Chapter 1 – How it all started … Africa 2007

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Much is said and written about men in their forties and fifties worrying about the ageing process and the uncertainties of what lies ahead. If you do reach a half century of existence on Planet Earth without experiencing body parts going wrong, stressful and unrewarding work, toxic relationships, money problems, hair loss and black dog days you have been very lucky indeed.

Most of us are not so lucky, and I for one can tick off a list of disappointments, regrets and failures. I have hit rock bottom and bounced back up more times than I care to remember, clearly evidenced by the number of times I have had to revisit IKEA to buy exactly the same “stuff” I had in the first place.

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 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 Sek O 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, and in particular 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, leave Hong Kong, 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, it was a highly successful strategy.

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 accountants and consultants I worked 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 Cape Town.

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 course hooliganing 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 (www.weaverarniston.net) 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 hiking tourists 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.

 

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My Yamaha YZF 1000cc R1 motorcycle outside the hut in Sek O

 

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My bolt hole in Arniston, on Southern Tip of Africa.

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Running everyday along the beaches near my home in Arniston, South Africa to get fit for the expedition

 

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My KTM in 2007 ….just after I bought it… in my garden in Arniston.

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My KTM 990 Adventure on the day I sold it in 2011….four years and several expeditions later…spotless.

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Clueless

 

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 guide book on Namibia; a paragliding compass and altimeter; an old Garmin GPS that only showed longitude and latitude readout (not particularly useful without a map); 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 own them all during the colonial years!

So nothing left than to get going. It really was that simple.

 

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View from my friend John’s flat where I lived while visiting Cape Town

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The Yellow Peril near my home in Arniston. Nothing to do with motorcycling, but a car that will live long in my memory and used to lug things between Arniston and Cape Town… beer mostly.

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Garden of the Weaver

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Southern Right Whale and calf just outside my house

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Arniston

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At home at the Weaver

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Joined by a local dog for a walk along the long stretches of deserted beaches around Arniston.

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Arniston Bay

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May and June is winter in South Africa … so a fire takes the chill off in the evenings

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This was about it. Traveling light and with paper maps.

 

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I would later ride through mountains with snow… not what you expect in South Africa

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A few trips on my new KTM between Arniston and Cape Town

 

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 one, 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 pissed, 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.

 

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Cederberg roads

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Cedarberg Roads – (pic a few years later)

 

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Bouncy bouncy at Cedarberg Oasis. An overlander truck and its occupants also enjoying a beautiful part of South Africa

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You can’t go wrong with beans and boerwurst

 

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I later got this tank bag and it was something I should have used on this first expedition. The map is the same though and I tucked it in the gap between the front of the seat and the tank. yep! … that was the extent of my navigation.

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Karoo

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Wuppenthal

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The Wuppenthal to Cederberg 4×4 Track I took… 6 years later on my RTW Adventure R

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RU swimming in the Orange River at border between South Africa and Namibia

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Camping at South Africa / Namibia border

 

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Orange River

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Master Chef

 

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.

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Now where?

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Long roads … no people

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On the Namibian side of Orange River

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Ahh!  Corrugations….judder judder.

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Fish River Canyon towards Ais Ais.

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A nice campsite in Ais Ais … with hot springs

 

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.

 

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Small baobab tree in Namib desert

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Canyon Lodge

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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 simmering in the distance ahead. As I drew closer I realized it was a man, and closer still, a European man. He looked strange and like a sort of street sleeper tramp you see 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.

‘Nay, I’m fine, mon’, came the reply in a thick Scottish accent.

Intrigued, I took off my helmet, looked around me from horizon to horizon and asked where he had come from.

What he said to me surprised me to my core. As I write this ten years later I remember the feeling of revelation it brought me. I have written before that I just bumped into a scruffy man in the middle of the desert who had been wandering about for a decade or so, but in actual fact he was a time tourist. He had come back in time from the future and was looking for desert elephants. On a time traveling safari!

I tried to get my head around it all as he was completely ill equipped to be where he was, and was literally in the middle of nowhere. I had been riding for hours in the Namib desert and there was absolutely nothing. And yet here he was. I guess time tourists are among us all the time with nothing to distinguish them from us, unless they come from the far distant future and their appearance has evolved into a seemingly different being.

I asked him if he was hungry. But, he said he was fine. Nonetheless, I fished around in my supplies and gave him some bread rolls with ham and cheese and a bottle of water. He took the rolls without any expression of obvious gratitude, but gave back the water saying I should keep it to stay hydrated. I was in somewhat of a state of shock and he was just fascinated by my motorcycle. I guess it would be a exhibit in a future museum, as indeed the Namib desert elephant must later become.

As the thoroughly bizarre encounter came to a sort if 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 thought about it for a bit, tried to work through some rational explanations, wondered what to do about this revelation, and decided not to say anything about it again. No one ever reads my blogs anyway. Still, it vindicates my belief that alien encounters are really just humans from today bumping into other humans from the future.  真奇怪

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 did a circular route out toward the canyon and by mid afternoon ended up at strange 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.

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, and staggered back into the bar, collapsed on their couch and fell asleep.

The next day I woke up 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 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. Its not that difficult as there are signs at every road intersection.

As the sun was setting I reached a rather scruffy town called Bethlehem and thought I should ride a little further away, find a quiet spot just off the 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 room 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 sheep. 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.

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 on rocks, probably laughing at me.

 

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Car park of canyon Lodge…2007

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KTM camping with the Schmidts

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Hiking about…

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Why the long face?

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Nothing is as glorious as an African sunset

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Dinner for one

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Those elephants are fast

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Map in pocket

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Quintessentially Namibia

 

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Sun on the left? Going north.

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I can see the road stretching and meandering into the far distance.

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On a lean in the Skeleton Coast

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Sussesvlei and dunes

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Left or right?

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Scenery like no other

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Not very polite

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Perhaps even less so!

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Classic Namibia… storm , lightening and rain in distance

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No Chinese, no McDonalds

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The Schmidt’s farm…. and Mrs Schmidt waving goodbye.

 

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.

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Quite a roll

 

Southern Namibia is made up of large European 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. 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 boerswurst.

As a famous tourist destination, it 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 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 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. Quite bizarre.

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 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 from Brussels, Washington DC 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 he accepted. There is a strong community spirit between adventure riders and I was very happy to help out.

The next day after a decent breakfast and a slice of the famous Solitaire apple pie I headed off 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.

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Vehicles can be seen miles away due to plume of dust

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Road to dunes

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Australian rider at Solitaire… having ridden across Asia and west coast of Africa on his old BMW R65. Respect!

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Camping at Solitaire… good Apple Pie

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Doogle up a tree

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Nice bit of tar road

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Dunes

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Yours truly at Dune 7 or 45 in Sussesvlei

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There to be climbed

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My bike down in the car park

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Walk along the ridge is the way to do it

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Dune beetle

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View from the top

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Back on the gravel

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Salt pans of the southern Skeleton Coast

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Bikes are not allowed in national parks  … wait until nobody is looking

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Seek forgiveness … not permission

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On the way to Palmwag and my encounter with Sebastian the Bull elephant

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Long Long roads in north Namibia

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Bit of bike maintenance

 

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 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 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 road.

The M34 just stopped. A 125 cc trials 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 kilometers 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” 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 my 20 kilograms of extra fuel I wouldn’t have made it.

I then rode along long stretches of 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 now had a long stretch of riding ahead of me north to the Kunene River at the border of Angola and then south 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? Perhaps not.

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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6WO5XabD-s

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, but I did see a lot of animals, both domestic and wild. Lots of springboks, ostriches, elephants, giraffes, impala, zebras, 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.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoba_meteorite

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, 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.

 

 

 

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The Hoba meteorite

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Some spiel about where it came from, how it was found and what its made of.

 

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Caprivi Strip

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After you, Sir, or Madam

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People I bumped into along Caprivi Strip collecting a green fruit

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Okavango Delta in Botswana

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Local huts… with fence around to keep livestock in… and hyenas and leopards out

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I rode over 900 kilometers on this day across the Kalahari desert… absolutely shattered

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A beer by the fire is all I could muster… out for the count

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Okavango, Botswana

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Zambia/Boswana border

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Elephants …and a lot of them

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Eagle

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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, 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 3G 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 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 the tent while I was fast asleep, and left their telltale footprints in the sand. I imagine many of these animals could detect my presence by 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 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 comfortable machine. It has a very powerful 1000 cc V-twin engine, and it 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 this kind of riding.

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 cyclist 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 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. To my mind, this is what the adventure travel community is all about.

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.

 

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Route

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Bumped into these cyclist who rode from Germany… here in the Caprivi Strip near Zambia

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Crossing the Zambezi River into Zambia

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Zambezi

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Victoria Falls

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Edge of Victoria Falls

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Bridge to Zimbabwe

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Lots of mist at Falls

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Victoria Falls at sunset

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My wonderful bike at Victoria Fall in Livingstone

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Wandering around a local market in Victoria Falls

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Agricultural display a fete I went to in Livingstone

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Two lady police officers who I hung around with for while… lovely girls

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My friend, Stephen in Livingstone

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Booze cruise on Zambezi

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Water Horse

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Not the time for a swim

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Drinking again.

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Elegant Zambian ladies

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Having a coffee in Livingstone

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Me writing my first blog … which was subsequently lost in 2009 with most of pictures and website when computer stolen in Windhoek. This blog 10 years ago is pieced together with pics found on facebook

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Vic fall rainbow

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They will steal your food, and anything else when you turn your back.

 

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.

 

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Local village in Zambia

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An alien spaceship concealed in a cloud … obviously

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Following my Uncle Mick in Lusaka

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Dinner at the Lusaka Club with Mick, my mother’s brother

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Mick’s home… the scene of the two bottles of scotch incident

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New tyres picked up from Lusaka airport and carried until I fitted them in Mozambique

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Charlie Boorman and Claudio

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Video below:

 

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Meeting a group of volunteers from Scotland

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On way to Chipata and mama rula campsite

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Cotton trucks on road to South Luangwa

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Not the greatest roads

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Zambia bush

 

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.

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This young elephant mock charged me… not a KTM fan

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A safari tent … too expensive for me

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Buffalo….African ones so much more aggressive than their Asian cousins

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My home up a tree

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Frequent visits by elephants, hippos and monkeys

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What can I say … girls love motorcycles

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Riding around Zambia …sans kit

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My neighbours

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A heron cadging a lift on a hippo

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View from my tent which was up a tree

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heck ….

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Riding into game park…

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A mating couple … more on their mind than eating me… fortunately

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Sandy trails in Luangwa

 

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Lots of animals … luckily they don’t like the bike or can’t catch me.

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Stripey horse

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Long neck deer

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Riding in Luangwa

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Local family living near river

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Girl who took my picture riding across river

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My cousin Nathan on my bike… he is Zambian and a wildlife film maker

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Nathan

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Hyena coming out at night

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Something is definitely looking at me … nice puddy puddy

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Leopard in the bush at night

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More elephants

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Nice puddy

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Wirly wind in the Chivimba village near South Luangwa

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Market in Chivimba, Zambia

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Shopping Mall

 

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 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. 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 without difficulty. I rode for many kilometres across a very remote and very cold plateau, passed by very basic cattle farms and farmers wearing thick blankets, though steep twisty roads and passes and towards the source of the Orange River. Eventually after after a couple of days I rode down the pass at Telle Bridge and revisited a pretty Afrikaner town called Lady Grey, a place I stayed a few years earlier.

