In Tandem with Africa and Asia

A teacher's journey over three continents on a tandem bicycle
16 minutes reading time (3252 words)

Stage 10: Kampala to juba – Six nations on a Sweet Chariot to Juba...

650km Feb 3rd - 11th. Six months ago, I neither expected to be in South Sudan or indeed singing the French & Scottish rugby anthems to live accordion & bagpipes in the middle of the African bush. But it felt appropriate timing given that the 2012 six nations were kicking off on the same weekend that I headed North. Coincidentally, six different nationalities joined me & Thandie on the road to Juba…

If you’ve read any of my previous blogs, especially the one from Malawi, you’ll be familiar with Jeremie et Claire, an eccentric French couple that have been travelling, avec ses accordions, around Africa for the last 18 months. Before Christmas in Tanzania, we decided to travel up to South Sudan together, having noticed that another Brit – Mathew Blake – had ‘pioneered’ the route at the end of last year.

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‘Five’ Nations, Ugandan style…

The bagpipes meanwhile belong to Alex ‘Elphie’ Ephilstone, a (semi) Scottish ex pat whom Tom Blathwayt had kindly introduced me to. Coincidently, Elphie and his wife Nicki & kids Iola & Jega live in Idi Amin’s old residence perched on top of one of Kampala’s seven hills. The view from their balcony was certainly worth the effort of sweating up their hill in the hottest part of the day.

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Continuing the Scottish theme- The view of Lake Victoria from Mr Amin’s old pad

Kampala has a nice feel to it. With Lake Victoria as a backdrop, its natural undulation makes for a more interesting landscape than most of the cities I’ve visited en route. Moreover, the Ugandan people are happy, honest and generally welcoming. It’s the first country where the initial price market traders quote you is generally the fair one. After a week spent organising visas; speaking to a couple of schools; interviewing a central bank official for my economic cycle blogs and visiting a local bamboo bike workshop with Rich Chapman, Elphie & I rolled out of Kampala on the Friday 3rd Feb with the Frenchies in hot pursuit.

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Activities In Kampala before setting off. From L-R; Stephen Kapabo at Bank of Uganda, Noordin buidling bamboo bikes. Visa photos!

Jeremie and Claire like to take their time on the road and I had agreed to we’d take 4 days for the first stage up to Gulu, 330km north of Kampala and the main town in Northern Uganda. It felt good to be back on the road again and it wasn’t long until the busy Kampala traffic thinned and we were back in the African countryside. Uganda, especially around the lake, has some of Africa’s most fertile soil and the lushness of the vegetation and plentiful fruit was most apparent during the first couple of days through the rolling countryside. I read in an old guidebook that, if Uganda was farmed commercially, it could produce enough food for the whole of Africa. I doubt this is still the case given recent population growth but it is thought provoking nonetheless given the food insecurity that exists in parts of the continent. As we moved north over the next week, especially across the border into South Sudan, food certainly became scarcer & more expensive. Nonetheless, just north of Kampala, food is plentiful. In particular, the pineapples are huge and deliciously sweet. The ones I tasted have probably been my favourite fruit so far on the trip, narrowly piping the Mangoes in Tanzania!

We camped the first night in a homestead where the family spoke little English. We tried to get an early night but for the family’s pig snaring itself in its own rope and reaching notes Whitney Houston would have been proud of in her early career… RIP Whitney.

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Elphie thanks our hosts on the first night

We pushed out 40kms in the morning the following day, trying to avoid the midday heat before the lunchtime concert of bagpipes & accordions in front of a bemused crowd of locals. Bagpipes are the marmite of the musical world. Our audience didn’t explicitly say whether they loved or hated them - I think they just thought we were a bit strange. ‘You Mzungos are crazy’ we would hear regularly.  Anna Phillips, my other host in Kampala, had also joined for the day and she told me that it was certainly one of the more surreal experiences of her five years in Africa. A fun loving Californian, Anna studied in Washington before winning a Fulbright scholarship to research gender equality in Uganda. She had subsequently stayed, setting up her own NGO ‘Girls kick it’, in Gulu. It uses sport to empower the young women of the region.  ‘I can’t kick’, she confessed, ‘but I did score a goal last weekend when a sandstorm blinded the goalkeeper!!’.

