Monday, May 28, 2012

The Marsabit-Moyale Road

There are two inescapable obstacles that you must get past while traveling the eastern route of Africa. Of course you can make all the obstacles you want, but there is no getting around these two spots on the map - the northern road out of Kenya and entering Egypt from Sudan via the Wadi Halfa ferry.

Back from western Kenya with my passport and visas sorted, I was ready to tackle the first challenge, the Marsabit-Moyale road to the border of Ethiopia…well almost.

During my two weeks at Jungle Junction (JJ’s) I saw many southbound trucks and motorcycles roll in or being towed in, most is various states of disrepair. The road was taking on mythical proportions. It is not that the road is that technical, but it is because it is a drawn out 300-mile two-day journey consisting of large rocks, corrugations, deep wheel ruts, through an incredibly hot and barren landscape. One BMW bike was trucked into JJ’s with its transfer case cracked, leaving the bike almost broken in two. Others in the yard were busy replacing shocks and/or wheel bearings among other things. Another biker reported how he had several flat tires during his trip. I knew my tired weeping Ohlin shocks were not going to fair very well. If they did make to Moyale, there would not be anything left of them and I would need replacements to get through the rest of Africa. Once I left Nairobi, there would not be any more support available.

My money was running low and I could not afford to have a new pair of shocks shipped to me. I talked to Chris, the owner and head mechanic at JJ’s about a solution. Not many options were available to me outside of shipping the shocks back to South Africa for another rebuild. Plan B: I contacted Ohlins USA. In the past, every time I have had an issue with the bike’s suspension, I have always conferred with the guys in the States, so they were fully aware of my history and problems with the shocks. I asked if they could “partially sponsor” me by sending me a used or rebuilt pair to me in Ethiopia. I got a curt reply, “we don’t do sponsorships”, with no other solutions or ideas offered. I then contacted Kimmo at Touratech USA in Seattle and discussed the problem with him. He immediately wanted to help but did not have the shocks in stock to send me. He offered me a discount from the German supplier, but with shipping it would still be a hell of a lot of money. Kimmo then came back with another option. He had made some calls and found someone who would sell him a pair of stock BMW shocks, slightly used, and he could send them to me in Addis Ababa - all at his cost! Kimmo and Touratech USA have done me a lot of favors during this trip and they have always been supporters of Write Around the World, but this time they really “did me a solid”.

Knowing that I would have some shocks waiting for me on the another side of Moyale was not only a relief to my wallet, but it also enabled me to keep traveling. I would never have done the road to Lodwar if I had to "pamper" my existing shocks. It gave me confidence to keep moving.
(I should mention, that there is another route you can take to Ethiopia which is actually much more scenic and passes through some very interesting tribal lands. The route up the eastern side of Lake Turkana is even more remote and covers a lot of sandy terrain. It is a more viable option for the Land Cruisers and Land Rovers, but less so for bikes. There is one stretch of over 800-kilometers without a petrol stop and my range is closer to 400-kilometers. Having a truck to travel with who can carry your luggage, extra fuel and water is the only real way to enjoy this route on a bike, but with my bike already “limping” it would not be a very good place to get stuck.)

Finally, an international group of four set off to take on the road, an Aussie, a Frenchman, a Japanese guy and myself. (Here is map of the route.)

The paved road from Nairobi to our first night’s destination, Archer’s Post was beautiful and took us by the equator and Mount Kenya. The sky was clear and the temperature very comfortable.

Over a meal of beef stew and rice with a Fanta after the tents were set up, we all agreed on taking on the road to Marsabit slowly with breaks for our shocks to cool down every 40-minutes. We had heard that the first day was more difficult than the second so we were glad to be getting that out of the way first, while still relatively fresh.

That night, it was hard to find a spot in the night sky not occupied with stars. Julien impressed us all with his Star Map app on his iPhone and could name the planets and constellations by simply holding his phone up to the sky. (I have been carrying a paper star chart since Bolivia and still don’t know how to use it.)  The next morning we climbed out of our tents at dawn and packed up the bikes. 

