South Africa, Joburg/Drakensberg edition

Groblersbrug (or Grobler’s Bridge) is the name of the “settlement” opposite where I crossed over from Botswana. As far as I could tell, there’s nothing really there but trucks and farmland. It was getting late, and I still had a bit of riding to do before I’d make it to Lephalale, where I’d found a cute place to stay. The road was remarkably busy for a country road, but like most in South Africa, in pretty good shape. While the last glimpses of sun receded beyond the horizon, green lush farmland and happy looking trees passed by. I even passed a farm with a little kid zipping around on a tiny dirt bike in his front yard, waving frantically at me. I had to put in my reserve tank, as I hadn’t passed in a petrol station in hours.

Cloying darkness finally arrived, and I had to ride another 45 minutes in the dark, something I try my best to avoid. The traffic (and my consistently fouled visor) provided a constant source of near blindness. Eventually, I came upon a cute little town and a bustling petrol station. I gassed up and followed my GPS to a scenic gated lot and rang the door bell. An adorable old Afrikaner man led me into the place, an odd lodge that seemed empty, with a honor bar and tiny dorm rooms that packed a bed, desk, toilet, and shower all into one room. He pointed me out to a place for dinner that was open at this hour and after dumping my things, I headed back out.

Not pictured: the shower and sign informing everyone not to wear pajamas in the dining area.

Following his directions, I pulled into a grandiose entrance to a hotel. It looked super swanky, with guards, fieldstone work, well-kept grounds, and tables inside and out with white tablecloths. I walked up, and nearly walked back when I saw a sign on the door mentioning a relatively buttoned-up dress-code. I’d only seen a KFC as an alternate option, so I figured there was no hurt in checking out the menu. I walked in to no side-glances, despite my dirty jeans, clodhopper boots, and hiking shirt. The prices were also very strangely reasonable given the ambiance, so I stuck it out and had a delicious, oddly reasonable meal before retiring for the evening.

The next morning, it was on to Joburg! I had a tip for the Curiocity Backpackers in the neighborhood of Maboneng from an AfrikaBurn friend, so I cued up my GPS and headed out in the morning and the crack of 10am. The beginning of the excursion was rather pleasant by daylight, first leading me through D’Nyala Nature Reserve, then Grootwater Nature Reserve. All this really meant to me was flat, scenic roads with gentle curves and little traffic… and then there was a castle full of biltong! You’ll recall, biltong is the South African (pardon me, all folks in the area for the comparison I’m about to make for the American audience) version of jerky, only far superior. This place had an absurd collection, from Giraffe to Hippo, from Gemsbok to Springbok. I bought an absurd collection of animals meat-stick form.

Crenelated meat!
A cornucopia of every meat known to southern Africa!

From the amazing meat-castle, I headed south to increasingly busy roads; I ended up on the main north/south road into Joburg, the biggest city in South Africa. As I passed through increasingly urban locales, I simultaneously found more incredible vistas from the lumpy terrain. The building traffic was a trial-by-fire of big city South African traffic (of which I’ve mostly been blissfully unaware) and dirty diesel trucks (to which I blame South America for my intimate familiarity). I crested a well-placed hill and gazed down through the LA-esque fog at the sprawling skkyline, but I couldn’t get quite comfortable enough to enjoy it, instead dodging choking black smoke erupting from mistreated trucks.

Eventually, my GPS led me on a rather adventurous route through relatively central Joburg. As I would come to learn, my home neighborhood for the next few days, Maboneng, was redeveloped by a single local Jew, who over the years came to own a huge swatch of the previously quite rough-and-tumble neighborhood, and turned it into hipster central. I averaged seeing well over one ridiculous-looking photo shoot a day, and even listened to a shipping-container coffee shop/Turkish food restaurant owner kvetch about one ongoing in his restaurant. The ‘hood is full of murals and art installations, all of which are brought in by the developer as he redevelops the derelict buildings. It simultaneously creates a cohesive, if forced, artsy hipster vibe that reminds me of a stroll down Valencia St. in SF about 6 years ago when there were still more gaps in the reconditioned facades.

Oblivious to all this at the time, I followed my directions, and after a couple wrong turns, ended up at Curiocity Backpackers. When checking in, the front desk-woman pawned me off to another employee to show me my room, and the moment he asked me my name (to which I obviously replied ‘Levi’), a woman turned around and inquisitively repeated my name… it was a German friend I’d met in Cape Town and AfrikaBurn months ago! I finished checking into a large room packed with 12 beds, got invited to a birthday party for the friendly woman at the front desk, was told I could bring my motorcycle inside at night, and had a beer in my hands and was catching up with an old friend all in about 5 minutes. Welcome to Joburg, indeed!

My bike playing pool

I hung out for awhile decompressing, my friend headed out, and I headed out onto the Joburg streets to get some dinner. There was a tiny art-house cinema with an attached pizzeria/craft beer bar because, of course there was. I ordered a pizza and a beer, ended up meeting some locals and chatting about my travels, then the Finnish director of a documentary covering the opposing sides of refugee immigration in Finland came over and convinced us to attend the free screening of her film. After over an hour of watching naked Finnish men argue about Muslims in saunas and yell in the streets about their culture while poor immigrants struggled to start a life and recover from all their trauma, I was suitably depressed with humanity and I bailed before the Q&A.

