The best and worst awards for our motorcycle expedition across Africa, Europe and Asia.
Whilst the two of us are in agreement, we realize that many may disagree and so we welcome any comments.
MOST ENJOYABLE COUNTRY AWARD
AFRICA – TANZANIA
Tanzania just eclipses Kenya, Namibia and South Africa as our favourite country in Africa. Good infrastructure, decent roads, amazing scenery, friendly people, and abundant wildlife.
the snow capped peaks of Kilimanjaro;
the glorious plains and wildlife of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater;
spicy and exotic Zanzibar;
our second favourite African city, Dar Es Salaam (Cape Town being our first);
a thoroughly enjoyable stay in Tanga on the east coast;
and our all time favourite camping spot on our whole trip, Lake Charla.
Riding towards Ngorogoro Crater
Snow peaked mountains in Tanzania
Lake Charla … elephants at the water hole
Taking a ride on a Dhow in Zanzibar
Lake Charla with foothills of Kilimajaro in the background…
EUROPE – SCOTLAND(to be more precise West Scotland on a sunny day)
Many people are already aware of the amazing places to see in Turkey, Austria, Italy, Spain, France, Greece etc…and we were privileged to do the European grand tour and take in many of the sights.
Italy was absolutely fascinating, superb architecture, rich history, good food and wine, but not the easiest place to motorcycle in due to local driving conditions. . Good, but not great.
France was our biggest surprise. It is Britain’s next door neighbour and often maligned by Americans for being, well French, and by the English for old rivalries and wars over the centuries. However, we found it to be a stunning country and a motorcycling heaven. The Alps, Provence, the Southern coast, Loire valley, the wine-lands of Burgundy, pretty Brittany, the battle fields of Normandy and the many charming villages and towns we rode through. So much to see and we were treated very well by everyone we met… even by the Gendarmes.
However, taking the best motorcycling country in Europe award is Scotland…. especially western Scotland (see UK revisited chapter).
Pretty Scottish villages on west coast. An incredibly beautiful part of the world
Due to the Gulf Stream that course up the west of the British Isles some parts of northern Scotland that are not far from the Arctic Circle are quite mild. It is, however, safe to say that the weather isn’t always as glorious and when I was there and can be decidedly wet and blowy.
Its gets even more like Tibet … mountains and big hairy things in the road.
WORST COUNTRY AWARD
There were no countries we did not enjoy to one degree or another.
Ethiopia, undoubtedly rich in history and resplendent in natural beauty is a bit of a tragedy on the human side.
The country, especially the cities seems to have been left to rot and stagnate. Ethiopians, a handsome lot as people go, appeared to be incredibly needy and nearly always had their hand out stretched begging for money. They often leaped out at us or grabbed our arms whilst shouting… ‘You, You, You…Money, Money, Money’.
It was tiresome, annoying and ever so slightly sad.
Meeting fellow bikers heading south at Ethiopian/ Sudan border
The former and now derelict train station in Addis Ababa
Cute little things .. but they always had their hand outstretched begging for money
Fanny surrounded by little friends in north west Ethiopia
Having been robbed blind by FTI Consulting, I need to earn a crust somehow… so when in Ethiopia do as the Ethiopians do…
CHINA is a country on a continental scale and by far the most varied and diverse country we went to.
There were impressive and well planned super cities like Chengdu, Nanchang, Beijing and Shanghai, and prettier tourist towns like Lijiang, Yangshuo and Dali. We also rode through some of the most charming and idyllic countryside I have ever seen. Some rural areas have remained as they have been for centuries, despite the rapid pace of development going on around them.
But in China there are also some of the worst and most polluted places I have ever seen. Environmental plunder, architectural vandalism, motoring misery and pitiful squalour on an unprecedented scale. Quite a shock.
Some of the second and third tier Chinese cities were absolute shockers. Polluted and crowded beyond belief, bad roads and atrocious traffic jams, ridiculously bad urban planning and blighted by hideous buildings as far as the eye could see. Hong Kong and China seem to have a fatal attraction with adorning the outsides of their ugly concrete boxes with cheap toilet tiles.
Whether fascinating or depressing; ugly or stunningly beautiful; our experience riding over 13,000 kilometers through China was hugely rewarding and something we will never forget.
BIGGEST SURPRISE AWARD – SUDAN.
Sudan was our biggest surprise and we thoroughly recommend visiting.
It was a complete re-write of everything I had previously thought about its people and their culture. The kindness, politeness and gentleness of many of the people we met was incredible and we are very grateful to the hospitality extended to Fanny and I by many of the people we encountered.
That said, a cold beer in the scorching heat would be nice, as would a bacon sarnie with HP sauce, but I guess you can’t have everything. Treat it as a liver detox!
Kindness and hospitality given to Fanny and I in the middle of the Nubian desert in Sudan. Its strange that those with so little always offered us so much … and the converse!
Long sand roads .. and scorching heat in Sudan
Very friendly people
Replacing the starter relay in the middle of the Nubian desert in 50+ degrees heat.
Our kind host Mohammed and his children on banks of the River Nile in Sudan
Fanny with the guys who helped us repair her bike
Yes… there are pyramids in Sudan too
Pyramids in Sudan
We never really had any very bad experiences.
We managed to cross Africa without being eaten by wild animals, without having to pay a bribe, without being infected by deadly diseases, nor kidnapped by pirates or Jihadi nutters.
Our KTM 990 Adventure motorcycles have been superb, a joy to ride and very reliable.
The vast majority of people we encountered on the expedition have been wonderful and treated us very well… the only exception being a few excitable types in Ethiopia who threw stones at us or lashed out as we were riding by with whips and sticks. Most of the border crossings and tourist locations attracted annoying touts, “shiftas” and fraudsters who were keen to relieve us of the few possessions we had. They were all unsuccessful.
A particular low was early on in the expedition when Fanny lost control of her motorcycle in the Namib Desert and came off at speed.
Fortunately, Fanny and her KTM motorcycle are a tough team and in no time were back together charging through the desert, albeit with a few scrapes and bruises.
In Europe our experience in Switzerland was not great, Fanny got arrested for involvement in an accident that wasn’t her fault, everything always seemed to be closed, everything was expensive, and we could hardly describe the Swiss as the friendliest people we met on our 53,800 kilometer ride around the world.
That said Switzerland is a very pretty country and we enjoyed riding through the Alps and up and down the many meandering passes.
In China/Asia I think the worst experience was just outside Chongqing City when a traffic official threw a traffic cone at Fanny while she was riding on the highway and knocked her off her bike. Anywhere else in the world this would be considered a serious criminal offence and front page news, but in China abuse of power by the authorities is common place and the “people” can’t do much about it. Fanny was injured slightly and very upset by the incident, but she managed to get back on her motorcycle and carry on.
Not being allowed to ride in certain Chinese cities and on most of the Chinese highway network is also pretty annoying and downright unnecessary in modern China on a modern motorcycle.
Apart from these incidents, and of course me getting stopped by the police at every single road block in Tibet, we had a really great adventure in China and had the chance to see places that very few people even know about, let alone visit.
USA? Its a continent sized and a very well developed country that most non-Americans will know well enough through the ubiquitous TV shows and movies. Big, amazing wilderness, beautiful scenery, wealthy, but with a dark and sinister underbelly, especially in the inner cities.
To to be honest we still have a lot of riding to be done and places to see in the USA.
So far we have explored Washington, Oregon, Montana, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado in the west, and New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Ohio in the east. The south and the center remains to be explored.
From what I’ve seen of the rest of world, America sits in the middle ground. Its easy to get around, everything is super convenient, there is not a great deal of culture or history, the roads are far too straight and dull, and its not as “great” as Americans think it is. Nothing really interesting, and nothing really bad, except the food which is on the whole….a mixture of sugar and lard with a sprig of rocket.
I am afraid to so that Fanny doesn’t like America, but then she is a pinko commie!
South America? That remains an adventure for the future.
A fuzzy unfocused picture of one of the officials who threw a traffic cone at Fanny and knocked her off her motorcycle. My hands were shaking with rage but I resisted the urge to administer some summary justice and so we got back on our motorcycles and carried on.
These police in Hubei were very friendly and kind… in fact with a couple of exceptions that we write about in the diary, the authorities in China treated us well.
BEST CITY AWARD
AFRICA – DAR ES SALAAM
When riding a motorcycle through Africa the last places you really want to see are the cities. The joy of riding through Africa is the beautiful countryside, meeting its people, and enjoying the amazing African flora and fauna. However, if pressed to pick an African city I would say Dar Es Salaam because it is a very interesting and lively city, friendly people, good food, and one of the few cities in Africa I could live in outside South Africa. Traffic is quite bad though, but nothing two bikers from Shanghai can’t handle.
A dhow in Zanzibar
Having a coffee in a street in Zanzibar
Dar es Salem from the ferry
EUROPE – Istanbul
It is a difficult call to decide on the best city award for Europe. We enjoyed many. Lucca, Rome, Florence and Pompei in Italy; Saint Lo in France; St. Sebastian in the Basque Country; Barcelona in Spain; Saltzburg and Vienna in Austria; and Old Town Rhodes in Greece. We thoroughly enjoyed them all.
However, if we are pushed to choose one then Istanbul takes the award. Its got it all… great food, wonderful art, kind friendly people, fascinating history, amazing architecture, the east meets west straits between Black Sea and Marmara Sea, and yet its very much a first world city, things work and it feels very welcoming and exciting to be there.
Fanny wandering along the streets of Taksin in Istanbul… a super city.
Enjoying the cafes of Istanbul
ASIA/China – LHASA (followed by CHENGDU)
I am not even going to consult Fanny because she will say Shanghai. It’s like asking a panda what its favourite food is. I thought our ride through China was absolutely fascinating. There are hundreds of cities in China with populations over a million people… many are over 20 million and therefore bigger than many countries in the world.
Each city is diverse with the richest and poorest, ugliest and prettiest and tastiest and revolting all in one place. Cities to mention are Beijing where I went to university and have a special fondness for, colourful and spicy Chengdu in Sichuan (and prettiest women!), exotic Dali in Yunnan, the amazing “Red City” of Nanchang in Jiangxi, so called because its the home of the “red” revolution.
However, our ride through Tibet is probably one of the highlights and so therefore Lhasa, its provincial capital stands out as the best city to see in respect to scenery, architecture, history and “never seen before” general interest.
Me outside the most sacred temple in Lhasa
Fanny and I high up on the Tibet/Qinghai Plateau… the world’s highest.
Just outside Lhasa in Tibet
Fanny and Si Ba (a Lama friend we made on the road) walking down the high street in Lhasa
Africa – Addis Ababa …
We were looking forward to Addis Ababa, a name that conjured up exotic images formed from school days for me. However, when we got there we found it to be a complete karsi. The decrepit and forlorn looking train station from a bygone era pretty much sums up Addis Ababa ‘s decline into squalour and poverty.
Bus station in Addis Ababa
Again corruption and inability to use a condom are to blame. Aggressive touts, annoying kids, unfriendly and hostile looking soldiers and policeman, and crumbling and decaying infrastructure. Its a big disappointment.
Fortunately we found refuge in a little oasis in the middle of this complete dog nest called “Wim’s Holland House”. Not the greatest backpackers in Africa, but the Dutch owner, Wim runs a decent hostel that serves more than the Ethiopian staple dish of Tibis and sour pancakes and has a well stocked English pub-like bar that serves draft St.George’s beer.
ASIA – CHINA
China is basically a large continent and currently going through the biggest phase of development any country has been through…ever, and so some of its second and third tier cities (or lower) can easily qualify for worst, ugliest, most polluted, most corrupt, most congested, unhealthiest city anywhere on the planet.
Take your pick.
Many people in China and Taiwan throw rubbish and pollutants into the rivers, streams, or just outside their homes ….anywhere except a rubbish bin. Its extremely depressing and disturbing. Hidden industrial pollution is off the scale.
A lot of China looks like this… a dusty, muddy, grey construction site on the cheap.
An articulated lorry on its side in a dusty China street… quite normal
EUROPE – LUTON … Picking a worst city in Europe is a difficult one.
Athens promised so much and delivered so little. We did wander around to see the sights of Ancient Greece, but the modern day city was depressing and the economic gloom palpable.
The city of my birth, London, is a mixed bag. A disappointment on many levels, can no longer be considered “English”, but still an iconic and interesting city if you focus on the positives such as history, art and culture.
However, if I have to pick a candidate for worst city in Europe then I am going to say Luton or Slough in the United Kingdom.
Sorry Luton and Slough…… someone has to come last …..and you made no effort not to.
WORST FLEAS, TICKS & LICE – ETHIOPIA
The mangey cats and dogs throughout Ethiopia are covered in them, as are most of the carpets, furniture and bedding. The lush grassland, especially after the rainy season is also home to ticks. As we were camping we had to remove quite a few of these little blood suckers that somehow found their way into various nooks and “fannys”.
“No” Best Flea Award….unsurprisingly!
BEST DRIVING STANDARD AWARDS –
Africa …South Africa (Western Cape)
Europe … Germany
China … umm? Let’s say Hong Kong … the standard is so incredibly poor.
Asia … Japan
WORST DRIVING AWARDS –
Europe …. Italy
The World …. everywhere in China, followed very closely by Egypt and Bangkok in Thailand which is dangerous on a bike.
Sri Lanka … driving standard is also pretty ropey … but at least its slow.
Tanzanian bus and truck drivers could take some kind of bad driving award judging by how many we saw overtaking dangerously or wrecked by the side of the road, but Egypt takes the “worst driving” award in Africa by a mile.
They are absolute shockers. Maybe its because everyone is too busy shouting into their mobile phones all the time, or perhaps because everyone employs millimetre collision avoidance techniques, sometimes with success and sometimes without. I saw a taxi mount a curb as the driver attempted to tackle a roundabout with one arm twisted around the wheel and the other holding a phone to his ear.
Rather than put his mobile phone down and use both arms to turn the wheel he preferred to carry on talking, veer off the road and mow down some pedestrians.
Me and my KTM at the Great Pyramids
Tahrir Square, in cairo with the government building we had to go to in order to extend our visas at the top left hand side. The Spring revolution was in full swing when we arrived in Cairo and so it was an interesting time.
BEST MOTORCYCLING LOCATION –
We have a difference of opinion due to our different levels of riding experience. Fanny goes for Tanzania for the same reasons (above) as for best country and I go for Namibia, to my mind the most awesome motorcycling country… anywhere.
Challenging, technical in parts, mind blowing scenery and importantly very few people and other vehicles. Its got sand, gravel, rocks, hills, deserts, salt pans, seascape, bush, wild animals, birds and fresh air…. AND no road blocks, no speed bumps, no police and no speed cameras. I also really liked the Nubian deserts of Sudan. Clean, beautiful and spectacular.
Fanny cruising along the gravel roads in the Namib desert
Left or right? Freedom to do whatever.
BEST MOTORCYCLING LOCATION _ EUROPE …. Western Scotland (in the sun) followed by France
Scotland was a big surprise. In Jubilee year, 2012 when Fanny and I arrived in the UK we planned to ride to Scotland, but the weather was absolutely atrocious. A year later during what everyone was calling “The Summer of 2013” the weather was absolutely glorious and western Scotland gave me some of the best riding I have ever experienced. Not to take anything away from Scotland, my KTM 990 Supermoto T I was riding was one of best motorcycles I have ever ridden. I have to say it was an awesome ride and Great Britain was truly “great”.
This is what motorcycling is all about. Peace, fresh air, beautiful scenery and in the seat of perhaps the best road bike I have ever ridden… the
ASIA …. Tibetand Cardomom mountains in Cambodia
Who, being given the chance, is not going to vote Tibet as one of the best motorcycling destinations on the planet? Not me.
Also, Cardomom mountains in Cambodia are very interesting and enjoyable on a bike.
Cardomom Mountains in Cambodia
Yak 1000 Adventure
USA – Valley of Gods, Utah
The best adventure motorcycling I have come across so far in the USA is probably the unearthly Valley of Gods in southern Utah. I have ridden all over the USA on various machines over the year, but there is still a lot for me to see and explore and so there may be better places, but the Valley of Gods, although quite small is a superb ride.
Valley of Gods on Honda Africa Twin (BDR Utah)
WORST MOTORCYCLING LOCATION AWARDS
All African and Chinese inner cities (except Cape Town and Windhoek)
Riding through any of the African Capital cities was tiresome, annoying, stressful and decidedly dangerous… in particular Cairo, Nairobi and Addis Ababa. It was no problem technically for either of us, we come from Shanghai after all where the traffic is atrocious and ride our bicycles everyday, but the appalling driving standards, poor urban planning and ever increasing traffic volume made riding less fun than it should be.
Whilst we rode on appalling roads and surfaces, such as the road from Marsabit to Moyale in north Kenya, they presented the sort of challenges bikers relish and we confronted and overcame them with a huge sense of 成就感 and enjoyment.
Worst Motorcycling Experience in Europe … again the inner cities of Italy and England spring to mind…. but no where near as bad as China or Egypt.
In England the speed cameras ruin motorcycling and in Italy the narrow medieval roads through the towns, and aggressive and poor driving standard by Italians make riding a bit stressful, but not too bad.
In London, there are feral “non indigenous” teenagers who ride scooters, terrorize people, and steal with impunity because the police do nothing. These thugs also spray acid into people’s faces from squeezy bottles or attack people with hammers and angle grinders ….and get away with it because the ethnic majority have voted for treacherous politicians like Khan and Abbott who support these hooligans because they think the indigenous English deserve it.
The police, courts and authorities are stuck between a rock and a hard place and so they are largely impotent. They stick to arresting soft targets like 1970s DJs, non contentious traffic offences and local middle class people for Orwellian “thoughtcrimes”.
When I was a police officer in London in the 1980s it was urban chaos then, lots of race riots, inner city anomie, and quite dangerous. However, you did your job, your colleagues and bosses supported you, and you got promoted or advanced to more interesting jobs based on merit and ability. Now in politically correct and easily offended Britain its the opposite and so basically the police have given up and much of London is a “no go” ghetto.
By comparison, when we were riding in north Kenya, borders with Somalia, east Ethiopia, central and north Sinai and the western Sahara ISIS were just starting to take hold and there was a real possibility of running into a pickup truck of crazy Islamists. However, there were lots of armed police and army, local Bedouins were friendly and helpful, we were on fast powerful motorcycles, able and allowed to defend and look after ourselves, and so the odds were even.
Our advice is don’t ride into London. Ride around it, or park outside and take public transport into the tourist areas, see the changing of the guard, the museums, art galleries, theaters, cafes and shops and then get out as quick as possible.
In fact, best to avoid all English cities and head to the beautiful Cotswolds, Peak District, Devon and Cornwall, the Jurassic coast, the Fens, the Lake District, Scotland or Wales and a nice rural pub.
1. Lake Charla – Tanzania – What a gem. perfect climate, stunning views of Mount Kilimanjaro, hundreds of elephants, Colobus monkeys, unspoiled bush, a spectacular volcanic crater lake, great bar, friendly hosts, and of course the famous roasted goat dinner.
2. Makuzi – Malawi.Peaceful paradise on the shores of Lake Malawi.
3. Mountain Rock – Kenya. A lush enjoyable grassy campsite next to a trout filled river on the equator in the foothills of Mount Kenya.
Europe ….Scotland no camp sites in the whole of Europe were on the same scale of the three above in Africa. Camping in Europe, regardless of whether its next to stunning scenery like Mont Blanc or near a historical town like Lucca in Italy has a whiff of concentration camp about it. France has simple and clean municipal campsites that were great value. Italy had some decent places but they were expensive. Wales was quite good. England just doesn’t have any and the few there are are awful, with a few exceptions. Our worst experience on the whole expedition was at Crystal Palace in London where we were interrogated and abused by gestapo like camp wardens. Hobson’s choice because London is so expensive, in fact the most expensive anywhere, and so camping was the only alternative to paying over 100 pounds for a small room for a night.
Scotland however has no trespass laws and so provided you show respect for the owners property and leave the site in the condition you found it in you can free camp where you like. Its also a gloriously pretty and interesting country and so the best European camping award easily goes to Scotland, followed by France and Wales.
North west point of Scotland at 11pm in the evening.
Camping on Skye
China – Nan Tso (Tibet).
China is a great country to back pack across (I have done it) and as such has great youth hostels and cheap accommodation in all cities and towns. As for camping, China is, on the whole, a safe country (apart from driving standards). However, despite its enormous size there is not a great deal of spare land that is not farmed on or developed… until you get into the remote western provinces of Xizang (Tibet), Xinjiang and Qinghai. We were very fortunate to camp in two stunning locations.
One with Lamas on the banks of a river in the Himalayas and another in the middle of Tibet at over 5000 meters next to the shores of Tibet’s most sacred lake, Nam Tso with 7,000 meter + peaks surrounding us.
USA – Needles, Utah
Campsites in the USA are basic by African and European standards. They are clean, tidy, averagely cheap, have friendly elderly attendants, but usually lack ablutions and the facilities you get in continental European campsites and most African lodges.
Apart from free camping, which I did a lot and prefer, the best organised campsite I found was at Needles in Utah, just south of Moab. In other States the campsites are pretty gruesome, far too expensive and generally geared towards caravans and RVs, and so free camping with a tent is the best option, and easy to do.
Camping across the USA
Free camping is best
Free camping Utah
Camping with lamas in east Tibet
Camping on the shores of Nam Tso, Tibet
WORST CAMPSITES .
We never stayed at any really bad campsites. To our mind the simpler the better and there should be more like the good ones we saw in Africa. Whilst Sudan allows free camping, Egypt is heavily controlled by the military and police and our attempts to free camp were fruitless. We were chased off seemingly remote places in the desert and along the Red Sea by police, army and security people.
Being unable to camp in certain places, we did stay in some rather ropey (because they were cheap) hotels in Sudan and Ethiopia but you get what you pay for and we didn’t pay very much. The Kilpatra hotel in Wadi Halfa had the worst lavatory and shower outside China… a true shocker.
Of course, Europe is the land of the caravan. Rarely seen in Africa or Asia, these boxes on wheels are seen everywhere in western Europe, blocking the country lanes and oblivious or uncaring to the traffic mayhem they cause around them. To a biker they are annoying enough, but we can whizz pass them more often than not. To another car driver stuck behind one on a road in Cornwall I hate to think.
No wonder they are targets of Top Gear persecution and derision. Once they eventually get to their “beauty spot” they position themselves cheek by jowl and then the occupants immediately position themselves outside on deckchairs, guarding their plot with disapproving territorial expressions on their faces.
Actually, these caravan clubers are not a bad bunch when you get to know them and are often passionate about their caravaning lifestyles and can wax lyrical about chemical toilets and lace curtains.
I have to say caravaners, with their impressive tea making facilities and well stocked biscuit tins, who brew up on the hour every hour are always welcome next to our tent.
BEST FOOD AWARD
Africa …. Egypt
Apart from the Chinese food we had in various places, Egypt probably just surpasses South Africa as the country with the best food in Africa. Fresh seafood, spicy curries, kebabs and falafel, roti, dates, fruit, salads, tasty bread… and good beer.
Lots of great street food in Egypt and Sudan
Back streets of Cairo
Lunch in Hurgharda
The food in Sudan is also pretty good and the Nile fish breakfast in Wadi Halfa is a special treat, especially with Bedouin coffee or tea. Again icy fruit juices are a specialty and very welcome when the temperature is scorching hot.
Europe … Turkey
The best food we ate in Europe was in Turkey. This was a big surprise as we don’t think either of us have been to a Turkish restaurant in our lives. Whilst in Istanbul and Mersin we were treated to some excellent local feasts by our new Turkish friends. The street food was also cheap and delicious, a bit like in Egypt.
Further along through Europe we had delicious cakes and pastries, especially in Austria, Italy and France, but the classic Italian and French fine cuisine famous throughout the World was not available to us because of the cost. I am sure its delicious, its just we couldn’t afford any.
We were fortunate to be in Italy during Easter and were treated to a delicious traditional Italian lunch with our friends Nick and Paola and her family near Rome. We also had some great home cooking with family and friends while we were in England and Wales.
I know there is good food about in Britain, but can you find it when you are hungry, or afford to eat decently in, say, London? No. Ubiquitous sandwich shops, junk food, petrol station food, and processed food is the tourists’ lot. Best you can get is a good cardiac arrest “fry up” breakfast at a roadside lay-by or fish and chips for dinner.
Even the so called ethnic food we had in the UK, like Indian or Thai was awful. So, unless you are lucky to be invited to eat at a “Master Chef” finalists’ house, have relatives and friends who are good cooks or win the lottery and have the chance to try out a Michelin starred restaurant you are going to be disappointed on the food front in the UK.
We met many tourists, especially Chinese who were on the verge of tour group mutiny in the UK because they disliked the food so much.
A wonderful lunch (into dinner) among the citrus groves at a superb restaurant in Mersin, Turkey. With our very kind hosts Metin and Sylvia who run the local KTM garage。
China – overall winner by a long way…..
Nothing beats the food in China for variety, freshness, health, flavour, texture, low cost, accessibility, colour, exoticness, pure joy and of course taste. Spicy Hunan and Sichuan, sweet and sour Shanghainese, salty and savoury Dong Bei, roasted meat from Xinjiang and seafood from Guangdong …..and it goes on with each province and each region within a province having their own specialties and traditions .
We all need food and everywhere we went in the world the people took pride in their local cuisine, but to our mind nothing beats Chinese food.
We and 1.4 billion others think so anyway..
Best Chinese Restaurant outside China – Xiao Long (Laughing Dragon) – Livingstone, Zambia. On par with the Sichuan and Hunan food we have in China, but I suspect only if you insist on the genuine stuff… in Mandarin ….and have a Chinese companion who does a thorough inspection of the kitchen, the ingredients and interrogates all the staff.
Worst Chinese Restaurant outside China– The Panda – Mosi, Tanzania (The lovely girl, Cheng Yuan Yuan, who was left in charge of the restaurant while the owner went back to China admitted she couldn’t cook and neither could the chef). In the end one of the Chinese guests went in the kitchen and cooked a few dishes which we shared.
Sichuan street food
Its exotic and specialties appeared on street corners and by the side of fields as we rode across the country . Here chatting with locals selling lianzi (lotus seeds) next to huge fields of lianhua (lotus)
WORST FOOD AWARDS
Worst food in Africa – Malawi
The lakeside resorts run by foreignors had pretty good food, but unless you like eating a diet consisting of 99% cassava (which has the nutritional value and taste of a flip flop) you will starve in the rest of the country as indeed a lot of the people are doing. There is no excuse for this as Malawi has fresh water, untapped natural resources and shares nearly the same geology and agricultural potential as Tanzania which grows coffee, tea, fruit and vegetables in abundance.
The problem, as with too many places in Africa, lies with the government who are greedy, corrupt and incompetent …and the people who put up with such tyrants who keep them in the stone age.
The other crop that grows pretty freely in Malawi is marijuana , so if you like you can spend your days in Malawi stoned out of your skull in a blue haze, however when you get the munchies don’t expect to see much in the fridge.
Worst food in Europe – the UK.If you have the money, or live with an excellent cook you will eat as well as anywhere in the world.
However for any visitor to the UK the food on the street is pretty dire. The healthy option, if so inclined, is a salad with a bit of meat or fish in a plastic box. Still hungry? .. of course you are … so a tub of lard for pudding. You can tell by the unhealty disposition and obesity of most English people that there is little nutrition in many peoples diet.
