Ship Shock, or How Do I Love Thee, Let Me Count The Burns

Part 1:

My sturdy steed, my trusty transit — my soon to be dusty dreambike — has arrived, unharmed and fully functional to the great city of Cape Town. Make no mistake, no humble words, dear reader, will convey the rich mix of excitement and relief that’s been pouring through my veins since the wood walls that passed across the ocean with my beloved bike. The logistics of receiving it was one of the most endearing things that’s happened to me so far, which is mind-boggling since we’re talking about dealing with customs and cargo handlers!

Spoiler! Complete with a brand new AfrikaBurn sticker, straight from their HQ

Things didn’t start off smoothly. The flight from Istanbul to Cape Town was delayed by a little over an hour, and 30 minutes after it had landed, the folks at the cargo office hadn’t received a final manifest to confirm that the bike had indeed arrived (it had previously been marked as taking a flight on the 16th, but had been rebooked). I was antsy, so I decided to head to the cargo office independently. I took yet another Uber and had them drop me outside the secure gate. I walked up, and was instantly met by a guard who told me in no uncertain terms that I wouldn’t be walking in. I was immediately incredulous! I had walked in on the 16th, signing a ledger in the guard house before being let in, but this woman insisted there was no ledger, and that foot traffic in was strictly forbidden. To enter, I needed to be in a vehicle. We went back and forth several times, and the logic of this rule was completely lost on me, and within 5 minutes, the woman, tired of dealing with me, asked a random driver coming in in a car to let me in. He begrudgingly accepted, I hopped in, went through the gate, and got out again. Well, okay, whatever works I guess!

Next to the cargo receiving office proper. A crotchety man in a neon safety vest in a wheelchair insisted on giving me directions. An incredibly friendly guy behind the counter recognized me from Sunday, greeting me with a stack of paperwork including the original Airway Bill. My bike was here somewhere! I stepped out to head to customs, and the wheelchair man once again flagged me down and sent me off in the proper direction.

This was one of the parts I’d expected to be tricky. To ship a bike into South Africa, you’re highly encouraged to have an anachronistic document called a carnet de passage en douanes. It’s basically a passport for a vehicle. Once common, only a handful of countries still use these, and many of them are in Africa, but aside from some outliers (notably Egypt), it’s optional when crossing borders overland. Shipping is different, but I’d spent days researching the requirements and reaching out to South African customs, eventually getting some useful information from the South African consulate in the US that a particular customs form, the aptly named SAD 500, should enable me to safely bring my bike in. Of course, there’s a catch: the SAD 500 requires a bond at 30% of the value of the vehicle that’s reimbursed upon the vehicle’s passage out of the country. I’d read online that the value customs decides to use for any particular vehicle can vary.

With all this in my mind, I waited my turn at a customs window, where the first question was unsurprisingly “Do you have a carnet?” The two ladies behind the glass barrier were not impressed with my answer. They scolded me harshly, telling me how important it is, and seemingly brushing off my statement about a SAD 500. A couple sentences in, their chiding became “make sure you get a carnet next time” (emphasis mine) and my heart rate began to slow. I think my excitement was contagious, as before I knew it, one of the women behind the glass was asking if I had room for her to join me, and they were handing me a stamped document free of charge that they told me was all I needed. Sight unseen and without a penny spent, I’d just cleared a motorcycle into Africa.

Back to the cargo office, more paperwork, more stamps, and I’m handed a packet to give to security to get my bike. The friendly guy behind the counter asks how I’m getting the bike out of the crate, I give him a look of pleading, and before I can open my mouth, he’s laughing and holding a giant crowbar. My good fortune continues!

My first glimpse of my two-wheeled friend.

I hand the documents over, and a crowbar-wielding handler bursts through the gate driving a forklift, crate in proverbial hand. My heartbeat swells. The crate is dropped off to the side on the loading dock, and three handlers, including my gruff wheelchaired friend, descend on the crate with a sense of purpose. The top lifts off. I get my first look. My heart sings.

My new friends at work!

My bike is released from its protective shell, but my friends aren’t done. I need to re-assemble the top case, re-install my mirrors, and reshuffle my things. Before I know it, the cargo handlers are into my tools, working together to do things for me. They install my mirrors. They install my top case. They help me re-pack. The wheelchaired man directs it all from his perch. I am in complete and utter awe and appreciation. As we finish, I give them all big hugs under the baking African sun. They accept this with a nonchalance that says “of course we’re helping you get your shit together. Welcome to South Africa!”

Welcome, indeed!

I suit up. I mount my fully assembled machine. I wave a meaningful and heartfelt farewell, and I head to the exit. The guard there looks at me, asks for my ID, and before I can even reach for it tells me it’s too difficult for me to retrieve and waves me through unchecked.

I’m on the road (what feels like the wrong side of it).

I’m riding on the highway.

I feel the wind through my mesh jacket.

The sound of the motorcycle, the hot air, and the traffic plays like the most beautiful symphony inside my head. After years of thought and planning, months of logistics, and a life of dreams, I’m riding my first meters on an adventure bike on this fourth, and most personally mysterious, continent. Emotion pours over me with the wind.

