It can be insidious and unpredictable and on the other hand, it can be irresistible and fascinating. Africa, a continent that raises fears in someone and another one sees just adventure there. And now we are not talking about a four-star hotel in Egypt, beaches, and clear sea. We are talking about real Africa - incredible nature, charming and unique fauna, culture and different experiences on every corner. Against that, Africa is struggling with poverty, dangerous diseases, somewhere threatens civil war or other danger. But despite of it, or perhaps because of it, it is attractive, adventurous, and unforgettable!
I visited Africa several times - for the four cross World Cup in South Africa, for a bike trip with photographer Rob Trnka in Morocco, and last year for a great adventure in Ethiopia with GIRO. The Ethiopia trip made me even more interested in the continent so I started to look for a place that offers a combination of beautiful nature, good mountain biking, not that expensive flight ticket and last but not least safety. After browsing the internet I came across to Uganda, and later on I also found a biker and kayaker, Will who runs a company organizing trips for rafting on the Nile (Nalubale rafting), he also owns the lodge at Sipi Falls, Uganda (place next to awesome Sipi waterfalls), and among other things he rides MTB. After several e-mails, Skype calls with Will and more time browsing the internet, the decision was made. Let´s go right there to Uganda. But, with who? I wanted to take a photographer, camera guy and make beautiful professional coverage of this trip, but unfortunately, this idea later failed. Therefore, I put together a small group - me, my wife Kate and Jana Horakova (BMX Olympian, former four cross world champ,…). Then I realized that a group of one guy and two girls for Uganda trip might not be a good idea. In the end, all indications said that it shall not be a problem. Well, actually, we had planned it so well that we went to Uganda just before the presidential election, which wasn´t a recommended time to travel there at all. But we could not go on different dates, so we just had to go that time.
Lack of time has again resulted in a lack of preparation, and thus more stress and excitement. At 11 p.m. before departure day we checked once again excessive baggage permit if what we packed is really ok but, unfortunately, it was not cool. Our extra bag weighing 25 kg means about 1000EUR fee. Good finding, when we were supposed to leave at 5 a.m. to the airport the next day. It was necessary to reduce each set of clothing and actually just fit everything into a backpack. After a day and a half on the road, we found ourselves at the airport in Entebbe and suddenly we were looking for our driver Nasser in front of the airport hall. But nobody was waiting for us. Naturally, we received all attentions and everyone wanted to offer us a ride somewhere or do something to help us. But we wanted our Nasser. I had two phone numbers, and of course, neither worked. Fortunately the locals were really nice and one taxi driver helped us and after several minutes we were in touch with Will and bit later also with Nasser, who was stuck in a huge traffic jam on the road. Within a few minutes we were sitting in the car and driving in the direction of Jinja. Already on the way from the airport, we quickly learned that the road traffic regulations do not really work here and there is a quite a lot of chaos on the roads. Well, chaos for us, not for locals. They know exactly where to go and how, where to brake, accelerate etc. Sometimes we almost had a heart attack, but in a couple of days we found everything on the road as normal.
The first stop was just for one night in Jinja, where Will has his rafting base. It was already good opportunity to feel a little bit of Africa, have a dinner at a local bar and become friends with geckos. We spent the evening with one of Will's employees and in the morning we were already back in the car with Nasser and we continued our way to the Sipi Falls. There we were welcomed by a beautiful lodge. Finally we met Will and started to unpack our bikes. It was a quite quick process and we had our first African ride in the afternoon. It was the beginning of exploring African culture, trails, nature and life of locals on our bikes.
The first two days we circled around Sipi Falls and I must say that we were surprised how nice the riding was. A little asphalt, rural road and nice trails in the beautiful countryside were absolutely perfect to start our trip. Three times we went out for about a three-hour ride, always in a different direction, so we were able to discover the different nearby neighborhoods. We saw all 3 waterfalls belonging to the Sipi Falls, we had a bottle of Nile Special beer (Jane had her first beer ever and she almost drank the whole bottle), with the assistance of African kids and with a fantastic view at sunset. Beautiful African romantic time! I cannot forget the premiere on a boda-boda, which are the local "taxi drivers" on motorbikes. You stand on the side of the road, you wave and suddenly you are surrounded by moto guys and everyone would like to offer you a ride. We did not want to pedal uphill on the asphalt road after a few hours in the saddle so we decided to take the boda-boda. We jumped on the motorcycle with our bikes and in a few seconds we were already pinning it to the top of the hill. Here and there it was a bit tricky, but in the end it was fun and a good experience. Finally, we tried the boda-boda with bikes about 2 times and a without bike several times (once we went even in four on one motorbike!)
