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 10 – Egypt – (Part 2)

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

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

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GPS was showing the most basic of details in north Africa and was for the large part no more than a compass with a few out of date roads.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The natural and the unnatural.

Hope it doesn’t roll off

Bikes squeezed into a space in Cairo

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

I know him... lives in Hong Kong

I know him… lives in Hong Kong

Fanny making friends as usual

Fanny making friends as usual

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chased away by police

Riding around the car park at Giza pyramids

Uck the Police?

Walk like an Egyptian with a crash helmet.

Walk like an Egyptian.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look Fanny ... mini pyramids

An idiot abroad.

我饿死了

我饿死了 .

In Egypt, Fanny is a popular name ...

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

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

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

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

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

Having been thrown out by the police

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

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

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

Iconic

Motorcycling in Egypt

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

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

Fanny wandering around Cairo

Fanny and I wandering around Cairo

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

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Egyptian museum

Egyptian museum

Fanny outside the Egyptian museum

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

Egyptian Museum

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

Tutkankhamun mask very accessible inside the museum

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

Roundabout statue

Roundabout statues..

Egypt meets England

Egypt meets England

Interesting architecture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fanny and I with our customs fixer at Cairo airport

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

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

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

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

‘Is there sand?’, she asked.

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

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

Downtown Cairo

Downtown Cairo

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

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

Fellow bikers in Cairo

Fellow bikers in Cairo

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

The Sinai

Having a rest stop

Fanny in Sinai again... taking a break

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

Heading back to Dahab via Nuweiba

Heading back to Dahab via Nuweiba

Back in Dahab

Back in Dahab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trying to learn to kite surf and wake board in Dahab

Beautiful sunsets in Dahab

Fanny walking to our apartment along the beach… happy days

Fanny's daily windsurfing lessons

Fanny’s daily windsurfing lessons

Me coming back from snorkeling and free diving

Me coming back from snorkeling and free diving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our garden

Our garden

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

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

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

The rubbish collectors

The rubbish collectors wandering through our garden

The serious rubbish collectors

The serious rubbish collectors

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

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

‘What?’ I shouted back

‘A BABY’

‘What kind of baby?’ I answered

‘HUH!?’

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

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

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

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

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

Not too shabby

Eel garden

Fanny learning to windsurf in Dahab

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

Our bikes parked next to our apartment

Local transport

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

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

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

Beautiful marine life and coral reefs along the entire coast.

Beautiful marine life and coral reefs along the entire coast.

Tony Noble teaching a Chinese girl how to swim

Aswan 15 … my bike

Some of the restaurants along the Red Sea at Dahab

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

Fanny relaxing next to the sea near our apartment

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

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

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

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

Chapter 10 – Egypt – (Part 1)

The “Night Boat” up the River Nile to Aswan was anything but luxurious, but we were very pleased that everything had gone according to plan and we were on our way to Egypt. We camped for eighteen hours on the hard deck of the ferry and our carefully chosen spot was quickly hemmed in with bodies of all shapes and sizes. This ferry crossing from Sudan to Egypt had to be the most inefficient and ridiculous ways to cross a land border and I could only guess that some money making cartel was behind such an illogical bottleneck along a huge land border that stretched from Libya in the west to the Red Sea in the east.

If one looks closely at Google Earth, as I have done on many occasions, you can see newly built roads meeting each other along the desert border all the way to the coast. I asked many people why it was impossible to use one of these roads and never got a straight answer.

Just after entering Egypt the sun started going down and so we were unable to properly see the ancient temple of Abu Simbel which was on the left hand side of the ferry.  As night settled and the sky became ablaze with stars the boat and its occupants soon settled into organised chaos and when most of the passengers weren’t kneeing down or bent over praying they were eating. The only other distraction was a very disorderly queue to get passports stamped by the on-board customs official.

By late in the evening the only two people, it seemed, who hadn’t had their passports stamped were Fanny and I. Fanny because she had some funky diplomatic visa that they hadn’t seen before and thought should be left to more senior officials in Aswan to deal with, and me because I didn’t have a visa.

I was a tad concerned about this but we were assured everything would be OK in the morning and so we settled back down to a hard but reasonably comfortable night under the stairs on our camping mattresses, alongside about a hundred other people. Below deck in the cabins were about another hundred and fifty people who had paid considerably more than us. I thought we had the best deal though, fresher air and a much better view.

We woke at sunrise and we were impatient to get off and get going but still had a few hours to sail into Aswan.  When we did see the town in the distance I was very keen to locate our motorcycles, eagerly scanning the moored barges until I spotted them. What a relief.

When we arrived, with of course the customary Arabic faffing about, Fanny was whisked off the boat to see a senior customs official for tea in his office and I was left on the ferry, the very last person, whilst waiting for my visa.

Sunset over the Nile in Aswan, Egypt

Sunset over the Nile in Aswan, Egypt.

The desert sun setting for another day

Goodbye sun and another day

Ferry from Wadi Halfa in Sudan up the Nike to Aswan in Egypt

Ferry from Wadi Halfa in Sudan up the Nike to Aswan in Egypt

Abu Simbel Temple along the banks of the Nile

Abu Simbel Temple along the banks of the Nile

Approaching Aswan

Approaching Aswan

I have spotted our KTMs on the deck of the barge moored up at Aswan port.. what a relief.

I have spotted our KTMs on the deck of the barge moored up at Aswan port.. what a relief.

Keeping my eye on the bikes and now wondering how I will get them off and what hassles lay ahead with the authorities.

Keeping my eye on the bikes and now wondering how I will get them off and what hassles lay ahead with the authorities.

Where there's a will.... there's a family

Where there’s a will….

Thinking about riding them off the barge onto the jetty, but not doable so in the end five of us literally lifted each bike up and carried it .. with all the kit and full panniers.. easy in the end.

Thinking about riding them off the barge onto the jetty, but not doable so in the end five of us literally lifted each bike up and carried it off .. with all the kit and full panniers..

