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.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Smoke that Thunders

Day 492

Milage 35,018 (56,028 kms)
Skies on fire
One of the unfortunate ironies of life is that we can only experience things for the first time once. With this in mind I continued my journey west from South Luangwa National Park towards Livingstone, a town where I had once lived almost sixteen before, wondering how well my memories would fit with the reality I was about to encounter. Unable to complete the journey of over twelve hundred kilometers in less than one day I took the opportunity to break the long drive into two parts, stopping briefly in Zambia’s capital city, Lusaka. I arrived in the city as night fell and followed my rudimentary map to the Wanderer’s Overland camp, pleasantly surprised to find the streets well lit and signposted. Pulling into camp I received a warm welcome from a fellow rider who had just emerged from a grueling two thousand kilometer traverse of the Democratic Republic of Congo, his bike in pieces as he rebuilt the engine before embarking on the next leg of his journey. As I explored the city it became apparent that I had entered a modern well ordered capital, contrasting markedly with many of the cities I have seen along the way since entering Africa. I’m typically not a fan of big cities but the prospect of finding several motorcycle parts that are overdue for replacement kept me there for a few days. In the end the search proved fruitless but it did provide a comfortable respite from the long ride across Zambia. 

Campsite companions

I made the final push towards Livingstone on a Sunday morning, heeding the warnings of locals who advised me that many drivers on the road are often still drunk after their Saturday night revelry. Thankfully the roads were quiet and by mid afternoon I was nearing my destination scanning the horizon for the first sight that had greeted my arrival so many years ago. The town of Livingstone is close to Victoria Falls, the kilometer and a half wide waterfall where the mighty Zambezi River cascades into the narrow Batoka Gorge creating a plume of mist that can be seen from afar. The locals call the falls ‘Mosi-oa-Tunya’, meaning the smoke that thunders, as the column of spray that rises through the air resembles a cloud of smoke and the noise of so much water crashing against the rocks at the base of the falls fills the air with an ominous rumble. I barely recognized the town of Livingstone as I made several passes along the main street looking for familiar landmarks. I had arranged to meet an old friend at a local backpackers which I struggled to locate but, before long, the beers were flowing and I was catching up with old friends and acquaintances from my days as a raft guide on the Zambezi River. As luck would have it there were a few available seats on a raft leaving the following morning for a quick trip from rapids 1 through 10 so I jumped at the chance to revisit the river. 

Beneath Victoria Falls

After a blurry night of countless bars and endless tales from the river, I awoke feeling rather sorry for myself, pulled on a couple of thermal layers, and joined Grubby’s Extreme Rafting trip into the Batoka Gorge. I’ve always considered a rafting trip to be one of the most effective hangover cures and after several wet and wild rapids I was beginning to feel human again. Little had changed since I last ran the river so many years before, the sheer power of the water was as impressive as ever as it reluctantly squeezed its way between the towering dark, canyon walls, responding to every constriction with a tremendous fury of whitewater confirming my long held belief that this is still the best one day rafting trip on the planet. As we successfully negotiated rapids with names like ‘Stairway to Heaven’, ‘Devil’s Toilet Bowl‘ and ‘Gnashing Jaws of Death‘ it became apparent that our mediocre paddling abilities were being heavily supplemented by our talented guide. By midday we had reached the infamous rapid number nine, ‘Commercial Suicide‘, a compulsory portage where rafts must be dragged across the polished rocks to avoid one of the biggest rapids on the river. We took the opportunity to eat lunch and gaze, in awe, at the overwhelming power of nature, its raw energy on savage display. I shuddered to think about my time here as a safety kayaker when I would run this rapid on a daily basis without so much as a second thought.

Riverside camp Day 3

On returning to Livingstone I bumped into an old friend who owned another rafting company, Water by Nature, which specializes in multi-day trips on a variety of rivers around the world. He had a four day Zambezi trip leaving the following morning and he asked me if I’d like to come along and help out. I jumped at the chance to run the river again, this time in a kayak, but without any of the essential gear I spent the rest of the day digging through piles of old equipment, assembling the necessary kayak, paddle, sprayskirt, helmet and splash top. Before I knew it I was back in the ‘Boiling Pot’ at the very base of Victoria Falls thoroughly soaked by the thundering mist that arose from the deep chasm. I’d had little choice in the types of kayaks on offer and my selection, a small edgy play-boat, was making me a little apprehensive as I compared it to the larger volume boats of the safety kayaker and video boater. For the next four days the river and I danced together, sharing the lead in a furious waltz of whitewater, sometimes the river would dominate and spin me this way and that, but as I settled into its rhythm and recalled the steps required for each rapid, I began to take more control, gliding downstream in harmony with my surroundings, stumbling less often. Peaceful evenings were spent camping on deserted beaches, sleeping under the stars to the sounds of the river, enjoying fine food and good company around crackling campfires. All too soon it was over, we had reached our take out point and the serenity that settles in on a multi-day trip was broken by the thumping sound of a helicopter, our ride back to civilization. After loading ourselves into the sturdy belly of an iconic ‘Hughie’ chopper with doors latched open, the pilot took us back up river, skimming the water’s surface, banking hard left and right through the twisting gorge before swooping up and over the falls where our journey began.