During the fourth day we started our mission to Mt. Elgon. One of the things we came to Uganda for. To climb with bikes on Mount Elgon, respectively its highest peak Wagagai, which is 4,321 meters high. After about an hour drive in the car we arrived at the edge of the national park, where we had to register, pay admission, and 2 rangers (Roger and Jacob) joined us for the rest of the trip. We jumped on a boda-boda again with the bikes, backpacks, and bags and followed the direction to Wagagai.
This time it was off-road boda-boda, which was even trickier! After about half an hour we reached the point where ended the broken rural road and we already rode on our own. To make the story shorter, during that day we went about 8 hours uphill with our bikes on our back and we climbed almost 2,000 meters of height! That was the test not only physically but also mentally. Well, flying to Africa for riding a bike and then 8 hours non-stop carrying a bike on your back is not what you expect, but when you have to, you simply have to do it! Along the way I also discovered that my SPD pedal was broken into two pieces, which was not a good situation when you have four days in the mountain ahead of you. Luckily I had a spare one, ugh ... Sometimes it is good to carry more stuff than you actually need!
The first night we slept in a small 'camp' at an altitude of about 3,500m - fireplace, two wooden huts (one for the Rangers, one for potential tourists) and a hole in the ground as a toilet. We also had water - creek of width 10 cm with a plastic tube. And from there the water went directly to our bag. We threw a pill there and we enjoyed mountain water with a chlorine flavor. The next day we already started towards our desired goal, summit Wagagai. It was a climb of only about 800 meters of height, but at an altitude of around 4000m.n.m. it was pretty difficult. After few hours we finally climbed the peak together with Roger and Will. Jacob remained just below the top and watched some of our stuff. The view was great. Uganda on one side and on the other side of the huge (one of the largest in the world) caldera was Kenya. Just beautiful. We spent a couple of minutes at the top and went back to the camp.
Riding down was quite fun, sometimes a bit more technical but it was nice. Towards the end we rode in tall grass. Suddenly I heard strange noises behind me. I slowed down I turn around to see what´s going on and I saw Will lying on the ground. He crashed as he hit the turf grass or rock and went over the handlebars. Fortunately, he missed all the rocks around him and only rolled in the tall grass. He was damn lucky ... In 4000m altitude, in the middle of the national park, where we walked for a day and a half, it would be complicated to deal with any injury! We arrived at the camp safely and started to prepare for the next day.
Early morning we headed uphill again by the same path as the previous day. After about 3 km we turned left and went the other direction. The journey was not smooth, not even rideable and sometimes there was actually no path. We just went where our rangers pointed. Bikes again on our backs, but it did not matter really, we're in Africa! In the afternoon we came to a place called Hunter camp. A place we were supposed to spend another night, but there was nothing, no camp place anywhere. "There, among the rocks, that's it," said our guide and went 20 meters up the hill to such a large boulder. There was nothing there, no footpath, one-meter of high grass everywhere. After a few minutes, we followed them. We found out that the huge stone with overhang, underneath remains of a fireplace, but nothing else. Never mind ... porters pick up their machetes and started preparing "camp". On that occasion I could also try a machete! What a nice tool! That evening was interesting to watch the locals to see (our carriers and rangers) how they made a fire, how they prepared porridge, how they made a bed of chopped grass and they were sitting by the fire in flip-flops or damaged shoes. About 3 meters next to them was Will with a gas cooker, canned food, the softshell jacket, we all have prepared thermo mats, sleeping bags, tents, etc. Beautiful ... how two different cultures spent that evening together and just ended up by the same fire. We had a great time.
In the morning we went on the longest journey of our four-day trip in mountains. After about 1 hour struggling on a bad path we heard a shot! Roger immediately called Jacob, who was in front of us, to find out that Jacob caught a poacher!? Well, shocking experience! As soon as we came closer, we wondered even bit more. The poacher wore evening dresses and he looked like more going to church than for hunting. Actually with similar dress code, there was nearly everyone in Uganda - women in dresses, men in suits. However the poacher had to go with us to the other park entrance where we left him with national park guards.
After a rough start on the bike we came across a trail that steadily descended. From the plateau we went into the fields, then in such a small forest, and the back to the fields, where we came across other rangers who were guarding the entrance to the national park on Mount Elgon from the other side. We had lunch at this place and started again with narrow singletrack, going into the nearby villages. There were more people, so 'trails' were good packed and nice for riding. We got all the attention of locals, especially kids. It was nice to see people smiling and trying to find out what´s going on in their village. They were happy to see something new and kids were just running next to us for hundreds and hundreds of meters. Sometimes it was even hard to be faster on the bike than running kids. Every second word was "Mzungu, Mzungu!"
About last 30-40 km we already rode along the wide dirt road, where we had beautiful views of the Uganda scenery - some rocks or waterfalls, a lot of villages, kids, animals, just such a classic Ugandan scenery. There were also many chasing kids that we mainly met during uphills as they were running the same speed as we pedaled. Totally exhausted after about 70 to 80 kilometers, we arrived late in the afternoon back to the Sipi Falls Lodge, where after 4 days we finally had a proper meal, a shower and got into bed.