In England the day starts off well with a variety of decent breakfasts and then goes downhill thereon.
Worst food in China – Tibet. If we are to be picky, a diet that consists of a thousand ways to eat yak and yak’s milk might be pushing the limits… so local Tibetan food, whilst pretty OK, is at bottom of of the list as there is some amazing food to be eaten in every province across China.
All this being said the upside of increasing migration of more Han Chinese into Tibet is that good food from other provinces can be found in the main cities in Tibet. Is that a good or a bad thing?
Its a good thing when you’re hungry.
Also, I have to mention the province of Guangxi and Chinese provinces bordering Laos and Vietnam for their fondness for dog, rat, pangolin, civet cat, and other furry, feathered and scaly creatures and their insides… nope…. not my cup of nai cha, nor Fanny’s.
BEST BEER AWARDS
Africa – Namibia – Windhoek beer.
Europe – English bitter (in particular Marston’s Pedigree from BurtonUpon Trent)
Marston’s Pedigree – from Burton on Trent
China – Tsingdao beer 青岛啤酒）
Tsing Dao from Qingdao, China
WORST BEER AWARDS – of course there is no worst beer award, but perhaps Sudan should get a mention for not allowing beer at all. In fact the punishment for any alcohol possession in Sudan is 40 lashes.
BEST GAME PARK AWARDS–
1. Masai Mara (Kenya) (in late August)
We had an awesome time in Masai Mara. Great guides, reasonable entry fees (compared to Tanzania), and when we were there the great wildebeest migration was in residence and stretched across the grassy plains as far as the eye could see. It was true Lion King country and we had a terrific motorcycle ride to get there along cattle tracks and through Masai villages.
2. South Luangwa (Zambia).
South Luangwa National Park is possibly one of the prettiest and diverse game reserves in Africa. Certainly one of my favourite. Unfortunately, while I was there the last rhino had been poached in collusion with corrupt security guards who for their evil part were paid a fraction of what the horns were eventually sold for in Asia.
Whilst the 150 kilometer road from Chipata to the national park was too technical for Fanny at that particular stage of our expedition (not now of course), I had been there on a previous motorcycle trip across Africa and on the way bumped into the Long Way Down TV show motorcycles on their way to Lusaka. They had also decided against going to Luangwa because the road was too tough for Mr. and Mrs. McGregor, although easy for Charlie Boorman and the cameraman, Claudio I expect, who turned out to be decent guys and true motorcycle enthusiasts.
With the help of my Zambian cousin I managed to ride right into the game park along a locally used two track sand road and ride right up to many of the African animals and through the stunning bush of the Valley, but trying to keep a decent distance from creatures that might like a KTM sandwich. However, I inadvertently rode into a herd elephants and was mock charged by a young male which was quite exciting. They do not like the sound or sight of motorcycles at all, especially with loud Akropovik exhausts.
BEST DIVING & SNORKELING AWARD
Ras Mohammed, Dahab and Sharm El Sheikh, Sinai, Egypt.
I do not care for diving particularly having been put off when I did a CT selection course when I was in the Royal Hong Kong police, but due to putting down roots in Dahab by the beautiful Red Sea I had little to do while Fanny was windsurfing and so I have now completed the PADI open water and advanced scuba course with H2O Divers.
Dahab is 90 Kms away from Sharm El Sheikh in the Gulf of Aqaba (Red Sea) and enjoys amazing marine life and is a very popular destination for kite surfing, wind surfing and diving. As well as scuba diving with an aqua lung, I also learnt to free dive and practised nearly everyday at the famous Blue Hole, or just off the coral reefs at Eel Garden, The Caves or Lighthouse. Amazing places. Fanny on the other hand learnt to windsurf in the lagoon with Planet Windsurf and is now a very competent sailor.
The Red Sea in Egypt, especially along the Sinai peninsular is absolutely spectacular. I have been fortunate to have traveled around most of South East Asia, but the Red Sea is to my mind better. Crystal clear warm waters, amazing tropical fish and coral reefs and pretty decent infrastructure to support it all. The Sinai desert mountains create an awesome backdrop to the coastal towns of Nuweiba, Taba and especially Dahab, and the desert itself is quite possibly the prettiest in the world, especially at sunset and sunrise. That said, the whole tourism thing could be done so so much better, but then the Egyptian tourist industry is reeling from the Arab Spring revolution, the world economic downturn and the negative effects of blowing up tourists with fire-bombs.
WORST DIVING & SNORKELING AWARD
Any open water in East or South China. Polluted and disgusting.
BEST MOUNTAINS & VALLEYS –
Africa – Ethiopia and Lesotho
Whilst we thought Ethiopia was spoiled a bit by some of its annoying stone throwing feral inhabitants and decaying cities, it does have spectacular natural beauty with mountains, rivers, pastures, lakes and valleys that looks a bit like those in Switzerland, Scotland or Austria. The roads are also for the large part extremely good, although as I have said often crowded with people and animals.
Lesotho, which is bordered completely by South Africa, is also a very mountainous country and is an excellent place to visit, albeit a bit chilly to ride through in winter.
Ethiopia’s proximity to some very dodgy African countries, short visa restrictions and some very wet weather while we were there prevented us from exploring the amazing Danakil depression and Afar region in the east of the country which are said to be spectacular.
Not many regrets on the expedition, but not venturing to this amazing part of the world that features in the January 2012 edition of National Geographic magazine.
We did go to Lalibela to see the rock hewn churches, and they were fairly interesting. But unless you are an archaeologist or Christian pilgrim you’d be better off visiting Salisbury Cathedral, and indeed any Norman church in England as they are older, far more impressive and have less fleas. The ride there was fun though and took us “off road” for a few hundred kilometers through valleys and across rivers and streams.
Europe – you are probably going the expect me to say The Alps, Pyrenees or the Dolomites, maybe the Brecon Beacons or Snowdonia in Wales and indeed they are spectacular, but I am going to have to pick the mountains and valleys I enjoyed riding through the most and so I will say The Highlands of Scotland.
West coast of Scotland
China – is a very mountainous part of the world and along our 13,000 kilometer ride through the middle kingdom we navigated over, around and often through many mountain ranges. Chinese history is steeped in legend about mountains and have been the subject of pilgrimages by emperors and philosophers throughout the ages. We were lucky to see some of the wuyue 五岳 – sacred five and the Buddhist and Taoist fours. But for me and Fanny seeing (and riding through) the greatest mountain range on the planet with the highest peaks, the Himalayas was one of the highlights of the expedition.
These are the mountains that turn the Yellow River … yellow
Tibet and the Himalayas from space
The Himalayas… what can you say?
BEST BORDER CROSSING –
Africa – South Africa. Quite simply modern, efficient, quick and fair.
Europe – all easy
China – no border crossings.. although riding through the road blocks in Tibet was “interesting”.
WORST BORDER CROSSING
1st Egypt and 2nd Sudan.
The opposite of modern, efficient, quick, or fair. The further north in Africa we went the worse the border crossings became.
LEAST CORRUPT COUNTRY AWARDS
Africa – Botswana
Europe – Austria
Asia – Singapore (its not going to be China is it?)
MOST CORRUPT COUNTRY AWARDS
Africa – Egypt
Europe – Italy
Asia – China
Most countries we went through in Africa could very fairly be described as corrupt. Some more than others. Unfortunately, there are countries we simply couldn’t risk traveling through because they are so corrupt and dangerous, such as the DRC, Chad, Nigeria etc.. Even the famous Dakar Rally no longer races through the Sahara to Dakar and has moved to Argentina and Chile in South America.
An anecdote from our first day in Egypt:
Having spent considerable time and parted with a huge amount of cash at customs and immigration at the Egyptian border in Aswan, we were stopped 50 meters away at a road block, the first of hundreds, by a policeman with an AK47 variant of assault rifle who looked us up and down and asked, ‘Where you come from?’
Me (clearly thinking this is stupid question at the Egypt/Sudan border) ‘ Sudan’
Policeman ‘What in bag?’
Me ‘ Our things’
Policeman ‘ Open up’
Me ‘OK’…. ‘It’ll take a bit of time… hang on a bit’
As I was getting off my bike to open the panniers the policeman said ‘ Ah.. no need, haha… anything nice for me?’
Me ‘ I don’t pay bribes’ (eye to eye), and continued, ‘Actually I used to be a policeman and think policemen like you are an insult to the cloth, you make the job of honest, conscientious policemen more difficult and more dangerous’ rant rant…
Policeman (grinning like an imbecile and waving me on) ‘ haha .. you can go’
Policeman to Fanny ‘Where you come from?’
Policeman to Fanny ‘ You got present for me?’
I turned around and shouted ‘ HEY! – I TOLD YOU’
Policeman ‘Haha.. OK you go’ and so we went.
On each occasion the authorities even suggested a bribe I stood my ground or played my “I used to be a policeman” trump card and they all gave up.
Some of Fanny’s friends, a Chinese expedition starting from South Africa and riding Jin Chiang motorcycle and side-cars, gave up in Tanzania after running out of money, spirit and heart after paying bribe after bribe and being messed about at every single border crossing.
I guess the Africans thought that Chinese are accustomed to paying bribes. Maybe they are, and maybe they are also as fed up as everyone else.
NOISIEST COUNTRY AWARDS – Sudan followed by China and Egypt.
Sudan is a strictly Islamic country and so requires its Muslim population to pray five times a day among other noisy rituals. The density of mosques and minarets in Sudan is very high and the call to prayers starts at 4-5 am which is rather early and without doubt a very loud wake -up alarm call where ever you are.
I vaguely remember bell ringing on Sunday mornings from the church in the village, Abbots Bromley, I grew up in England, and even that annoyed me after a few peels.
As a Roaming Catholic of the lapsed kind I am a firm believer that anyone can believe in what they like provided it causes no harm to others, but object to people inflicting their superstitions, religion and beliefs on other people.
My helpful suggestion that calls to prayer be made using mobile phones on vibrate mode was not met enthusiastically by anyone I met, nor was the suggestion that “All Things Bright and Beautiful” might be more cheerful.
There are 1.4 billion Chinese, the streets are crowded, and they absolutely love noise and any excuse to make some is welcomed and encouraged.
Megaphones, public announcements, promotions, advertisements, car horns, traffic, construction noise, warning signals, conversations, music, talking in restaurants etc etc… DO IT LOUDLY!. T
There are four tones in Mandarin and to make sure the other person understands clearly its best to SHOUT. In Cantonese there are nine tones and so the Hong Kongers SHOUT EVEN LOUDER ……..AAAH MAAAA. 噪音太大。！！！！
MOST PEACEFUL COUNTRY AWARD – Namibia
To the motorcyclists who like a bit of technical off road riding, stunning scenery, quiet roads, good camping sites, African animals and birds, decent petrol and getting close to unspoiled nature then Namibia is the country to go and disturb the peace with your Akropovik or Leo Vince exhausts!
A long way from anywhere…. The Skeleton Coast, Namibia
……” In the middle of the Zambian bush I ran into Obe Wan Kanobe and his convoy of motorcycles. As we passed and waved at each other it took me a while to realise this was the “Long Way Down” TV expedition and so I turned around and caught up with them. After a brief exchange of pleasantries Ewan McGregor and his wife carried on riding towards Lusaka, but Charlie Boorman and Claudio Planta stayed behind, chatting by the side of a road in the middle of African bush about the “stuff ” bikers usually chat about“……
At the start of the new Millennia I was working in the fraud investigation practice of one of the worlds largest consulting firms based in Hong Kong. I did challenging and occasionally rewarding work, usually got paid each month, and on the face of it life was pretty OK.
I lived in what can best be described as an “illegal hut” right next to a popular beach in the village of Sek O on the rural south side of Hong Kong Island. Various females, none of whom I liked particularly much (except for a cat), came and went.
I swam in the sea all year round, regularly ran along the mountain trails, kept myself extremely fit, rode to work at warp speed on a racing specification Yamaha YZF R1, and I could fly my paraglider up above Dragon’s Back Ridge, and land back down again right next to my hut.
However, I was becoming increasingly restless. Whilst I am very good at what I do, the pettiness and unpleasantness of the corporate world, office politics, an unplayable nutty “ex missus”, and the Hong Kong Knitting Circle was really beginning to irritate and annoy me.
Time to clean out the sock drawer
Not being someone to do anything by half measures, I decided to press the reset button, resign from my job and chart a different course by enrolling as a mature student at one of the best universities in China. My plan was to differentiate myself from my peers by being able to speak, read and write Mandarin fluently, immerse myself in all things Chinese, and run my own practice.
As it turned out, a good plan.
As my first semester on the Mandarin language course at Tsinghua University (清華大學）in Beijing did not start until September 2007, some six months away, I had some time on my hands, and so I decided to challenge myself by riding a motorcycle across Africa.
I was allowed to resign almost immediately having completed all my projects as I am quite sure the painfully dull consultants I worked with were glad to see the back of me. I sold my cherished Yamaha R1 to an Italian chap, handed over my “hut” in Sek O to some French hippies, gave away the remainder of my few possessions, threw some t-shirts in a suitcase, and flew out to South Africa.
I had done some long distance motorcycle rides in Asia and Europe, but had never done any true “adventure riding”.
At the time legendary motorcycle riders like Ted Simons of “Jupiter’s Travels“, Sam Manicom of “Distant Suns“, and Nick Sanders of “Journey Beyond Reason: Fastest Man Around the World” had been riding all over the world and writing fascinating accounts about their adventures.
Also, like many other people at the time, I was captivated by Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman’s Long Way Round motorcycle expedition that had taken place a few years before, and vaguely aware they were completing yet another expedition in the continent I was planning to go to.
There was not a great deal of information about adventure riding on the internet, but there were a few decent “how to” books on planning, preparations and kit that I bought and digested. In particular, Chris Scott’s “Adventure Motorcycling Handbook” that I have to say was very informative.
I had virtually no motorcycle maintenance skills, and most of the bikes I had tinkered with over the years had been thoroughly wrecked by my complete incompetence.
No real “off road” riding experience either, other than collecting cows on an old Matchless 350 cc motorcycle from down the meadows on the farm I worked on as a young kid, and of coursehooliganing around country lanes and fields on my 50 cc moped … as all we 16 year old lads who were brought up in the English countryside were prone to do.
Given my time and available resources, I planned to ride for about five months and up through the Cederberg and Karoo of South Africa from my home in Arniston on the southern tip of Africa. I then planned to cross into Namibia, Angola, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania (if I can get in without carne de passage), Mozambique, and back into South Africa and through the Kingdoms of Swaziland and Lesotho, and perhaps see the Wild Coast, again.
A few year earlier I had yomped for several months down this spectacular coastline, sleeping under the stars or in a bunk in a backpackers hut, swimming and paddling across shark infested rivers, walking alongside whales and dolphins, and occasionally evading shiftas who were ambushing hikers and relieving them of their possessions! It was a truly amazing experience and I definitely wanted to see it again, but this time on a motorcycle.
So, to the planning and preparation.
I had read enough to know that the biggest dilemma when planning a long distance motorcycle expedition is the balance between carrying all the kit (you think) you might need and keeping weight to the bare minimum. I also didn’t have a great deal of cash to spend as I was paying alimony and also had to budget ahead for at least two years of self funded study with no income, and an uncertain future.
Even back in 2007 there were some decent bits of kit around that would have been useful, like GPS and satellite telephones. I didn’t have any of those. What I could muster together for navigation purposes were some basic tourist maps; a basic guide book on Namibia; a paragliding compass and altimeter; and sufficient lack of knowledge not to worry too much.
Anyway, I threw myself into the project and used my house in Arniston near the southern most tip of Africa as a base to get things ready.
But what bike? This is the biggest decision and the choice really comes down to budget, riding ability and more often than not … just personal preference.
In recent times adventure motorcyclists have circumvented the globe on nearly everything on two wheels: 105 cc Australian “Postie” bikes; 50 cc mopeds and scooters; classic adventurers like the Honda Africa Twin and Yamaha XT 500; and of course the BMW GS Adventure series bikes used by Charlie Boorman and Ewan McGregor on their Long Way Round and Long Way Down television productions.
As a fairly experienced rider of sports motorcycles, like the Yamaha R1 and Honda Fireblade, I had come to expect a bit of speed and excitement and so I narrowed down my choice to the big powerful bikes, not knowing any better, and so my choice was between the BMW F1200GS Adventure, Yamaha XT1200Z Super Tenere, Honda XRV750T Africa Twin, and the KTM 990 or 950 Adventure.
I couldn’t find a decent second hand Africa Twin, and would probably have bought one if I had found one, the Yamaha was a distant fourth choice, and so it came down to the BMW or the KTM?
One of my first tasks on arriving in South Africa was to test ride the bikes and so I went to BMW Motorrad in Cape Town who I found to be extremely helpful and professional. However on the day they didn’t have a decent second hand bike and so I tested a new BMW F 1200 GS and found I really liked it. But it was very expensive, especially so with all the extra kit needed for the trip.
So off to KTM Cape Town who just happened to have a 1 year old low mileage black and grey KTM 990 Adventure with some of the kit I needed already fitted, and so I took it for a blast.
The KTM handled beautifully, was fast, powerful, reliable, balanced, looked the part and with the beautiful titanium Akropovik exhausts sounded absolutely glorious. Of course KTM were dominating (and have continued to do so) all the motorcycle rally competitions around the world, including the famous Dakar Rally and so my decision was an easy one.
A motorcycle is of course the most obvious thing you have to buy and probably the most expensive single item. I also needed a decent helmet, protective boots, gloves, motorcycle adventure trousers and jacket, panniers, a duffel bag, camping gear, cooking gear, and perhaps some oil and maintenance tools! All these things add up.
KTM Cape Town (who happen to have relieved me of a lot of money over the years, sometimes for things I haven’t even bought !), sold me some Thor Blitz boots (half length boots that remain my favourites to this day), an Arai adventure helmet (a very good helmet that I never liked much, and many years later my other half, Fanny used it to ride around the world on her KTM), and very very expensive Touratech aluminium panniers … no other choice in South Africa at the time … and so I have used them for many other adventures since.
I really liked the KTM orange funky riding gear, but it was way too expensive and so I found some cheap three layer trousers and jacket (water proof lining, detachable warmth layer, outer tough material, and some basic internal amour) from a local manufacturer called Lookwell. As it turned out it did look well, I thought, but wasn’t very warm, and certainly wasn’t very waterproof. That said, in Africa it did the job most of the time, and I lived in it for months on end and for many years.
Only years later did I realize that an initial investment in some higher quality, lighter and more comfortable riding gear with better protection might have been a wiser idea. I really like Rev ‘It and Klim motorcycling riding equipment, but then again I also like Ferraris and fine wine. I guess we all have to live within our means.
One of the good things about South Africa is that it has great camping equipment and 4×4 accessory shops, and you are spoiled for choice. I was also very lucky to get a North Face “Tadpole” tent that was on display in the shop and had 70% knocked off the price because there was a small hole in the fabric that I patched up fairly easily. I already had a ground mat, sleeping bag, head torch, MSR pocket rocket gas cooker, a basic first aid kit and some kind of hallucinogenic anti malaria tablets called Meflium, my digital camera, and some pots and pans. No funky light weight titanium anything… just odds and sods I took out of my kitchen drawers and cupboards.
So, that was about it.
I didn’t need a carne de passages (the document used to guarantee to foreign customs departments that you are temporarily importing a vehicle) because the Southern Africa countries I planned to travel through allowed South Africa registered vehicles access for just a few dollars, or even free of charge. As a British passport holder I didn’t need a visa for any of these countries either, I suspect because Britain used to run the show during the colonial years!
So nothing left than to get going. It really was that simple.
I left Arniston and headed north across the Overberg, across the winelands in Robertson, and up into the snow capped mountains north of Worcester, as it was early May and therefore winter in the southern hemisphere.
I headed towards Ceres, Porteville and Citrusdal, all places I knew pretty well, but from several thousand meters above the ground whilst competing in the “All Africa Open ” paragliding competitions over the years. It is here that the tar roads suddenly changed to the ubiquitous hard packed gravel roads that would continue pretty much for most of the trip.
I had driven a Toyota Hilux across Southern Africa a few years previously as you could rent one very cheaply for a Windhoek to Johannesburg stretch, being the hire cars that were left in Namibia and needed returning to their hire base in South Africa. In fact, it was basically a free way of traveling, and on that occasion I managed to put 5,000 kilometers on the clock, and only lost control and spun it in the desert a couple of times! A very valuable lesson about speeding on sand and gravel. I slept in the back of it, a type of vehicle that is known as a “bakkie” in Africa, or a “Ute”in Australia, and so I only had to pay for petrol and beer.
Now I was on two wheels, and despite very little experience on this kind of road surface, I was doing OK with only a few “dramas” when the bike occasionally veered off where I wasn’t pointing it, or the front wheel slid away on scree like gravel. Later on when the gravel got even deeper, or was rutted and corrugated, or very sandy, did I start to struggle and fully appreciate my own limitations and the weight of the bike.
I have always been of the mind set that if someone else can do something, so can I. There are of course some off road riding skills and fundamentals, especially on the dreaded sand, that I wish I had known about and been better at, but I just soldiered on and day by day I got used to the slightly “out of control” feel, and I guess by trial and error, stayed upright. I only dropped the bike much later on in deep fess fess talc like sand in the north of the Skeleton Coast, where no damage was caused to me or my bike, and no one around to see me make a hash of it. The only other big dramas involved some animals in Mozambique, but I will come on to that later.
About 300 kilometers after I set off I entered the magnificent Cederberg region and it was from here that I felt I was on a proper adventure. This is a mountainous and remote region of South Africa and home to Cape Leopards which are a tad smaller than their African cousins further north, but will still rip your head off, given half a chance. The locals say if you are out and about hiking in the mountains you will rarely see a Leopard, but if you do, you are being stalked and its already too late. A sobering thought!
At a place called Cederberg Oasis I stopped, set up my first camp in their field, bounced on their trampoline, swam in their pool, went for a short run, begged for some fuel, enjoyed a huge T-bone steak and chips, drank beer, did some organised stargazing at the crystal clear heavens above with my eccentric host, tried to chat up some Swedish girls (unsuccessfully) who were traveling in a two wheel drive VW Polo hire car, drank “Klippies and Coke”, got absolutely trolleyed, and woke up the next morning, sprawled out on the ground about 2 meters away from my tent.
All in all a very successful first 24 hours of my expedition.
During a huge cardiac arrest breakfast where I was nursing a well deserved hangover I found out that the way ahead through a remote little town called Wuppenthal required navigating along a twisty and sandy 4×4 route for about 40 kilometers.
It was indeed a tricky bit of trail, but as it turned out, this was enormous fun, a great bit of training, and gave me a huge amount of confidence and improved my handling of the big bike with all its luggage.
It is probably a good time to point out that my KTM had a 19.5 litre fuel tank that was good for a range of about 250-280 kilometers. This range is good for weekend warriors in Europe and America, perhaps not so great in God’s backyard and the Cradle of Humankind.
I had pondered about getting an after market 38 or 45 litre tank, but at nearly a thousand quid a pop I balked at the idea, and so I decided to carry two 10 litres of extra fuel contained in yellow petrol cans I bought in a camping shop in Cape Town for ten quid each (technically diesel cans based on the yellow colour of the cans … a fact I found out 6 years later!)
As anyone will know, a litre of water is equivalent to a kilogram and so I was carrying nigh on 20 extra kilograms carried over the back wheel. Also, these petrol cans filled up most of my panniers and there was little room left for anything else apart from a few tools and other heavily kit that I stuffed around them to keep centre of gravity low.
This forced me to carry my few clothes and the camping gear in a North Face duffel bag that was tied at right angles over the top of both aluminium panniers using compression straps. An optimal luggage configuration that I have used ever since. Later I will swap the metal panniers for much more versatile soft panniers, such as those from Wolfman. http://wolfmanluggage.com/
In this particular part of South Africa, in fact in most of the rural areas, fuel was not readily available, and even less so in Namibia, Mozambique and Zambia and so I really needed the extra fuel. Later I would more accurately appraise the route ahead and only fill them up if I needed to in order to keep weight to a minimal. I would also do my best to keep my main tank full whenever I could, even if I had just filled it up. Nothing is worse than the stress and worry of riding in the middle of no where on “empty”. Something all adventure riders can relate to.
I made a lot of progress on the second day and rode long distances across the huge expanses of the Karoo desert, rode alongside ostriches that ran and tried to keep up with me, open and closed a lot of gates on cattle farms, mastered riding over cattle grids (get them wrong and you’ll come off), had lunch in Clanwilliam, headed off east into the Karoo again towards Calvinia and reached the northerly South African town of Springbok as the sun was going down where I found a secluded spot and camped up.
The next day I stocked up with fuel, water, food provisions for a few days, checked the tension of the drive chain, engine oil, tire pressures, and bought a cheap sleeping bag from a Chinese “peg and plastic bucket” shop as I was absolutely freezing during the night. This low tech 60 Rand sleeping bag combined with my other sleeping bag kept me warm in the freezing nights ahead in the desert where the temperature sometimes plunged to minus 7 degrees centigrade and also acted as a nice mattress in the warmer climes of Zambia and Malawi.
All stocked up I then took the N7 highway from Springbok in north South Africa to the border post with Namibia at a place called, Vioolsdrift. The route up the highway was fast, but extremely windy as I passed through a dusty, orange and rather moonscape like terrain.
At this time I was riding way too fast, as was my habit at the time, often at 160-200 kph. This, I think, was because I was used to riding sports bikes at 240+ kph, which I will admit was not an uncommon occurence. Later, I slowed down to an average 100-120 kph as this is the optimal speed for tyres, fuel consumption, and to my mind the ideal adventure riding pace for comfort and enjoying the surroundings.
It takes a while to get into your head that this isn’t a race, I didn’t have to make an appointment, meet anyone, or get home quickly. I was in the moment, looking at new things, close to nature, enjoying my bike and riding in amazing places.
On average my riding pace would go down to about 60-120 kph on gravel, 15-50 kph on sand, and a snail’s pace of 20-30 kph in African villages as children, goats, horn bills, pigs, dogs, cows, and other critters would feel compelled to jump out in front of me.
I would also have to wave a lot, as every human being I encountered in Africa would wave enthusiastically at me as I rode by, especially children. With the waving back and taking film and video using my left hand I think I have ridden across Africa using one hand more than two.
The ride up to the border was a particularly windy leg of the journey and my bike would often be leaning at a steep angle into the wind, something that would happen a lot in the early afternoons in southern Africa.
I arrived at the border about 2 p.m and decided to turn left and follow the Orange River westwards to find a campsite I had heard about. The gravel road was extremely dusty and it was quite hot as I slid and weaved along the sandy and rutted trail.
After about 30 kilometers I found the campsite, checked in, set up my tent next to the river, found the bar and some other travelers, chatted with the friendly staff who worked the bar and restaurant, and had an early evening swim in the river, oblivious to black mambas and cholera bacteria that were both reported to be in the water.
The campsite was a really good one. It had a very nice bar with a veranda on the banks of the Orange River, decent food, cold Windhoek and Amstel beer, good company, and later I slept really well in my little tent next to the river.
