With Cape Town in mind good times and hard luck follow four BC boys as they trip down the coast of East Africa on gutsy but undersized dualsports.
The platoon of pink-bellied monkeys materialized from what seemed like thin air as we came round the bend. Yanking on brakes, we swerved past the primates as they milled about the middle of the road. If our minds had been wandering, they were brought crisply back to the here and now. This was East Africa, where mistakes can be costly. We had six weeks to cross four countries and 6,000 kilometres. While some of those long miles would feature roads to rival the finest of Tuscany or the Pacific Northwest, there would be off-road sections too, that would take everything our small-cube dualsports had to give. Adventure travel carries a full spectrum of both reward and risk, so we’d need to stay sharp, focused, and expect the unexpected.
Our African adventure began late last last October when Caleb del Begio, Brandon Lazar, and I jumped on a plane to Moshi, Tanzania to meet up with Andrew Miller, the fourth member of our little posse of BC boys. Andrew had moved to East Africa a year earlier to help locals develop microbusiness opportunities.
During that time, he’d also sorted out the logistics of this tour. We’d start in Tanzania, then drop south into Malawi, then into Mozambique and, finally, South Africa. The goal was complete and utter cultural immersion, and to that end we spent the first week climbing Tanzania’s famed Mt. Kilimanjaro and generally just getting accustomed to African life. A 200-km jaunt into the countryside around Moshi to visit several local mushroom farms Andrew had been working with was our orientation to the local “rules” of the road as well as the Honda XR And XL250Rs we’d be riding. This was our first real look at the landscape, and the rural lifestyles of amazing people. If the Honda dualsports seemed on the small side for an extended tour such as ours, they also carried the reputation for being durable. Plus, they fit our student budgets. Once the bikes were packed and readied, we rolled south.
TRAVEL IN THE SO-CALLED THIRD World is always an adventure, but motorcycling through Dar Es Salaam, the 2.5-million-strong economic centre of Tanzania, feels like playing a high-stakes video game. I’ve logged a fair amount of miles on motorcycles here in North America, but none so hair-raising as the run in and out of Dar. Imagine six lanes of traffic on a four-lane road, no streetlights or much signage to speak of, and every manner of wheeled contraption, slicing and dicing, and lane-splitting. In Tanzania the working rule for vehicles of any shape, size and capability seems to be, “If you can fit, you are allowed.” Thankfully, we were into the rural reaches by our third full riding day. It would be two weeks before we would see another stoplight, and exactly 19 days until the next sleep in a real bed.
There’d be plenty of time for us to learn, first-hand, that travel in Africa demands a unique set of plans.
Here in Canada, we’ve grown used to filling stations on nearly every corner, and rare is the day when you have to plan ahead. That’s not how things work in East Africa. Many experienced hands will say the same thing: the first rule of adventure overlanding is to get fuel whenever and wherever you can. Our bikes were capable of perhaps 200 km to a tank, so that was bound to be an issue in countries with poor supply lines. Sure enough, we ran dry in Tanzania’s Mikumi National Park at dusk. The event was perfectly timed though, as we coasted to a stop beside a family of elephants enjoying their evening meal. But that little episode ended only with the acquisition of 30 litres of black market fuel for three dollars per litre, considerably more than we pay at home and more than twice the going rate in Tanzania.
HAVING ROLLED DOWN THE MAP, we entered Malawi, which is gorgeous in an Okanagan sort of way: hot, dry, mountainous, and heavily reliant on the presence of a dominant body of water—in this case, Lake Malawi, the third largest lake in Africa. But what they have in beautiful nature and wonderful, happy people, they don’t have in fuel. As we arrived in Salima for a quick lunch and to refuel, we soon discovered the filling stations were all dry with nothing but rumours as to when fuel would arrive, and from where. Fortunately, the truck did arrive from the capital that evening, but the outlook for fuel was grim for the rest of the country (about another 1,000 km … pretty far on a dirt bike). To pad our supply we picked up six more five-gallon containers, built them heat shields, then strapped the cans to the sides of our bikes.
