Has anything actually changed?
It is easy to sit here, back in London, as normal life begins to absorb us once again, restoring the blinkers we had so enjoyed abandoning, and begin to question has anything actually changed? Have we changed?
I thought I’d use the final episode of the trip to assess whether there were obvious changes from the beginning of the trip.
Leaving Biwindi impenetrable forest and heading north after filming in two back to back parks, felt like starting the trip again. Our legs felt fresh. All aches and pains seemingly having vanished from the nightmare Tanzanian stretch. It wasn’t until we rounded the first corner, leaving the bustling town of Kabale behind us that, that we encountered our first of many rolling Ugandan hills. Very quickly the illusion of recovery was destroyed as the sweat broke the surface of our bodies and began to pour out as only an African hill climb can make it. Despite the advice we’d received from car travelling tourists saying the road to Kampala was flat, these monumental drops and climbs, meant inside we were cursing ourselves for once again having believed that we could get reliable information from people who didn’t cycle.
Point 1. African hills are horrendous and we were still willing to believe tourists. No change.
Next up. Our skills at bike packing. We believed after 4 months of the trip we would have perfected the distance planning part of the trip. With the deadline of a meeting with the British High Commission and Ugandan Wildlife Authority in 5 days, the 400km to Kampala should have been a solid 80km a day, with a two-hour lunch break and a good feed. Arriving in places before 5pm giving us plenty of time to get find somewhere to stay. Ideally avoiding cycling if there was lightening nearby.
Instead… we stumbled into the high commission 5 days later having been caught in a thunder storm with lightening less than half a second behind; having travelled 120km and another day only 30km; Johnno having nearly collapsed from heat exhaustion where we were forced to miss lunch in order to make the city of Kampala by dark and my gear cable unceremoniously snapping for a second time as we pulled into the high commission.
Point 2. We still had the audacity to believe our plans would actually go as we anticipated. No change.
In Kampala I decided to set out on a quest to find a new gear cable. Unfortunately despite my best efforts and £70 worth of taxi fees over 3 hours, I could not seem to find a gear cable the same length as my one anywhere in the capital city. Having previously welded my original one back together, I had even tried to find a welder but unfortunately made the easy mistake of thinking welding was the same as soldiering… So after an hour of the best electricians in Kampala failing to solder my steel wire, I gave up in hope that I would be able to make the shorter wire work. I hacked away at my bike for hours trying to make it fit. Failing miserable I turned to Charlie. He was baffled at how I managed to cock this up so royally and proceeded to drag me to the nearest side of the road bike man we could find near our hostel, who within seconds was able to put right the damage I spent the last 5 hours doing…
Point 3. Always go to the guys on the side of the road rather than trying to find ‘the best bike shop’. Soldering is different to welding and finally never leave Waddi in charge of fixing his own bike. No change.
With the Kenyan election result having only just been announced and violence expected in some of the opposition strongholds we would be cycling through, we had decided to keep our eyes pinned to news updates. This was the first time we ensured there was enough data on our local sim card to receive updates and make calls with our prospective hosts in Nairobi, Nigel and Tonya Shaw. So yes this marked a certain change in our improvised routine.
Funnily because our efforts were so focussed on the Kenyan news, we’d hadn’t paid any attention to the completely unrelated bi-election happening in a small town in Uganda we were passing through.
So much to our surprise we cycled towards a traffic jam that seemed to be leading towards a mass of people up ahead. Theo up in front, dodged his way through the traffic as I followed with Charlie and Johnno just behind me. As we got closer we could see riot police stationed either side of the road with huge shotguns in between what must have been over 1000 people. All of a sudden Theo who had been looking behind to see if we were okay went hurtling into a local taxi. Out of nowhere two guys started trying to grab at our water bottles in the confusion. It was a panicked moment. We weren’t sure if they were going to start grabbing our bags as well and with a massive crowd either side, more people could have started getting involved. Luckily Theo jumped back on his bike and raced forward through a gap in the traffic. We pedalled as fast as we could after him.
We had escaped.
Point 3. We had got better, but somethings you can’t prepare for. No change.
Despite the panic that had shot through me that day, the evening was spent at a school in possibly one of the friendlies most welcoming places we stayed in 5 months. The teachers were extremely generous, letting us camp in their staff common room and providing us with a pump to use as a shower.
The worry that had shrouded my view of what it would be like to cycle through post-election Kenya was quickly shattered as we were met with nothing but beaming smiles and welcoming waves. People from both sides of the political spectrum were keen to reassure us that Kenya was a peaceful country and we were very welcome. One particular family that let us stay in their new mushroom growing facility in their garden. Their lovely 3 year old daughter called Wonder, kept us very amused as she tried out Theo’s spare tyre as a necklace.
Point 4. The people we met on our journey remained as friendly and welcoming as we had been lucky enough to find all the way up through Africa. No change!
Finally arriving in Laikepeia and being met by Sam the co-founder of For Rangers was a monumental moment for all of us. It was awesome to share with him our experiences on the road and learn about his own ultra-marathon challenges that he’d under taken for the For Rangers cause. He generously spent his time showing us round and letting us interview some of the incredible rangers that are working in what many of the other conservation projects across Africa view as the pinnacle of conservation in Lewa.
We gleaned a first-hand insight into the troubles that the region has faced due to the drought and conflicts over land grabbing further north. A particularly eye opening evening was spent with one of the farmers, who had had the army on his front lawn for the last 6 months, regularly hearing gunshots in the night, therefore deciding it was safer to sleep with a loaded pistol under his pillow. The interesting truth that we gleaned from actually being there was despite the news headlines focussing on one white farmer that was killed in the land conflicts, in the same time there had been 70 black men and women, killed in the crossfires.
Point 5. A sad but honest account of how the media often represents crisis. No change!
The individual that stole the limelight for me during our interviews with the rangers, was an ex gate keeper called Rianto, who’d risen through the ranks all the way up to deputy head of security at Borana conservancy. Along with providing some amusing anecdotes of his time in the bush and some incredibly moving testaments to how much he loves his job, he told us how excited he is to be visiting London in December as a representative at the For Rangers charity dinner.
To quote him: ‘the idea of walking along the streets of London saying hello to everyone who strolls passed me is what I am most looking forward to’. It felt wrong to shatter his dreams and expectations as I imagined the reaction he would get as he eagerly bounded up to the typical London commuter for a roadside chat.
Point 6. London commuters don’t change. No change!
I therefore smiled, nodded and hoped to god that we can intercept him at Heathrow before he gets bitterly disappointed. Our ride down to Nairobi was one of mixed emotions. It was strange to be so close to the end of this incredible yet bizarre lifestyle we had adopted as our own for the last 5 months. Yet this part of the road was known to be particularly dangerous, and so were keen to not let the last few days ruin what had been the trip of a life time. Sure enough Johnno took a tumble which meant we were forced delve into the deeper end of our med kits for the first time. Thankfully it wasn’t any worse. One thing we did notice though as we passed people on the road, was when they shouted to us, “Where are you going?” followed by the usual “Where did you come from?”. The reaction of the latter was finally provoking screams of amazement just as the first question had done back in south Africa those many months ago.
Point 7. People were finally more shocked at where we had come from than where we were going. CHANGE!!!