Beaches, Bikers, and Boxes

Durban is a well-known tropical beach town, and it had a twin hostel to the one I liked so much in Johannesburg, so it seemed worth a stop even if it was only a couple hours away. I’d been completely unloaded to work on my bike, so it took me much of the morning packing before I was on the road. This didn’t bother me so much, because there were multiple adorable dogs, cats, and a flock of peacocks on the property to keep me company as I worked. What didn’t make me as happy was the weather.

It was pissing rain as I hit the road. Hitting the highway, there was also brutal fog. I’d been on my adventure for over 5 months and this was the first time I’d had to ride in legitimate rain, so I’m not complaining, but it was a good reminder about how miserable the experience is. I rolled into Curiocity Backpackers uneventfully. The security guards were immediately looking out for me and my bike, which I appreciated. I got checked in, dropped off my stuff, and headed to lunch at a halal restaurant down by the beach. It was overcast, wet, and cold. I parked a ways from the restaurant, and immediately picked up incredibly persistent street touts. I ate a mediocre lunch that was pleasantly punctuated by the bearded proprietor, in traditional Islamic garb, chatting me up about how he used to ride motorcycles, and asking me about mine. Going back to the bike brought more, and more obnoxious, touts.

Back at the hostel, I was able to snag a bed in a totally empty room and get some blogging done on their WiFi. There’s a rule of thumb about hostels: there’s always at least one obnoxious asshole. If there’s not, the chances are it’s you. The first guy to move into my room and start bothering me was that guy. While trying to work, I had frequent interruptions, mostly from “the asshole,” who was pretty friendly to begin with. Eventually, I gave up and headed to the bar. There was a German girl who’d been traveling for 5 months, largely in Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya. She passed along some useful spots to visit. The asshole was there and asking folks about their dinner plans. I’d set my sights on re-visiting a Chicken Licken, a chain of tasty fast food soul food, and said as much. He offered to come with.

It was only after that that he apologized to the German girl, saying he was sorry if he’d been an asshole the night before. In prototypical German fashion, she made it blatantly clear he had been. I was still stuck going to dinner with him.

We went to dinner, not heeding the warnings from folks about how dangerous it is to walk around the neighborhood after dark. It seemed less sketchy than 16th Street/Mission in SF at night. We picked up some fried chicken, and he ranted about racist bullshit on our way back to the hostel. So it goes in South Africa sometimes.

Curiocity Durban may not have been in the worst part of town, but it also wasn’t in the nicest, nor did it have the vibe of friendly travelers I’d experienced in Joburg. The next morning, things were still quite overcast in Durban, and being not quite impressed enough to want to stick around, so I set my sights on St. Lucia, an easy day’s drive and a cute little town on the water with a nature reserve. The way out of town was dotted with huge office buildings bearing tech and finance company logos, and the brightest green vegetation I’d seen in Africa. The wind was ferocious off the ocean, blowing me around like a ragdoll. I rode through heavy traffic and big bridge construction, eventually making it out of town and into a coastal highway surrounded by big green hills that looked right out of the Windows XP desktop background.

I was making fairly good time on the highway. It was a well-constructed divided freeway with occasional tolls, and handy oases along the road with food and gas. It was at one of these that things took a change of direction. I’d stopped for gas, to use the toilet, stretch my legs, and drink a cold drink; the sun was shining and it was hot and humid despite the wind. When I came out of the store with a can of coke, the manager of the gas station, an Indian guy, was scoping out my bike. He talked about growing up in India riding bikes, and shared a story of nearly flipping a little 125cc bike while carrying a passenger, ending forever his willingness to take them. It’s a fear I understood.

When we got done chatting and I was about to climb back on the bike, a woman with a super cute little girl in tow approached me and put me immediately a little on edge by saying “we don’t normally talk to strangers, but we saw the bike.” They asked me if I was heading to the Hippo Rally. I said I had no idea what that was, and she explained that it was a motorcycle rally going on all weekend in Richard’s Bay, a town just down the road from where we were. She also told me I wouldn’t be able to get into the wildlife reserve in St. Lucia on my bike. That was enough for me. I looked up the cheapest hotel in Richard’s Bay and headed for it instead.

Richard’s Bay is home to one of the larger ports in Africa and hence a lot of industry. I passed a tall paper mill,  an aluminum smelter with two huge grass-covered pyramids and an enormous ramp, and other huge industrial buildings on my way into town. Everywhere I went, I saw the signs of industrial work. It felt as if I was in an alternate Midwestern city where the rusted hulks that now line certain neighborhoods had never given up the ghost. It was also stupidly hot, especially in the traffic I hit coming into town.

I rolled into my cute little hotel for the evening in early afternoon, excited to have some time on my own to kick around town unencumbered. I unpacked, showered, and did some blogging. I rode around the little town a bit, surprised not to see all that many motorcycles kicking around. I headed down to the waterfront and rode around Pelican Island, a little peninsula jutting out into the natural bay. Nothing looked quite appealing enough to relax at. Instead, I was moderately productive and rode to the city proper and ran some errands at the local mall and Suzuki dealer.

Then it was time to find some dinner.  I headed to the waterfront, where a handful of non-chain restaurants popped up on Google Maps. The place seemed pretty jumping in the early evening, but before I’d managed to park, a pair of folks flagged me down on the bike and asked if I had a light. Before long, they we were chatting and they invited me back to the pub with them. Continuing my tradition of saying yes to whatever possibilities I’m able to on this trip, I was off to the pub.

The gang turned out to be a group of sailors taking a 5+ month (I think?) course sailing a big wooden boat from the 60’s from Cape Town to Madagascar and back. They were an incredibly friendly and entertaining bunch of dudes, including a couple motorcyclists, and even a South African who’d been a software engineer in Atlanta (the poor guy). The skipper gave me a tour of the boat, and drinks kept materializing in my hands from one after another of them. I never did get the dinner I was looking for, but I had some fantastic conversations before I had to cut myself off and get some sleep around 2am.

My new friends’ ride

The next day, I headed to the Hippo Rally, which wasn’t too far from the waterfront. The place seemed sparse — I only saw a handful of people and bikes — but there were a few vendors and a huge tent with music blaring that I presumed held most of the attendees. I paid the entrance fee (less than $10US) and rode my bike inside. The venue was large. The website had claimed they were expecting 3,000 motorcycles. The turnout was markedly less impressive…

This was nearly all of the motorcycles at the rally

It turned out there was some drama with the rally organizer, and the local bikers had decided to boycott the decades old rally to punish him. I’d say they were pretty successful. I got some curious looks from folks about my bike, which isn’t your standard rally fare, but there weren’t many folks around to look. Before I went into the big event tent, I spotted some of my sailor friends from the previous night and went and said hello. We walked into the tent together.

There was a full-size sound stage, and a stocked bar the width of the tent. Stacks of plastic chairs stood randomly around the area. A handful of plastic tables were set up. Only three had anyone at them. The tent could hold 1000 people comfortably, but less than 20 were in it, including me and my friends. I was witnessing a financial disaster of a rally, but I was doing it with friends.

We sat around and chatted. Some of the sailors hadn’t slept since the previous night, still riding the liver abuse wave. Music boomed from the empty stage and over the empty dance floor. Eventually, a guy with a microphone started amping folks up outside, and the sound of revving motorcycle engines entered the din. I went outside to check it out, and watched bikers spin their tires on the pavement, flooding the air with smoke and spraying burnt rubber in piles onto the ground.

There are similarities and differences when it comes to South African motorcycle clubs (biker gangs). They wear leather vests festooned with patches from events, cheeky slogans, their status in the club, and a large logo of their club’s “colors” on the back. Harley Davidsons are expensive and not necessarily ideal for South African roads where it’s not uncommon for folks to drive 80-90mph on the highways, so instead there’s the dissonance of these outfitted and often bearded folks riding Japanese sport bikes and BMW GSes. Like many motorcycle clubs in the US, the members were entirely white, and I was disappointed to see a handful of folks whose club colors prominently featured the confederate flag.

Instead of being draped in the black leather of the bikers, I was wearing a multicolored patchwork hoodie from Nepal that features the peace sign and Ganesha. At one point, apropos nothing, a couple with two young boys covered in chocolate ice cream approached me and asked if I’d take a photo with their kids. It was an odd request, but one I had no reason not to take them up on. I aligned the children towards the camera and smiled as they brought up the camera app on their phone and pointed it towards me. Before they snapped it, I noticed prominent swastikas on the lapels of their vests. My smile grew forced as I squinted into the sun at the camera pointed at a my jew-ish self, draped in what I perceive as a mantle of peace, smiling for a photo taken by those who drape themselves in the imagery of genocide against people like me. They took their photo and thanked me.

A bit shell-shocked, I returned to my sailor friends to rant. Some were sympathetic and embarrassed, others announced they were proud racists and supported separation of the races. I continue to struggle with the mental juxtaposition of bare bigotry with overt kindness to myself I receive from the Afrikaners. I do my best to empathize with their experience, and I’ve picked up a lot of context that helps me do so, but the entrenched ignorance and lack of empathy they themselves exhibit with these positions still proves a struggle for me. Before the cooler heads managed to change the subject to a less odious topic, I’d spotted numerous other symbols of racism hiding among the patches of nearby bikers’ vests. I was not impressed.

One of the sailors insisted I head to a town in South Africa called Nelspruit to ride with his friend, a dentist in the area. Hennie had mentioned the same guy (a member of the Wild Dogs), and had also pointed out a number of worthwhile rides in the area. It was easy to take a ride through Swaziland to get there, and the dentist’s timeline (free the weekend) fit easily with mine to get there, so I said yes.