They had to be carried because there was a big metal post

Now my bike.. They both had to be carried because there was a big metal blue post in the way.

Fitted with Egyptian plates..

After clearing customs and immigration our bikes are fitted with Egyptian plates.. Aswan 15 for me and Aswan 3 for Fanny … Looks like 10, but Arabic numerals have a zero looking character for 5.

We had to take ferry up Lake Nasser (dammed upstream) of the Nile from Wadi Halfa in Sudan to Aswan in Egypt. I would have loved to have ridden this part of north Egypt, but the human inhabitants have some scam going on so that you cannot actually ride across the border. In Egypt we would run into literally hundreds of police and military road blocks across the entire country.  we would

We had to take ferry up Lake Nasser (dammed upstream) of the Nile from Wadi Halfa in Sudan to Aswan in Egypt. I would have loved to have ridden this part of north Egypt, but the human inhabitants have some scam going on so that you cannot actually ride across the border. In Egypt we would run into literally hundreds of police and military road blocks across the entire country. we would

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Eventually I was given an official looking shiny sticker in exchange for eleven Egyptian pounds and told to affix this visa onto a blank page in my passport. Some Arabic was scribbled over the  top allegedly specifying I had a month of stay. As all this was happening I watched with amusement as fifty or so people with bags, boxes and other cargo tried to squeeze through the exit door at the same time and they were not giving in to anyone, a scene reminiscent of old Cantonese crones elbowing their way onto the mass transit railway in Hong Kong.  Amongst goats and dodgy looking piles of cargo piled up on the dock I had to find and employ a local agent to help me negotiate getting our bikes off the barge which was moored inaccessibly between other barges a couple of hundred meters away, and later help us through the inevitable inefficiencies of Egyptian customs. There was no other way.

Two hours later, after paying a small fee to every man and his dog to move the barge to a more suitable location, I had to manually lift the bikes off the barge with help from a couple of hired hands as they weighed more than 280 kilograms each. Whilst the fee I paid them was not a lot, I thought the amount of time being wasted was far too long. These people could get a PhD in faffing about and squabbling.  Freddie Golbourne (my grandfather who happened to be in north Africa in the early forties) told me about his Egyptian colleagues when I was a small boy.

Seems things hadn’t changed.

I was told, however, that I was lucky as it was not uncommon for foreign vehicles to be held hostage for days, weeks, or as we would later see in the Egyptian custom department’s impounded vehicle “grave yards”, indefinitely.

The penny had dropped. Now I knew why Egypt demanded ridiculously high deposits for the Carne de Passages— its a huge scam.  For slight infractions of the ridiculous Egyptian red tape vehicles were confiscated for un-affordable ransoms and later sold at “fixed” auctions where the spoils were shared among the corrupt officials. My suspicions were confirmed when I saw all the expensive foreign cars and trucks covered in dust at Cairo airport in the foreign vehicle “graveyard of misery”. Suitably imbued with charm and supplied with cigars and soft drinks my newly acquired friends in the customs department later told me exactly how the scam operated and how they shared the spoils, and by the way,would I like some Hasish?  Some people, huh?

With both KTMs now on the slipway and Fanny still being entertained by the head shed at immigration, probably fretting she was President Hu’s daughter or something, I checked over both KTMs and they were in perfect order. No worries at all.

My recently hired local agent told me there was still more fun to enjoy and so my day out with Egyptian customs and immigration was to continue for another three hours or so, with a subtle threat that if I make any fuss whatsoever they will make it two days, or even three.  And so, I filled out more forms, signed Arabic documents that could have been confessions to drug trafficking for all we knew, photocopied more documents, handed over more cash and in return got a wad of paper and two sets of  Egyptian motorcycle number plates to affix over the South African ones. Aswan 3 for Fanny and Aswan 15 for me.

Whilst we were waiting around next to some bored teenage soldiers with heavy weaponry, Fanny mastered how to read and write the Arabic numerals, and I concentrated on trying to be a good boy, smiling sweetly and keeping my mouth close.

Its always tea time in Egypt. Love it.

Its always tea time in Egypt. Love it.

Time for a haircut. How do you say … “a little off the sides please” in Arabic

Lost in translation so for the first time in my life I have been  shaved completely bald

It seems there is just one haircut on the menu. Apart from looking like a boiled egg its very comfortable, especially inside the helmet

Outside our hotel, The Hathor in Aswan.. a very reasonably priced and very decent hotel.

Aswan as seen from our hotel room

Aswan skyline … tall minuets

Camels in the back of a pickup heading north (like us) towards Cairo

Riding along by the Nile

Riding along by the Nile

One of many tourist carts being pulled by scruffy ponies in Luxor .. not for us thanks

Ancient Luxor

Wandering around the back streets of Luxor

Doing the tourist thing

Posing against the ancient statues in Luxor near the valley of the Kings.

Fanny posing against the ancient statues in Luxor with the Valley of the Kings in the background.

Lots of touts in Luxor ... all good natured banter, but wasting their time with us.

Lots of touts in Luxor … all good natured banter, but wasting their time with us.

The Nile .. our companion for many weeks

The Nile .. our companion for many weeks.

We had arrived at the port in the early morning and we managed to escape by late afternoon. As we left the customs area we were immediately stopped at a heavily armed police roadblock, one of literally hundreds we got stopped at during our stay in Egypt. Some were literally just a few hundred meters apart and it took considerable restraint not to point this out as the authorities re-checked our passports and driving licences again and again and again.

A policeman with AK47 variant of an assault rifle looked us up and down and then asked, ‘Where you come from?’

Me (clearly thinking this is stupid question at the Egypt/Sudan border) ‘ Sudan’

Policeman ‘What in bag?’

Me ‘ Our things’

Policeman ‘ Open up’

Me ‘OK’…. ‘It’ll take a bit of time… hang on a bit’

As I was getting off my bike to take off all the straps and open the panniers the policeman then said ‘ Ah.. no need, haha…’ and then added, ‘ Anything nice for me?’

