Sunday, February 20, 2011

Day 130 to 134 - Johannesburg and Kruger National Park, South Africa

Day 130: We decided to make the best of our time in Johannesburg, so we called around to price 3-day safaris into Kruger National Park.  We found an outfit called Outlook Lodge and Safaris. Most of the 450 km long and 110 km wide Kruger Park is inside South Africa but there is a portion that is actually inside Mozambique.  There are 150,000 impalas, 250 wild dogs and a few hundred lions and leopards all in the wild, along with elephants, zebras, giraffes, buffaloes and many other species.  It's a self-sustaining game park.  By this I mean, the park officials do not feed the animals supplementary food.  They are left to roam and feed as they would normally do without human intervention.  The only human interference in the park are regular anti poaching patrols.  We were told that just last week 4 poachers were shot dead on sight, no questions asked.  There is a zero tolerance policy for poaching, the price for getting caught is your life.  Last year 350 rhinos were poached within the park boundaries.  Their horns sell for 1 million Rand (one hundred forty thousand USD) per kilogram on the Chinese market. 

Day 131: They picked us up at 7 am for the 450 km journey to our lodge inside the park.  We stopped at a transfer point to pick up two other people, Kristin and Ragnar, a couple from Sweden.  Fun people.  Hielke, our wildlife guide and driver for the trip to the park was a very affable guy. Our first safari was a four hour drive through the park that started the minute we arrived.  No wasting time here. Our guide Robin, told us there is a 50% chance of seeing all of the Big-5 animals in three days.  Lion, leopard, rhino, Cape buffalo and elephant.  We kept our hopes up.  Robin knew his stuff, even the Latin names of all the species we encountered, including birds, insects, flora and fauna.  These people are extremely passionate about what they do and the animals in the park.  They would even avoid running over a millipede.

We did see a leopard, elephants, giraffes, impalas and many very colourful birds the first day.  It was a good day. We arrived back at camp in our Land Rover around 7:30 pm for supper.  Rob and I stayed up talking to the guides until 10 pm, even though the next morning the safari was to start at 5:30 am, so we had to be at camp at 5 am.

Gate to our lodge. These compounds are fenced to keep all but the baboons out.  They seem to be able to get around the electric fencing.

The elusive leopard.

 One of the many dirt roads through the park.

Day 132: Off on safari number 2 with Robin which would last another 4 hours through the park in search of more animals.  We covered over 50 km, but managed to see hyenas, a lion, wild dogs (which are extremely rare), more elephants, two rhinos, blue wildebeest, zebras and more giraffes.  Back at camp around 10 am for a break as the animals tend to lay low during the heat of the day which reaches 50 Celsius (130 F) during the summer months.   There were several different types of habitats throughout the park from open savanna to dense bush to water holes and rivers and rolling hills.

Hyena resting by the road at dawn.

Rare wild dogs.

The evening safari was a 3 hour tour that started at 4:30 pm and ended at 7:30 pm.  During this one we saw baboons, more impalas and a leopard walking along the road. These leopards were incredible.  Such beauty and grace yet extremely powerful.  They can reach speeds of 80 kph.  Elephants and rhinos are pretty impressive themselves as they can reach speeds of 40 kph and will bulldoze large trees.  Supper was at 8 pm and again Rob and I stayed up late talking with the guides even though the next morning was another 5 am wake-up for the final safari and the trip back to Johannesburg.

Watching the behaviour of the baboons was a highlight.

One of the many beautiful birds in the park

Day 133:  Last chance to see the Cape Buffalo, the only one of the big 5 that has eluded us thus far.  Our patience was rewarded.  We also saw more wild dogs before we headed for Johannesburg via the scenic route through Hazyview, Graskop, Dullstroom and Belfast.  We did see some amazing sites along the route such as the Three Rondawels at Blyde River Canyon and Lisbon Falls.

We saw a bird caught in one of these spider webs.
Cape Buffalo.

Hielke, our crazy guide out on the rock ledge from which the Bushman threw the Coke bottle off the end of the earth in the movie, "The gods must be crazy." .

Took some nerve but I managed to get myself out on the rock.

Lots of amazing crafts could be bought at the many artisan stands along the way.

Day 134:  Nothing much to say about today.  We walked through downtown Johannesburg to see the Nelson Mandela Bridge and search for a duffel for RobC.  We had a security guard from the hotel accompany us, as we were told it was unsafe.  From what we saw only a few side streets were questionable.  We let our security guard return to the hotel when we reached a shopping complex. We didn’t want to keep him from his job at the hotel.  As we left the mall, a security guard from the shopping complex approached us and asked us where our security guard was.  He had noticed us enter the mall.  We told him we were looking for a cab back to the hotel.  He was  really concerned for our safety (we were the only white people we saw the entire time) and led us to a taxi stand outside the complex.  Not sure what all the concern was about, but I guess he knows the area better than we do.

