Rides, Rallies and Events Recap

Two Wheels to Africa – Part 2 of 3

Written by  February 28, 2011

This is supposed to be one of our longest days as we are to go 413 miles from Tzaneen South Africa to Francistown Botswana. Debbie and I are the second ones out the gate at 6 a.m. save for Sterling who has gone ahead to do some filming. It’s a cool 68°F and cloudy as we leave town. The paved road is traveling through some low mountains and valleys when it comes into a small town that seems to have some sort of traffic tie-up ahead. It turns out that a semi loaded with cases of bottled beer has just dumped its load and we have our first beer crossing as all the spilled beer runs across and down the road. Since the route has gained in elevation it is getting colder requiring a stop to put on some more clothes and fuel up the bike. At the filling stations they all seem to have both leaded and unleaded gasoline, which sells for around $4.00-$4.50 US per gallon.

Not far down the road a couple more tunnels appear, and just like the last ones we went through a couple of days ago, the temperature rises. The highway is pretty desolate and straight now, but it is now lined with Baobab trees. These trees have huge trunks with some about 10 feet in diameter. Debbie and I are the first to arrive at the border crossing and with no problems we are through the South Africa part. The pavement ends, and we are in no man’s land until we get to the customs office going into Botswana. Around a corner I see ahead that we must cross a sandy, rocky dried river bed about 150 yards wide. It looks like the right tire track might be smoother so I try to turn into that track. This was a big mistake as I crash on the deep sand berm between the tracks. We were going real slowly, but it still threw both of us off and broke off my right mirror. With only my damaged ego (and mirror), the crossing is completed and through to the customs station.

Immediately we know for sure we are in a different country. The road is no longer paved but rough, rocky and sandy. In a couple of spots Debbie has to walk as I can’t get through the deep sand with both of us on the bike. The good thing is it isn’t over 100°F yet. Our guide book tells us we have about 100 miles of this hellish road. The road is pretty flat with no fences or other signs of life as we know it. Then off to our left a couple of elephants are spotted. This confirms it, we are really in Africa. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere there is a gate across the road with a manned guard shack. Turns out it is a disease control check point, and it is required to drive the bike through a puddle of some kind of chemical disinfectant which is supposed to control hoof and mouth disease. Just before coming to a very small village there is a cemetery near the road. Some of the graves have a little green pup tent-like awning over the grave. We still don’t know the significance of this custom but we see it several times along our trip. Arriving in the village the road turns to pavement. How sweet only to find that it only lasts a few hundred yards then it’s back to the same rough, sandy, rocky road. The good thing is the rough unpaved road is only about 40 miles instead of the 100 miles that was expected.

The rough road comes to a tee intersection and the new road is paved, or at least some of it is paved. On both sides the edges are intermittently missing to about the center of each lane. Luckily there is little traffic, otherwise you would have to play chicken to stay on the paved part, and I’m pretty sure a bike would lose that game. The next village has a gas station so we fuel up and give away the last of our M&M’s to the local kids. A guy in a pickup is watching us. He comes over admiring our camera. He says things like that are not available here and I believe him. It seems like most things taken for granted here in the US are not available in these remote sections of the world. Another hour or two down the somewhat paved road we come to a city that has stop lights and everything. In need of a break we find a little fast food joint and take a breather. There is a skinny teenage girl that goes table to table after people leave and eats any food they have left on the table. It’s only a couple of more hours to the hotel in Francistown and traffic is light. By now we’ve seen lots of goats beside the road and have yet to see a road kill goat, but one decides to run out in front of us going about 75 mph. All I can say is thanks for the ABS brakes. Full panic lock and the bike quickly slowed with no skidding and just missed one lucky goat. At our hotel, new information, our guide Dan, had a bad crash and severely hurt his ankle. His bike landed perfectly upside down balanced on the handlebars and seat. Some of the others fell on that piece of crap road so I don’t feel so bad about just falling over. I used some of Toms Quick Steel epoxy and glued my broken mirror back on.

Day 16 has us in Botswana riding with John and the film crew of Helge and Sterling. The ride is all paved depending on your definition of paved. The road isn’t in very good shape. The earth has gone flat and scrub brush is the plant of choice. The map indicates a huge lake off to our left but in reality it is a dry lake. Along the sides of the road are these huge termite mounds, some as tall as 10 feet. We stop in Nata to fuel up as we believe there are no other fuel stops until we get to Francistown. At the gas station there were some guys in a decked out Land Rover that are making a bid for the quickest London to Cape Town run, and later in the trip we learn they made it. Another guy is trying to sell wooden giraffes. He is a refuge from Zimbabwe who has fled his country along with his family and is living in a refuge camp down the road.

