Friday, December 23, 2011

Road to the Ferry

I first heard about the Lake Tanganyika ferry from Michael back in Buenos Aires. Michael was a Brit busy spending his pension checks from Her Majesty’s Navy on beer and petrol while traveling around the world in stages on his GS 1200. A year prior he had been in southern Africa and had taken the ferry.

Lake Tanganyika is the longest and second deepest freshwater lake in the world and is shared by four countries- DR Congo, Tanzania, Zambia and Burundi. I would be catching it at its most southern point in Zambia and then taking it up to the chimpanzee country of northwestern Tanzania and just a hair south of the halfway mark between Cape Town and Cairo. A big attraction to the trip is the vessel itself, the MV Liemba, an old German warship from WWI. I have not seen a photo of the ship yet and do not really know that much about it, but do know that the Germans once deliberately sunk the ship at some point to avoid it getting into enemy hands, and later raised it. The ship makes stops along the Tanzanian coast to small remote mostly inaccessible villages carrying passengers and goods. It is a working ferry for the lake with very few travelers on board. From its final destination in Kigoma, Tanzania I will try and secure passage on a cargo ship going to Burundi at the top of the lake. Otherwise, I would have 150-miles on dirt roads into the interior of Tanzania in order to catch the paved road to Rwanda.

In addition to these more obvious reasons, the idea of traveling through at least part of Africa by boat intrigues me, in the spirit of Joseph Conrad I suppose. It may not be a steamship going down the Congo River or in search of the ivory trading post of the deranged Mr. Kurtz, but I am looking forward to seeing how the experience unfolds.

Besides Michael’s personal account of the trip, it has been nearly impossible to find any current or reliable information about the trip. My Lonely Planet book has a meager 1”x1” box about it, stating it leaves every Friday. In Malawi, I heard from another traveler interested in making the trip that she heard it left every-other Friday, not weekly. There is no website or phone number to call, and not much mentioned on the online forums for overlanders, just more questions. My plan, or lack thereof, was to roll the dice and show up at the dock early in the week hoping that it was leaving on that particular Friday.

However, first I had to get to the lake. The logical route is to come up on paved roads from the south of Zambia. But because I went to Malawi and was now well north of any junction to the paved roads, I had two options: I could cut across the most northern part of Zambia on a dirt road or to ride into Tanzania cross over and then drop back down into Zambia also on dirt roads. Problem was, nobody could tell me anything about either of these roads and the rains were coming more frequently now. As my friend Adam would say, “good intel is hard to come by there”. Several times I had mentioned to Peter that I did not have a very good feeling about all this and was more anxious about the crossing than usual. For one thing, I did not like that the Zambian road paralleled so closely to the border (with Tanzania). Border areas can be bad news.

As Peter and I reached Karonga in northern Malawi, we stopped to get some more black market gas, using up what Malawian Kwacha we had before leaving the country, as it is has almost no value anywhere else. I stopped a couple of mature looking local businessmen walking by and asked if they knew anything about the road across Zambia. They said “no”, but did say that road west from the town of Chitipa in Malawi to the border was very bad and very dangerous. “You must not take that road. Promise me.” He apparently just had a friend killed by bandits on that road a week prior. I did not see any reason for him to lie, and he was pretty adamant about me not going that way. “Don’t worry, you only have to tell me once!” Peter and I crossed into Tanzania together and checked into the Landmark Hotel in Tukuyu.

After two nights, Peter and I said good-bye and he took the main road to Dar Es Salaam/Zanzibar and I went only about an hour west to the province capital of Mbeya. I checked into the Mt Livingstone Hotel so that I could get a decent map of Tanzania and some better “intel” on the road conditions going west. I still did not have a good feeling about this, and that in it self was bothering me. With all the recent rains my chief concern was getting stranded somewhere, unable to move forward and unable to turn back due to washed-out or impassable roads. I would also be incredibly vulnerable out there if the roads were bad or wet. Lastly, I did not have any real experience with the Tanzanian people, “how helpful would they be?”

The “bellboy” at the hotel took me to find a map and to a Bureau of Exchange office to change about $100 worth of Malawi Kwacha that I found hidden in one of my bags (what a bonehead!). The hotel manager later confirmed that the road west to Sumbawanga was in fact well traveled and was currently under construction. The Chinese were building a new paved road all the way and the detour road should be passable if it wasn’t raining. He did not know much about the road south to Zambia.

(China’s involvement in Africa has been coined as the re-colonization of Africa. China has been improving Africa’s infrastructure in exchange for access to individual countries’ natural resources.)

I set out the next morning on the paved road that took me down to Tunduma and the main border crossing with Zambia. I would be staying on the Tanzania side and catching the road west that skirted the border for 40-miles or so. It was the most chaotic border scene that I had seen for quite some time, and was very thankful that I was not crossing there.

The road was soon dirt and turned to shit pretty fast with potholes everywhere. The day was cloudy, but no rain in sight. It was Friday, so I still had a full week to get to the ferry dock at Mpulungu, on the south shore of the lake. I passed many villages along the route. There were sections of mud, but manageable.

For lunch, I bought some mangoes from some kids standing by the road and ate them under a tree with an ominous exclamation mark nailed to it. I should have heeded the warning!

The jaw-chattering 140-mile trip took seven-hours and landed me in Sumbawanga and the less than glorious Mbiza Forest Lodge. Not much of a lodge, and with terrible food, but they did serve me grilled bananas. I had seen people grilling them on the street, dry over hot coals, but had yet to try them. Not exactly sure what variety the banana is, but the grilling takes out some of the sweetness and toughens up the texture. The coarse salt you sprinkle on them makes them a savory little snack, great when accompanied with a cold Safari lager.

