AFRICA: PART 2 - HEADED NORTH FROM CAPE TOWN
BY: TIM BURKE
After 56 countries and 75,000 miles on my own bike, I teamed up with rentamotocycle.co.uk, and we’ve customized and shipped one of their rental-fleet bikes to Cape Town, South Africa. I was given these instructions: “Bring it (and yourself) back to Scotland in one piece, please!”
After landing in Cape Town on May 25th, I’m 1/2 way through circumnavigating South Africa. This journey is on its way north, zig-zagging, all the way to the pyramids in Egypt!
After photographing some of Africa’s most notorious carnivores in Kruger National Park, via rental car, less powered than my motorcycle, I was bound for eSwatini… or Swaziland. All the locals call it Swaziland, and so will I. The tiny landlocked country, on the east side of South Africa, is wedged up against Mozambique and sees relatively little tourism. I didn’t really know what to expect going in.
I entered the country, coming in from the north, on a road called the “Geological Highway” which weaves through the mountains between Nelspruit, South Africa and the capital city of Mbanane. The roads in this region are absolutely amazing and if I had not been running out of daylight, I’d have turned around and retraced my steps over and over again. There were thousands of dirt-road offshoots that left the main road, disappearing into some of the most intriguing terrain I’ve seen in a long time.
The road weaves between exposed rocks, 3.5 billion years old, and through the oldest and most well-preserved portion of our entire planet. It is here where scientists believe that oxygen first rose to the earth’s surface and allowed for the very first forms of biological life. Even for a non-geological person, it was pretty interesting to stop and read the placards on the side of the road.
Most of the country is connected by dirt roads but there are a few highways that cross the country, up-and-down and side-to-side. Just about everything in between is dirt.
With suggestions from my Swazi hostel-host, I spent four days, almost entirely on these dirt roads, exploring small, tiny villages far from where tourists do actually venture.
As I rolled through the rural country-side, I immediately felt something different amongst the people here; Actually, in all of my travels I had never experienced anything quite like it.
First, from the moment I crossed the border to the moment I left, every man, woman, and child made eye contact and acknowledged my presence- either with a head nod, a wave, or a smile. The teenagers, trying to act slick, would discretely pull their hand to their chest and flash me the peace sign. Every single person acknowledged me…every single one. I’ve never experienced that before, anywhere.
Second, it was explained to me that mutual-respect is the foundation of Swazi culture. Whether you like a person or not, that’s fine. Disagree with them, also fine. But respect them.
People from gas station attendants to cashiers in supermarkets would ask, “How are you finding Swaziland?” They gave a shit. They cared. It’s countries like these that the world needs more of. There’s a lesson to be learned here and Swaziland is a place that shouldn’t be missed.
The border crossing, back into South Africa is a breeze. I planned to meander my way back towards Cape Town on a combination of coastal roads and what turned out to be some of the gnarliest mountain roads I’ve ever been on!
I made it to the coast and eyes upon the Indian Ocean for the first time in my life as a full moon broke over the sea’s horizon.
I was the only guest staying at Sensayuma Backpackers and it seemed like the perfect situation to drink like a sailor with locals who invited me to a birthday party… but that’s a story for a different time.
This village, an hour north of Durban, lies on the mouth of the Tugela River where the waters are teeming with fish. The river meets the relatively warm ocean waters of the Indian Ocean and provides the perfect recipe for bull shark feeding grounds. With hippos and crocks upstream and the potential for aggressive sharks at the mouth of the river, more than a few people advised that swimming in this area is NOT recommended…they did not need to tell me twice.
After picking up replacement Motoz GPS tires from SGS Motorpsorts and Rim in Durban, I was bound for Africa’s most notorious mountain pass with the tires attached to my crash bars. I was likely to run out of rubber eventually and this would allow me to stretch my tire life until the last moment.
It is dry season here in South Africa and the air is heavy with the smell of burnt grass as I roll through the foothills of Drakensburg. It reminds me of the grassy, hilly mountains found along California’s coast – but drier and more rugged.
Ahead of me, the Central African Plateau rockets towards the sky. To get to the top is a road called “Sani Pass.” This one should be bookmarked and starred on every ADV rider’s “wish-list map.”
