Uganda and Rwanda: A green ”detour” well worth taking 

When leaving Kenya for its western neighbor Uganda Sam and I had pretty high expectations. After having read guide books and heard other cyclists praising Uganda we were looking forward to cycling through green and lush surroundings, swimming in clear crater lakes, hanging out with monkeys, meeting lovely people and enjoying tasty food with the song from colorful exotic birds constantly ringing in our ears. Not surprisingly, southeastern Uganda was pretty similar to southwestern Kenya – the people still spoke Kiswahili and English, bananas were grown and sold everywhere along the road and the green sceneries looked pretty much the same. And we were still called ”muzungu!” (meaning ”white”) by roughly 95 percent of the locals that we met. 

A cyclist with a quite ordinary load, outside of Jinja. Photo: Sam Griffiths

Although there were quite a few cyclists in Kenya the number of bicycles on the road significantly increased on the Ugandan side of the border. Uganda is densely populated and its roads busy. So was obviously also the main road going from the Kenyan border to Kampala. Until the town Jinja, about 60 km east of the capital, the traffic was alright. After Jinja, we passed a rainforest, a number of hills and loads of tea plantations. The road got busier and busier but unfortunately not any wider. While Sam, who’s been cycling through much bigger and messier cities such as Bankok and Varanasi, was more than alright, I found it quite overwhelming. Especially with the British style left side traffic, with which I’m not yet comfortable at all.   

Eventually we managed to avoid the most crowded parts of the city center as we entered the town by the more quiet ”northern bypass road”. We had some mechanical problems to solve and had to find a decent bicycle repair shop. Although there are loads of bicycles, cyclists and mechanics in east Africa, high quality spare parts don’t grow on trees. And especially not 9-speed chains. But we desperately needed a new one as Sam’s had kept breaking regularly since Ethiopia. He had had to remove so many damaged links that the chain was getting too short – he could only use two thirds of the gears. Luckily we got some valuable help from Kampala Cycling, a cycling club/bicycle delivering company. The guys there found us some spare links to fix the chain temporarily. 

Being helped out at Kampala Cycling.
Being helped out at Kampala Cycling.

The next day we left Kampala and headed straight west towards Fort Portal. It felt good to leave the city and get out on the countryside again. Especially since there was a big presidential debate taking place in the capital the same day and the medias had been warning for possible protests. It was clear that Uganda is getting ready for election (February 18th). There were posters with the candidates facs on everywhere, we saw public speeches held by local politicians in several of the small towns we passed and the national radio channels seemed to be sending nothing but noisy political messages and debates. With Yoweri Museveni in power since 1986 you could think that it’s time for some new young blood. But in this region it looks like changes in terms of new presidents are very exceptional. When I asked a few locals what they thought about the outcome they all seemed to believe that Museveni was going to stay in power, in one way or another. Asking a man in a chapati stand if there might be any other potential winners, maybe a female politician, I got nothing but a loud laugh as an answer. 

One of the signs of the upcoming elections in Uganda.

It took us about three days to cycle the nearly 300 km stretch to Fort Portal. Actually, we never got to the town since we wanted to go for a swim in the crater lakes located southeast of the FP. So we took a turnoff and ended up on a dirt track surrounded by huge tea plantations. Once arrived at our goal, lake Nyakerere, it was already dark. Stingy as we are, we refused paying 10 dollars for camping at one of the official campsites, so we simply camped in the bushes just outside of it.

One of our monkey friends by lake Nyakerere, western Uganda. Photo: Sam Griffiths.

We spent one day hanging out by the lakeshore, swimming and washing all our clothes. Unlike most lakes in north and east Africa, these crater lakes are swim friendly. That means free from crocodiles, hippos and nasty parasites like bilharzia – that’s being transmitted by freshwater snails. We did actually swim in lake Victoria a few weeks ago too, despite the risk of getting the parasite there. First of all, we were only swimming from one shore on the Mfangano island where the water was moving and thereby relatively fresh. The family we stayed with use the water for washing and cooking everyday without ever getting ill so we would be very unlucky if that turned out to be the case for us. Anyway there is a substance (easily found at the pharmacies around here) that you can take within 3 months after contact with the water and that should kill all possible worms in your organism. We did, so no worries! 

