Out by the Indian Ocean

The next morning we had a hot breakfast in the large dining hall and hit the road again. Within 40 clicks we hit the border, and with little trouble made it through to South Africa. The drive was warm and beautiful. Sugarcane persisted, along with large farm plots, and the charm of KwaZulu Natal. There were tree farms, Zulu shields, fruit stands, and undulating roads. Soon we could see the Indian Ocean in the far distance and by 4pm we pulled into Umhlanga. I asked my dad why we weren’t pushing into Durban to which he responded that Umhlanga Rocks was quaint and much cheaper. After a few loops around town we found a small B&B which was rather nice once we got the chance to look around. Later that night we had some Indian food, dining on Tikka and Chana masala. The place was hosting an Indian wedding but we managed to squeeze into the small adjacent room and heard American English nearby. After dinner we gorged ourselves on free wifi and TV before catching up on some z’s.

This morning during breakfast we decided that an extra day sounded mighty tempting. My father had good news on the dissertation ordeal so that facilitated our extended stay. We spent our afternoons separately. He took the bike by the BMW dealership and enjoyed a light lunch downtown while I took a long, leisurely walk on the beach. It was absolutely phenomenal! People of all colors and creeds were out by the water fishing or swimming, building sand castles with the family or simply lounging under the sun. Some jogged along the walkway dividing high end hotels and the beach, some perused crafts or relished a cool ice cream, and some–like myself–were enjoying the fine pastime of people watching. I later reconvened with my father and enjoyed a mid-afternoon lounge session. Dinner consisted of delectable Thai food under a marquee, and here we are living out a near daily deja vu experience: chilling in our stay for the night and catching up on the events of the day.

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Somewhere between the Sugarcane Fields and the Night Sky

While our flat tire adventure was exciting and ultimately cheap, it was time-consuming. My father was being cryptic as usual and I had no idea where we were bound until I saw us traveling in a new direction altogether. On we rode through townships and backroads until there was nothing but nature in all directions and tar in front of us. The roads were somewhat confusing but we made it through the border into Swaziland. Rolling into the Kingdom felt like a return to organized life. The roads were, as my father said, in better shape than those in Mozambique. The border crossing actually took us through a nature reserve, but not for long. Soon we were out and back into civilization.

The Kingdom of Swaziland, also known as Ngwane or Swatini, is a small land-locked country. It is only 120 miles from north to south, but boasts the rich cultural heritage of the Swazi people. Most know this land for two things, one good and one bad. The first is sugarcane, which seems to grow in every nook and cranny of the country; the other is HIV. Over 25% of its residents are infected with HIV, which has cut the nation’s life expectancy to a poor 49 years old.

The tires were looking good on the tar roads and I was enjoying the sweet smell of sugarcane in the air. The sun as out and with the occasional game reserve along the roads, we were able to spot ostriches, giraffe and other animals about. We continued to ride on into the afternoon and hit the city of Manzini. Somewhere along the road after that my dad realized that something was amiss since the GPS was telling us to go in a strange direction. As we pulled a U-turn back into Manzini I took a gander at the paper map. My dad said we should be pretty close to the southern border but I couldn’t find the major town anywhere near. Then I saw it: we had taken a wrong turn and were some 50kms off-course, dead center in the country.

We passed a couple of spots to stay, but my father was determined to find the correct road and once we were on it we had no intent to turn around. Yet again we found ourselves riding through rural lands devoid of accommodation or camping grounds and the sun was setting. Undeterred we road into the darkness and for what seemed like forever there was nothing all around us. Eventually we saw a sign for a lodge. Eager to find anywhere we stopped by a B&B, but they refused to house us saying they were full. We didn’t quite buy it but didn’t push our luck, either. We rode on toward the outskirts of a town called Big Bend. Finally we found a gas station with an adjacent motel. Pulling up the gate, I hopped off and looked around. There was no office and very few lights aside from some flickering by a small wall. Talk about creepy. I walked down closer to the petrol pumps and saw a reception sign.