Traffic is almost nonexistent on this section of highway and the film crew wants to do some filming. Sterling with his camera sits facing backwards on my bike and we fly down the highway filming John and Helge who are on a gravel road that parallels the highway. We hit speeds up to 80 mph as the dust and rocks fly from their tires. After stopping, John’s bike is covered with oil. We try to find a leak but don’t see anything. Helge throws dirt all over the oil hoping a new wet spot will show through. It is miserable as it is nearly 100°F and sunny with no shade. A couple of miles down the road we find a shade tree to get out of the sun and begin looking for the mysterious oil leak. Here a dog digs a hole in the sand and lies sleeping in the hole trying to keep cool. A small dent and tiny hole is found in John’s oil cooler. Some gas is siphoned from John’s tank and put in a plastic pop bottle with a tiny hole in the lid to use as a squirt gun to degrease his oil cooler. A quick application of epoxy putty seals the hole, and we are off again going through yet another one of those chemical disinfectant pools. That’s the third thing that epoxy putty has saved so far on this trip.

For the next four days the bikes will get a much-needed rest while we go on safari in the Okavango Delta. This is the largest inland delta, meaning that all the water and rivers running into it just evaporate away. We catch an early flight on a small plane and after about an hour and 20 minutes we land at a remote airstrip. The group is divided into two Toyota Land Cruisers and heads off into the wilderness on roads that are pretty much all deep sand. There are lots of animals not far from the road. Then all of a sudden before us is a big male lion eating a Cape buffalo. The vehicles park about 75 feet away as we watch the big male lion eat, then wander off to sleep while a younger male comes in to take his turn eating. Our guides tell us this is rare, that usually a kill is dragged off into the woods to hide it so other predators can’t share in the goods. Thanks to the huge size of the Cape buffalo the drama was something few ever get to see.

Abandoning our Land Cruisers we load into two big Jon boats powered by outboard motors and head out down a slow, twisting, narrow river that is surrounded by 6 foot tall grass. Ahead, three big elephants cross the river and disappear into the tall grass. Then coming around a sharp corner we are startled by a huge elephant that can’t be more than 25 feet in front of us. The elephant faces us, spreads its huge ears and uses his trunk to throw water. At this point I think we will all be stomped into the bottom of the river never to be heard of again. The boat driver hits reverse and puts some much needed distance between us and the elephant. The elephant responds by turning away and walking off into the grass. Whew, was that exciting. Traveling farther we see the tops of the heads of some hippos and catch a quick glimpse of a big crocodile before he submerges and disappears. The boats take us to a campsite with tents that have been set up for us. They tell us not to wander around because it isn’t safe because of the lions, hippos and crocodiles. I’m thinking NO SHIT!

The next morning none of us have been eaten so we load back into the boats and head back down the river. About 10 minutes into the trip the boats come around another corner, this time to find the river blocked by a group of hippos. Each one is big enough to tip over the boat. The driver quickly hits reverse as the hippos all submerge. Our hearts are racing as we sit there for a few minutes wondering where they are going and hoping they aren’t coming to tip over our boat. Since they are vegetarian there is no need to worry about being eaten. They will just kill you and the crocodiles will eat you. Then the guide moves the boat forward as I see a big swirl in the water a few feet to my right. Who needs coffee in the morning when your day is started like this? The safari vehicles are waiting for us and after fixing a flat tire on one of them we return to the previous day’s lion kill. Today there is a female lion feeding and the guides tell us that she is probably the one that killed the Cape buffalo, but in this world, the men eat first. Our guide has told us to be still and quiet and the animals will ignore us. The big male is sleeping nearby and wakes up and walks directly toward our Land Cruiser. He gets right up to it, turns and walks around it. He was close enough I could have reached out and patted him on the head. I’m really glad he was full.

More sandy roads with an ongoing assortment of animals keep us entertained. There are almost no other vehicles on these roads. So far we have seen four of the Africa Big Five: lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, rhinoceros; the only one that eludes us is the leopard. Tonight we sleep in the fanciest tents I’ve ever seen. They have wood floors and bathrooms with showers but no electricity. Again the owners caution us not to go out at night as a lion was seen in camp a couple of days ago. It is here that I have a kudu steak that is as good as any beef I’ve ever had.

It is a hot, long journey down miles of pretty straight, flat, deep sand road to our next campsite. There is lots of elephant poop, but very few elephants can be seen. It’s hot so all the critters are hiding in the shade. A couple of hours before dark we cross the Savute Channel, a river that reportedly hasn’t had any water in it for 25 years. Then in 2008 it started flowing again. Off in the distance the sky is dark and foreboding as a storm is coming. The low sun is behind us and we begin seeing some elephants. The setting sun provides lighting that is superb for photos, and I’m hoping to get a photo with elephants and lightning in the background but no luck. The storm hits and my thoughts are can we get back across the river before it floods. All of us get a good soaking, but it feels good since it has been scorcher all day.