I guess they have something for all emotional states…

The next few days were a whirlwind, so I’ll do my best movie-montage Joburg version in list form:

  • I went to The Apartheid Museum, which shares a parking lot with a casino and theme park. It was a master class in poor information design, but full of powerful imagery and tons of information about SA I was curious about and uninformed, and due to the design, am still largely in the same position but have a deeper emotional context. I cried.
  • I shot the shit with a gang of Brazilians.
  • I bonded with an impeccably-dressed fashion designer from Cape Town with great hair.
  • I attended the front desk woman’s birthday party on the roof deck of a nearby apartment building, learned about the ‘hood from a contractor working there, met a fascinating minister from Chicago, and opened a bottle of wine with my shoe (thanks, Emil!).
  • I met some cool sellouts (I use the term with the affection only a fellow sellout can) from London, and a much less cool Brexit voter from outside there, then thoroughly enjoyed watching the former seethe at the ignorance of the latter, especially when the latter to do a backflip at a bar and settled on walking down a flight of stairs on his hands.
  • I spent a day riding around Joburg. I found where the yuppies are, where the poor Arab and Indian immigrants are, and where the former squatters from Maboneng hang out: in a park covered with flaming trash. Downtown, I came across some odd sights including a group of a couple dozen people standing in the street holding what appeared to be a giant wooden roadblock painted red, with a very-oddly juxtaposed red office chair they were also sitting in. The car next to me floored it through the red light directly beyond this weird tableau, but I stopped at the light keeping me eyes on the folks, who seemed utterly preoccupied standing around and playing with their roadblock.
New friends
Beard friend
Hipster central: Maboneng
Birthday party with a view!

Through the magic of my incredible network of friends, you may recall that I was introduced to an awesome cat named Adam and his family in Cape Town via my friend Nick. Well, carrying on the longstanding tradition of my friends, even new ones, being freakin’ amazing, Adam passed me along to his friends Juniper and Tian in Johannesberg. Despite never meeting me, these new folks reached out and invited me to come stay at their place in the Linden neighborhood, come to Juniper’s birthday party, meet their family, animals, and even swim in their pool. It was a pretty difficult offer to refuse… so I didn’t.

So Sunday morning, I headed to the Juniper/Tian household. Following GPS, I got close, and before I could double-check the address on my phone, a pregnant Juniper with blue hair was coming down the street calling my name. Before I knew it, I was walking into an incredible lush gardenscape with a hip funky old brick house nestled in it. Cute dogs ran up to sniff me. A delicious latte materialized. There was Burning Man art on the walls! I was shown to a room full of books with a pull-out bed to unload, and we headed off to the birthday festivities in a new (to them) Toyota truck.

Clearly, I have friends in all the right places!
And they’re even burners!!!

We had a fabulous lunch at Tian’s parent’s place, another incredible house surrounded by vegetation and landscaping. I came to discover that this was a very high-achieving group of folks. Juniper is a director, Tian a creative director at a big-name ad agency. In the family are successful businessfolks and aspiring TV personalities. All were curious, interesting, and incredibly friendly. I could hardly reason about how I’d come to be there. I drank tasty wine and craft beer. I talked about my travels, and learned about theirs. After lunch, we took the dogs for a walk through the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens where I played with dogs and took in the pastoral scenery. Juniper, Tian, and I then chatted all through the evening and night, braaing steaks, drinking beer (those of us not pregnant, that is ;), and having a wonderful time.

I’d intended to head out the following morning, but Juniper and Tian told me I should stick around another day. I had a few errands to run (new brake pads to source and install, chain lube, a new auxiliary power outlet, etc.), the blog to work on (they had the fastest internet at their home that I’d seen in all of Africa), and they were delightful conversationalists, so I happily demurred. I slept in the complete silence of their suburban paradise and had a productive day finding everything for which I looked and getting the work I had done on the bike. We had another nice evening of chatting and getting to know each other over wine and pasta, and they gave me some advice for the next leg of my journey. In the morning, I awoke to a latte held through the door right next to my head, packed my things, said goodbye to some truly fantastic humans, and once again hit the road.

I hopped on the N3, an absolutely beautiful divided highway toll road between Johannesburg and Durban, headed for the small town of Himeville at the foot of Sani Pass, one of the roads I’d been lusting after ever since I began planning my trip. Sani Pass is a winding mountain dirt road that serves as the craziest border crossing between South Africa and Lesotho. It’s the highest border crossing in Africa, and has tons of beautiful vistas and steep, sharp switchbacks climbing up to Lesotho. There are plans to pave it in the future, so it was important to me to ride it on this trip before that happened.

I worked my way out of Johannesburg traffic in a mass of choking exhaust and got into my groove. The road is perfectly paved, and an endless line of large trucks snakes through its winding path. The further I rode, the more scenic the road became. Giant fields of brown grains that would fit into the Kansas countryside opened to rolling mountains, then massive brown valleys overlooked with stately plateaus akin to the Valley of the Monuments. The road curved up and down through mountains that turned from rocky brown dirt and grass, to bright green rolling hills covered in cows (if you’ve ridden 280 south of SF, you’ve seen the same scenery), to true pine forests akin to the Olympic Peninsula (minus the white-capped peaks). I hadn’t gotten the world’s earliest start, and I was taking my time appreciating the scenery, which was grandiose and incredibly varied, so I decided to stretch my trip and appreciate the last leg of it in daylight. I found an adorable and cheap B&B in Howick, just off the N3, and checked in for the night.


An adorable elderly couple ran the B&B. I was given a room on the roof with a big bath tub and sent to a pub down the street for dinner. I drank tasty local beer and one of the best spicy chicken sandwiches I’ve ever had. The locals came by and chatted with me. It was a cute little town. After dinner, I hopped in a nice warm bath and soaked my bones with some downloaded Netflix. It was a welcoming decompression after the city life.

In the morning, I was off of the N3 and onto a smaller 2-lane country highway. I passed through more dramatic scenery shifts, from hot foothills covered in vineyards to cold pine forests draped in mist. I passed through the town of Boston, South Africa, thoroughly amused by the name, and had a nice chat with the independent petrol station owner. Eventually, I made my way to a pleasant valley of oak trees and hazy mountains for a horizon. In Underberg, I was approached by the owner of the local bike shop who gave me a brief and fascinating version of the area. More locals came by and chatted as we stood there, curious and friendly the lot of them. By early afternoon, I came upon the Himeville Arms, a centenarian hotel Juniper and Tian had recommended just before the start of Sani Pass, and checked in.

