Dusty Trails and Hidden Waterways

Bikerafting the wetlands of Mabamba Bay

Feature type Story

Read time 5 mins

Published Jul 27, 2022

Author Jan Bakker

Photographer Lawrence Musoke

Jan Bakker Jan develops and promotes underrated and underexposed adventure destinations through his work as an expedition leader, guidebook author and outdoor tourism consultant in places like Iraqi Kurdistan, Tajikistan and Uganda, where he currently lives with his family.

Connecting peninsulas and islands by packraft and mountain bike, Jan Bakker embarked on a mini-expedition through the less-seen side of Uganda. Jan’s journey took him beyond the tourist hotspots and bustling towns of East Africa, and deep into densely vegetated wetlands and endless red dirt trails.

A resident of Uganda himself, Jan’s desire to explore the hidden and understated led him to elusive native wildlife, and peaceful, traffic-free isolation in the waterways of Mabamba Bay. 

It’s busy in the small port of Nakiwogo. The ferry is about to leave and people are rushing to get on board. I manage to find myself a small landing for my packraft, away from the curious crowds. The water looks foul, with a green slushy film floating on the top surface. I push my raft into Lake Victoria to start my 50km journey across Mabamba Bay.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic people have been searching for ways to escape the crowds of the city, and not just in Europe or the U.S. Outdoor sports like mountain biking and running have been booming worldwide ever since. For Ugandan cities like Kampala and Entebbe, this is no different, and both cities are blessed with an incredible outdoor playground on their doorstep, just a short boat ride away.

Boat landing sites give me a great sense of adventure. They breathe possible. You paddle for a couple of kilometres and you’re away from everything, you literally leave noise and air pollution behind, perhaps still looming over the city in the distance. Landing sites enable you to plan routes that would otherwise be impassable, creating lines on the map that wouldn’t exist without them. Throw yourself a packraft and mountain bike in the mix and you’ve got yourself a proper adventure.

The first port of call is Lulongo, a small landing site that’s primarily used by fishermen. It’s tucked away in a small bay, only 3km from Entebbe as the crow flies. But it’s a world away from buzzing boda bodas, shopping malls and tarmac. Arriving anywhere in rural Uganda as a mzungu (white person) usually attracts quite a bit of attention. Doing so in a bright yellow packraft with a bike strapped on top of it raises this to a whole new level. In all fairness, it might attract quite a few onlookers as well in say, Burton-Upon-Stather.

This is my very first time bikerafting. As with many of my adventures, I just go out and do it and figure it out along the way. In the words of Pipi Longstocking:

‘I have never tried that before, so I think I should definitely be able to do that’.

I’m packing up the raft, and strap it onto my handle bars to start the second stage of my journey. It’s easy cruising on the numerous small community trails that connect quaint villages and farmland. With a sense of direction, you can avoid riding on main dirt roads and stick to beautiful single tracks that wind their way through the fertile fields of Central Uganda.

Today’s goal is a lush hill called Nkima, a spectacular spot that looks out over the vast swamp of Mabamba Bay and Lake Victoria. Nature reserves in Uganda come in different shapes and sizes, there’s the explicit beauty of places like the Virunga volcanoes in the south of the country and the endless savannah of Murchison Falls National Park in the north.

In some places, you need to get closer and immerse yourself in that environment to really appreciate their natural splendour. The wetlands in Uganda are one of those places – and the great thing is, you don’t have to travel far to get there.

you need to get closer and immerse yourself in that environment to really appreciate its natural splendour

The only thing I hear is my paddle stroke and some of the swamp’s residents

After a delicious lunch at the Nkima Forest Lodge, perched on top of the hill amidst a dense, old-growth forest, I head down with just my raft to search for one of the most elusive birds in East Africa, the Shoebill Stork. It’s the strangest prehistoric-looking bird, more suited to a Jurassic Park film set rather than the real world. It’s notoriously hard to find, but if you do find it, it usually stays put, feeling totally unthreatened by humans.

The Mabamba wetland is a vast papyrus swamp with a labyrinth of narrow waterways. It is designated as a Ramsar site to protect this vulnerable habitat for waterbirds, mammals and aquatic life. I’m gliding through one of the channels where the shoebill is often seen, it’s silent and I realise just how understated this place is. The only thing I hear is my paddle stroke and some of the swamp’s residents, like the African Jacana and Goliath Heron.

After pushing my boat forward with my arms through a particular narrow channel, suddenly I’m close up with the Shoebill. It looks me straight in the eyes, undeterred. If this water safari was on land, I guess I could say I ticked off one of the big five.

The next morning, I am keen to leave before sunrise to beat the midday heat, as this expedition is right on the equator. I’m setting up my raft with a crowd, as usual. I hear them chatting and pointing with a slight worry on their faces, and immediately I think there might be something I don’t know but should. Crocodiles? Hippos? When I ask one of the men what the discussion is about, he laughs at my worries.

‘They think your boat will not make it to the other side. The reeds and papyrus will pierce through it,’ he explains.

They probably think this raft is an ordinary dinghy that springs a leak at the first brush with vegetation. I assure them I should be fine, and besides that, I can swim!

Without any troubles I make it to the other side, Busi Island. This is an isolated spot, not connected to the mainland and almost traffic-free. I peek at the map and see an interesting track skimming the northern part of the island. It’s a true cyclist’s paradise with a maze of small tracks and trails. Tourists don’t go here, and wherever I go I’m chased by excited kids, trying to outrun me. Via a broad ridge that forms the backbone of the island, I’m navigating to the channel that connects with the mainland.

Far away from the bustling tourist hot spots with their oversized Toyota LandCruisers and swanky lodges; drifting through the lush vegetation, navigating the skinny red dirt trails and rolling through sleepy villages with thatched rooftops, I look back – this is the Africa I’m looking for.

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