The rally at its peak had maybe 50 attendees that I saw. Then it started to rain. The sailors and I decided to go back to the bar we’d met at to have some dinner and hang out. We headed out separately and met up there. It was another raucous and entertaining night, but I hit a wall around midnight, and when I needed to head to sleep, I was offered a berth on the boat by the crew, against the orders of the captain (a long story I’ll save for a pint with friends), and I took it. I slept like a rock on a cot in the belly of a rockin’ old wooden boat.

I crawled out of bed early in the morning to the smell of coffee coming from the galley. I was handed a hot cup of the stuff. I chatted with the few folks up and about until the captain showed up and kicked me off the boat, not unkindly. I headed back to my hotel, where I was greeted by a pack of adorable civet monkeys, and packed my things to head to Swaziland, now an easy day’s ride.

Hey little guy!


I had breakfast and made it as far as a petrol station in town, where I was filling up to leave, where a familiar story played out. I was approached by a pair of riders on a BMW R1100RT who asked where I was heading. I told them my plans and they told me they were heading to the last stop in an organized ride to fundraise for cancer research. They told me it was 40k away, but on the way to Swaziland, so I did what I try to always do: I said yes.

Unlike the Hippo Rally, motorcyclists actually showed up to this

I followed them down the highway and into a small little town. We turned onto a street lined with over 100 bikes outside a bike gang clubhouse. The couple who’d grabbed me at the gas station payed my entry (less than $5), insisted on buying me beer, and started introducing me to all sorts of folks. It was a great group of folks. I met the preacher from the biker church (that’s a thing), entirely too many people in various states of injury from motorcycle accidents, and the same kind of friendly biker gang folks I’ve met in the states (thanks, Dad). It was becoming time for me to leave; if I stayed any longer, I’d end up with more booze than I could go riding with, I’d stay too late to make Swaziland that night, or both. I started making my rounds saying goodbye to all the friendly folks I’d met.

These folks would fit right in in middle America

As I was finishing my goodbyes, some sort of ceremony had begun, and all the folks had came together in the clubhouse bar. As I was walking away, a guy I’d talked to before grabbed me and pulled me into the bar. They pushed me up to the front where the guy with the microphone was and handed me a bottle of rose wine with a little bow on it. The guy then introduced me, said I’d come all the way from America, and announced that I’d won the award for the furthest traveled. I guess it was a fair point…

I win!

With my new spoils, I once again made for the door. I made it as far as a table by the gate where a big group of folks was posing together for a photo. A small kid was attempting to navigate the camera to take the photo. I offered to do it instead. Perhaps you can already see where this is going…

After snapping the photo, I got asked about my plans, and a big bombastic biker flatly stated “You’re not going to Swaziland, you’re staying with me tonight!” He wasn’t wrong. I once again gave up on my plans to make it to Swaziland that night. His name was Hentie. A bit later, me and my new friend’s crew left to grab some lunch. We were told to be careful on our way out of town, as there had been an accident. We hadn’t ridden a kilometer down the road when we saw it and stopped. The scene was incredibly disturbing, and I nearly lost my shit.

NB: Feel free to skip the area between the rulers if you don’t want to read my accounting of the scene. I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t want to.

As we went over a train bridge, we came upon a large crowd of people, mostly bikers. Broken glass and plastic was strewn across the street. A black pickup truck sat facing the wrong direction on the road, its rear quarter panel smashed in. A dark black skid mark started abruptly in the middle of the road and veered off to the left where the remnants of a sport bike lay on the curb. A large pool of oil sat in the gutter. The front of the bike was a twisted wreckage. The front tire was dislodged from the wheel, the bars were twisted, the radiator smashed, the forks bent, and the entire console and front plastics missing.

A large man lay face down in stocking feet, his shoes having been knocked off by the force of the accident. His toes dipped in the oil. His socks were torn. He still wore his helmet and jacket, and appeared to be communicating shallowly with folks around him, but I saw no movement. Masses of concerned people thronged around him.

More than 10 feet away on the grass lay another body, this one a woman. She was also laying face down, one of her legs bent sickeningly up and back. She was also not moving. I had to take deep breaths to avoid hyperventilating.

It was possible to draw some conclusions about how the accident had happened. The truck was clearly making a right turn onto a side street when the motorcycle came over the train bridge. It was clear from the damage, and the way the truck had been spun around, that the motorcycle had been traveling perhaps as fast as 100mph. It was a crazy place to be going that fast.

I took some photos. They are not for the squeamish, nor work/child/public safe. Please click with care.

We weren’t doing any good being there, so we cleared out and continued on to lunch at a cute spot out in the countryside. My new friends continued to get updates and gossip from others about what had come together to facilitate the accident. I’ll leave it at this: alcohol, high emotions, motorcycles, and speed should not be combined. Any one of them is dangerous in its own right.

We sat around and had a great lunch. I got to know a cool new group of folks over lunch. It was a fun assortment of folks, including what I think can be described as “ex-brothers in-law” who lived next door to each other in the same building (my host’s ex-wife was his neighbor’s sister). We talked about the relative merits of Sturgis vs Daytona’s Bike Week, about Burning Man and AfrikaBurn (because of course we did), and about their plans to buy bikes in America, ride across it, and sell them again sometime in the future. They also hooked me up with a lodge near Tofo Beach in a town called Praia de Barra the ex-wife/sister runs where I could stay (technically, I was told I was required to stay at least 4 days).

While we were eating, a British biker showed up and asked who was on the adventure bike. I introduced myself, and he asked about my plans. I told him I was staying with Hentie that night then heading to Swaziland. He told me he manufactures aluminum top boxes and panniers, and that what I was actually doing was staying with him in Richard’s Bay the next night. So much for Swaziland!

Hentie and his friends insisted on buying me lunch, and then I followed him back to his home. He gave me my own bedroom with a private bathroom, and plied me with beer and Jägermeister. We hung out with the gang for awhile by the pool, then retreated inside where we continued chatting, had dinner, and watched the South African Investigative Journalism show Carte Blanche, which may be the most depressing news program I’ve ever seen.

In the morning, I hit the road and headed to stay with Sean, the aluminum box builder from the pub. I caught him in a huge but unfinished house in his workshop, busy building a set of slick looking panniers with his Australian younger cousin Darcy. I hung out and tried to make myself moderately useful. I found it fascinating watching the construction process unfolding in front of me. I enjoyed learning about his design, and was jealous of how much easier his top box can be removed vs my own. When they finished up on what they were working on, the three of us hopped in the van to run some errands and get lunch.

Sean and Darcy at work making panniers

Sean wanted to help me encase all my things in my locked boxes, so he asked about what I had in the backpack behind me. I explained that the thing that precludes me from emptying the backpack is my tent and poles, and next thing I know we’re making plans to add some PVC drainpipe to my panniers to hold extra goods. That evening, we grilled up a mess of chicken and Sean shared a handful of his imported Swazi Sibebe beer with me. I had dinner with his wife, kid, and cousin.

The next morning, Sean had some spare time and we set about finding supplies to add 4 drain pipe storage tubes to my bike. It was fun hanging out, running around town to the various spots, and watching him (and by that, I really mean me) get a discount at literally every supplier we stopped at (at a plumbing supply place, hardware store, and bolt store). We stopped at a friend of his place who’s a master woodworker and craftsman who’d built an absolutely stunning wooden top box for his motorcycle and he drilled some holes for Sean in a plate. We went by a spot and had some stainless steel mounting plates welded. We tried to pick up a set of aluminum plates that were being bent for assembly, but the power went out while they were still in the gigantic bending machine for the second time that day — TIA, as they say: This is Africa.

Every part of this including the lettering was hand-carved and assembled

Then we headed back and went to work. Darcy gave us a hand, and between the three of us, we made short work of cutting, glueing, drilling, screwing, and painting the tubes, caps, panniers, and top box. The result is pretty damn awesome, and has dramatically effected my packing method in a way I’m super happy about. Sean really did me an incredible favor, donating his time, van, tools, and expertise. In return, he asked for nothing. There are some badass folks out there.

Sean working on my newest addition
The final assembly — pretty slick!

Sean makes panniers and top boxes using the name X Strong. He’s a damn fine upstanding character, and if you’re in the market for some boxes in Africa, you won’t regret going with him. He’s great for his expertise, work, and kindness. Tell him I sent you 🙂

I stayed an additional night, again having a lovely dinner with the family. Sean gave me some advice on Swaziland, where he used to live, including a backpacker’s called the Sundowners he used to run, and passed along the contact info for an Australian motorcyclist named Corey who’d also stayed with him, and who was heading up the east coast like me. I touched base with Corey, and left in the morning to head to Swaziland.

The road was mostly uneventful through South Africa, following good-condition main highway north and eventually west along the bottom of the Swazi border. Further northwest, there’s a decent-sized border, but I cut off far in the east to cross at a small out-of-the-way called Golela. To get there, you drive through a small game reserve called Pongola. The narrow tar road announces the potential hazards of animals as you cross a cattle guard into the reserve. Immediately, I ride past a large male giraffe blissfully chewing the leaves in the middle of a tree on the side of the road. When I swivel my head back towards front as I pass him, a pack of civet monkeys run across the road. If this is the harbinger of my time in Swaziland, it’s one I’m pretty stoked on.

I head off to the border smiling about the animals and new adventures, ready for a new country that doesn’t wreck me like Lesotho.

