1,312 Mi.(2,111 KM)
% Rideable (time)
The internet has surprisingly few resources for those planning independent travel in Uganda. The maps we’ve found lack detail and, on a more concerning note, lack consistency. Ultimately, the Trans-Uganda had to be created while it was being ridden. With a list of “must see” destinations serving as as the backbone, we used a combination of Google Earth, intel from the Kampala Cycling Group, and advice from locals we met along the way to create a route that stitched it all together. It is almost entirely off-tarmac and incorporates a surprising number of hoof and footpaths as well as bike and motorcycle carved ‘single track’—all the byproduct of the most popular forms of transportation in Uganda.
For those unfamiliar with Uganda, here’s a paragraph that sums it up geographically, taken directly from our first story while on the route: Uganda is approximately the size of Utah and sits directly on the equator between Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In the south lies Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa and the source of the Nile River. To the north of the country, bordering South Sudan is an arid and, at times, dangerous plain flanked by Kidepo National Park. Due east, and crossing into Kenya, is Mount Elgon, a massive 14,177’ (4,321 M) extinct volcano, surrounded by undulating hills and countless waterfalls. In the west, like a fortress wall guarding Uganda from the DRC, lies Rwenzori, the highest mountain range (with the only known glacier) in Africa, aka ‘The Mountains of The Moon’ and the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Lake Albert and Lake Edward take up another part of it’s western border, and the sprawling Lake Kyoga spawns tributaries and swamps throughout center of Uganda. All in all, there 10 national parks scattered throughout the country, including the well known Murchison Falls National Park.
The Trans-Uganda takes in all of it, save Kidepo and the far North. If you are seeking an adventurous odyssey in East Africa, don’t mind a little attention from strangers, and are up for a challenge, this is a great route. Just don’t underestimate the difficulty inherent in this route. Although the pace may be a bit slow, the climbing less than brutal, and the terrain may not be incredibly technical, the journey can be quite arduous at times. In a country with such a painful and turbulent history, where corruption and poverty are impossible to ignore, it can be mentally taxing, and the riding can be pretty tough at times too.
UPDATE (November, 2019): There is a safety issue with the Lake Mburo section of the route. See Trail Notes for details...
- Taking on a challenge that’s unlike anything else on Earth.
- Interacting with extremely friendly Ugandans in corners of the country where many have never set eyes on a foreigner.
- The perfect dirt roads on the slopes of Mt. Elgon.
- Navigating the incredible Budongo Forest and spotting native tropical birds, monkeys and chimpanzees.
- Being fueled by bananas and 12 cent fresh pineapple.
- Getting a healthy dose of perspective in relation to difficulty, challenges, strength.
- Forcing tears and screams of terror from babies and young children, because they’ve have never seen a “mzungu” before; connecting with grinning old women who give an encouraging thumbs up with laughter.
- Village singletrack indistinguishable from people’s yards.
- Spotting mountain gorillas just 30 meters from our tent.
- Being surrounded by 30 Chimpanzees.
- The Rwenzori, and the Rwenzori chameleon.
One thing to note about this route, and other routes in developing countries, is that things often change. As of March 2016, the bulk of this route is made up of dirt roads and paths, but that could change. It’s hard to know what might be paved next. On the contrary, in some places where once there was a trail, one may find fields of cassava or corn that require a little bushwalking to navigate. So if you plan on making this trek, make sure to do a little extra research to check the status of the trail and prepare for slight deviations from the course as needed. Also, please update us on any related intel.
Weather and When to Go
- Visit during the dry seasons, from late December through February and from June to September.
- To avoid excess dust and haze, aim for the beginning of the rainy season.
- Bring rain gear just in case; there’s no doubt that you will see showers.
- Evenings can get chilly, especially at higher altitudes. Bring a light jacket or thin thermal layer.
- Flying: There are several major airlines that offer regular flights to Entebbe International Airport. Our favorite is Qatar Airways (which doesn’t charge for bikes).
- Staging: Fat Cat hostel in Kampala is a great base. It’s a little pricey compared to a lot of lodging in Uganda, but they have adequate space to assemble/disassemble, storage for bike boxes, a van driver for airport transport, and a good location to start.
- Some folks might complain about the children on this route. The closer you get to tourist areas, you might find children who beg for money, sweets, or other things. Our general stance is to ignore these requests. Begging ultimately harms tourism and the children who do it. If you wish to donate money or clothing, do so to an organization which promotes education and enables greater positive results.
- The general rule of thumb in off the beaten path East Africa is that if you stop and stand still, a crowd of curious onlookers will gather. If this bothers you, this route isn’t for you.
- Although most of this route avoids roads with cars, there are a couple stretches (especially between Hoima and Kagadi) where diagonally oriented trucks and people movers just barely edge by you at blazing speeds. Get off the road before big trucks and vans come by.
- The dust in the dry season can be incredibly overwhelming. Be prepared for the caking on of dirt, and bring a Buff or handkerchief to cover your nose and mouth.
- Conversely, in the shoulder seasons, mud after a rain can be a death sentence to a days ride. Be prepared to stop and be patient.
