The Victoria Nile
The last time I was in Africa on two wheels, I had meandered from Cape Town taking close on the year to get to Lake Victoria, so I didn’t have the chance to ride around the lake. This time, before cycling home, it was my ambition to see as much of the world’s second largest freshwater lake as I possibly could.
The trip started with a return visit to Kenya’s Tea Hotel at Kericho, which stands, slightly worn by time, among the tea plantations. A thousand metres below, and about 90 km by road, stands Kisumo, the lake’s largest town.
The first part of the descent to Lake Victoria is steep, and the road winds through a mixture of woodland and agriculture – with heavy braking I avoided the dangerous, unpainted speed bumps, hidden carefully around bends to catch the unwary.
The flat land at the foot of the hill was hot, and as the morning wore on, very hot. To me it looked just about the same as it had 12 years before, with the exception of one new idea, where streams ran close to the edge of the road, car and bicycle washes were doing a roaring trade. People would drive their car, or wheel their bicycle into the stream, and for a small fee, their machines would be scrubbed down using loads of soap. I’m not sure how this affected the cattle that were drinking at the same watering spot.
Kisumu isn’t the rich vibrant city it once was because the lake trade has been killed off by an attractive week, the water hyacinth, which spread itself over the whole of Lake Victoria some years ago. All sorts of methods have been used to try to get rid of it, including the use of Brochineochetina, a small weevil, which to some extent has worked. On my map I could see the old ferry crossings but only one of them still existed, and that was between Bukoba and Mwanza in Tanzania. There was no longer any ferry at all from Kisumu, but there were still a few big boats and some commercial shipping.
Map used on the trip
Going south I followed a small, almost unused road heading towards Kendu Bay. This road, although frequently potholed, was decent enough to cycle along with its sealed surface and almost complete lack of traffic. At times my route came very close to the lake, and there were idyllic views of small fishing boats, and once in a while, I found a place to stop for a drink. Just before midday, when it would become almost unbearably hot, I had several cold drinks sitting in the shade of a ‘hotel’ close to the lake. The word ‘hotel’ in Swahili refers to place to get a drink such as chai – sweet milk tea, coffee or soda. To add to the confusion, the word hotel is also used for what almost the whole rest of the world call a hotel. The man that ran the place was very knowledgeable about the area, and suggested I should head in the direction of Kisii once I had reached Kendu Bay.
Out over the lake
The mud and stone road climbed away from the lake and up the steep hill - the first of many. Descents were frequent and often difficult, and in the wet mud, slow. It was much harder ride than it looked on the map and was proving to be tough, and I was fast running out of energy. A woman at the side of the road was selling donuts. These are not the sweet type found in the West, with jam or cream, sprinkled with sugar; these are solid and filling. I ate two and drank some of my water, before reaching the newly-surfaced main road. At the edge of Kisii the good road ran out and the pothole stone and mud road carried on into town. Crowds of people swarmed everywhere, making a combined hazard of potholes and people.
Early the next morning, Kisii was bedlam, every inch seemed to be crammed full of people. It was hard simply to push my cycle through the crowds along the main road to reach my turnoff. Once free of the town, it was wonderful to be away from the crush and ridings south again. Happily the main road was still good too, with few big potholes, an excellent hard shoulder, and gentle hills. It was a splendid sunny day, and hour-by-hour I was getting closer to the border with Tanzania.
The border was crossed with less formality but more expense than last time I was here. The Kenyan custom man fell asleep in his armchair during the two minutes it took me to fill in his form – talk about laid-back. My Tanzanian visa stamp was no longer free as it had been only a dozen years before. It was now $50US. There was no bank, so even after considerable bartering, which left me with a feeling that got the best deal I could, but was still being ripped off by the local moneychangers.
According to the map, I should have been riding along a poor quality main road. The reality was quite different as the road was excellent, and had a new surface and a clean hard shoulder, and was built some distance to the east of the route shown on the map. On my last visit to Tanzania the roads had been vastly inferior to those in Kenya – this time the opposite was true.
