AFRICA: PART 4 - REACHING THE MEDITERRANEAN
BY: TIM BURKE
Sometimes things don’t go as planned. Scratch that: Things in my life usually don’t go as planned. That’s why I gave up that notion years ago.
For me, the unplanned started unfolding just after leaving Tanzania. I had just said goodbye to my friend Kinga Tanajewska (@onherbike) in Tanzania after crossing paths in opposite directions. I took one last look at the “Roof of Africa,” the continent’s highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro, as I watched as expansive sugar plantations sweep past and slowly fade into windswept Savannah. I was rolling west towards the famed Serengeti.
I was just east of the Serengeti, halfway through lunch, when I had to ‘get out of dodge’ ASAP. Hurriedly, the restaurant owner took my money and sent me packing as a dark cloud rolled in like I’d never seen before. A massive low-pressure system moved across the plains and must have picked up every microscopic particle in its path. If you’ve been following for a while, you already know what I have to say about the winds of Patagonia: winds that will blow a truck clean off the road. I used to think sideways-blowing sleet in Tierra Del Fuego was the most miserable experience one could have on a motorcycle, until I discovered sand storms. They blow across the plain like a billion invisible bullets that somehow find their way into every part of your anatomy, the worst, being your eyeballs. The locals say that these storms mark the beginning of the rainy season, so despite the annoyances of dust in the eyes, they are a welcome sight for the bone dry plains of north-central Tanzania.
I’d love to sit here and tell you that I rode across the Serengeti Park (dodging elephants, lions, and cape buffalo), but I didn’t, and for good reason. Motorcycles aren’t allowed in most national parks across Africa, so this one requires a tedious 600 mile/1000km detour around it, to the south.
I crossed into the country of Rwanda by obtaining, at the border, the required “East Africa Visa.” This would cover me through Uganda and Kenya as well.
Rwanda is a special place, and it’s tough to try to summarize in words. I remember getting to Europe, totally inexperienced, and knowing nothing; everything was new. Thus, everything was labeled as amazing or epic. As you gain experience, though, you have more of a scale on which to judge. Excitement levels fade. With that, I’m pretty confident in making the bold statement that Rwanda might be one of the best places on earth to ride a motorcycle. Seriously. Whether you’re on a Harley Davidson Bagger, a 2-stroke Enduro, or anything in between, somehow, this country is perfect for all of it.
I don’t know how many times I asked myself in my helmet, “Where am I? Where the hell did Africa go?!” There isn’t a pothole in the entire country. The condition of the roads here are better than most in Europe and North America.
I didn’t see one piece of litter. Not a cigarette butt, a wrapper, or even a discarded receipt. Solar-powered LED street lights, wide sidewalks, drainage, hybrid public transit busses, and modern public buildings fill the capital city, and police are available on just about every corner.
Rwanda doesn’t just “run their mouth” about caring for the planet, they live it every day through green initiatives like a ban on plastic bags, deposits for recyclables, and an upcoming move to ban single-use plastics. Twice a month, roads in the capital city are shut down to vehicle traffic so that public exercise (running, walking, jogging, biking, dancing, yoga) is open to everybody in the streets! It’s really, really cool.
But, if you need an escape, as can be seen in the first picture, getting tires dirty in mountain-side coffee plantations is just a matter of pulling off the pavement.
Rwanda is a growing country, healing from wounds that are still fresh. It has a past that many of us are familiar with, but the country does not let it define their trajectory. April 1994 was the beginning of some of humanity’s most ruthlessly-violent history. In just 100 days, nearly 1 million people in this tiny, intimate country were slaughtered, tortured, and maimed by their neighbors; by people who lived amongst each other.
Writing this article, months later, it’s still hard to figure out what to say. I thought about glossing over it. That’d be the easy path. But, as nobody knows better than Rwandans, there’s a difference between dwelling and “not forgetting” what rock-bottom feels like, so it must be faced and talked about.
“We must remember the bad if we want to continue moving towards good,” one memorial reads.
