Magical mystery tour

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HR-Matoke-Tours_20141124_100205Uganda’s crater lakes are beyond spectacular. Ben West explores the south-west on two wheels, taking in Mutanda, Bunyonyi and Mburu

I’m pretty sure that Lake Mutanda, when viewed from the right vantage point on a clear day, is the most stunning landscape I’ve ever seen. The majestic Virunga mountains in the distance are reflected in the deep-blue waters of the lake, and little lush green islands pepper the aquatic expanse. This heaven on earth looks almost completely untouched by human hand.

When I first visited the lake, I thought it would be a wonderful region to explore by bike. Cycling brings you right up close to the action — to the community, to the landscapes. You experience so much more than when merely gliding past in a bus. Fortunately, Matoke Tours, one of Uganda’s most established tour companies, has recently launched a 15-day bicycling tour encompassing south-west Uganda’s lakes, and I jumped at the chance to test-drive part of it.

My expectation of what it would entail differed slightly from the reality. I met my travelling companions at our first night’s accommodation: Bakiga Lodge, a comfortable tented camp in the heart of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Tour designer Thijs van den Heuvel and cycling supremo Yusufu Mbaziira were both clad in Lycra, and it soon became clear that this was going to be far more intense than the gentle, two-wheeled saunter I had anticipated.

My assumption that jeans and a t-shirt would be acceptable was instantly met with derision, and Thijs unceremoniously threw an unforgiving Lycra outfit at me. He explained that the route had evolved last year after he put together a fundraising challenge from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to the Rwandan border to raise money for the Kampala-based prisoner rehabilitation charity he works for, Product of Prison. He then broke the news that we’d be covering 45.2km on day one. 45km! To the novice that I am that sounded like a huge distance. However, keen cyclist Thijs has travelled as much as 150km in a day before, so it had to be possible.

From the moment we set off the next morning it was glorious. First we cycled through the town of Ruhija, with children waving and shouting greetings along the way. I suspected that they found our peculiar gear and shiny new bikes quite a spectacle, while many of the adults were probably wondering why on earth we were travelling by bicycle rather than riding in the Land Cruiser behind us, which carried our equipment, water and luggage. At once I felt immersed in the wonderful landscapes that were continually unfolding before us.

Beyond the town, we rode uphill along dusty dirt tracks with hardly any traffic. Wildlife in the vicinity of our route included elephants and gorillas, we were told, although we saw none. Yusufu thought we were at too high an elevation for there to be lions, which was reassuring, but we stopped to look at monkeys, baboons and colourful birds, such as mountain greenbuls, cinnamon-chested bee-eaters, crowned hornbills, warblers and bush shrikes, in the trees. Animal and avian sounds seemed to envelop us.

The start was challenging, not only because of the hills but also because we were at an elevation of around 2500m. For a moment I dreamt of idly watching a film, lounging on my KLM flight to Entebbe just two days before. (The Airbus 330 could cover today’s 45km in just over two minutes.)

Yusufu often cycled beside me, explaining the best gears to use on the bike; I was surprised at what a difference this could make. We passed some women working in the fields — and then the men down the road sitting in their local bar. “Come and join us for some alcohol,” they shouted, as we passed. To this pub-loving slob, the invitation was rather attractive, but the two killjoy athletes accompanying me weren’t having any of it. A pleasant, gentle breeze accompanied us along much of the way. Cycling conditions were ideal — not too hot and not too cold — and as we rode, the aromas changed from burning wood to that of freshly cut grass and the scent of flowers.

All along the way children ran up to us, waving and challenging us to races on their own bikes. It was rather galling to be unceremoniously beaten by what I deduced was a nine-year-old boy on a simple boneshaker — without the 10 gears at my disposal. Oh, how the other kids laughed as he glided past me! At one point, as we left a village and descended into a valley, a hundred or so children’s voices pursued us. Where else in the world would you receive a send-off like that?

After a while, we left the dirt roads and cycled on Tarmac. I had been apprehensive about this, as Ugandan roads are not known to be very safe. However, it was a pleasure to cycle on these smooth surfaces and not scary at all. Thijs had chosen a quiet route for us to travel along, free of hurtling trucks.

Eventually we arrived at the sleepy town of Muko, which revealed the expanse that is Lake Bunyonyi. The inviting waters stretched out far into the distance, with colourful little fishing boats and canoes in the foreground. Here we bumped into intrepid American travellers Logan Watts and Virginia Krabill, who run a website called Bikepacking (www.bikepacking.com), which is all about cycling off-road with minimal lightweight kit. They showed us their bicycles, which managed to stow a tent, cooking implements, sleeping bags and, from what I could see, little else. It was incredible how little they were carrying. They were covering an average of 100km a day — something I found incomprehensible, already flagging after our mere 45km, which had taken us five hours.

