Brazzaville was still five hundred kilometers away and the road was still a little on the rough side but not as sandy. What it lacked in sand however, it made up for in water. The road had developed the particularly unattractive habit of having huge water-filled mud-holes at any place where it was impossible to pass on either side. So there was no choice but to just ride right in and hope for the best, hope that the water was less than three feet deep, hope that there was not another huge hole in the bottom of the hole, or just as bad, a huge rock. You don't want to drop a BMW fully loaded with Camera gear, passports and the like in the middle of a huge hole full of muddy water. So up to my knees in water and trying to keep momentum I soldiered on, hoping that each hole was going to be my last ... eventually one was, and I was back on 'la bonne route'. Looking back even now I shudder.
Kinshasa and Brazzaville sit on opposite banks of the River Congo... they sort of glare at each other. Brazzaville is full of short avenues and large ostentatious roundabouts and is very French. Kinshasa is a huge modern African city which is home to the biggest French speaking population in the world ... and at the same time has almost nothing in it. If it isn't cheap and imported from China then it is doubtful if you will find it in Kinshasa. But the thing that strikes you immediately when you cross the river and enter the city is the phenomenal number of big white four wheel drive Toyotas belonging to the United Nations. I was told that there are over two hundred thousand UN staff in Kinshasa and scattered elsewhere around the huge country.
The writer Joseph Conrad set his classic adventure tale 'The Heart of Darkness' in the Congo, and you don't have to be there long before you come to understand where he got his title idea from. It has had one Banana Republic style military dictator after another since gaining independence from Belgium, and as its resources have become more valuable and accessible, the internal squabbling has increased exponentially... that's why what seems like half the worlds U.N forces are there, to try and keep a lid on the place, and stop it falling apart along tribal lines... which I think ultimately may not be such a bad thing, if done properly. I think the place is just too big to be managed properly. But no one ever asks me about such things so I kept that opinion to myself.
There wasn't much to film in Kinshasa ... except Banobos. I went to the Banobo sanctuary a little way out of town and had a look around. I filmed these little cousins of the chimpanzee through the wire fences and thought that this might make a good story. I got in touch with the Director of the sanctuary and asked about filming. I explained about my trip, about being a talentless struggling young artist and broke, I emphasised my benevolent nature and my particular affinity to the natural world. She said "Two hundred US dollars take it or leave it"... I had to leave it.
It's horrible when something like that happens, mostly because you get so excited about maybe being able to do a little something to help a worthwhile cause...expose, awareness, and also you might get a really interesting and entertaining segment out of it. In this case it was about both the principle AND the money.
Angola is a country that has only recently emerged from a twenty-five year long civil war. At this early stage of their post-war development they are not really big on tourism, the truth is that they are just not ready for it, and they have the good sense to know it. In fact they do not even issue tourist visas. You can only get a work/business visa, or a transit visa. I applied for a transit visa, which is normally issued for five days.
The country measures something like 1,600 kilometers north to south, that’s about a thousand miles if you ride as the crow flies, so in theory that means that you only have to cover two hundred miles a day in order to make it through in time. That would be OK if they had any roads ... but at this stage they don't, not really. They have roads under construction, they have small lengths of beautifully built dual carriageway. The road system has seen no maintenance in close to thirty years and it shows. I had spoken to several people and they had all sucked their teeth and made tut-tutting sounds about the roads and said that I would have to be really lucky to make it through in five days. If there was no rain, no bridges out, no hold-ups of any kind, then maybe, just maybe, I could make it.
Fore-armed with this knowledge I went to the Angolan Embassy in Kinshasa. I dressed smartly. I resolved to be patient...I would even try to be nice. I filled out the form, I sat patiently, I read my book. When my time to be interviewed came I was charm itself. I explained about being alone on a motorcycle and the inherent hazards that that produced. I explained about possible weather problems. I mentioned the fact that I was old and scared to ride in the dark. All of this was keenly acknowledged… even the part about being old ... bloody cheek. Three days later I picked up my fifteen day transit visa....
I chose to make the crossing at Songololo, I liked the sound of the name and apparently the roads are better there. In fact the roads were not as bad as I had expected ... but by this stage of the journey I was probably not much of a judge. I had been on some of West Africa's worst roads, so if it was passable at all, I would have thought it wasn't so bad. It turned out that roads were not going to be my problem this time. This time it was going to be fuel.
The bike is fuel-injected through a carburetor, it has a special chip fitted so that it can burn fuel ranging from 82 octane up to 98 which is pretty good. Where possible I run Super unleaded which is 94 octane or thereabouts. In M'banza-Congo..which is the first major town in northern Angola I fully expected to find petrol. I had enough petrol in the bike to go another two hundred k's but the next big town was four hundred and fifty kilometres. There was petrol in M'banza-Congo but it was rubbish mixed with kerosene, OK for little Chinese put-puts but not really suitable for a 650 BMW heading into the bush. I spent a whole day hunting around town for Super or something like it. I figured that someone must have a stash that they would be willing to sell for a price. I came up with a blank. It was the same story all over town. There will be Super here in four or five days ... we think.