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 three weeks back then, 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 arrived in Coffee Bay by early evening. Again I camped at a very nice backpackers, called the Coffee Shack that was pretty much as I remembered it.

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 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!

 

 

 

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North Zambia

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North Zambia as the sun was going down… must find a camping spot

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The view from my place at Lake Nyasa in Malawi

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Breakfast

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Local boys swimming outside my hut

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My home for a few days in Malawi

 

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A biking couple I met in Malawi… Riding Honda Bajas 250s from UK down west of Africa

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Honda 250 Baja near our tents in Malawi

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My friends having a go on a proper bike

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Monkey

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Malawian boys football league

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Ferry across Lake Nyasa

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Mango tree … Malawi

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Typical sandy roads

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The laundromat… Malawi/Mozambique

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Local boys visiting my tent

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Dug out canoes on Lake Nyasa, Malawi

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Lots of these blue tailed lizards in Malawi

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Schools out for summer

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Lots of baobab trees

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Cape McClear

 

 

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My friends at Cape McClear

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Two wheels good

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One of my favourite pictures… filling up fuel in Malawi. Bike looks huge next to the fuel attendant. Note map tucked between seat and tank. No GPS.

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Stalls in South Malawi

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Beach in Malawi

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Rhino near Tanzania/ Zambia border

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One of huts that I lived in …Mozambique

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Beach in Mozambique next to my hut

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Emergency helicopter (casevac) in Malawi

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Local Mozambique people butchering a baby whale that washed up on the beach

 

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One of my favourite pictures …. a typical stretch of sandy road in Mozambique

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Picture taken by me with underwater disposable camera while swimming with Whale sharks in Mozambique

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One of my temporary homes in Mozambique

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Going out diving with Devil rays and Whale sharks in Mozambique

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Camping inside a game reserve in Swaziland where I received a night time visit by a pack of hyenas… possibly most risky camp of the whole trip

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Having a Guinness in Durban, South Africa after long trip …. quite exhausted.

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Video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QFTmtSkc6fA&t=4s

 

 

 

Chapter 35 – Sri Lanka

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Sri Lanka –a tropical island off the south coast of Indian and famous for Ceylon tea, Tamil Tigers and Arthur C Clarke. A lot of people who have visited have been singing its praises, but what’s it like to explore on a motorcycle?

Picking the slightly out of season period of early July, Fanny and I flew on the surprisingly good value Sri Lankan Airlines from Hong Kong to Colombo, and then took a taxi from the airport to a colonial style house that Fanny had booked on the outskirts of the Capital.

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Srilanka

Our motorcycle route… mostly the south west, south and central highlands ….still a few places to visit in the future.

 

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Yasmine’s house on the outskirts of Colombo

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Yep… all to ourselves.

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My new friend … guarding the pool

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Sri Lankan breakfast

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Fanny and our lovely host, Yasmine

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Lush tropical gardens

 

OK…. so enough holiday snaps of Rupert and Fanny idling about and stuffing their faces … for now!

What about the motorcycles?

We searched online and found a place renting out scooters not too far from the airport and we arranged to hire two Honda XR 250 Bajas… an iconic bike and one I have seen being ridden very successfully in remote parts of Africa.

Austin Vince would no doubt approve because its a small 250cc Honda and I can see the logic for having such a bike for a long expedition. I think they look like classic adventure bikes, and I really like the two big headlights and gold wheel rims.

Honda XLR 250R Baja

The Honda XLR 250 Baja … our choice for the Sri Lanka trip

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The actual bikes we hired… the pictures not doing justice to what dogs they really were.

 

I hired a modern Honda XR 250 for a tour of Thailand a few years back and it was in good condition, well looked after, and everything worked. I really liked it.

These bikes were not in good condition, but they were reasonably cheap at US$21 per day. I was assured they were road worthy, although it was obvious that if you actually owned either of them you would have to spend hours in the garage with a full list of repairs and maintenance to do.

Fanny’s bike was slightly lower in the seat than mine, in slightly better condition, but the handlebars had slipped in the triple clamps and were a few degrees out which is something I find incredibly irritating.

Fanny on the other hand didn’t seem to mind…. after all she had ridden across the whole of Africa on a KTM 990 Adventure that had “out of true” handle bars after she crashed her motorcycle spectacularly in the remote deserts of Namibia.

To start the the Baja required a contortionist effort to pull up a broken toggle above the carburetor and engage the “choke”. The bike simply would not start without doing so. With practice I got used to this, but it meant I started the day rolling around on the floor and getting my hands covered in oil and grime. Not a big deal, but annoying nonetheless.

After a good nights rest we took a tut tut scooter taxi from Yasmine’s house all the way up to Negombo in the north where the bike shop was located. It was further than we thought and took a couple of hours, but it did give us a chance to look around and alerted us to the atrocious traffic conditions in and around Colombo, and indeed across Sri Lanka.

 

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I smashed the opaque yellow plastic obscuring the digital display… so I could see the speedo and odometer. It didn’t seem to distract from the overall run down look of the bike. The black bungee held my iPhone in place so I could follow the GPS. It worked “OK”

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Fanny collecting her bike from the shop.

 

We were told by the owner of the shop that we must both get Sri Lankan driving permits and that could take a few days.

Oh?

Or….. we could risk it and deal with the police as and when?

OK, we’ll do that.

We wanted to get on and I was confident I could handle the local rozzers, who seemed to be nice British Colonial types, like I used to be. How hard could it be?

I handed over a deposit and Fanny paid for for 13 days bike hire and we got going along a back lane route I set around the outskirts of Colombo back to Yasmine’s house on the east of the city, in a vain attempt to avoid the heavy traffic.

I was a bit nervous that Fanny had not been riding much over the last year or so, but she quickly got back into it and we both navigated and weaved through the appallingly bad traffic with no problems at all. In fact, the Honda Baja seemed perfect for Fanny.  I had to remind myself that this is a woman who has ridden around the world on every surface and in every condition Planet Earth has to offer.  Fanny is perfectly fine.

I had downloaded an iPhone App called “Sygic” and also the maps for Sri Lanka. This meant that unlike Google or Baidu Maps we could navigate without having to be online. Much like digital cameras put Kodak out of business, these new GPS apps are a free alternative to a Garmin or Tom Tom GPS.

I also bought a Sri Lankan 4G Sim card with internet access for 2 weeks at next to nothing and despite my reservations that there must be a catch, it worked perfectly for the whole trip and the signal coverage was pretty good. I was able to use the online maps as well and tether my phone to Fanny’s iPhone so she had internet access the whole time as well. Isn’t technology great?

The only issue was that the bracket I bought in China to hold the iPhone onto the handlebars?  It was still on the kitchen table in Hong Kong!

Like many occasions on our motorcycle adventures we came up with a work around and I used some bungees and strapped the iPhone onto the dash over the instrument panel that I couldn’t see anyway because the plastic was now opaque yellow.

Fortunately there was a USB power socket that I could power up the iPhone battery … otherwise it would only last a few hours with the bluetooth or GPS activated.  I did have to turn off the headlights as the electrics and battery were a bit dodgy.

Normally you cannot turn off motorcycle headlights, as its a safety feature, but we were in Asia and safety comes second to practicality and so the owners had fitted an on/off switch to save power.

Anyway, bikes and navigation sorted, ready to go.

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Fanny is a really good bike rider and the Honda 250 was perfect for her.

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Blue helmet, blue tinted glasses and headlights on full beam to “try” and scare the locals … all good.

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My Honda Baja had a particularly uncomfortable seat so I bought a seat cover!  A toilet seat cover to be accurate.  Nice.

 

During the trip I carried all the luggage and used my Givi water proof panniers that I had bought in the UK,  and our waterproof North Face day sacks. We were traveling light… just how we like it.  I think we could have gone even lighter, although not much. We wore our light weight motorcycle jackets for protection from sun and because they have a bit of armour inside. Perfect.

After about 50 kilometers in the saddle I came to the indisputable conclusion that my bike had the most uncomfortable seat I have ever sat on. Where was my black sheep skin cover when I needed it? Ah yes….on the kitchen table in Hong Kong with the iPhone bracket. Ta Ma De !

So, I made an emergency purchase (30 UK pence) of a rather lovely toilet seat cover, that whilst not being anywhere near as comfortable as a sheep skin, was Ho Gwoh Mo (better than nothing).

It did mean we had to stop quite often so I could get off the bike and walk about, or stand on the foot pegs for the blood to start flowing into my aging numb bum. Also, it was very hot and quite humid so we needed to stop and take a drink. I have learned from past experience that dehydration creeps up on you quickly on biking expeditions and so water discipline is vital, even if you are not thirsty.

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Bikes parked outside our room at Yasmine’s place in Colombo

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All ready to go …..but first more tea …. my passport says I’m British and it is Ceylon after all!

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Off we go…. a nice anti clockwise trip around southern Sri Lanka

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Not something you see everyday

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And coming to a grinding stop …. less than 50 kilometers into the trip to get carburetor jets cleaned by side of road. And a piece of wood wedged in to stop the plastic panniers melting on the exhaust. See we have done this before!!

 

 

The route out of Colombo and onto the coastal road to Galle, about 170 kilometers away, was like many we had done in third world cities where the locals drive badly and the police don’t care.

Slow and steady wins the race, keep away from nutters, animals and moving lumps of metal, and shout a lot. The shouting is actually pointless, but makes me feel better. Even fanny does it now in various languages.

Our host Yasmine had warned us that the driving could be interesting, and that the arch deacons of terrible driving were the buses.  My goodness, how right she was.

There were two types of bus… a blue one with a man hanging out the door waving his arms and shouting a lot, and a silver one with lots of chrome and lights … but without a man hanging out the door.

They are both awful, but the blue bus particularly so.

I don’t know what the Sinhalese or Tamil is for, ‘get out the friggin’ way… we’re coming through’, but I guess that was what the “hanging out man” was employed to scream at everyone as the bus continually cut everyone up.

It was difficult to get really road raged at Sri Lankan drivers whatever road genocide they seemed to be up to because they were so damned friendly and smiled all the time.

There was quite a lot of Indian style wobbly head, arms waving, and shouting things like ‘What for you kicking my dog calling him fuck off‘ … but in a very friendly and smiley way that immediately dampened any annoyance and made me laugh…even as they attempted to impale us on their front bumpers.

For Fanny?  Nothing unusual… just like a normal day riding in Shanghai. I think she was enjoying it!

About half way down the coastal road my bike stopped and I could see petrol pouring out of the carburetor and dripping straight onto the red hot engine. Holy shit?

After standing well back, scratching my chin and thinking aloud, ‘that’s not good’ over and over again a crowd gathered. After a general consultation with most of Sri Lanka in several languages I didn’t understand, it was opined that the jets were blocked.

We were told that for about 500 Sri Lankan Rupees (a quid or so) any street side mechanic, of which there seemed to be many, could fix it …and that’s what happened. Bike sorted…off we go again.

My bike was not a good specimen of motorcycle. It was 1990s purply blue in colour with those daft graphics they used in those days, and everything was in poor condition. The clutch, the brakes, the engine, the suspension, the bearings, the tyres, every cable, the bodywork, the pegs, the levers, controls, hand grips, ….. everything. I had to keep saying to myself, ‘its still going and its not mine’,  ‘its still going and in 10, 9, 8, etc… days I will never see it again’.

