Welcome to my new blog Cork to Cape - the second leg of my round the world motorcycle adventure. As some of you know my first trip took me down through Central and South America on the back of a BMW R1100GS. This trip will take me from Ireland to South Africa on an F800GS. My goal is to take my time, enjoy the ride, meet new people and volunteer along the way. I welcome everyone to view and enjoy the blog, add comments and give me any advice on special places to see or people to meet. And, of course, if anyone wants to join me for a section of the journey or if there is a place you always wanted to visit, please come along.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Distant Relatives

Day 416

Milage 32,012 (51,219 kms)

Kongo River sunset
The wave of momentum that brought me to the East coast of Kenya has receded leaving me fighting a growing sense of inertia, unwilling to embark on the next leg of this long voyage, torn between the unknown and the known, where I am comfortable. The friends I arrived with have long since departed to return to their lives elsewhere and for a while I thought it would be best for me to leave too before the loneliness settles in and I find myself with no other company than my own. Had I stopped anywhere else I would have moved on many days ago but this region of the coast has an allure strong enough to soothe my wanderlust, for now. It has been refreshing to spend time getting to know a region and its people, however briefly. I have found a peaceful retreat far from the busy roads and pathological drivers, on the shores of a large lagoon by the Indian Ocean. Thatched cottages nestle amidst the dense jungle on a hillside overlooking the azure waters of Kilifi bay, the atmosphere here is nothing short of magical, attracting an eclectic group of travelers and explorers from around the world. The natural surroundings, fresh air and distant hiss of the ocean waves make for the perfect place to challenge my growing feelings of disconnection. The nature of this journey often sees me drifting through countries, briefly meeting new people but always being drawn further south towards my intended goal of reaching the end of the continent. Each departure brings with it a mixture of excitement at what lies ahead and sadness at saying goodbye to the friends I have made along the way. With time to stop and reflect the realization is beginning to dawn that, for me, what makes life truly worthwhile is genuine, meaningful human contact.

Helping out at a local school in Kilifi
The people I have met and the energy I have felt during my extended stay at the Distant Relatives EcoLodge have made this entire journey worthwhile. It is hard to describe the sense of serenity that envelops this secluded location but it has been a long time since I have felt so at peace with where I am, grounded and complete. On leaving Ireland I’d always considered if I found a place along the way that felt perfect I could always stop and settle down for a while, the sleepy town of Kilifi could be that place. Cork to Kenya has a nice ring to it. Sadly, the region comes with it own unique set of difficulties but it attracts a host of interesting individuals who have been insightful, inspiring and enlightening. There are the determined group of young men and women building a traditional dhow along the coast with the intention of sailing it around the world, the dedicated film crew spending years inside Tsavo East National Park documenting the incredible and often tragic lives of its residents, the brave young woman with autism walking around Africa with two camels raising awareness of disabilities amongst remote tribal people, the quiet architect devoting her career to addressing the housing crisis facing the world’s poorest, the talented young photographer living in the slums of Kampala capturing the essence of life in the faces of its people, these are just a few of the amazing individuals with whom my path has crossed. And then there is my own companion who I brought along with me, Hendri Coetzee, ‘the greatest African explorer you have never heard of’.
Another deserted beach
Hendri's book
I worked with Hendri on the Zambezi River as a guide many years ago, we shared many good times together but as our lives drifted apart I lost touch with my old friend until I stumbled across his obituary in an adventure magazine in California. It initially came as a shock to hear of his death and I had hoped it was not the Hendri I’d known all those years ago but deep down I knew it could only be him. As our paths diverged I’d often arrive at a river only to hear he had just left the area but I was sure we would meet again at some point. As news of his death slowly filtered down through the news channels the details of his final expedition became clearer, snatched from his kayak by a large crocodile on the Lukuga River in DRC, Hendri had achieved more, in his short life, than many could hope to achieve in several lifetimes. Shortly before his death Hendri had been working on the manuscript for a book documenting his impressive list of expeditions. When Living the Best Day Ever was finally published in 2013 I was determined to pick up a copy to read of all his remarkable accomplishments. I finally located the book in Jinja, Uganda, but I’d had little time to give it the attention it deserved. It is only now that I have had the chance to sit peacefully and listen to Hendri’s voice. I’ve read many tales of adventures in foreign lands but this book stands apart form the crowd. What I’d thought would be the standard fare of lists of achievements turned out to be one of the most beautifully written, insightful books I have ever read. What begins as an account of a daredevil descent of the Nile River, from source to sea, gently evolves into the story of a much deeper journey into what drives his desire to explore Africa’s darkest regions. As he matures so does his prowess at capturing more than just the moment, delving deep into his own motivations and discovering that the true adventure lies within all of us. I assumed the book had such an effect on me because of the nature of my own travels or the brief friendship I had shared with Hendri but I have since met many people outside of our sphere who have been equally as touched. 

Takaunga coast, Kenya
Not far from Kilifi is the Tsavo East National Park, I drove through it on the way from Nairobi to Mombassa, the sparse vegetation of grasses and thorny Acacia bushes is dominated by massive Baobab trees randomly dispersed throughout the park, their thick trunks sharply contrasting their comical, spindly branches. As Kenya’s largest park, it is home to a diverse selection of wildlife none more impressive than the red elephants of Tsavo. These noble behemoths coat their hides in red mud to protect them from heat and insects and have long been a popular tourist attraction. Embedded deep within the park, a dedicated film crew is spending years patiently gathering footage of these enormous creatures and it is within this region that the largest elephant in the world, Satao roamed freely across the plains, until recently. I was fortunate enough to meet several members of the film crew and listen to their stories of life within the park, I had been ignorant to the story of Satao but the account of his savage slaying at the hands of ruthless poachers needs to be shared. Africa is throwing open its doors to foreign investment, selling off its natural resources at an alarming rate. No single state is pursuing these resources more aggressively than China, I’ve seen first hand evidence of this as I have moved south through the continent, infrastructure improvements are underway everywhere to facilitate a more efficient extraction. The Chinese often import their own labor from China and frequently use convicts for the dirty work, sometimes abandoning them when a project finishes. The far east has long been obsessed by a false belief that ivory brings luck and Africa has struggled for decades with the plague of poaching. All these factors combined with modern GPS tracking devices, night vision technology and automatic weapons have left Africa’s wildlife exposed and vulnerable, none more so than the elephants. Official statistics claim that approximately 90 elephants a year are butchered for ivory in Tsavo but it is widely believed the actual numbers may be ten times that amount. Collusion, corruption and apathy contribute to the problem. I’ve only seen pictures of Satao as he towered above his companions, his dark skin contrasting with his colossal white tusks, those who worked closely with the animal believed he was conscious that his proudest feature would make him a target, he would often try to hide them amidst the sparse bush. In the end it was a simple arrow fired from a primitive bow that took Satao down. Coated with a potent poison it is likely he suffered an agonizing death and we can only hope he was dead before his faced was cut off with chainsaws. In the last picture I saw of Satao he was lying alone, faceless, legs splayed, coated in vulture droppings amidst the red dirt of the Tsavo plains.