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Can she kick it? Anna Phillips & Livingstone’s newspaper

For the following two days, I cycled with just the Frenchies towards Gulu. Whilst the road was flattening out, it was also getting hotter and the vegetation browner. As we stopped for a couple of “Rolexes” (rolled eggs in chipati) on Sunday, we chatted to a nice old man called Livingstone. ‘I am named after the Scottish explorer’ he declared. Livingstone’s legacy in this region lives on, even if not as deeply as it is further South in the continent. More interesting for us was the newspaper headline he was reading: ‘Heatwave in Uganda’.Not what I was hoping for. But as Brendan Clarke, a Canadian pal from my Citi days who I toured Spain & France with in 2009 commented to me this week – ‘it still aint as hot as the 45 degrees we suffered in Cordorba’. ‘Thanks Clarkie… oh & how’s is that warm office in Canary Wharf – get your ass out here!’

The other highlight of the ride to Gulu was crossing the Nile at Karuma Falls. After a brief exchange with the policeman ‘guarding’ the bridge, we marvelled from the bridge at the river’s power. With the force of a brutal African dictator, it swept away everything in its path with uncompromising ferocity was my journal entry to describe it. My brother in Law Tim, an English graduate had encouraged me to be more despcritive....‘Can you imagine rafting that’ I asked Jeremie. ‘You will die’ came the Frenchman’s reply.

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The power of the Nile at Karuma was staggering

Gulu today is a buzzing friendly town but has suffered a tragic history since independence, first at the hands of Idi Amin and then Joseph Kony’s LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army). In 1996 the Ugandan government ordered all civilians to relocate to Internally Displaced Persons Camps to try to ‘protect’ them from the LRA, by then infamous for its brutality to civilians. By 2005 the World Health Organization in Uganda had reported that there were 5000 excess deaths per week due to camp condition. Today Gulu is heavily populated with Western NGOs trying to help the local population get back on its feet. Whilst it is unclear how much help some of these organisation offer, I was impressed by the outlook of some of those that I met. As well as Anna, I stayed with Tamsin & Stena in a flat in the town centre (most ex pat workers live in boring high security ‘compounds’). Secure it wasn’t, mainly because they couldn’t look their back door but it oozed character and I enjoyed hanging out them for a couple of days. Anna is English, ex Bain management consultants and helping a cotton business/social enterprise whilst Stena, from Copenhagen, is doing work towards her masters in Public Health. Thanks for having me guys!! I dropped Stena off at the hospital before hooking up with the Frenchies for the another 4 days in the saddle to Juba.

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Tamsin & Stena: my hosts in Gulu… & the family they lived above

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The dirt began again after Gulu

Cycling the road from Gulu to Juba was the one I had been somewhat nervous about when deciding to take this route and why I thought it more sensible to travel with Jeremie & Claire. During our planning, the tension between the two Sudan was mounting, but the helping staff in the British Embassy in Juba had assured me that it hadn’t made much difference to the Southern part of South Sudan and the road was in fact relatively safe. Nonetheless, their website makes for interesting reading:

“The security situation in South Sudan is volatile with regular outbreaks of violence and lawlessness. Violent crime is also a problem, both in population centres and rural areas. There is widespread ownership of small arms across the population.

Travel across South Sudan should be attempted only if you are fully equipped and experienced. The cross country transport network is made up of dirt roads and these quickly become impassable during the rainy season.”

Fully equipped & experienced? Well, sort off and it was the dry season after all.

Either way, the reality that we experienced on the road was somewhat different. This is what I had expected having discussed the concept of Western perception versus reality with other cycle tourists before & during my trip. In particular, I remember Al Humphreys, who spent 4 years cycling around the world ten years ago, telling me that the friendliest people he met on his tour were in Syria, Iran & Sudan. Two of these countries were famously described by George W as part of the ‘axis of evil’.

