Foreward by Bill.
Rob Bird is a friend of mine, who's currently working for VSO in Uganda, with his girlfriend Karen. He has his own website listed below. Naturally he's bought a motorcycle out there, and this tale tells of a little adventure he recently went on.
(note this adventure story takes a good 15-20 minutes to read. Get a cup of tea, draw up a chair and enjoy.........)
I’ve recently read a book called Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. An excellent book about a young man called Chris McCandless who decides to hit the road, travelling over some of the remotest parts of North America. His trip culminates with an Alaskan adventure where he attempts to live off the land. He was actually doing quite well but a few mistakes ended up costing him his life. The author of the book tries to retrace his steps and attempts to understand the motives of this extremely well educated and adventurous man.
I’d be a liar if I said this book didn’t influence my decision to go on a little adventure myself, not to the extreme of Chris McCandless going bush, but just a few days exploring the south western part of Uganda on the motor bike. Karen had flown up to Arua again for some work with the organisation she is working with and I knew that it would be a fairly boring weekend. On top of this, work at the district had become very dull and I needed some excitement. The small confession here is that I never told Karen my plans, mainly because I knew she would be sick with worry and I couldn’t do that to her. She’d also tell me not to go and would make me promise and I didn’t want to do that. Bad Rob. I looked at the map and picked out the achievable target of Ishasha River Side Camp, which sits on the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I’d also be lying if I wasn’t tempted to venture across the border but that would be a decision I would make when I got there.
Earlier in the week I got the bike serviced, including an oil change and supposedly all the little problems it had been suffering had been resolved including buckled wheel, wobbly mirrors, indicators not working and brakes that were nearly as effective as slamming my feet on the ground Fred Flintstone style. My steel horse is a Jialing 125cc trail bike and seemed to handle to dirt track roads quite well for a small bike even with a pillion!
Kit? What kit should I take? Travel light. Most of the places I would go would be inhabited, so food and water won’t be a problem, which narrowed it down to tent, sleeping bag, Thermarest sleeping mat, water, waterproofs, camera, Leatherman multi tool, and what the hell, there was room for binoculars for the wild life. Ishasha has tree-climbing lions that are endemic to the region, and I was hoping to get a glimpse. I’d also photocopied a couple of maps. Sebastian, a colleague who was also working at Bushenyi Local Government with me, is currently mapping out the roads in Bushenyi, so I photocopied a map he had of Bushenyi District. The other less detailed general map of Uganda would have to suffice once I was out of Bushenyi.
Friday lunchtime and I down a healthy portion of Matoke, Rice, and Chicken for the journey, I strap the tent to the bike, rucksack on my back, and head off. The weather was good, and I found that I was able to maintain an average of 60 kmph. I didn’t get far, about 40Km, when the bike lost power and ground to a halt. The engine was still running but I knew instantly the problem was the front sprocket of the drive chain, which had been replaced a month earlier. The problem was that the replacement wasn’t an original; it had been filed to fit and even over a few weeks had worn the teeth. I was stuck. Not a good start. Within a few minutes a van came along that was distributing bread to surrounding villages. They stopped when I waved them down and said I could jump in. I pushed the bike near to a house and took everything off it. One of the other passengers knew a mechanic in the next town of Mitoma and said that he could fix it. I am dropped off in Mitoma just a few Km from where I broke down and was told that a mechanic would come. Within a few minutes, 2 mechanics come by on a Boda-Boda moped and ask me to climb on. I’m not quite sure how 3 grown men could fit on this 80cc moped but we did and we got there safely. They had tools with them and were able to take off the front sprocket cover Ugandan style. This involved using a screwdriver as a chisel and a pair of pliers as a hammer to knock the nut around, as they didn’t have a spanner that fitted. It did the job and didn’t damage the nut too much either. They then started to try and fit a bunch of various spare sprockets they had; none of them fitted. One of the mechanics dashes off and appears 10 minutes later with a few more sprockets. One of which fits……badly! I said that I didn’t think this would last but he said “It will take you to Ishasha and back, this will last 3 months even.” When he told me the price of 30,000 Shillings (£9), I said that was too expensive, but I had little choice if I wanted to get anywhere. I told him that I would pay but if it broke again he would have to fix it. He seemed to agree that this was ok.
