Chapter 10 – Egypt – (Part 2)

As we were now stuck in Egypt we thought we should make the most of it and see the country and take in its amazing culture and history. To do that we were going to have to extend our visas and also the permits for our South African registered KTM motorcycles, and that meant we needed to go to the capital, Cairo.

Riding a motorcycle into Cairo isn’t for the faint hearted. As we exited the Suez canal tunnel and found our way onto the correct highway into Cairo the peace of the desert finished and road madness began and got steadily worse until we were grid locked in the heart of a city with perhaps the worst driving on the planet.

All the signs were in Arabic and despite memorizing the hieroglyphs for a few words like Cairo, Suez, Alexandria, Port Said, entrance, exit, etc…  I was still having some problems making sure we were heading in the right direction. For a reason I was only to discover much later in our expedition, the GPS was showing the most basic of details in north Africa and was for the large part no more than a compass with a few out of date roads. In fact the Garmin Zumo GPS became more and more erratic and dangerous, to the extent that sending one up the wrong way of a Cairo street is pretty damned dangerous.

Again, we would get honked at, shouted at, waved at, and people would start animated and persistent conversations with us out of the windows of their vehicles that we could not hear in our helmets. Egyptian drivers might not think its important to look where they are going but my experience of motorcycling is that its a very good idea. The millimeter collision avoidance style of  driving could almost be described as skillful, but it would scare the hell out of me and so when we did arrive in Cairo we both decided to leave the bikes at the hotel and walk for most of the time. Occasionally we took a taxi which is an experience most people should also consider leaving off their “things to do before I die” bucket list, unless of course its the very last item on such a list.

We decided to head to the Zamalek area, an island in the Nile in the center of the city, where we heard there was a decent backpackers hostel called the Mayfair (http://www.mayfaircairo.com/). After riding along every single street in Zamalek, twice, sometimes three times, we found the hostel four hours later and then I had a pointless argument with their management and security guard about where to park our motorcycles. In the end I relented and moved our bikes all of three meters right into the middle of the footpath to where they said we should park them. Why?

I never found out, there was no given or obviously logical explanation for placing the bikes in the center of the footpath causing what looked like an obstruction. However, the night guard of the hotel,  at least a hundred years old, parked his chair under a tree right next to the motorcycles and waved his stick at anyone who dared to look at them.

We got to know many of the local people and soon after everyone in the immediate vicinity of the hotel got to know the bikers who had ridden up from South Africa and greeted us warmly whenever we walked up and down the street.

The motorcycles stayed in the center of the pavement unharmed for five days among huge crowds of pedestrians and protesters, not 50 meters from the Libyan embassy where celebrations started the day we arrived as Kadaffi had just been captured and summarily executed. The crowds were quite big and the noise they made was loud and unrelenting. We were after all right in the middle of the Egyptian “Spring” Revolution.  History was being made right around us.

 

Me and my bike at the pyramids in Giza, Cairo.

Me and my bike at the pyramids in Giza, Cairo.

The natural and the unnatural.

Hope it doesn’t roll off

Bikes squeezed into a space in Cairo

Bikes squeezed into a space in Cairo outside the Harley Davidson show room

I know him... lives in Hong Kong

I know him… lives in Hong Kong

 

Fanny making friends as usual

Fanny making friends as usual

 

Tahrir Square with the building we have to get our visas from at the top left hand side

Tahrir Square with the government building we have to get our visas from at the top left hand side of the photo.

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Zamalek and Old Cairo reminded both Fanny and I of Shanghai–a lot.  Splendid British colonial architecture that had either been restored by the new elite into hotels, clubs and apartments, or more often than not, allowed to decay and left to deteriorate.  By far the nicest places were the embassies and consular homes in the diplomatic quarter. Many of the building had classic Art Deco style lobbies staircases, windows and verandas, including the Mayfair hostel we lived in. Many of these large houses had beautiful gardens right in the middle of prime real estate. All very impressive, but many had seen much better days.

Perhaps the most ostentatious and vulgar symbol of the huge gap between the “haves” and “have nots” was a golf course right in the middle of Zamalek. At first I assumed it was a public park, but as we tried to go in we were herded away by dozens of white clad security guards. Later, I peered through the fence into a huge expanse of privately manicured grass that had a total of two people wandering around wearing ridiculous golfing clothes and pulling along their golf bats in shopping trolley things. Perhaps in this post Mubarek era it will be turned into a public park that more people can enjoy? It seemed there were many places that were private in Zamalek and off limits to riff raff like us.

The main reason to be in Cairo was not to allow Fanny to eat at every street-side store, although she tried, but to keep up efforts to get to Europe and extend our visas and motorcycle permits. We also wanted to see the pyramids and the Egyptian museum, both very much highlights of our trip to Cairo.

The pyramids in Giza really are on the edge of the city and its quite an astonishing surprise to see them looming up above the buildings and houses of Cairo as you approach them from the city center about 10 kilometers away. Some people literally have them as their next door neighbours. As we approached the pyramids on my motorcycle I had to be careful not to stare at them too long and get distracted from the important task at hand of proactive impact avoidance.

When we arrived there were some security people manning various gates and so I parked up my bike next to the security gate and Fanny and I went in and wandered around. The pyramids are quite the most amazing human constructions I have ever seen. Firstly, they are absolutely huge, the largest being made up of 2.3 million limestone blocks and nearly 500 feet high, and secondly they are some of the only structures that have survived over four thousands years of modern human history. You are mesmerized just looking up at them. Also, like much of ancient Egyptian antiquity they are extremely accessible and I was surprised that we were allowed to climb and scramble over them.

Unlike more famous motorcycle adventurers who have visited the pyramids we did not go inside them. There was a fee for doing so for a start and both Fanny and I suffer from claustrophobia. I was of course interested to know what was inside these gargantuan tombs, but not so much that I would ever venture inside and so we spent the morning hiking around the two huge pyramids, one medium sized one and three small ones.  We could also see the Sphinx from a distance but it was much closer to the built up part of Giza and so we decided we would go back to our motorcycle and ride over to it for a better look.

I was surprised to see that the Sphinx was not only much smaller than I expected, but also very badly eroded and it seemed to be crumbling away. Our attempts to ride up to it on my bike were thwarted by being stopped and detained briefly by the police. We were actually very close to being arrested but managed to talk our way out as a crowd of increasingly agitated officials started to gather around us. All of a sudden I caught a glimpse of a very angry and obese senior police officer waddling towards us waving his fist, shouting and swearing and so we decided that was our cue to escape. I slide the bike around 180 degrees on the soft sand to a roar of Akropovik exhausts causing the crowd to rear backwards and in a cloud of dust powered our way back through the gates with Fanny hanging on for dear life.  It was a close shave as it would have been an excuse for the authorities to confiscate our motorcycles and no doubt squeeze some cash out of us. Thank heaven for donuts.

Dash in and ride around the pyramids .. or not? decisions decisions

Dash in and ride around the pyramids .. or not? decisions decisions

Just gone out for a ride on the bikes... What did you see?  Oh just Table Mountain,  The Great migration in the Serengeti and Masai Mara, Zanzibar, the Big 5, Mount Kilimanjaro, largest sand dunes in world, Okavango Delta, Mount Sinai and Moses, Red Sea, Sahara, Nubian, Namib deserts.... and .. oh yes the Great pyramids at Giza..