Me ‘ I don’t pay bribes’ (eye to eye), ‘Actually I used to be a policeman and think policemen like you are an insult to the cloth, you make the job of honest, conscientious policemen more difficult and more dangerous’ rant rant…

Policeman (grinning like an imbecile and waving me on) ‘ haha .. you can go’

Policeman to Fanny ‘Where you come from?’

Fanny ‘China’

Policeman to Fanny ‘ You got present for me?’

I turned around and shouted ‘ HEY! – I TOLD YOU’

Policeman ‘Haha.. OK you go’

This encounter was reasonably common, although using my “I used to be a policeman” trump card and of course the language barrier prevented us actually handing over the prerequisite fifty pounds that many of the local Egyptians, expatriates and fellow travelers had to part company with all too often. Fanny maintained that I am a scary mad bugger and that most people are just happy to see the back of me. Well that’s a good thing.

Fanny in Luxor

Out exploring the sites in Luxor

All noses cut off statues .. why?

Stopping off for lunch by the banks of the River Nile

Stopping off for lunch by the banks of the River Nile

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We rode past armoured personnel carriers, tanks, dozens of soldiers on every corner and crossed over the heavily guarded Aswan Dam and into town which was very touristy, with Nile cruise ships moored end to end along the banks of the river. And then I saw them, glowing down at us, the golden arches… Ah!… McFul. Yum.

Some Germans we met in the desert in Sudan recommended an excellent hotel right in the middle of Aswan and we found it easily enough and managed to park our motorcycles safely around the back and were given a very decent room at a great rate.

The tourist industry was still reeling from the Spring revolution, the economic downturn and the repercussions of blowing tourists up with fire-bombs and so good deals were to be had, but on the negative side the touts in Aswan, and especially Luxor were swarming like flies and descended upon us whenever we stopped and were relentless in whatever pitch they were pitching. Felucca rides across the Nile and horse and cart rides through town being the most common. We even got asked if we want a taxi whilst sitting on our bikes. That’s desperate or dumb.

This was the first time for a while we saw, how do I put it, “common people”. Most of the tourists we had seen so far were the adventurous interesting types and people who get off the beaten track and read the travel sections of  the colour supplements in the broadsheets. Here in Egypt there were the sort of tourists who were too old to go to Ibeefaa, too fat to get on the rides at Alton Towers and were too slow booking themselves and the kids, Chesney and Tracy into Butlins at Skeggy. You know, Man United Torremolinos Watneys Red Barrel chip eaters with annoying regional accents. A snob?, I sincerely hope so, but mainly I just don’t like them or their vulgar ways– and don’t want the touts to keep bugging me as if my first name was Wayne.

Aswan, as well as having the American fast food chains, also had an HSBC bank and their cash points to completely empty my account, ice cream parlours, chip shops, a bazaar selling mostly Chinese tack, mosques on every street corner and a Catholic church. The latter, we enjoyed visiting, but I spared my heathen travel companion from having to attend a full Mass.

Aswan was also the location where extremist Muslims burnt down a Coptic Christian church, sparking a huge demonstration in Cairo that resulted in 30+ deaths. I even went for a haircut and my attempts to ask for a little off the sides were lost in translation, and for the first time in my life (as I was born with a long barnet) I had a completely shaven head. It was very comfortable but did look more William Hague, than Jean Luc Picard.

Most importantly there was 95 Octane petrol in Egypt and it was as cheap as chips, less than 8% of the price that people in the UK have to pay at their pumps. Since all oil actually costs the same for a barrel the variance between countries is due to the tax that governments levy so that revenues can be raised, for instance,  to fund aid payments to Africa where a lot of oil comes from in the first place. What a strange world we live in.

Crazy politics and economics aside, it meant we could ride our motorcycles cheaply throughout Egypt, and we would, putting thousands of kilometers on the clocks as we zigzagged across the country and back and forth across the Sinai peninsular, a particularly stunning and interesting part of the world.

But our next stop was Luxor, arguably Egypt’s most important city historically and so we followed the Nile northwards along rather shabby roads, and in a high state of alert as Egypt may very well have the world’s worst drivers. They are absolute shockers, worse even than those in China or India. We both found the atrocious driving standard very stressful and very annoying.

Local farms by banks of Nile near the Valley of the Kings

Faluccas sailing down the Nile near Valley of the Kings

Valley of the Kings, Luxor

You don’t see those everyday when out for a motorcycle ride

Still taking in the sites … a motorcycle is definitely the way to do it and avoid the touts and go where you feel like.

Ancient Egypt at night

Ancient Egypt at night

Ancient ruins in Luxor lit up at night

The ubiquitous Peugeot

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Maybe the ubiquitous old Peugeot cars are to blame for the poor driving, but most likely its because everyone is too busy shouting into their mobile phones as they drive along.  I even saw a taxi mount a curb as the driver attempted to tackle a roundabout with one arm twisted on the wheel and the other stubbornly clutching the telephone to his ear. Rather than putting the mobile phone down to use both arms to control the car he preferred to continue talking and veer off and into some pedestrians on a footpath. Every car we saw, whether new or old, is covered in scrapes.

White lines, it seemed, are for aiming along rather than delineating lanes to drive in,  and vehicles always swing left before turning right and visa versa. Unexpected U-turns, stopping in the fast lane, speeding, drifting, macho acceleration, erratic maneuvers, double and triple overtakes, and a complete disregard for other road users is common place.  There were even young children recklessly driving old Fiats and Peugeots with their foot constantly buried into the accelerator and their hand glued to the horn.

Often vehicles would draw up along side our bikes while we were nervously riding with inches to spare and the driver and occupants would just grin at us like idiots and ask  questions that we couldn’t hear in our helmets.  And the worst for a motorcycle, being converged on from the left and the right at the same time causing nerve-wracking evasive action to prevent a collision. And yes… our headlights are always on… no need for everyone to keep telling us by waving and miming to us to turn them off. We call it a safety precaution in developed countries so that motorcycles can be seen.

