DAY 78 MONDAY 5th FEBRUARY 2017. HOIMA, UGANDA
Ugandan pop music has to be the worst in the world. I write that as I have been bugged by it since I arrived at this hotel soon after lunch. Soon, I shall have to address the management about it, certainly before I go to my early bed. It just goes on and on, the same beat, the same ‘music’ made by engineers, not musicians. To create this stuff, all you have to do is push buttons, not have any creative skill with instruments. The speaker broadcasts to an empty garden in probably the town’s best hotel. (Where, again, I got a room reduced from £35 to £16). As always, it’s causing me to sink into irritability… Africans put up with so much noise and appear terrified of silence.
Hoima has little or nothing to recommend it. It is dusty and scruffy, but I was forced to stop here as I have another 100 miles of dirt roads to cover tomorrow on a 150 mile journey to my next destination. There’s one tar road into this town, direct from Kampala, but every other road in the region is dusty earth. It’s called murram, and is packed red earth, as hard as tarmac, but with a surface of dust and the ability to hide dips and holes with the sun so high above. This whole region is beyond tar roads, it seems. Within moments of leaving Masindi, the town’s tar surfaces disappear, and the same goes for this town. The main street is tarred but all side roads are of unhealthy red dust. Of my 100 mile ride today, 75 were dusty, the rest round the two towns. I arrived in Hoima with my usual deep red beard, but everyone here must be used to it. Pretty Constance, of the Masindi Hotel, insisted on taking my photo this morning, after I had captured her delightful smile for another book of photos. My photo should really be entitled, ‘Would you let a man as scruffy as this into your hotel?’…
There’s something unsettling about this area. My instincts are pretty well refined by now as I ride along. I am missing the customary effervescent smiles and greetings. People here seem to stare rather blankly at me with few smiles. Perhaps this is a different tribal region? Maybe it’s too remote to see so many mzungus?
I rode off my route to ride down the Albertine Escarpment to see Lake Albert. It’s over 1500 feet lower than Masindi, the road curling down towards the almost invisible lake in the haze. Certainly, there’s nothing to see of the Blue Mountains of Congo on the other side, I doubt visibility was a mile. Butiaba is a small, straggly fishing village at the heel of a sandy promontory that protrudes into the lake with palm trees and dense with sand flies. The lake proved to be filled with floating one-use plastic bottles, the scourge of the planet. No one is safe from this pollution, even in the centre of Africa; maybe especially in the centre of Africa, for at least we in the West are becoming aware of the dangers to the environment; no one here is. Try asking for tap water here and you are looked at as if crazy. It’s such a clever marketing con by cynical corporations: most of the world’s water is as safe as the stuff peddled as ‘from mountain springs’ etc (some of it probably from taps in Kampala). All you are purchasing is advertising and a plastic bottle/ pollution. The cleverest trick of salesmen of the last century. Selling the insecurity of ill health to those who consequently reduce their immunity. My rule has always been to drink tap water except where the locals won’t – so far Afghanistan 1977 and China 1984…
Appearances can be deceptive. This is a smart hotel set in large well kept gardens, with pretensions to grandeur. I just ate a most unremarkable curry of ‘fresh’ vegetables that were every one of them from a frozen packet. Oh well, I have cheered up a bit having dealt with the noise pollution. I asked the barman, with a big smile, if we could lose the outdoor speaker? A tip of all of 60 pence sealed the deal! Unusually, I turned on the air conditioning to cool my room before going for supper at the terrace restaurant with its thatched roofs. I’ve come back and it’s warmed up the room nicely! I guess it’s my inexperience. I’m usually fighting to turn OFF the AC… I’ll open the window behind the insect screens, and hope I get a good night. I am surprisingly tired after two days of murram roads, and another LONG one to come tomorrow.
There are millions of small motorbikes afflicting African roads and towns these days. It’s an astonishing thing, so much so that I nearly hit a pothole in my shock this morning: I passed a woman rider. So what, you may ask. But she is the FIRST woman I have seen riding a moped on this side of Africa. It is an exclusively male occupation. Oddly, in Ghana, at least half the riders are women, but Ghana isn’t quite so conservative as these countries and women are much more emancipated (for Africa). Here, you see a few women allowed on bicycles but not ONE in trousers and very few driving any vehicles, most sitting side-saddle on boda-bodas. A few miles later, I passed a second ‘liberated’ Ugandan woman on a moped. I wondered if they could be teachers and thus relatively independent, for schools seem to have finally gone back today, a month after Kenya.
So an unexciting day today. Well, I suppose they can’t all be significant from parking on lion footprints!
DAY 79 TUESDAY 6th FEBRUARY 2017. FORT PORTAL, UGANDA
For sheer filth, hard work and disgusting conditions, today gets the prize. The words “oh, they’re working on the road…” strikes doom in my heart. Today’s ride was a trial of physical and mental persistence. The Suam to Sipi road is more serious trail riding, but it’s also almost half the distance and has the incredible beauty of those views to lift the spirits from contemplation of the effort and why the hell I am putting myself through all this.
