Simon and Lisa Thomas discover a world of incredible riding, impressive wildlife, and kind strangers as they ride through East Africa.
Words: Simon Thomas Photos: Simon and Lisa Thomas
We are in Cape Town, South Africa, our bikes parked behind us. We’ve just ridden 24,000-miles through 11 African countries and, bathed in the pink glow of the evening sun, our bodies feel worn and weary. We walk over the sand down to the water’s edge, where the cool green waves of the Atlantic lap against our bare feet.
This is a moment to savour – it feels so bloody good to have the boots off. It has taken us nearly eight-months of demanding riding to traverse Africa’s brutal west coast, and yeah, we’re sporting our cuts, bruises and scars like badges of honour, commemorating each hard-fought mile. We earned every one of them
Addicted to Africa
Africa, in all its intoxicating glory, has us hooked, and we’re eager for more, hungry for our next fix. Once rested, our plan is to ride north, relying again on my R 1100 GS and Lisa’s F 650 GS to see us through Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, before returning to Cape Town via Mozambique and Malawi. Lisa and I consider the ride ahead while the lights of Cape Town turn on, glinting and twinkling in the shadow of Table Mountain.
In the chill of the early morning we pull our riding-jackets close around our necks. We are north of Gordon’s Bay. The rugged peaks of the Western Cape’s coast, known locally as the ‘Twelve Apostles’ are behind us, and we are riding the fast sweeping back roads that skirt the vineyards of Stellenbosch. The laden vines, heavy with dew, scent the air. It’s mid May, and we are bound for South Africa’s northeast region, where we’ll start our northward leg.
We shun the main N1, choosing instead the smaller roads, which lead us through the beautiful but arid Klein (little) Karoo and the Dutch settled towns of Villiersdorp, Stormsvlei, Warmwaterberg and Ladismith. Just north of Oudtshoorn town our bikes kick up the dirt as we swap asphalt for a narrow, dry, loose dirt track that climbs and climbs.
Up on the pegs, we’re riding into one of the most spectacular passes in the world, the Swartberg Pass, and across what was once considered impenetrable, the Swartberg Range. Our eyes flit from the winding track ahead as our minds struggle to take in the awesome views.
A cautious descent
Cool, shaded kloofs (Afrikaans for ‘gorge’) provide sanctuary to delicate swaths of deep-green fynbos (fine bush) in this UNESCO recognised micro-climate. Small rocks tumble from above, loosened by the skittering hoofs of three klipspringers (small antelope) who, startled by our appearance, now miraculously scamper higher on the almost sheer rock face. We reach the summit (1,582m) and begin our cautious descent, the tight hairpins and sudden switchbacks stealing our attention away from the stunning images of the bright yellow and peach-coloured proteas (South Africa’s national flower) that bedeck the higher ledges.
Deep on the valley floor, we ride in the shadows, our eyes adjusting to the gloom. The air is cool as we snake through the engulfment of a narrow cape sandstone gorge. Past the close convolutions of the rock-face strata, Swartberg’s crimson peaks pierce the deep blue cloudless sky. Spat back out into the world, into the light and heat, we’re just five miles from the small Karoo town of Prince Albert. The ride’s been breathtaking.
Approaching the small border crossing from South Africa to Botswana at dusk, we’re now 1,200 miles northeast of the Swartberg Range and 200 miles northwest of Pretoria. The landscape becomes savannah as we draw closer to Botswana, a land-locked country in which the great Kalahari Desert takes up 70 percent of the space. It’s just before dusk as we pull to the side of the road and stop by a makeshift shed.
Above a low window and in the dusty gloom, we can just make out the word ‘Immigration’ which has been handwritten on a grubby scrap of cardboard. After disclosing that our bikes are foreign registered, we’re surprised to then be asked to pay 180 Pula (£19) for the road license. The immigration guard does little to ease our anxiety as he mumbles a half-hearted warning of bandits on the outskirts of the capital, Gaborone. Rapping his knuckles on the desk, he leans forward, and earnestly admonishes us to “ride with caution”!
With those words still ringing in our ears, we ride into the capital in the dark and check in at the Lion Hotel. The dim lights of our worn room flicker and crackle as we check the day’s digital photos. The tiny space, only £5 for the night, is a bargain, and at least the bikes are safe, we’ve ridden them into the room! It’s a cosy fit, and they barely squeezed through the door. The cylinder heads of my 1100GS are crammed between the bed and the wall, and I can feel the heat still ticking off both engines.
