Miles on the clock: 32,125
As with Kenyans, Ugandans speak good English almost without exception. So, the policemen at their station that I asked to camp next to welcomed me, brought a bucket of water, insisted I “sluice away” my “heavy grime”, and warned me of the baboons. The screaming of these pests woke me from the tree branches over my tent and I rode onward in the cool morning, reaching Jinja just as the afternoon heat was peaking. I pitched up at busy campsite with a lawn overlooking the adolescent stretch of the White Nile shortly after it spills out of Lake Victoria. The waters idling downstream here are the same ones that I drank copiously and straight from the murky, silty river in Sudan to quench my thirst in the desert heat months ago.
The crowd of 50 or so mostly-Texan missionaries were almost universally female, overweight, sporting recently-braided hair and suffering from sunburned seams of scalp between their braids. Loud and apparently unaware of others, they filled the bar and some even performed hilariously laboured aerobics on the lawn to 1990s hits by the Spice Girls and the Venga Boys. I heard one (indeed, her volume was impossible to ignore) yell across the bar to her friend engaged in conversation with a stranger: “Hey Michelle! Are you flirtin’ or convertin’ over there?”
Needless to say, I stayed only one night.
In Kampala I met my friend Archie who has worked there for a coffee exporter for the last two years. We enjoyed an indulgent few days catching up after three years, playing squash, eating well and drinking the odd beer. Kampala is a sprawl of development creeping over seven hills and has now more than picked itself up after suffering as merciless Amin’s luckless plaything in the 1970s. The Asian traders have returned, westerners have poured in, business is booming and modernity has arrived in spades.
Swampy, humid air slowed my departure from the city. The grotesque maribu stork - an ugly bird over a meter tall – haunted the rubbish tips on the outskirts and wheeled casually overhead with its three meter wingspan. The well-surfaced road led through a corridor of almost continuous habitation and I followed it, ignoring the omnipresent shouts of “mzungu, MZUNGU!” (white man) from village children. Another police station served as a campsite before the route became hillier and a little less thickly populated. The surly chief eyed me suspiciously as I pitched my tent, probably influenced by the headline screamed across the front page of the paper he was reading: “MZUNGU TYCOON GRABS MP’S WIFE!” The all-night bender that he and his colleagues partook in seemed to wipe his memory and he shook my hand gravely, bleary-eyed and reeking of liquor, when I left at dawn.
We made an excursion to a volcanic crater lake not far from Fort Portal for a couple of nights. Lake Nkuruba was simply stunning: about 100m across, surrounded by steep-sided, dense forest, and empty but for us and a couple of troops of vervet and colobus monkeys. Sadly, this short and enjoyable break from cycling had to end and I saddled up again for a fast ride south.
A night camped in Queen Elizabeth National Park hoping its famous tree-climbing lions were sleepy; children chorusing “how are you!” repeatedly – more a mantra than a question; buffalo grazing near the road; baboons swaggering territorially back and forth across the tarmac; a mud track short cut with vast banana plantations – a sea of massive, drooping leaves; camping in a nunnery during a great thunder storm; looking out over the forest mountains wallowing languidly in lugubrious morning mist; my Made-in-Kenya tire blowing out after a little less than 1,000 miles; far-reaching views of terraced hills reminding me of cycling with friends in Nepal what seems like a lifetime ago.
All the same, my stubbornness props me up and my devotion to a self-imposed task bears me on. So, on I went…past the 30,000-mile mark and towards Rwanda.
Onto the right hand side of the road and into this tiny nation with its abundance of natural beauty. Le Pays des Mille Collines (the country of a thousand hills) at first glance seems not dissimilar to Uganda. Things are a little more rough around the edges, villagers wear slightly more ragged clothes and perhaps shout at foreigners slightly less. The Francophone (ex-Belgian colony) that I visited in 2006 has turned Anglophone and French is no longer taught in schools.
A long, winding climb though a steep-sided valley with tea fields on its floor carried me to a pass and thence briskly down into the capital; Kigali. I met with Robert and Jane (Ugandan friends of my cousin and uncle) who live here with their three young children. Before driving me to their suburban home, they took me on a quick tour of the city, taking in the view from the roof of the country’s tallest building (18 floors). Looking down over the hilly, rapidly expanding and modernising city, Robert pointed out various new developments and several swathes of slum-cleared land being prepared for future developments.
I learned how there were 18 clans in Rwanda when the Belgians took over the colony from the Germans after the Great War. Tutsi and Hutu weren’t ethnicities or clans. They were classes; largely forgotten social standings depending on wealth: the Belgians decreed that the ruling class (every family with 10 or more cows) - about 15% of the population - were Tutsi. The colonial rulers artificially configured ethnicity into the equation, introduced identification cards, and effectively split the population. When Rwanda gained independence in 1962 the now-despised Tutsi’s were heavily persecuted. There were several smaller scale massacres of Tutsi in the early 1990s.
Before being murdered, many victims were tortured. Their tendons were cut first so they couldn’t run away. Some were thrown down pit latrines and rocks followed in their wake until their cries were silenced. Hutu men known to be HIV positive were encouraged to rape Tutsi women; and did so in their droves. If a man kills another man, or rapes and/or kills a woman, or murders a child, he has committed that crime. Whether he has the excuse of having been told to do so shouldn’t be the pivotal focus in the matter.
These black holes in the history of humanity beggar my belief.
School kids wandered to and fro along the road in their khaki shorts and shirts. Many reached out to touch my skin as I passed. I’m not sure what they were expecting but often they retracted their hands as if they’d received an electric shock.