This was the third day that I have wrestled with dire murram tracks, all day for three days! Now at last I am back on the tar roads. I must have ridden 250 miles on corrugated, pitted, dusty roads.
Last night I went to bed at 8.37! That’s almost mid-afternoon for me. The next thing I knew it was 7.19 and the sun was up. If, as I firmly believe, stress is the main contributor to ill health and short lives, and if healthy physical exercise, out of doors, is a key to good health, then I have discovered the key to longevity verging on immortality! My only stresses are self-induced when I get irritated, and that’s usually dispelled by a few moments of rational thought, and often a bit of self criticism. As for exercise, well, I reckon 250 miles of trail riding uses just about every muscle available – not sure that the dust does much for my health, but that’s fairly transitory. And eleven hours sleep a night can’t be bad: the satisfaction of a weary body and a well-stimulated brain.
“They’re working on the road…” What that means is that all the old established murram, that has been packed down by the years – OK, with ruts and holes from the rainy season, and corrugations from the bouncing lorries – is ploughed up by vast Chinese bulldozers and replaced by deep quantities of newly quarried rock and millions of truck loads of new red earth, dumped, rolled, water sprayed, and crunched into a mess almost a hundred miles long. I must lock my arms and thread my way through the muck, the diversions, the as yet non-existent bridges; the piles of rock and earth, the dust-belching trucks, the Chinamen in straw hats, gesticulating; the Ugandans peering through theodolites, the sudden inexplicable diversions through fields, the tantalisingly short stretches of new tar that build so much confidence as I watch over each hill, dreading the muck that surely follows again. I have to share the ‘road’ with the worst drivers I have found in the fifty-odd countries in which I have ridden, with a million shitty little boda-bodas ridden by lunatics, loaded with tables, vast sacks of charcoal, five schoolchildren, bicycles laid across the pillion seat, other Chinese motorbikes carried in a similar fashion, strapped on their side behind a rider with his balls pressed to the tank. I have seen many a settee and chair on the pillion; piles of plastic stacking chairs dwarfing the rider; trussed pigs carried across the pillion passenger’s knees; chickens draped by the dozen, heads hanging forlornly; complete wooden beds; festoons of milk-churns; multiple passengers; three full sized sheets if quarter ply flapping on the passenger’s head (imagine the turbulence!); bundles of steel rods dragged in the dust; plastic pipes held like lances by passengers; riders texting and checking their phones (with three passengers behind them); beer crates piled six feet high on the pillion seat, wavering on the rutted tracks. But best yet; the ultimate prize winner for load on a small Chinese 100cc motorbike (so far) was to see a ten foot steel ladder strapped to the off-side of the bike – vertically. This on roads where the foliage can be thick and encroaching!
Last night I noted that perhaps I was riding through a region of different people: I missed the smiles and laughter, the waves and irrepressible gaiety. It was also very noticeable just how small were the people I passed in the last few hundred miles of filth. These were people of the smallest stature. Ugandans are known for their shortness, but many people today were under five feet, tiny-seeming people. I know that I am now in the region of Africa from which come the Batwa (or, less PC: pigmy) people, so these seemed like a sort of preparatory race! But they didn’t smile much, just watched me pass with a faint scowl that seems the natural feature. Now, in Fort Portal, the biggest town down this way, I appear to be back amongst the cheerful, out-going Ugandans I expect.
Maybe the reaction of the people and their apparent antipathy towards my presence has a bit to do with the fact that some days I see the ‘romance’ of being here, riding through equatorial Africa, and other days – today – I just see the squalor and thank my stars that I wasn’t born to this life in the roadside dust and stained buildings that will never be completed because no one has resources to finish once the structure fulfils its basic purpose, and certainly not to decorate or beautify anything. It all looked so sordid today, with even the greenery coated in dust; the villages collections of dingy stained brick and concrete; roadsides broken and shambolic, rubbish abounding. Even the views weren’t worth writing home about (so I won’t).
I stopped for two huge mugs of sweet milky tea, which is really warm milk that a tea bag of the cheapest variety was waved over, in one of the filthy, scruffy strip villages. The Ugandan population being one of the fastest expanding in Africa, there are people everywhere. My ride through the empty Murchison National Park emphasised the density of population here. Never, for a moment, today, did I leave humanity behind, out of sight, to enjoy some virgin nature. Unless it is protected by law, every inch is used, cultivated, abused and degraded. You see, I said that all I saw today was squalor…
Imagine my chagrin, when I finally arrived back on the tarmac road, that I remember from last year being a bit potholed, to find that it too was being ‘worked on’ too. Virtually my whole journey today – 200 kilometres – was undertaken on broken, dusty, stony surfaces. It’s been quite a day. I may well be back in bed by 8.37.
Last year I stayed in Fort Portal for a few days, a busy, untidy but pleasant enough town. Finding a bed was easy as a result. I came back to the same hotel, and it might even be the same room but memory fails me; I have slept in SO many cheap hotels rooms round the world. I often wonder just how many?
