Thursday 14 February Paraa Lodge to Gulu
Our last day of cycling began with a drive through Murchison Falls National Park north of the Nile, where most of the game is to be seen. Elephant, giraffe, hartebeest, Ugandan cob and buffalo were all spotted.
Once out of the park, we were driven to Anaka, where we first visited the local African Revival office, a hub for the team supporting a number of schools in the area, useful to reduce the travelling time from Gulu where the main office is located. Andrew, who runs the office welcomed us. He and Kennet, who heads the AR operations in Uganda and Zambia, explained that during the fighting the local people had been displaced from their villages into camps. The local schools were abandoned and some schools such as the school at Anaka had been expanded. Its roll was now reduced to “only” 1200 children. It is a primary school notionally taking the children from 6 to 13 but in practice some come earlier and some much later (this wide age range not making the task of teaching effectively any easier). The head teacher welcomed us and invited us to be led into the school in a dancing, drumming procession, our path lined by clapping children and petals were scattered beneath our feet as we walked.
We were introduced to the teachers, the school management council, the PTA, the District Education Officer and members of the local council. The parish priest led a prayer and the children danced and sang for us. We saw some of the building projects African Revival had contributed to and the fruits of their other support, such as assisting in the development of teaching aids made from locally available materials. We were shown the school’s development plan that demonstrated the scale of the problem but also the determination of the community to improve the education for their children. It was a moving experience and one that reinforced the importance of the work that African Revival is doing and how important they have become to the schools they assist. We are extremely grateful for the generous support of all our sponsors that will make a significant contribution to that effort.
The school was generous with the time they devoted to entertaining us and we were behind schedule but eventually we were once more given our bikes and instructions for the ride to Koch Goma. Mandy’s knee had recovered enough to allow her to get back on the bike, with a little help from the bungee. Here in Northern Uganda it was evident that the land and the people were,still recovering from the conflict and the difference compared to the south was marked. The people a little less openly welcoming, although happy to react to our waves and greetings, the agriculture less organised and the buildings run down. The road was fairly rough, with sandy stretches and in the heat of the day it was a testing session (morale not helped by the fact that the 20km we were promised turned out to be 30 km and steadily uphill).
At Koch Goma, the children had waited patiently for our arrival (now some two hours late). A quick lunch followed by introductions and singing and a chance to see the new classroom block and classroom furniture funded by AR. We also joined a class to see the teaching in action, the children managing to concentrate well enough on their teacher’s lesson in the local language, Acholli (or Luo). We were invited to take some water as a token of their hospitality and then back on the bikes.
The road to Gulu was rougher and more uphill but our legs had the strength that comes from the knowledge that the end is in reach. On the outskirts of Gulu we gathered again, donned balloons and set off en mass into the town and to the Churchill Hotel. The townspeople snapped us on their phones and eventually we were there, dismounted and content, if a little weary. The slightly crumpled “something smart” clothes were donned (notable how different the girls and the men had interpreted this instruction) and a celebratory dinner enjoyed by all, including the speeches. Charles is a great spokesman for Uganda and Henk for Africa and adventure. Mandy and Glen did their bit for AR (Glen made three speeches today: all excellent, not least for their unexpected brevity). After dinner some hardy souls made to a local nightspot until the early hours (or so we are told).
Total distance covered 56.5 km. Total ascent 420m. Maximum temperature 41 C
With thanks to Glen and Wiliam for the update
Wednesday, 13 February Masindi to the Murchison Falls and Paraa Lodge.
The daily routine is well established and we are raring to start our ride at 7.00 am on the dot. Today, we are going to ride into the Muchison National Park, ending the ride at the famous Murchison Falls, where the Nile drops through a narrow rocky cleft no more than 15 metres wide. All the riding is off road, except for the first 50 or so metres from the hotel back to the turning north onto our dirt track.
Initially, the road is busy. A variety of vehicles (tractors, trucks and ubiquitous 20 year old four and two wheeled Hondas) pass us, ensuring that we are soon well coated in the reddish brown dust of Africa. But once we have left Masindi behind us, we are speeding along the Ugandan equivalent of a British country lane. Little dwellings, some of them just thatched mud huts, can be spotted through the elephant grass growing on either side of our track. Paths lead off the track up to these homes through small fields given over to livestock and maize, pineapple and banana palms.