The steep, loose gravel pass is made up of 27 sharp hairpin switchbacks that climb, seemingly vertically, up the wall of the plateau. This pass is a bit different than others in that it doesn’t crest the top of a mountain range and descend down the other side. Sani Pass, rather, climbs a super-steep plateau and, at the top, levels out almost immediately. Before even having time to catch your breath, from wrestling a loaded motorcycle up the switchbacks, the Lesotho border-crossing post greets you almost immediately. There is a treat on the other side though: The highest pub in Africa.
It’s true: 9,425 feet (2873m) above sea level, lies the Sani Mountain Lodge with no shortage of cold beer. Thank god there is a wood-burning stove in this bar because it’s not warm way up here in the winter. I never thought I’d be scraping ice and frost off of my motorcycle on this continent!
Winter Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere: It’s the earliest sunset of the year in this bottom-half of the world and something magical happened after the sun went down. It started as a strange glow and grew brighter and brighter. Recent wildfires had been scorching the Savannah’s of KwaZula-Natal region, leaving low-level haze and poor visibility. From a photography perspective, it had been quite bleak during the day time.
As the full moon rose above the lingering smoke, atop one of Africa’s gnarliest mountain passes, it illuminated the steep canyon walls and lit the sky with some colors that I never expected to see at night. I captured it with a 30-second exposure on one of the canyon wall’s cliff edges. It was a night that I will never forget.
In the past, I’ve talked about the specialness and uniqueness of relationships built on the road and the generosity of strangers as I’ve been traveling. I have to admit, when this particular introduction and offer, from then-stranger Ashley Bruigom, came into my inbox, I was thinking to myself, “What the hell is a fancy establishment doing inviting a dirty, homeless adventure rider onto their premises?!”
Ashley and his fiancée, Haylee, run a high-end resort nestled deep within the high mountains of rural South Africa. Along the Lesotho border, ultra-secluded, and far off the beaten path lies the Tenahead Lodge and Spa.
It is by far, the fanciest place I have ever stayed in and something I would never otherwise be able to experience, at this point in my life, if it weren’t for holding the common-ground interest of motorcycles, which lead to this experience in the first place.
After a 5 course dinner, a few imported whiskeys, and breakfast made for gods, it was time to depart. Tenahead Lodge is literally surrounded by some of the best riding in the world and I took full advantage by getting on the road early. I passed through the town of Rhodes and followed rivers that had ice in them from the frigid nights.
The southern coast of South Africa is called the Garden Route and is home to some of the world’s most amazing motorcycling roads (I know, I’m repeating myself, but seriously…South Africa!)
I weaved, twisted, and winded my way, full-circle, back to Cape Town. 5000 miles (8000km) of two-wheeled travel in SA complete!
There was a reason I had to come back to Cape Town and it had to do with 2 full days of pain. Yep, I got poked and prodded by a needle, for 12 hours, by one of my favorite artists on Instagram. Far from impulsive, it was a long time coming. A year prior, I had my favorite illustrator from Sweden, Sara Gullberg (@_saragullberg), draw me a map of my Americas-travels. Using her design, I had tattoo artist, Derek Baker from Metal Machine Tattoo (@mmtattoo), who I had been following for over 2 years, slap 40,000 miles of representative travel on my arm, depicted as a map!
My two favorite artists helping me out…you know, just in case I forget where I’ve been or something!
It was inevitable. I had to start heading north eventually. I had an entire continent ahead of me and I hadn’t left South Africa yet.
Random friendships have been my everything for 2 1/2 years and it was at the Namibia border crossing that I met Botswana farmers Maryna Smith and her daughter. Remember them because they’ll come into play later in Botswana. The border was easy, though everything is easy after dealing with the lunacy of Central America. A $5 USD road toll, a quick glance at vehicle paperwork, and a quick passport stamp later, I was welcomed into Namibia! I made my way north as the landscape transitioned into something that felt more and more like Mars.
My first stop had been pinned on my maps for a while. I arrived at this place… a funky and completely out-of-place-in-a-desert kind of establishment. Surrounded by sand, gravel, dust (and not much else), lies the Canyon Road House with cold beers and decent burgers. Scattered all around the property are heaps of antique cars, trucks, old gas pumps, broken engines, and other relics of the past. It’s Namibia’s version of a Route 66 museum.
The “resort,” as I’m generously going to call it, offers both rooms and camping spots. Being of the motorcycle-traveler-frugal-minded, I found myself setting up my tent about 10 minutes later.
