Three hundred and twelve miles across Uganda

(A story from 2011…)

We did it, with no mechanical problems and no punctures. There were tough days and rough cycling conditions, but we all coped. We have seen so much of rural Ugandan life, with countless images in our memories.

The four of us, Katy, Tom, Jim and I, left Entebbe on Tuesday 12th July 2011. We had arrived from UK the previous day and assembled and tested the bikes. We rode down to where we could hire a boat to take us across the bay in Lake Victoria to Lulongo, which meant we avoided the horrendous traffic in Kampala.
Out of the boat we were straight on to dirt roads. Initially the surface was good, thereafter it varied, sometimes very loose, other times stony, but I was relieved to see everyone coping with the different surfaces. We reached a small town on the tar road south and bought some chapattis and more water, then headed off on a smaller dirt road.

We saw so much of village life as we cycled, people working their fields, roadside stalls selling local produce, small shops, people transporting up to 7 whole bunches of plantains on a bike to take to market and having to push the bikes up hills.

After about 4 hours cycling we saw the tar road we were heading for, through the trees. First challenge achieved. From there we turned left and enjoyed the smooth tar surface, with a wide shoulder where bikes can be out of the traffic. In places we were back on dirt as parts of the road were under construction.

We reached Mityana about 3 and had a shower, then some stew and matoke (plantain, bananas for cooking – like yellowish mashed potato and not much flavour) to replace the calories. We explored the local market and admired the skill of how to skin and cut a pineapple into sections without touching the flesh at all.
Then back for another meal of rice and chicken and the fruit we had bought in the market.

We were all tired and went to bed early, but the rooms were noisy so we didn’t sleep particularly well.

We began the day with what became the standard breakfast, omelette, bread and tea. Then off to buy 9 litres of water to refill all our water bottles and head out on the tar road. It was 75 miles today – not too hard on the tar. We began to work together as a cycling team, cycling 4 in line fairly close together so you can slip stream and changing the leader every half hour or so.

We discovered that Tom was a barometer of when we needed to eat. He would suddenly come over a bit faint and need something to eat NOW, if he was to be able to carry on. As the days went on we got better at anticipating this and stopping to eat before he went faint, and making sure we were buying enough food to enable us to do this. To begin with, options for food seemed limited, but then we discovered more things in the small shops and on the road side, avocados at about 3p each, sweet bananas and kinds of muffins and donuts. We all found we had to eat far more than usual.

The temperature was around 300 C, hot, but not unbearable. Drinking was vital. We drank more than 4 litres each that day and the next. It takes an effort to drink that much. Fortunately bottled water was widely available even in small, remote villages, and cheap.

We reached Mubende, a medium sized town, about noon, having done 50 miles. We decided to have a cooked lunch and were guided to a hotel by a man on a motorbike. It was a good move, as we all felt better afterwards. The remaining 25 miles passed fairly quickly. At one point Kate took the lead and set a cracking pace us oldies just managed to keep up with.

We arrived at Kygegewa, at the only hotel, and saw with dismay they were advertising a disco that night and large speakers and amplifiers were being unloaded from a pickup. Although our rooms were 100 yards away, the night was as noisy as we feared, but we got some sleep.

The Thursday was the day I was worried about. 75 miles on dirt, 12 hours of daylight. The dirt road was not as good as the first day, and there were frequent ups and downs. The downs took concentration, as the surface was often loose with stones and ruts. Kate decided to enjoy the uphills as she didn’t like the downs. Tom slid off into the ditch a couple of times, rather than trying to swerve in the sand and risk falling off. I was better off on the mountain bike as the suspension absorbed the worst of the shaking. Some of the ups were hard work.

We reached Katonga by 11.30, a third of the way in 3 hours. If we kept up that speed we would be okay, but not much spare for punctures or anything. Kate and Tom bought us a picnic, chapattis, gonja (grilled banana), rolls and bananas. We stopped further up the road to eat it.

Each day the people we passed were surprised to see us and even more surprised to realise one of us was a woman, saying “You are a madam?”. Many called out greetings and waved, and some of the kids got quite excited, especially when we passed a school.

The GPS was invaluable, as at times the road divided with no signposts. It was also reassuring to know we were on the route I had planned.

For the last 20 miles the road was being upgraded so I began to be more confident we would get to Ibanda before dusk. But with the bigger road came corrugations, 10cm high ridges running parallel across the road caused by traffic, which are very uncomfortable to cycle or drive over.

I was relieved to reach the tar road just outside Ibanda, with about an hour of daylight to spare. We found a nice hotel that even had hot showers. We were so filthy, even after a shower orange dust came off on the towel. At least two of us had had significant saddle sores. Tom said it was the hardest physical challenge he had done. Jim said for him, only the first day of the Land’s End – John O’Groats ride came near the level of challenge.

Friday was only 45 miles on tar down to Mbarara, a large town. We didn’t do our routine maintenance until the morning and then enjoyed the ease of being back on tar. We bought some avocados and had an excellent snack with some sweet buns and mackerel in tomato sauce I had brought as emergency rations for the previous day. We made good time and found a quiet guest house with a garden where we had a late lunch.

Jim and I went to find an internet café, Tom and Kate went to find a swimming pool and found the hotel also had a fast Internet connection.

The next day was Kate’s birthday. We had opted for the easier and better known route down the tar, and only 40 miles, so we decided to set off late morning. I really enjoyed a swim at the hotel while Tom uploaded some photos to the blog. We had a plate of chips each, then set off.

This was a busier road than we had been on. It was well contoured but old, with the edges crumbling. Generally the traffic was considerate. We had to watch out for being where 2 cars/trucks met, as there wasn’t room for all of us on the tar, so we had to bail off.

In Ntungamo we found a reasonable hotel with room for us. Dinner was delayed for an hour due to a power cut, and they had to get fuel for the generator.

Sunday we were away by 8.30. We had said we would meet the team of cyclists from the hospital at 10 at Rubale, but then Mo texted to say they had got there at 7 am so we could arrive anytime. We made good time over the 12 miles on tar and after a little, met up with the 4 cyclists. They had left at 5.30am and cycled on the bumpy dirt road by moonlight. They had fallen off a couple of times.

We cycled together, more slowly than we were used to, which we found awkward. They were on local bikes which weren’t that well maintained, but also we were expected to arrive about noon, so there would be a welcoming team. We enjoyed having local people to explain the local life to us.

We arrived to a great welcome of hospital staff, students and local school children. We did 5 laps of the football pitch and then went into the school hall for welcome speeches and some traditional dancing.

It felt great to be there and to know that, with your help, we had raised a good proportion of the cost of a vehicle for the community mental health team. The cycle trip had gone very well and all the hours of planning were worth it.

Later in the week some of us went out to see what the team did. We were impressed by their level of commitment and could see how the work they did dramatically improved the lives of those with mental health problems.

Ewan Wilkinson,
July 2011

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