Finishing is style

Exhausted but exhilarated I returned to Livingstone and prepared to depart on the next leg of my journey south. It made me a little sad to have to move on so soon, there were still so many old friends with whom I wanted to catch up but with other commitments elsewhere and a bike in desperate need of a good service I was determined to reach South Africa where parts are said to be readily available. Somewhere on the road between Livingstone and the border crossing at Kazungula my bike hit its fifty thousandth mile and the signs of excessive use in tough conditions were becoming more evident with each day on the road. The crossing from Zambia to Botswana, on a small ferry across the Zambezi River, went smoothly even though I failed to stop at the mandatory Ebola screening checkpoint. Crossing borders is now such a routine experience I tend to ignore the swarms of people trying to flag me down, more often than not they try to offer help completing paperwork that is relatively simple while charging an exorbitant amount for their assistance. On this occasion I assumed the medical examiners were part of a similar operation, I guess their crisp white uniforms should have given me some indication as to their intentions but borders are often a little chaotic and my mind is sometimes preoccupied with thoughts of how best to approach the customs and immigration officials. When the medical team finally caught up with me I was patiently awaiting my entry stamp inside the immigration office, I was instructed to return to a small tent near the ferry and by the time I got there, dressed in my full riding outfit, my temperature was above average which seemed to raise some concerns amongst the small group of nurses and doctors. They examined my passport for some time, checking the multitude of stamps I’ve acquired along the way, conversing amongst themselves in a language I struggled to recognize, finally they turned to me and asked if I had Ebola, when I said “No” and they all smiled and said “Welcome to Botswana”.

Happy Birthday Uhuru (50,000 miles and counting)

I had planned to make it further into Botswana on that first day but the allure of the nearby Chobe National Park was too much to resist so I turned off the main highway and by mid afternoon I had settled into a camp in the small town of Kasane. I resisted the temptation of cooling off in the nearby river, signs warning of crocodiles and hippos were enough to discourage me so I settled for a walk through town in search of food. I always try to eat where the locals do and on this occasion several people I asked recommended a small diner named Martha’s Kitchen. I arrived there at four in the afternoon, the sign outside indicating it would be open until seven that evening. When I asked for a plate of the local stew they told me they had already run out, when I asked if they had any other food they told me they had nothing to offer, everything had been eaten. I asked them what they planned to do until 7pm to which they replied ‘wait until closing’. They suggested I try another nearby diner but when I arrived there I had an almost identical experience. It is a rather stark contrast to how we function in the West, in Africa nothing is wasted, when food runs out they do not prepare more for fear that it may not be eaten whereas we would throw good food away rather than disappoint a customer. The principle that wanton waste leads to wasteful want is applied throughout this continent, the people are most industrious at recycling and repurposing everything primarily through necessity.

Short legged stripy giraffe

From the Chobe region of northern Botswana I continued south along the lonely highway to Francistown. Skirting the edge of the park I would occasionally see large herds of elephant purposefully walking across the veldt like an armada of ships afloat in a sea of tall grass, warthogs and baboons would scurry across the road ahead while graceful raptors would soar effortlessly upon hot thermal updrafts. It was a quiet road with little other traffic and very few potholes where I could allow my mind to wander, a welcome respite from the hours of intense concentration required on most of the routes I’ve ridden so far. I took the opportunity to refuel and take a break at the tiny village of Nata where a group of traveling seed salesmen took time to explain why the average I.Q. in Ireland has been steadily dropping over the years. Apparently the Catholic church has been selecting only the finest minds to serve as priests and nuns, so much so that it has had a quantifiable impact on the general population as the smartest people are removed from the gene pool. It was an interesting observation, one that I was completely unaware of, probably, I assured them, because my I.Q. was so low. 

Long legged spotted zebra
It was a long day’s ride and as I pulled in to a camp north of Francistown, Botswana’s second largest city, I barely had time to erect my tent before witnessing yet another stunning African sunset, the blood red sun setting the horizon on fire in a blaze of color. Life in a tent is dictated by the sun and by 6am the following morning I was wide awake and breaking down my camp. The daily pre-ride inspection of my bike revealed a very slack chain and an over worn rear sprocket, I tightened the chain to its last adjustment and hoped it would get me as far as South Africa where I had a new one waiting for me. My hopes were dashed after several kilometers of bumpy dirt roads caused my chain to pop off the rear sprocket on more than one occasion, I had simply pushed it too far. I nursed the bike slowly in Francistown and set about finding a garage where I could use some tools to shorten the chain. It didn’t take long to find a few fellow bikers and after a couple of phone calls I met Joe De Souza, a mechanic who kindly allowed me access to his workshop. With the right tools I had the old chain off and shortened in no time and I was soon back on the road, I stopped briefly to refuel but as I pulled out of the gas station my main fuel line ruptured pouring petrol all over the hot engine. With Joe’s help I was able to locate a couple of meters of fuel line and soon had that problem fixed although it left me wondering what else could possibly go wrong before I get to a country where I can find spare parts. It was now late in the day but I decided to make a run for the border despite the time. 