Down these little paths race young children, clutching satchels and packed lunches, all making their way to school along the track on which we are riding. They soon form into gaggles but are, for the most part, reduced to giggles at the sight we present as we ride past them with cheery waves and greetings. They are generally smartly turned out and we can tell that we have passed through the catchment for different schools as the uniforms change. They seem well, if not universally cheerful, at the prospect of a day at school.
Some 20 or so kilometres after setting out, we stop for our first water rest at the gates to the Murchison National Park, conscious of Henk’s words in his briefing the evening before: “Riding through a National Park on a bike? Man, it doesn’t get any better than that”. As we set off, we survive a near collision with a baboon and start to gather speed on a reasonably surfaced track that slopes gently, but continuously, downhill. At this stage we are riding through the Budongo Forest, home to 700 chimpanzees but little (no) prospect of seeing them.
However, the joy of a long downhill section is soon dispersed as the undulations return and we sink deeper into the forest. Sharp pinpricks of discomfort are a sign that we are being attacked by tsetse flies. We discover the difficulty of controlling our bikes at speed, on a track growing progressively rougher, whilst feverishly swinging arms and hands at this scourge. The tsetse fly looks a bit like our horse fly, and its bite feels not dissimilar. Unlike horse flies, they hunt in squadrons and their bite is strong enough to strike home through our clothing.
At the next water stop, we lose no time getting into the van with our day packs to retrieve our tsetse protection gear (in principle light coloured, loose fitting clothing) to be worn on top of our cycling gear. A daunting proposition now that the sun has risen high into the morning sky with an unresolved dilemma between the discomfort of long trousers and no bites on the legs or shorts and the risk of being bitten on the extremities that hands cannot reach while cycling. A variety of approaches were adopted, the most stylish (and effective) being a pyjama type suit lovingly made for Jeremy by his wife.
The next section through the forest is about 22 kilometres, but the fact that Henk has arranged a rolling water stop for us at the end of kilometre 15, and admits that there is a bit of uphill, suggests to all of us that this is going to be tough. Our suspicions are soon confirmed. Every descent is followed by a climb of equal, if not greater, magnitude, and the dense vegetation affords little opportunity to see what is going on in the forest, even if we could afford – which we can’t – to take our eyes off the increasingly difficult track surface with which we have to cope. Tsetse fly HQ have got off a message to the neighbouring squadrons down the track to expect the cycle stream coming their way. And the extra clothing we are wearing to protect us from their attacks is making the climbs an even greater hardship in the heat of the day.
When we finally struggle into the River Lodge, close to the Nile, where we are having our lunch stop, it is simply impossible to resist diving into its swimming pool, a rare treat, before eating a plentiful buffet lunch. Thunder rolls close by and a gale is whipped up by the convectional air currents, but the storm passes us by and Henk is keen to get us all moving again. We need to cover the remaining 12 km to arrive at the Falls in time to board the boat that has been arranged to take us down the Nile to the Paraa Lodge Hotel on the north bank, where we are to stay this evening.
We are momentarily halted in our progress over this last section of the ride by a herd of buffalo, which are notoriously dangerous if roused. Our attendant ranger is therefore pressed into service, and he skilfully sees off the threat by revving his motor cycle in front of the beasts. We carry on along the track, by now accustomed to a surface which feels as though we are continually riding over speed bumps.
We all arrive safely at the Falls, despite the state of the track over this section. It is worth all the effort and suffering of the day to see such a magnificent sight. After a challenging hike down from the top of the Falls, we find our vessel, the African Queen, fortunately still waiting though we are an hour late. The subsequent trip down the Nile is equally stunning for the variety of bird and animal life that we see – fish eagles and kingfishers (grey-headed and pied) and African darters amongst the birds, and many hippos, crocodiles and one big elephant just below the hotel.
It had been a challenging, but exciting day. Our energy levels are soon revived by a swim in the hotel pool, followed by a refreshing drink or two and a sustaining supper. From the hotel, there is a memorable view over the forest through which we have cycled on the south bank of the Nile. The best way to view the forest, if the more proximate examination of it that we have undertaken today is any guide.
Day 5: total distance: 75 kilometres. Total ascent 700 metres. Maximum temperature: 40 C.