A Cure for Clutch Ails You: Oubones to the Rescue

The Katse Lodge’s credit card machine wasn’t working and paying villagers for help had tapped nearly all of my money. I had just enough cash to pay for my room with breakfast before I’d need an ATM. From what I could see, I was the only person staying there. The parking lot was completely empty. I hauled my luggage and pannier into my room to take stock of it all and make sure the contents weren’t too damaged by all the damage. Each step hurt extra carrying the additional weight. I got undressed to take a shower in the communal bathroom in the dorms and marveled at the multicolored and lumpy tapestry that was my legs. After the shower, I ran to the ATM so I could afford to eat. When I returned, I limped back to the lounge, snapped some requisite photos of the beautiful scenery, and ordered lunch and a much-needed beer.

After filling my stomach, I grabbed my laptop and took advantage of the WiFi to get some work (read: this goddamn endless blog) done. Before I got too far in, a couple in motorcycle regalia walked in. I flagged them down and introduced myself. They were a pair of South African motorcyclists, and they were friendly. Perhaps, too friendly. The guy bought me beer after beer after beer. I told them about my ordeal, and he mentioned a big map of Lesotho at reception. We walked over so I could show where I crossed. On the map, the entire route was labeled “4×4 Track.” This explained some things to me.

We ended up chatting and getting more than a little drunk, eventually eating dinner together at a table. Afterwards I limped back to my room with my laptop, too drunk to get any more work done. I was asleep before my head hit the pillow despite my aching body.

Despite an early night, I slept until 8am. In the morning, I ate middling breakfast. Then I had some work to do on the bike, bending my seat mount and topbox latch back into something resembling working order, and other various things. One of the handles to my topbox mount fell off when I looked at it wrong. Ugh.

I was moving absurdly slowly. It was just after 10am when I had my things loaded again. When I checked out, the receptionist informed me they’d under-billed me for breakfast and I had to pay more. Total bullshit. I paid it anyways and hit the road. I once again crossed over the top of the dam, which meant another security checkpoint. The guard there had seen me the day before, and was crazy excited that I was an American. He kept telling me how happy he was to see me and how welcome he hoped I felt. It was adorable even as it was annoying he was keeping me. My clutch was dying and I was concerned about how long it may take me to get to the Wild Dogs National Bash in Ladybrand.

I made it back to the main highway and started my long slow path back to South Africa. The first stretch of the road hugged the reservoir, winding crazily along the receded edge. I passed the intake tower, rising lonely many meters above the water level. The wild curves continued for a very long time, as I the road worked its way up to what seemed like the most ridiculous mountain pass I’d ever witnessed, and then spent dozens of kilometers snaking down into an endless mountain plain. On every uphill, I fought my failing clutch to maximize my power while avoiding the worsening slipping.

This is not the view from the mountain pass, which was too crazy to stop and shoot photos of.

After the mountain pass, things leveled off substantially, much to my relief. I was heading to a border crossing in the Lesotho capital of Maseru, and every kilometer brought more and fancier development. The cars became fancier. More industry appeared. The mountainous craziness I’d seen initially had been replaced by a vast and substantial steppe. Things were a slightly brighter shade of green than the muted landscape of before. I passed through town after town, many clearly organized around a single industry; the most memorable was dotted with small-scale quarries, the entire town built out of and selling white stone blocks and bricks. Huge dusty white towers of the stuff lined the roads, with the more creative citizens displaying tiles, sheets, and handicrafts made out of the stuff.

I couldn’t go more than around 58mph in straightaways and, taking the playbook from the overloaded trucks, I struggled to get up even the slightest inclines. I played leapfrog with huge diesel-belching buses that would fly past then immediately pull over to pick people up, only to repeat the process until I pulled off to stretch. At one point, a fancy SUV with tinted windows and a police escort screamed past me at around 100mph (160kmh). I wondered if it was the King.

Eventually, the lumpy landscape of Maseru appeared on the horizon. Pulling into town, I ran into the first stoplight I’d seen in days. I marveled at traffic control, traffic, and pedestrians everywhere. For what it’s worthy, the pedestrians seemed to marvel back. My good friend Marc had once lived in Maseru, and I took a brief jaunt off of my journey to stop by his old elementary school. Getting there involved climbing up from the hustle and din of the city proper and up to a more affluent neighborhood. I parked in front and took some pictures. A security guard scoped me out, then chatted with me. I explained why I was there and he seemed excited. He told me it was a good school.

There once was this boy named Marc… and he went to the school in the sky.

From Maseru Preparatory School I headed to the border. Lesotho stamped me out in minutes. South Africa gave me shit because someone had messed up on one of my many entrances and they were confused about how many days I had left in the country (one can only spend 90 days in South Africa before they need to be stamped back into their own country, apparently), but they eventually got their shit together and let me in.

Things were calm on the South African side of the border. I was back on a beautiful highway that’s endemic of South Africa, down to the obsessive signage. I passed through a handful of kilometers of farmland and was eventually rolling into Ladybrand, home of the Wild Dogs National Bash. Google Maps routed me to the campground they were at down surface roads pocked with potholes as if they’d been recently bombed, down a dirt road, and finally into the gated driveway of a campground. As I entered, I saw adventure motorcycles scattered absolutely everywhere interspersed with tents and riders. It looked jumping. After checking in and being told to camp wherever I wanted, I rode into the din to waves from every stranger that set eyes on me. It seemed like a friendly crowd.

I parked my bike in an uninhabited spot in the middle of the campground and wandered around on foot looking for the folks I’d met in Himesville. It was a large area, and I was about to give up (there were just too many adventure bikes to be able to pick out the ones belonging to the folks I’d met) when I heard a voice call my name. My friends had found me! I asked if I could camp next to them and they waved me into a spot. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Camping with new friends
Surrounded by tons of large adventure bikes


I set up camp while chatting with some of the folks I’d come to see. While still setting up, a guy approached me and introduced himself. His name was Hennie, aka Oubones, and he was the first person to send me a message on the Wild Dogs forum offering his help and a place to stay if I happened to be in his area. I said ‘hi’ and told him about my clutch situation. Within five minutes, he’s phoned someone, and with one call, located a brand new clutch for my bike near him hometown. He told me I could come with him and his family and he’d give me a place to stay until I could get my bike fixed. I was in awe. Before I had too much time to revel in my luck, I was pulled to the bar, where I met dozens of ridiculously friendly and kind adventure bikers. My new friends shared their dinner with me, and I ended up having numerous drinks bought for me, many new friends made, and a sweet Wild Dogs hat from the previous bash gifted to me.

It was a dangerous place. When I’d hit my alcohol limit, the drunk folks remained persistent. Eventually, I ghosted on the crowd and headed to bed before they could peer pressure me into more. I awoke to Hennie giving me a wake-up call. Him, his wife, his son, and two female friends were heading to a town called Clarens, that I’d heard was a big motorcycle destination, for a night before heading to their hometown of Hammarsdale. I’d asked to tag along. We packed our things. Hennie had a diesel van with his BMW F650GS on a trailer on the back. His son was riding a Honda NC750X. Their friends had another car in tow.

After a couple bumps in the road out of the bash (Hennie’s van needed a jump, and a trailer with a BMW 1200GS that was being raffeled needed to be picked up and dragged out of the way of some obstacles), we hit the road. With my clutch, I struggled horribly to keep up. Within 30 minutes, a cover from Hennie’s BMW flew off and I stopped the van. It had already been ran over, but Hennie asked about how I was going with my clutch, and brought up that I may end up shedding clutch pieces into my oil and damaging my engine. He offered to exchange my bike for his on the trailer, and let me ride his BMW to Clarens. I was flabbergast by the trust and generosity, but I accepted. We swapped the bikes out on the side of the road.

My ride gets a ride, and my gas mileage improves dramatically

We caught up to Hennie’s son at a farm stall/restaurant along the way, and I rode the remainder of the way to Clarens with his son on the NC750X. The kid was a speed demon, and it was all I could do on the F650GS to keep up with him. It was a scenic, if windy, path, with buttes and mountains lining the largely green path. Clarens itself was a super cute touristy town arranged around a large square central park and nestled serenely in the mountains. We took a brief trip around it before heading to an adorable backpackers where we could set up our tents to camp. After we got settled, Hennie and his son ferried the rest of us to town (picking me up and riding me there on his son’s motorcycle) where we hung out, walked around, and drank fancy craft beer. The town was totally jam-packed with South Africans who head there for the weekend, many of them on motorcycles, including many of the same folks who’d been at the Wild Dogs bash. After a few hours of that, we headed back to the backpackers where Hennie’s son (also Hennie, and AKA Bones) braaied up a feast. We ate, drank, and chatted. I also met some pretty cool folks also staying at the same Backpacker’s who were there for a Lada (a cheap Soviet-era 4×4 car) meetup.

The greeters at the backpackers

It rained in the night. and things were pretty soggy the next morning. While we let things dry, Hennie, his wife Rodene, and I went for a hike along a trail behind the property while things dried in the sun. There were remnants of old stone fence posts, a pump house, and eventually a great view of a levy and water-carved landscape.

The old Levi/Hennie-Selfie

As we got back, it started to rain again, and there was a mad dash to get all the gear back under cover and out of the rain. The rain let up, but the forecast called for loads more as well as plenty of rain later that day, so the family decided we’d load all three bikes up, two on the trailer, and Hennie’s in the back of the van. It took awhile and some physical Tetris to get everything loaded, but we pulled it off.

Do you see the motorcycle in this van?

After we loaded up, me in the van, we hit the road. The wind was totally insane; I was super happy to not be on the bike. Hennie had plans to show me some nice scenery. We passed through the appropriately named Golden Gate Highlands National Park, which wraps a beautiful mountain pass. Hennie took us venturing onto a scenic side-route along a small paved road up the side of a mountain I’d have never found on my own. Multicolored painted cliffs dotted the landscape, with occasional large mammals grazing away. Lightly colored vegetation that has seemed like a staple through water-parched southern Africa covered everything not devoid of dirt.


