Why we never leave

motorbike"A motorcycle trip into Africa instead of a big 21st birthday party, Lee?" was the question I had posed to my daughter a few months earlier. (Pictured: An adventure through Africa on a motorbike was something very different)

We were indeed leaving for Africa overland on motorcycles, headed for Uganda, everything having fallen into place at the 11th hour. Some months before, weary of a bunch of spoilt young people using 21sts as an excuse for getting completely out of control, I had posed the question to my eldest daughter, rather thinking she would opt for the 21st.

An adventure through Africa on a motorbike was something very different. We had often talked as a family about “being African”, having “African roots” and being “part of Africa”. My daughter Lee had spent time with a Youth With a Mission (YWAM) base in Kigali, Rwanda where she had been for 6 months. We knew we were in for a real adventure.

We started by raising sponsorship for a charity, “MilesforSmiles” – a project aimed at helping African children born with cleft palates. Ekerold Yamaha equipped us with four Tenere XT660Zs.

We left our home in KwaZulu Natal in June, two days before the World Cup Opening Ceremony.My GPS read 29 21 S 29 27 E! Roads were under repair everywhere. The combination of “stop-gos” with hostile weather meant that we didn’t reach our first stop Tzaneen and had to over-night in Ermelo.

“Good start,” I said to my daughter, “I didn’t know so many of our roads needed repair”. Maybe my scepticism was a foreboding of roads yet to come. The next day found us in Alldays ready to cross the Limpopo after a quick delay to watch rugby.

Zimbabwean refugees

The Tuli Block in the east of Botswana demanded the initiation of some riding skills which I wasn’t sure I, or my daughter, possessed. After all, the roads were dirt, and for the first part of the journey we were likely to encounter a breeding herd of elephant and/or some grumpy rhino. We arrived at Francistown as darkness fell. At first light a group of Zimbabwean refugees appeared out of the bush and gladly helped collect wood for the fire and prepare breakfast. I was struck by the fact that Zimbabweans are sprinkled all over our continent, always making their mark with their good manners, good English, and a great work ethic. We would come across more all over, all unable to make ends meet in their own country, but determined to keep their families “back home” in reasonable health by very courageously starting anew with vigour and commitment in a foreign country that provided some opportunity.

Botswana is bristling with the energy of a successful nation. A combination of being Africa’s oldest democracy, good leadership, thriving tourism, fresh minerals, and a population sparsely spread, have made Botswanans proud. Friendly people helped us along the road and efficient officials met us at the borders and wished us well on our way. We were in high spirits as we crossed into Zambia at Kasangula.

Tourist nightmare

Kazangula is a tourist’s nightmare an exasperating maze of officials out of uniform, “runners”, insurance agents, tax-collectors, conmen, standers-by, trucks, buses, hawkers, gawkers, tourists, dust, heat, and irritation. Confusion is the winner here and confusion is exactly what they want confusion leads to exasperation, irritation and the premature release of excessive funds. I almost gagged when I saw a small handwritten A4 sheet taped to a window demanding a Carbon Tax of 10 US dollars. I hadn’t realised that Zambia is up there with Sweden, Norway, and Germany in their knowledge of Carbon emissions and Greenpeace. Our Botswana experience quickly dissipated as we gritted our teeth, paid, and moved out of there.

Just down the road Livingstone is a wonderful, buzzy, African town overlanders, backpackers, low-budget tourists, overland cyclists, overland motorcyclists, and high-end tourists staying at the $US 800 establishments are everywhere. Splendid “colonial” hotels like the Royal Livingstone where synchronised high ceiling fans revolve at precisely the same slow whirl, hovering over high chairs and plush leather sofas. Here you need to dress up to avoid aloof glances down long noses and over Pince-nez spectacles.

I have been to such fine establishments, and have knowledge of them. But the real experience of Africa is at the lower end. This is where we encountered the real travellers, the adventurers who are investigating different options of travel, of lodging, of adventure, of sustenance, and of survival. These hardy travellers are invariably young, British, Nordic, German, Dutch, American – always with a sprinkling of Kiwis and Aussies to spice up whatever potential there is for a cheap party.

In Lusaka we were to connect with an old friend who lived in a majestic old homestead which he is busy restoring. After the chaos of the traffic we were stunned by the paradox of the ever present quiet colonial African lifestyle which still reigns supreme in Zambia polo, polocrosse, fishing, hunting, and golf. It is so odd that the two continue to co-exist the way they do. It is almost as if the colonial legacy and many of its excesses has never been lost as Africa develops and Africans reclaim their nationalism.

Our next destination was Malawi. We were greeted by wonderfully friendly people with a hospitality culture evident in everything they do and with everyone who crosses their path. We met many Germans, Poms, Dutch, Argentianians etc. on our trip all sharing in African hospitality which somehow seemed to take on a deeper meaning as they talked of their time in Africa.

Chinese contractors

Shorly thereafter we were on the Western side of Tanzania – wild, adventurous, difficult, and all because of the attraction of Lake Tanganyika. Trucks boomed out of nowhere, oblivious to the petty solitary headlights that our motorcycles presented through the intense dust. The fear of injury or even death invaded my chest as I approached the settling dust cloud. No ambulance service to call up, no Netstar emergency evacuation, just wild roads and friendly, inquisitive people!

Many roads are under construction by Chinese contractors who don’t know how to build roads to last in Africa. With a poor base and little topping, many recently laid Chinese roads are degrading rapidly.

And then, onto Rwanda with lovely, sweeping, roads built properly by the Belgians decades ago. The French and Belgian roads are of high quality, even though now, white with age. The Chinese could learn a thing or two.

Genocide a thing of the past

We reached Lee’s Youth With a Mission base in Kigali. It has networks all over the world where Christian outreach and missionary work is facilitated and carried out mostly by young men and women in outreach programmes. Rwanda is buzzing people are working on infrastructure everywhere optic fibre cabling, buildings, roads, everyone busy. IMF, UN, Unicef trucks and containers are seen often and seem part of everyday Rwanda. The population has put their horrific genocide behind them and are moving on with vigour, led by a leader who has shown that good governance, corruption control and discipline will be rewarded by countries and organisations who want to help nations in Africa who show these attributes.

Uganda is top grade. Poor, yet abundant with friendly, hardworking citizens who welcome the opportunity provided for by entrepreneurial whites. Unfortunately for me, the visit to Uganda coincided with my second bout of Malaria which put me into bed for 4 days. Malaria remains a scourge in Africa, and although magnificent work is being done by many concerned NGOs, it is still estimated that roughly 1500 people a day die from this disease. I had four bouts while I was there.

As I crossed the border back into South Africa I couldn’t help notice the sophistication, order and developed nature of our country. It is so different to so much of what we experienced to the north of us. We often say that we live in a “third world” country, but we don’t. We are a real mix of developed and developing world challenges. Nevertheless, Lee and I had been humbled by our time in Africa; humbled by the friendliness of people who are strangers; humbled by the hospitality of people who have so little; and humbled by the awesome beauty of our continent, our motherland.

SA Good News letter

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