Our fourth and last day on safari takes us through the Chobe National Park where we hope to see the famous Savuti lions. There are more elephants, kudu, wart hog, giraffe and several others but no lions or leopards. Our guide, Ofentse Legase, was a 37-year-old encyclopedia of Africa. He had books on the dashboard of the truck and could pick one out and flip to the page of every animal we saw. He could then tell us everything about it from memory and duplicate the sounds that animal makes all while driving on rough 4WD roads. If he saw any litter along the road he stopped, got out and picked it up. The world needs more people like him. Passing through a small town on the way back to the lodge, there is what appears to be a marriage procession crossing the road. Many ladies all decked out in colorful dresses are headed for a building across the street.

Day 21’s itinerary has us only going 60 miles to Livingston (Victoria Falls) in Zambia. It’s a short ride but it has a border crossing, and we must cross the Zambezi River on a ferry as there is no bridge. Leaving the lodge at about 10 a.m., it takes about 15 minutes until we exit Botswana with no problems. The group passes a long line of waiting semis and goes to the front of the line waiting for the ferry. There are guards with automatic weapons keeping an eye on things. After a short wait we drive onto the ferry and make room for as many vehicles and people as possible to be squeezed onto to it. Right behind me is a woman with a baby. She has a big heavy sack balanced on her head, both hands full of stuff and is nursing the baby. Again, we have it so easy here in the US.

After about a 15-minute ferry ride, the fun begins. Once on the Zambia side it is a major cluster fork. First you have to go to the immigration office and give them $50US. Next is the customs office where you have to show your title and fill out paperwork. (Ben, thanks for your help with this one). After these two frustrating events Helge takes over for us and takes our paperwork to the Road Transport Safety Agency, pays the carbon tax, buys insurance, and finally has to pay off the police. All these require payments in Kwacha, the local currency, which none of us has. The exchange rate is about 4,784 kwacha to one US dollar. While Helge is doing all this we are standing in the hot sun guarding our bikes and belongings while being bombarded by swarms of locals trying many ways to relieve us of our precious US dollars. For a few rand Greg buys a 100 Trillion dollar Zimbabwe note. (Note to US citizens: Printing more money to pay debts doesn’t work). Some of the semi trucks waiting in line have been here for weeks waiting to get their permits to continue. After about 4 hours in this carnival and with a caution not to exceed the speed limit we are on our way to Livingstone.

The hotel is real nice and has a gate and a guard. Debbie and I decide to take a walk into town but after a few blocks the stares and comments from some leave us uncomfortable and believe that it might not be the smartest thing to do. Instead we go next door to the hotel to a strip mall. About half the stores are empty and the ones that are open don’t have much in them. One store has what looks like a Weber grill for $1,386,000 kwacha. There is a grocery store where we buy their only bottle of gin, some tonic water, and some wine for $178,000 kwacha. I’d guess half of the shelves are empty. On the way out a soldier with a machine gun is patrolling the area.

Ah, Victoria Falls, also known as “smoke that thunders,” is considered by some to be among the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. It is a special place I’ve heard about for a long time and never thought I’d ever get a chance to see. Greg, John, Diana, and I have all signed up to bungee jump off the bridge at the falls which is 111 meters above the river below. John goes first followed by me then Diana. Greg is terrified even before his turn comes. He fights through it and comes out smiling ear to ear. Unexpectedly, Debbie decides to make the leap. This sets up a chain reaction of questionable manliness, so Tom and Rich both now sign up and make the jump and both are glad they did. Some of the others did things like elephant rides and rides in an ultra-lite over the falls. There was also a zip line that went from Zambia to Zimbabwe that Randy, Diana and Vince did while Ben did the swing. He said the swing was more fun than the bungee jump. The falls were a bit disappointing as it has been dry and there was little water coming over the falls. Back at the hotel the AC isn’t working as the power is out and their generator only powers the lights. Next door the gas station and supermarket are still up and running as they both have generators also. There must be a lot of power issues here.

We are leaving Zambia today, headed west across the African Continent towards Namibia’s Skeleton Coast. It had rained a little yesterday afternoon, and today it is even more evident as to the poverty of the people. All along the highway wherever there is a puddle, small groups of people are bathing and washing clothes, yet there are smiles when they return our waves. Then blocking the road is another of the common road checkpoints, but at this one the guy in the orange vest says we owe him $10US each to continue. All of us refuse and begin taking his photo while others get on their cell phones and tell him they are calling the embassy. A minute or so later a car pulls up with three uniformed police officers and the guy quickly changes his story and says we are free to pass. After a couple of hundred miles of straight hot sunny highway we come to the turn-off and onto a gravel road to our hotel. Riders had been cautioned that in the past this road had some bad spots that had caused some to crash, although on this day most of it was pretty good. The lodge over looked a marsh with a prominent sign stating “No Swimming Hippos and Crocodiles.” After a few drinks on the deck followed by a dinner of Oryx and mashed potatoes, we retire to our mosquito net covered bed for a good night’s sleep.

By Jeff Hower