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Through the African wilderness

This wasn't the first time we had found ourselves in a challenging situation. We never expected riding across Africa would be easy, and our trip had been threatened with an early end on more than one occasion.

  • Power supply for electric car charging. Electric cars charging station. Power supply plugged into an electric car being charged.

CAPE TOWN, South Africa – I was racing along a sandy track in a remote area of Western Tanzania. The shadows lengthened, signalling impending dusk and adding urgency to my ride. Untouched African wilderness stretched to the horizon around me. Watching another glorious African sunset was normally one of my favourite events of the day, but not today.

I was alone, having ridden ahead of my travel companions, Yarema (Jerry) Bezchlibnyk and Tom Smith, several hours ago on a mission to find food and drinking water for the team. I had crashed twice in the deep sand, and was exhausted, hungry and thirsty. Night approached fast, and I did not want to ride this road in the dark.

Grimly, I recalled that we had promised our parents we would use caution and common sense on our adventure from London to Cape Town. How was it, then, that the team had split up in the African wild and was without food and water?

This wasn’t the first time we had found ourselves in a challenging situation. We never expected riding across Africa would be easy, and our trip had been threatened with an early end on more than one occasion.

We anticipated roadside repairs, temperature extremes, fuel shortages, border hassles, and the customary dumps and spills inherent to such an adventure. Using little more than zip ties and wire, we had fixed broken luggage racks, headlight brackets and fairings. We had bumpstarted bikes in the roughest terrain. We had endured the searing heat of the Sahara as well as the surprising chill of the East African highlands.

Each of us had also sustained his fair share of injuries – I hurt my shoulder when I came off my bike after hitting a dog in Ethiopia and Tom sprained his ankle when he fell awkwardly in the soft Tanzanian sand. The worst injury, however, occurred to Jerry.

In Egypt, just south of Giza, he came off his bike at highway velocity after hitting a speed bump. His knee struck the asphalt, leaving him unable to put weight on it for several days. The injury plagued him for the remainder of the trip.

With no support crew, we relied heavily on local people – for everything from repairs to our bikes to warnings that we were in lion country and shouldn’t stop. But this time in Tanzania, with dusk approaching and the team apart, there were no friendly faces inviting us into their huts and offering food and water.

Indeed, there was nothing but dense bush along the narrow track we had started on hours ago – a track that was impassable for months during the wet season.

We arrived at mid-morning in the dusty frontier-like town of Uvinza after breaking our bush camp a couple of hours earlier. The ride to Uvinza had been along solid dirt roads and we had made excellent progress, raising our hopes of making it another 200 kilometres to Mpanda by lunch. We set off with minimal supplies, forgetting rule No. 1 of adventure motorcycling: It always takes at least twice as long as you think to cover a given distance.

In our case that would prove an understatement. The road had quickly deteriorated into deep, soft, sandy ruts. Jerry, who had started riding only a few months before setting off on this trip, was having difficulty in the soft stuff. He had done remarkably well for a novice on the loose rocky roads of Northern Kenya and the slick mud of Ethiopia during the wet season, but sand was his nemesis.

In Egypt he had burned his clutch when his bike got bogged down in the sand. Later, in Sudan, he committed the sinful act of kicking sand on his downed motorcycle in frustration after yet another drop in the 50C heat.

Two months later, his motorcycle had yet to forgive him. In the two-km stretch on the road from Uvinza to Mpanda, Jerry dropped his bike nine times; his total for the day would be 14. This was frustrating and exhausting for him. When we stopped to let him rest, we realized that between us we only had about one litre of water and one tin of Spam.

According to our GPS map, we were still closer to Uvinza than Mpanda. However, despite our predicament, there was no consideration of returning to Uvinza for supplies. Not only did we not want to tackle that particular section of road again, but as any true rider will attest, rule No. 2 of adventure motorcycling states: “Thou shalt not backtrack for any reason.”

We pressed on, but at the rate we were going our chances of making Mpanda before nightfall were slim. The thought of bush camping without food or water, or attempting a difficult night ride, prompted me to go ahead for supplies. Preoccupied by thoughts of the pending dusk and the distance I had to cover, I entered a stretch of sand at speed and was caught by surprise when the back-end started to fish-tail wildly. A burst of throttle only served to accelerate the bike into a bush.

Knowing I was about to go rubber-side up, I tucked in and braced for the inevitable. When I picked up my bike, I noticed a stream of gas trickling down the left side of my engine. A brief inspection confirmed my fears: I had punctured the bottom of my tank.

