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, October 15, 2014

Long Ride to Freedom

Day 520

Milage 37,752 (60,403 kms)

“It always seems impossible, 
until it is done” 

Nelson Mandela

Sunrise on the Orange River
The contemplation of doing something is often more difficult than actually doing it. There are mornings when I stare at my maps pondering the ride ahead and the complications of facing the unknown but, once I am on the bike and moving forward everything seems to simply fall into place. As I near the end of my journey and reflect on how it all began, including the trials that have tested me along the way, I sometimes need to remind myself that, as difficult as my journey has been, it pales into insignificance when I look around and see the struggles faced by those who inhabit this vast continent. I could never have imagined how this trip would evolve and I often wonder what I would change if I had to do it all over again but life is too short for regrets. Changing the past is a trick I have yet to learn, I can only reflect, try to understand and grow through all the experiences that have led me to this moment. Worrying about the future feels like a fruitless waste of energy, challenges will arise and I will meet them, give them my best and hopefully triumph but, if I don’t I will try to look upon them as opportunities to better equip myself for the next time, as John Lennon once said, “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” 

Wild camping in Lesotho
After almost a week in Lesotho I decided to return to South Africa via the Maseru Bridge crossing near the capital. Reports of the military ‘coup’ that had engulfed the city appeared to be little more than groundless rumors, there was very little evidence that the ‘popular uprising’ was anything more than political maneuvering by the elites, other than a few plumes of smoke rising over the modest city skyline the region appeared peaceful, people were going about their business as though it was just another day. The current Prime Minister is involved in a power struggle with the former head of the military and the old king. Neither side will make the needed compromise required to break the impasse to the detriment of the country they all claim to love so much.  Leaving Lesotho was effortless, a cursory glance at my passport by the border guard was followed by a casual wave and I was on my way. Entering South Africa, for the second time, proved to be somewhat more difficult. On my first entry the immigration officer had mistakenly given me only a thirty day visa (I was entitled to ninety) and this was just about to expire. On this attempt the immigration officer was unwilling to let me enter, claiming that my initial visa had almost expired. I had expected there to be a problem after my visit to the immigration headquarters in Johannesburg where none of the officials could give me a definitive answer as to how to resolve the initial mistake. In preparation for this I had arrived well fed and hydrated with a positive attitude and a big smile. Thankfully the guard on duty agreed when I asked her to consult her superiors and she disappeared with my passport while a long line of patient travelers began to gather behind me. After thirty minutes she reappeared and promptly stamped my passport with an additional sixty day visa. Together with the large crowd that had gathered behind me we all breathed a collective sigh of relief and I was on my way yet again. After the rough roads of Lesotho it was great to open up the throttle on my bike once more and speed across the flat boundless plains of the Free State. By lunch time I had arrived at South Africa’s judicial capital, Bloemfontein, stopping briefly to eat and refuel. With plenty of daylight left I decided to push on towards the Northern Cape province stopping for the night at the small city of Kimberly. 

After the portage on the Orange River
In 1869 a large diamond was discovered on the slopes of a small hill, or koppie, where the city of Kimberly lies today, within a month 800 claims had been staked on the hillock and soon the hill became a deep hole as the frantic digging began. Today, Kimberly is the site of ‘The Big Hole’ which claims to be the largest hand-dug hole in the world at a depth of 240 meters. Almost 3000 kilograms of diamonds were extracted from this mine consolidating the fortunes of men like Cecil Rhodes, Barney Barnato and the De Beers brothers. Today the De Beers corporation still retains a monopoly over the world’s diamond market. From Kimberly I continued to ride west into the barren Kalahari Desert, a sparsely populated region of acacia tree dry savannah and rocky red dunes. I’d arranged to meet my friend Lynn in the small town of Upington close to the Namibian border before embarking on a four day canoe trip down the Orange River with the Warriors Program, an organization that takes students on their gap year and introduces them to a world of adventure activities while building confidence, fitness and environmental awareness. After consulting guidebooks and local rafting companies the chief facilitator felt that a couple of extra hands would be useful should the whitewater prove to be too challenging for the group involved. In the end it turned out that the river was well within the capabilities of all those involved but it was a pleasant four days as we floated through the spectacular Orange River valley completely removed from ‘civilization’ accompanied by the sound of our paddles slicing through the river’s surface and the songs of a seemingly endless variety of birdlife. Each night we would find a suitable beach on the Namibian side of the river, taking time to explore before camping under the stars. 