After just an hour, I was on my way again, but I really wasn’t sure about this new sprocket. At that point, I should have just headed back to Bushenyi, but I decided to carry on to Ishasha with the mechanics assuring me that I could be there in just 2 hours. Just 10 minutes into the journey, I hear a loud crunch; the front sprocket had broken again. I figured that I was just an hour’s walk or so from the mechanics workshop, and I would hold them to their promise of repairing the bike again. I decided to push the bike back but I didn’t quite realise how steep some of those hills were as I was riding over them. Some locals offer to help push if I pay them. I tell them I have no money, a comment that provided much amusement and for the next 5 minutes I hear the words “No Money” followed by raucous laughter. After 15 minutes of pushing the bike, I saw an empty truck parked up. I find the owner quickly who said he can take me back to Mitoma for 10,000 shillings. Again I don’t argue and enlist the help of several young boys and another man to lift the bike onto the back of the truck. I gave one boy a few coins to distribute to the others. The man insists on coming with me to hold the bike. I’m glad he did as holding that bike on my own in the back of a truck would have been near impossible. Passing over these roads on a trail bike is effortless, in a truck or car you have to practically crawl along manoeuvring bumps, holes, goats, cows, and children.
We arrive back at Mitoma and the mechanics lift the bike of the truck and take another look. They give me the option of someone going to Ishaka (not Ishasha) the nearest big trading centre, to fetch another sprocket or welding the current one. I figure that the drive shaft looks knackered anyway after a couple of sprockets sheering off, so I opt for the welding. At least it would get me back to Bushenyi tonight. It was far too late to head onto Ishasha now, I was less than an hour from Bushenyi and I could rise early for a second attempt on Saturday.
The bike got me back, and I headed straight to Dan’s Motorbike Workshop. He checked the weld and said it was good enough. I wasn’t so sure, but considering I know nothing about welding, I couldn’t argue. I even said I would feel happier if he added a few more spots to the weld, but he assures me that it is ok. I also got him to check the electrics. It appears the roads rattled loose a connection/wire, and I have no horn anymore. The horn is the one thing that can save your life on Ugandan roads. People hear it and move out the way, cars take notice, even the cows and goats move. I use the horn more than ever now, and I was not going anywhere without one. Dan’s boys work past dark that evening to fix it for me. Dan says there is no charge, but I give each boy 1000 shillings (30 pence), which they are very happy with. In the meantime a friend called Ana has offered to cook dinner for me, so I spend the evening at Ana’s eating, drinking, and chatting. I head home early to get a good night's sleep in, so that I can have a second attempt in the morning.
Saturday morning and it is raining. The only bonus to this is that I promised Karen that I would water her vegetable garden for her, which I didn’t have to do now. I wait it out for a few hours and by 10am it shows signs of stopping, so I don the waterproofs and head off, making sure I have a full tank of fuel, my plan being to fill up whenever I could as I wasn’t sure of how available fuel was deep in the villages. Despite the damp conditions the bike seemed to be handling the roads ok. My speed wasn’t too different from the previous day apart from some muddy sections which, at first, I was very cautious over but as I became more familiar with how the bike handled them they just became damn good fun.
Shortly after Mitoma, I came to a fork in the road, which is where I reached the previous day. With no signposts I ask a bunch of locals in the back of a truck the direction for Ruhinda. They all point the same direction. If it was ‘Who wants to be a millionaire?’ and I’d just asked the audience, I would say it was a pretty good bet, particularly after previous experiences of asking locals for directions. They tend to point you off in any direction because they don’t want to appear stupid; asking a closed question “Is this the way to Ruhinda?” will invariably be responded to with a “YES!” The trick is to point in both directions whilst giving the name of a town. Hopefully, they would give a negative response to one of the directions and therefore increase my chances of actually getting to where I want to get to.
