Rob Armstrong from Minto shares his African motorcyle adventure with our readers

For the last 30 years I have been collecting and restoring vintage motorcycles.

By Rob Armstrong
Thursday, 24th January 2019, 2:06 pm
Updated Thursday, 24th January 2019, 2:09 pm
On the road...Rob Armstrong and William Irving loved their African travels so much theyve agreed it wont be their last trip.
On the road...Rob Armstrong and William Irving loved their African travels so much theyve agreed it wont be their last trip.

In my 20s, I was a member of the Edingurgh University motorcycle club and made regular trips round the west coast of Scotland, Ireland and the Western Isles on a 1976 Triumph Bonneville.

Bitten by the adventure, I later enjoyed successful trips through Europe, Cambodia and East Africa.

So when William Irving, from Kirkbride, asked if I’d be interested in biking through Uganda, Rwanda and down to the Congo, I jumped at the chance!

Trusted bike...Rob Armstrong from Minto travelled from Uganda, into Rwanda and down to the Congo on a 1981 V50 Motorguzzi, still in its original Dutch army green livery.

William’s dad is a now a Ugandan resident and lives on the edge of a small town called Jinja by Lake Victoria.

Some years back William sent several former Dutch army Motorguzzis to Jinja. Used for various trips since, they were still in good shape.

Our chosen bikes were perfect for African adventures. Mine was a 1981 V50 Motorguzzi, still in original green livery.

Normally people attempt trips like this on large and heavy BMW tourers made famous by Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman.

But we wanted to do it on 40 year old machines we could fix ourselves.

Light and with nobbly tyres, they were perfect for an African adventure.

The plan was to ride from Jinja, across Uganda, into Rwanda and hit the Congo in one week. We’d then turn round and come back via a different route.

One pannier on each bike was filled with everything we would need to fix them.

The first day’s riding was trouble free, though the route we took was busy – filled with trucks making weekly trips from Mombasa to the Congo.

Negotiating our way around Kampala was a nightmare.

Uganda is a rich, luscious country with clean air, lakes and mountains but Kampala is a bustling third world city with no road rules.

Road surfaces can be terrible too; you can be riding in traffic then be faced with a crater big enough to lose a family hatchback!

Once out of the city the roads opened up and the air became clear and, as we climbed the Northern Hills, the temperature dropped.

This amazing country’s real beauty revealed itself.

Riding through terraced mountains and villages, the roadsides packed with makeshift markets, I was amazed by the abundance of unidentifiable fruit and vegetables.

We crossed the Equator at 4pm and made Kabale in West Uganda by night fall.

The next morning was an early start, our aim being to get to the Rwandan border.

With sweeping bends through the mountains on really smooth tarmac, riding was a real joy.

Once out of the bush the landscape dramatically changed to manicured terraced hills growing everything from maize to their staple food crop, matoke, a banana-like fruit.

As we approached the border, the long inclines were lined with old fashioned bicycles loaded with sacks of crops and wood. In Uganda it is a status symbol to own a motorbike but in Rwanda it was the humble bicycle.

Crossing the Rwandan border was a nightmare. We were shuffled from tin shed to concrete bunker with handfuls of forms and US dollars to pay border guards.

There was quite a strong gun presence so arguing was not an option.

Finally, after 100 dollars each for visas we already had and an Ebola test, we got through and one of the officials called out: “This is what Brexit will be like!”

Entering Rwanda was a different world; there was no rubbish, buildings were neat and, as far as the eye could see, every inch was a patchwork quilt of crops.

It was the most beautiful countryside I’d ever seen; like being in the Highlands of Scotland, only greener, with every mountain cultivated.

Newly-funded roads through the mountains from Kisoro to Gisenyi meant it was the most amazing motorcycling experience of my life – sweeping roads and switchbacks with sheer drops on one side.

Gisenyi was an old trading town on the edge of Lake Kivu, split down the middle by the Congolese border.

On our side we had peace and a certain order. On the other, armed gangs and general anarchy. We wanted to see the other side but it was too dangerous.

Following the side of Lake Kivu, we stayed in lodges by the shore looking across to tiny islands where, as the sun went down, local fishermen paddled out in dug out boats.

Needless to say, we lived on Tilapia fish for days!

But every day in Rwanda was a day too short.

Riding through villages we were hit by amazing aromas of food. And when we stopped we were surrounded by inquisitive children and women with handfuls of dried fish and bananas.

At Cyangugu, we were faced with the difficult decision to enter the Congo.

Our bikes were quite powerful and very noisy and another white tourist had just been murdered on the Gorilla trail. So we could, safely, go no further.

On the trip back we spent more time with Rwandans, learning about the genocide 25 years ago – one million Tutsis were slaughtered.

Reluctantly, we were taken to a derelict church which was left as one of many memorials to the dead.

As many as 2000 Tutsis crammed into that church and not one survived.

Hundreds of churches are now memorials with bones arranged on shelves and skulls lined up 100 deep.

But the warmth and generosity of the Rwandans was compelling.

Arriving back in Jinja, sitting drinking a cold beer, we both agreed it would not be our last African motorcycle adventure...