With arguably one of the most pleasant climates in the world, thousands of kilometres of unexplored dirt tracks and friendly and helpful people, Uganda is THE mountain bike destination for those looking for a unique and off the beaten track adventure.
Easily combined with flagship experiences such as trekking to see mountain gorillas, chimpanzees, rafting the River Nile, visiting remote tribes, and embarking on a wildlife-rich big game safari, the top attraction of mountain biking, for me, is the flexibility to create your own journey, at your own pace.
What’s more is that you do not need to be a downhill demon or a Tour de France entrant to take part. There are a number of experts resident in the country, many of whom have guided the world’s best bikers who can tailor trips for all ages and abilities. There are also a number of set events designed to raise money for good causes or to push individual limits and beat those personal bests!
On my recent exploration of Uganda I had the fortune to experience mountain biking in Uganda first hand and I discovered that several parts of the country that lend themselves perfectly to mountain biking, given the Rift Valley terrain. However here are my top tips for unmissable spots to consider in the first instance, along with other amazing options that I encountered along the way...
Lying on the border between Kenya and Uganda, Mount Elgon is said to have the largest surface area of any extinct volcano in the world and a caldera which covers over 40km2 at the top of the mountain. It is one of East Africa’s oldest physical features, first erupting around 20 million years ago. Its height was reduced when an unusually violent eruption emptied the volcano’s magma reservoir and the cone, no longer supported by underlying molten rock, collapsed inwards.
Even so, Mount Elgon still rises an impressive 4,321m above the hot, dusty Karamoja plains to provide a cool respite for humans and a refuge for flora and fauna. It is the 4th highest peak in East Africa and 8th highest on the continent.
The mountain is a natural habitat for biking enthusiasts; with the lower slopes clothed in tropical montane forest rising into extensive stands of bamboo. This part of the forest is full of life with good primate viewing including black-and-white colobus; red tailed, vervet, De Brazza’s and blue monkeys as well as some birding specials like the Great Blue Turaco and the White-starred Forest Robin.
Above 3000m the forest fades into heath and then afro-alpine moorland, which blankets the caldera, opening up for some sweeping rides completely devoid of any other human presence. Day rides are possible on the lower slopes but camping for a couple of nights to witness the upper reaches of the mountain is highly recommended.
This region proudly proclaims its soils produce some of the best Arabica coffee in East Africa. Coffee is grown by practically everyone and is a key source of income and there are plenty of opportunities to meet farmers, plant your own coffee tree and see how the labour-intensive grinding and roasting process makes for a rather tasty brew!
Here one can stay at the fantastic Sipi River Lodge, nestled on the foothills of Mount Elgon with the Kapsurur Falls as a backdrop. The Lodge and grounds are run with sustainability in mind and the staff and local community are all involved in the running of the lodge. The area offers fantastic birdlife viewing and trekking opportunities and of course mountain biking.
The owner of the lodge, Will Clark, runs his own adventure guiding company Clark Expeditions can take you kayaking, rafting, hiking and mountain biking across Mount Elgon or further afield. Should biking across a volcano, swimming in waterfalls and roasting your own world class coffee not be enough, then there is more to explore.
A fantastic, and equally enriching complement to Mount Elgon National Park is to head 50km north with Will into the semi-arid savannahs of the Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve. At 2,800 square kilometres, it is Uganda’s second largest protected wildlife area.
The reserve is covered by wooded grassland and is home to two pastoralist tribes from which it gets its name: the Pian, being part of a sub group of the Karamojong, and the Upe, being a Kalenjin speaking people more widely known as the Pakot within Kenya and Uganda.
Whilst a flourishing area in the 1960s, the Idi Amin era of the 1970s led to wide scale poaching from which the area is still recovering. However, efforts have been made to restore the reserve to its former glory and there are encouraging signs.
If you spend the time, there are some excellent cheetah sightings to be had as well as the greater and lesser kudu, roan and eland antelopes together with a vast array of unique bird species including ostriches all of which are difficult to see elsewhere in Uganda. There would be a vehicle on hand to cover a bit more ground if you wanted to give the cycling a rest and specifically focus on finding some animals.
Continuing north, and straddling the Kenya-Uganda border you enter the heart of the Karamoja region and the nomadic agro-pastoralist Karamajong tribe known for their love of cattle and their resistance to the trappings of modern civilisation. They consist out of numerous tribes and clans that once migrated from modern day Ethiopia and are part of the same group of people as the more well-known Maasai and Turkana who reside in Kenya and the Nyangatom living in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley.
Of note are their distinctive beauty ideals including scarification of the body and face, usage of colourful beads, the iconic blankets and their traditional dances shows. They easily rank with one of the most characterful, remote and interesting tribes in East Africa and have continued to live completely untouched by the modern world. Tourism is extremely new to the area and experiences here are raw, but true.