In the morning over coffee and breakfast I decide to stay another day and go for a hike with the new friends I made. After lunch I rode my unladen bike for an explore further west into the Richtersveld National Park and further west towards Alexander Bay. This is a very remote part of South Africa, and I thought it would be a missed opportunity not to explore it by rushing into Namibia without seeing the southern side of the Orange River.
Tough riding, but well worth it, and I got back to camp after dark and again chanced my luck with a swim in the river, and actually swam across to Namibia and amused myself that I had entered it illegally without a formal border crossing.
The next day I really did have to get going. I packed up and I had some breakfast at a nice cafe next to the border crossing, filled up all my fuel cans and petrol tank, and had a very easy crossing through both sets of immigration and customs gates. Very easy.
I rode along a tar road for a while and then saw the sign indicating the route towards Ais Ais at Fish River Canyon, and so I turned left onto a dusty gravel track that had been grooved out by heavy traffic. Within a few minutes a large bus loomed up in my rear view mirror and as its soporific occupants gazed out of the windows it barged its way passed me at well over 120 kph, as that was the speed I was doing, and in its wake left me in a thick plume of dust. In doing so I was immediately blinded, unable to alter course, and briefly panicked. In the thick brown haze I was forced off the track and ran off at a tangent into the desert, narrowly missing large rocks, bushes and trees.
This was not my first encounter with “African driver”, but it was my closest shave so far. I had traveled this region before in a Toyota Hilux and been overtaken by trucks and buses with the drivers foot buried into the gas and at full pelt. Now I was on two wheels, feeling much more vulnerable, not least because changing direction meant leaving my chosen grove, sliding over the high grooves and ridges at speed and finding another grove in the road, if there was one.
Another notch on the learning curve.
I continued on across largely deserted gravel trails through stunning scenery, rarely seeing anyone else. Namibia has one of the lowest population densities in the world, and its small population had recently been culled by the effects of AIDs and HIV. Its one of the few countries where the population is actually declining, and most of the people that do live there are living in and around the capital city, Windhoek. A lot of the time I never saw anyone, and any other traffic could be seen miles away due to the telltale plumes of dust churned up in their wake.
Within a few hours I started descending down into the Fish River Canyon where I found the Ais Ais campsite and resort. It is a rather strange place and has several thermally heated swimming baths that were full of Afrikaners or Cape Coloureds and their kids. South Africans (black, white, pink or brown) are very fond of camping and the great outdoors, which they do with gusto, armed with various types of “bakkie” (pickup trucks), safari tents, portable “braai and potjie pots”, alcohol, and meat… always lots of alcohol and meat.
I was often asked to join them for beers and a chat as I was clearly a lone wolf traveler on an unusually large enduro style motorcycle. Charlie and Ewan and their round the world TV productions must be credited with the rise in popularity and development of adventure motorcycling and all the associated adventure equipment. Before 2007 there really weren’t that many of us about and we were something of a rarity.
I had a very cold night in the tent, all my water bottles were frozen solid, and in the morning I was feeling stiff and sore. No worries. A few minutes wallowing in the thermal pools had me thawed out and loosened up. I made myself some coffee and ate some rolls I bought at the border, packed up my kit, and prepared for what would turn out to be an awesome day’s riding.
I was finding my rhythm with gravel riding and thoroughly enjoying the southern Namib desert scenery. Namibia is one of my favourite countries, perhaps my favourite because its so unspoiled, beautiful and wild. The riding is on the enjoyable side of challenging, the colours are unearthly, the air is pure, and there are African wild animals and birds everywhere.
I was riding in a particularly desolate area when I saw a figure shimmering in the distance ahead. As I drew closer I realized it was a man, and closer still, a European man. He looked quite strange, was exceptionally thin and had his head concealed in a hoodie. He was dressed like the sort of street sleeper tramp one sees in an English city, except without a dog or selling the “Big Issue”.
I drew up along side him and asked if he was OK, or needed anything.
‘I’m fine’, came the reply in a very thick and difficult to understand accent.
Intrigued, I took off my helmet, looked around me from horizon to horizon and asked where he had come from.
At the time I did not fully comprehend what I was being told.
He answered, “I have crossed many times”, and went on to explain he was looking for Namib desert elephants.
I asked him if he was hungry, but he said he was not. Nonetheless, I fished around in my supplies and gave him a bread roll with ham and cheese and a bottle of water. He took the roll without any expression of gratitude, but gave me back the water saying I should keep it to stay hydrated.
It was all very strange. But then riding alone in far off places is often very strange. Ancient nomadic bushmen lived in this part of the world and lived off the land. But he certainly did not look or sound like a Namib bushman. Was he one of those European types that have given up on regular society and gone off to live like a nomad in the wilds?
In the days to come, often when I was alone in my tent at the end of a long day of riding my brain would go over this event, again and again and try and rationalise what I saw and heard. I would dig deep into my memory and search cognitively to remember all the details, what he said, how he sounded, where he was, what he looked like. There was something very odd about it all and my mind was not at peace. As Fanny always accuses me, I was thinking too much.
It was much later that I remembered. He had no bag.
Not being as well versed in quantum mechanics or the second law of thermodynamics as Sir Roger Penrose or Professor Stephen Hawking I have tried to get my head around this science non-fiction event. The man was definitely quite odd, painfully thin, completely ill equipped to be where he was, and was literally in the middle of nowhere without a bag.
I had been riding for hours in the Namib desert on sandy and rocky trails and there was absolutely nothing around and after I rode off there was still nothing around for several further hours. And yet there he was, a weird looking skinny man in a hoodie in the middle of the Namib Desert looking for desert elephants without a bag.
The thought did cross my mind that he could be from an alternative dimension and was on a time traveling safari! I mean, that is what he told me if I had listened to him properly and applied some deductive reasoning. However, everything we are taught and told suggests time travel or crossing from other dimensions is impossible. The stuff of science fiction. I am acutely aware we human beings think we are the centre of everything, brainwashed by religion, conditioned by social mores, and slaves to our human frailties and vices.
But science is an evolving subject. What if time tourists are among us all the time with nothing to distinguish them from us, unless of course they come from the far distant future and their appearance has evolved into a seemingly different being that looks “alien”. Maybe all the UFOs that are seen are not from far away alien planets but are crafts and devices from different dimensions or time.
I remember that he seemed fascinated by my motorcycle and examined it really closely. I guess a KTM 990 Adventure would be a interesting exhibit in a future museum, as indeed a stuffed Namib desert elephant must later become after they and many other flora and fauna we have today have become extinct.
As the thoroughly bizarre encounter came to a sort of natural end, he waved goodbye and then walked away. I found it difficult not to watch him as he trundled off and disappeared into the heat haze of the desert.
I have thought about this encounter often, tried to work through some rational explanations, wondered what to do about this revelation, and decided not to say anything about it because being perceived as “mad” is generally frowned upon in polite society.
Even when I recount regular events from my life in the police or from my global travels nobody ever believes me. No one is going to believe I bumped into a time traveller, except perhaps the time traveller and his kind who may read this blog in years to come.
In roughly the same location a decade later when I was riding my KTM 1190 Adventure R I saw something even more strange than a time travellers traipsing through the dunes.
Messrs. Hammond, May, and Clarkson together with dozens of support crew and various vehicles and equipment were filming VW dune buggies for the Grand Tour TV series that I later watched on Amazon. Suffice to say, there was no sign of either me, Namib bushmen or any time travellers in any of the “heavily edited” footage!
The riding in the Namib was glorious. It was beautiful. I felt very free. I could go and do anything I wanted. No pressures. My only sadness was that I could not share it with anyone. On other expeditions I would.
I spent a few days riding around the desert and Fish River Canyon and wild camped until I ran out of supplies and then went to bar cum restaurant in the middle of nowhere called Canyon Lodge that was surrounded by sand and the rusted shells of 1950s cars with large cactus plants growing up through them.
Years later I returned to the same place with Fanny on our round the world expedition and the place looked very different with a museum full of automobile memorabilia, a gift shop, a fancy restaurant and bar, guest rooms and a proper petrol station.
In 2007 it was a very modest affair. I called into the bar for a cup of coffee and met the proprietor and her daughter who looked like they had Namibian “Bushman” Khoisan ancestry. They were very entertaining and funny people and we had a good laugh together. A unknown quantity of beer and many hours later I staggered out of the bar into the crisp coldness of night and an enormous star studded sky, stumbled about for a bit, staggered back into the bar and collapsed on their couch and fell asleep.
The next day I woke up with a hangover that was becoming a regular event and after coffee and breakfast with my new friends, filled up my petrol tanks at their ancient looking hand pumps, gathered some more water and supplies, bid them all farewell, started up the bike and blasted off back into the desert.
I had a great ride along virtually deserted roads. I rarely saw anyone. I consulted my paper tourist map of Namibia and using basic navigation that included orientating myself by the sun and consulting my compass aimed for a way-point about 300 kilometers away in a northwest (ish) direction. Botswana on the right, Atlantic Ocean on the left, and a few places dotted about, such as Solitaire and Sesrium. Navigation is not that difficult in Namibia as there are few roads and often signs at every road intersection.
As the sun was setting I reached a rather scruffy and uninviting town called Bethlehem and thought I should ride a little further away, find a quiet spot just off the gravel road, set up a fire to ward off the ghosts, and basically free camp. However, as I was riding along I saw an isolated green coloured farm house and as I got nearer there was a sign indicating that they offered accommodation, and so I pulled in and was received by Mr and Mrs Schmidt.
I explained that I couldn’t really afford a room, but would be happy to pay to pitch my tent somewhere and for something to eat, if they had anything.
Mr Schmidt said that I could have a room in a cabin, as it was very cold during the night, and also have dinner for a total of one hundred Namibian dollars (US$7). That sounded a very good deal indeed and so I accepted. Even my KTM got its own shade under a thatched porch and the dinner was superb… a hearty meal of South African style bobotie, aniseed flavoured cabbage, sweet potatoes, Melva pudding and custard, and coffee. Outstanding.
After dinner I got chatting with Mr Schmidt over a beer and he asked if I wanted to go with him in the morning and shoot some baboons that were killing his livestock. Apparently, a troop of baboons were coming down from the rocky hills and indiscriminately killing his sheep so they could tear open the udders of the ewes and drink their milk. He said we would only have to shoot a few ringleaders for the message to get across!
In the early morning before the sun had come up, having allegedly agreed to kill some of my fellow primates, I got geared up with a rifle and ammunition and headed off with Mr. Schmidt to confront the planet of the apes. We walked for miles, patrolled a good part of his immense farm, saw the sun rise, and never saw a single baboon.
I was glad for the exercise as the first couple of weeks of my expedition had involved drinking my body weight in Windhoek beer, and I was secretly pleased I never had to shoot anything. During the hike I was thrilled to see all the birds, springboks, impala, dik diks and kudus, and when we got back I was fed a Namibian farmer’s breakfast, several litres of coffee, and had my fuel replenished for free, plus a packed lunch and a bag of delicious pomegranates to keep me going. What wonderful people. Its what life is really about.
Sad farewells, but a joyous sound as my motorcycle roared back into life at the first press of the starter. As I pulled out of the driveway and back onto the gravel road I saw the entire troop of baboons sitting about at the side of the road and perched on rocks, probably laughing at me.
I rode across long stretches of gravel road and noticed that the general conditions of the road was getting worse. The ruts and corrugations were higher, the crevices were bigger and deeper and there was an increasing number of deep sandpits and potholes. Often the road had been washed away leaving an uneven rocky surface that bore no resemblance to a road. The road would descend down steep ramps, across dry sandy river wadis, or streams and then rise up again.
I refueled at an isolated and very welcome petrol station, and while I was filling up and drinking water I noticed a South African registered Volvo SUV with a family pull up, its occupants filling the quiet of the desert with a cacophony of family sounds, refill, and then roar off back into the desert. A little while later, and in less of a rush, I left the petrol station and after about 10 minutes I came across the same family standing by the side of the road.
I stopped and asked if they were OK, and they said they had crashed, were uninjured, but they were obviously quite shaken, especially the kids. It didn’t require much investigation to realise they had lost control on the gravel road and rolled their car several times into the desert, and about 50 meters into the desert I could see the crumpled mess of their Volvo SUV.
They had called the automobile rescue services already and were waiting for a tow and a rescue. I asked if they needed me to go back to the petrol station and get help and they said they may have to wait for a while and could I go back and alert the petrol station attendant and bring back some cold drinks, which I did. Back at the petrol station the attendant already knew about the crash, and said this wasn’t an uncommon occurrence.
From my own experience driving a Hilux across Namibia, I knew it was very easy to lose control on the sand and gravel if you drove too quickly, or employed incorrect driving techniques, as I did on a few occasions. Like a motorcycle the only way to correct the back end starting to slide round is to apply gentle acceleration. Applying brake will cause the back end to slide and if you are going too fast that will drop a motorcycle, or cause a car to slide sideways and roll if its going too fast. Something I will see again many times, on this expedition and others in the future.
Southern Namibia is made up of large European style farms, but to the west there seemed to be more and more sand and dunes. I rode for about 350 kilometers and was running low on fuel and needed to get to a place called Sesrium, which would have fuel, a campsite and is the gateway to the huge sand dunes, the largest in the world.
When I got there by mid afternoon I was quite tired having had a couple of sections of rough roads with lots of dust and sand. I pitched my tent among quite a few vehicles at the main campsite. It seemed there were two classes of visitor at Sesrium. Super rich ones who stayed at a five star luxury hotel at several hundred US dollars a night, and riff raff like me who were camping, drinking beer and burning boerewors.
As a famous tourist destination, Sesrium was quite crowded and there were lots tour operators offering all sorts of activities, from hiking, hot air ballooning, quad bikes, and microlight flights.
The best time to see the dunes is at sunset and sunrise when the colours are most radiant and the sun less hot. I decided to go very early in the morning and ride there myself and brave the soft sand. I got up while it was still dark, quite cold and packed up all my stuff and rode west into the park.
As I was riding along and the sun just starting to light up all the dunes into a vivid reddish orange, I saw some white gazebos tents and a group of people in the middle of the pristine desert, dressed in finest “Out of Africa” khaki gear, sitting around a huge table that was set with what looked like a white linen table cloth, and I assume silver cutlery and bone china plates, uniformed waiters and the whole shebang. It was like an officers’ mess dinner, except in the middle of a desert. Surreal.
As I got nearer to Sussesvlei the dunes got taller and I could see signs indicating the name of each dune, unimaginatively with a number. Quite an impressive sight.
I parked up my bike, changed into running gear and decided I would run up and down a few dunes and take some pictures, which I did. Running up the sides of the shifting sand was very difficult as you go up 3 steps and slide down 2, rather like staggering home from the pub. Eventually I made it to the top of the tallest and most famous dune and ran along the ridges for several hours until I was thoroughly exhausted. That burnt off some carbs and earned some beer points.
I then rode back the way I came as there is no road, on or off, connecting Sussesvlei to the Atlantic Coast and continued riding for some time to my next resting stop at a place called Solitaire, which is a campsite, hostel, petrol station and restaurant located at a cross roads between Windhoek and the towns of Walvis Bay and Swarkopmund.
I pitched my tent on the rocky camp ground along with some 4×4 SUVs with Safari tents, and another adventure motorcyclist from Australia who was riding around the world on a 25 year old BMW R65 with very minimal kit. He had ridden across Asia, and just completed the more technical west route of Africa through the deserts and jungles of the Sahara, Mauritania, the DRC, Nigeria, the Congo, Sierra Leone and Angola.
He told me about his adventures, the technical riding challenges, repairing damage to his elderly BMW, smashing the “sticky out” boxer engine cylinder heads on trees in the jungles of the Congo, and some close shaves with dodgy soldiers and the like in west Africa. All admirable derring do stuff, but Bush, Obama and Blair had yet to mess up Africa and the Middle East and inflame radical Islam. In 2007 adventure travel and the Dakar Rally had yet to be ruined by the idiot office wallahs and war lords from Brussels, Washington and London.
I felt a bit daft with my state of the art motorcycle and its shiny panniers having only ridden up from neighbouring South Africa, but fascinated by his stories. I offered him my house in Arniston to stay in for a few weeks when he got to South Africa and I later found out that he accepted and enjoyed the relaxation on the southern tip of the continent. There is a strong community spirit between adventure riders and I was very happy to help out, and indeed be helped out by others.
The next day after a decent breakfast and a slice of the famous Solitaire apple pie I headed off westwards towards Walvis Bay, again along quite rough and sandy roads. I crossed large expanses of rocky desert and saw my first giraffe of the trip, running elegantly, as giraffes do, across the road in front of me. Its a strange beast, and even more odd to see in the wilds. Like the desert elephants, one wonders how they survive in the deserts of Namibia.
I enjoyed this stretch of riding as the scenery was magnificent, but as I got nearer to the coast the air became rather humid, and the surroundings became greener and more lush. Having reached the coast I could see people surfing down the dunes on snowboards and there were a couple of people paragliding in the ridge lift which I thought looked fun. I continued through Walvis Bay and into Swakopmund. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swakopmund)
Here I found a campsite on the beach, bought some supplies and prepared for the next leg of the trip up the skeleton coast. This stage was going to present my first real challenges as there are no supplies, no petrol, and technically motorcycles are not allowed in National Parks, which most of the skeleton coast is. Also, I heard it was very sandy, and the route up to the border with Angola largely inaccessible.
With all my fuel cans full, plenty of water, and with enough food for a few days my bike was now totally unsuitable to ride on soft sand. But I needed all this stuff, and sand is what I would have to try and ride on.
As I was getting the last of my provisions in Swarkopmund I bumped into a group of British guys who were riding KTM 250 cc enduro bikes. They had joined a tour group in Windhoek and were being guided along a circular route of Namibia for 10 days. It all sounded super fun, but they seemed more interested in my journey and impressed with my bike and what I had ahead of me. They asked me if I was really going to ride my big KTM 990 along the Skeleton Coast? Umm, yes! But that got me thinking… what do they know that I don’t?
The initial ride up the Skeleton Coast was along amazingly flat and white salt pans. The wild Atlantic Ocean is on your left as you go north, and the desert and dunes are on your right, formed into strange multi coloured structures by ancient volcanic activity.
Also in the night and early morning the difference in temperature and humidity between the cool sea air and the hot dry desert air causes a lot of fog, some of it extremely thick, and it takes a few hours for it to burn away each morning, only to reappear again in the late afternoon and evening.
After several hours I found a very basic fuel station and topped up, and then carried on to the entrance of the national park, which is gated with an impressive skull and cross bone design and large elephant tusks. There is a manned office that takes tolls from cars, but motorcycles are not allowed in. All that said, I have to date crossed it twice. Once on this trip, and again two years later with my friend Nick Dobson, when we had to bribe our way in with 5 cigarettes and two peaches.
On this earlier occasion I just rode through the gates when nobody was looking and kept going. I hadn’t come all this way to turn around. Seek forgiveness, not permission, and all that stuff.
The riding was fine to start with, but later there were long stretches of deep sand and I struggled somewhat with either the front wheel washing away, or the rear wheel not getting enough traction and burying itself deep into the sand. Sometimes I would have to get off the bike, walk alongside the bike, and throttled it carefully through the deep sand traps until the road, if you could call it that, got better and I could get back on and get going again. Exhausting stuff.
I rode for a few hours until it started getting dark and turned left onto the beach behind a small dune and set up my tent. I collected drift wood and made an amazing fire which I sat next to, staring out to sea until the sea mist came in and made everything a bit creepy, being on my own and all. The sound of the waves during the night was quite loud and the mist was quite thick, damp and smelt very salty and slightly fishy. Not the greatest night’s sleep of the trip.
The next day everything looked different and not so threatening. Remote, beautiful and unearthly. Any thoughts I had of John Carpenter’s movie, “The Fog” had melted away.
I had to plan the next stage, but my paper maps were not showing any roads north of Mowes Bay and so I carried on through Terrace Bay and along sand trails until it became apparent why there wasn’t anything on my map.
There was no more road.
The M34 just stopped. A 125 or 250 cc enduro bike might make some progress, my 1000 cc adventure bike definitely wouldn’t, and so I plotted another course to Palmwag that would later route me up to the river at the border with Angola.
So, I headed back the way I came, and after about 100 kilometres or so took a left turn onto a gravel road that took me up into the mountains and through very remote, barren and beautiful scenery.
After about 50 kilometers I came across “the other gate” to the Skeleton Coast Park and there was a park ranger standing at the gate indicating for me to stop. I was expecting a “bollocking”, or perhaps have to pay a fine for illegally entering the National Park, but he just laughed at me, and waved me on.
Without finding illegal fuel stops here and there run by entrepreneurial locals and the extra kilograms of petrol I carried in the yellow cans I would not have made it.
I then rode along very long stretches of quite good gravel trails and eventually into the small town of Palmwag where I found a very nice game resort managed by a young English couple who had given up their life in the UK to do something completely different.
I paid for a camping spot, but actually slept in my sleeping bag in a hammock by the pool which was quite eventful because a huge bull elephant, called “Sebastian”, paid me a visit in the night and “snuffled” me with his truck. I can’t think of another word other than snuffle to describe being snorted on and prodded with an elephant’s truck. After all, it doesn’t happen that often!
This encounter wasn’t a complete surprise because I heard from the English managers that this elephant was legendary, very big, very pale grey in colour, wandered around the resort at night, and provided you didn’t startle him, would tip toe about and snuffle things, like he did with me. The strange thing is that I could hear this enormous creature snapping off branches and twigs from the trees, but I couldn’t hear him actually move around, and I was excited and slightly anxious when he was suddenly towering above me and feeling around with his trunk.
Eventually Sebastian found something else to snuffle and disappeared as silently as he arrived. I heard cracks of branches in various parts of the resort all the way through the night, and in the morning there was no sign of him. I mentioned the fact at breakfast, just to assure myself I wasn’t having one of my vivid dreams, and everyone just nodded matter of factly that it was indeed Sebastian.
I should note that it is at this time of the expedition in northern Namibia that I started taking my weekly meflium anti malaria tablets, which had a side effect that they gave me very weird and vivid dreams. I believe this particular medication is the cheap stuff the Americans developed for the Vietnam war that sent some of its soldier doolally, and today is routinely sold over the counter at any South African pharmacy.
I caught malaria in north South Africa in 2002 as I was hiking and free camping down the east coast, probably at the Swaziland border near St. Lucia and was deliriously ill with fever, being rescued by some unknown Xhosa people in the Transkei and ending up in Umtata hospital for a few days on a drip, which I escaped from when I felt a “bit” better. I hadn’t taken any anti malaria medication then and so this time I was prepared, to the extent you can be as malaria has several strains and can reoccur.
I now had a long stretch of riding ahead of me north to the Kunene River at the border of Angola and then east around the top of Etosha National Park and towards the Kalahari.
Should I admit that I crossed into Angola, or not, given there is no stamp in my passport?
I have illegally entered several countries on my expeditions, not to claim benefits or break the law, but through necessity or curiosity and always worked my way back.
The first occasions was in mid 1980s into China via Macau when I was a Royal Hong Kong Police Inspector and we were banned from entering China. I swam over to Namibia from South Africa as I mentioned earlier, I entered Thailand from Cambodia and visa versa, Burma from Thailand, and Kazakhstan from China, among various European excursions.
On this occasion I ran out of petrol in north Namibia near a place called Olifa (that had no fuel) and entered a surprisingly well developed Angola town via a motorised pontoon that was ferrying “everyone” illegally back and forth, (much like between Mozambique and Zimbabwe), and following directions found a modern fuel station that was ridiculously expensive.
My South Africa registered motorcycle and pink body quickly attracted the attention of some rather hostile and aggressive “gangsta” rapper types while I was filling up, but I extricated myself when I took my jacket off and was seen to be wearing a “I am not an Afrikaner” Chelsea football shirt. This went down extremely well with big smiles and African fist bumping, thumb twiddling handshaking “stuff”. My US dollar reserves were seriously depleted buying 40 litres of finest 95 Octane.
I did not hang around long and retraced my steps, paying far too much to get back on the pontoon and back into Namibia. At least I had that lovely feeling of a tanks and reserves full of fuel. Sadly, I saw little of Angola, but would on future trips.
I was now out of white farmer Namibia and into African tribal Namibia and so I encountered a lot more people, some of them Bushmen who spoke with a clicking sound and who are indigenous to this part of Africa, and have been around these parts for tens of thousands of years.
Other tribes like the Himba people are adorned in red clay and very handsome. Further east towards the Kalahari Herero women dress in vivid bright Victorian style dresses with head dresses that look like horns. I have to say some of the maturer ladies I bumped into were absolutely huge and quite a sight as they moved very slowly about their business.
I didn’t go into Ethosa Game Park, although I did a few years later on another motorcycle trip in 2009 with my friend Nick, but I did see a lot of animals, both domestic and wild, pretty much everywhere. Lots of springboks, ostriches, elephants, giraffes, impala, kudu, oryx, zebras, mongoose, meercats, hyenas, hippos and crocodiles in rivers and water holes, and lots of birds, especially hornbills and the funny drongos that would follow my bike as I rode along and eat the insects unearthed by my tyres running over the mud and gravel.
As I headed east towards Botswana and the Okavango Delta there was something that I really wanted to see near Grootfontein.
The Hoba Meteorite sits in the Kalahari after crashing into Planet Earth 80,000 years ago. It was found by a farmer whilst ploughing the land about 90 years and remains where it was found with a modest information plaque in an exhibit circle.
Again I had a long ride to get to Grootfontein and when I arrived I was surprised how accessible the meteorite actually was. Sadly, since it’s been discovered it has been vandalised over the years, with bits chipped off it, and graffiti scrawled into it. That said it is a very impressive hunk of metal (Iron, Nickel and Cobalt mostly with other trace elements), about 60 tons in mass, and is shiny in places where its been scuffed or damaged. It also seems unnaturally square, like a cube.
As I got there late, there was nobody around and so I pitched my tent about 5 meters away from the 2001 Space Odyssey like object. Its strange that it hasn’t been moved to a museum, and despite the effects of recent human curiosity and vandalism, I am sort of glad its still where it landed. During the night I brought out my sleeping bag, climbed on top, and slept until the morning.
I guess few other people can boast that they have slept with an alien.
After my alien encounter I continued along some dusty yellow trails for many hours towards the border crossing with Botswana. I have to admit I was not entirely sure where I was, except that I was generally heading east.
The scenery was now Savannah scrubland with lots of bushes, baobab trees, the occasional wooden village, long stretches of gravel and sand roads, and lots of wildlife.
At one point in seemingly the middle of nowhere I stumbled upon a solitary little girl standing on the track in front of me. No more than four or five years old, she was dressed in traditional Kalahari clothing and carrying a stick twice as tall as she was.
She was quite startled to see me, but held her ground as she gazed at what must have seemed to her to be a black spaceman emerging on a noisy monster from out of the bush. I stopped next to her and we observed each other for a while, and so I took my helmet off and she seemed even more startled at the sight of my red face and blood shot blue eyes, rocking on her feet and on the verge of running away. I smiled and waved, and she suddenly beamed a huge smile, the sort of smile only Africans seem able to do.
I looked around and could see no sign at all of habitation, or where she had come from and why she was on her own. I asked her if she was OK, but she didn’t understand and just pointed into the distance and said something in her clicky dialect. Then I spotted what she was doing. She was guarding goats that were scattered here and there, and indeed some were perched precariously high up in the branches of some trees.
