It was time again to head back to East Africa to follow up on some of the Wheels 4 Life work we have been doing there in the past years. Our charity has evolved and grown a lot, we now have an infrastructure in place with a team of field volunteers that enables us to run this non-profit organization pure, efficient and effective. Our mission was to meet many of our project leaders from Kenya and Uganda in the field, as well as a lot of our previous bike recipients to monitor first hand the impact the bicycles have had on their lives and give a whole lot more away at the same time, 270 bikes to be precise. We also wanted to learn, about the countries, the people, their needs and character. We are often asked the questions; “Can we make a difference, are we making a difference?” The answer is yes; most definitely we can and are.
Exhausting, hot, dusty, indescribably bad roads, cold showers, cockroaches the size of rats; that’s the negative. Gratitude, love, happy faces, hugs and witnessing the incredible difference our bicycles have made; that’s the positive.
Of course, it would be unthinkable for us to visit Uganda, a first for both Hans and myself, without taking our bikes. Our “day jobs” allow us to cover our own Wheels 4 Life expenses and we took this opportunity to combine our work for the charity with a little Hans Rey adventure on Uganda’s Mount Elgon, a place that can only be described as Earth’s Garden of Eden.
After several days of W4L work in Kenya, we arrived in Uganda on our way to Mount Elgon. We rattled, bounced and groaned our way to the Sipi River Lodge situated 1795m up Mount Elgon and our host for the next 2 days, a British expat named Will. “We were expecting you for lunch”, no kidding, it was now 4pm, journeys always take a lot longer than anticipated. Close your eyes and imagine a verdant countryside, rich soil, everywhere lush and vibrant, water thundering down from high falls and then flowing into a river where it gently cascades over rocks. Imagine a garden that every gardener would dream of having with every plant, flower and fruit growing; this is nature’s garden and to us it was the embodiment of the Garden of Eden. Our travels have taken Hans and I to some truly spectacular places, this is right up there, as near to perfection as you can get; not the dry arid Africa one might imagine, but much more like Costa Rica.
After our boneshaker drive we were more than ready to get on the bikes and head for the slopes of the mountain. What I haven’t told you yet is that for this trip Hans was taking with him the, at that time, new top-secret GT Sensor 27.5, with the revolutionary newly designed Path Link (AOS) suspension. Hans always wants to explore the amazing trails that our world has to offer in the pursuit of the ultimate rides. The trails literally started at the lodge, beautiful waterfalls, primitive African villages and lush tropical plants, banana and coffee plantations made the back-drop for the ride. That evening we were all on a high, we were all a little stunned by the sheer beauty of this place. We couldn’t wait until the morning to explore the locations Will had in mind for us.
The Sipi River Lodge is an exquisite place, a collection of cottages scattered along the hillside acreage beside the stunning Sipi Falls. Built in the Ugandan style with thatched roofs, slate floors and batik fabrics they offered comfort and simple luxury against a backdrop so awesomely stunning that it will forever be imprinted in our memories. Equipment ready, bikes checked over, stomachs full of eggs and bacon, we loaded our bikes into the 4 x 4 and shuttled to the top of one of the many plateaus on Mt. Elgon. Will had figured out a route for us that would include flowing trails carved into the red dirt that snaked along meadows, through villages, across rivers, along waterfalls and through the forests. It seemed that as we rode these natural flow country trails we collected a following, like the Pied Piper, children followed Hans in awe of the amazing things that this Muzungo could do on a bike.
Even though a bicycle is a form of transportation used globally and pretty much everyone knows what one is, you have to understand that the people in this remote part of the globe had never seen a bicycle quite like Hans’. Having Will with us was such a bonus, he understood entirely what we wanted; that it was important for us to explore and get a real feeling for riding this volcanic area which is a National Park but allows Mountain Biking. He knew that we wanted incredible locations that we could capture with images to share with people and show them this amazing place with such great riding terrain. There was an abundance of natural beauty everywhere we looked, we joked that this is what our garden in California would like to be when it grows up. Mt. Elgon is a huge volcano, with a diameter of 80 km across, it stands at 4,321m or 14,177’ above sea level, it also has one of the biggest intact calderas on the planet and it is the largest and oldest solitary volcano in east Africa. Straddling both Kenya and Uganda with the summit being on the Ugandan side, this is a behemoth of a mountain.