Rwanda refuses to candy coat the genocide, as memorials preserve bloodstained bricks where the heads of humans were smashed open. Bloodstained clothes, shoes, and sheets remain on display to serve as reminders. This was a reality, and I refuse to skim over it for a motorcycle article. Still, this does not define Rwanda. Rwanda is a country on the move. With a booming economy, the country’s potential is growing rapidly. It’s obvious to anybody that has stepped foot here, it’s a good place, and it’s only getting better.
On my 7th day in Rwanda, I lost my camera along with my favorite lens. Still, I don’t know exactly what happened. The only thing I can reason is that even after 3 years’ worth of muscle memory, taking my camera out of its case thousands of times a month, I forgot to put my camera back in its case. I must have been distracted by something and left it resting on my panniers while I was securing my tripod. I drove off and likely left the camera smashed somewhere behind. I was crushed.
Anybody that’s been following along with me for a while knows that this journey is as much about photography as it is about motorcycles. I knew that until I had a camera back in my hands again, I would be mentally lost. Admittedly, I was stuck in a mental rut, so I picked up the pace to head towards Nairobi, where I knew there were replacement cameras available. Leaving Kigali, due north, for the Uganda border brings you through coffee plantations, tea fields, past waterfalls, and over 8000 ft mountain passes that even though I don’t have pictures, I will never forget.
It might sound crazy, but the hills of Western Uganda bring me back to Ireland and Scotland. They even serve Guinness (in bottles) in some bars over here!
Tiny paths and roads above Lake Bunyonyi connect little villages, each with their own parish or church. The hills are green and so lush. The air always has dampness to it. You might think it’s hot here on the equator, but actually, being this high above sea level, it’s pretty cool.
I start my morning drive to the capital city of Kampala with a traffic stop from Ugandan police for speeding. Traffic stops are pretty frequent throughout these parts. Sometimes you’re guilty of something, sometimes you’re not. You learn to just go with the flow. This time, I have to admit, I was guilty as charged. 45kmh in a 40. The fine, as originally proposed, would require me to backtrack some 150km to a random courthouse. Instead, the matter was settled on the side of the road for stickers and cigarettes (I don’t smoke, but I always have ’em!) Sorry folks, but this is how it works here!
Traffic in Kampala is comical. Absolutely comical. That’s all I’ll say about that. Painted lines, signs, and lights mean zilch here. I spent a few days splitting lanes through traffic by my hosts, local riders, Odeon Tumwebaze and Mark Nsubuga. After saying goodbye to Odeon and Mark, I was Kenya-border bound.
My first town in Kenya brought me into Eldoret. “City of Champions,” the locals proudly call it. And when I say proud, I mean you can’t even mention Eliud Kupchoge’s name around here without making people smile ear to ear. “He’s ours! That’s our man!” They shout. Stoke levels were simply through the roof that week, in Kenya, after absolute machine-of-a-man, Eliud Kupchoge, crushed the Vienna Marathon in less than 2 hrs just days prior.
Let me translate that. This dude casually jogged 26.2 miles (over 40km) at a pace faster than most of us can sprint to a trash can after too many tequila shots.
Here’s the crazy part: Almost 8,000 feet (2500m) above sea level, stories like this are nothing new. This is home to the world’s most elite long-distance runners and Olympic champions, and as I roll through the surrounding villages, it’s quite obvious that running is life here. Groups of friends are out every day, pacing each other and continually pushing each other to go faster and further. Running is life.
It’s a long descent out of the mountains of Western Kenya. I stopped for coffee at a roadside restaurant on a steep road; steep enough that I had to position the motorcycle strategically to get the kickstand extended and not tip over. A little boy and his grandfather sat about 4 tables away, smiling at me.
“Mzungu. MA-ZUE-NG-GOO.” The old man sounds-off each syllable for the little boy as he points at me, describing me for what I am: a white person. The little boy giggles and repeats, “Mzungu!”
It’s not derogatory. It’s just what I am here. I’m an outsider, and I have a label. You get used to it after a while. I smile and offer my hand to theirs. Eye contact confirms our respect for each other, and I zoom off to beat rush hour in the city.