Up the stairs I went and met a very kind, shy girl who was very kind and much to our joy stated there were rooms available. The room was spacious (well vertically anyway, but there was a problem with the lights. Beggars can’t be choosers though and I was getting a great vibe from the casual country hospitality. I waved my dad on in and a young, friendly man helped us take our things inside. He had a great sense of humor and seemed to be the first person genuinely interested in learning about us and our homeland.

We sorted out logistics and just as the electricity seemed to be improving the whole place was engulfed in darkness. There were no lights in our room, the hallway, the entire motel, or even the gas station. Most people abhor blackouts but I was ecstatic. Our cozy little place had just become that much more adventurous in spirit, and when I looked up at the immense sky all I could see was stars. Very few places in my life have had such an exquisite view of the night sky.

My father and I walked into the bar to have some drinks while they were still cold and to order up our dinner. Lucky for us they had a gas grill! We dined on curry in faint candlelight with some locals. For atmosphere the bartender had top hits playing from his cellphone. Eventually we made it back to the room and the lights came back on in full swing. We charged our goodies and went to bed, eager to return to darkness.

Big 5 to Maputo

Our second day in Hazyview was teeming with potential. After breakfast we befriended the owners of the hotel, who by no small coincidence happened to be motorcycle enthusiasts. The gentleman gave us some good suggestions about where to see the animals in the Kruger Park and where to possibly find camping. He even phoned some folks who worked at the gates and told us to stop by to see if they could find a campsite. The park is the size of Israel to give you some scale, and we were near the southern chunk. We had gone in the Paul Kruger gate on day one and came out the Malalene as the sun was going down. This time we went in the Phoabene gate, but no amount of wishing could help us; there wasn’t a single site, lodge, or cottage available within a 5 hour range. We pressed on eastward in case any cancellations arose, but even in the off-season our chances were slim.

Onward we drove, loosening up and and beginning to enjoy the sights. The sun was out on this beautiful day and soon, so too were the animals. This trek proved even more fruitful than the day before. In just a few hours time we saw kudu, hippos, rhinos, elephants, lions, a leopard, a solitary bull water buffalo,  hyena, crocs, impala innumerable, and many giraffes.

What. A. Day. We found the Lower Sabie campgrounds and though it was full, we had a late lunch and departed on gravel roads into the sunset and Numbi gate. We returned to Hazyview and spent our third and final night at the hotel.

The following day we were graced with even more good advice about the border into Mozambique. We departed just before noon after we had dropped off the rental car and headed to Komatipoort. Construction, like many places along our journey up until this point slowed us down. Just before the border town we stopped to buy motorcycle insurance and some Mozambiquan medicais.

Crossing the border was an odd affair. The South African side was rather simple and orderly, but once we crossed into Mozambique their immigration was a free-for-all. The moment we stopped the bike we were flooded by a small mob of despesantes. The literal term would be dispatchers; they are individuals who, for a series of fees, will cut to the front of the line, bribe an immigration officer and essentially facilitate your entrance into the country. I felt rather uncomfortable handing over cash and my passport to a group of strangers donning less than professional clothing, but a police officer walked by and kicked out the shadiest of folk, which was enough to convince my dad. He had encountered similar situations and decided to go with the biggest guy there. My father’s bold decision ended up paying off, saving us over an hour of wait and we didn’t need to get our hands dirty.

Most say that the line between countries is superficial, and in many senses that is true, but not so in this case. Mozambique did have a nationally funded road project, yielding good roads into Maputo, but that was where the similarities ended. The lands are not dissected into plots of owned land; there is just a rolling African bushland devoid of animal fences. On this side of the border businesses were non-existent aside from the occasional spray-painted script on metal or concrete panels. People sauntered around without any real push to be anywhere and worst of all there was trash everywhere. Strewn across the roadside, caught on bushes, heaped in piles and even some floating with the wind. Last but not least the language is different so signs were now in Portuguese. This was one aspect I had been looking forward to for a while, since I haven’t had a chance to brush up on my Portuguese since I lived in Brazil well over a decade ago.