“Just gone out for a ride on the bikes…  Table Mountain, The Great Migration of the Serengeti and Masai Mara, exotic Zanzibar, the “Big Five” animals, Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya, Mont Blanc, Mount Everest, the largest sand dunes in world in Sossusvlei, the Okavango Delta, remote African tribes in the Rift Valley, the cradle of civilization, the great lakes of Africa, Great Wall of China, Rock hewn churches in Lalibela, Mount Sinai and Moses, The Red Sea, The Nile, the Sahara, Nubian, Kalahari, Namib and Gobi deserts, the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau, the Himalayas, lived with Tibetan lamas, saw the source of the Yangtse and Yellow Rivers, ruins of Pompei, the Colosseum,  Stonehenge, the Arab Spring uprisings, …. and .. oh yes the Great Pyramids at Giza.

Chased away by police

Riding around the car park at Giza pyramids

Uck the Police?

Walk like an Egyptian with a crash helmet.

Walk like an Egyptian.

Don't climb on the wonder of the world... doooh!

Don’t climb on the wonder of the world… doooh! You’ll notice I didn’t climb very high up…

Right, English slave ... I want that stone put at the very top.

Come on, English slave … there’s one missing at the very top.

Fanny wondering what sort of tourist site this is without any food.

Fanny wondering what sort of tourist site this is without any food stalls. Must have been at least half an hour since she ate something.

Look Fanny ... mini pyramids

An idiot abroad.

我饿死了

我饿死了 .

In Egypt, Fanny is a popular name ...

In Egypt, “Fanny” is a popular name … ( and doesn’t mean a bottom or another body part)

An aerial picture of the pyramids showing how close they actually are to the urban area.

An aerial picture of the pyramids showing how close they actually are to the urban area.

The Sphinx .. much smaller and eroded than I expected.

The Sphinx .. much smaller and much more eroded than I expected.

Having been thrown out by the police

Having been thrown out of the Sphinx enclosure by the police I find another place to try and take a picture.

Can I stop here and take a picture?  No?  OK I'll move on..

Can I stop here and take a picture? No? OK I’ll move on then.

Iconic

Motorcycling in Egypt

Extended visas .. good for another month or so. Now we have to go to the airport to get customs to extend the motorcycle import permits and endorse the carne de passage

Extended visas .. good for another month or so. Now we have to go to the airport to get customs to extend the motorcycle import permits and endorse the carne de passage and we are done.

Fanny wandering around Cairo

Fanny and I wandering around Cairo

I actually think Cairo has some wonderful architecture .. not just the pyramids Looks very much like the British and French Concession areas in Shanghai in places… I guess due to the British colonial influence.

P1040149

Egyptian museum

Egyptian museum

Fanny outside the Egyptian museum

Fanny outside the Egyptian museum with a burnt out building from the riots in the background.

Egyptian Museum

Inside the Egyptian Museum.. quite possibly one of the best I have been to. Later we also went to the British Museum in London which was also excellent. However, the joy of the Egyptian museum is everything is very accessible. You can get right up and touch the exhibits.

Tutkankhamun mask very accessible inside the museum

The magnificent Tutankhamen mask. I have actually seen it before when it was exhibited in London many years ago. But on that occasion it was a long way away and surrounded by guards, fences and huge crowds. Here in its home in Cairo you can get very close and inspect the workmanship and see how it was made.

Roundabout statue

Roundabout statues..

Egypt meets England

Egypt meets England

Interesting architecture

Interesting architecture, but sadly some of it falling into disrepair like this one.

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To get our visas extended we had to go to the huge and chaotic immigration building in Tahrir Square right in the middle of the city. We had been told by many people not to walk there, and in particular to avoid going passed the central television station building, and so we ignored them all and that is exactly where we went.

We walked across the bridge from Zamalek over the Nile and as we got closer to Tahrir Square we saw that the streets were lined with hundreds of black clad tactical police officers and soldiers who were guarding the damaged TV headquarters that had previously been the focal point for protesters during the early stages of the revolution. Across the street were thousand of people, some of them presumably protesters and some just people going about their normal business. So we walked between the two lines waving and smiling and everyone waved back at us and shouted “Welcome to Egypt”

For the police and army, I supposed, any distraction from their boring duties was welcome and they engaged in light hearted banter with Fanny and myself as we walked by. Fanny was as usual eating local street food and they were asking if she liked it and were delighted when she gave an enthusiastic thumbs up.

I was looking at the riot police and reminiscing back to the days when I was in a similar position. As a young policeman in London in the early 1980s my colleagues and I had to deal with violent riots in Tottenham, Southall, Brixton and Wapping. Later as a police tactical unit commander in Hong Kong I led my platoon during the taxi riots in Mong Kok and Yaumatei. The Broadwater Farm riots in Tottenham, north London I remember very vividly as they were extremely violent and destructive and one of my colleagues from another district, called PC Keith Blakelock, was hacked to death by murderous thugs as he was protecting the fire brigade .

People forget that the police are human themselves and just doing their job, usually a thankless and sometimes dangerous one. But things were not always violent. During the Miner’s Strike in the UK during the early 1980s Metropolitan Police officers like myself were sent to the mining communities “oop north” to assist the local constabularies with public order duties. For my part I spent most of my time asleep or standing around a coal brazier at a picket line outside a colliery together with decent down to earth miners who were striking to protect their livelihoods. We were thrown together by circumstance and most of the time chatted amicably about sport, politics and the usual subjects men talk about.

Now in Cairo in the middle of the Egyptian revolution Fanny and I were walking between the ranks of the police and the protesters in Tahrir Square. Like my experience on the “Miners Strike” nothing particular was happening and so the press and media had nothing to report. I wanted to take some pictures, but security aside I didn’t think it was the right thing to do, and so we waved and smiled to both sides and they waved cheerily back at us. Everyone was friendly and some Egyptians came up to us, welcomed us effusively and thanked us for visiting Cairo.

After we had got our visas extended, quite quickly I might add, at the huge passport and immigration center we decided to explore the rest of the area and visit the famous Egyptian Museum which, like the government offices, was right next to Tahrir Square.

Before going into the museum all visitors were subjected to body and bag searches. I had forgotten that inside Fanny’s bag was our arsenal of self defence kit and was not sure what to do with it all. We could hardly hide it, throw it all away or hand it in and so we nonchalantly walked through the x-ray and scanner machines with a bag containing pepper spray, a 1.5 million volt zapper and my trusty catapult. I felt a pang of  “Midnight Express” panic when the buzzer went off and our bags were searched. The security officer rummaged through Fanny’s bag and took out our camera and placed it in a locker for safe keeping as photography inside the museum was forbidden. The rest of the booty, including our camera phones (?) were left inside and we were allowed to proceed.  I made a mental note to dispose of our arsenal before we entered Europe. As lax as the UK Border Agency appears to be I did not want to take any chances.

We thoroughly recommend the museum. Simply an amazing and very accessible collection of some of the worlds greatest treasures, including the famous Tutankhamen gold and a huge collection of ancient statues, paintings and Royal Mummys.

Now that we had our visa extensions we needed to extend the permits for the bikes which were stamped only to the end of October. After a few inquiries I found out this would have to be done at Cairo airport so we decided we would leave Cairo and go back to the Red Sea, via the airport and perhaps rent an apartment for a few months in Dahab.

We checked out of our hotel, loaded up our motorcycles and again got lost and spent a couple of hours trying to escape from the center of Cairo. The GPS was still playing up and had no idea about one way streets, of which Cairo has many, and so we went round and around in circles until by chance we found a sign with a picture of a aeroplane and followed it to Cairo International airport.

