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.