The Call of Mzungu

Words and Photos by Logan Watts and Virginia Krabill

In the first of a three part series, Logan and Virginia set out to explore a 2,000km Trans-Uganda off road loop, circumnavigating this small nation in equatorial East Africa.

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Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda

Here we are… back in Africa. Why? It’s a question we’ve been asked many times and by many people, including friends, family, fellow bikepackers, and many of the African people we’ve met along the way. It’s a fair question, I suppose. Traveling here is challenging, especially when going at ground level, off-road, and by bicycle. Over 25 percent of Africa’s landmass is covered in desert, while Equatorial Africa can be exquisitely hot and humid. There are dangerous animals here, menacing insects, scary viruses and parasites, and, unfortunately, regions that experience seemingly ceaseless conflict. Many Africans suffer from extreme poverty and hunger, often the result of political “mismanagement” of their country’s capital. Pedaling here can be, and often is, difficult, exhausting, and even painfully sad. So, why did we return? The short answer is that despite all its baggage, the Africa we’ve experienced can also be sublimely beautiful, joyful, and bursting with life like nowhere else we’ve ever been.

  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Ssebwe Falls, Trans-Uganda

Why? The short answer is that with all its baggage, the Africa that we’ve experienced can also be sublimely beautiful, joyful, and bursting with life like nowhere else we’ve ever been.

  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
uganda-map-part3

As for our choice to cycle Uganda in particular, that’s a little less complicated. When we were in Africa back in the winter/spring of 2013/2014, we had intended to cycle from South Africa to Kenya, which would include a foray into Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda. As it turned out, time was not on our side. With plane tickets booked for Morocco and a fast approaching monsoon nipping at our heels, we left sub-Saharan Africa without ever visiting the Pearl of Africa, as Winston Churchill once called it, for the richness in resources and fertile land. Our bucket list included many treasures that this country offers such as its unique wildlife, lush tropical rainforests, lake regions, and the “mountains of the moon” that western Uganda is known for.

Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda

Meat shacks are in every trading center.
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda

Of course, when most people in the US think of Uganda, a “pearl” isn’t exactly the first image that comes to mind. Uganda has a long history of violence. Uganda’s third president, Idi Amin, aka the “Butcher of Uganda,” ruled the country for eight years, until he was forcefully ousted in 1979. It’s been reported that he had so many people murdered that their corpses had to be continuously fished out of the Nile, lest they clog the intake ducts at a dam near Jinja. Amin’s barbarity left a wake of heartache that still stirs emotions today. Just a few days ago we heard a story of a nearby school where his ruthless army torched 68 people locked inside.

In 1980, Milton Obote, the president who had preceded Amin, returned to power in Uganda following a general election. Obote’s second administration was said to be at least as violent as Amin’s. In more recent years, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), under twisted leader Joseph Kony, has waged a bush war that ravaged the northern half of the country through the early 2000s, and continues to operate in the Sudan and DRC today. Over the last thirty years, Kony has kidnapped over 30,000 children, turning boys into ruthless soldiers (with initiation rights that often including massacring their own families) and young girls into their sex slaves.

Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda

Pineapple express. Cheap fruit = cycling fuel.
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda

Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda

  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda

Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda

Not sure how many people out there will get this.
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda

For those who are unfamiliar with its geography, Uganda is approximately the size of Utah and sits directly on the equator between Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In the south lies Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa and the source of the Nile River. To the north of the country, bordering South Sudan is an arid and, at times, dangerous plain flanked by Kidepo National Park. Due east, and crossing into Kenya, is Mount Elgon, a massive 14,177’ (4,321 M) extinct volcano, surrounded by undulating hills and countless waterfalls. In the west, like a fortress wall guarding Uganda from the DRC, lies Rwenzori, the highest mountain range (with the only known glacier) in Africa, aka ‘The Mountains of The Moon’ and the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Lake Albert and Lake Edward take up another part of it’s western border, and the sprawling Lake Kyoga spawns tributaries and swamps throughout center of Uganda. All in all, there 10 national parks scattered throughout the country, including the well known Murchison Falls National Park.

Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda

It’s election season. Posters are affixed to absolutely every surface. Like many other African nations, Uganda has the potential to turn on a dime into a land of chaos. Since planning this trip, travel restrictions were put in to place for nearby neighbor Burundi, due to rioting around supposed election fraud. And did I mention that the Ugandan elections will be taking place while we’re here in February? Or that Uganda doesn’t exactly have the best of reputations for fair ballot counting? But that’s Africa.
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda

About 14 days ago, our plane landed in Entebe, a 30 minute drive south of Kampala on the northern bank of Lake Victoria. We loaded the bike boxes in a taxi van and zipped into traffic. Ten minutes into the ride, as the warm air coursed through our hair, loud music pierced our eardrums, and the scent of burning rubbish wafted in the wind, I turned to Gin and smiled. Once you’ve visited Africa, returning is a little like coming home. Life on the streets is fast, loud, out of control, and slightly scary. There are colors, smells, and expressions that can’t be described.

Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda

One of our favorite breakfasts, the ‘Rolex’—two eggs fried thin and rolled in a handmade chapati (thick wheat tortilla). For about 2,000 Ugandan Shillings ($0.65), a rolex makes for half of a day’s fuel.
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda

… as the warm air coursed through our hair, loud music pierced our eardrums, and the scent of burning rubbish wafted in the wind, I turned to Gin and smiled.”

Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda

Footpaths are singletrack.
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda

This all hit hard on our first day pedaling. We left Kampala and navigated the initial ‘urban assault’ portion of our route, given to us by the Kampala Cycling Group. Within a couple of hours we were on footpaths in what seemed like remote villages. It was there where we started hearing the small and innocent calls, “Mzungu! Azungu!”—which translates to “white man, white men”. Or sometimes it was simply, “Zuuuunnnngggguuu!” from not yet fully mastered vocal chords of a tiny 3 year old. Other times it became a chant by 10 children, or even a song. Initially intoxicating, it was also somewhat sad that a couple dirty white people offer such entertainment. We’ve heard stories of mothers telling their children that it’s good luck to meet a white person. This is evident when we stand still. Crowds form. We are stared at, followed, and cheered. At one time we had some 35 children escorting us up a remote footpath hike-a-bike.

Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda

This little girl and a few others were up in a mango tree when we rode by. They yelled, ‘Mango, mango!’ We stopped and shortly after, one of the young boys fell about 10 feet out of the tree, landed on his head, jumped up, rubbed the dirt off, and smiled.
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda

Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda

  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda

Speaking of children, they’re everywhere. Within its relatively small landmass, Uganda has a population of about 40 million, although I think they might have missed a few in the last census. It’s like kids are falling out of trees. And sometimes they actually do (see caption with photo of girl with knife above). Even in the most removed places we have cycled thus far, it’s almost impossible to find a spot where there aren’t people. The constant bustle can be good, and at times, unnerving.

Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda

This find gaggle of young men and women helped us find the right route up a steep ridge on the slopes of Elgon.
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda

Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda

On the other side we ran into some very fine dirt roads.
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda

Of course we wanted to travel here to experience the beauty and culture of Uganda. And that we have. Uganda is full of life, the people are some of the nicest and warmest in Africa. Fresh fruits and vegetables abound, and the Indian food is pretty damn good. The land is rich and the vistas inspiring. And, I must admit, the fact that there aren’t many tourists here make it even more appealing. Aside from the residuum left by a wave of pentecostal missionaries in the 2000s, there seems to be little impact from foreigners within backcountry Uganda. It can be tiring answering “fine”, and saying “how are you?” 300 times per day. But it is appreciated. In many other tourism influenced places in Africa, these calls might be, “give me my money!” or other phrases that can be construed as a hassle.

In fact, here we’ve heard a new one: “Well done.” There are also countless people who want to know where we are going, to shake our hands, and show us to their children. It’s not a selfish affirmation; instead, it feels like we are telling these people that their corner of the world matters, and there are people who want to visit these Ugandan backwaters.

Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda

Sisiye Falls.
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
  • Bikepacking Uganda - Trans-Uganda
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39 Comments
  • http://maiamedia.co.uk/ Hannah Maia

    Brilliant adventure! Loved the photos. Already waiting for the next instalment. Enjoy!

  • mikeetheviking

    Excellent. I love the picture of the little girl with the knife. I’m curious about both Logan and Virginia’s take on 27+ vs. 29+ having spent many and long days with them these past months? Virgina, how do you like that oracle downtube bag?
    Be safe out there guyz!

  • Barrett Hoover

    Sounds like an excellent adventure, thanks for sharing!

  • Dirk Cajada

    You sure do get around! Thoroughly enjoyed the writing and photos. I’d love to meet if you decide to stop by Johannesburg.

  • Matthew Crompton

    Superb writeup and photos — I’ve heard nothing but good things about Uganda from people who manage to make it there. Looking forward to more!

  • Noel

    Thank you for your write-up, wonderful adventure, beautifully presented

  • http://www.theironlyportrait.com Their Only Portrait

    Hola Logan,

    Would you analyze the possibility of carrying a small printer for your next Adventure in Africa?

    Saludos,
    Federico

  • Christina

    Great post! I spent some time in Uganda and I remember the rolex very fondly! Beautiful photos depicting a beautiful country. I will look forward to reading the next installment!

  • markjordahl

    Love this post! I have lived in Kampala on and off for the last ten years, and just moved back two months ago with my family – and this time we brought our Mountain Bikes with us! I have a million questions for you, first of all, “how did you plan your route?” and “do you have GPS tracks of it you would be willing to share?” If you find yourself back in Kampala, we’d love to host you. You can reach me at mark@conservationconcepts.net. Oh, and when the kids were shouting “mango mango,” that phrase actually means “fast, fast!” The fact that they were in a mango tree was likely just a coincidence. What a great adventure. I hope to hear from you. Well done!