When there are no dangerous beasts in the water…

Anyway, we had a relaxing time by the lake. In the afternoon there was a heavy rain, so we were lucky to get shelter in a restaurant at one of the nearly empty tourist lodges in the area. Apparently January is supposed to be the dry season, but this year the weather has been strangely wet. During the two weeks we spent in Uganda it rained almost every day, and mostly the heavy falls were accompanied by thunders. When we left the restaurant it was already late afternoon. To get back to the paved main road that would take us south we had to do about 30 km on the now muddy dirt track. It took a while, and we had a lot of young friends running after our bicycle while shouting ”muzungu, muzungu!”, ”give me bicycle!” or this old familiar phrase but with a new touch: ”give me my money!”.

Another monkey friend that just stole one of our bananas. Photo: Sam Griffiths

The next afternoon we eventually reached the Queen Elizabeth national park. It’s located just south of the equator, so before getting ready to camp in the bush we stopped to take some obligatory photos in the round cement equator markers at the side of the road. We had been told by a Danish expat that to visit the park successfully (meaning getting out of it with photos of the big five, and with all your limbs remaining) you might have to pay for hiring a car and possibly for a ranger that helps you tracking the lions. Our budgets being way too tight for that, we were happy with simply cycling the highway that goes through the park. We still saw some gazelles, a bunch of grumpy baboons and two huge elephants. Then we coincidentally bumped into Mike and Jenna, two Canadian Warmshowers-members living in Kigali, Rwanda. Funny enough, we had been e-mailing with Mike about staying at their house in the Rwandan capital the following week. Now they were sitting in a four by four with their kids and two sisters who were on a visit from Canada, all excited after seeing both lions and hippos. After meeting them we were excited too, for reaching Kigali and having a lovely hospitable home to stay in for a couple of days. 

Posing by the equator, southwestern Uganda.

We needed that motivation as well as we needed a rest. We were both pretty tired and Sam was getting ill. But although it started to get more and more hilly, there was nothing to do but pedaling. Slow and steady, up and down. Sometimes up and up. The last day I’m pretty sure that I was the only one still enjoying the beautiful sceneries. Sam was namely focused on staying on his bike while throwing up on the road. What can I say, he’s definitely not a quitter. 

Big guy in Queen Elizabeth National Park. Photo: Sam Griffiths

We  got to the Rwandan border on Friday the 22nd. What immediately struck us was in how amazingly good condition the road was. And it was trafficked by more cyclists than car drivers. Non-British as I am, I also found it reliving to ride on the right, right side, again after Kenya and Uganda. What was refreshing more was the fact that most people were French speakers. 

One of the hills in soutwestern Uganda, close to the Rwandan border. Photo: Sam Griffiths.

Around lunchtime Saturday we reached Kigali. Rwanda is a tiny country, comparable in size to Albania and Haiti. It is still densely populated though, which we realized when trying to find a private camping spot the first night. But compared to other capitals in the region such as Kampala or Nairobi, Kigali almost looks like a west European city. It’s remarkably clean and well organized, with trash bins, sidewalks and traffic policemen. We later learnt that the Rwandans have some unofficial rules that you’re expected to stick to, or you’ll be taken for impolite. For example no one eats in public or shows emotions such as anger, sadness or frustration. 
We had the most welcoming arrival at Mike and Jenna’s home in central Kigali. The house was full of guests. Except Jenna’s sisters and Mike’s parents there were Pierre and Jannick, two Canadian touring cyclists on their way from Cape (as in the most northern point of Norway) to Cape (obviously Cape Town). These guys are actually the first full time bicycle travelers that I’ve ever met, which is pretty inspiring. They have been cycling around the world together for nearly 20 years and Pierre has been on the road since 1992, the year I was born. You can tell that there were some good stories to be told at dinner. Additionally, Mike and Jenna have been cycling through the Americas 8 years ago. Even Mikes parents have been cycle touring, across Canada, back in the days. 


Dinner in la casa del cyclistas. Photo: Pierre Bouchard.
We only got to see the family for one evening before they left the next morning for a short safari trip to Tanzania. ”Just make yourself at home!”, ”Stay for as long as you want!” Mike and Jenna told us as they left us with their lovely house. If this is typical Canadian hospitality just as the Canadians here claims, then I know for sure what my next destination will be. Anyway, we’ve enjoyed three great days here in the house, with facilities such as a big kitchen and a washing machine. It’s unbelievable how much I’ve come to appreciate simple things that I usually take for granted, like having loads of strong coffee while reading the BBC news in the morning. But before that morning routine will turn into a habit again, it’s time to get back to the road. Right now we will actually leave the capital of the country of 1000 hills behind us and head towards Tanzania. 

Au revoir!