Travel stories to discover

Biking at the source of the Nile in Uganda

Biking at the source of the Nile in Uganda

Cycling in Mabira Forest Reserve
Cycling in Mabira Forest Reserve

The outbound road from Kampala seems to be fairly enjoyable. The initial 65 km stretch takes to Mabira Forest Reserve. Sometime on the way I remember to buy antimalarial pills. In no particular village a pharmacist offers me 20 small green pills resembling Skittles for the price of 2 euros for 3 weeks worth of traveling. He ensures the pills would work and with honest, sincere smile drawing on his face he can not be lying.

I wonder how is it going with all those European pharmaceutical companies selling “other”, but in fact the same drugs roughly 50 times more expensive. Well, let’s not count the chicken before they hatch, but if reading are these words it means I must have survived on those suspicious Skittles.

Mabira Forest Reserve

Ugandan family
Ugandan family

The roadside trade blooms in the village Najembe. We finish avocado lunch and immerse ourselves in Mabira Forest Reserve, supposedly inhabited by lots of monkeys. It’s always a nice feeling a break away from cars and motorbikes.

Soon we manage to get lost, even while holding a well hand-drawn map by Hussein , the guardian of the park. In the hope of finding our way we move a few hundred meters uphill crossing rifts and roots, until a group of girls from the village catches up saying “we have by mistakenly shown you the wrong way, you have to come back”. A few more cases of being lost like that one and finally we find the long-awaited Griffin Falls Campsite.

We fetch a big container of rainwater collected from the last series of downpours and wash away the thick layer of red laterite covering our feet and hands.

Kids in Mabira Forest Reserve
Kids in Mabira Forest Reserve

The moon is full and the sky is clear, so it is nearly bright outside despite middle of night. We are the only guests in the area and all we can hear are the sounds monkeys, screaming and jumping across the nearby trees , perhaps not exactly happy that some strangers dared to pitch a tent in their neighborhood. There are also spiders, various insects and flying bugs trying with no success to wrestle inside the tent. It is only the mosquito net that separates us from the warm night of the abundant African night life. Sleeping is great to that calming sounds of nature, maybe forgetting about the anxious monkeys who tend to wake us up every couple of hours.

Hornbill, Mabira Forest Reserve
Hornbill, Mabira Forest Reserve

In the morning we leave the bikes at the camp and go for a hike to Griffin Falls. It’s an interesting trail, but the waterfall is polluted rather than feeling like a heavenly place. Well, it is better than nothing and that’s sad to mention, but the whole Mabira Forest Reserve has been almost completely swept off by bulldozers in 2007. Luckily the idea of growing sugar cane for bio-fuel production has been eventually dropped. Or maybe it is just because the civilization of consumption has found its limits.

The road from Najembe to Jinja feels like returning to chaos. Lots of trucks on the way and we keep on changing from one side to the other of the road which most of the time has only one shoulder. Truly unpleasant driving conditions. We try to comfort ourselves that this is going to be the last such episode for the coming month. We cross the Owen Falls Dam, a dam on the River Nile where Nalubaale,a hydroelectric power plant with a capacity of 380 MW has been installed.

Skills Plus Uganda

With signs and advertisements on the road it is easy to see that we are approaching to the source of the Nile. That is also the source of the famous Ugandan beer Nile Special. In Bugembe, a few kilometers away, we get to know Hakim , a 26 -year-old promising and creative guy from Jinja, the founder of Skills Plus Uganda. During the dinner we get introduced to the reality of how a social welfare organization operates in Africa.

Omweso, traditional game of Ugandan people
Omweso, traditional game of Ugandan people

The following morning we visit the area of Skills Plus Uganda. The project is aimed at the education of children and teenagers, rising awareness of family planning, education on HIV/AIDS and teaching people an ability to handle difficult life situations, such as becoming a widow.

One of Hakim’s ideas is the production of carbon from renewable natural ingredients, which is then sold in the local community. Women are good at it. They operate a special manual press with ease and orderly, while their small children look at, play around and sometimes even help.

In another room there are three obsolete computers. Hakim asks me if I am able to teach some practical exercises in Excel. This sounds interesting. Knowing already a bit about Ugandan life style and daily concerns, I sit together with a group of students at one computer. We proceed to carry out calculations for the owner of a stand selling rolex tortillas, then we budget actual cost of living in Uganda and finally calculate how much days of life each one of us has already had. That in turn leads to funny interpretations.

Excel classes at Skills Plus Uganda
Excel classes at Skills Plus Uganda

Teaching Africans the basics of finance and statistics could be an interesting thing to do for a while, but unfortunately there are always things cutting in the way. This time me and Signe have an important mission to finish. That is, to cycle for almost two thousand kilometers more on our bikes.

However this is my advise, as Hakim prompted us. If anyone reading it this would be interested in volunteering in a friendly and fun environment in the heart of Africa, we strongly recommend Skills Plus Uganda (www.skillsplusuganda.org). Get direct contact with Hakim Kirigwa and start things going!

Bungali Lake

We say goodbye to Hakim, but before heading north we make a short stop in Jinja. We need to fix a few minor issues (such as buying an electrical plug converter and changing some money). We eat chicken with beans, rice and pulp from cooking plantains.