We had sort of run out of things to say, and I didn’t want to alarm her anymore, and so I started up my bike, the loud “braaaap” like noise breaking the silence of the bush, startling the birds, and making the little girl rear back in surprise, forcing a nervous laugh. We waved goodbye at each other as I disappeared off into the bush.
Even after ten or fifteen minutes of riding, I could see no sign of habitation. No smoke, no dogs, no people. My goodness, what a difference between her life and those of all the snowflakes in the West. Just a small little girl all by herself in the middle of the Kalahari desert.
I eventually reached the border crossing as the sun was going down, and I had missed the chance to cross it as everything was now locked up, and nobody was around. It was one of the most basic border crossings I have ever seen, consisting of nothing more than two huts and two gates, one for Botswana and one for Namibia. So, I stopped, unpacked, set up my tent, made a fire, made some tea, and rummaged around for food.
All I had was some Simba peanuts with raisins, and a Bar One chocolate bar …both sold in every shop, however remote, across Africa and both would make a regular appearance in my supplies. There was nothing around me except bush, no signs of human life, and since it was now dark, it was probably very unwise for me to venture off exploring.
My tent was a small red one man contraption, quite well designed and rather compact. I had a thin ground mat, two sleeping bags (one inside the other if cold, or used as a mat if not), a torch, and that was about it.
I did have a small Nokia phone that I could put local SIM cards into, and occasionally I had a signal, but it wasn’t a smart phone like we have today…just a mobile phone that could also send text messages. I also had a small Mac Book 10 inch laptop in which I downloaded my pictures of the day and wrote up my blog… all of which are now lost (stolen in Windhoek a few years later). The only pictures of this trip I still have are those I posted on Facebook at the time.
I had two books at any one time due to necessity to reduce weight, a novel I was reading, that I swapped over for different ones at various lodges and campsites along the way, and the Adventure Motorcycling Handbook by Chris Scott which I read cover to cover and acted as my sort of bible. I did attempt to read the classic Jupiter’s Travels by Ted Simons, but it is more a travel book than a motorcycle adventure book, it just so happens he travels by motorcycle. In any case, I couldn’t get into it, or relate to his observations, and so it remains unfinished to this day.
When it came to the end of the day, especially camping in remote places, there was not much to do other than prepare the bike for the next day, cook up food, listen to my MP3 player, read my book, and more often than not just think about things. My expeditions over the last few years have been more Hi-tech and most of the time I have access to the Internet through my iPhone with the ubiquitous 3/4G coverage, but back then it seemed more isolated and remote.
This trip more than any time in my life gave me a time to reflect. Being solitary and in the wilderness takes some getting used to, but it is good for connecting with the Soul of the Universe and understanding one’s place in everything.
And sitting alone in the middle of the Kalahari gazing up at the night sky?
My goodness isn’t the sky big and our world small.
I got in the habit of wearing ear plugs as I am a light sleeper and would wake up if I heard a noise outside, or was disturbed by the strong winds as the tent flapped and cracked violently in the gusts whipped up in the night. The other disturbance is caused by birds which can make a real din, especially just before the sun comes up. Good if you need an alarm clock call at 3.30 to 4 am, not so great if you don’t.
There are lots of insects in the African bush as you can imagine. Lots of spiders, centipedes, mosquitoes, midges, moths, various types of beetles, and a fair few scorpions that will climb onto things and into your boots and jacket if they can. I have definitely had nocturnal visits by snakes, but apart from the psychological fear of them moving about, they cannot get into your tent while you are zipped up inside, but small ones can crawl underneath, and its a bit of a surprise to find one when you pack up, as are scorpions and large beetles to a lesser degree.
I have seen footprints of large cats, weasels, porcupines, honey badgers, elephants, antelope, and other furry critters that have obviously walked around my small tent while I was fast asleep, and left their tell-tale footprints in the sand. I imagine many of these animals could detect my presence by my smell, especially the way I did for most of the time, but I think they are just not programmed to recognise an inanimate object like a zipped up tent, and so they leave you alone.
Later on in this trip, when I am camping in Swaziland, I had a visit by a pack of hyenas and no amount of ear plugs was going filter out their rather terrifying cackling and screaming. All part of the big adventure I suppose, and in reality one should be more concerned about the very small critters such as parasites and microbes that can crawl up your orifices and really ruin your day.
The next day I was up early, due mostly to the cacophony of the dawn chorus, and packed up ready for the immigration officials to arrive. Everything looked different in the light of day, but it was undoubtedly a very remote part of the world.
The Botswana officials turned up first and only an hour later did some old chap rock up on the Namibian side. He saw me waiting, smiled and greeted me, stamped my passport, and let me through. The Botswana side took no time at all either. All sorted without any drama, and off I went again, aiming for the huge swamplands of the Okavango Delta.
After a couple of hours I came across my first tarmac road for days and I had a decision to make. Do I head south and towards Maun and then up to Zambia via Chobe Game Reserve, or go north towards the Caprivi Strip? The decision was simple, I was hungry and could see a sign advertising a game lodge to the north where I could probably get some brunch. And that is what I did.
The Okavango is a stunning bit of Africa and Botswana is probably the most well run country in the African continent at the moment. Lowest levels of corruption, reasonably competent and clean leaders, decent infrastructure, a very mature and well run tourist industry, but rather expensive.
The Game Lodge I pulled into was very “larnie” (as South Africans say) and I had an all day breakfast sitting on a veranda overlooking the waters. Very picturesque and peaceful.
This would turn out to be my only meal of the day as I would do some serious riding and complete over 900 kilometers before it got dark. I pitched my tent right next to the the river near the border with the Caprivi Strip in Namibia, cracked open a beer, gazed at the bush TV (the fire), and was out for the count. No need for ear plugs.
I got up as the sun was rising above the wide Cubango River that feeds the enormous delta and gazed out at a quintessentially African scene. My fire had pretty much burned through all the wood during the night, but I was able to warm my hands on the remaining embers whilst taking in a view that was hidden by the darkness when I arrived. Everything was beautiful. The river, the trees and bushes, animals and birds, right through to the perfect climate and smell. Africa has the best smell in the world.
I sat and watched some hippos and white egrits in the water, was slightly alarmed to see dozens of crocodiles not very far from where I camped in the night, and various birds, including my first glimpse of the lilac breasted roller, a perfectly beautiful creature.
As I massaged my hands by the remaining heat of the fire I was still feeling rather stiff and sore, especially my bottom and my hands. My rear end because of an accumulation of nearly two month of riding, and the webbing between my fore fingers and thumbs because this small part of my hands is in contact with the bike all day long and takes the brunt of a lot of pressure whilst standing up on the foot pegs.
My KTM 990 Adventure motorcycle is a big and fairly comfortable machine. It has a very powerful 1000 cc V-twin engine, and it is quite smooth and balanced. The shock absorbers, made by WP, are some of the best there are, and take up a lot of the abuse as the front wheel crashes across potholes, rocks, and bumps. It is made for riding on every surface Planet earth has to offer.
Riding for 10+ hours every day, for months on end will take its toll on your body. I was still a little inexperienced to this off road riding lark, and perhaps gripping far too hard on the bars when things got interesting, which most of the time it was. Later on, during subsequent expeditions, I would become more relaxed as I rode, grip my hands less firmly, and generally ride more confidently. A later addition to my bike of an after market gel seat and sheep skin seat cover would prove to be a saviour to my poor arse.
For now, however, I was beginning to suffer a bit.
I was pondering whether to ride south and enjoy more of the Okavango (which I did years later on the ride to Shanghai with Fanny) or head north towards Livingstone in southern Zambia and rest up for a while.
I needed a bit of a rest. Victoria Falls it is.
I passed through the Botswana / Namibia border very easily and both sets of officials were very friendly, quick and professional. No dramas at all, and so at the end of the road I turned right and followed the Caprivi Strip, which is a pan handle extension of Namibia that squeezes between Zambia and Angola in the north, and Zimbabwe and Botswana in the south.
It was a very enjoyable section on pretty good tar roads passing by lots of very primitive looking African villages, consisting mostly of circular rattan fences, surrounding ten or so thatched wooden or mud huts.
Near these villages the road would become an obstacle course of chickens, pigs, goats and donkeys. There were loads children everywhere, and they would run out excitedly, and waving furiously. If I was going slowly enough, I would high five the braver kids, much to their delight, and their mothers’disapproval.
Whenever I stopped I would be swamped by kids, they would often appear from nowhere, demanding pens and sweets. They would clamber onto my bike, and hands would ferret around in my pockets for anything they could relieve me of. Earlier on I had stocked myself up with large bags of toffees which I handed out like Father Christmas.
Maybe I was setting an annoying precedent for other adventure riders who would be pestered by little urchins demanding pens and sweets, but I did enjoy giving out something, and as it happened I found it a useful way of escaping, as the kids would have to let go of me, my bike, and its luggage, and use both hands to free the toffee from the wrapper. That said, on more than one occasion I had set off only to see a small grinning face in my rear view mirror perched on my panniers and hanging on for grim life.
In Africa, unlike in the US and Europe where the little snowflakes are driven everywhere by mummy in her Prius, the local kids walk really long distances, either to and from school, to collect water from wells and rivers, or to run errands for their parents. I would often pick up children, children with animals, women carrying large loads on their head, and even old chaps, who were in the middle of no-where and obviously hiking a fair old distance, and deposit them at their destination, much to their delight, and their families’gratitude.
As I was wearing a helmet I felt it appropriate for any of my passengers to wear one too, and so I invested in a Chinese open faced helmet at a local store, and insisted that everyone wore it, despite the fact that most of them didn’t have any shoes either.
In the West you would never do such a thing, as you would probably be accused of child abuse, breaching road traffic and safety regulations, kidnap, or worse! The days of collective guardianship over the children of a community are over in the West. A European adult male like me, especially as I am no longer a police officer, will never engage or talk with a child one doesn’t know. However, here in the Africa bush things are different. I felt that if I could help and give someone with a lift, or lend a hand, I would. After all, as a child in 1970s’ Britain, I also hitch-hiked everywhere… no transport, no money, no choice.
Today, my sisters and friends in the UK would be no more inclined to have their kids walk anywhere, than encourage them to get a job sweeping chimneys. Hitch-hiking? No way. Their “most special children in the world” are closeted, surgically attached to smart phones, and their every waking hour is strictly monitored and controlled.
When I remind them that our own childhoods where conducted with minimal adult supervision and zero regard to health and safety, they retort that the 21st Century is a much more dangerous time than when we were kids. Well no it isn’t!
In the 1960s and 70s, all cars had leaded fuel, no one wore a seat belt, we all worked on farms, dentists gassed us and filled our teeth with mercury, and Myra Hindley and Jimmy Savile were on the prowl.
Anyway, I digress.
It is a little further along the Caprivi Strip that I actually ran my petrol tank dry, thus giving me a decent indication of exactly how far I could travel on one tank of fuel at 120 kph. The answer is 280 kilometres.
As I was refilling my tank at the side of the road from one of the yellow petrol cans stored in my panniers, two cyclists rode up to me to see if I was OK. They were a German couple who had ridden all the way down from Europe through Africa and were heading to Cape Agulhas, near where I lived.
We got chatting and I was intrigued by their bicycles, one of which was pulling a small trailer containing their possessions and covered in solar panels for re-charging their electrical equipment. I was so impressed with their achievement, and their kind attitude that I again offered them to stay at my house in Arniston, and at the end of my expedition when I returned home, I discovered that they had done so, and thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Its a strange thing to cycle across Africa and I was glad I have a comfortable place on the southern tip that I can offer to my like minded adventurers.
Nowadays, people monetarise their motorcycle adventures through their YouTube channels that attract sponsors and advertising. A few very successfully, and most not.
I cherish my amateur photographs and clumsily edited and formatted videos, but I know I have a face for radio and a voice for writing. Anyway, I would not want to go through all the daily hassles of producing material to “like, share, subscribe” even though I do keep a YouTube channel. Facebook and YouTube are essentially free cloud storage to me. A written blog will do me. If people enjoy it fine, but I do it for posterity and for all the other reasons people keep diaries and journals.
That all said, I am glad there are people out there who do make an effort and have filming and editing skills. I like the idea that there are no production companies and people have ownership of their own “how to” videos, podcast interviews with interesting people, adventures, and reviews of products. As I have rejected mainstream media and their bias, I have embraced and live vicariously through other people’s YouTube talent and efforts. Old Joe Rogan, The Bald Explorer, Itchy Feet, 44 Teeth, etc.
Anyway, a day or so after this encounter I arrived at the border with Zambia and this was to be an indication of what officialdom was really like elsewhere in Africa. It was also going to be an important lesson on how to avoid being targeted for, lets call it, facilitation payments. No… let’s call what its is — bribery.
My first impression on arrival was that it was chaotic, with lots of vehicles queuing up to get through. As an important crossing point over the Zambezi River into Zambia there were commercial vehicles such as trucks and buses, South African SUVs towing safari tents, a few 4×4 overlander trucks, local people in various types of vehicles, blue Toyota taxis, an assortment of government vehicles, and loads of people milling about. I seemed to be the only motorcycle.
Getting out of Namibia was easy, getting into Zambia was going to be less so. The first thing that I was confronted with was that in addition to immigration and customs taxes and inspection, I would have to pay a vehicle emissions tax, a vehicle licence tax, and local insurance. As I didn’t have a carne de passage, but was driving a South African vehicle, I had to pay a customs import tax, that was about US$20, which I thought was fair enough. I had to pay an additional US$8 dollars to get a receipt for my contribution to a vehicle emissions tax.
Ironically, my bike produced nearly no emissions, being an EU category 3 vehicle, but I had no choice and had to part with my cash for this emissions tax in a converted ship container that had a charcoal fire outside belching out smoke!
Armed with all my receipts I joined the immigration queue and witnessed everyone… foreigners, Zambians, and other Africans being fleeced for a bribe. There always seemed to be something that required paying something to get round it, and the white South Africans with their Land Cruisers and Land Rovers were getting the brunt of it. The officials had this off pat, and knew that Afrikaner man was more scared of upsetting Afrikaner woman than relieving himself of a couple of hundred Rand. They complained bitterly, but still coughed up.
When it was my turn I handed everything over and was asked for a certificate of insurance, which I showed them. Inevitably enough my insurance policy was not good enough.
‘Yes, it is’, I insisted to the disinterested looking official.
After about 5 minutes of arguing the toss I was sent to the naughty corner.
As I had no Afrikaner wife, no game resort to check into, loads of time on my hands, and no inclination to be given “the treatment” I went over to the wooden bench where I remained singing to myself, farting loudly, doing press ups, pacing about, and generally being very naughty indeed.
After about fifteen minutes maximum the immigration officer called me over to his desk, asked for my passport, stamped it, and basically told me and my “morta sickle” to fuck off.
So, I was now in Zambia.
As I left, and with the general encouragement from what seemed like an entire infantry division of the Zambian Army, I wheelied away from the border post. I don’t normally pull wheelies, as I’m not very good at them, and it damages the chain, sprockets and clutch, but this little victory was worth it.
I then rode along a rather potholed tarmac road, weaving around the craters like a 1980s video game, missing most, but occasionally crashing into a few with a thud, bottoming out the suspension and clanging the rims as I climbed out. I was starting to think that it was far better riding off road in the desert than on Zambian tarmac roads.
Livingston was about 120 kilometers away from the border and I planned to stay there for about a week, do some side trips, see the magnificent Victoria Falls, and generally idle about.
Bumped into these cyclist who rode from Germany… here in the Caprivi Strip near Zambia
Despite having to navigate the mine field of potholes, I got to Livingstone quite quickly and searched about for a backpackers that I could stay at. I found one called Jollyboys and camped in their grounds and used the bar and restaurant for a couple of days, but later found a much nicer place called Zigzags who offered me a room in a cabin for the same price as camping, and so I booked it for a week.
I was really enjoying the break from long distance riding, and found Livingstone to be fascinating and thoroughly good fun. I met a lot of interesting local people and ended up hanging about with two very lovely Zambian female police officers who showed me around the tourist sites and took me out drinking at night. I met their friends, was invited to their homes for dinner, did a river booze cruise, and generally had a great time.
I helped with preparing a farm produce stall for a fete, and we were entered into a competition and came seventh or something out of ten against very stiff competition. I thoroughly explored a good radius of 50 kilometers around Livingstone on my bike, down single tracks and animal trails, hiked about, and went over to Vic Falls in Zimbabwe to have a look about, but without my bike.
I made friends with an American lady I met in a bakery who was in her mid 70s. She was a remarkable lady, a widow, had recently had a full heart transplant, and against the wishes of her children and friends had decided to backpack across Africa, which she did with the gusto of a twenty something.
I remember an occasion when we were on an evening booze cruise together with some other people from Zigzags and Jollyboys and my American friend got absolutely “trolleyed” on whiskey and coke and had to be restrained from jumping off the boat in the Zambezi. Another one of my new Zambian friends, who ran the evening booze cruises, said that they had lost an Australian chap earlier in the year who striped off and jumped into the river … and was immediately taken under by crocodiles never to be seen again. Serious stuff.
I got to like the local food quite a lot, mostly variations on the theme of nshima (cornmeal pap), cabbage and chicken or fish. The locals loved it and my friends admitted they really didn’t like anything else. Without nshima in their stomachs at least once a day they said they felt as if they were starving. Windhoek beer was replaced with Mosi beer, and I was no stranger to the bars and clubs where I seemed, as a middle aged forty something chap, to be surprisingly popular. I will leave it at that!
I think I stayed in Livingstone for a couple of weeks. I really enjoyed myself, and fell a little bit behind the fairly loose schedule I had set myself. I had partied hard enough and was ready to get back on the bike and head off to Lusaka to visit my uncle, Mick.
I took the main road, but because of the huge number of buses and trucks, which drove really badly and dangerously, I decided to detour along some trails and tracks and this added a day to my schedule. When I did eventually arrive in Lusaka I was a bit taken aback at being in such a large city after so long in the bush. Livingstone is a town, Lusaka is a proper city.
In addition to seeing my uncle, I also needed to collect a set of new Pirelli Scorpion tyres from the airport that had been shipped in from South Africa. I had been monitoring the decline of my tyre thread, that had received quite a beating on the gravel, especially in Namibia, and they were full of nicks and cuts. That all said, I never had a puncture on the entire expedition and the tyres were to be more resilient and last a lot longer than I initially thought.
Getting new tyres in Zambia was not cheap, and to be honest a bit of a hassle. The 90/90 21 inch fronts are quite common, but the back tyres are 150/70 R18 for the KTM 990 Adventure and not used on other bikes and therefore not easy to come by. For instance, the more common BMW GS used a 17 inch rear tyre and there was a lot more choice of tyre brand and type.
I picked up the tyres at Lusaka airport warehouse, got messed about a bit, paid some duties that were more expensive than I anticipated, and strapped them on the back of my bike until my current tyres were essentially threadbare and on their last legs (which happened much later than I expected when I entered Mozambique)
In the meantime I spent time with my uncle who I hadn’t seen much in my life. As a kid he was seen of as a sort of legend, he had been married to several very glamorous and beautiful women, was an artist and photographer, hill climbing rally driver, lived all over Africa, and when he was a young man part of the cool swinging sixties set in the King’s Road with Terrance Stamp and all that lot.
When I caught up with Mick he was divorced, again, and living in a small apartment in an interesting suburb of Lusaka. On the first night he took me to the famous Lusaka Club for steak and chips of which he ate hardly anything, but drank quite a lot as he was in the habit of doing.
I stayed with Mick for three days whilst waiting for the tyres and I think in that time we ploughed through a case of wine and half a case of scotch together. Its no mean feat I can tell you. On the day I left we had had a session the night before and I was feeling particularly fragile as I ventured off to my destination of Mama Rula’s Guest House near Chipata (http://www.mamarulas.com/) from where I intended stay and then to ride to see Mick’s Children, Nathan and Rosie, in South Luangwa National Park.
As I was riding along about 50 kilometers outside Lusaka I saw in the distance a convoy of motorcycles with their lights blazing. It took my befuddled brain a while to realize that this was the Long Way Down bikers on their way to Lusaka.
This made sense now as I had read on the internet that the LWD team were in Malawi and as I left Lusaka I saw some big motorcycles and their riders who shouted out something to me as I cruised by, but I didn’t stop, and I didn’t really hear what they said. Now I assume they were Zambian fixers waiting for Ewan McGregor, Charlie Boorman and their entourage to arrive in Lusaka.
As my brain was registering that Obe Wan Kanobe was on the same road as me they just rode by and waved. I wondered if I should stop, but as they didn’t I felt a bit stupid and carried on. I kept a look out in my mirror and saw that they had indeed eventually stopped and so I turned around and met them. Ewan McGregor and his wife then carried on riding towards Lusaka, and Charlie Boorman and Claudio Planta stayed with me for a chat, which we did for about an hour at the side of the road.
It was good to meet them, not only because I enjoyed the Long Way Round TV series, but it was good to bump into and have a yarn with fellow bike riders and share our experiences. They were riding BMW F1200 GS bikes with all the extras, and of course film and communication equipment necessary to make a top quality TV production.
I was filmed and said what I said in the clip below, and more, later signing a disclaimer from the producers to allow the TV footage, and waited for the Nissan Pathfinders with the support crew and spare equipment to arrive. As I was looking at their bikes I could see a six inch nail sticking through the tread of Claudio’s back tyre. All OK, I was informed, they were changing them all in Lusaka!
Charlie Boorman saw that I had the Dakar logo on my bike and told me about his recent experience competing in the Dakar Rally and the subsequent Race to Dakar TV series. I knew nothing about this and found it fascinating. We also chatted about their route so far through Africa, some suggestions on places to stay, and about our bikes. Charlie seemed to like my KTM, especially the Akropovik exhausts, and I offered him a ride, but he declined, saying he was contracted to BMW and it would not be a good idea to be seen on a better bike. Actually he never said that, but I am sure that was what he was thinking. After that we bid each other farewell and went off in opposite directions.
When I got back from the trip I of course told everyone I was filmed on the Long Way Down TV series which was to be shown on the BBC in England. Of course, the series went by and there was no footage of me at all, which was a bit disappointing and I think everyone thought I was making it up.
A year or so later, I received a lot of emails from my Australian friends who said they saw “my ugly face” on the LWD TV series that was broadcast in Australia on the Discovery channel. Later, when I got a DVD box set of the series, the original six episodes had been extended with extra footage, and so I have a small clip of talking scribble with Charlie Boorman in the middle of Zambia.
After the LWD encounter I pushed on towards Chipata, passed by their support vehicles that waved furiously at me and flashed their lights, but I ran out of fuel just before I completed the journey. In one day I had ridden the same distance the LWD guys did in two days and burned through 39.5 litres of fuel with no sign of a petrol station along the whole way.
Fortunately, after an hour or so I was rescued by a entrepreneurial young chap who appeared out of the bush on a bicycle with two corn oil drums containing rather murky looking fuel. I worked out how much I needed to get to a petrol station in Chipata, and bought 5 litres, but at triple the pump price.
Well the price was what is was, but even in those early days of my motorcycle expeditions I knew putting dodgy fuel in my tank was probably a bad thing. In fact, the biggest threat to motorcycles doing long distance journeys in Africa, or indeed Asia, is putting poor quality and contaminated fuel in your tank. The risk is that it will block the fuel pump, clog up the filter, knacker the EFi fuel injection system or carburetor jets, mess with the mapping, and more besides.
In fact, two years later a blockage of my fuel filter will cause my engine on the very same bike to stutter for many miles and eventually stop in the middle of Namibia. The cause was undoubtedly putting contaminated fuel straight into the tank without filtering it properly. In the Kenyan chapter of this blog you will read that Fanny and I prevented such problems by using a very effective home made petrol filter. Nobody ever takes any notice of my ramblings in these blogs, but I can tell you that is the way to do it. Watch and learn.
With enough petrol to get me to Chipata I got going again and managed to find a petrol station and fill up. I then checked into Mama Rulas Guest House who had received the LWD expedition a few days earlier and quite excited about it, and pitched my tent in the same place they did, probably.
My cousin, Rosie, told me that the road between Chipata and South Luangwa, about 150 kilometres in length, was absolutely terrible, and in recent months was impassable. That said, she was currently in South Luangwa and had presumably driven there in her beaten up Toyota Corola, and so I guessed it was probably OK for my bike, especially if I reduced the weight by leaving what I could at Mama Rula’s Guest House.
So, I dumped my spare tyres, my panniers, and strapped my camping gear and a small bag on the back of my bike and headed off down the muddy track which had been gouged out badly by conveys of very overladen cotton trucks. There were sections where the road had fallen away and I saw several trucks that had rolled over and been abandoned by the side of the track. This was quite a technical stretch of my ride and for the first time on the trip I had to ride across streams and small rivers, plough through thick mud, and ride very steep slopes.
With all the extra weight off my bike I was quite enjoying the ride that seemed a lot longer than 150 kilometres, but still had to keep my wits about me as I tackled the worst road I had ridden so far. I was reading the road and plotting my track much better. I guess with confidence comes skill, and with skill come confidence. Its a gradual process and I was gradually getting better.
I eventually reached the Luangwa Valley at Malama and Kakumbi and found a route to my destination, Flat Dogs Camp (www.flatdogscamp.com/), named after the slang for a crocodile.
As I got nearer to the mighty river the surrounding land undulated with dry river wadis, streams, and small marshy tributaries. I was really enjoying the ride and the scenery notched up another level in African beauty. As I descended down a steep slope into a dusty dry river valley I ran straight into a herd of elephants.
This was the closest I had got to so many elephants, and was a bit alarmed when a young male mock charged me making one hell of a noise. Unlike many of the dramatic incidents on my expeditions, I had the presence of mind to take out my camera and snap a picture of the irritated elephant as he put on his show of defiance.
What a welcome to South Luangwa, probably the best game park in the whole of Africa.
My cousin, Rosie was working at Flat Dogs at the time, and responsible for guest relations and organising tourist activities like walking safaris in the game park. She was pretty preoccupied with what she had to do and so I booked a camping spot at the cheapest location which happened to be a platform about 5 meters up a tree.
There were rather nice safari tents and Rosie later arranged for me to move into one. For now, however, I moved into my new home with monkeys above me and elephants down below. Later I would also have nocturnal visits by hippos and crocodiles.
I really enjoyed my stay and would venture down from my tree tent and spend time with my cousins, eat and drink at the bar, and swim in the swimming pool, when of course it wasn’t being occupied by huge grey things with long trunks and big ears. I went for hikes along the Luangwa River, careful not to be on the wrong side of a hippo, or the right side of a crocodile. Many locals had lost their lives to these creatures over the years.
Our camp was shared by a large herds of elephants who would walk through at various times of the day and night. Whilst the elephants give the appearance of being docile, you do have to keep your distance otherwise they will charge you, with the real possibly that they could trample you to death. Elephants are wild animals and the staff of the various game resorts had to keep reminding their guests as they often became far too complacent.
I watched from the bar one day as an Italian tourist, who had been told many times not to go near the elephants, got chased at high speed by a huge trumpeting elephant as he attempted to get “just one more” close up photograph. It was all very dramatic as he was chased right up to the steps of the bar by a very disgruntled and noisy elephant. It was a rather ridiculous, if not dangerous sight, and I fell into fits of hysterical laughter, much to the Italian’s embarrassment and annoyance.