This doesn’t look like the Boston I used to live outside of…

After lunch and some more motorcycle maintenance, I went to town to get a few beers to drink while I caught up on my blogging. On the way, I passed a whole crew of adventure bikers, some of the first proper ones I’d seen in ages! When I got back, I plopped down with a beer in the middle of the place where I could catch WiFi and tried to get some work done. Instead, a guy approached me and asked if the DRZ was mine. When I confirmed his suspicions he excitedly dragged me to the bar where an entire gang of South African adventure riders were sitting and getting ready for dinner!

New adventure biker friends: The Wild Dogs!

The crew belonged to an adventure motorcycling forum called the Wild Dogs. They immediately bought me a beer. They were heading over Sani Pass in the morning on their way to a national bash for their motorcycling group, and told me I should come along. They even convinced me to go on the forum and make an introduction. They were super friendly and my kind of silly (they had a tradition of taking photos of themselves bare-assed in front of their bikes). I ended up grabbing dinner next to them and hearing about what a great group of folks would be at the bash, so I figured I’d try and catch the last day of it after Lesotho. Then I did my best to rest up before my big day riding up into Lesotho. My excitement whittled away at my sleep, but I woke up in the morning, stoked for the coming adventure.

Fallsing for You, Clean Dancing, and Breaking All The Laws

I was finally out of Namibia and into a new country: Botswana! I beamed as I left the Nam side of the border, and was immediately greeted by an unavoidable trough of muddy water I had to ride through (I became used to these, as they were spread at obnoxious intervals all throughout Botswana). I liked imagining what the folks who came up with this were thinking. “How should we welcome people? Mud bath!” Immediately after the mud bath, there was a super creepy tree, partially hollowed out, and festooned with dead animal bones. Damn, Botswana, you know how to make an impression!

Totally what I expect to see at an international border crossing: a creepy tree room surrounded by skulls

Next to the creepy tree was the border hut. Entering Botswana could not have been much easier. I paid a road use tax, got my passport stamped, was invited to take the border guard with me (which has become a recurring theme), and was on my way. I can’t give a solid 5-stars to the Namibia/Botswana border, though, because their oddly-placed condom dispenser (directly next to the customs counter) appeared to be out. 4.5/5 stars guys. So close!

Out of brochures, too?? Slackers.

Once into Botswana, I found myself in the Chobe National Park. The scenery was similar to what I’d been riding through in the Caprivi Strip, but without all the people. In fact, other than short scrubby trees and grass, there weren’t many signs of life in general! I managed to spot a monkey and eagle, both hanging out towards the top of trees, but no other animals crossed my path. Instead, I found myself playing leap-frog with a fancy modern fire truck heading the same direction as me. At one point, it pulled to the side of the road about a mile ahead of me (the road was arrow-straight and nearly completely flat), and just while I was passing it again, a fireman dropped trou (yellow rubber pants and all) with his ass towards the middle line of the road and proceeded to take a shit next to the truck, directly on the shoulder line of the highway. I was laughing all the way to Kasana, the quad-point border town (Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe all nearly share a corner border there).

There was tourist-related signage for days in Kasana, but it still wasn’t much to look at. I hunted around until I found a half-decent guesthouse, the cheapest accommodation I could find. In the process, I learned Botswana is far from cheap to stay in, but at least the crowing roosters were far enough away to allow for blissful slumber.

In the morning, I headed to the Kazungula Border Ferry, a great name for the miserable border between Botswana and Zambia. Just outside of Kasane, Botswana tapers to a point, constrained by the Chobe River, the Zambezi River, and a skinny swatch of Zimbabwe just across a decaying fence. Lined up for what seems like miles outside the border are an endless line of heavy trucks waiting for the two dueling ferries that take turns carrying one truck at a time across the rushing Zambezi.

Don’t let the seeming tranquility here fool you…
Goin’ for a ride.

Exiting Botswana was easy, save for the line of truckers with piles of paperwork. Just beyond the border building, however, you’re greeted by an army of touts offering to help clear Zambian customs, and another obnoxious trough of water waiting to soak my lower half. Before I could navigate too far, the touts insisted I go back and get a temporary export permit (TEP) from Botswana to give to the folks in Zambia. Usually, you get a temporary import permit there at the border, but enough of them said I wouldn’t make it in without it that I doubled back and waited in line once again. The border folks seemed surprised and asked if I’d been turned back, but they also gave me a huge form to fill out in duplicate and sent me back on my way.

What followed was several hours of miserable border shenanigans. There were numerous fees to pay, road taxes, carbon taxes, exit fees, and, of course, the visa. I was shuffled from one cramped,  confusing office to another, with no rhyme, reason, or sensible layout. There was basically no useful signage. At one point, a vehicle inspector was dispatched to look at the bike and double-check the VIN number. I had to chase away more touts trying to get money from me by washing my bike with dirty water poured from old water bottles. When it was clear I wouldn’t pay them, one of them removed some scraps of reflective stickers they’d stuck on my front fender, indignant I didn’t want to pay for them. One of the touts convinced me I’d be turned around if I didn’t buy insurance. I bought it. I never needed it. I left mentally drained from the bureaucratic circus.

Zambian roads were the worst tarred ones I’d seen, but honestly it’s a pretty high bar — I’ve seen worse in California. It was just under an hour from the border to Livingstone, the Zambian gateway to Victoria Falls. I’d booked into the Jolly Boys Hostel, and they stuck me in a hut that prominently announced its name as “Honeymoon.” That’s right, the Honeymoon shack at the Jolly Boys. They must have seen I was from San Francisco.

I’d unfortunately managed to crush my auxiliary power adapter (a cigarette lighter plug danging from my dash) and since it was too late to visit the falls, I set out searching the area for auto parts stores. Oddly, everywhere in Southern Africa they seem to search and replace “parts” with “spares,” which I honestly don’t get, but there were plenty of options in the area. Sadly, even the giant shiny auto-mega-mart-type places just looked at me crazy when I asked for a cigarette lighter plug. Small bonus? Lots of them referred me — unsuccessfully — to MAD MAX. (Disclaimer: this is somehow not the only ‘Mad Max’ auto parts store I’ve seen.)