Under mosquito netting, I woke to the sound of rain falling on the metal roof at about 3-am, and could not go back to sleep again until it stopped about 90-minutes later. I kept telling myself that I only have 64-miles to get to the border. After breakfast I packed up the bike. I guess I could have waited a day to see if things dried up, but this was not a very interesting place to be and it could just as easily rained more. I desperately wanted this day to be over.

I found my turn off outside of town and saw that this road was also under construction. It was Sunday and nobody was working on it so I took the smooth dirt road for as long as I could, but soon enough was forced to use the detour road that paralleled. There were many patches of mud that forced me to stop, pick a line and plow through in first gear. A few people were out walking or on bicycles, but no other vehicles to speak of were out. The sky was now battleship grey and threatened of rain. The air was cool.

As the morning progressed, the one, and really only bright spot was passing through the various villages as church was letting out. Against a dark sky, and their dark skin, the women looked especially nice wrapped in their bold colorful fabrics. On this "day of rest" they clearly wore their best and brightest with matching cotton fabric for their skirt, top and head wrap. I love seeing the women wrap their hair up into the small tower of fabric. For me it is “classic Africa” and adds a sense of elegance to their outfit. On any other day, these are the same women that carry large loads balanced on their heads; large containers of cooking oil, bundles of firewood six feet long, or almost anything else you can imagine, but today, without the usual burden weighing them down, they seemed to gracefully float above the red dirt.

Then I got stuck. I tried to pick a line where there was none and the rear wheel was soon buried. I quickly waved down a man walking up the road with a hoe over his shoulder. He came over to help while I tried digging out. Useless. Not five minutes had gone by before a large truck carrying passengers came up the road behind me, the first other vehicle I had seen since starting out 22-miles ago. They too got stuck on their first attempt, but came over to help me first. We tried several things but ultimately, they just lifted the rear of the loaded bike up over the mud and pushed it out. I wanted to kiss them, but thought better of it. I then went over to help them out. After about 15-minutes of standing there I proved to be completely useless and they said I should get back on the road as it was now starting to rain.

(one long Slip-n-Slide)

I dropped the bike yet again, this time out of fatigue. My already makeshift right mirror broke again and my right pannier was bent out of shape - again. Once more, there was a man walking his bicycle along with his wife that was nearby and came to help. Tanzanians were proving to be very helpful and always at the right place and right time.It rained for the next 15-miles with more and more mud bogs to pass through. Now every pothole was filled with water and at places, water threatened to overtake the road completely. Keeping the bike from sliding sideways or any other direction took concentration and intense focus. It was exhausting. I first dropped the bike after the tires slid out from under me. I was thrown off and laid flat on my back vowing never to leave paved roads again. I wanted to scream and did. A man heard me wailing and came over to help me pick up the bike. At this point, every mile was counted and celebrated: “Half way there!” “Only 25 more miles!” “Now only 23 more miles”, and so on.

Finally, after an incredibly long four-hours, I got to the small and empty immigration office and found the lone officer on duty. Surprised, he asked how I had made it through the rains. I could only shrugged my shoulders.

Upon being greeted at the Nkupi Lodge near the shore of Lake Tanganyika I immediately asked, “When does the ferry come next?” “You are in luck, it comes this Friday” “YES!”

The next day I went to the port office to find out how much my passage would cost and to secure a cabin. Even here at the dock, information was hard to come by and someone had to text the actual captain of the boat. The man showed me the screen of his phone so I could read his reply, “Due to Christmas, the ferry will not be arriving until December 30th" . . . . a ten-day wait!

As the saying goes here, “TIA!” This is Africa!

Map of my route travelled: Map
Map of the ferry destination: Ferry route

Friday, December 16, 2011


POPULATION: 14-million, 65th most populous country

PRICE OF GAS: $14 a gallon on the black market

MONEY: $1 = 164 Malawi Kwacha


TIME IN COUNTRY: 11/30 – 12/14/2011

The “warm heart of Africa” needs a cardiologist, STAT! The endearing name of the country speaks well of the Malawi people, but the government might be called the “cold hearted greedy bastards of Africa”. Not as eloquent, but to the point.

When I arrived in Malawi through Chipata, Zambia I knew there was going to be some problems. Immediately upon crossing the border I noticed empty gas stations, one after the other - totally barren. I stopped by one and asked the drowsy attendant sitting on the curb when was the last time his station had any gasoline? “Two weeks ago.” When will you get more? “Today…or any day.” Malawi has not had any real gasoline for about 18-months. What petrol it does have comes in at night on trucks or boats from Zambia and Tanzania and sells for about $14 a gallon – far out of reach for any local. In the larger cities a legitimate tanker truck may occasionally supply a gas station with gas, but rather randomly. Once word gets out, the long lines form. Today, a BP station might get some fuel, two weeks later, it might be a Puma station cross-town. Thankfully, Malawi is not a very big country.

Malawi is a poor, landlocked, heavily populated, mineral-poor country that has been ravaged by HIV/AIDS and government corruption. Its economy is largely dependent on agriculture coming from small rural farms. It has long relied on aid from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Britain and United States, but much of that was halted in the year 2000 due to many human rights violations and government corruption. (A recent IMF or World Bank (?) report just quantified that government corruption accounts for 5% of the country’s GDP.)

The reason for the gas shortage is because Malawi no longer has any foreign currency and nobody wants to be paid in its Kwacha currency. The last bit of foreign cash on hand was used to buy a private presidential jet in 2009. No gasoline translates into higher prices on everything for people living in one of the poorest and least developed countries on the planet. In July of this year the people did protest and the police quickly opened fire on the crowds using live ammo, killing 22 people (the people on the street say over 40 were killed).

