The ultimate test, adventure on bike Tour of Karamoja

Cyclists ride through dry rivers with thick sand. Photo by Morgan Mbabazi

What you need to know:

On October 24, the camp site at Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve stirred to life at 5am. Tents and other camping material were rolled up for relocation to the next camp site, as the 21 mountain bikers got their gear ready for the 115km-long first stage

In October this year, twenty one adventure tourists spent a week on the road and eight nights of camping in the wilderness of Uganda’s north eastern region and across the border in Kenya, on the fourth edition of an immersive experience but gruelling Tour of Karamoja.

By lunch time on day one, seven bikes were down.

The unlucky riders spent the better part of the two-hour lunch break trying to fix the punctured tubes, done by acacia tree thorns that had somewhat been left scattered on parts of the track just before Nabilatuk Catholic Parish.

“They should have gone tubeless,” advises Justus Koojo, a pro-cyclist and chief executive officer of Ultimate Cycling, a Ugandan company that promotes fitness and adventure, which supplied some of the bikes, maintenance and repair on this tour.

The organisers, Kara-Tunga Arts and Tours had warned that it is best to go tubeless for this event, as 99 percent of the route was gravel, and the probability of getting tears and flats was high.

Crossing River Nakapiripiti. Photo by Morgan Mbabazi

And when it was not acacia thorns, sharp pebbles were on hand to provide another challenge on this year’s Tour of Karamoja, a cross-border circuit in this rugged volcanic landscape.

Robert Kats, a high-flying architect who has been on this tour before, agrees that for this kind of terrain, tubeless is the way to go, except it is more expensive than tube tyres, on which he was going.

“Many flats already, and it’s still only the first stage,” he says. “I’ve used my bike for four years and have not had many issues. It runs on tube tyres. Sometimes it gets crazy like this.”

These challenges that come with mountain biking in such remote countryside are a pain but it is more exciting when you overcome them, Kats says. There were flats, GPS failure, hostile terrain, livestock on the route, blazing sun and remote environment.

Flag off

On October 24, the camp site at Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve stirred to life at 5am. Tents and other camping material were rolled up for relocation to the next camp site, as the 21 mountain bikers got their gear ready for the 115km-long first stage.

Prayer, song and Karimojong dance heralded the flag off at Pian Upe game reserve; it was an easy ride in the lower savannah plains of the neighbouring Nakapiripirit and Nabilatuk districts, at least for the first hour.

The first test of the stage was the sun baking the riders, and stubborn cows that sauntered in the middle of the road and denied the cyclists’ right of way – a routine feature throughout the tour.

Riding in Nakapiripirit plains. Photo by Morgan Mbabazi

Suddenly, the track died at the bank of Nakilenget River. No bridge. So the cyclists attempted an athletic manoeuvre to ride across through the water. Only Elishama Mangen, succeeded, as the rest took off their shoes, and carried their bikes across.

The bad vibe of the nightmare opening stage did not prevent some of the 21 cyclists from immersing themselves in a cultural encounter during the lunch break, partaking in the vigorous Karimojong dance, and cuisine.

Theo Vos, the tour organiser and Kara-Tunga co-founder, says that while every stage is special in terms of adventure, an interface with the community and its authentic culture, is always an immersive experience of the tour.

“It is not just cycling. We showcase our beautiful scenery, the culture, the dancing and of course the food,” he said, just as a woman presented a large calabash bowl.

The bowl contained a thick oily drink locally known as amerinyang; Dutch expatriate Maurits Servaas, who describes himself as a mountain biker, film freak and fan of African music, took it, studied it momentarily, gulped a mouthful of the creamy beverage, and nodded in approval.

Amerinyang is a local delicacy, a mixture of cow blood and bongo (ghee and milk), and served to important guests.

Angodic, another Karimojong special, arrived. Servaas and a few other cyclists gathered around the meal – a thick brown organic mixture of sorghum and sour milk, rich in starch, to build calories needed to pedal the bike for the next six days.

At 1527 hours, the riders hit the road again, but 20 minutes later the radio of the service van – an old Nissan Patrol workhorse – received a distress call. Alfred was stranded, another flat. He needed to be located and rescued.

Riding in Nakapiripirit plains. Photo by Morgan Mbabazi

But the service car GPS and Alfred’s phone location didn’t agree. It took another 36 minutes to locate him, by which time he had dismantled his bike, to ease carrying it on a motorbike. His day was done. He threw the tyres into the back of the service car, sat on the back of a motorbike, rested the bike’s frame on his lap, and sped ahead.