Escaping Gaborone’s congested, modern streets early, we stop 100 miles north to sip warm water from our drink-bottles, pausing at the Tropic of Capricorn at S23 30.003 E26 36.764. Once one of the most impoverished countries in Africa, Botswana has flourished since gaining its independence from Great Britain in 1966, and it’s now making the most of the immense mineral wealth beneath its sandy soils. The country’s current stability and affluence is proudly reflected in the freshly laid black asphalt now passing under our wheels.
We make camp to the east of the Ntwetwe Pan, a vast saltpan teeming with wildlife. We’d planned to ride across it, but recent and unusually heavy rains have submerged the normally navigable tracks, so that’s buggered. As the day closes out and we re-plan the ride ahead, our bush-camp glows in the flickering orange light of the fire cooking our evening meal. A slow steady chorus of tiny, painted reed frogs and barking geckos serenade us as we tuck into our meal. This is our time to ‘soak-up’ Africa. I’ve never felt more alive!
Today we are heading into the heart of the Okavango Delta. Surrounded by the parching Kalahari sands, the Okavango is the largest inland delta in the world, a labyrinth of lagoons, lakes and hidden channels spreading over 11,000 square miles – an oasis attracting thousands of species of wildlife, large and small. Thirty miles south of Kasane and just two miles from the Zambian border, we’ve passed countless signs emphatically warning: ‘DO NOT STOP!’ which, we presume refers to the dangers posed by the local wildlife.
“Well, the signs aren’t just for fun,” I yell to Lisa over the bike-to-bike comms system. “It’s just for the tourist,” she yells back. “It’s 11am and we’ve not seen even a hint of wildlife,” Lisa’s snuffs, obviously disgruntled and disappointed.
Like clockwork, 10m ahead and unfazed by our presence, a huge, tusked bull elephant meanders across the trail and magically disappears into the bush. Now riding side by side, the moment takes our breath away as we share excited glances. “Did that just happen?” Lisa asks with a giggle in her voice. The excitement caused by that big boy’s sudden appearance keeps grins plastered on our faces throughout the day as we continue riding north.
Two days later, at another campsite, we cautiously settle on the banks of the Chobe River, an African crossroads, where Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe meet. In the silky still black water, crocodiles slowly veer in stealth mode, their scales barely breaking the water. To our left, 20 hippos munch ceaselessly, occasionally yawning to expose nature’s most deadly jaws.
Hippopotami kill more humans each year than snakes, sharks and crocodiles put together. The sunset, a deep orange, colours the riverbank a soft mauve, and in the distance, giraffes amble in silhouette. At the base of an ancient tree, pressed back under its exposed roots, two young lion cubs devour a freshly killed kudu (a woodland antelope), their engorged stomachs round and tight as drums. They roll and play with the mauled flesh and saunter down to the water to drink. These moments will stay with us always.
In the heat of the day, we collect our exit stamps out of Botswana, ride past the queue of cars for the ferry, and 20 minutes later we make our way up onto the pontoon’s rickety planks. Ten minutes later we are in Zambia, country 31 on our journey.
On the northern shore of the mighty Chobe, the bikes roar as we climb the steep embankment, the wheels spin, slipping on the thick algae covering the ramp. An old, rusted shipping container serves as the Zambian immigration office. Lisa and I are all too aware of Africa’s reputation for outright bribery and corruption, and we’re prepared for a lengthy stop. But this time, exiting only 40 minutes later with our documents stamped, we’ve cleared customs without any ‘financial lubrication’ greasing palms.
Outside, the warmth and hospitality with which we are received is overwhelming. Barefoot children with huge smiles cheer and wave, running excitedly after our bikes. Along the roadside, brightly dressed Zambian women, with impossible loads balanced on their heads, smile warmly as we pass.
We stop briefly for photos at the celebrated Victoria Falls, and are soon soaked to the skin and refreshed by the plumes of atomised spray the millions of gallons of water cascading hundreds of feet each minute produce when smashing into the rocks below. Across the Victoria Falls Bridge we can see Zimbabwe but, unfortunately, due to their ongoing fuel crisis, we can’t detour to explore this troubled country.
Riding the Great North Road
Our next pit stop is in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, to pick up our Tanzanian visas. The sights and smells on the northern side of town remind us of Mali, where squalor and dirt are the norm, filled with families eking out an existence any way they can.
We continue along on the Great North Road, which rises, seemingly endlessly, before us – the way to Kenya. On the outskirts of Mkwamba and keenly aware that we are dangerously close to the border of the Republic of Congo, a short quarter-mile to our west, we pay extra attention to the GPS to ensure that we don‘t wander any closer.