Losing links at Joe's Garage

Crossing into South Africa from Botswana at the Martin’s Drift border post was relatively effortless but it was dark by the time I had finished with the customs and immigration formalities. I had to sit down for a while to let the significance of this crossing settle in, it could be my last on this epic voyage, my plans to enter Lesotho are still dependent on the outcome of a military coup I’ve been hearing rumors about over the past few weeks and my ultimate destination is Cape Town, Africa’s most southerly city. I sat there for some time in the warm night air listening to the crickets chirping, contemplating the journey that had brought me to this place, sixteen months on the road and the end is almost within reach. It was hard to resist the temptation to keep moving but African roads can be treacherous after dark, wild animals and potholes make for a dangerous combination so within a few kilometers of the border I found a quiet camp and settled in for fitful night’s sleep.
The ever present, supremely mischievous Warthogs

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Lilongwe Down

Day 471

Milage 34,125 (54,600 kms)
Lake Malawi sunset
Pulling into a camp on a loaded motorcycle often invites curious glances from fellow travelers and occasionally I’m approached by inquisitive onlookers who want to know about my journey and the bike. Reactions vary when I talk about where I’ve been and how long it has taken me to get this far but a comment I hear a lot is ‘that’s just like The Long Way Down’, Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman’s motorcycle trip from London to Cape Town which became a popular television series back in 2007. As I now enter the more travelled parts of Africa I’m beginning to hear stories about how people remember their arrival in camps and villages along the way closely followed by their entourage of fixers, medics, mechanics, camera crews and assorted vehicles. As I pulled up at the beautiful Kande Beach camp the owners chuckled when they recalled how Ewan and Charlie had ridden in years before, their bikes and gear caked in a fine red dust while the rest of their party appeared perfectly clean. The thing is, there is no red dust for many, many miles in this region, along the shores of Lake Malawi all the smaller roads consist of a fine white sand which, while difficult to ride through it certainly does not create the same effect. So, as much as my trip resembles theirs in terms of some of the routes I’ve taken, it certainly lacks the sheer numbers of people and theatre involved but I’m okay with that. It is hard to describe, but the feeling of throwing my leg over the bike each morning and having absolute freedom to do whatever I want and go wherever I please is such a liberating experience that I would have it no other way. There have been times when I have felt exposed and vulnerable but I try not to dwell the ‘what if’s?’ and focus only on the present. Every decision I have made in this life has led me to this moment and it is only my attitude that defines how I react to and perceive each new experience. 

Somebody left their teeshirt behind
From the serene Mushroom Farm Eco-Lodge near Livingstonia, on the Nyika Plateau overlooking Lake Malawi I descended back into the Great Rift Valley to follow the shoreline road south to Nkate Bay. I found a peaceful camp just outside the quiet fishing village and pitched my tent by the waters edge beneath the hot afternoon sun, a refreshing swim in the crystal clear waters of Lake Malawi helped cool me down afterwards. It is a strange sensation to dive into waters that you think should be salty, the lake is so vast it has the appearance of an ocean. Once you are submerged, the water tastes sweet and opening your eyes is not accompanied by the expected sting, colorful cichlid fish dart between the rocks, their bright markings shimmering in the penetrating sunlight. Locals glide silently past in their dugout canoes gathering supplies for their night time fishing excursions. While there I took advantage of an afternoon boat ride to a nearby beach where fishermen dry their catch and mend their nets, stopping along the way to admire the Fish Eagles as they gracefully swoop across the surface of the calm waters to pluck out a fresh meal from the plentiful fish that populate the lake. At the end of each day as the sun set and darkness fell, one by one the fishermen would take to the water and cast their nets by the light of the oil lamps suspended from their dugout canoes creating a line of fairy lights stretching across the visible horizon. 

Mending nets near Nkate Bay
After a peaceful few days in the region I packed my bike and continued south, stopping for a couple of nights at the isolated town of Kande Beach. The beach camp on the white sandy shoreline provided endless opportunities for exploring and I couldn’t resist swimming out to the nearby Kande Island. It provided me with a good reminder of just how unfit I’ve become since starting this journey. Almost a kilometer from shore, there were a couple of occasions when I wondered if this was such a good idea as the island seemed to get further away the more I swam towards it. Tired but exhilarated I dragged myself onto it’s rocky shore and spent some time resting on the warm slabs of rock, enjoying the peaceful serenity, totally alone apart from the nesting Fish Eagles and shy Iguanas. From Kande I continued south towards Cape Maclear, a forested peninsula at the southern end of Lake Malawi, finally settling into a quirky little camp called Fat Monkey. With its western aspect the beach provided the perfect setting for evening sundowners, a gin and tonic going down as smoothly as the sun, its golden glow turning deeper shades of red, gently kissing the waters edge before being engulfed by the hazy horizon. Is there anything more magical than a sunrise or sunset over water?