I preferred ‘Fury Road’, but I guess ‘Auto Spares’ is cool, too.

After striking out on my outlet, even at Mad Max, I headed to a coffee shop on the main drag called Munali after spotting legitimate coffee accouterments (a rarity for me the last few weeks). Picture this: a full-sized, legitimate espresso machine, beyond which a dapper Zambian man stands at the ready, and beyond that lies a wall covered in Zambian coffee sacks and a photo of said barista accompanied with text declaring him to be the “Zambian Barista of the Year 2016.” Yeah, I’d found the right place for coffee. I ordered a cappuccino and settled into a stool off to the side while I waited.

I was blissfully oblivious, listening to my ceremonial podcast regiment, when I felt a tap at my shoulder, and looked up to a woman, standing with a man, looking at me. I took my headphones off, and she apologetically asked me if I knew how to spell the name “Crystal.” I was extremely confused, but spelled it as I just have in quotes. “You use a ‘y’?” “Yes.” It’s then that I notice there’s a full sized cake being attended to behind the counter by a staff member currently engaged with the couple, and the weight of the question I was being proffered came into focus. I began backpedaling as fast as I could.

“I don’t want that kind of responsibility!” I protested.

“How about C-h-r-i-s-t-a-l?” she asked, making it clear she was referencing her lord and savior.

I said that was totally valid, and tried to explain there are numerous spellings I could come up with, and tried to keep pressing that point, afraid I’d end up responsible for some kid getting a cake with their name misspelled. Then, to my surprise, the woman went on to explain that it was her daughter’s birthday. It appears to be common to have a tribal name, and a western-style name, so I could rationalize why the mom would be less-than-perfectly familiar with both versions of her daughter’s name, generally speaking I’d still expect her to be able to spell it! Instead, she said her and the man with her had been arguing the point, and wanted to settle it by, and I quote, “[asking] the white man.” I was simultaneously flattered and horrified… primarily the latter. This isn’t the “white privilege” I expected, at all!

Back at the hostel, there was a bar, and I managed to do a small bit of socializing, taking mental notes on things to check out while I was around. Mostly, however, the area was dominated by a massive troop of Christian missionaries that hung out in a clique and made me feel deeply uncomfortable about being a foreigner. Either way, I felt compelled to spend another day hanging out around town and relaxing with my relative freedom of being walking-distance to civilization (a huge upgrade from Grootfontein, and really everywhere since).

The next day I mostly took it easy, venturing out into town a bit mostly to try Zam-Mex, a Zambian Mexican restaurant, to continue my longstanding tradition of being disappointed by Mexican food abroad. To my normal ends, it was a great success: Zambian food wrapped in a pita to look like a burrito is still not what I consider a burrito. Oh well…

From this angle, you could believe you were South of the Border…
Wait… Is that… Is that a pita? I take back all comments about this place passing for Mexican.

The next day, I planned my trip to Victoria Falls, the formation that put Livingstone on the map. Via advice from fellow hostelers, I’d booked a visit to Devil’s Pool, despite the rather formidable cost (around US$70!!). In the morning, I rode out to the falls, taking a brief stroll through the trails before my appointed Pool visit. The place was rather breathtaking, as hoped for…

Nope. Not so bad.

Then it was time to climb in Devil’s Pool, a section of the falls where the mighty Zambezi river forms a tranquil pool right on the edge of the falls thanks to a naturally occurring rock lip just below the water level (I believe the section used may, in fact, vary with the water level, and hence season). When the water is high, apparently you actually take a boat to the pool, but given it’s the tail end of the dry season, we walked over a craggy, volcanic landscape, at times even swimming through small rivers, ultimately arriving at Livingstone Island, and Devil’s Pool. It was a small group of foreigners, and cool folks at that, but the highlight was definitely perching at the edge of the falls, and gazing down at the roaring tumult.

So sexy it [would] hurt [if I fell]!

Still scrawny after all these miles.
Double rainbow? All the way? Pretty sure it means I’m having a good time.

After Devil’s Pool, I wandered all the trails through Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, which includes one real hike down to the river, following a small rocky tributary full of bathing locals. I soaked my feet, then hiked back up past a huge baboon troop that had taken up position on the trail, sitting on the benches, and battling with each other in a cacophony of screams.

Trash monkeys.
I’m sorry, is this seat taken?

Coming soon to a Frank Chu sign near you!

After spending nearly all day at the park taking in the sights and sounds, and dodging touts, I hopped back on the bike and stopped at an Italian place for some much-needed gelato. I spent the evening doing some research and ultimately decided against bothering to enter Zimbabwe for the day, and being disappointed by the relative lack of enjoyable conversation at the hostel. I met more peace corp folks. The next day, I woke up feeling pretty ill. I re-booked my romantic hut and spent most of the day inside catching up on my sleep, venturing out once to get food only to puke it out when I got back.

Luckily the day of rest worked like a charm, and the next morning, I was back off to Botswana with the goal of visiting Johannesburg and Lesotho. My first painful tour through Zimbabwean customs and immigration had taught me well, and I managed to glide through relatively easily round two. I was on the ferry in just over an hour, and getting back into Botswana was again pretty easy, save the ceremonial mud bath trough they have at all their borders. When I had all my stamps and paperwork, this time they added a Mexican hat dance on a wet pad of disinfectant to the procedure. Whatever.

I followed the line of hundreds of trucks waiting for the border off to the south and into more national forests, parks, and wilderness reserves. This time around, Botswana had added regular police/agricultural checkpoints to the mix, providing a drumbeat of bureaucracy to the scenery. It began to seem through these travels that much of the attraction of Botswana is the animals, as opposed to the scenery, as the alternating brown fields of high dense grass and sparse forests of scraggly trees provided little additional attraction. Around the middle of the day, a watering hole appeared to the right of the road, occupied by a family of elephants bathing. I pulled off to join a lone truck and stood on the side of the road, snapping a few photos, and generally struck by the notion that I was riding my motorcycle through an area I was sharing with elephants.

