Single White Female

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Solo from London to Cape Town on DRZ400

Words and Pictures: Claire Elsdon

Eighteen months ago I made a decision. It was time for a change, a big one, one that would turn my whole life on its head and shake me out of the uncomfortably numb existence that had crept up on me over the course of my seven-year career as a City stockbroker.

I was exhausted from the intense, long hours and the excruciatingly early mornings, the ruthlessness of the ‘dog eat dog’ culture and the knowledge that material wealth could never bring the kind of deeper riches I was looking for.

Worst of all perhaps, I was exhausted from hearing myself complain about my job but with no convincing answer for what to do instead.

I loved blasting to work on my Triumph Tiger along the deserted, backstreets of London, standing up on the foot-pegs as I zoomed over speed bumps, the wind on my face, daydreaming of off-roading in Africa and how incredibly alive I would surely feel if I ever got to ride my own Long Way Down.

No matter how many times I watched these programmes, the reality wasn’t becoming any more mine, and the streets of London could never be any match for the wilds of Africa. Something had to change.

Shortly after this realisation, the second, far more powerful one hit.

next to the Orange River
Just after the fuel hose repair incident, next to the Orange River in Namibia en route to the border crossing into South Africa

My Gran, who is now in her late 80s, had a fall and broke both the bones in her lower right arm.

Understandably, she was feeling rather sorry for herself and had clearly been reflecting on her life the day I went to visit her in hospital.

I’m not sure exactly what sparked it but as we chatted about how she was feeling, she suddenly paused and then, with heart-breaking honesty, told me how much she wished that when she was my age, she’d done the things that she’d wanted to do and not the things that other people had expected her to.

It was so sad to hear her say that, but without doubt, it was the necessary jolt I needed.

I suddenly realised that this very moment was exactly the right time to choose life, quit my job and do what I’d for so long daydreamed of doing – journeying from London to Cape Town on a motorbike.

Within a whirlwind four months, I’d frantically done everything I needed to do to get myself, my life and my bike ready for leaving the UK in early September.

Looking back, that time was a crazy torrent of emotions and worries, very few of which were at all relevant or helpful in preparing to ride alone across two continents.

One of Microloan's lending groups
One of Microloan’s lending groups in the Mzuzu catchment area, Malawi

I can honestly say that during this time, I was more caught up in worrying about how my cat would feel about going to live with my neighbours than I was about what I’d do if I got sick somewhere on the trip, had a crash or was confronted by a deviant alone in Africa.

Perhaps subconsciously this was some kind of clever distraction technique, though in truth I think it was more of a disturbing combination of denial and poor planning, perhaps as a way of neutralising everyone else’s extreme concern.

“You’re quitting your job? And riding a MOTORCYCLE? Through AFRICA?? ALONE?!?!?!” followed by all kinds of panicked questions about what kind of arsenal I’d be stashing in my pockets in case of wild animal/crazed local attack, had I taken a self-defence course, was my off-roading technique Dakar standard or above and how would I manage a roadside repair.

I would always respond truthfully to these demands for information (“nothing at all, no, average to poor actually and hmm, let’s hope I don’t have to”) and bluster through with a casual optimism, but inside I definitely wasn’t quite so sure.

crossing the Orange River
Suzi in no man’s land – crossing the Orange River on a pontoon between Namibia and South Africa

However it probably wasn’t until the day I set off, one Sunday in early September last year, that it finally really hit home that this was it – just me, my bike (a Suzuki DRZ400s) and my mascot, a small stuffed donkey, wobbling off in a slightly overloaded fashion on a massive journey.

It was down to me to get our little team all the way down to Cape Town and whatever happened, I knew I would never give up.

At the beginning, I was incredibly nervous and worried about everything. Suffice to say that first day, rolling off the ferry at 10 pm in Calais to a fine but persistent night-time drizzle, I was deeply uncertain about what I was doing and longing to be back at home in my comfort zone, stretched out on the carpet in front of the fire.

But instead, I was riding (for the first time!) on the ‘wrong’ side of the road on a motorway in France, with rain in my face and a bike that I’d never ridden fully laden before.

As I pootled down the road at my heady top speed of 55mph, feeling very alone and already certain that this trip had been a massive mistake, I heard the toot of a car horn coming up behind me.

Mumbling under my breath that I hadn’t been going for five minutes and already I’d picked up trouble, I turned my head to see that I was being ever so slowly overtaken by an elderly Frenchman in his ancient Renault van, smiling fondly over at me and giving me an approving thumbs up.

North Kenya
Offroad terrain near South Horr, North Kenya

I laughed with surprise and delight and returned the gesture with equal enthusiasm, at once feeling bolstered by this small act of solidarity and encouragement.

Little was I to know how this small but wonderful gift would be repeated again and again over the course of the next 18,000 miles to boost me along on my way, raise my spirits and rebuild my courage whenever it faltered.

Slowly during that first month, I settled into my new, vagrant way of life and began surrendering to the apprenticeship for my journey ahead.

The early days of the trip through Europe forced me to start dealing with my woeful approach to problem-solving – my default setting being a short, sharp helter-skelter ride into an all-consuming, throat constricting panic.

