Australian Motorcyclist Magazine

This entry is part 17 of 44 in the series AusMotorcyclist Issue#1

African Bike Adventure – Part I

English teacher and motorcycle enthusiast, Spencer Conway, returned from a 60,000 kilometer (37,000 mile) solo circumnavigation of his beloved Africa. All told the 42-year-old and his Yamaha XTZ 660 traveled through 32 countries over the course of 286 days.

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The following is the first of three excerpts from his adventures….

• PART I – Bandits!

Waiting with a crowd of Africans 1,000 strong, I prepared to leave the northern border of Kenya to join a convoy of buses and trucks. The convoy will provide a modicum of security against armed bandits, or shiftas as they’re known, who have been targeting this stretch of road. This is the only road that is not tarred if one wants to do the classic Cairo-to-Cape Town route.

It is a test even for advanced riders – that is if you want to progress at more than 10 kms per hour.

Along this road is every sort of terrain imaginable, from sandy stretches, to rock-hard corrugations, lose pebbles, pile ups of shingle and potholes, mud, rain-filled crevasses, and rivers. Torrential rain, too – we expect pretty much everything except snow!

I waited in the center of town from 7:00 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., but eventually me, my Yamaha Tenere XTZ 660, as well as four overlanders in a Land Rover, were waved forward and told to head off on our own… so much for the armed convoy.

Everything was going well until I rounded a corner, hit a huge pile of mud and slid off the road. It was a minor accident, executed quite elegantly and in slow motion… although the same can’t be said for the next prang. While riding within truck tire tracks, between rows of shingle about eight inches deep, I hit a rock whose impact immediately yanked the handlebars from my grip. The bike was now in an out-of-control slide and I knew I was going down.

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So I jumped for it as I pushed as hard as I could off the pegs as I dove sideways – leaving the bike screaming and sliding down the dirt road. As I slid along after it there was a terrible burning across my back – I had forgotten to zip my jacket onto the trousers and the jacket was now riding up to my shoulders. I was literally braking with my bare skin dragging along the road! The crash also tore off a pannier, an indicator, and bent the handlebars.

Little did I know at that moment but the immediate pain and shock masked an even worse injury. As I gathered myself together and affected repairs to the bike, I realized that I was straining to breathe properly. Experience indicated it was either broken ribs or a torn intercostals muscle. That could only mean one thing… laughing and coughing were off the agenda! It was going to be six weeks of painful riding before recovery. I continued on, however, and with some relief eventually made it to Marsabit.

The Marsabit region is in the eastern province of northern Kenya and borders the shore of Lake Turkana. Ethnic clashes in Marsabit have been a common occurrence for years with raids and counter raids between various communities resulting in everything from deaths and injuries to animal theft. These clashes escalated to what is now known as the Turbi Massacre of July 12, 2005, where ninety people were killed, property destroyed and over 7,500 people displaced.

At least 68 children were orphaned due to the ethnic clashes. Of those killed were 22 students at the Turbi primary school. The attack on the helpless children happened as the students were preparing for morning class. Because of the massacre the school has been permanently closed. And sadly, problems continue to this day in this very volatile area.

Partly due to this area’s reputation and because my injuries left me sleepless, the next morning I headed off at 6:00 a.m. for Isiolo. My friend Carl, the bearded Canadian “Jesus look-alike” photographer who I had first met in Aswan in Egypt, was catching a lift by any means when I got a puncture from the metal rim of a derelict bridge only a couple of kilometers outside town. As I laid out the tools on the red murram road, a pair of feet in car tire sandals appeared before me.

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I looked up at a young Samburu tribesman. He was wearing a brilliant red wrap and was adorned with long earrings and a variety of beads. He stood with one foot flat against the thigh of his other leg while clutching a long thin spear. I immediately rose and extended my hand in greeting, which he ignored only to break into a wide grin while slowly inclining his head forward in greeting. Throughout the thirty minutes it took me to fix the puncture he remained motionless, watching me, only breaking his stance once to help break the tire’s bead.