“For goodness sake, don’t bring me a white towel!” I am embarrassed by the trail of dust-stained towels I am leaving across East Africa. There was a knock at my door. The receptionist stood there with a large orange towel. It’s so nice to be able to joke in English with Ugandans. There’s a full length mirror on the hotel stairs: it was the first time I saw my sorry state, so sorry that a laughing guest insisted he took my camera and made a photo of me outside my first floor room, overlooking the rather noisy town. ‘Would you let this man in your hotel?’, indeed. But of course, people here understand the state of the roads; they’re only astonished that a man whose beard turns out to be white when washed, has the ridiculous notion of riding this way to Fort Portal.
Sometimes, so do I.
DAY 80 WEDNESDAY 7th FEBRUARY 2017. IBANDA, UGANDA
It was a mistake to go back to the hotel in Fort Portal, for all it is cheap and adequate. I had forgotten that the businesses next door run an unsilenced generator in the backyard of their building right beneath the rooms of the hotel. And when that finally stopped at ten, the pounding of music and the grinding of lorries on the hill outside took over. Looking back at my notes, I see I said it was ‘OK but noisy. Friendly’ last year. But none of the friendly people are still working there and the noise had increased such that it was like living next to an airport runway. I had a disturbed night, just when I needed a sound sleep. So now, at six in the evening in a sad hotel in Ibanda, I am irritable and in need of someone to talk to to dispel the gloom. Oh well, it doesn’t often happen this way and I will just have to make do and hope tomorrow improves!
This bizarre £12.50 hotel, modern, spread around huge expanses of lawn (that’s what attracted me) is sad through lack of imagination, lack of management and lack of maintenance. Those are the three main failings of most business ventures in Africa. With minimal imagination, the rooms could be pleasant – as it is, they are basic to a point of asceticism and austerity. The management seems to be one woman, who appears to be doing everything and has the personal skills and charm of… and I spent half an hour trying to think of a suitable personality with minimal personality and could only come up with Theresa May!! Her English comprehension is wilfully poor to boot. As for maintenance, why not tighten up the taps that spin in the basin so they leak directly to the floor? Why not put a handle back on the bathroom door? Why not repair the hot water system? You could probably charge more if there was a hot shower. Why not rehang the curtain rail instead of tugging a piece of cloth over the security screens? For imagination, why not put more than a Chinese plastic chair, a school table and a bed in a room ten feet by fifteen? How much would a mat cost? This is so typical (he said, irritably, reflecting the thankfully rare mood) of African business. It has cost a fortune in investment to construct this hotel (owned by the town mayor) with its 50 or more rooms spread pleasantly round the gardens and lawns, but few owners will employ qualified staff or understand that regular money must be spent to keep businesses fresh and profitable… Why not produce a dish other than ******* chicken and chips and ******* fried cabbage for once?! Bahhhh!!!
Sorry, these moods get me now and again. It’s inevitable on a journey as long as this. I suspect I am tired.
And in parts, it’s been a fine day. Last year one of my favourite discoveries was a short mountain pass north of Fort Portal. There’s a sweeping highway, virtually empty of traffic, that curls and swoops through the mountains and down to the lower equatorial forest that spreads into Congo and on, most of the way across the continent. The new road loops right round the end of the mountain range in a huge U shape, and eventually enters Congo at a small border much of the way back to being level with Fort Portal. The old road cut that short by turning and winding over the range for just ten miles on a shelf cut from the steep mountain slopes. It’s still there, now covered in grass and unused, except by the likes of me. Before turning south, I decided to take that track again, riding in the opposite direction, so that much of it seemed new. It was as magical and calming as I remembered, winding through silent realms of creeper-hung trees beside yawning drops into deep forest below. Ten lovely miles.
Dropping slowly down to the Congolese side of the mountains – still 10 miles inside Uganda – I came upon a rudimentary mud and thatch army encampment. It wasn’t there last year. Soldiers, little more than youths, came gesticulating, hitching their guns over their shoulders, to interview me. I just smile and comply with their requests, extracting my passport so that, as usual, they can read the long expired Mozambique visa, which contains my photo and looks far more official than the rather insignificant plastic-shrouded identification page that the Passport Office in London put there. I soon rode on, and was far more alarmed by an aggressive baboon half a mile on down the leafy track. They are nasty animals of little charm, to be treated respectfully. Common enough to see on the roads, they always run off, bums flashing red and rather disgustingly. This one old male didn’t run. He sat there as I passed and lunged out frighteningly and gave brief chase. A blip of my throttle soon got me away, but baboons are animals I don’t trust, and one glance into that mouth of vicious teeth was enough to shake me a little. You do not want a baboon bite in this life. It could be the last!
“Oh, yes, they can be aggressive,” agreed a policeman, back on the tar road, stopping me more out of bored curiosity than any wish to check my credentials. “But if you stop, they will always run away!” Hmmmm… It was advice that I doubt I will put to the test. Those teeth did it for me.