The trees began to get more colorful, and hence interesting. I had to slow down at one point to avoid one of a group of elephants hanging out in the middle of the road. Africa problems. I had a big day of riding, eventually settling into the small town of Nata. I checked into a (once again overpriced) crummy roadside motel and asked about where to dinner in town. The only place the woman could recommend — at least at the hour I arrived — was Nando’s, the Portuguese rotisserie chicken fast food chain. It’s better than McDonalds… When I returned to my motel, I had a short but interesting conversation with an Indian tech worker based in Gaborone about life in Botswana, and his ultimate goals of emigrating to America.

Ran into this gem of a homemade camper at a petrol station!

I continued south, with another big day ahead, setting my sights on a small town in South Africa. The country became more populated and industrial as I put more miles on my bike. It was a day of numerous wild fires. One huge one, and the only one attended by anyone who seemed the least bit interested in its existence, was in heavy traffic in a semi-urban area. The fire abutted the road, and reached all the way to the doorsteps of adjacent homes. The smoke billowed over the highway forming an impenetrable visual wall that had me praising the glory of the Flying Spaghetti Monster when I emerged coughing on the other side still in one piece.

To add insult to injury, at the next agricultural checkpoint (where I once again got to practice my solo dance steps in muddy disinfectant) as I was getting back up to speed on the highway, I was flagged down by the cops. They’d clocked me at 100kmh, and claimed the speed limit was only 80 (instead of the normal 120). There was no civilization or intersections to speak of in the area, and I’d intentionally spent nearly all my Botswanan currency, to which they were all too happy to produce a credit card machine and charge me nearly $50 for a speeding ticket. For my swipe, I was granted a pair of large receipts, proof to future generations of my hazardous African driving.

I rolled past a power plant, and a large city. I ate at a tasty “soul food” fried chicken spot. Eventually, I turned off the main highway (which continues on to the capitol), and headed for the border. The landscape added smooth and lumpy hills to keep me engaged. There were more agricultural checkpoints (see a theme?). Finally, there was a relatively (if you ignore the piles of semi trucks once again sitting around) tranquil border. Getting out of Botswana was a breeze. I was treated to an incredible view of the lush green waters and banks of the Limpopo river as I rode over Grobler’s Bridge, and after some confusion from the South African customs agent, her supervisor just took one look at me and said “he’s fine,” and I was back to South Africa!

Last of the Namibian Nights

As Grootfontein disappeared into my rear view mirror, my grin was ear-to-ear. The scenery changed rapidly as I headed north towards Ngepi Camp. The sparse desert landscape slowly sprouted small trees and near-constant settlements. Instead of passing dozens of miles with no sign of civilization beyond the highway and fences, now every handful was a bus stop (a paved turnoff with a single bench used by the minibuses that traffic these parts). Small settlements dotted the landscapes, usually comprised of around a dozen little huts of various materials (usually rough-hewn wood, mud, or block structures with grass or tin roofs). Odd fences of sticks would often form impenetrable, but strangely small perimeters for structures. Many of the villages would have friendly handmade signs on the side of the road: “Welcome to Mbwassa Family Village!” or “Friendly Nedella Village.” Along the highway were endless people who would lazily meander out of my path. Thousands of longhorn cattle made no such effort, and it was a constant game of dodge-the-cows. Goats, chickens, and dogs were similarly unperturbed by my advance.

I was shocked at how quickly things had changed. Southern Namibia was incredibly sparse. Now there was rarely a time when I couldn’t look down the road and spot a few people and probably some huts. Minibuses passed every handful of minutes, and pickup trucks with their beds so loaded with people that they’d all be standing became a common sight. The latter moved slow, and it became fun for me to watch all their heads swivel as I passed. The architecture had changed, as well, presumably due to the changing flora. Kids waved or held out their hands and yelled for money as I passed. Women walked along the shoulder with bags of materials or plastic tubs of things balanced on their heads. Some wore brightly colored clothes with multicolored patterns, a contrast to the largely-western style I’d seen in the south.

It was hot. Ungodly hot. Sweat was pouring out of me faster than I could drink water to refill it. I survived by continually soaking a headscarf with water and putting it under my helmet, but in the dry heat it never lasted long. After 140 miles, I got to the first gas station since I’d left: their refrigerator was broken. I despaired at my warm coca cola. The trees kept getting taller and more dense. The world closed in around the road, becoming more and more of a jungle. Some of the trees bore deep red and yellow leaves, signs of an approaching autumn. Eventually I pulled off the main highway and onto a secondary road, and finally a 6km sand driveway for Ngepi. The driveway was an incredible burden, boasting extremely deep loose sand ruts I slid and skidded through. It took over 20 minutes to conquer it and arrive at my destination. Ngepi was cute: an all-outdoor campground along the Okavango panhandle. I booked into a campsite and met a nice South African couple at the bar before a set up camp. They invited me to have dinner with them after I set up my camp.

I pitched my tent right on the side of the river and marveled at the ridiculous outdoor bathrooms they’d set up. A family of hippos lazed in the river grunting 30 feet from where I’d set up. Afterwards, I headed back to the main building and enjoyed a buffet dinner with the South Africans, sharing stories of our respective adventures. The place was cute, so I decided to spend another day there to fully appreciate it. It was a pleasantly relaxing day, mostly spent riverside with my book. It felt great to relax away from Grootfontein. I spent another evening falling asleep to a cacophony of bird, insect, and other various animal noises the breadth of which I’d never experienced.

Entrance to these two gems were through two doors, one for men and one for women, which both led to the same room.
“The Throne”
No lies: I pooped in “Poop a falls.”

In the morning, I broke camp lazily, my sights set on the border town of Katima Mulilo, towards the end of the Caprivi Strip. Once packed, I again braved the sandy path to the road, sliding and bumping or 6 long kilometers to pavement. When I rejoined the highway, I proceeded through the Caprivi Game Park. The road was impossibly straight, with cow sightings (and associated dodging) at unprecedented levels. There were also an unending multitude of police checkpoints, where I’d simply be asked about my destination and sent on my way. Along the way, a dense cloud of smoke greeted me on the horizon, and eventually I rode past a raging wildfire pushed up against the side of the road. I was unwilling to pull over and take a picture due to the raging heat (on an already scorching day) and cloying smoke. For miles after, pockets of burning grass and trees dotted the charred landscape, with no signs of containment or control efforts to be seen.

