TRANS-AFRICA ON MOTORCYCLES:
A FATHER'S DIARY
When I was twelve, my father, elder brother and I walked from Umhlanga Rocks, just north of Durban, to what was then Lorenco Marques in Mozambique, a distance of some 375 miles.
The adventure emerged from the many long walks the three of us undertook together on Sunday afternoons through the sugar plantations and virgin coastal bush which covered the north coast of Natal in those days, following overgrown paths smelling of wet mould, with grey wood moths the colour of shadows and the sounds of unseen birds and snake-lilies like small fires in the undergrowth; of balancing on the winding rails of the sugar cane train which puffed its way busily along rustling contours, tooting with urgent high-pitched squeals whenever it came across us in the way.
Those were good days, being twelve amongst the rolling green of sugar cane, with clod fights and bows and arrows and a bonfire in the back-yard which my brother and I tended for eight uninterrupted days during a school holiday, creeping out in the early dawn to coax it into flame with titbits of twig; a time before the tyranny of girls...
And then, on a blustery day deep inside the rustling green of the cane, it was decided: we'll do a long walk; an adventurous walk!
I don't remember who suggested it first, but it emerged and was seized upon with that excitement which constricts the chest and makes being alive in this mysterious world wonderful.
My mother was compliant, the maps dusted off. I can remember tracing the road with my finger where the orange of South Africa changed to Swaziland's brown and then the exciting foreign pinkness of Mozambique, with names like Inhambame and Inhica and Inharriem and little spiky tufts which the legend assured me were swamps. And it was then that the compelling and addictive bug of adventure travel sunk its fangs deep within my psyche so that now, at the age of 45, its sweet venom courses just as strongly through my veins as it did then.
What twelve-year-old could forget walking through the silent dusty streets of Chaka's Kraal in the frost-pale darkness of early morning, water-container icy against fingers covered by dragged-down jersey sleeves; a crashed train, mangled and torn, around a corner of some obscure rail line between grassy hills somewhere in Swaziland; a blustery night on the sawdust floor of a railway goods wagon where we had stolen to escape threatening rain, the clank and bang of a loose door mingling with the moan of wind and the lighter, more precise taps of rain; and being terrified during the night that the train would clank and begin to move, taking us somewhere into the dark night; coming across the bloated stiff body of a cow in the road, the stench of blood and dung hanging heavy in the cold morning air; the clang of a police cell door where we had requested shelter and the stale smell of urine and despair that hung about the place, laying our home-made sleeping bags on the cold floor, a high, barred window set deep in whitewashed walls; a sweet-cold orange flung by a black man driving a refrigerated truck in the shimmering heat of midday, the road straight and endless and slow; hunting for firewood in the dark and under-cooked dehydrated peas crunching between the teeth; cold spaghetti eaten from the tin with a shared spoon and a rustling delicate mouse in the torchlight nibbling Marie biscuit crumbs from a discarded packet, so tame and unthreatened that we could stroke it?
The images are personal and precious, small oases in my consciousness as fresh now as they were thirty-three years ago.
Two years later, we rode by bicycle to what was then Beira, a distance of 1200 miles, using those wonderful old black, single-speed, rear-wheel-pedal brake Phillips bikes we had in those days. We scorned the three-speed bikes available at the time (only weaklings need gears and we were tough, although I coveted those gears in secret and wished we could afford them) and we rode our iron steeds more beloved than girls, hardy as tractors and unbreakable.
I can't remember when this second trip was decided, but I believe it was again on one of those blustery walks across green rustling fields of sugar cane, the rail tracks being ripped up in favour of Mercedes trucks and progress, the quaint era of the chuffing trains gone for ever.
Walking was too slow, we declared. Bicycles - that was the ticket!