I make it to the hustle and bustle of Kenya’s capital city where you can obtain just about anything that you can in the Western world, albeit 50-70% above normal MSRP due to duties and taxes, but that’s pretty common in import-heavy regions. My camera body is replaced, but due to the abnormally high costs, I must move on without my favorite lens. That’s just life.
I’m bound for the Ethiopian border with my freshly printed E-visa in hand.
It’s crazy that I went almost 4 months without seeing a drop of rain in the southern parts of the continent, but I finally caught up with the wet season as I left Nairobi.
It was somewhat of a bummer because the remote region of Lake Turkana had been on my radar for ages, but 5-foot deep creek crossings, solo, would have made this detour a suicide mission.
The main border crossing takes place in Moyale, a town that routinely sees unrest. Compared to Central America, Africa border crossings really haven’t been that bad.
Here’s the thing with borders. You can either:
A. Get all worked up, stressed out, and pissed off at the inevitable bureaucracy of the whole ordeal, OR…
B. You can go in with a full stomach (very important), a bottle of water, patience, and a sense of humor, where you laugh at the hilariousness of it all.
Enter with confidence in knowing the process beforehand: knowing what you need to have stamped, knowing what you need to have signed, and having cash for the known fees in advance. When dealing with fees, always ask for a receipt. Magically, many fees go away when a receipt is requested, like an import tax for a laptop computer!
You can usually find step-by-step “prior experiences” from other travelers on iOverlander and/or many of the Overlander forums on social media.
After an “interesting” border crossing with “computer issues,” that apparently only affected me, I was in Ethiopia!
Most travelers will agree: Ethiopia is different. It just is. There’s an adjustment period associated with it. There’s an intensity – I don’t know another word to use – An intensity in the air that’s a bit different. With 110-million people packed in a relatively small swath of earth, it’s a country with a strong personality, and it takes some time to adapt.
About two days into Ethiopia, my travels became hampered by recently reignited political unrest between a few of the rivaling, regional ethnic groups. After a few days of patience and detoured-exploration, I made it to the suburbs of Addis, where fellow ADV rider, Dutch-national, @koosalberts, was staying for a work assignment. We took his work van out into the country-side to explore, and it’s here, off the beaten track, that Ethiopia shows its true beauty. Beautiful people, beautiful rivers, and rolling hills stretch as far as the eye can see.
Addis, like other African capitals, has traffic that’s simply beyond explanation. I’m here for two days to obtain my Sudanese visa. In all my travels, believe it or not, it’s the first visa that I’ve had to obtain at a proper embassy prior to entry. The process is relatively simple, though, and in 36 hours, it’s ready.
The next 2 weeks would take me north through the Great Rift Valley, past ancient monasteries, across the Blue Nile River Canyon, and over some of Africa’s highest mountain passes (+10,000 ft in some instances) to the northern city of Gondar.
On my last day in Ethiopia, as I was pulling up the steep driveway of Gondar Backpacker’s Hostel, I saw a DR650 with California plates sitting there. “Who the hell is this lunatic?” I thought.
It turned out to be Daniel Shuken (@ramblinshuken) from Fresno, CA, who’s been on the road for over 3 years! Funny how these random meetings work. I’d spend the next month and a half with Dan, progressing north through Sudan and Egypt.
Shortly after crossing the Sudan border, about 13kms south of Doka, we ran out of sunlight. The entire length of this road is made of potholes that can swallow an entire VW hippie bus, so we decided to set up camp about 100m off the right side of the road instead of risking catastrophe.
“Where the hell are we?” Dan asked, in a tone that was polite and impressed. For almost 5 months straight, there had been no privacy. You can’t pull over in Africa and be alone. It’s just the way it is. If you stop, for even a moment, you’re instantly engulfed in curious locals. That behavior stopped immediately after crossing into Sudan and not to sound anti-social, but I have to admit, MAN was it a breath of fresh air!
People would simply walk past and wave, tending to their own business. Amazing!
Sudan, in consideration of all the trash-talk that is spewed upon it by the media, quickly became one of our favorite countries! People in every village were polite, not aggressive, respectful of personal space, and generous. At absolutely no point in this country, a country that recently had “Level-3 Do Not Travel” advisories slapped on it, did we feel unsafe or threatened. I’ll venture to say that Sudan was the safest, friendliest country we had been to.