Anyway, you get the picture.

On the upside of things, Malawi is a stunning country. True, it is a landlocked country, but you would never know it with 3/4 ‘s of its eastern border made up of Lake Malawi. The lake was commonly referred to as “the calendar lake”, or at least until that silly metric system was introduced, because of the lake’s 365-mile length and 52-mile width (at its widest point). The shoreline is peppered with comfortable and affordable lodges that make traveling here easy and very enjoyable. The lake has a lot of personality and changes often depending where you are; Kande Beach, for example, was white sandy beach with still warm waters reminiscent of the Gulf of Mexico. Up north, the rocky shoreline with a mellow surf felt like somewhere in the Caribbean with excellent diving and freshwater tropical fish as brilliant and colorful as any of their saltwater cousins. When the shoreline wasn’t white crystalline sand, it was lined with dense green foliage interrupted only by the Flamboyant trees with their burnt-orange blossoms. Fish Eagles were commonly seen in the tall trees waiting to swoop down on unsuspecting fish. One could spend a lot of time touring the lake never repeating the same scenery twice.

Driving in Malawi was always an enjoyable and tranquil experience – the road never straight or flat for very long. Many people use the roads for foot and bicycle traffic so there is always a bit of “theatre” going on around you (and you have to be very careful). Passing through small villages and rural farmland the waving was incessant. Children would run toward the street and wave so hard that their whole body would wiggle. They really seemed to be getting something out of it and I was always afraid that I would not see a kid waving and pass by with out returning the gesture. On travel days, I must have waved at least 300 times a day. I loved it and it made the day so much fun. “Maybe this is why my shoulder feels better?”

The rumors on the online forums of police shaking down foreign travelers for proof of insurance or made-up infractions was unfounded from my perspective. There were many road stops and the cops did shake down the overcrowded minivan taxis, but I was waved on through or simply asked questions about the bike.

One highlight of my time in the country was my 10-day stay at the Myoka Village resort outside of Nkhata Bay. For $15 a night I had a private thatched roof chalet right on the shore. I swam everyday and practiced my balance in one of the dugout canoes. By the time I left, my shoulder pain was gone and felt strong again. There was an eclectic group of travelers all there at the same time and we often went into town for some curry or *nsima and beef stew at a local restaurant or for a cold Carlsberg at one of the very basic nightspots.

The weather by the lake was hot and humid. The 20-minute walk into town during the middle of day would leave you drenched in sweat. Thankfully, the water of the lake was always refreshing, and not the least bit cold. During the heat of the day, it was best to never venture too far from the water. At night, thunderstorms often rolled in and brought with them a cool breeze that great for sleeping.

Because of these rains and the dense population, Malawi can be quite malarial this time of year and I ramped up my anti-mosquito regiment to include mosquito sprays, burning coils and electrical plug-in deterrents. It was a full-on offensive that will probably knock years off my life for breathing in the noxious chemicals, but it kept the bugs away.

Because I swam in the slow moving waters of the Okavango Delta and in several spots in Lake Malawi, I am at risk of getting biharzia. Biharzia is caused by a parasite from a specific freshwater snail that can enter your body through the skin. It can be awhile before symptoms appear, but can be rather nasty if you wait for them as the “bugs” settle you your bowel and bladder. All of us at Myoka picked up the meds at the local clinic for about $1 and will take them six weeks after our last swim.

Lastly, to round out my time in Nkhata Bay, I visited a local school with a Finnish woman who had been volunteering there teaching English. My plan was to look around and observe for an hour and then get back to the lake, but to my surprise the teacher of the 6th grade class handed me some chalk and asked if I would teach English for a couple of hours. “What?” The cement block room with window openings, but no glass or screens was hot and packed with over 70-students. The teacher was gone in a flash to grade report cards or something as it was the last week of school. I was lost. I noticed that all the kids had a returned test in front of them so I looked through the questions. Excellent, they had been studying some basic human anatomy. That got me started. Then we moved on to world geography: the continents and oceans. The kids were polite, but unresponsive and quiet. I introduced the spelling game Hangman (but modified it so nobody was actually killed, and simply called it “Spelling Man”). Finally, I divided the class into two teams of their choice; it was to be England United vs. Arsenal. I used the anatomy and geography terms that we just went over for Spelling Man. The kids proved to be competitive and came alive and we all howled with laughter. Outside, other students peered into our windows with envy. When the teacher asked if I could come back the next day I said, “Absolutely!” I had a blast with the kids, though they probably didn’t learn a damn thing.

When it was time to leave I rode off with Peter, from Denmark, who was also traveling on a motorcycle. He had been traveling two-up with his wife Christine, but she had become ill and had to be flown home. Peter needed to get to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania where he would sell his Honda Africa Twin before flying home. After Myoka Village we spent one night at Kande Beach and then another high above the lake at the old Scottish Christian mission of Livingstonia. The black market gasoline was expensive but always easy to find. I ended up exiting Malawi with Peter and we spent a couple nights in Tukuyu, Tanzania before heading our separate ways.

True to its reputation, the people of Malawi are what make the place so special, that and the lake of course. It is an amazing place with great potential but with the gas problems and the daily power and water outages, I was ready to leave when we did. I hope things turn around for the country soon. The story of corrupt African politicians seems to play on a repeating loop for many of these African countries, and of course a lot of good innocent people suffer for the benefit of the greedy.