It seems if its Allah’s will that one should crash and die–then so be it. Insha’Allah (إن شاء الله)

When we got to Luxor we searched around and found a marvellous little hotel in a very moody narrow lane in the old town called “Happy Land”, — www.luxorhappyland.com

The motorcycles were parked under our balcony in the street and apart from the occasional kid who would sit on them, or use them as a background to take pictures, they were safe and secure. I also got a chance to do some routine maintenance in peace such as chain adjusting and oiling.  The bikes were absolutely fine. Nothing wrong with them, although the front off road M/T 21 tyres really needed changing back to the 50/50 Pirelli Scorpion M/T 90s, which I would do later.

We took the Adventure R (my one) and Fanny rode pillion as we explored the sites of Luxor, museums, temples, and over to the west side of the Nile to explore the Valley of the Kings. Again we paid for nothing as we rode around famous statues and monuments, occasionally chased off by security people who would make some half hearted effort to catch us.

The only tourist site we actually paid for in Egypt was entry into the Egyptian museum in Cairo which was absolutely awesome.  I would like to know why all the statues have their noses missing. Theories include Alexander the Great defacing them, the style of sculpting and conspiracies against black Africans (yawn).  A prize of a mystical healing crystal pyramid to the person with the best answer in our comments.

After a few days of playing the tourist we were getting a bit bored and I had been pouring over the maps wondering whether to follow the Nile to Cairo or head east to the Red Sea.

‘Where to then, Fanbelt?’ I asked.  Red Sea was the reply and so we turned right at Qena and very soon left the greenery of the Nile and back into the desert… our destination Al Hurghada.

Typical stretch of Egyptian highway.. not that busy here… but around Cairo and the north very hectic.

Hurghada and chips

Cruising across the rocky desert towards the Red Sea coast

Cruising across the rocky desert towards the Red Sea coast

Never Eat Shredded Wheat .. sun sets in west so must be heading north (ish).

Never Eat Shredded Wheat .. sun sets in west so must be heading north (ish).

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As we approached the coast we descended through some spectacular mountains and then we saw the sea, an amazing turquoise blue that stretched from north to south as far as the eye could see. The town of  Al Hurghada was stretched along the coast and as we got nearer it looked like a construction site, or perhaps, as I suspected, an ambitious tourist industry project that ran out of funds. There were miles and miles of unfinished hotels and resorts, concrete skeletons stark against the azure of the water. There were also high end tourist coaches, with curious occupants, mostly European peering down and pointing at us as we roared passed them on the bikes. I presume they had been picked up at the airport and were being ferried to their resorts. Their journey being considerably shorter than our own.

We continued following the signs to the centre of town and it was even more touristy than Luxor or Aswan. Hurghada was a location one sees posted on the windows of UK high street travel agents, except it became obvious that it was probably advertised much more in Moscow or St.Petersberg. There were Russian signs everywhere and we were to see many Russian shot-put figured women and some more svelte like glamour models with their James Bond baddie boyfriends.

We stopped off at a roadside cafe in the bustling high street and had a late lunch and thought about what to do next. Finding a place to stay seemed logical and Fanny used the free WiFi which was everywhere to research budget hotels and we found the perfect one. The Sea View Hotel http://www.seaviewhotel.com.eg/ in the old town area and when we found it we booked into a very clean and simple room.  In fact all the Egyptian budget places were superb when compared with those we had seen in Ethiopia or Sudan. I would have much preferred to camp, but in this part of north Africa it seemed this wasn’t a common option.

At the request of the hotel owner, our bikes were parked outside on the pavement next to the entrance, much like Chinese mansion gate lions. The owner was a larger than life character with mannerisms and an accent that reminded me of one of the Greek or Egyptian entrepreneur types characatured so well by Matt Lucas and David Walliams in their comedy sketches. He did run a very good place and had very friendly and helpful staff, especially the manager. Sea View was a good choice.

We were persuaded to book a whole days snorkeling on a cruise boat for a total of ten Euros each and so I was not expecting much, but we were taken by a very competent crew, on a top quality diving boat to several of the best reefs in the area. This included the snorkeling equipment, a water guide, lunch and at the end of the day an impromptu party and dancing.

I actually hate organised trips of any kind and especially boat trips. In Hong Kong people would often hire a junk and spend the day cruising the islands around the territory, swimming, partying and drinking beer…finishing off the day with a seafood dinner at one of the restaurants on Lamma Island, Cheung Chau or Lantau.  Whilst this may sound a great way to spend a weekend for many, I hated such trips and used to count down the seconds until I could get off the boat and go paragliding in Sek O, go running, or ride my motorbike.

In the Royal Hong Kong police we would have a day off each year to take our respective teams or units that we commanded on the “Annual Launch Picnic” that involved taking the team off on a boat to some government facility on an island where the team would play Mahjong, drink beer and eat strange things incinerated on a barbecue.  I enjoyed the company of my colleagues and especially seeing them enjoying themselves. It was good for morale, team spirit and esprit de corp, but I secretly hated every minute and longed to be back on the streets and back alleys with triads, bank robbers and investment bankers.  Its a strange thing I know, but I really do not like boat trips.

Fortunately on this boat trip it did not last long before we got to the snorkeling sites which were superb. I hadn’t been to the Red Sea before and I have to say it was one of the best places in the world to scuba dive, snorkel or just wallow about in the sea. Most importantly, Fanny was enjoying herself and that made up for everything.

Fanny and I going on a day trip snorkeling in the Red Sea near Hurghada… stunning water and amazing marine life and coral.

Getting ready for snorkeling

Getting ready for snorkeling

Very reasonably priced days out on a boat to go snorkeling in beautiful seas

A very reasonably priced snorkeling trip to some beautiful reefs and coral islands.