Now we are ready to head towards Bujagali Falls, a waterfall, which has changed its name to Bujagali Lake , after the newly built dam has leveled it out with river. Yet, the view of tranquil backwater of the Nile at sunset also makes scenic landscape.

So many different facial expresions
So many different facial expresions

While having breakfast with hold on with a decision whether to pack our tent or not. It turns out that seconds later heavy rain sets in and it would not ease off until late afternoon. Our laundry soaks, but it does not matter. I have to re-wash my shirt and pants anyway, because during the night monkeys have been playing with it in the sand. The Eden Rock is not a bad place to wait through the rain, there is even a swimming pool and a thatched roof is perfect for playing card. The rain never stops so we decide to stay here another night. The waiter brings us fried tilapia with curry and coconut sauce, served with rice and two cold Nile Special, I must admit that the delay due to rain also has its good sides.

Towards Mbale

The next day get up at dawn as planned, quickly reorganize and pack our stuff and soon hit the road. The red laterite takes us through the beautiful province of Uganda.

Sometimes, directly in the area of the source of the Nile you can see kids running and shouting “give me some money” or ” give me that sugar cane” – looking at the piece attached to Signe‘s bike trunk. These are the traces of ignorant tourists, who have already been everywhere. Absolutely not. Only a few kilometers away things get normal and we hear innocent greetings like “muzungu how are you” or in Swahili, jambo!

Endless tea plantation, Eastern Uganda
Endless tea plantation, Eastern Uganda
Fresh tea leaves
Fresh tea leaves

It’s a wonderful road made of sticky clay, sometimes dry dust with half-meter deep rifts and a bicycle “lane” going from one side of the road to the other. Houses in villages we pass are made of clay bricks with some irregular sticks stuck inside to strengthen the construction.

Signing the Namabwere Primary School's guestbook is a must
Signing the Namabwere Primary School’s guestbook is a must

Kids in front of Namabwere Primary School
Kids in front of Namabwere Primary School

Cycling is great, at times we are accompanied by another long-distance bikers, we Lubani Buwenge villages and the road becomes even more interesting. People are working at sugar cane plantations, wade in extensive wetlands, teenagers bathe in the pond at settlement’s outskirts.

We arrive to Kaliro and here I have the impression that our legs , hands and face have became perfect camouflage against the background of the road, or that both of us look like two monsters made of red mud. In situation like this, a cold Pilsener tastes great. We already made more than 75 km in difficult terrain and day is long ahead.

Overnight stay in Irim villageOvernight stay in Irim village

A dozen or so kilometers further down the road we stop. It is the Irim village where we pitch our tent next to a friendly family’s home. Their children lead us to a well”, which turns out to be a small pond in the backyard. I admire African women and young kids carrying the yellow tank full of water on their heads or in hands. Trying to carry two of those 20 liter tanks I feel tired just after a couple of hundred meters walk. My great respect goes for young women doing it every day, sometimes bringing the load as far as several kilometers away.

In Africa the bigger has the right of way
In Africa the bigger has the right of way
Out of proportion
Out of proportion

As usual, loud insects and vibrant bugs nightlife lulls us asleep. The following day it turns out that we are just 2 km away from the quiet road cutting through backwaters and wetlands. Again heavy rain comes and this time it is more difficult to hide. At this point I wonder if this is a dry season for real.

Noodles, chapati and potatoes for dinner
Noodles, chapati and potatoes for dinner

In one of the villages a family has just killed a cow, a few boys are preparing skewers and probably all village is high spirits, getting ready for a big feast.

A further section of the road to Mbale runs smoothly. On suburbs stop for fish with fried, I guess … yes, rice and beans (as usual). This time we stop at Freerk’s and Arabia’s house, two Germans working for the Red Cross Uganda.

My knife is going to be razor sharp
My knife is going to be razor sharp

It is a nice change to walk through the city without a bike. During our casual stroll we find out that it is the high season for bananas and pineapples in Uganda. The fruit is sold for as little as a third of a standard price. That is a good deal for us.

In the evening the four of us go to a big open air night club. There must be a few hundreds of Ugandans and less than ten mzungu, but it still seems like a lot.

Kids at school
Kids at school

Talking about ways to get around the city, here everyone is using a motorcycle taxi, known as boda-boda. Particularly at night, without helmets and under the influence alcohol. Ugandans and foreigners living here somehow took the habit with no serious consequences. The supposed irony is that accidents happen, but not in the situations where you might expect them.

Tororo Rd, a way outbound from Mbale is in the process formation and is barely passable. Loose and sharp stones striking from under the tires and endangering tubes make it even more difficult.

We find a shortcut to get to minor and not frequently mentioned border crossing in Lwakhakha. Actually I have no idea if that crossing even exists.

We pass some demanding hills surrounding the mighty massif of Mt. Elgon, on the both sides of the road are plots of manioc, groves of eucalyptus and banana plantations. Some small scattered villages with their cordial residents and omnipresent laterite, sticky to the skin, the color equatorial Africa.

Endless laterite, Uganda
Endless laterite, Uganda