AFRICA: PART 1 - THE BUILD UP
BY: TIM BURKE
I feel like I am repeating myself.
I mean, I’ve said “Part 1” so many times on this on-going, multi-chaptered, circus of a motorcycle trip already: There was Europe – Part I, South America – Part I …and now, we begin “Africa Part I.”
Eventually, you’re not going to take me seriously, next time I say, “Part 1.”
If you’re just joining, let me fill you in: Approximately 80,000 miles through 57 countries have passed beneath the wheels of my motorcycle through Europe, North, Central and South America. I’ve also bounced around a bit, returning to Sweden, Norway, Ireland, and Portugal to further explore these countries, on two wheels.
Originally, way back in 2017, the whole thing started as what was supposed to be a 6-month journey through Europe. I was going to ride through Europe to explore new sights, roads, and food. I just wanted to ride my motorcycle, with no restrictions on time and no boss’s emails to return to at work on a Monday morning.
I was going to get it all out of my system, and once I did, I’d return to a reasonable and responsible adult life, where I would at least pretend to be a contributing member of society.
Long story short… that never happened. A few short stints of temporary work between trips have come and gone, but I haven’t let the adrenaline levels drop. Travel is a mental addiction of sorts, and I need to keep going. There is too much to see before life’s hourglass runs out.
Africa: It was the next big “must-see” mission. As silly as it sounds, I’ve been obsessed with this continent ever since seeing the Lion King when I was 7 years old. The wildlife here is almost mythical to me.
Let’s rewind a bit, though. Almost unbelievably, this whole Africa-thing started coming to fruition in a small restaurant in the rugged mountains of Portugal. I was riding the “Portugal ACT” with Rentamotorcycle.co.uk out of Edinburgh, Scotland (part of Motorrad Central, Edinburgh’s BMW Motorcycle dealership).
Actually, you read about that whole trip in Upshift Online Issue 34!
After a long, dusty day on the trail, Motorrad Central owner, Joe Philipsz and Rentamotorcycle’s jack-of-all-trades, Martin Williamson and I were grabbing dinner when the topic came up. Like most moto-trips with friends, every dinner includes some back and forth banter about traveling, bikes, and “what’s next” on the horizon. Africa seemed to be the repeating theme.
To make a long story short, it was through nothing more than sheer generosity, camaraderie, and what has turned into an absolutely incredible friendship between myself and the whole team at Motorrad Central / Rentamotorcycle, that Joe ultimately made the decision to support a journey through Africa. It would be done on one of the company’s branded rental motorcycles. My jaw hit the floor at the proposal.
Generosity and kindness from people (and companies) in the motorcycle industry is nothing new to me, but an offer like this was over the top. I never thought this would happen.
There were many details that needed to be worked out before any of this was remotely possible. First, for the sake of convenience at border crossings, the bike had to be registered in my name. Getting a Scottish bike registered in a US resident’s name requires some additional documentation, but nothing prohibitive. Next, a “Carnet de Passage en Douane” (CDP) would be arranged. Think of the CDP as a “vehicle passport” of sorts. It is a direct representation of a significant deposit, placed to guarantee the exportation of a vehicle from a given country. When the vehicle returns to its origin country, the deposit is returned in full, minus the processing fees associated with obtaining the Carnet. This would not only eliminate the need for temporary vehicle import permits at each border, but it is also required in some countries like Egypt.
With the journey planned to be “bottom to top,” the next step was figuring out how to ship a bike to Cape Town. Whether traveling by truck, van, tuk-tuk, or motorcycle, shipment is always a popular conversation amongst overlanders. I’ve had some experience with shipping motorcycles, but each time requires some research and “shopping around.”
My advice for digging up intel on shipping: Online Overland forums (there are many) and this really neat tool called “www.Google.com!”
For this chapter of the journey, we utilized “MotoFreight” out of London. They are by far, the easiest “drop the bike off and forget it” operation out of Europe that I’ve found to date.
Next step was the fun part: Building a bike for the journey! From the showroom floor, the GS is a pretty capable RTW machine, but we all know how important the fine-tuning and personalizing of a bike is.
I flew to beautiful Edinburgh, Scotland to get things started. Edinburgh is a city that hangs onto its medieval roots and the contrast, where ancient meets modern, is a photographer’s playground, both day and night. Nightlife is bustling, the food scene is nothing short of diverse and “escaping” into the Scottish countryside is a breeze. It’s one of my favorite cities and I was so excited to be back.
As my experience in traveling grows, I find myself actually looking forward to leaving motorcycles on their side-stands and hitting the streets with just my backpack, camera, and tripod. In between working on the bike, hitting the streets on foot is exactly what I did.
