Mar. 26, 2017—Over the course of the past several weeks, Dave and I have ridden from Zimbabwe into Zambia, over to Malawi and up to Tanzania. We are now staying with friends of Dave’s uncle in Moshi, situated at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak at 19,341 ft (5895m).
To here, we admit there have been less highlights than our earlier travels in the southern countries of Africa and more than a few moments wondering what the hell we are doing riding motorcycles through Africa in the heat and chaos.
It is now we’ve begun to understand why someone we met living in Cape Town, South Africa said they’d never travel through Africa.
“But, don’t you live in Africa?” we asked, puzzled.
Lately we feel like we’ve been travelling through Real Africa. That’s not to say all of Africa isn’t ‘real’ Africa, but it’s likely the Africa you might imagine it to be; the blazing sun in juxtaposition with thunderous rain showers. The hundreds if not thousands of people, goats and cows we pass everyday, sometimes by mere centimetres, who use the highway as walking paths, as though speeding vehicles are no more of a danger to them than toy guns. The rounded village homes made of mud and thatch roofs built in circles behind surprisingly sturdy twig fences. The communities surviving along the road with outdoor classrooms and kids running to school in green or white or blue uniforms. The incredibly well-balanced women hauling home buckets of water that must weigh 20-30 lbs on their heads. The two year olds waddling along the side of the road holding hands with their ‘guardian’, a four-year-old brother or sister. The shacks made out of corrugated tin that act as unlikely stores lined up side-by-side by the dozens selling anything from car batteries to cell phone top-up cards to bottles of Coke, hair accessories and bags of chips with questionable expiry dates.
The way goods are bought, sold and transported here never seizes to amaze me. Along with buckets of water, we’ve seen women carrying stacks of 2×4, huge bushels of foliage and even a long, fat tree limb, on their heads. It’s a skill learned in very early years but that doesn’t lessen how impressive it is. (I can barely carry my 3-pound helmet on my head). We asked once why it is usually the women carrying things this way. Traditionally, the family man would go first leading his wife and children into the wilds of Africa, slaying whatever threats might come between him and his family. His hands (and head) needed to be free for cat-like reflexes and for carrying his weapon of choice; a spear, a machete… The female, travelling behind and worry-free of such threats, would carry her baby on her back and the family goods on her head to free her hands for, well, more carrying.
Also impressive are men on bicycles hauling everything from tree-bushels to plywood to furniture, like coffee tables. Needless to say, the load is usually lashed down precariously and perpendicular to the cyclist, which can lead to some interesting moments on the road when trying to gauge how much room you and your panniers have to thread the needle between a load-bearing cyclist and the inevitable bus coming head-on in your lane.
I’ve come to think of Africans as having ‘like charges,’ as in the ends of magnets when you try to touch them together. They won’t come into contact unless forced. This can be the only explanation why they don’t all crash into each other in the chaos. I’m not sure how we manage to stay clear of it ourselves but when I took motorcycle riding lessons three years ago, my instructor told me to always be as conspicuous as possible. Although I was nervous Dave and I would look flashy on our bikes with all our gear in a place like Africa, this has been to our advantage; everyone notices us whether they’re trying to or not. We stand out, therefore we are seen. And being seen on a motorcycle is a good thing.
While riding through these fascinating road-side African lives, we encounter hundreds of waving kids, their perfectly round, dark faces and pink-palmed hands come out of nowhere and wave frantically hoping we’ll wave back. Sometimes I would see the subtle ones too late and feel a pang in my heart not having been able to return the wave. They look so sad realizing you’ve passed by without acknowledging them.
Often it’s too much. We try to return the wave of every hand darting out from behind a tree or from a house several metres off the road but our arms almost fall out of their sockets, waving like the queen for miles on end. Occasionally we’ll find a bad egg in the mix, mostly kids, who pretend to shoot us with guns or actually throw rocks (they always miss), but often it is just friendly faces with heart-stopping smiles. I’ve taken to beeping my horn with a little melody just so I can keep my hands on the bars and also hopefully acknowledge everyone’s presence within a wider radius.