Fanny on the other hand seemed to really like her bike with its non perpendicular handlebars and bent levers.  ‘How’s your bike?’, I would ask her all the time.

‘Fine’, came back the answer every time.

As far as Fanny is concerned, she rarely gets upset by anything… all part of life’s rich tapestry is her mantra. If it goes… all is fine.

I did, however, have to rescue her a few times at traffic intersections when her bike stalled and she couldn’t get it started again.  These Hondas will only start in neutral, not as KTMs and most other bikes will do with the clutch engaged in any gear. The gears were so clunky and stiff to click up and down, and with no green neutral indicator working, it required some serious manual labour and bikers tradecraft to locate neutral and get going again.

The Baja engine is a single piston 250cc, has a simple carburetor,  the frame is quite big in size, and to be honest more than fast enough for everywhere we went to in Sri Lanka. Its just they were both in such a shabby state that I thought mine was going to break down all the time. It also sounded awful…just like a motorcycle about to break down… but it didn’t.

One of the reasons for the noise was that the drive chains were bone dry and hadn’t been oiled, ever.

We were explicitly told not to oil the chains, the reason given that they had ‘O’ rings that would get damaged by oil.  Of course, this was nonsense.

I was unable to tune out the dreadful noise my bike was making as its crunched, screeched  and scraped along and so as soon as I could I put both the bikes and ourselves out of our misery and doused both chains in oil.  Lots of it.

Better.

 

 

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I don’t think elephants or human females should have to wear body covers and masks.  A very bling burka nonetheless.

 

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Sri Lanka … a colourful surprise around every corner

 

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Demonstration ….  “Elephant lives matter”.

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A bit of gravel

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A quid to fix the carburetor and clean the jets

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The Baja is a great bike. Good engine. Some strange quirks, though. For instance the engine oil is poured into a filler in the bike frame near the handle bars… never seen that before.

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Arriving in the Old Fort at Galle on southern coast.

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Street dancing procession… very lively, colourful and loud!

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One of many temples we saw here and there.

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Fanny and her silver XR Baja

 

 

We arrived in Galle by late afternoon and rode around looking at the ancient walled fort, built by the Dutch many centuries ago.

When we got there it was packed with tourists, many from China who were doing the things Chinese seem to do everywhere. Posing for photographs in borrowed traditional clothing, doing ‘V’ signs (??) and repeatedly jumping in the air to get that “joyous jumping in the air” picture to put on Weibo (Chinese Facebook). One person does it… they all do it.

We thought of booking a place in Galle, but the few rooms we saw were a bit grim and expensive and so Fanny found a really nice hotel about 10 kilometers out of town that had a seafood restaurant serving the Sri Lankan specialty of chili mangrove crabs.

A very very happy Fanny indeed.

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Lots of churches

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Galle lighthouse

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Pretty streets and historic buildings in old Galle

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Exploring the walled fort

 

After Galle we headed along the south coast road to Dickwella. Not the greatest name I have ever heard for a place, but as it turned out it was a small coastal town with a beautiful beach in a secluded horseshoe bay. Fanny again did her research magic and booked us into a boutique hotel called “Salt”.

Here we idled about, swam in the sea, read books, Fanny had some body massages, we ambled about on the beach and along trails, ate every hour, and drank continuously.

The rooms at Salt were very tastefully designed with open to the elements bathrooms and semi open bedrooms, in the sense they only had three walls. Quite a few mosquitoes so the fan and mosquito net was really needed.  Sort of luxury camping.

On the top floor was an open plan lounge/bar that served very tasty meals and drinks by very attentive and friendly staff. Simple and stylish. Web link below.

http://www.salthousesrilanka.net/

I am not much of a beach person, nor is Fanny, but we can say this is one of the best beach locations we have ever been to and we will definitely go back for a short break in the future, provided that the commercial developers don’t ruin it.

We discovered the Indian 傻逼 who got me fired from my job in Hong Kong a decade or so ago was building a resort in Dickwella to add to his collection of Monopoly board hotels around the World. Would I like to send him a message, Fanny asked me?  No I friggin’ wouldn’t.

 

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Dickwella…. Horseshoe Bay

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Fanny starts her transition from a light skinned person to a very dark person within 48 hours. I on the other hand went from light pink with red spots to dark pink with red patches.

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For some bizarre reason … the dogs found me and followed me around for the whole stay. To Fanny’s amazement this always happens where ever we go…from China to Asia to Africa.  I had a pack of pugs follow me for 3 days across Sichuan and Yunnan once. Pugs!

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Warm sea, blue skies, the sound of breeze in palm trees, a book, a hammock, shade and beer….  Idling 101.

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Tea, fresh local fruit and buffalo curd… nice

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Breakfast looking at us

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A particularly gormless expression … That’s me .. not the dog.

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Ms Fang enjoying herself

 

 

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Yes… I have barely moved

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Like Thailand 30 years ago

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Tea anyone?

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We ran into a 3 meter snake on the road. I was jumping around  and screaming like a 3 year old girl as it slithered over my flipflops. The snake didn’t seem to care.

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Time to get going again after a relaxing beachy thing and head to Yala…. a large National Park in the south of Sri Lanka

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More elephants…

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South Coast

 

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‘That will be two bananas for guarding the bikes’

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Hello

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Wild coastline near Yala… reminds me of Overberg in South Africa where we have a house

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The pool at our place in Yala

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Going for a drive in Yala Nature Reserve… lots of elephants and a few leopards

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Even on the beach

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Packed his truck for the seaside

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Huts we lived in on beach near Yala

 

 

 

On the way to Yala National Park we ran into a police road block. As we approached a police officer noticed us and he raised his arm, and so thinking on my feet, or my numb bum more accurately, I employed Rupert’s police avoidance technique and waved enthusiastically back at him and smiled inanely.

As we passed the rather astounded and clearly flustered officer I allowed Fanny to pull up along side me and instructed her, ‘Don’t stop’ and we sped up somewhat as I plotted an escape along less obvious roads to Yala.  I never pay bribes.

We found a pretty swanky apartment right on the beach next to the main gate of the national park, again found by Fanny using online accommodation apps like Expedia and Air BnB. Always much cheaper to book online and you can check the reviews.

I did some investigation near the entrance of the game park and found some local boys who would give us a safari tour in a game viewer at a fraction of the cost being offered by the hotel.

Having been to Kafue, South Luangwa,  Chobe, Okavango Delta, Masai Mara, Etoshe, Kruger, Serengeti, Lake Charla, Ngorogoro Crater, Kilimajaro, etc… we were prepared to be a bit underwhelmed, but to our delight the park was really good.

Yala is mainly famous for leopards and Asian elephants. Alas,  we didn’t get close enough to see any leopards, but there were lots of elephants that for some reason in my mind I thought would be more even tempered than their African cousins.

Much to my absolute delight, and I have to say one of the funniest things I have ever seen, we spotted an elephant ambling along on a beautiful beach. This was too much of a photo opportunity to miss and a bus load of Fujian and Zhejiang peasants (Fanny assured me they were from their appearance and accents) rushed up to the elephant and started snapping away and making a lot of noise.

The elephant clearly took exception to these ivory and rhino horn smuggling 傻逼 and let out a roar that would put its African cousins to shame. It then started chasing after the Chinese whose little legs couldn’t move quick enough in the sand.

Cameras and selfie sticks went flying as they ran away in panic to their bus. The local tour guides rushed into action to shoo the elephant away as I was wiping tears from my eyes. This is too good. I couldn’t help myself as I told one group of thuggish looking Fujian “xiang ba lao” dog eaters that it was karma for all the environmental plunder and ivory smuggling they inflicted on the planet.

They looked absolutely crest-fallen…. not least for being laughed at by a Chinese speaking European.

Brilliant…

The safari got even better as the sun started to fade and we saw other animals emerge from the bush and many beautiful indigenous birds. What could be better…. Chinese being chased by elephants and seeing a beautiful green Sri Lankan Bee-eater swooping the skies catching,  bees, I guess.

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Yala beach house

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Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis) , perched on twig in forest, Yala West National Park, Sri Lanka

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Visit by a monitor lizard while we were having lunch

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oink oink

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Bit of lunch and time to move on to the mountains

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One of many waterfalls we see as we climb up to over 2000 meters into the central mountains

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Stopping off for coffee in a place called Ella in the hills. It was full of the hippy traveling types that you always encounter in certain parts of Asia. Lots of banana pancakes, lardy pretend effnic food, body piercings, tattoos, Bob Marley on the stereo and more baggy bright hippy uniforms than you can shake a stick at. Not my cup of tea.  Nor fanny’s … so we move on!

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Funny Fanny

 

 

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Not a bad view …Ramboda

 

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View from our hotel room window in Ramboda

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Looks like the Lake District in England.. or Wales perhaps. It is raining after all.

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Long hike up the hill in the rain to the Mackwood tea plantations

 

 

The ride from the hot sunny south coast of Sri Lanka to the cool misty mountainous interior couldn’t have been more dramatic. Within a few hours we rode up nearly 3000 meters, and the temperature dropped from 35 degrees to about 14 degrees….and it started raining. All in 200 kilometers. Some of the time in thick cloud as we rode up and down the twisty roads surrounded by lush green tea plantations.

We stayed at a hotel in Ramboda perched on the hillside with spectacular views of waterfalls and valleys.

The food in the hotel was the usual tourist buffet fodder and so we explored the local villages and ate authentic local dhal, roti, pol sambol, rice noodles, veggies and curries. As usual we had to persuade the waiters and shop owners that we wanted the real deal, not the tourist slop. ‘Are you sure?’, they would always ask. ‘Absolutely… don’t spare the chili and spice and leave the heads on’.

One of our greatest joys traveling around the world is eating local authentic food and its one of the reasons I would struggle living back in Blighty again. I know I always make a fuss about western food being so bad, but with rare exceptions it usually is. The vast majority of my countrymen treat mealtimes like some unpleasant chore and feel guilty for being hungry. They make one concession to healthy eating… the salad.

By contrast, eating in Asia is a joyous occasion and Asians treat food very seriously. With the exception of the Philippines (yes, you know its true), food across the whole of the Asia Pacific is exciting and delicious. I have tried to educate my western friends and relatives about the merits of authentic Asian cuisine but they usually respond with exaggerated theatrics, glaring accusingly at their huang hua yu and yelling, ‘Its looking at me’, or  ‘I ate a chili –I can’t breathe’.

This all said, I would like to point out to my sister Amanda, and her daughter Sally, that my disdain for western food does not apply to cake…. or pudding.  Heaven forbid.

We explored the local tea plantations and at one place called Mackwood we saw how the tea was made and sampled a few cups of rosie leaf, with chocolate cake. There was a flow diagram on the wall of the factory that explained the eight stages of tea production and I am almost sure its the same chart Ms Hingorani, my school teacher at the Holy Rosary Primary School, used in a lesson about tea manufacture some 45 years ago. Maybe there are somethings that never need to change.

We had taken a tut tut scooter taxi up the mountain as it was a fair hike and raining hard, but on the way back we decided to spend the whole afternoon hiking 15 kms back to the hotel through the tea plantations and alongside the waterfalls. Very interesting.

The following day we decided to ride to Kandy in the center of Sri Lanka and have a look  at the temples and Buddhist relics and then ride along the country lanes back to Colombo. Our advise to anyone wanting to do a motorcycle ride in Sri Lanka, or anywhere else for that matter, is to set the route to all the “B” roads or less. This can be done on some GPS navigation programs in the route menu, but its better to plan the route ahead by setting way-points to avoid congested and hectic main roads. You see more and its much more enjoyable.

