus the Simian Mountains when we were trekking) since Romania – but this was not any rain, this was torrential, monsoon strength tropical rain. Before we knew it water was flowing into the tent into the porch and it was a race to ensure that everything was watertight, sadly James’s sleeping bag got the brunt of the water so it was a rather uncomfortable night’s sleep. On top of this, we were kept awake most of the night by the security guard who had a few shouting episodes during the night – we are unsure whether he was shouting at another person or not. In-between this he spent the night chanting Christian prayers over and over again – we guessed this was to keep him, and us, awake.

The next day we crossed into Uganda – a country we had been so excited about visiting since we set off. Our target was a town called Jinja, which would take us two days. A traveller’s mecca on Lake Victoria where the source of the River Nile is reputed to be – although Rwanda also claims this too!

So far Uganda has welcomed us with open arms and although rather soggy as it has been raining more than it is sunny but we are thoroughly enjoying ourselves. It is election time here in Uganda and there appears to be fierce campaigning going on. It’s not quite how we do things back home though, the candidates’ campaigning appears to be more like a carnival than anything and we’ve enjoyed the atmosphere as we’ve cycled through towns. We’ve giggled a lot trying to imagine Cameron and Corbyn on carnival floats campaigning on high streets! They’ve even held a televised TV debate with 7 of the candidates (although interestingly not the current leader) however after 3 hours of watching it one evening as we ate, we gave up as the poor commentators were running out of things to say as nothing happenedwhatsoever while they sorted out the admin and waited for people to show up. Apparently it went on until the very early hours.

The political campaigning was more like a carnival!

We’re staying for a few days at the Nile River Camp where we are enjoying the beautiful views, hanging out with the vervet monkeys and listening to doctor’s orders to take it a little easier (well minus the white water rafting that we are doing tomorrow – more for James’s enjoyment than mine – perhaps it is payback for loosing his beard!)

The Cairo to Cape Town adventurer's beard is no longer!
The Cairo to Cape Town adventurer’s beard is no longer!

Next stop is Kampala where we will be catching up with a couple of old friends before heading west and into our first national park with some of the ‘Big Five’!

If you’ve enjoyed reading this blog post, please donate to World Bicycle Relief. Every penny goes to the great work the charity does in Africa – not to fund our expedition in any way.