If I was up my tree in my tent I would have to wait until the elephants had slowly trooped by before I could come down. They would often butt and shake the trees, knocking off marula, mangoes and monkey pods that they liked eating very much. On a couple of occasions while I was in the “heads” I would get barricaded inside until the elephants eventually wandered off. On one occasion while I was having a shower I heard a scream from the cubicle next to me. Apparently a trunk came through the open window and gave the occupant a fondle.
My cousin Nathan is a wildlife film maker and lives for months on end in the bush trying to get just a few minutes of footage of animals such as wild dogs or cheetahs. He came out to see me at Flat Dogs and after spending some time together he encouraged me to go for a ride into the park, directing me to an off the beaten track route that the locals take. Like most of Africa, motorcycles are not allowed in game parks, and so I thought this would be a great adventure.
I started off expecting to ride for just a few hours but didn’t get back until well after sunset, riding along single track sand paths among probably the largest concentration of African wild animals anywhere in the world. I assumed if the locals do it, what could possibly go wrong?
First, I went off without my helmet, or even a hat to screen me from the sun. No phone, no money, no nuffink! Just a t-shirt, cargo trousers, my boots and my unladen KTM. What I hadn’t anticipated was that I would ride across rivers and streams and have to navigate windy narrow trails with no room to turn around. Only when I was out in the bush for a few hours did it dawn on me that if I run into any large animal, or creature that might like to eat me, I would not be able to manoeuvre very easily and escape.
By mid afternoon I emerged from the dense bush and rode down to a river where I could see local Zambians washing themselves and their laundry in the water. I took some pictures and showed the people their photographs on the digital camera display and they were absolutely thrilled and excited. I suspected they had never seen such a camera before, nor their own images.
As I rarely got pictures of myself, being on my own and all, I asked a young teenage girl if she would take a picture of me riding across the river, and showed her how to operate the camera. To set up the shot I rode across the river and hoped she would get a snap of me and my bike in the river. When I returned and examined her handiwork I was absolutely delighted that she had taken seven or eight perfectly framed action sequence pictures that I treasure to this day, and which some are reproduced in this blog.
I then rode back into the bush and into more open ground where I could see zebras, wildebeest, giraffe, impala, kudu, sable, elan, and more elephants. The rivers were full of hippos, and I could see lots of crocodiles sunning themselves on the banks, and scurrying back into the water at the sound of my exhausts. I didn’t see any cats, and I hoped they didn’t see me. They would certainly hear me though.
It soon became apparent that elephants absolutely hate motorcycles. Maybe its the noise, the size, the speed, or whatever, but they really react badly and I had to keep my distance from them as they became visibly agitated whenever I encountered them.
The animal I was most wary of were buffalo. I was told by my South African friends and Zambian relatives that these were the animals to keep well away from. As someone who grew up on a dairy farm in Staffordshire in England and handled cows everyday I found this rather strange, as buffalo do look like cows. Also, on Lantau Island in Hong Kong where I live, and in Thailand and Malaysia where I have visited often, there are big water buffalo, but they are very gentle and not easily roused.
The African buffalo is not a friendly beast. It is big, has a serious attitude, a lightening turn of speed, and is super aggressive. If you are in the wrong place at the wrong time they will kill you. I did see many buffalo from a distance and they always reminded me of the Kray Twins, particularly the bad tempered mad one.
I got back to the camp in one piece with just enough fuel and shared my experience with my cousins, who of course had seen and heard it all before, but gracious enough to allow me to wax lyrical about the country they grew up in.
The next day I decided to go back into the game park, but this time in a safari game viewer (a long wheel based Landrover with open view seats for passengers) where my experienced guide could locate and introduce all the animals in relative safety. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and got a chance to tick off all the animals I hadn’t seen so far, including rhino, leopard, cheetah, hyenas, wild dog, lions, meercats, servals, caracals, and even a Rock python. Also, lots of birds, too many to name.
I hung around Luangwa for a few more days enjoying the amazing scenery and wildlife and then decided to ride up through central Zambia towards Tanzania and then into northern Malawi and ride south along the coast of Lake Nyasa towards Blantyre. The problem was I had left my tyres and most of my luggage at Mama Rulas Guest House and so I had to backtrack along the challenging mud road, collect my stuff, and then plot a northerly course through Zambia and up into the mountains and forests near the north.
I was becoming a lot more confident in my riding, as one would expect riding for ten or so hours everyday on every surface Africa has to offer, and so I was not too daunted about a more off the beaten track route. After all, you can always turn around if it gets too difficult. It wasn’t a race, and as a solo rider I didn’t have to confer with anyone. I could do what I liked.
So, I rode for a couple of days directly north along the M12 that ran parallel to the Malawian border, and into the coniferous forests in the mountains near Lundozi, then headed west along the D104 towards North Luangwa and through the bush and mountain trails towards the border with Tanzania. As I didn’t have a carne de passage riding into Tanzania was not impossible, but would have incurred a lot of expense and hassle.
I wanted to go to a game resort in Tanzania called Uwanda and so at a border town called Tunduma I rode around looking for a resort or guest house that would look after my motorcycle for a few days while I ventured on foot into Tanzania for a few day. As I was looking around I saw a police station and so I rode in, introduced myself, and use a few “I used to be a policeman, don’t you know” credits. The local officers were happy to store my bike and kit for a few days. A case of Mosi beer didn’t go unappreciated either.
With KTM and kit secured in the safest spot in town, I packed up my day sack with my light sleeping bag, mozzie net, ground mat, some spare t-shirts, and my valuables. I then wandered down to the nearby border crossing, stamped out of Zambia and stamped into Tanzania. Not quick, but no real hassles. I then searched around for a cab, trying to avoid all the touts and border wallahs, and found an assortment of mini buses, cabs, motorcycles and tut-tuts parked just beyond the immigration complex.
Eventually, after the usual annoying and unnecessary haggling and jostling, I squeezed myself into a tightly packed and rather niffy mini bus, and when it was full, just beyond bursting point, it set off along fairly decent tar roads to a huge and rather chaotic town called Mbeya.
Around mid evening I hopped off as soon as I caught a glimpse of a backpackers sign, and checked into a dorm room with about 6 bunk beds. I didn’t hang around and quickly escaped to wander about town and find food and beer, which wasn’t difficult. Now I had a choice of four brands of beers, Kilimanjaro, Serengeti, Safari or Tusker. After trying them all over a few days I settled on Tusker, for no other reason than it had a picture of an elephant on the label.
In the morning at breakfast I was sort of regretting leaving my bike behind and having the hassle of trying to find my way around on foot and by uncomfortable and crowded public transport. Mbeya was definitely not worth it, but I planned to go to Uwanda Game Reserve and see the lake, see some coffee and tea plantations, and then double back to Zambia and get my bike.
The backpackers was an easy place to plan excursions and get transport to various places. By far the majority of people who were staying were on the way to Dar Salam, Zanzibar, Serengeti, or Mount Kilimanjaro… or had come back and were going to Zambia or Malawi.
I thought about going further north and decided against it, vowing to go there another time, as indeed I did with my lovely Fanny in 2011. Now all I wanted to do is just have a few days exploring a bit of Tanzania, get a feel for the place, and then carry on with my original plan.
Also, in my mind at least, I was a “lonely wolf motorcycle adventurer”, not a common or garden 20 something dread locked hippy bouncing from internet cafe to internet cafe, with a copy of the Lonely Planet, eating banana pancakes, and all that. Arrogant? Of course, its my best trait!
I took a mini bus in the late morning to Uwanda Game Reserve that I read in a guide book was famous for its flora, rather than fauna, and a must go destination for any budding botanists. It was also a paradise for water birds being on the shores of Lake Rukwa. The journey was quite long, but I managed to chat with the driver and arrange for a vehicle to take me straight from the game park campsite back to the border crossing with Zambia where I could retrieve my bike.
I didn’t have my tent and there wasn’t really an option to free camp and so I checked into a grass hut that was pretty comfortable with access to showers and the resort restaurant. I got chatting with the bus driver’s friend and he said he could organise a drive across the south of the park, see the lake and drive out of the west gate and into Tunduma at border with Zambia. After a bit of a haggle, a price was arranged which was fair to both of us, especially as I was cutting out a lot of hassle, the cost of a further nights camping, and could do a sort of mini safari at the same time.
After breakfast I caught up with my driver and to my surprise he had recruited a couple of young Dutch girls who also wanted to do the same route and so I had the extra benefit of reducing my taxi fee, and some not too unpleasant company to share it all with. The vehicle, as it turned out, was a dilapidated van of some kind, with a huge sunroof that we could stand up in, or in my case, sit on the roof.
I have to say the day was a very pleasant one in which I saw some rather different scenery than that of Luangwa. Not as many animals, but still very interesting and pretty, and as promised lots of birds and wild flowers. The Dutch girls were very friendly, quite funny and were also heading to Malawi. I don’t think they believed I was riding a motorcycle until I rocked up on it at the backpackers we all stayed at that evening on the Zambian side of the border.
We all had a few drinks and dinner together and I promised to look them up again in Malawi, which I actually did at a place called Kande Beach, some few weeks later.
After breakfast we all said goodbye and I was absolutely delighted to be back on my bike. The few days had given the blood a bit of time to recirculate in my bum, and perhaps my energy and enthusiasm for riding was renewed, as I had really missed the freedom, excitement and exhilaration of riding an adventure motorcycle.
However, I had perhaps not focused enough on the exact route I should take to Malawi and how I could actually get in. If I had crossed over into Tanzania it would be quite straightforward, but I wasn’t allowed to do that, and so I had to weave about and frequently get lost, often having to backtrack many kilometres until I found the correct route. I was fortunate enough after many hours on trails and mud roads to come across a young man who I gave a lift to, and who guided me to the border crossing into Malawi.
When we got to the crossing it was a very basic one, and apparently I was not allowed to use it as it was restricted to local Zambians and Malawians. Luckily I was on a South African registered motorcycle with current tax and insurance, and my Zambian riding companion made a passionate plea to the officials to let me through. If not, I would have had to ride another couple of hundred kilometers south to get across. As it was, I nipped across, got my passport stamped at both sides, and headed off towards Lake Nyasa.
By the time the sun set I was still on gravel tracks, winding through mountainous tracks and was still a long way from the lake. It was treacherous riding in the dark, very hilly, quite wooded, roads were awful in places, and so I had no choice but to pull off the road, find a reasonably flat space, and set up camp.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that I was completely lost, but at least I was somewhere in Malawi, I still had enough fuel to get to the north part of the lake, and it was a nice temperature, if not a tad cool up here in the hills. I nearly always carried a couple of bottle of beer in my pannier, and so I had those for dinner ….with half a chocolate bar. In the morning I made tea and had the other half of the chocolate bar for breakfast. Not so bad, I thought!
The next day I set off rather excited about the coming weeks ahead in Malawi. Everyone had told me it was really nice country and the people were very friendly. The first thing I noticed, however, was that it was possibly the poorest country I had been to so far. Everything was very basic and it had far less infrastructure, vehicles, or significant buildings than Zambia. The roads weren’t great, a lot of people seemed to live a rather primitive existence and the kids didn’t seem to go to school. The food the locals ate was mainly cassava, a white powdery starchy substance with the nutrition of a flip flop. The diet of the extremely poor.
I weaved left and right through quite steep hills and on gnarly gravel roads, and then by midday, I suddenly spotted the lake. My goodness, it looked like the sea. I knew that Tanzania and Mozambique were on the other side, but I couldn’t see anything except water. As I got nearer I started to encounter more human activity, more animals, more village huts, and could see dugout canoes with fishermen on the water. All very beautiful and very exciting.
I decided to head south towards Livingstonia and look for a campsite by the lake. After about an hour, riding along a pretty decent tar road that ran parallel to the shoreline, I arrived at a section of resorts near Mushroom Farm. Having surveyed a number of signs for resorts and accommodation, I randomly picked one and rode down a sandy track for about 5 kilometres until I was in a cluster of thatched holiday huts with European looking tourists milling about.
For the next week or so I gradually migrated down the coast, stopping at lakeside resorts, pitching my tent, swimming in the lake, kayaking, snorkeling, meeting fellow travelers, twiddling with my bike, eating and drinking very well, and generally idling about.
Malawi is a very relaxed place and had a reputation as a source of cheap “weed” which all the young hippies were into, and much of the local community survived on. It was sold in corn on the cob sized packages which would keep the dread locked hippy brigade stoned for several days. For the rest of us we had more than enough beer and dodgy Malawian gin to keep us amused.
At a port town called Nkhata Bay I met fellow bikers who had ridden down from England on Honda XR 250 cc Baja motorcycles, like the ones Fanny and I rode ten years later in Sri Lanka. They had ridden down the west route of Africa through some challenging places, and even got engaged along the way! A lovely fun couple and I enjoyed their company. Later I would stay at Kande Beach resort where I think the LWD guys had stayed a few weeks before, and I met up again with the Dutch girls I first met in Tanzania.
The girls, like most other people, were partying hard. They easily encouraged me to join in and I can report I did so disgracefully, and as hard as anyone else. Although technically middle aged, I was not letting down the side, and gave the guys half my age a run for their money. I also had a motorcycle, enough said.
Things carried on in a similar vein when the Zambian and Malawian ladies I met in Livingstone decided to all come out to Monkey Bay and Cape McClear on the very south of Lake Nyasa. As did the Dutch girls, and several other groups of people I met at various backpacker resorts as I meandered down the shores of Lake Nyasa. I think it would be wise, for the sake of my children, relatives and any reputation I have left, that I employ the Kai Tak convention and say no more.
I’d like to say it was the “last hurrah”…. except it wasn’t. Things got much worse over the following few years as a student in Beijing. You’ll have to wait until I publish my memoires for anything more salacious.
I spent some time in Blantyre, getting prepared for the ride into Mozambique, and by all accounts I was to have a rather technical and extremely long stretch of sandy roads to the coast at Pemba.
I decided it was now time to replace my back tyre which was not only bald, but there were bits of fabric and radial lines sticking out of it. It was a bit gung ho, but I was trying to squeeze every last mile out of it. Strangely, over the last couple of thousand kilometres the back tyre just didn’t seem to wear down as much as I thought it would. I was expecting it to pop at anytime but it just kept going and I think I got a total of about 13,000 kilometers out of the rear Pirelli. The front looked fine, good for another 10,000 kilometers and so I didn’t change it.
Rather than hand the bike to someone to change over the tyre, or do it myself with three spoons and a rock, I found a small garage in Blantyre (aptly named) and paid a very small fee to use their tools, including a mechanical bead remover and do it myself. The beading on a tyre is the reinforced edge that fits securely into the rim of the wheel and can be the trickiest bit to get off and on.
As it turned out it wasn’t difficult and the new Pirelli Scorpion that I had been lugging on the back of the bike since Lusaka was replaced in no time. I also did my own wheel balancing using the axle spinning technique, gradually sticking on small lead weights to the inside rim until the exact balance point when the wheel would stop rotating on the axle. If the wheel isn’t balanced the heavier part of the wheel will rotate to the bottom through gravity. When it is balanced the wheel doesn’t move. Quite easy when you know how.
I was a bit alarmed to see the tyre I had removed as the centre strip was so thin it was almost translucent and not far off splitting down the middle. Just in time principle, as Japanese logistic managers would say.
With my new back tyre fitted, chain adjusted and oiled, and fully laden with 39.5 litres of petrol, loads of water, Simba peanuts and Lion Bars, I was ready to go and I am guessing the border crossing from Namibia into Mozambique was pretty easy as I can’t really remember any drama or excitement.
Mozambique is a former Portuguese colony and so this would be the first country on the trip that the people didn’t speak English. It was also probably the poorest country I was to ride through and had been ravaged by a brutal and devastating civil war that not only decimated the population, but with hunger and no other choice, most of the wild animals had been eaten, which ordinarily would have been as abundant as they were anywhere else in Africa.
There were a lot of people moving about and I heard that there was a very porous border between Mozambique and Zimbabwe which at the time of my trip was suffering under the effects of Robert Mugabe and his henchmen, and so people were moving fairly freely between the two countries, trying to deal with the effects of hyperinflation, source food and fuel, and eek out some sort of an existence.
There is in fact no need for either country to be poor as they are both blessed with natural resources, rich agricultural lands and human beings who are perfectly able to make it all work. The problem, like in most of Africa, is that their leaders are all kleptomaniac despots, surround by self interested sycophants and cronies, and supported by brutal soldiers and evil secret police. Any semblance of democracy is only used to hoodwink Western liberals and secure aid and money, which is inevitably squandered on palaces, motorcades and presidential jets.
The curse of the African continent is tribalism. Now, just as the Western Colonialists did in the 19th century, China has sidled up to these corrupt dictators as it sees Africa as an easy place to plunder and exploit. Mozambique with its empty national parks and dearth of flora and fauna is perhaps a blueprint of what the rest of Africa may look like after its been completely fucked up. All very sad.
Of course, the last thing an African needs to do is bring anymore hungry mouths into the world, but that is exactly what they do, and ironically the poorest people have the most kids. Condoms? Don’t get me started on organised religion and superstitious cultures!
I had also heard that I was riding into perhaps the more dangerous of the countries on the trip. Poverty and the struggle for survival causes people to engage in crime, or so Strain Theory of criminology tells us. I have to say that I generally found most people I encountered to be very nice, but like the Sinai of Egypt, there were places that it was wise to avoid, or at least have your wits about you and not do daft things like wandering around at night.
On my first day of riding I covered a lot of ground and because of the need to refuel and buy provisions I had to ride into populated areas eventually. For most of the first day I had ridden on hard packed gravel and my progress had been pretty good. I rode through some very run down villages and dodgy looking towns and decided against stopping. I therefore pushed on along narrow roads just south of Niassa National Park and had perhaps pushed my luck as the sun set quickly and I was now riding in the dark. A big no no in adventure riding and so I had no choice but to find a place to camp, or bite the bullet and check into a hotel in a town where I could try and keep a low profile and secure my bike.
Riding in the bush at night is quite challenging and I really could not see anything that wasn’t illuminated by my headlight, which I have to admit wasn’t the best headlight in the world. I had no spotlights and just a weak narrow beam, meaning everything left and right of me was completely black.
I eventually pulled into a very run down town and at the first sign of a hotel I pulled in. I wouldn’t say my reception was hostile, but it was decidedly frosty. Anyway, I managed to get a very cheap room, parked my bike right inside the lobby, and a lady cooked me up some Nshima and cabbage, with a rock hard chicken. It wouldn’t get a Michelin Star, but I have eaten a lot worse at my schools in England in the 1970s.
I looked around for a beer, and found some warm cans of Manica in a refrigerator that didn’t work. Conversation with my fellow guests was a bit stilted as everyone spoke Portuguese, but I understood “no” well enough to mean they thought it probably wasn’t a good idea for me to go wandering about in the dark by myself. But I did anyway, I couldn’t sleep, I had nothing to do, and I needed to stretch my body. And I was curious to just look about.
I walked up the street and despite the fact that the streets lights were either absent or not working, I could see it was actually quite a big town. There were little pool halls and shebeens here and there. I saw an auto repair shop and wandered in and looked about, and was pleased to be able to find a brighter bulb for my headlight, a replacement rear light bulb, some more electrical fuses, as occasionally they would go, and a Chinese made torch as mine had broken back in Zambia and I couldn’t find anything in Malawi.
By now I had a wallet full of an assortment of African currencies that I didn’t need anymore and so I swapped them all for Mozambique Meticals or Meticais, or whatever they were called. I think the money tout I found lurking outside a convenience store had done well on the deal, but I was happy enough with the wad of grubby notes I got back and generally used South African Rand that everyone seemed to accept, anyway. I also bought a Mozambique Sim card that was surprisingly good value, actually worked, and seemed to have a signal in most places.
Telecommunications was one of the few industries that was really flourishing in Africa, and I could often tell if I was getting close to a town by the telltale communication antennas on the hillsides. There were lots of advertising billboards promoting the local mobile phone operators, which of course all the Government cronies had a vested interest in. There were also lots of billboards advertising beer brands, and soap, for some reason.
The next day I got going very quickly as everything was already on my bike which I was thankful was still in the hotel lobby. As I rode through the town it looked completely different, and much less threatening than the previous evening. I filled up with what I remember to be quite cheap petrol, and continued on my eastwards journey to Pemba.
It was not long before the gravel roads turned to sand tracks and my progress really slowed down as I slid and paddled my way through long stretches of deep sand pits. I was not always confident to stand on the pegs in sand and often sat on the seat and waded along. Later, after a few courses, I conquered the sand, but for now my riding was rather ungainly. It took me a good eleven hours to actually get my first glimpse of the Indian Ocean and it was absolutely glorious.
Pemba is actually a popular tourist destination. It is situated on a small peninsula and surrounded by the sea, a huge lagoon, and lots of rivers and mangrove swamps. There were palm trees along the white sandy beaches, a few rather nice looking colonial looking hotels, small resorts with thatched huts spread out on the sand, restaurants, bars, and shops selling tourist stuff. There was also scuba diving and snorkeling, boat trips, canoes and hobby cats to hire. A real surprise compared with what I had seen in Mozambique so far. It was like a tropical paradise.
Unlike the wild and cold Atlantic Ocean on the west coast of Africa, the water at the same latitude on the east coast of the Indian Ocean was calm, crystal blue and warm. There were quite a few tourists, many who had come from Europe and it reminded me a bit of Thailand in the early days before it got developed. Very nice.
I decided to find a camping spot, but I found it just as cheap to rent a hut on the beach, and that is what I did. As was my habit now, after being bitten by some bed bugs and insects at other similar places, I dumped all their bedding, sprayed the mattress with some pesticide that was probably illegal in the West, set up my sleeping bag, and replaced their moth eaten mozzie net with my own one. I then stripped my bike down to bare minimum and changed into my beach riding gear of flip flops, shorts, t-shirt, sunglasses and my Dad’s old Tilly Hat and went to explore the area.
Like Malawi I idled about in the sea during the day, and joined the party at night. There was quite a bit of diving activity going on, but at that time I had not got my PADI qualifications and so I settled with swimming, snorkeling and canoeing in the mangroves.
After a couple of day I decided to start pushing on further south. I only had a few weeks left before I need to fly out to China and start my Mandarin course at Tsinghua University in Beijing. I was very much aware that my adventure was coming to an end and so I really tried to squeeze as much out of the remaining weeks.
There was only one fly in the ointment, and that was that my chain and sprockets on my bike were starting to disintegrate. I had a couple of thousand kilometers still to go and thought if I really clean and oil it well, I may make it.
The other annoyance was that the brand new front tyre I had been carrying had been damaged by the exhaust heat and fumes coming out of my Akropoviks. I had been careless and strapped them on too near to the exhaust outlets and some of the rubber had been burned.
Luckily the tyre on the front of my bike looked OK and had lots of tread left. Still it was an annoying waste and an expensive lesson, especially as I had lugged it across Africa, and so I gave it to a local biker who didn’t think the damage was as serious as I did.
The road heading south does not always follow the coast, but often cuts back into land by quite a long way, looping back towards coastal towns every now and again. The surface was extremely sandy and of variable depth and softness. On a rare stretch of gravel near a village I was cruising at a rather quick pace of 120 kph when a dog ran out in front of me and I literally ran over its neck launching me into the air for a few meters and luckily landing back down on my wheels and staying upright.
That was a shock, and I u-turned around and rode up to the dog which was clearly dead. I got off my bike and started hauling it to the side of the road when a woman came running out of a hut shouting at me, then a few more people followed her, and so I decided to scarper, quickly. Anywhere else I would have apologised and perhaps compensated the owners, but I knew this could easily escalate, and so I “hauled arse” as the Yanks say, feeling upset at killing the dog, and rather dishonourable at escaping.
Towards the end of the same day after doing many hours of tough riding a large cow walked out in front of me and I panicked, not being able to go either side of it, as I had done numerous times before with donkeys, pigs and other cattle, and I skidded on the gravel and sand for several meters and crashed into the cow, hitting it at about 20-25kph, but sufficiently fast enough for me to go right over my handles bars, clean over the cow and come crashing down on the other side.
The shock of my first ever motorcycle crash filled my body with adrenaline and I have to say I felt nothing and was completely uninjured except from grazing my gloves and my elbows. I had pretty much come off unscathed and even my helmet was undamaged.
I walked back to the cow, where my bike was laying on its side on the sand, and examined the cow, and it seemed perfectly fine. I had skidded sort of sideways and hit the cow on its rump. Being very used to cows from my childhood on a dairy farm, I examined and massaged its rear leg and bottom and could find no sign of injury at all. She was still standing by the bike and so I pushed her forward and she walked OK. I rubbed her head and apologised and she seemed fine and eventually ambled off to the other side of the road. I then looked nervously around to see if any people were rushing out with pitch forks and lighted torches, but nobody was about.
I was a bit shaken and it took me a few attempts to lift up my bike and wheel it to the side of the road and examine it for damage. The mirror had turned around on the bracket but was OK, the hand guard was a bit scuffed, and there was a very small scrape on the pannier. The worse damage seemed to be to the crash bar that had a distinct silver scrape through the black powder coating, and apart from that, nothing. The handlebars were true and forks had not slipped in the triple clamp, and there was no damage to bodywork. Remarkable. I guess if the road hadn’t been so sandy or if I was on tarmac both KTM and Rupert would not have fared so well.
After dusting everything down and rearranging my mirrors, I set off, with the cow standing on the other side of the road looking at me. It was a big one and she didn’t look at all fussed by half a ton and motorcycle and rider whacking into her arse. What a strange world… it could all have gone terribly wrong…but I suppose it was a wake up call from my complacency as I was really pushing the limits on occasions.
Suffice to say, for the rest of the few hours before I stopped and set up camp I went a bit steadier, still a little shaken, but happy in the knowledge that the KTM really is a solid bit of kit. Later, while sleeping on my ground mat in my tent in the middle of nowhere did I feel the twinges of having hurt my neck and shoulder, and I could see I had bruised my forearm and hand. I guess not so bad, but a wake up call about the risks of charging about the bush on a motorcycle.
Over the next three or four days I worked my way down through Mozambique on very similar sandy gravel roads, rode some extremely long stretches, pushing my fuel range to the limit, and occasionally passing through some large built up port towns like Beira.
I was aiming for a couple of resorts called Vilankulos and Inhambane where I heard you could go swimming with Manta Rays, Devil Rays and the biggest fish on the planet, the Whale Shark.
I camped in Vilankulos for a night which was famous for scuba diving and excursions to the nearby islands, called Bazaruto and Ilha de Benguerra. Lots of interesting and relaxing resorts, but I needed to push on and so I ended up at a place called Tofo Beach near the town of Inhambane which was not as pretty as Pemba, but still pretty nice with long beaches and dunes.
Yet again I moved into a basic straw hut at one of the resorts where I made friends with my fellow travelers, that included a very adventurous couple from Japan, and two nurses from the south of England, who had moved to Mozambique to do voluntary aid work at a local hospital and to teach at a school.
I became very good friends with all of them, and particularly so with one of the nurses who would often join me on the back of the bike as we explored the lagoon and surrounding countryside. We canoeing in the lagoon, hiked, and the highlight of the stay, swam with Whale Sharks and Devil Rays. In the evening we would all eat and drink together, and join the inevitable party in the evening.
