Throughout the trip I got asked by local people why I was doing this trip. They couldn’t understand the need “just to travel and see Africa” and kept insisting that I must be doing research for something. “What have you discovered in your research?” “Well, if you insist, I have discovered that Africa is Beautiful and that People Are Good.”
Now I get asked all the time, “Well, how was the trip?” Driving through Africa on a motorcycle is a powerful experience, full of unpredictability of circumstances and beauty of nature and people. People may think that it is dangerous, but I was never threatened or scared by strangers or animals in Africa. The only really dangerous aspect in my opinion is the drivers on the roads – that is when you need to be alert and most cautious.
Often I felt like an alien – I was as unfathomable to locals as someone who had landed from outer space. A White! Girl! Alone!!! On a Huge! Motorcycle!!! Policemen jumped back when I lifted my visor, screaming “It’s a girl!”. The feeling of isolation and loneliness were the most difficult parts of the journey for me, something I didn’t expect at all. I am a very independent person, the complete opposite of those girls who need a friend to accompany them to the bathroom. I always thought I would be happier alone, able to make my own decisions and not sacrificing my dream to comprise with someone else’s will. And up to Botswana it worked great – I met couples and fellow riders, joined them for a few days and then we parted ways, the perfect mixture of freedom and companionship. I met pairs traveling together that were so incompatible that I was relieved to be traveling solo and certain that I had it much easier. But enter East Africa and I found that between the major cities I was completely alone. I would spend six hours a day riding, talking to myself inside my motorcycle helmet, get to a campsite, take off my helmet and find out there was no one else to talk to. And it’s impossible to give yourself the silent treatment, it just doesn’t work. The hotels and campsites between capital cities were completely deserted – nobody had stayed there for months. It was a forlorn and uncomfortable feeling. I had imagined that my trip would be difficult, but not in this manner. And so here I would really like to thank you, all the readers of my blog who wrote me comments here and on Facebook. These gave me strength and optimism when I was down.
Arnold Schwarzenneger is quoted as saying “I just use my muscles as a conversation piece, like someone waking a cheetah down 42nd street.” Well, my motorcycle is my cheetah. It is a conversation starter, everywhere I stop people gather around curious and begin asking questions – it is a way to local’s hearts. It is just one more reason why traveling by motorcycle is so powerful.Anyone who has traveled by bike knows that the challenges and the extreme highs make it incomparable. It is certainly, in my eyes, the best way to travel.
Every bike is a compromise based on your priorities. The choice of bike depends on the rider style – do you want to ride more tar or more off-road? Do you want to ride 100km a day or 400km? How tall are you/would you feel uncomfortable on a bike which you cannot get your feet on the ground? Can you pick up the bike? (Of course, ideally you should be able to). My bike, a BMW F700GS named Brumhilda, was great for me on this journey in several respects.The downside of my bike was that it was too heavy for me – I could not pick it up if it fell which added a lot of stress and anxiety.
The advantage of my bike was that it was a larger capacity bike, but relatively low so that I could get my feet on the ground. It had great fuel consumption, averaging 25-30 kilometers to the liter. It felt great on long fast stretches of tar as well as all the gravel roads I had to ride. It was reliable – during the trip the bike went to the doctor only five times:
- Once where the clutch cable slipped. I didn’t understand this very-easy-to-fix fault and so had to tow it to Durban where it was immediately put right.
- After my first three-week stretch I returned to cape Town, where the bike had to have the wheel bearings replaced.
- In Windhoek I crashed in the sand and had to change my tires to ones with better grip (I had had Metzler Karoo 3 tires which are wrong because of their extremely short life span and in my opinion wrong tread. I switched to Mitas scorpion on the front and TKC on the back) I also had to replace the windscreen which had broken and buy saddlebags instead of the smashed aluminium panniers. (None of these were problems with the bike itself).
- In Botswana I burnt out my clutch (my fault, riding the clutch in the deep sand where I felt uncomfortable going fast).
- In Nairobi the bike was serviced, the only fault being one burnout headlight. So the bike never failed me.
Not only did in not have many faults during the journey, but it came back in great condition, relatively of course. Upon its service at the BMW Dealership in Cape Town the “damage” was thus: Scratches on the bike, dents in the exhaust, bash plate and front rim. All of these were only cosmetic and left be. To prepare it for its next jaunt into Africa (it was sold to a fellow Overlander) the head bearings were replaced, as well as the rear brake pads, the chain and rear sprocket. All these could have lasted longer but because the bike was going far from any BMW dealership, it was fixed back up properly. The right heated hand grip had stopped working and the tires were replaced. I would like however to note that the tires I had on for 18,000 kilometers looked great when I came back. They still had about 5,000 kilometers left on them as you can see by the pictures below. This I think can be contributed to their quality, my non-aggressive riding style and my habit of pumping them up very hard to prolong their life. (I rode tire pressures thus: On tar 2.8 (F), 3.2 (R). On dirt 2.2 (F), 2.4 (R). On sand 1.8 (F), 2.0 (R).) It is also worth noting that I did not have even one puncture throughout the entire trip (Woohoo!!!) But that I think has mostly to do with luck. The F700GS is tubeless, so that if I had had a puncture it perhaps would have been easier to manage.