We eventually succeeded and he returned to his previous pose, not a bead of sweat perceptible on his body. On the other hand I was soaked to the skin with all this effort in the early morning heat. Having sorted the problem I thanked him by offering one of the two liter bottles of ice water I had… er, thought I had. The only problem was that I had completely forgotten to buy the water… and food, too! So as he headed off smiling and waving and I returned to the town for much needed supplies. Superb, army-like planning, it was not.

No sooner did I get the supplies when there were two more punctures… and then a third! But I was out of patches, glue and spare inner tubes. It was extremely hot and I was not in the best condition so I pushed the bike to the side of the dirt road, removed my jacket, unclipped one of the panniers and placed it under an Acacia thorn tree so I could have a small seat away from the ants and insects that abound in the area. I was tired but truly elated.

Although this may sound like madness, I thrive on diversity. The more difficult things become the more alive I feel. Perhaps that is why this trip suits me so much. But I never imagined that it would be necessary to be so readily adaptable to different cultures. If you’re going on a typical holiday, say for just a couple of weeks into an unfamiliar country, it is possible to quickly adapt to the lifestyle, customs, food and the etiquette. But if you are constantly moving, crossing borders, etc., then this adaptation becomes a rollercoaster of changes.

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Whereas a handshake or greeting that may work in one country it can just as easily be an absolute failure in another. It is only when you are moving from one country to another in the space of a single day that it becomes so glaringly obvious.

Mistakes will be made but if you stick to the two most important principles universal to mankind: good manners and respect for others, then you won’t do wrong… usually.

The most important thing is to be open-minded about everyone you meet and every circumstance you find yourself in, and to look for all the positives of your experiences, while ignoring the negatives.

Another trick is to try and live for the moment, soak it up, deal with the present circumstances, without worrying about your next step. Embrace life as challenges to be overcome. So, instead of panicking at yet another police road block, take it as an opportunity to practice your humanity skills. Treat each day like a thrill, a privilege, a wonder – because that is exactly what it is, because you may never get the opportunity to repeat it again.

On a trip of this magnitude it is not only the cultural adaptations that need to be dealt with. To say the least, the riding conditions are challenging, and it’s imperative to maintain concentration throughout the day.

I received an email last year from a Canadian rider, who had just completed the Paris Dakar Rally (the South American version) and was now planning a 60-day ride from Cairo to Cape Town. He asked for advice on the road conditions as well as my opinion on whether he could do it in that time period. I replied, “I am sure that it is feasible, barring visas and breakdowns, but don’t you really want to actually see the places you’re passing through? To soak up some of the culture?

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Consider that you’ll encounter road hazards of all kinds – domestic and wild animals, schoolchildren, carts, bicycles, car wrecks, wire, ropes, potholes, potholes, burst rivers, landslides, collapsed bridges, cars without lights, closed gates, unmarked roadblocks, and plenty of lunatic (suicidal!) drivers. Not to mention lots of rain, mud, sand, rocks and ruts.”

He answered, “Thanks Spencer, I think it may be 90 days.”

As I was cooling off under the thorn tree, a Kombi van came roaring past and I caught a fleeting glimpse once again of Carl’s bearded face pressed against the window. The van disappeared from view, only to return a few minutes later. Carl jumped out and said, “I got them to turn around when I saw you, what’s up?”

I explained that I had another puncture and had run out of repair glue. I asked him to take my panniers, and rucksack with him in the Kombi so I could deal with the next tough section of the road without the added weight. We loaded up my gear on the van’s rack and they sped off down the road. I freewheeled down to a village called Logo Logo and stayed the night with a local family who were gun-running to Somalia.