It was grand to be away from habitation and dusty roadside development for a while. This region is more sparsely inhabited as I wind back into the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains. The afternoon ride, having passed back through noisy, bustling Fort Portal, and a forested stretch of national park, was into fine scenery: high rolling mountainsides, dry and with low trees, backed by the high mountains. It had an air of Spain; perhaps a quality of the light, perhaps the washed out colours of the soil and vegetation. I had selected Ibanda somewhat randomly on my map, as it would make a ride of about 230 kilometres, and I try to limit my days to around 200. It’s a small departmental town with local courts and government offices. It has little to recommend it for a longer stay than to sleep the night in my austere room. I’d have liked to find a place to sleep in the magnificently named Bugarama, up the road, but there was nowhere. I got this buggerama instead.
When I tried to order supper, the one-woman manager/ cook/ receptionist/ dogsbody, Maybot impersonator, told me that ‘your friends have ordered for you!’ Stupidly, I argued that I’d never seen them before. Maybe I should have just turned on the British charm, for they are a pale brown group of eleven obvious African Americans, probably on some sort of ‘roots’ tour. If I couldn’t hear the deep Southern accents, I’d know they were African American. They are VAST! Every one of them like giant lardy puddings. I often remember, when I see African Americans coming back to their ‘roots’, the black American who spent time in Navrongo tracing his ancestry. I met him a few times at Chief’s palace over supper. The poor man would have been mortified to know that everybody in town referred to us both as ‘the two white men’!
One of the wobbly mountains just greeted me. It turns out they are building and supporting an orphanage (applause) and running a college for ‘pastors’ (Grrrrrrhhhhh! Fake pastors. Grrrrhhhh!). Their translator (“People don’t understand their accents…”) came and sat with me as I ate my fried bloody chicken and fried bloody cabbage. He reckons he saw me in Jinja. I haven’t been in Jinja for over a year. All white men look the same… Even if they are black!
My god, I hate fried ******** cabbage. Oh well, I’ve cheered up a bit for something to eat and a couple of bad beers. Time for bed. I’m feeling a bit pissed on two beers. I think I must be exhausted!
8.30, as I am going to bed, and my phone flashes (so inexperienced that I seem to have lost the ringtone!). It’s Precious and Alex, concerned for my welfare. And all my irritation dissolves with a warm, caring gesture… THAT’S what makes it worthwhile, after all.
DAY 81 THURSDAY 8th FEBRUARY 2017. KABALE, UGANDA
The White Horse Inn at Kabale! I ask you, how colonial can you get? It’s so funny: a smart hotel surrounded by wonderfully green clipped lawns, lilies and irises in flower everywhere, such a tonic for the eyes after all the dust and dry vegetation of the last week; uniformed staff, who are all so friendly; a tennis court; a proper dining room with waiters with bow ties, and a delightful bar with a roaring log fire if the temperature drops. What’s so funny? Well, me. Here. When I think how my travelling has changed over the years, that’s what’s funny! And how I do enjoy the contrasts. When I think back to the shitty (sometimes literally) hovels in which I used to stay, and now this.
And a few hours ago I was drinking African tea outside the dirtiest little ‘hoteli’ you can picture, sweating and dusty. That’s what I love about this travelling life: contrast and that feeling of being IN the moment.
It’s been a grand day on the whole. From breakfast beside mammoth Baptists in that hapless hotel in Ibanda, to a cool beer in a long glass in a civilised bar in the highest town in Uganda, with an aromatic log fire just kindling in the grate. Harlene, from Maryland, one of the billowing and bulging Baptists, enveloped in enough shiny gold fabric to sew a marquee, insisted on holding my hand and saying a prayer for my day as I loaded the Mosquito. Why is it the fervently devout overbearingly assume you share their convictions? Oh well, I suppose it gave her comfort even if it didn’t convince or inconvenience me much. “These are our friends, they’re pastors! Do you know about pastors?” They were a group of astonishingly glossily dressed young men, in the shiniest of suits more appropriate for the Mafia than church. Pastors do have a recognisable dress code in Africa: incredibly bad taste is the most salient feature. You can see them coming from the glare of their suiting fabrics and the ill taste of their ties. I quickly assured Harlene that, yes, I was aware of pastors – and hurriedly asked about her day. She was a kindly behemoth. Her gesture was well meant.
My breakfast table was shared with the Ugandan ‘translator’ again, whose name I unfortunately forgot to get. “Yes,” he agreed, “the people of the regions you’ve been passing through are quite different from the rest of Uganda. They are secretive and troublesome. The government has never really been able to control them. Bad stuff happens there, but they won’t tell. It’s why Kony had so much power there (the terrible, sadistic, quasi-religious leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a horrible episode in Ugandan history): they would never cooperate with the government. That’s why they don’t have many roads, the government makes them suffer first, to try to gain control. Independent people; they even wanted to be a separate country. They will say one thing to your face, but think something else…”
The translator was not a government supporter. Ironically, 30-odd years ago, the president, Museveni, came to power to calm the country and on a promise to stamp out corruption. Like so many African presidents, he started well, with respect. Now, the apparent life-president (what is it about power corrupting these Africans?), who has just bought his way to changing the constitution so that he could possibly remain in office until he dies, is considered one of the MOST corrupt, richest presidents in the history of Africa. “Ho, I was watching a documentary on television,” my companion said, “children in school were standing for election to various posts within the school. They showed them buying sweets for their fellow students to get their votes!” I wonder where they got that idea? Is there hope for African politics? From the president to schoolchildren; but what example do those children have? Each African looks at the person above him in the pecking order and thinks,’if my boss is corrupt, then I need to be too.’
