"It seems I am trying to tell you a dream -- making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey ... that notion of being captured by the incredible, which is the very essence of dreams."
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

The last three weeks have been like a dream: tumbling over mountains, through forests, and coming face to face with hippos and hyenas in the heart of Africa's interior. It's been bright and beautiful, and bustling with some of the best people we've met. But it certainly hasn't been dark, despite the fact that Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi have respectively - and in recent living memory - been through brutal dictatorship, genocide, and civil war. Thankfully, on the streets,
'hakuna matata' - swahili for 'no worries' - is now the order of the day, and people seem to approach daily life with a tenacity and humour that quickly makes you forget about the past.

I'm not sure what the 'Real Africa' is really supposed to be, but this sure felt it: Naked light bulbs at nighttime strung up on colourfully painted shopfronts; larger than life African ladies, swaddled from head to toe in colourful fabrics, chatting away gregariously with assorted items balanced on their heads; tropical fruits aplenty; cheerful homegrown music piping out of bars and barbershops; and food vendors bent over metal buckets of burning charcoal, cooking up chapatis and roasting tasty bits of goat and corn-on-the-cob. It was a magnificent place to cycle, but before we got there, we had to head east, from Kenya.

It had been a couple of weeks since we’d escaped from baking Lake Turkana and we were ready for some more punishment. So, we decided to forgo the main highway connecting Kenya and Uganda and take the more ‘scenic route’ (read: obscenely hilly and bumpy dirt road) round the northern slopes of Mount Elgon.  As usual, the pain was worth the gain, and we were treated to stunning views up toward the summit, and down onto the hazy plains below. After the bleakness of Northern Kenya, the landscape seemed unnaturally saturated with colour: rich blue skies, earthy red soil under our tyres, and lush green fields and forests covering every inch of the hillsides. Tourists must have been
a rare sight here, because hoards of brightly uniformed school children would spill out of their classrooms to line the streets as we came by. They were too shy to say much, but the adults were jovial and eager to find out what we were doing – although by this point we'd come so far that many wouldn't accept that we’d cycled all the way there. After a night camping at a village police station, and then at the lovely Sipi Waterfalls, we made it back on to a tarmac road just in time to take shelter from our first tropical downpour. I dreaded to think what the rain would have done to the loose red soil that we’d been on for the last three days but I was glad we'd escaped in time. The intense showers have become a regular event now we’ve hit the rainy season but we normally see them coming and manage to dive into clumps of trees or under the eaves of an unsuspecting local’s hut. Inany case, the rain never lasts long and it cools the air for a brief while, until the sun comes out and the humidity returns.

Back on good quality roads and fueled by roadside ‘rolex’ (Ugandan street snack of choice – a fried egg wrapped in an oily chapatti), wemade fast headway toward the west of the country, stopping briefly in the town of Jinja to see the source-of-the-Nile modestly meandering ,out of Lake Victoria, and then again in Kampala for our usual ‘city itinerary' of clothe cleaning, satellite TV watching, and overeating of overpriced European coffee and food. Our decision to go all the way out to Uganda’s western border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo was the latest in a string of considerable detours, but we ,wanted to catch a ferry down Lake Tanganyika two weeks later, so we had some time to kill. And besides, Uganda was really beginning to grow on us.

People here smile and laugh so much. And they're also a nation of fellow cyclists. Throughout the middle-east, and North Africa, it was poor sad looking donkeys doing all the work. Now it was men on single speed bicycles with legs of steel. Some rode ‘bicycle-taxis’ with people perched on the back, others teetered along with huge unwieldy sacks of coal and vegetables, or jerry-cans of water, lashed to their racks. In the rural areas many bikes were laden with great bunches of freshly picked green bananas, hung off the bike like panniers, and precariously stacked up on the rack. On one occasion I was overtaken by a grinning teenager, tearing downhill at breakneck speed with a live pig tied to the rack, squealing and thrashing about and looking thoroughly terrified. Often we’d be surrounded by these bikers, who would enjoy the cycling camaraderie, and hold animated discussions about our strange looking bikes, whilst curiously pointing toward our internal gear systems and other unfamiliar components. Even ,after 8 months on the road, they all seemed fitter and stronger than us. But I suppose most of them have been doing it a lot longer than 8months, with heavier loads, and they don’t even have gears!