Descending out of Golden Gate Highlands we passed through huge swaths of burned charred grasslands. In some places, a dramatic waving line between green grass and black char was visible. Wisps of smoke and ash still rose through the air, and the smell was one fresh wildfire. The landscape flattened out, but the specters of the Drakensberg mountains haunted the horizon. For my benefit, Hennie led us out of our way to Royal Natal National Park, where a famous land formation known as “The Amphitheater” is located. It was hazy and sprinkling rain, so while the photos didn’t pan out perfectly, I got a good feel for the impressive mountain range.

I wish we’d had time to stop at this Cannibals restaurant for a bite to eat…

A final rainbow sent us out of this last national park. After dinner, the weather deteriorated with the setting sun. The last couple hours were wet, windy, and miserable. Around 9 o’clock, we rolled through a gate on a hilly country road in Hammarsdale and into the family home. With many hands, we made quick work of unloading the motorcycles and all the gear from the van. Hennie Jr. once again cooked us a great meal on a BBQ, and I was set up in a central room in the house.

I was the late riser in the family waking up at 7:30am. Hennie’s brother was coming in later and escorting me to the motorcycle shop, so I went to work getting some work trying to repair my bike before he showed up. We were headed to the workshop of Derek “Mad Murdoch” Graham, a former motocross star who was injured racing, and subsequently crippled after a botched surgery. Of course, he was also a friend of Hennie and his brother. When I arrived, Derek directed one of the mechanics along a vast hall of parts, plastic pieces and mufflers hanging from the ceilings, motorcycles in various states of assembly arranged neatly in lines. He pointed out a box labeled DRZ400. Inside were wiring harnesses, various doodads, and a pile of individually wrapped clutch parts.

“Mad Murdoch”s many awards
And a brand new clutch!

The mechanic was a soft spoken chap who showed me photos of the two DRZ’s he’s had in the past, and he made quick effective work of the task. I once again needed to address a failed weld on my rear rack, which was becoming something of a recurring story, so after the clutch I pulled the top case off and he went off to weld it back together for me. In the meantime, I was also able to source a half-decent replacement mirror for mine that was smashed in the night in Lesotho.

Hennie’s brother meanwhile was working in a crazy workshop on diesel fuel pumps using large ancient Bosch machinery. He walked me through a bit of how it works over a beer, and then we went to lunch down the street. Aside from making a pretty decent pizza, the restaurant was a sort of half-way house for troubled folks, like Delancy Street in SF. Our waiter told me about how he’d walked all the way around the continent of Africa. When I asked him about some troubled borders, he responded with stories of being smuggled between Morocco and Algeria, and advised me that I needed to stop thinking “like an American” to get through them. It actually seemed like pretty sound advice.

Fun with diesel fuel pumps!

When my bike was back together and I’d paid (Mad Murdoch was nice enough to give me a discount on parts, but clutch plates in SA don’t come cheap!) I headed back to La Casa de Hennie. I spent the next two hours with a hammer, a wooden plank, some vice grips, and my panniers, smashing and bashing away until they were made out of something even remotely resembling straight lines. When I placed them back on my bike and they *fit*, I was overjoyed!

Hennie was the last of the family back from work, and we’d decided to go out to dinner. The poor guy was out of work so late that the first couple spots we tried weren’t serving dinner. Eventually, we ended up at an Italian Mafia-themed restaurant. I drove everyone crazy by managing to buy dinner and only order a salad. Mission accomplished!

The word on the street was South Africa was expecting massive protests the next day organized by South Africa’s largest labor union (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party, which had threatened to “shut down the country.” After talking to the family about what this meant (supposedly roadblocks and potentially tired full of petrol burning in the streets), I decided it was probably best to stick around another day and avoid trying to make it through Durban during all this. I was also sold by the prospect of tasty coffee, working WiFi, and some scenic rides if I swung by Hennie Jr.’s work. I settled on a day of taking it easy.

In the morning, I lazily prepped and hopped on the bike. It was a leisurely and scenic ride through sugar cane fields and past logging trucks out to the small one-horse town where Hennie Jr. managed the one store in town. Once there, I was setup in the break room with power, internet, pod-cappuccinos, and even beef with gravy on rice. I sat around and worked for awhile, meeting the mayor, some cops, and various other folks who cycled through. Hennie Jr. then gave me advice on a ride that took me through parts of the Valley of a Thousand Hills, through more fields and forests, small towns, and curvy hilly dirt roads. Eventually I circled back before more rain struck.

That night, the family went all out to get me back for the dinner (and because they’re a crazy kind and generous bunch) cooking up a huge steak meal in the style of Spur (an American-themed steakhouse chain popular in South Africa that mystifyingly uses a feathered headdress-wearing Native American as its mascot). The steaks were massive and delicious. The forecast called for another day of rain and misery the following day, and they once again tried to convince me to stick around another night, but the time had come. It was time to move on. Next stop: Durban!

Holy fucking shit, Lesotho.

Update Oct 7 2017: I’ve finally managed to get all the supporting photos uploaded for this post.

I awoke in the well-furnished confines of my Himesville Arms digs ready for an epic ride. I’d downloaded the offline map of Lesotho to Google Maps (the entire country fits in one downloadable region). I had a few points of interest I wanted to swing through, and a rough plan for how I’d get to them. I packed my things and hit the road.

The day was warm and clear, perfect for enjoying the broad mountain vistas of Lesotho. As I finished the first handful of kilometers of tree-lined pastoral landscape to get to the turnoff for “Sani Pass Rd.” my excitement was nearly bubbling over. The first 20km or so of the pass road are perfectly paved. The mountains seem to pull in around you as you begin your ascent. Then, abruptly, the pavement ends, and a decent gravel road begins. For the first few kilometers, you ride up and down, around bends, hugging a rock-choked stream. Towering light-brown/green ridges encompass most of your view. Despite changing elevation constantly, you don’t really seem to be rising much. You can’t get much of a view in front or behind yourself at any given moment. The struggle of maintaining the road is ever-evident. Every few turns is a huge washout with a construction crew. Elsewhere, huge concrete tunnels are being installed beneath the road. Luckily, the few 4x4s and construction vehicles on the road mean you’re waved through with little ado.

Then the road starts to change. It takes a decidedly upward trend. I passed some small un-labeled buildings and began to worry, as I’d heard the South African border checkpoint is at the bottom of the pass, and I didn’t particularly want to get to the top only to be sent back down to get a stamp. Then a small paved ramp appeared to the left — a sign of development — and further on, the border post appeared.



I parked, and a few moments later, a very odd couple showed up on an adventure motorcycle behind me. Excited, I tried to chat with them only to be uncomfortably rebuffed. No matter. I headed to the immigration office, and had a brand new stamp within seconds. I bid farewell to the weird pair of bikers behind me and headed off to the pass.

Sani Pass is gorgeous. Hugging the mountain, the dirt road quickly angles up and up, cutting a path to the sky. Across the winding river, huge stone pillars rise up from the mildly-grassy mountains like sentinals watching. The sun glints off of small rivulets of water running down near the top of the ridge producing the appearance of patches of snow. Sheer rock faces tower above the mountain slope, menacingly. The road continues to meander, the drop to the water becoming more pronounced, the surface becoming less dirt, more pebbles and shards of shale. The road is narrow and rarely flat or straight, so turning off to take photos seems like a poor idea. Instead, I ride slowly and deliberately, taking in as much of the scenery as I can. Finally, I come to the first of the tight steep turns that’s made the road famous. My spirits are up among the mountain tops.




I begin to make my way up through the curves. They’re steep and covered in loose rocks, but thoroughly do-able. My motorcycle was built for roads like this, and it shows. The odd folks behind me at the border come flying up past me in a hail of rocks, but my only thought is they’re missing out. Where possible, I stop, take off my helmet, and feel the not-insubstantial wind in my hair as I look out across the valley below, marveling at the snake-like path I’m on. From the middle of the curves, you seem to be sitting on a precarious spot, with a steep rock face to one side, and a perilous dropoff to the other. Maintaining the speed to continue up the mountain, but still make hairpin turns, made my palms sweaty and the hair stand up on my neck. I imagined the madmen who take this road in the winter, then quickly tabled the thought.

Part-way up the bends.



The last few curves are the steepest, and as I climbed up, I had to pass around a pair of massive BMW R1200GS bikes and an RV on their way down. Giving my bike enough power to overcome gravity, the horizon leveled off to reveal a broad steppe, border post, and 100 meters ahead, pavement! Off to the right, just beyond the border fence, the famous pub at the top of the pass could be seen. With only 17-or-so tight turns, the road to the top seems to stretch on forever, but I still felt a twinge of disappointment when it’s over, and that I couldn’t ride something so crazy and awesome for another hour or two. These thoughts rattled around the back of my subconscious brain while the rest of my conscious mind rejoiced in a sea of feeling accomplished.


The road went from this…


I was excited.
Very excited!

I parked my bike and headed to the border post for a perfunctory stamp and to pay the small toll. Then it was off to the highest pub in Africa for some requisite photos, a pint of the local beer Maluti, a chicken wrap, and a hell of a view of Sani Pass. I reveled in the cognitive dissonance of the place’s WiFi, and after unnecessarily sharing on social media that I’d friggin’ made it to the top of the world (and highest African border crossing), I sipped my beer and planned my next step.

Lesotho is a small country completely situated in the mountains. As such, it gets a substantial amount of snow fall and is treated as a giant water supply for much of South Africa. There’s a lot of complicated history there that I highly recommend as reading for those curious, and that history has a non-trivial role in the political tumult Lesotho continues to struggle with, such as a top general being assassinated there the week before I arrived.