Before setting out from Cape Town I spent 10,500$ USD on my bike. This included:
- The Bike itself
- Large Windscreen
- Headlight Guard
- Hand Guards
- Crash Bars
- Bash Plate
- Comfort Seat
- Wider Foot Pegs
- Side Stand Enlarger
- Alarm System
- Rack For the Panniers
- Steel plate on back suitable for mounting a top case
- Aliminium Panniers
- Saddlebags (to replace the Aliminium Panniers)
- Big ATG Bag which I tied on the pillion seat
- 2 40-liter Waterproof bags
- 5 Ratchet tie-downs
- 4 Rok-straps
- Chain and Three Locks
- Air Pump
- Tow Rope
- Spare Tube
- Ease Throttle Control
- Puncture Kit
- Tool Kit with Bead Breakers
- Engine Cleaner and Chain Spray
- RAM mount for my phone, as well as charger
- Bike Cover
- 2 Pepper Sprays
- Taser Gun
- Carnet (refundable deposit of the worth of the bike, as well as 250$ USD which you do not get back)
I sold all that for 6,800$ USD including also: 2 gas canisters and my first aid kit (antibiotics, antiseptic creams, anti-rash creams, tourniquets and bandages, anti-malaria pills, malaria test kit and malaria treatment pills). Considering that I didn’t have to invest any money or time in fixing my bike up (the repairs would have cost me at least 1,000$ USD), that I wouldn’t have found many people interested in paying more money for a bike that is so fixed up, and that I got the money in dollars and not in South African Rand, I think that it was a good deal for both sides. Looking back, I would have spent less money on the bike, perhaps by buying a second-hand bike, omitting the alarm system, buying from the beginning saddlebags instead of aluminium panniers (they aren’t wrong, they just weren’t right for me), and not getting the Metzler Karoo 3 tires which I had to replace very quickly.
The trip itself cost me 4,500$ USD. I aimed for a daily budget of 25$ USD that split about two-fifths fuel, two-fifths accommodation and one-fifth food. Africa is not cheap! This was budget-traveling, not allowing for any tourist attractions. The only attraction i allowed myself outside that budget was diving with Great White Sharks in south Africa.
Fuel: Because my consumption was low I was able to pay less for fuel. My tank was 16 liters, which lasted me between 400-450 kilometers. Fuel was cheap throughout Africa except in Zimbabwe which is expensive in every aspect (on the road my daily budget skyrocketed in Zim to 50$ USD). In Zimbabwe the quality of the fuel was also problematic, kicking my fuel consumption up drastically. The rest of the fuel quality throughout was good. Inside Africa you shouldn’t ask too many questions about the fuel. As long as you make sure it is petrol and not diesel, and pray a lot, you should be fine. No such thing as “93 octane”, “95 octane”, “leaded” or “unleaded” exists. My bike is fuel-injected so that I had to be wary of the quality. Only twice did I need to buy black-market fuel (sold in water-bottles by the side of the road) – in Zambia and in Tanzania. I suppose the rule of thumb might be to make sure local drivers also buy from the same seller. I had no trouble. I also made sure to always fill up my tank as soon as it reached the half-way point. I tried to research ahead of time if there were gas stations along my route if I was driving into a remote area. I only used my fuel bladder, an extra five liter bag, once, when going into the salt pans of Botswana.
Food: On the trip I had with me a stove and cooking utensils. I cooked sometimes but usually preferred to pay a small amount for a meal at the lodge. I usually ate an apple or leftover cold pizza by the side of the road for brunch and rice with vegetables or a hamburger for drunch (dinner-lunch). Just in case you were wondering – no, this is not an amazing new diet that you have to try. With luck perhaps you will only gain 2-3 kilos. Carrying a stove is a must, but it is also a pain in the ass most of the time to cook for yourself. After one too many falls my pot and pan were far from being circular and the exploded dish-soap bottle left everything I cooked in the pan with a suspicious aftertaste no matter how many times I washed it. Trying to shop for food is also a challenge. You want food that is: healthy, but filling, cheap and that can be stored on the bike. Impossible. You are basically reduced to cooking Things That Can be Made Only With Water, i.e rice, porridge and lots of instant noodles. Not healthy.
Accommodation: I had a tent with me and in most of Africa camped. Sometimes the difference in price between camping and a dorm room is negligible. The offline app iOverlander is a great way to read other travelers’ reviews of campsites and hostels. I highly recommend it. I also stayed with friends, friends of friends, kind strangers and Couchsurfed. Couchsurfing is an online community of travelers/backpackers who host one another, the idea to provide cultural exchange experiences. In Cape Town, Lilongwe, Dar Es Salam, Kampala and Kigali I stayed with great people through this platform. With all this , about a fourth of my trip I did not have to pay for accommodation.