Hurgharda diving and snorkeling

Lots of other diving boats doing the same thing.

Diving boats

Quite busy,  but a lot of fun for 10 Euros

Crystal clear waters

Crystal clear waters

Our KTMs together with Miquel and Alicia’s BMWs outside our hotel in Al Hurghada

Miquel and Alicia from Spain outside our hotel… BMW meets KTM

Alicia and her globe trotting BMW GS800

Alicia and her globe trotting BMW GS800

Alicia's BMW GS800 lowered for her.. Not much ground clearance

Alicia’s BMW GS800…..not much ground clearance for those rocks later on in north Kenya…!!

Saying farewell to Alicia and Miquel who were heading off south on their loaded up BMWs. They were two of a few globe trotting adventure bikers we met on our own big bike trip.

Soldiers across the road … they were everywhere in Egypt

Fanny and I riding about exploring the area on my R … there were lots of unfinished hotel and holiday complexes throughout Egypt and some resorts had more unfinished projects than competed ones.

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Whilst on the boat I saw my first Egyptian “duck“, not the feathered kind but the gigolo type. This particular chap had got charming middle aged and rather unattractive ladies down to a fine art and on this occasion he was with an exceedingly “plain” looking middle aged British woman. I guess it was the opposite way around to the western old farts one sees in Thailand, the Philippines etc…with their young female chickens.

I have nothing against this entrepreneurial activity at all, provided consent is mutual and age is appropriate, and on this particular occasion his lady seemed to be having the time of her life, being given all the affection and attention any women could possibly want and probably hadn’t had in a long time. I guess its not only the sun that makes a perfect holiday.

Whilst we were in Hurghada we tried to get a ferry across to Sharm El Sheikh which is on the southern tip of the Sinai peninsular and apparently much better than Hurghada in terms of beauty and marine life. However, despite the distance being less than 20 kilometers, all the ferries had been cancelled and the only way was to ride over a thousand kilometers all the way to Suez, go underneath the canal and then back down south again to Sharm El Sheikh. So that is what we planned to do  in a few days time, and in the meantime we would explore Al Hurghada on our bikes and enjoy the many wonderful seafood restaurants and tea houses.  

Whilst riding back to our hotel, no helmet, wearing the classic motorcycling attire of  shorts, flip flops and an Arabic headscarf, I saw two BMW adventure bikes, all kitted out with the latest accessories by the side of the road. I stopped and introduced myself to the two riders, Alicia and Miquel, two Spanish riders who had just arrived from Italy and were looking for a place to stay. The hotel they were looking at was over three hundred pounds a night and I recommended our hotel, which was less than a quarter of that price and so they followed me back and booked in. It was great to meet them and a very welcome opportunity to chat with fellow bikers and swap notes.

Miquel told me they were riding around the world and following the routes of Spanish explorers over the ages. After being educated where most of these places actually were it seemed that they were embarking on an adventure of considerable note. It was a well planned expedition, perhaps better than our own and certainly better financed as they had secured sponsorship from many different motorcycle and accessory companies, and a major deal with the accounting firm, BDO.

I must say I was a bit down when I reflected upon the fact we had managed to secure no sponsorship or help whatsoever from anyone, save two water proof bags from a generous manufacture in China.  In fact, I had no idea how to go about publicizing and marketing our trip and indeed whether there was any commercial value to any organisation in doing so. Miquel, however, was an expert at sponsored adventure motorcycling and also the author of four travel books and this particular trip was providing the material for a fifth book. His website is at http://www.miquelsilvestre.com/

Of course they were riding BMWs, an enormously successful automotive company that has a global network and very a well oiled marketing strategy. BMW motorcycles were reaping the rewards of successful campaigns like the “Long Way Down”, “Long Way Round” and “Race to Dakar” TV series and also the adventures of real riders like Miquel and Alicia.  Through their adventures mere mortals could live vicariously and emulate their lifestyle by owning a BMW adventure motorcycle and of course other accessories such as enduro jackets, trousers, boots and helmets.

I actually think BMW make quite good bikes.  I wouldn’t mind a GS 1200/800 Adventure or an S1000RR myself… I would also like a Yamaha XT 660/ 600/500,  a Triumph XC 800, a Ducati Multistrada 1200, a CF Moto 700 Adventure and a classic Honda Africa Twin 750. I like all motorcycles and have owned many different types of the yars.  However for what we were doing I really think our KTM motorcycles are the very best on the market and are designed and engineered to go anywhere and ride on any surface. Real tough globe trotters.

Alas, KTM are not that great at marketing nor very interested in people like Fanny or myself. Unless you are going to win the Dakar or a Rallye Raid in the Atacama desert KTM will not sign you up for sponsorship or assist in anyway.  Maybe with the release of the new KTM 1190 Adventure they may be able to haul in BMWs dominance of the market, but I suspect without a shift in their marketing strategy and an improvement in their global after sales support it will be unlikely…. sadly.

Relaxing in Old Hurghada and having our lunch with some delicious Bedouin tea

Superb seafood restaurants throughout Al Hurghada

Fanny chilling out.

Fanny having an in growing toe nail removed by a local doctor .... ooow!

Poor Fanny having an in growing toe nail removed by a local doctor …. Ouch!

Out about town for lunch

Out and about town and trying out more of the delicious Egyptian food

 

Our bikes

Our bikes loaded up and ready to ride

 

Another road block

One of hundreds of police and army road blocks we had to ride through. For many of us from the west we take for granted our freedom to go where we like.

 

Idling in the day and idling at night... Shark Bay

Idling in the day and idling at night… Shark Bay

Shark Bay

Our hotel room and view at Shark Bay

Snorkeling with my Go Pro

Snorkeling with the Go Pro camera (before it got stolen outside mosque)

Our hotel at Shark Bay in Sharm El Sheikh

Our hotel at Shark Bay in Sharm El Sheikh

Off roading

Off roading in the desert… My bike in the distance dodging the litter.