I was 100 kilometres from the nearest village, alone on a deserted road, bereft of food and water, and now my gas – the lifeblood of my motorcycle – was spilling into the dusty ground. And there was precious little of it to begin with. Earlier, I had topped up with a gallon of fuel from someone’s personal stash in Uvinza (there were no gas stations) hoping it would be enough.

The source of the leak was not obvious – I would have to remove the tank to find it. With daylight failing, I pushed on to Mpanda despite the leak. I was in a race against time.

Thus, it was with a sense of jubilation that I pulled into a gas station in Mpanda just after sunset. Soon the tank was off and the locals were happily fixing it with plastic weld. Within a couple of hours I was ready to head back with fresh supplies to find Tom and Jerry.

But they arrived at the gas station before I even had a chance to set off. The team was reunited. All was well. Another day had come to an end, and we were once again looking forward to the road ahead.

Little did I realize that that road would be fraught with more, and greater challenges, which would see our team separate once more – this time for good.

Two days after leaving Mpanda, bikes and egos still intact, the sun rose on Jerry’s 33rd birthday – Aug. 17.

The previous evening, his bike had developed a scary wobble in its front end. Now, we found a large fissure in the neck of his frame. The vertical tube at the front was completely fractured.

Later, we would find that the spine under the gas tank was broken cleanly in two as well. It’s amazing he was still able to ride the bike. Luckily, we found a bush mechanic in Sumbawanga who was able to weld the frame together.

Shortly after the repair, Jerry faced yet another trial. His pannier, containing all of his travel documents, was jolted off his bike on a rough section of road. Had I been riding behind him, I would have come across it sitting in the middle of the road. Unfortunately my own pannier had fallen off, and I had turned around to retrieve it. This involved chasing a car for several kilometres because the driver had picked it up and made a run for it.

By the time I had retrieved my pannier and caught up with Jerry, his was long gone. Someone had picked it up and was already enjoying the windfall of new clothes and some American dollars.

Although the person who found it would have no use for Jerry’s passport, motorcycle ownership, driver’s licence, motorcycle insurance documents and carnet de passage en douane (a customs document required to take a motorcycle across a border in Africa), the loss of these documents was devastating for Jerry.

With the help of a friendly police officer, Eric, we filed a report in Tunduma. We were informed that most people would “not be good” if they found the case. After witnessing the poverty in this part of rural Tanzania, I would not blame anyone for keeping it. If my children had no clothes and were hungry, I would do the same.

With no travel documents, there was no way for Jerry to cross borders. We had bonded as a team and did not want to separate. However, Jerry insisted that Tom and I carry on without him. There was a very real possibility that his trip was over and that he would have to fly back to Canada. Jerry saw no reason for Tom and I to forgo finishing our adventure.

Thus, we ate one last solemn meal in Mbeya, Tanzania, and then Jerry began a 1,000-kilometre trek north to the Tanzanian capital of Dar Es Salaam, where he would replace his passport and other documents at the Canadian embassy.

Meanwhile, Tom and I headed south to the Malawi border, and the challenges continued.

We ended up riding 2,700 kilometres two-up, in the style of Che Guevara and Alberto Granado more than a half century before us, after Tom somehow lost all the oil from his engine, destroying a camshaft and cylinder head near Lilongwe, Malawi.

Tom rented a BMW F800GS for the last leg of the trip – Johannesburg to Cape Town.

Jerry would prevail against the loss of his travel documents and was on his way to meet us in South Africa when bent exhaust valves (the result of faulty engine timing) stranded him in a remote area of Namibia for a week.

When Tom and I finally arrived at Cape Agulhas, Africa’s most southern point and the symbolic end of our journey, we had traveled 23,000 kilometres through 25 countries over a span of 95 days. It was satisfying to make it, though minus one team member and two bikes.

The good news was that with the help of a local mechanic, Jerry repaired his bike and rode to Cape Agulhas for his own photo opportunity a little more than a week later.

Despite injuries, a broken frame, lost travel documents, a burnt camshaft and bent exhaust valves, we all realized the dream (inspired by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s Long Way Round and Long Way Down) of riding from London to Cape Town.

Our trip was not just about adventure, however. During our months of planning we came to fully appreciate the impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa. We rode through some of the most AIDS-ravaged countries on Earth.

We hope that our trip will raise awareness for the scope of the suffering caused by HIV/AIDS in Africa. We have been fundraising for Dignitas International, a Toronto-based humanitarian organization that trains health-care workers and provides life-saving antiretroviral drugs to empower communities in their response to HIV/AIDS.

Tyson Brust can be reached though his website at www.tysonbrust.com

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