- It’s virtually impossible (except in a few rare spots) to wild camp in Uganda; there are always people around. Instead, if you really need to camp, ask a local if you can pitch in their ‘yard’ … other options include police outposts, parishes, or boarding school premises.
- Hotels are a really reasonable option in Uganda. There is usually at least one decent hotel in any given moderately sized town. They range between $10 and $30 US and include a hearty breakfast of fruit, an omelette, bread, and coffee or tea.
- There are a few campgrounds here and there. Typically there will be at least one lodge near each national park that offers a budget camping option.
- Our favorite recommended lodging option are “community” lodges/camps; these are small, budget community run campgrounds/lodging facilities that provide employment for members of the community as well as give back through education programs. There are several noted on the GPS map.
- The most important rule regarding water is to assume the worst. Bring a filter, or two. We used a Sawyer Squeeze water filter and a SteriPen Freedom (rechargeable). Water in much of East Africa is known to contain parasites, bacteria and even amoeba, so take it seriously. We filter our water, no matter the source… a well, tap, or stream.
- It is typically easy to find a bore-hole, a pump well installed by one of several aid organizations, in most locations. However, bear in mind that there are several stretches where this can be a challenge—mostly in the northern part of the loop between Elgon and Masindi and in the extreme southwest of the country.
- Food can be tricky on the northern portion of the route as well. There are usually small shops that will sell some sort of very basic sundries, such as biscuits, and, if its early in the day, you should be able to find a Rolex (an oily and deliciously filling chapati wrapped omelet) in any trading center.
- There is a lot of fruit in Uganda; be prepared to subsist on the best bananas you’ve ever tasted!
- Most hotels have Indian food options, which can be really good. In fact, some of the Indian we ate in Uganda was the best we’ve ever had.
- Other staples include chicken or goat stew or beans and sauce on ‘food’—food is either pap (ground corn made into a mashed potato like substance), matoke (smashed green matoke bananas, delicious!), chapati, or rice. If you’re lucky , you get all of the foods with your stew. These meals are really filling and fairly inexpensive (1-3 dollars).
- Most hotels offer complimentary breakfast of an omelette, fruit, bread and coffee or tea.
Stage 1 (Kampala-Jinja)
This segment is just a 2 or 3 day ride, but there’s a lot to it. The route out of Kampala will surely induce a bit of culture shock. Riders are immediately immersed into a world very much unlike the west. A series of dirt roads traverses markets, shanty towns and highly populated neighborhoods before dumping out into the countryside. There several footpaths and a ride along abandoned train tracks feels as though there was a time-travel portal somewhere in the middle. The ride through Mabira forest and it’s surroundings is even further removed, with mud huts, tribal communities and subsistence agriculture pervading the scenery. A nice ride along the Nile River finishes this segment into a relatively touristed town of Jinja where you can catch your breath and soak it all in.
Stage 2 (Jinja to Sipi Falls)
The ride from Jinja works along the sugar plantations and lowlands before attacking the hills. This is a not to miss section of the route is highlighted by an incredible ride through roads that traverse the slopes of Mount Elgon. Big climbs and a hike a bike or two make it a bit of a challenge, but sights such as Sisiwe Falls and Sipi Falls make it worth the extra work.
Stage 3 (Central Uganda and Murchison Falls)
Central Uganda is perhaps the most poor and remote section of the country. Using a series of dirt roads, paths, and rail trail, the route runs north of Lake Kyoga and takes in a swath of agricultural land rich with friendly communities. After the ferry across Masindi Port, things change as incredible places such as the Budongo Forest, Murchison Falls, and Lake Albert come into play. Note that we recently heard there may be a new mine blocking part of the Budongo Trail. You may try and corroborate this with folks at New Court View in Masindi prior to riding it.
Stage 4 (The Wild West)
There are several not-to-miss places in Western Uganda. This part of the country is much more touristed (which still isn’t a lot) with people coming to see the chimpanzees, national parks, wildlife, and the Mountains of The Moon. This route takes in the scenic Crater Lakes, Kibale National Park and its chimpanzees, the foothills of the Rwenzori, Queen Elizabeth National Park, and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and its mountain gorillas.
Stage 5 (The Return)
Although we had to leave a little of this section partially undone due to a family emergency, highlights include a scenic ride around Lake Bunyoni, Mburo National Park, and a ferry ride to the Islands of Lake Victoria. Should you ride the section along Mburo, check with locals and the Kampala Cycling group prior. There are reports of buffalo here which can be dangerous to cyclists. According to the park you need to hire a ranger to escort you through. They are $40, and will walk with you. From the nearby lodges you can rent a mountain bike for them to ride with you, (recommended, prices vary $10-15). You can ride all through the park with the zebras, giraffes, elands, warthogs, water buffalo, waterbuck, and more. There are several thousand hippopotami in the lakes, (the lakes only get to about 8 feet deep) and a large herd of giraffe. So to get there and do it by the books, you’ll need to go to the northern gate via the road south at Nombi.