An Egyptian tank in the desert ... there were lots

An Egyptian tank /armoured personnel carrier in the desert … there were lots

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Anyway, we were back on the road again and heading north along the east coast of mainland Egypt … the Red Sea on our right and the rose coloured rocky mountains on our left. The scenery would have been quite pleasant if it wasn’t for the numerous oil fields and the noxious smells coming from the refineries. Not very pleasant, but it does clear the sinuses. Egyptians, like the Chinese actually, have a habit of throwing their rubbish in the streets, by the side of the road or into rivers and canals and so any areas with populations nearby always had lots of human detritus everywhere which was a bit depressing to see.

As I was riding along I reflected upon the fact that Egypt is actually a very lucky and privileged country. It sits on huge oil and gas reserves and has some of best tourist sites in the world. The beauty of the Red Sea and surrounding deserts is unmatched, and of course it has the legacy of Ancient Egyptian and the wonders and treasures it left behind.The Suez canal generates incredible revenues due to the huge commercial shipping traffic that uses it as a short cut between Europe to Asia. Whats more, and probably not appreciated by many people in the world, the Nile Delta is one of the most fertile and productive agricultural regions in the world. I really hope following the over throw of the Mubarak regime that it remains accessible to people like us, secular and tolerant… unlike some of its middle east neighbours.

As we were heading north along the coast of the Red Sea we thought we would stop in El Gounawww.elgouna.com a new development aimed at the well healed who want every convenience and luxury right on their doorstep without having to leave the pool. To get there we left the main coastal highway and rode eastwards along a dry sandy track and then through some gaudy gates…. and then we saw it… brand new, soulless and expensive. Definitely not our cup of tea. It was one of those plastic resorts that the new moneyed adore and old money hates. Disneyland, the Stepford Wives and Discovery Bay (Hong Kong) all rolled into one.

We had a drink at a bar that could have been anywhere in the world, looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and both said in unison  ‘Let’s get out of here’.

Because of the stop at El Gouna and because we had failed in several attempts to camp in the desert, having been chased away by soldiers and police, we had not made the progress we had hoped for that day. Just after it had got dark we arrived in a very small town called Ras Gharib and booked into the only hotel, right next to the petrol station. In every respect the perfect adventure biking resting place…. cheap, good food, a secure corridor inside the hotel to park our bikes, some interesting people to talk to and a petrol station outside selling 95 Octane fuel at 40 cents a gallon.

Later in the evening, whilst eating some excellent fish, we met the owner of the hotel, who, if he had been wearing a Fez, would have looked like one of those Egyptian police characters in a Peter Sellers movie. He was an interesting chap though and very well traveled with a home in Germany and several in Cairo and other parts of Egypt. He was quite an entrepreneur and visionary and knew very well that Chinese tourists and businessmen were coming to Egypt in increasing numbers and so he had set up a small stall selling instant noodles. ‘I buy them for five pounds and sell them for eleven– good,eh?

‘Yes, they like noodles’, I replied ‘You’re going to be a rich man’. This endorsement of his cunning plan by two people from China really seemed to cheer him up.

The next morning we continued our ride towards the tunnel under the Suez canal and after more army and police check points we were in the Sinai. For the first time in a while we were heading southwards with the sun setting to our right hand side.  We got to Sharm El Sheikh in the late afternoon after some pretty fast and enjoyable riding along very good tar roads with only a short stop at an oil refinery town along the way for some falafels and bedouin tea

Sharm El Sheikh, at the most southerly tip of the Sinai peninsular, was a pretty impressive place with many high end hotels, luxury resorts and beautiful beaches. It was also one of the world’s greatest diving locations and after following the GPS coordinates for the town’s seemingly only camp site we arrived at Sharks Bay. Unfortunately the GPS information was four years out of day and the area had been developed into a resort. It appeared that there were no camp sites any more in Sharm and as it was late we checked into one of the rooms and stayed for three days, mostly snorkeling and idling about. Wish I had something more interesting to report but that was basically it. A typical beach resort holiday.

The room was nice, but we were both getting a bit bored and it was costing too much and so we rode about 70 kilometers north to Dahab and found a very peaceful and beautifully located former Bedouin fishing village, now one of the best diving and water sports locations in Egypt. We checked into Ghazala http://ghazaladahab.com/ , a very laid back and pleasant beach side lodge and after a day of idling about started thinking where we should go next and how.

We have been exploring all sorts of options to get from Egypt to somewhere in Europe. We were very nearly successful as the Chinese Ambassador to Egypt stepped in to help Fanny and arranged a COSCO cargo ship to take us from Port Said in Egypt to Piraeus port in Greece. The arrangement needed approval from COSCO’s headquarters in Beijing and when we heard it had been granted we had to get to Port Said as soon as possible to prepare the paperwork and get the bikes loaded onto the ship.

We decided that instead of taking the same highway back to the Suez Canal that we would ride across the desert and see Saint Catherine’s monastery on the way.

The road from Dahab to the monastery was motorcycling heaven. Long stretches of twisting and turning tar through desert mountains and valleys. Stunning colours, blue blue skies and a perfect temperature. Both Fanny and I were riding quite fast, but I had already changed my front tyre back to the M/T 90 Scorpion semi road one. Fanny on the other hand still had the knobbly M/T 21 rally cross tyre on her front wheel and so cornering at 180 kilometers per hour was not a good idea.

I was thoroughly enjoying racing about and would blast ahead and scorch around the bends, accelerating out of the apex in the power band causing the wheel to rise up and then to over 200 kilometers per hour before finding the line through the next corner. Great fun, but at these speeds the 150 kilometers was covered in no time at all. It might sound irresponsible to ride at such speeds, but there is always a time and place for everything, and if I am going to meet my maker, then the oldest working monastery in the world and where Moses received the Ten Commandments was probably a good place.

