Will Boase and Steve Cresswell were sitting in a bar in Kamala when they came up with the idea to tour Uganda on a motorcycle. All they needed was a bike… £400 later they set off on the adventure of a lifetime
When Kampala’s lights began to tinge the sky with their orange bleed we’d been on the road for around eight hours. The capital, with all its cutup junctions and ignored traffic lights, looked more beautiful than anything I had ever seen before. We had just braved the Masaka-Kampala highway, a terrifying stretch of high-speed lunacy full of minibus taxis, awful overtaking and overloaded trucks. The driving standard had been about on a par with the last ride on the dodgems before the funfair closes for the night, and we had passed several crashes on our little bike.
Steve and I decided to do this trip while sitting in a bar in Kampala one sunny day. I had just got a job that meant I had to get to a refugee camp in the north, and I couldn’t afford to do it properly. We thought about renting a car but at £15 a day plus petrol and repairs it was too steep. Matatus (motorbike taxis) seemed the obvious option, but they limited our ability to leave the beaten track too much. We had, however, been taking a lot of motorcycle taxis, and decided maybe that was the best way to go.
We saw a bike outside the Office of the Prime Minister buildings on Nakasero hill, which had a ‘for sale’ sign painted onto its front plate. We approached the man and asked the price. He said two million shillings, but after some discussion and an emphasis on cash being paid straight away, he settled at 1.5 million (about £400). This was a great price for a two-year-old bike in good nick. He then took us down to the shops by the old taxi park (still very much in use as a taxi park), where we bought two helmets from a smiley Muslim who insisted on a Ramadan discount. We also bought some wraparound shades from a street vendor and we were all set.
Navigating Uganda is not about remembering junctions and roundabout exits. Instead, we put together a list of main places in the west of the country that we wanted to pass through, and that was our entire planning done. This is because the roads are so direct – the road from Kampala to Gulu, for example, has two major junctions. Both are guarded by policemen who are more than happy to give advice, as are almost all police throughout the country.
We were flagged down twice by police during our journey. The first waved us on after checking we were heading the right way, and the second one stopped us to check that we knew the route to get the best views.
In every village, you are certain to meet a horde of smiling children. The sight of tourists in more rural areas causes quite a splash anyway, but turning up on a bike really brings out the crowds. There’s something special about travelling by motorcycle in a place where tourists are usually just pale faces behind tinted windows being shuttled from place to place along itineraries written years ago and done to death ever since.
With a little careful driving, you can take your bike into the back trails of the country and stumble across things which no car will ever reach, and do so in a way that forces you to feel it all, rather than just putting on the air conditioning and reading a book. There will be times when you hate and curse the bike, or the road, or the weather, but easy travel is dull.
One sunny day we left Kasese, just north of Queen Elizabeth National Park in an area of near-desert, hoping to get to Mbarara by nightfall. The road runs through the national park, which means a free safari. After entering the park we asked a ranger at an outpost if there was a better route. He pointed to a track that ran off into the distance and explained that it would bring us out at the bottom of the park, from where we could join a road that would take us to Mbarara, no problem.
Things went fine until mid-afternoon when, as we neared the end of the park, the sky darkened suddenly and a giant storm struck.
We sought shelter with a group of labourers in a shed by the roadside until the rains passed, then fishtailed our way through muddy tracks to the end of the park, where we discovered that the easy road to Mbarara didn’t exist. After three hours of driving around in circles through villages where we were always greeted enthusiastically then misdirected, we stopped in a tiny town where we decided we would find our way no matter what.
We headed for the shop but were accosted on the way by a man whose alcohol-ridden breath could have stunned a mule. In no time at all we were surrounded by a huge crowd who stared and giggled as every attempt we made at talking to anybody was cut off by the drunk who had evidently decided to take charge.
We tried and failed for 20 minutes before a tough lady with flawless English emerged from the shop, shouted him down and sent us on our way with correct instructions. We arrived in Mbarara in the dark, soaking, mud-coated and tired, just in time to order some chicken and chips with luminous ketchup and watch the football.
Some of the best food I ate in Uganda was served in the grottiest bargain-basement establishments on the roadsides. Chicken and chips is reliable and filling, while goat kebabs wrapped in chapattis made a great evening snack. Sometimes curry was available and made a welcome change from the chips, but the true undisputed champion of the Ugandan culinary world is pork muchomo with cassava.
