A chance meeting, a change of plans, and turning Tanzanian

When I sent my mom off to the airport, it officially became time to relax. A new crew had descended on Hunch to hang with, and I figured I deserved some downtime before I continued on. The plan was to head out in a few days to Kenya to try and find a spot to do some teaching for awhile, but, as they say, the best laid plans…

Things started off pretty chill. I hung out and used the internet to catch up on writing and my late night political comedy show vices. On my first day, I only ventured out to get a burger at my favorite burger shipping container in Dar and some spicy Portuguese chicken down the road. The next day, just to the supermarket for cheaper eats. Many beers and much Jenga was played on the roof deck with fellow hostel-goers. Eventually, some of the folks in the hostel convinced me to tag along to Bongoyo Island, a small uninhabited idyllic island just off the coast of Dar with a small bar and restaurant. There we spent the day lazing on the beach, swimming, hanging out with hermit crabs, and hiking through beautiful coral jungle and isolated inlet beaches.

There were a few more days of relaxing, tweaking my bike, and indulging in the moderate joys of culinary diversity in Dar (Italian-style pizza, discount sushi, and tasty tapas). One day, I once again decided to snag a burger at the local shipping container with a couple of fellow hostel folks, including Reggie the South African biker and artist. We took our bikes over, and spotted a big BMW 1150GS ridden by an equally large Tanzanian man, also waiting in line to get a burger. Reggie tried to start up a chat with him but he was brushed off when the guy responded that he didn’t speak English. We got our burgers and sat down.

A few minutes later, the large biker came over and started up a chat with us, telling us he didn’t realize Reggie was a foreigner (he’s black), and when locals engage him in English he presumes they think he’s foreign, and hence an easy mark. When he saw our group and heard us conversing in English, he understood. He exchanged info with Reggie and we made plans to go for a ride the next day.

The Tanzanian man’s name was Mrusha Jones, and when he came over to the hostel the next day to chat, he asked me what I was up to. I explained my trip and my plans to head to Kenya to teach computer science, and his eyes lit up and he got really excited. He explained that while he works at a bank, he also is a co-founder of a technology incubation space along the small stretch of Bagamoyo road that serves as the locus of technology for Tanzania. He then went to work trying to convince me to stay in Tanzania and do my teaching there, using his space. He’d help me find an apartment and students, the space has fast free internet, and we seemed to have similar visions of how it would go down. I said I’d think about it.

Reggie, Mrusha, and I then headed up to Bagamoyo, a cute little “beach town” (the beach is definitely nothing to write home about) about 60km north of Dar. Battling the usual traffic, and lane splitting like wild men, it still takes nearly an hour and a half to cover that ground. Once there, we took a little tour of the incredibly rank fish market, walked a bit of what passes for a beach there, then headed to a backpackers hotel built into the beautiful ruins of a once incredible house. A large courtyard with a pool wrapped by crumbling masonry and adorned with large palm trees sat in the middle of the place, and we sat, chilled, drank beer, and bullshitted. As the day wore on, we eventually turned around and headed back to Dar. I made plans to check out Mrusha’s space the following Monday

En route, we passed this truck says “Trump U.S.A.” and “Father pray for us” in Swahili
Ruins along the beach
The Bagamoyo fish market. Trust me, it smells worse than it looks.

Monday came around and I met up with Mrusha for lunch at his space, which has an attached restaurant that helps support it. We ate a good meal and talked about our plans. By the end, I was convinced I’d found a good place to set up shop and work for awhile. We talked logistics. To make the most effective use of my time, I’d go on a visa run to Kenya over New Year’s (and attend a festival there called Kilifi New Years) and he’d find me an apartment for when I got back. I’d get started on the coursework upon my return.

Now that I had a plan, I had a couple weeks to kill. I decided to head to the backpacker’s spot in Bagamoyo (called Firefly) for a bit for a change of scenery (and to get out of the nightmare of Dar’s weather and traffic combination), and I was pleasantly surprised to find a couple of friends from Hunch who I’d gone to Bongoyo Island with staying there. Days were spent walking the beach, scoping out the ruins, eating, swimming in the pool, and even getting a couple massages. The owner of Firefly is a super nice woman from Zim, and we became friends. She even introduced me to a local teenager who wanted to learn some programming and I sat with him a couple of times and we built some basic graphical applications using web technologies which got him super excited. I stayed for Christmas, where there was a feast of a meal, champagne, and good times.

Afterwards I headed back to Dar for a night to snag my camping gear and headed up towards Kenya for New Years. Traffic was terrible through Bagamoyo but no far after my path veered off the main east/west road and onto a less-traveled one heading up to Tanga and the border. I spent an uneventful night in Tanga at a cheap little hotel in town then headed off to the quiet Horo Horo border an hour and change north.

Leaving Tanzania was a breeze. Entering Kenya, however, proved slightly more difficult… Kenya is one of two countries in Africa that sometimes demands a Carnet de Passages en Douane, a super-old school vehicle passport that most of the world has long since retired. I’d read conflicting reports of folks passing through without issue, but today the folks at Horo Horo weren’t excited about letting me through… Or maybe they were, as they made it abundantly clear that all they needed was a bribe to grease the wheels and I could be on my way no problem. I tried my best to argue, but as in many border situations, I had none of the power in the situation, so eventually I had no choice but to cough up $10, which they scoffed at but eventually accepted. Then I had to buy a month worth of insurance for the bike because they insisted that was the smallest time frame they allowed, and I was finally on my way.

Things in Kenya began pretty quietly with a quiet road through small villages and verdant fields and forests. Eventually the tiny road to the border met a more major one and I was once again assaulted by veering minibuses (now called matatus), barreling trucks, and zooming Chinese motorcycles flying every which way. Compared to Tanzania, things industry seemed to be a bit more booming, and even in smaller towns the structures looked a little more modern and fancy.

I ended my day veering off the highway and into hardcore vacation traffic in the destination town of Diani Beach, which was buzzing. I pulled into a spot called Stilts that was recommended to be by the owner of Firefly in Bagamoyo and checked into a little hut on stilts. After running down the road for some mediocre pizza, I headed back and hung out catching up on my writing and chatting with a ripped Indian soldier on vacation from guarding a UN base in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. He talked nonchalantly about the insanity he’d seen there in the past 2 years. Eventually there was a nightly Bush Baby (small, adorable, big-eyed nocturnal monkeys also known as Galagos) feeding where a troop of the things descended on the lounge area at stilts and we were given bananas to hand them skittishly from the railings.

This was the best I was able to do photographing the adorable buggers in the dark.

The next afternoon was the opening of the festival, technically only 100km away, but the road is busy, goes directly through Mombasa, and includes a ferry with an enormous clusterfuck of traffic to board. Staring blankly at my bike, eventually catching my eye and giving a thumbs up was a very popular pastime on the ferry. Traffic was heavy and brutal from Mombasa on. The lumpy, dusty 2-lane road was constantly choked with heavy trucks, matatus, and zooming motorbikes. I struggled to weave my way through traffic at something vaguely resembling a decent clip. I passed “The Watergate Hotel” as I neared Kilifi, then proceeded to wildly overshoot the festival grounds, which had moved from their previous home at the Distant Relatives Backpackers (where the festival originated), and had to backtrack to a poorly labeled dirt track into the forest where I eventually reached a gate.

On the ferry to Mombasa.

The staff were kind enough to let me park permanently in what was intended as the loading zone, near the campground, and I was able to check in and snag a wristband. Camping was packed in tightly in a shady forest, and I ended up next to a friendly crew of potsmoking locals from Nairobi. Alone at a big festival, friends proved remarkably easy to make, with my neighbors working hard to keep beer in my hands whenever we’d run into each other in the festival grounds.

Kilifi New Years was fantastic. It was a dramatically more diverse crowd of people than AfrikaBurn, and despite a very different setup (presence of money and vendors, separate campground and festival ground, orientation primarily around musical acts), the art, inclusiveness, and vibe struck me as more burner-friendly than AfrikaBurn had. There was even an enormous organic effigy of a bird that was burned in fabulous fashion on the last night of the event. The art department of the festival had done a fantastic job integrating lights, sculptures, chill spaces, and more into the forest and neighboring river valley. One of the “vendor” spots was even occupied by a hippie-type dude who was constantly cooking up food and serving a tea made with a local herbal stimulant and giving it all away.

One night, I spotted a Burning Man DPW shirt and struck up a conversation with the guy wearing it. It turned out he was an old school burner (14 years) who split his time between the Bay Area and Kenya, and was starting a local Kenyan regional burn called Wild Burn. Known as Roamer, it turned out we had tons of mutual friends from the community, and we were getting along fabulously in no time. By the third night of the festival, I felt like everywhere I went I ran into new friends. My expectations were greatly surpassed.

The bird begins to go up in flames.
The other AfrikaBurn.
A Jambulance-d partygoer sleeps off the festivities.

When things wrapped up after New Years, I was in no rush to leave. Additionally, the Kenyan government had sprung an unwelcome surprise on travelers by banning overnight bus travel the day after New Years, causing absolute chaos for those planning on heading back to their regular lives afterwards. I headed instead to the origins of the festival, the Distant Relatives Backpackers, which was fully booked but always had room for a tent. A bunch of my friends from the festival had had similar ideas, so I was once again surrounded by familiar faces, including Roamer. Some even stayed on a neighboring sailboat built locally by madmen craftsmen and constantly sailing up and down the Kenyan coast, which enabled me to spend an evening relaxing onboard the vessel with some very talented musicians until the sun went down.

After 2 nights, my back was ready for a bed, and it was getting to be time to head home. I once again stopped in Diani Beach, but this time at a different backpackers to rest my head. I got an earlier start the next morning, and since I was entering Tanzania (which ended up being much easier than Kenya had been) instead, was able to make it all the way back to the Firefly in Bagamoyo just before sundown. I spent one additional night at Firefly (since I loved it so much), then set off back to Dar es Salaam, where Mrusha had utterly failed in his promise to find me a place to stay. Instead, my good friend and former travel partner Corey had made his way across Malawi and western Tanzania to Dar, and I met up with him at a cheap hotel there, then dragged him to Taste of Mexico, a restaurant nearby with some of the best Mexican food I’ve managed to find in Africa.

Heavy rains triggered my first bout of hardcore flooding in Dar, a concept I would become intimately familiar with in the intervening months. Corey had beaten the crap out of his bike in western Mozambique, and I was looking for a reliable motorcycle shop to eventually change my timing chain, so we made our way to the local KTM dealership, who did some free work on Corey’s bike and allowed us to test drive an F800GS and KTM 990 Adventure they had for sale.

This gorgeous bike made for a remarkably disappointing test drive.

I managed to find a couple apartments to scope out but nothing I was excited about, and I was surprised by how expensive places were, some running up to $500 for just a decent bedroom. Unwilling to start working until I had a real place to stay, instead I hung out with Corey. We headed a bit out of town to a pretty decent water park on a week day (when we basically had the run of the place) where we proceeded to mess around like a couple of high schoolers. This went well until one trip down the highest slides in the park with our inner tubes stuck together, Corey’s knee went slamming into my rib cage as we hit the pool below, knocking the wind out of me and giving me a deep sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’d broken another rib (taking my tally for the trip up to 5). Sigh.

It was still a great day at the water park…

Eventually, I met up with Mrusha at the office and he got me hooked up with an enormous and extremely active Facebook group called Team Tanzania, which has over 47,000 members. I wrote a post asking about apartments with a bit about who I was and what I was doing in Tanzania and clicked post. The only response I got was from a local journalist curious about possibly writing a story. Later that eve, I spotted an apartment within my price range advertised by a French and Congolese couple and shot them a message. The next day I was scoping out their apartment and found a perfect fit. I moved in a day after that, started work on Monday, and three days later had a morning interview near the beach with an independent journalist outfit that was selling an interview with me — complete with drone footage — to the Chinese state run English language 24 hour satellite news channel CGTN about my Tanzanian teaching project (despite not actually having done anything yet). My life in Tanzania had officially begun.

The new apartment
Gettin’ Interviewed

Mother, Africa, an introduction

On the evening of my mother’s arrival, everything seemed to start off easy. She touched down 30 minutes early at 2am and checked in with me. I passed the info along to the driver, who said he was still 10 minutes away. I warned my mom. 20 minutes later, she said she’d found the driver and was on her way. Fabulous!

30 minutes later, I get a message from the driver. He tells me no one is left in the baggage area and he hasn’t met my mother. My heart skips several beats. I immediately reach out to my mom…

Wait… What? The driver says he hasn’t heard from you…

Who are you with?

Mom??? Where the hell are you?

Several excruciating minutes later, she gets back to me. She’s with the wrong driver. He also had a sign that said “Linda W.” Meanwhile, the kinda driver I’d sent is pissed. He’s up in the middle of the night at the airport with no fare. I was freaking out worrying where she was going and who the hell she was with. It was a small disaster.

My mom ends up at a fancy hotel I’d never heard of called Serena. I send my original driver there. Eventually she manages to get the right car and get to the apartment. It’s 5am by the time she arrives, and it costs a small fortune, but she made it safe and sound. There was much rejoicing. Welcome to Africa, mom!

The next day we took it easy, really only venturing out to find my mom a watch. This ended up being pretty easy, as we were near the central market and major dolla dolla (shared taxi) stand, which absolutely exploded into activity during commuting times, which was when we went out. I warned my mom in advance to let me do the haggling when she spotted a watch to avoid paying the mzungu (white person) tax, but to perhaps our collective surprise, when she spotted one she liked, the seller quoted a price to low I felt bad for haggling. I got him down by a dollar anyways, then my mom paid him the price he asked for. We all left happy. To maximize the jet leg amelioration, we even ordered delivery for dinner.