Row, row, row your boat...
After four wonderfully peaceful days on the river in the company of some inspiring individuals I returned to my bike and resolved to push south towards the coast through the Great Karoo, a semi-desert area occupying a vast swathe of the central region of South Africa. It’s harsh climate have left it virtually uninhabited, hot days were followed by bitterly cold nights and I was glad of my warm sleeping bag at the end of a day’s ride. Huge distances separated small townships as I kept to the minor dirt roads that criss-cross the severe territory, telegraph poles were often topped with the large thatched nests of the sociable weaver bird and lonely skeletal windmills attempted to suck moisture from beneath the earth, their vanes spinning wildly in relentless dry wind. Parts of the Karoo have been tamed and hardy shepherds would tend their flocks scraping what nutrition they could from a land that offers little. On my second day I underestimated the distance to my final destination and as night fell I found myself deep inside the Karoo’s southern mountains, the endless ridge lines turning deeper shades of orange, pink and purple as the sun set behind me. With little idea of how much further I had to go I decided to push through in the hope of reaching a town where I could find a warm bed and a hot meal. As the darkness consumed me I rode into the narrow tunnel of dim light created by my filthy headlight, floating the bike atop the loose sand and gravel, trying to maintain a high enough speed where the undulations of the rough road seem to even out for a smoother ride. Frequent patches of deep sand would occasionally try to pull my bike off course but I resisted trying to over react, gently twisting the throttle to power my way through, hoping to find solid purchase on firmer ground. After a seemingly endless couple of hours of exhausting concentration I finally reached a tar road and the town I had hoped for.

Prince Alfred Pass
After my reckless adventure through the Karoo I felt as though I deserved a treat so I checked into a comfortable hostel in the busy town of Beaufort West. The following day I set out early to avoid any more night riding, choosing the coastal town of Plettenberg Bay as my next destination. My route took me south into the Little Karoo through a vast expanse of empty desert, providing little protection from the strong cross winds that buffeted my bike. As I approached the Cape Fold Mountains that separate the inland region from the ocean I entered a series of twisting roads that carried me up and over the ridges and into the lush coastal region along the spectacular Prince Alfred Pass on a dirt road that was supposedly closed because of flood damage. I passed several signs advising me to turn back but I presumed I could ride through any washouts or, at worst, turn around. I encountered a few narrow spots where the road had recently succumbed to heavy rains but work was well under way to repair the damage and I was able to make it to the coast, blue skies and turquoise waters revealing themselves as I descended out of the clouds. The small resort town of Plettenberg Bay proved to be a comfortable stopover enabling me to catch up with some good friends who lived in the area. After a few days in  Plettenberg I continued west and for the first time on my journey I began to see signs for Cape Town, my destination was getting closer. The coastal road wound its way through lush forests alongside beautiful empty beaches but I felt reluctant to cover the last several hundred kilometers that would complete my trip so I pulled into the quiet town of Mossel Bay to break up the last leg of the ride. 

Knysna, on the Garden Route

Mossel Bay is a sleepy little harbor town on a stunning section of the Garden Route, it is home to many artisans and surfers where the numerous beaches provide endless opportunities for riding the powerful waves that pummel the coast. It is also the place where the first Europeans landed on South African soil in 1488, Bartolomeu Dias and his Portuguese crew stopped briefly here while trying to establish a trading route to India, they refilled their water supplies from a fresh water spring before being repelled by natives under a hail of stones. In the center of the old town there stands a gnarly, twisted milkwood tree where sailors would deposit their mail inside an old boot in the hope that a ship passing in the opposite direction would collect it and carry it home. Known as the Post Office Tree it is still in use today and a boot shaped post box has been installed under its low hanging branches. 

Mossel Bay coastline
From Mossel Bay it is less than four hundred kilometers to Cape Town, if the roads are in good condition, which they invariably are in South Africa, I could ride that in a few hours but I have a growing sense of reluctance to see this journey end. Each day, as I near the destination that once seemed so far away, I am overwhelmed by a feeling of foreboding, anxious that I will stumble when so close to the finish line. I have yet to discover the source of this uneasiness but I suspect it may be related to my reluctance to relinquish the freedom I have acquired since this odyssey began. It will soon be time for me to pack my gear for the final time and go back to work, I plan to sell my bike and gear to raise the funds to begin the next chapter in my life and saying goodbye to a motorcycle on which I’ve had so many incredible adventures will not be easy. I’ve always thought I couldn’t become attached to material things so these feelings have surprised me. Perhaps there is someone out there who wants to take this bike on its next adventure.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Final Frontier

 Day 506

Milage 36,337 (58,139 kms) 
The roof of Africa
Waking early to the sound of birds greeting the new day is one of the simple pleasures of life in a tent. As the sun slowly rose and the world filled with light I quietly rested longer than usual, letting the significance of my new location settle in. Just south of the Limpopo River I was now inside South Africa and Cape Town, my goal, was within reach. As I packed my tent and loaded my bike I prepared for the short drive to the nearby city of Johannesburg and a visit with an old friend whom I hadn’t seen for many years. Traveling south, I tried to ignore the grinding that had grown significantly as my chain and sprockets far exceeded their intended lifespan, I knew I could find replacement parts soon and I hoped the ones I had would hold out for the last few hundred kilometers. A broken chain at high speed can cause considerable damage as it whips into the engine casing so I tried to take it easy but, entering the fast flowing traffic of South Africa’s motorway system made that difficult without becoming a hazard to myself and those around me. By early afternoon I had successfully reached the home of a dear friend who I had worked alongside many years ago in Chile. For the next week, Lynn and her delightful mother, Joan, opened their home to me, showering me with overwhelming hospitality as I set about finding the parts I needed to put my bike back into reasonable running order. 