Most of the houses were now the traditional roundhouses, sometimes concrete walls rather than more traditional woven twigs covered with animal dung or mud. The road now had long grinding climbs. Many limestone outcrops, some striped, lined the road, some with large seemingly dangerous boulders resting precariously on even bigger boulders. Their odd shapes, and almost white colour, stood out from the fresh green countryside.
Musoma seem to be a small quiet town considering the excellent position it commands the mouth the Mara River, on a stunningly beautiful spot alongside Lake Victoria. I found it calm and friendly and liked it at once.
It was overcast from the start as I rode south from Musoma, and I hadn’t gone far before the most amazing downpour hit. Most people on the road or working in the fields had seen the storm coming and they ran for shelter. I didn’t have anywhere to run, and kept riding. My waterproof made little difference it was too hot to wear the hood, allowing the rain to hit my face and drain down, staying on my skin all the way to the pedals. After 10 minutes of sheeting rain, in which I was a lone figure moving along the flooded tarmac – it stopped as suddenly as it started, and the sun came out. The water started to drain away from the steamy road, and from the steamy cyclist. There was just time for everything to dry out nicely… then a new storm passed through.
Early starts on overcast days, with Lake Victoria a distant view in my right, frequently saw me passing streams of cyclists on their way to work in the fields. At a campsite on the edge of the Serengeti game reserve I found an excellent place to stop for breakfast. During my meal I could see large animals in the distance, but the only ones to come close were a troop of baboons.
Closer to Mwanza, the road hadn’t been completed. Once in town the roads were awful too, even by African standards. I carefully attempted to negotiate the huge potholes alongside a traffic jam, with smoking diesel engines pumping fumes from trucks of all sizes, and headed to the ferry terminal for a ticket for the next days boat to Bukoba.
The Talapia Hotel, (named after the fish that keeps its young in its mouth), was the best place I could find in Mwanza. It had a wonderful view over the lake, and with a cold drink to hand, I was able to watch the Pied Kingfishers hovering and diving, and the low-flying cormorants skimming over the water before diving and disappearing from sight, only to reappear some distance away. There were swallows gliding everywhere, picking off the abundant insect life. On the corner of the restaurant building was a large eagle, watching everything but staying majestic.
Beyond the Bukoba, at the top of a hill, the tarmac ran out and the mud began. I headed down the long muddy stretch of road, and at the bottom of a long climb were a few dried tyre marks surrounded by a wall of oozing mud and filthy water. I got halfway along the almost dry tyre marks, when I met a truck coming from the opposite direction. There was no choice but to pull to the side and put my foot down until the vehicle had passed by. Only, once down it continued to sink slowly into the mud until the slime was halfway up my thigh. It took quite a few moments to extract myself from the mess, the mud leaving me with a khaki coloured leg, which refused to come clean.
Avoid big trucks!
On I went climbing along muddy sticky roads in the heat of the day with the view of Lake Victoria long behind as I climbed higher and higher, sweat running off my forehead and into my eyes. Further up the climb were bulldozers, JCBs, big trucks, and teams of men cutting a new road through the hillside.
Once the top of the main climb been reached, things got easier, and not just because I was no longer fighting gravity. As with all mud roads in Africa, with many of the population cycling to and from work, their tyres smooth out the best route for their daily ride, and mine too. I made it to the Ugandan border with just 15 minutes to spare. Both sides were extremely helpful and rushed me through, and for $30US I soon had a Ugandan visa in my passport.
The border village of what Mutukalo had only the most basic Lodge. It was now quite late so was little option but to stay. I was given a cold bucket of water to wash with, so I scrubbed myself down making a special effort to clean my left leg - it stayed khaki. The next day to my surprise, I once again found myself on a newly built road; the old one had a reputation for the being almost impassable. Once it is completed south of the border it will be a significant development for Bukoba, because there will be a viable bus route all the way to and from Kampala, and with it an open invitation for tourists to visit Bukoba.
