So you want to know what it feels like to ride a motorcycle across Africa? Well, here are a few tips on how you can recreate the experience right at home!
First of all, sit on a pogo stick and don’t stop jumping up and down, occasionally really hitting the floor hard and shaking your teeth inside your head. Next, take a fan and put it directly in front of your face on maximum strength. Good. Now you must set the air conditioner so that for 30 minutes it boils you alive and then for 30 minutes freezes you to death. Get some car cables and electrocute yourself every 15 minutes, as though you really are getting a heart attack from being run over by an African mini-bus hurdling towards you at 100 kph. Perfect. Finally, put in front of yourself a computer screen with a slide show of the most beautiful wallpapers Windows has to offer. Now, sit back and relax. Actually, don’t. Put your arms forward in front of you as though you are driving a motorcycle. Feel that ache in your right wrist? Good. Now stay there for four hours, minimum. Turn off your phone and don’t forget to smile! Driving around Africa on a motorcycle is about as close as you can get to true happiness.
It has been a week of impressive bodies of water.
Last week I left the Masai Mara. Ayub once again kindly joined me for the ride back to the town of Narok. We drove through single-track “short cuts” through Masai settlements and river crossings, then on to gravel roads with corrugations that make my back ache just to think of them. The damage assessment was one slightly bent front rim and a dent in the exhaust (both cosmetic). We stopped at town for some Nyma Choma (barbecue meat with Ogali, a maize porridge) and then camped around a fire at Ayub’s aunt’s house. The next morning we were arrived at another aunt of Ayub’s for breakfast. Soila is a Member of the Regional Parliament representing Special Needs and Disabled People. I was humbled to meet her and her daughter and be welcomed into their home.
From there Ayub and I continued to Lake Naivasha. This beautiful lake is notorious as being the the home of the Happy Valley Set, a group of English ex-pats living here around the turn of the century, who have become famous for the wild stories of their orgies, wife-swapping and drug use. The wikipedia article about The Happy Valley Set reads like the most thrilling of soap opera’s – so unreal that “you can’t make this shit up”! Our stay at the lake however was much more peaceful and proper. In the afternoon we were joined by Grace and her boyfriend Jesse.
The next morning all four of us rode up to the nearby Crater Lake. It was great to once again ride with a group. The scenery was beautiful – a lake set inside high walls of a collapsed volcano cone. After a cold drink and some lunch in the serene surroundings we split up – Ayub, Grace and Jesse back home for their day jobs and myself back to the Lake for the night before continuing on.
I drove from Naivasha straight north to Marigat and then cut across the mountain range to Iten. I had originally wanted to venture into Kenya’s northern desert, but I was warned by various people that bandits still patrol that road north of Lake Baringo and stop people at gunpoint. So I headed west instead. Iten is known as the Home of the Champions, as several successful marathon runners have come from this hillside town. You can feel it in the atmosphere – the drive for success and the will to recreate that fame. Countless runners decked out in Adidas and Nike run to and fro all day long. Nowhere else in Africa have I seen such an investment in physical fitness. Upon arriving at Iten the sky looked cloudy and grey. There was a cheap camp ground but I decided not to take the risk. I paid an exuberant amount for a hotel room with a beautiful view of the valley below. Lucky thing too, as the second I closed the door behind me the rain started pouring, and it didn’t leave for a week.
To be fair, during the day it hardly rained, but in the afternoons and at night it wouldn’t stop. From Iten I drove to Kitale on the Kenyan-Ugandan border near Mount Elgon. I crossed the next day with the usual misadventures – bad roads under construction disintegrating into mud, grumpy border officials and the sense of indignation which inevitably follows, and then entering into a new country, wondrously trying to grasp and assess it. My first stop in Uganda was Sipi Falls, a magical set of three waterfalls erupting from a perpendicular stone wall in the mountainside. Once again, rain and mud made the day (slightly less) cheerful.
Next stop was Jinja along The Nile River flowing out of Lake Victoria! These feature high on my list of impressive bodies of water this week. I stayed at a campground overlooking the river, lazy kayaks occasionally floating around. I met Overlanders and Ex-Pats working for NGO’s in Kampala and enjoyed a few (too many) beers.