The first 100-kilometers were surprisingly some of the best riding I have had in Africa. This portion had been recently paved and was a twisty road pass large rock outcroppings, green scrub brush and lots of Acacia trees. Still early in the morning, we passed many families of ostriches - momma bird accompanied by much larger papa bird with his intensely black plumage and brilliant white tail feathers, both were followed by 4-6 wiry little chicks. Many were feeding near the shoulder of the road and often ran out in front of us, so we slowed for the “traffic”. At one point, with Julien riding just ahead of me, a papa bird got confused about whether to go left or to go right, and ended up running straight down the left lane of the road right next to Julien. They stayed together for about 200-yards at a steady pace of 45-mph! It was amazing and we all sort of held our breath and kept our speed steady waiting to see how far he would go. When he finally cut off to the left we all yelled and pumped our arms into the air. What a great start to the day!

Alas, the pavement finally ended. The road was not difficult to manage but very bumpy with a washboard-like surface. Right from the start it was difficult to keep the speeds down. We could have easily gone faster, but the stress on the bikes would have been too much. Regardless, everyone was in good spirits. It was getting warm, but was still comfortable. We later stopped later for an impromptu lunch of white bread, margarine, peach jam and a can of bake beans – all washed down with warm water. 

During one of our “cool down” stops a group of Samburu women approached from the other side of the road. After we snapped a few photos, they quickly came towards us and demanded money. They were not very pleasant, and in this instance none of us decided to comply. One old lady grabbed at Sheldon’s arm and I heard later that another had thrown a rather large rock at me while I was driving off.

Later in the day, as I was trailing the rest of the group, I stopped as a mother and child were walking on the opposite side of the road. I stopped well before them and let them walk up to me. I don’t know where they had come from or where they were going, but it was now over 100-degrees out and not a village in sight. I offered them a half bottle of water and asked if I could take a photo. They complied and were happy to see their image on the camera screen. They then noticed my sandals made of old car tires under the wire mesh. The woman signaled that she would like to have them, and then the boy pointed to his mom’s same type sandals, but with broken straps.  (Sandals made of old tires are popular amongst poor country folk in many countries. I first saw them in Bolivia. It is an inventive way to recycle an exhausted material, give work to some local craftsmen, and provide a much needed, and usually an indestructible footwear option for the locals. I bought my pair in Lodwar for $2.50 because I was tired of blowing out cheap flip-flops.) Not willing to part with my “5,000-mile sandals”, I joked that the size was not right. We laughed and I left.  To comment on how hard life must be out here would be a massive understatement.

Eventually, we made it to Marsabit and went straight to the gas station to fill up for the morning. It had been a long eight-hour day. We got rooms at the unexciting Jay Jay’s, and went to bed early. In the morning, we packed each bike with four liters of water and some chipati for a snack later. Today would be a longer ride but easier. The mild metallic “chirp” coming from my rear shock was now a loud grinding “squawk”. The sun had just come up and the air still a bit cool, or at least comfortable. The day progressed as we passed large lorries and the occasional overlander in a truck, but mostly, we were on our own. Hours into the ride, we commented to each other how today was much more difficult than they day before – contrary to what we had been told. The wheel ruts were deeper, the rocks larger and there were more pockets of the talcum powder-like “bull dust”. The riding required constant attention. During breaks I would splash water on my rear shock, which would elicit a sizzle and burst of steam.

Everybody was getting tired. The heat and the tediousness of going so slow (an average speed of about 20-mph was wearing on everyone. Standing up on the bike was better for control, but was more tiring. We were getting close, but so incredibly slow! Suddenly, on a stretch of boring gravel road my bike came to a sudden stop – dead in it’s tracks and I was sitting much lower on the bike. “NOOOOOOOOO!” The rear fender was now resting on top of the rear tire. The rear shock had finally snapped 40-miles from Moyale. The bike was now a 650-pound immoveable object baking in the sun. Shin and Sheldon went ahead to try and find a truck at the next village while Julien stayed with me. We tried to spread a tarp over the thorn bushes to create some shade but that turned out to be a fruitless and comical venture. Eventually we just sat on the edge of the road holding the tarp over our heads. It was now about 110-degrees.

A couple trucks passed going in the other direction and then a few smaller fully loaded trucks going north. After only about 40-minutes of waiting, a larger lorry came by and I waved him down. He had room and after brief negotiations, we settled on $100 to take me to Moyale. They used the removable tailgate as a ramp and with four guys we were able to load the bike into the back of the truck. Sheldon and Shin returned with a small military truck and a couple of disappointed soldiers who just realized they had missed out on some easy money.

My plan was to sit in the back of the truck with the bike and the boxes of cheap Chinese teakettles, but I was advised by the crew that that would not be too smart, “the dust will be very bad”. Seated in the cab, I was glad to be off the road, but as soon as the driver launched the truck into motion, I knew it was not going to be a relaxing ride. I could hold myself down into the seat by bracing with my arms, but my legs continued to bounce up and down off the floor of the cab. The truck clearly did not belong to the driver because he was beating the shit of it. I also knew that my bike was in trouble as it was impossible to tie it down very securely. Nothing I could do about it now. Two hours later we made it to Moyale. The bike had shifted and one of the panniers had slid underneath it causing some damage. I also made the mistake of leaving my helmet back with the bike and it got beat up pretty bad. 

The rest of the guys rolled in soon after I arrived. It had been a fatiguing 10-hour day and they were mentally and physically exhausted. We checked into the only hotel in town, which was Muslim owned. There were no beers on site, but we each quickly downed about four sodas each. The next day I walked across the border and arranged a truck to take me all the way to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia and where my replacement shocks would hopefully be waiting. The 375-mile trip truck-hire would cost me $500, cleaning out the remaining US money that I had stashed under the bike's seat. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Becoming the Path

There is an old Buddhist saying, “you cannot travel the path before you have become the path”. I am not entirely sure what that means, but sitting here on an Egyptian beach reflecting on the past few months, I think I became the path somewhere in Kenya.

Up until that time I had been enjoying Africa, but I really was not getting the life-changing experience that so many people have commented on when talking about their time here. Perhaps, my acceptance of Africa, or her acceptance of me was simply because I had spent so much time here, or perhaps it was due to a series of events…

Once in Nairobi in early February, I pitched my tent in the oversized yard of Jungle Junction, a Mecca for overlanders. There, I met many other travelers either heading north or going south all on their own Cape Town to Cairo journey. It was a good place to exchange information on routes, places to stay and on different visa requirements. At the time, the main topic was how to get through or around Syria as the borders were starting to close down due to the escalating conflict there. With Syria closed it would be impossible to continuously drive from Africa into Europe. Jungle Junction was also where I would finally get the seals replaced in the bike’s final drive. 

Kenya is where you need to deal with visas before continuing north. It is as if there is big “Do Not Pass Go” sign over the northern border of the country - Ethiopia required that all tourist visas had to now originate from your home country. Therefore, I had to send my passport back to the States using a passport service, which took two-weeks and over $300 in DHL charges and embassy fees. Next was Sudan, and after several trips to the Sudanese embassy, I was denied a visa. While citizens from all other countries who filled out the application, paid their $50 and could produce a letter of introduction from their home country’s embassy (a letter guaranteeing that they were in fact a citizen of where their passport was issued) got their visa on the same day. But because the American embassy refuses to write such letter, I was denied. After more research I learned from another American traveler, that I could go through a travel agent inside Sudan and they would arrange the visa for a service fee of $80. I organized this over the internet with Ahmed at Raidan Travel. Eventually, I got word that my visa would be waiting for me at the embassy in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. The cost for the visa for Americans was $200, not the standard $50. This discrepancy is widely regarded as the “George Clooney Tax”, as whenever he pulls one of his publicity stunts, the Sudan government turns the screw on American tourists. I tend to think that it has more to do with the American led international sanctions, but maybe it is George’s fault? With a lighter wallet, I was finally able to proceed north. 

During the time my passport was in transit, I had two-weeks to spend within the borders of Kenya. Earlier in my trip I was given the contact details of a couple from western Kenya and had been exchanging emails with them since Zambia. This was a good opportunity to go and visit. I spent a total of almost two-weeks with them and the trip has not only turned out to be integral part of my experience in Africa, but my life as a whole.

Alex is a bishop in the area and runs several churches. I am not much of a religious person, but during my time in the area I witnessed all the work his church was doing in this incredibly poor area. Most of my time was spent with their small school on the grounds of their main church. The preschoolers to second graders do not receive many white visitors, so it took awhile for them to warm up to me. Soon enough, I was chasing them about the yard outside and helping with some English lessons inside. There was no budget for the school, but Alex and Florence were doing the best they could. I helped a little by buying materials for two more blackboards and some spoons, cups and bowls when I saw that there was not enough to go around at lunchtime. I had fallen in love with each and every child there and wanted to do more to help. (During my time visiting the area three local children had died of malnutrition, so I realized how important it was for these children to have a place to go everyday – to be looked after.) I soon was talking to the other board members of Write Around the World to see if we could possibly help this school. I am proud to say we are now trying.

