We went to Uganda in January 1996 because it had been surprisingly included in the highlights of a group of four American engineers who traveled the world on bikes for 4 years. They were mostly impressed by the people as both friendly and colorful. They were right.
The main roads were either newly improved or under construction. The traffic was very light. We were on road bikes but mountain bikes would be better especially on the minor dirt roads. The trip north to Murchison Falls was highly recommended but safety issues and time constraints kept us from going.
Its a beautiful country but as for animals it’s a mixed bag. Idi Amin’s army decimated the animal population in the name of target practice. That being said, there are some unique spices that are will worth a visit for those who are interested. The Mountain Gorilla and the tree climbing Lion are in southwest Uganda around Bwindi National Park. Luckily we saw them both (the tree Lion from our bikes).
Also, we loved being in a safe city in Africa – Kampala. We me incredibly interesting expats throughout Uganda.
How We Rate This Trip
In 1996, we dealt with a lot of construction on the main roads in the west. I’m sure that now they are completed which would improve this rating. When the roads were improved, they were well engineered and smooth. In the Southwest around Bwindi National Park, the roads were gravel, sand or dirt. These varied from good to poor. Again, we recommend a mountain bike for this destination.
The population around Kampala does create some heavy traffic but we were able to ride in and out of the city. In the west, the roads were crowded with people not cars. It’s an excellent quiet ride from Fort Portal to Ishaka.
In January, the climate was almost perfect, although the temperatures (on the equator) are about the same year round. There is rain year round also but this contributes to the green countryside. The humidity is fairly low if you’re not in the rainy season. The rainy season varies from place to place. In January, the Southwest, which is rainier, is pretty dry
We experienced very light to no wind days. For this reason, it was hard to determine any patterns.
Uganda is quite flat except in the west. So the scenery in the west is far superior to that in the east. The tea plantations around Fort Portal are beautiful. The Majestic Rwenzori Mountains are a backdrop to the south. And finally, around Bwindi in the southwest, the gorillas are not the only attraction, the scenery in the mountains is excellent.
Obviously, other than being directed there by some bikers we had met elsewhere, bike specific information was hard to come by. Even the fact that the road was under construction was only discovered when we arrived in the area. Many educated people speak English and try to help but they tend to be provincial.. Our best information was gleaned from the ex-pats. Our best guidebook was by BRANDT Publications: Guide to Uganda.
Road Safety: 7
In the west, the main impediments on the road are people on foot. There was construction here in 1996 so now you’d be biking a new well-engineered road. Car and trucks travel at a relatively low speed because of all the people walking on the roads. Of course, around Kampala, the traffic makes for less ideal conditions but even here the drivers seemed fairly courteous.
General Safety: 6
There is a serious difference in your personal safety issues from Kenya to Uganda. As an example, we walked around Kampala at night where as in Nairobi, this would be risky. Of course, the countryside is even safer. The big issue is the ongoing insurgency in the northwest, especially around Murchinson Falls, denying you access to this purportedly beautiful area.
To reach a certain standard you are forced to stay in the tourist hotels and eat in the tourist restaurants. Therefore, the value is about the same as in Kenya. We did stay in some local accommodations but the quality matched the price……low. Again, food was good if you paid the price. Kampala offered few good values but we did have very good Indian food.
In the countryside, especially in the west, plan ahead for fluids since water is not always readily available. As you would suspect, buy the bottled water. There’s soda pop usually. Nile Beer is an OK light beer.
In Kampala, we ate ok. There are enough International restaurants of good quality including the new Indian Restaurants. After that, its basic but sometimes tasty food in the smaller towns. Because of the resort type hotels we stayed at in the countryside, we were limited to their restaurants which usually serve boring Engish style fare.
Nothing special but we stayed in a couple of older resorts that had some character. We stayed where all the tourists stay: resorts and tent camps so nothing was exceptional. Only in Kampala did we really have a choice.
The Ugandans are warm and welcoming people. We’ll never forget their kindness and we enjoyed discussions of politics with many. The countryside population is colorful and the sophisticated city dwellers always watched out for us. Their indomitable spirit somehow survived the nightmare of Idi Amin. Also, the ex-pats were an interesting and informative group.
On the highways, the everyday life was intact and very vibrant. The colorful clothes of the hordes of walkers and the swirl of the road side markets were fantastic. In the villages, life continues as it has for decades. The roads, especially in the west, pass right through them offering you the chance to see them up close.
It’s so hard to get passed the negatives of Amin but in a way it’s interesting to see how people have dealt with this legacy. Only colonial history is evident and mostly in the resorts and hotels which were built at that time.
Uganda Route Descriptions and Maps
Kenya Border (Busia) to Jinja 115 Ks
Fine road, no traffic. At Iganga, the traffic picks up. It’s a fairly easy ride. Jinja is on the Nile River. They call it the “source of the Nile”.
Jinja to Kampala 80 Ks
There are more hills and the road is busier toward Kampala. We took the main road
Kampala to Mityana 69 Ks
It takes a long time to get out of town and there are some hills. It poured just as we got to Mityana. We tried to go to the lake but the road was too rough.