We found the car customs department at the airport fairly easily, once of course we had managed to navigate through some shocking traffic jams. As we were parking our bikes outside the car customs offices a man came up to us and explained he was a customs agent and could help us if we had the correct documentation. We did, and after negotiations we settled on a very modest fee and he set about his work while Fanny and I waited with the customs officials and shared cigarettes, cigars and soft drinks and joked about…. Fanny being her usual loud self, laughing, guffawing, and generally amusing everyone.

Waiting around at the customs offices at Cairo Airport for our motorcycle documents to be processed.

No idea what it says but it looks official and allegedly allows our carne de passage to be extended. Phew.

The impounded vehicle park full of cars covered in dust. There were Bentleys, BMWS. Mercedes and also one or two motorcycles. Each vehicle having a history of misery for the owners who did not complete the correct import procedures for Egypt. Each would later be sold at a ‘closed’ auction.

Thanks to our customs fixer at Cairo airport we have documents sorted out for another months or so.

Fanny and I with our customs fixer at Cairo airport

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Whilst looking down upon a huge car park of dust covered impounded vehicles, that included a disproportionately large number of German and South African registered luxury cars,  I found out how “the big customs scam” operated and worked.  I have been in the business of investigation and intelligence for many years, often leading teams on complex financial enquiries and so I guess I am quite good at interviewing and finding things out. A little immodest granted, but with my weaknesses, of which I have many, I know my strengths, and at my best I’m pretty good at getting people to tell me things.

Why tell someone something anyway?  Well, everyone likes talking and everyone weighs up the net gain advantages of engaging in any activity against the risks of doing so. My Arabs customs friends realized we had the correct papers and that our engine numbers and documents matched to the digit, found us reasonably amusing and non threatening, and had made a few bucks through their fixer and our fee ….and importantly they were bored and were showing off to a fellow member of the cloth how they made substantial profits at the expense of dumb foreigners.

Anyway… we got the carnets, import receipts and other documentation, bade farewell to our amusing hosts at Cairo airport customs and headed back along the highway to the Suez canal tunnel. I cannot tell you how happy I was to be seeing the back of a very congested and hectic city and heading back into the desert and towards our target destination of Dahab by the Red Sea… a none too shabby place to mark time while we considered and researched our options.

After going through the tunnel yet again and waving at all the soldiers we got to a major junction in the road. The left fork took us across the Sinai through Bedouin bandit desert lands, and the road ahead took us back down the 400 kilometer road to Sharm El Sheikh. My lying gypsy Garmin GPS  showed that the route across the Sinai desert was off road and so I stopped and asked Fanbelt which way she’d like to go.

‘Is there sand?’, she asked.

I looked left and the top bit was azure blue and the bottom bit from horizon to horizon was white. ‘Might be a bit’, I answered honestly.

I think it was the prospect of staying in “The Shining” hotel again that swayed Fanny to choose the desert route and so we blasted off eastwards knowing we would not get across by night fall and so I would have to keep a good look out for a place to bush camp off the desert road. That would be fun.

Downtown Cairo

Downtown Cairo

KTM Cairo... no servicing though Servicing and bike maintenance is done a thousand kilometers away in Sharm El Sheikh

KTM Cairo… no  servicing ….. bike maintenance is done a thousand kilometers away in Sharm El Sheikh on the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula

Fellow bikers in Cairo

Fellow bikers in Cairo

A armoured personnel carrier at a road junction in the middle of the Sinai

The Sinai

Having a rest stop

Fanny in Sinai again... taking a break

Fanny finding a secluded spot for a “rest break”.

Heading back to Dahab via Nuweiba

Heading back to Dahab via Nuweiba

Back in Dahab

Back in Dahab

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The road was actually OK, with a few sections of gravel and sand where it was under repair. There were very few vehicles on the road that continued right across to the desert to Eilat in Israel at the border with Aqaba in Jordan. The riding was absolutely glorious and we watched as the sky put on a display very few people ever see, unless of course they are in the middle of a desert as the sun goes down. Blue, violet, green, turquoise,  purple, yellow, pink, purple, black.  Quite stunning and surreal.

I saw a great place to camp in a wadi about a kilometer off the road, and importantly saw a track to get there. I did not want us to be observed riding off the road and told Fanny that we should ‘get the cluck on with it’ when the time was right and get out of sight.  Fanny was not comfortable riding on the gravel and down the embankment through sand and so I rode my bike first, parked it near to a suitable secluded camping spot and then hiked back to the main road to get Fanny’s bike.

As I climbed back up the wadi embankment to get Fanny’s bike I saw a pick-up on the main road bridge stop, reverse and disappear backwards. Not good.  No more than three minutes later a white pick-up truck suddenly appeared above the wadi and five men, all wearing Yasser Arafat gear looked at us and entered into a discussion among themselves.  Again I felt uneasy about this, my defence instincts were heightened and I felt particularly uncomfortable about the whole situation. They never bothered to engage us in any conversation and then they drove off.

Fanny was tired and wanted to rest and set up camp. It had been a long day, but I broke the bad news that we should go. Paranoia?  Perhaps, but it did not feel right.  Again I worried that we may have a middle of the night visit and I wasn’t going to spend all night on guard duty brandishing my Masai warriors sword waiting for whatever. If I had been on my own I would have ridden much further into the desert, found a secluded spot and been quite at ease. In this situation I had a responsibility towards Fanny and to err on the side of caution was the right thing to do.

As we rode off the sand track and back onto the road, I looked back and was fairly disappointed that the human risk element had prevented us enjoying a camp fire in the middle of the desert under the stars. In Sudan it would have been no problem, in semi anarchic Egypt not so sure.

The sky was now quite dark, but after thirty kilometers I spotted another potential bush camping site and rode off the road down a sand bank and then beckoned towards Fanny to follow. After some hesitation she did, and as she descended the sand bank I clearly saw her touch the front brake with the expected result that the front wheel washed out and she dropped the bike on the slope. Damn. I knew that was the last chance.

Fanny is very capable of handling the bike on most surfaces, she has proved such on the expedition, but along her biking evolutionary scale she had reached the level many very experienced riders reach and often stay at… a complete fear of sand. To move on she will need to do some off road courses with Leon and team at Country Trax in South Africa or perhaps the UK Yamaha adventure riding team in Wales to get her over this hurdle and then she’ll be fine.

Earlier on our trip in Kenya, we met two BMW riders from England, Russ a thoroughly nice guy and all round gentleman and his bullying and arrogant companion, Darren, a thoroughly selfish and unpleasant individual who reminded me of a colleague I endured at Arthur Andersen a decade ago who was a weekend warrior and a bit of a “merchant banker”. Darren commented that Fanny could not handle the large and powerful KTM 990 Adventure and was critical of me for allowing her to do so. He was even more critical of me for my robust and none compromising encouragement when she occasionally eefed it up. Little did he know that Fanny is made of much sterner stuff and can handle her Mad Max riding companion perfectly well, the KTM and still have time for noodles and tea.

Fanny is one of the strongest and toughest people I have ever met and dumbing down to an F650GS is not in her nature. She insisted on the KTM as it is clearly the best adventure bike there is and has an enviable reputation throughout China because of its Dakar heritage. I am quite sure a week or so throwing a smaller KTM, CF Moto 700 Adventure or a Yamaha enduro around some sand dunes, through woods and up and down the hills in South Africa or Wales with a good instructor will set her up for anything. She has the attitude, determination and strength and the skills can follow in good time. I also accept I am not the person to instruct her. Anyone who has tried to teach their wife to drive will know full well its a futile exercise, especially if you have the instruction style of the drill pig in “Full Metal Jacket”.

