“I’m no David Attenborough, but trekking with the gorillas has been the greatest wildlife experience of my life,” said Ron Rutland, the ‘Fat Kid on a Bike’ who cycled through Uganda en route from Cape Town to London, sponsored by ABSA’s #HumanSpirit.
Ron is planning to travel through every African country and is a total rugby fanatic! He aims to arrive in London for the Rugby World Cup in August 2015. I organised Fat Kid’s Uganda gorilla trekking permits for him and we caught up when he was in Kampala. It was without doubt my #HumanSpirit moment of the week.
Diary of a Muzungu: What has your journey been like so far?
Fat Kid: I’m now 160 days into it and without sounding corny, it’s getting better and better each day. I’ve spent so much time organising, planning and sorting out visas for places like Eritrea and Somaliland, that I can’t wait to get there now.
I’m loving it, I’m absolutely loving it.
Diary of a Muzungu: What do you think of Uganda?
Fat Kid: I can honestly say that in 160 days cycling, the stretch from the Rwandese border and Kisoro, around Lake Mutanda, with views of the Virunga Volcanoes and on through Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, has been the most beautifully scenic part of my trip so far. It’s a truly unforgettable part of the world – but nobody knows about Uganda as a tourist destination!
Uganda has been one of the highlights of my trip, from start to finish.
Diary of a Muzungu: Have you tasted Ugandan food?
Ron and I discussed the Rollex – Uganda’s most famous street food.
Fat Kid: Rollex are a good nutritional balance; they’re particularly good for me because of all the carbohydrates.
Diary of a Muzungu: Can you beat my friend’s record of consuming six Rollex in a 24 hour period?
(He may be called the Fat Kid, but no, that Rollex record remains unbeaten!)
I had assumed – wrongly! – that Ron was at the peak of physical fitness before he embarked on his mammoth tour.
Fat Kid: Quite the opposite, I’d just recovered from an injury that needed surgery; with little training, the cycling was very tough going for the first two or three weeks. Everything became easier after that.
Diary of a Muzungu: What is the most useful thing you travel with?
Fat Kid: I have a very simply written letter saying that I am South African and explaining the purpose of my journey and the route. In the letter, I apologise for not speaking every language and say I have few needs apart from buying food, and thanking them for their hospitality. I have a copy of this letter in French, Arabic, Swahili and a few other key other languages.
Diary of a Muzungu: How did you feel about spending Christmas away from home?
Fat Kid: To be honest, there’s nothing I would rather be doing than this. I am living the dream! How exciting is that?
I’m a social person but also very happy in my own company. So far I have had about 30 days (out of 160) riding with people, but it’s very rare to be on my own. You are always surrounded by people. I haven’t yet got to the point where I felt lonely. I’m quite looking forward to those solitary moments in the desert.
One of my real frustrations, however, is people’s curiosity. You get stared at when you are eating, when you are putting up your tent, or cooking your food. You do feel like a circus freak. In Angola, 60 or 70 people watched me. The next morning I asked the local chief why everyone was staring at me. “They have never seen a white guy on a bike, and neither have I.” They might have seen the odd white person drive past in a UN vehicle, but they had never seen a white guy on a bike, put up a tent, or cook for himself.
I understand it, but the “Muzungu how are you?” does get a bit overwhelming. When you are cycling uphill and you get these constant questions, I think “I don’t want to be rude but actually I am completely shattered…”
Diary of a Muzungu: Your journey is called Lettie’s Ride. Who is Lettie?
Fat Kid: Lettie is a friend of mine who has breast cancer. She’s 36 and she has three kids. She has lived her life to the full; no-one could appreciate their health more than her. There are frequent sporting events, celebrating life for Lettie, like people running up Cape Town’s Table Mountain barefoot.
When I first planned this trip, it was just a selfish journey to watch the Springboks play rugby. I know how hard it is to do fundraising, so I didn’t want to commit to it when I knew how hard it was going to be just to cycle from Cape Town to London.