*Nsima is a new food experience for me and has since been commonly served in northern Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania. It is finely ground corn meal that is served on your plate looking like a large scoop of mashed potatoes. With your right hand you pinch off a small piece and form a ball. With the ball you use it to scoop up or “pinch” your other food, often times a chicken or beef stew and cabbage salad. The nsima does not have a lot of flavor but soaks up whatever you are eating it with and is of course, quite filling. Luckily too, there is always a bottle of peri-peri sauce, or hot chili sauce on table. Because you eat with your hands, restaurants will bring out a dish of warm water for you to rinse your hands or provide soap and water station somewhere in the dining area.

A video of images of Malawi: Video

The route of my time in Malawi: Map

Thursday, December 1, 2011



Languages: English, Setswana

Money: Pula, approximately 6 to $1

Gasoline: On par with South Africa and Namibia

Population: 1.7 million

No visa or carnet needed

It’s all about the animals in Botswana. Not being much of a motorcycle country, you would fare much better traveling by horse, boat, or helicopter. The basic road network will get you close to where the action is, but to get into the middle of it all you will need to get far from any pavement. Problem is, once you are off pavement, you are in deep soft sand. My old nemesis!

Botswana is a landlocked-country, but who needs an ocean when you have a sea of diamonds? So much so that the center of the diamond industry is preparing to relocate from the United Kingdom for its new home in Botswana. Because of this wealth, small population, and better management of its resources than most African governments, Botswana is one of Africa’s most stable countries. All this and a good human rights record! Due to this stability and cash flow the country has been able to protect many of its wilderness areas.

As mentioned in the last post, the Kalahari Desert makes up most of the central and southern part of the country and is largely uninhabited. My focus was to be on the northern areas: the Okavango Delta and the Chobe National Park.

The Okavango Delta is the world’s largest inland delta. The waters originate from the Angolan highlands and flood into the Kalahari basin. Due to the heat, much of the water is lost to evaporation and there is a drastic change of water level throughout the seasons. When the water levels are high it attracts some of the greatest concentrations of wildlife anywhere. Currently, the water levels are high and many areas that had been dry for decades are now flooded again. It was just recently discovered how the fluctuating water levels follow a natural 40-year cycle.

I was incredibly fortunate, as I would be staying with some locals while in Maun. My good friend and horse lover Steve introduced David and Robyn Foot to me, from Seattle. Through an exchange of emails, David and Robyn invited to stay with them at their house outside Maun on the Thamalakane River. David’s last email with directions to the house closed casually with “we are just outside Maun on a deep sandy road” ARGH!

After a long hot day on flat straight paved roads from Windhoek I arrived at the house in the dark smelling like an unwashed goat. Harry, their 10-year old son peppered me with questions about the trip while David handed me a cold beer. I was feeling at home within 15-minutes. David and Robyn had prepared a tent for me on a small rise in the yard right above the river. It was a proper safari tent with a cot and folding table with a stainless water pitcher and cup. If it is one thing the two know, it is how to make people comfortable in the bush. After building a successful horse safari business in Malawi, the couple relocated the family and business to Botswana (due to the maladjusted government of Malawi). I have since learned how much David Foot Safaris is respected in the horse community.

With their help I scheduled a three-day makoro (dug out canoe) trip into the reeds and water of the delta, but before that I was on hand for the celebrated first rain of the season, November 16th. (Life at the Foot house takes place on the incredibly tranquil patio facing the river. It is furnished with cozy sofas and the dining table where Robyn serves up some very tasty and healthy meals.) The thunder and lightening was spectacular and the rain came down in buckets. I wasn’t as excited as they were, as the beginning of the rains means something different to me, but I appreciated the fresh smell in the air and the cooling effect that it had. I day later I got to speak at Harry and Julie’s primary school (click here for details).

I ended up as a 5th-wheel with two young American couples going into the delta. Everything we needed to set up camp on one of the islands was placed into the narrow makoros. The “polers” were incredibly skillful at navigating the waters and managing the load (I would appreciate this more later when I gave it a try in an empty boat). We passed hippos and saw many different bird species. Once camp was established our days consisted of a morning wildlife hike and later a sunset cruise. During the heat of the day we would swim or wade around in the water. There was talk of Black Mambas, Spitting Cobras and crocodiles, but thankfully none ever appeared. We saw zebra, many more hippos and an elephant skeleton during our outings. All in all it was a nice relaxing trip and a way to get a small taste of what this massive delta is like.

Before leaving Maun, I needed to take care of some “housekeeping” and David pointed me in the direction of a friendly tire shop. I had the Michelin Anakee tires installed that I had been carrying since leaving Jo’burg and changed all the fluids on the bike while also adjusting the valves. In the process of all of this I found a crack in the frame – something I had been expecting. The welder on site said he could do it right away. I mentioned needing to disconnect the battery before he grounded out his welder on the bike. He was adamant that it wouldn’t be necessary, but the one thing I remember from Ewan and Charlie’s trip was that a welder fried out the electronics of the ABS system when they didn’t fully disconnect the battery and the bike was left with no brakes. Without Ewan and Charlie’s budget and support crew, I could’ve been stranded and screwed for quite some time. “I owe you a beer Ewan and Charlie”.

After a somewhat sad good-bye, I headed off to Kasane at the border of Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia – kind of like the “four-corners” area in the Untied States. I saw elephants along the way and some ostriches surprised me by crossing the road in front of me. Once again, I had luck with me and Robyn passed me off to her good friend Cathy who has a large house right on the Chobe River, which conveniently had a vacant spare bedroom available.

Originally from South Africa, Cathy is an established wildlife artist and knows almost everyone in the small “safari based” community. She arranged a day trip into Chobe National Park for me (motorcycles are never allowed in the wildlife parks). Again, I was put into a group of all Americans - this almost never happens. The schedule consisted of a morning boat cruise up the river and then after lunch we would return via land in a modified open-air Land Cruiser. We saw many animals, but no big cats, though they were there somewhere. (Note: There are NO TIGERS IN AFRICA! Embarrassingly this question always seems to come from Americans. Google it before leaving home please).