“You’re far from home it looks, bru,” a voice says from the next campsite – the only other site occupied of about 15.
The conversation progressed into Johan De Lange, along with his fellow final-year law student classmates Migael Loubster and Anscha Rall, inviting me over to “braii.”
I’m not going to insult any South Africans by even trying to describe the magic of a “braii” but I encourage you to look it up. It will change the way you look at cooked-by-fire food for the rest of your life. No seriously, it has ruined me in the same way biltong has (look that one up too).
So there I was, in the middle of the Namib desert, crushing a box of wine and chowing on smokey food. First night in Namibia: Don’t remember it… but I think it was a lot of fun.
Moving on, the journey would continue north through the 2nd most-remote country on earth. Much of the Namibian coast, known as “The Skeleton Coast,” is simply untouchable. These words and these photos will never accurately convey the harshness of this land. I spent three full days without seeing pavement as I worked my way from Aus to Walvis Bay.
Sand… holy hell… the sand. Listen, I’m not one of those guys who is going to boast about his riding abilities because I have too many friends that are human-gyroscopes-on-wheels to be allowed to get away with talking like that. They keep me grounded in knowing my abilities. With that said, I’ve still somehow managed to get this far without dying so I’ve got that accolade going for me. All I’m saying is that I’m confident in my ability to get around on two wheels. Where Namibia gets ya though is in the never-endingness of it all. For hours and hours, there is no mental break from paying attention to where your front tire is. Simply put, Namibia makes you earn your miles while rattling the fillings out of your teeth. I loved every second of it.
Eventually, the inland route would turn back towards Africa’s Atlantic coast where Walvis Bay and Swakopmund lie. Swakopmund is an interesting place. On the coast, it was colonized by the Germans in the late 1800s and they made no effort to be discreet about it. Bavarian-style architecture dominates the churches and much of the central business district while many of the bars serve beer in steins. There was one bar that I walked into (imagine that) where, I swear, I was IN GERMANY: Wiener schnitzels and pretzels, served with mustard… Bratwursts with sauerkraut on the menu. Out back, the Biergarten had a slew of long, shared tables. The best part is that, of course, everything is a fraction of the cost of real-Bavaria (and the riding is better)!
I swung through Namibia’s capital city for the sole purpose of grabbing an oil and air filter from the last dealership I’d see for… well, who knows? Until Europe at least. While nice, the relatively quiet city of Windhoek doesn’t hold all too many attractions worthy of a big detour.
Etosha National Park lies in the north of the country and safaris here are offered at about $100USD/day and I just had to go. While I don’t regret it at all, if you’re looking for epic photo opportunities, I think that the openness of Etosha doesn’t allow for “close” encounters like some other African parks do.
Namibia isn’t all dust and sand though. As I approached the Northeastern part of the country, for the first time in what felt like ages, I started to see the color green. It doesn’t sound like a big deal until you go a while without plants! I arrived in a special area of Nam called the Caprivi Strip, or “the panhandle” where the thunderous croak of hippos crack through the air.
With Botswana up next, I went into high-alert mode for elephants. I’m not being dramatic, they are everywhere here and they are not creatures to be messed with. Botswana has a reputation for not fencing their parks. It’s the animal’s land in Botswana and the population respects it. Scared of an elephant walking down Main Street? Stay at home!
My biggest source of excitement with coming to Africa was the famous Okavango River Delta. Arguably, the mecca of African wildlife. If you’ve ever watched just a few YouTube videos from Africa, you’ve probably seen footage from the mighty Okavango. I spent three full days game-driving a private concession with my friend Alistair Wilmot. I’ll let the photos do the talking.
It’s easy to cover ground in this vast and open country. A 600 km ride brings the journey to the Chobe National Park, where obnoxious warthogs rummage through the market, looking for scraps… or my tent, which subsequently got destroyed. It’s such an “Africa” mishap that I’m not even mad.
The border crossing is hectic, as is to be expected as this journey progresses north, but after navigating the labyrinth of unorganized bureaucracy, I was in Zambia.
A bucket list item lay on my horizon. Shared by two countries, the mighty Zambezi River plummets 300 ft (100m) over the edges of Victoria Falls. I stayed past closing time to capture a sunset over the Gorge. The shot has been one of the best of my life.
This continent has a way about it and it’s crazy to think that I’m not even close to being halfway through it.
Stay tuned for Part III which will follow the tracks north through Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, and Kenya!