Uganda Part 1 – Entebbe to Sipi

6th to 11th July 2023

“Mzungu! How are you?”

It’s the 100th time we’ve been asked this question that day and this time the voice comes from a small boy of around 4 years old. He’s naked from the waist down, the dark skin of his toes contrasting with the brick red dust of the road. Behind him a chicken clucks contentedly as it pecks away on a discarded maize husk. The only item of clothing the boy wears is a well-worn red jumper that bears the distinctive logo of two interlocking G’s and the word Gucci. It’s unlikely the luxury fashion house will be using this image on its next ad campaign. 

“I’m good thanks, and how are you?” I ask

“I am fine” the boy replies with a broad grin before adding “bye bye!” and waving.

Start as we mean to go on, with a snack stop

We’d begun our ride in Entebbe and despite being our first time on this continent there was a strange sense of familiarity as we took our first few pedal strokes. The lack of any rules of the road, ‘boda boda’ motor bikes everywhere, the roadside stalls constructed from reclaimed wood and bent corrugated iron, shops overflowing with brightly coloured plastic household goods. And the noise. Constantly beeping horns, shouting, loud music. The chaos of the place all reminded us of countries like India, Myanmar, Cambodia and China. 

What was new to us though was our place in all of this. We were now Mzungus, a term used across East Africa to refer to “foreigners with white skin” but its literal translation means “Someone who roams around” or “wanderer”. Either way, it felt like an appropriate label. 

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Gerard, a student in Entebbe joined us for a few miles on his folding bike

We weren’t quite ready to take on the full bedlam of Kampala, so skirted round the shores of Lake Victoria and found a fisherman to take us across Murchison Bay. Clicking down through the gears of our 40 year old Peugeots we rode up the bumpy dirt track from the lake and headed east and that’s when the shouting started. “A MZUNGU! A MZUNGU!” followed by “How Are You?”. As soon as we got near a village we’d be spotted by a child and they’d make the call. Straight away more children would run to take a look at the mzungus and join in the chanting. “Bye Bye Mzungu! Bye Bye!” We’d have to get used to this for the next five weeks. 

Crossing Murchison Bay on Lake Victoria
“Bye Bye!”

For the first few days we’re just settling into life on the dirt roads. It’s a daunting prospect to look at the map and see how much is ahead of us and we finish each day feeling battered by the hills, rocks and ruts, covered in dust and sweat. We keep our energy levels up with fresh bananas bought just a few meters from where they’d been picked. A third of the size of the bananas we can buy in the UK, but at least three times as tasty. We thought we’d bought a mango but it turned out to be a huge avocado. Larger villages and towns have restaurants where the typical dish is made up of rice, matooke (mashed plantain), cassava and either bean, goat, beef, fish or chicken stew. Simple calories. 

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Standard Ugandan Lunch
Mini bananas, massive avocado

The staple for our breakfast though is the legendary Ugandan Rolex: Take a chapati and cook it on a charcoal stove, then cook an omelette, add tomatoes and onions and roll the whole lot together (the name comes from ‘rolled eggs’). I opt for two chapatis to help get me through to lunchtime. 

Come and get your rolex!
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2 chapati and 2 eggs please

Our route winds through small villages surrounded by forests of banana trees and thick woodland. Tyres fight for grip on some of the steep kickers and we have to constantly hunt for the best line. Occasionally we veer off onto a stretch of singletrack to get deeper into the countryside then come bouncing out again and into a village or small town. We share the road with all manner of livestock: goats, pigs, cows, chickens all roaming freely. People use the boda bodas and bikes to move just about anything bulky, but the majority of people were walking if they wanted to get somewhere. If they need to carry something heavy like a jerry can then it goes on their head with remarkable balancing skills. Only a handful of cars or trucks pass us each day. 