Hours later we made it to Maputo, the country’s capital, and the sun had almost completely set. The owner of the Numbi Hotel had made reservations for us, but without a phone or internet data we were out of ways to find out in which hotel that reservation had been made. My father bummed off a ritzy hotel’s wifi while I stood outside by the bike, being verbally molested by every passerby trying to sell something. One guy wanted to hawk a Samsung phone and there was a young boy who just kind of stood there, not begging or selling. Soon my father returned and after a barrage of no’s we departed for the hotel. Parking was limited so we had to park the motorcycle right in front of the hotel. In SA and Mozambique there are usually parking guards or security who work for a salary and of course tips. My dad was not too fond of leaving the bike out on the sidewalk where all could come by, but we didn’t have any other choice. We took everything we could into the hotel and sorted out the reservation.

That evening we left the hotel in search of a restaurant. Mozambique is famous for their peri-peri Portuguese chicken so we meandered about until we found a nice amphitheater/courtyard with a few outdoor restaurants. There we dined on some good grub and enjoyed conversation while people watching and occasionally glancing at the motorcycle racing on TV. Utilizing our Portuguese was fun, and we were surprised to hear how similar the dialect was to Brazilian Portuguese.

We tried to get internet to update the blog but it wasn’t working so we relaxed and went to bed. Our biggest mistake, as it turns out, was not asking how much the hotel was per night–we just assumed our friends at the Numbi hotel had taken our budget into consideration when we said mid-range accommodation. It was outrageously expensive as we came to learn and with ill news about my father’s dissertation, we were forced to turn our eyes back earlier than anticipated. The good news was that our route would not repeat itself; we were bound for Swaziland, which I will flesh out in the next entry.

Far, Far Away in the African Bush

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Not much can be said about our adventures post-Cradock. We drove as far northeast as we could muster through rather dull countryside. We ate, we drove, we filled up the bike with petrol and used the loo intermittently until darkness swept in. Hoping to camp we followed the GPS to a bunk edge of town locale that was not to my father’s liking so we ventured further, breaking our oath to avoid driving at night until we were stopped by heavy road construction, diverting the highway’s path. We stopped by the police station to ask their advice about a place to stay and were escorted (yes, escorted!) to a small little B&B where we set up camp for the night. It had been a long day.

Travel and toil weighed on us heavily as we set out from our overnight accommodation. We set our sights on Nelspruit, some 7 hours out. We passed briefly through Johannesburg, the Los Angeles of South Africa as I’d like to call it, as it resembles the palm tree entertainment paradise of SoCal. Time was against us, however, as we hoped to hit the park by nightfall. My father drove the whole way. What started out to be a chilly drive (7*C) changed as we exited the highlands and descended in elevation. By four o’ clock we found ourselves in a warm (20*C), primeval land that resembled the African wilderness most imagine. Winding roads cuts into the land, splaying the land into bulbous mountainside and the occasional river. Through tunnels and over hills we rode, feeling the balmy air whip at our helmets as we grinned from ear to ear. It truly felt great but our adventure had yet to end.

We arrived at last into Nelspruit in search of a car rental, as motorcycles aren’t allowed into the park for safety sake. You see, in South Africa all game lands are fenced enclosures, and once inside you are at the mercy of the big beasts of the bush. A bike provides little protection when encountering a water buffalo, rhino, elephant, hippo, lion, or other intimidating animal high on adrenaline. Unfortunately the rental place was closed so we felt a bit trapped. We ventured into White River and further still to Hazyview—just outside of the park. By that point it was dark and the driving was increasingly dangerous. The “road” was little more than patches of tar road with faded lines and run down housing. Pedestrians walked boldly at the side of the road toward traffic, most wearing dark clothing. My father was exhausted from a long days ride and our options were few. We attempted to enter the park but ended up at a dead end. That gate, as well as the park closes after sundown. After a few tries we acquiesced to finer lodging for the sake of a soft bed. We enjoyed a drink and nibbled on some camp food, where sleep soon caught up with us.