Day 128/129 - Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, to Johannesburg, South Africa

Day 128: Bulawayo to Pietersburg.  After getting gas, cash and checking out of the hotel I hit the road toward the border, 300 km away.  Zimbabwe is an interesting country, very beautiful, but so much poverty.  Old shells of cars along the road, huts and villages dotting the countryside, lots of people walking everywhere, even along the main highways.  Few cars could be seen.  Also present along the roads were huge Balboa trees! 

The ubiquitous car shells along the road.

Balboa tree

The Zimbabwean border was something else.  It reminded me of the borders of central America with their ubiquitous fixers.  As I entered the border area I was immediately approached by several of these fixers.  One wanted to watch my bike, another wanted to show me the immigration office and take my carnet to customs because he had connections to get past the long line and yet another wanted to make conversation.  In all this I asked what it would cost me. “Very little,” was the response.  Okay.  I was prepared to give him 10 USD for his services.   He returned five minutes later with my carnet and asked for 100.  I said, “100 what?”  He replied, “dollars”.  What?!?!?  I lost it!  Told him I’d give him 10, nothing more but he kept badgering me saying he needed to pay off three customs officials and 10 USD was nothing.  I became livid, told him to piss off, got on my bike and rode toward the gate past customs.  There was no customs line.  Bastards.

Got into South Africa, figuring I’d get Rands in the next town until I got to a Toll.  I offered US dollars, but they wouldn’t accept that, so I had to turn around and ride back 30km to get to an ATM, then ride back to the Toll.  As the day wore on I needed to locate an Internet cafe to see if Rob e-mailed me his location but found no cafe.  I looked for Internet in a strip mall, without success, when a guy approached me to tell me I could park on the sidewalk, as he thought I was looking for a place to park.  He asked where I was staying and I said I didn’t know.  He offered his house and his computer but I didn’t want to impose.  Wow.  He said the only reason he was so generous was because he was a biker himself.  Stopped at a lodge down the road where the manager was kind enough to let me use the business computer so I could check my e-mail ... nothing.  Decided to pack it in for the day so I found a cheaper place for the night, which had Internet so I looked again it and nothing from Rob, so I sent him an e-mail.  Soon after that, the lodge's server went off-line.  This was 7 pm and I was wondering where he was.  He should have been in Johannesburg by now.

Day 129:  Pietersburg to Johannesburg.  Still no Internet today, so I decided to ride toward Johannesburg.  Stopped at a service station 100 km from Johannesburg where the girl in the office let me use her computer.  There was an e-mail from Rob containing his location and a cell number. I then called the hotel he was staying at for directions and the girl printed out the Google map directions which turned out to be wrong.  (Tracks4africa GPS map did not contain the hotel in its POIs either.) I ended up in a seedy section of Pretoria.  Stopped at a gas station and the guy gave me exact directions to the hotel, 60 km away!! Unbelievable!  I arrived at the hotel, only to find Rob was still at the hospital, called his cell  and found out what was going on with his injuries.  We briefly caught up on things.  Later, we talked about the next steps and the future of the trip.

RobC:  The entire trip from the time I left the hospital in Zimbabwe at 11 pm until we arrived in Johannesburg took 19 hours. The distance was only 1000 km. I soon found out that we were hauling illegal migrants from Zimbabwe to South Africa in the back of the pickup truck, mostly young girls who were heading for work in the fields, such as planting tomatoes, etc. Since these people had no documentation at all, not even a passport, they were essentially being smuggled. There were many police stops along the way, where Colin and his helpers would pay off the police as bribes for their migrant cargo. This went on not only in Zimbabwe and to get them across the border, but also in South Africa, where they seem to have standard bribes for bringing in illegal workers.

Besides all the police stops and bribery events, we also had three flat tires. Quite a trip. Fortunately, they allowed me to sit in the front seat, while hanging onto my injured extremities. What a night! What a day!

Day 127 - Victoria Falls to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

RobT:  The planned route for today was 436 km (280 miles).  We even thought about pressing on past Bulawayo and head up toward Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe where we would get our Ethiopian visas.  We made a few rest stops today, as we normally do when riding, to try and rejuvenate ourselves but these attempts were less than successful.  The first time we were approached by 4 boys looking for food.  They wouldn’t leave us alone, so we continued on.  The next stop was a small village with a couple of stores and loud music coming from a bar.  Not conducive to a good rest stop but we did stretch our cramped legs.  Next stop we managed to rest a bit.  Zimbabwe is different than anything we have seen so far.  Along the roads, people walked to the neighboring village, carrying goods on their heads or babies tightly wrapped to the backs of woman by what looked like a towel.  Pathways disappearing into the brush leading to some hidden group of huts.  At one point singing could be heard in the distance coming from the brush across the road.  Very intriguing. It would have been interesting to witness whatever was going on there.

Typical villager walking along the road.

 One of the many paths into villages beyond the road.