Driving on, I stopped briefly at a sign that claimed that if you paid money you could enter a garden called the Source of the Nile. I took a picture at the point where the Nile flows out of Lake Victoria and declared myself satisfied. I then entered into the fray of Kampala traffic, even on a Saturday afternoon not very sympathetic, but I made it nonetheless to Cathy’s house, a Couchsurfing host. We went out with her friends, more Ex-Pats working for more NGO’s in Kampala.
On Sunday morning I met with the Ugandan Biker’s Club, a group of wonderful people all with a shared passion for motorcycles and using that passion to raise funds for HIV/AIDS Orphans and Cancer Awareness. They have done several rides in Uganda and Kenya and are planning next September to ride from South Africa to Kampala. They will travel 17 riders at once with two back-up vehicles and photographers, so their trip will be a bit different than mine. After a couple of cappuccino’s we drove out to a track where a rally competition was going on. On the way there I was pinned twice by minibus drivers, balancing my motorcycle on one leg as it was at an angle, the minibus pushing into my saddlebags. I had to pound on the car’s bonnet to force them to back up so that I could drive on. But I am getting quite used to these incidents. The first time I almost died driving in Uganda my heart pinched inside my body, beating fast, the adrenaline rising, my ears ringing. Now when I almost die I just look around, say “Oh, I’m still alive” and drive on. Progress.
It was an awesome experience to share my story with other bikers who were so kind and enthusiastic. Returning to Cathy’s house I was again happily surprised and extremely excited to meet three Couchsurfers from Lebanon. It was very important to me that they will like me and to show them that I like them and respect them and am open-minded and positive. I used to see Lebanon from my window every day, right across the border. I will just state that I hope that someday there will be peace, and I certainly consider anyone from any nationality my friend. We all went out in the evening with some more Ex-Pat’s. Everyone is or was working for an NGO at some point, so that it was amazing how much common language we had. Maybe too much. At one point, when the conversation degenerated into full-out geek talk, I initiated a new drinking game which goes like this; One person calls out an acronym and maybe a hint about which field it is in. For example: IVO, conjunction (Answer: In The Vicinity Of). UNTSO, UN Peacekeeping (Answer: United Nations Truce Supervision Organization), AGYW (Answer: Adolescent Girls and Young Women), SAAD in the M&E field (Sex and Age Desegregated in the Monitoring and Evaluation field). Anyhow, if no one gets it, everybody drinks! I learnt two important things from this. Number One: I am a huge geek. Number Two: I don’t want to go work for NGO’s anymore, ever.
From Kampala I continued to Entebbe. Years ago I read Muki Betzer’s autobiography in which he details the Entebbe hostage-rescue operation along with several other legendary Israeli commando activities. It influenced me greatly. When my family had just moved back to Israel from the United States, I found it very hard to adapt at first. It took me a year to dare to venture out of the library at recess. I remember vehemently exclaiming that once I finished high school I would immediately fly back to the United States and forget the country. But a few years later, after understanding Israeli culture better (and of course reading Muki Betzer’s book), I changed my mind completely and decided that I wanted to be a combat soldier and contribute as much as possible through my military service, and I did. So there was something important to me in Entebbe, some shard of collective and individual memory. I drove around the beautiful town and visited the airport, although I couldn’t see much.
From Entebbe I headed west to the city of Fort Portal close to the Ugandan-Congolese border. The area is astoundingly beautiful, thick jungle dotted with crater lakes. It is known for its tea and cocoa bean production, and the steep hills have been cultivated into neat plots. Around here are the Semuliki hot springs in which you can boil your lunch and see the Pygmy Palace where their King lives. You can track gorillas and chimpanzees, you can go tree-swinging on zip lines and you can trek the Rwenzori Mountains. These mountains were mentioned by Ptolemy as “The Mountains of the Moon” and at one point believed to be the source of the Nile River. In the traditional language they are called “The Rainmakers”, and they are the tallest mountain range in Africa, right on Kilimanjaro’s tail at about 5,100 meters. Spectacular and mystical. They are also my northern-most point for this trip, as from here on I will be driving back south to Cape Town. Another milestone.
My next ride took me through the equator to Lake Bunyoni, “Lake of Little Birds” and from there shortly to Rwanda. The milestones are beginning to rack up, I can’t believe I only have another month and a half. I feel that I am undergoing something that is too big for me to process, that only with time will I be able to appreciate the magnitude of this experience. For now I am just thankful.