Zebee Travel Diary Series: the African Adventure

James, an adventurous traveller, reports on his recent trip riding through India and Africa. A gritty and real-life account of a solo motorcycle adventure. "Whilst my peers were knuckling down for their final year exams, my last few months at university were spent in the library gazing over African maps and trawling through online travel forums. I had always been set on completing the renowned London - Cape Town motorcycle trip down the Eastern route, however as a broke graduate with hefty debt, this sadly, never came to fruition!"

I travelled to the cheapest place I knew of; India, and spent the following two months climbing the snowy Himalaya passes of Northern India with my close friend and fellow motorcycle enthusiast, Josh, on two tattered Royal Enfields. After a bitterly cold, yet awe-inspiring few months navigating through the foothill valleys and bustling traffic, the India trip with Josh finally came to an end. My itch for travel, however, had not. 

Whilst scrolling through the classified adverts on Horizons Unlimited, sitting in my bustling Delhi hostel, I came across a Bajaj Boxer 150cc for sale in Northern Malawi, for $450. Bingo - I was sold. Within three days, and countless connecting flights, I landed in the remote and green airport of Lilongwe, Malawi with three sets of clothes, a tent, a sleeping bag, a helmet and a plan to reach South Africa. It wasn’t quite the lengthy London - Cape Town plan I had initially strived for, but it provided an explorative trip into the unprecedented and unknown.

The contrast between the flowing hills and greenery of quiet Malawi and the sensual overload of India was staggering. I spent the next few days acclimatising by the shores of Lake Malawi and doing what prep I could to the bike before the departure. I had no Carnet De Passage (essentially a passport for the bike), a forged Temporary Import Permit from Uganda (where the bike had travelled from), and thin tread on my tires. With no satellite phone or GPS and only backpackers insurance, my contingency plan in case something went wrong, was simply ‘not to die’. 

The Bajaj bikes (known as boda-boda bikes) are commonly used as taxi bikes by the locals and are shown a thrashing on a daily basis, often seen carrying three or four pillion passengers. They are imported on the cheap from India and hold a tiny 150cc engine in their petite frame. Perhaps not fit for a 6ft 5 bloke like myself? Certainly not fit for a 6000km trip through the African plains. Despite this almost cringe-worthy position I had put myself in, my naively optimistic attitude shone through and I headed alone yet steadfast towards the border of Zambia. 

The three and a half months spent in Africa saw me navigate through Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and eventually South Africa. The little steed and I ventured across the floods of the Makgadikgadi Pan, a stretch of the Kalahari desert and the remote stretches of the impressive Soussvlei.  The routine of leaving early with the African sunrise and setting up camp as the sunset became habitual, and a routine that never grew tiresome. The days on the “road” were often long, tackling unprecedented road surfaces and unforeseen obstructions en route. My plan was to have no plan and confront each day as it came - I still think this is the best advice on a trip like this. 

My good luck was soon to end, however, as tragedy struck in southern Namibia. By far the most challenging riding I’ve encountered, through soft sand and sweltering stretches of dirt road - especially with zero treads on my tires. I encountered the odd slip and fall on a daily basis, however, the bike kept going - it wasn’t until over the course of two days, the knocking sound from my engine grew worse and worse, and eventually my bike ground to an ashen-faced halt on a stretch of desert road with no villages or people nearby. Oops, I thought. That knocking noise was more than likely a blown gasket and not an easy repair! I did my basic maintenance checks whilst slowly the realisation of the position I was in, became far more transparent. I was now transport-less on a stretch of dusty Namibian road, with no clue where the nearest village was and only a large bottle of water. The sun was pounding and I was in dire straits. Any sign of naive optimism had now become desperate acrimony. 

I had been riding with a fellow Brit motorcyclist, Joe, a few days earlier and knew he was heading in this direction. He was riding the London to Cape Town route on a Yamaha XT660Z Tenere and whilst he had been covering ground far more quickly than I, my long days on the saddle meant we kept bumping into each other. I decided to stay put and wait for my only chance of help. Hours passed, as I slowly spiralled into a despondent state, but suddenly in the distance, I saw the bright lights and dust cloud appear. Joe smirked as he pulled up alongside me - allowing me to celebrate in pure relief.

By this point, the poor bike had its innards littered across the sandy floor, during my desperate attempt to diagnose and fix the issue. I bit the bullet and decided the only option was to leave the Bajaj where it lay, on the side of the desert track. Joe willingly offered the pillion seat on his spacious Tenere, and I disposed of the majority of my belongings and hopped on behind Joe. The Bajaj couldn’t quite summon the strength to take me to Cape Town as I’d planned, yet despite its premature end, I would be lying to say I wasn’t impressed with how it performed. An unwitting adventure-mobile that despite falling at the last hurdle, was well worth its $450 price-tag. Bravo Bajaj! 

I dropped the Bajaj keys off at the first rural farm we came across about 50km down the road, with a note, giving the farmer the location of the bike and my possessions - if he could bring it back to life, it was his! I certainly had to repay the karma after Joe had offered me a seat for the final 1000km stretch of the journey. The Yamaha blasted along the loose sand at a progressive rate, despite its now over-bearing load. Over the course of the next few days, we manoeuvred across the border and through the winding Cedarberg valleys and vineyards before reaching our final destination - Cape Town.

The five months spent gallivanting across India and Africa was a totally cathartic experience, that replaced the stressful and monotonous tasks of daily London life with a very primitive and simple mindset. Completing it on a shoe-string budget made it a far more humbling adventure and forced me to live one day at a time - improvising and overcoming problems as they appeared. I completed my five month trip on a budget of £4500, and this included purchasing the bikes and flights. With cost being such decisive-factor on trips like these, especially for the younger generations, I hope this inspires others and proves that memorable trips like these can be made if you’re willing to sacrifice certain luxuries.