London to Cape Town by Bike
We left Fort Portal on the promise that “It’s all downhill” to the Queen Elizabeth National Park. We’d looked at the map before we left and saw that the elevation did drop by around 1,000 metres, but in Uganda that means that you’ll have to climb over 1,000 metres as well because the roads are continually undulating. The mind is a funny thing though, because it was nothing that we were not usually used to and, secretly, we knew that there would still be some climbing, it seemed so much harder because all we could think about was that is was meant to be all downhill!!
As we travelled, the landscape began to change from tropical lush green jungle to dry savannah as we approached the Queen Elizabeth National Park – famous for its tree-climbing lions. We spent the night at Simba Camp just outside the park gates, but sadly we did not have the time nor budget to stop and enjoy this park – we can’t do it all.
The next morning, we cycled along the road that runs through the park hopeful that some of the elephants might have taken a wrong turn and decided to hang out near the road. [Would that make it a trunk road? – James]. The reality is that this road is the main trucking road to the DRC border and, although we did see some water buffalo and impala, it’s no surprise we didn’t see much else with the huge trucks carrying shipping containers blasting pass. We then endured a long winding climb out of the park. Actually, despite the road surface deteriorating into patchy tarmac, sand and gravel, the climb meant we were able to enjoy some stunning views over the savannah as we climbed back into the tropical zone and passed hundreds of small hold banana plantations. Our day ended at the Cielo Country Inn in Ishaka; a lovely little hotel where the manager Ben hosted us for the night – thank you!
From here we travelled through the hills for two days to Muko, a small village on the banks of Lake Bunyoni, the second deepest lake in Africa. The road to Muko was breathtaking as we passed through tea, banana, coffee and cotton plantations on a brand new tarmac road (thank you Ugandan Government!). Despite the terrain providing challenging cycling, the views more than made up for it and when we turned the final corner of the day we had arrived at the shores of the lake where we would camp for the night.
We woke the next morning to stunning views of the mist rising off the lake; it seemed a great way to spend our final morning in Uganda, a country that we have so enjoyed cycling through. Everyone seems so cheerful, happy and helpful here and we had such a blast. It’s been great feeling fit again too – definitely helped by some great new roads, but I’d go as far as to say I’ve enjoyed almost all the cycling – no major heart palpitations and I even beat James cycling up a hill which has not happened since Bulgaria!
After a seamless border crossing into Rwanda we had arrived in “The Land of a Thousand Hills” and our first stop was a much-anticipated stay with Team Rwanda, Rwanda’s cycling team, in Musanze (Ruhengeri).
We’d been invited to stay at the Africa Rising Training Centre where the team was in the middle of a tough training camp. Some of the team is in preparation for the African Continental Championships in 2 weeks’ time. As the team was in really focused training we did not spend much time with them other than at meals, respecting their privacy and the focus they required. We did, however, have a great time meeting Kimberly Coats, the team’s marketing director, finding out more about the team and its ambitions. Of particular excitement was meeting Team Rwanda’s first female rider, Jeanne D’Arc. Jeanne is working hard as we speak to qualify for the Olympics in Rio and a win at the Continental Champs, which she is expected to do, will guarantee her that place. She’s recently competed at the UCI TT championships where she was the only female rider from Africa in the field – this young lady has incredible promise and we cannot wait to follow her career with interest. As it stands, Team Rwanda will now have two cyclists attending the Olympics in Rio.
Team Rwanda shot to fame at the London 2012 Olympics as they fielded Rwanda’s first ever cyclist at the games, Adrien Niyonshuti who competed in the cross country mountain bike event. The team was established in 2007 by ex-pro cyclist Jock Boyer, the first American to compete in the Tour de France, and is going for strength to strength with Jock and his wife Kimberly at the helm. The centre now has a strong men’s team and their first female rider and hope to have three athletes competing in Rio this summer. The team is based at a complex called the Africa Rising Cycling Centre just outside the Volcanoes National Park in North West Rwanda where they run intensive training camps for Team Rwanda as well as camps for riders from other African countries. We could not help but be impressed with everything we saw there with a hugely dedicated team of cyclists who, through cycling, have united their country in pride and passion for cycling.