With thanks to William and Glen for the update
Tuesday 12 February Ziwa to Masindi
Today the luxury of a 7 am start and the sight of the dominant male rhino, whose name sounded like Tallyho, approaching the area where we gathered for tea and coffee before heading out into the bush. He is an impressively large specimen and the rangers kept a keen eye on him as he approached closer to us, shepherding us back when they felt necessary. He took no notice of the people and cameras trained on him and moved away back into the bush.
After the rhinos, onto the bikes and after the sandy track back to the main road (the sandy stretches again getting the best of most of the group) a day of more undulations marked by a strong headwind. Everyone agreed it was hard work. The day ended with a very steep climb up to an impressive viewpoint out towards the Murchison National Park, and then a gentle incline into Masindi and the first hotel of the trip that deserved the name. All mod cons, even intermittent wifi, the hotel was a relic of colonial days. The highlight of the evening was a performance of local singing and dancing. The dancers displayed considerable energy and rhythm, with much shaking of various parts of their bodies. Some of our group were encouraged to join in and most of those invited did so with gusto and to good effect. William was invited to join in but discretion ruled the day and the enticing young woman was sadly disappointed.
Day 4: Distance covered 58 km. Total ascent 225m. Maximum temperature 36 C.
With thanks to William and Glen for the update
Monday 11 February 2013
Luwero to Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary
It’s a really hot, long day. Have to cycle approximately 105 kilometres today! Everyone’s pacing themselves but there are some breakaway speed champions of Karen and Sveta for the girls and Mohammed, Ben, Ian, Glen and William for the boys. Everyone’s supporting each other with William a true knight in shining armour and Ian has been been nicknamed ‘Richard Gear’ for his help and advise regarding gear changes.
Stopping for water every 22km or so and had a barbeque in the park earlier. Everyone’s been warned to make sure they’re wearing their Deet!
Mandy is now in the support vehicle having lost her balance and fallen off her bike when waving to some children.
Only another 4 hours and the cyclists will reach the Rhino Sanctuary.
Thanks to Mandy for the update
Sunday, 10 February 2013
Jinja to Luwero
Woken from our sweet slumbers at 5:30. We found the power was off and we (and presumably everyone else) were in darkness in the middle of our ablutions. Fortunately, the backup generator came to our rescue, and we all arrived for breakfast at 6am. It was still dark outside, dawn coming always at 7am regardless of the season
Calisthenics were as usual conducted in a circle around Henk and, with dawn breaking and the trucks loaded, we were ready to hit the road. Our route took us back through Kayunda Town. It was still quite cool as the sun rose over the banana plantations and smallholdings around us. We had a fine view of the sunrise as we cycled east. The going was relatively smooth and even. On either side of the road were homesteads and smallholdings, with mango and avocado trees, banana palms, pineapple plants growing in the shade of the palms, jack fruit trees and much else. The simple homes all looked neat and tidy, and well cared for.
The road continued across swampland and the neat little smallholdings gave way to acres of papyrus. We observed a fisherman in a dugout canoe make a catch.
After about a dozen kilometres, we came do a small town and turned right off the tarred road onto a dirt track that followed a fairly direct route across country. We were accompanied, as yesterday, by the excited cries of children, rushing outside to wave to us. The sun was beginning to make itself felt.
William used his bicycle bungee to good effect giving Mandy a useful boost that helped her to maintain a good speed, even uphill. (is this the first use of a bicycle bungee in Africa?). The track itself was not of the smoothest quality, marked in places by deep ruts which it was essential to avoid, particularly when hurtling downhill.
We arrived at our first water stop after a few kilometres down the dirt track. We were accommodated in the front garden of the house owned by a friend of Charles, the leader of our Ugandan support team. He gave us an interesting tour of his friend’s small holding, pointing out the avocado trees and the mango trees. He showed us the banana palms and how a fresh plant grew up from the heart of the old one. He explained how the beans from the coffee plant were harvested. Cocoa and jack fruit were also growing in the same plot. And a few farm animals, including some pigs, occupied part of his friends land.