Diani Beach
The coastal region I am staying in has seen some disturbing events unfolding over the past two weeks, on June 15th and group of gunmen hijacked two vans before driving into the nearby village of Mpeketoni where they systematically murdered at least 60 people. Initial reports suggested it was the Somali Islamist group, al-Shabab, but in a recent development the Governor of the region was arrested by the Kenyan police adding to local suspicion that the attack originated closer to home. The attackers appeared to have targeted members of the ethnic Kikuyu tribe, the same tribe of the president of Kenya. The attack, which began in the evening lasted well into the night before the gunmen moved on to another village. In Mombassa, to the South, there have been more disturbances, targeted assassinations and riots as the security forces wrestle to control the situation. Growing up in Northern Ireland has left me somewhat skeptical of the official reports issued by the government and most of the locals seem to agree. Civil unrest and fear are powerful motivators when governments wish to impose more draconian laws upon their people. 

Late night sessions
Yet another inspiring individual I met while staying at Distant Relatives is the unstoppable Abby Brooke, driven by a desire to spread awareness of disabilities throughout the continent, Abby has embarked on a walk, not just any walk, she plans to cover the entire continent with two camels and a positive attitude. Disabilities within rural villages are often attributed to witchcraft and those afflicted are often shunned or hidden from their own communities. In a bid to enlighten and inform Abby is determined to show what a person with a disability is capable of.  It will take her many years to complete her journey but she has already walked extensively throughout Kenya and with her contagious enthusiasm and drive I doubt anything will stop her from achieving her goal.

Sundowners on my birthday
During my stay on the coast I’ve had ample opportunities to play with some of the most talented musicians in the region, jamming late into the night at the bar or on the beach I’ve learned much from each of them but I realize I still have a long way to go. Bringing a guitar on this trip was one of the best decisions I could have made but I am still, very much, a beginner with lots to learn. The more I know, the more I realize I don’t know but this path is not about arriving at the destination, it’s about all the incredible experiences you have along the way and Kenya has provided many of those. I will move on some time but for now I feel content, surrounded by good people in one of the most beautiful locations on earth. With my bike taking a well deserved break and my physical progress temporarily suspended it has given me time to focus on my inner journey.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Riding the wave

Day 394

Milage 31,092 (49,747 kms)
Why did the Chameleon cross the road?
A gentle breeze caresses the vivid purple flowers of the Jacaranda trees overhead, the atmosphere is warm and humid and the distant melody of reggae music floats through the air. Warm rain saturates the earth and the surrounding forest is bursting with life. Once again I find myself in a secluded slice of paradise, a quiet backpacker’s outside the sleepy town of Kilifi. It will be a lazy morning after a magical night of swimming amongst the sparkling phosphorescence at a nearby deserted beach. My journey has taken me East to the Indian Ocean and the tropical coast of Kenya.  A unique series of encounters with some of the colorful characters I met while in Uganda has caused me to backtrack and abandon my original intentions of visiting Rwanda and Burundi. I may return to that region but for now I am following the path of least resistance, opening my itinerary to the subtle suggestions offered by the people I’ve met and the conditions I have experienced. It is pleasantly rewarding to be this free, to go with the flow, to ride the wave and let the voyage wash over me, bathing in the moment and savoring each experience. Without expectations it is impossible to become disappointed.

Murchison Falls, Uganda
After four wonderful days at The Hairy Lemon I reluctantly returned to my bike and loaded my gear for the short ride to Uganda’s capital, Kampala. While visiting friends in Jinja I’d met an inspiring young teacher who had devoted her career to improving schools in Africa. She insisted I stop by on the way through Kampala so she could show me a little of her city at a deeper level than that of a tourist. What followed turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip so far. Knowing a local gives you access to a side of a destination you would otherwise miss and before long I was immersed in a world of some of Kampala’s more interesting characters. Dinner with one of Uganda’s top reggae artists at a beautiful house overlooking the city was followed by sundowners in one of Idi Amin’s former, palatial residences on the shores of Lake Victoria. Parties lasted well into the night and often finished only with the sunrise. As an outsider I was welcomed with overwhelming hospitality. 

I had planned to spend a few days in the city before turning North towards Murchison Falls National Park but over several drinks on a humid, blurry night my new friend, Katherine, decided she was ready for a road trip of her own so the following morning we loaded up her compact four wheel drive and hit the road. Murchison Falls, on the Nile River, is several hours North of Kampala. It is the narrowest of many cataracts on the world’s longest waterway where the river is reluctantly forced through a gap less than six meters wide. The huge volume of water responds with a fury that is both awe inspiring and chilling, as a kayaker it is hard to gaze upon such raw energy and not imagine yourself amongst it. Earth and air tremble but not even the clinging humidity can prevent a shiver of fear as you predict the outcome of each possible approach, simple yet final, it is without question, unsurvivable. As with fire, I find it hypnotic to gaze upon a river losing myself in deep contemplation. 
Message received 

A lively backpacker’s downstream provided a comfortable night’s rest aided by cold beer and locally grown, fresh food. We couldn’t resist viewing the falls from a different perspective so later that day we boarded a small boat for a gentle cruise up to the turbulent pools below the narrow cataract. Pods of hippo compete for riverfront access with solitary crocodiles while herds of majestic elephant gather to graze and bathe by the cool waters.  