Farther northwest we turn from the patchy asphalt of the Great North Road (T2) onto a sandy track lined with hardy wide-leafed trees and the spiked foliage of the stout acacia. The bikes squirm in a familiar fashion in the soft orange sand. Down to our left, Lake Ishiba Ng’ahdu, the Lake of the Royal Crocodile, shimmers pinkly in the fading light, hemmed in by the soft, rolling, western hills.
Our camp on the manicured grass of Kapishya Hot Springs justifies the 25-mile detour in sand. This was once the private estate of Lt Colonel Stewart Gore-Brown, an eccentric Englishman who erected a brick mansion here in the 1900s. He paid the local tribesmen to cut a track and carry in by hand his beloved grand piano.
Time to relax
For so long in ruins, Brown’s folly is now being lovingly restored by his great grandchildren. Deep thermal fissures heat the estate’s bubbling emerald pool, wide leaves brush the water, the dense, dark foliage of surrounding jungle shimmers. Shaded from the sun’s intense heat, we soak for hours, easing away the previous day’s ride of 520 miles.
At the T2 we pull over to re-inflate our tyres to road pressure, instantly attracting an audience of children, all of them excited and curious about the bikes and the Martians riding them. Answering each of their questions, we are finally allowed to take a few photos. The big smiles come easily, in stark contrast to the lives these kids lead. Torn t-shirts, ripped old trousers that don’t fit drag the ground skirting their naked feet. These kids are so remarkably resilient.
It’s mid June and though we enter Tanzania without fuss, we’re baking in the arid air. Dry, gnarled acacia blanket the land; their needle-like thorns ready to puncture tyres that stray too close. Above the clouds, we can see the turquoise ice-capped summit of Mount Kilimanjaro (the world’s tallest free-standing mountain). Closely skirting Killi’s rugged, southerly flanks, we give up the asphalt for a loose gravel track that leads us to the outskirts of a Maasai village.
A large, ringed stockade made of spiked acacia branches surrounds the dung-and-straw huts, and the smaller ring inside that one safeguards their precious livestock at night. Swathed in bright red and holding long spears, tall, elegant Maasai men gather around the bikes. Seven stunning Maasai women dressed in cobalt blue whisper and giggle in the background. With a sigh, Lisa lifts off her helmet and a surprise whisper of “it’s a Ma’ma, it’s a Ma’ma” erupts through the now gathered crowd.
Dining with the locals
Having received permission to camp inside the protection of the village, we join Ayuna in his hut for dinner. A clay pot is filled with what looks like milky porridge, simmering above a small fire pit. As we share our food, Ayuna describes the traditional male rites of passage. At the age of 15, the boys from the village each armed only with a spear and a knife are sent as a group into the bush. Together they must stalk and slay a lion before they can return.
The pelt is then hung in the village, as a trophy of their bravery. Flashing a proud smile, Ayuna points to his lion’s skin, draped across his doorway, and holds up for inspection the smooth yellow lion’s tooth that hangs from his neck.
In the morning, lion tracks are spotted around the village, but the Maasai seem unalarmed — for them this is an everyday occurrence. As we prepare to leave, a sea of happy, gap-toothed children surround us. Noses running, their faces clotted with flies, they eagerly pose for pictures, taking gentle and coy stances. The oldest amongst them, making sure that the smallest of them can be seen by the camera.
Past Iringa, the countryside changes. Hilly and mountainous terrain closes in, and the dryness is replaced by lush vegetation. The ride roller coasters as we climb and dive: over high mountain passes and down through long, winding valleys.
The Baobab Valley
By mid-day our eyes are strained from the views and all the way red mud homes line the trackside, each with its own small dirt path trampled smooth underfoot over time. Banana trees grow to the roadside, their bright yellow blossoms dangling like jewellery.
By mid-afternoon we’ve entered The Baobab Valley, an ancient site carved out by the once fast-flowing river, which now runs lazily at the bottom. Centuries-old baobab trees, the size of dinosaurs, have taken the valley over, with their numbers in the tens of thousands. We’ve never seen so many in one place.
‘You are entering Mikumi Park Game Reserve, please drive carefully,’ reads the large road sign. The A7 passes through the middle of this large, dry savannah, strewn with bouldered outcrops, home to big cats, impala, giraffe and the like. A small herd of zebra stand to attention a short distance from the road, watching us as we slowly come to a halt, hoping to get a quick photograph. Feeling like intruders, we carry on and leave the zebras to their grazing.