I’d been banking on the first town on the other side of the park to refill my fuel, and when I rolled into the gas station the attendant frowned at me and informed me they were out of gas until the next day. He said Katima Mulilo should have fuel, but they were 110km down the road. I looked at my reserves and knew it was going to be close, but wasn’t willing to quit yet. I dumped my extra fuel into the main tank, but I was carrying less than a gallon there (I usually keep it only half full for weight unless I expect to need it, but the previous attendant who filled it up stopped early). I rode nervously, holding to a steady 60mph in an attempt to be fuel conscious. 38km from Katima, I first ran out of gas. My tank has an obnoxious geometry whereby the side where the fuel goes to the engine can run out while the other side is still full of gas, so I pulled over and attempted to hold the bike low to one side and move the gas over. That moved me another 18km, this time doing 55km and drafting behind a minibus for much of the way.

I once again shook the bike on its side to move fuel over, but it was getting sparse on both sides. I rode extremely deliberately the last few kilometers, continually eyeing the thin puddle of gas vibrating along in my tank. Finally, the familiar Puma gas company logo appeared on the horizon. A quarter mile from reaching it, a big rig turning across traffic into a cement factory in front of me forced me to brake. While braking, my engine died, out of gas. I found the cleanest stick I could on the side of the road, wiped it off, and managed to push enough gas from one side to the other to move me on fumes the last thousand or so feet. I wanted to hug the attendant.

I filled the tank and rode through town until I saw signs for a backpackers place a bit off the beaten path. It wasn’t at all what I expected. I got a cheap room in what I’d describe as a shitty motor inn. They claimed to have WiFi, but it didn’t work, and when I asked them about it they acted confused and insisted it worked for them. When I went to my room, several cockroaches scattered in all directions. I got ready to take a shower, and when I walked to the side table to grab what appeared to be a box of soap or shampoo. When I opened the box, another cockroach scrambled out, startling the shit out of me, and inside was three packs of Namibian government-made condoms. At that point, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the various noises I heard later that night.

GI means something different in Namibia.

I asked the folks at reception about where I could get dinner, and they gave the dubious advice of KFC. Instead, I managed to find a Portuguese restaurant and have the best dinner I’d had in some time.

In the morning, I made a mostly uneventful and short journey through the comparatively desolate (of human activity) Salambala Conservancy and to the Ngoma border crossing, where I went through one of the quietest and easiest border crossings I’ve ever passed. I’d finally made it out of Namibia. Next stop: Botswana!

Doin’ the Namibian Limbo

The time had finally come to clear out of Windhoek. I was twitching with anxiousness to be on the road again. My Windhoek host had kindly advised me on my next two stops: Peace Garden Lodge in Grootfontein, a small town on the edge of Namibia’s breadbasket, and Ngepi Camp, an all-outdoor riverside campground on the close side of the Caprivi Strip. Peace Garden Lodge was shy of 500km from Windhoek, and Ngepi about the same after. Neither day should be too much of a hike. I lazily prepared for the day, making sure I got my goodbyes in at C’est la Vie.

The time had finally come. My things were packed, and in an iteratively better way with the knowledge of my previous strategy, combined with the necessity of starting from scratch after heading back stateside. I hit the road. The bountiful joy of the wind passing through my mesh jacket was tempered only by the brutal heat of the day. The first several hours had become old hat — I’d passed this stretch of highway there and back from Etosha and Düsternbrook. I filled up my tank at the same gas station my Etosha truck had used on the way back, even managing to quickly hop on a wifi network from the next door coffee shop. The same familiar endless scrubgrass desert and open plains dotted with occasional mountains continued to unroll on the horizon. I stopped frequently to stretch and cool down in the shade.

Finally, at the town of Otavi, I turned off a previously-traveled road towards the oddly named Kombat, precursor to Grootfontein. An impressive mountain ridge dominated the skyline to the north. A few miles after the turnoff, I started noticing the occasional misfire. I was cruising around 67mph, my tank was more than half-empty, there was no backfiring nor did the issue appear to persist for more than a single rotation, and with the issues I’d had with my petcock after AfrikaBurn, my mind first went to vacuum. (NB, skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want a short lesson on the fuel system of mine and many carburated motorcycles) The petcock is a simple little switch on the bottom of the fuel tank, meant to be easily manipulated while riding, that allows you to pick between a few simple options: “ON,” the default setting, only allows fuel to flow when suction is created by way of a hose connected to the engine, “RESERVE,” like on, but drawing from the bottom of the tank instead of an inch or two up, which you’re intended to switch to when the engine dies from lack of fuel, and serves as an indicator of low fuel levels since there’s no fuel indicator, and “PRIME,” which allows fuel to flow freely from the tank to the carburator without the need of vacuum. When the seals of my petcock dissolved after AfrikaBurn, the engine would only run smoothly at high speeds when on PRIME, as the lack of seals failed to properly use the suction to draw fuel.

The missfires were few and far between (think one every 2-5 minutes), but cause for concern; a properly running engine doesn’t behave that way. I switched the petcock to PRIME. A few minutes later, it happened again. I was in the middle of nowhere, nearly 100km outside of Grootfontein, and I was still able to soldier on at a good clip, so I thought it best to continue. The problem persisted, and the intervals shortened. I’d been worried about stopping for fear of whatever the problem was stranding me, but 12km from my destination, I needed a break and was concerned enough to follow through. I pulled into one of the many rest areas (a turnoff, occasionally with shade, with a picnic table and trash can) and took stock of things. Nothing was visually apparent, so my next thought was I’d potentially gotten bad gas at the last station. My reserve tank was from a previous place, so I poured it into the tank in the hopes that that would buy me some time (bad gas usually consists of setiment or water. Either way, adding more gas is far from a perfect solution). The bike started on the first crank. I hopped on and rolled up to the highway. When I went to merge, the engine stuttered and choked.