As we descended out of the higher elevations and into the Nile River valley, deeper into the Sahara desert, apparently, somebody forgot to turn off the furnace. Each mile further that we advanced felt like we were being lowered into a pot of molten magma. Temperatures quickly rose well above 100F (40C), and we were consuming about 5 liters of water per day without even sweating!
Besides avoiding heat-stroke, one of the bigger challenges in Sudan is finding gasoline. Gas, when you can find it, is only about 30 cents per gallon, but it’s pretty common to come across stations that haven’t been resupplied in weeks. The most important rule to follow in Sudan is to NEVER pass up an opportunity to fill up. Ever.
We passed through Khartoum and continued onward into the simmering desolation of the Sahara. Police checkpoints were relatively common but always efficient and polite once we were recognized at tourists.
Egypt was looming on the horizon; the last country of this journey. I couldn’t help but get that slightly anxious feeling that I get every time I know that a trip is approaching the end of a chapter. It’s an empty feeling of nostalgia that’s hard to describe.
The Sahara desert and the people of Sudan far exceeded expectations. I had no idea I’d find so many mountains, slot canyons, and ancient ruins. Sudan is a country that you won’t find on many travel websites, and it’s a bummer. Hopefully, my story helps change that and puts it on your radar.
The Egypt/Sudan border is the most unnecessarily complex, bureaucratic, systematically-corrupt border crossing in 2.5+ years of traveling, and nobody will convince me otherwise. Long story short, I crossed my 70th international border into Egypt.
Just after the border, you reach the shores of the Nile River and Lake Nasser, held back the Aswan High Dam, flooding thousands of square miles of Sahara desert.
Absolutely massive, the only way across the southern end of the Lake is by ferry. The loading/unloading process in and of itself is sheer entertainment. We just shoved our bikes in a little nook between the stairs and the engine room so they wouldn’t get run over by semis that were blindly trying to find their parking space on the cramped barge.
Back to the border crossing… There is no efficient (or cheap) way to get into Egypt with a motor vehicle without a “fixer” who, for a fee, navigates the bureaucratic process for you. Even with a fixer, it feels like the government makes you do everything short of juggling machetes on a unicycle while balancing on a tightrope, all while emptying your wallet with each step of the process. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that each employee along the way is skimming a few bucks off the top of every transaction for a nice little daily “bonus.” Inevitably, it turns into a long day. We ran out of sunlight and camped on a cliff above the river Nile.
We would charge through the sandy deserts, north, through the cities of Aswan, Luxor, and eventually into Cairo.
I was hustling because I had a birthday promise to fulfill in Cairo! Months prior, I had told Polish female Adventure rider, Natalia Plutowska (who’s riding her motorcycle in the opposite direction to Cape Town) that I would meet her there for birthday beverages! I made it!
Natalia, Dan, and I spent time exploring the absolutely hectic streets of Cairo and exploring the historical value that it has to offer.
It certainly was a surprise for me when I “found” the great pyramids. I was totally planning on being in the middle of nowhere so I could go home to tell lies at a bar about how I had to ride across the dangerous Sahara to get to the most famous ancient architecture on earth (obviously, putting my life and the motorcycle on the line.) Of the thousands of pyramid-photos that we’ve all seen since childhood, most paint a picture of majestic structures out in the middle of nowhere. Reality is that one of the largest cities in the world encroaches on this piece of ancient history: Humans. Lots and lots of humans.
A population of 66 million (66,000,000!) fill the streets of Cairo and Giza to form one of the biggest urban sprawls on the continent. Still, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t exciting to have made it to a place we’ve all been learning about since elementary school.
The next stop was to make it to the shores of the Mediterranean. Just after sunset and two days short of 6 months, I’ve arrived at the Mediterranean Sea on the North Coast of Africa!!! What an absolute circus it has been over the last 24,000 miles (38,600 km).
South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt: Thank you so much for the experiences you have been.
We did it! Every single one of you reading this did it with me.