Wednesday, 16 December 2009

The Good Folk of Lusaka

In Mbala just before leaving for Tanzania

I sat in traffic jam as time crawled by.  If you think Johannesburg is gridlocked with traffic jams, wait until you get to Lusaka.  I was very thirsty, hungry and was beginning to feel very hot.  Cities can be intimidating, even though I live in one of the biggest on the continent, I felt uneasy in Lusaka.  Where do I spend the night was the question that was beleaguering my mind?  I could sense eyes peering at me from the windows of the cars around me.  I could also sense the respect from the drivers, for every time I moved or tried to change lanes, even taxi drivers let me pass.  It was humbling to know that there was lots of goodness around me.  It was as though they were telling me: we know you are tired.  How enlivening!

Scorpion Always attract People in Mbala

I went around central Lusaka for a while. My purpose was either to locate a place to pitch my tent or find some cheap place to lodge.  What was immediately noticeable was that there were massive construction projects in Lusaka.  I could also see from the well manicured lawns, modern houses, high walls with electric fences and well groomed guards.  I knew I was riding through the posh suburbs of Lusaka.  It was entirely accidental.  If there was any resemblance with the city I live in, it had to do with shopping malls. 

I recall denouncing the words of an Australian Jesuit priest who unashamedly told me that Johannesburg was like Brisbane or any large city in Australia.  I asked him why it was not the other way round.  In other words Australian cities set the standard.  It is common to find folks who insensitively make themselves or their issues reference point.  It is extremely irritating. 

To return to our story, I could feel the pangs of hunger urging me to find something to eat.  I had drunk lots of water but had not a morsel of bread since Livingstone.   First I found an internet cafĂ© and sent a few emails and posted on my web-blog.  Eventually, I turned into a mall and what do I see: Debonair’s Pizza.  The world was indeed a small Place.  If you remember the comedy "The God's Must be Crazy 1" and the Coca-Cola bottle dropping from the sky, you know what I mean.  I ordered a medium size Pizza. In the interim, as is my custom, I approached a man who introduced himself as Lukas.  He said “you are unusually dressed”.

“Thank you Lukas,” said I.  “I am a rider, just arrived from Livingstone.  Would you know of a place I can pitch my tent or find some decent but cheap lodging?”
“There are plenty of places but you’ll have to look around” said he.
“And what is the security situation like,” I asked?
He spent the several minutes painting a bleak picture of Lusaka’s security problems which I listened to half-heartedly.  Don’t forget I live in J’burg.  It seem like security was his favourite topic.

I collected my pizza and was on my way out, when  I met two white men having a beer.  I introduced myself with the intention of asking them if I could pitch my tent on their grounds.  Once I said I was from Jozi (Johannesburg), it was all smiles. They even offered a beer which I declined.  The older man, Mr. Van Niekerk man was from Jozi and the younger one Mr. Smith was from Zimbabwe.  Both offered to help.  Van Niekerk made a few phone calls and said there was a place I could lodge if I so desired.  Mr. Smith offered to drive me to a campsite.  In the end, a woman sitting on an adjacent table drew my attention and introduced herself as Maria. She said she overheard our conversation and wanted to help.  She called a number and said the proprietor had said there was a place called the Goldengate down the road for 97,000 kwacha (19$).  Some of these numbers can be huge, but with very little monetary value.

Meanwhile, I thanked the white gentlemen.  Just before I departed, they asked me why I trusted “mzungu” (Whiteman).  I said sometimes I trust them, sometimes I don’t and left it at that.  I was tired and part of my mind had shut down to even consider such an idealistic subject.  The active part of my mind was thinking about tucking me in a warm bed.

Maria gave directions.  After giving her my card, I thanked her and arranged with a taxi driver to guide me to the lodge for 15000kwacha.  Goldengate was co-owned by a German married to a Congolese lady.  He was a soft spoken man who was also very polite.  It was a short drive from the mall.  I was so excited to have a room for the night, a hot bath and my pizza.  How everyday things can bring so much joy.  I recalled Alistair, back in the 1990s, an English  tourist driving across African in a 1970 Landrover, to whom I offered some tea, with bread and jam.  He said he had not tasted jam in since he left the UK.  The joy in him was simply total.  It was of such purity that you could not doubt its sincerity. 