Greasy chunks of pork served with avocado, sliced tomatoes, boiled cassava chunks and a heap of salt to dip it all in, is the best meal in Uganda. It’s rare in the more Muslim east, but head anywhere west of Jinja and you’re bound to find it. Our daily food budget was about £4 between us, and rarely if ever do any of these things cost more than that.
If something on a map catches your eye, a motorcycle turns from transport to godsend. Leafing through a tour company’s advertising leaflet we noticed that a road ran from Fort Portal to the Congolese border. The road was a track that seemed to thread its way through the end of the Ruwenzori mountain range – more popularly called the Mountains of the Moon – before passing between the Ruwenzori and Semliki national parks. This sounded too good to miss, so we bought some chocolate and cigarettes, filled up the tank and buzzed off into the hills.
The road was better than imagined, taking us along narrow passes, through tunnels in cloud forest and even into villages where pygmy tribes, who have special dispensation from the government, grow and smoke some rather exotic herbs.
The highlight came shortly after dodging an oncoming minibus when we rounded a corner and I almost crashed in surprise. In front of us, laid out like a present, was Congo. A sea of green stretching away to nothing, with a river passing through it, looping tightly in the classic nature program style. We were on the edge of a cliff, with the Ruwenzori Mountains having their usual private thunderstorm to our left; a shallow, densely wooded escarpment to our right and down below, jewels in the crown, Semliki’s chain of dazzling blue hot springs. Naturally, we sat and had some of our chocolate.
It was with the bike that I had simultaneously the best and worst evening of my life. I think Steve enjoyed it, but I had mixed feelings. I had it fixed in my head that I wanted to photograph the sunset from the top of a particular mountain. We rode up a narrow, rocky slope in late afternoon, and as we reached the halfway point I realised I hadn’t checked the petrol. We continued because it seemed a shame to get so far and give up.
As we hit the flat at the top of the mountain, the engine coughed and died. The petrol was gone. And to add insult to injury, clouds obscured the sunset. And then, as if all that was not enough, two thunderstorms appeared, one either side of us. We pushed the bike to the nearest village and tried to buy petrol.
Nobody had any at all, they said. Then somebody suggested there might be some diesel but definitely no petrol. Well maybe a bit, but only very special petrol. Very, very expensive petrol.
We ended up paying four times what we should have, but on the way down we rode with forked lightning exploding either side of us, and it was like being in our own blockbuster.
If you get to Masaka and want a good two-day outing, head for the Ssese islands. You need to get to Bukakata, where a free ferry will meet you and take you to the islands. They are beautiful and boast some incredible wildlife, though the palm oil industry is doing its best to remedy that. White sand beaches and idyllic campsites complete the picture.
It’s a strange place, backwards in all the right ways, and on our way back to the mainland we had the rather unique opportunity to load our motorbike into a narrow wooden canoe rather than wait two hours for the ferry. We agreed and complied, and were exchanging worried glances, but then the boatman turned up with a second bike, which he proceeded to add to the load!
From the Ssese islands, you’re well placed to head for the Masaka-Kampala highway, which takes you back through Entebbe to the capital. We were elated when we reached the city, but sad too. We were at the end of 3,200km of travel stretched over a month, during which time we had been from the heart of Uganda to its outer western edge, all the way down and back. We had travelled through rain and sun, over tarmac and mud, through forests, mountains and barren desert. Along the way we had passed enough animals to make a safari guide weep and seen sights that few tourists ever get the chance to witness. And we had done all of this, two of us and all our baggage, on a 100cc motorcycle.
Travelling in Uganda
Uganda is roughly the same size as England but with (seasonally dependent) better weather, making it ideal for biking. Rainy seasons are March-May and October-November. Biking on mud roads during the rainy season (or during heavy rain) is difficult and dangerous, but if you wait a couple of hours after rain it dries up very fast.
Our budget was £10 per day each. However, if you’re willing to ditch the beer and you’re not picky about hostels you can probably scrape by on £6.
There are so many languages and dialects spoken it’s hard to keep track of them all, but in most places English will be spoken by somebody. Don’t take pictures of anything that’s being guarded by soldiers. They get angry about it, they’re armed, and the object in question is usually a bridge anyway.
If you’re a fan of tobacco try not to smoke in public, it’s just not done. Only ever smoke in bars if you have the permission of the staff. Food-wise, the best is chicken and chips, chapatti with omelette (called a Rolex), g-nut paste or pork muchomo. The worst food is Matooke (it’s steamed bananas!) or posho (ground maize, dull and unsatisfying).