This green pleasant land is also a very wet one. There was often thunder and lightning, but nothing like the downpour of a few days before in Tanzania - just steady, heavy rainfall. All along the road were men soaked to the skin, pushing and occasionally riding bikes overloaded with bananas. It was an energy-sapping ride for me too, and on the last climb into Masaka I got off and slowly walked up the hill.
The road to Kampala ran frequently very close to the lake, but mostly because the heavy vegetation (often reeds), it was rare to even get a glimpse of the water. The closer to Kampala, the worse the traffic. The city was a nightmare of road repairs and traffic jams. It would have been much quicker to walk across the town, but frequently there was nowhere to walk either. I had an immediate and urgent desire to get out of the chaos.
It was a dirty overcast morning, and it was also Christmas Eve, as I headed out of Kampala on the Jinja Road. After passing hillsides covered in sugarcane, beyond the Mabira Forest Reserve I crossed over the Victoria Nile. A little time was spent wandering around Jinja before I headed along the road which runs parallel to the east bank of the Nile, to the Bujagall Falls and its two campsites.
One hell of a load!
The view from the Back Packer’s camp was fantastic. The river at this point is about 800 metres wide and the rapids, with their menacing grey rocks so beloved and feared by white water rafters. There were calm areas around green islands too, with men fishing from canoes; there was an abundant birdlife both on the water, and in the bushes and trees along the banks. This campsite must rank among the world’s best. On top of the bank there is room to park vehicles and put up the larger tents, and there is a bar with a covered area and open platform, with the most fantastic view over the River. Food can be ordered at the bar, there are basic toilets on top of the bank, while just below are circular thatched rondavals, each named after a bird. From the bank, steps descend towards the water off which terraces have been built where small tents can be pitched, giving each camper an unrivalled, uninterrupted view of one of the world’s greatest rivers. Just a bit further down is the shower block then a steep bank winding down to the river itself.
Evening – from Backpacker’s Campsite
I pitch my tent on one of the terraces next to a bush covered in red flowers. The bush was full of yellow weaver birds with blackheads. After a shower, when I was sitting reading next to my tent in the evening, a Malachite Kingfisher came close enough for me to reach out and touch it. This beautiful little bird, with its red beak and matching feet, bright blue wings, turquoise and black hairstyle, orange chest, and with flashes white shining out between the colours – this backdrop was a stunning reminder of Africa’s rich beauty.
Most of the traffic into Kenya follows the main Nairobi Road westward. I decided to stay as close to the lake is possible and cross the border at Busia; beyond which proved to be a day of often long hard climbs in the heat. The road gradually got worse too, followed by the traffic on it - at first the vehicles would drive on one side and the then the other to avoid potholes, until later with no possible alternative they would bump slowly right over them! The most frightening section was around Maseno, on the equator, where drivers gave up and left the road to plough over the grass and through the bushes beside it - at one point huge trucks and buses were zigzagging all around me.
On a hilltop, beyond Maseno, as my journey was about to end, a new road began. From there it was only a matter of the fast downhill run to Kisumu and the long dream of completion of my tour of this great lake.
What would I change if I was to do this ride again.
This ride took place in 2002 and several things will have changed on the ground since that time. But most importantly from me, I was then teaching in the mountains above Kenya’s rift Valley, from there, in the distance at night, it was possible to see the lightning from the thunderstorms over Lake Victoria. This was an ideal place from which to start my journey. Now, the best place to start would be from an airport close to Lake Victoria. There is a decent airport at Mwanza, and also at Entebbe (close to Kampala).
The reason I took the ferry from Mwanza to Bukoba was to avoid adding to the problem of the refugee overspill from Rwanda. I would imagine, although I haven't been back to the region, that this is less of a problem now. However, the overnight boat trip is well worthwhile.
By now there should be a new road climbing out of Bukoba towards the border with Uganda.
The wonderful campsite at Jinja may no longer exist. There was talk of building a new hydroelectric dam at that site. While a considerable amount of power is required in Eastern Africa, it would be a shame to lose such a wonderful place.