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Africa Tour August 2011 - August 2012


Another year, another country. I wish you all a happy New Year from Nairobi, Kenya.
We had a pretty good New Year celebration with my friends in Mwanza. I liked it because it was pretty low key and heaps fun. Low key because no one had much money for fancy drinks. Or any drinks actually. And heaps fun because Tanzanians know how to have a good time without spending extraordinary amounts of money. So we stayed in a big group. Every lasted for an hour. And we listened to cool Tanzanian music in the pub and danced around. It was a good time and it went on till the early morning hours. However, the midnight point was pretty much ignored by everyone. But yeah, why not.

The next day, first of January, Martin and me, we left Mwanza. To go straight to Musoma and the Kenyan border. It is a beautiful tarmac road all the way. Passing by Lake Victoria, the Serengeti NP (with lots of Wildebeasts and Zebras next to the road) and the beautiful Rift Valley. We rode through green valleys and up green hills. Everything looks green and fresh and it is so much fun to ride along there and just enjoy our free life. The border crossing into Kenya was very easy, no fuzz at all.
On the other side of the border a very different picture presented itself to us. Whereas there was not much but empty landscape on the Tanzania side, in Kenya there were busy streets, towns and lots of people. Lots of people everywhere. Particularly on the street. And shops, banks, restaurants, mobile phone agents - everything was there in big numbers. Traffic became much more chaotic and potholes more frequent and deeper.

Re-routing our journey along the East coast of Africa might have avoided Africa's worst trouble spots and opened up brand new places of awesome interest. But it also created new hurdles to get over. Like the visa for Ethiopia. I never thought it would be so difficult. But you simply can't get it from Kenya. No way. Drives you crazy. Because it is so pointless. You can fly in and get a visa at the airport in Addis Ababa on arrival. You can come from the North and get a visa in Karthoum. No problem. But if you come from the South there is no way. Same person, same passport, same destination but no way. T.I.A. (...this is Africa). So our passports are now on the way home. Because the visa is cheaply available in your country of residence. Just the DHL transport for your passport is not cheaply available. $150 for the return journey. Fortunately they can put two passports in one parcel so we can split the costs. As so often before the typical degree of efficiency in Africa kept us busy for the whole day. For one simple purpose: get the passports to DHL and then sent to the embassy. It required us to visit three different DHL offices across Nairobi, 50km there and back and in between. 50km in hair raising traffic with seemingly millions of cars which without any noticeable order negotiate the pothole littered streets. Or just stop somewhere on these streets. Somewhere you would never guess.

Nairobi is a very different place compared to the Africa we experienced during the last few months. The city centre is filled with modern high rise buildings. It is by far the most modern city since we left South Africa. There are shopping malls which would not be out of place in Sydney. Apple computer stores, tablet computers, original branded mobile phones, designer clothes and brand new European cars not even seen in Sydney. And many white people too. In fact, here on our campsite (Jungle Junction) there is one Swiss couple, one Japanese motorcyclist and every other guest is German. German people seem to overrun this place. Most with chic BMW or KTM motorcycles and latest-on-the-market gear. Or huge trucks purpose built for travelling. It is kind of cool to be surrounded by travellers. Although many have different ways of travelling and seem to be a bit in a rush. A rush to make it to all the sightseeing highlights as proposed by their guidebook. We will need to stick around here for a week or so to wait for our passports to return from home. And I guess it will be a tough week.
It came to me like a sudden shock when we arrived yesterday. Walking through a modern air conditioned shopping mall full of white people in good clothes. And camping in a 'German Village'. I miss the friendlyness and the team spirit, the sense of togetherness we had when we were surrounded by local people. Don't get me wrong, these tourists are friendly, really friendly and helpfull of course. But in a very different way and only up to a certain point and no further. There is always at least a bit of distance to be kept, always a bit of competition going on. I guess I am quite spoiled now by the great experience I had in Mwanza and all those other places. Being part of a local group of people for so long and feeling that spirit of 'we are together' as it is so common in Tanzania, the 'looking after each other' sort of thing. Being in this shopping mall yesterday, walking past these incredibly expensive shops, there was this urgent need to run out, jump on my bike and get out of that place. So to summarise my current state of emotions I would say I feel terribly out of place.