Fanny was uninfluenced by my biker hooliganism, quite rightly she rode at whatever speed she thought was safe and appropriate for her regardless of what I did.  Often I would take a break and wait for her to catch up and we would carry on. Both of us reduced speed considerably as we cruised into the spectacular valleys below Mount Sinai. Wow!

Mount Sinai is not the highest mountain in the range, but it is a truly special and spiritual place and one I remember learning about from about the age of six or seven. At this impressionable age, I was fortunate to attend The Holy Rosary Primary School in Burton Upon Trent, Staffordshire, right in the heart of England. It was here that Miss Hingorani, Mrs Nelson and their colleagues forged lasting memories about Greek mythology, the Holy Lands, ancient history, inventors and their inventions, and instilled in me the fascination for geography, travel and natural history that I maintain today.

Now many years later Fanny and I had ridden all the way from our home in South Africa and were in the Holy lands staring up at Mount Sinai.

Saint Catherines monastery was situated in the sort of location I would build a monastery if I was so inclined. I had been to Buddhist monasteries in Yunnan and Zhejiang in China and it seemed that beautiful, remote and peaceful locations is a common theme in the grand scheme of selecting a location for a monastery. Fanny and I explored the buildings, but on this occasion we did not see the icons inside because it was closed. It has been a working monastery since 300 A.D so I guess a day off is taken occasionally.

The monastery is named after the Christian martyr, Catherine of Alexandria who was tortured on a wheel and then beheaded. The Guy Fawkes, November the 5th “Catherine Wheel” firework is named after this grisly bit of human ingenuity. It is said her remains were taken by angels to Mount Sinai and later found by the monks in the monastery below.

Fanny of St Catherines

Fanny of St Catherines

The Sinai desert

The Sinai desert

Rupert & Fanny in the Sinai

Rupert & Fanny in the Sinai

On the way to St Catherines across the Sinai desert

On the way to St Catherines across the Sinai desert

Mountains in the heart of the Sinai

Fanny and I leaving Ghazala Hotel in Dahab… little did we know we would return and spend months living in Dahab

Riding through an oasis town in the Sinai

Always glorious sunsets … each evening the sky passed through the many colours of the rainbow until it was pitch black and studded with the light of countless stars and galaxies

St Catherines Monastery

Mount Sinai

St. Catherines

Riding about in the Sinai desert

Fanny peaking out of the monastery

Fanny peaking out of the monastery

Middle of the Sinai

Middle of the Sinai with impressive mountain cliffs and sand dunes

Me at St Catherines

At St Catherines Monastery with Mount Sinai behind me

Fanny and I riding around Dahab

Fanny and I riding around Dahab.. Nobody wore helmets in Egypt and neither did we as we pottered about on the bikes in shorts and swimming gear … armed with snorkeling kit. If we went off road riding in the dunes or if we went for a longer ride we would get the protective gear on again.

Dahab

Dahab.. our home for four months….

Bikes parked up in Dahab

Bikes parked up in Dahab just before headed off…

Wandering around Dahab

Wandering around Dahab

The fine art of idling (Dahab)

The fine art of idling .. Bedouin style

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Since we had to be in Port Said early the next day we had to press on and so we rode across the Sinai desert, passing through oasis villages lined with palm trees. One oasis that we sped through was called Ferrari, a good name for a village to race through.

As we neared the coast we suddenly rode into a sand storm which was quite a scary experience on a motorcycle and a bit claustrophobic. Due to the strong winds, the bikes were riding at a considerable lean and sand was blowing through the cracks in my visors and into my eyes and mouth. I was worried it was getting into the engine air filters and we had no alternative but to slow down considerably. I realized we would not make a further 200 kilometers to Port Said and so we stopped at a small town and booked into the first hotel we saw.

‘How much for a room?’ I asked the manager

‘Three hundred’, came the reply

‘Sorry, that’s too much’.

‘How much you want to pay’, he quickly said as we were turning around.

‘I was thinking fifty’, I answered hopefully

The manager made a sort of disapproving snort, but we made an agreement and I was handed the keys to a pretty decent room overlooking the beach and Red Sea.

As I was filling out the registration forms in the reception I suddenly realized we were the only guests in a hotel that had a potential capacity of over a hundred. The sun had gone down and the manager, the only person we saw,  disappeared after taking our cash and photocopying our passports and I suddenly thought of the hotel in the movie,The Shining.  It was slightly spooky to be the only people in a fairly sizable hotel. Joking to Fanny that there was not a scary maze outside did not calm her nerves.

About an hour later Fanny received a call from Mr. Xu from COSCO shipping company in Port Said stating that the Greek authorities in Piraeus were demanding a pointless and unnecessary “indemnity letter” from COSCO. Unfortunately, being a Chinese State Owned shipping company COSCO could not provide us with one as we were not their employees. They were just trying to help us, but the Greek authorities were being awkward and inflexible.

Fanny had a Schengen visa for all EU countries for a year and as I am British I held an EU passport which Greece was still a member of at the time. We had Carne de Passages for both motorcycles ( which were not required for Greece anyway), we had European motorcycle insurance, and we were riding Austrian motorcycles that adhered to the strictest EU emission controls. If we were to arrive at a Greek road border on our bikes there would be no issue and so we were confused why this demand was being made and annoyed the well intentioned plans of the Chinese authorities to help us had been scuppered.

Mr Xu was sorry, but he said we would not be able board the ship and so we were back to square one as Syria was in the early stages of a civil war and was no longer issuing visas. In any case Fanny is Chinese and China were supporting the Assad regime and I am English and the British were supporting the rebels. Between the two of us we would no doubt upset everyone in Syria. We could not go east either as Fanny, being a woman of course, was not allowed to ride a motorcycle in Saudi Arabia, and we could not go west as Libya was in the throes of armed rebellion.

We were stuck.

Egypt – Part. 2 to follow…..

