A Pearl by Pedals: Cycling Tour through Uganda

What do VAUDE employees do on vacation? Set off on a bikepacking adventure! in 2020, three VAUDE colleagues and a friend cycled through Uganda from mid-February to early March. Our report on the bike trip through Uganda by Gernot, Jonas, Kai and Jochen is meant to take you along for a bit. Why it can even be nice to take work with you on vacation - you can also find out here.

What awaits us on our cycling trip in Uganda

Uganda is versatile and fertile - many different ecosystems enrich the nature. Mountain ranges with four- and five-thousand meter peaks, rainforests as well as dry forests, swampy river landscapes, freshwater lakes and dry savannah: All this characterizes the country, that under the sun of the high rising sun at the equator condenses to the "Pearl of Africa" (in german). Gorillas and forest elephants are among the inhabitants, as are 200-kilo perches.

With packed Fahhradtschen at the equator is an unforgettable experience. Picture: Gernot Moser

Bikepacking with "work in the luggage

Not a bugbear, but a welcome adventure for Kai as head of VAUDE Innovation and Hard Goods: he got to put the new sustainable Aqua bike bag from the ReCycle series through its paces on the bike trip. Where better to test a bike bag than on the bumpy roads of Uganda?

The rough road in Kidepo National Park put the bike bags and riders through their paces. Image: Jochen Twellaar

So a prototype with the new hardback plate and a conventional bag were taken to Africa for comparison. The special feature of the Aqua bag is that it is made entirely from recycled materials. The new back plate and the fastening hooks made of recycled materials are made in Germany and are UV-resistant, impact-resistant and dimensionally stable - even under difficult conditions.

After about 1,500 kilometers, the Aqua bike bag with the new retention system has proven itself.

The pannier after the trip.
The new more sustainable material of the hardback plate after the test.

Our bikepacking route through Uganda

In order to experience as many of the wildlife and plant habitats in Uganda as possible, we split the route of our bikepacking trip in two. From the capital Kampala, we take the bus to Fort Portal and bike about 500 kilometers to the south. From there we take the bus back via Kampala to Kitgum. Further by pedales to the north to Apoka, about 800 kilometers down to Mbale and by bus back to Kampala.

The two parts of the journey through Uganda marked in green. Picture: google maps

Leg I: Fort Portal - Kisoro

1. Stage I: First adventures on the way to Lake Nkuruba

Already on the small entry stage of our bikepacking trip to Lake Nkuruba, one of the luggage racks fails. We reach the crater lake area and fear not to find any refreshment in the bilharziosis worm-infested (in german) water, but at the welcome beer we get the green light.

Colobus and stubby monkeys watch the setting up of the camp. After sunset we are surprised by countless animal sounds of the jungle, which are soon drowned out by high-pitched mating sounds of tens of thousands of small frogs.

2. Stage: Crossing the equator, Drive to Queen Elizabeth National Park and an ant attack

We cross the equator and drive to the Queen Elizabeth National Park. Besides antelopes, we see weaver birds, buffalo, warthogs and hippos. As I spread out in the tent, I feel a crawling on my legs. My sleep-ready resting pulse skyrockets: hundreds of wandering ants have eaten through the tent skin. Obviously, I pitched the tent in the dense grass directly on top of their nest, which they are now defending.

The fascinating plant ...
and wildlife of Uganda ...
experiencing it up close is a ...
is an unforgettable adventure. Pictures Kai Vogt

3. Stage: Breathtaking fauna on the way to Kisenyi

On the stage to Kisenyi we reach the Kazinga Channel. From small boats we can observe hippos, buffalos, elephants, crocodiles and birds. Our highlight: a family of elephants quenching their thirst at the river and peacefully disappearing again.

Upon our arrival, the campsite owner invites us to spend the night in his lodges, as the village at Lake Edward is haunted by grazing hippos at night. In the darkness we dare to go hippo stalking with headlamps. They complain, but continue to graze calmly.

4. Stage: Eye to eye with the Wildlife of Uganda

On the way to Kihihi we see one or two monkeys, a herd of buffalos and a family of elephants. After a good five minutes of eye contact with the good-natured lead cow, she puts on her ears and her gaze unmistakably moves us to continue.

In Queen Elisabeth National Park on the "public" road to Kisenyi we encounter a herd of buffalo. Picture: Jochen Twellaar
The VAUDE AQUAAS - made for adventure. Pictures: Kai Vogt

5. Stage: Through the mountains to Kisoro with engine support

Through the mountains we go from Kihihi to Kisoro. In small villages we are accompanied by groups of children shouting "Muzungu, Muzungu". On ascents they push us, ask us questions and ask us for a little pocket money at the "summit". At kilometer 90 and after 1600 meters of altitude, Jochen and I get off the bike onto a shared cab, which in the meantime is occupied by eight adults, two children, rice sacks, charcoal, bricks, a rooster and our bikes. The driver, who is constantly on the phone, loads or unloads cargo and passengers. The old mid-size car is lopsided and rocks like a boat. For the remaining 60 kilometers to Kisoro we need three hours, despite the good tarred road.