A storm gathered as the day drew short and I began looking for somewhere flat to build my little canvas home. Following a footpath to a small village, I found a church and started pitching on the grass next to it as the first drops fell. Two kind village elders unlocked the building, led me inside and left me, padlocked in for my safety. I looked around at the 25x10m of dark concrete, ribbed with close-packed slabs of more concrete acting as pews. The cold, hard, concrete floor didn’t appeal so I opted for the altar and made my bed. The sonorous clatter of downpour on a corrugated metal roof ensued for eight hours. Lightening strobed behind the small, barred windows.
At 4am, a clutch of candle bearing devout came in for prayer. I pretended to sleep on for a while but a strange, mournful chant began and after 30 minutes I didn’t like what it was doing to my head so crept out acknowledging none but noticed by all.
That evening, after following the road south, weaving and bobbing over and along ridges of painstakingly cultivated hills, I camped with the chief’s permission on a grassy slope outside the “district office” building in a small village. One hour after I disappeared into my tent and closed the flap, the excited mass of children running around, shouting to nobody in particular that I am a foreigner, and tripping repeatedly on my guy ropes, finally dispersed. Not long after a crowd of 20-30 adults gathered outside the nearby building. Voices were raised and it seemed like everything being said was repeated two or three times, with increased excitement each time. From my aural spectator’s spot ten meters away I eventually realised it was s trial of sorts. The caning soon began. I counted the vicious swish and sickeningly sharp crack of well over 100 strokes before I stopped counting (but not flinching). There were a few breaks to apparently preach justice but I think also to give the person caning a rest from the exertion which caused him to grunt like a latter-day tennis player. The accused moaned pathetically, and eventually continuously; individual strokes no longer registering above the general pain he was in. The attendant crowd chattered and laughed all the while. I had to force myself not to intervene. It was not my business and the preceding day had been more than enough to remind me how much of a stranger I was in this land.
A chocolate brown river marked the border with Burundi and I paid $40 for a three-day transit visa. So, the time press to pass through the (admittedly small) country and on into Tanzania within three days was on. I attacked a long slog of an ascent out of the valley with vigour. At the top I had a snack hidden in a coffee plantation, the variously red and green beans around me approaching readiness for harvest. Villagers greeted me almost politely with “bonjour Mzungu!” and I envisioned the reaction I’d receive if I went up to a black man in London and said “hello black man”.
Early afternoon I met some lycra-clad, racing bike-mounted Burundian cyclists out for a Saturday ride. I accompanied Emmerie, Jean, Jean-Paul, Sylvestre and “Le Docteur” towards the capital – Bujumbura. We passed densely forested Kibira National Park that was home to mountain gorillas before the civil war (1995-2003 Tutsi-Hutu based conflict). My new friends were shocked by the amount of shouts that accompanied our little peloton as we rode through hillside villages. I was more shocked at the way Burundian village cyclists clung, side saddle, to the back of trucks even when speeding downhill. Holding onto trucks is apparently illegal in Burundi and I saw a policeman give chase on foot behind a slowly climbing truck and bodily knock the accompanying cyclist to the floor then throw his bike down a rocky slope.
In a village where we stopped for cold drinks, and old beggar woman tried to ingratiate herself with me by rubbing her wrinkled forehead on my saddle to “bless” my bike. I considered the hours of perineal sweat I’d invested into the leather seat over the last three years and, filled with pity, abandoned my usual policy of never giving to beggars.
Finally, having ridden much further than I’d intended that day (despite my rush) we joined the rest of the Burundian Cycling Federation in a village bar. Beers flowed far too freely and we feasted on nyama choma (roast meat). The Minister for Sport was present (a keen cyclist himself) and I couldn’t help noticing the almost sarcastically theatrical sycophantism my companions displayed towards this surly, bald man.
That adrenalin-flooded descent was one of those moments completely antithetical to the aforementioned downbeat exhaustion with being foreign. I’d had a hard day, I’d made friends, I’d had plenty of beer and now I had that magical feeling of going somewhere unplanned that I don’t know with people I hardly know. The excitement of uncertainty and then the exhilarating surrender to life. Like giving up swimming against a current and letting a river sweep you away to uncertainty and the unknown. On so many levels, this is why I travel.
We swept euphorically into the humid city in failing light and set up camp at another bar for more beer and more meat. A big storm was once again brewing, electricity was palpable in the dense air and we sat outdoors in our sweat-encrusted clothes waiting for the clouds to burst. They did and we were drenched clean before retreating indoors.
I was physically and mentally exhausted (and very drunk) when I finally collapsed into the guest bedroom of Kunta. I had cycled far and earned the luxury of a late start in the morning while still being able to reach my deadline of exiting the country. However, a rest was not allowed as Christophe, Charte and Bosco arrived on bicycles at sunrise and hijacked me from the bottle of cold water I had recently started nursing on a soft sofa. We rode south, out of Bujumbura to a place known locally as “Stanley Livingstone”. A prominent rock stands on a hill here overlooking the lake. The two explorers carved their names onto it in 1871. Burundian’s claim that this is where Stanley found the missing Scottish missionary doctor-turned-explorer but in reality it is one of the many places they visited together in the time they travelled together after meeting in Ujiji, Tanzania. I relished this rock; this physical link with the past and the characters I’ve read so much about. I recall a similar feeling upon finding Stanley’s name graffitied onto a rock at Persepolis in Iran. Inspiring, intrepid vandal that he was.
The road turned inland and launched into a steep, 1,000m climb in altitude that I hadn’t expected. However, shirt off and pouring sweat, I reached the town of Mubanda, got my passport stamped out of Burundi and pedalled a couple of mud road miles into a large area of no man’s land before making my tent on top of a hill just as the sun sank, golden and rewarding, behind the sublime mountainscape before me.