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 was just as well as within a few minutes it was pitch black and the air filled with the sound of various beasties and birdies howling, growling, squawking and squeaking.

When we arrived at Aruba Bushcamp we were warmly welcomed by the staff who had been expecting us and I felt a mild sense of cheng jiu gan (sense of accomplishment) and quite a bit of ru shi zhong fu (sense of relief) as Fanny reminded me, keeping up my Chinese lessons and practice. After our now extremely well practiced and fast pitch of our tent and tidy up of our kit and bikes we went to the very nice game lodge restaurant where we had a superb dinner alongside various people who were on their safari holiday and who had arrived with Gucci style suitcases and luggage, wearing kharki green and leopard skin pattern “Out of Africa” ensembles, and no doubt having had far less exciting journeys to Masai Mara on Virgin Atlantic or private charter flights. I reflected on this and on the fact that its true… money can’t buy you everything.

The food and cold beer was very welcome and we ate in exhausted silence until a very muddy Fanny suddenly piped up with, ‘I think I’ve mastered this off roading now’.  Indeed, she had done extremely well, but still had a lot to learn and she still kept dropping her bike unnecessarily and making me mad as I would have to keep repairing the damage and banging out the dents in her panniers. But really, she really had done very well and made a lot of progress and I was very proud of her. Not bad for six months riding experience and on top of a thousand cc best of breed adventure bike.

The next day we went off in search of a vehicle and driver who could take us for a game drive into the Masai Mara park. Motorcycles, as we learnt trying to get into the Serengeti in neighbouring Tanzania, are not allowed in game reserves. I have actually ridden my bike in a game reserve in South Luangwa in Zambia and I have to say on reflection it really isn’t a good idea. It does scare the animals. Elephants in particular hate motorcycles, and stating the obvious, it isn’t very safe.

After wandering about the local village and inadvertently running into a pitched and very noisy battle between a pack of village dogs and a troop of baboons we found a driver who was willing to accept a lower fee than that offered by the drivers in Aruba camp.  He showed us his Land Cruiser which looked perfectly up for the job and he asked, as it was just the two of us, whether he could bring his friend, a Masai herdsman who was a great game spotter. Perfect.

The safari was awesome and lived up to all our expectations and more. We drove with hundreds and thousands of wildebeest and zebras which could be seen as far as the eye could see. The plains were spectacular, surprisingly lush green in colour and teeming with life. It is real “Lion King” country and must have influenced the animators of the movie with the scenery and atmosphere. I really liked the Kudu and Eland antelopes which were in huge numbers and looked very shiny and healthy.

Stopping off for lunch in Kenya with other bikers from Jungle Junction

It was very muddy on some of the trails

We literally ran into this lioness that was sleeping under a bush

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What a strange creature.

My bike with an extra 20 liters of petrol in a battery acid drum I found in Nairobi. This provides about 280- 350 kilometers depending on how fast and in what conditions we are riding. I’ll admit, not the safest way and if I had the money I would have invested in the after market 45 liter tanks for both bikes. That said it worked.

Lots of mud and puddles. The great migration follows the rains and now these rains and the lush grasslands was in Kenya

Our camp site at the gate of the Masai Mara game reserve. Tea anyone?

Some of the Wildebeest that often stretched out as far as the eye could see. Definitely something to see on life’s bucket list.

Me

I believe this is now called a “selfie” … a horrible new word that sprang up while we were on the road.

Good fun on the dirt roads

A cheetah lolloping along …. one of my favourite animals and the fastest mammal on the planet.

Our campsite and a fire ready to be lit when the sun goes down

Fanny and our Masai guide in front of dozens of hippos in the river

Going for a game drive and crossing one of many water ditches left by the rains

Beautiful antelope

There were lots of very well fed lions … not surprising given the huge number of game everywhere

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Fanny was really taken with the warthogs and how they ran along with their tails up like aerials with the babies following behind in single file.  We followed a mother warthog and her babies into the bush and were surprised when they suddenly doubled back towards us in alarm. We immediately saw why. They had literally run into a lioness and roused her from her sleep under a bush. She seemed a bit put out by this and was looking left and right in a confused manner as if dinner had just landed on her plate and then disappeared.

We looked at the lioness for a while and she looked back at us and then we reversed away and immediately got a puncture. Fanny and I looked at each other with amusement and with a little bit of apprehension, ‘Now what?’  We were a little surprised when our Masai guide jumped out the vehicle right next to the lioness, kicked the tyre, muttered something in Swahili, threw at rock at the lioness and then asked us (from our lookout on the roof of the Land Cruiser) to keep an eye out for her mates while they changed the wheel.

A bit of fun and drama added to the tour, after which we carried on, spotting cheetahs, buffalos, hippos, giraffes, eagles, vultures, jackals, and of course thousands and thousands of wildebeest and zebras.

There was a leopard up a tree across a river, but there had been a lot of rain and it was flooded and we couldn’t get across the swollen river to get a better look. The high waters also took a few human victims and on several occasions we rescued fellow tourists who were stranded in their two wheel game mini buses in the middle of rivers, their occupants looking anxiously and nervously out of the windows.

I think it was one of the best game drives I had been on. Our driver and guide were great fun and very knowledgeable, we were at the right place at the right time to see the great migration and the weather was kind to us. We got up early the next day, abandoned Jose and Moa to get their bike transported back to Jungle Junction, to get repaired yet again and we headed off along  Masai herdsmen trails and across the vast grasslands and bush back towards the human settlement and detritus of Nairobi.

Fanny was going from strength to strength and at one stage we rode off road together with thousands of running wildebeest twisting and turning like a large flock of birds. We decided to stay off the dreadful road as much as possible and followed trails inaccessible to cars and four wheeled vehicles through village after village and across lush mountain pastures, navigating through zebras, antelope and Masai domestic cattle and goats.

Fanny and I on a game drive in the park

The things you see. Fascinating.  Here a western hemisphere Homo Sapien family in a two wheel drive minibus get