Uganda was proving to be a lot of fun. Climbing waterfalls, island escapades, crazy motorcycle rides, and close encounters with nature; what’s not to like. However excitement can be a fuel which burns those who seek too much; by the time I left Uganda I had a few too many scorches on my back.
Mud & Water
No sooner had I crossed the border and crested the first hill than Uganda greeted me with dramatic landscape of volcanoes, mountains and stormy clouds. I sought shelter under a shop’s awning and was soon joined by a small army of secondary school kids.
As the rains relented and I travelled 500m down the road my wheels were carrying thrice their weight in mud and I was slipping around like a new foal finding its feet.
The mud got thicker and thicker on day two. Halfway up a mountain, exhausted, drenched to the bone and covered in mud, I resolved to hitching a lift on a passing truck. The ride was bumpy enough to awaken a past-life from its sleep, however the road from Suam to Kapchorwa was one of the most utterly enchanting I’ve seen on the ride. I was relieved to be riding high above the mud but sorry not to be able to have taken it in from the saddle. A fantastic road to ride … just not in rainy season (Apr-May, Oct-Dec).
The rain provided a rich reward once on the other side of the Mount Elgon; Sipi Falls - a one hundred metre waterfall at the head of a forested canyon with resplendent views across half the country. I was reunited with Manu (still struggling with her knee) and we explored the waterfall together like a couple of over-eager cub scouts.
We sought out a second stint on Banda Island – for more of the Robinson Crusoe lifestyle: rainforest walks, lake swims, night fires and serenades of starlight. I spent days imaging a life lived like this; surrounded by nature and embracing it. Who would not want to live like this? Yet so few of us do. I am resolved to reminding myself of this, when making my decisions about where and how to live.
The first of three near-death experiences in the space of a week. I wrote about this one here: Don’t Mess With Monkey. In short an alpha-male baboon decided my bike was his property. I tried to scare him off it; I failed. He retaliated baring his teeth; I got a primal fright. A few of his buddies started to circle me, my heart was pumping at techno speeds. While I pathetically flapped my map like a matador to keep them at bay it mercifully dawned on me to use my friend’s machete to scare them off. Close call.
The next day I also got a heavy warning sound from a big chimp in Kibale National Forest while edging a touch too close for a photo. It’s safe to say my monkey karma was at an all-time low. It was absolutely amazing to see such interesting creatures up close… although not that close.
Motorcycles have a special allure. I’ve never ridden one – nor had Malte our quirky travelling companion - but it didn’t stop us hiring one to explore the Kibale National Forest and the volcanic crater lakes. It surely couldn’t be that difficult. Well no, to be honest, it’s not so hard as long as you don’t start doing motor-cross style routes on your second day – which we inadvertently did.
After climbing and showering in the wonderful Mohoma falls, we ventured a little too far along a road which became a track, which became a 1 metre wide path with an 80m plunge to the lake directly beside us. Manu was squirming on the back; steady hands required, heart racing; proper excitement.
Several kilometres further on, ascending the steep sided remnants of past volcanoes, we were officially lost. We figured continuing was better than turning back. Some local folks pointed us in the direction of the nearest road, which was conveniently located across a ravine.
We crossed the river and with the help of the people around, heaved our bikes up the steep slope. The gradient subsided a little, enough to think I could ride it – luckily Manu chose to walk.
I started up the slope well but after a hundred metres manoeuvred around a rock in the path. The ground I passed over crumbled beneath me. I tilted sideways and head-first down the slope, the motorbike falling after me. Luckily there was thick vegetation to break our rapid descent otherwise it would have been disastrous.
However despite being caught I couldn’t move, my left leg bent back near my head caught under the bike, while petrol poured over me from the petrol tank … while the engine still running.
Fortunately the people who’d helped to push had seen the events unfold and they rushed to help. They help to free my leg and together we hauled the bike back to safety. Miraculously neither the bike or I were badly damaged.
It’s fair to say we rode home a little more tentatively than we had on the way there. When we reached Fort Portal, the damages repaired, I heaved a heavy sigh of relief.
Encounter with a 22 Tonne Truck
Manu had gone ahead by bus, which left Malte and I to a stunning but arduous few days riding. We decided against the main road and found ourselves cresting hills and swooping into valleys along a little used dirt road. Some parts of the road we so steep I could barely push my bike up, let alone ride it. Seeing me struggling a passing shepherd boy gave me a much needed push.
80km later we were both shattered. We pulled in to the town we’d planned to stay for the night only to find there was no room at the inn. There had been a big market that day and traders were occupying all the rooms. Camping wasn’t a viable option, so we get back in the saddle for 5km of steep climbing to the next town.
Soon we were passed by a slow moving petrol truck. I gestured to the driver to ask if we could hitch a lift by holding on. We latched on.
I don’t make a habit of holding on to trucks but in the circumstances I was happy to give my legs a break. My mistake was in holding on at the side, not the back – which I’d left for Malte, who was less experienced.
The first minutes passed smoothly however the truck made a gear change and the sudden acceleration caught me off guard. My handlebars became caught underneath the truck, pulling the handlebars 45 degrees.
The bike bucked beneath me as the truck rolled forward with the wheel at an angle. My heart was in my mouth as for a few desperate seconds I tried to straighten it out but I couldn’t, it was too heavy. The bike began to fall.
I managed to run off the side of the bike and shout to the driver but it was too late. The bike had fallen in the path of the oncoming wheels and the front of my bike was crushed – and something within me along with it.
After three near death experiences in the course of a week, it was time to reassess the way I was evaluating risks. We took a few days off at Camp Amagara, an island on the spectacular Lake Bunyonyi.
Seeing my bike crushed had left a lasting impression. Habaqa was now part repaired; the frame straightened out and re-welded but the front forks were still misaligned and the wheel beyond recovery. I knew I’d see her repaired but with the consequences of my actions so brutally laid to bare my more reckless sense of adventure dampened considerably – which for my life-span and sake of my mother’s nerves might not be such an undesirable thing.
It is said that ‘travelling is about the journey not the destination’ and since leaving four years ago, it has been thus. Yet the shock of too many close-calls has shuddered my gaze toward finishing the ride, and doing so calmly, before more misfortune is wrought; after all cycling Africa is itself, quite adventurous enough.