Our travels during this part of the trip have been thrilling and exhausting. Sometimes we go less than 200 km in a day. Although the roads are mostly paved they can be full of potholes big enough to hide a girafe. Each village has a speed max of 50 kmph (35 mph) and sometimes it seems there’s a village every five kilometres (3 mi) down the road. The never-ending stream of humans using the road by foot, bicycle, car, bus or donkey cart, can be nerve-wracking. When they have a plan to get out of your way, you’re not privy of it until the last minute. Many times we have been shoved off onto the ‘shoulder’ to let an oncoming vehicle pass by in our lane. This can be more thrill than you want when going 80-90 kmph (50-55 mph).
We are often pulled over by police, who jump out of wooden shacks built on the side of the road, claiming we’ve been speeding or wanting to see our third-party insurance, which we didn’t know was mandatory in some countries (they let us go after we pleaded ignorance although Dave did have to pay a speeding ticket once for a whole whopping amount of approx. $15 CAD ($8 US). We’ve been ripped off by street money exchangers near borders for a third of what we should have gotten back, (luckily we realized after some quick head-math and demanded our money back) and spent a small fortune on entry visas in each country. But on we ride.
In Lusaka, Zambia, we spent two nights staying with Sherry and Frank, whom we were hooked up with through Tom and Heather, our friends in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. They have a very relaxing home on a farm away from the city, with two baby cows that would try to come into the kitchen (until their cook slapped their hides back into the yard). In their very cool bar that contains a great collection of eclectic artifacts like skulls of various animals and the cracked motorcycle helmet of Frank’s late dad, who crashed into a bus trying to beat his own time through a round-about (this is not how he died), we would drink ice cold Zambian beer and tell stories of our travels. Frank and Sherry would like to retire and import their super cool, decked-out Land Cruiser to the Americas for their own journey within the next ten years and we had no hesitation encouraging them.
After our full days, we cling to the hope that our accommodation for the evening is an oasis of sorts and many times it is. When we aren’t staying with newfound friends, we find mostly inexpensive gems up rain-ravaged backroads that lead us to a camp site with a flat place for our tent and homemade pasta made by the Italian owners. We’ve stumbled upon modest guest houses situated along the waters of Lake Malawi, whose profits from patrons like us go to supporting orphans living on the premises.
One evening, Dave said all we do is eat, sleep and ride, why are we always so tired. He doesn’t summarize the day like I do in my nightly trip notes. For example, one entry reads: “Today, I avoided a few head-on collisions, dumped my bike doing a u-turn, waved at about 700 people in gusty winds at highway speeds, saw a lot of blood coming out of a flayed toe after a guy on his bicycle was cut off by a car, and walked a few kilometres in the heat trying to explore town. Dave had to pick up my dumped bike, deal with highway winds with his helmet visor (which whips his head back and forth), likely also avoided head-ons, helped pick up said bicycle of guy with flayed toe that weighed a ton because he had a giant rice bag full of rocks or something strapped on the back, and fixed something on his bike. Oh, and we rode 340 km as well.”
So there’s that…
Once we arrived in Tanzania, we spent a few days in Dar es Salaam before stashing the bikes at our Air BnB and taking the two-hour ferry over to Zanzibar, a Tanzanian island.
We had hoped for a little beach time in Paje, Zanzibar to slough away the stresses of the past few weeks on the maniacal roads but instead we endured two nights of non-rest at a hopping rasta hostel on the beach that played non-stop reggae approximately 18 hours a day.
We did go snorkelling, which was a highlight for me but not so much for Dave, who’s not a water guy.
Two more nights were spent in Stone Town, where, despite the very active street life, we finally had some sleep in a quiet hotel. Here, at a street market, we drank freshly squeezed cane juice, bartered for plates of food at the market and walked the dusty streets bustling with activity no matter the time of day or night.
It was somewhere in Zambia that very dark skin started to mix with lighter tones. Hookah pipes appeared in restaurants and the (very) early morning, afternoon and evening calls to prayer for muslims filled the neighbourhood through loudspeakers attached to nearby mosques. It is interesting to have ridden so many miles through a continent to see cultures merge.
Dave and I are now into our final travels through Africa. In a week or so we will be in Nairobi, where we plan to book our flights to Europe. After nearly three months of riding through a very modest chunk of this fascinating continent, we are looking forward to the next phase of our travels.
But there is just one more thing we want to attempt before leaving Africa…
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