Theo Vos had hinted at flag off that the cycling route was a nightmare, an off-the-beaten path where vehicles could not drive, and riders would only see the service cars at the stop and water points.

At the end of the first day, only half of the riders finished the stage unscathed.

It was a busy night for the mechanics, fixing the bikes to be ready for the next day, on the 152km long stage from Amudat in Uganda to Turkwel Gorge dam in Kenya.

 “This is still child’s play. Except for the thorns and too many flats, no challenge so far,” said Roger Agamba, an executive at Endiro Coffee, who is on his second tour of Karamoja.

 “But expect the stages ahead to present a tougher physical and mental challenge,” he told The East African during the first water break.

Those who were running tubeless fared better. The carbon fibre bikes, with a sealant on the tyre rims, were a match for the rough gravel roads, uneven terrain and long stages over six days from October 23-30 traversing Uganda’s north eastern Karamoja region and Kenya’s West Pokot.

As a physical challenge, two stages stood out. Stage two from Amudat to Lake Turkwel and Stage three from Lake Turkwel to Moroto, which curl through the woodlands of Kenya’s West Pokot, onto the East African Rift escarpment and the detour into Uganda.

The riders seamlessly crossed into Kenya on October 25, at a place called Kiwawa; no security border checks, no visa and no Covid-19 tests required – apparently because the tourists were “practically riding through communities supported by Uganda.”


Stuck in the sand

Down the escarpment in Katumen, West Pokot, dry river beds welcomed the tourists; quicksand filled the river through which the cyclists pedalled hard but the bikes would not move an inch. The press car, a Toyota Fielder, got stuck several times and needed a push out of the dry marsh.

Kara-Tunga says the inclusion of West Pokot this year, is in preparation for a bigger and more immersive tour Warrior Nomad Trail of East Africa, which will be a cross-border wilderness destination for an authentic cultural experience and untamed outdoor adventure.

The trail will traverse the nomad pastoralist communities in Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan and Ethiopia.

The terrain on the Kenya side swings between joy and pain; downhill one moment, slogging up the mountain full of boulders, next. The sun is scorching, but camels are elegantly ambling in the woods, providing some spectacle.

But for miles on most of this stretch, on view is thick foliage of desert vegetation on mountains.

“If you lose your group and somewhat lose GPS, you are lost in the woods,” says a female cyclist, after completing stage two.

After the dirt roads and remote forests of West Pokot, it was wind, cold and rain to welcome the riders to Katumen, even before they could pitch tents and camp for the night, to savour the red-bellied tilapia species from the Turkwel waters.

The terrain ascending the over 3000 feet above sea level Mount Moroto provided the toughest test of the tour; the spectacular scenery atop the rugged dormant volcano overseeing the Kenya side and the sprawling wilderness on the Uganda side belie the toughness of the 139km Stage 3. 

“This is the longest and hardest stage. Therefore, there will be a vehicle parked at the 98km point to provide a vehicle transfer for the final 41km,” the tour’s flyer explains of the detour from Pokotland into Karamoja, via Lokitanyara border post.

Despite the vehicle transfer option, only a handful cyclists passed the physical challenge to finish the stage, even for tourists that have done this event before saying this stage was physically the most challenging.

“Only six of us completed. It was tough. The terrain, the sun didn’t make it easy,” says Elishama Mangen, a pro-cyclist, tour operator and veteran of the Tour of Karamoja, who admits previous events did not have the joy and pain of adventure on the Lake Turkwel-Moroto stage.

Moroto provided an ideal place to again interface with and learn about the rich Karimojong culture, as the tourists enjoyed views on the extinct volcanic mountain.

After Moroto, three shorter but tricky stages, with rising ascend of Mt Morungole, reaching 2,749 metres above sea level, followed, ushering tourists into the mysterious Ik community, a small hunter gatherer ethnic group of about 10,000 people, who live on top of the mountain, where the riders camped on October 29.

On October 30, the tourists sloped into the award winning Kidepo Valley National Park where the 500km-long Karamoja-West Pokot bike circuit ended, but the climax was safari ride through the park of ostrich, buffalo herds, elephants, giraffes, zebra, cheetah and lions, the next day.

The 21 tourists were mainly Ugandan recreational as well as pro-cyclists, and foreign riders from the Netherlands, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, who included Uganda-based expatriates, each forking out $995 per person for the full tour.


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