From Murchison Falls we continued North along the dusty back roads through small towns and villages where children greeted our arrival with warm smiles and friendly waves. We camped further upstream by the equally impressive Karuma Falls where the river splits into three channels to cascade over a series of steep drops, sleeping to the sound of the powerful roar of angry white water. A local suggested we keep a fire going throughout the night to dissuade any elephants from coming too close to our camp and a nearby village provided us with an evening’s entertainment as we sought out a place to eat. Our arrival sparked a flurry of excitement, children would come to stare and smile at the outsiders invading their sleepy town, giggling at our strange clothes and behaviors. Reaching out to shake a hand would result in screams and laughter as they ran to a safe distance before slowly allowing their curiosity to prompt a return to within arms reach where the whole process would repeat itself. The adults would make polite enquiries as to our purpose, curious as to why we would come to simply look at the falls. At some point during the dark evening an elephant wandered into the village and the locals erupted into action, banging pots and pans to scare off the massive creature. I briefly joined in the chase only to see the wrinkled, grey rump of the imposing beast disappear into the pitch dark night. What followed were tales of constant harassment and adversity as the villagers struggled to protect their crops from these ravenous intruders. Until recently this region of Uganda was plagued by another, more sinister foe, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Joseph Kony’s band of viscous thugs who terrorized the lives of so many. Several locals displayed the scars of bullet holes and knife wounds, permanent reminders of a dark chapter in their lives which began with their abduction as children and ended with their eventual escape.

From Karuma we turned South, along the main highway to Kampala, a pitiful strip of crumbling asphalt through dense forest, where speeds are controlled by deep potholes and savage speed bumps, some so steep they have to be approached at an angle to avoid scraping the underside of your vehicle. It felt strange to be behind the wheel of a car but air conditioning and thumping tunes made it bearable. It reminded me on an old analogy I’d heard years ago, driving a car is like watching a movie, riding a motorcycle is like being a part of it. Later that day we stopped at a serene Rhino sanctuary, camping within the confines of a strong steel fence. We had planned to take a guided walk the following morning to see some of the local residents but as the sun set three of the prehistoric looking beasts wandered right up to our camp, intently grazing on the lush grass, oblivious to our presence. For an hour we stood within ten meters of these incredible creatures until a large, jealous male entered the scene. The grazing stopped and the tension rose until the new arrival displayed a surprising burst of speed, chasing off one of the younger males, the noisy pursuit continuing long after we had lost sight of them in the dense vegetation. We assumed the show was over until we noticed a large female nearby nursing a young calf. A well armed park ranger was able name each of the rhino’s and give us a brief synopsis of their habits and personalities, the eager young calf’s name was Uhuru, which means ‘Freedom’ in Swahili. Since I began this journey I’ve often been asked if I had a name for my bike and until this point I’d struggled to think of anything appropriate but Uhuru feels like a good fit.

African Fish Eagle
After six days on the road we returned to Kampala in time for yet another epic party. By sunrise, the following day, I had been convinced to change my route and return to Kenya to attend a wedding on the coast. The warmth and hospitality of my new friends made the decision an easy one so after a couple more days in Kampala I loaded my bike and began the long drive to the coast. I stopped in Nairobi to break up the journey, spending a day at Jungle Junction, trying to relearn the few Swahili words I had picked up on my previous visit. Several other over-landers were camped there although it was clear the recent bombings in Nairobi and Mombassa were still having a negative impact on local tourism. Most resorts are empty, prices have plummeted and too many people, reliant on the tourism industry, have lost their jobs. I picked up as much useful information as I could about the road I would be taking to the coast, traded contact information and got an early start, anxious to cover the last 500 kilometers on one of the busiest roads in Africa. Most of the imports and exports to and from this region of Africa go through the busy port city of Mombassa and there are few choices of roads approaching the sprawling town. As the road drops from the high plateau of the central highlands the temperature and humidity rise. It’s a well surfaced route but the speed bumps and heavy traffic make for a stressful ride. Heavy trucks and speeding coaches regularly pull into the oncoming traffic where size trumps all on-comers and motorcycles enjoy few privileges. I lost count of the number of times I was forced onto the hard shoulder with mere inches between my handlebars and the oncoming traffic. It was a tense ride with little opportunity to enjoy the spectacular scenery, the drop in elevation brought with it a change in vegetation. Immense Baobab trees dominated the terrain, their oversized trunks topped with disproportionately small branches looking as though nature had briefly lost it sense of balance. Just when I thought I was making good time I felt the back end of the bike begin to wallow and weave, on one of the evasive departures from the my lane I had picked up an acacia thorn sharp enough to penetrate my rear tire. It took just over an hour, my fastest time yet, to patch the hole and get back on the road. 

Kilifi Beach
By early evening I was pulling into Mombassa, a city in a state of constant gridlock, not helped by the countless police road blocks as they try to prevent another terrorist attack. It didn’t take long to find the backpacker’s hostel and although it had been a long day in the saddle I was energized by my new surroundings and keen to explore. As a busy port in an impoverished country Mombassa attracts more than its fair share of working girls willing to risk their lives in this HIV hotspot for the price of a few beers. It was hard to have a quiet drink without being surrounded by prostitutes eager to earn a few extra dollars from the gullible white man. From Mombassa I took the coastal road North to the quiet town of Kilifi, checking into a beautiful backpackers on the shores of a pristine lagoon where the water supports a unique algae that, when disturbed, lights up in the most magical display of phosphorescence, each wave creating its own sparkling light show. Swimming beneath the surface is like soaring through a swarm of fireflies, while wading in the shallows creates a ghostly trail of glowing, green iridescence. I spent two nights enjoying one of nature’s most beautiful spectacles, captivated by the perfection of the location. Soon it was time to join in the wedding celebrations and after a brief stop at a local market to pick up a pair of smart, if ill fitting, trousers the festivities began. Any reservations I had about being an outsider imposing upon the wedding of a couple I barely knew were quickly swept aside. Kenyan hospitality comes easily with no strings attached and I was soon enjoying a party of epic proportions amongst people who made me feel like one of their own. The beautiful ceremony was followed by music and dance that lasted well into the early hours of the following day, but it wasn’t to end there. The party simply moved to a new location and the revelry continued until I realized I’m not as young as I think I am and retired to catch up on some much needed sleep after a full 48 hours of good times with good people. 
My Beach