The next day we took an uber to the bus station to get tickets to Arusha, where we’d begin a 5 day Safari I’d booked by wiring money to a dubious character I’d found on the internet (but who was substantially cheaper than the alternatives), and went out for a nice meal. Then we had one more day of taking it easy in Dar to stash my motorbike and my mom’s extra bag, eat some discount sushi, and hit the sack early, because the next morning we had to be at the bus station by 5am. Thus began the first of many brutally painful all-day bus experiences.

Mashed in the rocking machine without a toilet, sweating, and exhausted, we bounced along for 15 hours, with only a couple stops to stuff food quickly into our faces and use the toilet, before we arrived at our backpackers in Arusha, our bodies and minds lightly poached. They’d made a mistake in our booking and lacked the room we’d booked, but with some hard negotiating, we were able to get two individual rooms for our original budget price due to their mistake. It was going to be another early morning being picked up in a Land Cruiser to start the next leg of our adventure. Mom was handling it all remarkably well.

Our trusty Safarimobile

We were picked up at 8am at our backpackers and taken to an office where we forked over the remainder of the price of our safari in a huge pile of cash. We were joined in force by a random smattering of strangers to fully fill the Land Cruiser and off we went. First stop: Tarangire National Park. Right off the bat, we saw monkeys, baboons, zebra, dozens of types of antelope, warthogs, giraffes, fish eagles, vultures, ostriches, and an army of elephants. We saw groups of hundreds of antelope migrating in force across rivers and through fields. We passed glorious baobab trees and miles of savanna. We saw an adult male lion alone with a tiny cub. At the end, we even stumbled upon a chaotic scene: a new elephant no more than an hour old, placenta still on the ground, bloody umbilical still hanging off, trying to take its first step surrounded by females, as a greatly aroused bull elephant tried repeatedly to mount the mother who’d just given birth and was chased away repeatedly by the rest of the group. It was a wild start.

The sunset from our first safari home.

After a full day of park broken only by a mediocre bag lunch, we headed up a mountain to a beautiful spot called Panorama Safari Camp and Lodge, where we were surreptitiously upgraded to huts from tents, and my mom and I even got spots of our own. The spot overlooked Lake Manyara, and offered a gorgeous view of the sunset over the valley and lake below. We were fed a wonderful spread from the lodge, and after dinner a troop of local acrobats and performers put on a raucous show with juggling, stilts, dancing, drumming, and impressive acrobatic acts. My mom even got pulled in and laid down some moves on the dance floor.

The next morning, it was once again time to pile into the Land Cruiser and head out. We descended the mountain, traversed some valley, then headed once again up to the lip of the Ngorongoro Crater, then down into Serengeti National Park. The steppe was teeming with life, with buffalo, zebra, and antelope herds extending off endlessly into the distance. The landscape itself was relatively stark, with a single dirt road cutting through a vast grassy plain. To add to our list were a smattering of hyenas, dogs, hippos, and a small group of cheetahs (one of which was roadkill on the road, a truly depressing site). At the gate, we stopped for paperwork and my mom got hang with some Maasai women and children. They seemed to find each other pretty interesting. Lunch was the same crummy box of food we’d be eating the next 4 days.

Mom and me at the Serengeti park gate.

We eventually stopped at a relatively tranquil campground where my mom and I had our first of several nights sharing a tent. A handful of inscrutable Marabou Storks also shared our campground, looking like lunatic old men with unsettling unblinking eyes. There was more disappointing food.

Plenty of gnus.

The next day was literally a backtrack out the way we’d come in, with armies of animals marching on in all directions once again as we bumped painfully along the rough road. Our bodies ached from the cramped confines of the car and the constant effort to keep your head from being launched with the bumps into the steel ceiling. In the evening we pulled up to a campground overlooking the vast Ngorongoro Crater, offering a more exciting end to the day than the previous night.

The next day, we bumped our way down a long winding road and into the Ngorongoro crater, which is actually the world’s largest inactive, intact and unfilled volcanic caldera. It’s absolutely stunning, and like many of the parks, near the Olduvai Gorge, home to the earliest discovered evidence of homo sapiens, meaning the area has been inhabited by people for around 3 million years. Covering 250 square kilometers, descending into the caldera feels like entering a long lost and magical world. The early morning haze, coupled with fantastic visibility, resulted in a surreal landscape whereby the animals that dotted the landscape, frequently miles away, seemed to hover midair in murky space. Massive fig trees grow on the fringes near the walls of the caldera.

Here, we saw more buffalo, tons of zebra, a smattering of ostriches, packs of hyenas, and dozens of lions lazily prowling. We also stumbled upon a pride with distended stomachs still munching on the carcass of an enormous buffalo who’d managed to invite himself to breakfast as the main course. The surrounding scenery was as appealing as the animals.

After a full day in the crater, we trundled over close to Lake Manyara, stopping to buy some red bananas (which art short, fat, and other than the color of the peel, thoroughly banana-like), and bid farewell to most of the gang from our Land Cruiser who’d only signed up for 4 days to our 5. We once again got lucky and got beds in a room, and while this time there was no delicious food nor acrobatics show, there was a pool, and our backs were happy to not be on the ground. The next morning we hit Lake Manyara for our last day “on safari,” which billed itself as where lions sleep in the trees. It wasn’t long after entering the park that we saw that the advertising was accurate, and we came upon a tree packed with female lions, legs draped over branches, sleeping peacefully in the heat of the day.

Eventually we made it to a large wooden walkway (proudly paid for by Japan) over and onto a hot spring bubbling on one side of the lake. There we suffered our final round of boxed lunches before bouncing our way back towards civilization and a night once again in beds in an Arusha backpackers.

We had a full day of downtime in Arusha, where we did some haggling for clothing to replace the shirt my mom had lost, and for me to get a pair of shorts repaired. We also secured bus tickets to the next phase of my master travel plan: an eco-lodge deep, deep in the Usambara Mountains called Mambo Viewpoint. The route there was long and painful, and consisted first of getting to the Arusha bus station at 6am to board a large bus headed to the city at the base of the Usambara Mountains called Lushoto, which only took about 6 hours on what passes for a highway in Tanzania. Then we continued up a long and winding dirt road, the large bus careening through tight turns, through rain forests and farmland, eventually being dropped off another 6 hours later at a dirt intersection where we were met by a man in a truck who drove us the last handful of kilometers through wildly rough and beautiful mountain terrain to a lodge tucked onto an impossible cliff, offering a mind-blowing view of the surrounding area. Equipped with a tent, we were convinced to upgrade to a hut of our own. Buffet meals of local, organic, fantastic foods were offered and we were happy to indulge. The owners and staff were all phenomenally friendly and hard working people bettering the area. My mom was in love.

The viewpoint part of Mambo Viewpoint.

The Usambara Mountains are often referred to as the bread basket of Tanzania. Home to the densest population of people in the country, nearly all work as subsistence farmers, growing an enormous range of produce in tiny terraced plots covering the rugged landscape, and taking advantage of the rich soil and extremely high rainfall. Remote areas of the region still have ancient virgin rain forests, though they’re being increasingly encroached on from the dense population. We hired a guide from the lodge to take us on a hike through town the day after we arrived, and one of the neighboring rain forests and waterfalls the next day. At the end of the second day, we were treated to another acrobatics performance, this one put on by local kids who were being trained by Mambo Viewpoint. It was adorable.

Terraced farmland

After two days of wearing out our legs to match the rest of our bodies, and thoroughly enjoying introducing my mom to a slower, pastoral African setting than the cities, it was time for the final phase of my great motherly travel plan: relaxing on the beach in the fabulously-named Zanzibar. Some incredibly friendly locals who happened to be passing through the lodge with a European girl who’d been working with them offered to greatly improve our lives and drop us off in their 4×4 at the Lushoto bus station, saving us nearly 4 hours of nightmarish bus travel, and at 8:30 in the morning, we were off. We had an hour to kill at the bus station, where we miraculously managed to get a damn fine cup of local coffee, and then had a 6 hour bus ride back to Dar es Salaam, with a long painful stop to deal with a tire blowout on the outskirts of town. By 6, we were situated back at the Hunch Backpackers for my mom’s first night ever in a proper 12 bed dorm room.

The next morning we were up and off to the ferry terminal by 8:30 once again. By late morning, we were lugging our bags over to another dorm room in downtown Stonetown, the beautiful old city on the west coast of Zanzibar. Once checked in, we spent the day wandering through high and narrow ancient alleys, drinking frozen drinks, and scoping out the markets.

Finally the next morning, it was properly time to head to the beach. I’d booked us a bungalow near the beach on the outskirts of a popular tourist town on the north coast called Nungwi, and rather than pay for an expensive private car, we tracked down and hopped in one of the shared minibuses (dolla dollas) for about a buck a piece. We got dumped a mile away from our destination, and the going was tough through mud and huge puddles of water given my mom’s enormous rolling luggage. Eventually, she happened upon a local who stuck the ungainly thing atop his head and ported it over, greatly alleviating my bellyaching. We were checked in in early afternoon and greeted by beds with friendly messages written out in leaves. The excitement for a few days of beach relaxation was palpable.

We traded our walking shoes for flip flops and hit the ocean, wandering down the perfect silken white beaches, wading out into the water, and enjoying a western-ish meal under umbrellas, next to monkeys, and to the sound of the waves. We watched a glorious sunset with our toes in the water.

Three days of beach bumming came and went quickly. Our batteries were blissfully recharged. Then, sadly, it was time to head back to reality, which for us was another big day of travel: a dolla dolla to Stonetown, a ferry to Dar es Salaam, and a car back to Hunch Backpackers. It took over 8 hours door to door. Another motorcyclist had showed up in our absence, this time a South African guy on a BMW F650. My mom and I had dinner then wiled away the night playing Jenga (which was made by a Tanzanian guy, and is the Swahili word for build) with fellow hostel-dwellers followed by a tearfilled sendoff. I was back on my own.

So long and thanks for the wonderful memories!

Mozambique to Momma, my first stint in Tanzania

Soaking wet with river water, caked with sand from the waist down, my bike gritty from the adventure, I took my first breaths on Tanzanian soil. The two people who’d fortuitously dragged me the final inches over the bluff pointed me towards the “border,” and I briefly took stock of my situation. I was on a grassy bluff with a dirt path heading vaguely west through what seemed like people’s yards. I started down them slowly.

I’d left Mozambique at the last possible minute on my visa, and had entered Tanzania with a little over a week to kill before my mom, who was coming to visit me for three weeks, arrived in Dar es Salaam. This left me with a decent amount of time to work things out on my own.

Eventually, I arrived at a proper dirt road leading to two small brick buildings that were apparently the customs/immigration complex. Approaching the first building that seemed official, a surly gentleman in an official outfit motioned me to the other for immigration. Meanwhile I was approached by a standard-issue border tout who offered to help me through the process. Though I declined, he followed me to the other building and waited outside. No one was in the building, and the tout told me to wait and the guy would be back in a few minutes.

About 10 minutes later, another man, much friendlier (not saying much), came and we went through the standard tourist visa rigmarole, lightening my pocket by $100 (exactly double what any non-American visitor pays for a visa to Tanzania). I left and took the motorcycle (and tout in tow) back to the first building. The surly man brought me in and asked me for my bike papers. I obliged. He scowled at the documents and asked me for my carnet. I told him I didn’t have one. He responded in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t bring the bike in at all. He said I’d have to leave it here, but that I could go in without it. I pled my case, but he was having none of it. Without explaining more, he got up and walked out of the office and away.

Confused and worried, I waited outside the office and the tout came back to talk to me. He assured me everything would be okay and asked where I was heading after. 30km north of the border was the city of Mtwara I told him I was planning to head to. He told me there was a Lutheran church that offered cheap safe accommodations and drew me a map. While I was sitting with the tout, the border agent returned and proceeded to lose his mind. He began shouting at me for talking with the tout, yelling that I should be talking to him not to this guy. I tried to diffuse the situation, but once again, he was having none of it, storming back and forth and shouting at me for a couple minutes before once again leaving.

The tout seemed nonplussed, again insisting it would all be fine. 30 painful minutes passed with me camped in front of the border post. Eventually, the agent once again returned, saying nothing to me as he passed inside and took a seat at the table. I came in a minute later and he continued to chide me nonsensically for talking with the tout instead of him. I asked him if it weren’t possible for me to get a Temporary Import Permit (TIP), and he produced the TIP document, showing me the language on it that stated it was only for vehicles registered in Southern African Development Community (SADC) member countries. We went back and forth for awhile and he asked for money, stating that he needed $40: $25 for the permit, and $15 for him. Not seeing a lot of options, I handed over the money. Then he took out his phone, made a call, and walked away again.

When he came back, ending the call, we filled out the SADC TIP with my information and he gave me my money back, scowling the entire time. He then let me leave.

Confused, exhausted, wet, and sandy, and with the day quickly fading, I hopped on the bike and proceeded down the dirt track north. I wound through some villages and forests for about 40 minutes, eventually hitting a tar road with lots of traffic, mostly trucks, minibuses, and motorcycle rickshaws. The Lutheran church was at the beginning of town. It was a large gated complex with a large roofless concrete church structure, lots of shrubby vegetation, and a few squat buildings connected to each other. I pulled up to the entrance to the largest one. There was no signage about rooms, but when a man appeared and I asked him, he assured me they had rooms, and they were cheap.

I guess I should have made this website BishopLev?

He led me through some small weird hallways and into the visiting Bishop’s quarters. There were a few rooms, and he led me into a large and shoddy one with threadbare furniture, windowless windows, and holy (perhaps in both senses of the word) mosquito netting over the bed. A desk that looked like it had been through a war was nestled in the corner. You bet your ass the Bishop’s room came with a bible. The heat, oppressive and humid all day, continued to tear into me, with buckets of sweat pouring off of me as I lugged my baggage into the hot room. Midway through a load, a young man came out of one of the other rooms and asked me about my plans. I told him I was hungry and he offered to accompany me next door for food. We were about halfway there before I deeply regretted his presence.