African Fish Eagle
After three days at Cape Maclear I turned west and climbed out of the Rift Valley towards Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe. Several months ago I’d contacted an old friend I once worked with on the Zambezi River and she insisted I stop by if I was ever in her area so after a beautiful twisting climb out of the valley I was soon on the road to her house. It had been a long time since I’d seen Juba but she welcomed me as though it were only yesterday. I’d planned on spending only a couple of nights in the city but she talked me into staying a little longer giving us plenty of time to reminisce about old times and catch up on all that has happened since. It was a truly wonderful experience to hang out with Juba and her beautiful family after so long on the road, in a little oasis of peace and tranquility. While there, she took the time to give me a tour of the city before her generous husband Dave introduced me to the game of golf, my first ever, which I subsequently won reaching an impossibly high score, that’s how it works right? With Juba’s encouragement I even gave a short presentation to several hundred children at her local school. My extended stay ended with an entertaining Bollywood themed book club party.

Back to school
After a very restful stay in Lilongwe I made my way towards the Zambian border, less than an hour away. At one final police checkpoint less than ten kilometers from the border I was stopped by a tall, thin officer in a loosely fitting uniform, before he had a chance to speak, I bombarded him with questions about directions, distances and nearest fuel stations, I could sense he was fishing for an opportunity to write a ticket and issue a fine but before he had the chance I began telling him how grateful I was that police in Malawi weren’t like those dirty cops in Tanzania and Kenya, he heartily agreed and I was soon back on my way to the border. Exiting Malawi went smoothly but as I walked into the Zambian checkpoint I noticed multiple posters outlining the signs and symptoms of the Ebola virus. With the recent outbreak on the west coast of Africa there are daily rumors emerging regarding suspected cases throughout the continent and it looked as though Zambia’s government was taking the threat seriously. A large lady with a serious face informed me that she would have to take my temperature and I audibly gulped at the prospect, wondering how she planned to do it. She asked me to expose my chest before pointing a laser thermometer at me, she frowned as she looked reading and tried a second time. It was shortly after midday, the sun was high and hot and I was wearing my full riding outfit so, after walking between the various offices located around the border post, my temperature was above average, what followed was a list of questions about my physical condition and my travel history before finally I satisfied her that I was not infected with anything other than poor dress sense and an inappropriate sense of humor. Once again I was pleasantly surprised to receive a visa at no cost while those around me were pushing fifty dollar bills across the counter to the immigration officer. 

Meeting the locals

Back on the road I turned north at the small farming town of Chipata towards South Luangwa National Park and by late afternoon I was pulling into Croc Valley Camp on the banks of the Luangwa River stopping briefly to allow a herd of elephants to cross the road in front of me. There are times when my mind drifts and I briefly forget I am in Africa, when the terrain reminds me of another time and place but it only takes a second to return to the reality of where I am when something happens that is uniquely African, elephants disrupting traffic on dusty dirt roads is one of those occasions. As I pitched my tent I could hear the loud guffaw of a hippo wallowing in the muddy river bed bellow, sounding like an evil villain in a cheesy horror movie. As night fell the noises from the nearby park rose in volume, the occasional roar of a lion interspersed with the yapping of hyenas all mixed with other sinister sounds I could not identify. For once I was thankful the river contained a healthy population of crocodiles, hoping it would deter the parks residents from wandering into the open camp
Luangwa sunset
I had a fitful night’s sleep trying to identify the source and proximity of each and every sound. Sometime around 3am I could hear the unmistakable sound of an elephant ripping branches from the surrounding trees, it sounded close, very close and my heart began to thump as I wondered what was the best thing to do, stay in the tent or leave, in hindsight I probably did the dumbest thing I could have done in the circumstances. I quietly unzipped the outer fly of my tent to get an idea of how close the beast was. At the same time I was fumbling with my camera in the dark to find an appropriate night setting, I could see very little when I looked outside but I could hear movement nearby so I pointed my camera in that direction. I hadn’t expected the flash to go off, neither did the elephant as it illuminated his imposing form walking straight towards the tent. I ducked my head back inside the tent embarrassed by the little squeal that had somehow forced its way past my lips, my heart racing and my mind working overtime as I tried to plan my next move. I was trapped and all I could do was wait, it seemed like an eternity as I remained silent, listening to the soft footsteps approaching, expecting my tent to collapse at any second. As he passed by he gently brushed against the thin nylon outer of my tent and before I knew it he had vanished. I waited for some time before crawling out of the tent to see if there was any damage, everything was okay, my bike was still upright nearby and the tent was in one piece. As I swept my powerful head torch around the camp to assess his whereabouts, the bright beam fell upon the squat, solid body of the largest hippo I have ever seen, keenly munching grass less than ten meters from the tent, as I lit up his face a vague memory flickered in the back of my sleep deprived mind, something like ‘never point your flashlight at a hippo unless you want to piss him off’. He stopped munching as I extinguished the light and gave me a look that seemed to imply ‘just try that again if you want trouble’. As the adrenaline wore off I paid a quick visit to the nearby toilet before crawling back into my sleeping bag for a restless night’s sleep.