The bikes were still ticking along OK, although no more comfortable, but they had done the job and so far nothing had crashed into us, despite a few close shaves.  As we took a break I asked Fanny what she wanted to do for the next few days. She said she wanted to return the bikes and go back to Yasmine’s house and relax.

Wow… just what I wanted to do too.

We telephoned Yasmine and she had a couple from Canada in the guest house we had stayed in previously, but she said we could stay in a spare room in the main house…a beautiful room like the rest of her house. Very stylish and tasteful.

The bike shop we hired the Hondas from were less than accommodating and said, ‘a contract is a contract’,  and they would not return the balance of the rental. Really?  Yes, really.  After so many years I should have realized what these types are like. Always friendly when taking your money… not so much if you ask for it back.  Suan le ba?

So, the rest of the few days we had in Sri Lanka we relaxed in the peaceful gardens of Yasmine’s home and explored around Colombo, eating chili crabs and mooching around the shops and back streets.

Sri Lanka is a great place. Very friendly people, some absolute gems of places to see, tropical sunny weather, lots of elephants, cheap and excellent food.

Would we do it on a motorbike again? Perhaps not. But thanks to the British Empire and its talented Victorian engineers if we ever came back to Sri Lanka we will get around like the locals…..  by train.

 

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Nice view from the bog.

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Goodbye Bajas… you made it…just

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My riding partner

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Back at Yasmines with Kumari, our excellent chef. Thanks Kumari.

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Oh go on… another meal!

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Bit of warm rain from the monsoon that was affecting the west of Sri Lanka and India

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I have no idea what Fanny is doing. Sitting on a throne?

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Exploring Colombo

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Buying tea

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Colombo … will not look the same in 5 years for sure.

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Wandering around Colombo

 

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Sundowner in the sky lounge of a hotel in Colombo

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Our last sunset in Sri Lanka … for now

 

 

 

Next Chapter ….. Colorado and Utah BDR on a Honda Africa Twin

 

 

 

 

Chapter 30 – Thailand

After our marathon big bike trip Fanny and I did a few “mini” motorcycling adventures in the Mekong Valley and around the Indo-China region.

First, Thailand, a superb country to motorcycle around and very much geared up for both the adventurous or idling tourist.

First, I managed to escape from Hong Kong and catch a cheap “Air Asia” flight to Bangkok where I hired a Kawasaki Versys 650 to tour around the country for a couple of weeks.

My intention was to ride up to Chang Mai and ride around the Mao Hong Son Loop or perhaps further north and ride the Golden Triangle loop, but I realized I made a mistake by flying to Bangkok (which I did because it was cheap) instead of flying directly to Chang Mai and so I changed my plan and decided to ride around the south of Thailand and do some island hopping.

Later in the year Fanny and I flew to Chiang Mai and hired a Suzuki VStrom 650 and rode the 600+ kilometers around the Mao Hong Son Loop which I have to say is one of most enjoyable rides I have done.  Not technical apart from lots of switch back turns, but great fun and wonderful views.

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Koh Tao, Thailand

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Fellow riders

Thai biking kit ... better than most riders for sure.

Thai biking kit … better than most riders for sure.

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Meeting fellow riders

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Unlike their African cousins, these Asian elephants didn’t try to charge us as soon as they saw or heard our motorcycles.

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Riding a Suzuki VStrom around Chiang Mai Loop

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Mae Hong Son Loop …. Highly recommended

Swapping the V-Strom for a Zoomer scooter

Riding a very decent Honda Zoomer scooter around Chinag Mai… why not?

Our hotel for a night or two in Chiang Mai.

Our hotel for a night or two in Chiang Mai. Not bad at all.

The bike .. near end of trip

The Suzuki .. stopping off for another explore around

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The Thais always seem to do things with some style and charm….. unlike their modern Chinese neighbours, most of whom are complete strangers to the concept of style and good taste… and rubbish bins.

On the road .. Suzuki V-Strom 650

On the road .. our Suzuki V-Strom 650… a very good two up tourer for Thailand

The long neck village....

The long neck village…. these wooden ones were the only ones we saw…

A water snake ... the resort was riddles with them. Apparently harmless

A water snake … Apparently harmless

Bueng Pai Farm, Pae, Thailand

Bueng Pai Farm, Pae, Thailand…. thoroughly recommended.

Beautiful places to stay all along the loop.... very enjoyable and relaxing ride. Mae Hong Son loop is excellent

Beautiful places to stay all along the loop…. very enjoyable and relaxing ride. Mae Hong Son loop is excellent

Empty resorts due to Thai military coup... this one very up market and surprisingly cheap.  Bit odd being there on our own with 30 odd staff.

Empty resorts due to Thai military coup… this one very up market and surprisingly cheap. Bit odd being there on our own with 30 odd staff.

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On my solo trip of southern Thailand I wanted to catch up with an old buddy from my Metropolitan police days, PC 673X  (if I remember his number correctly) who had retired to Pattaya with his Thai wife.  “Blackie” and I used to crew the X-ray 2 area car back in the early 80s and respond to 999 calls which meant Blackie hurling a “jam sandwich” SD1 Rover at break neck speed through the streets of Ealing and West London and me hanging on to a doner kebab in one hand and gripping the police radio in the other as I gave a running commentary… or tried to.

In those days we chased the car thieves and robbers until we either caught them or they wrapped their stolen vehicle around a lamp post.  No match for Met police class 1 advanced drivers like Mr. Black in hot pursuit. Back in the 80s Londoners were quite alert to the occasional area car driving at 100 mph along the pavement with “twos and blues” blaring.

I am not sure if British police are allowed to chase robbers and car thieves anymore. It’s probably against their human rights. I expect nowadays with the gormless internet generation permanently bent over and absorbed in texting on their iPhones as they shuffle along that such a car chase down Ealing Broadway would be akin to 10 pin bowling.

And health and safety?  It hadn’t been invented yet.  In those days only lolly pop ladies and Gary Glitter wore hi viz clothing, Benny Hill was on the telly and Maggie was in charge.  Suffice to say, with all these “look back” inquiries into the antics of pretty much everyone back in the 80s I am going to leave it at that.

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PC 929X Utley with X-ray 2 Area Car early 80s.

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An Area car on the hoof during the 80s. Exciting stuff

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Evolution …. its all downhill from here.

A Kai Tak Convention picture of Pattaya.

Pattaya…. looks nice from a distance.

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A little bit over the top….. where are all the temples?

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That’s better ……Koh Chang Island on the Kawasaki Versys 650

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Bangkok Bike Rentals …. Good bikes

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New 2015 Kawasaki Versys with improved headlight cowling.

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The old Kawasaki Versys, like the one I hired.

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I had been to Phuket many times back in the late 80s when it was actually quite nice, but never to Pattaya. I’ve got nothing against hookers, disco bars, or middle aged men (I is one after all), but its just not my cup of tea or coffee or anything really. There are so many beautiful places to go in Thailand and the rest of South East Asia, so why would you go?

Anyway, I collected the Kawasaki Versys 650 from Bangkok Bike Hire and aimed it in a sort of southerly direction which isn’t that easy in the heart of the bustling and chaotic metropolis of Bangkok.

I was immediately surprised at how quick, agile and comfortable the Versys was. Not bad at all.  I had been given the 2013 version that has a twin cylinder 650cc engine and ABS, but strangely adorned with an ugly cyclops headlight arrangement protruding from the cowling that in my humble opinion spoiled the look of a very capable bike.  I guess due to this negative feedback from many other people the new 2015 model has been restyled and has a vastly improved cowling in keeping with current Kawasaki styling, including an adjustable touring windscreen.

Like many cities in Asia, riding a motorcycle in Bangkok is just as treacherous, if not the most,  and you need to be very cautious and very alert to the other fools on the road, of which there are many. Apparently, like in China, motorcycles are not allowed on the highways, but unlike China its difficult to know what’s a highway and what isn’t.

The signs to get out of Bangkok, or go anywhere else were truly awful and the road construction, diversions and elevated flyovers meant you couldn’t be sure where you are and so it was very easy to get funneled into the wrong lane and into one of the frequent police road blocks manned by Thailand’s finest.

Like much of South East Asia, it is very fair to say that the police are completely useless, AND extremely corrupt. I got stopped fifteen times on this particular ride for nothing more than being on a motorcycle, nearly all around Bangkok and given the shake down for a bribe. But as always I stood my ground and in the end they just let me go. I have never paid a bribe in my life and have zero respect for anyone who does.

It took a couple of hours to get into Pattaya, which after escaping the sprawl of urban Bangkok and having to ride under the elevated highway on uneven roads for a large part of the way was actually pretty easy, if not a tad boring.  Nothing much to see along the way, commercial sprawl and by no means a pretty bit of Thailand.

Pattaya is a huge sleazy party town on the coast just south of Bangkok and the first thing I noticed when I arrived were thousands of thuggish looking Russians with their glum looking “Katie Price” girlfriends milling about looking predatory and loutish.

As Fanny and I saw all too often in Egypt these new upwardly mobile Russians all appeared joyless, unfriendly and damned right depressing. There were also thousands of middle aged and repulsive looking European men sitting in bars, or waddling hand in hand with girls a third their age.  I presume they weren’t walking them to school!  And then there were, more surprisingly, regular family groups who for some reason or another had decided to go to Pattaya on holiday.  Why?  Who knows?  With the possible exception of Gaza, Luton and the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, its got to be the most inappropriate place on earth to bring your children on holiday. But each to their own.

There were streets and streets full of neon lit massage parlours, go go bars, hotels of various descriptions, “Old China Hand” style English pubs, small trucks blaring out adverts for Thai boxing events, and miles and miles of street stalls selling colourful summer clothes and tourist crap made in China.  Oh, and there are some beaches and sea…which are quite nice in a “here we go, here we go, Torremolinos”  “Watney’s Red Barrel” sort of way. I guess if you live next to beach like I do in Arniston is South Africa all other beaches are a bit of a disappointment…. with the exception of Felpham in Sussex…

I met my friend Blackie in one of the many coffee shops along the sea front and he looked almost the same as he did in the 80s, except for being a lot more tanned. I followed him on his Honda moped back to a residential part of Pattaya where he lived with his missus. After using me as an excuse to go out, we did some sight seeing that involved copious amounts of Chang beer, and types of beer,  blurry neon lights, ping pong balls and balancing on the back of his scooter shitfaced. As with many of my activities with Mr Black over the last three decades the “Kai Tak Convention” prohibits saying any more.

Traffic madness in Bangkok

Traffic madness in Bangkok

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Oh dear!

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After an early start the next day, a Thai noodle and egg breakfast and a very detailed briefing on where to go and what to see from my friend I headed off to Koh Chang.  Mr Black is also a biker, extremely well traveled, has ridden across India and Nepal on a Royal Enfield Bullet, and his recommendations and observations were spot on and very useful.

Unimaginatively, and perhaps a little confusing, Thailand has two “Koh Changs. One is off the west coast and one near the border with Cambodia. I went to the latter which involved a two hour bike ride and an hours ferry ride from the coastal town of Trat to the island.

http://wikitravel.org/en/Ko_Chang

I highly recommend Koh Chang. Of the four islands I hopped across it is perhaps my favourite. After exploring the island’s tracks and trails on the very capable Kawasaki Versys I found an idyllic spot on the less developed north east side of the island next to a perfect beach.