● 100cc or 125cc is the best engine size. It’s going to be cheap to buy (they cost about £700 new), cheap to run (ours, a TVS Star, did 60km per litre with two passengers and a 20kg rucksack) and easy and cheap to fix. You will find a two-stroke mechanic in every village because bikes are so widespread. Plus, you will never get anything over 125cc in a canoe.
● In the event of a puncture, don’t panic. Wave down passing 4x4s, most will give you and your bike a lift in return for a few hundred shillings.
● Get a helmet. You’re not Steve McQueen.
● Get insurance. See above.
● Get shades. See above, but you need some wraparounds to keep the dust out of your eyes.
● If you see a white 4×4, any vehicle with red (government) or green (army) plates, anything with a siren and/or an armed guard or a bus, get off the road. The African road rules apply, might is right and you’re wrong. If you can, look obviously like a tourist. Tourists are highly prized by the government and they will often try not to hit you.
● The most dangerous vehicle on the road is the plain white 4×4 every NGO owns. Avoid them. The hard shoulder isn’t so bad.
● Best bikes are the Bajaj Boxer (usually just called a Bajaj, big comfy seat and a 125cc four-stroke engine) or a TVS Star (smaller seat, 100cc two-stroke engine but cheaper). Expect to pay £400-£550.
● Buy your bike in Kampala if you can. The best way is to spend a week talking to all the bike taxis. Sooner or later you’ll find somebody who’s ready to sell up. You can go for first-hand if you’re feeling flush, but a bike which has been used only in the city as a boda-boda should be fine. The other plus of an exbodaboda is that it will already be customised to carry a passenger.
● Get mirrors and good brakes.
● Get all paperwork for your bike, and verify it with a policeman or a clued-up friend. Accept no excuses, bike theft is frequent and handling stolen goods is a crime. If a bike seems too cheap (below £350) there is something wrong with it. The books will consist of a green registration book, a logbook and hopefully an invoice from the shop it was bought from.
● When selling a bike on, it’s easier to do it in Jinja. Again, spend a week asking around. You should get £300-£400 back (we bought ours at £400 and sold it at £350) unless you’re desperate, in which case either accept a low bid or be a darling and point it in the direction of a worthy cause.
● Driving in mud will scare your pants off. When the mud dries, sand will have the same effect. Go slowly if it’s at all slippery or sandy, but learn to fall gracefully too. It will happen sooner or later, and at low speeds, it’s not too bad. Chicks dig scars, remember?
● Get a good map and an up-to-date guidebook. We had neither, and it was a constant pain.
● Always, always, always fill the tank up. And check the tyres, and getting the oil done once in a while is a good plan too.
Five must-do routes
1) North of Kasese is an abandoned tin mine. It’s a short hop on a great road, the mine and rotting buildings are spooky and the views on the base of the Ruwenzori and out into the plains of Queen Elizabeth National park are great in the evening.
2) Masindi Port, which is 40-odd-km from Masindi (a town you will have to pass through at some point) down a dusty road. The port is three shacks and a disgruntled policeman, but for £2 or £3 a fisherman will paddle you out into the lake and you’re bound to see birds galore, and maybe a croc or two.
3) The crater lakes south of Fort Portal. Very beautiful in the early morning, but a bit tough to find in a maze of mud tracks. If you get lost in the right place you’ll pass a vanilla co-operative which smells like heaven.
4) Hoima to Fort Portal. Take it slow, don’t do it in the rain, and don’t be afraid to whack the bike into first gear and walk it up some of the steeper slopes. This road is pure unadulterated insanity and not for the faint-hearted, but I would do it again in a heartbeat. Try to avoid puddles; some of them are deceptively deep.
5) Fort Portal to Bundibujo. This was, without doubt, the best day of my life. Mountains, forests, baboons, dope-smoking pygmies, hot springs, the lot. And at the other end, the Congo. There and back should take most of a day so take grub. Be warned, however, there’s 5km of road in the route which is atrocious. Brace yourself and pad your seat, but take along a camera too.
Matatu – minibus taxi, usually driven fast and badly and often containing poultry. Boda-boda – a motorcycle taxi. Refers to motorcycles being used for smuggling, crossing border to border. Pikipiki – a motorcycle for personal use. Muchomo – meat. Usually goat, pork or beef. Goat is great, and I recommend it.