The food was excellent in Tofo Beach, but what I remember most was that a baby whale got washed up on the beach and was descended upon by the locals who butchered it up for meat. I was a bit shocked when my Japanese friends returned to the resort with a huge slab of whale meat that they were going to cook up. Would we join them?
Um no, I was suddenly inflicted with a severe bout of veganism.
It was now early September and I really did have to get going. My nurse friend was visibly upset, we had got on very well, but it was what it was. She was staying in Mozambique and I was going to Beijing. We were both grown up enough to know the way things are “on holiday” and so I headed off south towards the large city of Maputo that I was told was not a very safe place, and there were many stories circulating about tourists being robbed, assaulted and raped.
As it happened, when I got to Maputo I just rode straight through it and down to the border with Swaziland where I crossed without any drama and camped in Hlane National Park.
This was to prove to be a very strange experience.
First, I don’t recall anyone else being in the campsite at all. I paid to enter the national park and assumed I was in a campsite just outside the perimeter fences, or whatever they had. I was to find out that I was in actual fact right inside the park, there were no facilities for food, a sign post indicated that the water was unsafe to drink, and during the night I became the center of attention for most of the wildlife, including a pack of hyenas that came right up to my tent.
Oh, shit. All this way and nearly home, and I get eaten.
I had a big fire going, that I stoked up while I still had the courage to stay outside, but eventually I went into my tent, closed the flysheet and zipper, and spent the night in abject fear listening to a cacophany of howls, roars, squeals, trumpeting, insects bouncing off my tent, and worse, things pacing about outside. It was a long night and I am not sure my pulse went below a hundred.
Dawn could not come quick enough, and as soon as it was light enough I was packed up and ready to ride off.
As I was leaving I saw a local lady and asked her where the game reserve actually was. You can imagine my alarm to discover I had been in it all the time, and the camp I was in was only supposed to be used as a day camp with caravans. Hey Ho.
I explored the Kingdom of Swaziland, which is quite interesting, but very poor. A lot of Red Cross, United Nations and other lords of poverty aid agency buildings and goings on. I did a sort of exploratory circular route around the country, camped up again, in a remote, but safer location near the border, and when the gate opened in the morning made my final crossing back into South Africa.
I drove down the coastal route to a town called St. Lucia. I vividly remember the cultural shock of suddenly being back in a 1st world country. Everything was familiar, but it also seemed very strange. I pulled into a typical South African shopping mall and parked outside a coffee shop called Mugg & Bean where I had a full English breakfast and some decent coffee. Zambia has some of the best coffee I have ever drunk, but Malawi and Mozambique have awful coffee, if indeed the brown liquid I drank really was coffee. Its worse than the coffee in the US of A and that takes some doing. I was a little taken aback about being back where the supermarkets are full of luxury good, the petrol is real 95 octane stuff, and the coffee was real.
I decided to push onto Durban as I was invited to stay with a friend. The first thing I did when I arrived was to get a pint of Guinness in a pub by the sea and I still have a picture of me, pint in hand, looking a bit worse for wear. I was very grateful to get a proper bed, a decent shower, and a delicious meal with good South African wine.
In the morning I decided to make a detour to Lesotho and climb up into the mountainous landlocked country from the Drakensburg up along the Sani Pass. I have done this route a few times since, but this first time was the best and I breezed up the twisty pass together with ll my luggage without difficulty.
I rode for many kilometres across a very remote and very cold plateau, passed by very basic cattle farms and farmers and shepherd boys wearing thick blankets, though steep twisty roads and passes and towards the source of the Orange River.
I was camping again in the cold and wet and it made a huge contrast to the hot, dry and dusty trails I had ridden on more months through the deserts and savannah of southern Africa. I also encountered the dreaded mud which was a relatively new experience for me, although I come from “Mud Island” and spent my youth wading through it in wellies and overalls on the Staffordshire dairy farm I worked on from 12 years old until 18 years when I escaped and went off to join Maggies Boot Boyz in London.
Eventually after after a couple of days I rode down the steep pass at Telle Bridge and revisited a pretty Afrikaner town called Lady Grey, a place I stayed a few years earlier and had an enormous amount of fun learning to suki suki dance with the locals into the small wee hours.
I stayed in the same hotel, had breakfast at the same Lady Grey cricket club house, and then headed through Umtata to the Transkei’s Wild Coast that I hiked along back in 2002. I wanted to revisit Port St. John’s, The Kraal, Hole in the Wall, and Coffee Bay.
It took me nearly six weeks back then hiking down the Wild Coast with little more than one set of clothes, a day sack and a black water proof bin liner, encountering Puff Adders on the trails, Zambezi Sharks in the estuaries, armed robbers in the woods, lightening strikes, and several days of fever.
Now on my KTM I skimmed across the gravel roads, past Xhosa traditional huts, across rivers and streams and through rolling hills with cattle and sheep. I camped at the Kraal and also on the hill in Coffee Bay above a backpackers, called the Coffee Shack that was pretty much as I remembered it and still full of an endless supply of “tie die, nose pierced, tattooed, lentil munching, dope smoking hippies” who were mostly following the Coast to Coast tourist booklet of the Garden Route and Wild Coast and traveling by bus with enormous rucksacks and sensible sandals. The same types you always see at the usual haunts in Malawi, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Laos.
I now had the final leg of the journey and it is at this point that my bike developed a serious problem that I had probably caused by over tightening the chain. The front and rear sprockets were now seriously worn, to the point that the teeth were bent over or worn nearly away. The chain was now missing many of the O-rings and starting to disintegrate, and worse, the chain had gauged a nasty groove in the swing arm, removing the plastic guards and cutting deep into the aluminium. Not good.
I still had a journey ahead of me of about 1000 kilometers down the garden route through the cities of East London, Port Elizabeth, Knysna, and George all the way to Swellendam, which I not only did with a chain on the verge of disintegrating, but in heavy traffic on the N2 highway, and in extremely heavy rain.
Given the limitations of my riding gear I was frozen to the core and completely soaked through.
At a reduced speed it took me two days solid, stopping in Knysna along the way. When I got to Swellendam, having been stopped by the local traffic police at road blocks three times on my last day, I still had to ride the very last 80 kilometers across the windy farmlands of the Overberg, back to my home in Arniston.
It was a strange feeling to pull into my driveway at the southern most tip of Africa. My house suddenly seemed very luxurious and comfortable indeed, and it was odd to be sleeping in my own bed with the rhythmic sound of the waves churning over the pebbles and rocks on the beach below. There was no reception committee, no one was around, in fact no one was particularly interested in what I had done, but I felt a huge sense of achievement.
Coming to the end of the expedition did make me feel a bit “low” and I was out of sorts, but all that subsided after a few days as I got back into the swing of things, keeping myself busy, cleaning things up, putting stuff away, morning swims, a bit of fishing, and going for long runs along stunningly beautiful stretches of sandy beaches with only Seagulls, Black Oyster Catchers, Arctic Terns, Cormorants, and the occasional Southern Right Whale to keep me company.
I often flicked through the photographs of the trip on my laptop and relived and reminisced about the many wonderful moments, the interesting people I met, the amazing things I saw, the tough challenges, and the sheer excitement of a real adventure. Nobody can take that away from you.
After about a week I left Arniston and rode my trusty war horse 200 kilometers to Cape Town. I had to nurse the bike back extremely gently as the chain was completely shot, no O-rings left at all, and it was sliding on the worn out and missing sprockets. I literally crawled into the KTM workshop where the chain finally gave up the ghost. That’s perfect timing for you.
Over the next few days the damaged swing arm was replaced, it got a new set of tyres, and a brand new chain and sprocket set. My wonderful motorcycle looked like new again and ready for another adventure.
But all that would have to wait. I had a completely different sort of adventure waiting for me in Beijing!
In 2016, a friend of mine called John and I hatched a plan to ride motorcycles along the Backcountry Discovery Routes (“BDR”) of Utah and Colorado.
I met John a couple of years before when I was hired by his Californian based company to investigate fraud and misconduct at one of the company’s factories in Malaysia, including the kidnapping and attempted murder of one of their directors. I will not go into much detail about all of that, but between all the chaos and drama in Ipoh we discovered we shared the same passion for motorcycling and adventure.
The BDRs are off road trails and dirt roads that have been charted by adventure motorcycle enthusiasts across America’s most iconic and beautiful States.
The Utah BDR is a 871 mile long route of sand trails and gravel roads passing through locations such as Moab, Valley of the Gods, the Abajo and La Sal Mountain Ranges, Nine Mile Canyon, and the northern Wasatch Mountains.
The Colorado BDR starts at Four Corners (New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado – as in the TV series “Breaking Bad”) and takes riders across high elevation trails, mountain passes and along the lush valleys of the Colorado River through a number of iconic locations such as Telluride, San Juan Mountains, Continental Divide, Collegiate Range, Northern Rocky Mountains and Leadville.
I had actually planned to ride the Colorado BDR with John in 2015 on my KTM 1190 Adventure R, but a sudden bout of peritonitis prevented me from doing so. I have to say it was a rough old time and I nearly died from sepsis and gangrene in my guts, but somehow or another I survived to ride another day.
Rescheduled to September 2016, the new Honda CRF 1000 L Africa Twin was now available in the USA and so instead of shipping my KTM from South Africa to America, I decided to hire one from a motorcycle shop in Boulder, Colorado.
So, task number one, get to Boulder, which I could see from the map was, and still is just north of Denver in Colorado.
A cheap ticket with United Airlines meant I only had a baggage allowance of 23 Kgs to carry all my motorcycling and camping gear. The only solution was to wear some of my heavy biking kit, including my enduro motorcycle boots through the various airports and onto my flights.
I did get quite a few strange looks as I clomped aboard, but not as many as when I stepped on board a flight with my paraglider on my back a few years back! No use it being down in the hold if the plane breaks up at 30,000 feet, is there?
Inevitably the flight was long and miserable. The in-flight fodder was served to its human captives with the grace and finesse of forking out silage to cows, but edible with huge dollops of Tabasco sauce that I somehow smuggled through the security checks. Unlike most Asian airlines, United Airlines had no in-flight entertainment, and I had forgotten to bring a book! It was going to be a long flight.
I sat in the rearmost seat amongst a group of very excitable Chinese from Fujian or Guangxi who spent the entire flight arguing, shouting, jumping up and down, trashing the lavatory, swapping seats and coughing up their lungs. It was a very long flight, indeed.
On arrival at San Francisco International Airport I fought my way through US customs and sidestepped the delightful and charming TSA and legged it in my motorcycle boots and all my clobber to the domestic departure gates on the other side of the airport for my connecting flight to Denver, getting there by the skin of my teeth.
As I settled into my seat and peered out of the aeroplane window at the expanse of desert and mountains below my mood immediately improved and I was positively excited about what lay ahead.
Somewhere down there were the routes I was going to ride over the coming weeks.
By the miracles of longitude and a spherical Earth I arrived in Denver before I took off in Hong Kong. My body clock deceived by bright sunshine and blue skies.
From the airport I took a shuttle bus directly to Boulder where I was to hire my motorcycle, at a place called the “House of Motorrad”, and in the early evening of the long good Friday introduced myself to the owner, Benjamin with whom I had been corresponding by email for several months.
I was very excited and itching to see one of the first Africa Twins in America. However, when I was taken into the shop I was a bit underwhelmed to see the bike I was going to ride.
Yes, apparently in the land of red, white and blue, Honda decided to export a dull looking grey bike, instead of the iconic red, white and blue Africa Twins that they export elsewhere in the world. Why? No idea… its all Japanese to me.
But it wasn’t the colour that grabbed all my attention. It was the tyres. They were 100% smooth treaded road tyres, the ones I guess the bikes were exported to America with, AND totally unsuitable for the harsh BDR trails that lay ahead.
I quickly checked my email history with Ben and saw quite clearly that I had asked many many times for Metzler Karoo 3s or Continental TKC 80 tyres to be fitted. In fact, I would have been happy with a pair of Dunlop D606 or Pirelli MT21s or anything remotely off road orientated. Seriously?
I raised the issue with Ben and he informed me that the tyres were ‘good enough’.
Hackles prickling on the back of my neck.
I explained in a John Cleese manner that they were indeed ‘not good enough’, but I immediately got the impression that this yank thought this limey pom didn’t know what he was talking about, nor cared.
‘Where you going, anyway?’, he inquired without real interest.
‘Well, as I explained in my emails, the Colorado BDR…I am meeting a friend in Park City tomorrow’.
‘Yes, we are doing the Utah BDR as well’.
I could see the immediate alarm and uncertainty on Ben’s face, and to cut a long story short he explained it was impossible to ride a motorcycle like the Africa Twin on the BDR, and in any case he would have to charge me an additional US$421 to change the tyres, and repeated many times that I would be liable for the first US$1500 of any scratch, nick, dink or damage, however minor, to the bike.
I was disappointed, tired and jet-lagged and in my despondency easily persuaded to rent a very nice KTM 690 Enduro instead. It had the right tyres on at least, and I do like this motorcycle very much, so I agreed and took it.
Without further ado the shop closed, everyone disappeared and I was left outside in a car park trying to strap all my kit onto a very slim and tall enduro bike ….and failing miserably. Just not enough luggage space.
Now it was dark, I had been awake for 2 days, I couldn’t afford (nor wanted) to pay US$100 odd for a grotty motel room in Boulder and so I decided to ride into the wilderness and find a spot to camp.
I had declined the extra expense of renting a Garmin GPS at US$10 a day and so I used the Sygic maps app on my iPhone to navigate. Given all the great map apps on smartphones nowadays, a GPS is rather redundant, and akin to a Betamax video recorder.
I had not got a chance to buy a US SIM card for my mobile phone due to all the rushing about and so I went in search of one of those in the various stores and malls around Boulder. This took longer than I expected as it seemed open cellphones and “pay as you go” GSM SIM cards were not the way things are done in America.
After finding a SIM card and plugging it into my phone I immediately received a string of WhatsApp messages from John who was preparing to ride from his home in Walnut Creek in California to Park City in Utah and after a ping pong conversation it was clear he was not happy about my choice of motorcycle and strongly suggested I return the KTM and get the Honda Africa Twin as originally planned. He said words to the effect that I was a stingy git and to fork out the extra money for a set of proper tyres.
I reminded John that he was technically my “client” and responsible for paying me to sort out the shit his company had got itself into in the Far East, and that my lack of money was technically his fault for not paying me enough.
There is logic there somewhere if you look hard enough!
I was now fading from tiredness and so I rode about 10 miles out of Boulder with all my luggage piled precariously high on the back seat of the KTM. After riding into a more rural area I spotted the dark silhouettes of some people sitting by a fire on some farmland and asked them if I could pitch my tent in their field.
‘Sure, buddy’, came the reply from some shadowy figure, ‘mind out for those cactus–and the rattlers!’
Cactus and rattle snakes were the least of my worries, and in a very well rehearsed procedure my tent was up, the ground mat blown up, and sleeping bag unravelled. In seconds I had squeezed into my “maggot” and was out for the count, lying heaven knows where and with what?
I woke up as the the sky was turning from purple, to red, and finally orange.
As the sun peered out above an unfamiliar horizon I was already packed up and set my course for the ubiquitous American diner, Dennys for my favourite breakfast of eggs and spinach, and a quart or two of black coffee.
By now I had not washed in nearly three days and men have certain body parts that will start to rot if not attended to. Luckily, Dennys had a bathroom, it was very early, very few customers (if any), and so I took advantage of a strategically low hand basin. All in the pursuit of cleanliness and hygiene, I should add. At least I didn’t dry my nuts in the hand dryer, like Hong Kong men do in changing rooms! As pragmatic as it is, you have to draw the line somewhere.
Now fed, watered, rested and “cleaned” I could appraise the situation a little better, and in the light of day I decided to follow John’s sensible instructions and return the KTM, incur the extra costs and get more suitable tyres fitted on the Honda, re-pack everything and head across Colorado to Utah.
I was waiting in the car park of House of Motorrad when Ben arrived and informed him that I had changed my mind. On careful reflection I would revert to the original plan and would indeed be taking the Africa Twin–and I would like a set of off road tyres fitted.
Ben showed me a pair of Mitas E07 tyres that I am not too familiar with. They looked like dual sport 30/70 types. Not ideal, and certainly not the TKC80s or Karoo 3 tyres I really wanted, and indeed the BDR route ahead required.
But no choice. So, ho gwoh mo as they say in Hong Kong.
Ben also decided that he wanted to fit more robust SW Motech engine bars as he had firmly decided in his mind that I will drop the bike and the SW Motech engine bars were definitely better than the standard Honda ones, which to be honest are rather cosmetic and more suited to holding on extra lights and other weekend warrior stuff than doing what it says on the box… protecting the engine.
It was Saturday morning and he said I would have to wait until five other rental bikes had been prepared for other customers. My faffing had resulted in me being relegated to the back of the line. I had a long ride ahead, but I realised there was no point arguing from a position of weakness… its always counterproductive.
As I had a few hours, in fact all morning to whittle away, I laid out and inspected all my kit in the car park, dumped my big travel bag with a last minute selection of things I was sure I didn’t need with Ben, prepared the KTM 690 Enduro I had already paid for and took it for an explore around Boulder.
I rode around Boulder, explored a few hill roads in the outskirts, chatted with some bikers here and there, drank more coffee than I needed, bought some camping supplies from a huge superstore called REI, bought my book for the trip, Johnny Rotten’s autobiography, “Anger is an Energy” from a very well stocked Barnes and Noble store, looked around some motorcycle shops at their new bikes, and got verbally berated by a very angry middle aged Karen at a set of traffic lights for an alleged “wheelie” incident.
I know from past experience that finding a good cup of tea in America is like finding an American who can point to Shanghai on a map. I am English and I hate tea flavoured with spices, herbs and fruit extracts. I also hate the way American’s use luke warm water, and suspend the “tea-ish” bag thing above the water from a tampon string. If King George hadn’t been so mad America would still be a colony and tea would be tea flavoured and served with marmite toast and Victoria sponge.
Having been to America many times before I was well prepared for this culture shock and in addition to Tabasco sauce to flavour all the sugar and lard I had brought with me copious amounts of Yorkshire Gold teabags.
Whilst whittling away my time in a Starbucks coffeeshop I asked if I could use my own tea?
‘LIKE, TOADALLY, LIKE, NO, LIKE’, was the answer given by the young tattooed, nose studded barista. I was then given a patronising lecture and told it was against their insurance policy, or something.
‘Oh! …OK… how about a mug of boiling water?’, I inquired.
‘Hat Warder? OKaaay, like, I gess so, like’.
Sorted. How hard could it be?
After the American tea party, I returned to The House of Motorrad and the Africa Twin was ready.
It looked absolutely superb. Ben had done a brilliant job fitting it out with quality after market accessories necessary for true adventure riding.
These included: Altrider belly plate (tough and effective); SW Motech engine bars and luggage racks (well designed); Wolfman soft panniers and tank bag (superb); Barkbuster enduro handguards (strong and protective); and Doubletake mirrors (clever design)
As I was strapping down all my kit onto the excellent luggage rack in the configuration I have used for years I was given another lecture by Ben with the main theme being if I drop the bike — which he assured me in no uncertain terms I will — don’t come back.
His attitude and the threat of forking out 15 hundred bucks had reinforced in my brain one thing, and one thing only … DON’T DROP THE FUCKING BIKE. It became my mantra, and in a way sort of dampened the trip because it clipped my wings and sapped my confidence. Next time I will ship my own bike or buy one there and flog it at the end of the trip.
One problem remained, and it was a glaring one. I still didn’t like the tyres.
(Rant Starts!) I know from experience riding this Africa Twin off road on Metzler Karoo 3 tyres in Wales, and indeed riding my KTM 990 Adventure, KTM 1190 Adventure R and other bikes around the world on various tyre combinations along extremely challenging roads in the Rift Valley in north west Kenya, the Sahara desert, Nubian desert in Sudan, Kalahari in Botawana, Namib desert in Namibia, Baviaanskloof in South Africa, Serengeti in Tanzania, Masai Mara in Kenya, Sinai in Egypt, Cardamom Mountains in Cambodia, Gobi desert in Mongolia, Tibet, Gansu and Qinghai in west China, Simpson desert in Australia, Alps and Dolomites in Europe, blah blah blah (you get my drift), that the motorcycle I ride and my ability to ride it is capable enough… provided I decide how the bike is set up and don’t get railroaded and bullied into bad decisions.
(Rant over, for now)
Anyway, it was what it was, nothing more I could do, and I was itching to get going.
I worked out how far I could travel in the remaining hours and set a course largely along Highway 40 to a place up in the Colorado Rockies called Steamboat Springs where I planned to camp and the following day continue to the Hilton Hotel in Park City, Utah for a rendezvous at 12 noon with John and his Yamaha.
As I roared off towards the mountains I immediately found the Honda Africa Twin to be a very comfortable touring bike indeed. It cornered really well and I would put its handling as one of the best adventure bikes I have ever ridden.
It has a super smooth engine and gear box. The riding position is perfect, both sitting down on the seat and standing up on the foot pegs. Later, I would ride for over seven hours almost continuously up on the pegs and was very comfortable and balanced. Sounded nice too. Just right.
The only niggle, and its a well documented niggle, is that Honda have swapped the positioning of the indicator switch and the horn which means that old farts like me who have been riding for decades will be unable to naturally find, and cancel the indicators, and instead press the tinny sounding horn …..every single time. Its annoying, and when performing turns in busy traffic, possibly even dangerous. Even after a fortnight I was still having to look down to find the wretched indicator switch.
At 94 BHP the Honda is not a very powerful bike, and being about 230 kilograms + 35 kilograms of kit + 19 kilograms of fuel + 93 kilograms of Rupert its power to weight ratio is no where near as good as say, a KTM 1190 Adventure R, but this belied its true ability as a very high performing and capable adventure bike.
The only time I could have done with a bit more power was when I was overtaking, but I was often doing 100+ mph on the open highways and easily overtook the RVs and monster trucks that occupy the Colorado landscape. When not overtaking, I cruised very comfortably at 70- 85 mph on the single lane highways across the beautiful Rockies.
It was Saturday afternoon and as I ascended the mountains outside Denver the roads were congested with recreational vehicles and people enjoying outdoor pursuits. SUVs were adorned with kayaks, bicycles, dirt bikes, and all sorts of camping equipment.
The Harley Davidson weekend warriors were out in droves, most wearing silly bandannas, grey goatie beards, an assortment of leather waistcoats, unnecessary chains, chrome bling, daft trousers and professing allegiance to some warrior gang or Big 4 accounting firm.
As I rode along I must have encountered thousands of other motorcycles. In America bikers passing each other in different directions greet each other by saluting with their left arm outstretched and pointing at the floor, as opposed to a nonchalant sideways nod that we Brits give.
I did accidentally wander into a “Terminator” type pub later on in the trip that had rows of Harley’s outside. Inside was a true gang of something or another that looked me up and down and dismissed me as one of them “new fangled adventure riders” and a foreign one to boot.
I greeted them all as I entered and they collectively sort of nodded and grunted something and got on with what they were doing. By that time near the end of the trip I was covered in red dust, smelled vile, had shaven my head, grown a grey beard, had evil patchy sunburn, and blood shot red eyes. I decided not to provoke them by asking for “A Flock of Seagulls” or the “Pet Shop Boys” on the jukebox.
Anyway, anyway, riding across the Rockies I had altered my course somewhat along the way to escape the droves of RVs and eventually got on some of the high mountain roads with very little traffic, passing through small towns and sprawling commercial parks, and eventually pulled into the very touristy ski resort of Steamboat Springs.
I rode around for a while and looked for camping sites, but all I found were truly awful RV parks with all the charm and attraction of some sort of Soviet gulag concentration camp. And very expensive. Like the RV parks from the alien comedy “Paul”.
Nope. Not for me.
So now what?
“When in doubt buy beer” and so I stocked up on some pretty decent craft IPA I saw being sold at the side of the road and decided to push on as the light was fading and stopped about 20 miles further on at a isolated bar I saw glowing in the dark.
As soon as I walked in I became the centre of attention, largely, I suspect because everyone inside was a local, and I obviously wasn’t.
I met a very friendly bunch of people and was fed with a huge pork rib sandwich (I was indeed quite hungry), bought me some beers, made conversation that was largely making excuses for Donald Trump, and directed me to a nearby campsite, warning me to go very slowly and carefully at night because of elks and deer leaping into the road, and reinforced this warning with some graphic horror stories of destructive encounters between wildlife and vehicles over the years.
An enjoyable, relaxing, and quintessentially American evening after a very long journey. Good fun. Good people.
I took the risk of a close encounter of the elk-Honda kind and eventually camped up just off the road in the dark and woke up and packed up while it was still dark… and bitterly cold. My tent and ground sheet were covered in ice, and my water bottles frozen solid.
I had ummed and aahed about bringing my huge North Face expedition sleeping bag that we used when Fanny and I rode across China and camped high up in the Himalayas in Tibet a few years previously. A top of the range sleeping bag, rather bulky, but not that heavy, and with some effort can be squeezed quite tight into a compression bag.
Bringing it was a very good decision as it turned out because in the weeks ahead the nights would be pretty darned cold in both the deserts of Utah and up high in the 10,000 foot plus mountains of Colorado.
I also had a North Face tent and a top of the range ThermaRest sleeping mat that is actually more comfortable than a bed. I have to say I slept brilliantly the whole trip.
Very early the next morning I got up, made coffee, had some porridge and was off riding again before the sun came up. I love camping and in the coming weeks I would just set up camp where ever I could, preferably in a wood next to a stream, or creek as Americans call them.
Throughout the morning I rode high up along mountain passes, next to numerous stretches of high altitude lakes and reservoirs which were full of speed boats, kayaks, water skiers and other recreational activities. The hillsides were ablaze with the colours of Fall. All very pretty.
I arrived in Park City at noon as planned and checked into the rather ghastly Hilton Hotel where I was to meet John. The reception staff were a bit snobby, and the rooms were characterless and rather gloomy. Not my thing at all, but hey.
John had already booked a twin room for us to share so that we could get a good night’s rest before we started the BDR ride the next day. Whilst killing time I made the mistake of turning on the television and was immediately reminded that American TV is awful. Mostly commercials, nothing to watch, gravitating to the lowest denominator, and painfully annoying.
Anyway, I had better things to do than watching annoying drug commercials and sports I don’t understand. Drinking beer, for instance.
It wasn’t long before John arrived on his Yamaha having crossed the Bonneville Salt Flats from his home in Walnut Creek, some 900 miles away. A long old ride indeed.
That evening John treated me to a very delicious steak dinner and a good bottle of wine, as he had promised. We had made a bet two years ago about losing weight and I won. John maintains that cutting out internal organs to lose weight is cheating, but a bet’s a bet.
John maintains a collection of various types of motorcycle and pedal bikes which he is very competent and experienced at riding, from touring, trail, dirt to track. I guess you would describe him as a successful and wealthy American, with a very comfortable lifestyle…and lot’s of man toys.
I haven’t shared a room with anyone except my other half for decades, and during the night I had to put in earplugs due to the terrible noise John made while he slept. My goodness what a dreadful racket!
In the morning when John woke up, he stared at me alarmingly and said, ‘Shit, you are a fucking noisy sleeper’.
So that was it. Camping from now on, with tents spread sufficiently far apart!