Mityana to Mubende 90 Ks
There are 27 rolling hills to Mubende. Rain again at 4 pm.
Mubende to Kyenjojo 110 Ks
Road under construction and the tarmac starts after 23 Ks. New road very good.
Kyenjojo to Fort Portal 50 Ks
This is a beautiful ride through tea plantations.
Fort Portal to Queen Elizabeth Park 107 Ks
The route is hilly but mostly down. A lot of people on the road and we saw a colorful market. This is very beautiful with the Rwenzori Mountains in the background. It is 74 Ks to Kasese on a road still under construction. Then 20 more Ks to the Park and 13 Ks on a dirt/sand road to the main Lodge. We arrived at dusk, not a good time to be biking in a game park.
Queen Elizabeth Park to Bwinde 140 Ks
Back to the highway then south (right) to Ishaka on 70ks of good new road. The road has hills and is mostly up. Then we followed rough dirt roads to Bwinde. (Better to have a mountain bike) There is wildlife through here including Tree Lions (a little unnerving on a bike). Slow going, and we had to ask for Bwinde.
Bwinde to Kabale 80 Ks
This route is mostly on dirt roads with plenty of hills. There is very little traffic and very interesting. Kabale is at 2000 meters, the highest town in Uganda with great views. The road is good into the city. It’s very cool at night.
Kabale to Mbarara 140 Ks
This is a good road that starts with a climb out of Kabale. There are hills with good downhills. There are views of the Virunga chain of Volcanoes from the summits of the various passes. Tea plantations.
Mbarara to Masaka 145 Ks
This is a good road with easier rolling hills and light traffic. The scenery is less interesting and with more population.
Masaka to Kampala 137 Ks
There is more traffic, more population and easy hills. It’s busy into Kampala.
Did I mention that we went to see the mountain Gorillas? Well we did, and on our bikes.
Before we left for Uganda we checked for a reservation to trek to see the Gorillas at Bwindi Park. The limited slots had been filled for months but we were told that we could take our chances and just show up.
As we drew closer, we met Steven, an English game guide in Fort Portal. He passed us earlier in the day in his Landrover and spent the day setting up a camp in the wilderness for his clients and we saw him again at an old colonial hotel in Fort Portal. So we had dinner. He told us we could definitely find a place to stay in Bwindi and if there was a problem just mention his name. However, seeing the Gorillas was a hit or miss proposition.
We were willing to take our chances. As we rode closer to the Park the road got progressively rougher. A group of Norwegian gorilla seekers in a tour van passed us and, just in case the other rare bipeds weren’t contacted, took videos of us. They stopped to ask if we saw the tree lion, “you would have ridden right under him.” “No, we missed him, obviously he wasn’t hungry.” Peter replied. We saw a lion later in the day in a tree farther away from the road; it looks just like any lion but is a rare tree climbing subspecies unique to Southern Uganda.
We arrived late and sure enough, there was a tent accommodation for us. The only accommodations here are tent camps for tourists who come to see the Mountain Gorillas. The group we enjoyed dinner with had seen the Gorillas and a variety of rare birds. They eagerly described their long trek. Two different groups go out each day. The groups consist of a guide and two armed guards and six tourists. Each group tracks a different Gorilla family. You must wear a long sleeve shirt, long pants and can only take cameras without a flash.
We had no luck getting on the tour the first day. We decided to stay one more night and try tomorrow. We were staying at the same camp as the Norwegians. The tourist from the night before had the Norwegians so excited they were up before dawn ready to track the Gorillas.
We busied ourselves with doing laundry, hanging it out to dry and reading. About 3PM, Nixon, the Ugandan manager of the tent camp came to us and said, “Follow me and be very quiet”. We creped behind the camp where there was a small river. On the other side of the river were four Gorillas. Nixon whispered and pointed, “Mother, daughter, son and Papa.” The mother and daughter were almost the same size and the son was smaller but Papa was huge and his black eyes kept returning to our spot. We each felt like we had had direct eye contact with him.
The rest of his family completely ignored us. We sat very still, no sudden movements. The workers at the camp silently and slowly joined us and were just as fascinated. The attraction for the Gorillas was banana trees.
Papa, deciding we were ok, plopped down under a tree and leaned against it. So huge and manlike, then he raised his arm, with head turned toward us, stretched his huge furry arm up into the banana tree and his big fingers grasped the banana bunch where it was attached to the tree. He twisted his wrist to snap the thick connection like it was a small matchstick. He slowly brought the entire bundle of bananas down in one hand. The boy came running over to him. He just took his time, separating the bananas and handing them out to the others and then leaned back to eat his bananas. He did not peal them just popped them into his mouth as if they were candy.
We had to leave when the guards had to return to camp. Nixon swore us to secrecy.
The Norwegians returned at dusk, exhausted from bivouacking for 10 hours. They never saw any Gorillas. We were silent. Finally, Nixon couldn’t stand it and took the group out back to see the Gorillas. They got their videos and pictures and forgot all about their day of torture.