Today we woke up and enjoyed a lavish breakfast, complete with chefs to make omelets to your liking. Afterward we made for the Avis in town and rented a car. We then headed into the park and spent the afternoon cruising the bush at our own leisure. It was a lovely day in terms of weather, shade, and animal life. We encountered countless impala, kudu, nyala, springbok, and gazelle. Truly I find most of them to look alike, though the kudu tower over them all. They are huge! We also saw zebra, warthogs, elephants, giraffes, a hippo, and a leopard up in a tree. The strangest thing about the experience is how random the encounters occur. One minute you’re driving with nothing but bush for miles on end and suddenly an animal appears in front of you.

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My favorite encounter today was finding two giraffes crossing the road. In my last stint into the South African bush up in the Sabi Sand reserves the giraffes were some of the most elusive creatures. This time they were right before us! One was grazing at the side while another turned toward us and stared idly before turning to the side and walking off. They were younglings, not yet full grown, and still towered over us. They are such beautiful animals.

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The strangest encounter, however, evoked very different emotions. After spying a host of zebra alongside a horde of impala we ran into a small cluster of Southern Ground Hornbill. They are an odd kind of large bird that somewhat resemble a vulture. Standing at around 2.5ft they looked like a meek, midget pterodacytl on foot. I got out my camera to take a picture and a couple of them took notice of me. They boldly approached the vehicle and before I knew it, 8 of them were too close for comfort. I quickly rolled up my window and drove onward, but I couldn’t shake how strangely terrifying they were. Velociraptors of the bush.

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The sun got the best of us again and we had to take a roundabout way back to our lodging. Construction slowed us even more, despite the fact it is Sunday. We did make it, however. Dinner was had at a quaint seafood restaurant. My father enjoyed a Greek salad and I absolutely loved my veggie sushi roll. What a crazy, accessible world we live in where I can see African animals in the afternoon and dine on top-notch sushi for dinner. As for tomorrow, my hope is for us to camp in the park where we can enjoy the African sunset I love so very much.

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RSA By Bike, Day 2

After our lovely stay and a prolonged sleep at Lovell’s B&B we awoke rested. The hostel manager, Maggie, knocked on our door until we arose (an hour past our alarm), proclaiming that breakfast was ready. Happy to oblige we slumped into the dining hall chairs to find an incredibly beautiful colonial style room before us complete with long, flowing curtains, a chandelier, fireplace, and brass adornments. There were several stunning paintings of a young dancer, likely the owner herself years ago. I left the hall after finishing a breakfast spread in hopes of getting things packed up. In such a hurry I managed to leave a few things behind–a detail I learned hours later when my father received a phone call from Maggie. I was excited to finally get behind the bike, though remiss to leave the comfy confines of that B&B.

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We hit the road and I quickly realized how heavy the bike was with the two of us and all our stuff as well. Many of my complaints the night before about my dad’s speed and control, as well as the general windiness dissipated once I experienced the other side of things. What feels fast feels even faster seated in the back and being at the mercy of the driver, holding onto virtually nothing at 70mph speeds. Having my hands on the handlebars was much preferable. Our drive consisted of a rustic paradise: rolling hills complete with canola fields, more sheep than one could count, clusters of ostriches, horses, and cows.