It has been an eventful and deeply enjoyable few weeks although I am thoroughly exhausted, while I am eager to get moving once again the lure of the peaceful coastline proved too seductive to resist so I found myself being drawn back to the same quiet backpackers outside the small town of Kilifi. It is time to review my planned route and come up with some new ideas as to how I want to proceed from here, rumors of hidden gems and cool locations along the coast, both North and South, abound but as much as I’d like to stop and explore further, the draw of South Africa sits at the back of my mind pulling me towards my original goal. There is much to see and do but the last few weeks have taught me to open my intentions and let chance meetings and serendipitous encounters play a more influential role on how I proceed. 
The End

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Paradise Found

Day 372

Milage 30,100 (48,160 kms)

I can see you
Measuring a journey in terms of distance covered or time elapsed provides only a superficial gauge as to what a voyage is truly about, it is the unique combination of experiences along the way, the highs and lows, the triumphs and disappointments that really give it life. Although the previous two weeks have seen me pass some significant milestones, it will be the people I have met and the experiences I have had that will remain longest in my memory as I look back upon this trip. It feels like only yesterday that my father kick started this journey into life in a cloud of smoke and a burst of noise on a damp morning beneath Shandon Tower on the south coast of Ireland. Just over a year later, I am sitting on an beautiful island in the middle of the Nile River, not far from its source at the north end of Lake Victoria. The roar of nearby rapids fills the air, challenged only by the occasional rainstorm that reminds me the wet season has finally arrived. The tin roof above my head amplifies the atmosphere as fat drops play percussion to a frantic rhythm. As suddenly as it starts the rain ceases and the sun emerges to slowly dry the saturated earth, this is a fertile land, they say if you spit on the ground something will grow. Red tail monkeys leap gracefully between branches, foraging for berries amidst the surrounding trees while the noble African Fish Eagle looks down from its perch, eyeing the river for its next potential meal. Countless species of colorful butterfly float between shade and sunlight while a large tortoise meanders its way through the lush, green grass, pausing occasionally to nibble on a particularly juicy stem before pondering its next move. A monitor lizard, over a meter long, basks upon a log in the heat of the sun and two bright emerald, green snakes slither between the rough cut rafters above my head, searching every nook and cranny for snoozing geckos. It is a stark contrast to where I began my journey. 

My new riding companion
After returning to Nairobi to consult the motorcycle guru, Chris Handschuh, as to what may be causing my bike to suddenly stop running I spent a couple of days switching parts around, testing and retesting, before reassembling the original components and trying it one more time. To my surprise everything worked perfectly but I was left with the frustrating dilemma of not knowing what caused the original malfunction. As with my previous alternator problem, a quick internet search revealed several forums from riders having similar issues. Now that I had the bike running and a viable roadside repair option I decided to push on with Chris’s Teutonic words of wisdom still ringing in my ears, ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.' Before leaving the city I decided to take one last, fateful trip into its chaotic centre. A late lunch in the downtown district with an old friend turned into a long discussion about Kenya, politics, corruption, tourism, corruption, gender equality, corruption, religion and corruption. Before I knew it, the sun had set and I was in downtown Nairobi after dark, a city with a shocking reputation for daylight robberies. As I walked back to my bike I tried to look brave by resisting the temptation of wearing my motorcycle helmet and gloves. On a positive note, I suddenly found myself being approached by some beautiful women who genuinely seemed interested in spending time in my company, flattered by the sudden attention I soon had my ego deflated by my friend who pointed out that these ladies were neither interested in my rugged good looks nor my charming personality, only how quickly we could exchange bodily fluids for hard cash. 

Sipi Falls, Mt Elgon
Back on my bike I was soon weaving my way between the late night traffic hoping the police would not mistake me for a Boda boda, the motorcycle taxis which are prohibited from using the roads after dark. I’ve ridden through Nairobi at several times of day and I’m happy to say there is no such thing as a rush hour in this great city, nothing can rush, ever. It is pretty much gridlock all the time through the downtown streets but, at least on a motorcycle you can make some progress. As I neared the edges of the city the pace of traffic began to pick up and, unknown to me, I was driving towards one of the milestones I had hoped I’d avoid altogether, my first crash. Roundabouts in Nairobi are governed by traffic lights, which would appear to defeat the purpose of having roundabouts in the first place. Installed by the Chinese there is probably some logic to their sequencing but each color is interpreted by the locals as a signal to either go or go faster. To add to the confusion a police officer is often added into the mix to ‘direct’ traffic but on this particular evening the officer on duty seemed to be too busy dodging the cars that were ignoring his frantic hand signals. As I entered the roundabout the driver of the mini van I was following decided the wide open space in front of him would be a perfect place to disgorge his passengers so he came to a complete stop in the middle of the roundabout. 

Calm before the storm

I am a cautious driver and I always try to predict the worse case scenario when I scan the traffic in front of me so I can be ready to react but even this performance was so outside the realms of logical behavior I didn’t see it coming. Mini vans, or Matatus, are the perfect size to block the view of anything beyond them, if they were empty it might be possible to look through the glass and out the other side but they rarely are, more often than not they are packed to capacity and beyond, each window revealing a collage of contorted faces and unidentifiable body parts. I swerved to avoid hitting the rear end of the mini van, missing it by inches, but as I turned the bike to correct my new trajectory my front wheel caught a piece of debris left behind from a previous accident. Losing traction under the front wheel while already at a precarious angel can result in only one outcome and I was soon sliding on my side to an inglorious stop. Before the police officer could think of a reason to issue a ticket I picked up the offending debris, threw it off the road, checked the bike for damage and got back on. As I completed my journey home and the adrenaline wore off I began to flex each limb, checking for tenderness and pain. Other than a few bruised ribs, a torqued back and several scratches there was no significant damage and a daylight inspection of the bike revealed the same, all the protection bars I had fitted performed perfectly. 

A potential replacement

With that reminder of how vulnerable I am on a motorcycle I packed my gear and prepared to leave Nairobi for the second time. I took a similar route into the Great Rift Valley but chose to camp along the shores of Lake Baringo, a freshwater lake famous for its bird life and hippo’s. As I set up my tent, several curious Vervet monkeys came to watch while birds of all shapes and sizes fluttered amongst the canopy above. It was only after dark that the hippopotamus made an appearance. Hippo’s spend most of their days wallowing in the cool waters only venturing onto land at night to graze along the shoreline. At around midnight I was awoken by the deep grunts of a large hippo pod as it came onshore to graze alongside my tent, often weighing over 3000 kilograms they need to consume roughly one-tenth of their body weight each night so the feeding frenzy kept me awake for most of the night. On more than one occasion I checked my tent for anything I thought might attract their attention, vividly aware that only a thin layer of nylon separated me from these immense, and often temperamental, beasts. By morning they had retreated back to the water but they quietly watched me as I packed up my tent, I was surprised to notice how close their footprints came to the edge of my tent. 