And so another bike was purchased second-hand for my father and off we went with, I believe, the reluctant blessing of my mother. We met the great Red Adair in the bush of Mozambique putting out an oil fire. (He spoke American like an actor in a cheap film and my brother and I laughed out loud until we realised he wasn't acting!); we drank dark red wine from tin mugs and stale rolls with Portuguese truck drivers, unshaven and bogged to their axles in mud somewhere along a narrow track in the bush far from anywhere. “When it's gone, it's gone!” they shrugged philosophically when my father asked whether they had enough for themselves. Then into tsetse-fly country, trying to ride through soft sand with the dreaded flies biting one's arms and back and neck, falling off in the dust when slapping at them. I remember weeping silently where my father couldn't see and wanting it all to end; then my father on hands and knees, kissing the tar when the dirt road ended, faintly ridiculous but we laughed our relief that the worst was over; cooldrinks at roadside stalls and a mouldy bun, hard like a cricket ball, from a Portuguese trader woken from his corrugated iron shack in the bush early on a Sunday morning. In a town, talk of the bodies of shot Frelimo piled in the bush, dowsed with petrol and burned...
I can remember crouching on guard in front of a crackling fire, deep in the Gorongoso wilderness, squeeze-bottle of ammonia (our naive weapon carried strapped to the cross-bar of the bikes) in my terrified hands, listening for lions. A four-hour stint, frightened of things in the shadows beyond the firelight as time dragged its feet, the sleeping forms of father and brother increasing my isolation; and then, next morning, a hundred metres along the track, the heavy pug marks of a lion...
The memories are there still and they are mine. No one can ever take them away or the modest achievement of our journeys.
And I believe I am a better person now because of them. They gave me something I still carry with me now.
When my wife and I married, our first vehicle was a Land Rover and we honeymooned across the Kalahari desert, the Okavango swamps and Moremi and Chobi game reserves - special times in Africa's wildness. And then, over the years, Namibia and the mountains of Lesotho and Botswana again and again, seeing the wilderness areas so desperately loved diminishing as tar roads and tourists and fences and civilization paced across the land with relentless efficiency. We always regarded ourselves as travellers, never tourists, and the joy of pulling off the track and into the elephant-smashed bush or camping next to a mountain stream unsullied by the filth of previous campers was something to be cherished.
Before our two children were born, we yearned to cross Africa in our Land Rover, but sadly we belonged to a pariah nation and the taint of our South African citizenship blocked us anywhere north of Rhodesia and Malawi. At one stage we toyed with the idea of forged passports but then Gareth came along...
Our children - Jemma was born two years after Gareth - joined in with our lifestyle as children do. I can remember Gareth tipping himself, strapped in his bouncy-chair, head first into a river in Lesotho at the age of 7 months; and Jemma's car-chair hooked over the back seat of the Land Rover, bouncing her to sleep as we negotiated mountain passes. Gareth always had to have his own fire in Botswana, apart from ours, which he would tend lovingly; and both children learned to drive at a young age along sandy tracks, far from other vehicles or people, gaining confidence. I remember watching a 15-year old Gareth doing doughnuts in the Land Cruiser on the Magadigadi salt pans where he thought I couldn't see, and a twelve-year-old Jemma driving off by herself into the shimmering distance, raised on a pillow so she could see through the windscreen.
And then Jemma got her first horse, taking after her mother, and Gareth an off-road motor-bike like his dad. He and I rode together in the vast plantations around Ixopo where we lived for thirteen years, and in the mountains of Lesotho, following bridle paths up mountain valleys and alongside snow-fed streams, no fences and no people save an occasional blanketed Basotho herd boy with his sheep and Angora goats. Gareth never raced, was never interested in competition, but he developed over the years into a competent rider who grew to know his and his bike's limitations; and he grew to love the wilderness. Together we rode to the top of Thaba Ntlenyana, Southern Africa's highest mountain. He was twelve at the time, I think. I'm sure he is the youngest person to have conquered the mountain on a motor bike and from then on we did it each year.
(I'm sure he's one of the youngest, at seventeen, to ride a motorbike across Africa, but who knows? We weren't out to set any records.)
But land without fences and where animals roam freely past one's tent is becoming less and less available, and the threat of human predators in the bush and on the streets far outweighs the danger of attack by lion or elephant or buffalo...
And so, despite the initial euphoria after the release of Nelson Mandela and the rejoicing over the New South Africa, things in the country began to slide. Armed robbery became an ever-present threat; gun-shots heard at night elicited little more than a raised eyebrow. Our house was burgled regularly, despite our large dogs; farmers developed radio networks, erected electric fences and added to their armouries. Then one night the daughter of a friend was shot in the back while opening the gate to their farm, a friend was shot through he chest when he surprised robbers at a trading store, a man was sprayed in the back with AK47 bullets when he overtook a Combi Taxi too closely.