Well, just before I slept, I used the night guard’s phone to send couple of text messages. Every time I used someone’s phone I gave them 5$ worth of airtime. I had my phone on roaming but the last time it worked was in Gaborone.  All I remember was thanking the good Lord for being my protector. Sleep so sweet, and sweeter than the sweetest thing was the only thing on my mind.  Sleep beckoned; I yielded drifted off yonder into the unconscious.

Appraising Scorpion ― My Love.

 The Jewel on a Highway in Botswana

I fell in love, heel over head with Scorpion from the moment I laid eyes on her — she became the jewel of my heart. Yet being the scrupulous person I am, I still candidly weighed the odds of choosing her over a Kawasaka KLR 650 and a BMW GS 650. She had this appeal about her that made my heart pound. In considering anything that is going to be of a personal matter, reason and emotions must marry to provide maximum appreciation. Reason came from researching especially the stromtropper. Emotions came from the fact that every time I looked at her, she did something to me that other bikes did not — the essence of choice. I knew she was the perfect match and would carry my heart through eleven African countries. Well to spare you the details, we finally got engaged and married. I spent the rest of the time adorning her for the trip.

Come the departure day on the 4th December, she was simply ready to indulge in my fantasy. She seemed reluctant at first on our first leg of the trip — I guess because of the gusts of crosswinds blowing: 20-30 knots. However, once I set out through Botswana, she yielded to every encouragement I gave her. After riding 1085 kms in a couple of hours with spare capacity for more mileage, it was obvious in the depth of my heart that she was the lady of my life. She had passed that test and much more including being laden like a donkey but still possessing the ability to move effortlessly.

Scorpion  and Me a Spectacle in Mbala Zambia

I had never ridden her on unfamiliar terrain. The Livingstone-Lusaka opportunity put her to this test. But fear more than anything else pressed me into riding her as if she was disabled; understandably it was the unfamiliar terrain and the lack of experience on such terrain that were to blame. Once courage and confidence took charge of me; I let go. I met every road challenge with gusto. The road was being re-tarred and was in its worst state. It was full of potholes in which more than a quarter of the wheel would disappear. It had loose soil and gravel that made riding unbalanced and risky enterprise. Worst of all, it was wet in some areas with speed humps that you realised were there only after you had passed that spot Indeed on one occasion, I went over a hump and was almost thrown clear of the bike, but was saved by the way I held her as my lover. It was a firm grip on both the handle bars and the tank using hands and knees respectively. 

As far as the Eye can See In Botswana

Scorpion amazingly adapted very well; she firmly commandeered the road and took control of it. And with a mind that adapts, I begun experiencing the thrill of riding now that I’d come full-circle. I think it is a sensation that any one in a relationship with machine: pilots, Formula One drivers, speed boat racers, among others can identify with. Among other things, she was surprisingly nimble. She willingly responded with ease to my maneuvers to throw her around. Scorpion is not a super bike but she will outpace most average cars. What is more, her size allows her to be squeezed where most cars will go unenthusiastically.

Soon, I was out of the dirt portion of the road and driving kilometers and kilometers of tarred road running through thick forests. Sometimes I would push her into racing speeds of 180 km and sometimes come down to 90 kms. I realised that the best speeds for cruising was 120kms. It was pure bliss driving through Choma, Monze and Mazabuka where it started raining. This did not dampen my spirit. I rode on stopping only to fuel-up and to wear the rain-suit. Sometime before Chirundu-Lusaka junction, on a steep slope, a hauler truck had jack-knifed and blocked the road on both directions. You can picture me arriving and stealing the limelight for just that moment. Even those attempting to move the trailer had to stop to see the spectacle on the yellow bike go by. I was waved to pass and that moment marked the apex of my riding day as I gently eased the bike out of the mass of on-lookers.

In fair appraisal, it is right to say that Scorpion had one downside thought in all these maneuvers, if I was too happy and fervent with the throttle, she grew extremely thirsty.

I arrived in Lusaka about 5:45 pm (Monday). It was a bad time to arrive. Lusaka was in the grips of traffic-jam as every worker was trying to get home. Given my panniers, I was a lame duck moving only with the traffic, exhausted but having had a very satisfying day of riding and grateful to God for bringing without incident to Lusaka.