Riding south, the scenery was handsome: upland, rolling mountainsides now becoming greener, with dairy farming and well spaced villages and towns. The road was excellent, sometimes quite new, sweeping through the hills attractively. Only the quality of the driving spoils the rides in Uganda, for these are the world’s most inconsiderate, uncaringly dangerous drivers, especially in their contempt for boda-bodas – for which, of course, I am often mistaken, despite my slightly extra speed.
Around one, baked by the overhead sun (I crossed the Equator again a few miles back up the road yesterday; so commonplace has it become that I didn’t even notice), and weary from three hours in the saddle, thankfully the wide single seat that Rico so kindly brought back from Congo for me, I stopped for tea…
The scrappy village, no more than two rows of untidy, decrepit, lock-up booths with sightless, steel shutter doors, was called Rwambondo, but could have been any one of the hundreds of such shabby habitations through which I have passed these past days. There was a very odd quality to my pause. Pulling aside a dirty net curtain that disguised the ‘hotel’ shack interior, several people looked up from their broken goat and matoke meals, fingers pausing for a moment in the stews in their plastic bowls. There was no immediate greeting, just a rather unsettling silence. I smiled broadly, but it didn’t elicit the happy smiles of other parts of this country. I am downgrading my observations of Ugandans being the friendliest Africans: SOME Ugandans are…
I asked for tea and took a ubiquitous Chinese plastic chair onto the space outside the door. I wanted to watch the world go by, not wrinkle my nose at the sour smell of tough goat meat. All the eaters and passers-by regarded me with little reaction. They greeted when I greeted, but little more. I reckon very few spoke much English, odd in a country that communicates amongst its varied tribes in English. It is the chief language for business, media, and government.
The smallest of women – she reached the middle of my chest – brought my tea in a large flask and a chipped mug. She kneeled respectfully, as is the old way before older men, and poured the tea. I attempted to make her smile. No reaction. People came and went as I sat for forty minutes drinking two mugs of ‘tea’ (warm milk really). Then, suddenly, from over my shoulder, a young man thrust a delicious chapati, freshly cooked at his stall a few feet away, into my hand. No word passed. It appeared that almost no one spoke English, or if they did, hadn’t the confidence to talk. Maybe they were just completely unused to seeing a mzungu up so close. Most pass on that road behind the closed windows of safari company vehicles, racing past in a flash; they don’t sit in the dust outside the locals’ eating place. Perhaps this is the reaction that would have been seen if a short, black Ugandan had walked into the Church House Inn 150 years ago? I felt no antipathy, just an unsettling lack of curiosity. In fact, that’s what I’ve missed these last four days in this part of Uganda. Africans are naturally curious, but not there.
But I am back amongst curious, smiling and warm-hearted Ugandans again, thank goodness, in this, probably the most beautiful district of the country. Kabale sits at about 2000 metres with high green mountains dissolving into the western horizon. It’s a fine ride, the last 40 kilometres, to get up here, on a broad, sweeping highway curling up into the hills. And the best is beyond! Last year I loved the road west from here so much that I rode it a total of five times. It’s the reason I returned.
I knew my way straight back to the White Horse Inn on its hill beside the golf course (!). As I rode through the gate, Ezra, the elderly gateman, instantly recognised me. When I rode into the yard last year, I took one look and decided the hotel was way out of my budget range, so I turned round and began to ride away. “Where are you going?” asked Ezra.
“Oh, I can’t afford to stay here!”
“But you haven’t asked yet…”
It made me laugh so much that I turned round and went in to the reception with my usual, ‘I probably can’t afford to stay here, but I won’t know if I don’t ask!’ line. I bargained a reduction from 102,000 Uganda shillings to 72,000 that time.
So, brazen as you like, I returned. Ezra laughed to see me again and I removed my utterly disgusting dust covered, faded jacket and approached reception. The manager of last year, a short, gentlemanly fellow called Sam, has retired and his replacement, a large, tall, confident woman, was standing my side of the desk. The receptionist, Jackson recognised me.
The new manager offered 85,000. I pointed out that her predecessor had asked 72,000. “Yes, that was last year!” she quipped, toughly amused. I negotiated as if I was buying mangoes in the market and got in for 80,000 shillings (£16). Since last year there’s been some maintenance and I have (the same) nice room with a vast bed and working hot water – plus all the rather civilised resources of a real hotel. The fire’s dying down in the grate – it’s mild out tonight – and I ate a very good curry for a change. There’s even a lily in a bowl on the table in my room. This is living! Haha. I love the contrasts: a goat-smelling roadside cafe, to supper served by a waiter in a tartan waistcoat.
DAY 82 FRIDAY 9th FEBRUARY 2017. KABALE, UGANDA
This is perhaps Uganda’s most beautiful corner, and what could be better than a gentle ride on a sunny day through the green mountains, on a fine road and with wonderful views? I don’t know how high the road climbs, but it must be considerable, since Kabale is at 2000 metres and the top of the road is considerably higher. The road itself is quite a piece of engineering, winding its way, starting 22 kilometres out of the town, up and up, then over and down to Kisoro, fifty miles away in the farthest corner of the country. It’s not much used, so relaxing to ride for a change.