So, I take the left fork as previously directed and ride on for another 20 minutes, arriving at a petrol station in the middle of nowhere, which has a road branching off. I ask where I am, but they don’t seem to understand, so I ask for the next town of Rukungiri and they point me off down the side road. It appears I should have taken the right fork just after Mitoma. It wasn’t a problem. I was enjoying the ride and I had plenty of time. After another 30 minutes, I eventually arrive in Rukungiri which is quite a large town. After filling up with fuel and asking for more directions I head off in a slightly different direction than planned being told this is the “best route”.
About 15km after leaving Rukungiri along some pretty rough roads – crunch! The front sprocket had gone again. I was quite far out now. I pushed the bike to the side of the road, and a car drove past me. I kicked myself because I should have flagged it down. Another minute passes, and a Boda-Boda Moped rides past carrying 3 men. I flag it down and greet the rider and passengers. One of the passengers has very good English. 30 seconds later a truck comes round the corner. I flag this down and ask the driver if he can take me back to Rukungiri. He says yes. I ask how much and he says 15,000 Shillings. Once again I don’t argue and I get the bike loaded into the back of the truck. This time the driver has some rope and secures the bike, which I’m very grateful for.
At this point I’m thinking someone is looking after me or doesn’t actually want me to get to Ishasha or maybe the Congo, as I still hadn’t ruled out this option. Having said that, with the reliability of the bike now, there was no way I was going to risk getting stranded even a few km’s into the Congo. I was still considering stepping over the border though, paying for the visa just to get the stamp in the passport, but I concluded that was pretty sad and a waste of $60 for the visa.
The young man with good English offers to come with me and show me a good mechanic if I pay for his taxi fair of 1000 Shillings. I agree, and he comes along for the ride. His name was Apollo and he claimed to know the roads and everyone along them very well and he could help me take the right route to Ishasha. He also boasted that his uncle was the Resident District Commissioner (RDC). The RDC is basically one of the presidents ‘spies’ in the district and is very influential. Riding in the back of the truck along the road back to Rukungiri was not comfortable at all. I was sat on the edge of the truck, and every time we hit a bump, it hurt. Trying to adjust myself to sit on something softer was not easy in a full truck of grain, people, and a bike I was trying hold upright whilst trying not to fall over the edge.
We eventually arrive back in Rukungiri and the bike is unloaded right outside a mechanic’s workshop. He takes a look and says the weld was just very poor and that they will weld it properly. This time I watched them carefully, the welder, using an Arc Welder, seemed to put a significant amount of metal on the front sprocket. How long it would last I was yet to find out.
It was just past 1pm already and I was getting hungry. Once again, Apollo offered to take me to a very good place to eat, but first, he had to take some food to his brother who was in hospital. I agreed to take him, as it was just down the road. There appeared to be lots of road works going on in Rukungiri, and it was certainly a bustling town. We arrived at the hospital, and Apollo asked me to greet his brother, so I went into the ward, a room approximately 10m wide by 7m long had about 12 beds in with some fairly ill people. Everyone was looking at me smiling; I just smiled back and waved occasionally. It was a very brief visit; Apollo dropped the food with his brother, introduced me to him, I wished him a quick recovery, and then, we left. Looking around the hospital, I didn’t see any staff and most of the equipment looked like it was from a film set in the 1920’s. Walking past some of the rooms, there was a strong latrine type smell, which is all too familiar now. Nearly a year ago, a smell like this would make you feel nauseous. It’s strange how you get used to it.
Apollo directed me to a restaurant, where I unloaded the bike. Despite Apollo’s assurances that the tent would be ok left on the back, I wouldn’t risk it. We walked up the steps into a very nice looking restaurant. I ordered Matoke, Rice, and Beef Stew. It was probably the best Ugandan food I’d had. The matoke was very fresh, the rice light, and the beef was just delicious. I offered to buy Apollo some food, but he just wanted a soda. Before leaving, I spotted some nice looking samosas and chapattis, so ordered a few for the journey.
