Land of volcanoes

Translation courtesy of Carolina Ghiggino

It always surprises me how fast the road can change. After the three days, it took me to cross Park Queen Elizabeth through the savannah, followed by the forest along its beautiful loneliness surrounded by animals, we arrived finally to a remote village where the simplicity of the plain road turned suddenly into a hell of slippery slopes. We would start the arduous way to the remote region of Virungas, the mysterious place where Diane Fossey, the famous American zoologist, spent 18 years studying and protecting the gorillas at the mountains.

It happens almost unnoticed that, after 300 km of valleys, we are again at the foot of the mountains. We are in a remote region in the southwest of Uganda, cycling along dirt roads that do not appear in maps, crossing rural villages where electricity is an exception, the land is worked by hand and women still do the hardest tasks while men chat under the trees waiting for a job to come from heaven. From picking up tree branches for the fire or for repairing their huts, to carry heavy buckets of water, or to cultivate the land, in addition to being mothers of several children, all those are activities usually performed by the resilient Sub-Saharan women. 

The rainy season arrives and at every village, we visit people warn us that the road will be like a hell of mud. Some bring news about mud reaching as high as the knees and trucks being stuck, but for us, there is no other option, there is only one road to the Lake Bunyoni and there we´ll go. The mud is everywhere but, fortunately, not deep. Even when we can continue bicycling, the slopes become more and more difficult and the concentration to keep the equilibrium and avoid falling is high. My loyal Iron Maiden has definitely dominated the art of the mud and advances like a legionnaire.

On the contrary, my bicycle is so heavy that I have to push it from time to time through the slippery road, becoming almost a juggler in order not to fall. I think I am giving Julia the image of a cartoon, sliding without moving the bicycle. We make no more than 50km per day, the hills become incredibly long and hard, with overwhelming slopes and liquid mud that splats all over the body. The problems with the mud are several. First of all, it blocks the wheels and makes them heavier. Secondly, it erodes the breaks. And finally, once it gets dry becomes like a stone, making difficult to take it out and messing up the shifting.

We are surrounded by green mountains with hundreds of little villages we can see from the distance. Life is reduced to the essential, the kids roll down with their wooden bikes, others make trucks from wires and many more are lonely just running after an old bicycle tire that they keep spinning with a stick. This is probably the most usual way of playing for the kids in Africa, you can see it once and again in every town or village. They have a lot of fun out of it. 

Once the hell of mud is behind, we are high in the mountains. I didn´t know we would have to reach such a height in these hills. Without noticing it we were at 2.400 m above the sea level, where the landscape was breathtaking. We live to experience those moments, where the efforts bring the best sightseeing as a reward. This is the deep Africa, far from civilization as we know it, with its simple lifestyle and big smiles. To make a stop with these views worth to drive through the mud, because the road tires the body but the landscapes bring peace to mind and soul.

Among the difficulties of the road and the sublime beauty of the landscape around us, the day goes by having driven half of the average kilometers we usually make. The night in the middle of the road is more of an inconvenience rather than a problem. There is no place to camp in these fanciful mountains, but there are always people at the villages waiting for us with open arms. Dennis, a rural teacher who found us arriving at his town in the absolute darkness, invited us to sleep at the local church. 

While his lovely wife cooked piles of food for us, Dennis narrated the same story that other teachers had told us, that it was 8 months since the government started paying them half of their salary, under the excuse of administrative problems. Many teachers weren’t receiving any money at all and they were aware that they would never be compensated once the problem was solved. We weren’t as surprised by the injustice suffered by them but by the big smile of Dennis while he told us the story. The capacity Africans have of laughing at the adversity and continue with their lives heroically, unheard for us, was a characteristic that would repeat once and again all the rest of my trip along this continent; a lesson of life. After the story, the meal arrived and we enjoyed a beautiful night in family illuminated by the paraffin lamp.

It took us about 5 days to arrive at the northwest end of Lake Bunyoni, where we found asphalt roads again after fighting with the endless ups and downs along the mud. After many days of physical challenges, the softness of the asphalt was welcome, at least for a while, to give the butt some rest and compensate for the few kilometers we advanced in the difficult roads. But, how hard can that be when you are with the Virungasinthe horizon, with dozens of women going up and down with 40 kg of potatoes on top of their heads? As usual, the image of women working hard while men are scratching their balls over boxes of wine, get on my nerves. We should applaud African women for what they heroically tolerate. 

We have only 25 km to Kisoro, where we found some of the most stunning views of the Virungas in the stormy horizon, with clouds covering and uncovering them. High in the mountains, before riding down to Kisoro, dozens of children come down from the villages to the main road searching for fun. As in the rest of Africa, there are many kids, maybe too many; brought to this world irresponsibly, with nothing to do, little to wear and to eat, victims of the ignorance that seems to be never-ending in these places. But here they are good an innocent, they laugh at us, they don’t attack us, they don’t bother us, they just come around with curiosity and they have fun just by looking at these two strangers traveling in bikes with lots of stuff hanging from them.

Goodbye dear Uganda. 

Kisoro is a small town, quiet but not beautiful, surrounded by the most incredible views of the Virungas. There we were received by the Priest John Vianney, who looked after us for two days at the church. I am gladly surprised by the priests in Uganda, so charming and open minded (except when we talk about homosexuality, but that is an issue for all Ugandans). They never talk about any God, they talk about life in Africa, about the Africans, about politics and about the problems of the world and other stories. They are normal people, they don’t bring the cross over their shoulders. Certainly, after living in the church for some days it becomes clearer to me (and this is a perspective shared by others) that the priests make their choice of life based mainly on poverty and the possibility to have access to a more decent life. Priests in Africa gave us help and kindness, first of all because they are Africans and hospitality comes from their souls by nature. The friendship with John Vianney was a farewell gift from this wonderful country that never stopped surprising us since we left Kampala, every surprise better than the other. It’s a country that leaves me sweet memories that would be very different from the ones we would face in Rwanda, our next country.