The Joy’s and Heartbreak’s of cycling through Mabira Forest

Mabira Forest is one of those great day trip locations, an hours drive out of Kampala city, and you find yourself under a canopy of trees and sounds of the rainforest. I signed up for a MCU day trip cycling though one of many ambiguous paths and trails in the forest and its surrounding community. The group I was cycling with had chosen a trail that was recommended as ‘relatively flat and easy’ by some of the other MCU members who had cycled there before, which was encouraging to hear. Despite it being ages since i was last on a bike, i consoled myself with that saying, ‘you never forget how to ride a bicycle’, right?

Cycling under a canopy of trees
Cycling under a canopy of trees

I shared a special hire (cab/taxi) with a few others which cost us 130,000 Ugx for 2 way transport in a 6 seater Ipsum type of car. Once we turned into the entrance of the forest we stopped at the head offices to collect our bikes. Most of them were in poor condition, and the manager was literally calling some of the local kids to hand in the bike’s they were riding around. Luckily for us, we had a pretty good bargainer in the group who managed to talk down the hire price, considering the condition the bikes were in and the fact that we didn’t get any helmets with them, and we managed to get the bikes for the day for 20,000 ugx each. After having a test run, checking the breaks, adjusting the seats, and being given the route Ugandan style (verbally with a lot of hand gestures, there were no maps) we set off.

Bargaining for bikes
Bargaining for bikes

Our route began with a winding stretch of dirt road through the surrounding village, this I suppose was the “easy part”. However I wouldn’t exactly call it flat, with all the holes, dips, mounds, and the occasional up hill stretch, my body seemed to take masochistic delight in painfully reminded me that I hadn’t ridden a bike in over a year. Still, it was enjoyable, with the traffic free road and the village children running behind us chanting a continuous chorus of “Hello Muzungu, Bye Muzungu”. I suppose since I was the only black person in the group I was automatically classified as a “Muzungu”. It was amusing, sort of like having your very own cheer squad as you rode along.

Biking Mabira Forest-6
Cheers from the children as you ride through the village make you feel like Lance Armstrong at the height of his career

The stretch of road through the forest was especially rewarding, after riding up an uphill stretch with the sun beating down on you, the lush tree cover was a treat, especially followed by a long thrilling zoom downhill a straight path. Once we got to some large electricity towers, we turned left, off the road, to find the unmarked entrance where the actual forest trail began. We had to literally push our bikes through as the opening was narrow and overgrown, but once we got in, we never really got back on our bikes again…

Pushing through the forest trail
Pushing through the forest trail

The forest trail was really more of a hiking trail, narrow, with branches of trees stretched across the path, and a number of fallen logs and rocks in the way. Also with the poor condition of the bikes, braking became tricky with the slippery mat of leaves that covered the ground. We only managed a few meters stretch of clear path until we came to an abrupt halt again, and had to lift our bikes over the next obstacle. I suppose if you were a more experienced mountain biker, who knows how to hop and jump on a bike, it would be a ride-able trail, but most of us walked and pushing our bikes along most of the trail. Eventually we decided to ditch the bikes that had become quite cumbersome to push, behind a few tree’s slightly off the trail, and continue without them. I recommend having done this earlier since the trail doesn’t get any better as you go along.

Putting that saying about riding bicycles to the test
Putting that saying about riding bicycles to the test

Somewhere along the trail, as we were trying to find a clearing to the river, we met another group, gazing up towering tree. They were installing a zipline, across the small river that run across, that would soon be open for the public to use. We stayed a while and watched one of them fearlessly scaling back down the tree, without a harness, then eventually followed them further down the path, since they were heading to the other side side of the river.

Installing a zipline through the towering trees
Installing a zipline through the towering trees

As exciting as the thought of a zipline across a river, once we got to the actual river, the thought suddenly became less appealing. The heartbreaking sight of gushing blackened water, with a pungent chemical smell replaced what would have naturally been a refreshing beautiful stream. “Lugazi Sugar Factory” muttered a member of the other group who was guiding us, as a sort of explanation for who was responsible the awful polluted sight before us.

the river, blacked by pollution, that leads to Griffins falls
the river, blacked by pollution, that leads to Griffins falls

Having done some research about this later on, it was even more saddening to read that the pollution wasn’t new, and most of the action against it has been unsuccessful so far.

“Despite the negative findings of a water quality survey conducted at Mabira Forest Integrated Community Organization (MAFICO)’s request by the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA), repeated requests from MAFICO members to prevent the factory continuing to dump its waste in the river have come to nothing, … community members are still petitioning NEMA to take action.”

The conservation of Mabira forest has been a tough battle for environmentalists, i remember in 2007 when the Sugar Corporation of Uganda Limited, (jointly owned by the Government of Uganda and by the Mehta Group) announced plans to clear one-third of the Forest (around 70 square kilometers ), for sugarcane plantations! Although they didn’t go through with it, it sort of feels like they still won, since they are still destroying the forest by dumping their waste in the rivers that run through it.

It was a disappointing end to a challenging trail. We said our goodbye’s to the zipline group who continued onwards, and found an outcrop of rock, high above the disgusting river to take our lunch break. It was difficult to stay there long, with the smell, and sight, and once we began to notice flakes of ash falling out of the sky, we decided to start heading back.

We walked until we found where we had stashed our bikes, and then continued back. One of the girls however had hidden her bike especially well and had to go back and forth a few times before finding it!

The ride back through the village, for me, was the hardest bit. Perhaps I had exhausted the last bit of energy pushing the bike through the forest, or that I felt a little heavier and dispirited after the sight of the polluted river, or maybe it was just the afternoon sun, that felt hotter than ever, but I got to a point where even the chorus of kid’s that run behind us became annoying rather than amusing. It was tough. But the advantage of the trail through the village was that eventually we reached a few shops stocked with cold water and soda’s! After gulping down a few bottles of water, and staging some entertainment for a gathering crowd of locals who I assume were baffled at why we were torturing ourselves by cycling a long distance during the hottest part of the day, without any obvious or apparent reason or purpose. Eventually we made it back to the offices near the entrance of the forest, sweaty, exhausted, with squeaky bikes and possible a shade or two darker from the layer of dust and sun.

After a quick change we piled back into the cars and made our way back to Kampala. Overall it was a fun day trip, but I wouldn’t recommend the trail we took, unless you’re going to document the polluted river and do something about it.

Biking Mabira Forest-19 copy

Although remembering how to ride a bicycle helps, here are a few tips for cycling in Mabira Forest;

  • Bring your own helmet because the bikes don’t come with any. Also it helps to bring along a friend whose good at bargaining since they will first try to overcharge you for the bikes.
  •  Make sure you test out the bikes before agreeing on a hire price, the breaks, air pressure in the tires, oil up the gear chains, seat adjustments etc.
  • Riding with your seat low may look cool, and may feel safer since your closer to the ground and can easily put your feet down if you feel wobbly, but for long distance riding, it exhausts your legs out a lot faster, so if your not doing some BMX tricks, then keep the seat a little higher for easier peddling. I learnt this the hard way.
  • Wear biker shorts/pants, preferably with the extra padding on your butt, those hard little plastic seats will leave you sore for days. Even if they don’t have the extra padding, the elasticity and stretchiness will help prevent you from embarrassing rips, like these…Yes my favorite adventurer shorts couldn’t take all that low seat peddling.
  • 1 litter of water was barely enough, I could have used with an extra bottle. Alternatively, bring some extra money in change along, incase you pass a shop with cold water and soda’s.
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