A large outdoor restaurant/bar with plastic tables and chairs strewn willy-nilly through an unkempt field neighbored the church compound. I ordered a beer, and the African standard meal: chicken and chips. The guy from the hostel talked to me about religion and generally just made me a little uncomfortable. He wasn’t eating, just watching. It felt like I had a religious minder. Positively, the beer was cold and pretty decent for a large national beer, and my oppressive heat-exhaustion slowly faded into a hum. After dinner, we retreated back to the Bishop’s housing and I took a much-deserved shower and slept on the shitty bed with the joyous restfulness of true exhaustion.

My motorcycle also slept in the Bishop’s residence.

In the morning, I headed to the same next door restaurant for breakfast, but was intercepted en route by my “minder,” who once again followed me for what would have otherwise been a peaceful meal. But newly equipped with a full tank of cash and a pocket full of thousands of Tanzanian Shillings, I was excited to get the hell out and hit the road for my first real day in Tanzania.

The roads from Mtwara north were pocked and windy. Heavy truck traffic was pervasive, and they drove with an aggression that was truly terrifying. I was ran completely off the road on more than one occasion as one heavy truck barreled head-on towards me attempting to pass another, seemingly completely uninterested in my presence in the lane. I passed through dense vegetation covered mountains, a brief stretch of ocean vistas, and endless small villages made of sticks, bricks, and thatch roofs.

Traffic and poor road quality made the going slow. The sun beat down through clear skies, and the pure-humidity salty breeze from the ocean made me need frequent stops to hydrate. Dar es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania, was going to take far too long, so I decided to swing off the main road onto a peninsula that terminated with the town of Kilwa Masoko, with the UNESCO World Heritage Site on the island Kilwa Kisiwani a short boat ride away. Off the main road, the traffic died down, and the thoroughfare, still pocked with intense potholes, was then covered in sand and lined with palm trees. The 300km to get there took a stunning 5 and a half hours.

The small town of Kilwa had a number of hotels, and as I stopped by one after another, I found no vacancies or exorbitant prices. I could see on Google Maps a spot 5km from town on the coast, but Google Maps showed it nearly that far from any listed road as well. My kinda place. With frequent stops to look at the map, I found a crazy complicated series of sandy tracks winding through people’s yards, around palm trees and dense vegetation, construction sites, and confusing dead ends, but eventually I pulled up at a gated beach “resort.” It seemed old and desolate. I drove inside.

A group of folks were sitting around having dinner under the shade of thatch umbrella. They greeted me as I arrived and invited me to join them. Super friendly and engaging, the patriarch was a 20-year veteran of the UN and the owner of the hotel. He continued to force his food on me and regaled me with stories of living in Cambodia for 7 years, as well as Sudan, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, all during their troubled times. He presented me with a super cheap seaside cabin complete with air-conditioning. I was home. After eating with his crew, I parked in the sand next to my cabin and unloaded in the blinding heat of the day.

Photo of the author upon his arrival and unpacking.
The view from my villa.

I relaxed, showered, read my book on the oceanside, and booked a tour guide to the UNESCO site the next morning. The patriarch of the place had more diplomats in town visiting that I chatted with, some of whom were 20+ year veterans of the US foreign service. Unsurprisingly, the diplomats were incredibly interesting, engaging, and charismatic. I was fed another meal for free and got to sleep in the 1st world comforts of both machine-cooled air and privacy, plus the addition of the sound of waves through the window. Full, content, and comfortable, I slept.

The beach bar by night.

In the morning, I rode my unloaded motorbike down the endless sandy paths back to town. I met my tour guide at the small port. He was a friendly if moderately distracted gentleman who’d grown up on the island of Kilwa Kisiwani, a former Sultinate and once one of the richest and most powerful settlements on the Swahili coast. We boarded a small motor-powered longboat and bobbed 15 minutes across the channel.

Heading to the island.
Landfall, Kilwa Kisiwani.

Large stone ruins peaked through mangroves, baobabs, and lush vegetation as we approached the island. A small fort named Husuni Ndogo greets you near the port, a glorious ruin of lumpy chunks of coral cemented together with limestone, complete with fading crenelations and rocky arrow slits. My guide and I headed towards it in the hot morning sun.

Husuni Ndogo
The primary entrance.

Thought to have been built in the 7th or 8th centuries, and possibly also used as a mosque, much of the structure remains, with only the wall facing the ocean and some of the ceilings crumbling into the sea. We walked around the building to where one of the huge meter+ thick walls was missing allowing us entrance.

Thick walls
View of the missing oceanside fortifications, and the structure’s well in the center.
The inside of the fort, my guide to the left.

After the fort, we wandered along the coast, past various old and new structures, some inhabited some gone to ruins. The island had gone through quite a few big changes over the years: subjugated by the Portuguese in the early 16th century then later taken by Arabs, again conquered by the Omanis in 1784, the main city was abandoned in the 1840’s, and the island finally fell into German occupation until 1918. Hints of this storied past was littered throughout, some hidden under lush vegetation.

Old and new living structures  
A baobab growing in the ruins of the former city.

Eventually we made it to a large complex of tall and crumbling coral walls, the remains of the old city. In places, plaster still clung to the structures, showing hints at the impressive decorative elements that once adorned the structures. The familiar Arabic window shapes peaked out in places.

Close-up of the coral wall construction
Inside one of the large structures in town. Note the rusted canyon on the ground on the right.
Surviving Arabic window details
The outside of one of the largest remaining walls of the Great Mosque of Kilwa

Wandering further inland across the island, we reach the Great Mosque of Kilwa, one of the oldest surviving mosques in East Africa. Began in the 10th century, and with several distinct stages of construction, it’s still quite impressive to wander through the columns and gaze at the few remaining domes.

The outer structure of the Great Mosque
The underside of one of the few domes still standing shows a hint of the craftsmanship
One of the fallen Domes

After the mosque, we set out across the island toward the former palace. We tromped through villages and jungle. On a narrow path in the forest, we came upon an old Muslim man pushing an old steel bicycle. Attached to the back was a bag of freshly roasted cashews. He greeted us, then reached into the bag and dumped a generous double-handful into the hands of me and my guide. They were charred and delicious, tasting sweet in a way that seemed altogether foreign to me. In the villages, I noticed chalk writing on the doors of all the houses. My guide told me this is how the villagers leave messages for one another. I found this to be pretty freakin’ cute.

We passed more stone ruins with ancient trees bursting through their mortar and slithering around their stones, hardworking women drawing endless water from a well, others carrying large bundles of sticks atop their strong heads, hungry and ornery goats, and many colorful tableaus of drying clothes laid out upon the grass. Eventually, we came upon the grand palace itself.

Perched upon a tall bluff, the massive grounds offered an unparalleled view of the sound. Walls, halls, and doorways, with only occasional ceilings, peeked out every which way. An very deep but dry well yawned under the shade of a large tree. More phenomenal baobabs ringed the excavated landscape. Numerous courtyards, great halls, playing fields, and rooms poked out from every which way. Several broad staircases have survived. Even an odd 10-sided room remains perched on one side. I wandered around gazing in awe at the sheer scale of the place for awhile, but the full heat of the day had arrived, and this was our final stop.

A massive original staircase sits at the end of the property leading down the bluff and into a mangrove-choked beach. A few minutes after we arrived, our boat slid between the mangroves and picked us up from the shallow water.

Upon returning to the mainland, I once again got lost a dozen times trying to get back to my hotel. I was now the only guest there. The staff invited me to join them for lunch, which I did. I relaxed in the beachside paradise awhile before heading back to town to have a couple beers at a small local bar where the lady running it joined me and chatted me up for awhile. Dinner was once again free and in the company of the friendly staff at the resort.

In the morning, they’d set up a small table for breakfast for me facing the beach. It was adorable. I ate a feast with a view and packed my things in the tropical sun.

A fitting farewell.

It was bittersweet leaving the tranquil quiet of Kilwa and rejoining the main coastal highway, which was choked with aggressive heavy truck traffic belching endless black sooty diesel into my face. Swarms of tuk tuks, motorcycles, and “dolla dollas” (ubiquitous Toyota vans jammed with people that cost $1 to take in town, hence the name) and private vehicles joined the din as I closed in on Dar es Salaam. The road was abysmal, with deep ruts, rocks, holes, and diversions. Things slowed to a crawl as the massive vehicles attempted to pick their way through the wreckage. Where possible, I wove through the carnage, but things were tight. The last 50km was a dirty war in the street.

Eventually, the coastal highway battleground, marked by jungle, villages, and hills, gave way to an urban apocalypse. The streets buzzed with activity: colorful kufias (fez-like hats common in the Muslim community in East Africa) atop white robes bustled pushing large wooden hand carts atop truck wheel and axles, chickens darted, goats lazed. The traffic had caused me to arrive at the worst possible time. I was baptized from day one in the horror that is Dar’s traffic. “House of Peace” it is not (during rush hour).  Particularly brutal were the dolla dolla stops, where they would double and triple park, choking traffic to a crawl and spilling people, animals, and luggage out into the streets. As I made my way past one of these which was a particularly brutal jumble of man and machine, a police officer in an argument with a man on the street, grabbed his billy club and swung it at the man’s head, the tip of it came no more than 6 inches from my face as I puttered by, assuredly with a look of stupid shock slapped across it. It all seemed almost allegorical.

I crossed over the harbor on a big gleaming new bridge that rises high into the air, granting an impressive view of the hodgepodge Dar skyline. Immediately upon arriving on the other side, I was dumped onto a lumpy dirt road. It boggled the mind. Traffic remained heavy as I continued through town on one of the major thoroughfares (and infamous Selander Bridge choke point). Eventually, I turned off into the neighborhood of Kinondoni, not far from the French Embassy (always a good sign), to reach a spot called Hunch Backpackers. As I pulled up, I came upon a kitted up KLR with South African plates. Immediately afterwards, I met a bearded white male American software engineer in the pool who was riding it. I guess there’s a type.

Hunch was a nice place, open just a few months, with air conditioning, a new building, and a tasty breakfast included that actually changed every day. The owner was also a super friendly chap — full of stories — and after getting checked into a room with a dozen beds in it and unloaded, I got a drink and began chatting up the biker. I ended up out to dinner with him and his friend, learning how small a world we live in, as it turned out he was applying for a job at Google and the hiring manager he was talking to was a friend of mine. He now works in my old building on my old floor in my old office. Small world, and maybe even more specific type…

Hunch was willing to store my bike, taking care of my primary concern before my mother’s arrival (we weren’t about to go traipsing across Tanzania two-up on my motorbike), which left me with a handful of days to kill in Dar preparing and checking out the city. I ate discount sushi at Cape Town Fish Market, had a true western-style breakfast, had a night out at the Alliance Française watching a huge traditional Tanzanian band show featuring over a dozen old men in matching outfits playing instruments and dancing, stumbled upon the filming of a Congolese music video, checked out the main government museums, and even found a burger place that made a half-decent cheeseburger out of a shipping container. I also made a logistical plan for my mom’s time in Tanzania, taking advantage of Hunch’s decent WiFi.

Disaffected models littered the production set.

When the time finally came, everything was ready. I’d moved into a quiet 2 bedroom apartment downtown that my mom could sleep off her jetlag in, and via the diplomats I’d met in Kilwa, I even had a driver meeting her at the airport with a sign. Everything was set for her middle-of-the-night arrival. I just sat back, relaxed, and steeled myself for three solid weeks of mom time.

Kids, Capitals, and Canoes

Warning: This post is particularly image heavy.

By daylight, the scenery around Nampula was strange and stunning. Giant hunks of granite like misshapen body parts were scattered seemingly randomly around the otherwise unimpressive landscape. The road was in decent shape, and made graceful arcs around the monoliths. The flat landscape made for broad vistas dotted with endless pockets of granite.

We were headed almost due east. As we continued, scraggly trees and dusty vegetation interspersed with the giant rocks gave way to lusher jungle and a handful of lumpy hills the road labored over and around. It was another hot and humid sunny day, with big friendly clouds looming in the sky. We stopped off for lunch in Namialo, and immediately attracted a huge throng of gawkers, who’d occasionally scatter when one of the many micro/full-sized buses passed through to hawk various packaged and local snacks on platters and sticks through the windows.

Always a spectacle

We passed through a few more small towns before the road gracefully descended into pastoral flatlands filled with cultivated land showing rich soil. Eventually, around fields of bananas, the telltale cerulean blue of the ocean peaked through. The road curved and bent along the coast for a spell as the landscape became more and more dotted with civilization before ending in the town of Lumbo and a gate leading to a 3km one-lane bridge to the small Island of Mozambique!

A brief primer: The Island of Mozambique (hereafter: “the Island”) is a small and narrow natural island, approximately 3km long, but only at most 500 meters wide. The Island had been a major Arab trading port for ages before Vasco da Gama plodded through in 1498, and the sultan who controlled it then ended up lending the country its name (Ali Musa Mbiki). The Portuguese came back in the 16th century and took control, building what is considered the oldest European buildings still standing in the southern hemisphere (primarily a church called Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte, which is essentially a converted mosque). They also built a huge fort and a settlement they dubbed the capital of Portuguese East Africa. From there, and for hundreds of years, it was a major trading port for slaves, spices, and gold. Much uncomfortable evidence of their old slave trade remains. In 1898 the capital was moved to present-day Maputo (due to waning trade from the opening of the Suez Canal), and by the 1970’s, a larger port to the north grabbed the remaining trade. It’s now a UNESCO world heritage site occupied by about 14,000 folks.

The Island is also absolutely gorgeous, packed with narrow winding alleys, large ancient decaying buildings with collapsed roofs and walls still being inhabited, and even the occasional Art Deco monster from the final chapters of the island’s prominence. Near the main drag and off on a narrow dirt road we found our hostel — the analogue of the Ruby Backpacker’s we’d stayed in in Nampula. It was a beautiful old building that had been largely restored to decent condition, with a large roof deck with newborn puppies stashed in the corner, a small kitchen and courtyard, and our beds stuffed into a small attic only reachable by rickety wooden ladders. A Honda XR250 with a South African license plate stood in the courtyard which the owner informed us belonged to a woman traveling solo. Once checked in, we hit the beach and took a ride around the island. The water was the familiar bathtub embrace of the Indian Ocean. Continue reading “Kids, Capitals, and Canoes”

A Trip Through Central Mozambique

Not the Live River, but shot live!