It was much like the best places I have stayed in South East Asia. No electricity, a very simple thatched beach huts with a little veranda on stilts, a simple bed covered in a mosquito net, and facing the sea. In fact at high tide the sea came right up to the hut and nothing beats the soporific sound of the breeze rustling through palm trees and the gentle lapping of the waves. There was a larger thatched building nearby with a kitchen and a common area with hammocks and easy chairs where you could get local Thai food and tourist fodder like banana pancakes and smoothies. It was very good book reading and mellowing out territory. A big thumbs up.

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Beach huts on Koh Chang

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Ferry to Koh Chang.

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Wait for road to be built … no hurry

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Seen worse

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Typical road

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Bit rutted by the rain and trucks

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Camping spot, Koh Chang

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Posher huts on the beach

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My place for a few nights

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The main place with hammocks and a kitchen full of food and beer…. right on the beach.

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Nice and relaxing

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Koh Chang

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Home sweet home…. my hut for a few days… what more do you need. Slept perfectly.

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Out on the Kawasaki for an explore around Koh Chang island… resisted the urge to ride down the river bed.  Every scratch costs.

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My hut in there somewhere

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Million star hotel

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One afternoon while wading about in about eight inches of seawater I got stung on my ankle by a stingray. Apparently they are quite common in such waters and its easy to inadvertently tread on one as they are well camouflaged against the sand. I can’t begin to describe how painful it was and I actually thought for a while that I might die. An over reaction, but my landlady came to my rescue and I had my foot plunged in almost boiling water that was actually less painful than the sting.

Despite the excruciating pain, I was told the sting had only grazed my ankle bone and was lucky it hadn’t penetrated further.  The hot water actually breaks down the structure of the poison and so the pain from the sting eased off steadily over the next few hours, but I was left with a throbbing lower leg for about 3 weeks. Moral of the story… don’t tread on a stingray… they sting.

I explored the island for a couple of days, going off road and climbing trails, visiting little villages and remote beaches, and then decided to ride back to the mainland and ride north along the border of Cambodia and through the villages and small towns and head back in the general direction of Bangkok through the eastern hills. I had originally planned to keep the Versys and ride to Koh Samui, Koh Tao and Koh Pha Ngan but decided instead to fly and then hire a smaller bike when I got there.

The ride back to Bangkok was excellent and I managed to find what I was looking for.  Jungle trails, mountain roads, forests, and remote villages. In the cities and tourist areas the Thai food is mellowed down like it is in Thai restaurants in London and other western cities, but the secret to getting the authentic deal is to ask for “old man’s tom yam gai” or “old man’s papaya salad” or whatever and then you get the highly spiced and original hot dishes. They always asked me if I was sure this is what I wanted and studied me carefully as I tucked into the chillies with sweat dripping profusely from the tip of my nose into the bowl of food.

In the hills and small villages there were street side hawker stalls and little restaurants selling bags of red and spicy chai tea and a smorgasbord of Thai specialties like Pad Thai, Tom Yum, and fruit.  All excellent.

I eventually got back to Bangkok via the scenic route, although the last 50 kilometers were through the usual traffic chaos and returned the bike early and made my way to the central city airport to get an Air Asia flight to Surat Thani.

Exploring around the island... good bike

Exploring around the island… good bike

Parked up on ferry and ready to head back to Trat

Parked up on ferry and ready to head back to Trat

The other boats

The other boats

Ferry

Ferry

Time for a poo ... this'll doo

Time for a poo … this’ll doo

Quiet coastal locations that only a bike will get you to.

Quiet coastal locations that only a bike will get you to.

Bit bigger than most of the bikes, that are usually Honda 110s.

Let Good Things Happen… quite right

Exploring

Exploring

Soi Cowboy.

Soi Cowboy.

Fixed that bridge yet?

Fixed that bridge yet?

I was traveling extremely light and only had a small rucksack, just as I like it.  From Surat Thani there are several overnight ferries that you can take and sleep throughout the journey on basic mats side by side like sardines with other travelers and arrive at one of the three islands in the early morning.  I decided to start in the north with Koh Tao and then hop between the island. And that’s what I did.

Koh Tao is a very pretty island and I hired a Honda CRF 250 trail bike to explore and get around. Beware though!  There is a scam going on across Thailand where the bike renters take your passport and only return it if you return the bike in the original condition it was hired in.. or they say it was hired in!

Of course, many people either crash or drop their scooters and motorcycles and only get their passports back when a huge payment for damages has been made. Some of these payments are significant and the cause of many disputes, but the police are all in collusion with the bike hire operators and so the unfortunate bike hirer is on a hiding to nothing.

The bike renters also try and charge for existing scratches and scraps and so the wise technique is: firstly to find as reputable a bike hire firm as possible (not always easy); secondly, to photograph the entire bike and all its faults and scratches and show this to the vendor so that he knows you are on the ball;  and thirdly, if at all possible leave a cash deposit rather than your passport.  Leaving your passport with someone you don’t know in a foreign country isn’t a very wise thing to do. It can be stolen or replicated and you could find your passport being used for all sorts of scams and frauds, even involved in human trafficking and illegal immigration as was discovered during the investigation into the disappearance of Flight MH370 – which happened to occur very near to where I was in Koh Samui at the time.

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The islands

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One of the overnight ferries…Koh Tao, Koh Pha and Koh Samui I took the longer Koh Tao and worked my way south. Passengers sleep on mats side by side

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Beautiful islands and turquoise warm seas

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my rental Honda 250 …very nice indeed … perfect for Koh Tao

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Off scuba diving

Off scuba diving

Koh Tao... lovely beaches. This is near where British tourists were murdered. Thai police eefed it up and bashed up some Burmese to confess... why I am surprised

Koh Tao… lovely beaches. This is near where British tourists were murdered. Thai police eefed it up and bashed up some Burmese to confess… why I am surprised

Dive boats and divers... big business on Koh Tao

Dive boats and divers… big business on Koh Tao

Day out diving in Koh Tao

Day out diving in Koh Tao

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My rental for the island … good bike

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Riding into the hills .. very steep .. lots of youngsters fally off their bikes and getting Thai tattoos

Koh Tao

Koh Tao

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Most tourists, especially young girls seemed to have “Thai Tattoos” on their arms and legs. Not the Chinese characters for “wardrobe” or some other lost in translation hieroglyph, but cuts and large grazes due to coming off their hired scooters. Why?  Because basically they have little or no skill riding motorcycles and initially they think its easy until they inevitably hit a patch of gravel or find they can’t slow down fast enough on the windy bends coming down the steep hills and gacross most of Koh Tao.

Some of the accidents were more serious, especially because many of the tourists don’t wear helmets, or wear poor quality helmets that are not properly secured to their heads. The local ambulance service was certainly fully employed racing to and from the hospital and various accident scenes.

Koh Tao is also famous for diving and I had several scuba dives while I was there. There are many dive centres and it seems you are spoiled for choice. Pretty good facilities, good diving gear, but very crowded. I have my PADI advanced open water certificate, but I am not a very experienced or well traveled diver. That said I thought the diving around the  Red Sea in Egypt was much better and had prettier fish than Koh Tao.

A day or so later I took the ferry to Koh Pha Ngan which is a magnet for hippies and ravers as it has the full moon beach parties, and even half moon beach parties.  I never went to one, too old, don’t like smoking, and basically couldn’t be arsed, but I did find the rest of the island very interesting and I hired another CRF 250 and explored the road less traveled.

Because many of the hippies and partying foreigners seem to treat the island rather disrespectfully, I did notice that the locals were not overly friendly and only smiled when they were relieving you of your cash, if indeed they smiled at all.  Very un-Thai like. Blackie later told me that most of the Thais on Koh Pha Ngan are not indigenous to the island and perhaps should be a lot more grateful for the incomes and livelihoods they make from the lucrative tourism industry. In any case, Koh Pha Ngan is a not bad place by any means, but is perhaps my least favourite of the four islands I visited in Thailand.

I then took yet another ferry to Koh Samui, which is regarded as a rather luxurious and up market island with very nice hotels and resorts. It also has budget hotels and resorts and is quite big. Its very much geared up for general tourism with snake parks, elephant rides, botanical gardens, water sports, dirt biking, quads, safaris, cruises etc….  In fact, the island has an airport, but seems to only be served by Thai Airlines which is considerably more expensive than the other airlines in the region. Instead of a Honda CRF 250, which I really like,

I hired a funky Honda Zoomer X for just a few baht a day. This scooter has a 108 cc engine and is absolutely superb. It looks good, very well built (it is a Honda after all), is technologically quite advanced with a hi tech automatic transmission, easy to ride, surprisingly fast, sips fuel, comfortable, space to store a helmet under the seat, and to my mind the perfect run around city bike.

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I have no idea what this picture is about…must be Koh Chang as the Kawasaki is there.

Honda Zoomer X .... love this bike.

Honda Zoomer X …. love this bike.

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Koh Samui …. on another Honda Zoomer. Love this bike.

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Zoomer-X

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Climbing up into the hills of Koh Samui

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Aaah , lunch. Tres Bien.

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Super beaches in Thailand , although becoming noticeably more polluted over the years.

I managed to ride up into the mountains, ride on rough gravel roads in the interior jungle and find charming little beach bars, one claiming to have the greatest selection of Belgium beers in the whole of Asia. My only regret was that Fanny was not with me. I had a reasonable amount of free time as I was working on a project basis for various investigation firms in China, but Fanny had a full time job at the time.

However, this was to change for me and I was hired by a Asia Pacific professional services firm called Censere and had a start date which meant for the first time in three years I would have a full time job and they would expect me to go into work “every day”!!!

So, a month or so later, just before I started work Fanny and I flew to Chiang Mai, and in addition to some emergency dentistry that had been neglected of the previous three years, we decided to ride the Mae Hong Son Loop, all 600 kilometers and 1,864 switchbacks and corners through the jungle, forests and plantations and rode close to the border with Burma.

We visited Pae, Doi Inthanon National Park, Wat Phra, and Vachiratharn waterfalls. This time we hired a Suzuki V-Strom 650, a bike only recently imported into Thailand and I have to say another very good bike and a bit of a surprise.  Quite large in size and high spec with a 19 inch front wheel and 17 inch rear, 66 BHP in power, and designated as a mid sized dual purpose bike. Perfect for the two up trip through the mountain roads with a North Face bag of luggage. Not a very fast bike, but fast enough.

The first place we got to was Pae, famous over the years for being on the hippy trail, and indeed quite a few of the banana pancake and lentil eaters still wandering around in their hippy uniforms. We rode slightly out of the town and found a resort called Bueng Pai Farm on the banks of a big fish pond run by a very mellow, but hard working Japanese woman who had settled in Thailand.

http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g303916-d1641585-Reviews-Bueng_Pai_Farm-Pai_Mae_Hong_Son_Province.html

We hired a bungalow on stilts above the lake, together with fishing rods to catch carp and perch and then release them back into the water. These fish earned their keep by being caught several times a day. Quite alarmingly, I suppose for the first time, we saw that the resort was infested with water snakes that were quite large and quite fast. Our host said she encouraged them as they were part of the ecology and that they were not “very” poisonous. Ah hem!  Bueng Pai Farm prides itself on being organic and environmentally friendly and we had a swim in their naturally cleaned pool and before we set off again had their signature breakfast of some of the best mueslis, eggs and toast I have ever eaten.