I loaded the bike up and we were on our way. I offered to take Apollo back to his village Rwerere, which was on the way. We got to Rwerere fairly quickly, I wanted to leave Apollo there, but he said that he had nothing to do that day and could show me a good route to Ishasha. I could drop him at Kihiihi, not marked on the map I had, and then I could go onto Ishasha, which was just 6km further on. I succumbed. It would only take a few wrong turnings and I miss the opportunity to reach Ishasha that night.
We moved quickly despite being ‘two up’ on the bike. Each village seemed to get smaller in size, and the scenery became more stunning, culminating in a huge valley with the River Birira flowing through the base. The road wound precariously around the edge of the valley, descending to the base where we would cross the river. We could see buses slowly making there way down the roads cut into the valley walls. The drop off was very steep and just as I started to ponder the chances of accidents we came across an overturned truck hanging over the side. Everything seemed to be in control. Other trucks had arrived and were taking the contents, which were children’s schoolbooks, off the toppled truck. They were also rigging up steel cables to try and right the truck.
We crossed the river, pausing to take a couple of pictures. Some children that were hanging around were interested in the camera. I never get bored of asking them for a picture and then showing them the display on the digital camera. The look on their faces is priceless. There was also a guy wearing a pair of reading glasses on his head which had one lens missing, it just hard not to chuckle when you see something like this. We crossed the bridge and moved into Kanungu District.
The road was pretty much straight with no obvious turnoffs, but then, Apollo told me that I was turning off soon. He showed me a turning that was well hidden and one that I would have driven straight past, thinking it was part of the village high street. It turned out to be quite a substantial shortcut and shortly after we arrived in Kihiihi. Apollo told me that Ishasha was just 6km further and after filling the tank again, I dropped him off. He offered to come with me, but to be quite honest I wanted to move on my own, so I offered to give him some money for a taxi back to his village of Rwerere. I was astounded when he requested 25,000 Shillings. I knew that he could get a taxi for just a few thousand. I offered him 10,000 Shillings and he just shook his head, saying he had to pay for taxi and accommodation. I remember him telling me that he could stay with family, so I knew this was just ‘lets milk the Muzungu’ time. Muzungu is a common name, in many languages in Africa, for white man. I could have just ridden off then and there but my Mum & Dad brought me up to be better than that. I fished in my wallet and pulled out a 20,000 shilling note and said, “That’s all”. He seemed fine with this, and to be quite honest, it eased my conscience. I also remember thinking that Karen would call me a sucker later.
By this time, a group of kids had gathered around us. One of them was riding a contraption that I’d never seen before. It was like a scooter, but they were using it to transport Matooke. I asked if I could take his picture and then waited for the usual commotion when you show the digital camera display. The boy with the scooter said, “Give me money” and I pretended not to hear. He asked again and I just said “No”. I’m a firm believer of encouraging the kids to work for money and not to beg. If I had given him money, all 20 kids would have practically mobbed me and then expected the next ‘Muzungu’ to pay up also. I had no problem in paying Apollo because he had worked for it.
I headed off, thanking Apollo for his time and wishing him a safe journey. It was only 6 km to Ishasha and according to Apollo, it was straight on. I made my way down some very narrow tracks and through several herds of cows, and then, all of a sudden, I heard a noise from under the bike. I was moving over some pretty stony ground so I assumed that something large had been kicked up and hit the metal casing that protects the engine.
I arrived in Ishasha and came across a barrier. A man walked across to greet me and told me he was the head of Ishasha Police and that this was the border to the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo). He then pointed out a couple of buildings as immigration and customs. I asked if it was safe to go over the border and he shook his head saying “These people they are fighting” then, he made the action of firing a gun. I told him that I wasn’t going to go anyway and I was just curious. I wished him a good day and then headed on to Ishasha River Side Camp. It was about 5pm now, and I was set to reach the camp before dark.