Let me say in winding up this episode that on many an occasion, Scorpion proved that I was right in my choice of her; she exceeded my expectations.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

The First Dirt Road Experience

Rachael and Team just before My departure for Lusaka

 Grateful to Rachael and Team

I opened my eyes, and it was still dark outside my ‘home’.  I was awoken by a loud cock crow on its watch.  It was a beautiful sound.  He was somewhere out there claiming the right to his territory as cocks all do.  When you live in a city such as Johannesburg, these are some of the things you miss. But the one thing ‘Johanesburgers’ can take pride in are the many trees that Johannesburg is renowned for. One obvious advantage is the ‘perch’ the trees provide for birds of all description.  If the Dutch created Holland, then ‘Johanesburgers’ created the ‘forests’ of Johannesburg. They are visible on a clear day when you came to land at Oliver Tambo International Airport.  My neighbour Jennifer has had birds’ feed in two places on her compound for years. It’s an amazing and a beautiful sight to see small birds of all sizes and colour converge on her compound to feed: birds clothed in yellow, brown, red, orange or black plums sometimes eating peacefully or sometimes fighting over food. They were doing what birds do best —foraging.

As the bird thoughts ran through my mind, I must have lain on my ‘bed’ drifting in and out of sleep for another hour.  I also prayed for a safe trip further north.  I was in no particular hurry today.  I knew that 524km of road to Lusaka lay ahead of me. 

It has been sheer joy riding up to this point.  I was aware that with me I carried the dreams of many a rider who would have wished to be on a similar trip. In addition, I carried the dreams of folks who love sheer adventure or the story of good adventure.  I also have many friends and colleagues following the story on my web-blog; it astounded me on the last count that I had 513 visits all over the world.  Obviously, the ride was not just mine; it was also for them for different reasons. But importantly apart from my adventure, it was also for Malgat, who I had the inkling he was watching over me. 

I crawled out of the sleeping bag reluctantly.  The rest at Gaborone had been most rejuvenating, but the body was still tired. I had to bath and pack.  This was one of the pains I endured every morning: to secure everything tightly on the bike in waterproof material.  As I stepped out of the tent Michael, who I met the previous night was there waiting to greet me. He was an amiable and kind man of about 35. He called himself the caretaker of the property.  He was willing to help at every turn. We struck up friendship on my arrival. He showed me the bath, which was not a very clean environment; I am not complaining— just stating the fact.  It was part of the travel. 

After the bath, I put everything in bags and secured them onto Scorpion. When it came to the tent, the outside sheet had collected dew.  The instructions were: “don’t park when moist”.  The day was overcast.  It meant a long wait. Patience was not going to help today.  I used my towel to dry it, packed it. 

Meanwhile, I noticed, it was now about 7:30 am, many pretty girls arriving. “Michael”, said I “how come many pretty girls are here this morning?”  He laughed and said “you have a good eye. The boss trusts ladies only for his business.  He claims they don’t steal as much as men do.  And if they should steal, they tell all when threatened with a police case, and spare everyone much trouble”.  On the contrary he added, “Men are difficult”.  He went on, “the other advantage is that women attract men to the club and the men spend their money here for whatever reason”.

I chuckled.  My thoughts had drifted away from the current subject.  I thought this boss had judged men harshly.  But this was his experience.  My experience was utterly different.  It is true the best people in my life were women, which include my late mother (May she rest in peace!) and a host of friends and girls.  By the same token, the worst people in my life were women, Angels on the one hand and something unspeakable on the other hand. And this is the point I wish to emphasise: it is not a gender question — man or woman. It is the goodness of heart and the capacity to evince it which is my concern.  You could be a bishop and you are such a bad person of your lot to the extent that even the devil will not be your friend.  You could be a ‘pauper’ but having the largest human heart.  It will suffice to say, individuals are judge according to their deeds and not their gender.

Famished, it was time to have breakfast.  Is this what they call an English breakfast: toast with butter, ham, eggs, cereals and tea?   Since I slept with an empty stomach, eating was vital this morning to replenish lost energy.  I was now feeling pressed to depart; I ate hurriedly.  We posed for photos and after much hugging and wishing we had more time together and gentle smiles.  I was on my way to Lusaka; it was 11:00 am.

Immediately, I was on a dirt road. I always pump my tyres hard and this worried me, yet I kept the pressure high.  The road was so bad that I rode between 10-40kms speed initially.  It turned out that this was a 135km stretch. After I mastered some confidence and on portions of the road which were good, I reached speeds of 100km.  Then the first sign of engineering trouble manifested itself.  After the first 25kms I became aware of a rattling noise.  I heard this same noise en route to Kazungula on a dirt stretch but could not point its source.  I inspected the bike from front to back and noticed the plates holding the rear axle adjustments device were loose.  How did I miss this during the pre-trip inspection?  After I tightened them, the noise disappeared. 