We were really looking forward to the last two days of riding. Although we expected that the ride will not be so good, we were excited to head to the Karamoja region. Previously there were frequent riots and civil wars, but the last few years it's been okay and safe (somewhere on the internet, we found that a few years ago it wasn´t recommended for tourists to go to this place). The first day we were pretty tired and we went to the trail which was peppered with about 10-20 cm large loose stones and it was almost impossible to ride it down. But at least we had a nice view. After a sketchy downhill we were at the plateau where it was extremely hot with no shade anywhere. We had to pedal a little over 20km to get to the place where we planned to sleep. Upon arrival to the camp we saw for the first time during the entire stay in Uganda, the national bird of Uganda, a Crane royal. Really nice bird! Later in our bungalow we found a really nice big spider (we really hate spiders), and at departure the local guys told us that a week before we arrived they had a big cobra as well. Hmmm, better not to know what is actually under the bed during the night! In the evening we grilled our dinner, had a chat and we went to bed pretty early.
Unfortunately, the next morning I was not feeling very good, and I knew it´s going to be worse. Toilet didn´t help that much, so I stayed in bed. But even with that it didn´t improve at all. In one movement, I realized that I had to use our bathroom immediately so jumped out of my bed. But even those five meters to the toilet were too far. However, girls and Will went on a bike ride that day and enjoyed the last half day in a local village in Karamoja region. I tried to get the last power for the four-hour car journey back to Sipi Falls. Half-day in a bed helped me quite a lot, but broken and bumpy roads together with 35-degree heat wasn´t really my flavor that time. But there was no other choice! In Sipi Falls I had to relax a little bit more, then I joined the girls for bike packing and the next day he went back to Jinja, where we were expecting some rafting action on Nile.
Here we met again our favorite Nasser, who eventually became our guide during rafting on the Nile. It was a great fun with him. Especially when we started our ride through the rapids grade 5 backward and in grade 3 we rolled over. But most funny were his stories about birds, crocodiles (there were no crocodiles, or actually we think so) and other animals. Along the way he also showed us some tricks in a kayak. He belongs among the best kayakers in Uganda and has awesome kayak skills. It was a great experience, but in the last two days I only managed to eat about 5 crackers and a little bit of water, it was sometimes difficult for me to paddle. We ended the day sailing on a small wooden boat to the Hairy Lemon Island on the Nile, where we stayed overnight. Nice and romantic place with monkeys and the Nile around you!
After the night on the island we went to the last part of our journey. There was a taxi waiting for us with our bikes at the bank of Nile river and in front of us was about a six-hour drive. When we were in the Africa, we had to go at least once to safari, right? The choice was one small but apparently very beautiful Lake Mburo park, which is about 2-3 hours from Entebbe airport. The journey was long and of course we had a bit of excitement when we got a puncture at almost 100km/h. Luckily the driver was a great guy and in half hour he put it together and we could continue. Stopping at the equator crossing was a necessary thing on the way to Lake Mburo park! The last 2 nights we slept in Rwakobo Rock lodge, just before the border of the park, on a rock with incredible sunsets and where you could easily see running and yelling baboons. We went to safari during the day (Jane just had to see her favourite zebras!) and during the early evening we went to Lake Mburo on the boat to see some hippos and other beauties of Africa.
After two days at Rwakobo Rock lodge we had to go back to the Czech Republic. For the last morning we arranged a car that should take us to the airport. We were assured that it is a huge van, and that all 3 big bike boxes will fit there. After nearly an hour throwing three boxes inside we succeeded, but to be honest, I did not really believe it at the beginning. Although the car was big, it wasn´t definitely big enough for 3 bike boxes. Because of that we were a little bit late but luckily even with bad traffic we arrived at the airport on time. We checked our baggage on the scale and we had to rearrange several things but that is just part of the game when you are flying with bikes.
And what to say in conclusion about Uganda? Is it good to be mzungu? People in East Africa so-called "white man", "a man who is not local, who travels ..." (Term used in the African Great Lakes region to refer to people of European descent. Literally translated it meant "someone who roams around" or "wanderer." The term is now used also to refer to "someone with white skin") When they call you so it definitely is not anything negative. They just perceive you differently and you are interesting for them. So I do not know whether yes or not it is good to be “mzungu”, but it definitely seems that locals are interested in anything new, even when there is a bike in their village. People were really friendly, honest, nice and I think that thanks to our bikes we had even more fun in Uganda than if we went there 'only' with a backpack. I do not know why, but I liked Africa so much that I want to go back! It's unreal and experiences with the bike is unforgettable! Uganda is simply awesome!
Thanks to my wife Kate and Jane for going to this trip together with me! Thanks also to Will, Nasser and other guys that helped us in Uganda. We had an awesome time! See you next time.