Stopping to take a photo of Lake Bunyonyi far below, curled amongst the steep green slopes, I suddenly became aware that I was the focus of at least 100 schoolchildren on an embankment high above me, waving and gesticulating from the hill. It’s good to be back in the waving, greeting Uganda again, after the last days of dull reaction. Sadly, some of the children I pass – and quite a few of the adults – are unable to resist asking for money, as do so many in nearby Rwanda. Generally, in Kenya and Uganda, it’s not common, but as soon as I get into – or in this case – near to, the old French-influenced countries, it becomes endemic. Still, in Uganda many people are happy to see me for my own sake.
The semi-vertical landscape is intensely cultivated, the fields making an intricate patchwork pattern on the slopes. The hard work that is represented by these tiny patches is mind-boggling – and probably ancient. From the depths of the valleys to the peaks of the hillsides the tiny terraces and steeply sloping fields are productive. It’s obviously onion season, and various villages smelled strongly of small red onions, being harvested, packed in sacks and traded to middle men in nose-wrinkling lorry loads.
Way up at the top of the hills, the road passes for a few miles through a lovely protected forest, thick with tall trees and waving roadside bamboo trees. The green was so refreshing as I swept along in the high, clean air, the dust and dead landscapes of the past few days behind me. It’s luxuriant up there: deep greens and rustling growth. Then comes the Kanaba Gap, the top of the pass, where some earth and zinc shacks line the road, and men and women shovelled small onions into more sacks. Around the corner is an astonishing view of the high volcanoes where Uganda, Rwanda and Congo meet, towering above sun-bleached hills and valleys filled with shimmering zinc roofs and an endless confusion of tiny enclosures. I rode this way last year two or three times, but was never aware quite how imposing is Mount Muhayura, a giant shape on the horizon, towering up to 4127 metres (over 17,500 feet), a respectable mountain. Behind it are the other peaks of the range, one of them a classic volcano in profile. This time last year, the peaks must have been hidden by a bank of haze and cloud. Not so now.
It’s a magnificent ride, worth coming back to enjoy it again. I rode as far as the Congo border before turning round and starting back to Kabale. As I passed the end of the long, sinuous lake, I stopped where young men wash their boda-bodas and paid Moses a pound (good money) to wash the Mosquito, probably the cleanest it’s been for the whole time I have owned it. The usual conversation, that I have a hundred times, took place amongst a gathering group of young people as Moses threw lake water over the dusty bike and sloshed Omo suds about the place. They all want to go to America or England, where they will become instantly rich from the money trees. I try to impress upon them that we also have to work for our money; many people are poor, even beggars – and how much more serious it is to be in poverty in a place without extended families and with inclement conditions; of the loneliness of so many in nations that have to dwell indoors; of how a pint of beer costs me four times as much at home as it does in Uganda; of how we mzungus appear rich in this economy but may well struggle to make ends meet in our own. It probably falls on deaf ears…
“Oh, I want to find an English wife!” declared one young fellow, more articulate than the rest.
“Huh, my friend, you’d have a shock! She wouldn’t bear you eight children. You’d have to fetch your own water, wash the babies, carry your own firewood! She’d be independent! Equal! You couldn’t treat her the way you treat Ugandan women!”
I might as well save my breath about the population explosion here in Uganda. No one connects their poverty with the fact that half the country is aged under fifteen… African men leave you despairing of the future.
Meanwhile, an email just arrived from young Dennis in Ghana, to tell me his (rented) multiple-occupancy house burned to the ground early on Tuesday morning, taking every possession except their nightwear, in which they escaped. He, Emmanuella and Hezekiah, got out unharmed, although one occupant was killed in the blaze. Oh dear… Dennis does have difficult trials. Emmanuella is, unsurprisingly, traumatised; they’ve had to scurry, with nothing, to his parents’ home. Oh, what a tangled web. What a mess. And not a lot I can do (except the inevitable…) from Uganda… Oh dear. I await more news.
DAY 83 SATURDAY 10th FEBRUARY 2017. KABALE, UGANDA
It’s funny, but just when I begin to wonder (as inevitably sometimes happens) what I am doing riding aimlessly about Africa, and begin to consider that I should just face facts and accept the regularities and boredom of damp, dark, cold winter at home, because I am bored and need someone to talk to here – just as that despondency wears away at me, I have a wonderful ride full of delights; bright sun dazzles from African skies; warmth wraps itself around me and I decide not to face the reality of English winter after all!
Long journeys on your own are occasionally difficult. I have so many superficial conversations and spend most of the day on my own. I interact with waiters, hotel guests and people I pass on the road: answering the same questions day in, day out. But I can’t share the experience or my thoughts with anyone. Fortunately, I am generally content with my own company, but I do miss conversation with my peers and equals. The bike doesn’t help, for I don’t even meet other travellers as I would in buses and matatus. So sometimes it all gets a bit much. But then comes an experience that lifts my journey; an experience I would not miss; an experience that I will remember when I AM back in the tedium of everyday life on dull wet days in Harberton, (fitting lavatory seats as an odd job man!). After all, it can’t ALL be wonderful, entertaining and diverting. Life isn’t like that.