Shower with a view
I made an early start before climbing out of the west side of the Great Rift Valley towards the small town of Iten. Once home to one of Kenya’s former presidents, the roads were in remarkably good condition and I was soon lost in a rhythm of twists and turns, climbing and falling over spectacular ridge lines through deep valleys lined with coffee plantations. Crossing into Uganda was relatively easy, a swarm of ‘fixers’ surrounded the bike as soon as I pulled up assuring me that the process could only be completed with their costly help. Fortunately for me, one of the legacies of British colonization is that most signage is still in English, so after a sweaty couple of hours another frontier was quickly disappearing behind me. I noticed an immediate improvement in road conditions and driving etiquette but dark clouds hung ominously overhead and before long the first fat drops were splashing onto my visor, mixing with the dust and grime and making it almost impossible to see the road ahead. I pulled over at a fuel station and joined a large group of local bikers who were sheltering beneath the huge awning, my 800cc bike attracting a lot of attention. Before long I was answering the standard list of question about my bike and the journey, the maps I’d painted on the panniers providing a useful aid in explaining where I’d come from and where I was planning to go. Eventually the rain eased and the thunder and lightning abated so I decided to push on while I still had daylight. I verified some rough directions and soon realized that Ugandans really want to be helpful, even if they don’t know where a place is they will make something up so as not to disappoint. 

The strategy I’ve employed for route planning has evolved since the beginning of this trip, over the last few months I’ve been following the suggestions of people I have met along the way, typically those coming from the regions I am about to enter. It has served me well and taken me to some hidden gems I would have otherwise ridden past. A rider I’d met in Nairobi had suggested the detour up to Sipi Falls was well worth the effort so shortly after crossing the border I turned north, towards Mt Elgon. Cloaked in a mysterious blanket of mist, Mt Elgon failed to reveal itself over the few days I spent on its lower elevations. The caves that pepper its vast flanks were once thought to be the original source of the dreaded Ebola virus and with the wet season relentlessly drenching its summit, waterfalls cascaded over every exposed cliff face, the most impressive of which were located outside the tiny village of Sipi, high above the valley floor. Thoroughly soaked I pulled into a small eco-camp on the edge of the village and while the rain steadily fell I enjoyed my first Ugandan beer. I spent the following day exploring the nearby falls, soaked in sweat and caked in mud I clambered over rocks to the base of the tallest before pursuing the creek further upstream through the humid rainforest. 
From the village of Sipi I retraced my route back to the South before turning west towards the town of Jinja and the source of the White Nile. 
Source of the Nile
The Nile River has been a steady companion since I entered Africa, from the lazy waters of lower Egypt to the confluence at Khartoum, to the Blue Nile source in Ethiopia it has been a useful landmark and a willing guide. As I neared the town of Jinja and the impossibly vast Lake Victoria stretched off into the far distance I smiled to myself as I realized I had finally arrived at yet another milestone. For many years the White Nile has drawn whitewater enthusiasts from around the world, it offers a challenging selection of big volume rapids and has long been on my wish list of rivers to paddle. Sadly, a series of planned hydroelectric dams will see this stretch of river soon become tamed and forgotten but for now it still has plenty to offer. Where there is whitewater of this quality there is rafting and where the is rafting the will be river guides. It didn’t take long to track down some of the guides I’d worked in years gone by and before long I found myself at the bar catching up with some old friends. That first night went on until the sun came up and a relaxed afternoon cruise on the upper river helped ease in the following day. It wasn’t hard to borrow the necessary gear and before long I found myself in squeezing myself in to the modern day torture device known and the whitewater play-boat. Designed for a person with no feet and double jointed hips I didn’t have time to complain before we were approaching the first ominous horizon line on the river, occasional explosions of mist would give some idea as to what lay ahead. The river didn’t disappoint, but the sheer volume was staggering, massive islands divide multiple channels that would qualify as big volume rivers on their own. Every river feature a kayaker could wish for was in abundance as were many features that give some of us nightmares. It was  thrilling to paddle but sad to know that it will all be lost in the near future if the power companies have their way. 
Source of a smile
After several days in Jinja and untold liver damage it was time to move on and, once again, a hot tip from a fellow traveller suggested I couldn’t leave the area without checking out the island paradise known as The Hairy Lemon. I originally planned to spend two nights on the island but it appears to be almost impossible to leave, the real world seems so far away and I have been trying to slow things down in the hope that I can wait out the rains to the South. As good as the main roads are in Uganda, everything unsurfaced deteriorates quickly after even the lightest rain. So after one year on the road, over 30,000 miles of riding, reaching the source of the Nile and having my first crash I don’t feel too guilty about taking a few days out to rest and recover.  
Don't come any closer

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Hakuna Matata

Day 357

Milage 29,386 (47,017 kms)

There be dragons!

With the Easter holidays coinciding with my arrival at Jungle Junction in Nairobi it was clear that dropping off my damaged alternator with a local mechanic would prove pointless, it would sit at a workshop until after the long weekend, gathering dust, before receiving any attention so, I pitched my tent and settled in for a long wait. If I were to choose a place to get stuck then Jungle Junction, on the outskirts of the city, would be my first choice. Long established as an over-landers haven on the route through eastern Africa it is an oasis of like minded souls, beaten and battered by the tough roads to the north and south. With a fully equipped workshop, two well trained mechanics and the expertise of the owner, Chris Handschuh, always on hand to offer advice and assistance it was a welcome respite from the chaotic world outside its well guarded perimeter. Rows of over-land vehicles quietly sit awaiting the resumption of their adventures, temporarily stored on the expansive property while their owners are overseas rebuilding finances or accruing the time off needed to continue their journeys. 