For the adventurous and inquisitive, there is a fantastic Dutch-Karamajong community initiative that safely allows guest to stay overnight with Karamajong warriors bringing the cows to the kraal, milking, identifying and cooking edible and medicinal plants, and enjoying a traditional roasted meal. Otherwise, there are some basic guesthouses in the nearby hub of Moroto town to lay your head for the night.
A perfect end to any and all of the above would to visit what is undoubtedly one of East Africa’s most scenic national parks – Kidepo Valley. Bordered by mountains on three sides, and peeping into both South Sudan and Kenya, the sweeping fertile valleys fed by the Narus River are a magnet for over 80 mammal and 400 bird species.
Wildlife sightings excel, particularly in the October to March dry season when the grasses die down, and you can expect to find keystone species such lion, elephant, huge herds of buffalo, giraffe and zebra together with rarer species including the Patas monkey and Jackson’s hartebeest. Biking is not allowed inside the park but there are a number of hiking options for those looking to keep active.
On the western side of Uganda, deep into the Albertine Rift is a truly lush undulating environment, home to the Ride The Rift challenge. Labelled by the organisers as ‘Africa’s Most Adventurous Cycling Event’, the aim here is to immerse all levels of rider into the dramatic surrounds, all in aid of good causes.
The occasion is aimed for about 70-100 cyclists who get to experience cycling on the floor of the Rift Valley, alongside impala antelope and, from a distance, buffalo and elephants into the cool, lush foothills of the mountains above, where monkeys swing from trees and tea plantations thrive.
Choose the challenge of cycling the ‘up course’, climbing from the lowest point in Uganda, 615m, over a vertical kilometre up, to finish at 1685m. The ‘down course’ takes you down into the valley and watching it open up in front of you. Or for the ultimate adventure, cyclists taking the ‘beast course’ cycle all the way down, and all the way back up. Approximately 85% of the course is on local clay tracks, with the remaining 15% on an asphalt mountain road.
This is an adventure cycle and although the clay tracks are pretty good, there are some rockier, more technical stretches. Therefore a cyclo-cross, gravel or mountain bike is recommended. Riders can choose to bring their own bikes or they can be rented locally.
The Ride the Rift course, whichever way you cycle it, is spectacular. The event was created for two reasons. One, after the popularity of Running the Rift Marathon, the organisers wanted to show even more people this very special part of the world - and the course is just begging to be cycled!
The second was to make a real difference to the communities who live in this naturally rich area but are severely under-resourced in other ways. The main beneficiary charity is the Kyaninga Child Development Centre (KCDC) which works with over 900 children living with disabilities, and their families, living in Western Uganda.
With a team of 12 including physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists and nurses, the KCDC provides support that is otherwise unavailable, travelling out to see children and their families at their homes. It is the first and only centre of its kind in this part of the country.
In Uganda there is often a stigma associated with disabilities. As well as helping the children, the KCDC work to educate communities and get children with disabilities into school and, when they are older, into work. For those that are interested in seeing more, the team welcome visitors to spend half a day with one of the therapists and learn about the challenges and good work being done.
Whilst the ride takes place on one day – covering 100-200k depending on which course is selected – the event is very much considered a group activity that includes events both before and after. The hub of the event is at Kyaninga Lodge – owned by the race organisers and a stunningly beautiful lake-side spot to base yourself. There are a variety of accommodation options from camping to luxurious log cabins.
Cyclists meet here 2 days before the race for a group meet with an optional cocktail event in the evening. The next day involves an optional further group cycle through some of the local villages, visits to local markets and a relaxing afternoon at your accommodation. After the race itself, there is an after-party with the final full day receiving some of the children, and their families, who have benefitted from KCDC’s work.
There are a wealth of pre- and post-trip extensions for those that want to see more of the country. To the north are the famous Murchison Falls; home to the most powerful waterfall in the world; big game such as elephant, buffalo and lion as well as beautiful birds, spectacular sunsets and brilliant fishing opportunities.
An hour south of the race event is Kibale National Park – the best place to track wild chimpanzees in Africa; the UNESCO-protected Rwenzori Mountains for world class hiking and mountain climbing. For those with a little more time, it is easily possible to fly/drive further south to Queen Elizabeth National Park to see the famous tree-climbing lion populations and also to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest – home to the magnificent Mountain Gorilla.
I would delighted to discuss this further. For more information on cycling holidays in Africa or safaris in Uganda please do feel free to contact me.
Images kindly provided courtesy of Clark Expeditions, Sipi River Lodge and Kyaninga Lodge. Images of waterfall copyright to Gunvor E Jakobsen. Image of two cyclists on Mt Elgon copyright to John Matrix bikelist.org