Quasi-Survival

Words and Photos by Logan Watts and Virginia Krabill.

In the second installment from the Trans-Uganda, Logan and Virginia gain an appreciation for challenge in their westward journey from Sipi Falls to the Albertine Rift…

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Trans-Uganda Bikepacking

Near the end of a five day haul across Uganda’s hot, dusty, and relatively flat interior, we sat down at an oasis where we found the rare cold(ish) Coca-Cola. A thirty-something Ugandan named Robert was sipping a pilsner on the bowed wooden bench beside us and asked, “So you are riding your bicycles through Uganda?” I responded by describing our route, listing the names of larger towns we had passed in order to arrive at this point… Bulisa, a small and dusty trading center in the hot Albertine Rift Valley. “You must know how to survive,” he replied, “Living in Uganda is surviving… it’s good that you can travel this way and understand.” I pondered that a bit. Witness? Yes. Truly understand? I think not.

uganda-map-part2
  • Trans-Uganda Bikepacking
  • Trans-Uganda Bikepacking

Several days earlier we left the relatively touristed area around Sipi Falls. By touristed I mean that we saw maybe four tourists. After descending the slopes of Elgon, we slipped into Uganda’s central region and a web of tertiary dirt roads, rail trails, and footpaths which meander in and around tributaries north of Lake Kyoga. Scenery changed and the riding was completely different. The slow churning of pedals was replaced by high speed grinds up and down rolling hills. Crumbly dry farmland replaced the lush mountainous slopes of Mount Elgon. Boda Boda motorcycles were replaced by bicycles, evidence of a different economy.

Trans-Uganda Bikepacking

We had happened upon the town of Kumi where we were invited to attend a campaign speech by the fiery Kizza Besigye, who’s polling second to the incumbent president, Yoweri Museveni.
  • Trans-Uganda Bikepacking
  • Trans-Uganda Bikepacking

“Living in Uganda is surviving… it’s good that you can travel this way and understand.”

Trans-Uganda Bikepacking

We found a long stretch of ‘rail trail’ after the town of Kumi.
  • Trans-Uganda Bikepacking
  • Trans-Uganda Bikepacking
  • Trans-Uganda Bikepacking

Technically, it’s the shorter of two annual dry seasons right now, running from December through to the beginning of March. Still, there are occasional rains. Nearing the end of one long day in the saddle, a storm forced us to take cover. We ducked under a mango tree, but quickly got soaked in the deluge. A voice called from a small homestead, consisting of 5 small mud brick round homes. Two women motioned for us to have a seat under the thatched eaves of the closest hut. They too had been detained by the downpour; with a newborn strapped to one woman’s back, they were unable to push their banana-laden bike through the drenching rain and accompanying mud. Before the rain had fully subsided, we started pedaling. The locals were already hard at work, tilling the earth to prepare it for planting. These families, sustenance farmers, don’t take a rain during the dry season for granted. The opportunity to sow seeds before the wet season begins could make the difference between full bellies and empty ones.

Trans-Uganda Bikepacking

Some roadside eggplant and okra for our veg curry stew at camp.
  • Trans-Uganda Bikepacking
  • Trans-Uganda Bikepacking
  • Trans-Uganda Bikepacking
  • Trans-Uganda Bikepacking
  • Trans-Uganda Bikepacking

Trans-Uganda Bikepacking

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

On this leg of our journey, food has been a little more difficult to come by. Mid-day snacks are limited to what we can find in the tiny mudbrick shacks, usually stale cakes and biscuits that have a questionable list of ingredients, ”edible hydrogenated vegetable oil” and “allowed flavorings” included. Here, the people subsist on cassava, corn and, if they’re lucky, mudfish taken from the swampy tributaries that feed Lake Kyoga. Water is available, thanks to NGO and international aid funded bore holes. But the closest boreholes for some families may be kilometers away from their homes. Gathering water for the day becomes a full-time job. Very often it’s the children of a family, whose time can most be spared, to complete the task. We’ve seen kids as young as four years of age hauling full jerry cans full to their homes. If they’re not transporting water, they’re carrying firewood for cooking. Every minute of every day is filled with the kinds of tasks that we might only practice during camping trips. Hard work isn’t optional. It’s life.

Trans-Uganda Bikepacking

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

“This is the reality in a country with only a handful of roads that are surfaced with tarmac. Progress stops and starts at the mercy of nature’s whims.”