The next day ended up a bigger adventure than expected. From the first kilometers outside of Muxungue, the roads took a dramatic turn for the worse, dipping even further into insanity after passing the turnoff for the large coastal port of Beira at the town of Inchope. The roads were more potholes than pavement. Where possible, small dirt tracks off the shoulder of the road were more passable than the road itself, with some potholes big enough to fit the entire motorcycle in them.

Corey and I bumped and swerved through the morning and afternoon, trying our best to find paths to weave around slow cars and huge semi trucks attempting to navigate the seemingly-war torn landscape, often swinging all over the roads in an attempt to do so, and dramatically increasing the latent danger of passage. As if to accent the danger, as we approached the area around the Gorongoza National Park, the military presence stepped up significantly. To make sure we didn’t miss that, we were stopped and forced to delete photos we attempted to take while crossing a bridge over an expansive rocky river valley surrounding the Pungwe river due to “security” concerns.

The Gorongoza area was and continues in many ways to be a hotbed of unrest in Mozambique. Once home to the command center of the Mozambique Resistance Movement, it was subjected to an outsized amount of violence. The park was shuttered for nearly 10 years, and decades of sporadic uprisings continued long after the ceasefire in 1992. Burned out hulks of buses litter the road along Gorongoza, supposedly targeted by the rebels to maximize casualties and rusting in roadside reminders of the area’s history. Undeterred, we carried on, but the road made the goings ludicrously slow, deliberate, and sweaty in the beating sun.

As we reached the end of the park, which lies to the east of the road, we came to a dirt road turnoff that would allow us to both cut down on some of the “paved” road, and also to pass near the jovially-named “Casa Banana.” We took it and continued on a sandy and hilly path through the jungle. Sliding through tire-busting sand, the shade of the closed-in forest canopy and lack of potholes made it a lot more pleasant. At a fork in the road on the edge of the park, a full-on military encampment with barricades came into view. Armed soldiers asked us a few simple questions before waving us on and we descended back down the mountain once again towards the highway.

Somewhere along the way, oncoming traffic forced us off into the brutally sandy edge of the road and Corey took a spill. I was ahead and didn’t notice, making it all the way to the highway before realizing he wasn’t directly behind me anymore. Christ, what an asshole. He managed to right things himself despite the predicament and is thankfully a forgiving sort.

This is not representative of how bad the roads were, but it’s still pretty

We carried on, setting our sights on Caia, a town perched on the majestic Zambezi river, but the hours of daylight were dwindling down, making the potholes increasingly treacherous. We came across signs for a lodge called M’phingwe Camp prior to Caia and took a km-or-so jaunt off the main road to check it out. We were happy we did.

We came into a mostly-empty rustic set of cabins and structures in the jungle where we were able to get a small hut to ourselves for a reasonable price, plus good food and a bar. We relaxed and chatted with a family of American missionaries who were living out of a giant overland vehicle they’d turned into an RV.

Not a half bad place to wake up.

We got a good night sleep and were back on the road by 9am.  Northern Mozambique is pretty sparse, and the next decent-sized town, Nampula, was a long way off (over 700km). We rode single-mindedly and piled on the kilometers on the war-torn roads.

It was clear we’d managed to get off the standard tourist path, as the bundles of people milling about would watch us go by with something that often approached fervor. Some groups would stop what they’re doing, jump up and down arms raised in the air and cheer. Corey asked me at one point if it felt like we’d just won the Dakar rally. It did.

The potholes came to an abrupt and unexplained end, and the scenery continued to become more mountainous. The roads afforded us broad sweeping views of a lush green landscape dappled with sharp, gorgeous mountains that looked like someone had randomly taken a whisk to a bowl of whipped cream dyed green, grey, brown, and red, dragging up impossible peaks from seemingly nowhere. As the sun began to set, the sky exploded in technicolor, the clouds sharply contrasted appearing like a fleet of warships waiting in the sky. We stopped to take some photos, and immediately a small village of locals showed up to gawk. When we invited them to take photos with us, they jumped in, high-fiving, fist-bumping, and flashing us the most genuine smiles imaginable. It was fucking beautiful.

Corey blotting out the sun

This cheesy guy cheesin’!

The locals demonstrating their moves

Things are starting to get genuinely adorable…

And I can’t lie, this is one of my favorite photos ever. Such happiness!

As the sun set, the the active road took on a new character. Wraith-like trees haunted the darkness, with mountains like sentinels watching over us on the horizon. Even in the dark, it was apparent that the landscape was beautiful and dramatic. We crossed numerous small rivers, and the jungle seemed to close in around us, even in the dark. Dozens of fires, small and large, met us at the roadside. In the dark, the fires looked dazzling, especially as we passed swaths where one whole side of the road was flames, the other, murky smoke-filled trees dully flashing in the firelight. Dense clouds of smoke billowing over the roadway added to the frightening adventure.

There were thankfully few potholes, but human and animal traffic abound. At one point, a small pig darted from the left, drawing an arc that continued in my path as I hauled on the breaks, narrowly swerving in the last few inches from hitting the squealing creature. At a police checkpoint at night, the cops that approached us muttered “they’re speaking English” in Portuguese before waving us on. We pressed on to Nampula, a city of over 400k people and the third largest in Mozambique.

The road became a bustling thoroughfare even at night. We stopped for cash at an ATM before heading to a well-known backpacker’s named Ruby. A complicated maneuver granted our stripped bikes entrance over a high curb and small gate and into the lawn by the modest home that would be our shelter for the eve. After checking in and unloading, we also made a reservation at a sister Ruby Backpackers for the following evening in the former colonial capital of Mozambique Island. Then we headed around the corner to a jumping local bar complete with a loud band for some beer and food.

My old Pirelli rear tire was beginning to look awfully long in the tooth, and Nampula was the last large town we’d be passing through for over 1500km (to Dar es Salaam). My mother had also booked a flight to meet me in Dar in about three weeks, and given our intended path, that didn’t leave a lot of wiggle-room for a tire disaster. As such, it seemed prudent to try and source a replacement before heading out. After a good night sleep, I hit the streets solo to try and find one.

A stop at a local service station started me on a pinball path being handed off from local to local that eventually sent me to a small shop selling cheap Chinese tires sizes that worked for me. I bought a tire (and eventually a tube), went back, and brought my bike over to a stretch of sidewalk where a guy had offered to replace the tire for me. Then I headed back to the hostel for lunch with Corey. After breakfast, I came back to my bike very much a work in progress…

Seems like a legit shop.

I stuck around until the job was done, went back to the hostel to grab Corey and my things, then it was time to hit the road to the Island of Mozambique!

Disastrous Diving, Beautiful Beaches, and Far-Flung Friends

I woke up early in Zavora to try and get in on the morning dives if they were happening. I’d been told to go to the dive shop at 7am, but it was more than an hour before anyone showed up. I had some breakfast overlooking the ocean while I waited. The ocean looked much calmer than it had the night before.

Eventually, folks started showing up at the dive shop, including the South African tour guide who’d recommended Zavora to me, and a friendly dutch couple who were coming diving. Also joining were three marine biologists (one intern) that made up the local organization Marine Action Research (MAR). After a brief orientation, we loaded our gear into a medium-sized inflatable zodiac and headed to the beach, where we pushed and pulled the craft through the sand the last few meters before it was afloat. The rough weather had largely abated, and we took to the calm seas to follow the GPS to our first dive site.

It’d been the better part of a year since I’d been down underwater, but the skills flowed back effortlessly. Visibility was low (2.5 meters), the water was cold as hell, and currents made graceful navigation impossible for me, but it didn’t matter. Two massive sea turtles slowly glided across my field of vision within the first five minutes. Through the murky water, I caught my first glimpse of an ethereal manta ray gliding by in the distance. A school of massive barracuda swarmed past. A second dive provided vistas of endless craggy coral so packed full of enormous lobsters that they seemed to wave their long thin tentacles seemed to wave out of every visible surface.

I chatted up the other divers, and the lot of us made plans to stop by the lodge next door to my own for pizza later that eve. We got back around noon and after a shower and change of clothes, I wandered down the long sandy road to the nearby village with no real plans or direction. An army of locals wandered past in both directions as I crossed the verdant path.

The town center was a wide spot in the sand sparsely thronged with wooden shacks inviting commerce. Dozens of people hung out in the shade or milled around socializing. As I passed what seemed to be the general store — a small window cut into a wooden shack — I was greeted by an old man drinking a beer. We chatted for a minute before I decided to buy a beer from the window and take a seat next to him. When he finished his beer, I gave him half of mine. When I finished mine, he bought another and gave me half of his. From the shady porch edge that was our vantage, the tiny town buzzed with activity, with many errant gazes catching my own.

The road to town

I finished up the second half a beer and headed back towards home. A random kid heading the same direction as me traded passes kicking dried up fruit and rocks for about a kilometer, laughing when the lopsided detritus hooked off into the surrounding farmland. After some downtime in my room, I once again set off on foot (to avoid the fool’s game of riding through the piles of sand) to join my fellow divers at the lodge next door for dinner.

We laughed, ate and drank into the night, joined by a rotating crew of friendly family members of the lodge’s owners. I avoided the 20 minute walk home in the dark with a much appreciated ride from the MAR researchers.

I once again fell asleep to wind and waves, and woke up to a beautiful sunrise over the ocean. I packed my things before heading to breakfast clad in my swimsuit, ready for a last couple dives before heading north to the popular tourist destination Tofo Beach. The ocean was substantially choppier as we made our way to our first dive: the Rio Sainas shipwreck. A new diver had joined the crew and was my buddy… but by the time I’d lowered myself down the line to the ship, he was nowhere to be found in the murky water. I signaled the divemaster who seemed thoroughly unperturbed. I explored solo feeling a mixture of confidence and worry. When we resurfaced, we found out the rough ride in had made my buddy seasick, and he lay green against the pontoons as we headed for a reef named “Area 51.”

Area 51 was freezing cold and felt like the entire ocean was being sloshed back and forth in a huge bowl. It was all I could do to avoid being pummeled wholesale against the walls of the reefs. But the struggle was worth every minute of cold, murky, effort, as dozens upon dozens of gigantic ethereal shapes waves and soared by; we were in the middle of a vast school of manta rays, and it turned out I had no idea what a manta ray really is.

Many 12 feet long or bigger, these car-sized animals gracefully and silently slid through the water close enough to touch. Their huge grinning and gaping mouths looked cartoonish below their intelligent eyes, which would look directly into my own, regarding me kindly and curiously as they passed. To be acknowledged by a creature so big nearly stopped my heart. Struggling to stay put, I hardly left the spot I landed in, content to spin round-and-round, in complete shock and awe of the gentle giants flying all around me.

Surface-side, my ignorance was clear. Though happy to see the things, everyone else was thoroughly aware that gigantic rays were a thing, and even told me that these were small ones — 3-4 meters — with big ones reaching up to 7+ meters (24 feet)! I rode the high through the choppy waves back to Zavora, feeling like I’d just discovered some fantastic new alien race, and content to be alone in the feeling.

For some reason, I was happy to not get sick or injured while in Zavora

The magic feeling didn’t last too long as I geared up next to my bike, perched high on a sand dune and with nearly an hour of slow, hot, painful riding ahead to reach the tarmac. I slid down the dune to the sandy road below, fishtailing like an overloaded clown car. In the blazing heat of the mid-day sun, I navigated the long road to the main Mozambican north-south artery.

I rejoined my northward path. Traffic was moderate but omnipresent, along with the accouterments of civilization. Women in homemade multicolored dresses with large loads of branches, water, and charcoal criss-crossed the roadway. A shocking number of children darted to and fro. Desolation seemed a fleeting memory after Namibia and parts of South Africa. I turned off the main road and onto a small paved road that passed through the city of Inhambane en route to Tofo.

Hentie back in Richard’s Bay had put me in touch with his ex-wife and her lodge in Barra, a quieter beach town nextdoor to Tofo, and I headed towards there, following a fork a few kilometers away from both towns. Eventually, I reached a turnoff to the road to the Barra Lighthouse, which had a number of lodges including my original destination. The road was deep loose sand heading off into the hills. I balked; I just wasn’t willing to fight more crazy sand roads that day. I made the off-the-cuff decision to say “fuck it” and looked up a nice looking hostel called Mozambeat in Tofo and turned tail back to the fork in the road.

I rode the 10km to Tofo and was once again presented with a steep sandy approach. Part of me died inside, but the place was dramatically closer, so I sucked it up and abused my clutch up into the dunes. Locals on tiny Chinese bikes flew by skimming the surface of the sand. I plowed deep ruts in the loose stuff sliding through ever meter with sweat and determination. I came upon a funky walled oasis covered in art measurable relief. Here was Mozambeat.

Around a large outdoor area thronged with palm trees were picnic tables and a pool. Around the edges of the compound were about 10 small tin-roofed buildings named after music artists like Kool and the Gang. Stylized paintings adorned the walls. A large two-story structure with few walls, tables, chill-out space, and a bar completed the ensemble. I checked in there to the only dorm building, filled with a dozen bunk beds, in the compound.

The buzz at Mozambeat was around a fashion show (and associated party) to take place that afternoon, except they were also subject to (and surprised by) the same power cut I’d caught in Zavora. Things got interesting when the generator was kicked on, and proceeded to spit out 400 volts of AC power, triggering a small haze of magic smoke from  around the property. Such situations are where Africa really shines, as in the short couple hours before the event began, a replacement generator and sound system was sourced and the show went on.