Chobe Park has one of the highest concentration of wildlife in Africa and probably the largest elephant population on the continent, at over 50,000. Sadly, this poses a problem outside of the park where elephants are also plentiful, and roam around the town. These giants can be very destructive, tearing down moderate size trees and anything else in their path. Cathy has almost a resident family in her yard, though not while I was there. As tourism has grown in the community outside the park, some of the new safari lodges and municipal projects have started putting up stronger electrified fences to keep the elephants away from the precious riverfront properties. Of course, the elephants were there first and they are the whole reason people are drawn to the area in the first place. Residents often use rubber bullets to drive the elephants from there land, and sometimes - not rubber. Interestingly and timely, just this week I read of a new discovery by a South African researcher about how elephants are afraid of bees, simple honeybees, and by building a "fence" of bee hives this will keep elephants away. The bees can sting the inside the elephants’ trunk and just hearing the buzzing scares them off. Click here for the article.

I enjoyed my time with Cathy and ended up staying a third night. We had a few sundowners together and she introduced me to several of her friends. I could have easily stayed two-more weeks, but needed to move north before the rains get too bad.

On November 27th I took the 10-minute ferry ride across the Zambezi River to Zambia.

Here is a map of route through Botswana: Map

Tuesday, November 15, 2011



Languages: English is official. Recognised: German, Rukwangali, Setswana, Damara/Nama, Afrikaans, Herero, Oshiwambo

Money: the Namibian dollar is approximately 7.50 to $1, and matching the South African Rand, which can also used without any penalty.

Price of gas: $5.15 a gallon, or $1.30 a liter (about same as S. Africa)

No visa or carnet required

Namibia proved to be just what I needed to get myself back into “the game”. My idea of a quick in-and-out trip to see the dunes turned out to be a three-week tour of the northern half the second least populated country in the world (Mongolia is first).

I had not originally intended to go to Namibia, but after talking to several people in South Africa, I decided to venture away from my northerly course to see for myself if the dunes of the Namib desert were in-fact just that amazing.

To get to Namibia, I had a 16-hour two-day ride across the Trans-Kalahari Highway in southern Botswana. “Kalahari” is one of those truly African words that invoke a sense of Dark Continent adventure, but in reality, the road was boring as hell. Two straight lines on the map connected with a dogleg turn westward across a scrubby uninteresting desert. The road was good and border crossings straight forward, as SA, Botswana and Namibia share an open trade “agreement”.

The country of Namibia was colonized by the Germans in the 1800’s and thus has a very Germanic cultural influence and continues to draw many German tourists to the area. The country was taken away from Germany as part of the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War, but the influence remains. Independence was later won from South Africa in 1990. Today, it is a young stable country with vast diamond and mineral wealth. Windhoek is the capital city with one main street and few tall buildings, but not much more. There are some restaurants and decent coffee, but the highlight was just walking the busy sidewalks people-watching. Namibians are beautiful people, and friendly. I pitched my tent alongside a pool at a local backpackers (hostel). I caught some live music with some German med-students doing an internship at the local hospital and left the next day.

My itinerary was loose, but I knew I wanted to see the dunes at sunrise in Sossusvlei. The roads in and out of the country and one road going north - south is paved, the rest is well cared for gravel roads. The turn off from the main highway lead me to some fast dirt roads but also to several small “run offs” or creek beds that crossed the roads. I ended up crossing some of the deepest water on the trip, albeit short distances. I don’t know what I would have done if it had rained recently and the water was any deeper. The junction stop of Solitaire consisted of a gas station, bakery and small hotel/campground. I filled up and got a slice of Moose McGregor’s famous apple pie at the bakery. There was evidence behind the counter that Ewan and Charlie had also crossed through these parts. It was over 100-degrees so I chose a glass of cold water to accompany the pie rather than hot coffee. I had two-hours more before getting to the campground.

Luckily, the national park campground at Sesiem had a bar and cold Windhoek Draught on tap. I sat with a group of retired Brits who were drinking gin at the sunset. The ritual of a “sundowner” cocktail at sunset has new significance for me. Since leaving South Africa, the mid-day temperatures have been up around 110F and shade is hard to find. When the sun goes down, often with a brilliant pink sunset, the evening air cools and becomes quite pleasant, and stays comfortable until about 9:30-AM the next morning, when it starts to heat up again. A few beers helped the cooling down process and it was off to bed early.

At 5:15 the next morning, I thumbed a ride into the park with a Swiss couple, as motorcycles were not allowed in the park. A German traveling on a bicycle also jumped in and we explored the dunes together until the heat became unbearable. The most remarkable thing about the dunes for me was the abundance of rich colors. The intense rust red of the sand contrasted beautifully with the clear blue sky, and the soft celery color of the ground foliage complimented the blues and reds perfectly– none of which was done justice by my camera.

Back at the campground, I desperately wanted to rest, but my tent was like an oven and there was no refuge from the unforgiving heat. Actually, the best place to be during the intense heat of the day is on the bike, creating your own breeze. More gas and another slice of Moose’s apple pie, and I took the road toward the Atlantic coast. The road was not as good as the day before, with patches of thick sand and long stretches of numbing corrugations (washboards). I arrived in Swakopmund just before sunset and checked in to the “Bauhausian” Schweizerhaus Hotel for a few nights near the beach and a mellow birthday celebration.