Just over an hour in I pulled to the side of the road because our GoPro was being finicky and our GPS, too. But a moment later it was time to hit the road, except the bike wouldn’t start. We were baffled. We called about and reached out for help with little response, eventually deciding one of us should walk to the nearest petrol station. It was not 200m before a car pulled to the side of the road and asked if we needed help. Our deus ex machina was an Afrikaaner family on their way to get their son into a new school. They had left early and felt compelled to see to our aid. As we surmised we only needed a jump–easier said than done on a bike though. The whole ordeal from stall to start took well over an hour and a half but we were happy to have no serious engine problems.

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(Some views around where our bike broke down temporarily)

My father took over the horns for a couple hours then I took it on for several more, relinquishing it again for the last 40 minutes. The wind picked up and was throwing us all over the place, at our faces and sides. We escaped the countryside and eventually neared the coast, along the well-traveled Garden Route: a path consisting of 3 major cities of note. Traversing winding roads and windy pathways, we came across proper highways as well as baboons–only in South Africa, right? Somewhere around 5pm we found ourselves in a town called Plettenberg Bay. This beach-side town was a sight for sore eyes. Eying a dipping sun we looked for accommodations, much to my chagrin. I was hoping to camp tonight, but in such a place a site would be unlikely. I soon ate my words because a dark and looming windstorm rolled in. My father and I found a place called the Milkwood Manor within close proximity and made our way inside just as the wind attempted to slam the doors tight. We were welcomed inside and offered a room for an exuberant price, much too much for our budget. My dad, however, worked his magic and before you know it they were offering us the room for just over half the price. Being late in the evening and in the middle of winter certainly helped, too. The owner was an elderly Dutch man who OKed the final price and showed us to our 4-star room. Guess one more day in civilization wouldn’t hurt 🙂

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Since setting up camp we crossed the sandbar to a lovely ocean-side eatery called The Lookout Deck for some fine grub; Porapora prawns and local beer for the pops, a peri peri burger with gluhwein for me. We have since managed to roll ourselves home to enjoy the luxury of cable TV, free wifi, and soft single beds. It feels good to be human, but tomorrow we must hit the road again!

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Western Cape, Day 3

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Yesterday was a busy day. I awoke just after 7am to call Chris Haman, an offroad motorcycle specialist. My father had taken a course from him in the past and had only positive things to say. This gentleman is middle-aged and very closely resembles the South African actor Arnold Vosloo (who played the mummy Imhotep in the 1999 film). I quickly put on all my new motorcycle gear and headed out to Belville, about a 30 minute drive from Somerset West. I was nervous about the whole ordeal because I hadn’t set foot on a motorcycle in about four years. Driving a motorcycle is akin to owning a gun because it requires an enormous respect for the power at your disposal; it also has the capacity to injure or kill, and thus should be wielded cautiously.

Once I met up with Chris we had some coffee and he instantly revealed himself to be a wonderfully kind and humorous man. He definitely has the charisma of a good teacher and he put my mind at ease, despite lacking some serious riding confidence. We rode our bikes to a kind of construction lot, complete with a large dirt and gravel field with bricks and trash lining the perimeter. We chatted about the trip and eventually took to practicing some off-roading and balance techniques. A lot of motorcycling seems counterintuitive, from shifting one’s weight to how to maneuver the bikes in tight areas; one consistent piece of advice carried itself throughout the day: always look up. Looking up and ahead of you always prepares you for what is to come, despite the natural inclination to look at what lies directly in front of you. People have a tendency to crash should they do the latter, and with this advice I managed to keep the 800cc bike up (no small feat, as this bike weighs between 400 and 455lbs depending on how much fuel is in the tank). Understanding the machine certainly works to your advantage, and as Chris pointed out, a bike can be held up with two fingers if you know how to balance it right.