Uhuru gets an overhaul
Finding spare parts in Africa has been a constant headache and it felt odd to have so many choices when it came to locating what I needed in Johannesburg, the last time I had access to any kind of motorcycle dealership was in Egypt and somehow I’d made the parts I was carrying last this long. A few simple phone calls to nearby suppliers left me with an extensive list of options. I began with the BMW stores but, as always, their prices caused me to reconsider, confirming my belief that BMW stands for ‘Break My Wallet’. The bearings I required, four in total, could all be found at a local specialist store for the same price that BMW wanted for one. All in all I was able to find everything I wanted for a third of the price that I had initially been quoted by the local BMW dealership. I then spent several days in Lynn’s garage dismantling my bike and slowly rebuilding it before taking it for several test rides. Once all the worn parts had been replaced it felt like a brand new machine and became a pleasure to ride once again, I’d almost forgotten how smooth it could feel to have everything working the way it should. This continent has been hard on the bike but it has out performed all of my expectations, handling the tough conditions with an ease that is only limited by my own questionable abilities. 

Time to play

It wasn’t all work and no play while in the city, Lynn introduced me to several charismatic members of the Exploration Society of Southern Africa (ESSA) and with them I had an opportunity to kayak on one of the local rivers just outside the city. Even though the water was low and it wasn’t the cleanest river I’ve ever been on it was great to be back in a boat, floating down a river in a kayak has always struck me as one of the most unique ways to experience a region and this was no exception. The days flew by and I soon realized that the thirty day visa I’d obtained at the border upon entering wasn’t going to be long enough, Lynn’s extensive knowledge of her home country soon had me thinking that there is much more to see than I had thought. When I’d first entered the country it had been late in the day after a tiring ride and the immigration officer had asked me how long I planned to stay. I’d asked for the maximum time allowed and he stamped my passport with a visa valid for one month but, some time later, a quick internet search revealed that Irish citizens are entitled to a maximum of 90 days. At the time I’d had no idea, this is the 38th country I’ve entered on this voyage and I certainly don’t know the regulations for each and every one, if an immigration officer tells me that the maximum stay is 30 days then I tend to believe them and plan accordingly. While in Johannesburg I made a quick visit to the local immigration department located in the heart of the notorious Central Business District (CBD) and was told by two senior officers that the only way to correct the mistake made by the border guard was to revisit the place I had crossed and exit the country. I’ve always had a strong desire to visit Lesotho but rumors of a military coup were making me revise my plans. With the refusal of the immigration officers to offer a more practical solution I resolved to rethink my decision and alter my route to include the ‘Kingdom in the Sky’.

No swimming for me

With all of the maintenance to the bike completed I decided it was time to move on but, a last minute phone call from a member of the ESSA group caused me to reconsider my next stop. One of their members had suffered an injury just before departing on a five day hike through the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi wildlife reserve and he was willing to sell me his place for half price. Opportunities like this do not come along often but I have retained the flexibility on this trip to seize them when they do arrive, I jumped at the chance to join the hike and set out for the east coast the following day. The ride to the coast took me through the Mpumalanga region and into Kwazulu-Natal. Avoiding the main highways I kept to the twisting back roads through rolling hills and fertile, sugarcane farmland, a thick haze filled the air as farmers burnt the last of the Winter’s growth in preparation for this years planting, it added an eery edge to the atmosphere as I passed by long forgotten battlefields from the Anglo-Boer wars. The ride took longer than I’d expected and it was after dark by the time I reached my destination. I spent a few days on the coast in the little town of St Lucia which lies within a unique world heritage site that contains five ecosystems home to over 90% of South Africa’s natural crocodile population. At night hippos roam the streets (I almost rear ended one on the motorcycle) and a healthy population of sharks inhabit the estuary so I decided to postpone my plans for a morning swim.