Cabage patch bicycle
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Deep freeze on the move

The big, yellow jerry cans become a very familiar sight. These are used to store and carry water that can be pumped up from boreholes installed at intervals along the road. If you’re lucky the pump is right outside your house, less lucky are the ones that have to walk a kilometre or more to get to one. We’ve supported the charity Wateraid for many years and here we can see the effect of their work first hand, but also how much more there is to do. Each borehole is dated and it’s shocking how recently they’ve been installed. In one village we’re told that they only got theirs 8 years ago and before that they had to trek to the swamp, another one is only one year old. They’re a lifeline for us too as we’re drinking a lot of water each day. There’s almost always a gang of children gathered round each pump who are happy to operate it for us while we hold our bottles under the spout. To be sure that it’s clean we then have to give it a shake with the UV filter if it’s clear or squeeze it through our micron filter if there are any bits in it. A luxury that the villagers don’t have.  

A typical borehole
Banana bottle tops
Water on the move
More water on the move
The boreholes were gathering points for the children
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A borehole crew watching while Marcus shakes the UV filter

After a night camping by a waterfall then another near the point where the River Nile spills out of Lake Victoria, we find ourselves in amongst a huge sugar cane plantation. For the first time since we’d landed there’s no one around but after a few kilometres we find out why. The road is taped off and a large crowd has gathered. Suddenly we hear an engine screaming and a rally car zooms past in a cloud of dust. The crowd go wild, jumping, singing, waving their arms. This is clearly the most exciting thing to have ever happened here. We watch the rest of the cars race through, almost within touching distance and each time the crowd erupts with cheering before jumping back to safety. 

Ssezibwa Falls
Sugar cane plantation workers
Quiet sugar cane fields
And the crowd go wild!

Given the density of the population and the fact that we would almost certainly get surrounded by inquisitive onlookers if we tried, wild camping isn’t really an option. But a few parts of the trip would land us in amongst villages where there was no accommodation on offer. The first time this happens we get chatting to a man called Emojong Francis while filling our water bottles from the nearby borehole. We ask him if he thinks it would be OK to camp by the church. He isn’t sure so makes a call to the local councillor who soon arrives on the back of a boda boda. He initially offers his back yard but then decides we might be safer with more protection. A quick phone call later and we’re being escorted to the nearest police outpost. Moses, the policeman looks bemused but tries to remain professional and sits us down for an interview. “Where are you from?” “Where are you going?” “Why are you travelling by bicycle?” “Do you have any bombs in your bags?”. Satisfied with our responses he takes our passports for safe keeping and lets us pitch beside the station. We’re shown the latrines, water pump and a stone building without a roof that serves as a ‘bucket and jug’ shower. Moses lives behind the station in a small tin house with his wife Marion and their two sons. They grow their own vegetables, fruit and coffee and have a few chickens to help supplement Moses’ meagre wage. This is a typical life for a Ugandan policeman.

Bikes banged up for the night
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Another suspect getting brought in for questioning
Marion and Moses’ houses. These are standard issue for all rural police outposts.

In the morning we’re given a lesson in Soga, the language for the tribe in this area and after paying a small fee we’re allowed to retrieve our passports before waving goodbye and continuing on.  This wouldn’t be the first visit to a police station during the trip.

PC Omani who we stayed with in Pajwenda

We get a great response with our newly learnt Soga greetings of “Alotia” and “Neyaz Iza” for thank you for about half a day before we move tribe and everyone starts calling out the Swahili greeting of “Jambo” instead. There are around 40 different languages spoken in Uganda and they’re all completely different. By the time we’ve got the hang of the basics for one we’ve moved tribes and have to stop and ask someone what the words for hello and thank you are for that region.

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The map on Marcus’ bar bag was always a good talking point
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Bridges on our route aren’t always intact
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We chose to detour rather than risk seeing our possessions get swept away
This log punt was a safer way to cross another river

Everyone seems surprised to see the mzungus on bikes in their villages and wants to talk to us. In one I get invited to play ludo with a group of men. I still don’t know if I won or lost. In another town a group of men beckon me over and I find that they’re all sat round a bucket of unidentifiable liquid. Each of them has a long bamboo straw dipped in so they can share the drink. Kirsty warns me “That doesn’t look good” but I want to see what it’s all about so take a seat and get given my own bamboo straw. It’s bantu, a type of home brew millet beer and doesn’t taste great so I take a couple of sucks on the straw before offering my apologies and leaving them to it. This was a mistake.

