AFRICA: PART 3 - ZAMBIA TO TANZANIA
BY: TIM BURKE
Livingstone, Zambia – 6:07 PM. It’s dusk.
My heart skips a beat, and instantly, it feels like it’s in my throat. Unconsciously, my muscle memory finds the side stand and my left leg kicks it down so fast that I hear it slam. In one swift motion I’m off the bike and I start a backward jog.
It’s been two and a half years and usually I’m pretty good at avoiding the “Oh, shit” moments. I mean, just how many “Oh, shit” moments are we granted before we run out? I need to reserve these things.
The whole incident unfolded just after catching the sunset on the Zambezi River Gorge, one of the most beautiful sights in all of my travels. The memory of the sunset is still freshly etched into my brain. The drive between Victoria Falls and the center of Livingstone is only about 10 minutes long, but I learned that it can be action-packed.
It was while I was on my way back when I heard the “pop” that I thought to myself, “weird occasion for fireworks.” As far as I knew there was no Zambian holiday. Besides, it’s dry season here and even the smallest spark can start an inferno. Why would there be fireworks? Then, “pop, pop, pop” in rapid succession. I put the pieces together as I see a Zambian farmer, in his 1980-something sedan, rallying down a dirt road like it’s the DAKAR rally. He’s steering with one hand, and he hangs out of the vehicle, AK47 in the other hand. He’s shooting bullets towards the sky, trying to scare off the 60-elephant strong herd that is destroying his family’s crops. He’s not shooting at the elephants, he’s just protecting the food that sustains his family.
What’s happening before me is nothing new to this area. It’s a challenge faced by farmers every day here. Finding a balance between life-sustaining agriculture and maintaining respect for wildlife is an ongoing tightrope balancing act. The region-wide struggle is unfolding right before my eyes, and it’s a little too close for comfort.
Begin, “Oh, shit” moment: The herd of elephants is headed in my direction. They’re ahead of me but off to the right side of the road. They are fiercely trotting along, parallel and opposite to my direction of travel. You’d hustle too at the sound of an AK47, right? I can’t drive past them, they’ll wreck me. I can’t turn around, they’re gaining on me too fast.
I know that the Zambezi River is on the other side of the road, through the bush, about a kilometer. Eventually seeking refuge, they’re going to charge across the road like the living, breathing, destroy-everything-in-their-path freight train that is an elephant stampede. And here I am, some dumbass on a motorcycle, right smack dab in the middle of it all. I need to get out of this situation ASAP.
Ditch the motorcycle and begin backward jog. My camera is around my neck for some reason. I never “wear” my camera while riding, it’s always packed in its case until I need it. I have no idea what made me “wear” it this day, but I have it. It’s on me. I get far enough back (I hope) that I’m not viewed as a threat when the herd decides to make its final charge for the river. It’s hard to describe in words just how intimidating a bunch of pissed off elephants can be. There’s an energy about them that can only be felt in real life. You can almost smell it. As they cross any open field (or road, in this case), the first few “Ellies” bust out into the open in a sideways trot, providing cover and defense for those following. It reminds me of a SWAT team or Military Special Forces unit “clearing” a building with guns.
Ears are flared outward, and the look in their eyes conveys strict business. Ready to wreck any perceived threat, these highly social animals watch each other’s backs. It took about a minute and a half for the herd to cross the road. As quickly as it began, it was over. I got on my bike and rode home to put on dry underwear.
Welcome to Zambia!
I spent nearly 3 weeks in Livingstone, Zambia’s self-proclaimed “tourism capital.” One of the cooler aspects of my time here was attending the 2nd Annual “Livingstone Bike Festival.” If visions of Sturgis, Laconia, or Daytona Beach is what comes to mind, get rid of them. This is a dirt-centric event, where hard-enduro riders from all over Southern Africa gather to test themselves and their bikes. I swear some of these people are human-gyroscopes.