The road was wide and appeared to be in quite good condition. I was riding along at about 60 kmph, admiring the open savannahs of the Great Rift Valley that I was now riding through. I noticed ahead of me a herd of Ugandan Kobb as they bounded off the road into the bush. I’d travelled around 10 Km when, once again, I heard a loud clunk. This time, it couldn’t have been a stone. My heart skipped a beat, and I held my breath before hearing another clunk along with a slight change in engine sound. “No. I don’t need this,” I said aloud to myself, and I started to become very aware of my surroundings. Over the past 10Km, I had not seen anyone. Not even a bike or car, cattle or houses. The thing about Uganda is that its population is sprawling; you always see people every few km’s and it is very unusual to not see anyone for km’s at a time, which made the journey up till now fairly safe. This was not a good place to break down. It would take me at least 2 hours to walk back to the police station and with all the wildlife around me, there was no telling what I would walk into. My mouth started to dry up, and my heart was thumping – hard! The camp was 24 km from Ishasha, according to the map. I was just under halfway. Thoughts started to run through my mind of what I would do if the bike did conk out on me. What would the best option be? Sit tight? Climb a Tree? Pitch the tent? Walk? It’s not like you can just call the AA. The chances of having any signal on my phone were very remote and even if I did, who would I call? Even if I managed to get through to someone with a vehicle, it would take hours to get to me, it would be well after dark and certainly not worth the risk of travelling any road in Uganda at night, least of all deep in the village. It is fair to say, and I’m not ashamed to admit, that I was shitting myself.
I was riding along at 50 kmph, trying to nurse the engine along; not making any sudden gear changes and not over revving the engine. I came across a signpost for the Ishasha River Side Camp. 11km. I made a note on the bike’s trip. It was 471 km. At that point, I heard another “clunk -clunk!” I saw a lorry approaching me ahead. I stayed in the tracks on the road as long as possible and then moved off to the side of the road, as the lorry certainly couldn’t do that. As I moved over to the left, the bike sank into the damp sand and began to swing from side to side. I managed to stabilise it and get it back on the track after the lorry had passed. Note to self – avoiding riding in the gutters of this road, full of sand and bloody dangerous. I still don’t know how the bike didn’t go.
I felt slightly better for seeing a lorry, but then, a couple more clunks came from the bike and dashed whatever positive feelings had emerged. The engine sounded ok, and my worst fears were that it was the front sprocket again. I had images of the weld having broken but holding on by the skin of its teeth, occasionally breaking free and weakening the entire weld further. I think my mind was probably doing more revolutions than the front sprocket, or that’s the way it felt. Instead, I tried to keep my focus on the bike’s trip counting down the 11 km. For about 4 km, there was no sound from the bike. Then, I came across a rougher section of road, after which came the terrifying “clunk……………clunk....clunk”. Still no sign of civilization. Just a huge group of baboons that sat defiantly in the road and only moved when I sounded the horn. I certainly didn’t want to stop near them, as I know they can be nasty buggers, especially when they are in groups. The trip seemed to be moving slower than ever, but 11 km came and went. At this point, mild panic started to set in and I wondered how they had measured the 11 km. I had visions of Ugandans with tape measures. At 11.5 km, I saw the entrance. They were forgiven. I drove over to the hut and spoke with one of the UWA (Ugandan Wildlife Authority) rangers. He greeted me with the usual “How are you?” and I was about to respond with the usual “I’m fine, how are you,” when I stopped myself and said, “I am not good because my bike is about to break.” When I asked how far the camp was, he said “It is just down.” I responded by asking how far. He looked confused and I said, “1 km, 2 km?” He replied by saying, “8km.” This was not what I wanted to hear. On the main road, there was a chance of a lorry driving past, but the drive to the camp was through National Park and the chances of someone coming along this route was remote, especially at this time of the evening. Ishasha certainly isn’t as popular as the bigger parks and many people just drive straight past it, heading to or from Queen Elizabeth and Bwindi Impenetrable Forrest, home of the mountain gorillas.