Swakopmund has been described as being “more German than Germany” and gives you an odd feeling of not being in Africa anymore. It is a favorite weekend tourist destination for urbanites living in Windhoek and is the main kick-off point for catching sightseeing flights over the Skeleton coast - a graveyard of rusting hulls of old shipwrecks now half submerged in sand 100’s of yards inland due to the changing coastline. The only other way to get there is to spend many hours in a 4x4.

It was a pleasant little town with streets so clean, they were sterile and a very impressive curb-painting program. The cool ocean breeze, fresh seafood and cold German lagers made for a nice birthday. However, I also saw the local chiropractor everyday I was there for an aggravated neck/shoulder condition - feeling very much my 48-years.

The true Skeleton Coast is further north up the coast, but I stopped by a beached Angolan fishing trawler on my way north to get just a taste of the insatiable coast. Heading east back to the dirt roads towards the mountains, I was now on my way to Damaraland and the ancient rock carvings of Twyfelfontein. I toured the 2-6,000-year old carvings with Günter and Barbara from Germany. The carvings of animals were interesting enough, but what I really enjoyed, was the buzz I was feeling from traveling again. Whatever, I had lost while crossing Brazil, was coming back to me in force. I found myself easing back into a daily rhythm.

One of the most noticeable things about Namibia, besides the solitude, is the sky. Vast cloudless blue sky during the day and infinite stars at night. I was camping every night in organized campgrounds, and though I was often eating canned food from gas stations, I was thoroughly enjoying myself. Gasoline and bottled water were readily available throughout the country, however “Patagonia rules” apply and you never pass a gas station without topping off. More of a problem was forcing yourself to drink 110-degree water, which is about as refreshing as drinking a cup of sand. As a rule, I carried nine liters of water with me and tried to drink four a day. The flies could be tenacious, but as of yet, there had not been many mosquitoes.

Over a couple Jamesons and water at Günter’s campsite, he told me of an unmarked Himba orphanage a day’s ride going north –my whole reason for continuing north towards the Angolan border was to see more of the Himba people. The Himba are a striking group of people, the women especially, that have remained true to their cultural past. I had briefly read about them, but it was not until I saw a couple of them selling trinkets in the street of Windhoek that I became fascinated with them.

There are many attractive features of the Himba women, but it is really how the whole package comes together to create an incredibly exotic visual experience. The fact that the women are topless does not hurt any and I found myself having flashbacks of when I was a 12-year old scanning National Geographics for nudity.

At the core of the “dress” is the practice of crushing the rust red rock, or ochre, to create a fine powder. The powder is then mixed with butter and bush-herbs and smeared all over their bodies. Not only does this change the color of their skin, but acts as a sunscreen and insect repellent. The same compound encases their braids. Himba women do not shower – ever. They create a mild steam room in their huts and then reapply the ochre mixture. Their dress is made up of a head-dress made of an animal hide, an elaborate system of jewelry around the neck, a belt or waist piece, loin cloth of leather softened by the same butter mixture, anklets made of metal wire beads, multiple bracelets and thin leather soled sandals. Almost everything they wear has symbolic meaning behind it.

I found the village and was met by a young man who would be my guide and translator for N$200, and two young boys in braids and loin clothes agreed to watch my bike. It was incredibly hot in the midday sun. There were 35 children at this orphanage started by a couple that have a farm nearby. Six resident women share the responsibility of raising the orphans and their own children. Only five of the children are enrolled in school due to cost and their desire to preserve the Himba culture.

I ended up meeting several of the women there and found them incredibly genuine, very friendly, and even a bit “sassy”. Three women sitting on the ground, one getting her hair done (a two day long process) and one making jewelry, were quick to pester me about not being married. “But why, you are gorgeous?” They could not understand why I was not married, and quickly ask me to choose one of them. Now, most times when I visit an indigenous village like this, the people are withdrawn, shy and rarely make eye contact. These girls, all in their early 20’s “stood tall” and looked me directly into the eye sometimes rather intensely. I tried to be diplomatic and joked about marrying all three, but they would have none of that and prodded me to basically declare who I thought was the most beautiful.

I have learned since that their beauty is the paramount thing in their lives – it is why they get up in the morning. Not just their beauty but also of the children. Their culture is built on this physical beauty, along with the near worship of the cow.

(Their daily diet is made up of about 80% of a yogurt type soured milk drink, and when the rains are favorable, they have dried corn to crush into meal, which is eaten as porridge. Wealth and standing is determined by how much livestock you own. Interestingly, women can have children out of wedlock and own their own livestock, making them quite independent. At the age of twelve the middle bottom four teeth are extracted to mimic that of the cow.)

Later, I had another marriage proposal (one that I briefly considered) and got teased some more, but enjoyed all the attention. They really “buttered my toast”, which made for a nice belated birthday gift. On the drive back to the campground, I could still smell the earthy butter mixture in my nostrils and had a smile on my face. They may be the vainest people on Earth that do not own a mirror, but I liked them. (And oh, I gave the two boys watching the bike a loaf of white bread and a fresh jar of peanut butter.)

It is hard to describe, but this day was one of the best travel days that I have had. It doesn’t happen often, but when everything aligns in your favor it feels as if you have ceased moving, while instead, the scenery starts passing you by - like the world is rotating just for you. As I covered rolling hills and sweeping curves the loose gravel moved beneath my tires. I passed a group of the seldom-seen desert elephants, while around another turn eight ostriches sprung up from the grass and rustled their “Vegas showgirl” plumage as if on cue, seemingly, just for me. Later a jackal crossed the road in front of me. After my time in the Himba village, I capped off the day with a medium-rare T-bone and a cold beer in a campground catering to overlanders. It does not happen like this often, but I sure appreciate it when it all comes together.