A parade of local and foreign “models” strutting and dancing in the sun commenced to a DJ’s westernized musical tastes. Multicolored robes, dresses, shirts, shorts, hats, etc. went by one by one and two by two. While the festivities commenced, I began to meet my fellow residents, an eclectic and international collection of folks who would eventually end up comprising my crew for the next nine days of fabulous beach life in Tofo, sucked in by an unstoppable natural and social gravity of the place.

Tofo recycled municipal art

Things started off pretty easy. Other than fashion and fried electronics, the first night passed mostly uneventfully. The next day I walked the kilometer from Mozambeat to the town of Tofo, situated along the beach. The town itself was a cute and small collection of low-rise buildings, shabeens, and market stalls. Villagers carried fish and tourist sundries to and fro. Hotels and restaurants dotted the sizable beach. I enjoyed a cheap lunch along with my trusty kindle and watched life pass me by. Mozambeat’s internet had been fried in the great generator power surge, so after lunch I passed through the swirling ranks of touts on the beach to a fancy spot called Casa Barry prominently advertising free WiFi for a beer and to update my podcasts. Amazingly, it worked remarkably well by African standards. In the late afternoon, I trudged back to my hostel and spent the evening chilling out and making friends, a perfect end to a thoroughly relaxing day.

The view from Casa Barry

It was another easy morning, after which I packed some water and my laptop and headed to Casa Barry to work on my blog. Greeting me there was the friendly dutch diving couple from Zavora! I hung out and got some work done before more hardcore relaxation back at the hostel. The group in my dorm had reached a sort of stasis, and it had started to feel like I had a real social group. It made it feel like I wasn’t just a traveler passing through, and as certain light drama passed through, it actually made me feel more like I was home instead of homeless.

Finally, it was time to get some diving in. Unlike Zavora, there were a handful of diving outfits in Tofo, but Peri Peri came recommended, and I got a discount through Mozambeat. I got picked up in the morning and after a briefing, I once again headed to sea on an inflatable zodiac. Visibility was better than Zavora had been, and there were loads of eels and unicorn fish. The second dive had strong currents, but I was basically able to just relax on the side of a reef wall and be gently swept past it by the current, feeling like I was in some incredible and soundless underwater IMAX movie.

Our second ascent wasn’t quite like the first. The group of divers had become separated and ended up in two smaller groups. We surfaced to the open ocean, with no boat in sight. Bobbing in the substantive waves with our 3-foot inflatable marker poking up we waited. 10 minutes passed with no sign of our craft.

The mid-day sun beat down. I could feel my skin burning, but had no access to sunscreen. My initial amusement had passed, but I felt no panic, nor did the four others with me. We were certain we’d be found, but as the minutes ticked by, it wasn’t clear how long it would take. Twice, we caught sight of the boat speeding around in the distance. Twice it was heading the wrong direction, searching for our buoy, which wasn’t quite tall enough to poke out above the waves. The shore taunted us, visible yet over a kilometer away. Several times, the wind carried the sound of the twin outboard motors in the distance, but with no discernible direction.

After a full 20 minutes, the boat finally appeared. The captain was visibly agitated by having lost us, and the girlfriend of one of the divers with us, herself new to diving, was in tears, fearing he’d been lost at sea. We hopped back on board, quietly relieved it was over. I covered myself in sunscreen. When we returned, the owner of the dive shop made a point of telling me “this has never happened.” I headed back to Mozambeat and had an easy night in anticipation of another morning of diving, hopefully with slightly less surface-side excitement. I’d get my wish on that last part, but realize I’d been too specific in my desires.

The next morning started off much like the previous. The ocean was substantially more rough, with my stomach complaining slightly as we headed out to sea. The rough water had churned up far more sediment, and visibility was down to around 4 meters, but it was still a pleasant dive with lots of big and interesting fish.

We braved more rough water to our second dive site.  As we did our equipment check, I joked about how I had 210 bar, slightly more than the expected amount. We entered the water and I descended into to the ocean floor. Visibility was extremely limited, and the current was extremely strong. I was breathing heavily and feeling stressed trying to stay with the group. Something felt awry, but I wasn’t present enough to be able to identify it. Suddenly, the divemaster appeared in front of me, his eyes wide and shocked. He swam directly up to me holding out his spare octopus. I took it, but hesitated before putting it in my mouth. In those intervening moments, I looked down at my own air pressure meter and discovered over a quarter of my air supply was gone in just our ~3 minute descent. I put the octopus in my mouth, linked hands with the divemaster and we began to ascend again. We hung out at a safety stop for 5 minutes. I was still confused about what was going on, but a check of my air pressure before we did our final ascent showed that I was fully devoid of air supply.

Surface-side, a quick check showed that the o-ring on my tank had shifted underwater and was dumping my air directly into the ocean. To my fellow divers, this was apparent, but I’d been completely oblivious. Despite the episode being out of my hands, I felt somehow responsible for everyone’s aborted dives. Ultimately, the group decided to go ahead and move to another less hectic dive spot for a final dive, with one of the researchers opting out and giving me her tank. The last dive involved swimming underwater through an arch made of fish-lined reef and went blissfully without incident.

Back at the shop, everyone had already heard the story and were talking about the guy who’d been lost at sea and had his air tank dump its contents in two consecutive days. I found the owner to settle my debts, content to give diving a rest for awhile after all the excitement. He once again told me “This has never happened!” It seemed to mean less the second time, even though I didn’t fault him or his outfit.

In the meantime, one of my new dorm friends, a devilishly good-looking South African surfer who, aside from his accent, seemed straight out of the Santa Cruz surfing scene passed along an invite to a braai (bbq) at someone’s house. He insisted it was fine if the rest of us crashed the party, to which we demurred, and followed him a half kilometer from the hostel to a beautiful gated compound with a couple buildings, a nice braai, and a perfect outdoor hangout spot. Our hosts were a Zimbabwean (by way of South Africa) mother/daughter pair with a couple of the daughter’s friends, to which we added a handful of foreign faces. They were super friendly, and we enjoyed an incredible meal, heaps of beer, and a new card game they taught us. I was more reserved than usual, aware that my friends and I had largely showed up unannounced and crashed their party.

We were invited back the next night (and more-or-less every night after), and overwhelmed by their generosity, began to feel like a proper member of their group. I was incredibly amused to learn the girls had found me initially intimidating, going so far as to inform me that they thought I had “resting bitch face.” Who knew? In the coming days, our group (hostel-dwellers and extended Zim/SA family) played bar trivia (we were ahead on questions, but lost on the last part of the competition over weaving a roof tile out of palm… turns out not everyone knows what a Geiger Counter is), and had another fantastic braai in which we bought a whole barracuda from a fisherman at the beach.


At the end of my stay, after making a ton of great new friends, Peri Peri Divers had an event at Mozambeat for three folks who’d just completed their divemaster certification. Besides a big party (where pretty much everyone dressed as Batman), there was what apparently is the internationally standard initiation for new divemasters: a Snorkel Test. For a snorkel test, a receptacle (in our case, most of a large plastic bottle) is attached to a snorkel then filled with some foul alcoholic concoction. Because this was Peri Peri Divers (peri-peri is roughly equivalent to “chili” in Mozambique), the concoction involved beer, hard liquor, and hot sauce, along with unnamed other ingredients. This foul brew is then poured in large quantities into the snorkel of our aspiring and be-masked divemasters. Hilarity and bacchanalia ensued (watch the video here), and even my MAR marine biologist friends drove up from Zavora to hang out!

The Peri Peri Divers snorkel test in progress

I’d originally planned to leave the morning after the party, but that was definitely not in the cards. I woke up in the dorm to a disaster area, and a collective hangover. I booked in an additional night, with a far more relaxing opportunity for my goodbyes. Also, my Aussie friend Corey had, by now, finished his advanced rangering course, and was once again inbound to meet up. After 9 days of Tofo, and with many of my friends moving on, I knew I had to carry on, so I set my sights on the next nice beach town up the road, and headed to Vilanculos the next morning.


There’s no such thing as an entirely uneventful ride in Mozambique, and this day was no exception. Riding down through the sand started off relatively easy, and the road to Inhambane was mostly uneventful, but the highway eventually terminated in large “men at work” signs with the entire road shut down. The detour took me down a progression of crazier and crazier sand roads past lines of staring locals and tin shacks. There was no signage, and before long I was thoroughly lost, but after nearly 30 minutes of unexpected off-roading, managed to follow cardinal directions to the main road.

Once back on the main road, things were as easy as ever, passing village after village, with hundreds of children and dozens of adults meandering every which way on the shoulders, or staring from shady vantages beneath the few large trees still standing. 330km later, I pulled into my hostel, the Complexo Alemanha, around 4:30pm. At less than $5USD for a night (including a tasty breakfast), it was the cheapest accommodation to date. Corey was a few hundred kilometers behind me, but decided to push through the night to catch up, skipping Tofo entirely. I spent the evening eating strange matapa (cassava leaf) pizza and practicing my Spanish with the only other (Spanish) guests at the hostel. Corey checked in in the evening down the road at a guesthouse ran by a friend of his.

In the morning, I chatted with the hostel owner, a friendly old German who told me I was overpaying for my room because of Booking.com. He told me the price should only be ~$3.75USD a night without their fees, then passed on a nuanced rant about the shitty Chinese-made roads, which he described as having been built to last only long enough to extract the mineral resources they were targeting. Given the state of the roads I’d seen, this seemed quite plausible.

Nothing says “tropical beach town” like roads of shells

I packed up and headed down the road to where Corey was staying, in a nicer beach-side dorm room thronged with palm trees. It was a joyous reunion. We decided to spend another night in Vilanculos before continuing north, especially given the beating Corey had given himself the day before, and so I moved into his dorm.  From there, we hit the beach.

The view from our beach-side home

These kids’ sand car game is strong

We wandered around town, picked up some threadlocker for Corey, sunscreen for me, a bag of delicious mangoes, and finally managed to purchase a 500ml tetrapak of a fantastic substance that had caught my curiosity from the first time: Lord Gin! This devilish juice box of 43% alcohol proudly proclaims it was made “according to the Old Tradition.” It makes very few other claims, including its origin. Given its cost ($1.50USD per 500ml), I presume it crawled from the drunken pits of hell, driven by a hatred of decency and sobriety so pure (much purer than its 43% alcohol content) that it managed to make it all the way to the idyllic beaches of Mozambique. I do love the box’s design, though…

Lord Gin, my new best friend. Fear not, dear reader. Our story will re-unite with Lord Gin again, soon!

In the morning, Corey and I decided to continue on from Vilanculos. In an effort to make some time, we went the 20km to the main highway before looking for gas, and finding out there was none for over 100km, had to turn back to fill our tanks. The conditions of the highway immediately deteriorated as we headed north. The potholes went from an occasional nuisance to a way of life, often stretching entirely across the road, and continuing unabated for huge stretches. It was often faster to leave the roadway entirely and take to the dirt shoulder, but even then, giant lumps and bumps sent the bikes and us careening up, down, and around.

Traffic was light-to-moderate, but slow and dangerous. Oncoming vehicles, in particular heavy semi trucks, would swerve across the entire roadway in an attempt to avoid potholes. Knowing we were more nimble, they’d nonchalantly enter our lane of travel at the last minute, driving us from relatively flat land into huge dips, some large enough to swallow one of our bikes whole. Passing vehicles was similarly rife with peril, with the slow vehicles meandering unfettered through the totality of the roadway, usually picking the path we’d otherwise want. The scenery became an increasing tangle of dense jungle interspersed with trees.

We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant, where our order took the standard amount of time: nearly 2 hours from being seated to receiving food.  We passed through numerous small towns, stopping for gas and to survey the wares from an army of entrepreneurs who’d chase after passing buses hoisting their wares to window-level or carrying them on their heads. When no bus was around, they’d swarm us with a substantially different concept of personal space than I’m used to, only to scramble off when another bus passed by. Much of Mozambique has more kids than classroom space. To accommodate the sea of children, schools run shifts three times a day. Armies of students flooding in all directions appeared at intervals along the roadside, often taking up large swaths of the roadway.

That Greg Salad sure is pricey!

We passed the “Live” river, where we were charged double the price listed for motorcycles (the price for a car). It cost  around 15 cents. Military soldiers there asked us some questions to seem like they were interested in more than money or drinks, which they asked for.

As evening approached, we pulled up to the town of Muxungue, a small crossroad and truck stop. We decided to stop for the night. Our first attempt involved following a sign on the highway down a series of dirt roads to a gated motel with folks tearing apart a large truck in the mud parking lot. Someone went off to fetch someone for us to talk to. A well-dressed man approached speaking decent English. He told us rooms cost an absurdly large sum of money, but confusingly, that they were fully booked for the night. Then he insisted on showing us one of the rooms that wasn’t available, despite that for the price we’d have never dreamed of staying there. He gave us vague directions to another spot on the main road.

With some effort, we found a Muslim restaurant with an attached guesthouse in the back. Corey stayed by the bikes as I checked out the accommodations. They were bleak: a pair of stained twin beds in a dirty room, a bathroom with no door and no running water, just buckets pre-filled for washing and bathing. The price, however, was right up our alley, and for a bit over $5, we checked in for the night, which involved removing our panniers to navigate through a small gate, around some narrow corners and under clothelines with drying sheets and towels to a safe spot by our room.

Celebratory beers at the local bar and (hanging) shoe store

On the way into town, we’d passed nearly a dozen shabeens, so once settled, we backtracked on foot to find one. The first few we passed were blasting music so loud we couldn’t even get close. We eventually settled on one that was only mildly-ear-splittingly loud. We had a beer before finding another restaurant, in what would be a string of them, selling the same selection of buffet-style dishes ran by Somalis. Afterwards, we went to another shabeen where we ended up locked in long and interesting conversations with locals. One friendly truck driver I was talking to insisted on buying me a beer, and then set off on his motorcycle to pick up his Zimbabwean wife to introduce us. I managed to buy her a drink before he could stop me.