Anyway, back to the Sinai desert and a KTM on its side and nose pointing down a sand embankment.  With some effort, but by now quite well practiced, Fanny and I hauled her bike back up the sandy slope and we had no option but to carry on to the next town, some hundred kilometers away, or push on towards Taba and Eilat in Israel, or even through the desert roads south east to Nuweiba . The sky was now pitch black and filled with tens of thousands of stars. In South Africa I was used to seeing the southern hemisphere sky filled with stars above my house, but I was unfamiliar with constellations of the northern hemisphere sky. In England, Europe, China, and Hong Kong where I have spent most of my life there is too much ambient light and air pollution to really see the stars clearly. Here in the heart of the Sinai desert it was absolutely spectacular.

We pulled the protectors off our headlights as the orange glow ahead was just a bit too… well… orange. There was not too much on coming traffic, but the few there were could be seen for many miles ahead and as they passed us they rarely dipped their headlights which was a tad annoying and uncomfortable in the pitch darkness. Actually, we rarely rode at night on the Big Bike Trip as its considered a big “no no” in adventure riding, but we were in middle of desert on a good road, and despite not being able to see much we had to admit we loved every minute.

We eventually arrived in a dimly lit small town called Nakhl right in the middle of the Sinai which was full of soldiers and tanks. I have done some boring jobs during my early police force career, but sitting on a tank in peace time in the middle of the desert struck me as particularly dull by any standards.  They all seemed quite friendly though, and very interested in our bikes and Fanny whose name we learned is popular in that part of the world.

They told us there had been very recent skirmishes with Bedouins who had been robbing travelers and raiding Egyptian properties.  Apparently, these itinerant desert dwellers felt that in the new post Mubarek era they had remained excluded and dis-empowered and were not happy. Everyone seemed to agree we had been lucky not to get robbed, although I thought this is was perhaps an over exaggeration or a ploy to frighten off travelers. That said, I looked back to our experience a few hours earlier in the desert and the non too friendly Beduoins who pitched up and I thought we made the right decision not to camp in the desert on this occasion.

We stayed in the only hotel in town, despite many people telling us there wasn’t one. It was a truly awful place and basically a construction site, but we got something to eat and a place to park our bike in the corridor right next to our dreadful room where we set up camp with our much used and treasured mosquito net.  Where mosquitoes come from in a dry desert I can only guess, but they are persistent little buggers and can ruin a nights rest. We did not hang about the next day and got up very early and rode to Nuweiba through amazing mountain passes, deserts and palm tree lined oasis.

Trying to learn to kite surf and wake board in Dahab

Beautiful sunsets in Dahab

Fanny walking to our apartment along the beach… happy days

Fanny's daily windsurfing lessons

Fanny’s daily windsurfing lessons

Me coming back from snorkeling and free diving

Me coming back from snorkeling and free diving

Relaxing evenings after windsurfing or snorkeling. I could snorkel for hours and often did.. immersed in a parallel universe of strange and beautiful creatures. I later learnt to scuba dive, but I far preferred the peace and unencumbered freedom of snorkeling. And the Red Sea is one of best places to do it.

Relaxing evenings after windsurfing or snorkeling. I could snorkel for hours and often did.. immersed in a parallel universe of strange and beautiful creatures. I later learnt to scuba dive, but I far preferred the peace and unencumbered freedom of snorkeling. And the Red Sea is one of best places to do it.

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We then descended out of the mountains into Nuweiba where the ferry departs to Aqaba in Jordan. After a spot of lunch/breakfast at a rather deserted, but pleasant beach resort we then turned south and back into the mountains and coastal passes towards Dahab.

Dahab is one of the best water sports and diving centres in the world and if we were to spend two months there we needed to occupy our time with more than just idling about and trying to work out logistics to get across the Mediterranean sea.  The last time we stayed at the Ghazala lodge and this time we took a more modest, but pristinely clean room at the German run “Sunsplash Lodge” which was next door and run by the überragend Anita, an adventurer and diver of note. http://www.sunsplash-divers.com/eng/start_e.htm

We then started looking for an apartment to rent and, like house hunting, we saw some great places that were out of our budget and thoroughly nasty places that were in it.  Eventually we found a small one bedroomed apartment right next to the sea. It wasn’t great, but the landlord told us it had TV, internet, fresh water and a kitchen. The selling feature was the garden which was essentially a private little beach with four massive date palm trees that swayed in the sea breeze.

Mohammed, the landlords son who dealt with us, was either a complete idiot, or thoroughly untrustworthy, I suspected both. He looked 45 but was actually 22 and his attire would swap between orthodox Islamic white robe with matching red Yasser Arafat headgear to the laughable clothes that lead actors in Bollywood movies wear with slicked back bouffant hair, tight jeans, garish shirt opened to his navel… ooh and a few gold medallions. Its not a great look.

At Mohammed’s insistence we handed over the cash (including water surcharge) and later found out there was no internet, the water supply was in fact sea water and the TV gave whoever changed the channel an electric shock. Fanny and I would endure the many local channels that showed real time images of pilgrims walking round and around the big cube at Mecca for hours and hours until we managed to suss out how to change channels with an insulated stick as we never ever found the remote control and we got fed up repeatedly asking our landlords idiot son to give us one. But all these things were minor as we were living next to the stunning Red Sea with the majestic Sinai desert mountains behind us. Not too shabby at all.

Our apartment.. nothing worked in it and it was a health and safety nightmare .. but it was right  next to the sea and the views were amazing..

Our apartment.. nothing worked in it and it was a health and safety nightmare .. but it was right next to the sea and the views were amazing.

Our garden

Our garden

The reef outside our garden … with our friend Tony Noble worrying the fish

Fanny has found herself a furry friend.. or is it sweet and sour goat night?

We don’t know where your kid went … honest.

The rubbish collectors

The rubbish collectors wandering through our garden

The serious rubbish collectors

The serious rubbish collectors

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Our neighbours were either local Bedouins, beach bum kite surfers, serious scuba divers or hippies with loads of kids. Not those cool 1960s type hippies with colourful tie dye clothing and affros, but the 2010s grungy types with ugly cloths and grumpy disapproving faces full of studs and tattoos. These hippies all looked the same to me because in their attempts to non conform they all conformed to the same uniform you see worn by hippies the world over.  At least Fanny was not the only person in Dahab wearing “effnic” MC Hammer trousers with a crotch below the knees. They were the only ones in KTM orange though.

I got to know one of our immediate next door neighbours when I was engaged in a bit of panel beating in our garden in the middle of the afternoon. As I was applying hammer to one of Fanny’s metal panniers to try and knock them back into shape a head appeared out of an upstairs window next door and shouted,’ I’VE GOT A BABY’

‘What?’ I shouted back

‘A BABY’

‘What kind of baby?’ I answered

‘HUH!?’

‘Yes, what kind of a baby? ‘If you have a baby West Africa Black Rhino then I’m interested, otherwise I’m not’, and I carried on panel beating

‘Its sleeping’, ‘Babies like sleeping in the afternoon’

‘And I like sleeping at night. Is it the same baby human that howls all night?’

And with this harmonious neighbourly relations were firmly established. Actually, I finished panel beating pretty soon after,  just as afternoon calls for prayers from our local mosque had started.

