It was during one of our Morocco bike trips last autumn when Andreas and I thought we should venture further south in Africa, south of the Sahara. The Africa that has shaped our ideas about this continent since our childhood with its typical images.
Andreas and I have been working together as guides for several years now, developing bike trips. We are connected not only by our common birthplace Bolzano, but also by a great passion for mountain biking and the desire to discover new things with our bikes. At home or far away, wherever we are, we enjoy shredding the best single trails and getting to know the country and its people. After a lot of research we decided for Uganda this time. The country in East Africa does not yet know mass tourism and is home to the characteristic African wildlife. Already Winston Churchill described it enthusiastically as the “pearl of Africa”.
Planning the trip to Uganda
It started in the middle of February. Andreas, his partner Julia and I arrived in Entebbe and just a few hours later we were in the car with Will, with whom we wanted to work out the bike trip. Will is a Brit who has been living in Uganda for fifteen years. For many years Will was a professional kayaker on the rivers of the world, but now his heart beats mainly for mountain biking.
Before our trip should bring us to Sipi at Mount Elgon, the pivotal point of our trip, we first went to Jinja at Lake Victoria, where the following day there was real action in the white water of the White Nile. With the rafting boat we were literally allowed to dive into the floods of the Nile and it was somehow as if we had arrived in the heart of Africa. The home was as good as forgotten and we had definitely arrived now!
Kids from school with big smiles
On the way to Sipi we watched with interest the life at the roadside. Mainly gravel roads, these are not just connecting roads, but pulsating arteries, which are especially close to the many huts and settlements full of people. Children in school uniforms, people transporting all kind of stuff, everything seemed to be moving and alive. In addition there were the many Boda-Bodas, motorcycle taxis, which are really used for the transport of everything: fellow men, animals, tree trunksor chest of drawers.
Finally we reached Sipi with its spectacular waterfalls. The small village lies at about 1,800 meters, the nights are accordingly pleasantly fresh and there are also few mosquitoes here. Malaria, otherwise quite common in Uganda, is fortunately almost no problem here.
We stayed in an idyllic lodge in the middle of the rain forest, right next to one of the three impressive waterfalls. Without elitist luxury, but with a lot of taste one provides here for well-being. Small, fine Banda huts and cottages, fresh, tasty food, theirown coffee from the surrounding fields, we were sure from the very first moment on that we could have a good time here after biking. Because, above all, in the next days we should ride our bikes and scout trails. We were already looking forward to that at homeand we were especially excited about the highlight of the trip, the 4,321 m high Mount Elgon. But first we wanted to see the best singletrails around Sipi.
The next morning we started directly from the lodge with our bikes to get to the nearby hometrails. The joy of finally exploring the area and being able to inaugurate our new bikes, which we had just received from Norco, was great. The first trail started at a nearby settlement where Will talked to a few residents while curious eyes looked at us. That should happen to us again and again in the next days: Conversations with the locals we met while crossing the many settlements, and a lot of interest in us and our bikes. Especially the children always liked to come running. Bikes make international understanding easier!
This is Afrika!
After this spontaneous meeting we rolled onto the trail. Like almost all paths here, this was not a hiking trail, as we are used to in the Alps, but a connection between fields, huts and villages. Thetrail was thereforerelatively flat, but was not a promenade path at all and offered technical places and stones, bumps or berms, which invited to play. With a lot of flow and open brakes we wiggled on red earth and eroded stone formations along the ridge, which gave us a broad view of the fields and huts below us, until we reached the key point where we had to slow down and find the right line. When we arrived in the valley we decided to go up again with the bikes, in order to ride another variant at a turn-off further up. Meanwhile, we had also gotten used to the new bikes and biking was all the more fun. At the foot of the ridge we finally reached a small village again, where Boda-Bodas were organized to bring us up again in an adventurous way with the bikes between rider and biker. A law enforcement officer at home would have shuddered, but we thought to ourselves: That’s Africa!
Later we went on another trail of the surroundings. At some point we stopped at a few simple huts. While Andreas was there warmly occupied with the children, my eyes fell on the modest conditions in which the people live here. Very simple, small huts, useful but uncomfortable, often without electricity and running water. For many people, life here is certainly not always free of difficulties. Our lodge was the purest luxury against it. I was sure that many of the people wanted a life with less deprivation.And yet most of them met us with a broad smile and seemed not to have lost their confidence, despite their few possessions. Thoughtfully I looked into the distance and thought to myself that as traveling bikers we are actually pursuing a not really vital passion, but through the direct contact on the way a connection arose, and ultimately through our presence the sparse economic circles were somewhat stimulated. While the children waved happily at us as we rodeon, I concentrated again on the trail, which now led through coffee fields and banana groves.