An ex-pat Pakistani businessman told us the government was adamantly refusing to adjust prices to match the international conversion rate of the Malawi Kwatcha. The country’s currency was somehow available at a lower price on the black market, which resulted in a trading stalemate with the multinational oil companies and subsequent fuel shortages. Lined up with all sorts of vehicles from miles around, it would have felt like OPEC 1973 all over again if we’d been old enough to remember those days.
Fuel woes and guerilla road rules aside, East Africa is just meant for a traveling motorcyclist. The entire region is a target of Chinese development. Construction is in a boom phase, which has resulted in textbook riding on both tarmac and dirt. Simply put, East Africa is criss-crossed by the kind of roadwork mapmakers curse and motorcyclists dream about. The highlight stretch—from Mikumi to Iringa—is a 200-km twist-and-shout that recalls many a strip of two-lane blacktop in the backwoods of southeastern British Columbia, with baobab trees and orangutans thrown in to keep you on your toes. As with many beautiful things in life, it has curves in all the right places. This section made us four look at one another in disbelief. We all agreed: “Now that was just…so ….much …fun!”
But a long distance motorcycle ride is so much more than the ride itself; a man has to eat as well. Being budget-conscious, young and hardy, we obviously jumped right into the local cuisine with both feet. The daily routine was fruit for breakfast, street-food for lunch, and dinner often cooked ourselves with ingredients procured from any roadside stand or small-town market we happened across. The southeast African staples are rice and beans with X meat (“X” being beef, pork, or goat) grilled or fried alongside if you can afford it. We lived out the concept of the “100 Mile Diet” be shopping locally daily when we’d had enough riding for the day. Cooking on two backpacking stoves, we created everything from breaded chambo and potatoes in Malawi to Portuguese chorizo pasta carbonara and coconut milk-marinated prawns on the Mozambican coast. A standout event was the butter chicken produced in the pitch black of night under a mango tree in a bush campsite that turned out to be a pineapple plantation.
With our appetites consistently and happily sated, and with great sights to see and roads to ride, things went swimmingly for the most part. Logistically and bureaucratically, we never had any big issues. While one of the cautious preparations for African travel is ready cash and perfectly ordered and copied documents, we were stopped only twice on our entire voyage. Once we shelled out $10 for a speeding ticket. Even acquiring entry visas and motorcycle insurance at borders was a relatively simple task. Having done our research beforehand, we sided with about 40 per cent of long distance overlanders by opting out of carnets. Borders can get tricky without this sort of documentation, but some unseen power gave us a huge leg up at the Tanzania-Malawi border when we were told by the official that “We would come to an agreement as gentlemen,” and were promptly provided with a sort of pseudo-carnet on official Tanzanian letterhead (no “fee” required).
UNFORTUNATELY FOR ONE FAMILY arriving in Mozambique at the same time as us, it wouldn’t be quite as easy. Annetta and Skip from Holland (but now living in Australia), were retracing the route of a trip they had taken together 12 years earlier on a 1980s BMW GS . This time ‘round, they were in a Land Rover complete with travel trailer and accompanied by their three young daughters. But they were short the requisite US cash to enter the country, so our ability to lend them the money was the beginning of a brilliant travelers’ relationship. Since travelers in a bind are usually good to their word, they didn’t just bring thanks to our evening campsite 130 km down the road, but ice-cold, very-much-welcome beers as well. Ultimately, they would remain with us intermittently for the next 10 days. Meals and conversation were shared, games played, and general camaraderie enjoyed. It was a great time, and a fascinating experience to watch a family travel overland through Africa.
But Mozambique was not all roses and pleasant chance encounters. Our second flat tire of the trip took place on a Sunday morning, which is not the ideal time to be seeking mechanical aid (our tire lever or anything resembling a substitute was nowhere to be found). Miraculously, it didn’t matter, because we just happened to camp about 500 metres down the highway from some sort of hybrid industrial farmyard/semi-truck graveyard and machine shop.