However, being in Jungle Junction, my little Suzuki really feels well. There is many cool and clean other bikes for her to share adventure stories with. I purposely did not clean her so she really looks tough compared to the others. It is the only DR650 around. And she is a little star because you cannot buy her kind in Germany. So her sheer existence is a surprise to our new found German friends. There is also good tools to borrow. And clean bits of cloth. E.g. to clean the chain. It's amazing how a ripped piece of old cloth can make you happy. Just in time today my little Suzuki also told me about her desire for a new fuel hose. By drenching the parking lot of the fancy shopping centre with smelly fuel from her ripped fuel hose connection to her carburator. Well done, this shopping centre surely deserves something dirty. Similar thing as it happened some months ago in Zimbabwe. These fuel hoses came together with the Safari tank and seem to be of inferior quality compared to the original Suzuki ones. Knowing that there is a Suzuki store in Nairobi I shall treat her with a replacement of all fuel hose bits and pieces tomorrow. Also the gear shift lever became a bit shaky lately, so much so that it already scratched some lines into the engine cover. Which is not good. So I have to do something there. But generally she is still doing well, extraordinarily well for the conditions we got through. We almost reached the 30000km mark by now, all done together, little Suzuki and me, the two of us. 20000km since leaving Sydney. And 15000km since arriving in Johannesburg. And there are still the same tyres from Australia on her too, the ones I bought before I left Perth. Not once did she brake down, not once did she stop. There was never any serious trouble with her. It seems like she likes me too. Really really cool.

Me and to an even further extent Martin go through a bit of a period of frustration at the moment. For re-routing our tour, for the trouble with the visa, for being stuck here to wait for our passports. It is good to be together and get over this. We are already looking forward to another country, to Ethiopia. And the rest of the trip. But we also still look for options to get to Germany. Which is not easy now that Syria is closed. There is no way to go overland. There is an option to go to Libya and Tunisia and by ferry to Italy. Or there is a ferry from Israel to Italy. Ot a freight ship from Egypt. But to be honest, we want to ride. Ride all the way. Not cheating by taking a ship. So we also consider the route Sudan - Saudi Arabia (apparently it is easy to get a transit visa for Saudi Arabia in Karthoum) - UAE. By then I am almost closer to Australia than to Germany though.
Don't know, but the guy who invented visas should simply be shot.

09/01/2012 Nairobi pics

Nairobi is quite a modern city, much more than I would have expected for this part of Africa.

These guys work for a car wash place not far from our campground. It is part of a project to keep the youth of the street and generate them some income. I could never get past that place without being called in for chatting for a while. It's been really cool and I still find it is the people who make you like a place or not.

Big advertisement banners give Nairobi city a lot of colour.

Traffic in Nairobi is quite chaotic. There is always some flow but in no way is it predictable. Overtaking into oncoming traffic, lane splitting, going on the footpath, just stopping somewhere - it is all part of the mix.

Typical street scene in Nairobi city.

Nairobi CBD features a lot of modern skyscrapers.

09/01/2012 Last post from Nairobi

We can be heaps happy with our progress lately. We were able to secure two more visa for the onward journey. The Ethiopia Visa was given to us after DHLing our passports home and back. And the Sudan Visa is cheaply available here in Nairobi within a few hours. Since we dont need visas for Egypt in theory these two visas should see us through the rest of Africa. Unless of course we can secure a visa for Djibouti (which is easy) and Eritrea (which is not easy) in which case we would do a loop through these two countries as well.
While waiting for our DHL package to return to Nairobi we had the opportunity to have a closer look at the place. I really like Nairobi. It is such a colourful place, so lively. once you dodged the traffic to make it into the CBD you will find a buzzling modern city with lots of people moving around or sitting around. Even though it is a big city people are still of the friendly kind who have time to say hello and shake hands with you. Sometimes totally out of the blue.
Because of the epic traffic conditions on Nairobi's roads there is a lot of pollution in the air. But apart from that the city is really clean. The inner city at least. It is a different story in the townships just outside.
Not too far from our campground there is such a township. I often went there because of an awesome market to buy mangoes or drink some fresh juice. And again there were some cool people to connect with. This time it was a bunch of young guys working for a car wash within a project to keep young people busy. Whenever I got near that place there was a lot of shouting and waiving hands so I just had to go in every day to chat for maybe an hour. In return for me choosing their place to clean my little Suzuki they took me along to their lunch place. Oh sh..t, I can tell you. Lunch was a big timber cutting board full with 'meat'. For everyone to share. But it was really not meat on there, more a mix of smelly fat, cut intestines, sliced cow tongue etc. And a million flies hovering over it. As a matter of politeness I ate some while the other guys dug in. There was also a cup of 'soup' which I had no chance to refuse. Apparently it gives you heaps energy. And it did. It was very watery with some white foam on top. And tasted like destilled meat soup, I never before experienced such an intense meat taste. Without finding any meat in it. Straight after I was sweating profusely, I guess this soup provided more energy than I needed. And so I promply felt very sick a few hours later. It's just no good for western stomachs. Not seriously sick but sick enough to hang around toilet facilities for a day. However, it's all fine now and I am fit to continue the journey North. So from tomorrow on we will make our way towards Ethiopia. The first time for me to cross the Equator on land.
There is still one worry though. Due to the unsuitability of the sandy Turkana Route for Martin's heavy Africa Twin (that's what everyone says) and me not being keen in battling hundreds of km of deep sand either we need to cross the border at Moyale. And it is in Moyale where just during the last few days more than 20 people died in tribal clashes. Apparently they recognise tourists as being neutral in their feud though. So we hope and cross fingers.

18/01/2012 Leaving Kenya

A lot has happened since we left Nairobi. A lot of riding actually. And some lessons in bike mechanics.
Firstly I must proudly say that for the first time ever I checked and adjusted the valve clearance on my little Suzuki. It seemed like a major operation to me. To open the lid of her little engine and screw around in what is underneath. But hey, in Jungle Junction Nairobi there is a whole bunch of DIY bike mechanics who could group around and watch and teach me and lend me the tools. So now I feel much better for being sure it's all checked and okay. And proud that I now know how to do this.
Also Martin's Honda had some trouble, loosing power uphills and only running on one cylinder. Fortunately his bike has a second one. It took a while to identify the problem as a bit of fuel pipe which was bent just a bit too much.
With both bikes running at their best we were now fit to leave Nairobi and go North, across the equator, beyond the Little Suzuki's 30000km mark and onto the infamous 520km Isiolo - Marsabit - Moyale Route. The so called Trans East Africa Highway. Which sounds like a six lane major arterial road. But apperently it's not.
Since it is the main route between Kenya and Ethiopia and in fact the major of the two possible border crossings I am sure many of you guys know this route from your own experience. For all the others let me quickly explain what we heard about it before we went there.

1.) it is called the Bandit Highway known for the many armed robberies along the desolate and lonely route

2.) somewhere in this forum you will find the story of a French tourist who got shot in the back by bandits along this route

3.) just days before we left Nairobi more than 20 people died in violent clashes in Moyale and Isiolo

4.) the road is of such quality that out of a group of 9 BMW bikes coming from Moyale 8 needed new shocks in Nairobi

5.) in Jungle Junction in Nairobi you can see a Best Of cabinet of shock absorbers molten to something like charcoal along this route.

Sounds really tempting, hey?

But we had no choice. And so we went.

First of all we were really surprised for how long the tarmac continued beyond the mark on our map. In fact the first 137km North of Isiolo is perfect brand new tarmac. The map only showed 30km. That gave us a good head start.
But what came thereafter really met our expectations. Between the end of the tarmac and the town of Marsabit the entire road is deeply deeply corrugated. Not in a way that you go over it with an 80 speed, I guess you probably need a 200 speed to smooth these things out. Or the only other alternative is to go slow. Learning from other peoples experiences with their shocks we rather went slow. First and second gear, something around 15-20km/h seemed appropriate without diving in too much. This should be a long long journey. You try on the left hand side of the road - you get shaken to the bones. You try on the right - same story. The other side of the road looks always better from this side of the road. But it's not. You try to accelerate along a smooth bit and WHAM these corrugations you didn't see in the glaring sun shake the fillings out of your teeth before you can even think of slowing down.
If you go so slow through a desert plain so close to the equator of course you get baked. Soon our water bottles contained hot water. Quickly vanishing into our thirsty throats. And the dust clouds you keep diving in when there is an oncoming truck soon give all your stuff the identical look. Ocre brown, very cool.
But the landscape is simly awesome. Flat desert, some Acacia Trees with their flat crowns, some hills in the distance, the air flickering in the heat, black volcanic rocks littering the landscape. Every now and then there would be a herd of cattle. Or camels. Accompanied by a few local people in what we would describe as traditional african outfit. Guys wearing feathers in their hair. And hundreds of layers of tiny necklaces around their neck. And a long spear in their hand. Really beautiful people.
Apart from that there are also many huge ostriches along the road, quickly running away from the sound of our slowly approaching engines.

The first night we camped some 60km South of Marsabit, just bushcamping. Believe me, you're groggy enough to not care about bandits too much. But anyway, we hid away behind a small sand hill just off the track and shuffled our tyre tracks so no one would see any evidence of us from the road. And no one did.
The next day the same game continued till Marsabit. Which is a surprisingly decent size town. With shops, restaurants, two petrol stations and even a bank with Visa Card ATM. I had to withdraw some extra money to be able to afford all the extra water along the way. Man, was it hot there. So much more than in Nairobi.
Also in Marsabit we met two Germans travelling the same route North in a Mercedes 4WD. We actually met them on our way out when they just came back into town to grab some lunch. But they promised to catch up with us along the way and camp together with us somewhere. Which was really cool for us.
So off we went. Initially the road North of Marsabit was nicely graded and you could almost go into 3rd gear. Which excited us heaps. But not for long.
The landscape changed from Acacia Steppe to grass desert. Flat to the horizon. No tree, no hill, no shade. And most significantly: the 'road' was now a track of deep deep loose gravel. Two tyre tracks. And on their side and in between them a wall of loose gravel. It formed something like railway tracks for us. Once you're in you can't get out. BUT: these railway tracks were not as clean as real railway tracks. No, much too often there were big boulders in them blocking the path, or holes where somebody dug out a truck. Or sometimes the gravelwalls grew too high and collapsed back into the path. Ever tried to climb up a 30cm wall of loose gravel parrallel to your wheel with a fully loaded touring bike to avoid an obstacle? Heaps fun!
While the scenery emptied out more and more the depth of loose rocks within our 'railway' track increased more and more. Until it was a multi km fishtailing adventure bike race between Martin in the right track and me in the left track. All this became particularly cool when there was oncoming traffic. With two wheels in each of our tracks. Ever played chicken with a truck, lights flashing?