Anyhow, we continued on until the Rwenzori Mountains rose up in front of us, and it was time to turn south. In terms of heavyweight African mlocations, this part of Uganda had some serious contenders. First were the picturesque 'crater lakes', which pockmarked the land as a result of an ancient meteor storm. As we rode on, the cloud covered peaks of Africa's highest range, the Rwenzori’s, rose up on our right. Away to our left, were the primate filled jungles of Kibale National Park. Barely a days ride ahead, were the open savannahs of Queen Elizabeth National Park, and beyond them, the misty montane forests of Bwindi in which many of the world’s last wild gorillas are still just about clinging on.

As we approached Queen Elizabeth, a marker on the road told us we had reached the equator, and a few obligatory photographs later, we continued into the Southern Hemisphere. Cycling in most of Africa’s National Parks, as far as I know, is forbidden. But strangely, despite quite a healthy population of lions, hyenas, elephants and buffalo, the park authority at Queen Elizabeth were quite content to let us cycle the longest route through the park, down a quiet 80km stretch of dirt road where lion sightings are apparently quite common. This sounded terrifically exciting but perhaps not such a good idea. However, after consulting a few sensible looking locals, the verdict seemed to be that it was safe and that the lions here never attack people. Still nervous we continued to press the locals but the only lion-related incident anyone could remember was that of a slightly deranged local woman being taken in the night because she was sleeping outdoors in the bush.

So with the statistics apparently in our favour, we set off on the bikes. Just in the case the locals were wrong though, we came up with a cunning plan to deal with any unfriendly lions. In retrospect, it was obviously doomed to failure, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Firstly, Emily would hide behind me, whilst I grabbed the half-litre of petrol from my bottle cage, that we use for stove fuel. Whipping off the lid, I would quickly make a flaming torch using a
large stick with a couple of socks stuffed on the end, and wave this around like an angry caveman until the lion obediently ran away. If the danger was too imminent for this, I planned simply to light the open bottle and lob it at the offending beast as a kind of shambolic molotov cocktail. Fortunately, the closest we came to a lion was when a passing car stopped to tell us that there was one 2km up the road. We progressed - binoculars in hand - but it had gone by the time we got there.

We did see a few other things though, including deer, antelope, warthogs, and the odd cluster of buffalo, which we'd slip by discreetly with hearts in mouths. At one point, a family of elephants came crashing out into the road 40 metres ahead and the biggest of the bunch turned to give us a menacing stare. We screeched to a halt and tried to look nonchalant until they disappeared back into the bush. The most unnerving moments however, were when we couldn't see anything because of the thick undergrowth but were hit by the unmistakable pungent smell of 'large animal', which reminded me vividly of childhood visits to London Zoo.

When we stopped to make camp that night - still in the park - we joined up with a Belgian couple who were crossing Africa in their Range Rover, and headed to a designated camping area in a grassy clearing amongst some trees, on the banks of a small river. We were the only ones there but the river formed the border between Uganda and the
Democratic Republic of Congo, so two armed park rangers had been sent to stay the night with us to protect us from marauding Congolese rebels (although they didn't think there was any real threat). Initially, it seemed be an especially peaceful spot, but as the sun went down, and we settle around a camp-fire to cook our dinner, the whole area promptly erupted into life. I had never been in a Park like this at night, and the sensation that we were suddenly surrounded by wild animals was overwhelming. Firstly, loud grunts and splashes came up from the stream as the resident hippos got ready to come out of the water to feed. Up until this point I was considering wading across the shallow river so as Emily could get a photo of 'me in the Congo', but this was now out of the question. Next, loud piercing whoops started up in the trees around our clearing. I'd never heard any animal make that sound, but I knew exactly what it was because I'd heard kids in Ethiopia doing perfect imitations of these same noises when they were warning us not to camp around their village because of hyenas. We huddled in toward our fire and sent some nervous glances toward our armed guards, but they were happily finishing off our pasta and didn't seem bothered. Out in the woods, the hyenas must have spooked the baboons because they soon joined in, barking like crazy. We also began to smell the whiff of animal corpse wafting into the clearing. The mguards told us the hyenas must have made, or found a kill nearby. Between the hippos, the baboons, and the hyenas, the racket was unbelievable. It was like being in Jurassic Park, and we decided it was probably time to get to bed. Emily and I cautiously crept over to our tent and quickly brushed our teeth but before we'd had a chance to finish, two yellow eyes appeared in the reflection of my head torch, 20 metres away at the edge of the clearing. It was dark and the beam was too weak to see anything except the eyes, but whatever it was suddenly bolted sideways along the treeline. In the dim light, all we saw was a shadowy silhouette. Emily asked hopefully whether I thought it was a deer, but the animals gait looked more...doggy, to me. Joe, the Belgian had heard the commotion and came up behind us with his more powerful torch and shined it at the animal which was revealed to be a hyena. It was an pretty spine chilling moment, especially because it looked so demonic in the torchlight, with its eyes still reflecting a cold yellow glow. I flashed my light back to the original spot where it had run from and was horrified to see anther two pairs of yellow eyes at the treeline. We shouted for the guards who casually walked over and assured us they wouldn't attack. But I'd had enough. I took a quick pee (to avoid the possibility of having to do so later, alone) and we both scurried into our tent. Content in the relative safety of a thin sheet of canvas, we listened as the noises continued unabated, with elephant rumblings and lion grunts joining the fray, and a couple of hungry hippos snuffling around our tent. Then, in the morning as the sun came up, everything in a flash, returned to normal. When crawled out from our tent, back into our quiet riverside clearing, it was like we'd emerged from a dream. A few birds were twittering but all other signs of life had vanished. I was as if we'd accidentally stumbled into a secret world, and popped out the other side. After that, the prospect of seeing a lion from the bike didn't seem nearly so frightening.