It was at this event that I met hard-enduro rider, competitor, racer, crocodile farmer, and owner of RideVenture Zambia, Kevin Mulders. He invited me back to his farm on the shores of Lake Kariba. I left the trusty (but heavy) R1200GS on its stand for a couple days while Kevin, Adam Lyman (American mechanical engineer living in Zam), and I took out a few of his KTM 500EXCs along the shores of Lake Kariba.
In case you had any doubt, let me assure you, ripping wheelies along sandy beaches of African Lakes, with 500cc of displacement at your disposal, is some of the most fun a human can have with pants on. Kevin offers these tours in Zambia and can be found by searching “Ride Venture Zambia.”
The northbound journey quickly passed through the capital city of Lusaka. Like most capital cities, this is a place to stock up on hard-to-find items like filters, oil, tires, electronic equipment, etc. For a capital city, Lusaka is relatively quiet, and after a day, it was time to move on. Beautiful two-lane roads wind east along the Mozambique border towards Malawi.
Africa is funny. You might think you’re alone. You might think you’re in the middle of the bush. However, if you get off your bike for just a minute, stop for a sip of water or a photo, BAM, 150-friendly faces pop out of the brush to “supervise.” I have no idea where they come from, they just appear from nowhere. It’s actually impressive. You have to be careful how and where you choose to relieve yourself around here, as it will become a spectator sport if you’re not stealthy.
As the travels gain northbound progress, the increase in population density is far from conspicuous. The streets of Malawi are busy, and anybody that has traveled this continent knows what I mean. Bicyclists carry 15-foot wide planks of wood, sugar cane, or really anything that they can physically secure on their bikes, and if you’re not paying attention, it’s a good way to decapitate yourself.
Within an hour in Malawi I almost clothes-lined myself into a bicyclist, carrying sugar cane width-wise across the path of travel. After smashing on the brakes, my ABS doing everything in its power to keep the wheels from locking up, I gave him the thumbs up, yelled “Good luck, chief!” and I rolled onward. If you can’t find humor in everyday life here, you won’t have nearly as much fun.
Man, the things that I’ve seen carried on bicycles, scooters, and tuk-tuks, not just here in Africa but around the world is nothing short of hilariously impressive. I want to be clear, I don’t mean this condescendingly. It’s just that coming from a country where people use a 6.7L Power-stroke Diesel F-350 to fetch groceries, it’s quite remarkable to see a truck worth of lumber on a 125cc moped!
Malawi is one of Africa’s prettiest countries and it’s home to World UNSECO site, Cape Maclear. It lies towards the southern end of Lake Malawi. Snorkeling, standup-paddleboarding, water sports, and swimming are prime activities here. Nkhata Bay, further to the north, is another must-visit spot on the lake. Malawi has excellent paved roads that link the country end-to-end, but what’s the fun in that? Dirt roads wind through villages as the terrain gains ruggedness. For an adventure motorcyclist, the country offers the perfect combination of roads that will allow for any level of riding ability.
Border crossings… oh God… border crossings. I crossed into Tanzania at the beginning of September. Per usual, any border crossing requires some paperwork, visa forms, and…well, patience. After a while you learn to just go with the flow. I must say, the crossings here in Africa are about half as bureaucratically-challenging as Central America.
After about 1.5 hrs, I had exchanged my Kwachas for Schillings with one of the hundreds of wheelers-and-dealers that hang out at every border. I got my $100 visa sorted (Americans pay $100 while the rest of the world pays $50), and my Carnet du Passage stamped. Tanzania, in all its glory, lies ahead.
I worked my way from Mbeya to Dar es Salaam through stunning mountain ranges and small villages. Every northbound mile that passed beneath my wheels brought me closer to the equator, and the rising temperatures did not make it a secret. I rode past beautiful blue rivers, that in this heat, looked overly-inviting. You must remember, though, massive reptiles with a hundred sharp teeth make absolutely none of these rivers a safe relief. Sweat it out. Drink water. Do NOT go swimming anywhere that isn’t known to be safe.