The couture at the bars seemed vaguely familiar…

We ended the night later than expected and passed out in surprising quiet, given our location in the thick of the bustling main road, and otherwise modest and insect-ridden surroundings.

Guards and the Good Life in Maputo, an Intro do Mozambique

I picked the Goba Mozambique/Swaziland border for a few reasons: I’d heard Mozambique wasn’t a painless entry, that the South African border with them was a nightmare of trucks and touts, and that Goba was actually pretty simple. Stamping out of Swaziland was a breeze. It’s common to get a gate slip at southern African borders that needs to be stamped multiple times at all the steps and then handed to a gate guard. After getting all the stamps, we were stopped at the gate while the guard checked all our paperwork, including my passport and Michigan motorcycle title. Corey explained that Mozambique was a common destination for stolen vehicles, so this was an artifact of their due diligence, which made me feel good about the ordeal.

We were released with our bikes (with my VIN number checked, thank goodness for no mistakes on my title!) and headed to Mozambican customs/immigration. The place was pretty relaxed and chill, and there was nearly no traffic, but things still moved pretty slowly. We filled out some long forms, and eventually were ushered one-by-one into the manager’s office, where we paid, had our photos taken, and had our visas installed. The whole ordeal was pretty simple, but moved at Caribbean-speed. When we had our visas, we bought cheap vehicle insurance from one of three huts across from the immigration building (we split up to spread the business, as they’re all the same price), and headed in.

The Mozambican border condom dispensers were sadly empty, but someone *did* stick a “batteries not included” sticker on one of the dispensers, so that’s nice

The speed limit was abusively slow — 50-80kmh — but the road was decent (except, as I’d learn, where it’s not) and paved. We twisted and turned up and up through tall grass as the ground became increasingly red and sandy. When we reached the top of a pass, we had our first look at the broad green-and-tan Mozambican landscape splayed out before us as we descended down a series of slow-speed switchbacks, careful of our speed from what we’d heard about the police here being sticklers for speed-limits, and also constantly looking for ways to shake down foreigners (though there’s been a recent push to cut-back on that).

We pulled into a town and stopped to get the local currency Metical (the plural is pronounced Meticash, which sounds oddly futuristic). I head to the ATM first while Corey watches the bikes and I proceed to make a fool of myself. There’s two ATM machines and a handful of folks standing around, with one at one of the machines. As I walk towards the ATM, the person using one of them walks away. I look around. No one moves. There’s a security guard off to the side. I look at him and point at the machine, and he gives me the thumbs up. I walk up to the ATM and get cash. I go back to the bikes and Corey asks me if I’d just cut the line. I’m confused, but when he walks up and asks, they point at the end of the “line” of folks (one of the machines was out of money or not working). I felt like a total ass.

Once we were loaded with our daily dose of Meticash (~62 to the dollar, and you can only withdraw 5000 at a time, less than $100US), we set off and stopped at a local pub down the street. I had the first of lots of seafood and one of the decent local beers 2M (insert an offensive joke about how they can’t afford the third one here). Corey had a Mozambican SIM, and let me hop on WiFi to send a message to Matt, the diplomat from the US State Department I’d met on a mountain outside of Nelspruit to see if his offer still stood (I didn’t really expect it would). It was oppressively hot in the mid-afternoon sun as we continued the short ride into Maputo.

City traffic engulfed us as we approached its bounds. There was street-life everywhere, and my first real introduction to the odd vehicle-human dynamic that plays out in Mozambique: the locals just walk into the street, directly at you, violating what I perceive as my vehicular bubble, assuming you won’t alter your course except maybe to get out of their way if there’s any way for you to do so. It’s a bit terrifying. We weaved through busy traffic and ample stoplights, down abroad street with a median choked with cars. Corey was staying with an American via Couchsurfing, and we headed together to his office to collect the keys. Lee, the host, turned out to be from San Jose, CA, and was put up in the Radisson for his job.

Key in hand, we shot down to the high-rent oceanside ‘hood where the Radisson was. Their parking lot was gated, but they let us in without question. Then we grabbed our luggage and walked through the lobby to the elevator. An attendant grabbed a cart and helped us get to Lee’s room, again with no questions about us being there or that we were showing up with things and walking directly into a room without checking in or anything. It seemed clear to both of us that White Privilege is alive and well in Africa. To celebrate, we changed and went directly to the pool, where we were served overpriced beer in actual glass while in the infinity pool overlooking the ocean. Don’t worry, I’m also throwing up in my mouth a little writing that.

I live far too charmed a life…

The Radisson had the first internet I’d had since getting a message, and Matt had gotten back to me to say I had a place to stay! He gave me the address and told me his guard would expect me. I was actually really excited about the prospect of meeting this guy; I’d never met a diplomat before. He wasn’t getting home until 6, so we had some time to hang out, and eventually Corey’s host Lee came back and chatted for a bit before it was time for me to run to my new US-government owned pad in Maputo!

The ride from the Radisson to Matt’s house took me past the Chinese embassy, and lots of nice houses surrounded by walls and electric fence. Guards could be seen hanging around the neighborhood. I pulled up to a gate around 6:30 and a Mozambican security guard sporting a State Department badge met me there. I told him he should be expecting me, and a minute later I could hear Matt’s voice welcoming me in. The gate trundled open and I rolled my bike inside and into a garage next to a landrover. Matt was super welcoming and friendly. He showed me into his tri-level place and a perfectly adorned room to myself including my own full bathroom.

24 hour surveillance brought to me to the American Government!

I brought my soft bags in and we had a glass of wine together before he took me out to a nice dinner at a Brazilian steakhouse. He told me to stay as long as I needed, to use his home as a home base. There was a genuine kindness there that struck me as unique — largely, perhaps due to coming from such a familiar West Coast accent in a foreign land. It was the start of an incredible journey for me, and perhaps, us. Neither of us really knew what we’d signed up for cohabiting. When we met, I’d seen a lone backpacker on a mountain top who seemed kind of like a nerdy hippie. He’d seen the Peace Corp stickers on my top box and presumed a poor kid done with his service attempting to see a bit of the continent. We’d both missed the mark to a degree, but seemingly all for the better.

Matt was kind, intelligent, well-informed, and fascinating in a multitude of ways. I mean, how often does one get to just hang out and chat with a career diplomat from their home country abroad? Hell, any diplomat! He grew up with a foreign service family, including attending high school while living in East Berlin, and had gone on to become a career diplomat, spending more of his time abroad than back home, largely in Africa; he had a set of experiences I’d never ran into from a fellow American.

I stayed with Matt in Maputo for 5 nights. We made dinner together, we went out together, we stayed up late chatting about the world, politics, the human condition, and even sipped whisky in the late hours of the evening while discussing quantum mechanics. Some anecdotes from our time together:

  • We went out on the town, finding a live music venue where we were the only customers. The band dutifully played for us despite the circumstance, the drummer sporting a Michigan State hoodie

  • We went to the Museum of Natural History (Museu de Historia Natural), where we wandered through ridiculous taxidermy, disturbing bottled fetuses, snakes, and various insects, and odd and largely unexplained artwork of a Mozambican slave who became the first non-Japenese samurai in Japan.

  • Matt took me for a ride in his car (where all the plastics are riveted, and all the glass etched in an attempt to prevent theft) through the townships around Maputo. The places were an explosion of activity, spilling over into the streets themselves. Storefronts for shops specializing in a single good (lumber, drain pipe, iron, mufflers, etc.) displayed their wares in the open air, seething masses of people sliding past each other like particles in a liquid.

Photos really don’t do justice to the chaos in these throngs of people

  • We walked down a narrow alley-like street lined in pop-up bars (‘shabeens’ in South African parlance) and stores where I kept me hands close to my pockets. There, I caught my first glimpse of Lord Gin, the cheapest gin in Mozambique at <$2 for a Tetra-Pak 500ml box of the stuff.
  • We visited the tout-infested Fish Market on the coast where we bought a large parrot fish to cook in a curry and later make ceviche out of. It was an intense experience due to the abrasive crowd of folks offering to cook the fish on the beach, a service we weren’t looking for…

Parrot fish

Tiger prawns

  • Went to a funky little art exposition/studio.

I’d arrived on a Thursday, and my errands beyond enjoying Maputo were to check in on a long-stale DRC visa application and get one for Tanzania. Unfortunately, their embassies weren’t conducting visa applications on Friday, so my hands were tied until Monday. Over the weekend, Corey got an invite to attend an advanced rangering course in Kruger back in South Africa and had to head back to South Africa to take the class. It took until Wednesday the 18th before I had a Tanzania visa sorted out (which they got the dates wrong on, but will end up working anyways); I had no more luck than before with my DRC application…

Some notes on Maputo: It’s a big city with a mix of modern and old architecture. Much of the older construction, especially the large-scale residential structures, are a shadow of their former glory. A smattering of old colonial manses in disrepair stick our among those that have been turned into businesses or taken over by rich locals or foreigners. A gleaming new suspension bridge stands half-built in the harbor, part of a large China-backed infrastructure project to Ponta do Ouro in the south. Traffic can be occasionally nightmarish, with motorcycles, tuk tuks, cars, trucks, and buses zooming around every which way through narrow and insufficient streets. Little of the population appears to live near downtown, with the vast majority commuting in from the surrounding townships. A vast moderately-developed coastline makes up one border of the cityscape. A few older high rises sit a couple kilometers from the fewer new ones. In between, a vast complex studded with fortified soldiers houses the President. In the surrounding area lay the land of embassies and guarded homes of diplomats and generals.

When I finally got my Tanzania visa in hand, it was time to bid adieu to my incredible host and head north. As I’d learn to accept, but never really acclimatize to, it was an extremely hot and humid day in Mozambique as I fought the pervasive daytime Maputo traffic on my way out of town. When my path finally took me onto the main north/south highway (the primary artery through the whole of the massively long country), I felt momentarily transported to North Korea; for the first hour or so of my journey, there was basically no traffic on the road at all. The dissonance from what I’d escaped was palpable.

Eventually, the odd quiet of the road was interrupted by people. Endless people. People walking down the road, sitting in the shade under trees, carrying enormous loads of wood or supplies on top of their heads, or herding goats. Small children appeared endlessly along the roadside, frequently in some state of being put to work. When the stick and mud huts weren’t visible, people were. In the few times people weren’t, paths were. The trees were tropical but short. The villages small but pervasive.

The road itself was decent, and traffic was light. I’d pass or be passed by occasional trucks or “chapas” (Toyota minibuses), as well as a handful of bicycles and small Chinese motorcycles. Since my morning had been taken up by consular business with Tanzania and packing my things, I took it easy the first day and turned off the main road just a couple hours from Maputo at Macia, aiming for a small beach town about an hour down a pocked local road: Praia Do Bilene. There was a small campground at one end of the accessible beach where I could stay for a song and a dance, so I checked in and pitched my tent with ample sunlight. A friendly South African tour guide taking a couple around Mozambique (they were staying somewhere fancier) was camped next to me. He’d been guiding tours in southern Africa for ages, and passed on some helpful advice for Mozambique and Tanzania I dutifully wrote down, including recommending the beach/diving town of Zavora up the coast, where he’d be travelling to next.

Not much to complain about on the Mozambican coast

I had dinner at the restaurant attached to the campground and chatted up the locals before heading to the early rest characteristic of camping. The Mefloquine I had begun taking as an anti-malarial had begun to fuck with my sleep, so I awoke early in the morning with a sense that something awful had happened (I very rarely remember my dreams) and couldn’t get back to sleep. Eventually, I decided against staying another day and really getting to know Praia Do Bilene, and instead broke camp and headed towards Zavora, keen to do some diving.

The backtrack to the main road was mostly uneventful. Heading North again, there was an uptick in traffic, automotive, human, and animal. Suddenly, there was no stretch of road without people walking, biking, or motorcycling somewhere in sight. The vegetation had taken a fully tropical appearance, but it was also apparent that there had been significant tree cutting in the area. Hundreds of huge bags of locally produced charcoal studded the side of the road, allowing no mystery for where the larger trees had gone.

The speed limit alternated between 80 and 50km/hr, seemingly at random. Signage was sporadic at best. There were small villages everywhere, and a number of larger towns, the largest being Xai Xai, which has a popular beach I skipped past. I stopped in the small town of Chidenguele and found a little roadside bar off the main highway to get a cold drink (it was blazingly hot, as per usual) and met a friendly family and the Polish girlfriend of one smartly dressed member. After cooling down, I proceeded the rest of the way to the tiny turnoff from the main highway to head to Zavora.

It was immediately clear from the turn that I was heading for the infamously difficult sand of the Mozambican coast. I immediately began slowly and deliberately picking my way through deep sandy ruts on the one-lane road through the jungle. The ever-present folks on the side of the road would stop and watch me pass as my front tire pitched back and forth whenever its meager purchase failed. The 17km of pure sand took a solid 45 minutes to navigate, my limbs and clutch straining in the heat. I arrived at the foot of a giant sand dune with sweat pouring in rivers from my helmet, and a helpful local pointed up the impossibly deep sand of the dune to the top where one of the very few lodges, and the attached dive shop, were located. Once again, I had to gun the engine and rely on muscle memory to rapidly guide the careening bike to the top. I was thankful to find a spot of gravel at the top where I could put the bike on its stand without the kickstand just disappearing into the soft earth.

Like so often, I wasn’t willing to stop to take photos when things were at their worse, but take my word…

Zavora Lodge sat on a sandy dune overlooking the ocean. The wind howled at the bar/restaurant with attached deck. I checked in and got details on the diving, which they weren’t sure was going to be happening the next day due to the weather. Gazing at the roiling ocean below, I could understand the sentiment. I ate a big, well-deserved dinner and slunk off to bed to the sound of waves crashing outside my room.