Trans-Uganda Bikepacking

  • Trans-Uganda Bikepacking
  • Trans-Uganda Bikepacking

En route to Masindi Port from Apac, we hit some seriously wicked mud. We hadn’t been caught in the rain this time, but it had clearly dumped buckets prior to our arrival. Ugandan Death Mud is nearly impossible to pass. It’s like thick concrete that sticks to everything, clogging brakes and chains, erasing tire clearance, and adding tons of weight to the load. We were literally stopped in our tracks. A passerby told us we may just have to stay where we were. Unfortunately, where we were was nowhere, and pitching camp would have been difficult at best. Thankfully, a group of village children put off their domestic duties and seemed to rejoice in helping us push through the mud. Eventually a couple of them helped us wash the bikes at a borehole, and the road dried enough for us to continue our ride. This is the reality in a country with only a handful of roads that are surfaced with tarmac. Progress stops and starts at the mercy of nature’s whims.

Trans-Uganda Bikepacking

A band of kids helping Gin push her mud clogged bike to a nearby borehole.

Trans-Uganda Bikepacking

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

On a couple of occasions, we’ve had to navigate “main highways”. They’re usually rough and rutted maram (dirt) tracks wide enough for a car and a half to pass. We’d heard that travel on Uganda’s busier thoroughfares wasn’t for the faint of heart. One of the leading causes of death in this country is traffic-related accidents, and that’s really saying something in a country where, unlike the US, relatively few people own cars. So far, our first-hand experiences have validated the rumors… Ugandan drivers don’t give a shit. If there is a car or truck approaching, you get off the road, period. The same rule applies for the countless water bearers and bicyclists carrying roof thatch or firewood. Even children walking along the roadside scatter into the bushes when a vehicle flies by. They must be taught to look both ways while they’re still in the womb. It’s not in the drivers’ nature to give you space. They have the power, and they let you know it. On one occasion, my temper got the better of me, and I flipped a driver off when he came within inches and sent me into a ditch. An onlooker retorted, “This is Uganda.” The words of Robert, our Ugandan acquaintance from Bulisa, resonated. Survival is the name of the game on these stretches.

Trans-Uganda Bikepacking

Trans-Uganda Bikepacking

A black and white colobus monkey jumping a span of about 10 feet to a nearby tree.
  • Trans-Uganda Bikepacking
  • Trans-Uganda Bikepacking

One evening we were honored to have a wonderful conversation with Father Stanislov, a Catholic priest who permitted us to camp at his parish for the night. At some point, we started to discuss poverty. Dr. Stanislov was quick to point out that there is a distinction between “relative” poverty and misery. His view is that, while many of the people in rural Uganda may lack resources, and they do struggle, they are not miserable. Most have food to eat and shelter. They aren’t without hope. They aren’t truly “poor.” His words reminded me of those found in Buddhist teachings, that “life is suffering.”

Trans-Uganda Bikepacking

  • Trans-Uganda Bikepacking
  • Trans-Uganda Bikepacking

Trans-Uganda Bikepacking

  • Trans-Uganda Bikepacking
  • Trans-Uganda Bikepacking, Surly ECR

Contrary to the tone of these vignettes, Uganda’s interior is far from being a place of despair. The people are incredibly friendly and welcoming. Laughter can be heard everywhere. There are beautiful vistas and experiences woven in the seemingly coarse cloth of life. And, while we are here, just getting by in our own right, I know that we will never truly understand the kind of survival that Robert was talking about. Dodging traffic, eating stale biscuits, and managing the exhausting heat doesn’t compare to endless days of gathering water or knowing that you may be one dry spell away from destitution. We always have an out, we’ve got shillings in our pockets. And, in March, we’ll fly back to a comfortable sofa, made-to-order burritos, and pints of Chubby Hubby. But, what we’ll be leaving behind is truly priceless and far from miserable… Life bursting at the seams and lived in the now. Laughter that’s contagious. And wealth that’s manifested in the richness of family and friends, not in dollars and cents.

Trans-Uganda Bikepacking

The Budongo Forest.
  • Trans-Uganda Bikepacking
  • Trans-Uganda Bikepacking
  • Trans-Uganda Bikepacking
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34 Comments
  • Rob Grey

    another great installment. love those portraits; so much character, and you really get a sense of their joy for life and friendliness.

  • mikeetheviking

    Excellent. Interesting take on poverty and misery.

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

    Thanks Mikee! P.S. email reply coming soon; juggling route planning and crappy wifi right now! Cheers.

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

    Thanks Rob!

  • Ian

    It’s not what you’ll be leaving behind which is truly priceless,it’s what you’ll be taking home with you.
    Two beautiful bikes… Imagine…just your Rohloff alone is equal to about 4 or 5 years salary for the average African…Unreal! I can’t wait to get back to Africa.Thanks for the post!