The next morning I fixed the flat and headed off to the town of Merile. My tire was still deflating slowly so I pulled into a station to see if they could fix the leak. The men started arguing and fighting each other over who would do the job and how much they would charge. I was already worn out and just couldn’t face this scene unfolding in front of me. So I pulled away and carried on.

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As soon as I was away from the village I stopped and managed to successfully repair the tube. It started to rain and rapidly turned torrential. So heavy was the downpour that within five minutes I was struggling to keep the bike upright in the muck. The lack of visibility was compounded by the fact that my goggles were so completely scratched that they were useless – and even if I took them off it was impossible to keep my eyes open in the sheeting rain.

I managed to chug along at 40 kph sliding from side-to-side in the slippery red mud. Rivers of rainwater cut gullies in the road surface so I kept my feet down, paddling to keep balance – but I still fell often. Lightning flashed around me as the day became steadily darker under the heavy cloud layer.

My bike gear was soaked through and so heavy that I began to shiver, one of the tell-tale signs of hypothermia. It was quite a slog and I was soon shaking uncontrollably, beginning to lose feeling in my forearms. Suddenly, a blue clearing broke through and within minutes I was riding in bright, strong, sunshine again.

The warmth began to dry my gear and lifted my spirits as I took in the scenery – the flat thorny Acacia trees dripping from the recent downpours, interspersed with gleaming sodden anthills, rainwater running in rivulets through the red soil and coming to rest in shining pools. The beauty and solitude of this red road, snaking through the Kenyan landscape, made me feel, once again, like the luckiest man alive.

It’s amazing the effect that the weather could have on one’s spirit, and mine was soaring.

Absolutely nothing could have prepared me for what was about to happen. I had no idea that the next thirty seconds were going to be the most important of my life. And the next three days were destined to be the most difficult I’d ever faced. I was about to have an experience that would live with me forever….

As I rounded a sweeping bend, straddling the difficult to negotiate, waterlogged dirt road, I noticed a small hill with the scar of a footpath to my right. The path caught my eye and I followed its route up the hill. At the top of the hill standing under the shade of tree were three men. I was surprised that there was anyone out this far, especially in that I had not seen any signs of villages for a long while.

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Just as I waved hello, one of the men raised machine gun and fired at me! The back of the bike bucked away, slipped sideways, I knew something was hit, but I didn’t stick around to find out what. As I attempted to get away I hit a patch of mud, slid and fell off. Faster than I had ever done in my life, I scrambled to pick the bike up, jumped back on, pulled in the clutch and pressed the electric starter in one manic but fluid motion, aggressively kicking it into gear…. Only then did I look back to see the men, who were running after me – FAST! In a mad scramble I swerved back onto the road and concentrated on keeping the bike upright while crouching low over the tank and bars.

I expected to be shot in the back. I knew it was coming. There was no way he was going to miss this time. He meant to kill me… there was no doubt about that… and the next bend in the road was still a good fifty meters away….

The bike felt strange, heavy and uncontrollable. That was it then, I was done for. I gritted my teeth, stopped breathing and just rode. I was suddenly aware that I was rounding the corner and would soon be out of my pursuers’ sight! Had I somehow made it? Where were they? I just kept going until I had covered at least couple of kilometers before braving a look back.

An empty road – was it possible? Even though it was obvious that the bike was badly damaged I rode for another ten minutes before I dared to stop – driving straight off the main dirt road and into the brush for a hundred meters where I promptly fell off the bike behind a small group of trees and shoulder high scrub….

As I looked around to determine if I could be seen or if there was anyone about, I turned my attention to the bike. It didn’t take but a second to assess the damage. The aluminum brake calipers had been shot away and all that remained was the cable. The tire was completely shredded and I had been riding on the metal rim.

There were at least ten broken spokes and a bullet hole in the swing arm about 30 centimeters from where my leg had been positioned. The mounting for the pannier was also smashed. Another broken indicator to the Tenere’s ailments. And to my benefit the adrenalin was so high that I wasn’t feeling any pain despite having fallen directly onto my already injured ribs.