It was when Lettie’s husband sent an email saying that Lettie’s cancer had come back more aggressively that I decided to dedicate my ride to her. There have been days – like when I was pushing my bike through the sands of the Mozambique parks – when it’s flipping tough and you’re feeling crappy. Then you have to ask yourself, is it really that bad? I’ve been able to do this, I’ve chosen to do this, I’m not fighting a deadly disease.
The bike is bright pink and has the word Lettie written all over it. I think about Lettie every day.
I’m dedicating this ride to Lettie and I am also living this adventure. I want her to get the positive message; that’s what I get goosebumps about.
Diary of a Muzungu: So you’re a rugby fanatic! Tell me more.
Fat Kid: The Rugby World Cup in London 2015 gives me a date to work to, otherwise you could spend five years cycling through the whole of Africa.
After uni I played rugby in Australia for six months and then in Hong Kong. Four or five years ago, I set up a rugby tournament in South Africa. It’s an annual social rugby event that now has 100 teams competing.
I got to know Francois Pienaar through mutual friends. He is probably one of the most famous rugby players in South Africa. (He was captain of the Springboks rugby team at the 1995 World Cup, the famous rugby match that united the post-apartheid nation, made famous in the Clint Eastwood-directed film Invictus). Francois is my ambassador and Founding Chairman of the Mad ‘Make a Difference’ Foundation, who are doing a fundraising campaign around my trip.
Whatever route I take, I am going to cycle through Paris. On my last four or five days, Francois Pinard is going to cycle with me from Paris to London to the World Cup. There are many rugby lovers and South Africans in the UK, who I think will want to do the journey with us.
Hopefully, in my own little way, I can help to give Lettie strength. If I get to London and the Mad Foundation has raised 1 million rand as well, then I couldn’t be happier.
Diary of a Muzungu: How did you feel about being in Uganda when Mandela died?
I noticed the flags were at half-mast at the Ugandan parliament.
In some ways I wish I’d been in South Africa. From what people back home said, it was a mixture of feelings: sadness, but also a celebration of everything that was good about Mandela. Yes the country is mourning, but mourning together.
Like he did in ’95, and other times, Mandela has transcended everything, all the political crap and segregation that still exists in our society; not just black and white, but rich and poor. People talk about corruption in Uganda, but it is endemic in South Africa.
I wish Mandela had run the country longer. He was one of the only African leaders of that generation who gave up power voluntarily; that makes him unique too.
The week Mandela died, my African #HumanSpirit moment of the week was this: “Everyone I’ve met who has expressed their sympathy at the death of “Africa’s Father” or “Our Father”…it’s quite incredible the sheer number of times this happens a day.”
Diary of a Muzungu: How long did it take you to plan this trip?
In a sense, I’ve been planning this trip my whole life.
It took me six or seven months to actually plan this trip. I have put everything into this, literally. I’ve never been one to own a lot of stuff, so what I couldn’t sell, I gave to charity. I wasn’t going to pay money to put all my stuff in storage for two years.
The biggest decision was what kind of bike to buy. Now I’m on the road, I’m planning approximately 3 months ahead. Most of my planning is ‘visa driven’ that is to say it depends on getting visas to enter each country. For that I rely on a visa services company.
So, for example, while I am in Uganda, DHL will send my passport for South Sudan to Gulu. Once I’m out of Uganda I can send my second passport back to Cape Town to get the visa for the next countries: Eritrea and Sudan. I spent a few months planning the route and visas in advance. This is probably the best practical thing I did before I left, and no delays so far….
Diary of a Muzungu: How have you funded your trip?
Although cycling is a free way to travel, I spent all my savings buying the bike and setting it up for the trip. Whatever happened, I was leaving anyway. I’ve heard so many stories about people not having money and picking up sponsors along the way.