Pae

Typical Thai scenery

Pae

Bueng Pai Farm

Fanny relaxing on patio

Fanny relaxing on the patio of our suite

Bueng Pai Farm, Pae, Thailand

Bueng Pai Farm, Pae, Thailand

Super riding route. If you don't fancy a DIY trip, you can join an organised group to riding in north Thailand, including all the bikes, hotels, and a knowledgeable guide.

Super riding route. If you don’t fancy a DIY trip, you can join an organised group to riding in north Thailand, including all the bikes, hotels, and a knowledgeable guide.

Relaxing between riding

Relaxing between riding

V-Strom is really good bike. Some people said its too big for Mae Hong Son loop, but two up with Fanny no worries at all.

A brand new V-Strom from Chiang Mai. Some people said its too big for Mae Hong Son loop, but two up with Fanny no worries at all. Good bike to hire.

Empty resorts due to Thai military coup... this one very up market and surprisingly cheap.  Bit odd being there on our own with 30 odd staff.

Empty resorts due to Thai military coup… this one very up market and surprisingly cheap. Bit odd being there on our own with 30 odd staff.

Some other residents who stayed at the resort...

Some other residents who stayed at the resort…

Packing up again and back on the road again

Packing up again and back on the road again

Hiking in the forests in north Thailand

Hiking in the forests in north Thailand

Makes a change from wallowing in rivers and lakes.

Makes a change from wallowing in rivers and lakes.

This big chap (about a foot long) was outside our hut making a loud clicking noise.

This big chap (about a foot long) was outside our hut making a loud clicking noise.

Mountains and forested hills and valleys along the 600 odd kilometers

Mountains and forested hills and valleys along the 600 odd kilometers

Mangoes

Mango trees

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Gold and temples…

More gold....

More gold….

Lattee?

Good morning!

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Fanny and I doing the tourist thing around the old town… Seems you can’t have too much gold.

Swapping the V-Strom for a Zoomer scooter

Swapping the Suzuki V-Strom for another Honda Zoomer -X scooter to explore the city.

A typical day on the road...

A typical day on the road…

Doi Inthanon National Park.

Doi Inthanon National Park near Chiang Mai

We carried on through the jungles the next day and then started to swing south again near the border with Myanmar where we started to see signs for the “long neck people” village. A bit of a controversy as some people saw this as exploitation of a minority tribe and in effect a human zoo.

However, when we got there it was clear the exploitation was the other way around and that the tourists were getting ripped off. Based upon posters depicting some old dear with an unusually elongated and brass ringed neck and the accompanying historical narrative, a tribe of displaced Burmese did cross the border into Thailand and settle in a refugee camp. And the women did, by tradition, keep adding rings to their neck as they grew up until they were giraffe like in appearance, much like tribes we saw in Kenya. But over the years the tribe had slowly integrated into Thai society and the traditions had slowly faded out.

However, not to miss an opportunity to make a few buck some of the girls do have rings round their necks and wear traditional clothes and display themselves to paying tourists who are bused in on day trips. Fanny and I were of course on a motorcycle and as is our common practice we took a short cut to the village along the country trails and approached the village from another direction.

Along the way we saw the girls getting ready for their day in the “long neck” village and getting out of their modern Thai clothes and into traditional garb. They did have rings on their necks but only about four or five and probably as many as you or I could put round our necks if we wanted to. I asked Fanny if she wanted to go and look at the village and she did.  I was partly annoyed at the rip off,  partly indifferent, and wholly disinclined to spend 5 dollars to go and have a look at a “human zoo” and so I stayed in the real village and looked after the bike and our kit while having a drink with the local touts and villagers.

Fanny paid her entrance fee and went off only to come back 15 minutes later and tell me that it was indeed the same girls we saw earlier who were now selling tourist crap at some stalls in the village. Any really long necked women?  Apparently not, and so we headed off with a new goal to find some elephants and waterfalls, and more importantly dinner.

We found a rather luxurious resort and were very pleasantly surprised to be offered a very nice suite at next to nothing. In fact the whole resort just had Fanny, myself and about 30 staff in it. Why?  Well just before we arrived in Thailand there was a military coup and this had obviously put “normal” people off.

As veterans of riding into revolutions in Africa and the middle east on our motorcycle expedition we realized this meant everything would be cheap and negotiable and Thailand was just the same. Its a country that thrives on tourism and does it very well, but when the tourists stop coming it becomes extremely competitive and huge savings can be made if you are bold enough to ask for them.

There was also a curfew which pretty much coincided with the hours Fanny and I are fast asleep, and in any case the curfew got shorter and shorter over the two weeks we were there until it was irrelevant. There were quite a few soldiers and police milling about in Chiang Mai itself, but for the large part the military coup and curfew went unnoticed. Anyway, this resort’s claim to fame was that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt had stayed recently, no doubt while Angelina was collecting more ethnic children for her collection.

Interestingly, it was not the first time our paths cross on our expedition as we were next door neighbours to the Pitts when we stayed at my aunts house in Provence, Southern France for a while. We continued on our windy, up and down journey, passing through rain forests and small villages, but also alongside huge stretches of land and hillside where the rainforest had been slashed and burned to such an extent that all there was left was red soil and blackened tree stumps.

The scale of deforestation was a bit of a shock. We were riding in the dry season, but judging by the recent soil erosion and rivers thick with red sediment, the lack of vegetation holding the top soil together must be extremely harmful to the environment. In some areas we saw attempts to start palm oil plantations, but the topography and severe soil erosion was hampering their efforts and all that was left looked like the surface of Mars. We visited some beautiful waterfalls, stayed at a few basic lodges and eventually returned back where we started in Chiang Mai.

Our last day was back in the resort we stayed in called Viang Thapae Resort, which was pretty nice.

http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g293917-d6506831-Reviews-Viang_Thapae_Resort-Chiang_Mai.html

We dropped of the Suzuki V-Strom which had been an excellent bike for our 6 day trip around the “loop” and hired another Honda Zoomer-X scooter for a day to get around Chiang Mai and explore the old town and street markets. Our only negative experience on the whole trip was getting stopped at a road block and being shouted at by a Thai Policeman because I wasn’t carrying my driving license and passport and he was clearly in a bad mood, probably because of the long hours he had to work throughout the curfew.

I was humble, apologetic and pleaded ignorance and he calmed down and let me off.  We then spent our remaining day exploring the old part of the town and eating street food in the night market.  Finally our time was up and so instead of taking a taxi, we hiked from our hotel across town to the airport and within a few hours were back on Lantau Island in Hong Kong.

Next… Vietnam and Cambodia.

Chapter 7 – Kenya

Kenya– Chapter 7

The first thing we noticed at the Kenyan border was an elderly couple being towed in a magnificent MGA sports car behind a Toyota pick-up. Whilst we were mingling with the crowds waiting to clear customs I remarked to the owners on what a splendid car it was and inquired why it was being towed. The lady, in an extremely plummy English accent, replied that she and her husband were Kenyan and had been having a wonderful adventure, but sadly their dear old car had broken down, but they were muddling through and confident it was just a minor glitch in their grand plans to drive across eastern Africa.

In the chaos of the border crossing, which in reality was no different to any of our previous crossings, I thought that the image of the classic British sports car and their vintage owners presented a rare snapshot of a bygone era when style and unflappability in the face of adversity were the way things were done. Later, I witnessed the old fellow being messed around by an oafish customs officer who insisted that his stricken MGA be towed back, all of some 50 yards, to an inspection bay to be looked at.  From where it was parked, towing it back was going to be very awkward and the customs officer could very well have got off his ample bottom, walked over and inspected the vehicle where it was already. Nevertheless, the old chap was too gentlemanly to complain and resigned himself to this completely unnecessary and troublesome task.

Fanny and I, armed with passports and the Carnet de Passages for our motorcycles, breezed through the immigration formalities. I made good use of the Tanzanian vehicle licenses that were valid for three months, and the supporting yellow Comesa insurance documents that would cover us for the remainder of the African countries we planned to travel through, after of course I made some minor amendments and circled some additional countries that I thought should have been included on the certificate in the first place.

I was asked by an immigration and customs official how long we planned to spend in Kenya to which I replied about thirty days. He then demanded that I hand over US$20 for each bike as additional import duty, or whatever. “I thought the carne de passage covered all the import costs”, I complained? It seemed not. For any period above seven days an extra charge was levied. I then asked, ‘If I say we are going to spend just seven days in Kenya how would you know if we stayed longer?’

‘We wont’, he replied.

‘I’ve changed my mind, we’ll stay seven days’, I quickly corrected.

‘OK’, he replied, ‘No charge then, ‘Enjoy your visit’.

As I was leaving the official added, ‘Which border will you leave by?’

‘Not this one, Sir’, and with that I scurried off to the bikes that Fanny was guarding and we got going again.

Kenya ... a bygone age

The Kenya/ Tanzania border  … and a car from a bygone age.

Political Map of Kenya

Arriving at the border control point in Kenya

At border crossings one of us had to do the paperwork (usually me) while the other (usually Fanny) looked after and guarded the bikes.

Riding through Nairobi… I am sure 40 years ago it would have been very nice.

Nairobi streets

Looking at the bikes in the Jungle Junction workshop

Looking at the other bikes in the Jungle Junction workshop

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Either side of the Tanzania/Kenya border is pretty much the same geographically, but Kenya was clearly influenced by having many more people.  The main north/south road which passed through beautiful African bush lands on the Tanzanian side, now passed through dusty, crowded and very scruffy villages which got closer and closer together until they were just an catatonic sprawl of dusty grey mayhem. The traffic density had multiplied to saturation proportions and the Chinese road construction activity was in chaotic full swing with endless diversions onto appalling gravel roads, across small streams and occasionally open sewers.

When we could we weaved our way through anarchic traffic conditions coming in all directions and coughed and spluttered in the dust and black diesel fumes all the way into the center of Nairobi which to my mind might have been pleasant once upon a time, perhaps when the MGA owners were in their twenties. There were parks and tall building, but like modern day Lusaka, the infrastructure hadn’t kept pace with the growth in human numbers. Too many people and too few who give a damn.

I followed a track on my GPS towards a campsite in town called Jungle Junction (http://tracks4africa.co.za/listings/item/w171200/), our intended rest stop while we serviced our motorcycles and applied for visas for Sudan and Ethiopia.  But first, we scanned the centerof the muddled city for a place to stop and find something to eat. After weaving about in the maddening traffic and crowds we stopped outside a Kenyan version of KFC and found a willing “lurking person” to guard our bikes for a few shillings while we had a break.  I don’t really trust lurking people as a rule and so I found an observation spot on a balcony where I kept a constant vigil on our KTMs and our worldly possessions while we munched through congealed oil covered in bits of chicken and lard. Quite tasty, actually,  in a calorie explosion heart clogging sort of way.

We then went back to our bikes which by now were surrounded by dozens of people. Luckily they appeared to be intact and we thanked our bike guard and handed over the agreed fee. A quick blast of our Akropovik and Leo Vince exhausts and the crowd reared backwards and we headed out of the center of the city towards a more leafy part of town.

It is here in a residential area behind tall gates and high fences that we found our small oasis for a few weeks.  Jungle Junction, famous to overland adventurers is owned and run by Chris, a German chap who used to work for BMW Motorad in Kenya. Chris run a very nice lodge and has a well organized and fitted out workshop and garage.