The remainder of my time in Namibia never dulled and my last stop was in Opuwo, a town deep in Himba country near the Angolan border. There I camped at the luxurious Opuwo Country Hotel, where I could use their pool and other amenities. I visited another Himba village and then returned to Windhoek on paved roads before heading to Botswana.

Life is good.

Here is a map of my route: Map

Here is a video of images of my time in Namibia: Video

Here is a brief video highlighting my time with the Himba: Video

Friday, October 28, 2011

South Africa: Part 2

Apartheid Museum
Sani Pass
Pilanesberg Game Park

The port city of Durban lies on the southeastern Indian coast of South Africa. Once there, I explored the town with Emily, a grad student from Santa Barbara. We managed to figure out the confusing and intimidating shared taxi system. The city was abuzz with white Toyota minivans going every which way, none marked with a name or route specified. The locals in the taxis were always surprised to see us get in and offered good advice about their hometown once we broke the ice by asking questions. Later we got some take out at a hole in the wall Indian storefront. My favorite was the stuffed roti, or a pizza size piece of naan rolled around a curry stew of your choice, sort of like a big Indian burrito. The other local favorite was Bunny Chow, a ¼ or ½ loaf of white bread hollowed out and filled with beans or a curry stew. Either one was a filling choice for two people and at just over a buck.

The next day I explored some of the city on my own and wandered around downtown until I got lost among the Indian spice markets and other small businesses. The scene was vibrant and the people watching was on hyper drive. “Why do you not come into my store?” I heard from behind me. “Excuse me?” “Why do you not stop in my store?” A small elderly Indian woman was standing in front of a kitchen supply shop. “Well, I don’t cook very much.” “How do you eat?” “I spend too much money in restaurants.” You need a wife, why do you have no wife? You marry me and I cook for you.” “Okay, what time are you off?... alright, I will pick you up at 5:00 and we will go and get married.” Based on the rolling eyes of the man in the background, presumably the owner, he had seen this sales pitch before.

After many hours, my feet were getting tired. As I looked for a taxi going back to my side of town I was aware that I had not seen many white people. No more than a few at best. On my way home, I jumped out at the new shopping mall along the way to look for a Lonely Planet guidebook on Southern Africa. Upon entering the mall, “Ah, this is where all the white people go.” The place was packed for a weekday during work hours. I would later read “malls” referred to as “white habitats”.

The toll road, N3 from Durban to Johannesburg cost me nearly $40 US. Where in many countries motorcycles get a free pass or at least a reduced rate, here they are charged they same as cars. Approaching Jo’burg, or Jozi as they call it, I became more and more anxious - no place has come with so many warnings of violent crime.

I arrived during rush hour traffic and did not find my backpackers until after dark. The place was perfect for shooting a movie about a scary turn of the century mental asylum. It had been converted from an old mansion and the large rooms were now filled with metal beds and nothing else. It was stark and clinical in a third-world early 1900’s kind of way. I feared of a forced lobotomy in the middle of the night and quickly checked out first thing in the morning. My new place was in a converted house with lots of charm and was only a few blocks away from the shops and cafes on 7th Street in the Melrose district near the University. Much better.

During my transition from Cape Town to Jo’burg, Achmat had turned “my care” over to his buddy Rashaad. Rashaad was also making his way up the continent on his own journey and had just returned from a trip to Tanzania, where his KLR 650 is there waiting for the next leg of his journey. Rashaad was immensely helpful and we shared several dinners together. He also took me to buy a new camera when mine failed and to shop for a mosquito net. At the time of this writing, Rashaad had taken advantage of an impromptu family trip to India and is now riding a rented Ensfield around the Himalayas. He also took me to a presentation hosted by Cytech, a local motorcycle touring company. The presentation was about their recent Cape to Cairo trip.

I received a lot of information there and met a lot of like-minded people eager to travel Africa on big dual-purpose bikes. I met a couple there and mentioned that I would soon be relocating from Jo’burg to the capital Pretoria so that I could be near the embassies - I wanted to try and sort out some visa issues, specifically Ethiopia and Sudan. “You should stay with us, we live there” (words that would later come back to haunt them).

I continued my stay in Jo’burg and had warmed up to the place. I felt plenty safe walking to my favorite coffee shop for morning coffee and free internet (most of South Africa hotels are still charging for internet time.) Every morning I walked by all the houses hidden behind a high cement security walls topped with electric fences and/or razor wire. It was a city of walls. The home security firm ADT roamed the neighborhoods with its own patrol cars manned by agents armed like they were in Afghanistan. I also noticed that not many people walked, jogged, or took their dogs or kids for a stroll. People were pretty much dependent on their cars, like in the States, but maybe more so. Everywhere I went or the places where Rashaad took me, I felt fine and any sense of danger soon vanished. Listening to the news you would hear of bad things happening, but not as much as you would of thought, based on the amount of visible security measures.

After a visit to the Apartheid Museum south of town I decided to take the bike out to the famous township of Soweto (South Western Township). After the gold strike of the 1880’s, Johannesburg suffered a housing crisis. The white Afrikaans in charge decided to segregate the population based on race and developed housing areas where the blacks and coloured people would be forced to live – however not too far away because their cheap labor was still needed to work the mines. As history goes, this kind of segregation continued until it went into full effect in 1948 when the then ruling National Party legislated racism under the name of Apartheid.