After leaving the Atlantic Ocean behind, in Namibia 3 months prior, over 6,000 miles since I saw the sea, I had finally made it to the Indian Ocean in Tanzania’s capital city of Dar Es Salaam. As I mentioned before, big cities usually aren’t my cup of tea, but they are good places to restock on all items that are difficult to find in small villages: camera parts, batteries, clothing, and the like.
Dar is also home base for getting to Zanzibar, an absolute slice of heaven in the Indian Ocean. I opted to leave the motorcycle in a secure spot in Dar Es Salaam while I ferried over to Zanzibar. Getting the bike over certainly is possible, but at about $100 each way, not counting my personal ticket for passage, the cost/benefit of the whole thing just wasn’t justifiable for me. I was officially just a “backpacker.” Luckily, Honda XR250s are only 25 dollars a day to rent here, and it would serve as my mode of transportation on the island.
Describing the environment, the uniqueness, and the specialness of Zanzibar is hard to convey through words. Tiny alleyways are chiseled through stunning architecture. The city itself, Stone Town, has earned itself UNESCO World Heritage status, and it’s no wonder. The biggest, most in-your-face sunsets that I’ve ever seen, somehow, happen here.
Surrounding the island, some of the most beautiful beaches on planet earth outline the massive spice fields where much of the world’s cinnamon, black pepper, vanilla, and nutmeg are produced. It’s the production of these spices that put Zanzibar on the map in the first place.
Surrounding these fields are thousands of coconut trees which, for about a buck, will quench your thirst (or take the edge off a Kilimanjaro Lager induced hangover… whatever). Zanzibar is a special place and my anticipated 3-day stay quickly turned into 8. I had to drag myself away, kicking and screaming.
Not even halfway up the continent (seriously, how am I not even halfway yet? This is Part 3 in Upshift!!!) I had ground to cover. The worst part about traffic in big cities is…no, that’s it…just the traffic. Traffic is hectic, but once out of Dar, the roads open up and the mountain ranges of Northern Tanzania lie ahead. Fields of sisal (or agave) line the valleys where dirt roads connect villages. It’s easy here to escape the pavement.
As I approached Moshi, I was reminded that there are a few things in life that you’ll never forget seeing for the “first time,” especially when they sneak up on you and smack ya right in the face with beauty.
That “first time feeling” of laying your eyes on something that you’ve had your heart set on, for ages, are the best parts of this whole ridiculous journey: The Roman Colosseum, Fitz Roy in Patagonia, a Central American volcano blowing molten magma into the sky, an elephant spraying itself with water in an orange Namibian sunset, and finally, after days of stubbornly hiding in a soup of thick clouds, I laid my eyes on Mount Kilimanjaro shooting out of the African Savannah.
A couple of days later, I was on course to cross paths with fellow world traveler, Kinga Tanajewska (@OnHerBike), who is a solo female RTW moto-traveler. She is coming from Australia by way of the Pacific, Asia, the Middle East, and is now southbound through Africa.
Social media is a double-edged sword, and I’ve never been secretive about hiding the annoyances that go along with it. One of the best aspects of it, though, is its ability to connect would-be-strangers from all walks of life. It’s been the situation countless times before, and it was the situation here. I spent about a week traveling through some remote regions of Tanzania with Kinga, tracing the Kenya border past giraffes, climbing steep plateaus, and camping under the African night sky.
As has been, and will remain, an inevitable-theme, there always comes a time to say goodbye and continue on one’s own journey. I was northbound, and Kinga was southbound. We wished each other luck, said goodbye, and we’ll continue to follow each other’s story, through the screen of our phones, remembering the 750 miles ridden together.
The people along the way…the countless humans who have personally gone out of their way to meet, help, assist, and generously host me, continue to be the reason why I struggle to stop this lifestyle. I must keep truckin’. Ahead lies Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt.