Day 80 – Lilongwe, Malawi

Dawn breaks over our bush campsite near Kigoma, Tanzania.  We were blissfully unaware of the challenges that lay ahead.

We did not expect riding across Africa to be easy.  We were expecting challenges and obstacles along the way.  We came prepared for some.  We have dealt with tire punctures.  We have dealt with injuries of varying degrees of severity.  We coped with the searing heat of the Sahara and the surprising chill of the East African highlands.  We used wire and straps to fix broken racks.  We replaced a snapped chain in the middle of nowhere.  We “fixed” blown fork seals with cloths and zip ties.  We managed to bump start my bike in even rough terrain (which Rosa has required dozens of times).  We straightened bent headlight brackets on all three of our bikes.  We managed to find gas when every gas station was dry.  Jerry even sutured my broken fairing back together with zip-ties.

But some of the challenges we’ve faced are beyond what we could handle on our own, and have threatened to end the trip early.  The past week has been the toughest of the trip by far.  The first setback was a broken frame on Jerry’s bike.  The second was a lost pelican case containing all of Jerry’s travel documents (passport, carnet de passage, driver’s license, motorcycle registration, camesa insurance, etc.).  The third was a seized camshaft and scoured and eroded camshaft seat on Tom’s bike caused by friction from riding with no engine oil for a long distance.

A Broken Frame
It was the morning of Jerry’s 33rd birthday – August 17th.  We had been treated with yet another spectacular African sunrise over our bush campsite somewhere between Mpanda and Sumbawanga, Tanzania.  Before we set off for the day, however, we had to inspect Jerry’s bike and try to find the cause of Buffy’s most recent woes.  The previous evening, when we had decided to risk night riding on a rough dirt road in order to reach Sumbawanga in one day, Buffy had quite suddenly developed a scary wobble in her front end.  We were at a loss to explain such a dramatic effect – it looked like the steering column was vibrating like a jack-hammer.  Surely a bad bearing wouldn’t have that kind of effect.  Maybe a loose or sheared subframe bolt?

The night before Jerry’s birthday Tom and I had ridden ahead, riding side by side to use each other’s headlights to light up the road and enable us to ride faster than was wise or appropriate.  (Great fun by the way).  We had devised a system where we would wait for Jerry every 25 km so that we wouldn’t get too far apart.  I wanted to stay close to Tom because his headlight fuse had blown earlier in our night ride.  Flipping on his high beams would cause a short and blow his fuse.  We had already replaced a blown fuse in the darkness earlier in the night.  Some urgency had been added to our repair job after someone in a jeep stopped to inform us that there were lions in the area.  Despite the headlight troubles we decided to continue (we didn’t exactly want to camp in lion territory).  Without high beams, however, Tom could certainly benefit from my high beams at his side.

Once we rode 25 kms, Tom and I waited almost a half an hour for Jerry to turn up.  We were wondering if he had had mechanical problems or had dumped his bike.  We were going to wait until a full half hour had passed and then ride back.  We would have started back earlier had we not learned from experience that riding back for Jerry always seemed to result in us dropping our bikes on our way back. 

Tom and I both drop our bikes while riding back for Jerry on the road from Uvinzi to Mpanda, Tanzania.  To be fair I went down first in front, putting up a nice road block for Tom, who was following.

When Jerry finally approached, just moments before we were going to ride back for him, I could see immediately that something was terribly wrong.  His front fender was bouncing around wildly and you could see he was having difficulty controlling the bike.  We asked him if he was alright.  He was, but unfortunately his bike was not.  Luckily he had not fallen off, but over the past 25 kms or so his bike had started wobbling uncontrollably.

We decided to camp close to where we were and assess Jerry’s bike in the morning.  The next day we found a large fissure in his frame.  The vertical steel tube at the front was completely fractured.  No wonder the front end had been acting like it was independent from the rest of the bike – it pretty much was.  It’s amazing he was still able to ride the bike at all.

We wondered how he had managed to basically break his bike in half.  The road from Uvinzi to Mpanda, which we had ridden two days before, had been particularly challenging.  The road did not like Jerry and the feeling was mutual.  In one 2km stretch, Jerry dumped his bike 9 times.  His total for the day was 14.  He would ride a few metres, and the bike would go over again.  Could this constant string of impacts have weakened and ultimately broken the frame?  It was a bit hard to believe that these drops alone were enough to cause such damage because most of them were at low speed and in soft sand and fesh-fesh.  He had only had a couple of high speed wipeouts on hard ground.

This was Jerry’s 9th drop in one two kilometre stretch alone on the road from Uvinzi to Mpanda.  Jerry was ready to camp right here.

I had dropped my bike 4 times myself on the road to Mpanda: 3 times in deep sand and once when I rode into a ditch to avoid an oncoming jeep (I think I only saw 3 other vehicles all day, which is a good thing because there was not enough room for a car and a motorcycle to pass each other let alone two cars).  Despite setting a single day drop record for the trip, I still found it one of the most enjoyable rides thus far.  The road was challenging and required all of my concentration.  It was satisfying to get through tough sections without dumping the bike.  For hundreds of kilometres we were also riding through untouched African wilderness.  It was pure adventure.

A typical section of the road from Uvinzi to Mpanda, Tanzania.  Macher may even have dropped it here.

While taking a break so that Jerry could recover after his 9th drop, we realized that we had not brought nearly enough water.  Tom and I each had a 500 mL reserve bottle and about 500 mL in our camelbaks.  Jerry had no reserve bottle and no water in his camelbak.  I gave him my reserve bottle.  He needed it from the exertion of constantly picking up his bike.  We were hours from the nearest village.  Knowing that Jerry was having difficulties, I decided to ride on ahead at speed so that I could buy water in Mpanda and then return to Jerry and Tom (who was riding in cleanup position behind Jerry).  At the pace they were going, I thought there was a good chance they would not make it to Mpanda by nightfall.  The road would be even more difficult at night.

I blazed on ahead.  Despite enjoying the challenge of the ride, I did not relish the thought of going back over the same road again.  However I had given myself a mission: get water for the team.  There were many occasions when the bike would fish tail wildly or I would hit giant ruts and holes and wonder how it could be that I was still upright.  Would I be so lucky on the way back when I was even more exhausted and the daylight was fading?

My mission to get water would experience a complication when I dropped my bike for the 3rd time of the day, about an hour after leaving Tom and Jerry behind.  When I picked it up, I noticed gas pouring out from between the tank and side panel on the left side.  I had managed to punch a hole in my gas tank.  I wondered if I would have enough gas to make it to Mpanda, which was still about 120 km away according to my GPS.  We had bought a few litres of gas from someone’s personal stash in Uvinzi (there had been no gas station).  But it had been expensive and we had bought just enough to make it to Mpanda by our calculations.

I did not want to run out of gas in such a remote area.  Now it was necessary for me to find gas as well as water before turning around and heading back towards Tom and Jerry.  About 20 kms outside of Mpanda I finally found bottled water in a small village.  Since it was only 20 more kms to Mpanda, a town large enough to have a gas station, I decided to wait where I was in the small village for Tom and Jerry.  The worst case scenario would be someone riding into town to bring me back a jerry can full of gas. 

While I was waiting, I decided to try to find the source of the leak.  I took off my seat and side panels.  I looked under the tank.  All the while gas was running down the side of my bike and pooling on the ground underneath.  Unfortunately I could not find the leak.  I thought it was probably somewhere underneath the tank because the bottom of the tank was wet with leaking gas.

After waiting for an hour with no sign of Tom and Jerry, watching the life pour out of my bike, I decided to press on to Mpanda while I still had enough gas (hopefully) to make it.  The sun was going down.  I was thinking that it was getting more and more likely that I would have to return to Tom and Jerry in the dark with my bottled water.

As luck would have it, when I arrived in Mpanda I arrived at a gas station with a friendly owner who spoke excellent English.  He immediately started helping me solve my problem with my leaky gas tank.  He made a phone call and a friend of his appeared with JB weld.  We took off the tank and found the hole.  It was actually more of a crack than a hole, explaining why I hadn’t seen it.  It was only a little wider than a hair and about one centimetre long on the side of the tank where the front of the side panel met the tank.  I had been expecting a much bigger gash from the volume of gas pouring out. 

About 45 minutes or so after arriving in Mpanda, I was relieved to see Tom and Jerry finally pull up at the gas station just as the last light of the day was vanishing.  Jerry had had an exhausting and frustrating day, but he had made it.  I would not have to go back in the dark.

At that point, his bike was still handling normally.  The next day, a re-energized and determined Jerry tackled the challenging road through Katavi National Park at speed without dropping his bike once.  He had finally taken my advice (which I had been repeating since Egypt) that he modify his tank bag to allow him to stand up.  I find that standing up makes the soft stuff an order of magnitude easier.  The bike fishtails way less and when it does you have much more control.  Plus you have the advantage of seeing farther down the track for upcoming obstacles.  I think I was standing for most of the day on the road to Mpanda.  I think that finally adding standing on the pegs to his bag of tricks will give Jerry much more confidence on the type of soft loose terrain that has previously been his nemesis.  This certainly seemed to be the case in Katavi. 

It wasn’t until later when we began riding at night that the problems emerged. At first Jerry attributed the squirelly feeling to bad traction on some sections of mud (construction crews had been pouring water on the road, presumably to reduce dust).  However, shortly after Tom and I rode ahead, he realized that there was something seriously wrong with his bike.
Although Jerry’s bike was knocked around a lot on the road to Mpanda, we thought that it was more likely that the problems with the frame dated back to Egypt.  Jerry had crashed hard into a brick wall at the back of a hotel lobby in Luxor.  The bike had hit the corner of the wall obliquely, which could explain the position of the fracture.  Perhaps the fissure had started in Luxor, and the constant drops in Tanzania finally finished the job little by little until the bar was severed entirely.

We discussed the possibility of putting the bike on a truck for the remaining 95 km to Sumbawanga, where we hoped we could get the frame welded back together.  However, Jerry was willing to ride the bike the rest of the way.  He had already ridden 25 kilometres with a busted frame, why not another 95?  He was anxious to have it looked at by a mechanic as soon as possible.  So we rode on to Sumbawanga, Jerry’s bike shaking crazily beneath him the whole way.

We arrived in Sumbawanga expecting to have to wait at least until the next day before anything could be done with Jerry’s bike because it was a Sunday.  To our surprise, we found some bike mechanics who not only were working on a Sunday, but who were so efficient that they had the bike stripped in minutes.  That’s when we discovered a second fracture in the frame.  The “spine” of the bike was also fractured clean through under the tank.  In fact, the only thing that had been holding Jerry’s bike together were the crash bars.  It looked like a career ending injury for Buffy.  But the mechanics seemed unperturbed, and set about welding her back together.  It must not have been the first busted motorbike frame they had fixed.  I guess that shouldn’t come as a surprise considering the condition of the local roads.  In any case, Jerry’s bike was ready to go within a couple of hours.  We decided to spend the rest of the day and night in Sumbawanga anyway so
 that we could rest up and celebrate Jerry’s 33rd birthday with beer. 

The busted frame would not be a strip stopper.  However what happened the next day has managed to derail the trip entirely.

A Lost Pelican Case
As if the broken frame wasn’t enough, the next problem to face Jerry was the loss of all of his travel documents when his pelican case dropped off his bike.  The day after Jerry’s birthday, we decided to try to get from Sumbawanga all the way to the Tanzania/Malawi border, a distance of just over 440 km.  It would be a hard ride because all but the last 100 kms was on dirt roads, although thankfully much less demanding than the road to Mpanda.

Because I was concerned about the strength of the welds on Jerry’s frame, I proposed that we ride close together with the leader dropping to the back of the pack every 20 km so that we could share “dust time”.  Tom and Jerry agreed to this plan and for the first 80 km we stuck to it.  Had we stuck to it for even a little longer maybe Jerry would still be with us now, and not in Dar Es Salaam trying to get replacement documents.

The problems started when Tom was in the lead, Jerry was second, and I was riding in clean-up position.  About 10 km after Tom and taken over the lead from me, I came across Jerry repairing his handguards in a ditch full of fesh-fesh.  Apparently he had been forced off the road because there had not been enough room for both his motorcycle and an oncoming jeep to share the road.  The road was particularly narrow in this section because construction crews had piled mounds of gravel on the right-hand side of the road, effectively reducing the width of the road to a single lane.

When Jerry dumped his bike, he bent his handguard and ripped off his right pelican case (the very case which would ultimately be lost).  After he had repaired his handguard and remounted his pelican case, we continued.  I followed Jerry relatively closely for the next 20 kms or so – just behind the worst of his dust cloud.  I was surprised when we passed the next 20 km point where the system dictated Tom stop and move to the back of the pack without seeing any sign of the Kid.  I would later learn that he had waited for about 20 minutes and then noticed another dotted line on his map that ran in parallel to the road we were on and had assumed that we had managed to get ahead of him by taking the other road.

About 20 kms after Jerry’s crash, we had to go around a car that was stopped in the middle of the road, facing us, with its hazard lights on.  While going by, I hit a big pot hole that almost bottomed out my suspension.  I didn’t think much of it at the time, as such incidents were commonplace on these roads.  However, I soon noticed that the bike was not handling normally.  It seemed to pull to the left, but it was hard to tell because the road was so rough.  A few kilometres later, while on a relatively smooth straightaway, I noticed that bike was definitely pulling to the left.  I stopped to check my tires and luggage and noticed, to my horror, that I was missing my right pelican case.  With dawning panic, I realized that it contained my passport, carnet, driver’s license, motorcycle registration, camesa insurance, and all the US dollars that I had left.  As Jerry’s dissappeared around a corner in front of me, I turned around to go searching for it.

Immediately I thought of the pot-hole.  The bike had started handling strangely ever since I had hit it.  The pot-hole turned out to be about 4 km back from the point where I had turned around.  There was no pelican case to be seen.  I had a flashback of the car sitting in the middle of the road next to the pot-hole.  My gut told me that the bastard had picked it up and was now blazing as fast as he could in the opposite direction with his windfall.  Indeed I saw a dust cloud in the distance.

Luckily Rosa is faster than any car on these rough roads.  After a couple of kilometres I caught up with the car.  I wad determined to follow him all the way back to Sumbawanga if I had to.  In the end I only had to ride his bumper in a cloud of dust for a couple of kilometres before he realized that the gig was up.  He stopped and I pulled along side.  He produced the pelican case from the back seat of his car and explained that he had seen it drop and had been honking at me.  I certainly hadn’t heard any honking.  And that didn’t explain why he had put it in his car and driven off in the opposite direction that I had been going.  I was too relieved to get it back to make a big deal out of it.  I thanked him for picking it up (Peter would not approve) and proceeded to remount it to my bike.

It would drop off twice more that day.  The problem was that one of the bolts had stripped and I needed a torx wrench to tighten it.  Unfortunately Jerry had the tools, and he was somewhere miles ahead.  The last two times the case dropped off I noticed immediately.  Each time, before I had even stopped the bike, someone had picked up the case.  I don’t know where they came from.  The road had looked deserted when I first passed.

When I stopped and turned around, whoever picked up my case walked towards me to give it back to me as if that had been their intention the whole time.  Maybe it was.  Or maybe they were waiting to see me disappear over the next hill before running into the bushes with it.  I can’t say I blame them.  If my family was hungry and my kids didn’t have proper clothing, as was so often the case in the villages we had passed, I would do the same.

The result of having to backtrack to retrieve my pelican case from the fleeing car and the other two drops was that I was now a long ways behind Tom and Jerry.  I wouldn’t catch up to Jerry until I had ridden about 80 kilometres down the road from the point where I had last seen him.  When I finally met up with him (he was riding back towards me), he was distraught.  He had lost his right pelican case – the very same one I had.  In it was every important document that he possessed.  I knew the feeling.

There had been no sign of Tom.  We later found out that he had ridden to the town of Tunduma and had waited there.  He had tried phoning Jerry on his cell phone, but Jerry had turned off the vibrate feature on his phone the night before because he kept getting text messages from the local wireless provider.  (My phone was not working because the Sim card I had bought in Uganda had quit working somewhere in northern Tanzania and my Sim card from home had been lost in Ethiopia).  Tom would wait for two hours in Tunduma and then continue on to Mbeya, about 100 km farther away, where he would spend the night on his own. 

The most important priority was to try to retrieve Jerry’s pelican case.  So Jerry and I rode all the way back to the point where I had last seen Jerry.  I was sure that I would have seen his case if it had fallen off while I was right behind him.  Like mine had been the two times I had seen it fall off, it would have been sitting in the middle of the road.  In fact, I think that had I still been following Jerry, I would have had to do an evasive manoeuver to avoid hitting it.

However, I had not been behind Jerry for 80 kilometres.  It could have come off anywhere.  We spent the next three hours riding slowly back, side by side, with me watching the right ditch and Jerry watching the left.  Jerry had also broken his kickstand cleanly in two at some point, so he could not dismount his bike without help (or without dropping it).  I flagged down several vehicles coming towards us, but no one had seen a black case on the road.  I asked people in several villages along the way.  No luck.

When we finally got back to the point where I had last seen Jerry and having found no sign of the case, we were dejected.  It was clear that someone had picked it up.  It was time to involve the police.  We turned around and rode to Tundama, which was about 25 km from the point where Jerry had noticed his pelican case was missing.  When we finally got there it was dark.  With the help of a friendly police officer, Eric, we filed a police report.  He found us a decent hotel, and helped us get Jerry’s kick-stand welded the next morning as well as helping Jerry get a temporary import permit for his motorbike, which was necessary now that he had no carnet.  He also made calls to the village elders along the route we had taken in hopes of getting information about the missing case.  He even talked to incoming bus drivers.  It would all prove futile.  As Eric himself said, most people would “not be good” if they found the case.  He did not expect it to get turned in.

Even yet another gorgeous African sunset couldn’t lift our moods on the ride to Tunduma.  With no travel documents, Jerry’s trip was in danger of ending early.

Jerry had wanted me to immediately carry on without him.  He did not want the lost pelican case to hurt my chances of making it to Cape Town.  We were already way behind schedule, and it would be tough to make it even without a detour to Dar Es Salaam.  I insisted on staying with him until it was obvious that the case would not be found.

By that afternoon we had come to the conclusion that there was no option other than for Jerry to go to Dar Es Salaam, about 1000 kilometres to the northeast, to get a new passport from the Canadian Embassy and arrange for a replacement carnet to be shipped.  Such a detour, and the time required to get the replacement documents, could potentially end the trip for Jerry.  It was possible that he would have to fly home from Dar Es Salaam.  It was a bitter pill to swallow.  It seemed unfair that we had overcome a broken frame only to be thwarted by something as mundane as lost documents.  We wanted to ride into Cape Town as we had started: as a team.  Still, there are worse ways to end a trip early.  At least there was no medical evacuation.

Jerry and I rode the 100 km to Mbeya on the first tarmac we had seen in about 800 kilometres.  In Mbeya we met up with Tom for one last meal before the group split up.  It was a somber affair.  Jerry would head north to the capitol and Tom and I would head south to the Malawi border.

A Busted Camshaft
Tom and I made it the border than evening and crossed into Malawi the next morning.  We had planned to make it all the way to Lilongwe, the capitol of Malawi, in one day – a distance of some 640 kilometres.  We wanted to get there so that Rosa could be seen by a mechanic.  Her electrical problems had flared up again and she was back to requiring a bump-start to get her going every time.  I had hoped that this problem had finally gone away when her electrical problems had magically dissappeared somehwere in Uganda. 

I had also been riding with a blown fork seal since Rwanda.  I had managed to stop the leaking by wrapping an stretchable cloth tightly around the fork and tying it through the fork brace to keep it nice and tight.  I had also fastened down the rubber boot above the seal with a zip tie.  This hack job was holding up remarkably well, although at first I had been riding scared because of what happened to me last year in Peru.  I had blown my fork seals without realizing it and nad slid out on a sharp corner on my own oil spill.  Not fun. 

Tom had blown a fork seal of his own on the road from Sumbawanga to Tunduma just two days earlier (the same stretch of road where Jerry had lost his pelican case).  I daresay his hack repair job was not holding up nearly as well as mine.  There was definite fork oil spatter on his boot, front wheel, and radiator guard.  His only excuse was something about the quality of the cloth and the lack of zip ties (Jerry has the last of our supply).   In any case we hoped that we could find fork seals that would fit our bikes in Lilongwe.  We have since found out that this is not possible, although it would prove a moot point for Tom.  We had planned to bring spare fork seals – they are small and light and there really is no excuse not to have any.  But in the chaos of trip preparation spare fork seals had been overlooked.

The ride through Malawi was a pleasant surprise.  The roads were beautiful smooth tarmac, which was a nice break from the difficult dirt roads we had been riding for the past week in remote Western Tanzania.  The scenery was also spectacular for the entire day.  The first part of the ride hugged the shore of Lake Malawi and the last part of the ride took us high up into the mountains.  We went from jungle to pine forest and rocky peaks and towering vistas.  I certainly had not been expecting to find Yosemite landscape in Malawi.

Lake Malawi, with its sandy beaches and rolling breakers crashing against its shores, reminded me of an ocean.  Indeed as the road carved its way through the mountains above the sparkling blue water, the ride reminded me a lot of riding the coastal roads in Turkey.  I could just as easily have been gazing out over the Aegean or Mediterranean.

Lake Malawi was inviting me in for a swim.  Unfortunatley, if I had gone in the water I would probably take some little friends home with me: parasitic flukes from the genus Schistosoma, which cause a parasitic disease known as schistosomiasis

At one point we stopped at an idyllic sandy beach.  The water looked incredibly inviting.  I would have gone swimming in a heartbeat, except that one of the few things I still remembered from medical school is Dr. Keystone’s warning to our class during a parasitology lecture: “Don’t swim in Lake Malawi.  I am telling you not to swim in Lake Malawi.  But what are you going to do?  You’re going to swim in Lake Malawi.”  I almost did.  But the near certainty of getting a schistosomiasis infection and the contracting the urological consequences that could follow stopped me at the last moment.

Unfortunately, we would not ride into Lilongwe as planned.  Instead, we would arrive in the back of a truck with both of our bikes.  About 100 km outside of the capitol, Tom’s engine gave out.  He had not been checking his oil level consistently.  Ted Macher would not approve.  I don’t approve either, but I have some sympathy.  I made the same mistake on my last trip.  I rode for about 2000 km from Southern Mexico to Costa Rica with more than 2 litres (of 2.5) missing from my engine.  I have no explanation for how it leaked out.  There was no evidence of a spill.  Sometimes it just happens.  I got lucky, probably because I was using synthetic oil.  Tom was not so lucky – it is almost impossible to find synthetic oil in Africa.

After having ridden with low engine oil last summer (and being rebuked by Ted and rightfully so), I have become obsessive about checking my oil.  I do it every day.  I had checked my oil on the morning that Tom’s engine had failed.  I have topped off Rosa with extra oil several times on this trip (although she’s never needed much more than a half litre).  I am not sure why the KLRs seem to occasionally lose oil.

But for some reason or another, Tom had lost all of the oil out of his engine.  He may have ridden as much as 1000 km with no oil.  Eventually the friction caused the camshaft and the engine case to grind against each other wearing off metal like a file on wood.  The only way his engine can be repaired is to build up the metal again and then bore it out to exact specification so a new camshaft fits perfectly with no gap.  The nearest place where such work can be done is Johannesburg, South Africa.

This is what happens when metal grinds on metal with no lubrication.  Poor poor Odyssey.  Tom briefly considering continuing his trip on the little red quad in the background.

We have since arranged for the Odyssey (Tom’s bike) to be trucked to Johannesburg.  Tom and I are going to meet the Odyssey there.  We are going to ride two-up on trusty ol’ Rosa to get there (whose electrical problems seem to be fixed once and for all).  We joke that we will be riding like Che Guevara and Alberto Granado when they set off on their own epic motorcycle adventure so long ago on a bike called “La Poderosa II” – except hopefully with fewer crashes.  In a way it is fitting as Rosa got her name partly as homage to La Poderosa (and partly because she’s red). 

We have ditched over half of our gear, which we will put on the truck with the Odyssey.  It’s amazing how much stuff you can get rid of in a pinch.  We have less now with both of our gear combined than either one of us had on his own before.  We want to keep the bike light.  We will be riding two-up for about 4000 km with a blown fork seal after all. 

In a perfect world Jerry will be able to meet us in Johannesburg, Tom will be able to get his bike fixed, and we can still ride the last leg of the journey to Cape Town as a team.  What a week it has been.

PS – I have uploaded pictures from Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Malawi.


Day 71 – Kigali, Rwanda

A Childhood Dream Comes True

For as long as I have been old enough to sit up and watch TV, I have watched nature specials. In a time before the Discovery channel, Cailen and I used to sit for hours and watch “The Nature of Things” with David Suzuki and “Lorne Green’s New Wilderness”. I was always particularly mesmerized by the wildlife of the African savanna. Some of the earliest television memories I have are of wildebeests plunging down a steep bank of a surging muddy river by their thousands, with giant crocodiles waiting for easy prey. I have images of masses of bloated wildebeest corpses floating downstream. I have since learned that this dramatic footage was shot when the annual wildebeest migration reaches the River Mara, in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Park (which borders Tanzania’s famed Serengeti National Park). Since I was a small child, I have dreamed of seeing the wildebeest migration and the lions and cheetahs that follow. That is why I could barely contain my excitement when we finally left Nairobi to go on safari in Masai Mara National Park, where as luck would have it, the wildebeests had reached the River Mara.

The ride south to Masai Mara was spectacular in itself. Shortly after fighting our way out of Nairobi traffic, the highway emerged high onto the Rift Valley Escarpment. Looking out over the vast valley that sliced dramatically through the East African highlands, I couldn’t help but think that I had somehow returned home. For it was here that my ancestors crawled down from the trees, started walking upright, and evolved into present day humans.

By the time we reached the turnoff for the national park, dusk was upon us. We would have to go the last 100 km or so in the dark. A good portion of it turned out to be a dirt road. The night ride into the savanna was one of the most exhilarating of the trip. The road was narrow and rocky, with bumps and holes exaggerated by the glow of our headlights. I saw jackals and antelope running across the road. More often, I would just see glowing eyes of unknown animals along the side of the road. In the distance, lightning from a distant thunderstorm occasionally lit up the horizon. In between, there was nothing but dark empty space. This was the Africa of my childhood imagination.

Navigating by GPS, we left the dirt road near the border of the park in search of some coordinates that we had been given by Andrew and Debbie for a Safari camp where they had stayed. Unfortunately, after following a dirt track through the bush (did lions know where the park boundary was?), there was nothing but darkness when we arrived at where the camp should have been. Eventually we found another camp where we could pitch our tents behind a chain linked fence with a barbed-wire collar. Unlike a zoo, in this place we were the ones in the enclosure. Apparently riding our motorcycles through the bush at night was a more than a little dangerous, as bull elephants take particular offence at motorcycles. We had seen large piles of elephant dung on the track, but luckily we didn’t come across any elephants that we could provoke into charging us.

We arranged to tour the park by Land Cruiser. Our guide, Simon, and our driver picked us up at 6:30 AM the following morning. Motorcycles, apparently, were not allowed in the park. Pity. Nonetheless, my heart was pounding with anticipation as we entered the park. I was living my dream. Almost immediately our guide was pointing out species of antelope, gazelles, zebras, giraffes, birds, and jackals. We saw a warthog in the bushes. Apparently, if you anger them and they charge you, they run for miles and then forget why they were running in the first place.

Soon we saw our first glimpse of the wildebeests, stretched out in a line that reached the horizon, sweeping across the plains in a great tide. Despite having seen the migration on TV, I was still astonished. I had not been expecting the sheer numbers. They filled the plains as far as I could see until they became tiny brown dots in the distance. Slowly, inexorably, they moved in a bulging mass stretching its finger-like projections across the grasslands, consuming everything it its path. Once the wildebeest pass, there is barely a blade of grass left standing

Suddenly, our guide pointed to the side of the road. A Cheetah emerged from the tall golden grass and slowly crossed the road right in front of us. It was without a doubt the most beautiful creature I have ever seen. It made its way to a rock on top of a hill, where it perched to watch the wildebeests passing en masse on the plains below.


The animal sightings became more and more frequent the further into the park we drove. We saw lots and lots of elephants. And of course the king of the jungle – lions. We watched them for probably an hour. I could have watched them all day.  But there was still lots to see and we moved on towards the River Mara.

In the end we did not get to see the wildebeests cross the Mara when we finally reached it sometime in the early afternoon. They massed on the bank, but they weren’t in the right “mood” according or our guide. However, we did see hippos and crocodiles in the river. After taking a nap for a couple of hours in the shade of an acacia tree on a hill overlooking the crossing (while our guides watched in the hope that their mood would change), we eventually gave up and made our way back.

It was a bit disappointing, but it did not dampen the excitement of the day. On the way back to camp we were treated to a spectacular savanna sunset. As luck would have it we also came across two more groups of lions. The first was a mother with two cubs and the second was a male and female lion who had been on a “honeymoon” for two weeks. They weren’t afraid of showing their affection for each other in front of tourists either.

Seeing the wildlife spectacle first hand on the African savanna was a trip highlight, not to mention a childhood dream come true. Could it get any better than that? Stay tuned for my next entry about Uganda, and our visit to Mgahinga National Park, where we spent a day tracking mountain Gorillas, to find out.

The sun goes down over the African savanna – surely one of the most beautiful places on earth

Day 63 – Another entry from Nairobi

I am taking advantage of a fast internet connection (open 24 hours!) to get caught up on my blog.  Internet cafes have been nonexistant since Addis.  I have written not one but two entries – one on Ethiopia and the other on Kenya.  I have also uploaded more pictures to flickr of Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya.


At first the infamous road to Marsabit, Kenya was more fun than treacherous

The road from the Ethiopian border at Moyale to Isiolo, Kenya is a 550 km stretch of some of the most bone jarring road I have ever ridden.  We had heard tales from other overlanders of football sized rocks covering the road, potholes that could swallow an entire motorcycle, and tire grabbing fesh-fesh (deep chalky dust).  The road also has a reputation for bandits.  In the past, tourists have been given military escorts through the area.  However, the border official assured us that the road from Moyale to Marsabit was now safe.  He recommended, however, that we stop in Marsabit for the night, because riding in the dark on the road from Marsabit to Isiolo was dangerous.  At the time I thought he was talking about the road conditions.  I would soon learn otherwise.

When we first crossed into Kenya, the road was actually a lot of fun – there were sections of hard packed dirt as well as gravel.  It felt good to be off the tarmac, although my joy was somewhat tempered by residual pain from my crash in my right elbow and shoulder.  I hadn’t even noticed the pain in my shoulder on the day of the crash, but that is what has stayed with me the longest (and is still bothering me).  I have positive signs for a rotator cuff injury and certainly some pulled muscles in the axilla region.  I don’t know how Ted rode with a separated shoulder and broken wrist last year.  My injuries were far less severe and yet I found that the constant jarring from a road that should have been pure pleasure to ride was tempering my enjoyment. 

Still, I was excited by the stunning scenery – Kenya was what I had always imagined Africa to be.  There were open plains, stands of Acacia trees, big skies, and wildlife galore.  In one day I saw gazelles, zebras, baboons, coyotes, Okapis (deer with black and white stripes), carrion birds, and countless rabbit-like animals (but larger) running across the road.

The further we went, however, the worse the road became.  Soon we were navigating our way along ruts a foot deep that were littered with boulders and loose gravel.  There were giant potholes and the road had dangerous washouts along its edges.  Water had carved deep channels during the wet season that could easily bottom out even tightly wound shocks.  The road was so rough that I dropped a pelican case.  When I stopped to reattach it and secure it with a tie down, I noticed that my license plate was gone.  The entire plastic panel was shattered and missing as well.  My tail light and both rear signal light wiring was also sheared off.  I went back a few kilometres to look for my license plate, but soon gave up.  I have since made one out of a piece of aluminum and black paint that is better than the original anyway. 

We had been planning on riding to Marsabit on the first day, but we were slowed by a number of factors.  First, Rosa’s electrical problems seemed to have made a comeback.  After I stopped to fix a loose pelican case, I couldn’t get the bike started.  Tom and Jerry had to push my bike through the rocks to try and bump start her.  It took several attempts to get her going fast enough.

Later we were slowed when Jeremy crashed twice in rapid succession.  Luckily he wasn’t hurt in either case, despite launching off his bike at speed in rocky terrain.  We decided to camp in the rocky plains bordering the road and continue in the morning.  We were treated to a spectacular African sunset before finding a small clearing well off the road free of rocks (which seemed to cover the ground uniformly in all directions) in which to pitch our tents.

Sunset on the road from Moyale to Marsabit, Kenya

We found enough wood from prickly bushes to make a fire and cook instant noodles to go with our canned corned beef and cheese.  It was a simple yet tasty meal (everything tastes better when you’re camping) and it felt good to camp in the wild again after staying in hotels through all of Ethiopia (partly because of the cold rainy weather and partly because there were few places where you could stop without drawing a crowd).

The next day we bump-started my bike and continued to Marsabit.  On the way we came across a middle-aged Australian couple two-up on a V-Strom heading the opposite direction as us.   They told us that they had seen Sam and Peter the previous day on the other side of Marsabit.  They also told us that the road after Marsabit would be incredibly rough.  It actually turned out to be a breeze compared to what we had just ridden through.  I wonder how the Australians handled what was in store for them considering that they believed they had already ridden the roughest section.

In Marsabit I found a place to get my rack welded, but the whole process delayed us a couple of hours.  It was starting to look like we wouldn’t make it to Isiolo in one day after all, even though at one point we had thought we might make it all the way to Nairobi (insert laugh track here).  The riding was challenging and fun at the same time, the scenery breathtaking, and the concentration of wildlife seemed to be on the rise.  It was what I had imagined riding through Africa would be like, and more.  We thought we would ride until it got dark and then camp again.

Tom blazes by at over 90 km/h on the dirt road from Marsabit to Isiolo, Kenya

When the sun had sunk below a mountain range, we decided to ride for maybe another half-hour and then find a place to camp in the bush before it got too dark.  We set out for the last leg of the day.  Tom and Jerry had each stopped at different points to take picture/video, and I was relatively far ahead of them. Darkness was falling as I came around a corner and saw a Land Rover jeep stopped on the side of the road facing me.  Other vehicles are rare on this road, so I slowed down to see if they needed any help.  As I pulled up I saw that three Kenyans were changing a tire.  All of them looked spooked.  I asked if everything was alright.  It was not. 

They were frightened because someone had just shot out their back tire with an AK-47.  I looked down and saw that the damaged tire was riddled with bullet holes.  “Please do not go any farther.  Go back please,” they kept telling me.  I thanked them and turned around, hoping to intercept Tom and Jerry before they got any closer.  Whoever had shot out the tire was only about a kilometre further down the road.  I soon came across Tom and t
old him the situation.  Jerry pulled up soon after – his headlight was no longer working.  We decided to go back 20 kilometres to the last village and stay in a hotel. 

We were riding in close formation with me in the lead when I heard a bang and my motorcycle suddenly lost power.  For a split second I thought I was being shot at.  My motorcycle came to a stop.  In my irrational state – I had imagined I was being shot at after all – my first thought was that my clutch was blown.  The engine would rev but the bike wouldn’t move.  With bandits nearby no less.

Just then the three Kenyans drove up in their Land Rover, the tire changed.  They agreed to load Rosa into the back and drive Rosa and I to the next village.  Tom and Jerry followed.  With no head light, Jerry rode his bike up an embankment on the side of the road in the darkness.  Eventually they found a way for Tom’s headlight to light the way for Jerry by riding side by side. 

While sitting in the back of the truck with Rosa, it occurred to me that it wasn’t the first time that I had heard a bang and had my bike roll to a stop, engine running.  The same thing had happened to me back in Toronto when Ted and I had changed my chain but somehow forgotten to put the clip into the masterlink (un-Macher-like but nobody’s perfect).  My problem was not the clutch – it was of course my chain.  That was good – we had a spare chain and we could put in on in the morning before setting off.  Then we could still reach Nairobi the following day.

In the end we didn’t make it to Nairobi the next day.  Jerry’s head-light still didn’t work and as dusk fell I suggested that we stop and stay in a hotel even though we were only about 150 km from Nairobi.  Tom must really have wanted to get to Nairobi because he volunteered to ride Jerry’s bike without a head-light into Nairobi.  I believe my exact response was “That’s just stupid.”  In turned out to be a moot point. 

As it was just getting dark, I spotted a sign for a hotel that was supposedly only 300 metres ahead.  I rode about a kilometre before stopping on the side of the road to ask the others if they had seen the hotel.  Tom said he would ride back to the sign and see if he saw the hotel.  He did not, but got directions – the hotel was actually farther up the road.  The 300m was apparently a gross understatement.  When we pulled out to go to the hotel, I couldn’t see Jerry in my mirror because he had no headlight.  I initially saw Tom’s headlight.  When I got to the hotel, however, Jerry pulled up but there was no sign of Tom.

Tom had had the misfortune of losing the drainage screw on his fork, causing his fork oil to come gushing out all at once all over his front tire and onto the road.  He had slid out on his own oil spill and his bike had gone spinning down the road.  It was much the same as when I slid out on a corner in Peru when my fork seals blew covering my front tire in fork oil.  When you lose traction on oil, there is no sense that something is wrong.  You are happily riding one second, and the next your are sliding down the highway wondering what the hell just happened.  Luckily in both my case and Tom’s, there was no oncoming traffic.  Tom ripped his waterproof pants, but he was unhurt.  Crashes on the highway are so much more dangerous than crashes off-road because there are so many more hazards – other vehicles, concrete barriers, road signs, etc..  I was relieved he was alright.

We would finally limp into Nairobi the next day.  We made for the Overlander haven of Jungle Junction, a converted mansion in an affluent suburb with lots of room to camp on the grounds (although we opted to stay in bedrooms inside).  The place is owned by a German, Christoff, who is a mechanic with a fully equipped shop right on the premises.  You are welcome to work on your own bike in the yard (using Chris’ tools) or have Chris work on it in his shop.  Today he got to the bottom of the problem preventing Rosa from starting (a connector to the starter motor had ripped out) as well as welding and reinforcing my rack and fixing the wiring to my tail light and rear signal lights.

Nairobi is a modern city with great restaurants and shopping malls.  There is a lot of wealth, but it is behind walls, security guards, and electric fences.  Nairobi is nicknamed Nairobbery by its inhabitants, as 37% of residents have been mugged in the last year.  Still, we are enjoying going out on the town and experiencing “civilization” once again.  We even watched “The Dark Knight” (awesome movie!) and discovered that you have to stand up for the Kenyan national anthem before every show.

Tomorrow we hope to finish the bike maintenance and head to Masai Mara National Park in southern Kenya to witness what the Lonely Planet calls “the greatest wildlife spectacle on earth” – the wildebeest migration across the River Mara.  Right now is the perfect time to see it.  The National Geographic and BBC film crews are only there for 3 weeks, and the first week has passed.  We will see it at its best.

Day 62 – Nairobi, Kenya

Two Crashes in Ethiopia
Ethiopia is both a fantasy dreamland and a horrible nightmare for the adventure motorcyclist.  On one hand it is spectacularly beautiful, with lush green mountains, meadows ablaze with wildflowers, picturesque villages, shining waterfalls, and rich farmland.  An added bonus is that despite the fact that the country’s development seems to have stopped with subsistence farming, every village has at least one fancy expresso machine – a  reminder of past Italian influence?  The coffee is the best that I’ve tasted, and you can get a mouth-watering machiatto in even the remotest parts of the country.

I have already alluded to the downside: Ethiopia’s roads are the most dangerous that I’ve seen in all of the 31 countries that I have so far had the pleasure of riding through.  There wouldn’t be paved roads at all if it weren’t for the Japanese.  They have paid for and constructed virtually every major road in the country.  I guess it’s no wonder that every vehicle on the road is a Toyota or an Isuzu.  The problem is that none of the local villagers or farmers have their own vehicles.  Instead they use the road for the same purpose as they have for generations: the movement of livestock and people.  The result is that the few transport trucks, buses, and adventure motorcyclists have to share the road with a multitude of animals, horse-drawn carriages, and pedestrians.  The animals and people all seem to have a total disregard for motorized traffic.  There is constant chaotic activity along the sides of the road that has a tendency to spill into the centre of the road with no warning.

The other downside is that almost every overlander we have talked to has experienced kids throwing sticks and stones at their Land Rovers, motorcycles, or bicycles.  We didn’t get hit much ourselves (I think I was hit once), but you could see the throwing motions.  We met one German cyclist, Adrian, in Addis Ababa who had ridden all the way from Germany.  He was traumatized by the constant rock throwing, especially when he was going slow trying to climb a hill.  On one occasion they even shoved a stick through his spokes causing him to go over the handlebars.  He would not advise anyone to cycle through Ethiopia.  This is in contrast to his warm fuzzy feelings towards Sudan, where he didn’t pay for a single meal in the 15 days it took him to cross the country.  Oddly, after the Ethiopian kids pelt you with rocks and sticks, they apparently still ask for money (the only English word they know), but scatter immediately if you chase after them.  We have been told that they are too fast to catch, but that they drop their umbrellas when they take off.  One school of thought believes that if they come back to find their umbrellas slashed to ribbons, it might teach them a lesson. I think it would just increase their desire to throw rocks at the next tourist that rides by. Before they were just doing it for fun. Now they would be doing it with a purpose. They may even practice and improve their aim.

Crash #1
Ethiopia was a tough country for both Rosa and I.  I came off Rosa twice in dramatic fashion.  The first wipeout was on one of the roads that the Japanese have yet to get to.  The road mountain from Metema on the Sudan/Ethiopia border to Gonder is dirt and rock.  It is actually great fun to ride.  We even got to ride through a river.  It was Jeremy’s first river crossing, and also his first drop in the middle of a fast flowing current.  Great fun.

However, the conditions changed from fun to treacherous when it started to rain (as it does almost every afternoon during the height of the Ethiopian wet season).  The heavy rain created a thin layer of extremely slippery mud on the surface of the road.  It felt like riding on ice.  Tom was the first to go rubber side up, spinning his bike right around going only about 5km/h.  After seeing Tom’s wipeout, I was trying to be extra cautious.  Apparently I was not cautious enough.

I crested a hill going about 30 km/h.  It was a long downslope and I started to pick up speed.  Touching the brakes was almost a guaranteed spill.  I tried downshifting instead, but even though it felt like a smooth downshift, The back end immediately swung out to the left so that I was effectively sliding sideways down the hill.  I tried to steer down the hill to correct it, but I did not get the desired effect. Instead my bike spun all the way around.  Now I was sliding sideways down the hill, but pointed in the opposite direction.  This all happened in seconds.  I could feel the bike start to go over, so I put my foot down (always a bad sign) to try to stabilize it.  My foot had even less traction than my tires.

Rosa went down and I went flying off.  Both of us slid down the hill (me about 20 feet; Rosa about 15 feet).  I slid in a more or less of a straight line.  However, Rosa rotated herself 360 degrees before coming to a stop above me.  The whole spectacle took place within view of a construction crew, who all ran down to help me.  I wouldn’t let them pick up my bike until I had taken a picture of my downed bike (out of tradition, I take a picture of every drop).  Both Rosa and I were covered in mud from head to foot.  I was undamaged, but Rosa was not so lucky.

Her right mirror was shattered.  The bracket holding the passenger foot-peg was bent out so that the passenger foot-peg now was pressed against the side of the bike.  My right pelican case had ripped off.  The rack holding the case had broken in a critical spot where the rack attaches to the frame of the bike.  I didn’t notice this until we washed the bikes when we got to Gonder about an hour later.  The broken rack would need a weld.

We had been trying to get to Gonder before the Western Union closed so that Jerry could pick up a money transfer.  He was trying to get American dollars, a valuable commodity, but they would only give him the money in Ethiopian Birr, which he could have gotten at an ATM.  The whole deal was a waste of time and transaction fees.  The point of mentioning the bank deal is that Jeremy had used the help of a local kid, Mickey, who had come up to him and asked him what he wanted, and then directed him to the Bank.  This is normal – kids help you find things in exchange for a tip.  Little did we know the con that was in store for us.

Mickey was soon joined by two other kids, Johnny (who we nicknamed Coolio because he always wore Tom’s sunglasses from that point forward) and Dude (who didn’t really need a nickname).  We could have been done with our helpers right there.  But I asked them if they knew of a place where I could get my rack welded.  I thought that it would only take a few minutes and then we’d be on our way. Mickey said he would take us to his friend’s shop.  He hopped on the back of my bike and directed me up a hill overlooking the town to what we would learn was Six’s Garage.  The master mechanic, known simply as “Six” was apparently famous in
Gonder for his outstanding skill.  We were pleasantly surprised to find Sam and Peter’s bikes being worked on at Six’s garage when we arrived (although they were not around themselves).  It would be good to meet up with them again.  We hadn’t run into them since Dongola, Sudan.