We rolled in at precisely 5:19 a.m. (you rise with the sun when you’re camping in Africa) and were promptly offered breakfast while a Portuguese mother went to enthusiastically wake her son Romero, who “shouldn’t be sleeping when people need help.” He ran the place, was only too happy to help us out (we redid Brandon’s brakes and chain at the same time), and were on the road by 8 a.m.!
Then things got a little more serious: 200 km down the road, Brandon’s bike started smoking, intermittently losing power and compression, and spraying oil everywhere. We stopped, took a look, poured in a litre of oil, bought two more from a roadside mechanic, and stopped every 20 km for the rest of the day to check things over. Fo
rtunately, sanctuary presented itself with our first view of the Indian ocean near Vilanculos, Mozambique. It was a welcome sight for someone born and raised near Vancouver’s Spanish Banks and who has just spent the last five weeks on dusty African roads.
Vilanculos is sleepy beach town the rest of the week,but on Saturday and Sunday night it’s the place to be as two to three thousand people are out there from dusk until late, dancing, drinking, eating and generally having a good time. Beyond the masses and general revelry, the first thing we noticed was Mr. Harley-Davidson himself, a man with an improbable name, Japan. Standing just a few inches over five feet tall, but very well built, Japan had bleached his goatee blonde, and owned what were likely the only four “real” motorcycles in the country—a Harley, Yamaha FZ6, BMW R1100GS, and Kawasaki Ninja 750. Decked in his Sunday best for the weekend fun, Japan wore a sleeveless Harley T-shirt, leather pants, and black and orange motocross boots.
It was only mad coincidence that, of the thousands in attendance that night, this colourful character turned out to be the town mechanic. He was the very person we needed. You just can’t make this stuff up.
Chatting through an interpreter, we decided Brandon’s problem was likely a blown piston ring. What is usually a relatively easy top-end job was looking considerably trickier—parts might take a week to come from South Africa.
As an aside here, we observed that Tanzania is Honda country, Malawi doesn’t have any sort of bike culture, Mozambique is all about Suzukis, and South Africa has everything.
Happily, we found the piston ring was merely seized and needing a cleanup. So, apparently sorted, we set off again, only to have another bike do the same thing and require a short tow back into town for a few more days of downtime before we were back on the road.
THE DEATH KNELL HAD BEGUN TO sound however, and a catastrophic breakdown was imminent. Fortunately, Africans are always willing to help anyone in need. Consider the following: apparently the second rebuild was badly done on our part. As a result, complete engine seizure followed, upon which a five-metre rope was produced as Andrew towed me 80 km (yes, 80 km) to the next town. Gas station attendants were approached, cell phones pulled out, lively conversations initiated and a ride organized. Andrew, who was now sick as a dog and understandably not thrilled about riding, volunteered to sit in a truck along with the stricken Honda. He would reunite with us 550 km down the road at Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. It turned to be the final leg of our ride.
As a party of three we carried on, but soon there were only two when Brandon’s rear sprocket became relieved of its teeth. Here’s my advice to you, the reader: ensure that you never find yourself riding behind someone whose final drive is disintegrating at 80 kmh. Weather and road grime can be tough on helmets and jackets, but ricocheting metal shark-fin-shaped spikes, are entirely a different kind of road hazard.
So, 130 km short of Andrew and the first real bed in almost three weeks, trucks were flagged down and a ride arranged. Soon it was Caleb and I cruising the home stretch to the capital. The next week our bikes were shipped back to Tanzania, while the four of us continued on toward Cape Town (always our original goal) in a car.
As with many things in Africa, our trip did not go altogether as planned. Still, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
A motorcycle adventure-tour means being willing to fly by the seat of your pants. Our African voyage was exactly that. We planned as best we could, engaged with the people, the wildlife, the environment, and the general hum of life, and then came away with a lifetime of stories and memories, and a desire that’s stronger-than-ever to continue seeing the world on two wheels. Isn’t that what riding a motorcycle is all about?
By Theo Birkner , Canadian Biker June 2012