‘HAAAAWWWWAAAAAHHHH  AKBAAAAR’ —-The panniers now looked as good as new and the next door baby started crying.

Not too shabby

Eel garden

Fanny learning to windsurf in Dahab

Fanny giving the Russians a lesson in how to play beach volleyball.

Our bikes parked next to our apartment

Local transport

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Both Fanny and I took kite surfing lessons for a few days in the lagoon, an ideal location, but we soon gave up. I hate giving up, but Fanny was having trouble controlling the kite and I spent the whole time being yanked under water inhaling plankton. Whilst I could handle the kite easily enough, years of paragliding I guess, I could not stand up on the wake-board how ever much I tried and I was running out of money and my instructor was running out of patience. I even tried wake boarding behind a boat to try and hone some skills and even that instructor gave up on me.  So we decided on windsurfing lessons for Fanny and free diving practice for me. Despite the perfect location, I had little interest in scuba diving and even less bobbing around underwater with all that restrictive diving clobber and so I invested in free diving fins and a mask.

Both of us became quite good at our new hobbies.  Our days of idleness were interspersed with researching how we would proceed further on the Big Bike Trip –applying for visas and permits,  planning routes, and getting the bikes back to pristine condition.  Fanny perfected her sleeping expertise and got better and better at wind surfing and the rest of the time impressed all with her beach volleyball skills. I went running everyday to get back into shape, practiced Mandarin with Fanny and studied my Chinese lessons.  Occasionally, I would run up into the mountains whilst studying Chinese being careful not to fall into one of the many gullies and have to cut off my hand to escape. The rest of the time I went snorkeling and free diving right outside our house.

Free diving was introduced to me by Alexey Molchanov, a Russian and world champion who was training at the nearby famous “Blue Hole” that goes down to a depth of over a 120 meters. His mother is the women’s world record holder and I have actually seen her featured on the Discovery Channel a few times diving to incredible depths wearing a huge mono fin. Its an amazing and rather scary sport and requires more skill than you would think. Alexey can hold his breathe for 8 minutes, 31 seconds in a zero exertion submersion situation. He can also swim ten laps of a 25 meter pool underwater. My pathetic efforts improved somewhat and I was getting down to about 15 meters and holding my breathe for about a minute and a half. Not that impressive, but my main objective was to be able to go snorkeling and hold my breathe long enough to enjoy the amazing coral reefs and swim with the incredibly colourful and varied marine life of the Red Sea.

Beautiful marine life and coral reefs along the entire coast.

Beautiful marine life and coral reefs along the entire coast.

Tony Noble teaching a Chinese girl how to swim

Aswan 15 … my bike

Some of the restaurants along the Red Sea at Dahab

Relaxing next to the sea at one of hundreds of restaurants and coffee shops along the Dahab front

Fanny relaxing next to the sea near our apartment

Taking the horses for a cool down. Not sure what salt water does to a horses skin, but they seemed to like it.

Got to find something to do in the evening as the TV electrocutes us each time we touch it.

Got to find something to do in the evening as the TV electrocuted us each time we touched it.

Next …. Chapter 11… He’s not the Messiah … he’s a very naughty boy.   (more goings on in Egypt and also Jordan, Israel and finally leaving the African continent for Turkey)

Chapter 4 – Malawi

When we woke from our tent at Mama Rulas in Chipata we were confronted with a few options and had make a plan. We could either head to South Luangwa and ride along a truly awful stretch of road that had been ploughed up over the years by over-laden cotton trucks along the 140 kilometers to Mfume; we could ride northwards along sandy tracks and tar roads through Zambia to Tanzania; or we could risk the fuel issue and cross the border into Malawi. Decisions, decisions.

 

Riding the 280 kilometers to Mfume and back would seriously test Fanny’s riding ability, as it did mine the last time I rode there four years ago. Coming off and damaging the motorcycles is a risk you take all the time, but wearing out increasingly worn out tyres on what I remember to be very bad rocky stretches of road perhaps pushed the risk to far.  Also, we heard from my cousin, Rosie that Flatdogs bushcamp on the banks of the Luangwa River  (Website : www.flatdogscamp.com), a place where I camped up a tree four years ago now preferred more “upmarket” guests and only offered safari tents at US$40 upwards a night… each.  We could, of course, stay somewhere else just along the river as I knew there were other campsites, but with free roaming elephants, hippos, lions and whatever ever else free camping in the bush was not a wise option. Fun perhaps, but not wise.

Flatdogs Lodge, South Luangwa

Flatdogs Lodge, South Luangwa – www.flatdogscamp.com

Camping up a tree

Camping up a tree at Flatdogs fouryears previously with my bike as close to the tree as possible to prevent elephants knocking it over.

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So I consulted with Fanny and she told me, quite logically I suppose, that she had already seen enough elephants and hippos for a while and certainly didn’t want to waste US$80 a night camping in a posh tent. I am always up for seeing more elephants and wildlife, but I had already been there and if Fanny wasn’t fussed then I did not want to put the bikes, and more importantly Fanny through an unnecessary pounding and risk coming off. I remember the stretch of road being enormous fun, but also that it was quite dangerous in places and required, on occasions, very technical and precise riding along very narrow paths and ruts where the road had collapsed leaving sheer drops several meter high on each side. The recent reports from locals suggested that the road was atrocious, very muddy, and even the experienced cotton lorries and local 4x4s were taking eight to nine hours to navigate the worst 90 kilometers of the road.

Heading off road and following the tracks through Zambia all the way up to Tanzania would be good fun,  but I had already done that as well on my last expedition, and so, since I wanted to spend time with Fanny in Malawi by the shores of beautiful Lake Nyana we decided to risk the fuel and hoped the president had thought of his country’s needs before his own and sold his new jet. Ha! As if.

What self respecting African despot would have less motorcycles and vehicles in his motorcade than the President of the USA. Certainly not the President of Malawi.  Contributing less than 0.01% to the world’s GDP Malawi is a very poor country with more than half the population below the poverty line.

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At a very busy petrol station just outside Chipata, and quite near to the border with Malawi I replaced the 10 liter petrol can that fell off Fanny’s bike with a 20 liter cooking oil can that I would strap to my bike and filled up with petrol. So, in total, 19.5 liters in each of the KTM petrol tanks, 10 liters on the back on Fanny’s bike, and 20 liters on the back on mine….that should get our two motorcycles about 550 kilometers into Malawi. After that we would have to make another plan.

After I bought the cooking oil can the petrol attendant said it was illegal to fill it directly from the pump and so we filled 5 liter metal cans and then had walk off the forecourt and transfer the petrol into the plastic can. A pointless exercise really as I spilled even more petrol over the forecourt getting the petrol into the cans than I would have pumping straight into our tank. A very stupid policy that we were to face again in western China. Given the reported situation about lack of fuel only 12 kilometers away across the border there were many other people doing the same thing, although many of the 4x4s had over 100 liters of spare fuel in gerry cans and some the same in their tanks, enough for them to get all the way through Malawi.

As we were riding to the border with 20 liters of fuel in a dodgy container placed immediately above my hot exhaust pipes I was wondering whether I should have packed a small fire extinguisher. I was still pondering the risk of going up in flames when we reached the Malawi border and we were yet again confronted with the border mobs of ‘hanger ons’ and scamsters.

Crossing borders is the worst part of traveling and usually I am one of the worst kind of impatient tourist and business traveler. However, on this expedition I realized that we were at the mercy of the border officials and I successfully employed the charm offensive with every person we met and could get a gold medal in patience.