Nighttime encounters
The following day saw me up bright and early before collapsing into a hammock shortly after breakfast. In the afternoon I joined a safari tour into the park, as with most other parks, motorcycles are prohibited so I jumped onboard an open topped Land Cruiser with a guide, driver and several other tourists. It turned out to be a rather strange experience, although we saw many different species, including lion, it all felt a little contrived and at one point we even got into a traffic jam in a park that stretches over several thousand square kilometers as each vehicle jockeyed for the best spot to observe a passing herd of buffalo. There are times on this trip when I feel like I am suffering from ‘experience overload’, taking for granted the wonders that are all around me. It reminds me of a visit to a wildlife park, on entering we are enraptured by the smallest of things, the impala skipping through the bush or the warthogs wallowing in the mud but, by the end, we give only a secondary glance to the wooly mammoths or the unicorns. I sometimes need to remind myself of where I am and how fortunate I have been to have experienced all that I have. As this trip nears its finale I find myself becoming more aware of the need to cherish every moment and experience it all with the eyes of a newborn child. Our world is full of wonders and I think we would all look after it a little better if we could learn to appreciate that. 
Flat dog

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Smoke on the water

Day 458

Milage 33,070 (52,912 kms)
Tanzanian sunset
With a renewed sense of purpose and a fully functional bike I was finally able to drag myself away from Diani Beach. After almost two months on the coast of Kenya it felt as though I was leaving behind a little piece of myself, I had met so many incredible people and made some lasting friendships while in this region it was beginning to feel like home. In the end, I had three ‘last nights’ at the Southcoast Backpackers as the owners promised me ‘I could check out any time I liked, but I could never leave’. Tanzania had felt so distant when my bike had been out of action but it took little more than an hour to reach the border along the scenic coastal road. The crossing went smoothly but the Kenyan customs officials couldn’t resist trying to squeeze a few more shillings out of me as I completed my exit paperwork. Apparently, I hadn’t paid my ‘road user fees’ and a modest contribution would be needed before receiving the final stamp so, I explained that I hadn’t been using the roads since my bike had been crippled by a botched repair job I’d had done in Nairobi. Obstinate border officials have been a headache throughout this trip but I always get through eventually, I have time on my side and, as a long line of impatient truckers gathered behind me, they finally relented and I was on my way before too long.  

Sleepy streets of Bagamoyo
Entering Tanzania was relatively straightforward, as I approached the border a swarm of money changers and ‘fixers’ surrounded the bike promising impossibly good rates and invaluable help but, as always, their assistance was unnecessary. Road conditions were noticeably better, gone were the vicious speed bumps and the gaping potholes which had left me airborne on more than one occasion. Each time an oncoming vehicle would pop its nose out to attempt a pass they would timidly return to their own lane upon seeing my bike even though I was already instinctively swerving towards the edge of the road. By early afternoon I was pulling into a rundown hotel in the dying seaport of Tanga. The once busy port is struggling to compete with nearby Mombassa and the town had the appearance of a slowly fading relic with its best times behind it. Early the following morning I was back on the road and following the coast south to the small town of Bagamoyo. Once the capital of German East Africa in the late 19th century it has been in a long state of decline ever since, the crumbling town centre revealing hints of a more decadent past. I found a comfortable camp by the beach and set about exploring the town. 

Doorways of Bagamoyo
It felt quite liberating to be in a less restrictive country, Kenya’s reputation for crime had been one of its less appealing traits and Tanzania had a much more relaxed feel to it. Walking through the streets in Kenya after dark would have been considered reckless so it felt good to finally relax a little. As night fell I went for a peaceful stroll along the water’s edge dipping my feet in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Not far from the shoreline my attention was drawn towards the orange glow of multiple fires and, as I drew closer, I discovered a lively fisherman’s market where all sorts of unidentifiable sea creatures were being cooked over endless rows of glowing charcoal fire pits. Sweating locals tended large cast iron cooking pots bubbling with oil, the heat and smells were oppressive but the atmosphere felt authentic, a beautiful snapshot of real Africa. I found a lively restaurant nearby frequented by a mixture of locals and foreigners, noticing I was on my own I was invited to join their table by a kind group of young volunteer teachers from Denmark. Before long they were telling me all about their friends who had just been mugged on the beach that evening by a group of machete wielding locals. When I asked them about any other areas in town that were known trouble spots they told me to avoid the fisherman’s market at all costs, so much for my well honed instincts. As I wandered through the quiet streets, on the way back to camp, I was surprised to see faint glimmers of light emanating from within many of the building I had wrongly assumed to be derelict.