I drank some water, yet I was still thirsty due the adrenalin my brain had been pumping out over the past 15km. I sat for a few moments wondering if I should stay the night here at the gate or make my way down to the camp. I asked if there were people down at the camp, and the ranger said, “Yes, they are there.” I asked if they had vehicles, and again, he said, “They are there.” My logic was that the bike had got me this far and, if people had vehicles, I might be able to hitch a ride out. If they had a pickup, I could put the bike in the back. There was also a canteen at the camp where I knew I could get some food, which swung the decision to risk it. I made a mental note of the number on the trip: 483 km. I headed down the seemingly good track and despite the fact that the gravel was very deep; the bike found its own line and drifted through. There were some pretty deep puddles as well that I hit at speed and soaked my boots, despite wearing gaiters. I just didn’t want to drop the speed. More antelope ran in front of me, including Topi, Ugandan Kobb, and Bush Buck. I was hoping NOT to see a lion. The bike gave a few more clunks, and with each one, my heart skipped a beat. Once again, I was counting down the km’s, hoping this was a proper 8 km and not some made up number. But true to the rangers word, at 7.5 km, I saw some huts. The bike gave a few more clunks, but I arrived and was welcomed by another UWA ranger who introduced himself as Pedson. The first thing I asked was if there was anyone else here. The response was, “No, you are the only one tonight.” Bugger. Once again, I’d been told what I wanted to hear. I asked if he had a vehicle here, but he said that he didn’t. I explained the problem with the bike but figured I should at least pay up, get the tent set up in the light, and then, take a look at the bike. I completed the visitor’s book and noticed that, in 2 weeks, the camp had only had 4 different groups. Ishasha wasn’t exactly a popular destination, mainly because it was very basic. I ordered food from the canteen. They didn’t have much, so I just ordered chips and beans, but they did have a much needed beer to calm the nerves.
I was directed to the campsite, which was down by the River Ishasha that separates the DRC from Uganda. I rode down on the bike after being assured it was completely safe. The river was less than 10 Metres wide at the point of the camp, and I stared across into the Congo. It was kind of how I had imagined the Congo to be, just thick jungle. I’m sure it’s not all like that, but for some reason, I was happy that it met some of my expectations. The camp was littered with skulls of various animals, including buffalo, hippo, and some kind of antelope. It wasn’t a sight that filled me with confidence. I pitched the tent and spent a few minutes wandering about the campsite, listening to noises of hippos, monkeys, and some that I’d convinced myself were lions.
I noticed a leaf on a tree that was dangling by a spider’s web. I couldn’t help but think of it as symbolic and I took a photo of it. I felt like that leaf while riding the bike over the last 23km, just holding on by a single thread. This may sound a little dramatic and almost naff, but I was still pretty wound up and cut myself some slack figuring I was allowed a little ‘naffness’.
I rode the bike back up to the main camp reception. Just as I did, I noticed a tractor had turned up with a trailer. I recognised the tractor from back in Kihiihi. It’s not often you see a tractor in Uganda, even rarer that you see a new one that works. I asked when the tractor was leaving and it wasn’t heading back until next weekend. Frank was the driver of the tractor and came over to look at the bike. I described what had happened, so he looked at the chain and moved it. It was loose, very loose. It appears that the clunking noise was the chain jumping. I supposed I’d not bothered checking anything like that because I couldn’t do anything about it anyway because of the lack of tools. We raised the bike off the ground. Frank fetched some tools from his tractor and we began to adjust the chain. Although we tightened the chain it was still loose around the back sprocket. Could the chain have stretched? What I really wanted to see was the weld, but Frank didn’t have a small enough spanner. I glanced in behind the sprocket cover as we moved the wheel and saw something I didn’t want to see. The front sprocket had been welded on wonky. This meant that, despite tensioning the chain correctly at one point, the tension would change as the wheel moved. It could also increase the chance of the chain coming off. We played around with the tension and found a happy-ish medium. I gave it a quick test ride, and it didn’t make the clunking noise. The sun was going down quickly, as it does when you are close to the equator and dinner was ready. I asked if I could buy Frank and Pedson a soda or a beer for their assistance and they joined me in the canteen.