Motorcycle maintenance was a classic case in point. Although I’d been well briefed before departure on all important aspects of keeping the bike running and on the road, somehow when it came to carrying out those tasks myself, I would become filled with fear, convinced that I’d make a catastrophic mistake simply checking the oil level or tyre pressures.

This was mostly due to the fact that I was overwhelmed by the knowledge of how much I didn’t know and was convinced that this would lead to me accidentally breaking my bike.

I think it was at this early point that I started the slow process of letting go of my need to be ‘in control’ – I didn’t need to know everything, I just needed to do my best and trust that things would work out (because they usually did) and in the meantime, choose hope over fear, improvise and enjoy the ride.

Generally speaking, once I’d learnt to panic less, I found that travelling solo as a woman on a motorbike offered more advantages than drawbacks and I often unashamedly used the substantial element of surprise about my unusual situation to my advantage.

Southern Ethiopia
Suzi at dawn in Nech Sar National Park, Southern Ethiopia

Most of the time border guards, policemen at checkpoints and other officials would assume (understandably enough) that I was most probably a man, after all, it was deliberately rather difficult to distinguish my gender beneath my rather bulky riding suit and tucked in pony-tail.

However, on one occasion in Kenya, just before the elections, the police had set up a vast network of roadblocks with the widely suspected intention of raking in even more bribe money than usual for spurious road traffic offences.

Unfortunately for me, as I was slowly passing through the outskirts of the town of Nanyuki one morning, a portly policeman beckoned me off the road, booming “This way please, Sir”.

I did as I was commanded, switched off the bike and sensing an opportunity, responded “Sure, but actually, I’m a woman!” with a mischievous grin as I pulled down my goggles.

At this, the policeman did a double-take and then burst out laughing in surprise. It took him a while to compose himself again, but once he did, his first question was not to ask for my passport or attempt to fine me, but rather to ask me out on a date!

While I did seem to enjoy plenty of laughs on my trip, it would be misleading to suggest that there weren’t some really difficult moments too.

One of the hardest moments came the day I crossed from Burundi into Tanzania in the rainy season. I was rather off the beaten track (with a three-day visa costing $45, Burundi doesn’t exactly help itself to attract tourists) and unfortunately for me, the track was rather a rough and muddy one.

I knew I was only 60km or so from the small town where I was hoping to camp for the night, but the pace was trying as the mud was thickening and progress felt painfully slow.

All I wanted was to be warm and dry, but the riding conditions were becoming more difficult with each kilometre that passed.

It was with these thoughts swimming through my mind that the track started to curve off to the left and also sharply increase in camber.

Makeshift footbridge
Locals manhandling Suzi over a makeshift footbridge after flash floods, near Nkhata Bay, Malawi

Before I knew it, I felt that I was slowly sliding too far off to the right, dangerously close to a deep rut, so feathered the brakes to try to regain control. Big mistake. With an awful jolt the wheels locked up, the bike and I span through 180 degrees and slid to a sudden bang into the mud.

Groaning inwardly, I crawled out from under the bike, removed my helmet and knelt there in the mud next to my fallen steed.

The crash had shaken me of my final thread of confidence. I felt physically and mentally beaten and so, so alone.

I was just about to give in to the uncomfortable swelling of tears threatening to flood my eyes when apparently from nowhere, the lovely, gentle chatter of women’s voices distracted me from my self-pity.

Looking up, to my disbelief I saw two ladies walking towards me, heads wrapped in fabric and each with a baby strapped to their backs.

I’m sure it wasn’t every day that a bizarre white girl crashed their motorbike outside these ladies’ mud huts, but that kind of detail apparently didn’t matter.

These ladies could just see that I had got myself into a sorry mess and needed some comfort.

Talking away at me in Swahili, they didn’t seem to mind that I couldn’t understand what they were saying.

By a further inexplicable miracle, shortly afterwards on this otherwise deserted road, a taxi driver came speeding around the corner and stopped to help lift my bike out of the mud.

Then, by raising his index finger he asked me if I was riding alone, to which I nodded meekly.

The man nodded his head in understanding, looking troubled. He gestured at the bike and urged “pole, pole!” (“slowly, slowly!), then returned to his car.

Having thanked the lovely mamas for their kindness in a strange mixture of words and gestures, I got back on my bike and gingerly set off on my way, fully expecting the taxi driver to overtake and speed off on his way.

To my greatest surprise, however, he stayed behind me for the next 10kms, watching my back, ready to help if I struggled again.

His words of “pole, pole” stayed in my mind though and fortunately the next 10kms passed by without further incident, my morale and in turn, riding ability, hugely boosted by the unexpected appearance and kindness of my guardian angels.

Eventually, I saw the taxi driver discreetly turn off down another track and I tooted my horn and waved as enthusiastically as I could without toppling over again.

I really hope he knew how grateful I was for his unassuming kindness and care of me, a complete stranger. I have a feeling he did.

Interestingly enough though, just two weeks before the end of my journey, the situation I had always dreaded came to pass.

