Uganda Bike Ride 2013 part 7February 18, 2013
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