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I quietly made my way back to the main road and peered out in both directions to see if all was clear. It was. My heart was thumping so hard I felt nauseous and slightly dizzy. But I had to get out of there so I started the bike and made my way onto the road… but it was too damaged to ride more than five kilometers an hour. The wheel was buckled and was dragging to the right making it almost impossible to maintain a straight line. Somehow I managed 40 km in 6 hours with the spokes breaking as I drove.

I had no idea what I was thinking during this time, all I was aware off was a urgent need to get as far away from the shooter as possible and to find someone to tell. As darkness fell the bike became more difficult to ride. There were no settlements in sight so I looked for any place to rest for the night. I dragged the bike off the road and out of sight into a small depression behind a termite mound.

Feeling physically shattered I couldn’t shut my mind off. Everything started to sink in and my brain went into overdrive.

I knew I wasn’t going to be able to sleep. And the weather conditions made sure of that – within fifteen minutes a heavy rain set in. You’ll recall that I’d given Carl everything I now needed… my tent, sleeping bag, food and water. Well at least I wouldn’t be short of the last one.

As the night progressed it became increasingly colder, and the nine hours I was there felt like fifty. I wrapped myself up in a ball by putting my head inside my jacket and using my breath to keep warm. It rained all night. Africa can get very cold, especially when you are wet, alone, injured, without shelter, and have just survived a run in with Kenyan bandits. At the first glimmer of light, enough to see the road ahead, I headed off again.

The bike’s tragic condition prevented anything faster than a walking pace. After ten kilometers or so the last of the spokes finally gave out. The chain came off and the wheel lurched to the left and came to rest in a twisted mess under the bike. Keep going… make a plan…. Right, nothing for it but to walk. I dragged the bike to the edge of the road and left it there. I walked on at a rapid pace and, thank God, after only an hour’s walk or so I rounded a corner and came across a wooden bridge spanning a river.

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As I made my way onto the bridge I noticed that, spread out on the rocks on the river’s edge, were clothes drying in the sun. On the opposite bank was a woman in a bright purple headscarf squatting over the water’s edge scrubbing a garment vigorously in the shallow water. I was so happy to see someone, anyone, that I shouted out to her. She could tell that I was distressed and pointed me up the road. Apparently I was just outside a village.

Just inside the village I passed through a canopy of bamboo where a digger driver was fixing engine parts. He told me about a Catholic mission and offered to take me there. We were greeted by an elderly, portly German priest with bandages on his wrists and a hacking cough that suggested he could fall down dead any minute. But as he invited me in and offered me a seat, I broke down emotionally and just fell apart.

The mission’s matron made a cup of tea and gave me some porridge on a pink plastic plate. But unbeknown to me, either the priest or one of the villagers had called the police, and they turned up at the mission along with two army trucks. It was the last thing I really wanted. In front of the crowd that was now assembling, the soldiers were filing out of the trucks like a demented S.W.A.T. team – it was obvious that they all were rip-roaring drunk.

After a debrief they insisted on driving the 450 kms back to “find the culprits.” I couldn’t believe it; it had happened two days ago on a hill in the middle of nowhere and  I really didn’t expect the gunman to be standing about on that hill shouting and waving, “Here we are! We shot the guy on the motorbike!” It goes without saying that the whole operation was pointless as they aimlessly wandered around, crouching in the bush like characters from a low budget war film.

They eventually gave up with the leader declaring that “they are gone.” We headed back but not without a guided tour of different locations where others had been attacked. We stopped at a cross by the road where a Chinese road surveyor had been shot in the head three weeks earlier. They kept saying “Mzungu, Mzungu” and making machine gun noises. They seemed to enjoy the whole affair, like it was nothing but a joke. I began to intensely loath them.

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Although I just wanted to get on my way, I still had to make the official police report. And that was going to prove to be its own hilarious episode….

To be continued….


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