Entering the Southern Hemisphere
Travelers from around the world gather here to regroup, repair and recover. Roughly halfway between Cairo and Cape Town it feels like a milestone in itself, both destinations  seem within reach and, during my stay, I met more people than I had expected to as this region is now well into its wet season, many roads are considerably more challenging or simple impassable. It is refreshing to be around people who understand the motivation behind jumping on a motorcycle and driving so far, most enquiries about my journey are met with puzzled looks of consternation and more than once I’ve been asked why I didn’t just to fly to Cape Town. ‘Why?’ is a question I’ve asked myself more than once on this journey, especially since I could never have predicted how it would evolve and the changes it would bring. ‘Settlement for any length of time, in cave or castle, has at best been a sporadic condition in the history of man,’ wrote Bruce Chatwin in The Anatomy of Restlessness. ‘Prolonged settlement has a vertical axis of some ten thousand years, a drop in the ocean of evolutionary time. We are travelers from birth. Our mad obsession with technological progress is a response to barriers in the way of our geographical progress.’ Having sat with nomads in the deserts to the north I could see some truth in Chatwin’s claim that movement was the very essence of life and when deprived of it or restrained we ‘invent artificial enemies, psychosomatic illnesses, tax collectors and, worst of all, ourselves.’ It is hard to explain why it feels so right to be on this voyage, is the urge to keep moving hard wired into my primitive brain? Looking around at the fellow travelers who gather at Jungle Junction, there appears to be a common sense of purpose and drive, the camaraderie comes easily and, at the risk of sounding cliched, there is a thirst for adventure and a palpable vitality surrounding every one of them. 

Time to store boots inside the tent
The Easter weekend passed quietly, a barbecue on the friday evening saw a dozen over-landers enjoying great food and cold beer while the days were consumed with routine maintenance procedures on bikes and trucks, the packing and unpacking of gear, the consolidation of equipment and the sharing of advice about the roads ahead. The hot, humid days were followed by cool nights and the occasional thunderstorm. After the intense heat of the northern regions it was nice to sleep peacefully without constantly sweating. By Tuesday morning businesses in the city were coming back to life so I took my alternator to an electrical engineer at the regional airport to have the stator rewound. I made the assumption that anyone who works on aircraft would probably complete the task to an acceptable standard and the engineer had been recommended by a local biker. From Jungle Junction I took a Matatu, a mini-van licensed to carry twelve passengers, towards Wilson Airport, near the city centre. Matatus are the most common vehicles on the road and easily the least predictable, they can be flagged down at any time and the drivers income is directly related to the number of people on board so the incentive to drive fast and stop in a heartbeat, to squeeze in another person, appears to be their sole motivation. The Matatu I took had a few extra people onboard, I lost count at twenty four, but for pennies these ramshackle vehicles will take you across the city on a roller coaster ride of emergency stops, screeching brakes and blaring music. Road rules don’t seem to apply to the Matatus so anything goes in the race to get that next passenger, it makes for an exciting, if somewhat fragrant experience. 

The Great Rift Valley

The engineer’s workshop at the airport looked clean and efficient so I felt confident about leaving my alternator in his care.  A timescale and a price were to be agreed upon later after he’d had a chance to thoroughly inspect the damage so I readied myself for the return journey to Jungle Junction. The traffic and road conditions in Nairobi are notorious, many over-landers I met previously had left me with the impression that driving through the city had been one of the most dangerous parts of their journey and I would be tempted to concur. It is virtually impossible to drive around the city so all through traffic is channeled into its centre. The Chinese are in the process of building a ring road but it will be a couple of years before that project is complete so for the time being the center of the city is in a permanent state of gridlock. Traffic lights are ignored, roundabouts are a free for all and motorcycles are at the bottom of the food chain so it can get quite exciting. The city itself also has a rough reputation for crime and I’ve heard it referred to as both ‘Nowrobme’ and ‘Nairobbery’. Muggings are common, even in the daytime, and by nightfall the city centre is a no-go area for tourists. In stark contrast to the modern, glass tower blocks the city is peppered with shantytowns, the largest of which is Kibera, thought to be the largest urban slum in Africa and the third largest in the world although estimates vary as to how many people live in the squalid township. 

Monkey business
The most common complaint I’ve encountered from the locals in Kenya is  directed towards the scourge of corruption, endemic within world of officialdom, it infects every aspect of life within the country. Very little happens without a bribe of some sort greasing the palm of someone in authority. When it looked as though I might have to truck my bike out of the Turkana region the driver I was negotiating a price with demanded over US$1000 to get me and the motorcycle to Nairobi. Not five minutes later he was grumbling about greed and corruption within the government and I had to bite my tongue to prevent myself from pointing out the irony of his complaints. I’ve done my best to avoid any contact with those in uniform, entering the country at a border with no official immigration or customs outpost required a quick visit to the headquarters in downtown Nairobi, for the bureaucratic formalities, but this went smoothly. On the road there are random police checkpoints and, as they wave me over onto the hard shoulder, I simply wave back and keep on driving. They rarely have a car nearby and when they do they seem reluctant to use it. There is a heavy police and army presence within the capital to counteract the occasional grenade attacks for which Al-Shabaab militants claim responsibility.

The bike is taking a beating

It took four days for my alternator to be repaired and after fitting it back inside the engine casing I ran a few tests to check its output and it appears as though it is now working well although time will tell. I’m still curious as to why it failed in the first place and a internet search revealed a few forums from other riders having similar issues. It would appear as though BMW are aware of the problem as recent models of the same bike feature a slightly different design. Sadly, BMW refuses to sell the individual components of the alternator separately and the entire unit is a costly, heavy part so shipping one from overseas becomes prohibitively expensive. With a working bike it was time to make plans to move on before I got too comfortable at Jungle Junction. The traveling companions I had arrived with had long since moved on and I was keen to get back on the road. After consulting my maps and taking some advice from fellow riders I decided to turn west and enter Uganda via the northern edge of Mount Elgon. The pale grass under my tent served as a reminder as to how long I’d been camped in Nairobi but it had been an enjoyable stay and I’d completed several repairs on the bike so it had also been productive. My first destination was to be Lake Bogoria, a flamingo sanctuary within the Rift Valley about 200 kms northwest of Nairobi. After a tense drive out of the city into the surrounding hills I was soon competing for road space with suicidal Matatu drivers, as the road narrowed from four lanes to two I was forced onto the hard should several times in order to avoid a head on collision with an oncoming vehicle. Thankfully, my chosen route took me off the main highway and I was soon speeding along deserted smaller roads waving at the occasional police officer as they tried to flag me down. 