It also had a good sized lawn for camping and a small lodge with rooms for the wealthier guests. The main house had a sitting room, dining room, and kitchen that all residents could use, and there was free WiFi that worked most of the time. Outside in the garden and driveways were an assortment of adventure motorcycles in various states of disrepair, adventurer campers and trucks and other weird and wonderful vehicles that were crossing Africa.

Some had given up, some were in for repairs and some just taking a well deserved break and like us applying for visas or waiting for spare parts to be shipped in from various parts of the world. Everyone had stories of daring do, adventure and misfortune.

Soon after arriving and setting up our camp we saw vehicles limping in from various parts of Africa where the treacherous roads had broken them down into their component parts, often destroying their shocks, suspension, fuel filters, fuel injectors, tyres, bearings, electrical systems  and frames.  Some bikes came in on the back of trucks and were unceremoniously dumped onto the lawn, together with their distressed and fatigued owners.

Chris had seen it all before and I realized that there was a pecking order for his attention. BMW bikes came first, naturally, then other motorcycles, and then vehicles with four wheels or more.  This upset some people who thought that their needs took priority, but Chris had a business to run, a life to lead, and only so much time and was, for all intents and purposes, a bush mechanic. I got to like and respect him very much and he was very good to Fanny and I as we went through what was to become a rather frustrating time. He was a fountain of knowledge on routes, weather, road conditions and general local know-how and with his friendly staff made us feel very welcome.

Camping at Jungle Junction in Nairobi… a trans-Africa adventure travelers oasis

The world record home made adventure 4×4 that has been around the world many times

Almost the perfect combination … an off road 4×4 camper with a Yamaha XT 660 on the back… how good is that?

Chris of Jungle Junction

An extremely nice place to stay in the center of Nairobi and a hub of useful information and advise

Jose and Noah from Spain with their BMW F650GS …and its dodgy fuel pump.

Adventure bikes at Jungle Junction

Other adventure bikes at Jungle Junction

Jungle Junction...A little oasis in the middle of Nairobi

Jungle Junction…A little oasis in the middle of Nairobi

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There were already some people at Jungle Junction who had been there a few weeks for whatever reasons. Some waiting for parts and repairs, and some taking stock before heading off again into the bush and deserts.  It reminded me of entering the Officers’ Mess on the very first day I joined the Royal Hong Kong police back in the mid eighties. The more senior intakes at the training school had taken up the best positions in the “Mess” and lorded it over the newbies. Here in the sitting room of Jungle Junction in Kenya the “seniors” had done the same. There was a particularly irksome Australian who had taken up residence who was seemingly the world’s authority on everything to do with adventure travel.  In fairness he did have some credentials to this claim. He was a former Dakar Rally mechanic, had built a very impressive adventure car that looked like a huge Caterham 7 with a tent on its roof and had a diesel engine that could run off old chip pan oil.

He had already entered the Guinness Book of World Records by traveling 250,000 kilometers around the world—the longest for a home built car. What he did though to upset me from day one was to endlessly criticize our bikes and was the prophet of doom about every aspect of our trip and planning. According to Digger, our bikes were going to fall apart, we would not find any fuel, there would be no chance to get Ethiopian visas, and if we did managed to get on the road to north Kenya I would be murdered and Fanny raped, or worse, Fanny murdered and me raped.

He was of the school that believed the only adventure motorcycles were the old style bikes he owned himself, maybe the Honda Africa Twin or perhaps the Yamaha XT 500 and that the modern electronic fuel management systems on bikes like our KTMs were not appropriate for adventure riding. In fact, motorcycles that did not run off steam were totally unsuitable for the task and the only really suitable vehicle was his mutant Caterham 7 thing. According to him, if you couldn’t repair the bike with a flint strapped to a stick in the back end of beyond you were not worthy to be a member of his “Destination Unknown” adventuring community.

His boastful exploits about journeys in the Congo and Amazon rain forest would have been interesting under any other circumstances, but he went on and on until I decided with Fanny that we would have no more conversations in his hearing in English and so we switched to the Mandarin channel until he got bored of me and found a Kawasaki rider to persecute.  He only turned his attention back to me again when he overheard my stage whisper that it was possible to cross the river between north west Namibia and Angola on a rope pulled pontoon which I had done a few years previously. “Hey! Charlene”, he bellowed to his other half who was cooking pies in the kitchens, “this pom reckons you can cross into Angola from the Skeleton coast”…. “Nooo Way” came an Aussie reply from within a cloud of chip fog in the kitchen.

What I had neglected to share was that the pontoon could only take a vehicle with a maximum of two wheels.  I would like to think that one day when Digger of the Bushveld is stuck on the banks of the Cunene River in the north of the desolate Skeleton Coast looking towards the other side he thinks back fondly of me. He’ll be OK, though. No doubt in true adventure survival style he could cook up his wife’s large and prosperous looking buttocks and use one half for fuel and the other for a tasty roast with lots of crackling. Don’t blame me… its the bloody Larium malaria tablets…they give you all sorts of strange thoughts.

One of many strange adventure machines crossing Africa… (or not)

Me on one of my kit tidying up campaigns… checking Fanny’s panniers for contraband hair conditioner

Our home at Jungle Junction for a few weeks while we sort out visas and get bikes  serviced for next leg through to Egypt

Our home at Jungle Junction for a few weeks while we sort out Ethiopian and Sudanese visas and get bikes serviced for next leg through to Alexandria in Egypt

ECU cable

 

KTM Nairobi

My lovely bike, oh and some other people at KTM Nairobi

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My efforts, however, to champion the cause of KTM were not helped by several limping into Jungle Junction with fuel injector problems. They were not alone. In fact, many different types of bikes were limping in with the same problem.  All bikes have their Achilles Heals, and for the LC4 and LC8 engines that power the KTM 640/690 and 950/990 Adventures (respectively) the three main ones are … or at least used to be on the older models:

1)      the fuel filter, and in particular its inaccessibility and difficulty to replace easily in the bush. Also, there is no space along the fuel line to add another fuel filter (as you can do with some other older bikes).

2)      The clutch slave which had a tendency to fail; and

3)      the water pump which also had a tendency to break and allow radiator coolant to escape into the engine oil.

Its a well known and obvious fact that KTMs, and indeed most modern bikes, do not like bad fuel, especially the low octane and contaminated petrol commonly found throughout this part of Africa.  As a rule, motorcycles, and any other vehicles for that matter, do not like fuel mixed with kerosene, diesel, water, or dusty red sand, and sadly that is the cocktail that is commonly served up at most petrol stations, particularly the road side vendors who sell fuel from grubby yellow cooking oil drums.

I was not really aware of the clutch slave issue and we never had a problem anyway, but when we did get to the UK, as a purely precautionary measure, I replaced the standard ones with more robust after market Oberon clutch slaves. Could I tell the difference? Not really, but they looked pretty.

We had not brought spare water pumps with us because they were too heavy and in the end we did not need them either. The water pumps had already been fixed on later models, and many older models had already been upgraded during routine servicing cycles.  I did, however, bring spare petrol and oil filters for both bikes…. and just as well as these would have been difficult to source on the road in Africa and were items that needed replacing during normal servicing and oil changes.

The other thing I had not done and perhaps should have known about was to have sourced an ECU diagnostic and mapping program, installed it to my laptop and had a USB to ECU cable to connect to the bike. Without attempting to go into detail I do not really understand myself, modern KTMs do not have carburetors, but rather electronic fuel injection systems, much like modern cars and so when things go wrong tuning with a screw driver and unblocking jets with a  piece of copper wire will not suffice anymore.

What is required is that the electronic fuel injection system is connected to a computer that will check all the electronics and adjust the mapping to differing conditions …such as type of fuel, octane levels, altitude, and none standard exhaust systems like the Akropovik and Leo Vince cans we had on our bikes.

My view about adventure travel is that one can do it using whatever vehicles one likes, and so called bush mechanics and maintenance will inevitably change with the times. If you can afford to buy and have the space to carry the latest tools and spares, that’s fine. If not one must improvise using whatever one can get one’s hands on, be it a rock or an electronic ignition diagnostic kit. There is no need to be afraid of new technology and modern electronics on motorcycles and cars. We all carry smart phones, ipads and laptops nowadays and these small and light bits of kit can be uploaded with all sorts of useful electronic tools, maps and “how to” guides and manual.

Later, after I had already paid KTM Nairobi an astonishing amount to connect both bikes to their computer for just a few minutes, did I find out about, and download, a free program called “ECU Tune” from the internet. However, I could not use it because I did not have the necessary ECU to USB cable. Later I would get hold of the cable, but in the end we never needed it. The bikes were fine, mostly due to good maintenance and (as I describe later) filtering the fuel before it went into the tanks.

The main reason for stopping in Nairobi was to get the bikes serviced. I can’t think of any other reason to stay there for any length of time as it’s a bit of a dump. Its polluted, dusty, smelly, overcrowded, run down, a bit boring, falling apart at the seams and a bit edgy… apart from all that it’s alright.

Later, when we were in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia we caught a glimpse of some news on the TV that over a hundred people, mostly children had been burnt alive in a ghetto only a few kilometers from Jungle Junction.  Apparently some people had been stealing petrol from a tanker and it exploded, tragically incinerating them as they were scooping it up, probably into dirty yellow oil drums to sell to people like me.

The KTM garage in Nairobi  is run by a man called Ian Duncan, and I had contacted him repeatedly in advance about tyres as we made our way to Nairobi.  When we arrived he was not around and had in fact disappeared off to Uganda to compete in a rally race and the garage was left in the hands of a teenager called Adam. Adam told me they weren’t really interested or geared up to deal with adventure bikes and only really looked after the rally cross and enduro type bikes that KTM are famous for.  That said he was energetic and keen to please and so we did manage to book the bikes in for a service, albeit at an extortionate price for the pair. When we came to collect the bikes later that day I found that the chains had not even been adjusted or oiled. 

‘Oh!’ Adam said, ‘Oiling the chain will be extra’.  So much for a professional bike service, huh?

As for tyres?… we had no luck. We would have to try and find suitable tyres for the tough roads ahead from somewhere else, most likely at enormous cost and delay to our schedule.

Kindly, Fanny’s aunt, Song Feng Mei who lives in Polokwane, north of Johannesburg, came to our rescue and went to a local motorcycle shop, the infamous “KR Motorcycle (Pte) Ltd; Straat 92, Petersberg 0700, South Africa” with the exact specifications and sizes for two sets of Continental TKC80s which are the ideal tyre for our bikes and recommended by KTM for the gravel, mud, rock and sand roads that lay ahead. My good buddy Dan Kaufman from Cape Town managed to call on some contacts that would be able to airfreight the tyres from Polokwane to Nairobi airport.

So, while we were waiting we decided to risk a trip to the Masai Mara on our balding tyres where, in late August, three to four million wildebeest were grazing as part of the greatest migration on the planet.

But first we would go to the baby elephant sanctuary and see some of the rescued elephants and rhinos that had been orphaned, some because the babies had got separated from their herds, fallen down drains, or got stuck, but mostly because they had been orphaned because some idiot Vietnamese and Chinese still have some ridiculous need for ivory trinkets and rhino horn and have killed their mothers. In fact, while we were on the expedition the West Africa Black Rhino became extinct. Dead as the proverbial dodo. never to grace the planet again.