This was bad. I limped along what passed for a shoulder on the highway at 8mph, trying everything I could to get some power out of the bike. I tried the choke, I tried all the fuel settings, I tried giving it enough gas to overcome whatever was going on (backfire!), nothing worked. It idled fine. I could increase the throttle up to 8-10mph, but beyond that, it would shudder, lurch, a knock. I pulled over and tried the Software Engineer approach, turning it off and on again. Once again, it immediately fired up, and the idle sounded perfect, but even in neutral I couldn’t rev the engine beyond a handful of RPM’s over idle before it sputtered.

There aren’t a whole lot of usual suspects when an engine is running but poorly like this. Generally speaking, there’s fuel, compression, and spark (ignition). Given the sound of the engine at idle, compression seemed like an unlikely culprit, so it was on to the fuel and spark. Unfortunately, the only easily-accessible part of those systems, the choke and petcock, I’d already fidgeted with to no avail. I’d limped the bike about 2km before giving up on it, thereby leaving the relative safety of the rest area, so I pulled as far off the road as I could (not far at all), and resigned myself to digging deeper on the side of the highway.

I pulled out my tools and went to work. There were two issues I knew how to look into from my position, and at least one of them I could potentially fix:

  1. A fouled or worn spark plug. I carried a spare.
  2. A clogged or otherwise fouled carburetor. I could potentially see loose sediment, or hope to dislodge any grit or grime clogging a jet.

Of these, the carburator seemed like the most likely option. Given the idle was steady, I figured the spark plug was operating okay. (NB, skip this paragraph if you don’t want to learn about carburators) The carburator is a much more complicated beast. A carburator’s role is to mix gasoline and air (oxygen) and deliver it to the engine. The throttle is directly connected to the carburator, and acts to alter the internal geometry and therefor change the air/fuel mixture, effectively delivering more or less gas and air. The thing is, they’re remarkably sophisticated machines, with a multitude of ducts and jets meant to alter the composition of the mixture in different circumstances. If a jet for low rpm/idling is free and clear, but another for higher power is clogged, it could create exactly the situation I was in.

To get to the spark plug or the carb, I had to tank off the fuel tank. I did so, with trucks and cars barreling down the highway a couple feet from my bike. My money was still on bad gas/a dirty carb, so first I went about taking it out. I’d never done it before on this bike, but unsurprisingly, it’s a pain in the goddamn ass, and the first time around takes me a long ass time to do, but I get it out. Next, I’m holding a ridiculously complicated mechanical machine in my hands. I’ve seen carburators before — I helped my dad clean out one on his KLR when we were on our way to South America and his bike was giving him issues — but this one is another story. It’s not the stock unit; the previous owner has opted for a much more sophisticated high-performance model instead. There’s always a reservoir at the bottom, so I started there. Aside from having a billion parts, ducts, and jets, things looked pretty clean, and what gas I hadn’t spilled taking it apart seemed clear… But it wouldn’t take much to clog a jet. I just had no way to try and clear them all!

I dumped the gas that was in it, reseated it, threw the tank back on top, and started the bike up. Once again, it immediately came to life, but once again, had no power beyond an idle.

I killed the engine, pulled the tank, and got out my spare spark plug. Thankfully, with the tank removed, swapping the spark plug is a relatively easy procedure. The old plug was pretty crispy, but that’s no surpise after the backfiring. I reseat the new one, throw the tank on once again, and start the bike. Same thing.

I curse. I feel anxious. I wonder what to do. I don’t want to leave it where it is, but Google tells me I have 10km to go to get to Peace Garden Lodge. The sun is just starting to kiss the horizon, taunting me with a glorious tableau I can’t appreciate. At 8km/h, night will arrive before I do. I figure I don’t have a choice, and start re-assembling the bike.

The highway, like much of Namibia, is mercifully flat. I ride on the side of the road, a dangerously steep and sandy shoulder taunts me inches away, complete with shards of broken bottles glinting in the waning daylight. Traffic is light, and visibility is good. I turn on my left blinker (remember, Namibia is left-hand drive) whenever I see vehicles approaching in the distance. A couple small hills make my heart catch in my throat as I fear the tiny amount of power my bike is generating will be insufficient to summit them, but somehow it makes it. I hold my breath coming down the larger of them as I put the bike in neutral and manage to get up to 12mph before popping the clutch, hoping I can somehow pull the engine to where it runs again, but the bike just lurches and pops until it’s back to 8mph.

I’m getting good at nursing the bike along just on the edge of where it stutters, cruising at a consistent speed. The last bits of the sun are disappearing out of view. I’ve been hugging the edge of the road for over 40 minutes. I look down at my dash and realize I’m going 10mph. Cautiously, I increase the throttle. The bike responds, accelerating, then lurches, then accelerating again, and then I’m going 60mph. I’m in a state of shock mixed with awe. The last couple kilometers fly by, the wind finally putting the buckets of sweat I’m covered in to use in cooling me down.

I pull into Peace Garden Lodge at 6pm. It’s too dark and I’m too exhausted and filthy to camp, so I’m excited when they have cheap TV-less rooms for rent, and a restaurant that’s still open. I hop back on the bike and cruise to my room without incident, unload my essentials, and have a delicious schnitzel dinner complete with ice cold beer straight from a tap. After dinner, I give another once-over to the bike, but ultimately hope for the best in the morning.

Breakfast is included with my room, and checkout is at 10. I wander back to the restaurant, stoked to see genuine (if shitty) filter coffee. Syrupy disgusting juice, overdone eggs, floppy bacon, stale cereal with warm milk, white bread, and a bowl of apples and oranges (surprise breakfast standout!) were the other accouterments. I shoveled it all eagerly into my face before heading back to my room to repack my bike. I got everything loaded, handed the key back to reception, and started the bike.