I had made the assumption that John had downloaded all the GPS way points for the Utah and Colorado BDR routes into his Garmin, and he had. I think its best to just have one person in charge of navigation and as its John’s home turf and he had a proper Garmin GPS, that responsibility fell to him.
The problem was we were traveling north to south in Utah and the BDR GPS way points, of which there are hundreds, were now the wrong way round. It doesn’t bode well when you immediately go the wrong way as you set out on an expedition? And we did.
The Utah BDR does run along a few tar roads, but mostly follows gravel and sand tracks that wind through stunning countryside, idyllic rural scenery, mountain trails and impressive deserts. The sort of places that the average person won’t come across.
There is a lot of debate as to whether the “Back Country Discovery Routes” are 100% suitable for large adventure bikes, like John’s Yamaha Super Tenere, KTM 990/1290s Adventures, BMW R 1200 GS, and Honda CRF 1000 L like I was riding …. OR … more suited to smaller enduro and dirt bikes with 450cc and 250cc engines…and lighter luggage.
We shall see, won’t we?
The GPS way points showed the turn off points and we quickly found our first turn off just outside Park City and the only indication of the track was a post with a number written on it. To confuse things the route numbers would often change without meeting another trail or any obvious change in direction.
Immediately, one got the feeling of being remote and off the beaten track. This first section was of hard packed gravel roads that meandered left and right, up and down, and through hills covered in pine, deciduous trees, and the famous Aspens that covered the hills in a blanket of greens, browns, reds, oranges and yellows.
The autumn temperature during the day was very comfortable, in fact, pretty much perfect. John was leading and riding at a much slower pace than I am used to, but I got in the rhythm and thoroughly enjoyed drifting through valleys, across streams, through woods, past impressive ranches, and over hills and rocky outcrops. This is what its all about and I was really enjoying myself.
So far the Utah BDR was quite easy, very enjoyable, and incredibly picturesque.
By the end of the day, the scenery was becoming less wooded and increasingly open rocky desert. As the sun was fading we found our first campsite just off the track up a hill and settled into our respective spaces. As we chatted about a great day’s riding and what lay ahead I got the impression John was anxious about the cold in the mountains of Colorado and that he was inclined towards staying in motels and lodges.
I, on the other hand, wanted to camp the whole way. I was well prepared for camping and unlike John, didn’t have the cash to fork out on hotels. While we were chatting I also shared one of my phobias, and one I had no intention of confronting.
I have developed over the years an absolute fear of lightening and will not under any circumstance place myself in a situation in which there is any risk of being caught exposed during a storm. Not least that the ground turns to claggy mud through the heavy rain, the lack of visibility, and general dangerous riding conditions.
No, for me the risk of being struck by a bolt in open desert, or above the tree line in the mountains in the late afternoon is all too real.
This fear of lightening really took hold in the deserts of Namibia during the rainy season back in 2000s when I was caught in a storm with lightening crashing around me. On my KTM 990 Adventure I was the highest object from horizon to horizon and sitting on the only lump of metal. Terrifying!
On one occasion while camping near Windhoek a small tree a few meters from my tent got struck by a bolt of lightening in a relentless and frightening storm, and that was that. Even in Hong Kong on the island I live the lightening seems intent on finding its mark and a tree outside our apartment has been hit several times.
I knew that in the Rockies several people had been killed by lightening during August and general advise was that afternoon storms were to be avoided. However, when I checked the forecast for the coming days it predicted lightening in the desert we were traveling across and as an avid micro-meteorologist from my paragliding activities, an “A” level in Geography, and sufferer of “astraphobia” I can recognise every cloud in the sky and forecast exactly what lies ahead.
We set off rather late the next day after faffing about having a long breakfast at a diner and getting petrol and water. Soon after John pulled off the tar road and started riding along a rather technical and challenging section of trails.
This cannot be the route, I thought to myself, as we crashed and skidded along. There is no way we will complete even 30 miles in a day. Eventually we came across a really steep rocky section and John wisely decided to turn around, go back, and bypass this section.
As we rode back the way we came to the gravel road I was certain in my mind he had taken a wrong route. There is no way “this” was a section of the BDR aimed at duel purpose motorcycles. It was challenging enough for a mountain goat.
After about 15 minutes I pulled alongside John and got him to stop. ‘I am sure that wasn’t a section of BDR… we must have gone past the turning… let’s go back’, I pleaded.
And we did and quickly found the correct turning and a long gravel track disappearing off into a wide expanse of desert.
We followed this track for an hour or so and then John made a sequence of wrong turns with us going every wrong way and even up into the mountains where there was a high altitude communication station. Again we came to cliffs and steep sections and whilst doing so the sky was increasingly turning black. I could see the cells of cumulus nimbus and lightening started grounding all around us, and it started raining, a lot.
I stopped next to a rocky outcrop and contemplated camping up until the storm passed. The weather forecast for the next 5 days was sunny sunny sunny. Why risk being exposed in the desert in a storm? There is no Faraday cage effect on a motorcycle! I knew John thought I was being a wuss.
We scouted the area and found a few suitable campsites. As we were sheltering from a vicious gust front I was sitting next to a mound of rocks and I just glanced to my left and could clearly see the face of a snake about 10 cms away from mine. Was it a snake? A forked tongue suddenly darted out and that cleared up any uncertainty. Fook me!
John was more worried about the rattlesnake nest we were sitting in than the lightening. I was undecided.
As a storm cell moved across the desert valley beneath us a maintenance truck from the communication station drew up along side John and they had a conversation.
John shouted over, ‘There is a campsite down by the canyon wall about 3 miles away’.
I thought about this and decided we could make a dash down the mountain and across the desert valley where the lightening had been ground striking and find the campsite where we could settle down and wait out the storm.
I did not hang about and belted down the wet mud track, found the junction we should have taken three hours previously and hoofed it down the muddy track. My Honda with its Mitas tyres was fine on muddy gravel and I charged along at 60-70 mph, lest the next storm cell explode above my head.
After about five miles there was no sign of this alleged campsite.
A few miles further along we found an isolated municipal information station with shelters and I thought it was a suitable place to pitch our tents under and perhaps camp overnight. I could see another huge black cloud reaching up into the stratosphere and flashing from internal cloud to cloud explosions of lightening.
‘I am staying here’, I told John.
John was not having any of it and said he was pushing on to a town 30 miles away where he could find a motel.
I looked ahead and the storm was huge and it was clearly developing and raining heavily. I had checked the weather forecast and it predicted heavy storms all night.
‘Nope, you go, I’m staying here’, I insisted. ‘I will meet you at Green River in the morning’ and with that John rode off in the direction of the storm.
I was left in the middle of the desert with at least a partial concrete shelter above my head as I watched the storm drift northwards across the huge expanse of desert valley. I reflected that it was not a good idea to part company with John, but I was not going to be coerced against my better judgement to ride into the eye of a storm. Even though we got lost many times we were ahead of schedule due to making progress along long sections the previous day, and it was already late afternoon.
I did a little bit of a recce of the immediate area and found a very nice campsite above a spectacular canyon and watched the lightening show in the far distance. Its crazy to ride into that, I thought, not least flash floods in canyons and the sand road turning into a gooey quagmire.
After about two hours the storm cell had indeed drifted northwards. There were some other cells to my west, but east towards Green River had cleared somewhat and so in the interest of not losing John, and perhaps digging him out of the mud, I decided to make a fast run towards Green River.
The sun was low and the route took me through a truly spectacular rose coloured canyon that was glowing due to the setting sun. I was also riding at my normal comfortable pace, skimming across ruts and corrugations, sliding the back round corners. What a joy!
The sandy track meandered through a steep sided canyon and for the first time that afternoon I was really enjoying myself, not least I was motoring at a fair lick and the Honda was riding beautifully. This is more like it.
Better than my KTM 990 Adventure? A bit, perhaps. Smoother and more comfortable to ride. Better than my KTM 1190 Adventure R? Perhaps not. My 1190 is over 50BHP more powerful and suspension is definitely more robust off road. That said they are all outstanding motorcycles.
No more than 30 minutes since I started I came across a river bridge and saw John standing by the side of the road. He had set up his tent under a burnt out tree that on one fateful day had been struck by lightening.
‘You didn’t go far’, I challenged him, jokingly. I was happy to see him.
We caught up and I decided to set up my tent in the same spot, but away from the trees. We cooked up some freeze dried camping food from Rei that I thought was pretty good, and got a brew on. For the second night we realised we had forgotten to buy any beer. Oh well, Yorkshire Gold it is.
As the sun went down we were treated to an absolutely spectacular lightening storm that exploded all around us and thundered through the canyon. It then started to rain and the lightening started striking the cross shaped valley we were in.
I eyed a reasonably clean and simple municipal concrete ablution block not far away and told John, ‘I am bringing my stuff in there… its going to pour tonight and camping in a river bed under trees that have nearly all been struck by lightening during a storm isn’t the greatest idea’. And off I went and set up my ground mat and sleeping bag inside the “heads”.
A slightly turdy disinfectant smell, but tolerable, and more importantly, safe and dry.
Soon after John joined me and placed his entire one man tent and contents inside the small concrete structure. We set up our camping chairs just outside to watch one of the greatest shows on Earth. The storm lasted until 5.30 am and the flashes and bangs were amplified by the cauldron shape of the canyon we were in. Quite amazing.
After porridge and coffee the next morning we packed up and carried on to Green River, passing across desert sandy tracks until we reached the busy Highway 70 that routed us into the city. We refueled again, the idea being we always keep our tanks filled up when we see the opportunity. This is something Fanny and I always did on our expeditions, especially in Africa and Asia where fuel availability is very much less certain than in America or Europe.
The Honda Africa Twin has a 5 gallon tank and petrol costs between US$2.10 – 3.50 a gallon in the US depending how remote the fuel station is. Usually it was about US$2.70 for 91 Octane fuel.
I had worked out that while riding on the trails and tracks in mostly 2nd and 3rd gear I was getting about 57 miles to the gallon which is pretty good. This went down to 46 miles per gallon when I was hoofing it above 80 mph. Not bad.
It meant I had a safe range of about 230 miles on a tank. John’s Super Tenere had a 6 gallon tank and was making less mpg than me and so effectively we had the same range.
After Green Point we continued on the BDR towards Moab where we planned to stay that evening. Again we got lost a few times on gravely sand type trails but they were manageable. John then turned onto more rocky and steep trails that wound up through the hills. At this point I was having doubts we were actually on the correct trail. There were steep sandy inclines, deep ruts, large rocks and lots of twists.
For the first time on the trip the limitations of my tyres became apparent, accentuating the weight of my bike. My front was all over the place and I was constantly rescuing the bike from slides. My brain was filled with DON’T DROP THE BIKE and I think this was affecting my confidence. I kept thinking what’s the point of this risky technical riding when we can see the same things and yet take a more manageable gravel track.
John seemed fine and was clearly very used to riding his big beast on such sandy rutted surfaces. He was a very good technical off road rider.
I was riding a lot slower than I liked and I was also making mistakes. I was not riding well. Was it the bike? Just one of those days? Lack of confidence? All I think, but lack of confidence is the greatest risk and definitely affects riding performance.
I was getting sufficient traction on the back tyre, but the front was sliding away in the deep sand sections and being knocked sideways by large rocks, none of it helped by following in John’s dust wake.
My head was down instead of up, I was paddling when I should be standing up on the pegs, my elbows had come down. I was doing it all wrong. Off road riding and sand riding is a head game and my brain was on strike.
I caught up with John and told him I was struggling a bit on the sand and he said, ‘This is Utah, man, its going to be all sand from now on’.
I continued following and was OKish when I increased my speed and got in the flow, but when I followed at someone else’s pace I was making all sort of adjustments to stay upright. I kept changing between 1st gear and 2nd gear when I should have stayed in a smooth 2nd or 3rd the whole time.
Then it happened. I was immediately behind John and I lost my track and in order not to drop the bike I went off piste and down a vertical section and into a sand pit. I wrestled to keep the bike upright but I was on a steep slope with an even steeper drop to my right. I was frozen… unable to move.
I waited to regain my composure.
Losing the whole bike and the deposit was flashing through my mind, but more importantly than that I was determined to return the bike in pristine condition to make a point to “Doubting Benjamin”.
However, I was stuck. I couldn’t get off the bike without risking it toppling sideways and so I waited for John to come back and help me.
I waited and I waited.
Is he coming back? Evidently not.
I would have to get out of this situation by myself, and so I gently allowed the bike to lean again the uphill side of the sand on the left pannier and hand guard and squeeze out my trapped leg from underneath the bike. Not so easy, but I did it. The slope was steep and sandy and so I had no worries about about any scratches in soft sand if I lowered the heavy beast slowly.
With the bike against the soft sand slope and my leg free I could appraise the situation a little better. I clambered up to the trail I came off and surveyed the scenery. Still no John. Surely he would realise I am not behind him and come back and help.
I tried to ride the bike up without sitting on it like I did on the Honda course in Wales when we all practiced U-turns on steep slopes. However, the back wheel was sliding and the front burying itself further into the sand. There was no option. I had to get all the luggage off, haul it all back up to the trail and then try and ride the unladen bike back up the steep slope.
And that is what I did.
With all the luggage unloaded and having had a bit a breather, and to be honest in a better mood, I purposely and confidently rode the bike back up the slope like a 125 trial bike, put all the luggage back on and carried on.
‘Good old Honda… crap old tyres’, I was muttering to myself.
Further along the rocky trail I saw John’s bike, and then I saw John laughing and smoking a cigarette. As I drew up alongside I shouted, ‘Why didn’t you come back and help? I went off the track!!!’.
I can’t really remember what John said, something about walking back a quarter of a mile and giving up, but by then the red mist had truly filled my helmet and I was not a happy camper. Any further chat with John would not go well and so I decided to leave him there, smoking his cigarette and grinning like a Cheshire Cat.
In a somewhat bad mood, I sped off at a ridiculously fast pace.
Strangely, the bike was suddenly in its element as I zipped across the trail. My faffing about attitude had melted away and I was back in the groove.
Pretty soon afterwards I came to the end of the trail and to a T-junction with a tar road in front.
I waited a while, looked over my shoulder, waited a bit more. No John. So I thought I will turn right, pull over and wait a while. Still no John.
Of course, I had not planned the route, that was John’s job, but as it happened I had got myself onto Route 128 that runs along side the Colorado River and through Castle Valley towards Route 191 that passes through Moab.
After riding for another hour along the Colorado River I wasn’t sure what to do and was getting a bit tired from all the riding and manhandling the Honda in the sand and so I thought about camping up. I had calmed down by now, but had now lost John and had no signal on the phone. I was seriously regretting stomping off.
Alongside the Colorado River seemed to be lots of camp sites, but like many in Utah and Colorado you have to pay a fee for a plot of ground with no facilities. What’s the point? I can camp anywhere else with no facilities for free and so I carried on into Moab to check it out and have a rest. I also thought in the urban area I might get a signal on my phone and a message from John.
Moab was not what I was expecting. Very very touristy and a centre for outdoor activities and adventure sports in the vicinity. Far too many dull lardy looking people in RVs and “born to be mild” types on Harleys for my liking and so after stocking up on supplies and checking messages and internet I carried on south and found a more remote camping site near a stunning lookout point called “The Needles”.
I assumed John was going to book into a bed and breakfast somewhere near Moab, but I wanted to camp and this was one of the most beautiful camping spots I have ever been to.
I would rest up and try and contact John, but at the same time plan the route ahead in case things didn’t work out. He knew we are going to connect up on the Colorado BDR and no doubt I would run into him or make contact.
As I was riding and navigating on my own now, I downloaded and configured the BDR GPS way points onto my iPhone from a program called Rever when I was in Moab, and bought paper maps of Utah and Colorado upon which I plotted the various routes and way points. Not as good as the Butler BDR maps John had, but good enough to orientate myself.
As I mentioned, my camping setup was near on perfect, and so it should be after living in a tent for years on end during various expeditions. I had enough freeze dried camping food for the entire trip and to be honest, America isn’t like Africa. There is a 7/11, Taco something, Dennys, coffee shop, supermarket, and petrol station around every corner, and you can drink water straight out of the tap, or even out of a creek if you need to.
I spoke to Fanny on Facetime. There was 14 hours between us so conversations were in the evening or first thing in the morning, if indeed I had a signal.
‘Where’s John?’ Came the first question.
‘Oh um, I lost him, we went our separate ways’, I answered trying to evade the issue.
‘AAAAAIIIIYAAAA!’, came the inevitable reply, ‘I KNEW you wouldn’t last more than THREE DAYS, typical, you are a 孤独狼’
That’s for sure.
Its perhaps now I should give some impressions of America, or at least the State of Utah.
I was now in the land of Cowboys and Indians and Coyote Road Runner. The scenery is spectacular to be sure, but the culture? Well there isn’t any to be brutally honest. Anything remotely “old” or “historic” is exaggerated to beyond the point of disappointment. You have the natural scenery and that’s it. Having said that, nature and the landscape is indeed truly spectacular.
The food? I am going to be controversial given I am English and come from a country with some of the worst food (especially in 1960s and 70s), but I will just say American food is edible, although a bit unexciting.
I found I liked two things while in America… scrambled eggs with spinach, and super spicy hot buffalo wings. I don’t care for pizza, hamburgers, taco things, hotdogs, or sandwiches. I’ll eat them, but then I’ll eat anything. I found a cat skull in my hotpot in China once, and since I had paid for it, and so had moggy, I ate it. It didn’t taste like chicken if that’s what you are wondering!
In America any so called foreign or ethnic food is Americanised to the point of ? … well to the point it bears no resemblance or taste to what it purports to be. Too much sugar. The petrol stations are full of lard and sugar and everything is supersized. Seriously! Who drinks a bucket of soda for breakfast? Well I can tell you, a lot of people.
Whilst queuing in a coffee shop, or “waiting in line” as they say in America, I noticed that the locals ordered really strange drinks. I heard one lady ask for a mocha chokka something with organic almond milk. Huh? When I asked for a black coffee the Millennial shop assistant looked at me as if I had asked to sleep with her dog!
America and England? Divided by a common language for sure.
Animals? Didn’t see as many as I hoped. Small dogs, ground squirrels, and big dogs. I was hoping to see a bear or Coyote, but never did. I did see some deer and antelope in the mountains… but I also saw hundreds of hunters, dressed up like southern hick characters in Honey Boo Boo Child and tearing about the place on ATVs (quad bikes to you and me) with gun racks on the front.
Trees dominate the mountain landscape of Utah and Colorado, in particular the glorious Aspens with all their colourful leaves as they transitioned through the autumn into winter. The unspoiled crystal clear rivers and streams that run through the valleys are very picturesque, the mountains are impressive, and the deserts and canyons are spectacular.
Having seen a lot of the world, I feel the best of America is what the Soul of the Universe put there in the first place. It’s a continent scale country and has magnificent natural beauty and big skies. If, however, your goals of a motorcycle adventure include amazing food, interesting cultures, historical sites, diverse flora and fauna… go to Africa or Asia or Mexico!
The saddest part of my trip was when I entered the Navajo indigenous “reserve” and saw the native Americans wandering aimlessly about. It was very sad.
But its the same all over the world where nomadic proud people like Australian Aborigines, South African Bushmen, Canadian Inuit or Mongolian herdsmen are hauled out of their free existence and involuntarily assimilated into the modern western way of things.
Among all my childhood memories from growing up in the 1960s in England the imagery of a proud Apache or Sioux on a bare backed horse in full warrior regalia in the wilds of America stood out as truly “magnificent”. When we played Cowboys and Indians, I always wanted to be an Indian. They’re the coolest ones aren’t they.
Now… these bewildered folk are living in abandoned cars and sucking on quarts of Doctor Pepper, or staggering about, pissed out of their minds in an attempt to find a better reality.
Anomie by any measure.
The next morning I woke up refreshed and in a more positive frame of mind. In the light of day I found myself in a truly beautiful part of southern Utah. I was not completely alone, either. I had pitched my tent in a small camping area on the side of a steep canyon and as I was preparing my breakfast of porridge and coffee some other campers wandered over to say hello.
I always think when you travel alone you meet more people. They see you on your own and feel more inclined to approach and chat than when you are in a group or with someone else.
The exception to this is when I travel with Fanny. She was extremely popular on our travels. A lovely, kind, gregarious, super smart and unusually loud Shanghai woman. Throw a huge adventure motorcycle into the equation and she is always going to attract a lot of attention.
Me? Just another grey balding middle aged “gammon” having a mid life crisis as snowflakes like to describe me. However, it was my Honda Africa Twin that attracted all the attention, and all sorts of bikers, and indeed other travelers would come up to me and chat, and many would ask for my impressions of my motorcycle, which I have to say were very favourable.
I understood at the time of this expedition that the Africa Twin was very hard to come by in the US and a surprising number of bikers I met were on a waiting list to own one, and so inevitably they wanted to know who I was, and what I was up to?
Not an easy one. I am English, live in Hong Kong, and also in Shanghai, and in UK and in South Africa where I have homes.
Where did I start my journey? England, Hong Kong, Cape Town, Boulder.
When did you start your journey? Thirty years ago, ten years ago, June 2010, last week. I am quite sure people went away rather confused. I certainly was.
During the morning of the first day on my own I spent time planning the route ahead and intended, as much as possible, to stick to the BDRs, but also wanted to factor in a few detours to see some interesting sites along the way.
Each evening setting up camp and packing up in the morning was very quick due to being very well rehearsed and having a good luggage system. The Wolfman soft panniers were very spacious and very easy to load up. In each was a yellow dry bag that I could pull out, fill up with whatever and push back into the sturdy soft pannier and strap down securely.
I had food, water and cooking equipment in one pannier; biking kit, camping chair and tools in the other; and all my camping gear and spare clothes in a yellow North Face dufflebag, the same one that I have used all over the world. I strapped this very securely across the SW Motech luggage rack with bungees. I also brought my black sheepskin seat cover, but rarely used it as the Honda seat is super comfortable, more so than any of my KTMs.
I had a small Wolfman tank bag in which I kept camera equipment, maps, chargers and cables; and my valuables were kept in secret pockets in my Rev’It riding gear that I kept with me. I would have preferred a larger tank bag with a bigger map pocket on the top, but I was very impressed with the Wolfman soft panniers and these will definitely be added to my “perfect adventure bike” kit list.
I rode a few miles to a touristy look out point called “The Needles” with panoramic views over the huge expanse of Canyonlands and the meandering Colorado River. I then went to look at some arches in a government controlled park that was teeming with tourists and a popular destination for Harleys and other touring bikes. When I got there I could not see why this area was singled out as a location of special interest, and I was certainly not going to pay US$25 to see what I could see all around me for free.
I found a small store and petrol station near the national park, and despite a slightly more expensive price and only serving 85 Octane “gas” I topped up my tank and set a cross country course to pick up the BDR and continue towards Duchesne, Price, Horse Mountain, Twin peaks, Bluff, Mexican Hat and the highlight of the trip, Valley of the Gods.
I turned right off the tarmac and for the next few days I didn’t see a tarmac road again. I rode across gravel and light sand trails that were perfect for the Africa Twin and never saw anyone for most of the day until I started riding up into the mountains and bumped into a husband and wife couple on Suzuki 250s who were on holiday from New York and kept their bikes nearby.
They were a bit surprised to see such a big motorcycle in dirt bike territory and warned me to be careful as the hunting season had started and hunting parties were tearing about on ATVs and camped up in various places.
I was now in thick woodland on single track mud trails high above the surrounding expanse of hot desert. Very enjoyable riding and quite cool in temperature.
My maps showed a few tracks, but there were in reality hundreds of unmarked trails crisscrossing in all directions. Occasionally I came across beautiful deer and antelope as they bounded out of the forest and froze startled in front of me.
Not long later, I would come across the persecutors of the local wildlife, dressed head to toe in Honey Boo Boo “make merika great again” camouflage clothing and tearing about on ATVs, or camped with 4×4 trucks in openings in the wood. I chatted with a few, disguising the animosity I feel towards hunters, and they seemed normal enough people, but I couldn’t understand what the attraction in shooting animals could be. No one in America, especially with expensive trucks and ATVs, is starving, nor needs to live off the land. I cannot for the life of me imagine killing one unless I was in a survival situation.
Don’t get it. Don’t want to get it.
I rode up and down trails in this range of mountains, often crossing streams and dry sandy river beds. Occasionally, I would ride along long sections of sand, some of it deep and the limitations of my tyres and the weight of my bike would become all too apparent.
The scenery became quite remote and as the sun was fading I realized I was probably not on the trail I thought I was and had drifted west, rather than east as intended towards a town called Blanding.
No worries. There were lots of wonderful places to set up camp besides little rivers, and streams and suitable to build a fire without burning down the forest. I was on my own in the wilderness and my mind drifted towards the prospect that my food might attract bears. In fact, I had seen a few signs warning about this. There were also mountain lions and people told me there were lots of them. I guess like leopards in Africa, the chances of encountering one would be rare. Despite an encounter with a creature that might like to eat me, I really wanted to see a bear or mountain lion.
That night the sky was completely clear, and there had recently been a full moon and so it was still quite bright in my isolated and peaceful camping spot. There was a lot of wood to make a fire, the water in the stream was crystal clear and tasted pure.
I cooked up some camping food that was pretty good, especially with some dollops of Tobasco, and drank a huge can of Mexican low alcohol beer. Apparently in Utah, for some daft religious reasons, you can only get low alcohol beer. Really? During our last conversation, I don’t remember the Soul of the Universe mentioning what the alcohol content of beer should be, nor which hand I should wipe my arse with, for that matter.
For entertainment I had my Johnny Rotten autobiography and I managed only a few pages before I fell asleep.
I woke up slightly alarmed in the middle of the night due to some scuffling noises and found the source of this noise to be a few deer outside my tent. They didn’t seem too bothered by me and I was quite happy they were about. As there was no rain and it was not freezing I had left the outer cover of the tent off and could see the stars through the the flysheet. This is what its all about. Riding all day in beautiful surroundings on a superb motorcycle and camping under the stars with a fire in the woods. Bliss.
The next day I was up and packed quickly and plotted a route along the remainder of the Utah BDR to Four Corners, but wanted to include a few more sights such at Monument Valley, the one with the Wile Coyote scenery and huge sandstone buttes, and also Mexican Hat and of course the switchback escarpment twisties of Route 261 down to the Valley of the Gods.
A very enjoyable days riding in which somehow or another I managed to ride a total of 485 miles, much of it off road. Considering the BDR is 850 miles long, that is quite a bit of a diversion on the last day of the Utah section.
Both Mexican Hat and Monument Valley were impressive, but there were a lot of tourists and that sort of blunted the impact. Valley of the Gods, however, was the highlight of the whole trip. Not a long section of off road riding, but passing through scenery that lived up to its name. Almost unearthly.
As I was riding up on the pegs on the bright red dirt through a helter skelter of amazing rock structures, arches, spires and buttes I came across a solitary open top white sports car with a well dressed couple who waved excitedly at me. The lady was jumping up and down on her seat whilst filming me and the scenery as they drove passed. The driver was beaming a very wide smile, and looked remarkably like David Hasslehoff
Only in America, I thought.
I had seen Four Corners monument in the TV series, “Breaking Bad” and thought I might as well take a look. On the way I passed by some rather scruffy Navajo Nation settlements, dominated by the trophies of the poor… broken down cars, discarded household goods and tatty trailers.