Lake Bogoria welcome party
I arrived at a campsite by late afternoon and after checking in I tried to restart the motorcycle only to have it die immediately. The battery was strong so I knew it couldn’t be the newly repaired alternator but with night approaching I decided to deal with it after a good night’s sleep. The following morning I traced the problem down to a fuel starvation issue, when I by-passed the fuel pump regulator and wired the battery directly to the fuel pump I was able to get the bike running again so I abandoned my plans to continue west and I turned back to the glorious anarchy of Nairobi in order to utilize Chris Handschuh’s intimate knowledge of this bike and all its little intricacies. It’s disheartening when a machine you have relied upon for almost thirty thousand miles suddenly develops mechanical issues, the majority of riders who attempt this route go from Cape Town towards Europe so, as their mileage accumulates, their journey takes them closer to more developed countries where parts and expertise are readily accessible. The faith I had developed in the bike’s reliability has been shattered and I now wonder about some of the more remote route choices that I was considering on my journey south. I’m learning to accept the setbacks as opportunities to understand a little more about the bike and myself, as frustrating as it can be, it’s only a machine and I’m only human. Things occasionally go wrong but it’s not the end of the world. An expression I have heard more than once since arriving in Kenya, is the Swahili phrase Hakuna matata which roughly translates as ‘no worries’.

Greater Blue Eared Glossy Starling

Friday, April 18, 2014

Southern Comfort

Day 341

Milage 29,009 (46,414 km)

The rains are coming
After well over a month in Ethiopia it finally became apparent that if I am ever to complete this journey then I must continue to move south. I had started to grow comfortable with the people, the language and the culture and although there will always be more to see and do in this beautiful and diverse country the impending rains were about to make moving on even more difficult. While at Holland House, in Addis Ababa, I’d bumped into a fellow over-lander with similar plans for riding south on an identical bike. Ross Clarke, from England had been staying in Addis awaiting parts and repairing his bike after a losing control while trying to avoid a cow in the road. As a professional engineer he knew his way around the insides of a motorcycle and had been keeping busy helping the owner of Holland House, Wim, with the upkeep and maintenance of the aging guesthouse. 

The amazingly capable Ross Clarke
There are two possible ‘roads’ from Ethiopia into Kenya, the most commonly used route goes through the border town of Moyale, it is recommended that you travel this way only in the daytime and, ideally, as part of a large convoy as tribal conflicts in the area have created occasional problems for those passing through . Some time ago in Egypt another rider had advised me to attempt the alternative route from Omorate to Lake Turkana but he had warned of the remoteness of the region with, potentially, no fuel, food or water for up to 1000 kilometers and challenging riding conditions along the entire way. With my bike’s range tested to approximately 650 kilometers, when riding conservatively, I’d decided that if I couldn’t find someone going in the same direction then it would be an unwise choice. 

As it turned out Ross had similar plans but was awaiting someone to ride with so we sat down over a cold beer and discussed how best to approach the challenging route. The lack of fuel was to be our most pressing concern, followed by water and then food. With my bike already carrying close to its maximum weight I had some concerns over adding yet more, the rear shock on the F800GS is said to be one of the weaker components and Ross had just replaced his after it had failed several weeks before. Ideally we wanted to find a group of four wheelers going in the same direction so we could offload the additional fuel and water that we would need to complete the journey. Over-landers pass through Holland House with regularity, it is a small oasis of like minded people on the long road from Cairo to Cape Town and within a few days a large Toyota Landcruiser pulled up carrying two young guys on their own journey from The Netherlands to South Africa, we did our best to try to convince them to join us on our intended route but their tight time schedule would not allow for the significant detour. The momentum of our planning and the intrigue of the unknown swayed our preference towards the more interesting, but challenging Turkana route and we decided to throw caution to the wind and attempt it regardless of the logistical difficulties.

The Protector of Arba Minch

With our bikes packed we said goodbye to the wonderful staff at Holland House and turned south along the Rift Valley, swapping the grimy city streets of Addis Ababa for the pristine lakes and mountains of southern Ethiopia. We stopped briefly in the Rastafarian outpost of Shashemene before pulling into the lakeside town of Awasa in time for a few cold beers with some friendly local Peace Corp volunteers as the sun set over the placid waters. Impossibly large Marabou Storks quarreled in the trees above us or scavenged along the shoreline as the sky blazed with color. The following morning we left the peaceful town and turned south west toward the small city of Arba Minch on the shores of Lake Abaya, the last sizable settlement before leaving the paved roads and venturing into the Omo Valley region. We spent a couple of days there stocking up on supplies and filling every possible container with additional petrol, uncertain as to where we would see the next source of fuel. Soon after leaving Arba Minch the asphalt disappeared and we wondered whether this was the beginning of the infamous 1000 kilometers of dirt roads. The surface of the roads varied significantly from bone jarring corrugations to fast, well graded, smooth dirt. We had both fitted new rear tires before leaving Addis and we were glad of the additional traction provided by the aggressive tread patterns, progress was fast and we took a short detour into the small village of Key Afer where a colorful, open air market was in full swing. Tribes from the local region gathered in their traditional dress adorned with colorful beads and animal hides, their hair braided and coated in red ochre and animal fat. As soon as we pulled up on our large motorcycles we became the center of attention and we were quickly surrounded by a large crowd of curious onlookers. Children would poke our bulky riding outfits marveling at the underlying armor that makes our elbows, knees and shoulders look somewhat deformed. It was oppressively hot underneath our heavy suits so we stopped for a cold drink at a nearby hotel before resuming our ride towards the village of Turmi and the camp we had chosen for the night.  