Charles explained that the agricultural potential of the country was undoubted but native Ugandans had insufficient knowledge to exploit it. He said that what was needed was for foreigners to come with expertise to develop the potential of the country. The Bank of Uganda were willing to provide virtually all the finance for the development but he thought western companies were put off by the risks. The Chinese and the Indians initiated projects, and invested in them, but they did little of benefit to the local people. His argument reinforces the need to expand access to education, on a much greater scale than that currently available within the country, an essential step towards preventing the repeated marginalisation of Africans, and all the instability that is capable of bringing.
We headed westwards along a track that was still quite deeply rutted. As we passed through the small hamlets dotted along the way it was notable that the general standard of building and upkeep declined as the track took us further and further away from the main road.
Eventually we arrived at the next water stop, where the shade, water, pineapple, jack fruit, mango and nuts were even more welcome than earlier. The sun was now really hot (up to 42C in the sun) and making our journey increasingly challenging. Still 16km to a stop for lunch.
When eventually we arrived at our lunch stop, we were entertained by an impromptu concert, courtesy of the children of the local village. Our tuna salad tasted all the better for their songs, and helped lift the spirits of team members who had suffered mishaps during the morning’s ride. Those incidents nevertheless showed the importance to all of us of Charles and his back up crew, and of course, Nick, our doctor.
The afternoon ride was split into two sections with one water stop. The temperature was again in the high 30s, and cycling in these temperatures is challenging. We had a total of some 35 kilometres to cover, over the “undulating” ground that was now so close to our hearts. We all found it a struggle and were relieved when at last the dirt track on which we had spent most of the day joined the main road at Luwero, our destination for the night.
We sank into chairs in the hotel garden and never has a cold “Nile Special” tasted so good! The lack of hot water was of little concern as the showers worked well enough.
84 km. Total ascent 680 m. Maximum temperature 42 C.
With thanks to William and Glen for the update
Saturday, 9 February 2013
Jinja to Kayunga Town
Breakfast at 6:30 just before dawn and as the light comes quickly we watch the last feeding and then roosting of a large colony of fruit bats.
The usual calisthenics from Henk, tour leader, were followed by a start at 7.45. Sunny with a few high clouds.
We rode through the outskirts of Jinja as the town was starting to wake up. There were plenty of people on the streets going about their business. A woman stopped to take a picture of us on her iPhone.
A memorable feature of the morning was the number of children, some very small, who would run to the side of the road and greet our team with loud cries of “hello”, “bye” and some times “hello-how-are-you” and grins and waves. Today being Saturday, no-one was at school and it seemed we might be the best entertainment in town. One of the most marked differences in comparison to Zambia four years ago that we noticed is the number of people. Uganda is about a quarter the size of Zambia but has three times the population and so far we have spent much of the time riding through villages that sprawl along the road.
But there is plenty of countryside. It is lush and green with banana and pineapple grown, often on the same plot. Where the land is not cultivated we see a large variety of trees some of which display vivid purple and pink flowers. It is a land of rolling hills (the cycling is what may be termed “undulating”, which means a lot of hills) with green valleys, part cultivated and the rest wild.
Our second stop had us at the Nile again,after a short diversion off the road along a dirt track through a village, busy with its weekly Saturday Market. Here the river is a raging torrent, much changed from the broad, placid river we had seen upstream. Just beside us, the Nile thundered past in a narrow channel between the shore we were on and the bank of a small island, providing the idyllic location for a holiday lodge.
The push north west along the road after we had retraced our steps through the local market sees the team spreading itself out along the way, as the constant undulations begin to take their toll. This is to the apparent amusement of many villagers who shout encouragement as though we are in the Tour de France, not a charity bike ride in Uganda.
Our stop for the night is at the Hotel Katikomi in Kayunga Town, which is an undistinguished, though nonetheless thriving, township, marked for us by the absence of water when we arrive (we learned to use a jerry can to shower) as a result of a power cut affecting the whole town. Power and water were eventually restored using generators. A good exposure for us to life as it is lived in these parts of Africa where power cuts are the norm.
60 km. Total ascent 580m. Maximum temperature 38 C.
With thanks to Willam and Glen for this update
Update from Mandy
After a rather uphill struggle on Sunday in Richmond Park took the day off yesterday to give my legs a day off! Back on the bike again today and the small little hillock in Teddington is a breeze compared to the undulation of Richmond Park, just bought more Tiger Balm! See you at the airport on Thursday. Can’t wait!