After arriving in Kisoro we fortify ourselves ...
with European cuisine ...
and pitch our tents between church and school building. Pictures: Kai Vogt

Climbing Mt Muhavura with some unusual accompaniment Company

When we meet Gernot and Jonas again after 160 km and 2400 meters of altitude, shower as well as dinner are clearly in the foreground. The 4100 meter high Mt. Muhavura is located in the National Park of the Virunga Volcanoes and is home to gorillas, forest elephants and buffalos. We get a permit for our mountain climb, which starts in the morning at about 2,300 meters with a safety briefing. Our escort: three men with AK47 machine guns and a guide with impressive knowledge of the vegetation zones. The 1,800 meters of elevation gain over seven kilometers often takes us over rotten ladder walkways on the swampy ground. Above the cloud forest, the guards slow down and take a nap. After three hours we stand at the summit crater lake. There we walk between giant lobelia, the borders of Rwanda and Uganda in the light mist.

Only one of the three guides accompanies us to the summit.
The crater lake at the 4100m high summit seems primeval. Pictures: Kai Vogt

6. Stage: Regeneration in the bus failed

The next day we all realize that such adventures give us sore muscles and heavy legs. On eight and twelve hours bus ride to Kampala and Kitgum they unfortunately cannot recover as planned.

Leg II: Kitgum - Mbale

In the morning at six we reach our destination and thus the starting point of the second leg of our bike trip through Uganda. The awakening town does not yet offer us a breakfast opportunity and the targeted hostel turns out to be a dump.

7. Stage: Impressive encounters with inhabitants

The next morning we cycle to the Kidepo National Park. As we fill up our water supplies, a big black off-road vehicle stops. Two bodyguards and a stately figure get out of it, shouting loudly at us "What are you doing here? Where are you from?" he shouts. He says he's the Minister of State of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, takes a few selfies, gives everyone a business card with a Whatsapp contact, thinks our bikepacking trip is great and promises immediate help if there's the slightest problem.

Due to the lack of larger towns, we are dependent on overnight stays at schools, village squares or "medical centers". This is not always easy due to the tribal culture, because the permission of the tribal leader is sometimes denied to us. After the elder gives his okay, usually policemen, teachers or doctors are involved and introduce themselves extensively.

8. Stage: Entering the Kidepo National Park with obstacles

The first 15 kilometers of the stage greet us with tons of gravel every few meters. We drive or carry our bikes slowly past. Unfortunately, at first we can't enter the Kidepo National Park by pedaling. After two hours a jeep appears, the armed driver allows us to enter by bike and gives us escort. Soon the view opens into the savannah plain with a breathtaking landscape. We are the first to cross the park on the bike saddle towards Apoka Camp. The game rangers are proud to host cyclists from Germany. Our tent pitching is interrupted as by jackals, warthogs and antelopes. The Mark XT 4P is examined by a warthog and found tasty, whereupon Gernot defends the tent with shouts and gesticulations. Frightened, the wild animals retreat.

After the 20 hour bus ride back on the bike towards Kidepo National Park. Picture: Gernot Moser
From the safety of the jeep we can watch a lion feeding. Picture: Kai Vogt

Safety in Kidepo National Park

The park still attracts little interest from tourists. Only eight years ago, the Karamajong people, who live as they did in ancient times, were disarmed. The girls, traditionally decorated with scars, collect water and firewood, the boys herd goats and cattle. The men hunt with bows and arrows and the women grind, wash, cook and cultivate small fields of corn or cotton. There were two reasons for arming themselves: On the one hand, they still like to chase livestock or crops from neighboring tribes, and on the other hand, the people in Uganda demand respect and independence. The ongoing South Sudanese crisis and the refugees are also keeping visitors away. Currently the area is considered safe, which is exactly how we felt.

Safari in Kidepo National Park: In the middle of Uganda's fascinating wildlife

During the safari the next day we spot a small pride of lions that has killed a young buffalo. From a distance of ten meters we watch the snoozing mother and her two sons, who are eating their prey with loud feeding noises. Next to them the vultures are waiting for their turn.

The campground in the camp is "visited" by various wild animals. Picture: Gernot Moser

Countless species of antelopes, warthogs, old buffalos as well as a family of elephants later we cross a dried up riverbed and meet a herd of giraffes as well as zebras. On the way back we meet the rare Patas monkey, eagles and klipsschliefer.

Again and again we notice the dumb looking Hartebeest, which climbs every smallest terrain elevation and keeps a lookout. The gamekeeper explains that this type of antelope falls victim to lions particularly often due to their poor memory.