On the outskirts of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania’s capital), the Arabian sway of life is abundantly clear, with the minarets of its many mosques punctuating the skyline. Alarmingly, the number of suicidal coach drivers passing us on blind bends and on steep hills has been increasing. We’ll be glad to stop some time very soon.
Directions asked and received, we head for Silver Sands, a campsite right on the beach and a favourite with the overlanding truck drivers we’ve met en-route. Over the last few months, we’ve passed dozens of these heavy-duty cargo trucks, each kitted out with windows and seats carrying adventure-seeking tourists for days or weeks through Africa.
We can smell the sea
Banana and palm trees line the path to the beach, and we can smell the salt in the air and feel the swampy embrace of the coastal humidity. At the end of the track a young gate porter yells “Karibu, karibu, welcome, welcome,” over the noise of our engines, as he pushes open two large rusting iron gates. We use the last of our energy to stand on the pegs and ride across the soft, dry sand of the beach. A half hour later, the tent is up and cold beers are in hand, as we watch the sun dip below the distant ocean horizon.
Sitting outside our tent, the tumbling rhythm of the waves on the beach nearby is calming. We realise that Africa is everything we’d ever dreamt of and more. We’ve witnessed the best of human nature, where the most impoverished of people, those seemingly possessing nothing, readily and graciously offer to share half of what they don’t have, and without any expectations of return. The warmth and resilience of the people we’ve met travelling this continent has left us both humbled, and with each encounter, they’ve left us richer for the experience.
Sat on the warm wet sand of the beach, the buzz of Dar Es Salaam whirls about us in the gentle breeze. As we reflect upon our journey and sip on our beers, the distant lights of Zanzibar sparkle to life.
Want to ride in East Africa? Here’s how you can…
African nations are often stereotyped for violence, power struggles and corrupt governments, military and police. However there is a more positive side to South Africa and its neighbors to the northeast. There is genuine human warmth experienced daily, and for the most part, you could easily be forgiven for thinking you are in a scene from a National Geographic documentary.
Generally, the rainy season lasts from October to April. During this time it can become exceptionally hot, and heavy rain may make some roads muddy and impassable. The dry season runs between May and September, and is often the best time for viewing animal migration, especially in Botswana and Tanzania.
How to get there
U.K. citizens must have a valid passport, relevant visas and a yellow fever vaccination certificate for entry into most East African countries.
There are many international flights to South Africa, usually flying directly into Johannesburg. However, you can easily get a connecting flight into Cape Town if you wish to start by exploring the Western Cape of South Africa.
Get your bike there
Moto Freight can take your bike from the UK to South Africa for a very reasonable fee. At current prices, sea freight from London to Cape Town costs from £745 for a BMW R 1100 GS-sized motorcycle, while air freight costs from £1,625. Head to www.motofreight.com for more info.
Food and lodging
The cuisine of East Africa varies from area to area. In the inland savannah, cattle, sheep and goats are regarded as a form of currency and a store of wealth, and are not generally consumed as food. Maize is the basis of ugali, a starch dish eaten with meats or stews. One-pot goat or lamb stews are popular (around £1).
The cuisine of South Africa and its neighbouring countries has evolved from the pioneering days of the 17th century, and such foods as biltong, droë wors (dried sausage) and rusks are favoured.
Prices are always higher in the more touristy city restaurants, compared to food purchased in the local cafes and vendor stalls.
East Africa presents many choices in accommodations, from first-class hotels, luxury lodges and safari camps to budget guesthouses and camping grounds. The major tourist areas have private lodges, safari camps, and public camping sites. Wild camping is possible outside the major towns and cities. Always scout the area first before putting up your tent, as you may be in the middle of an animal track or walkway between villages.
Roads and Biking
There are a few inter-city highways that are maintained and have reasonable tarmac; however, even these good roads deteriorate during the rainy season (generally late March to mid-June), and many roads, both urban and rural, become flooded and extremely muddy!
Riding on the gravel roads and sand tracks certainly requires some practice, and you may be deceived by a good section of road, only to come up against a huge crater-like pothole, a rock, a boulder, a patch of heavy sand, diabolical corrugations, or an animal. The dust raised by other vehicles also makes it impossible to see at times. Riding blind is no fun! Keeping your speed down is advisable.
Off-road driving is not allowed in the game parks, but then again neither are motorcycles!
Our motorcycles and gear
Simon rode a BMW R 1100 GS
Lisa rode a BMW F 650 GS
Luggage Systems: Touratech Zega
Jacket and Pants: Hein Gericke Tuareg
Helmets: BMW System 4
Boots: MX boots – Alpinestars Tech 6 and Gearne SG10