With all this water, the massive Katse Dam was built to harness it (proposed by a South African engineer and organized by the World Bank. The damn thing cost $8 billion dollars!). Situated near the middle of the country, the second largest dam in Africa, as well as its highest, this seemed like the next logical destination. There are a small number of paved highways through Lesotho, and Google Maps advised a rather straight and boring route there along one of them. I instead zoomed in and found a more direct, but substantially smaller and curvier option that I wanted to try. I was going to live dangerously. No matter how you look at it, this was an amazing decision. Depending on how you look at it, it was amazingly good or bad.

I paid for my meal in South African Rand and got my first of the local Lesotho currency (conveniently equivalent and interchangeable within the country with Rand, just like Namibian dollars) as change. The highway was beautiful in nearly all senses of the word. It was perfectly paved, relatively well labeled (aside from sudden, insane corners), full of beautiful views, and also super curvy, occasionally steep, and nearly desolate. In other words: it was a perfect highway for motorcycling.

Immediately after Sani Pass, my path down the highway swung again upwards, to an even higher mountain pass. No matter how many times I describe a beautiful mountain vista, no justice will be done to them, and this was no exception. The mountains of Lesotho felt a bit like the middle of the Andes, as if the mountains east of Santiago had grown grass that then were left to dry nearly to a golden brown, that is to say, they lack the jagged edges of the Rockys but maintain their impressiveness. It took a couple surprise curves to realize a little “>” or “<” sign took the place of a massive billboard with flashing lights that you’d see in the States for the types of curves placed on the highways here. The roads rarely had a speed limit marker, because there’d be no point. You could go as fast as you wanted… it was pretty damn slow if you wanted to live.

I followed Google Maps down the highway, passing a fast cadence of tiny mountain-side settlements of small round stone huts with pointed thatched roofs, goats, sheep, cows, donkeys, and horsemen. Lesotho (pronounced ‘Lih-SOO-too’) is the established homeland of the Sotho (‘SOO-too,’ obviously) people, traditionally mountain herding people. The prevalent dress out in the mountains is a thick heavy blanket fastened by a giant metal clip (similar but different to a safety pin) worn over the shoulders, and frequently a thick woven balaclava around the head, even in mid-day when it’s warm. Nearly everyone in the country older than mid-teen years carries a stick, riding crop, or whip, even when there are no animals in sight, an uncommon occurrence.

I’d heard that fuel was few and far between, so when I passed a set of ragged-looking pumps to my left on a flat bend in the road, I doubled-back and pulled up to them. A guy wearing (what I ignorantly consider) the traditional garb sans-balaclava was standing nearby, and stared at me with a slack-jawed wonder. The pump said “paraffin.” I asked if there was any petrol, and he tightened his jaw long enough to say “yes!” then loosened it again, continuing to stare directly at me, immobile. I was unconvinced. I pointed at my tank and again inquired about gas. Again, “yes!” Eventually, someone else came out of the attached store and said there was no petrol. I asked where I could find it, and he pointed back the way I’d come. I still had over half a tank plus my reserve, so I figured I’d carry on. The slack-jawed man continued to marvel at me in silence until I was out of view.

I took the first turnoff Google Maps recommended started in the village of Tlokoeng. The grass-covered road descended immediately and steeply downward into a river, with deep ruts and the occasional boulder. It looked brutal, and I second-guessed myself after only about 100 meters. On the insane road, I once again referred to Google maps and found another pathway to the road I was aiming for just a few kilometers up the road at Mapholaneng. I turned around on the steep and narrow grass path to odd looks in the village and again hit the highway. When I got to the second version of the turnoff, things looked far more promising, so I figured Google had just routed me on the worse of the pathways to the main cross-country route. Once again, I’d had a sign, but ignored it.

The road I’d turned onto was hard, but it was beautiful and totally do-able… at first. About a kilometer down the road, in a stretch clinging to a mountain and quite bumpy with stones, a large flatbed truck with a picker arm attached was slowly making its way towards me. I pulled to the side to allow it to pass, and it pulled up next to me. The driver leaned out the window and asked me where I was going. I told him Katse Dam. He asked if I was by myself. I said yes, and asked if the road was bad. He said yeah, parts are bad, but he looked at my bike, said I “could make my own path,” and that I should be fine. He continued off towards the highway, and I continued my poor choice.

Decent roads were common… at first.

There was no such thing as straight and flat, and instead I bumped up and down mountain pass after mountain pass, with little but small Sotho villages of more round huts for signs of human development. Dodging goats, horses, cows, and donkeys became part of the adventure. From the tops of the mountains, I could see the road etched into the dry muted landscape. Up and down I went, mildly intimidated by the whips and sticks the locals were armed with. Kids waved and held their hands out for money or sweets. Old women stared silently and questioningly as I passed by.

The first 41km passed just as such. I was enjoying myself. Then there was a fork in the road. I was using navigation and as such, failed to notice (in fact, I only did just now re-tracing my steps) that on Google Maps, the side of the fork I was taking was identified in smaller strokes, indicating a different grade of road. But I’m being generous. What I turned onto became something altogether separate than a road. It was just around noon when I turned right onto a waking nightmare.

Perhaps the wreckage should have been a hint…

Ignorant of what I’d done, I marveled at how the “road” devolved so quickly. Huge water-cut ruts began to appear and wind through the steepest parts. The dirt was replaced with rocks, nay, boulders! Eventually, I stopped at the foot of a mountain and just stared at the gnarly pile of rocks climbing up to the summit that I was intended to cross. I dismounted and walked the path all the way to the top, trying to identify the best course up to avoid tragedy. I went back down to the bike, rode up to what I’d thought was the top, only to find the path continued. I hiked again. And again. And again. Up and down, the path was so insane I couldn’t confidently ride many of the stretches without pre-planning.

I can’t remember the first time I dropped the bike. The times blend together. I’d be riding up and over huge boulders, bouncing literally from one to another, and my front wheel would hit at an angle and I’d be thrown off like I was riding a bucking bronco. Down was even worse with the additional effort of needing to ride the clutch and brakes to control speed, combined with the less forgiving additional weight on the handlebars. My panniers and handlebars absorbed hit after hit, gaining new scratches and dents. At one point, a massive rut was running through an incline I needed to pass. The majority of the road was on the right, but the water had also washed all the dirt away, leaving jagged and broken rocks loose and imposing. On the left was a mildly-less treacherous path, but one that was narrowly winning against the mini-canyon to its right. I chose the path on the left, terrified of the bike ending up in the ditch. Luckily it didn’t. Instead, when riding off a ledge and onto a pile of loose rocks that caused my bike to come to a crashing halt, the bike stayed up on the path. I, however, when rolling sidelong into the hole. I picked myself up and dusted myself off. The fall didn’t hurt at all, but looking at the surrounding situation, I couldn’t help but begin hysterically laughing. It was just too absurd.

A remarkably common sight…

I passed tiny village after tiny village. I hiked a huge portion of the road twice, scoping things out and returning. I rode through small rivers. The road frequently disappeared in a pile of rocks with no indication of where it was and where it was going, but Google Maps had a pretty spot-on path that kept me oriented. Occasionally the road passed right through what seemed like someone’s yard. The road didn’t improve. It only got worse. The first 6 or so times I laid it down, I picked it back up and continued on, but after that, I was getting tired, and I started recruiting the locals. Invariably, before they’d help, they’d demand money. No matter what I gave them, afterwards, they wanted more. Not that it’s an excuse, according to Wikipedia, “about 40% of the population lives below the international poverty line of US$1.25 a day.” I was paying far higher prices for a little bit of help.

Shit got intense. The roads were one step up from impassable. The worst of them I was too shell-shocked to photograph. There’d been no potable water supplies, and I’d run out of drinking water (I hadn’t brought as much as normal, expecting South Africa’s water bowl to provide with the aid of my water filter), I’d been on hard roads since the morning, and I’d picked up the more times than I was singularly able. I was exhausted. When I’d hike up and down the mountains to find a path, sweat poured out of my helmet. I could feel bruises growing and stiffness setting in in my legs from repeated tumbles.

On a particularly treacherous stretch of road, I took a tumble. I tried repeatedly, but I no longer had the strength to right the bike. I sat down on the side of the road and worked out my plan. Looking around, other than the “road,” there were zero signs of civilization. I was truly alone. I needed a break. I was completely exhausted and worn down. I didn’t want to keep going; I wanted to give up and just leave. I dreamt of another huge truck passing and just carrying me out of there. Looking at the path ahead and behind, the unstoppable notion in my head was just that I didn’t want to do it anymore. I didn’t want to fall and crash. I didn’t want to struggle and find paths that failed. I wanted a break, a respite, a nice meal and a warm bed. I thought about my GPS transponder and what it would mean to hit the help button, but then I thought of the plan I’d made up with my genius friend Michael. He’d assume far worse than my situation, and my loved ones would be terrified. I wasn’t emotionally prepared for the fallout from that.

No. I would camp there on the steppe, next to the bike, and try again in the morning. I There was still an hour or two of daylight, so there was no rush. It was finally starting to get cold, which was a blessing. I’d try again in the morning. I’d persevere. I wouldn’t be beaten by Lesotho. I wasn’t personally convinced, but as I’d been all my life, I was stubborn. Then I spotted a figure on the horizon.