  • ChunyuOu

    This is amazing! Good job!

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Thanks!

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Thanks Mark. We are planning as we go, but I got a little help from the Kampala Cycling Group on the piece from Kampala to Sipi. I will be in touch about the tracks and we’ll definitely get in touch on the way back through…. Thanks!

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Thanks!

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    I am not familiar with the technology, but it’s certainly possible…

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Thanks Noel!

  • markjordahl

    Sounds good!

  • Rob Grey

    i’ve never really felt the urge to travel to africa, but after a friend and his fiancee lived in the drc for two-and-a-bit years, with all his (mostly) positive stories, i might try it one day. now this post, and photos, really make it difficult to resist. especially once you throw bikes into the equation…

    nicely done.

  • http://pedalspacksandpinots.wordpress.com/ Ben Handrich

    I felt like I was reading a breath of fresh air in this post. So many colors, so many beautiful people, at times I thought I was experiencing your acculturation right alongside you. Thanks so much for an evening in Uganda. Looking forward to more.

  • Travis Boss

    Looks like you went with the Chronicles this time around vs the Knards again, I bet they are a lot nicer out there. I realize this trip is going to be shorter than the last one, please report on how they did. Looks like your wife is riding a set too?

    I also noticed on your unused bosses you put bolts on both sides, clever ;)

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Yep, 2 sets… So far so good!!

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Thanks for the kind words Ben!

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Thanks Rob; it’s a different world!

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Thanks Matthew!

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Probably won’t get through there this time around, but thanks!

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Thanks Hannah; Hope all is well!

  • http://www.theironlyportrait.com Their Only Portrait

    Hola Logan,

    There isn’t much tech involved… all you need is $189.98 for:
    . Canon Selphy CP1200 (printer)
    . Canon NB-CP2LH (battery)
    . Canon KP-108IN (Ink & Paper combo)
    Sorry, I couldn’t add the links :)

    Saludos,
    Federico

  • NM

    This is an awesome trip! Are you posting up smaller updates/pictures (Instagram/Twitter) as you go? I’m sure you both would rather enjoy the time instead of updating the internet, but it would be fun to see :-D

  • Lewy

    Another great trip and great report. Are you still using the Blunt 35s? If yes, how are they holding up? I need to decide if I am willing to try them again.

  • http://www.theironlyportrait.com Their Only Portrait

    Hola Logan,

    Well, maybe you also need another $365 for a GOAL ZERO Sherpa 50 Solar Charging Kit with 110VAC Inverter, in order to power everything in those places where you can’t find a plug :)
    Federico
    Federico

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Thanks! Occasionally on Instagram… More updates coming soon.

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Thanks Lewy. Oddly enough I have a Blunt on the rear and a Scraper on the front. The Blunt is a little too narrow for the Chronicle; I much prefer the scraper…

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Thanks Mikee! The Oracle is nice… There’s a writeup coming soon. 29+ was a good choice for this trip. While we’ve managed to find a bit of footpaths and motorcycle trails, there are also big stretches of really rough dirt roads, so the 29+ help smooth things out a little bit.

  • Matthijs

    Besides the continuous inspiring stories I’ve been reading here over the years, your photography skills are very impresive and ever growing. I often find myself reading back old stories, where I skip the typed story and just look at the pictures. You do justice to the continent :). Thnx

  • Konovalov

    Thanks for the inspiration! and I have two tech questions. How did you install a Rohloff hub (135mm) in a Deadwood rear end space (148mm) ? (maybe using Alternator OEM1 plates there is enough space with the long threaded axle) and the same about the Rohloff shifter on drop bars ? (or this bars are the new Soma Gator with 22.2mm OD). Happy pedalling !

  • Lewy

    Thanks for the reply. I thought the scraper was only 27.5″ but knowing it’s also 29″ gives me another option to consider. I am only looking at using it as a front until I buy a frame to go full 29+

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Spacers and longer bolts… Tech note coming very soon… Maybe later this week.

  • http://www.bikepacking.com/ BIKEPACKING.com (Logan)

    Thanks for the kind words Matthijs!!

  • GPaudler

    Beautiful post Virginia and Logan! I’ve only had a small taste of Kenya and long to see more of the continent.

  • DamagedSurfer

    Logan and Virginia,
    Thanks for your words, pictures, and inspiration. I was blessed to travel abroad extensively post college, but have never been to Africa. I guess it was always easy to rationalize the decision by saying, ‘too much instability, violence, poverty etc etc.’ In hindsight I’m glad I visited the places I did when I did as violence has increased in some of those countries as well. These days I can’t take year-long trips like I used to, but 2-3 weeks is doable and I’m always looking for new places to visit. Cheers.

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