A ride through part if the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest saved the day. It’s a World Heritage Site and absolutely magnificent. So fine that when a couple of safari vehicles passed I felt sorry for the mzungus sitting watching all that glory and natural majesty through the dusty rear windows of a Land Cruiser. I was IN it, the smells, the air, the sun – even the dust they threw up as they passed. I could stop at will to gaze into the luxurious green depths beside the well maintained gravel track, cut dramatically from the steepest mountainsides; I could stop and listen to the wind in the high, lush profusion about me; I could stand and stare into the distance – while they drove by, enclosed, at the whim of their driver, detached and remote. Birds of exquisite coloured plumage flitted about on the warm breeze; a few monkeys scampered away, white tails flicking; butterflies floated and danced in the warm air. It was one of the best rides in East Africa.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is famous for being the last home of the great African gorillas, a species close to man, but almost extinct; made famous by the late Diane Fossey and ‘Gorillas in the Mist’. They only survive in these mountains that spread over the meeting place of Uganda, Rwanda and Congo – and only in small, remote groups far from the easily accessible corner in which I was riding. They have retreated to the far depths of the forest – and become a HUGE money-spinner for the governments of the three countries. It’s difficult to book visits to the gorilla families and costs are about £450 to £600 for the half day trip, to get up close to the gorillas, habituated to visits from inquisitive humans. Tourist numbers are sensibly limited so costs rise. Well, I’m not going to visit gorillas – or pigmies: I don’t really like the falseness of such cultural voyeurism. You aren’t seeing NATURAL Batwa people any more than you are really seeing the gorillas in a natural state, not if they are visited every day by a dozen humans… I suppose the money does help them to be protected from inevitable poachers and without it, there would be no more mountain gorillas.
Ten miles off the tar road; the lovely one over to Kisoro that I have taken so many times, through small villages and heavily cultivated slopes and wide views to the distance-hazed hills, I bumped up to a National Park gate and assumed that I would have to turn round or pay a large fee. But no, said Edson, the guard, all I needed was to sign his book, for this was a public road that went through this section of the park towards the higher park where live the gorillas. I was welcome to ride through and return, or to go on and return by a long route across the high hills. It was already lunchtime, so I opted to ride through to a small village on the other side, another eight miles on, and return. What a great ride! The day became memorable.
The White Horse Inn (what a colonial joke!) is peaceful, not to say silent. Tonight – Saturday – I appear to be just about the only guest in the old place, built in 1927. It is surrounded by an acre or two of clipped lawns, colourful flower beds and tidy pathways. I spotted a fellow pushing a hand-mower this morning… Lillian, the manager with whom I bargained, is just about polite to me, but the rest of the uniformed, well trained staff are cheerful and welcoming in their Scottish plaid waistcoats and bow ties! Haha! White Horse Inn, indeed!
DAY 84 SUNDAY 11th FEBRUARY 2017. KABALE, UGANDA
I’m so glad I came back to Kabale. I hadn’t seen the best of the area at all, merely a taste of its delights in the three days I spent here last February. Today has been magnificent, another great ride.
In Nairobi I was able to buy a decent map of Uganda. I’d have liked a larger scale, but have to make do with this one, with its tantalising wriggles of thin red ink that denote some of the country tracks. In fact, the one I took today is marked as a road but is one of the least road-like of all the trails I have ridden these past weeks. Often, it seemed little more than a sinuous path scratched along the mountainsides with dramatic plunging slopes to the side. On the map, it follows the border between Uganda and Rwanda for much of the way, and frequently I was looking across the deep valleys at the hilltops that define the border. Fortunately, I took the road in an anticlockwise direction; if I’d started off on the appalling bouncy, slippery dust of the last seven or eight miles, I might well have turned back – and missed the wonders I saw in the middle part of my trail ride.
I set off on these rides nervously. I have no idea what I am going to face; how the conditions will be, how hard it will be, whether my Mosquito will hold up until I get back to ‘civilisation’… And I am on my own, far from help. But of course, I am by now in fairly confident control of my little bike, which has turned out to be just perfect for the sort of hard trail I followed today, and I’ve been doing all this long enough to know that the best rewards often come when I am most anxious at the outset.
Just past the end of the lake, where the boda-boda washing boys waved excitedly as I passed and Moses chucked buckets of lake water over the cab of a lorry he was washing, I turned left through a scruffy village centre and headed onto a dirt lane that twisted and turned around the intricate hillsides. The lake is contorted, with many inlets and arms, and my track had to wind its way past them all. Slowly I climbed the hillsides, people waving and calling excitedly as I rode. I don’t think, from the reactions, that many mzungus come this way at all. Faces split in welcoming smiles, old ladies waved, children shouted and people hidden way up and down the hillsides were aware that a stranger was passing. I become a celebrity on such a day, the smile spread over my own face as I bounce and shudder over the track, through tiny villages and past endless shambas. On Sunday, there are people everywhere, dressed in their best, walking the paths from church – for there are churches of every crazy denomination in even the tiniest of hamlets. Glimpses of the lake could be caught, increasingly far below, amongst the convoluted hillsides. The views were large and the slopes intricately patterned with tiny fields. My road climbed and curled upwards, until at last I turned my back on the lake, breasted the ridge and saw a long, deep valley beneath me, the other side presumably Rwanda. Every acre of the valleys was cultivated in complex patterns. Pale paths twisted between the fields, up and down the steepness, between homesteads; people everywhere – smiling and waving.
