Slopping Up

For breakfast we had a rare treat: crepes with papaya and hot tea. Our table companions were a group of Belgians in their 20s. Two of them lived in Kampala, the other two were visiting. They were dressed in their mountain climbing gear and looking nervous. “Hannah has never climbed a mountain before,” one of the men told me last night. I asked her how she was feeling now. “Still nervous,” she said “but I think it will be a fun adventure.”

It was a big day ahead for me as well. For our cycling trip we are following a gps track that shows a graph of the elevation. The past 7 days of riding it was a slightly bumpy, but mainly flat line. But the day ahead of us was two enormous spikes. We were going to be riding our bikes up a very steep mountain. I had been dreading this day since we set off from Kampala nearly two weeks ago.

elevation graph
The graph showing our elevation loss and gain over the first 300 miles of our trip. Notice the giant spike at the far right.

For the trip so far we have been riding mainly on dirt roads, but also on footoaths that wind between fields of corn or sugar cane, and occasionally pavement. We started the day on the typical gravely dirt road, full of pot holes and long trenches, mostly flat with a few manageable hills. Then we started our first big climb of the day. Up a big hill to a flat section where we could hear music from a distance. I started my recorder and headed into the town up ahead. It was a trading post for bananas. There were hundreds of people all around us; some people were loading bunches of green bananas into trucks, some strapping them onto boda boda motorcycles, and many women with enormous loads of bananas on their backs. I wanted to watch all the commotion and observe how the market worked, but as usual, as soon as people noticed our arrival they stopped what they were doing to stare at these strange people that had rolled into town on their bicycles.


I looked up ahead of me. A big hill, covered in light green banana leaves and morning light. Behind the hill was the real monster: an enormous dark cliff rising to 6,000 feet above sea level. We were going to go over that cliff. Somehow get ourselves, our bikes, and everything strapped to them up that impossibly steep and tall obstacle and then down the other side.

We started up the hill. I pedaled a fair bit but quickly I was off my bike and pushing it up the rocky muddy slope. I stopped every 100 feet or so to catch my breath. Normally in situations like these I feel a little sorry for myself. “Poor Jackie, pushing a  heavy bike up a hill in the heat. How did you get yourself into this?” But today it was hard for me to pity myself when woman after woman passed in the other direction loaded down with 50+ pounds of bananas on her back. They wore old tee shirts (some with recognizable logos from the US and Europe) and long flowing skirts. Some had sneakers and rain boots, but about half had no shoes at all. The women weren’t doing this for fun like I was, they had to do this to support themselves and their families. This hard labor was their life. One might picture them to be miserable, but they weren’t. They talk to each other and laugh all the way up and down the hills.

Finally, we reached a flat section. A collection of houses, a water pump, and a school with a magnificent view of the plains below. Joe talked to some farmers and I waved to the crowd of children who had come out of their classroom to greet us. We ate snacks and filled our water bottles, and I tried not to look up at the cliff looming above.

The cliff ahead

When we started up the last and steepest section of the hill it became obvious that we were not going to be pedaling one inch of this climb. A true hike-a-bike if I ever met one. Our bikes weigh roughly 60 pounds each with all the gear, the food and the water on them. This would have been an enormous challenge had the path been dry, but it was a slick slippery mud slide. Each step I tried to find a rock or another footprint to anchor me, the muscles in my arms and legs were tiring fast. We were maybe 10% of the way up the cliff now.

It was just then, as I was seriously considering heading back down to find another way up, that our guardian angels arrived. A cheerful 24-year-old man in a blue patterned dress shirt and impossibly-clean blue jeans came out of nowhere “Madam, can I help you with the bike?” “No,” I huffed, “I can do it, thank you.” They saw through my pride and helped anyway. A short man with a tattered brown shirt got behind my bike and pushed from the seat. My 60 pound bike now felt like it had a motor on the back of it. The man in the blue jeans got behind Joe’s bike and the four of us set up the mountain at a fast clip.

At first I was really trying to push from the handle bars, but it soon became clear that I was doing very little of the pushing. The man behind me was practically running up the steep muddy path and it was all I could do to keep up and steer the front wheel clear of big rocks and branches. I was pouring sweat, maybe the most I’d ever sweat in my life. I looked up at Joe and he was just as bad. The men helping us had sweat on their brows, but their clothes were still clean and dry despite doing most of the work. We stopped every few minutes so I could slow my heart beat down, the perfect excuse to look out at the vista to our left. With every switchback we could see more and more of the plains below, truly incredible.

The man helping me was called Fred, and the man helping Joe was called John. Fred spoke little English, but John spoke English well. He talked with us the whole time about the surrounding area, his life and his village, how he came to learn English and Swahili in addition to his own local language. And just as I thought we might never reach the clifftop, we were there. A small village was at the crest, and they were all laughing at the sight of us, two sweaty white people covered in mud and pushing bikes. “Why did you come this way? Why didn’t you take the road?” we were asked over and over again. “The road wasn’t hard enough,” Joe joked, and everyone laughed together.

We stopped to eat some snacks and take in the view from the top. While we sat in the grass, dozens of people passed, many with heavy loads of vegetables and grains on their backs or balanced on their heads, women  with babies tied to their backs. They were all smiling as they came up, not a single one out of breath.

Before saying goodbye to John and Fred we gave them each $5,000 shillings (just over a dollar) each, we offered them more, but $5,000 was all that they wanted. They set off “slopping” down the hill and we said we’d see them on the way down.

John and Fred

As it turned out, slopping down was almost as difficult as slopping up. A much less sweaty affair, but full of obstacles anyway. Almost the whole way down I was standing on my pedals, hands on my brakes, all my weight at the back of the bike. It was a steep and rocky descent. We got off the cliff alright, but then the rain began. A kind family offered us shelter in their home through the downpour, but the water turned the dirt roads into unridable thick gloppy mud. All we could do was push forward and try to scoop as much mud off our gears and chains as we could. An enormous band of children joined us for over a mile, making us look like the Grand Muzungu Parade. Joe  was our leader, singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and making faces at the kids that made them alternately giggle with delight and scream with terror.

The children who chase us

From the top we could see waterfalls coming off the cliffs on the other side, great streams of white water falling off red cliffs a hundred feet tall, all surrounded by lush green trees and plants creating a sort of “Jurassic Park” kind of feeling. As we reached the valley below we were riding right by the bases of waterfalls. We were headed for Sisiyi Falls Campground.

Before we made it there, we passed by a mud house that belonged to none other than John. “You made it!” he said when he saw us. “We told you we’d see you again,” Joe said. His blue pattered shirt was still crisp and clean even though he had beaten us down the hill by hours. John introduced us to his little brother and his grandmother and we got a tour of their home. We pass this style of house hundreds of times per day, but this was our first time getting a full tour. John had a bible, Catholic catechism, a notebook, and a flashlight next to the bed he shared with his brothers. In the living room they had many campaign posters and one poster of John’s favorite soccer team: Manchester United. When there is a Premiere League game he walks up to the television in town to watch, but he said he doesn’t care much for the World Cup. We shared the last of our strawberry wafers with John and his family, then rode down the rest of the muddy road to our camping spot by the waterfall where a beer, chicken dinner and a good sleep awaited us.


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