I watched from my high vantage. The figure wasn’t quite on the road, but was following it more-or-less. I waited, hoping they’d be kind and sympathetic. I felt vulnerable… because I was. As the figure approached, I made out a woman wearing nearly western-style clothes. When she approached, I asked for water and made the sign for it, but she either didn’t understand or didn’t want to (this ended up being a particularly confusing recurring thing). Instead I asked her for help picking up the bike. She set her coat down and helped me right it. Unprompted, I handed her 30 rand, so thankful for her help given my location. But the road was still a nightmare. I made it another 40 meters or so, then ended up back on the ground, a new bruise swelling in my right leg. The woman was subsequently making her way along the road, and again came to my aid. Together, we righted the bike, and this time, I crested the mountain.

On the other side lay misery. I was looking down on a field of stones, at at least a 30 degree angle. The path was inconsistent and dangerous. I hiked a bit of it, checked Google Maps to see my remaining distance to tar (26km), set my jaw, and  decided to try and escape this cursed place. I made it about 100 meters before the impassable landscape once again claimed my upright status. When I achingly got up, I paced and cursed. I couldn’t do it anymore. I was too beaten, sore, exhausted, thirsty, hungry, and demoralized. The sun was about 30 minutes from dipping below the mountain tops. I looked at my steep and barren surroundings and I made up my mind: I’d set up camp here tonight, despite my lack of adequate rations (I have emergency dry food for these situations), pick up the bike, and continue on in the morning.

The woman who’d helped me out previously was still trekking, and in my direction. After contemplating my shitty situation for about 10 minutes, she trundled over the top of the mountain and came to my meager new home. She looked at my bike and me, her expression showing sympathy and saying “that’s some shit you got yourself into!” In Sotho I could understand (by context alone), she asked what my plan was. I held my hands up to my head and tilted it sideways in the universal sign of “sleep” and pointed to the brush off the road. She was having none of it.

My savior!

In English, she said “no no no,” followed by “village,” followed by pointing, followed by her immediately trying to pick up my backpack to carry it for me. I stopped her and told her I could carry it, even though it was awfully tempting to suddenly acquire a porter. I was nervous of the massive cultural disconnect I was entering, but I shouldered my backpack, grabbed my helmet and tank bag, and set out down the mountain, following the woman.

We hiked in alternating silence and failed conversation. She had a handful of English words, but they seemed well practiced statements. She couldn’t tell me how far we were going. She seemed confused and just laughed when I asked her if she had water. But she told me in no uncertain terms that I’d stay tonight, and that she had to go to work tomorrow. It wasn’t clear, but it seemed she worked on a farm several kilometers away, and that she would walk in the morning. We hiked over two more peaks, my motorcycle disappearing completely from view, which made me very nervous. Then we rounded one last lump of earth and a small village of less than a dozen huts came into view. We’d came about 2km.

The woman walked up to the first hut on the right and went in. The base was round and made of stone, with a thick pointed thatch roof. A short wooden door stood in the singular opening, open. In the dwindling hours of the day, the inside was completely occluded. There were no windows. A minute after the woman popped in, she popped out again and gave me an annoyed look and signal: “come in you silly foreigner” she seemed to say. I ducked my tall backpack through the entryway and into the swept-dirt-floored hut and into another world.

There was another woman inside. I’m a terrible judge, but I’d wager they were both in the neighborhood of their mid-30’s. The woman threw my things on top of enormous bags of dry goods and gave me a tiny stool to sit on. She lit a match, then a small oil candle that provided meager light. It sat on a small table covered in various things. Inside, the thatched roof was dark and oily with soot. Dry goods and odds and ends ringed the structure. A group of very young children came inside and joined us and stared unabashadly at me. I tried to make myself small and respectful. Without words to indicate my appreciation, and with my attempts to convey it seemingly misunderstood (in retrospect, I think they just thought it would be rude to accept it), it was all I had. Outside, a rotating crew of locals passed by, taking turns getting a peak at the weird foreigner in a motorcycle jacket. They didn’t come in and talk. An older man came in and took a seat near me. I prepared to show my respect to what I assumed was the patriarch of the house, but he barely even glanced at me, simply sauntering in, hunkering down, and lighting a hand-rolled cigarette.

Presently, an older woman showed up with a large round metal can full of sticks and open at the top. She placed it in the middle of the hut. Another match was lit, and soon we had a full on blaze. In minutes, the scene became a haze of choking smoke. There was no ventillation except the open door. One of the kids gave a cough that sounded serious. He would go on to repeat it on occasion the rest of the evening. Everyone got low, as if gravity had increased two-fold. The children were on the floor. The women were toiling, one hand-washing clothes in a soapy yellow plastic tub, another messing with goods on the table. Two short pieces of rebar were thrown on top of the can. A pot was loaded with water. I was dying of thirst and again asked for a drink. This time, an enormous metal mug was produced and filled with water. Before it made it to me, a paper sachet was also produced, and its contents emptied into the mug. The red substance tasted like extra-sweet gatorade, but I didn’t care. I quaffed it with reckless abandon, downing a quarter of the big-gulp-style mug in a single go. I drank a full half before I reasoned I should share. It would be ages before the mug made it back.

The crew huddled around the fire, all wrapped in thick heavy blankets. The night was still warm. As a large saucepan was lowered onto the rebar over the fire, and some eggs were cracked into it, I moved to the floor next to the kids. Immediately, the woman came up to me with two large thick blankets, presumably assuming I was cold. Unsure how to handle it, I draped them over my shoulders. The kids and women all watched and laughed to themselves. I was happy to be amusing. As the meal cooked, I showed the kids how I can whistle by clasping my hands together and blowing into them. As anticipated, they repeatedly unsuccessfully began blowing into their hands.

Eventually, a plate materialized and was loaded up with the contents of the saucepan. I was served first, followed by the older man. I saw no other plates. In the meager light of the cookfire, I could hardly make out the concoction, but my mouth knew the truth: fried eggs and pap (a cornmeal porridge very common here). I greedily began to eat as soon as the man took his first bite. As I continued to eat, I waited for the others to be served, but nothing seemed to be happening. Before I was totally full, I was uncomfortable about this fact, and began to eat much slower. Then the man passed his plate to the women. I immediately passed my plate to the children. As an act, it went nearly completely un-acknowledged, as if it was neither expected or noteworthy. It just was.

After I’d passed on the plate, I pressed 100 rand into the old man’s hand. I wanted to be clear that I didn’t expect to just be fed for nothing. Though the women noticed the action, it passed without comment. I repeatedly thanked and praised my hosts, but it continued to produce little intelligible results from my culturally disadvantaged vantage.

After dinner, the woman who’d brought me slipped out without me noticing immediately. Ten minutes or so later, she re-appeared and motioned for me to come outside. I began to follow but she stopped me immediately, indicating I should bring my things. I complied. She led me about a dozen meters to another hut. Approximately the same size, from the outside I could see this one had a pair of windows worked into the stones. She led me in using an old Nokia candybar phone as a torch. Stepping through the entry, it took my mind a full second or two to process what I was seeing.

Inside the hut was a full bed frame with a mattress. The bed was made up, with a duvet and pillow. In the middle of the hut were more massive bags of dry goods, mostly corn meal, but also whole corn kernels. There was a wooden chair by the head of the bed set up like a nightstand, and a dresser with a mirror on it at the foot. Old calendars covered the windows. A tiny rug laid next to the nightstand/chair. She was about to walk out again, but still worried about faux pas, I asked her what to do if I had to pee using the lease uncomfortable sign language I could. She brought me a yellow plastic bucket and shut me in the hut.

My home for the night! Fancy!

It was still quite early, not quite 9pm. I climbed in bed with my book for a bit, then drifted off to the incredible silence of the surrounding village. I awoke at 6am to the sound of acticity. The village was already bustling. I found the woman who’d brought me in, and she immediately filled a tub with hot water, then got out soap and lotion. I washed my hands, face, and neck. She watched. It was an odd feeling. When I was finished, she motioned for me to get my stuff and to head back to the bike.

Village life.

We began the hike back to the bike with three of the kids in tow. As soon we we left the village, I handed money to the woman and once again tried to communicate my appreciation, but to little reaction. We passed the same mountains, and eventually my bike became visible on the top of another. As we approached, it became apparent that something had changed with the bike: the seat appeared to be flying from the top like a flag. I got nervous.

When we got to the bike, once again my heart sank. The seat was at a 90 degree angle to the bike, its mounting bracket twisted wreckage. The right rearview mirror was smashed to bits. Next to my top case sat its padlock,  a huge dent had appeared in its side, and the clasp that fastens the lid on was badly mangled. Something serious had battered my poor motorcycle. It looked like something had literally ran over it, but I couldn’t really be sure.

I got the bike upright and managed to reconnect the seat more-or-less. I checked the boxes. It turned out two of the padlocks had been ripped off, but none of the contents were missing. The lower strap for my tank bag, which connected only via the seat, wasn’t so lucky. It couldn’t be found anywhere. The woman left to go to work. The kids gruffly demanded “give me money!” with angry intonation. Looking down at the brutal landscape, I told them if they could help me get the bike to the village, I would give them money.

We had to get pretty creative to work around the stone wreckage in our path. With my cadre of village children, I trundled through a ditch, and down a long 300 meter animal path that circumvented a large part of the worst of the road. With much pushing, pulling, and careful riding, I made it to the village and paid the kids, and took stock of my situation…

I had an early start and 24km left to go. The road looked no better than what I’d been through. My legs were bruised and aching horribly. Despite the hour, it was already hot and I was on my way to being drenched in sweat. I hadn’t seen a single vehicle pass by since the truck I’d passed at the beginning of my trip off-road jaunt the day before. I considered hitting the help button on my GPS transponder and hoping for help, but I was dissuaded by both the panic I’d cause, and the knowledge that my issue would probably be misinterpreted as more severe than it was. I didn’t want another day of painful falls and bike brutalization. I wanted to rest. I wanted to put my bike on a truck and let it do the work. But I also didn’t want to give up. It took me a minute to steel myself, even taking a moment to pray to a god I don’t really believe in, both before and after painfully mounting my twisted ride. I hit the road.