The engine engaged on the first crank, but a quick rev yielded no power. I cursed, stripped off my helmet, gloves, and jacket, and started tearing the bike apart in the dirt in front of my room. Long story short: nothing I tried helped. I went back to reception to check back in and ask about the possibility of a motorcycle shop. They gave me back my keys and told me there was a motorcycle shop in town, 6km away! Motorcycle shops aren’t particularly common in Namibia, and Grootfontein is far from a bustling metropolis, so this was extremely lucky. I unloaded the bike back into my room, packed my tools, and started the long slow 8km slog into town. The shop was attached to a service station on the near side of town, and I rolled into the parking lot backfiring around 11:30am.

I was amazed. Here in Grootfontein, I was looking at a large motorcycle and quad shop with a huge variety of bikes in various states of disassembly. A father and son team with a handful of helpers, all of which were engaged in projects when I arrived, dropped everything immediately to help me. The father hopped on the bike and took a spin around the block. They changed the gas, they cleaned the carb, swapped the spark plug and its connector, they checked the compression, oil, etc. I helped insofar as I could with my tools.

My carburetor disassembled.
The crew at work with me freaking out in the wings.

The day crawled on. My confidence, despite the owner of the shop continually reassuring me, dwindled. The bike stopped starting. The battery drained from repeated starting events and had to be put on a charger. When 6pm rolled around, the wife of the owner gave me a ride back to my place and promised to keep me in the loop. She also offered to pick me up and bring me back in the morning (Saturday) when they’d continue working on things, which I was thankful for.

I was worried. It wasn’t apparent to me what was going wrong, or why things had gone from idling to not. While I was there, we’d taken the carb out a half dozen times. Likewise the spark plug. I went to sleep unsure of what would come.

In the morning, I got up and had another bleak breakfast, and renewed my room. I went back to my room and packed my backpack for the day, and just as I was finishing up, there was a knock on the door. Instead of the wife outside my door, it was the owner of the shop! I grabbed my bag expecting to hop in his truck, but instead he told me he had bad news. My blood ran cold. He said they’d worked until 9pm the night before until they found the issue: my stator had fried. He grabbed the oily object from his truck and showed it to me. He had ideas on where to find a replacement, but warned me that options were limited. He also said he may be able to have it rewired in Windhoek. Unfortunately, because it was Saturday, I wouldn’t get an update until Monday.

The owner left. I took solace at having a competent and friendly guy helping me. I sat tight the rest of Saturday, reading my book, enjoying the sun, another tasty dinner, and having a couple beers at the completely empty bar I’d discovered was next to reception.

The place I was staying had a minibus that went to town a few times a day (6am, noon, 2pm, 4pm) that I was able to catch to and from town, so on Sunday I escaped to Grootfontein proper. There’s not much to it, especially on a Sunday, but at least I managed to get some walking in, do some grocery shopping for snacks, and eat at a different restaurant.

On Monday, I caught the shuttle to the motorcycle shop for an update. The news wasn’t great. There were no replacements in Namibia or South Africa. They could send mine to Windhoek overnight and see if a shop there could rebuild it, but even then it won’t be as trustworthy as a new one. I told them to go for it, and ordered a replacement to get shipped to Rachel and then on to the motorcycle shop, which had given me an importation number to use as well. After that was a comedy of delays that would consume the next 12 days of my life, and cause an absurd amount of stress and boredom.

The days crawled past. Barely-functioning WiFi, a general lack of human contact, no stores within walking distance, and no personal transportation took its toll. I became a staple at the lodge, which was actually mostly detrimental. Every day, a dozen people would ask me about my bike, which only made the subject more sore. The women started asking me to buy them things, and one behind the bar even asked me to buy her a bottle of sparkling wine for “our date” she’d just invented. I became somewhat of a recluse. There was also some pity from the manager, who gave me a couple free nights and a couple nights in an upgraded room with a TV.

On Tuesday the 30th, almost 2 weeks after I’d arrived in Grootfontein, the motorcycle shop contacted me to let me know the rebuilt stator had made its way back, they’d installed it, and the bike was running! I caught the next shuttle to town and picked it up. I had to haggle with the owner of the bike shop to charge me more, as he’d only billed me for 4 hours of labor, and I’d been there for 7 hours of their entire shop working on my bike! These guys were ridiculously nice! I rode around a bit that day, and on Wednesday went to the one touristy destination around: a huge meteor in the desert.

Big meteor is big!
Look at the space!
Hanging out with a space rock.

It felt good to get some riding in, but I was still stuck until the replacement stator Rachel had shipped made it. On Friday, I made a new friend at the grocery store and found out about the happening spot in the low rent part of town and figured it was time for a change of scenery. Because I had to ride there, I had to take it easy, but it was by far the most exciting night I’d had in Grootfontein. Deep in a neighborhood of small houses along rutted dirt roads was a bustling scene in the night, with people and cars weaving through the street. The music was blasting, the dance floor was packed, and cheap drinks were flowing. Between pulling up on a motorcycle (which aren’t common in Namibia at all), and being the only white dude there, I felt the presence of many eyes on me, but far from in a threatening way. It was a weird feeling, and I couldn’t quite banish the tongue-in-cheek adage “stuff white people like: being the only white guy in an ethnic restaurant.” Folks were friendly and out in their party outfits: Chicago Bulls jerseys, Nike and Adidas hats, and more that wouldn’t be out of place in America. Personal favorite: a shirt that said “Santa Cruz Summer Camp” and had a soccer ball and watermelon on it. One guy gave me his number and wouldn’t walk away until I promised to call him the next day. During one song, a crew of four dudes did some sort of synchronized choreographed dance. It was a trip. I went home before turning into too much of a drunk pumpkin to ride home through the dark streets.

After 4 days in customs, the stator arrived Saturday morning. I was triumphant picking it up, and extra thankful for the motorcycle shop folks working Saturday to hand if off to me. By 10am, I was on my way to Ngepi, two weeks behind my original schedule, but with a new lesson in Africa Time hanging in my memory.