Since Egypt, Rosa had developed the unnerving habit of going into complete electrical failure.  Every failure would begin the same way – her tachometer would quit working while I was riding.  Once I turned off the bike, it was as if the master fuse had blown (but that was not the problem).  At first I was able to solve the problem by cleaning the contacts in the fuse box (the fuses themselves were always fine).  Initially, the problem would only present itself once every few days.  However, by the time we reached Gonder, it was happening more than once a day.

I figured that if Six was as good as his reputation suggested, then maybe he could get to the bottom of Rosa’s electrical problems.  Thus began our misadventures at Six’s Garage.  I took off the seat, side panels, and gas tank (actually the helpers insisted they were mechanics – they were clearly not – and tried to “help” me remove the tank, breaking a gromet before I could step in to stop them).  I tried to explain the problem to one of Six’s real mechanics, but the language barrier was proving an issue.  How do you explain that something is working now but periodically fails?  It turned out I didn’t need to explain.  Rosa’s electrical system choose that moment to quit working entirely.  No amount of scraping or filing of contacts would get her going again.  Soon the electrical problems got the attention of Six himself, and him and a couple of his assistants worked on the bike for several hours into the night without success.  In the end we left Rosa there for the night so that Six and his cronies could pick up where they left off the following day.

But before we left for the night we fell victim to a scam put on us by our “helpers”.  They explained that there was a fuel shortage in Gonder, but that they could help us find gas.  It was true that there was a shortage – when we had arrived all of the gas stations in town were dry.  It seemed like a good idea to fill up with gas since we were on reserve.  We agreed to have the kids help us in this task (we assumed for a tip).  They phoned around and discovered that one gas station had just received a delivery.  Initially the plan was for our helpers to take one of their friend’s trucks to find gas and bring it back to us at Six’s Garage in Jerry cans.   Tom and Jerry were in the process of doing some minor work on their bikes as well and their bikes weren’t immediately ridable so we agreed to have the kids bring us 15 litres of gas each.  They wanted 700 Birr (about $70), which was an astronomical amount, but they assured us that that the price was out of their hands.  There was a shortage after all.  Like fools we gave them the money and waited for them to return with our gas.

After 2 hours, I was starting to think that they had split with our money, but they finally returned – empty handed.  It seemed that in the environment of the current fuel shortage, you weren’t allowed to fill Jerry cans.   Since my bike was still being worked on, Tom and Jerry decided to follow the helpers to the gas station on their bikes.  We put my gas tank in the back of the truck.  It took over an hour for them to get back.  Apparently it was a harrowing ride in the dark in the pouring rain.

At the gas station, the price on the pump said 9.68 Birr/Litre.  However, our little con artists insisted that that was the “old price”.  Coolio insisted to Tom and Jerry that 15 Birr/Litre was the true price.  Jerry tried to find someone in the queue (which was long because it was the first time Gonder had seen gas in days) who spoke English to confirm, but without success.  Eventually they paid the 15 Birr/Litre and completely filled up all three gas tanks for about 1000 Birr.

They kids helped us find a hotel, and we bought them beer and dinner in the hotel restaurant once we had checked in.  It seemed like we were genuinely making friends with them.  Mickey was obviously intelligent, having informed opinions on the state of development (or lack of) in his home country.  He was finishing grade 12 and trying to do well enough on his upcoming exams to study economics at the University of Addis Ababa.  When our stay in Gonder was extended by Rosa’s mechanical problems, our helpers showed us around the Gonder night-life.  They took us to somebody’s house for beer.  They took us to a bar where we drank Tredge (honeyed moonshine?) for an exorbitant price while we listened to traditional Ethiopian music.  They took us to what they promised was a “Western Disco” but turned out to be nothing more than a dirty brothel.  Still, although we were a bit offended that they had taken us to such a place, we still thought that they had been well-intentioned.  We continued buying them beer and food.  We tipped them handsomely for all their help – 400 Birr to Mickey (the obvious brains of the operation) and 100 Birr each for Dude and Coolio.

It wasn’t until we were riding out of Gonder in a convoy of 5 KLRs on the day of Sam’s unfortunate accident with the child that we realized our “friends” had conned us.  Peter, Jerry, and myself had made it to the gas station before we realized that Sam and Tom were no longer behind us.  While I went back to look for them, Peter and Jerry filled up.  The price they paid was exactly 9.68 Birr/Litre.  There was no “new price”.  Our “friends” had outright lied to us – despite our generosity.

They were expecting us to be quickly on our way out of town.  This had indeed been our plan, but after Sam’s accident we wanted to stay and help him in whatever way we could.  We ended up staying a couple more days.  On the last night before we left Gonder, we had had dinner with Sam, Peter, and Steffen (who had caught up to us that day).  After a few beer, Tom and I decided to call it a night while Jerry went with the others looking for another bar for one more drink before bed.  However, we had gone less than a block towards our hotel when Peter caught up with us.  He had seen Coolio on the main street.  Honestly, I just wanted to let the whole thing go.  But Tom was on a mission to confront the kid and demand our money back, which amounted to 370 Birr (about $37).

Once we met up with Coolio, Tom and Jerry accused him of lying and demanded our 370 Birr.  Coolio, despite being busted, still insisted that the price we had paid had been right.  Steffen, Sam, and Peter were also arguing on our behalf.  Peter, who has a strong sense of justice, got particularly involved.  When Coolio said that he didn’t have the money but Mickey did, Peter insisted that Coolio phone Mickey right then and there and have him bring the money.  At first Coolio insisted that he didn’t know Mickey’s number, but some persuasion from Peter soon got it out of one of the other kids hanging around Coolio (there were always hangers on it seemed).  I called the number, but Mickey’s phone was turned off.  Peter then insisted that Coolio take us to Mickey’s house.  Coolio lamely claimed that he didn’t know where Mickey lived.  He was obviously not going to cooperate.

The confrontation started to involve some shouting on the otherwise quiet street.  One of the people in the crowd that was gathering was a friendly honest guy (Edward) who we had first met while he was working in the hotel restaurant.  I guess he thought the situation might get out of hand and brought a policeman to the scene and translated the situation.  Involving
the police would turn out to be a mistake.

The policeman, who was one mean looking SOB, grabbed Coolio by the shoulders and started pushing and shoving him roughly up the street.  Somebody in the crowd said “now he’ll spend a year in prison”.  We all followed the policeman and his prisoner, while the crowd trailing along as well. 

Things turned ugly fast.  The policeman’s night stick came down across Coolio’s back, causing him to shriek with pain.  The cop then roughly shoved Coolio into a dark shed made of corrugated sheet metal.  We could hear him start to beat the crap out of our onetime friend.

We shouted for the cop to stop and that we didn’t want Johny hurt.  The friendly guy from the hotel translated our request to the cop.  He seemed reluctant to stop, but he relented and pulled Coolio from the shed.  I was ready to drop the whole thing right then and
there.  I didn’t want to see a kid get beat up over a lousy $37.  I
said to the cop “no problem” hoping he would understand.  But I was
quickly overruled by the others who said there was a problem – the kid
had stolen from us.  I felt helpless – it seemed the situation was rapidly becoming
completely out of my control.
  There was nothing to do but continue to follow the policeman as he marched Coolio up the street towards the jail.