Elijah and his broken bike
I spent two days in Bagamoyo struggling with making the decision of whether or not to visit the nearby island of Zanzibar. In the end, I opted to turn inland, my extended stay in Kenya has left with only two months to reach Cape Town and I still have such a long way to go and so much more to see. The road took me West and up into higher elevations, it was refreshing to feel the temperature dropping, I stubbornly insist on wearing my protective riding gear at all times but it can become quite oppressive in the hotter regions but, in the back of my mind, I’m constantly reminded of a statistic I’d read years ago claiming a rider is 50% more likely to survive an accident if properly dressed. I passed multiple police checkpoints where the officers were fastidiously monitoring traffic speeds and I was pleasantly surprised to find the plenty of effective road signage making navigation relatively easy. Before long I was cruising through Mikumi National Park, the imposed speed limit of 70 kph making it easy to spot the abundant wildlife that gathered near the road. Elephant, giraffe, impala, zebra and baboons all made an appearance along the quiet highway making it difficult to keep my eyes on the road ahead. I found a comfortable campsite just outside the park and settled in for a quiet night as a deep red sun set over the endless savanna.

Warm welcomes
Early the next morning I was back on the road and making good time on my journey inland. I’d been warned by many over-landers coming from Tanzania that the speed traps were ruthless and plentiful and each town I passed through seemed to have at least one group of police officers in crisp white uniforms sheltering from the intense sun in the shade of the roadside trees. 50 kph speed limits in the towns and villages were well posted before entering but, more often than not, the signs indicating the end of the controlled zone were missing, leaving me confused as to whether or not I could wind back the throttle and return to a more respectable speed. The local police seemed to know exactly where these areas of confusion were located and on one occasion I was pulled over for going a little too fast while leaving a small village. With a smile and a little humor I was able to talk my way out of a ticket and was soon on my way again, stopping briefly in the small town if Iringa to visit a quiet guesthouse staffed and managed entirely by deaf people from the local community. After a delicious lunch I decided I still had time to get a few more miles behind me before I’d have to look for a place to stay, so I got back on the bike and kept moving. It was late afternoon when I spotted a police officer walking into the road ahead of me raising his hand in the air, I was sure I’d already left the speed limit zone and was tempted to ‘high five’ him as I rode past but a police car parked just off the road made me change my mind. As I came to a stop he informed me I’d been doing eighty-nine kilometers per hour in a fifty zone and with a broad grin he announced that I must now pay the fine. It was hot, I was tired and the charm I’d relied upon earlier seemed to have no effect. He directed me towards the unmarked car and told me to talk to ‘the boss’. Sweating profusely underneath a stained uniform that was straining to contain his ample proportions, the police captain smiled at me from the passenger seat, a large pile of Tanzanian currency stacked neatly on the dashboard. 
Campsite companion

The bidding began at one hundred dollars, his smug attitude implying he now held all the cards. His expression changed when I produced my ‘fake’ wallet and showed him its meagre contents, supplemented with expired credit cards and an old driver’s license for an authentic look. After threatening me with jail and a court appearance he finally agreed to settle for twenty dollars but when I asked for a receipt he became quite upset, brusquely scribbling the details of my offense on a semi-official looking piece of paper before sending me off with a dismissive wave. As I mounted my bike, stuffing my first speeding ticket in over thirty thousand miles into my empty wallet, I resolved to spend less time in Tanzania than I had originally planned and after two more days of hard riding I was approaching the Malawian border. 

Sunrise over Lake Malawi
Border formalities were painless and for the first time in many months I was allowed to enter a country without having to pay for a visa, I was instantly warming to the people of Malawi. It initially came as a shock to find so many people on the roads, men riding bicycles stacked high with supplies, women balancing enormous loads on their heads and children skillfully playing football with balls made from nothing more than plastic bags and string and, most importantly, very few other vehicles and no speed bumps. Police checkpoints were frequent but when they recognized that my bike was not local they happily waved me through and on only a few occasions was I stopped and questioned, ‘how fast, how many cc’s and how much did it cost?’ brought the well practiced response of ‘240 kph, 800 and $10,000’. At one point a lightly armed soldier stepped into my path and flagged me down only to give me a heartfelt welcome me to Malawi and a firm handshake. By early afternoon the I’d reached a camp that had been recommended by another rider, situated on the sandy shores of the turquoise waters of Lake Malawi, it felt like the perfect spot to spend a couple of nights. The appearance of several commercial over-land trucks reminded me that I am now getting into the more travelled regions of Africa and evenings were spent under the stars enjoying good company around a blazing camp fire. Another tip from a fellow traveller saw me turn off the main road into the nearby mountains, climbing steep, rough, dirt tracks towards the quiet Eco-lodge known as the Mushroom Farm. I spent two nights at the cliff top lodge overlooking the vast expanse of Lake Malawi, rising before dawn to catch sight of the fishermen dotted across the lake, oil lamps suspended above their dugout canoes as they cast their nets. Slowly, each one would make for shore to dry their catch before the horizon would begin to glow with the deep pinks and reds of the imminent sunrise. I’d become transfixed by the unfolding light show as the blood-red sun began to break the horizon, casting crimson reflections across the distant waters, completely absorbed by the moment, convinced I’d stumbled across yet another little slice of paradise. 
Welcome to Malawi