The Build: It’s obvious, RTW travelers can’t afford to have gear that breaks all the time and it pays dividends to do research on which gear best suits your needs. I can’t emphasize the “your needs” part enough. We all have different priorities and styles in the way that we ride and travel. I encourage every motorcyclist to reflect on their style and their interests and use the gear that they feel suits their requirements best. You’ll never ever catch me telling somebody they’re doing it wrong, and I want to encourage everybody to not be put off by some online communities that do maintain the “my way or the highway” attitude.
With that said, I have to say, I’m pretty darn proud of the companies that I’ve partnered with over the years, and can say with the utmost honesty and sincerity that I think I have the best equipment and gear in the motorcycle industry that suits my needs. I don’t run junk-gear because I’m just not willing to risk a breakdown in a bad spot. It’s been years of trial-and-error, but I’ve honed my aftermarket luggage, auxiliary lighting, personal protection, and offroad protection “kit” to what I find to be not only most reliable but also, most convenient – to my style.
A quick rundown of how the bike (and I) will be outfitted, for what I am guessing, will turn into a 30,000+ mile journey from the bottom of Africa to Scotland:
• 2017 BMW R1200GS Adventure from the Rentamotorcycle fleet
• Riding Gear – Klim Badlands
• Luggage – MoskoMoto 60L Duffel, BackCountry 35L Soft Panniers,
• Nomad Tank Bag (with Hydration pouch)
• Tires – MotoZ Tractionator GPS
• Bash Plate, Oversized Foot Pegs – Black Dog Cycle Works
• Auxiliary Lighting – Clearwater Lights
• Helmet – Schuberth E1
• Audio / Video – SENA Bluetooth 10C Headset
Some gear I already owned, so I took it with me in my luggage. Other gear got shipped directly to Scotland. Like a kid on Christmas morning, every package that showed up induced some giddy excitement. Every motorcyclist knows the feeling of slicing open a fresh cardboard box to expose new parts! The bike was put together in the maintenance bays of the Motorrad Central dealership with the full support of the technicians. I have to admit, I felt pretty damn cool having backstage access to the mechanics’ den at a dealership!
With a bike that I was confident was now bulletproof, it was time to give it a run down, and what better place to do it than the winding back-roads of Scotland. Scotland’s tiny, twisting roads meander between medieval villages. Even after 80,000 miles of non-stop travel, the riding in Scotland never gets old. It remains one of my favorite motorcycle destinations in the entire world and it’s what makes Rentamotorcycle such a staple to the riding community here.
A group of about 6 Motorrad Central customers and I rode to Loch Melfort on Scotland’s rugged coastline. Somehow, we had perfect weather both ways. Scotland usually isn’t that generous but it made for the perfect “test flight.”
Two weeks came and went in Scotland, far faster than I wanted them to but it was time to get this show on the road! Leaving was much harder than I expected it to be, especially after how much team-work went into making this dream happen. (I promise, I didn’t have tears in my eyes when I pulled out of the dealership and every single member of the team shook my hand and wished me luck, saying, “See ya when you get back!” I swear… I wasn’t emotional at all! No, not me.)
If you hustle, Edinburgh to London can be accomplished in just 6 1/2 hours. However, it took me 4 days. I spent almost all of my time on country back-roads, riding slow enough to smell the flowers in the air. I traveled on the windiest and twistiest mountain roads that the Lake District, Yorkshire-Dales, and Peak District National Parks had to offer.
By the time I arrived at London Heathrow airport, I turned a 390 mile ride into 800. I left the motorcycle at the shipping depot with everything strapped to it that I’d need in Africa, including my helmet. All I would leave with would be some of my clothes stuffed into a backpack and my camera gear. The next time I would see this bike would be at the bottom of Africa.
Arrival: I set foot in South Africa on May 25th. The 12-hour travel day to Cape Town is relatively easy and upon landing, Uber is the easiest and safest mode of transportation for the 20-minute drive into town. I stayed at Atlantic Point Backpackers in the touristy “Waterfront” district of Cape Town. The hostel had secure, gated parking which is my number 1 priority whenever staying in cities, worldwide.
Cape Town is special. I challenge you to find somebody who’s been there that doesn’t think so. Arguably, one of the most beautiful cities on the planet, Cape Town is a clash of cultures, scenery, and tumultuous history.