Once you are on the road, it really isn’t an expensive way of travelling. My budget is R200 or $20 a day. This covers visas and everything, including food, and accommodation, when I need it. Africa is not the cheapest place to travel by any means, but it’s a lot cheaper than just sitting on my couch in Cape Town. You know what I mean?
I have friends who have done well in business who helped me out. They said we can’t sell our businesses and put our wives on ice for two years. We can live our dream through you.
ABSA are my main sponsor. They sponsor the #HumanSpirit. [For them, what is a better example of the human spirit than someone cycling through every country in Africa to watch their rugby team - the Springboks - play in London?]
Diary of a Muzungu: What did you do before you embarked on this trip?
I’ve always been a bit of a restless soul.
I spent most of my career working in banking, in London. Next I set up a business and lived in Thailand for three years. Living in south-east Asia was a wonderful experience. Out of necessity, I then went back to banking, this time in Hong Kong for 3 years. Four or five years ago, I felt ready for a change so I went back to South Africa and set up the rugby tournament. It was fun but I wasn’t building anything for the future so I thought now is the ideal time for me to go and do what I want and to get it out of my system.
Diary of a Muzungu: Get it out of your system? Or ignite an even bigger flame? I asked.
The Fat Kid laughed.
Diary of a Muzungu: How do you keep in contact with everyone back home?
A GPS device records my location every day and this can be tracked on my website. I’m not a great writer, but I do record a few minutes about my experiences a few days of the week. Phone coverage has been surprisingly good. In fact, my family say they hear more from me than they ever thought they would.
After Diary of a Muzungu’s interview with Fat Kid on a Bike in Kampala
A few days after our interview, Ron cycled East to Jinja for some white water rafting with Nile River Explorers, and then North, passing through Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary at Nakasangola “my goodness was the rhino tracking another memorable wildlife experience!”
I told Ron he simply couldn’t miss Wild Frontiers’ breath-taking boat ride to the bottom of the falls in Murchison Falls National Park.
“The Murchison Falls boat ride will certainly go down as a highlight of not only my time in Uganda, but of my entire 5 and a half months on the road so far!”
We last spoke when Ron was in Gulu, planning to cycle into South Sudan. He sounded a little bit uncertain about what was happening next. I’m not surprised: leaving the Pearl of Africa and going into a war zone!
At the border, he commented on “the warm welcome, hospitality, and help received from the Ugandan soldiers based on the South Sudan border.”
Ron’s route was due to take him through Juba:
“I had to accept the very insistent advice of the UN, 50 km inside South Sudan, that to continue any further would be ‘completely reckless’, and I made the decision to back track to Uganda. Seeing for myself the human tragedy unfolding in South Sudan put a little cycle trip into real perspective.”
As a rule, Ron’s transcontinental route sees him exit a country using a different border to the one he enters the country; South Sudan was the first country – and let’s hope only country – where he failed to achieve this.
Ron sounded quite philosophical though:
“This is Africa, after all. I’m aware that things can change at any time.”
Of this experience, he said:
What I will try never take for granted again: the freedom of travel within and between countries. After having to make an abrupt UN enforced U-turn in South Sudan, to having to re-route through Ethiopia and Sudan to get to Eritrea from Djibouti, to the headaches I’m now having in plotting a way across Sudan through Darfur to Chad, it has made me realise the incredible privilege it is to be able to travel and cycle freely across and (even with the hassle of visas sometimes) between most countries.
As Kingsley Holgate reminded me during a long liquid meeting before I left, this expedition ‘isn’t about the bike’, but rather ‘an epic African adventure which you happen to be doing on a bicycle’ – a huge difference!
As we said goodbye, Ron invited me to accompany him on a leg of his trip. How I would LOVE to! (I wonder if I can make it to West Africa in time to meet him?)
If not West Africa, we might have to wait until London 2015… my dad is a rugby fan(atic) too and I have a feeling he will be enjoying the #HumanSpirit watching the Springboks play at Twickenham rugby grounds in August 2015!