A traditional rural home
A more modern home and shop with motivational quote
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Losing / Winning at Ludo
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Sharing /regretting the bantu beer

Early that morning I begin feeling ill and the whole next day is a real struggle with a complete lack of appetite and not much power in the legs. We push on regardless, and eventually the bulk of Mount Elgon fills the horizon and we roll down into Mbale. This is one of the biggest towns we’ve been to so far and is well timed as we check into a hotel and find somewhere serving pizza. Just what I needed to recover from my bantu hangover. 

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Recovering under a mango tree
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Approaching Mount Elgon
Into Mbale

The majority of Uganda has two dry seasons and two rainy seasons each year and so we timed our trip to make sure we were riding during the second dry season. In the foothills of Mount Elgon, which straddles the border with Kenya, the weather is a bit more unpredictable. We can see the dark clouds gathering up ahead as we winch higher and higher up the densely forested slopes and when the rumble of thunder grows louder and the first rain drops start falling we know it’s time to find shelter. In the next village we park up under a canopy in front of some shops and are quickly joined by half a dozen giggling children. The heavens well and truly open and before long the dusty road has turned into a river. It goes on for an hour without easing up and a few brave souls venture out using brollies, bags or banana leaves to keep the worst of it off. But almost everyone else just sits undercover watching the water pour off the roofs. 

Then it rained

Eventually it stops and when we see the boda bodas come out again we think it must be OK to get back on the road. This is a mistake.

Boda Boda with side stabiliser

The hard packed dirt road has now been turned to a thick orange mud which is just about rideable in places but further along it gathers up on our wheels and jams the entire bike up. We drag our now useless machines past trucks and cars that are completely stuck until we get to the next village. Everyone seems in good spirits about it and simply say “Welcome to Uganda!” with a shrug of the shoulders. This is the reality of the rainy season for most people so they have to accept it. When it rains, it rains hard and all they can do is sit and wait until the rain stops and the road dries.  

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Time for a clean

We’re given sticks by someone and for the next half hour use them to try and remove the caked on clay that seems to have attached itself to all of the moving parts. With the sun now shining the road is drying up fast and before too long we have bikes that are just about working and a road that is just about possible to ride on. 

The delay means that our intended destination for the day is going to be hard to reach before sunset. We are aiming for Sipi falls that happen to sit at the top of the longest road climb in Uganda. Being so close to the equator means that the sun goes down very quickly so when the light starts to fade and we still have 10km to go we know we have to find another way up the mountain. Luckily a truck laden with 5000 litres of kombucha pulls up in front of us and the driver agrees to let us sling our bikes and kit on the back. We climb up on top of the bottles and have a fantastic view of the sunset over the plains below. People point and wave as we trundle past before the inevitable shouts:

“Mzungu! How are you?!”

We are using our trip to help raise funds for the amazing charity Action on Poverty who support projects that help some of the poorest communities in Africa including several in Uganda. If you’d like to make a donation to this very worthy cause then it would be very much apreciated by some very deserving people. Here’s our fundrasing link:

https://www.justgiving.com/page/kirsty-marcus-uganda

Thank you!

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8 thoughts on “Uganda Part 1 – Entebbe to Sipi

  1. Fabulous account, great writing, and tremendous photos. Thanks! This fresh from our own not-pedalling-on-the-back 3-month tandem tour of Germany on our now-electrified Thorn Discovery Twin. Though the Germans have other greetings. For these two 70-somethings, you two are an inspiration, though we probably won’t manage a comparable round-the-world any longer.

    1. Thanks Mark and Jutta and well done on your Tour de Alemagne! We must explore that corner of Europe a bit more ourselves sometime soon. You are equally as inspiring. Never say never to a longer trip!

  2. It’s great to be reading about one of your adventures again…and to learn about Uganda through your travels. May the wind be on your backs, and the mud not too sticky!

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