There’s something in the air here and it doesn’t take much exploration to feel its attractiveness in your bones. It draws you in in a way that’s hard to put a finger on. Gorgeous scenery aside, I find myself intrigued by Cape Town for the same, similar reasons that I felt existed in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. When rolling through this land via motorcycle, the stretching disparity between ultra-wealthy and utter poverty may be viewed, full scale, in just a matter of minutes. Maseratis, Lamborghinis, and Porches park on one block and a few streets down, a man pushes a shopping cart, with the entirety of his life possessions, while looking for pocket-change and already-smoked cigarettes in the gutter of a different block. South Africa is a country that is still healing from its apartheid era and I won’t pretend that it’s ignorable.
Let’s just forget about motorcycling for a moment – Hiking Table Mountain and “Lions Head” are must-dos for any outdoor-orientated person. The diversity of activities available here, to keep one busy, caused me to fail miserably in my intentions to stay in Cape Town for only a few days. I stayed almost 10 before hitting the road. The Western Cape has riding options for all interests and all skill levels – whether you’re on a 2-stroke, dirt bike, a GS, or a Harley. An obvious “must-ride” route takes you out of the city to the South. Cape Point is the southwestern most point on the continent and the roads to get there are nothing short of spectacular. The winds are absolutely wild but the views make it worthwhile.
Life is short so I forced myself to pack my bags and move on. The plan before heading north into mainland Africa, was to circumnavigate the country; clockwise. From Cape Town, I let the clutch out, rolling north. South Africa feels big. It feels wild. It is nature on steroids. Every crest in the road introduces more BIG views that make you feel small.
As I travel through Western South Africa, it’s slow-going but there is no rush. I’m now in Cape Cobra, puff adder (notoriously poisonous snakes) and scorpion country, so I go into full “look before you step” mode; along with beating, hitting, shaking, and dumping my boots, jacket and pants out every morning. You don’t want to get bitten in these parts – anti-venom may be further away than ideal.
Along the way, as is routine, I pop into one of the thousands of “farm stands” which may sell organic coffee, toasted sandwiches (toasties) and fruit. It’s diamond-mining country in these parts and this is where I met this 4th generation diamond-mining wife who runs a guest house, restaurant, coffee shop, and campground in Kamieskroon, Northern Cape.
Apartheid (segregation), affirmative action, the closing of the mine and its effects on homelessness, and local police corruption; nothing was off-limits during our cup of coffee that day. These short relationships are far from frivolous – It’s the magic of travel.
My direction changes from northbound to eastbound and as I cut across the top of South Africa, the barrenness of the land brings back memories of the Atacama desert in Chile. Even wildlife is scarce up here. It’s normal to go for an hour and a half between villages without passing opposite direction traffic. It’s easy to cover massive swaths of land in 6th gear without feeling too guilty about it. Within 2 days I reach the massively populated, traffic-packed metropolis of Johannesburg, but this is not what I came for. Three hours beyond lies a childhood dream: Kruger National Park.
The Kruger is one of the largest sanctuaries in the world and is only accessible by vehicle. Motorcycles must be left behind. A quick Google search helped me secure a car for only $11/day. I rented the car from Kruger/Mpumalanga Airport and headed towards the gates of the park. There are many gates, but based on a recommendation, I aimed for the “Crocodile Bridge Gate.” Guided safaris can make a Kruger experience extremely expensive but, with some research and motivation, it can be done at a very reasonable price – even for a homeless motorcyclist! Trust me.
After a lifetime of dreaming about it, I got to point my camera at animals that I’ve wanted to see in the wild, since childhood.
That wasn’t the “highest” moment in the park for me though! It took two nights of pushing my luck with ambient lighting and three 5:30am alarm clocks.
I was starting to give up on even catching a glimpse of the one animal that I’d wanted to see.
“Ya win some, ya lose some,” I was telling myself. At 6:40am, on a dirt road, 15km east of Pretoriuskop Rest Camp, a dark shadow in a tree caught my eye. For a few moments in time, it was just us, in the middle of nowhere. We looked at each other in the eyes, acknowledging our presence and as quickly as it unfolded, the leopard got out of the tree and strutted into the brush.
Any first Kruger National Park experience is life-changing. Seeing these animals in their natural habitat and seeing the food chain working and complimenting itself in a balanced ecosystem is pure magic. It’s like nothing National Geographic could ever come close to offering. In three days, with no prior wildlife safari experience, I was lucky enough to see Africa’s “Big 5.” My mission here was accomplished and I was ready to get back on two wheels.
Ahead of me lies Swaziland, the massive mountains of Lesotho, South Africa’s “Garden Route,” and Namibia.
Stay tuned and be sure to follow along on my social feeds for the most up-to-date whereabouts!