Leaving the park, we continued up through the thick highland forests of Bwindi National Park in South Western Uganda, and on past the beautiful Lake Bunyoni into Rwanda. Rwanda is known - at least by its tourist board - as the country of a thousand hills, and it is incredibly hilly. It is also incredibly small though, and incredibly beautiful, so our stay in Rwanda was short and sweet. Kigali - the capital - was probably the most modern and expensive city we'd been to in Africa, so after a couple of evenings spent in fancy restaurants, we made a dash for Burundi with our budget still just about intact.

Cycling in Burundi was a bit of an enigma. The Foreign Office and Lonely Planet guidebook advises against ‘any travel outside the capital city Bujumbura', because of the recent civil war and instability.However, all the locals on the border in Rwanda seemed to think it was perfectly safe so we ventured on with caution. At the Burundian side of the border, the official in charge of handing out visa looked like a gangster, with a thick silver chain around his neck and a pair of
mirrored aviator sunglasses. He was also blaring Celine Dion music out a small ghetto blaster. 'This' I thought worriedly, 'is exactly the kind of psychotic eccentricity that has given the foreign office cause for concern'. In any case, it was too late to turn back so we bought our visas and carried on.

Burundi was magical. With stiff competition from Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda, (in our experience) it has been the friendliest sub-saharan African country we've visited. Having emerged from their recent troubles with a new lease of life, we were greeted with such enthusiasm and warmth wherever we went that we felt like celebrities. Dense crowds would form around us whenever we stopped in a village and anyone who spoke English (or more often, French) would come to the front to introduce themselves and strike up a conversation. They obviously saw very very few foreigners these days and were keen to get a good look at us. One man eyed Emily - who has gotten quite dark skinned of late - with particular curiosity. After a while he came forward looking intrigued and asked, 'so...are you a mzungu [white foreigner] or an arab?'. We assured him that we were all indeed mzungus.

After a couple of days of riding through the northern hills, we came to the end of the highlands, and the spectacular view down to Lake Tanganyika 1500 metres below us. Gazing down to the silvery lake with Bujumbura's tin roofs glinting like sequins on the shore, was like looking out of an aircraft. The ride down into the city was 33km of non-stop adrenaline fueled downhill. Swooping through the long sweeping curves and tight hairpins felt more like skiing than cycling. When we finally got to the bottom, the humidity was stifling and my insistence to get a cheap unventilated hotel room didn't help matters. Bujumbura was nonetheless a lively buzzing city, with plenty of decent food - perhaps a legacy from the days of french colonialism.

In an effort to comply with the advice of the foreign office we attempted to hitch a lift on a cargo boat down the lake to Tanzania but none were leaving in the near future so we saddled up and carried on down the lake road. We were glad we did. The scenery was some of the most picturesque of the whole trip, with green hills and the tranquil turquoise waters of Tanganyika, backed by the imposing mountains of the Congo on the Lake's far side. Beyond the mountains in the distance, rose huge and elegant cloud formations, looking like a cross between volcanic eruptions and nuclear mushroom clouds. I imagined it probably hadn't changed much since Dr Livingstone famously met Morton Stanley on these very same shores. The water was also bilharzia free (rare in Africa) so Emily even managed to have a long-awaited swim (whilst I fell asleep out of the sun underneath our tarpaulin). All too soon though, we reached the border town and were treated to one last night of chatting on the street to the lovely locals before we crossed over into Tanzania.

Currently, we're in Zambia, but this blog has gotten quite long enough so I'll leave it here. Besides, I'm sweating like a pig and need to get outside to cool off and go in search of some supper. More in a few days...