The road to the border from Gulu was one of the worst on the trip with washboard & some deep sand. Had it been the wet season, it would certainly have been impassable on Thandie. But it was relatively flat, making the actual cycling easier. It was only when the trucks & buses would zoom past that we’d be eating dirt for several minutes afterwards. When gliding downhill through some sand after one such truck zoomed past, it temporarily reminded of skiing powder in a white out. By the time we arrived in Atiak, just over 70kms north of Gulu, we were looking quite orange. Hannah & Leila, two Americans working in the health centre that we camped in thought we indeed were well tanned before realising it was the dirt!

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Bicycles are not just for cycling; Hannah with the Frenchies

Hannah coincidentally had cycled from Boston to the Mexican border in 2010 and so was very keen to ride to the border the following morning. She had become interested in this region having befriended many South Sudanese refugees in the US and it was great to get her thoughts on the regions and its challenges. 356 women per 1000 would die in childbirth was one statistic I couldn’t quite comprehend: so sad when it is easily preventable. Before we left, we visited the birthing centre where Lelia worked and it was good to hear about a successful birth during the night that we stayed.

Getting through the border into Africa newest country was relatively straightforward although there was 10km of no-mans land between the two immigration offices. This is where the boda-boda (motorbike taxis in the region) get their name from. They were originally used to ferry passengers between borders when excessive paperwork meant getting vehicles across was particular burdensome. Some of my parents’ stories about waiting for days at borders on their overland trip (London to Capetown was quite some honeymoon in the 1970s) would back this up.

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A tourist Visa in South Sudan – really? Mum & Dad in the1970s…

Hitting Nimule, the first town on the South Sudan side meant another glimpse of the Nile, snaking its way majestically through this barren region, 100m of lush green either side of the bank contrasting with the arid surrounds. It also meant TARMAC – making us very happy! ‘A gift from the American people’, declared the USAID signs dotted along the road… for the first time on my trip, mobile phone operators weren’t the dominate adverts, rather NGO and government aids signs with USAID particularly dominating.

Making good progress along the road, the poverty was noticeable but there seemed to be a sense of optimism amongst the people too that we met. We camped the night with Abubakar in a village called Pagari. His timely & friendly wave at 6.30pm was enough to persuade us to request his hospitality for the night. He was delighted to allow us to put our tents behind his hut and we spent an interest interesting couple of hours understanding his situation and share our own experiences with him. Having fled to Uganda (he walked more than 50km in one day with as many possessions as he could carry on his head) back in the early 1990, he had returned a few years ago to rebuild his life with his family (he had 3 wives). As well as chatting, we listened to Bob Marley on his wind up radio (another gift from the American People!)  He was a teacher at the local primary school and I in turn was delighted to be able to give him a lift to school in the morning, saving him a 20 minute walk.

A gift from the American People. Not sure it was designed for me to listen to Bob Marley?

We aimed to make the 160km from Pagari to Juba in two days. With more than 50% of the road tarmac, we calculated that it would be relatively straightforward and allowed us to take some time out during the hottest time of the day. Getting food & water was less straightforward than in Uganda and mid-morning, but getting answers to distances was never straightforward. Here is a typical conversation that I’ve had in every country so far:

 Can you tell me how far to the next village/borehole?’

‘Not far’

‘5 km?’

‘Yes’

‘10km?’

‘Yes’

‘50km?’ 'Yes…'   oh well!

Passing a UN camp meant a better chance of a more accurate answer. I got chatting to a Kenyan called Moses who gave me a fuller description of the road and we relaxed knowing that there were boreholes at least every 40kms. ‘What are you doing here?’ I asked him as I was getting ready to go… ‘ I work in the mines’ came the reply. Gold, Silver… Oil? Perhaps I hadn’t heard his reply correctly as I wasn’t aware of any sub-soil assets in this area. ‘Not those sort of mines!’ D’oh. Be careful where you camp, he shouted as we pedalled off.