And this a little, too

The scenery and the mechanism I wound through my chosen path (frequently dismounting and walking the route to pick the best way forward) stayed the same. The folks along the path became somewhat less accommodating. I became numb to the phrase “Give me money!” I heard it from group after group after group of children. When they’d approach me on my steep jaunts, and thus have more time to try their luck, it was invariably followed by “Give me sweets!” Each time, the tone of voice was one of indignant demand. It was frustrating.

But it wasn’t just the children who had taken to asking for money. On one jaunt, I was staring at a particularly treacherous stretch of road, and a woman perched at the top tried to point me in another direction, but demanded money for the luxury of the advice. I refused. Also, her advice was woefully wrong, and led to another crash. It would be one of many. Throughout the course of the day, I would see young adults (17-29-ish) sprinting at full-tilt across the mountains on an intercept course to hold out their hands or even try and bar my path across the road. In the most terrifying of these interactions, a pair of hooded herders who had been perched on a bluff over the road jumped down and stood next to each other, both extending their arms and legs into the air, blocking the road and making threatening gestures. I stopped but kept the bike running. They were clearly pleased I’d stopped, and immediately broke ranks and made for the right side to (presumably) demand payment. Instead, I put the bike into gear and took off to the left around them. They briefly raised their hands and made threatening gestures with their whips, causing me to think I may be Indiana Jones-whipped off my bike while making my mistake, but they demurred. About 800 meters down the road, I again ran into a huge and scary decline. When I dismounted to take a look, I saw in the distance the two, who had once again perched upon the bluff, were sprinting down the street to get to me. I ran back to my bike, jumped on it, and took off sight-unseen down the mountain. I stayed upright and considered myself lucky and blessed.

I rode through the middle of villages. I lost sight of the road and found it again. I took a wrong turn and spent 30 minutes arguing with children about the best way back to the road, ultimately ignoring all their terrible advice and making it back in one piece. I talked to farmers on mules who were smiling and amazed by my presence, but who also just wanted to hang out and stare at me. I hiked up and down mountains. Sweat poured from the top of my helmet so much I had to take my sunglasses off and squint through the salt.

I had two low moments. In the first, I was confronted with a ludicrously steep decline full of boulders and spent minutes contemplating how I could possibly descend it. Eventually, I found a group of villagers and offered to pay them to help me walk the bike slowly down the mountain. For 15 grueling minutes, we panted and sweated down the path, nearly losing the bike on numerous occasions, but coming out safely at the bottom. On the second, on a particularly heinously steep section that would have been easy had there not been huge boulders randomly dispersed in the roadway, I was intentionally going fast enough to make it up the steep terrain when a huge sound like a gunshot rung out, and the bike jolted hard to the left and crashed heavily on the right side. When I stood up, I figured out what had happened: my left pannier had collided with a boulder and sat, ripped from its frame, mangled about a meter behind the bike. When I got up the energy from my sore, exhausted, and profusely sweating body to right the bike, it came up with the right pannier also too mangled to sit on its mount. I emptied the boxes on the roadway and used a rock to bash them into enough shape to carry on.

Fuck this in particular!

I can’t possibly communicate the depths of my morale that day. A dozen times, I stared at what lay ahead of me and wanted nothing more than to give up. It seemed too hard. I knew more painful crashes were ahead. My legs were bruised and swollen. My arms hung loosely, burned out from trying to keep a heavily loaded bike steady through a constant rock assault. I thought longingly about the GPS transponder, and how at a moment’s notice, I could plop down next to the bike and cook my emergency rations, confident I’d be on my way home to comfort and simplicity. At times, I laughed like an idiot into my helmet at the absurdity of the path I was on.

After getting stuck on a pile of rocks and needing to gun my engine and drop the clutch, I noticed after that it wasn’t nearly as responsive as it had been. I then had to perform the same operation about 3 more times in the next 300 meters, and before I knew it, I had to be gentle with the throttle or my engine would continue to rev, but my motorcycle wouldn’t be going anywhere. I considered hiking to the road.

I made a point not to watch the kilometers tick down on Google Maps. Whenever I did, I couldn’t believe how slow my progress was. On occasion, I’d be locked neck-and-neck with local pedestrians, and they’d win. With my morale scraping the barrel, the road passed through a dusty mountain town and became something remotely resembling a dirt road (90% of the time). With 6km to go, I rode in awe as my knuckles weren’t white, and every fiber of my arms and legs weren’t braced for impact. In the last 2km, I passed good looking 4×4 trucks that looked like they’d been recently cleaned. I passed a fenced-in school, something I hadn’t seen in well over 24 hours. Eventually, I climbed a super steep (but blessedly short and well-traveled) embankment onto gravel. Shortly after that, I hit pavement.

I wanted to leap from the bike and onto the surface, embracing it. Kissing it. Taking a silly photo to document my happiness. As soon as I stopped to stare in awe, much like the guy at the petrol station before I started my misadventure stared at me, a group broke off of a throng of people who were hanging out around vehicles (actual working moving driving vehicles!!!) and asked me for money. I figured it was better to move along.

It was nearly noon. It had taken the better part of 6 hours to escape the last 24 hours of my personal hell. I was dumped onto a small intersection in a small town stuffed with traffic, but once I made it out and climbing up to another high mountain pass, there was nearly no traffic. The pavement was perfect. I was running out of gas, and at the top of the pass was a petrol station. I felt like a million bucks. My grin was from ear to ear. Inside my mind, thoughts that rarely cross through my mind held a raucous party “Holy shit you made it! Holy shit you’re tough! Holy shit you’re a badass! You never gave up, even though things were crazy hard!” The thoughts were unstoppable. For the rest of the day, my modesty was put into a corner and told to shut the fuck up.

The station looked like a bomb had gone off. There were only two pumps: one petrol one diesel. After filling up, I had to guess which of the three doors in the bare concrete building went to something resembling a store. Building materials, trash, and other detritus covered the floor, but they had a working fridge. I ordered a 2-liter of coke and sat out front looking at the torn-apart cars and pallets of empty glass bottles in their yard. I drank my coke and alternated between shuddering at the thought of what I’d been through, and rejoicing at the break that was upcoming: there was a lodge overlooking the Katse Dam that looked fancy, and I didn’t care. I was staying there.

From the petrol station, I descended down the winding, perilous, and beautiful highway. I could make out the deep blue of the reservoir behind the dam. The reservoir level was clearly very low compared to its capacity. Eventually, a gigantic concrete dam appeared on the horizon, and the GPS directed me to turn directly onto it. There was immediately a fence, the guard asked me a lot of questions about why I was there, and threatened to charge me a fee for crossing (which I had no intention of paying), but eventually told me he’d let me cross for free because I was by myself. I had to fill out a form, and I passed over the top of the dam, rubbernecking all the way.

Katse Dam

On the other side, I followed signs for the Katse Village, and once again found myself filling out a form in front of a guard. I followed the road to its terminus and found myself at a modest hotel. I winced as I dismounted, all my joints and tendons tightened from injury and inflammation, and found myself limping as I walked into the reception. I don’t think the receptionist knew what to make of me between my filth and excitement (especially when I learned they had cheap dorm rooms!), but I had a key to a room in my hands by 2pm. I limped my things to my room and collapsed in bed. I’d fucking survived.


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.

Etosha National Park

I was picked up in a car at my guesthouse at 9am (a half hour late) for my Etosha tour. There was a British woman driving, and another girl who’d been picked up before me. As per usual, I went into chit-chat mode, and within a couple minutes, I’d learned that she’d came to Namibia many years ago and ended up marrying her tour guide. I asked her if they were still together, and she told me he’d subsequently died in a car accident on a later tour. Awkward silence. The trip was off to a great start!

Me and the other girl were brought to the tour company’s office to gather the group. Folks started slowly trickling in, and I once again tried to get the conversations going, and with less awkward silences. Before long, we were 14 folks: 12 Europeans (A handful of Germans, an Austrian, Belgian, Pole, and a Dutch couple), a Thai man, and me representing the western hemisphere. A large overland truck arrived and our bags were loaded in followed by us, our guide, and a helper, both Ovambo. I ended up seated next to a German girl. We were told to buckle our seat belts, but mine was missing the buckle. “Hold on!” I was told. Adventure!

The ride was mostly uneventful, with a couple stops for fuel, an uninspired lunch, and a chance to shop for snacks, water, or alcohol. The girl next to me was a teacher in Munster, a town I knew of due to the cheese (which isn’t named for it) and its bloody history during Protestant Reformation (thanks, Hardcore History!). We had a great chat as our large overland truck cruised down the paved highway, baking sans-aircon in the desolate desert. By the time we arrived at the Etosha gate at 4, I’d firmly cemented my reputation with my travel mates as the ebullient American, just how I like it.

The unofficial Ovahimba greeters at the park entrance weren’t what I’m used to from Wal-Mart. Gotta love that hair and Flintstone print, though!

No sooner did we pass through the first little settlement inside the park when the animals Etosha is famous for started making their appearances. First, a massive bull elephant wandered out of a watering hole, gave itself a nice dirt bath, and wandered into misbehaving tourist traffic, releasing its bladder and bowels as it lumbered at foolish cars.