I refuelled at a Navajo petrol station that was also a ten pin bowling center and burger bar. I didn’t play bowls, but I did have a burger. Afterwards, as I struggled to digest the lump of meat I wished I had eaten the bowling ball or bowled the burger.
I have never really seen native Indians in the flesh so to speak, or at least in large numbers, and I was surprised how Asian they looked. Maybe the Chinese did discover America first, or their ancestors migrated across the Baring Straits.
When I got to Four Corners I was rather taken aback that I would have to pay to see what is essentially a man made and rather unexciting monument. Arizona meets New Mexico meets Utah meets Colorado.
Seen, done, off riding again in 10 seconds.
As I was riding in the early evening towards Cortez on what is essentially the first leg of the Colorado BDR, I could see a strange structure on my right hand side. What the hell is that?
As I got nearer I realized this was not a structure, it was some sort of volcano or “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” like mountain.
I have got to take a look at that, I said out loud in my helmet.
I found out its called Ship Rock.
Wikipedia describes it as:
Shiprock (Navajo: Tsé Bitʼaʼí, “rock with wings” or “winged rock” ) is a monadnock rising nearly 1,583 feet (482.5 m) above the high-desert plain of the Navajo Nation in San Juan County, New Mexico, United States. Its peak elevation is 7,177 feet (2,187.5 m) above sea level. It lies about 10.75 miles (17.30 km) southwest of the town of Shiprock, which is named for the peak.
I rode 20 miles away from my planned route to Cortez to take a closer look and it is truly surreal. It really stands out from the surrounding area and has sort of radial arms stretching out like hands of a clock. Experts say it is the erosional remnant of the throat of a volcano. No wonder the Navajo revere and protect it.
I couldn’t hang about, nor was I allowed to as the Navajo Nation restrict people like me camping in the vicinity, so I continued to Cortez and was pleasantly surprised when I got there that it was a really nice town with lots of restaurants, bars and motels.
I went into one of the bars and had some spicy buffalo wings and a beer, and was entertained by some very talented and entertaining musicians. Before I knew it it was late and I had no chance to find a campsite and so I checked into the cheapest motel in town, one that smelt of curry like a corner shop in England in the 1970s.
The motel was a bit depressing, not well maintained, and as soon as I was washed up I decided to go out again and explore. I went into another bar just down the road and watched a superb one man band called Hurricane Jake (https://www.facebook.com/HurricaneJakesOneManBand/).
He was really good but there were only a few people around and I think I was one third of his entire audience. Later I found out there was a “Blues and Brews” festival in Telluride, that was where all the people had gone, and that was actually where I panned to be the next day.
Again in the interests of escaping Vindaloo Motel I went to some late night supermarkets and stocked up on fruit and veggies, and took the opportunity to fuel up my bike at the “gas station” across the road.
As I did so I bumped into two young Norwegian lads, Christian Mørck Røde and Peter Saxhaug Solnør on “adventured up” Kawasaki 650 KLRs.
I like KLRs…Fanny and I have one in Hong Kong
They were riding from Alaska to Argentina and had called their expedition, Chasing Borders (www.chasingborders.com). It was great to meet such excited and positive explorers and I was full of admiration, and dare I say, a touch of envy.
The next day I followed the BDR route to the ski resort of Telluride, mostly along gravel tracks alongside a stream called Beaver Creek.
Again, I came across lots of hunting camps and shared the track with ATVs and occasionally horses and cattle. I encountered very few other motorcycles up in the mountains and I could feel that it was decidedly cooler. The Mitas E07 tyres were OK, but I could feel the back slipping again on the steeper slopes.
I got to Telluride earlier than I expected and it was absolutely packed with people. There were hundreds of motorcycles, RVs, SUVs and camper vans in the pretty town. Telluride appeared to be an upmarket ski resort, it was very warm and sunny when I arrived, and the throngs of festival goers were in a party mood.
I rode up to the gates of the “Blues and Brews” festival ground and was told that there was no room for camping. I also noticed that admission was US$250!!! Well that ruled that out, but I wasn’t too disappointed because I heard there were bands and lots of lively activity in the bars and restaurants in other parts of Telluride that evening.
While riding about I saw a black Yamaha Super Tenere in the street and thought it might be John and that we had caught up. But on closer inspection it wasn’t. In fact, it belonged to a young lad from Oregon who was doing an “Ironbutt” ride across America. That means he rides up to 1000 miles a day, up to 14 hours a day. Tough old stuff.
We got chatting and decided to team up and find a camping site for the evening that would allow us to get back to Telluride in the evening and have a few beers.
We found a campsite up in the mountains about 8 miles away from Telluride. It was a government one and so we would have to pay 15 dollars, but the plot was very big and we could share the cost. Furthermore, the camp “guards” (there always seem to be a retired elderly couple whose job is to collect fees at municipal camp sites) told us we could use the cable car from a nearby upmarket ski resort down to the Telluride valley for free, and after setting up camp that is what we did.
A very lively evening where we sampled the local ales and listened to some great bands. By 8 pm, however, I was seriously fading. All I had had was a couple of craft IPAs and some salad and chicken wings, but I was seriously whacked, made my excuses and took the cable car back up the mountain and then back to the campsite.
It was extremely cold during the night as my tent was pitched at 12,000 feet in the Rockies in Autumn, but I was out for the count, despite another visit by some deer and elk in the night.
The next day I was up bright and early. I had the steepest and highest sections of the Colorado BDR ahead of me and was slightly anxious about what lay ahead, bearing in mind what Ben had been warning.
Whilst I did not strictly adhere to the Utah BDR, I did ride on enough sand to prove the tyres on my Africa Twin were limited. I have zipped up and down Sani pass in Lesotho on my fully laden KTM 990 Adventure, up and down Mushroom Farm pass in Malawi and all sorts of challenging roads in the Rift Valley in the north west of Kenya, and indeed around the world. How hard could it be?
I aimed towards the small mountain village of Ophir and then towards the pass. There were signs warning the route was only suitable for 4x4s, and indicating that when wet the road was impassable.
The Ophir Pass is rocky and has a steep scree slope on the right hand side as you go up. I had seen pictures of it, but in reality it is steeper than it looks in pictures.
I stopped half way up to take a picture.
As I got back on my bike it started slipping backwards. Heck! I turned on the engine and engaged 1st gear and the back just spun and the bike started going backwards faster. The rocks were fairly large and recent rains had washed out the gravel leaving large slippy boulders, gullies and very uneven rubble.
It seemed I had a rock jamming my front wheel and my back wheel was just skidding and squirming left and right. This ain’t good!
I tried out all four settings of the Honda’s traction control, which can be activated very easily using a button on the left hand grip, even on the go, but my heavy bike was still slipping backwards.
If I continued what I was doing I was going to be sliding backwards into the ski resort I just came from, if indeed I stayed upright that was highly unlikely. Dropping the bike on these sharp rocks would undoubtedly lead to significant damage and so I quickly decided that the only way to get going again was to unload all my luggage and let some of the air out of my tyres… although on these steep rocks that would risk tyre slippage and potentially ripping the valve out of the inner tube.
I was in full bike gear and perched on a steep scree slope, but I managed to get the dry bags out of the Wolfman panniers and get the North Face bag off. I then had to carry them further up the mountain and then go back down to get the bike.
After sliding back down the scree slope to my bike I removed the rocks in front of the front tyre and gouged out a sort of smooth path to get going. I got back on the bike and engaged traction control setting #1 and gradually the bike got going again.
The secret to riding such a big bike on such a surface is obviously having the correct tyres, and in this case the knobblier the better. But more importantly it means going smoothly, preferably in second gear, and keeping up momentum, and that requires confidence and a modicum of skill, but most importantly, confidence.
I had been seriously huffing and puffing due all the exertion at high altitude but gradually got in the flow and decided as I had momentum not to stop to collect my luggage which lay ahead on a surface that was still steep and rocky.
The only slight hiccup came when I had to perform a 180 switch back turn on the very loose gravel and exposed rocks, and I just about managed the tricky turn as my back tyre squirreled about due to lack of traction, the very awkward camber and, to be honest, my poor riding.
I pushed on up the mountain and on a more gentle inclined parked up the bike and ambled down the slope to get my stuff. This was going to be exhausting.
Not long after starting to hike down the mountain trail I saw a 4×4 SUV with two elderly ladies in the front seat crawling up the mountain pass I had just come. As it drew up along side me a Scandinavian sounding lady in the driving seat leaned out and told me they had collected my luggage. Apparently they had been following me from a distance and seen me struggling. That was nice of them.
I hopped into the back of the SUV and gushed my appreciation for “rescuing” me and my stuff. The driver was from Finland and was touring around Colorado with her American friend. Ophir Pass was obviously an easy route for a woman from the land of rally and F1 drivers, but they told me that at their hotel the previous evening that the locals had warned the pass had been washed out badly by recent bad weather and had yet to be graded.
This was at the limits of my heavy laden bike and Mitas tyres, but I am quite sure the Africa Twin would have zipped up on a pair of Metzler Karoo 3s, and with perhaps less luggage and a more confident rider. In fact on my KTM it would have been a breeze as I have ridden up Sani Pass in Lesotho several times and along entire Baviaanskloof in South Africa on my 1190 Adv R with TKC 80s and full luggage. In fact, ridden up tougher roads in Himalayas on a Chinese made CF Moto 650 with road tyres!!!
Stop faffing about Utley.
I expressed my thanks to the ladies at the top of the pass, reloaded my bike and rode down a less steep tar and gravel road on the other side. At the bottom of the slope I came to a T junctions at Million Dollar Highway.
I had two BDR options to Lake City: the more direct route eastwards across the mountain ridges of Animas Fork; or north eastwards via Ouray across Sunshine Mountain. I chose the latter and it was a good choice, a fairly easy off road ride through stunning scenery.
Like much of the Utah BDR, there was a little bit of tarmac in between long sections of twisty steep gravel roads and high altitude passes. I rode reasonably quickly and learned my lesson about keeping up momentum. Yet again, I found myself cursing the tyres and reflecting on the fact that riding a rental bike has its limitations. The only alternative is buying a bike and then selling it after the expedition, which is OK for longer expeditions, but not really feasible for rides of less than a month.
It was still quite early and I pushed on through a place called Cathedral along pretty good gravel tracks, twisty mountain tracks, valleys with beautiful steams and lakes and by late afternoon I had made ridden a fair old distance and made it all the way to Taylor Park Reservoir which had a Trading Post where I could get fuel, a coffee and refill my water bottles.
As I arrived I could see quite a few mid sized dirt and enduro bikes in the car park and went into a restaurant where there were a couple of riders eating some food. I introduced myself and got chatting with two chaps a little older than myself who had been riding more challenging trails than I was.
They knew the area pretty well and advised me which routes I could take. They also decided to treat me to the restaurant specialty of home made apple pie and ice cream that I have to say was delicious and very welcome.
One of the guys was at least 70 years old and riding a stripped down and modified DR 650 in full enduro battle mode. He was camped up with his riding buddy in what he described as a state of the art camper van, or should I say recreational vehicle. The sort that is super luxurious and better equipped and more comfortable than most people’s homes. He told me it had a trailer on the back on which he transported an assortment of off road and touring motorcycles.
Now that’s the way to do it… if you’re rich. With Donald Trump type modesty he assured me he was indeed very rich … and so I didn’t feel so guilty accepting his apple pie.
I thought about camping up in Taylor Park, but I knew Cottonwood Pass was nearby and I could ride over it towards Buena Vista and perhaps camp along the way. I heard at the Traders gas station that the road is OK in the dry and that there were dozens of free camping sites along the Cottonwood Creek near Rainbow Lake.
After struggling up Ophir Pass I was not too enthused with the prospect of an evening battle against gravity, but as it turned out Cottonwood Pass was easy and very enjoyable to ride. Great views, wide hard packed gravel going up and a tar road going down on the other side.
As I drifted down the tar road towards Buena Vista I could see lots of campsite and so I pulled into one of them which was heavily wooded, next to a beautiful creek, and a site that actually obscured quite a few campers who were pitched up already.
I pulled up next to a couple who were riding a KTM 1290 Super Adventure. Attempts to strike up a conversation were dampened by a shrew faced woman with thin mean lips, blonde dyed hair, a really irritating “Fox News” accent, and a thoroughly unpleasant disposition. No idea what was going on there, but I left them to it, and set up my camp further along the river, got some trance music flashing away on my blue tooth iZoom speaker, and got some food and beer going.
I was right next to the creek and again I had nocturnal visits from various deer, elk and ground squirrels. Occasionally, I could hear the shrill nasal tones of “Fox News” woman carried on the wind, arguing incessantly about something, and thought KTM man had one of his few chances for eternal peace, happiness, and a garage full of any motorcycle he liked.
Go on man, do it, its your last chance. Bad things happen in the wilderness. Blame it on the bears, I will gladly go witness!
I might have managed a chapter of John Lydon before I was out for the count. Another very comfortable and enjoyable camp in the great outdoors.
As I was camped in a valley, the sun didn’t appear until an hour after sunrise and so I took my time making breakfast and charting the route ahead. I wanted to have a coffee in Buena Vista and deviate somewhat off the BDR to see Aspen, a high end ski resort that features in the original “Dumb and Dumber” movie and a destination during winter for the more wealthy skier.
As it turned out I had camped not that far away from Buena Vista which was quite a nice little town. I refueled, had some coffee and internet catch up in a very nice coffee shop, and was tempted to a delicious and extremely large muffin.
I chatted to a few locals and then picked up the BDR to Leadville and doubled backed to Twin Peaks and onto Aspen through endless forests of stunning Aspens that were by now every colour of the rainbow. The last colour they go through is a bright translucent golden yellow before they fall off in early winter. I was here at the right time for sure.
Perfect riding in stunning scenery.
When I rode into Aspen I found it to be very upmarket indeed, but it did have a rather confusing one way system in between top end shops and restaurants. Reminded me of Carmel in California. Rich and a bit snobby.
By chance, I found Aspen’s only Australian coffee shop and parked next to an orange 2007 KTM 990 Adventure, almost identical to Fanny’s “bigbiketrip” one.
I got the impression as I walked into the coffeeshop that I was not entirely welcome. People in their smart casual clothes actually recoiled as I got near. Indeed I was a sight, and no doubt I smelled quite bad too. The server was a typical snobby Millennial type with a curt manner and unattractive disposition. So, I sat outside with my coffee and chatted with Fanny on WeChat.
I reflected on the fact that I was near the end of my trip. The time had passed quickly and I never heard from John again. Not sure if he continued with the ride northwards through Colorado or went back to California when he was at the nearest point in Southern Utah and through Eureka or Reno back to Walnut Creek.
Very much later I did hear about John from Fanny and heard he followed up with his threat to leave his missus and retire to his beautiful cabin in Truckee, near the ski resorts and mountain lakes. Well played, Sir.
John, come to South Africa for a ride. I will lend you my 1190 Adv R and I will ride Fanny’s 790 Adv R and you can do some proper riding. I promise to last until day 4!
Anyway, after coffee and some welcome suggestions from the owner of the KTM 990 Adv, I picked up the BDR via Meredith and Basalt and rode alongside a stunning trout fishing river, which meandered and sparkled down from the mountains.
There were lots of fly fisherman in their waders flicking their flys into the babbling crystal clear waters. What a lovely way to spend a day. I stopped to watch them in their magical surroundings and made a mental note that this might be a nice way to whittle away some of my twilight years.
I found the turnoff route up over the mountains to a town called, Eagle. I was supposed to ride to Gypsum but made a wrong turn that took me over quite challenging gravel and extremely rutted hard packed mud.
Impassable in wet weather, the tops of the mud ruts were very high which meant I had to ride carefully along the crests like a gymnast on a balance beam. I came across a hunter on an ATV and he said he was also having a rough time of it, but not as much as some bikers he saw further down the track.
In no time I came across this group of motorcyclists on an assortment of adventure bikes, and without exception they were all on their sides or stuck in the ruts. I was up on the pegs in second gear as I weaved and skimmed across the steep mud crests and waved enthusiastically as I passed them.
I couldn’t stop and couldn’t take a pictures or indeed any video. Doing so would mean putting my foot down and I would certainly fall into the deep ruts and the bike would topple over, as indeed the gaggle of adventure bikes had clearly done already.
As I rode by at a fair old lick I felt stupidly superior and had to check myself, because as we all know, pride comes before a fall.
I was enjoying my ride, and particularly this section which was quite technical, but surprisingly similar to the roads I did in Wales during the Honda off road course a few months earlier, albeit a lot drier. With these tyres, sand and steep rocky scree were my enemy. However, on loose gravel and hard packed mud the E07s were no problem at all and I guess this is why there are such varied reviews and appraisals of these Mitas tyres.
I eventually descended down from the tricky mountain trails and onto the tar road between Eagle and Gypsum. I then had a few hours riding following gravel trails alongside the Colorado River through the valleys up towards Steamboat Springs.
Arriving just south of Steamboat Springs I had no intention of going any further north towards Wyoming as I wanted to finish my trip with a blast up Pikes Peak. I recently watched a video clip of the famous road racing biker, Guy Martin cahooning up the hill climb course on a bike he built himself, and I wanted to see it.
It was now dark and so I decided to set up camp near a Lake called Catamount and ride back down south along Highway 40 the next day towards Colorado Springs. I had already been to Steamboat Springs and I knew it was quite touristy, with few options to free camp and so this was as north as I was going.
It was quite exposed and a bit windy next to the large expanse of water high up in the Rockies, but comfortable inside my sleeping bag. I may have been camping illegally as there are regulations about camping near water sources, and so I packed up and got going early and made good progress towards Pikes Peak the next day which I thought would be a fitting end to my trip.
I arrived about midday after some fast road riding along Highway 40 and 70. I could see the summit of Pikes Peak from quite far away and made a wrong turn, as my batteries had all died on all my various electrical devices. I could no longer charge anything up using the 12v socket on my bike because the power cable had broken.
Also, as I was riding the wrong way in the foothills of Pikes Peak something stung me on my exposed neck which caused a nasty red welt that lasted for several weeks. It was unusually painful for an insect sting and I have no idea what it was, but it caused me to stop for half an hour as it affected my eyesight, made everything blurry and made me feel nauseous. Very strange.
As the initial sharp pain subsided I decided to carry on and found the correct route and rode up the twisty road to the top of Pike Peak. I paid a small entrance fee and unfortunately the weather was not as clear as it had been over the previous week, but a brilliant view nonetheless.
At the top I met some other bikers and a multitude of tourists who had ridden in a train to the summit.
The summit is quite interesting but its the ride which is more fun and so I rode back down the mountain and towards Colorado Springs.
I now had to get ready to return the bike and get my flight back to Hong Kong. I still had 3 days to go and found an urban camping site not too far from the airport in the suburbs of Denver on AirBnB.
In the pictures and description on AirBnB the place I booked looked great, but when I got into Denver and navigated through the atrocious rush hour traffic and towards my destination, I found myself on a road called Colfax Avenue, and it became ever more depressing and run down the further I followed it. In fact, the neighbourhood was quite revolting and I recognized drug addicts, prostitutes, and predatory lowlifes shuffling along and lurking on the street corners.
I pulled up in a street of run down bungalows that without exception had an assortment of broken down cars, washing machines and former household appliances sprawled out in their front yards. The street would actually be quite nice if they cleared up their mess, but then it would also be quite nice if these lowlifes did something productive and stopped taking drugs.
What is this? Taxi Driver 1979? I could almost imagine the saxophone tune and the Robert DeNiro character narrating his impressions and feelings whilst driving through this twilight zone.
As I was contemplating doing a runner and abandoning the money I had already spent making a booking, my AirBnB host appeared out of nowhere and welcomed me. She was also not what I was expecting and appeared to be as high as a kite. She did her best to pretend not to be stoned and advised me to ride down the back ally and park my bike next to the chained wire fence at the back of her garden. In the garden I could see a tent and fairy lights all over the garden. It seemed very out of place!
Oh well, all part of the grand scheme of things… let’s get on with it.
After unpacking and doing my best to secure my belongings in an area where most of the zombies walking around would very much like to relieve me of them, I went in search of food.
A big mistake.
As a former policeman I recognised the area as a particularly unsafe place to be after dark. As the only person on the streets of, let’s say, an Anglo Saxon and sober disposition, I decided to err on the side of caution and foxtrot oscar. Let’s not forget I was in a country that celebrates shooting each other and in a States where you can legally buy cannabis and illegally buy anything else. Law and order may exist in Aspen a hundred miles away, but it was like some post apocalyptic nightmare in this part of Denver.
So, I backtracked to my tent, cooked up some freeze dried beans and chili, made a mug of tea, had a very welcome shower in the house, chatted with my host’s very nice elderly mother, and settled down to sleep with a few chapters of my book.
I was up before it was light, the bike was still where I parked it (hurray!) and rode 40 odd miles to Boulder to return the motorcycle, which I am proud to report was in the same condition I received it. Again I arrived early and so I had breakfast at Dennys Diner and was publicly reprimanded by an obnoxious, loud and obese waiter because my motorcycle was parked in a car parking spot, and not a motorcycle parking spot.
‘Where’s the motorcycle parking spot?, I asked rather irritably
‘There ain’t one, man, MOVE IT’
‘Then it will stay where it fucking is’, I replied slowly and quietly in my English accent, ‘ Please may I have a menu’.
Suitably subdued the waiter sidled off, came back in his own time and dropped a menu on my table.
Never a good idea to upset your waiter as they are serving your food, but I had had enough of rude sanctimonious yanks pontificating to me about… well …. about everything to be honest. I had met some really nice, friendly and interesting people on my trip in America, but I had also met some really obnoxious and arrogant ones too, perhaps too many.
Breakfast of eggs and spinach did arrive…..eventually.
Inevitably I never got a coffee refill, and inevitably the only tip the fat waitergot was “no carbs after 5 pm!”
The day was going well so far, wasn’t it?
At spot on 10 am, as planned, I returned the Africa Twin to Ben, pleased that it was undamaged and hadn’t been dropped, and especially pleased that I didn’t have to pay any bike damage penalty.
It had been a great bike and was perhaps the best adventure motorcycle at that time. Given all the gnashing of gums and fuss Ben made when I collected the bike two weeks previously, I should have got a Dick Dastardly and Muttley medal for completing two BDRs on a fully loaded up Honda Africa Twin, with the wrong tyres, and returned it without a scratch.
He played it down of course, but I had made my point. Amen!
My flight back to Hong Kong was the next morning and so I decided to spend the remainder of the day wandering around Boulder, rather than return any earlier than I possibly could to Zombieland.
After patrolling up and down Pearl Street and hanging about in pretentious coffee shops and bars I took the very efficient Regional Transport District (“RTD”) bus back to Denver, and at the central station took a connecting bus to Colfax, all for a few dollars.
I sat on the bus among a group of African-American and Hispanic ladies on their way back from work and we had a really good chat. As the only Anglo Saxon on the bus I stood out a bit to be sure. The female bus driver was very funny and unusually animated and I was getting quizzed from all around me.
It was rather surreal describing my travels, especially around Africa to an audience of predominantly African Americans. I was concerned I was boring them all, but they genuinely seemed fascinated and kept prompting me for more. The lady sitting next to me said she really wanted to visit Africa, but expressed concern it was dangerous. As I looked out of the bus window at Colfax Avenue I assured her it was considerably less dangerous than where we were.
I had a very comfortable and peaceful night in my ghetto campsite and early the next day took an Uber taxi with my cheerful and friendly driver, Charles, to Denver International airport.
I had not booked an Uber taxi before, and it cost a third of the price of the regular cabs. Much to my amusement I could track my cab on the iPhone app as it approached and could see a biography of the driver and description of the car. Isn’t technology great?
After being back in Hong Kong for a few days, and recovering from my jet lag, I reflected on my “small bike trip” in the USA.
The Honda Africa Twin is a great adventure motorcycle, the Utah and Colorado scenery is truly magnificent, everything is clean and tidy, the air is unpolluted and fresh, the autumn weather was perfect, most people were kind and friendly, and it was super fun riding across all the desert tracks and mountain trails.
So what do two adventure bikers do for their Christmas holidays?
Of course, go on another motorcycle adventure, this time to Vietnam and Cambodia.
Flying directly into Phnom Penh from Hong Kong was expensive and so we decided to fly into Hanoi first, have a look around and then take a local flight to Cambodia where we would pick up a Honda Africa Twin and spend two weeks over the holidays touring the country, and perhaps include a few days relaxing on the southern coast.
I have been to Ho Chi Minh a few times, but neither Fanny or I had been to Hanoi and we had been planning to go there for some time. Originally our plan was to ride from Hanoi to Hai Phong, inspired by the famous “Top Gear Special”, but we didn’t really have enough time to do a big trip in both Vietnam and Cambodia. Also, Fanny was recovering from ACL reconstruction surgery to her knee and she did not want to ride a bike herself, and so we decided to spend the majority of our time in Cambodia as we could share a larger adventure motorbike. It seems Vietnam only hires out small scooters and mopeds, which are perfectly OK for scooting about the city, but a bit challenging for an countrywide tour in a few days.
Hanoi is a really interesting and bustling city with French and Chinese style architecture reflecting its rather complicated heritage. We liked it very much. There are tens of thousands of scooters riding about in a seemingly chaotic manner, but after a while you realize, despite universal none adherence to any traffic laws whatsoever, that carnage, death and destruction is actually quite rare. In fact, everyone just manages to avoid colliding into everyone else.
Crossing the road on foot does take a leap of faith, if not courage, and yet the bikes and cars just seem to slide by, dodge and side step you, employing well practiced collision avoidance techniques. Accidents do happen of course, and like their Thai neighbours the Vietnamese take enormous pleasure in publishing the graphic images of squashed and smashed up human being in newspapers and specialist magazines. Everyone’s got to have a hobby I suppose.
Finding accommodation in Hanoi was easy and we stayed at a superb hotel in the old town called Oriental Suites. A colonial looking and very well managed mid sized hotel right in the heart of the old town. Great coffee and very obsequious staff… just how we like it.
We decide to hire a scooter to get around and explore the city and at first were given a “last thing you’ll ever ride” piece of junk clearly belonging to one of the hotel staff. After an 18.5 second test drive I returned and gave the hotel manager a full and frank appraisal of his “Vamporetta” or whatever it was. The traffic was bad enough in Hanoi, but without any brakes, steering bearings gone, and an engine that stalled all the time… I don’t think so. So, we were given one of the ubiquitous Honda 110 mopeds and it was perfectly fine and off we went.
We found lots of great restaurants, cafes, noodle shops, and market stalls, most of which were selling a huge array of Christmas decorations and junk nobody really needs in life. The street food was very good and it seems the Vietnamese, like the southern Chinese they share a border, will eat absolutely anything. There were a lot of roasted pooches looking rather sad for themselves in heated glass display cases at various street hawker stalls. Evidently, the locals are perfectly aware that their taste in cuisine isn’t appreciated by the vast majority of tourists, including many Chinese from the more civilized cities and northern provinces, and so they were sensitive to people like Fanny and I taking pictures of poached pug and char grilled collie. But we did anyway.
Hanoi, along with the same parts of China that regularly eat dog, i.e. Guangxi and Guangdong, are also the markets for rhino horn although I never saw any evidence of this devastating trade in endangered animal parts. Not surprising since gram for gram rhino horn its more valuable than gold. Wont last for long though as there wont be a rhino left on the planet within a generation.