The problem with motorcycles as opposed to cars is that you can’t lock them up and leave them while you attend to everything, but this time I was not traveling solo and so Fanny usually guarded the bikes while I did the form filling and presented the carne de passage and passports to the various border stations. When I showed the immigration officials Fanny’s passport they would often demand to see her, quite rightly I guess, and I would shout at the top of my voice back to Fanny and she would run in, grin at the official and run back out again and carry on guarding the bikes. Most of the officials were OK with this as they understood the need to look after our things with all the scamsters and touts hanging about.

The bike checking process stated to get stricter and more thorough the further north we went and the process often required checking the engine and chassis numbers on the bike against the registration documents and the carne de passage. As each number was about 30 digits long and hidden deep inside the darkest recesses of the bikes this could take some time and I’ll admit on a couple of occasions the numbers were just made up as both the officials and I couldn’t be bothered to do a proper job.

I had already exchanged my Zambian Kwatcha for Malawi Kwatcha in Chipata and I was informed by immigration that my British Passport does not require a visa and since the bikes have Carne de Passages I din’t have to fill in any customs forms, nor pay any import taxes. Hurray!

I then handed over Fanny’s passport and was informed that she must go and be interviewed by the senior immigration officer and so we swapped bike guarding responsibilities and Fanny disappeared into an office. After about ten minutes I enquired what was happening and the official said Fanny was going back to Lusaka ( 700 kilometers away) to get a visa. I was speechless and Fanny was definitely looking very forlorn and not a little annoyed.

‘I thought you said you could get a Malawi visa at the border?’ I asked Fanny, but  looking pleadingly at the official.

‘She says only at the airport,’ Fanny replies pointing at the offending official who is looking decidedly unwavering in her decision to send the Chinese woman in front of her back to Zambia.

Twenty minutes later after even more negotiations we had a letter that informed Fanny she may pass into Malawi, but must go to immigration department in Lilongwe, the Capital of Malawi within 4 days and apply for a visa there.  What a result.  During that twenty minutes I had pleaded, charmed, showed pictures of my kids, showed pictures of me in police uniform, showed pictures of my friends in police uniform, agreed that the Chinese were imperial raiders of Africa and not to be trusted, and for my star performance noticed that the only document in the official’s in-tray was a bible and so I pleaded that I must get to Mass on Sunday and can’t possibly ride back all the way to Lusaka and miss yet another confession, otherwise Big J wont want me for a sunbeam any more. It seemed that riding a motorcycle with a Chinese woman across Africa was becoming a bigger challenge than I imagined.

Whether the squandering of Malawi’s foreign reserves by the President was true or not could not be established at that time, but the fuel shortage was definitely true. Lilongwe is only a hundred or so kilometers from the border but I knew we did not have enough fuel to get through Malawi and all the way to the Tanzanian border. Strangely, I was not too bothered. If you want to get stuck somewhere then Malawi is the place, to my mind one of the most laid back countries in Africa.

In Lilongwe we found a decent camp site called Mabuya (http://www.mabuyacamp.com/) and stayed there while we sorted out Fanny’s Malawi visa, found new headlight bulbs, ate Chinese food with over a hundred engineers from China who were building a new Carlsburg brewery and also waited at the Tanzanian High Commission for several hours, eating Chicken and Nshima (maze pap) while the largest woman I have ever seen processed our Tanzanian visas.

Head of Immigration at Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi.

A Malawian policeman and I in Lilongwe

A Malawian policeman and I in Lilongwe.

Having lunch in Lilongwe whilst waiting for visas to be processed.

Having lunch in Lilongwe whilst waiting for Fanny’s Malawi visas to be processed. This visa cost US$100, by far the most expensive visa in the whole of Africa. Mine was free. The Tanzanian visas for both British and Chinese passports were US$50 each.

A lot of Chinese in Lilongwe.. and so a few decent restaurants

A lot of Chinese in Lilongwe.. and so a few decent restaurants

Mabuya campsite in the heart of Lilongwe.

Whilst in Lilongwe we stayed at Mabuya campsite in the heart of the city.

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I took a sneaky picture of her bottom as she squeezed through the door, but the picture looked like a black cat in a coal shed so there is not much point posting it. Visa fees were US$50 for both Brits and Chinese. I noticed that Americans had to pay US$200 and Irish US$100. There were some countries exempt from paying a fee for a visa, but most were African. Strangely the list also included Singapore and Hong Kong, but my attempts to plead Hong Kong citizenship failed, despite having a permanent Hong Kong ID card. They said I needed a Hong Kong passport and I was clearly not Chinese. Crazy logic, I  thought,  and I was about to launch into my Sol Campbell is English speech when I realized it was pointless.  Fifty bucks, Pommie.

We got Fanny’s Malawi visa which was the most costly of all the visas she had to get in Africa at US$100, and also both of our Tanzanian visas in Lilongwe and then scoured every petrol station in the city for petrol. We were out of luck, there wasn’t any and so we pushed on through spectacular scenery to Silema on the southern shores of Lake Malawi. There wasn’t any fuel there either –  all four petrol stations were completely dry. There was, however, some black market petrol being sold by the side of the road in liter cans at three times the pump price and quite clearly of dubious quality and provenance, although allegedly from Mozambique.

According to each of the road side sellers their competitors had diluted their fuel with maize oil, water and even kerosene –not good for a KTM LC8 engine — and so we did not take the risk and continued northwards along the shores of Lake Malawi through African villages teeming with smiling and waving people in colourful clothes.There were loads of kids, but not many old people in this part of the world. High mortality from AIDS? Poor diet? Poverty?  Probably a  combination of all three.

After 150 kilometers I started looking for a place to stay as we would not be able to make the further 200 kilometers to Nkhata Bay where we were hoping to camp up and find fuel. My GPS shows several places to stay four to five kilometers off the main coastal road in the village of Nkhotakota and I randomly choose one called Nkhotakota Pottery and Lodge and as the sun set over the Malawian mountains to the west we rode into the Pottery that was to become our home for a week.

Our home ... by the shores of Lake Nyasa

Our home … by the shores of Lake Nyasa

Beautiful deserted beaches along the shoreline of the lake

Beautiful deserted beaches along the shoreline of the lake

Lots of log dugouts on the lake beaches

Lovely sunrises from the west

Lovely sunrises from the west

Often the beaches just to ourselves

Often the beaches just to ourselves

The Pottery is a super lodge and not only provides employment for the local people, but offers superb accommodation... not just camping, but pretty well appointed chalets right on the beach

The Pottery is a super lodge and not only provides employment for the local people, but offers superb accommodation… not just camping, but pretty well appointed chalets right on the beach

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The lodge was virtually deserted apart from a Land Rover and a Land Cruiser that were parked on some sand and attached to caravans even Jeremy Clarkson would approve of — off road safari explorer caravans with every conceivable attachment and convenience a person could want anywhere in the world.   We parked up on the beach and set up camp.  As we were doing so we met our fellow campers,  George and Alice in the Land Rover from Cape Town (www.macsinafrica.com) and Steve and Pauline in the Land Cruiser from Durban, who were also touring Africa for a year with their off road caravans.

As we got to know each other I shared my concerns about fuel. ‘No worries’, said George, ‘I carry 100 liters of fuel and can spare 20 liters if you want’.

YES I WANT.  Not being backward in coming forward I accepted the kind offer and our tanks and spirits were replenished, all worries allayed and we settled down with cold beers to watch the light fading over the lake.