A Leisurely Last Pass Through Swaziland

It was a Tuesday morning as I headed out to meet up with the Australian biker Corey, marking what I expected to be my last day biking through South Africa (for at least a very long time) and my first day traveling with a partner. Corey was meeting up with another motorcyclist bloke for breakfast, so I crashed their breakfast party at a local Mugg and Bean. We discussed our plans, and stopped by a local travel agency to get me a DriveMoz sticker (ostensibly, a membership in a Mozambican AAA-like service, but supposedly useful in preventing cops from messing with you there) on the way out of town. We were heading for Swaziland, and the first leg was backtracking to Barberton, SA, where I’d come from. From Barberton, we turned off of the main road and up into the mountains into the Barberton Nature Reserve, and towards Pigg’s Peak border crossing.

The weather was cooperating, which treated us to beautiful views of the mountain-hugging road. We passed a turn-off with some rock displays and plaques, as well as a killer mountain view, so we stopped to look at the display. The plaques along with some women in a car that had stopped as well informed us that we were on the Barberton Makhonjwa Geotrail, a winding mountain path with some of the best views of rocks from the Archaean period, over 3 billion years ago, when the air was full of carbon dioxide, oceans covered nearly everything, there was no vegetation, and volcanoes were belching lava far more than now. Apparently nearly all of the spots where these formations are visible are far-flung, and to highlight it, the route has turnoffs with information and examples distributed along the path.

Rocks rocks and more rocks… And a view of bigger rocks!

The road was full of twists, turns, and turnoffs. We passed exposed mountain rocks that really did look pretty unique and awesome, with pillowy igneous rocks, sandstone, and even a neat spotty-stone that formed with early small organisms in them, the fossilized remains of some of earth’s oldest life forms. My initial feelings that this was perhaps too geologist-nerdy for me was proved incorrect, especially when coupled by a fun, tranquil mountain highway.

We enjoyed the view

Even the cows loved it!

Eventually, a couple small buildings appeared in the distance, marking what may be the most tranquil border crossing to date. Clearing South African customs and immigration took about 10 seconds. There wasn’t a soul in sight. The 30 feet over to the Swazi side went like a breeze until the border guard insisted we fill out customer satisfaction surveys, being really pushy and not liking when I responded by filling it out quickly and putting “less surveys” in the “comments” section. I didn’t mention the condoms they, of course, had.

I want a hat like the guy on the dispenser on the right…

On the Swaziland side, we were dumped onto a bumpy dirt mountain road surrounded by forest. It was a blast. Corey and I took turns trying (to moderate success) to document each other’s rides through the twisty, occasionally muddy, but super fun roads. There was nearly no traffic. The sky had cleared up. The road was fun, as was having a motorcycling partner for the first time. It was a great day. We made it to Pigg’s Peak, a tiny little town, and made a turnoff from the main road onto another scenic tar road.

We stopped for lunch at a small intersection and had a lunch of $1 roadside rotisserie chicken. It was delicious. The road took us up through a mountain pass overlooking the Maguga reservoir and dam.  The sun was high and hot. We stopped at an overlook for some more ice cold Sibebe beers.

The Maguga Dam

My plan was to head to Ding’s office before she left for the day and crash with her if it worked out (my phone didn’t work in Swaziland, so I had no way to confirm with her, or see if she had room for Corey as well, but we figured we’d give it a shot. We’d also heard it was cheaper to get a Mozambican visa at the consulate in Mbabane, so we headed there first.

We caught up to the main road not far from Mbabane, and unlike my last trip through, the clear skies provided an unobstructed view of the city. Situated in the mountains, small buildings sprawled over the lumpy landscape, with not much high-rise or industry to identify the downtown. The Mozambican consulate was accessible only by dirt road, and was sadly closed to consular business for the day despite it being early afternoon. The guard gave us the required materials sheet, and told us we’d only save a little money by getting the visa there vs the border, and that it would take three additional days. We worked out it made more sense to just continue on and get it at the border, and headed to Manzini to try and catch Ding.

We rode down the main highway and into the paint factory at about 3pm, catching Ding and her sister moments before they headed out for the day. She said she’d forgotten I was coming that day (oops!), but in fact had bunk beds in her spare apartment for us! We followed the sisters to the local grocery store to pick up food for the night and then went back to their house.

The sisters lived in opposing homes on the same plot of land, and Ding had a small in-law unit in the back of hers. It was a cute spot, complete with homespun rainwater collection, and our hosts were incredibly generous and friendly. They cooked up several big meals at once, making one with chicken for us, a salad for them, and a big bowl of protein for Ding’s son, who swung by after the gym just to pick up food his mom had made. Adorable.

Our gracious hosts

We drank beer and whiskey, we watched the King’s plane take off from a nearby airport, and we chatted through the evening about all manner of funny topics before stumbling content back to bed. In the morning, we bid farewell to the sisters and packed our things. It was an easy ride to the border on the main highway, but we weren’t in a rush to get out, so we planned a route that would take us up north, and potentially through the Mlawula Nature Reserve (if they’d let us in), and through Hlane National Park if they wouldn’t. After a quick stop for Corey to try and source some convertible hiking pants at the local market (which he succeeded at), we jumped on the main highway for a hot second and headed north.

Things were super green and pleasant, but most of the day didn’t take us through the grandiose mountains we’d seen in the west. We stopped for a tasty lunch at the Mananga Golf Club around the apex of our route and managed to snag a little bit of internet to look for where we wanted to ultimately stay the night. Ultimately, we settled on the Mabuda Farm, an easy drive from us and the border. We settled up and headed out to try our luck crossing the Mlawula Nature Reserve.

We made it to the entrance of the reserve and from the gate could see a badass gravel road twisting off into the dense jungle. It looked fantastic… but the lady at the desk told us no bikes were allowed. Corey had interviewed for the position of Director of National Parks for Swaziland, and tried his luck sweet-talking us in, but it was to no avail, despite the lack of the “Big Five” animals that normally preclude motorcyclists. C’est la vie.

We rode down the road and through Hlane National Park, which actually *does* have “Big Five” animals (I really only saw a giraffe and some large birds from the road), and over to the town of Sitake. A 1km dirt road outside of town took us to the Mabuda Guest Farm, where we decided to camp at a beautiful site overlooking mountains, a valley, and coffee and banana plants. It was still plenty early, so we settled on heading to town for supplies and braaing for dinner. I rarely would set out to do something like this by myself. It was great to have company and a fellow cook to make it worthwhile.

Gotta love the head-carrying skills!

We snagged steaks and sausage, onions, cucumber, olives, peppers, and homegrown tomatoes. We cooked up a feast and I slept like a baby.

Breaking camp in the morning

The morning brought a thick layer of dew, which gave ample time to start the day while waiting for things to dry. From the farm, it was a short uneventful drive to the Goba Border, where it was time to switch languages (portuguese!), switch currencies (metical), switch directions (so much north!), and switch scenery (sand and beaches!).

South African Coda

A man at the petrol station in Swaziland had approached me, because apparently petrol stations are the place to make friends in southern Africa. He’d come from Nelspruit, where I was heading, and warned me about more intense fog. The sky was menacing, and as I rode through thick tree-lined ridges the fog came and went along with mild-but-obnoxious sprinkling rain.

I descended down a small pass and out of the clouds. Out on the horizon, I could even see a promise of sun that would remain unfulfilled. I was treated to 360 degrees of craggy mountainside, grey skies, and pale grass. There was wind, but it didn’t explain the overturned semi at the next T-junction.

I stopped at a roadside take-away restaurant for a boer-wors sandwich and to stretch. I chomped and chatted with some old and ever-curious locals. Aside from the weather and temperature, it was a pleasant ride through unremarkable (but still beautiful) mountains. Around mid-day, I took what I considered to be a mandatory 5km detour to the Jane Goodall Chimpanzee Eden. How could I possibly not??

I got in just in time to catch a tour already in progress, thereby missing all the establishing context for the place. Mostly, I just saw chimps! Dozens of them!

Not necessarily eden…

I’ll save you my ignorant musings and cut to what I learned from asking dumb questions later on. The Jane Goodall Chimpanzee Eden is a haven for rescued chimps of various sorts. Once there, they have no additional direct contact with humans. They’re kept in 3 distinct troops, with only two of them accessible to the public (the third are apparently too anti-social to even share a direct border with tourists).

Our guide related us facts about chimpanzees (mostly fascinating), the status of wild chimps now (mostly depressing), and the lives of these particular chimps (extremely depressing). Most of the chimps had had tumultuous lives before where they’d be used to sell sandwiches and entertain circus folks in Europe, or treated with chemicals in the USA. A few actually stuck to their stomping grounds in Africa. There were residual behaviors from their previous lives still playing out. One female chimp would make her own earrings out of vegetation. Another with PTSD would tear her and her friends’ hair out, bald patches standing out on her body.

There’s still some fun to be had here

Especially if you just wanna ape around

Or lay down on the job

We stood on a deck looking down on a reserve ringed in fence, electric and standard. The trees inside small enough to break had had all their vegetation stripped. We were told only this troop did this. Our guide tossed handfulls of nuts from a bowl to the chimps and explained their various tragic backstories and personalities. Nearly none of these animals had been raised by their mothers, which accounts for much their antisocial behaviors. For this reason, the females were regularly given the same daily contraceptive pills human females take. The largely idiosyncratic chimps came up to the fence, and seemingly-violently (which were assured is normal) interacted while they chomped on nuts.

We were led to the second of the two chimp enclosures visitors could see. Here, the trees’ foliage remained in tact, and among the chimps running around and playing on a jungle gym were both a relatively small chimp child, the oldest living male chimp (they live longer in captivity), and a large showboating chimp with special needs named Cozy.

The young chimp was born in captivity despite the contraceptives — as in humans, they’re apparently not 100% effective. Because none of the other chimps are mothers, and most also weren’t raised by their own parents, when the baby’s mother was diagnosed as pregnant, this presented a problem for the center. They kept the baby and its mother in seclusion while they tried to teach her some mothering. It took her awhile to learn to stop carrying her baby by its feet, but they struggled much more teaching it breast feeding. After failing with a video (she ignored it), a stuffed baby chimp and bottle (the mother seemed traumatized and convinced it was a dead baby), they finally had success by bringing in a new human mother and child and having her breast feed her own baby in front of the chimps. Then, momma figured it out immediately.

Born in a lab in the US, Cozy had been part of a roving circus act in Italy, and trained to perform and pose for photos. He had been put in a pair of blue jeans that he outgrew but which were left on, restricting his leg growth and blood flow, and leaving him permanently unable to sit or sleep like a chimp does naturally. When his owner died, the owner’s wife inherited it, but found it frightening, so she kept it in a cage for years, inadequately feeding it and making it live in its own filth, and even castrating him. When the new owner finally gave him up, they scanned his brain and found out he’d lost about 30% of it from neglect and abuse.

Despite his abuse, Cozy still seeks attention from humans. He smiles like a human (chimps normally wrap their lips over their teeth when smiling to avoid the appearance of aggression), appears happy when folks are looking at him, and his happiness seems to scale with the size of the cameras trained on him. If he doesn’t feel important enough, he’ll act out, as he did with me when he threw a macadamia nut shell and hit me in the chest with it while I was shooting a video. More so than any of the others, this special needs chimp, so abused by mankind, still seeking our affection, tugged at my heartstrings. It was hard to walk away as he stared with his unflinching gaze, still hoping for more reassurance that he was doing well.

You can watch the video of Cozy nailing me here. The toss isn’t until the last 30 seconds.

I continued to Nelspruit towards the Funky Monkey Backpackers. The path took me winding through hills and fancy homes, and finally to a hostel that could be great with the right crowd. Once again, that crowd was very much absent upon my arrival. Also, their internet was down, so I couldn’t take advantage of the quiet to get work done. After checking in, I heard from Corey, the Australian motorcyclist Sean had referred me to. He invited me out for a pint at a nearby bar where he was out with a friend of his he was staying with. I joined him.

Corey is a bearded bloke just a few months younger than I am. He’s lived in Zimbabwe for years working as an anti-poaching ranger and had just finished a masters degree at the University of Cape Town in conservation. He’s traveling while waiting to find the right job. He’s riding a Suzuki 650 V-Strom, a much more street-oriented and larger and more refined dual-sport than me, but had just put brand new 50/50 on/off road tires on. Given I’m on street-oriented tires, I’d say we’re likely equivalently capable as long as we’re not racing (he’d win), and while getting to know him over beers, it became clear we had pretty similar goals about our travel. Neither of us is in a hurry, nor has a specific schedule. We left things non-commital, but I suspect we both figured we’d give traveling together a shot.

I’d come to Nelspruit to go for a ride with a dentist named Canzius. We’d planned on Saturday, but the weather wasn’t cooperating so we moved it to Sunday morning. On Saturday, I moved out of Funky Monkey Backpackers (which I really wasn’t feeling) to a guest house in hopes of getting a working internet connection so I could work through the oncoming rain. It was a good choice, and I was happy for the peace and quiet on a day full of heavy rain. I took it easy, venturing out for food and to track down some replacement headphones, as all but one of the three pairs I’d taken had died.

Early on Sunday, I met up with Canzius at a petrol station in town. He was a friendly guy on a 701 Husqvarna. After exchanging some pleasantries and making a plan, I followed him out onto the road. In just a couple kilometers, we turned onto an awesome dirt road. We passed mile after mile of little country homes and farmland, flowering trees and bouncy turns. After getting thoroughly out of town on this scenic byway, he turned onto a little dirt road that led to a locked gate with a small doorway intended for pedestrians. We squeezed over a step and through the door to the other side. I started to wonder what I’d gotten myself into.

Next thing I know, we’re riding up through dirt, mud, and rocks, climbing into the mountains. We’re on a logging road, with alternating dense forest and empty fields. Portions of the road test my skills, but in a way that’s fun, not terrifying like Lesotho. Canzius is a super-capable rider on a super-capable bike with proper off-road tires. As he guns his bike over hills to get off the ground, his engine braaaaping in the quiet mountains, I carefully pick and choose my route, occasionally sliding through thick red mud like ice.