I managed to find a truck going to Luanda, the capital ... we loaded the bike in the back and away we went … three days. The bike fell over in the back of the truck and broke its side stand, mirror, and the luggage rack. We fixed all that at the truck’s main depot in Luanda, and the owner of the trucking company put me up for a few days at his house. But the clock was ticking and I really didn't want to over-stay my Visa … so I moved on. Little thought was given to filming. I just wanted to make it to the border. I made it with six days to spare.
Southern Angola is quite beautiful and the start of Big Sky country, but when you get into Namibia, then you are in Massive Sky country. I cannot explain it, but the sky takes up at least three quarter of any picture that you take. It’s inspirational.
I spent five days at Etosha National Park. I filmed everything. I was lucky enough to share a Land-cruiser with a German photographer, and we would just sit at a water hole and wait and see what turned up, and eventually everything turned up. In one day I filmed eight different lions. It was yet another highlight in a long list of highlights.
From Etosha I moved south to Swakopmund, a town on Namibia's Skeleton Coast. I was looking for brake-pads and went into a Yamaha dealers place. There I met a Danish guy who owned the dealership and an adventure tour company next door. He noticed the camera mount on my helmet and we got talking about filming.
He offered me as many free trips on his quads in the desert as I wanted if I would give him some Hi Def footage he could play on his flat screen in the store – deal !
I filmed quad Bikes roller coasting through the Namib desert's stunning rolling dunes, with a powder blue sky as a back drop ... good stuff. A few days later I filmed a group of diamond miners having a team building day in a striking old river valley. They had six Rhino 4x4 vehicles and went into places that would make Indiana Jones think twice. The valley walls told the story of Africa itself. It's geological history laid bare for all to see. It was a nice canvas on which to place a group of big men having little boy fun ... and we had a fantastic Brie (BBQ) in a cave made by massive boulders... the film would be used to make a mini promo video for the adventure company Outback Orange.
From there I went up to Cape Cross to film the fur-seal colony. It was pupping season and the carnage and smell was staggering. Black-backed jackals, brown hyenas and all manner of gulls and skuas were there feeding on after-birth and young seals. It was nature in the raw. Then south again with Cape Town in mind. But first I had to cross the Orange River which forms the frontier between Namibia and South Africa. I would have been mad not to get a canoe and paddle down the river for a couple of days. I didn't want to be mad, so I hired a canoe and set off on the river with my tent and my Cameras, wonderful !
By the time I entered South Africa I had already been on the road a little over a year and had told my story many times. The thing that I really liked about South Africa was that if you were telling someone about the trip they never asked Why...they knew Why, they just wanted to know How. In South Africa if you camp it doesn't mean that you are poor or a cheap-skate, it means that you are doing it right, the way that it's supposed to be done, close to the land. With your senses on full gain, feeling the place, touching it, smelling it, but most of all seeing it.
Few people love their country with the sincerity that the South Africans do. All South Africans black, white, and coloured, they all know it’s a special place. If you are sitting or standing looking at a map, it's guaranteed that someone will come up and ask you where you want to go. You may be in Somerset West and want to go to George or Wilderness, they will look at the map with you and then point out where you are and then point to where you want to go, and then draw a line between them and say ‘that’s the road there, you can pick it up at the next junction a few miles up the road, BUT if I were you I should go this way, this way you can see this, this, and this, and then you can stay here, here, and here. I have a friend there, he has a motorcycle, he would love to meet you. I can call him and you can stay with him there’ . I kid you not, that's what happened to me many times. It shows how pleased they are with their country, they love it.
I rode the coastal roads of South Africa all the way around to the east coast and then cut in and entered the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. There, one day, I turned into a school photographer. I took a picture of each class and their teacher, some classes had as many as three students. I filmed this process as I had done on many occasions before, this was a thread that I had run through the whole trip I called it 'miles for smiles' the idea was to take a picture of someone with a 7.2 Megapixel Cybershot then print it out on the Canon mobile printer and then give it to them and film their reaction to seeing themselves or maybe their children. If you are lucky you can see a person, a mother, or a father, smile with their whole body... shoulders, hands, everything smiling ... you would travel miles for those smiles.
After Lesotho I headed back to Cape Town. I rode through the Little Karoo. Whatever you do, don't die until you have ridden a motorcycle through the little Karoo, it is magical.
In Cape Town I boxed the bike up and put it on a ship to London. I boarded a plane ...Africa was over. Now all I had was memories and seventy four hours of High Definition footage. Some of that footage is junk, but some...in fact quite a lot is priceless. Because it's real, it documents an extraordinary trip done by an ordinary guy. It shows moments of frustration and despair. It shows moments of joy, but mostly it shows what it is like to ride a motorcycle through Africa.
en route to Cape Town