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Roger Hislop,
An African Road Trip

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Africa is a big place. You can do it by bus, you can do it by plane - or you can live a little and do it by bike. Roger Hislop took his old XT500 on a road trip from Johannesburg to Mombasa, via a number of lakes, and a number of jungles.

'Twas a dark and stormy night. Well, not yet, but by the look of the scudding grey clouds congregating around the remains of the sunset, a dark and stormy night was almost certainly on its way.

"I knew I shouldn't have believed him. Dammit! I should have stayed on the truck right into Kampala! Shit! Still 75km to go!" I grimly clutched the bars, back hunched, with an increasingly panicky eye on the fast-fading sun.

Riding on most roads in Africa after dark can be extremely dangerous. Riding on the main road between Kampala and Masaka can be terminal. Riding on this particular road in the dark, with a faulty headlight and little knowledge of the local geography was really not what I wanted to be doing just then.

I had crossed Beit Bridge about two months previously on my trusty, if battered, old XT500 - a venerable bike almost twenty years of age, the father of all modern enduro motorcycles. My plan was to take ride around East Africa, and get as far north as I could before time and money ran out.

Right now I was returning from Fort Portal, a little town in Uganda at the foot of the Ruwenzori mountains (the "Mountains of the Moon" described by Ptolemy). I wanted to get back to Kampala that night, since I wanted to leave for Kenya the next day.

Up until then it had been a remarkably pleasant day's run, leaving Fort Portal, and crossing the Queen Elizabeth nature reserve (and the Equator, twice), before swinging across to Mbarara (near the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, where those tourists got brained by Congolese terrorists).

Up early, cool winds and a little bit of mist, through the mountains, across the plains, only stopping once to replace my exhaust, which fell off with a thunderous fart right in front a group of soldiers when the main mounting bolt snapped.

Then I had a flat, about 80km from Kampala.

It was a very busy road - mostly used by old lorries, enormous ancient busses driven by maniacs, and matatus (mini-bus taxis) driven by those too psychopathic and unstable to get a job as a bus driver. Since changing a flat tyre is a complete mission, and I didn't want to waste my precious can of compressed air, I decided to hitch a lift in a truck to the nearest garage. This part was done without fuss.

My mistake was taking the word of the tyre repairman. "No problem, no problem. We fix. No problem. I fix motorbike tyres." I should have been more suspicious. In Africa, nothing is a problem until it turns out that it is.

I helped take off the wheel, and left him to get the tyre off, and patch the tube. It's a backbreaking, sweaty job, and I was feeling lazy. Turns out this guy had no clue about how to get a large tyre off a large bike. It's harder than with the little 125cc's he was used to. After half an hour I pulled my nose out of the book I was reading, and noticed that dusk was falling, and he had got nowhere.


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After much flailing of arms and cursing, I finally got back on the road, with the sun well below the horizon.

I started to get scared. My headlight was buggered - the bracket for the bulb was damaged, and it no longer focused properly. It made a halo of light with an impenetrable centre of dark.

The road became a hostile battleground. Darkness in the tropics falls in less time than it takes to make a good Gin and Tonic. Lots of traffic returning to Kampala after the weekend. Lots of people on bicycles in the middle of the road, carrying enormous loads and decked out in their best low-visibility camouflage. Lots of pedestrians, who would suddenly materialise out of the gloom in front of you, with huge bundles of jagged sticks on their heads. Swarms of motor-scooters, tuk-tukking along at about thirty, fneeping greetings at each other with pitiful hooters.

Did mention that it was pitch dark? Well, it was darker than that.

I was now travelling at about 50km/h, eyes peeled like onions, peering into the Cimmerian blackness, trying to spot the obstacles before they impaled me or spilled me from my bike. Did I also mention the enormous potholes?

I was now thoroughly miserable, with another hour to go before I got into Kampala. Trucks with no lights haunted my peripheral vision, slow moving busses dogged my rear tyre, and matatus blasted their hooters at the exact psychological instant to cause maximum sphincter stress.

Then it started to rain. A dirty blatter that was enough to get me wet, but never getting quite hard enough to make me stop to pull on my rain suit. It was enough to fog up my glasses, and spatter my goggles with a muddy coruscation of water drops.

I could now no longer tell if the fifteen twinkly lights ahead of me were the headlights of one truck, turned into a prismatic spray of clones by the water droplets, or whether it was several trucks hell-bent on maiming me. My speed dropped to about thirty.

By the time I got back to the Red Chilli Hideaway in Kampala, I was cold, muddy, wet, emotionally drained, scared, tired and very much in need of a drink. And I was happy. Completely so.

Because the Red Chilli Hideaway is a great spot: they have gin, tonic, ice AND lemons, and they have a kitchen that can rustle you up some supper.

And because I was in Kampala, almost certainly the most friendly capital city in Africa - or the world, for that matter. A city where even the biker gangs will lend you a spare spark plug.

And Kampala is in Uganda, one of the most beautiful countries I've ever visited. The country where they used to film "Tarzan" movies, because no one else had jungles as jungly.

And I was on my old Yammie XT500, riding around Africa, as free as an unemployed writer of no fixed abode and less fixed assets, and I was still thoroughly enjoying my African Road Trip.

I had revisited my old haunts in Malawi and Zimbabwe, and found some new ones. I had been given a speeding fine in Tanzania, and hung out with Chriswone and his rasta mates in Maragoro. Zanzibar had been out of this world (sometimes figuratively), and hitching a lift for my bike through the Serengeti had been an adventure of butt-numbing proportions.

I had travelled by steamship across Lake Victoria, and visited the Chimpanzees in the Kibale Forest.

Previous travels up to Zim and Malawi by foot and by car had been fun, but both methods of transport are the inferior second cousins of travelling on a bike.

Right now, however, on this dark, African night, with a bucketing thunderstorm beating down on the roof, I planned to finish off this Chairman's Extra Strong Brew (a particularly potent Ugandan beer), and then have another.

Tomorrow I'll pack up, and head down to Kenya. Or maybe the next day. Me and my bike and a bit of luggage. No worries, mate. None at all.

More on Roger's website.

Story copyright © Roger Hislop, 2000. All Rights Reserved.


Editors note: We accept no responsibility for any of the above information in any way whatsoever. You are reminded to do your own research. Any commentary is strictly a personal opinion of the person supplying the information and is not to be construed as an endorsement of any kind.

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