Up and up through switchbacks and past streams, the road eventually opens to reveal a broad mountain ridge. We gaze down into the tree-lined mountains and foggy valleys below. It’s beautiful. After a short break, we head off down an analogous declining road, this one full of loose gravel. The lack of my panniers and bags reminds me of how capable my DRZ-400S is without all the weight. In the back of my head, visions of the roads and fear in Lesotho bounce around and minorly shake my confidence in alternating waves with joy for having an opportunity to do some proper off-roading. At one point, we stop at a ravine and I spot the remnants of a tire. We clomp down into the muck, pull it out, and set it on the side of the road in the hopes that someone else will get it out of there.

We descend all the way down to the valley, Canzius blazing the trail much faster than me, but patiently waiting ahead as I bump and slide carefully down. From there, we hop onto another dirt road and ride a handful of kilometers across relative flatlands. Dense mud punctuates the path. Canzius’ tires fly straight through them while mine leave deep curving ruts. We get to another logging road and again start to climb. It’s here that Canzius approaches me and tells me something is wrong with my top case.

There on the top of the mountain, I get off and examine my newest issue. Despite having emptied the case, both support arms from the support rack had failed. This was the 3rd time this failure had occurred. The case was now bouncing forward and backward, torquing the aluminum subframe below. I looked and could see two failed welds on the subframe. With not many options but to proceed, and no ropes or tools handy to otherwise secure the box, my entire outlook changed, now riding as gently and deliberately as possible. Now that I was aware, I could feel the big aluminum box bouncing to and fro.

Luckily, we were close to the top of the mountain. A vast grassy field opened up along its peak. Dozens of wild horses wandered the idyllic landscape. I followed Canzius towards a pile of large cairn-like rocks situated on a cliff. There was a solo hiker at the rocks sporting a backpack and hat. We said hello and I thought I heard an American accent so I asked him where he was from. He told me Seattle, but that he lived in Maputo. I told him I was heading there, and he responded that if I needed a place to crash, he has more bedrooms than he knew what to do with. He handed me his card, and the shiny gold seal at the top proclaimed U.S. State Department. He went on to explain that the rocks we were at were assembled into a stone calendar tool called Adam’s Calendar and explained how it was found after a plane crash and is disputed to be the oldest man-made structure in the world, perhaps dating back as much as 75,000 years. You can read about it here.

Adam’s Calendar. I’m guessing it looked more impressive 75,000 years ago.

We said bye to the American and stood around appreciating the view from the cliff for awhile. It was beautiful. Then we turned around and rode a handful of miles to a small town with a tasty cafe to have breakfast and coffee. A handful of bikers came and went as we sat around and chatted over our food. Canzius was a really cool guy, and when the bill came, he insisted on picking up the tab. He also offered to have me over to his house for a braai that evening. How could I say no?

From the town, there was a tar road back to Nelspruit. I rode back slowly, trying to hold the top case on the bike the whole way back, struggling to shift and not snap the entire works off and onto the highway. Canzius warned that it looked like a storm was coming, and offered to come back and pick me up with his car after taking a shower. He followed me back to my guesthouse so he’d know where to pick me up then rode off. I immediately took off my case and told Corey I’d need to have some welds repaired before I’d be ready to leave. I was happy to hear back that that didn’t bother him.

When Canzius showed up to get me, the sky was ominous. There was no vagueness to the threat of incoming foul weather. We drove about a kilometer away to a gated community where he lived. It turned out he lived in a private nature reserve, and herds of antelopes dotted the green landscape and various unique and beautiful homes we passed on the winding private country road. We got to his home on a hill just as the first hints of water falling could be seen from the amazing view of his deck. Within 15 minutes, it arrived, and the intense rain was accompanied by some of the largest hail I’d ever seen in my life. The largest bits were nearly ping pong ball-sized, and they thundered on his metal roof. The wind tossed the things through the open wall of his deck and skittering across the floor.

I shot a short video of the hail here.

The storm went on for what seemed like a long time given its sheer force. The roof began leaking. Hail accumulated in piles like snow. When it finally passed, ominously reminding us of its presence with thunder on the horizon, Canzius started a fire for a braai. Copious delicious food and plenty of beer was consumed. Afterwards Canzius took me for a ride around the animal-filled streets of his complex in a fun little golf-cart before driving me home with the number of a good welder in the area to try and get my bike fixed the next day. It was a damn nice time, and one I’m grateful of Canzius and his family for giving me.

The man has zebras wandering around his ‘hood, just like Americans expect from Africa

I extended my guest house for yet another night and woke up early the next day in the hopes of having welding success.  I called up a man named Andre at Fusion Welding and was extremely happy to hear they did steel and aluminum welding, as I needed both done. I headed across town with my top case strapped to the back seat.

Andre was a super friendly guy, and given my situation, he graciously set aside his other work to help me.  The two of us stripped away the remaining parts to gain access to the subframe and see the extent of the damage. It wasn’t pretty…


Well, pretty muddy at least…

And pretty fucked…

I almost missed this one!

Couldn’t miss this one…

Andre is the only certified airframe welder in the area, and it didn’t take long of working alongside him to see why. The guy was equal parts engineer, welder, and artist. He intrinsically understood what work I wanted done (not just repairing, but re-engineering my rack supports and strengthening my sub-frame). I was in awe of his ability to eyeball things and have them work out exactly right the first time. His welds were impeccable. He added a large aluminum plate that strengthened the sub-frame that looks far more reasonable than the stock setup, replaced the hollow square metal arms on the rack support with solid ones he welded to perfectly match the old ones, and also brought thick steel place supports down from the arms to prevent the torque problem that has been causing all these headaches to begin with. He also machined custom vinyl spacers to level out the arms of the rack support on the sub-frame. We spent four hours of his day getting it all done, and the result was beautiful. I had lucked-the-fuck out.

I had a celebratory meal after and let Corey know I’d be ready to ride the next day. It was finally time to leave South Africa for the last time!

Swaziland Transit, Take One

Leaving South Africa is always a breeze. It was a tiny and quiet border, which always seems to help. Entering Swaziland proved to be pretty simple, as well, with just a 50 rand (<$4US) road tax fee before I was on my way. There was an added bonus: all the staff were wearing silly costume hats covered in glitter. When I asked about them, they pointed at a sign on the wall that read “Customer Service Week.” That’s some serious bonus points, Swaziland.

Before we get to my time, some quick facts about Swaziland:

  • They use the Swazi Lilangeni as their currency, but it’s 1:1 with the South African Rand, and aside from occasionally be scoffed at for Rand coins, Rand is accepted.
  • Swaziland is one of the last “absolute monarchy” in the world. Oddly, a separate panel picks which of the king’s wives will be the “great wife,” and her son becomes next in line for the throne. Also, his first 2 wives (he has 15!) were chosen for him by national councilors, and their kids won’t become king. Confusing!
  • Somehow, Swaziland has the dubious distinction of having the highest HIV rate in the world (of course there were condoms at customs, a common thing here).
  • Along with sugar and textiles, Swaziland is locally famous for having great pot.

I’d also heard the gasoline in Swaziland was cheaper than South Africa, so I’d skipped the last couple gas stations, but the one at the border was under construction. I figured I had enough to continue my plan… I‘d had two recommendations for accommodation in Swaziland: one nature reserve near the border (thanks, Hennie!), and one backpackers closer to the capital (thanks, Sean!). The wildlife reserve was first on the list, and only about 40k from the border.

I was in eastern Swaziland, and the landscape was flat and mostly empty, with small trees and grass dotting the landscape. Mountains loomed to the east. Small spread-out villages passed by as I headed north. There was nearly zero traffic, though I’d heard warnings about speed traps. I followed the speed limit as it varied seemingly randomly between 40 and 100kmh.

I arrived at Nisela Nature Reserve in the late afternoon. It was a cute and rustic place surrounded by  For just a few dollars more than a campsite, they had traditional beehive huts, just like Hennie has told me. I hadn’t seen them, but I couldn’t say no. I booked in to beehive #2 and went to see my new home. It was adorable, right down to the need to lay nearly entirely prone and shimmy through the tiny little door. Inside was actually quite spacious, with two beds and some impressive weaving. You can check out the inside here.

I had my first delicious Sibebe beer at the restaurant/bar at the lodge, and eventually a lovely meal as well. I hung out, caught up on the news, read my book, and said hi to a cute zebra in a cage on the property. I slept like a baby in my beehive hut.

The familiar re-packing routine in the morning was amusingly complicated by the tiny door. I staged the things then had to crawl in and out to pull my things on and stack them back into my bike. Then I backtracked to the border and hopped on the highway heading west. I’d spent the previous day sweating in my jacket, so I’d removed the lining. Today, it was cold and ominous. A few kilometers west, the rain started. It would continue the rest of the day.

I stopped and put my waterproof lining back, and threw the rain cover on my tank bag. The road climbed up into the mountains. I was riding in dense fog. The road wound up and down, through tiny villages and mountain passes, but much of the most scenic parts were too cloaked in the clouds to see. I lamented my lost views while I rode, cold and wet. What was visible was light agriculture, small homes, and the greenest grass yet. I eventually came across the Rider’s Ranch, a large motorcycling event space out in the country. I stopped and took some photos of their funky motorcycle installations (including a sad shrine) and large castle-like structures before carrying on.

I carried on to the Sundowners Backpackers, just past the city of Manzini, that had been recommended to me by Sean, who used to run it. At the main gate, a large painted sign announced that the lodge and restaurant were closed for renovations. I started to drive off in search of alternate lodging when I spotted another smaller sign off to the side pointing up a steep hill announcing the backpackers (vs the lodge and restaurant) was up there. I rode up the steep wet bricks to another gate off the road, and was able to check into the backpackers.

The place was large, with over 100 beds, but it was also a ghost town. Not a single person other than me and the staff was there, and there were no vehicles in the driveway. I still figured it was worth a shot despite the staff being oddly unfriendly, and dropped my things off.  Since there was neither a restaurant or bar, and the place wasn’t walking distance to anything, I rode off to get some food in town and try to find some new padlocks (I’d lost a couple of mine).

After a quick meal, I rode around looking for cheap Chinese retailers for padlocks. In this part of Swaziland, the equivalent class of shops had a solidly Indian flare, including the staff. I’d just parked in the rain and walked into one of the shops when the car guard came in behind me and told me someone in a white car was looking for me. I was confused and immediately on edge. Since I didn’t know anyone here, my first thought was I was about to enter some sort of scam. I was wrong.

Out in the parking lot, a white truck sat with its wipers on. As I approached it, the door opened and a small woman in the driver’s seat said something to the effect of “You must be cold and need coffee.” I stared blankly for a moment, unsure of if this was a question, an invitation, or simply an observation. I told her I never say no to coffee if she was inviting me. She responded that they like motorcyclists, and that she was off to pick someone up, but would be back in 3 minutes and I could follow her back to her office.

I agreed and we separated, her back on the road and me back into the shop to look for padlocks. I was confused and amused, wondering what odd situation I’d gotten myself into this time. After striking out on locks, I waited outside and eventually followed the familiar white pickup truck around the corner to a large building directly behind where I’d just been. It was a paint factory. The woman invited me inside to the office.

The woman was a Swazi native named Ding, and she worked at the paint factory with her sister and mom. Her brother, crazily enough, ran the Rider’s Ranch I’d just passed through! She’d grown up riding motorcycles and liked to help bikers out when she found them. How do I keep finding these people?!

Over coffee, we chatted, and I told her about my plans. She invited me to stay with her, and I told her I’d love to on my way back through Swaziland in a just a few days (after going riding around Nelspruit with my future dentist friend). Both sisters were absolute sweethearts. We traded info and eventually parted ways back out in the rain.

Back at the backpackers, it’s still just me and the grumpy woman in charge. I decide to make the best of things. The place has a bathroom nearly the size of a shitty studio apartment in SF replete with a massive bath tub. I grab my laptop, a couple beers I’d bought, and have a glorious soak with a movie. It was transcendental.

No one showed up at the backpackers all night. I had an entire room full of bunks to myself. It was a very odd experience.

While the rain let up briefly overnight, it was in full force when I went to leave again. From Sundowners, I hopped onto the largest highway in Swaziland, a divided highway that would feel right at home in America, which cuts right through the capital of Mbabane. Unfortunately, Mbabane is a mountainous city, and I was stuck in fog so thick I could frequently not see the incoming lanes of traffic across the median. Hints of buildings and mountains passed by on either side. I hugged the edge of the slow lane of traffic, terrified while navigating this thick pea soup of an atmosphere that some irresponsible driver would come roaring blindly down the highway and spread me and the contents of my motorcycle across the road. I struggled continually with the visor of my helmet — down would bead with water and fog to become totally impenetrable, and up would allow driving and tiny particles of rain to assault my eyes. There was no winning. I took it easy.

The highway deadends at a large (by Swazi standards) border with South Africa. The line at the Swaziland side moved fast, though I was hounded by a fast-talking pollster with an iPad who asked me a million questions about my stay as I passed through it. Any annoyance there was quickly rectified when I set eyes on the customs and immigration officers, who were once again adorned with sparkling goofy hats. Seriously, more officials in scary bureaucratic positions should do this.

On the other side, a near-Sisyphean nightmare was unfolding in the only South African border I’ve had an issue with. A dozen windows fed by a dozen lines, all of which were struggling with a pilot program whereby all entering parties were digitally fingerprinted was causing a massive backup. I had a chat with a hoarse professional golfer returning home. I got stuck behind a family with kids having some sort of meltdown. I switched lines and watched multiple people mash a woman’s hands onto a fingerprint scanner while she barked angrily at the immigration agent on the other side of the glass. Eventually, my fingers were also mashed onto glowing green glass, the customs agent still grumbling about the woman who’d been in front of me, and I entered South Africa for what I believe will be my 4th and final stint.