Beside the rig lines
The following day we had to start early to get shuttledto the area of Kapchorwa. At 2.700 m an almost endless descent from the flank of Mount Elgon down to the savannah awaited us. Before the start we stopped at a small hut where we had tea with milk and a simple, oily flatbread. Otherwise in Uganda there are chapati rolls filled with eggs, onions, tomatoes or other vegetables, which are known under the apt name “Rolex”, at every corner. Here, away from the larger settlements, the cuisine was sparser.
We left the village behind and set off on the long descent, which ran over the flat foothills of Mount Elgon through small settlements and fields. The further down we came and approached the savannah, the warmer, drier and wilder it became. Finally we reached the upper edge of a canyon. The view of the savannah below us and the extinct volcanoes in the background took our breath away. Will showed us the point where our descent would end. It was still a long way, perfect! We continued on the trail, sharpening around corners and rocks, seeing a group of baboons in between, until we reached the savannah sweating.
After a day that was more comfortable for us, we drove with great expectations to the entrance of the Mount Elgon National Park and thus towards the climax of the bike trip. For the first day we had to manage 1.800 m elevation gainto the hut at 3.500 m. Supported by porters for the provisions and accompanied by a ranger we started the ascent. As long as we were still moving between cultural landscapes, we usually had to push or carry our bikes. Only after reaching the jungle the path became flatter and allowed us to stay in the saddlequite often. Mount Elgon is an extinct volcano with a huge caldera and mostly flat slopes, which is why an increase in altitude takes longer, but is also connected with less effort. Fascinated we crossed the mountain rainforest, accompanied by birdsongs and monkey calls. Shortly before the hut, where we were supposed to spend the night, the vegetation gradually changed. The luxuriant flora of the jungle gave way to a vast grassland and moor landscape with bulging tufts of grass, flowers, ferns and unusual plants such as the giant groundsel. Exhausted but satisfied we rolled towards the hut.
The next day we got up early. Equipped with headlamps Julia, Andreas, Will, our ranger Roger and I made our way in the cool morning air. There were only 800 meters of altitude difference missing to reach the highest peak, but the way was too steep and e.
However, due tothe moderate gradientof the trail and thealready quite thin air up here, the ascent dragged on for a long time. It became brighter. We marched, pushing our bikes, through this overwhelming landscape. Clouds were passing through again and again and the fog created a mysterious atmosphere. We worked our way up along the edge of the crater, when shortly before the summit the vegetation became sparser and it became more and more stony and rocky. Finally we reached Wagagai, the highest peak of the volcano with 4.321 m, truly the highlight of our journey. And the best had yet to come: the more than 3,000 vertical meterslong descent!
Already on my way up the anticipation rose to be able to descend again through this enchanted cosmos. Except for a few really technical parts, the trail was not undemanding, but it could be riddenwith a lot of flow. We rodethe way down, showed our way and pumped ourselves through the curves and stopped because of the height again and again to take a breath. With momentum it went then again by the rain forest. When we arrived in the valley, where dozens of amused children ran after us, the afternoon was already some hours old and we were richer by a magnificent experience. Was this one of the best descents we had ever made? Certainly!
In Uganda they still live according to old traditions
It was time to leave the region around the Elgon and travel to the north of Uganda, to Karamoja, home of the semi-nomadic Karamojong shepherds. Long droughts make it difficult for the people here and the tribal feuds, which lasted until 15 years ago, have also weakened the region. The Karamajong are related to the Massai and, like them, they still live very close to tradition. Accompanied by Asoka, a friendly, tall local, we went to visit a traditional settlement to get an insight into the authentic way of life of this proud people. We looked at the typical construction of the huts, watched the brewing of beer, which had little in common with the German purity law, experienced thecolorfuldances of the younger ones and sat at the campfire at night with the men of the village, who gave us Karamajong names and continued to sing when we were already lying in our tents under the enormous starry sky. I felt as if I had landed directly in one of the many documentaries that have accompanied me since my childhood.
The morning offered us a beautiful sunrise in the savannah. On the program today were the hometrails of Moroto, the main town of the district. There is a small mountain bike scene, which wants to vitalize the modest, local economy by biking. Late in the afternoon Asoka showed us the trails at the foothills of Mount Moroto. Sweaty and dusty we finally sailed towards the savannah with its immense, reddish evening sun.
The next day we packed our bikes into their travel bags, because at the end of the trip we wanted to see the diverse animal world of Uganda. In the national park of Marchison Falls we couldn’t do much with the bikes anyway. Elephants, giraffes, zebras, hippos, lions. We got to see everything what one could imagine under the African animal kingdom. Finally we stood at the spray of the most powerful waterfall in the world, the Marchison Falls. The whole Nile squeezes thunderously and foaming through a canyon only seven meters wide. The perfect final picture for the energetic, impressive trip we had behind us.
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