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!

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