I felt slightly less of a wimp when it was pointed out that a good portion of our route was uphill and that we had been cycling at high altitude on relatively difficult roads.

Later we drifted in a boat across the lake, surrounded by hills and a green-and-brown patchwork quilt of terraced farming. That night, it was a relief to rest at the supremely comfortable Birdnest @ Bunyonyi Resort, right on the water.

The next morning, my muscles were aching somewhat and it was difficult to start the day’s 37km route, especially as it was largely uphill for the first few kilometres. But the aches and pains gradually subsided as the day went on. After a couple of hours we began to descend, and the track became very rocky. I had to apply my brakes the whole way down, and the remote roads were very dusty, making us cough heavily as a result. It was Sunday, and we heard the sound of singing as we passed a church. Outside another, two women were beating drums — a Ugandan version of the call to prayer.

After a while we turned a corner and spotted Lake Mutanda. What a beautiful vista unfolded! A vast sea of blue lay before us, specked with a succession of tiny emerald-green islands, surrounded by terraced fields and with a backdrop of jagged mountains. There cannot be many cycle routes in the world as spectacular as this. We were staying at Mutanda Lake Resort, perched on a peninsula in the distance. It was blissful to reflect upon the day’s ride while sipping a drink on the terrace and watching the fishermen in their canoes at dusk. A candlelit dinner followed in a cosy restaurant decorated with vibrant African artworks.

The vegetation changed significantly the following day, as we drove to Lake Mburo National Park on the road towards Entebbe. Only small trees grow here, mainly acacias, which are able to thrive in the rough soil. My tented room at eco-friendly Mihingo Lodge was set atop a rocky escarpment, overlooking the valley below and a variety of wildlife at a watering hole. Amusingly, I was told to padlock the tent at all times — not from thieves as you might suspect, but to keep out the monkeys and baboons, who have learnt how to use a zip and will raid the tent in search of food if left unlocked. Throughout the night, hyena and leopard serenaded me from close by.

The park is an exhilarating place to explore by bicycle, and the next morning I set off with Yusufu, our driver Dan, lodge owner Ralph Schenk and his children Debasien and Fergus to the outskirts of the park, where we cycled among herds of zebra, topi and impala: an extraordinary experience. I had to pinch myself at being so close to such exotic animals in the African wild. We continued to the lakeshore to watch hippo basking in the sunlight. Lake Mburu was a wondrous end to what had been a most magical cycle tour.

Great Lakes
Uganda lies within the African Great Lakes region — along with Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania. This contains a series of lakes in and around the East African Rift. Some of Uganda’s most notable lakes include:
Lake Victoria  The third-largest freshwater lake in the world by area also borders Tanzania and Kenya. Here you can lounge on empty beaches on one of the 84 Ssese Islands.
Lake Albert  This is Africa’s seventh-largest lake, from where you can explore one of Uganda’s finest national parks, Murchison Falls.
Lake Edward  A section of this lake — which for seven years from 1973 was renamed Lake Idi Amin Dada after the Ugandan dictator — forms part of Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Lake George  The whole of this scenic lake is inside Queen Elizabeth National Park, as well as a number of smaller crater lakes.
Lake Kyoga  Situated in the lesser-visited centre of Uganda is this large, shallow lake with swampy areas covered by water lilies, papyrus and water hyacinth.

Safari Planner
• Getting there  KLM flies from London to Entebbe (with two stopovers), as do Kenya Airways. Matoke Tours’ new 15-day cycling itinerary launches this November, costing £1750 per person, including all permits. The route will take in Kibale Forest, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Buhoma and Ruhija in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, as well as Lakes Bunyonyi, Mutanda and Mburo.
• Where to stay  Bakiga Lodge is a comfortable base at Bwindi. At Lake Bunyonyi, book Birdnest. At Lake Mutanda, Mutanda Lake Resort is good, and at Mburo National Park, Mihingo Lodge is superb.
• When to go  Straddling the Equator, Uganda has a tropical climate all year round, although the hottest months tend to be January and February. The wettest months are April, May, October and November.
• Health  Visit a travel clinic for any necessary vaccinations. Malaria prophylactics are essential and a Yellow Fever Certificate is required.
• Further reading  Bradt Guide to Uganda (7th Edition) by Philip Briggs and Dr Andrew Roberts

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