Fresh from a bath, it was time to freshen up and avoid sunburn! Trust me, elephant, we’re on the same page on that last part.
This guy wasn’t laughing

Etosha National Park is built around the Etosha Pan, a large flat salt lake bed that periodically fills with a thin layer of water, and subsequently (nearly completely) dries. Winter being the dry season, when it was in sight, it resembled the Black Rock Desert in summer, with the exception that the pan extends all the way to the horizon, seemingly endless. At 4,800 km2, the pan’s size is no mere optical illusion.

When water in the pan recedes, it leaves traces of water around the edge that animals use as watering holes even in the dry season. Not to rely too much on nature, interspersed in the human trafficked parts of the park are man-made watering holes with large water pumps standing a suitable distance away from camera lenses. Add in fencing around the entire park, as well as all the settlements that serve as overnight spots for people, and visiting Etosha feels like driving into the world’s largest African animal exhibit at a zoo for giants. We passed springbok, hyenas, warthogs, zebra, ostriches, and wildebeest (I never get tired of that word) within only a handful of kilometers of the gate; each appearance punctuated by the sharp staccato of camera shutters and vehicle traffic. It was super impressive.

Seriously, this springbok can’t believe how impressive this place is!

Before sunset, we rolled into the settlement that would be our home for the evening. Our guides unloaded the bags and tossed heavy canvas 2-man tents down from the roof. Me and the old Thai man were the only solo males traveling, so we were paired up to share an old beat-up South African tent. Once we were set up, the guides set about braai-ing us dinner. In the meantime, at the edge of the settlement was an illuminated watering hole to watch wildlife, and our guide explained it was one of the best places in the park to catch animals. He wasn’t mistaken.

It was a hell of a night. Sitting with new friends, so much animal melodrama played out on the banks of the watering hole that there were time we couldn’t contain our laughter at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. As the sun was setting, giraffes’ long necks appeared on the horizon, silhouetted against the sky’s shifting red and blues. In the dark, elephants by the dozens came, drank, wrestled, and played out complicated social dances I couldn’t entirely follow, but sat rapt with fascination. White rhinos came and went; so, too, howling jackals. Bats and birds flew feasting on the flying insects drawn to the lights. A cornucopia of stars shined in the night sky. Photos were difficulty in the darkness.

I’ll admit a complete and childish amusement to the spread-foreleg drinking position of these giraffes.

Also, delicious dinner of stir fry was served. Beer was consumed and friends were made. We spoke of languages, culture, bad music, animals, religion and politics. I converted a few folks to Pastafarianism. This reverend has now done missionary work in Africa, how cliché. I enjoyed repeatedly mispronouncing “sternschnuppe” — German for shooting star — while witnessing said phenomenon over and over and over again. I tried halfheartedly to snap some photos of the sky, fully aware they’d never do it justice. Then I showered and slept like a baby. 6am was reveille, and tents and things needed to be packed before breakfast.

I woke up refreshed and broke down the tent myself in a few short minutes, gaining me a high-five from my tent mate who’d gone to brush his teeth. Breakfast wasn’t ready yet, but folks were already clamoring about a lion at the watering hole, so I set out once again to be amazed by the unending animal parade. In the calm morning light, a lone female lion stood alternating between gazing at the scenery and lapping at the shore of the water. Another jackal trotted by carefree. I took in the peaceful moment and headed back to camp. Breakfast was a nearly-full English breakfast, and afterwards the guides sent us to a nearby viewpoint tower while they put the finishing touches on the truck.

The group was in high spirits after the night of animals and banter. We’d connected. Even out guide got into the show, occasionally barking commands at or assigning blame to yours truly by name. We had a full day of so-called “game driving,” bouncing in our truck from watering hole to watering hole, taking in more animals: a pack of lions, hartebeest, eland, and impala.


Passing tourist in her natural habitat.

The original zebra crossing.


I took several hundred photos. Our group joked and bounced and clamored over one another for the best views. We shared another middling lunch. Armies of zebra, roving bands of wildebeest, and playful gangs of elephants seemed around every corner and behind every thicket of trees. A lone black rhino chomped on shrubs in the distance. Eventually, we came to another settlement at the other end of the park, a former German military settlement complete with early-20th century fort, and it was time to once again pitch our tents for the evening.

I took in the sunset on the top of the fort per our guide’s recommendation. I befriended a cosmopolitan French family who passed along their contact info should I make it to Lyon. We were adjacent to another watering hole, but repeated visits granted a view of not much more than throngs of tourists and seething, boisterously loud flocks of birds. Instead I took my new German teacher friend aside to teach her how to take photos of the sky. I managed to get one half-decent shot.

Goodnight, Etosha…
Hello starry night!

Our final dinner was a hearty braai of sausage, mutton chops, garlic bread, baked potatoes, and salad. I ate myself stupid. I learned that my new Austrian friend (and future veterinarian) has access to baby capybaras I can feed, thereby adding Vienna to my list of destinations. Finishing the night was more beer, bonding, and bed.

Morning, breakdown, breakfast, and loading. I did my best to make myself useful. We swung by a final pair of watering holes on the way to the gate, but this side of the park was uncharacteristically quiet. Then we were rumbling down the road in relative quiet, the gang worn out from the excitement of the weekend.

This fabulous specimen stopped by to see us off on our way to the gate

We had a long drive back to Windhoek, and given my rapidly-approaching solitary status, I couldn’t abide the quiet. I kicked off a game of “two truths and a lie” and got most of the group in on it, each in turn revealing ridiculous stories about their past to talk about. We stopped in a small town along the way known for their wood carvings so folks with more space than me for such things could be aggressively harassed to buy things (aka shopping) by locals in small huts overflowing with nicknacks, then it was on to Windhoek for bittersweet goodbyes.

In my diary under Etosha, I wrote “success.”

Windhoek Reboot

Before my accident, I had intentions of visiting Etosha National Park in northern Namibia. As I learned in Sossusvlei, motorcycles can’t enter National Parks in Namibia, so I either needed to join an organized group or rent a car and camp on my own. I figured it’d be nice to have the company (and guide) afforded by an organized tour, but in the din of San Francisco, I didn’t get around to organizing one before hitting the ground in Africa. Unfortunately, it was now the middle of the high tourist season, and things were remarkably booked up. Cars were readily available, but sadly, camping sites (what I wanted) were also fully booked up. I ended up booking a tour nearly two weeks out. Luckily, I’d made great friends with my guesthouse owner as I’d be here for awhile.

The time passed slowly, with ample relaxing, playing cards, making some easy adjustments and repairs to my bike (chain, mirrors, blinkers, etc.), hanging out with people and animals, and living the local Windhoek life. I learned a new card game. I taught the locals Euchre. We even played a couple games of Settlers of Catan. I made new friends, I talked about life, politics, race, and America. I learned some Afrikaans, and a lot about Namibian history and life.

I discovered that before my accident, a reporter I’d met at the Cardboard Box and corresponded with had written an article about my travels in the most popular newspaper in Namibia (The Namibian), and that it had been put in the newspaper! I managed to snag a couple copies from their office and send them back home. There was even a teaser about the article on the front page!

Full page coverage!

Before heading to Etosha, I also went to the Düsternbrook Guest Farm with my new guesthouse friends for a couple nights of camping and animal viewing. The place is a few hours from Windhoek, past a giant chicken farm, through a number of farm gates down a dirt road. They’ve got camping spots, chalets, tons of birds, kudu, springbok, hippos, and a few large enclosures with cheetahs and leopards. We camped by a dry riverbed, cooking and drinking the nights away, and drove/walked around looking at hippos and animals during the day. We also rode along for a cheetah and leopard feeding, which afforded close-ups with the impressive cats and tons of amazing photos.

After the camping trip, we headed back to Windhoek, and then it was time to head off on my tour to Etosha.

Africa Intermission; San Francisco Reunion

There are few enviable components of 37 hours of airports and air travel. Worse still is lugging two backpacks through the process with a sling and four broken bones. Addis Ababa airport is icing on the proverbial cake (if you’re curious why, ask me in person and watch the subsequent contortions of my face). Nonetheless, there were two high points to flying Windhoek->Addis Ababa->Dublin->Washington DC->San Francisco: I witnessed incredible (but sadly un-photographed) fires blazing in the dark deserts of Egypt from my window seat, and I met an awesome researcher from Berkeley working on a solar probe for NASA on the last leg.

Boarding a plane in Windhoek involves runway crosswalks.

San Francisco meant friends, family, recovery, and the pains of leaving once again. I turned 33. I had a party. I ate all the foods I’ve missed in Michigan and Africa. I drank beer that wasn’t middling pilsners and lagers. I witnessed a friend crush a reading comprehension test while getting a lap dance at a burlesque show. I danced on stage with Girl Talk. I sang along with the songwriters from The Animaniacs. My shoulder began to feel fine. My ribs improved remarkably. I got sunburned. I slept in, or didn’t. Mostly, I was reminded about the amazing community I have in what’s been my chosen home. To all those members of that community, you once again have my heartfelt love, appreciation, and respect.

Two months of love and amelioration and it was time once again to return to Southern Africa. The proverbial show must go on. My path was nearly the same as before, but became a nearly 40 hour affair due to an unscheduled stopover in Lusaka, Zambia, supposedly for refueling, followed by a dauntingly long immigration queue in Windhoek (thanks in no small part to a large group of Chinese passengers in front of me who took over every immigration agent while the one of them who spoke English translated for each and every individual member of the party). Finally, I was dumped into the morass of jet-lag and the friendly hands of Sam, the owner of the C’est la Vie guesthouse, who had agreed to pick me up at the airport and take me to my last African home. We stopped for a beer on the way back. Windhoek Lager never tasted so good. Cheers to more adventures with an extra helping of safety!