The game wardens initially want to convince us to stay another day, but then escort us to the exit and ask for video permission to advertise the park with us.

9. Stage: Well guarded on the way to Kaabong

Against the wind we continue for another 30 kilometers in the direction of Kaabong. In a small village we are warmly welcomed. The village chief is afraid that neighboring clans might see us as a trophy and want to capture us like cattle. So we sleep in a school and are guarded by a warrior with bow and arrow.

Before Kaabong we spend the night in a school. Picture: Kai Vogt

10. Stage: No trace of tourism on the way to Kotido

On small roads via Kaabong to Kotido the landscape changes from mountainous savannah to mountain passes garnished with huge boulders and monoliths. No trace of tourists, climbers, trekkers or mountain bikers. We gain insight into the millennia-old Karamojong village communities through a women's cultural project. While on the thoroughfare, western sugar sprinkles are offered in brick houses with clay plaster and corrugated iron roofs, behind them one finds the manyattas (round huts). Numerous families live in a scenario like 4000 BC.

On the way to Kotido ...
we meet Karamajong collecting firewood.
Pictures: Gernot Moser, Jochen Twellaar, Kai Vogt

11. Stage: Arrival in Kotido and a restless night

In contrast to this we are welcomed in the district capital Kotido in a well frequented bar friendly and with cool beer, which shows its effect during the later tent pitching at a Christian training center. Thus we come late to the meal. In the morning the sound of two church services wakes us up. More than an hour of loudly articulated psalms "battle" with lively gospel songs. One could think that these songs want to prepare us for the most challenging day.

12. Stage: Probably the most challenging stage

Oppressive heat, endless dusty corrugated iron roads and a monotonous landscape are topped by breakdowns and a burgeoning bacterial infection in me. The tarred road that I longed for like a salvation after 120 kilometers then leads the last 17 kilometers in the direction of Moroto, exactly against the strong wind. A shower and a buffet provide for evening encouragement. Also our material including the ReCycle bag survived the wild ride.

Strong headwind complicates the journey to Moroto Pictures: Kai Vogt

13. Stage: Bike and man have to be be repaired

The next day: hardly any pressure on the pedals during climbs, my stomach cramps. So I turn back, Jochen as well, because his frame is broken. He looks for a welder in Motoro while I tend the toilet. Gernot and Jonas continue the bike trip. They pedal on to Nakapiripirit at Mt Kadam and report grueling kilometers on the worst road of the whole trip.

When I visit the doctor it turns out: no malaria, just some bacteria in the stomach. The next morning Jochen catches up with the two leaders with the help of bus and bicycle. The next day Jonas's bike is stolen, but he finds it again together with the remorseful thief.

14. Stage: Adventurous End of the bike trip by bus

One day later we meet in Mbale for the final stage to Kampala. After one hour of loading the bikes we go to refuel the old bus. After 30 kilometers, the transmission fails and the journey stops again and again. Many passengers change to alternatives, but our bicycles tie us to the bus as darkness approaches and main road traffic becomes reckless. Who can spontaneously load four people, four bikes, 16 bike bags and several bike packs?

Finally, at about 60 km/h, the wheels abruptly lock up, the transmission goes up in smoke with a crashing and sparking sound... Another bus still has room for our bikes, so we reach our destination after 247 km in nine hours. We only have to cycle the last kilometers of our bikepacking trip to the hotel. For Kai, this is the end of the bag test: The hardback back plate as well as the holding system of the Aqua bike bag passed without any problems.

The end of the cycling tour through Uganda: Get away fast before the Pandemic strikes

The last day is for packing and city excursions. When shopping for souvenirs, it becomes apparent that Uganda is still a destination for individual travelers. The few basket-, wood- and textile goods offered for sale are very good, cheap and can be bought without the typical bargaining.

Of course we noticed the worsening Corona crisis. After Uganda had already welcomed us at the beginning with disinfection before the passport control, we are now surprised that everything seems to run normally in Germany. African countries have worse health care, but experience in dealing with epidemics and epidemics.

Our conclusion about bikepacking in Uganda

Is Uganda worth a (bike) trip? Absolutely: Unique flora, sensational fauna, reserved but friendly, helpful people, roads with little traffic through unique landscapes and food that is well-tolerated by Europeans formed the basis for fantastic memories. Not only we benefited from the travel experiences, but VAUDE is also happy because the Aqua bike bag accompanied Kai safely and may now be added to the online store.

Gernot, Jonas and Kai from the VAUDE team and friend Jochen

Not only adventures feed the soul ;-) Besides Nile beer, Waragi gin is also highly recommended. Image: Gernot Moser

Our bike bags:

How do I attach my bike bag?

Which bike bag is the best for me?