If you imagine a giant’s staircase up to the Heavens, then you will be able to picture the first 2500m of Mt. Elgon. A series of steep cliffs ascend leveling off abruptly into vast plateaus that expand before our eyes. From each plateau waterfalls descend, millions of gallons of water thundering over the precipice until landing uproariously into giant pools that then flow into rivers, until another big drop when the process is repeated again. At one of the many panoramic vista points we were able to look out over a landscape that seemed to stretch into infinity, far below the sheer drop we could just make out the small dots on a hillside opposite that were in fact the cottages we were staying in.
It was at this point that Hans was suggesting to ride along the edge of the steep cliff with the waterfall and epic panorama in the background. It was here that the only two tourists we saw on the whole trip happened to be sitting and taking in the view. “Are you mad?” they asked. Good question and even though I know after all these years to trust that Hans knows his limits, it is sometimes hard to switch off from being his wife and thus being terrified for his safety. One slip, one wobble and it would all be over, lights out and goodbye world. On we went through tiny villages where the inhabitants waved and cheered and seemed quite happy that we were taking over their little trails and taking photos, Hans skidding through the berms and kicking up the dust. Open green meadows gave way to fields planted with bananas, the trail twisting and turning; we never knew what would be around the next bend. Hans stopped suddenly and said “yeah”, I caught up and saw what he was looking at, a fallen tree lying across the river creating a perfect natural bridge and giving Hans the opportunity to implement some of his trials riding skills. Big kid that he is sometimes, he put smiles on all the children watching him balance and counter balance as he kept his line above the water.
We were coming to the end of our incredible day. Hans knew immediately he would have to come back one day, since we only got to ride a small amount of the trails in the area – it will be a worthwhile adventure one day to return and traverse the entire Mountain Elgon range from Uganda all the way to Kenya.
Our charity trip was to continue through Uganda, with several stops in Kampala, Lake Victoria and Masaka. Busy Island was a highlight, meeting 50 healthcare workers who had received bikes from us in the past, to hear their stories and how the bikes have changed and saved many lives was great to hear. It was quite an adventure to get to the island with a boat and then onwards with Boda Boda moto taxi’s while Hans was riding his own bike.
I admit it, I felt a little like a celebrity when we pulled up to the grounds of the clinic, people clambering to shake our hands and greet us, everyone so happy that we came; “You are Carmen”, I heard over and over again. Like for me, it was a big thing for them to finally meet the person that they had been corresponding with for the past three years. Most of us have seen photos or news images of what these clinics look like, basic equipment, decrepit beds, soiled linens and very ill people. Poking my head into one room I witnessed a Mother lying on a cot with her baby and a child that looked about two years old. The older child was attached to a drip, the baby looked at me questioningly as the Mother dozed.
Thanks to bicycles each health worker can travel four times as far and four times quicker than before resulting in visiting four times as many patients.
Another highlight was the fun bicycle race we staged with some of our bike recipients, they all showed up in their Sunday-Church-Clothes, ready to meet us and to race Hans. As the new bike receivers lined up and signed their contracts that bind them to an agreement that they will maintain, keep safe and not sell their bicycles, Hans and some of the guys who already had received a bike from us in the past were getting their race faces on. We mentioned that we had prizes, oh boy that upped the excitement level, the prospect of winning some Adidas sunglasses and various treats for the other participants really made their competitive side, kick in. As Hans anticipated, the Kyankwanzians really know how to pedal….fast. Our cameraman and I were following on motorbikes trying to capture the whole thing on film; that sounds easier than it is in practice; I mentioned the potholes and ruts didn’t I? And the race was won by the gentleman in the pink shirt, we aren’t including Hans in the line –up, that wouldn’t be fair, but yes he was the fastest…by a whisker. There was a positive party atmosphere at the finishing line, everyone excited and having a good time. As they say, there were no losers; everyone came away with something that day, a bike, a prize or one of the items of clothing that Hans and I had been amassing over the year specifically to give away on this trip. It certainly felt good to see so many animated and happy people.
We love Africa and adore its people and for Hans and I this trip re-inspired us to work even harder to get more bikes to them.
Website for Sipi River Lodge, Uganda; www.sipiriverlodge.com
To learn more about Wheels 4 Life or to read the detailed report from our visits during this trip, please visit our website: www.wheels4life.org