I head back to my hostel and have a beer. And then another. I relax. I buy a chain and lock my bike to a post. My friend, you’re not going anywhere without me for awhile.

Part 2:

10,000 miles from home, and I haven’t escaped the gratuitous and gracious giving of fellow burners, and as I type, an army of them are descending on Cape Town and the deserts north. A fluke of my timing, once it was so in reach, there was never a choice in my mind: I was going to be amongst them in the desert. But it’s no small feat surviving in the desert for a week with only a motorbike to bring your things, and even less so when you’re outfitted to do far more things on the bike than just attend AfrikaBurn.

Enter the community: Say what you will about “hippies taking drugs in the desert,” but let no one say that burners aren’t some of the most outrageously generous folks. Let’s approach this, once again, in list form. The following things have happened to me since arriving:

  • Offered water to be brought for me to the burn for free (refusing payment) by a total stranger.
  • Offered to bring any other goods I may need by a total stranger.
  • Offered three different opportunities to caravan up with folks, all of which are willing to help me bring things up.
  • Convinced a stranger at my hostel to go to the burn, and before the end of the day she had a ticket and ride to get there.
  • Offered help finding an early entry pass (pending).
  • Offered many dusty hugs by Black Rock Rangers.
  • Approached by a journalist who wants to chat at the burn.
  • Offered tips on where to get costumes and food.

Nevermind the new friends, amazing company, and general feeling of being once again in a community that welcomes me and does everything possible to allow me to succeed.

Africa, you’re off to a pretty swell start.

The Trip Begins

Sanibonani from Cape Town! It’s been a busy week. Allow me to quickly summarize in list form:

  • Finalized flights
  • Moved my things out of my dad’s place and into The Jambulance
  • Drove with my father to pick up my crated motorcycle
  • Discovered the crate was too large for the trailer we’d hauled from Kalamazoo to Detroit
  • Rented a u-haul trailer
  • Picked up the trailer
  • Entered Canada
  • Dropped off the crate at a bustling freight warehouse near the airport
  • Checked into a Chinatown hostel in Toronto
  • Bid farewell to my mother
  • Caught an Uber to the Toronto airport with a South African driver who spent the entire ride cautioning me in no unclear language about how extremely dangerous South Africa is, including personal anecdotes wherein he overheard the staff at a hotel he stayed in in Cape Town colluding to rob him that evening in Sotho (a language they assumed he didn’t understand), ending in him getting in touch with the hotel owner and having them fired
  • Flew 10390 miles, 21 hours with the layover and delays, to Cape Town via Addis Ababa
  • Stopped by the Cape Town cargo terminal and learned my motorcycle is arriving Tuesday afternoon
  • Caught an Uber to the AirBNB I’d booked south of the airport
  • Drove through the middle of some extremely seedy townships, the driver repeatedly remarking that the neighborhood is “very dangerous” and proceeding to lock the doors, roll up the windows, and run a stop sign
  • Got dropped off at my AirBNB in an uncomfortable-feeling neighborhood of tiny houses
  • Called my host when there was no answer at the door only to be told he was out of town and had mistakenly accepted the request for a room
  • Drew a lot of looks lugging my stuffed backpacking backpack through the labyrinthine neighborhood to a major intersection
  • Caught another Uber to a nice hostel in a student area near town
  • Checked in and drank a much-deserved beer
My bike, all packed up and (nearly) ready to fly

First to the question you’re clearly already looking to ask me: I’m totally aware that Uber is a company that’s been acting like garbage pretty much since the beginning, but I’ve mostly had no choice! There’s no Lyft in Toronto or Cape Town! 😉

Hi Mom! The camera is over there, though…

Alright, we’ve gotten that out of the way. Let’s talk second impressions: I had the privilege of visiting South Africa seven years ago with friends, one of whom grew up here and still has family in the Eastern Cape. On that trip, we had a rental car and spent a large portion of our time on the tourist circuit or staying with my friend’s family. Traveling solo is always a different beast, with every interaction colored by others’ perception and your own lack of group influence. 24 hours in, I feel extremely welcomed here.

Aside from the occasional stare, folks have been helpful, kind, friendly, and open. On a personal level, walking down the streets (an activity you see very few white people doing outside of the downtown CBD) and feeling like the odd one out is, to me, a valuable lesson that anyone who’s lived most of their life with an appearance similar to the majority of the people around them should learn. The smiles and help I’ve gotten from pedestrians, bus drivers, and kids serves to me as a stark juxtaposition to the treatment minorities often get elsewhere. Considering how recently there were major shifts in race relations in South Africa, it’s hard for me not to feel heartened about our abilities to co-exist, forgive, and perceive people as individuals, not just members of a group.*

Looking for some side-eye with your beer? Look no further than Ethiopia!

For those curious about my plans, my next week will be dedicated to three things: preparing to attend AfrikaBurn next week (a gratuitous self-indulgence at the beginning of my trip), exploring Cape Town, and, most importantly, planning my next steps after. More to come!

Please be OK today!

*NB, as a white guy from the Midwest, my own knowledge and depth of experience on these subjects is limited at best and is in no way meant to be authoritative. I’ll also add that my last trip to South Africa, I heard some of the most blatant and offensive hate-speech I’ve encountered anywhere.