  • jamhat

    I so appreciate your attitude and tone of respect for the people and land you are encountering. There is no hint of condescension or pity. Thank you. You are respectful human beings among those who deserve the same. All the best on your travels.

  • Matthew Crompton

    Lovely stuff as usual. Out of curiosity, what’s the lens(es) you’re using for these? The shallow DOF effects are a nice touch in many.

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

    Yeah, I do feel guilty about the worth of our possessions … Hopefully we can pay it forward and give away some bits at the end of the journey…

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

    Thanks! Too many. I have a 24-70 f/4, a 50 f/1.4 and a 135 f/2. In hindsight I wish I’d have gone with only my 35 and 135.

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

    Thanks! I have taken a different view on portraits this round as well. Not as many as I only take them if people offer. Previously I asked a lot, but for some reason Uganda, and this trip, feels a little different.

  • http://www.uninspiredramblings.com/ Chris

    Beautiful, even more so than usual.

    One tech question – how are your bottle cages mounted to the rear of your ECR? I remember a post showing you mounting them to a rack, but not to the frame. Are you using one frame mount and p-clip/zip ties or have you had another mount added to the frame?

  • Wade Patterson

    This is awesome! I spent a year and a half in Uganda in the mid 1990s, an experience that changed my life. Everyone says it, but it’s true: Ugandans are so friendly and gracious! Your report brings back some great memories.

    If you are back in Kampala before heading home, consider staying at Roots Resort: http://www.rootsresortuganda.com/

    It is owned by my good friend Okello Kelo Sam. It’s a very cool place and you can do everything from camp in your tent to more substantial accommodations.

    And a link to some traditional dance and music we recorded when I was there: https://www.youtube.com/user/opiyojok/playlists

    Enjoy the rest of your journey!

    Wade “Opiyo” Patterson

  • Christophe Noel

    Some of the best travel images I’ve seen in a very long time.

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

    Wow, thanks Christophe… Means a lot!

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

    Thanks Wade! We’ll check out Roots on the way back through! You are lucky to have gotten to spend time here…

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

    Thanks Chris! Yeah, they are rigged by a bolt and spacer to the dropout fender mounts, then good ole electrical tape!

  • Christophe Noel

    Seriously, as an editor I review thousands of images every year and boy, do I wish they were all half this good. As a Fuji shooter these feel like Fuji shots. Are you still shooting with that camera? You captured a very comprehensive visual story. I get the sense of “road.” I love the lifestyle shots of the people and textures of the villages. They look like amazing people, as well. All of it is perfectly recorded. Very cool.

  • Cam

    Ditto on the accolades. This is an amazing piece, the photos & text support each other amazingly. Keep up the good work! BTW is that a pedal powered grinder pictured?

  • Matthew Crompton

    Are you shooting APS-C or full frame? And do you find that the 135 is long enough for tele landscape stuff? Or do you wish you had something longer? I’m trying to get my travel kit down to just two lenses. As for the 50, it’s a weird in-between focal length. My father is an old-time newspaper photog and he said no one he worked with ever used a 50 — usually a 24 and a 105 or 135 on two different bodies was the sweet spot for useful focal lengths. ^_^

  • https://theskrumble.wordpress.com/ Montana Miller

    Great post man, looks like a good trip so far (kinda)

  • chrismodry

    Glad to see you two having such a great trip! Uganda is a wonderful country and the people of Uganda are so gracious and incredible. Look forward to your next post! I have been wanting to check out the southwest part of the country for years but never have enough time to extend a trip to do so. Will be interesting to see what you take is. Travel safe guys!

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

    Very kind words, thanks for the encouragement!!

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

    Thanks Cam! It is a pedal-powered machete sharpener…

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

    Thanks Montana; great trip so far!

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

    Thanks Chris!! It is the people that make traveling here special!

  • GPaudler

    Beautiful images and words Logan, maybe the best “bikepacking” report I’ve read, probably because it didn’t really seem to be about bikepacking. Your empathy and fascination really comes through.

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

    Thanks for the kind words Gary! Hopefully, we’ll keep stories coming in a similar tone… less about actual bikepacking and more about the experiences and insights afforded by the mode of travel.

  • Ashwini Ravindranath

    Reading this almost feels like we are out there seeing Uganda with you. This is what travel is all about. Thank you for reminding us. Cheers from India. Waiting to see more soon.

  • Joel Masson

    great pictures and story! Thanks for sharing! The priest’s insight to poverty was very insightful!

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

    Thanks… Glad you are enjoying it!

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

    Thanks Joel!

  • Christian Matt Kilna

    Just wondering what shifter you are using with the Rofloff?

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

    Twist shifter on a hubbub bar extender…

  • Alexey Tinyakov

    I think, I fell in love

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