I chatted with Pedson over dinner and he gave me advice for my journey the next day, as I was definitely heading back to Bushenyi. He advised to head North towards Queen Elizabeth National Park, as it would be the quickest and flattest route and is about 70 km to the tarmac, where I would have no problems getting a lift if things went wrong. There was also a UWA outpost about halfway, and they have a double cabin pickup. I asked what I should do if I was to break down in the middle of the National Park, and he suggested staying put, as there are usually lorries that regularly come along that route into the DRC and I could get a ride back to Ishasha police station. If I had to leave the bike, I would, I had no problem doing that. I asked what I should do while I was waiting, climb a tree or something? Pedson told me that was one option but not to forget that Ishasha has Tree Climbing lions that are found nowhere else in the world. I think it was his attempt at humour. It didn’t work. My face must have said it all. He then tried to reassure me that lions were very shy animals; at night, all you have to do is wave a torch and they run. I reminded him that I would be travelling in the day, and he said that the one thing you can’t do is run, otherwise it sees you as dinner. You have to stand your ground and use everything at your disposal, from revving the engine on the bike to sounding the horn. I began to recall my previous experience a month earlier in Queen Elizabeth.
We were camping and getting up early for a game drive. At first light I went to use the toilet. On my approach with the torch, a big animal came charging out of the latrine growling at me. It was dark, and I couldn’t tell what it was. I didn’t care - I ran. It turned out to be a warthog that had camped out in the latrine that night. You can get quite close to warthogs, but they can still cause injury and get especially agitated when cornered. If this was my immediate natural reaction, then I decided I would take my chances climbing a tree if I did break down. I had the binoculars with me, and I could keep and eye out for approaching lions – I knew there was a reason I’d brought them!
I headed back down to the camp where some other UWA rangers had made a fire for warmth and to keep various animals away, including hippos. I was grateful for the company by the fire, and best of all, they both had guns, the standard issue AK47. The fire roared and so did the hippos. The animal noises emanating from the bush seemed to be louder now and more varied. The most amusing being the Hyena calls, which sounded like someone making Scooby Doo ghost noises. The river, which was quiet earlier, sounded like ocean waves breaking on the shore with the hippos splashing and rolling in the water. I lay on my back, looking up at the stars and chatting to the UWA rangers from time to time, especially when I heard a new animal noise, but spent most of the time contemplating the journey back the next day. I wondered, if it did all go horribly wrong, whether I would be nominated for a Darwin award but tried to push those thoughts the back of my mind. I turned in at 10pm and climbed inside a very lonely tent. Lonely because there was normally a Karen there beside me and, right now, I could do with a hug. I lay there trying to get some sleep amongst all the noises and although it was comforting to hear the rangers’ voices outside, I slowly drifted in and out of sleep.
I woke just before 7am and lay there for a few minutes deciding whether it was light enough. I left the tent and noticed that the rangers had gone and that the fire was just smouldering now. I scouted for any big wildlife and headed for the latrine. I packed the wet tent fairly quickly and made my way up to the canteen for a breakfast of a Ugandan Spanish Omelette and a cup of tea, which I ordered the previous night. I bought two 2 litre bottles of Rwenzori mineral water; packed them in the rucksack, paid the bill, and swapped numbers with Pedson, asking that if he hadn’t heard from me by 12pm then to tell other rangers to keep an eye out for me. Whether he would or not was a different thing, but it was worth asking. It had just started to rain again, so I put the waterproofs on, said goodbye to Pedson, made a note of the number on the trip as I left and headed for the main road. The bike seemed to feel ok and didn’t make any clunking noises. For a few seconds here and there, I tried to appreciate some of the wildlife, particularly the Antelope that were practically taking flight, gliding through the air off the road and over the bushes. Eventually, I made it to the road and made a note on the trip; it was 500 exactly. I planned to make mental notes of the distances of places that I could return to if I did run into trouble.
I started along the main road and it quickly deteriorated into a muddy bog with huge potholes full of water, which make it difficult to judge how deep they are. The road was a single lane with two clear tracks I could choose from. The gutters either side were too soft, and I wanted to avoid those. The centre of the tracks was also very soft but less so, and when I tried to change lanes, the bike floated precariously over the centre, so I had to carefully pick when and where I was changing lanes.