As we shared stories by the camp fire, and stared out over the huge expanse of water, we saw a bright red globe rising from the lake to the east. Unless the universe had unraveled it must be the moon, and indeed it was, as red as I have ever seen it. Later, Fanny and I enjoyed a quiet dinner on the beach that consisted of the local fish, Chomba with Nshima pap, and washed down with Kuche Kuche, the local beer.

The beer and the fish were good, but I didn’t like the Nshima very muchNshima can be made from ground maize, but in Malawi it is mostly made from Cassava, which is a white  flour like substance that comes from the roots of a ubiquitous weed and tastes like a mixture of vomit and wall paper paste and has the nutritional value of a flip flop.

Despite its taste and poor food value, cassava is found all over Africa, especially in poor countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Malawi and forms the staple of most people’s diet. I made a note for file not to have it again if I can possibly help it. That night I fell asleep to the relaxing and peaceful sounds of waves gently breaking on the sandy shore and the trees swaying in the breeze, my favourite sounds.

Since we started this trip it was the first time we were not cold in the night. In fact, the temperature was pretty much perfect. As usual I woke up at the first break of light and later pulled back the tent awning and watched the sun rise above Lake Nyasa and the shadow of fishermen in their dugouts. Despite the odd and very vivid dreams one gets from the malaria medication we were taking I had the best night’s rest so far; the fuel crisis was over, for us at least; and I was together with my lovely Fanny in a stunningly beautiful part of the world.

We had faced more challenges than we expected in our first month and overcome them all. Both of our bikes were in good working order and Fanny was getting better and more confident at riding. I also had to take a mental pause and ask myself where are we going, and what are we doing this for? I am no longer in the rat race – I have escaped – for a year at least and we were where we want to be. No rush, life is good and so we decided to stay put and slowly make our way up the shoreline of Lake Nyana, relax and live life to the full in a stunningly beautiful part of the world.

A red moon rising over Lake Nyasa

A red moon rising over Lake Nyasa. Not the greatest picture and any night shots seriously pushed the limits of  our budget cameras, but a wonderful reminder of an amazing evening and a beautiful location.

Many of the people in Malawi are desperately poor .. I think having seen a lot of Africa this poverty doesn’t immediately appear as bad as it actually is because of the beautiful surroundings. However, its a tough life for many people.

The local people had nothing and many were desperately poor, but they were rich in dignity and charm.

Lots of vervet monkeys in the trees

The style and architecture used at some of these lakeside lodges is very special and makes the locations even more relaxing.

The architecture and design used at some of these lakeside lodges is simple, elegant and makes the locations even more relaxing.

Superb breakfasts on the beach. Awesome coffee throughout Africa.

Superb breakfasts on the beach. Awesome coffee throughout Africa.

Fanny joining in the dancing at a local wedding

Fanny joining in the dancing at a local wedding

I started running again ....

I started running again ….

A very typical bit of road in Malawi as we worked our way north along the shores on Lake Nyasa

A very typical bit of road in Malawi as we worked our way northwards along the shores on Lake Nyasa

Little friends

Little friends

Hiking along the beautiful shores

Hiking along the beautiful shores

Fanny and I did some huge hikes along the lakeshore.

Fanny and I did some huge hikes along the lakeshore.

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Usually when I am on holiday I am still at work, blackberry, cellphone and PC at the ready, responding to any hint of a new project from clients and engaging in the unrelenting task of managing a team of highly capable forensic accounting and technology specialists who want, and are clearly capable of doing my job themselves—one day. Usually a period of holiday is not enough to unwind and truly relax if you have a job like I had and many do.

Now the planning and hassles of the previous few months were behind us and we could take each day as it comes. This realization, and the fact that the President of Malawi had indeed been squandering all the national resources and funds and generally abusing his power caused us to stay longer in Malawi than we first intended. There was no fuel to go even if we wanted to.

At the popular Kande beach resort we heard that riots were occurring in Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu, the three main towns and that the police had shot dead 18 protesters.  Such violence, all too common in Africa, is virtually unheard of in relatively peaceful Malawi. While we were at Kande we met many Brits who came out to Africa many years ago and simply stayed. Timbo is one of these expatriates. He lived in a beautiful beach house that he constructed himself and is also a motorcycling enthusiast with a XT500, GS750 and Matchless 500 in his garage. Sadly when we were there none of them were in recognizable form although he insisted they were all work’s in progress.

Timbo told us over beers in the car how he met the Long Way Down team four years previously when they stayed in Malawi. Ewan and Charlie did OK, but allegedly Mrs McGregor kept falling off her BMW GS650 on the sandy track between the tarmac main road and  the resort. In fact, you can see her falling off many times at this exact spot on the Long Way Down DVD. In fairness, it isn’t easy and even experienced riders fumble and panic when it comes to riding on loose sand. Fanny, though, with just 6 months experience, and riding the fully laden orange beast managed it in one go, albeit with a bit of ungraceful sand paddling along the way. Jia You Fanny.

My ribs, which I fractured two months previously by coming off whilst racing and sliding on the big bike sand course in South Africa,  were nearly healed and so I started my running, and together with swimming in the lake each day I was getting fit again. In fact, Fanny and I would often go on long walks and during a 30 km walk through the local villages and beaches one day we found an idyllic spot where we were to camp up for the next five days, called Makuzi Lodge.

Website at: http://www.makuzibeachlodge.com/

There were lots of overlanders and young travelers at Kande Beach and because of the riots in the nearby towns the number in the lodge had  increased to bursting point, but at Makuzi we were by ourselves, camped on flat soft grass next to the beach with only monitor lizards and a troop of Vervet monkeys for company.

Funny monkeys

Funny monkeys

Local witch doctor selling medicinal herbs and muti

A local witch doctor selling medicinal herbs and muti by the side of the road. Some of the ingredients had an uncanny resemblance to Chinese traditional medicine.

the Durban guys and their bicycles on the way to Cairo

the Durban guys and their bicycles on the way to Cairo

Cyclist from Durban, South Africa who were riding to Cairo (which they did).

Cyclist from Durban, South Africa who were riding to Cairo (which they did).

Fellow round the world bikers and their BMWs who had ridden from Holland at Kande Beach

Fellow round the world bikers and their BMWs who had ridden from Holland at Kande Beach

In Malawi you a never far from Lake Nyana

In Malawi you a never far from Lake Nyana

The Dutch round the world guys at Kande

Enjoying life.

Beach to ourself

Beach to ourself

Makuzi Beach just for ourselves. We canoed to the island in the right of the picture where we swam with Cichlid fish

Gong Fu Beach Boyz

Makuzi Beach

Bikes parked on some grass right next to the beach. Each night we would sit by the fire until it died down and then sleep well to the sound of gentle waves.

Hiking about and exploring the villages

Hiking about and exploring the villages

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Unlike other parts of Malawi, Makuzi is hidden between two rocky hills and is very secluded.  Here the water was calmer and there was an island about two kilometers away where we often canoed out to and went snorkeling to see hundreds of different types of Cichlid fish, some only found in this lake. There were two pairs of Malawi Fish Eagles nested in their eerie near our tent and they gave a spectacle of gliding, pirouetting and fish catching everyday.

There were also Green Pigeons, Pied Kingfishers, Great Kingfishers, Cormorants, Wagtails, Sunbirds and  LBJs. The managers, Richard and Lauren owned a couple of Jack Russell dogs, one a small puppy that would unsuccessfully chase lizards and birds all day and then collapse.