Racial classification was the foundation of all apartheid laws. It placed individuals in one of four groups: African, described as ‘Bantu’ in apartheid laws, ‘colured’, ‘Asian’ or ‘white’. -from a museum placard

South Africa was soon cut off from the rest of the world through sanctions and embargoes, and public demonstrations in the townships reached a boiling point in the 1970’s. The most famous of these uprisings occurred in Soweto in 1976, after a sudden change in government policy called for all schools to begin teaching classes in the Afrikaans language rather than English. Many of the black students had just learned English, or were in the process, and to introduce a new language (not to mention that of their oppressors’) overnight was too much. Many of the teachers did not even know the language. The student uprising became violent and many people were killed. One of the first to be killed by police was 12-year old Hector Pieterson. Now there is an impressive museum in Soweto commemorating the uprisings and casualties named after Hector.

Soweto is a huge sprawl of cement block Monopoly game piece type houses. Mountains of the tailings from the nearby goldmines border the township, and on one edge, the new soccer stadium constructed for the recent World Cup competition. A few blocks from the Hector Pieterson Museum is Nelson Mandela’s first house. Down the street from that is Desmond Tu Tu’s old house. It is the only street in the world that housed two Nobel Peace Prize winners.

Both museums offer a sobering and emotional look into the scarred history of this troubled country and it is hard not to form a “rebound” prejudice against the way things are here, but in reality, there has not been a country yet that I have visited that is innocent of committing crimes against it’s people. The thing about South Africa’s secret was that it was always a public secret. It was out in the open. Not that this makes it any more digestible or any easier to understand mind you.

During my time in the country I have listened to how locals old enough to have lived during that era talk about this period, many times it sounds something like “Because of the situation here at the time….” or "due to what was going on here ....". I do not want to speculate on what is said behind closed doors from many, racism still exist everywhere, but all the people I met seemed genuine and eager for even better race relations. It is clearly going to take some time.

The last thing on my Jo’burg “to do” list was to get my rear shock looked at. Yes, the one that was just rebuilt in Buenos Aires. One day in the Transkei, the shock just went “soft”. I found Rob of RD Racing and he rebuilt the shock again, this time to Ohlins’ official specifications. He was nice enough to not to charge me. From his shop in Jo’burg I left for the capital Pretoria to stay with Claire and Euan, the couple from the presentation.

My plan was to take my file of photocopies and collected documents to the embassies in town to try and procure my visas for some of the more difficult countries. Claire dropped me off at the Ethiopian embassy and I quickly learned how fruitless this idea was going to be and soon dropped the whole idea. I will deal with it all later.

Over the weekend, Claire and Euan took me to the nearby game park of Pilanesberg northwest of town. Waking at 4:00-am assured us of some good viewing time while the animals were active in the cool morning air. During the drive I was surprised at how many (platinum) mines we passed to get to the park. This was to be my first real chance to see some African wildlife, and we were fortunate to see plenty; white rhinos, giraffes, elephants, jackals, hippos, and a variety of the local antelope species. From a distance we saw a lioness with her cub and male lion, but it was pretty far away. By about 10:00, the animals started finding shade and soon were no longer visible from the car’s windows (understandably, it is not allowed to get out of your car) and rightfully so because it was getting damn hot, over a 100 for sure.

Claire was raised in South Africa and Euan was Scottish working on the construction of a massive new coal burning power plant nearby. They were married in the UK when Claire was there working. They were gracious hosts and willingly shared their beautiful home with me. As I planned to depart, Euan and I decided to take the bikes up Sani Pass to the kingdom country of Lesotho. It met a trip down back towards Durban, but on roads more interesting than the toll road. Sani Pass is quite famous among overland travelers and it is something to be able to say, "I did it”. The last half-mile of the pass was as technical as anything I had ridden in quite some time. The switchbacks were steep and the rocky ground incredibly loose. When stopping the bike near the top, the front brake could not hold the bike and the bike would slide backwards on the loose dirt. Euan has made up to the top before, but on this trip his clutch burnws out near the top. I made it up, but had a nice surprise when I got back down to the bottom.

(Rather than traveling through Lesotho Euan had to take car (thankfully Claire had followed us up the pass in the Land Rover) down to town and bring back a trailer to get his bike off the mountain. This meant that we were going back to Ken's house for the night, Claire's uncle. I did not mind a bit. We spent the previous night at Ken's and it was an incredible experience for me to stay in one of the typical farmhouses that I had admired from the road. Ken moved his young family to this farmland over 40-years ago. First they lived under an umbrella, and then upgraded into a tent while Ken built the earthen-walled farmhouse from scratch. It has not always been easy, mostly quite hard in fact, but Ken has lived his life according to Ken and I really admire that. Hemingway once wrote of a man knowing "the truth of things", and I thought of this when I met Ken.)

While Euan was making arrangements for his bike. I noticed that my front shock had blown its seal and was now leaking oil. YES, that other shock that was rebuilt in Buenos Aires - $550 completely wasted! YES, I was pissed! This time, Rob was unable to do the job due to some national races going on, so I found a contact from the local BMW dealer. This meant even more time at Claire and Euan’s. I really started to feel bad about being there so long, but I did not know what else to do. It had already been over a week. They were true saviors for me and I owe them an immense amount of thanks. The night before I left Claire put together a nice final supper on the patio with some bubbly.

Finally, the bike was ready with fresh oil and stocked with plenty of water and Biltong -South Africa's version of beef jerky. I would spend 16-hours over the next two-days crossing the hot scrubby Kalahari Desert in southern Botswana on my way to, Namibia.

I enjoyed South Africa very much and feel like I have some new friends there. The cities seemed very much like prosperous areas of the United States and life there is very similar ours. Life in many of the rural areas seem more like life in a developing country but seemingly getting better. Few countries have the beauty and resources that South Africa has and is a wonderful place to visit. Two thumbs up for the modern day South Africa!

Video of images for South Africa 2
Video of the Sani Pass trip.
My route through South Africa, Map of route.