Again, we went through loads of water in the heat and were really really happy to see our German friends waiting for us at the side of the road just after sunset. To guide us to their beautiful bushcamping spot a hundret metres off the road. And they treated us to an ostrich egg. Really nicely cooked with fresh tomato and onion, perfectly what we needed. It's incredible how big these eggs are. Apparently similar size to 20 chicken eggs. And this one really filled two big cooking pots!

So today we are still on that same road. You don't travel far in second gear. Bit till now our shocks are still in great condition, not a hint of oil leaking. That's when we say it was worth it!
Today's strech between Marsabit and Moyale included many washed out sections, sometimes metre deep cave-ins of the road surface. The surface further north is of the rather clay or sand type of material. And in the recent rain it got washed away on many creek crossings (=big hole in the road and clean concrete pipe inside). The typical scenarios road engineers back home have nightmares about when designing culverts. This of course led to a few trucks getting stuck when it was fresh and wet. And they got dug out. Which left some more half meter deep ruts over a few hundret meters length or simply deep holes which now, in the dry, are pretty much like cast in concrete. In between those ruts sand or clay at least is a surface type which does not seem to corrugate so well. So we achieved quite unbelievable speeds on some of these sections!
Bush camping this time happened on a water hole just 25km South of Moyale. By then it was dark, the border would have been closed at 6pm anyway. So we decided to go there today instead. The environment here up north is much more varied and better for camping. There is more bush, more trees, everything is more green and fresh. But still hardly any villages, hardly any people around here.
Continueing today we soon arrived in Moyale. A really strange town when you get in. People stare at you stranger than in other towns. The road goes steeply uphill and is deeply washed out. Just right in the town centre it is business as usual, a buzzing town with shops and restaurants. Just something seems to be strange on it, can't explain what.
The border crossing again was very simple. On the Kenya side we met two really friendly guys to do our paperwork. One working for immigration (=paperwork for us) and one working for Customs (paperwork for our bikes). All done quickly and friendly and for no costs.
Same on the Ethiopian side for Customs. Filling in a form, stamping the Carnet, finished. Just immigration - well, it was closed for lunch. Reopening 4 hours later. Doesn't seem to worry anyone if the only immigration officer on this side of the border quickly goes for a four hour lunch session every day. I wonder what his menu must look like. However, we used the time to visit -half illegaly- the Ethiopian side of Moyale, changed money, bought petrol, had a cold drink, had lunch and soon these four hours were gone. Back in the immigration office we met an officer who had not enjoyed his lunch break as much as we expected him to. Whatever it was, it still made him angry. But he could not vent his anger on us and filled our details into his book instead. And then, with the full weight of his job's responsibility he stamped our passports. And when I say the full weight I mean it. Like a cricket bowler his arm described an almost full circle to gain enough momentum for an explosive and powerful touchdown of his rubberstamp into our passports. Once this task was finished he simply threw the passports roughly into our direction and left the office and us sitting there.
So we are now in Ethiopia, another great country to explore. Let's go!

Again, the bikes did a fantastic job in the rough terrain during the last few days. Our shocks still seem alright. I am very glad now that I upgraded them back home. No bolts got lost and nothing else got shaken apart. I am still travelling on my old Pirelli tyre with next to no profile left on it. But even that one went across these millions of sharp edged loose rocks without any harm. Even hitting the occasional big rock neither rim nor tyre had any complaints. Motorbikes are really way tougher than I would ever have thought.

21/01/2012 Late pics from Kenya

Finally we found an internet connection fast enough to upload some the old pics from Kenya. Here they are:

It's the first time for my little Suzuki and me to cross the equator on land.

And we thought we carry a lot of stuff on our bikes...

The road North of Isiolo is still beautiful tarmac and awesome scenery.

Camels. Just like that.

Martin riding the deep car tracks between Isiolo and Marsabit. These sections are easy and real fun to ride.

Typical small village between Marsabit and Moyale.

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(c) 2012    marco hoffmann