With each day that passes and every mile I cover it feels as though I am nearing the end of my journey. Only a handful of countries now separate me from my final destination and as I encounter more travelers coming from the south I am constantly reminded of how close I am getting to Cape Town. I still need to finalize my eventual approach as there are many options but the clock is ticking and my budget is dwindling so it will soon be time to make some hard decisions. The bike is performing well and my gear is holding up but the signs of hard use in tough conditions are becoming evident on both me and my equipment. With luck it will all last long enough to get me to the end but the realization is beginning to dawn that often the most interesting experiences happen when things go wrong.
Sunset cruise

Saturday, July 26, 2014


Day 439

Milage 32,150 (51,440 kms)
Tiwi Beach

Africa is like no other continent I know. Raw and untamed it functions under its own set of rules. Life here is unpredictable and each day comes with its own set of challenges. It is a land of extremes, wealth, poverty, climate, terrain, yet the people who inhabit this vast territory are some of the most resourceful, generous and joyful individuals I have ever encountered. It is a truly humbling experience to have those with so little share so much. The color of my skin allows me access to a privileged world though it comes at a small price. I am white, I am mzungu, I receive preferential treatment over those who deserve it more than I and it is offered without resentment  or question as though I am somehow entitled to it. The price I pay for this is what I call the mzungu tax, the cost of everything is inflated based on the assumption that I have more than most. It could get frustrating if you took it personally but with a little patience and humor a fair compromise can always be reached. To travel here can be a challenge but the rewards make it more than worth it, each day is an adventure and it is the attitude you approach it with that makes all the difference. An expression commonly heard here is “T.I.A.”, used when things don’t go exactly to plan, usually accompanied by a resigned shrug of the shoulders, it simply means ‘This is Africa’. It is often thought of as the poor continent but it is rich beyond measure.

Takaunga Lagoon
After planning to spend just two days in Kilifi, the quiet town to the north of Mombassa, it came as quite a shock to discover I had been there for almost two and a half weeks. The place itself and the people it attracts proved difficult to separate myself from but I knew the day would come when I would have to move on. I found myself making excuses as my chosen date of departure came closer. A series of stormy mornings with torrential rains and fallen trees were interpreted as ‘signs’ that the time wasn’t quite right but, eventually, I felt compelled to move south. I had almost forgotten how to load my bike, each piece of gear has its own place fitting together like a game of Tetris without room for any extra. Picking up anything new along the way means something old has to get left behind, other than photographs and my journal there will be few souvenirs from this trip. As I took the slick mud road from the backpackers out to the main coastal highway I was intentionally 
looking for a reason to return.
Sundowners overlooking Shimba Hills
The road south took me through the bustling port city of Mombassa, across the bay on an overloaded ferry and through the lush mangrove swamps that dot the coast. I hadn’t set my sights too far for the first day and within a few hours I was pulling into the coastal resort of Diani Beach. A wonderfully eccentric couple I’d met at a wedding several weeks before had insisted I stop by on the way through their home town so I pulled in to a unique backpackers where all the cabins stand on tall stilts and made myself at home. After a couple of days exploring the pristine local beaches, enjoying cocktails on precipitous cliff tops overlooking the roaming elephants of Shimba Hills National Reserve and swimming in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean I decided to move on. An invitation to one last party took me to the exquisite home of a local couple who live near Tiwi Beach where, as I parked my bike, I noticed it wasn’t running as smoothly as normal.  As I went to leave later that evening the bike refused to start and my heart sank as I realized I was stranded yet again. A flat battery hinted at a charging problem and after a peaceful night in a luxurious tent by the ocean I charged it with enough power to get me back into the town of Diani where I hoped to fully diagnose the issue. I’d had the alternator repaired in Nairobi several weeks before and I suspected this might be the problem so after settling into another backpackers I set about opening up the engine. A visual inspection seemed to confirm my suspicions but I removed part of the alternator and tested it just to be sure. A conductivity test verified the stator had developed an earth leak so it would no longer provide a sufficient charge to the battery on the bike. With several key components relying on an adequate electrical supply my bike was essentially crippled.