It was truly a  paradise, as good as the best places I had been to in South East Asia and was our favourite place so far.  A far cry from the chaos and violence in the nearby Malawian cities where the normally placid people were protesting against their kleptomaniac despot leader. Unbeknownst to them at the time he wasn’t to last very long, and by the time we had ridden to Sudan he would be dead and the female vice President, Joyce Banda would take the helm and try and steer Malawi and its people to a better life.

The next day we decided to go on another hike. We walked along the sand tracks back to the main road and then headed north for a while. After an hour or so we cut back to the lake and then walked southwards along the beach back to Makuzi. Well, that was our plan and it all went wrong when we reached the lake and realized there was no beach to walk along as there was a swamp between us and our intended destination. We had no alternative than to hike along village paths, through four to five meter thick and prickly reeds and wade across small steams and ponds. Very soon we were wading in thick swamps and through dense and prickly vegetation.

I remember from my Explosive Ordinance Disposal days in the Royal Hong Kong Police  that we were introduced to a psychological concept called the “well of disaster”. It basically means that there is a human tendency to keep trying to make a bad plan work rather than  stop, reassess the situation and make a new plan.  It is the same concept that gets male drivers lost when they insist they will get back to a familiar route, rather than stop and ask someone the way or consult a map (a very common cause for a road trip argument). On this occasion I was convinced we would get back onto a track in the belief that the locals must use a short cut through the swamp rather than go all the way back to a bridge across a river some five or so kilometers away.

In no time at all both Fanny and I are lost. We were waist deep in sludge and scrambling through African shrubs and trees, all of them without exception possessing some kind of well evolved defence mechanism such as thorns, itchy seeds or poisonous leaves. As I was trying to get my bearings I heard a faint voice shouting at us. After wading into a bit of a clearing I saw several villagers up above us on a bank waving their arms.  I shouted back, ‘Are we on the right path?’

A elderly villager answered in good English, ‘Get out of there, it’s dangerous.’

Well, it did feel squidgy under foot and I thought back to the scary “sinking sand”  that always featured on TV shows from my childhood such as  ‘Tarzan’, and even on distant alien planets in ‘Lost in Space’ and so I suppose it has a special place of dread in my old memory.

I looked around at Fanny and she was covered in black gunge and was laughing. I jokingly shouted back, ‘Not crocodiles?’

‘Yes’ , he replied  ‘many’

‘Where?’ I shouted back.

‘Right where you are, and lots of snakes, too’…. ‘get out quick’

I was under the impression that snakes were hibernating at this time of year, which in retrospect begs the question, where are they hibernating?  Also, for some reason I thought that there we no crocodiles near the freshwater lake.

I don’t know about Fanny, but I was frozen on the spot, nervously scanning the surrounding swamp that had suddenly become very hostile and terrifying.   The old man gestured to a young girl who was instructed rather reluctantly to slide down the slope and rescue the daft Mzungo (we foreigners).  After a seemingly long and rather embarrassing rescue we were escorted along a firmer underwater path and out of the swamp to relative safety. As we did the walk of shame covered in black slime past the entire village I muttered to Fanny that I bet there weren’t really any snakes and crocodiles and almost immediately walked past a sign pinned to a tree that warned of exactly those dangers.

Campsite

Campsite

Fanny and I before we got lost taking a short cut through a snake and crocodile infested swamp.

Wading over some streams and into the swamp

The swamp.. looks nice doesn’t it

A typical hut in Malawi

A typical hut in Malawi

Fanny’s orange KTM riding north along the shores of Lake Nyana

Local fishermen

Gloriously technicoloured lizards

Our campsite at Makuzi

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As much as we would like to have stayed for longer, we needed to eventually press on and sadly packed up and rode further north to Nkharta Bay where we had originally planned to stay and where I had stayed four years previously and enjoyed an idyllic rest by the lake. I had mixed feelings when we arrived at Nkharta Bay as we found an extremely crowded and dirty town… and there was no fuel. Not how I remembered it at all. We definitely made the right decision to stay at quieter and smaller villages en route.

Despite the reports of recent violent riots we both agreed to move on to Mzuzu and northwards towards Tanzania. As we U-turned in the very busy market place we bumped into the three South African’s from Durban who were cycling to Cairo. We met them earlier whilst camped up at Kande Bay and they had been waiting for a delayed ferry for 12 hours by the docks to take them further up the lake and avoid Mzuzu and make up time. You have to admire and respect these mad cyclists who cross continents, but as we powered up the hill and into the mountains to Mzuzu I had to admit I’d rather be twisting the throttle than peddling the peddles.

Apprehensively, we arrived in Mzuzu and saw little of the results of the riots. It is a truly scruffy town at the best of times and so it was difficult to see what was vandalism and what was normal African urban decay. Luckily, despite reports to the contrary, we did find fuel and topped up our tanks and fuel cans and did not hang around. The Chinese and Indian businesses had been targeted by the rioters and I thought it was prudent to get my Chinese girl out, just in case.

We rode through some truly spectacular mountains and then descended down a very windy road towards the turn off for Livingstonia where we planned to stay up in the mountains overlooking the lake and kilometers of pristine beaches and mountain forests. As we turned off the main lakeside road onto the track the surface turned to rock, sharp stones, sand and boulders. It was rather technical and the rocky track wound itself up against itself with numerous hairpin turns continuously for fifteen kilometers to Livingstonia.

However, after about a kilometer I looked down the mountain and could see that Fanny had come off.  I waited for a while high up on a steep ledge but it appeared she had no intention to get back on her bike again. I’ll say this for Fanny though, she is an expert at picking up a fully laden adventure bike by herself.

I did not want to ride all the way down again and so  parked up my bike at a very precarious angle on a steep and rocky section of the track and in full motorcycle gear yomped back down to where Fanny was with her bike and she said, point of factly, ‘It’s too hard for me’.

‘No?’, I asked.

‘NO’.

I then had a mad brain wave to ride both bikes all the way the Livingstonia by leap frogging them all the way up the mountain, but after about two kilometers I realized this was a very stupid idea as the hardest bit would actually be riding down the hill rather than up it. Also the steep rocky track was shredding the tyres and we needed them to ride through Tanzania and Kenya to Nairobi. So after wasting an hour or so I carefully rode both bikes back down the steep track to the main road and we decided to carry on north and look for a campsite else where. I was disappointed to be so near and yet not be able to see Mushroom Farm in Livingstonia. Another time for sure.

So, we continued north to the border with Tanzania and I was a bit sad to see the last of Lake Nyana, but when we got to the border we only found squalid places to stay and so in the fading light I asked Fanny if we should 180 degrees and head back to the most northerly Lake Malawi camp site we passed some 50 kilometers away and she agreed and we raced back south again.

As we entered the camp site, which was on the beach, I saw the South African off road caravans again and we were welcomed by George, Alice, Steve and Paula who were camped up and we decided to spend our last night in Malawi together and get drunk. I do not remember much else except that the next day when we entered Tanzania I had a hangover of note. It was so bad that alcohol induced dehydration was not the only cause for my bad health, and later I was to find out why.

A guy with an amazing bicycle

A funny guy with a customized bicycle doing figures of eight on the road…just for our amusement

Hiking about in Malawi

A taste of the local firewater….it would be rude not to  …. woooow cough cough!!!

What a smile

Some of the people we met on one of our walkabouts

The locals showing me how to play a game invented in England

Some more little friendly friends

Some more little friendly friends

What a stunning location to have lunch

I am just messing around for the camera … the Tanzanian immigration guy was fine and just getting on with processing our papers.