The jail turned out to be a nightmarish place.  It was a collection of crumbling concrete buildings and shoddy wooden shacks in complete darknes – exactly the type of place where POWs are tortured in Vietnam war movies.   The whole crowd followed the policeman and Coolio to a small shed at the entrance to the prison compound.  His his name, home village, and crime were recorded in a booklet.  He was to spend the night in prison.  We tried to explain that we didn’t want Johny to go to
jail.  Edward urgently explained to us that if we wanted to keep Johny
out of jail we would have to make sure he came back with us.

Once out of the shed, the policeman grabbed Johnny and started shoving towards a the chain that marked the entrance to the prison.  Johnny started screaming.  The policeman started to hit him with his Billy club again.   Tom, the hero, got himself between the policeman and Johnny, correctly assuming that the policeman wouldn’t hit him.  The beating stopped.  By now Johnny was hysterical and bleeding from his nose. 

We were having trouble trying to explain to the cop that we wanted Johnny to come with us and that we would be responsible for him with all his screaming.  Jeremy finally told Johnny to be quiet.  The policeman seemed dead set on locking Johnny up, probably relishing the prospect of finishing the beating which had been so rudely interrupted.  He went around Tom and pulled Johny under the chain.  Before he could whisk Johnny away to a cell, Jerry (who was standing nearby) reached out and grabbed Johnny by the arm.  A tug-of-war ensued between Jeremy and the cop, with poor Johny being pulled in opposite directions.  With more translation from Edward, the cop finally gave up and we left with Johnny.

It still wasn’t over.  Peter wanted Johnny to take us to Mickey and get our money back.  Johnny’s friends in the crowd told us that Johnny would meet us in the police station in the morning and pay us our money then.  Peter told us that if we wanted to see our money, we would have to track it down that night.  It turned out that he was right.  But to me it just wasn’t worth pursuing the matter any further.  It wasn’t worth my time to spend the next several hours try ing to chase down $37 – it was already after midnight.  I told the group that I thought we should let Johnny go and meet him in the morning.  We ended up going for more drinks with Edward to a small second floor bar with  a DJ that had the whole place dancing.  It was painfully obvious that the foreigners were nowhere near as good of dancers as the locals, but we still had a great time.

The next morning, Johnny did not show up at the police station.  We left Gonder at about midday when it looked like our presence was hurting Sam in the negotiations with the injured child’s family (they thought they could get more money thinking that we would all pool our resources).  They ended up paying about $1,700, but not before things almost got out of hand.  Apparently, their statement was mis-translated and indicated that Sam had purposefully run over the kid.  The police tried to arrest Sam and take him to jail.  It was only Steffen’s quick thinking and confidence that saved Sam from the horrendous prospect of an Ethiopian prison.  With no hesiation he told the police that they could not arrest Sam until he had phoned his embassy.  Since there was no working phone at the police station, he insisted that they could not put him in jail.  There is of course bollox, but it worked long enough for Sam to settle with the family and get out of town.  Sam has written a detailed account of his nightmare in Gonder on his and Peter’s trip blog.

I hope that Johnny will think twice before ripping off the next tourist, but I suspect he will be back at his scheming before long.  There simply aren’t any opportunities for young people in Gonder.  There is no industry of any kind.  There is only tourism.  I think that Johny and Mickey and the rest are actually decent kids.  Working for tips from tourists is a more honest line of work than mugging them or picking their pockets.  In the West these kids would probably be thriving in sales positions.  They just happen to live in a country where few opportunities exist even if you are smart and educated.

Crash #2
The second crash came on a congested highway shortly after we finally got outside the city limits of Addis Ababa on our south.  We had been delayed in Addis for longer than we wanted because Rosa’s electrical problems had re-emerged two days previously on our way into Addis.  She had required a bump start to even make it to Addis.  With her electrical problems solved (at least temporarily), I was glad to be leaving the city and heading for the famed Great Rift Valley and its series of reportedly beautiful lakes.  Still, I was riding on edge because the road was particularly congested and Sam’s crash was still at the back of my mind.  I guess I was not cautious enough.

I was behind a large semi that had slowed ahead of a railway crossing.  I decided to overtake the truck.  There was oncoming traffic in the distance, but it was moving slowly because of the shock-pounding tracks crossing the road.  A motorcycle like the KLR650 can handle railway tracks way better than the average vehicle on the road, so I was not concerned about hitting the tracks at speed – I would barely feel the bumps.  As I drew level with the front of the semi, going perhaps 60 km/h, I caught a glimpse of a large dog darting across the road in front of the semi.  It was headed right into my path.  I had time to hit the brakes and the horn simultaneously.  Then the dog was right in front of me. 

I hit the dog square.  The front wheel went up over the dog causing it to get squished under the skid plate.  At the same time I hit the railroad tracks.  The dog being under the skid plate as the bike slammed into the railway tracks threw the rear wheel into the air and caused the bike to spin 90 degrees to the left.  The bike dropped out of the air upside down and sideways, landing hard on its right side.  I was pinned underneath, lying across the railroad tracks in the middle of the road.  I was told that the dog came free of the bike and managed to run off the road.  I am sure it crawled into a ditch to die after such an impact.

Luckily traffic ground to a halt in both directions.  A crowd formed incredibly quickly, as is always the case in Ethiopia.  The fall had pinned the throttle all the way open, and with the bike’s engine roaring in my ears my first thought was to try and hit the kill switch.  I couldn’t reach it.  Someone tried to lift me up.  I resisted.  I wanted to assess the extent of my injuries before moving.  The most immediate pain was my right elbow.  My right hip and knee were also flaring up in pain.  I couldn’t believe that Rosa’s engine was still roaring.  She was practically upside down.  I had to turn her off.  I slowly extracted my right leg from under the bike.  People kept grabbing at me.

Luckily Jeremy had been following close behind me and quickly parked his bike and took control of the scene, clearing people away from me.  He quickly started an assessment, and helped me up and to the side of the road.  Tom arrived and finally turned off my bike and moved it to the side of the road.  I was extremely relieved that Jeremy was there.  He methodically examined my knees and hips.  There was some swelling in the right knee, and some minor road rash on both knees, but I had full range of motion and could weight bear.  I was relieved that Jeremy was there.

I removed my jacket and Jeremy inspected my elbow.  There was some road rash and a laceration that was bleeding, but the joint was intact.  A police officer who had witnessed the crash asked if I wanted to go to the hospital.  Remembering the conditions I had seen at Gonder University Hospital, I immediately told him no.  I felt confident that Jeremy could provide the first aid that I needed.  I was right.  Luckily nothing was broken and I had no serious injuries.  Jeremy e
xpertly cleaned and dressed my flesh wound.  I took 1200 mg of Ibuprofen and sat down on the side of the road feeling stunned.

Then Tom and Jerry turned their attention to Rosa.  She had sustained damage to the front fairing, fairing bracket, and dashboard.  The front fairing was pushed in on the right and broken in two places.  The bracket holding the fairing was bent inwards.  The whole dashboard had broken off and was sitting loosely on top of its broken connectors.  The plastic covering the tachometer was shattered.  The speedometer cable was ripped out and hanging loosely.   Luckily, Rosa was still in running condition.

A large crowd surrounded the bike, everyone trying to “help” – acting as if they knew what they were doing.  They did not.  I was weary of the crowd.  It became especially irritating when one guy grabbed the front fairing and started reefing on it, causing the split to grow to the point of almost ripping the fairing in half.  I just wanted people to give us space.

Tom and Jerry fixed the dashboard (zip ties are the most
useful piece of kit you can bring) and we rode another 15 km to a town
where there were some nice hotels near a lake.  I looked like we had stumbled across the weekend playground for Addis’ rich and famous.  That night
Jeremy (future surgeon) used zip ties to suture my fairing back
together.  Now she looks mean.  I like the new look.

PS – I have uploaded pictures from Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya to flickr.