I was still riding through the open savannah, and there was lots of antelope but I couldn’t really take my eyes of the road for a second. I tried a few times to admire the scenery, but I would hit mud or potholes and very nearly lost control of the bike. I wondered what I was missing, including the chance of seeing a lion. A whole pride of them could have stood up and done the kan-kan, and I wouldn’t have seen them. I just had to focus on the road.
The road got progressively worse, and 10 km into the journey, I came across a lorry that had slid off the road. It had 3 other Lorries behind it. I drove through the muddy bog slowly and greeted the drivers. I asked how they would get it out, and the driver pointed at the lorry behind and said “that one will pull it”. He asked if I had any food and my instant reaction was to say yes, but I thought that, if I break down later, I’m going to need the chapattis and samosas I bought the previous day. So said I was sorry and didn’t have any for him. The roads got worse still, with potholes that were over a foot deep. I couldn’t understand how the Lorries were able to make it along, but when you see them move, they practically bounce along the road with the sheer momentum pushing them through the boggy potholes. At points, the road got better, usually when it became sandy, which allowed the water to drain. The clay sections were the worst. They just held the water and made the mud very thick and heavy, sticking to everything. My feet looked like they had swollen to twice the size and would occasionally slip off the pegs because of all the mud stuck to them. Occasionally, I would drag them on the floor over the solid sections of road in an attempt to shake off some of the mud between the road bogs.
At 13 km, I noted a few buildings with a few empty trucks and heavy machinery out the front, but I continued, as the engine sounded fine and the bike hadn’t made any more clunking noises. The road continued to go from bad to good and then to worse. One particular section took me by surprise, and the bike ended up jumping violently into the air with me hanging off it Superman style. Once again, I don’t know how I stayed on. “Slow down Rob!” I said to myself. I passed another lorry and then a couple of people walking with cycles, mainly because it was too boggy to ride them. Again, this eased my nerves knowing that people walked along this route.
I was approaching the halfway mark, and the roads were still poor. I tried swapping from lane to lane quite successfully at first, but then, I hit some really soft ground. Once again, the bike started to weave, and I couldn’t keep it in the tracks. It veered off to the left, snaking as I went. I hit some very deep mud, and the front wheel went out from underneath me. I was going fairly slowly at this point, so it was only really my pride that was damaged. That’s the first time I’d fallen off a motorbike in years! The engine was still running and in gear, so I reached across, put the bike in neutral, and lifted it up. The mud was pretty deep, but the bike moved on surprisingly well. I tried to climb the steep bank of the gutter to get back on the tracks of the road but slid back down, and the front wheel buried itself once again, so I bailed out to the side. Get up and try again. By this time, I was breathing hard and getting very hot. This time, I decided to ride through the mud until I found a section of the bank that wasn’t so steep. It worked, and I was back on the road.
I didn’t think that the road could get much worse, but it did. In some places, the potholes were over 2 feet deep. It resembled a mogul field on a ski run more than a road, but I found myself almost enjoying the ride again. At 49 km, I came across a bridge that was closed, someone came out of a nearby hut to direct me across a smaller bridge. This was the first habited accommodation I’d seen along this road, but I still had another 20 km to go and nearly said to myself, “You know I might just….” then I stopped, not wanting to tempt fate.
Shortly after the broken bridge, I crossed another, which had quite a large gap that was hidden from view as I left the bridge. As I went across it, the suspension bottomed out with a huge bang! Scraping sounds followed and I came slowly to a halt. My immediate thought was a back tyre blow out, and I thought that was it. I sat for a few seconds, preparing myself for the horrible sight of a shredded back wheel. I got off the bike and looked at the back wheel, but miraculously, it seemed ok. The number plate, however, was hanging off by one bolt, looking a bit mangled and was dragging on the wheel. The bolt was loose, so I undid it and strapped the number plate under the rubber ties and started off again, breathing a sigh of relief.
Story continued in Part Two, below. Don't worry, there's not much left!!! Full version too big for my website to handle? Click here if you want to go straight there.