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After five hours or so I could make U-turns in under 4 meters and weave in and out of obstacles with relative ease. I of course had nothing on Chris who could rock, bounce, and supplant any obstacle like a professional. Toward the end of the lesson we rode on bumpy back roads straddling South African farming plots. I have to admit, riding around the Western Cape seemed unreal; the beauty is second-to-none and I felt like I was in some kind of dream. The rolling hills, stunning backdrops, and rustic splendor makes even the most beautiful places in my travels pale in comparison. Parts of our rides seemed like Boulder, but many, many times prettier and yet still there was a gorgeous ocean on one side, mountains to the other, and green majesty abound. At one point there was even a group of oversized bovines grazing right on the road’s edge. I can easily see why there are so many motorcycle riders around this area—there is just so much to look at, and no other vehicle allows you to experience it with all of your senses.

I returned to the Squirrel’s Peep to encounter much merriment. My father informed me there was a kind of get-together going on upstairs and that I must hurry to join it, as it was the tail end of the party. I quickly changed and came upstairs to find a large gathering consisting of extended family. I was pleased to find everyone very welcoming and fun. I sampled a few kinds of wine and discussed with many the nature of our upcoming trip. Most everyone had some advice and rightly so since most had at least some experience traveling through Mozambique, Tanzania (which they pronounce Tan-ZAY-nee-uh), Namibia, and the like. Almost all we have encountered see us as batty, expressing that Africa will likely see to the best laid schemes of mice and men. We must concede that our route is arduous and perhaps a bit too condensed, but we are stubborn Ishmaels and ever-loyal to our cause.

Within an hour or so the deVilliers and their kin said their goodbyes, and all that remained was a host of empty wine bottles, bread crumbs, and traces of cheese spread thin upon a cheese knife. My father saw to the dishes and we too said our preliminary adieus. We tended to further preparations for our trip, and I exerted further energy toward getting the Spot Connect to work. My apologies for those who have noticed its omission; I am having difficulty accessing our most recent tracings, but I have gotten it to work before back in the states so I am perplexed as to its dysfunctional nature. Later that evening I drove the rental car back to the airport behind my father on the BMW motorbike. We dropped it off and returned on bike, finishing up a few things and calling it a night.

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(To give you a sense of the stuff we’re bringing, this is the camera equipment, alongside the camping gear)

Today my father is out attempting to wrangle this registration issue into submission. As he said in a previous entry, this setback could delay our trip for several days—possibly indefinitely, but my father has a silver tongue and knows how to cajole others into accessing their sentimentality. I await him at the Squirrel’s Peep on this cloudy Monday afternoon, where I am writing this very entry hoping good news is to follow. Despite my love for the Western Cape, wanderlust calls me onward. I can hear the roaring engine of the 800GS arriving now. I am ready to go—I just hope the universe is ready to follow suit.

**UPDATE**
Good news! My dad has acquired all the documentation. The bike is ready to go, but it is too late in the afternoon to depart so we will leave first thing in the morning. Cheers!

TIA

After dozens of hours in the air and nearly just as many on layovers, Papa Ish and I have finally arrived in Cape Town. The cool winter night was certainly a welcome change from the intolerable humidity and heat that we experienced in D.C. After leaving the airport we rented a car, which means I will eventually have to reteach myself to drive on the left side of the road. My dad volunteered to drive tonight and I certainly got a kick out of seeing him turn on the windshield wipers every time he meant to change lanes.

For the next three days we will be staying at a friend’s place in Somerset West as we prepare for our journey. Tomorrow we will pick up the motorcycle and amass all the necessary paperwork including updated ownership papers and international motorcycle insurance. I may go peruse the rolling hills and vineyards of Stellenbosch to kill some time before meeting with old friends that evening. We also have yet to get our Yellow Fever vaccinations, an absolute necessity in order to enter a few of the countries listed on our itinerary. Come Monday we will be off through the coastal roads to Hermanus and then deeper inland toward Nelspruit, eventually hitting the Mozambiquan border.

For now, though, the hour is late and I must force my body to adjust to GMT+2 time. I am excited to wake up and see Somerset West in the daytime and pictures are bound to follow. As Leonardo DiCaprio’s character says in Blood Diamond, “TIA” (This is Africa).