Unicorns do exist

After a few days the rest of the ESSA group arrived and we set off into the nature reserve for our five day ‘primitive’ trek. Carrying everything we needed in our backpacks we joined our local Zulu rangers, Nunu and Nantabela, and entered the untamed bush. Leaving behind our cell phones and watches we slipped into a peaceful rhythm of rising and sleeping with the sun, quietly walking through the park so as not to disturb the local wildlife. Hluhluwe-iMfolozi is Africa’s oldest wildlife reserve, established in 1895 to protect the Southern Black Rhino from extinction it has enabled its residents to thrive but the threat of poaching is still a major concern. Each day we would rise at dawn and follow our guide over the rough terrain, relying on his keen senses to help us spot the animals that were all around us. By noon, while the sun was at its hottest we would find shade, eat a simple lunch and rest until the air cooled, resuming our hike before finding a suitable camp for the night near the dry river bed. Digging several feet into the cool, damp sand would expose the ground water, filtered enough to drink untreated. As darkness fell a fire was started and our guides would begin preparing a a basic dinner as we rolled out our sleeping mats and prepared to sleep under the stars. Throughout the night we took it in turns to stand watch and keep the fire burning to discourage any nocturnal visitors from coming too close, on the third night, halfway through my shift, two male lions came within a hundred meters of our camp, one of them roaring loudly to announce his presence. The roar of a lion awakens something instinctual within all of us and several tense minutes went by before they finally moved along. The reserve is home to the Big 5, elephant, buffalo, lion, rhino and leopard and of these all but the leopard made an appearance on numerous occasions throughout our five days.

Lion prints next to mine

Returning to civilization afterwards took a little adjustment but the sense of serenity that had settled upon each of us is still with me. It will stand out as one of the highlights of my trip to date. I’d left my bike outside the park and was relieved to find it still standing when I returned, the park staff had warned me that elephants like to wander around the complex at night time causing all kinds of mischief. I packed my belongings onto the bike and took to the road headed roughly in the direction of the infamous Sani Pass which leads from South Africa into Lesotho. When I had shared my plans to enter Lesotho with a fellow traveler I received warnings not to underestimate the difficulty of entering via the route I had chosen. I found a quiet backpackers at the base of the pass to spend the night as poor weather had shrouded the mountains in thick cloud, if I was going to attempt this at least I wanted to enjoy the views. The Sani Pass climbs through the Drakensberg Mountains reaching a height of almost three thousand meters before piercing the border of the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. Finally the weather cleared and it was time to leave, with bright sunshine breaking through the clouds I put on my warmest gear and pointed my bike uphill. At the base of the pass I exited through the South African border post where they questioned whether or not my bike would make it to the top, leaving me feeling more apprehensive than I already was, how bad could it be? The dirt road got gradually steeper but the new rear tire I had fitted while in Johannesburg handled the loose gravel with ease providing me with spectacular views of the valley below. An hour after starting I was at the top feeling euphoric even as strong, bitterly cold winds pummeled the summit. 

Top of the Sani Pass

I found myself a strange land, a unique island of mountainous plateaus nestled in the middle of South Africa, a beautiful anomaly amidst a region of modernity, where locals lived in artfully constructed, round stone huts with thatched roofs and traveled on horse back wrapped in thick, warm, brightly colored, woolen blankets. In the east of the country the military coup that was taking place in the capital, Maseru, was virtually unheard of amongst the people I spoke to. I spent several days driving through the country, wild camping alongside crystal clear creeks, rising in the cold light of dawn to continue my slow progress west. Before I’d entered Lesotho a friend had asked if I had a GPS, they snorted derisively when I told them I didn’t possess one. It wasn’t too difficult to navigate though, there aren’t very many roads to chose from but asking directions proved to frustrating at times. At one point I was having trouble locating the town of Thaba-Tseka, I was sure I had the right road but on three occasions I asked a local how far it was, the first person I asked told me it was twelve kilometers, after an hour a stopped again, only to be told my destination was now twenty kilometers away and on the last occasion I was told it was thirty kilometers away. I eventually reached the town but it was only on the following day.  

Close encounters

I will return to South Africa via the western border of Lesotho, I’ve been invited on a four day canoe trip down the Orange River which borders Namibia. As my trip nears its end my emotions are mixed, like a coin flipped in the air, at times I want it to last forever but there are days when I feel ready to see it end. South Africa has changed since I was last here sixteen years ago. The noble ideals upon which the ANC swept to power have been gradually replaced with a kleptocracy, fattening the few at the expense of the many. Money intended to support and improve the country’s infrastructure disappears into the pockets of thieves and hypocrites until the pot runs dry and upturned hands are, once again, presented before the unscrupulous World Bank, the IMF and predatory foreign investors. The brave cadre of freedom fighters, or terrorists, depending on which side you supported, are strangely quiet and the current leadership maintains some questionable beliefs. The president, while defending a rape allegation from a HIV positive victim claimed that showering afterwards would prevent him from catching the virus. In a country racked by the plague of AIDS a senior health minister advised the general public that a diet of onions and sweet potatoes could help cure the disease. With leadership like this at the helm I can only wonder what course this country will take. For the chosen few conditions in this country have improved beyond their wildest dreams but, for the majority, little has changed. 




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