A young Hamar girl near Turmi
Just before reaching Turmi, on a stretch of particularly rough road, the back of my motorcycle began to violently fishtail and I assumed I had blown my rear tire, I struggled to keep the bike upright as I tried to bring it to a halt only to find that one of my panniers had detached itself from the luggage rack and was dragging behind the bike held on only by a thin security cable. One of my fuel containers had ruptured and after salvaging the contents that remained we carried out a quick roadside fix and were soon on our way again. Every time we would pull over along this road, no matter how isolated we though we were, before long a local would turn up to stare at our unusual machines. By early evening we reached a small campsite on the outskirts of Turmi which had been recommended by a Dutch couple who had traveled through the region a few weeks before. After a peaceful night we packed up our camp as a young boy from the local Hamar tribe deftly climbed through the mango trees above showering us with ripe fruit for a delicious breakfast. From Turmi we continued southwest towards the sleepy border town of Omorate in order to have our documents stamped out of Ethiopia. On our arrival in Omorate, as we negotiated with some locals over the price of the black market fuel, the skies darkened and suddenly a huge rainstorm turned the sandy roads to slick, sticky mud. The locals warned us that the roads in town were nothing compared to what lay ahead and it would be wise to spend the night so that the tracks could dry out before we got into the really difficult terrain. The rainy season was upon us and as we settled into a cheap, simple hotel we wondered if attempting this route was a wise choice at this time of year.

My bike having a rest
By morning the roads appeared to have dried, we filled our fuel containers, topped up our water supplies, and set out to find the indistinct turn off towards Kenya. We were immediately greeted by deep sand, muddy river crossings and blistering heat. It was slow going and by the end of the day, after nearly eight hours of challenging riding we had covered just over seventy kilometers. Exhausted, thirsty and hungry we pulled into the small village of Ileret just inside the Kenyan border, the prospect of several more days of this type of traveling was both daunting and exhilarating. After registering with the local police we found a small shop and enjoyed a warm Coca-Cola and a packet of dry biscuits. The police kindly offered to let us use their barracks as a camp for the evening but a local man from the Daasanach tribe suggested we try staying at the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI), ten kilometers to the south. We took his advice and rode to the gate of the fenced compound and asked to see the manager who agreed to let us camp within, it was only after asking him the purpose of the institute that we realized we had stumbled across one of the dig sites of the renowned anthropologist Dr Richard Leakey. Still under construction the site will eventually host fieldwork groups from around the world as the fossil rich region is explored more extensively. What has been found to date would strongly suggest that this region was pivotal in the evolutionary story of humanity and it is now commonly referred to as the ‘Cradle of Mankind’.

Tea with Arkoy at The Turkana Basin Institute
The staff at the institute made us feel very welcome, we dined with the workers that evening on a simple but delicious meal of lentils and chapatis. After several cups of sweet milky tea the following morning we said our goodbyes and thanked the crew for their kindness but, less than five kilometers from the gate my bike developed a problem and soon we were stranded. Ross rode back to the institute and asked for some assistance and before long I was being towed back to the compound by one of their helpful drivers. It was still early and we spent the rest of the morning going through probably causes for my sudden loss of electrical power. When I say ‘we’ it was mostly Ross who diagnosed the bike, as a professional marine engineer he has an intimate knowledge of all things mechanical and electrical and by lunchtime he’d isolated the fault to a damaged stator within the alternator. Part of the system that generates electrical power for the bike it is critical for its correct functioning, while the engine is running it tops up the battery’s power which, in turn serves the bikes multiple electrical systems. Without power the bike’s Engine Control Unit (ECU) ceases to function, the fuel injectors quit and the coils fail to create their much needed ignition sparks. We were stranded, a long way from any kind of repair or replacement opportunities, the manager of the institute made a call to the head office of TBI who agreed to allow us to stay as long as it would take to have a spare brought in or have the bike carried out on the back of a truck. Over the next few days we tried to find a viable spare or a suitable truck that could fit the bike on board for the long journey out. We were at least three full days drive from Nairobi and at the end of a long and challenging road, trucks were rare and all spare seats were typically oversubscribed long before they even arrived. There was a rumor of a large truck trying to make its way to the institute from the town of Marsabit but it was still two days away and road conditions were preventing it from getting closer. When a truck finally did show up four days later the driver wanted an extortionate amount to get the bike to a place where it could be repaired or stored until a spare could be located. At this point we bought a new 12 volt truck battery off the priest at a small catholic mission, strapped it to the back of the bike and set off once again. We had spent five nights at the institute and had been very well looked after. It was sad to say goodbye but we had to try to get out of the area under our own steam.

Daasanach girls eyeing Ross as a potential husband
For the next five days we struggled south on some of the most challenging roads we have ridden to date. Deep sand (my personal nemesis), loose rock, slick mud and thorny bushes all compounded to make for a true adventure, never sure how long the battery on my bike would last we spent many hours on the side of the road switching power sources from one bike to the other. In the evenings we would pull into small villages in the hope of finding a charger to top up the big battery, unfortunately many of the chargers were solar powered and of little use at night. Our concerns over the lack of fuel took a backseat after we discovered most villages would have at least one, albeit overpriced, source. The bikes took a beating and the damage after over 1000 kilometers of rough roads consisted of one broken alternator, two punctures, one battered pannier and a broken luggage frame. In hindsight it was all worth it, the terrain we experienced along the way was breathtaking; lush rolling hillsides, scorching hot, barren flat deserts, deep gorges and the igneous rocks of the lakeshore of Turkana. Wild herds of oryx and zebra roamed the open plains, camel trains crowded the dusty roads and the people we met along the way were simply fascinating. Many of the experiences we had would not have happened had we not had our challenges along the way. When we finally hit our first asphalt road we felt glad to finally ride on a smooth surface but a little disappointed that our only significant dangers from now on would be other drivers. I need to keep reminding myself that they drive on the left in Kenya, or they are supposed to. We broke up the ride to Nairobi by stopping at the campsite at Thomson’s Falls Lodge in the town of Nyahururu where we bumped into an inspiring young Dutch couple, Peter and Leonie, who are on their own voyage to Cape Town. Ross had ridden with them in Libya and they were coincidentally staying at the same campground. You can follow their adventures on www.amsterdamtoanywhere.nl, of course such an auspicious reunion gave us the excuse to have our first genuinely cold beers since leaving Ethiopia. The following day, after charging the battery for the final time, we set out along the edge of the Rift Valley, across the equator and into the bustling, sprawling city of Nairobi towards the comfortable over-lander haven of Jungle Junction. As I pulled into the premises my bike spluttered to a halt, the battery completely spent. I plan to spend a few days here while I find a local expert with experience in rewinding stators, it will be significantly cheaper than having one shipped from abroad. In the meantime my bike is long overdue for some much needed maintenance and with two full time mechanics onsite and the knowledge of the resident expert Chris Handschuh I can’t think of a place more suited to my needs at this time than here. 
Samburu warriors in South Hor