Here is a video introduction to the school and the children. Tragically, I just learned last week that two of the children in the video recently died of malaria.

I split my time up in western Kenya by taking a 10-hour ride up to the Lake Turkana region to visit the Turkana people that I had heard so much about. The road had once been paved, but that must have been when dinosaurs roamed. Seven of the ten hours were on corrugated roads that rattled me and made the already leaking rear shock sizzling hot. The road commanded constant attention, as I was always looking for a four-inch smooth path to ride on – and never finding it. The road had a steep crest to it and I was forever crossing over the top of it to find better road. On one pass, the rear wheel slid out from under me. Before I knew it, I was "here" and the bike was a few feet over “there”.  The right pannier was stripped from the bike and mangled up pretty badly. I would not be able to remount it to the bike until it was fixed - ARGH!

It was close to 120-degrees with no shade in sight. I was four hours away from Lodwar, the next town and my destination. Twenty minutes later a truck stopped. Luckily the truck needed to change a shredded tire. Out of the cab came three men and an armed askari carrying an AK-47. The men helped me get the bike to the side of the road. They too were going to Lodwar on their way to Sudan. They offered to haul the wounded pannier into town for me and drop it off at the local gas station. Meanwhile, a herd of camels passed through and the two herdsmen stopped to talk with the men from the truck. The younger herdsman also carried a Kalashnikov and compared ammo clips with the guard of the truck – I was beginning to feel a bit inadequate with just my Leatherman.

The truck’s tire was repaired and ready to go. I started to second guess my decision as I said goodbye to computer, hard drives containing almost every photo of the trip, all my important papers including my carnet, and my toothbrush as truck moved on down the road. “Oh God, what have I done?”

Lodwar was a dirt clod of a town and hot beyond belief. My hotel room had roaches, mosquitoes and a wobbly ceiling fan that squeaked. The slats of my bed collapsed more than once sending me to the floor during a deep sleep, but I sort of warmed-up to the place. The town had an aura of the Wild West and the absolute shit road required to get there kept it isolated from the tour buses (to the detriment of local businesses). I found a young Turkana man who could speak English and we toured some of the nearby villages together always taking peanut butter and bread to pass around sandwiches to the kids and parents. I loved it! This is the kind of traveling that I enjoy the most, so much more memorable than spending time in a popular tourist destination like Zanzibar, for example. In Lodwar, one may think it was rather miserable, but I enjoyed it while I was there, and even more so when reflecting upon it. I got to know many of the locals – being the only gringo in town, I sort of stood out, and stayed a couple of days longer than I expected to, but the children from Alex’s school never left my mind and I eventually made the return trip south to spend more time with them.

(Oh yeah, the pannier eventually made it to town a little after midnight, four hours after I did. I have yet to be disappointed by the generosity and honesty of strangers here (or anywhere else on the trip), but I must admit to a few tense hours waiting to see if the truck was going to show up. Later, for $3 the aluminum box was pounded back into a rectangle and the bike was ready to go again.) 

A week later I was back in Nairobi, now with passport in hand. I was ready to tackle the dreaded Marsabit to Moyale road, the greatest obstacle along the Cape Town to Cairo route.

But before that, a small group of us from Jungle Junction decided to take a tour of Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, and Africa’s second largest. Almost smack-dab in the middle of the capital city is collection of tin roofed shacks for as far as the eye can see. The story on the streets is that 1-2 million people live there, but according to the 2009 census, only 170,000 officially live there – nobody really knows.

The tour, like all of Africa, was all about the children. From out of dark shadows dirty little children would rush out practicing the only English they know, “OW-AR-YEW!”  repeated over and over again, while maintaining a constant giggle. For the older kids, you could answer, “I am fine, how are you?” “What is your name? My name is Mike.”

Many of the children run up to you and steal a quick touch of a hand or arm, where others grab onto a hand and refuse to let go. A few asked for food or money, but the vast majority of them just enjoyed that you were there and appreciated the attention.

Walking through the absolute filth you can’t help but wonder why these kids are seemingly so happy. It is though they take every possible opportunity they can to laugh. Perhaps they have realized early on that life is not going to give them much of a reason to smile, so it is up to them to create their own happiness(?)

To be continued….