The road was certainly a hive of activity with many different nationalities either working on it or driving up and down.  Expensive UN landcrusiers, Turkish roadbuilders, Maersk Trucks & Canadian mineclearers passed us as well as the local matuatus & boda bodas.

We camped that night with probably the poorest family of the trip so far, my flimsy tent probably providing better protection from the elements than their makeshift shacks, built from wood, straw & UNHCR plastic sheeting. Nonetheless, they welcomed us, insisting on brushing the dirt where we put our tents with the woman’s 10 young children gawping at us in wonder. Our inability to communicate beyond the basics meant we couldn’t understand how they had come to live here (at least 5 kms from the nearest village & borehole) but I suspect it was a sorry story. There was no evidence of food and thus we shared our chipatis in the morning before setting off…

Packing up on the final morning to Juba

That kicked off the final day off the journey to Juba – and quite a day. News had clearly spread that there were some unusual mzungos cycling on the road: the Turkish workers were particularly friendly, offering us cold water from their portable fridges. Why aren’t more locals working on the road, I thought to myself. We stopped mid-morning at a sign saying ‘Slow down, demining’. Al, an ex British Army bomb disposal expert, was running the project and he kindly gave us a quick tour of what they were doing. Originally from Wales ’16 years in the British Army got rid of my accent’, he grinned. For the last 12 years, he has been clearing mines around the world. In the 15 minutes with him, we got a fascinating insight into the grim world of anti-personnel mines. 'Designed to maime & not kill’, he grimaced as he showed us two seemingly innocuous bit of plastics, one made in China & the other in Iran. Sadly, with China, the US & Russia refusing to sign the Ottawa treaty banning the use of such mines, innocent civilians as well as soldiers are going to keep getting their legs blown off around the world.  'I’m impressed you’ve still got your nerve’ I said to Al. ‘Well, I’ve still got my legs!’ He laughed back. I also asked him about the reality of Hurtlocker. ‘A load of bollocks’ came the reply. Thanks Hollywood.

I was happy to cycle behind the Frenchies for this stretch of road; Not all cheap plastic good from China are toys...

The day was full of other somewhat surreal experiences. Giving a lift to a young traffic policeman, his shinning white uniform & motorbike and dark glasses hiding, I suspected, a lack of experience. He sped past us 30 minutes later. Training? The overturned landcruiser around the corner suggested otherwise as a crowd of people gathered around, with vehicles starting a disorderly queue.

Not the first or last accident on the road.

I tried to visualise what might have happened, with flashbacks of our own accident on day 4 in South Africa flooding back. No one was in the vehicle but, as i cycled around, two bodies lay listlessly behind it, with blood seeping slowly for one of the man’s head. Another man was wriggling around in pain. A woman wailed on the roadside. A security guard working for the Turkish engineering company was taking control with the young policeman timidly in the background. Vehicle Carcasses on the side were a sober reminder that this wasn't the first accident.

We crossed the Nile near Juba in the hottest part of the day with my camera struggling to function as the temperate apparently touched 40 degrees and we began our journey into the capital city. A man ran naked towards me along the side of the road. Just a typical Saturday afternoon… ? Man U were playing Liverpool after all and much of the city’s population seemed to be watching it as we arrived. No running water or electricity but everyone watches the English premiership here in Africa. I was booked in to stay at Logali House, a wonderful boutique hotel part owned by a family friend who had kindly offered me a couple of nights there when he had learnt that I was travelling through. Thanks to the Hotel’s DSTV, I was happy to be transported back to Europe to watch the Six nations game, although it took a few words from Patsy O’Hagan, an Irish Nurse  who was also watching the game with, to get them to switch over from the Sunderland game. (Thanks Patsy and also for all your help getting through Juba airport!!) The snow on the ground in Rome seemed at odds with Sudan’s searing heat.

What a contrast to the start of the day, I thought as the night drew to a close: a group of diplomats were cracking open a bottle of Moet et Chandon, Van Morrison was blaring from the sound system and BBC world was silently reporting on the latest chaos on the streets on Athens.

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