Remarkably few people asked for money; almost everyone was just pleased, and a bit astonished, to see a muzungu riding his piki-piki through their isolated villages. I fell to thinking about the automatic importuning of some of the lesser-educated people I travel amongst. I suppose that many Africans’ exposure to white men is to those who indeed bring and disseminate aid, so my skin colour becomes a symbol of gifts and alms. And what do you lose by making that irritating palm-up greeting to a passing white man? His respect? Big deal… He may throw you a coin. The French do! I shall have to get used to that greeting in Rwanda again. I shall try to understand that it’s the way white men are seen in countries that have received so much aid in the past – although Rwanda is now one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, but probably little of that wealth trickles down to the peasants who will beg endlessly from me next week…
I dislike the concept of what I call cultural voyeurism – I mean, it would be in pretty bad taste to go and look at a community of people with only one leg, or everyone in wheelchairs, say. So what’s the difference in showing up in an expensive safari vehicle to look at very small people for twenty minutes, who then perform a pastiche of their traditional dances in order to make some money? But I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t admit to a deep curiosity to meet some Batwa (pigmy) people. Imagine, then, my excitement when I passed through a whole village of them, waving at me as I passed! This was how I had imagined, and hoped, to see them – just chance on my journey somewhere, and here they were, on this very remote country track at the back of beyond: the perfect way to find them. Ugandans themselves are pretty small, often I tower above them, but the Batwa are extremely small, probably no more than 4’6, just small people, looking just like everyone else, but smaller. I was, I admit, thrilled. All I could do, of course, was wave and smile and ride on by – stopping to gawp being against my principles! But it made my day – an already pretty good one.
Putting two and two together – I’d seen a sign, ‘Batwa Resettlement Project’ a mile back up the road – these people represented a perfect challenge, and had been removed from their indigenous forest homes and ‘modernised’ by teaching them 2000 year old myths of the White Man’s God to replace the probably much more ecologically sound beliefs of their own forest gods. These Batwa were not dressed in the barks and skins of the forests but in rather small Sunday Best like everyone else, probably on their way home from church…
Catching the eye of a fellow sitting with his small child on a motorbike at a dusty Y junction in remote village, I stopped, initially just to ask which of the two forks would eventually bring me to Gatuna, my destination where the tar road started again. We began a conversation, so I paused. The right fork went to an informal border crossing into Rwanda half a mile away, Valentine said, the left one was for me. He is a teacher in a Rwandan school, there being so little employment in Uganda for educated people. Soon a crowd gathered around us, and everyone wanted to ask the mzungu (all the usual) questions. (“Are you catholic or protestant?” Then, sensing a pause as I bit back the retort, ‘does it matter?’ “…or heathen?” My tacit smile opted for the latter.) I decided to stop and get a mug of tea to settle some of the dust. The crowd came with me to a roadside bench and a woman brought a flask of tea and an old plastic mug. It was the most lovely hour of my journey today. I love this sort of interaction. I am amongst friendly, enquiring folk, whose exposure to mzungus is small, but whose eager curiosity is large. It’s a privilege to be received so openly, in complete safety and respect. It’s pretty much why I am here. Another gold star for my day. One young man was articulate and urbane, above the others, but he is no more than a boda-boda rider. Sandy Alex was educated through senior high school. “But there’s no work, so I’m a boda-boda rider!” No compliant, just a fact. The straggling village was called Kagogo, and I left with many invitations to return, and all the usual offers of marriage!
My map gave the distance from tar road to tar road as 53 kilometres (33 miles) but it turned out to be 65 kilometres (41 miles) of very hard riding. Tonight I am weary but deeply satisfied. Back on the tar road – finally: I had begun to think it would never come on those last awful miles – I found myself actually inside the restricted area of immigration and customs at the Uganda/ Rwanda border. Explaining that I had come from Muko, far away at the other end if Lake Bunyonyi, rather to everyone’s surprise, I set off back to Kabale, just fifteen more miles away.
In the last two miles I got soaked to the skin! Without any warning, I found myself riding into town in the midst of a sudden thunderstorm, high winds and scything rain. With a mile to go to the White Horse Inn, there was nothing for it but to carry on and warm up under the shower. It washed the deep white dust off the Mosquito and pushed the deep white dust even further into my filthy jacket and trousers. At the end of my journey last year, Scovia kindly volunteered to wash my riding jacket. She told me later that it took eight changes of water to remove the dust.
It’s been another great day. The best of these travels is just to go out and see what occurs, without plan or expectation.