It happened on a very remote dirt track in Namibia, while riding towards an infrequently used border crossing into South Africa at the source of the Orange River.

The scenery was a stunning picture – a wide band of blue water slowly slipping past this slightly corrugated sandy track bordered by a haphazard array of massive rocky outcrops.

I was about two hours into the ride to the border with less than an hour to go when all of a sudden I was hit by a really strong smell of petrol.

At first, I thought that it must be the breather hose on the top of the tank coming loose, but I checked it and it all seemed fine, so I rode on a bit further, hoping that the smell might go away.

Alas, after another 10 minutes it definitely hadn’t, so I pulled up. Once I’d dismounted I realised immediately what was wrong – the fuel hose between the tank and the carb had perished after all these months in strong heat and sun and was gushing a continuous jet of petrol all over my left pannier as well as where my leg had been.

Now amazingly, considering what I had been like even checking the oil level on my bike back in France, I didn’t panic at all – not a bit.

Relieved smiles on the barge from Aswan
Relieved smiles on the barge from Aswan, Egypt to Wadi Halfa, Sudan

I just turned off the fuel tap and sat there in the blazing sun, squatting in the dirt, staring at the problem, sipping water from my Camelbak and quite objectively wondering whether I could just bodge a fix or whether it needed to be replaced.

Eventually, I decided that replacement was the only option so laid out my tool kit to see what bits and pieces I had to work with and set about the job.

It took me the best part of an hour in the end, mostly because the hose is a really tight fit on the carb end and I had to think my way around the best way of getting it on in a very fiddly spot, but again I didn’t freak out about that, I just knelt there, logically working through my options and improvised until I had fixed it.

That time, I think my angels knew it was right to leave me to it and for that I was glad. I was ready to be put to the test, to see how far I’d come and to prove to myself that with a calm and clear head, everything would be alright and that on that one occasion, when it came to it, I was enough.

To this day, that tiny little bit of hose still brings a smile to my face whenever I look at it.

So now I’m back in the UK, having made it to Cape Town in one piece, as some would say, against the odds.

It’s a strange thing to try to build a life back in the UK now that I’ve been away on the road for this long, but it is getting easier and having Suzi (the bike) back from the shippers definitely helps.

I’ve decided not to go back to my old job and to try my hand at a few other things instead, primarily writing the book of the trip.

As for my Gran, I surprised her with a visit recently, which it turned out really did take her by surprise as she then told me she had been certain she’d never see me again.

I reminded her of what she had told me that day in her hospital bed and how it had inspired me to make this journey.

Gran just shook her head in disbelief, claiming she didn’t even remember her words, before smiling to herself and adding, “Well I never”.

Route

Q&A

How much planning did you do?

All I really researched was the carnet, visas, jabs and the details of the boat from Turkey to Egypt. I wasn’t on a tight schedule so was happy to leave the rest to chance.

What mods did you make to the bike?

Fat bars, handguards, windscreen, sump guard, engine protection, 17-litre tank, rear rack, lowered suspension, sat-nav fittings, 12v socket, side stand kill switch circuitry removed plus new consumables/perishables replaced thanks to Suzuki as the bike was six years old.

How many miles did you ride per day?

Usually about 200.

What tyres did you use?

Bridgestone Trail Wings.

Did they last?

Pretty well, used two sets over 18k miles with a fair degree of harsh offroad.

Where and how did you change them?

I was recommended a fantastic chap in Addis Ababa by the owner of the guesthouse I stayed in. I had them fitted on the roadside for £1.50 (obviously I gave him a tip!).

How often you do an oil change?

Twice….the second was a disaster (I had it done at a shop and they put a bright green oil suited for diesel trucks in….completely burnt off within 600 miles – the stuff of horror films). Finding the right kind of oil was really hard (most bikes in Africa are 2-strokes).

Where did you sleep?

Lots of camping, mostly in a campsite but some wild camping too. Guesthouses, friends of friends and once on the roof of a boat under the stars.

What was your budget?

$50 a day.

Did you stick to it?

Generally yes. Europe was WAY more expensive than most of Africa, especially for petrol. In Egypt I filled the tank (17l) for £3! But then the ferry there blew the budget (unavoidable though) and their bureaucratic process is expensive.

How much for the carnet?

Far too much – don’t even get me started!!! Well over £1k…

How did you keep in contact with home?

Skype calls where possible, the occasional text and also sending “OK” messages home via my Spottracker – a great bit of kit.

What did you wear to ride in?

A Klim suit specially designed for riding overland in hot conditions, Klim Dakar gloves, Arai offroad helmet.

What did you eat?

Whatever I could get in each country, shame really as most national dishes start out to be amazing but then by the time you’ve got through Egypt and Sudan say, you never want to see another falafel ever again.

What luggage system did you use?

Giant Loop Great Basin bag together with Wolfman panniers and a Wolfman roll pack.

Is there anything you’d have done differently?

Nope, it all worked out exactly as it was meant to, good and bad.

What did you learn on this trip?

Stacks – a lot about myself. Panic less, enjoy more, choose hope over fear, trust the universe. And always, always pack loads of water.