That does not mean, however, that it does not come without its problems and the team struggle daily with the pressure of professional cycling in a country like Rwanda. It is particularly hard for Jeanne D’Arc, the team’s first female cyclist. She’s the only girl on the team and would absolutely love to have some female compatriots but finding women who cycle in this country is tough. We learned that throughout East Africa that many girls are made to stop cycling when they reach puberty, because it is commonly believed that riding a bike would lead to a young girl loosing their virginity. It’s such a sad belief and we can only hope that as education levels rise, this will one day become a legend and we hope successful young women like Jeanne will be able to become confident female role models in Rwanda.
The UK arm of World Bicycle Relief, who we are raising money for, provide their Buffalo bikes mainly to young girls to help them get to school and remain in school longer will help to improve education levels in rural communities where it is most needed – never have I felt so passionate about helping girls get an education.
From Team Rwanda we spent a truly magical day trekking to see the mountain gorillas; a day we will never forget. Before we left home we outlined a few things that we really wanted to do, regardless of cost on this trip and although this was by no means a cheap day, it was incredible to have the opportunity to spend some time with these unbelievable creatures. Sharing 97.2% of our DNA, they really are just like big hairy versions of us. The day involved a 14km trek through the bamboo forests and into the jungle where we hacked our way through dense jungle to find the Susa family of gorillas.
Gorilla Trekking Slide Show
What made it better was that we had such a great group of people with us – Matt, a Canadian living in Kigali with his young family and his parents and uncle and aunt who were over visiting from Canada. An highly successful and lovely group of people. It really is a small world as we discovered that Matt actually met his wife whilst cycling across Canada and they spent their honeymoon cycling from North to South America! We are now spending a couple of days with Matt and his wife Jenna in Kigali before we make our move to Tanzania.
We decided to split the journey to Kigali because, although it was only 100km, there is a lot of climbing and we wanted to go to the Genocide Memorial Museum on our way into town so needed enough time to do this. Our ride out of Musanze (Ruhengeri) was awesome as we passed Team Rwanda on their way home from a training ride – a great way to say wave them all goodbye!
After a 7km climb we passed a small guest house around 50km from Kigali and decided, as we did not think we would pass anything else on the way, we’d take a look to see if we could stay the night there and have some time to do some much needed admin before arriving in Kigali. All was looking good – they had a simple room for $5 and a quiet beer garden where we could set up camp and get our work done – we just needed to pick up some food to cook as they didn’t have a functioning restaurant.
Once we’d settled in, the manager arrived and decided that, as we were Muzungus, we should pay extra for the room, no room for negotiation. Now don’t get me wrong, it was not much money more but the room was pretty gross and we were not going to pay more just because we had white skin so we decided to leave, thinking that they would change their minds. They didn’t. We took back the money we’d paid and set off.
One small problem, however, James’s helmet seemed to have disappeared…it was definitely there when we arrived but, having searched everywhere, we whizzed back to the nearest town to see if we had left it there instead but no joy. It was only when we cycled back past the guest house we saw that it had miraculously turned up – and, funnily enough, they were happy to give us the room at the old price. Too late. We decided to wild camp instead so cycled along for a few more kilometres until we found a (very rare) patch of flat land with no houses or crops on it – just outside a church. We found some water from a spring and set about pitching our tent. Rwanda is incredibly populated so it was no surprise that within minutes we had an audience of around 100 people watching us! Even when I popped into the tent to put some trousers on I noticed the local women trying to peer into the tent to watch me. They stayed with us until sunset when we met the local pastor who kindly asked them all to leave us in peace! It was the same the next morning and when I emerged from the tent at sunrise, there was a new audience ready and waiting for us! We didn’t mind too much though, they quietly watched us, clearly fascinated by what on earth we were doing – it just made the morning loo visit a little awkward…!
Although brief, it is great to be in Rwanda, the second time for me. Aptly named the Land of a Thousand Hills, it is incredibly hilly on bikes but incredibly beautiful. In a country with such a dark recent history, it is humbling to meet so many optimistic, friendly people who all take the time to tell us that we are welcome in their country. Their recent past will never be forgotten, it’s hard to when so many people were affected by the genocide here is 1994 however the country is moving forward in the right direction.
For us, we have a few more days here before we hit remote Western Tanzania where we hope it will stop raining soon so that the clay road we intend to take remains a viable route for us!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.