Failed stator
Repairing the same part a second time seemed like and exercise in futility so I began the search for a new component. Multiple forums exist online from other riders having similar issues and even though BMW are aware of the problem they insist on selling the entire alternator at an extortionate price when the fix requires just a small piece of the complete unit. Finding the part required nothing more than a quick internet search but getting the part into Kenya would prove to be somewhat more difficult. Shipping accessories to this part of the world can often be a lengthy process as Kenya’s customs officials are always on the lookout for ways to extort additional ‘fees’ on anything coming into the country and other bikers have had their parts held up for weeks at the airport while dealing with corrupt officials. It seems as though the only issues I have encountered along the way on this long voyage have involved people in uniform so I began a search for a suitable courier to bring the part in. Several acquaintances suggested I contact a group of Somalian ‘importers’ who can bring absolutely anything into the country for a modest fee but a close friend suggested I contact an online group of Kenyan expats who sometimes do favors for each other. Before long I had the details of a very helpful woman planning on returning to Kenya from California so I had the part shipped to her and within a couple of weeks it was on its way to Nairobi. In the meantime I had been contacted by a local who needed his motorcycle moved to the capital so, with a little planning, it was easy to coordinate riding his bike to Nairobi with the collection of my part. 

I was a little nervous about riding an untested machine along the 500 kilometer road from Mombassa to Nairobi so I spent a few days in Diani testing and adjusting the bike before setting off. Uninsured and riding a bike that was not registered in my name reminded me of my youth in Ireland, dodging roadblocks and trying to ride as inconspicuously as possible. The heavily used road has more than its fair share of police checkpoints, a result of the heightened security because of several recent shootings but I employed my tried and trusted method of simply waving back at the police when they tried to flag me down. I observed one officer pulling out his mobile phone, possibly to warn the next checkpoint of my imminent arrival, as I sped past, so I pulled over shortly afterwards and had a relaxing lunch in the hope that by the time I resumed my journey they would have forgotten all about me. I was reminded on several occasions that motorcycles are expected to get off the road when an oncoming truck or bus wishes to overtake and I even witnessed one large coach with an impossibly heavy load lashed to its roof tilting over onto two wheels as the driver struggled to return to his lane, narrowly avoiding a head on collision with and oncoming truck. 

Coastal fishermen
The white knuckle ride went smoothly enough and while in Nairobi I was able to catch up with some good friends before embarking on the return journey via bus. Having seen first hand how the bus drivers operate I couldn’t help but feel a little apprehension as I boarded the night service to the coast. By early evening the dilapidated bus was making its way, slowly, through the choked traffic of Nairobi but once we had cleared the outskirts of the city the driver made every effort to push the vehicle to the very limit of its speed and maneuverability, swerving recklessly from behind heavily laden trucks, sometimes completing a pass but, more often than not, wrestling the bus back to its original lane in order to avoid a head on collision. The coach company had advertised an onboard DVD entertainment system which, of course, was not working but nothing could compete with the drama that was unfolding through the windshield, a winding, swerving snake of headlights and taillights resembling a frantic video game. Without warning the driver pulled over at a sleepy roadside village and announced that he was going to take the rest of the night off. The bus erupted with complaints from passengers who had been tricked into thinking, like me, that the overnight service would drive through the night and amidst the confusion nobody seemed to notice that the driver had slipped out of the vehicle. By 5 o’clock the following morning tempers had eased and the driver returned to continue the journey, resuming his frantic race for the coast interspersed with unexplained stops in the middle of nowhere. At one point we slowed to a crawl and gently eased into the opposite lane, a lone shoe in the middle of the road was followed by a sombre line of villagers quietly standing along the edge of the road, their gaze fixed upon the twisted remains of a young cyclist lying in a fresh pool bright red blood. Less than two minutes later the bus had accelerated to full speed and we were frantically weaving between lanes again. A journey that had taken me 7 hours on the motorcycle took 22 hours using the local bus network. 

Beach party
I was excited to return to Diani with my replacement motorcycle part, keen to fit it and get back on the road. I’ve been on the coast for almost two months and Kenya, though fascinating and beautiful, is not the cheapest country in Africa. Supplied by the Electrosport company of California it is reported to be of a higher design standard than the original and less prone to overheating. I spent a day with the bike fitting the new part and replacing the oil and coolant while performing some routine maintenance procedures and testing the new part. So far, it appears to perform well and I am ready to turn south, yet again. Diani Beach has made for a fine place to get stuck and I could not have wished for more interesting group of people to spend the time with. Home to one of the most beautiful beaches in the world it attracts an eclectic group of skydivers, kite boarders, divers and travelers from around the world and the locals are just as entertaining. I’ve lost count of the number of parties we have had since my arrival and I’ve seen more sunrises in the month I have been here than I have in many years.

End of another day
I was recently asked by a couple I met in Nairobi when I planned to settle down, get a real life and make plans for my retirement which left me pondering the definition of a ‘real life’. If it is the career, the house, the car, the wife, the children, the possessions then I choose a different path. It is neither right nor wrong, it may be unconventional but it is what makes me happy. I know how it all began and I am pretty certain how it will all end but I am fortunate enough to get decide what the content will be and I hope to make it as interesting as possible.  

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.