I really hope the Asians (and let’s not beat about the bush .. they are Asian) who actually bought the very last West African Black Rhino horn meet the same fate as the dodo. I am quite sure that if things continue the way they are that I will see in my lifetime the complete extinction of the rhino species. Poaching levels of ivory and rhino horn are increasing exponentially and the solution is not an easy one. Its as if the rhino has 15 kilograms of gold stuck on the end of its nose and wanders around free in impoverished places with poor security, incompetent law enforcement and corrupt authorities. With the economic growth in China and more money to spend of traditional medicines the smuggling of endangered African animal parts is only going to increase. I fear, just like the war on drugs, that the battle to protect these animals will be lost.

Anyway, for now, at this sanctuary in Nairobi the keepers spend all the time with the elephants and try to replicate the socialization they would ordinarily get in a natural environment. They even sleep next to their baby elephants in hammocks. At this sanctuary the infants wean on elephant sized bottles of milk until such time they are big and healthy enough to go to the next stage, an intermediary location away from people before they are finally released into the wild.

The healthy baby elephants are shown to the public for one hour each day, for a small fee to help towards their up-keep and running the sanctuary, but some of the animals are injured and are cared for in the hospital while they recuperate and get well enough to be released back into the wild.

Elephant numbers have been actually rising due to successful conservation efforts, but the increase in both elephant and human populations has and will inevitably lead to conflict, a conflict in which the elephants will lose.  Elephants only have a few calves in their long life. The population of African humans, on the other hand, fueled by AID from the West and do-gooders like Bob Geldof are rising dramatically, with each family being artificially aided, regardless of resources and sustainability, to produce 7-9 off-spring, who in turn multiply again putting a strain on finite resources, space and food.

Tribalism continues to place loyalty to kith and kin before logic and efficiency. Tragically, Malthusian population checks such as war, disease and famine will continue to make life miserable and tough for Africans. And what of all the African animals and natural resources?  Traded with the Chinese for tarmac roads and concrete hotels in a seemingly inescapable new era of dependent colonialism.

You have to ask why Africa has to import everything from China. Why can’t they build bicycles and plastic bowls themselves?  The raw materials come from Africa and there are enough people idling about everywhere without jobs. But I may be wrong and Geldof and his rich hippy friends correct. Heart strings will be pulled and guilt manipulated by Sunday afternoon TV campaigns in the west to “spare a pound” to feed all the starving Ethiopian and Somalis babies so they can grow up to beg for money, throw rocks at motorcycles, kidnap hostages and extort money from shipping companies. Do I sound contemptuous?  Perhaps I am. TAB.

I am sure most people who read this couldn’t care less about my ramblings concerning environmental conservation and the evil secrets behind the Chinese R5 shops that have sprung up across South Africa. After all, “Here comes Honey Boo Boo” is about to start on the telly and the delivery man is due with a family sized KFC bucket of tikken and tips…ho ye!. Anyway, too much thinking and fretting, back to the big bike trip. We decided to set off to the beautiful Masai Mara for some happy thoughts and a chance to see something natural and special before its turned into “glorious peoples number one” Africa world adventure park with polluted grey/green lakes to peddle fiberglass swan boats on, live chickens for little Xiao Long to throw to the dog that looks like a lion, and a garish parade with loud canto pop and people dressed in cartoon rhino, dinosaur and dodo costumes. I told you, its the Larium wots to blame.

Jungle Jungle common room and dining room.

An assortment of vehicles and an eclectic mix of adventurers

While we were staying in Nairobi Fanny taught herself to cook. Prior to this I had never seen her cook. This was to come in very useful when we got to Europe. Not only could we have healthy Chinese food,  save costs, and clear a camping space with chili pepper fog.

KTM Nairobi …… I will concede… KTMs are not cheap to service, especially here.

Stella without her wheels

Stella without her wheels

The main man called Duncan was not at his workshop while we were in Nairobi and had gone off to compete in some Rallye races in Uganda

Baby elephants at rescue center in Nairobi

Nellie and Ellie

Nellie and Ellie

They move very quickly when its feeding time and drink out of elephant sized milk bottles. They have very coarse hair on their heads, but surprisingly their skin is much softer than it looks.

A sick rhino …

Milky time

Milky time

Riding along Masai herdsmen paths in the Masai Mara … enormous fun and very close to the animals that happen to make up the great migration between the Serengeti and Masai Mara, such as Wildebeest and Zebras. We were not allowed to ride in the game parks themselves, but it seemed the animals were free to go where they liked anyway and we saw a lot.

Waiting while the BMW guys who traveled with us tried to repair their bike. One hour later they gave up and I towed the stricken BMW F650GS over 35 kilometers to the nearest town. It was a challenge and not that good for my clutch given all the streams and banks we had to cross… but I feel a sense of achievement that we made it. KTM 1 – BMW 0

Fanny and I in Masai Mara

Swollen rivers and streams … the smaller ones we crossed

 

A twenty liter battery acid drum on the back of my KTM for more fuel. Just above the Akropovik exhausts that occasionally spit blue flames. Very healthy no safety.

Packed up and ready to go with an extra 20 liters of fuel in an old exide battery acid drum… Not the safest thing to do… but necessity and improvisation etc… A bigger fuel tank ?  Good idea.

Another KTM rider in the Masai Mara

Another KTM rider in the Masai Mara

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The distance between our intended destination at Aruba Bush camp at the Masai Mara gate and Nairobi was only about 350 kilometers but the road conditions to get there were tough, and because of the heavy rains some of the routes were blocked because the river crossings were too deep.

We decided to ride there with reduced luggage which I would carry on my bike and together with a couple of Spaniards, Jose and Noa who arrived at Jungle Junction with their BMW F650GS on the back of a truck having broken down in southern Ethiopia. Jose and Noa had had a terrible journey to Nairobi in the back of a truck for four days and on one night been abandoned without food while the driver disappeared without explanation to nearby villages to rest.

This road from Moyale that straddles Ethiopia and Kenya, which we were to travel along later, is notoriously bad and renowned for having bandits and highway men who allegedly set up ambushes along the remote desert track. A story was circulating about a French couple who refused to hand over their goods at an ambush and the man was shot in the face as he tried to escape. Then again I have heard the same sort of things happens in places like London, Bristol, and indeed Burton on Trent on market day. There are bad people everywhere, but I will concede that Somali and north Kenya probably has more than its fair share of them.

With the Spaniards’ BMW now fixed by Chris at Jungle Junction we all set off out of the grime and decay of Nairobi towards the stunning Rift Valley escarpment and down a thousand or so meters into the Masai plains and villages that stretch out towards the unmarked boundaries of the game park.

For the first 150 kilometers we rode on decent tar roads and by midday we stopped in a small town for a spot of lunch at a local restaurant. In time honoured fashion we pointed at someone else’s food and said we’d have that… 2 kilograms of Chomba, (roasted goat meat on the bone) and chips…very delicious, but perhaps not for everyday unless one wants a Diane Abbot like bottom.

After our carnivorous lunch we went for a ride in the town to look for the petrol station less likely to serve up the usual kerosene/grit fuel mixture that ruins our engines.  As normal, while re-fueling we attracted a huge crowd who would ask the same questions about where we had come from, where we were going and how fast the bikes could go. Our answers of South Africa, China and 240kph were usually met with incredulity and disbelief.

After about 10 kilometers we turned off onto gravel tracks that got progressively more challenging as we headed further into the Masai Mara. Fanny had been improving her riding skills all the time and we considered this a training exercise in preparation for what was about to come. What we had not banked on was thick gooey mud and long stretches of deep puddles, and in one particularly bad section Fanny dropped her bike and got absolutely covered causing both her and her motorcycle to remain a reddy brown colour for the remainder of the trip. A suitable baptism to “off roading” I thought.

Often when the track was very bad we would ride up over the banks and onto the herdsmen tracks that would weave through villages, woods, bushes and grasslands. This was what adventure motorcycling is all about and it was enormous fun.

About 35 kilometers away from our destination the Spanish crew’s BMW stopped and never started again. Their fuel pump was apparently broken again and after a futile hour of trying to make a multi-meter out of bits of wire, a battery and a bulb they admitted defeat. I suggested I towed them to Aruba Bushcamp where at least we could camp before it got dark. It was apparent that the animals, including the many lions and hyenas did not recognize the man-made perimeters of the national game park and so it was definitely not a good idea to be out in the open after dark. This meant that I was now to use the tow rope which up until now had remained coiled and strapped to to crash bar, and also employ the towing skills I learned from Leon and Wayne at Country Trax in South Africa on my big bike sand course (highly recommended for anyone who is thinking of riding a BMW 1200GS, Ducati Multi Strada, Triumph Explorer, Yamaha Super Tenere, Kawasaki KLR or KTM 990/1190 Adventure on anything vaguely off road).

After a briefing to Jose about keeping the rope tight and securing the ends offside to nearside foot pegs on our respective bikes we edged forward, sliding and weaving in the gravel and mud. Occasionally we would have to descend into muddy streams and power up out again, keeping the speed constant and the rope taught. On one occasion we got it wrong and I catapulted Jose and 200kgs of BMW off the side of the road, through the air and into a ditch. Both bikes fell leaving Jose lying prostrate in a ditch. I inquired if he was OK and he just said that he’d like to lie there for a few minutes staring at the sky.  After what seemed like an age I inquired again and he said he was ready to go on, and so I hauled him and our bikes out of the ditch (not that easy in mud) and set off again, both of us getting better at the towing and being towed experience all the time.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNjyOyJVeWY&list=UUaD3A6IHJlyfTEuHqeZ_DLw&feature=share&index=11

At one location the road was too muddy and we rode off road in the middle of the plains alongside thousands of wildebeest and I managed to take some video whilst towing the BMW. It was very tiring and very technical, but I found some time to look around and reflect on what we were doing. I certainly wasn’t going to forget that it was a KTM towing a BMW and I was going to enjoy gloating over this for some time to come.

As we were getting in our stride and I was getting used to my bald front tyre being yanked sideways every now and again I noticed in my mirror that Fanny was no longer behind me. I had been keeping to a pretty steady 30 kph, with all of our luggage, a Spaniard and his BMW tugging on my LC8 engine and its clutch. The sun was going down and I was not entirely sure where we were as the GPS just showed our position in the middle of no where.  No indication of the road, or our destination. The GPS just showed a green background with a bike symbol in the middle.  Dilemma…do I carry on with Jose, or go back and find the others? In the end I discussed with Jose whether it was OK for me to leave him and his stricken bike in the middle of lion country as the sun was setting and he replied with a southern European shrug and said, ‘no worries’.

So I turned the bike around and rode rather anxiously—perhaps at reckless Dakar Rally pace of 120kph plus– along the mud and gravel tracks. After a few kilometers I saw Fanny’s orange headlight weaving in the fading light through the bush and when I came alongside her I could see she was head to toe in wet mud again. I was relieved she was OK and making progress, but I was my usual terse self and reminded her in no uncertain terms the situation we were in and the urgency with which we should get to camp before it gets dark. Fanny was a little annoyed with me and said she was doing her best. ‘Well make your best a little better’, I said rather too harshly.

TA MA DE’, she yelled back, quite rightly.

I theatrically skidded my bike around and tore off back to where I had left the Spanish Omelette stranded in the bush at dusk surrounded by one of the largest concentration of predators. Luckily I found him uneaten and wandering about taking sunset pictures of the Masai plains and wildebeest and so I finally relaxed a little. In fact, we were only three or so kilometers away from the relative safety of Aruba Bush camp and its human settlements which wa