Communication: Today in Africa many people do not have running water or electricity, but almost everyone has a cellphone (usually a smartphone too). Many places have wifi, and buying a sim card in every country is cheap and easy. Most companies offer attractive weekly bundles. So, tell your mother not to worry, you’ll be able to talk to her almost every night.
What I Would Do the Same Next Time/Most Important Things for the Success of the Mission:
- Have a good, light pair of boots. Ones that are high and will protect your ankles but are light enough that you would be able to walk 5 kilometers in them if soemthimg happened. I had Forma boots which worked great for me.
- Take a warm sleeping bag and a silk liner. There is nothing worse than spending sleepless nights shivering in the cold. My sleeping bag was -6 degrees. The silk liner also makes a huge difference, and in the even that it is a very warm night you can sleep only with it.
- Take a Bike Cover (against rain, against theft).
- Take an Air Pump (the ability to play with your tire pressure saves your tires).
- Be a Pussy. I’m kidding, of course. I mean that I tried to be careful, alert, responsible. To ride slow, plan for small distances per day, and never drive at night. Make sure I know several options for accommodation ahead of time, research gas stations for the next day’s ride. To take risks, but calculated risks. There were many times where I stood before a fork in the road and had to choose between the security of the tar or the scenery and adventure of the dirt road. I asked myself; How will the weather affect the condition of the roads? How remote is the area? How long will it take to ride (and add two hours to what the GPS says). There certainly were times when I went for the more adventurous routes, but cautiously. I managed to make the right choice each time, probably with luck playing a part too. Slow and steady wins the race (and enjoys the race much better too!)
What I Would do Differently Next Time as for the Character of the Journey:
My next adventure I would like to try a much lighter 250-450cc bike that would give me more confidence off-road. I would like to ride much more off-road routes – going off into sand dunes, mud pits and rocky roads. Lastly, I would like to travel with someone else, someone who I get along well with and share the same vision with.
What I Would do Differently Next Time as for Technical Details:
- Take a Pillow (this is of immeasurable importance I found out, after many sore-neck-nights).
- Take a camel-bag to carry more water with me and drink more throughout the day.
- Take lots of earplugs.
- Take running shoes instead of hiking boots – smaller, lighter and more versatile. I would also have liked to have had with me running shorts and go for jogs as much as possible. Overloading, as it turns out, is not really the best form of physical exercise, as evidenced by the fact that upon returning home none of my pants fit me anymore.
- Take an Enduro helmet with a light-tinted visor and carry emergency dust-googles in case of scratches on the visor. I took an old Shoei road helmet that I had at home. It was sufficient but not ideal.
- I would have tucked my bike cover inside a sleeping-bag type bag and secured it near the pillion leg-rests so that it would be easily accessible and take up less space inside the saddlebags. Just a small detail.
- I would like to try to wear body armor with a soft-shell jacket on top instead of the heavier padded jacket I had on, perhaps more comfortable in some situations.
- Carry more warm clothes. I was cold most of the evenings of my trip. I would edit my “closet” to have a thick, warm pair of pants and a warm jacket that folds small instead of the pair of jeans and thin sweater I had.
- I would consider taking a neck brace. I have never ridden with one but it seems prudent.
- I would take with me a small roll-up backpack for convenience.
- I would get insurance for the bike. I did have third-party insurance in East Africa and medical insurance for myself but I would prefer to insure the bike for my peace of my mind.
- I would spend less money on the bike as I explained above.
The Highlight of My Trip:
Prior to my setting out I had outlined for myself the four main components of my journey. Firstly – traveling by motorcycle through Africa. Indeed, the challenges and rewards were as great as I had imagined they would be. Secondly, the element of a solo journey. I had to allow myself to be vulnerable, trust and open up to strangers. I did have difficulty overcoming loneliness, but on the other hand I realize that traveling alone allowed me to meet and connect to strangers along the way. Thirdly there was the fact that I was traveling alone as a woman. Despite comments, exclamations and the invariable question “Are you married?” (the east African man’s idea of a classic pick-up line), I never felt threatened because of my femininity. On the contrary, sometimes I think it may be easier as a woman. A smile gets you a long way with police officers and border officials, and also I feel that women tend to be more careful and avoid dangerous situations.
Lastly, I had wanted my writing to be an integral and important part of this adventure. And it was. The absolute best part of my journey was a man in Kenya who told me he had been reading my blog and reliving his own travels from 20 years ago through it. He told me that it had helped him to reminisce about a great time in his life while he was now going through a rough period. He quoted back to me words I had written. This was for me the most gratifying and special moment of my journey – to feel as though I had managed to make a small difference in someone’s life. I have no words for how grateful I am to him.
Sometimes I feel as though I have done nothing spectacular. Most days I woke up, packed my bike, rode for a few hours, got to a campsite, put up my tent and went to sleep. I feel I don’t deserve the praise I get. But there are times when I look around and whisper to myself “This is all kind of amazing, that I have a chance to experience this. I’ve done pretty well.” I have not yet fully processed everything, the cogs are still turning and trying to digest the overwhelming beauty of Africa and Its People. And the nagging feeling that I must come back and explore it all again is growing and growing within me.