Comfortably ensconced on the saddle, I begun enjoying the machine: (my Scorpion).  In capable hands she will perform as best as she is engineered.  In addition, travelling solo, I had laden her with a lot of stuff including 10 liters of extra petrol. In summing this episode, I wish to say that no sane wife or husband compares her partner to another.  Along this line of thought, I will merely extol Scorpion’s virtues on the basis of her performance in the next episode.   

The Warmth of the Human Heart

Sleeping Quarters

I rode from Gaborone (Botswana) to Kazungulu (Zambia) covering a distance of 1085km from a 4:00am to 2:30pm. This means that ideally I could have ridden on much further. Scorpion had won my heart without any reservations; she made me proud. As a machine, she has been flawless and consistent in her performance making my heart grow fonder each passing day I spent in her company. But I wish to speak of her on another occasion.

In my earlier post, I said that the process of crossing the border at Kazungula was a nightmare, firstly because of the numerous documents I had to complete; the many accompanying fees and taxes, which were always not clear but mandatory. At Tlakweng (Botswana) it was simple: 110 Pula for road tax. Neither did the large Zambian currency denomination make matters easier. Secondly, because of the number of officials and pseudo –officials I had to deal with — everyone vying for a piece of me. I had to go into several offices to do different things; it was all confusing. When the process was finally completed, it was 5:00pm. I still had to pay George who, I must admit, facilitating the process of documentation — running from one office to another to provide support. He was a good man who was trying to earn a decent living. He told me that the government was not helping very much with jobs. Well, he had actually gone as far as making some of the payments using his own money — he provided official receipts. The problem started when he inflated figures. It could have gone unnoticed except that in his haste to milk me of my hard earned cash he started contradicting himself either lured by greed or rather in thinking I was naive. I have a good ear for faults in someone's logic. I pointed this out and an argument ensued. In the meantime his friends started to gather around us. It was time to conclude this deal. In the end, I refunded his money 40$ and gave him another 10$ for his services. At this point he was yelling and cursing that I was being unfair. I told him he was a good man and I was grateful that he had helped me, but to try and steal from me was no virtue, and that in so doing, he had cancelled his blessings. He kept demanding for more and was increasingly becoming hysterical. I was anxious to leave for Livingstone, I simply rode off into the sunset

It was now drizzling lightly; I was very tired and hungry. The chicken I ate at Francistown was long digested. But now I just wanted to get to Livingstone. The road was paved and good. When I am tired, I ride at slower speeds. I cruised at 80km per hour and covered the 66 odd kilometers in no time. I went through the city centre and to Livingstone Falls. The receptionist, a gorgeous Zambian lady was kind to direct me to a decent money changer to change my dollars for Kwacha. I paid another 10$ entrance fees and what a sight to behold.

They said Dr. David Livingstone was the first man to discover the falls. With all due respect to him, what about the indigenous folks living in the vicinity? Since this ride report is not about the morality of this statement, a discussion will not ensue.

I still had to find a place to lay this tired body. One thing you will appreciate is that it is not always easy to find a place to pitch a tent for reasons of personal security. I rode around town checking out the lodges and hotels. In one hotel a night was 120$. The lodges went for not less than 50$. If I stayed in such places, my trip would soon come to an end. After three attempts, it was now dark; I was anxious, I came to a place where my gut feelings told me this was it. I met Rachael at the reception, who said it was 200,000 kwacha (roughly 40$) a night. I hesitated. She asked: “what I was going to offer”. I said that I would rent a place to pitch my tent. She said ok. One of the things I set out to do during this trip is to rely on human goodness. I have met with it so far. This is a major theme of this Odyssey. Rachael was a very sweet person to say the least. Bless her Lord!

I set up the tent where she indicated, nothing occupied my mind more than sleep. I didn’t care about eating; I managed a Heineken though. It was the first time I was going to sleep in the tent. It turned out to be comfortable just like it is at home. The inflatable mattress was a deluxe. Apart from the humid and stuffy night, I did not need the use of my sleeping bag until the wee hours of the morning, I slept soundly. I remember the last thing on my mind was thanking God for bringing me this far. I even dreamt of my favourite food — grilled potatoes and roast beef. Delicious!

An End to a Beginning.

How the End Begun Although I have never finished my story, there is an end to every beginning.  One such end came many moons ago, when a...