We had to instruct Jemma, while riding her horse alone in the plantations, to keep an eye open for people and, if she saw anyone, to immediately turn and run. And then we had to ban her from riding in the plantations at all...
Sadly, we felt it was time to leave South Africa. Our children had set their hearts on university education and South African degrees were being regarded with suspicion internationally. We decided, after much soul-searching, discussion and prayer, to emigrate to Wales. Glynis and I resigned our jobs. This was July; we would fly to Wales for Christmas, sort out the immigration technicalities from inside the country, and not come back. (A decision, incidentally, with unseen repercussions for Gareth and me on our trip later.)
It turned out that I needed to return to South Africa after Christmas to sort out various things and it was then, in August, shortly after our decision to emigrate, that, in a moment of glorious anticipation, I made my decision: I would ride back to Wales by motorcycle! I could fulfil the dream of a lifetime. Quite by chance, at 45 years old and with a family to support, I was temporarily unemployed, had time, money and a logical excuse to do the trip that would have been impossible at any other time.
I put it to Glynis and, bless her, she accepted. (Rather bitter, I am sure, as my mother must have been when left behind on our Lorenco Marques and Beira trips, but she never once expressed it. I am indebted to her for that and for - dare I say it? - allowing me to go.)
And then the thought: why not take Gareth with me? He had just turned seventeen and had his learner's licence; the Welsh school term only started in September - he would effectively miss a year of school, but what's a year when you are young?
I put it to him and he accepted. No wild excitement, but that is not his way. Just, Yes, he wanted to come. No, losing a year of school didn't matter...
Was I trying to rewrite history, do with my son what my father did with me? If so, it wasn't a conscious decision. It wasn't planned. The trip just happened on me, and what better than sharing such a dream with your child?
We had five months to prepare. The pundits recommend a year. That, as well as preparing for emigration, made it a busy time.
Most important: the bikes. Both Gareth and I had 200cc trail bikes, two-stroke things of great speed and acceleration, but not suited to the long haul. I also had two 1970 BMW 50/5's and considered long and hard as to whether to do the trip in them. It was an enticing challenge, but, in the end, we rejected the idea as impractical and, in retrospect, it was the right decision. They are road bikes, old, formidably heavy and, although reliable, not made for laden rough-road travel.
We opted for Yamaha XT 500's, 1981 models which we bought cheaply and which are renowned for their robustness and simplicity of design. In fact, they were, in spirit, the black Phillips bicycles my father, brother and I rode to Mozambique, heavy, slow, unkillable. They have points and coil ignition, easy to repair along the side of the road, easy to find spares for. The engine has about 5 moving parts, the gearbox said to be so over-engineered it could be used to drive a tractor...
We couldn't afford expensive aluminum panniers so made one from galvanised sheeting. We constructed carriers from angle iron for the jerry cans, water bottles and thousand and one other things necessary for the trip. When our full set of tools, spares, clothes and rain gear, tent, cooking utensils, stove and basic food, sleeping bags, camping mattresses, two Jerry cans and three water bottles were all laid out on the floor of the spare room just prior to our departure, despite having pared our load to what we thought was a minimum, it seemed impossible that it would all fit on the bikes!
When Glynis saw it she laughed!
We made up tank bags out of old army hold-alls which hung off the petrol tanks bringing some weight forward; sleeping bags and camping mattresses were attached to racks bolted on in front of the handlebars and above the headlight. The rest was strapped onto the angle-iron framework we made to fit behind the rider, but which had to clear the swing-arm and allow space to kick-start the engine - no electric starters on these bikes!
We tested the loaded bikes only twice, once on a ride around the house to see whether a six-litre water bottle could be carried on the handle-bar carrier; (all the bike wanted to do was lie down!), and a short trip into the plantations, fully laden. On this trial, the bike was manageable, but up a steep path, the front wheel wanted to lift with only small acceleration because of the load behind the rider.
With time running out we could test no more. It was time to fly to Wales. After Christmas Gareth and I would return to South Africa and, rushing to beat the sun to the Sahara, would set off within days of landing.