We continued on the rough paved road and what transpired over the next 24 hours was like something out of the movies.  I was riding ahead when I heard a noise from RobC's headset that sounded like he had lifted his face shield and the wind was blowing across the microphone, but it was a little different.  I looked in the  mirror and noticed Rob and his bike were both lying on the road.  Holy smokes!!  I quickly turned my bike around and headed back.  He was in bad shape, his thumb 90 degrees to his hand, blood on his forearms and he looked like he was going into shock.  I didn’t see what happened and Rob didn’t know either.

RobC:  My best explanation is fatigue. I don't sleep much when sleeping in a tent and the night before was a particularly rowdy night in the camp with a bunch of Swedish youngsters traveling on the Pink Bus were having a party after they had already come home quite "happy"  from a booze cruise. During the early afternoon hours I was desperately looking for a suitable place to lay my head down and take a nap. The only thing I remember of the accident is that I suddenly saw a large, dark object in front of me and I forcefully  applied the brakes. Since the road surface was very rough, with loose particles on top, and perhaps the fact of having a knobby tire on the front, the bike hit the deck very quickly with me on it.

I have seen and heard of other cases in which motorcycle riders injure their thumbs in a crash of this type, and that is precisely what happened to me. When I took off my super Held gloves, the thumb on my left hand was ominously sticking out at 3 o' clock. My arms were quite scraped and bloody due to having had the bottom vents on the sleeves open and the sleeves just rode up my arms. This is a good reminder that even when it is very hot, the jacket and sleeves must fit tightly and securely for the elbow and shoulder pads to do any good. My beautiful FirstGear TPG jacket is full of holes, and once again my Aerostich Darien pants have a lot of damage, but again the bottom part of my body had no injuries. The helmet which showed a lot of scraping at the top, the chin and the face shield is ready for the trash.

Lessons for motorcycle riders: Don't drive when tired. Falling at 100 km/hour (65m/h) is not fatal if you don't hit anything, but good gear will save your hide.

I'll let RobT continue his story.

RobT:  Not five minutes later four vehicles stopped to help.  The only truck I saw was one which was 300 m ahead of us, he actually backed up to help.  The driver must have seen what happened in his side mirror.  It was like they came out of nowhere.   Eight people helped collect the pieces off the road and shoulder.  Rob's top box and tank bag had opened up in the accident and spilled their contents all over the road and the berm.  His bike had a punctured cylinder cover and sustained some serious gouges in the pannier, handle bar and fuel tank.  We moved the bike and Rob off the road and Colin, one of the people who had stopped to help, offered his trailer and truck to transport Rob and his bike to the hospital in Bulawayo some 80 km away.  He also said that he was on his way to Johannesburg, South Africa, and that he would be willing to take Rob and his bike there. It took 6 of us to load the heavy bike on to the trailer which itself was loaded with bags of grain, suitcases, two spare tires and wood.  The bike sat on its side on top of several bags of grain. His pickup was also loaded with several people in the box.  I would follow.

After we were under way, I noticed I had 50 km of fuel left and we had 70 km to go.  Now I had to flag the driver down so I could empty one of the auxiliary cans into my fuel tank.  A few minutes later a parcel fell off the trailer.  I managed to get his attention and he pulled over.  I rode back for the parcel, picked it up and at the same time put the fuel into the bike.  We ended up in the townships outside Bulawayo which was also where the hospital was but not before the driver dropped off a few people along the way and had to repair a flat front tire.  RobC was extremely uncomfortable.  We arrived at the hospital and Colin helped check RobC in and after 45 minutes he stated that he had to run some errands in town.  He asked if we needed anything off the truck as we decided the bike and RobC’s gear and luggage best stay with the truck.  Saves unloading and reloading.  Colin left as RobC was being treated.  This was about 5:30pm.

The hospital looked like something out of a war, broken windows in the operating room and reception areas, bars on the windows, chairs with torn foam, no vinyl covering, old cabinets, dirt on walls, rust and oil on the floors at the door jams,  broken benches and chairs, wooden wheelchairs, horse blankets for the patients, dirt, mosquitoes, very few supplies (the nurse was even rationing the medical tape and at one point they used some items from my first aid kit for Rob), the bathroom looked and smelled like they hadn’t been cleaned in decades, bars on the toilet tanks and plumbing, no sinks, paint peeling off the walls in large sheets, faded hand painted bulletins on the walls,  half the lighting didn’t work including the operating room, not one clock functioned yet they were all plugged into outlets, etc, etc.  I tried to use the hospital phone to make a collect call to Rob's Medjet Assist.  “Impossible”, I was told.  This came from the supervisor.  He was afraid that the hospital would be charged for the call.  Amazingly, despite all of this, the staff was incredible!!  They treated us like family.
The doctor was done with Rob around 6:30 pm, so now we had to wait for Colin.  We both realized that neither of us obtained Colin’s cell phone number, last name or even the license plate off the truck.  We had nothing.  It was now 9 pm and no Colin.  The staff knew why we were waiting and basically told us that the bike and stuff were more or less gone.  Theft is a big problem in Zimbabwe and even the most well-intentioned individuals succumb to the temptation.  One staff member even confessed that he wouldn’t trust himself in that situation.  Poverty is extreme and it’s all about survival in this place.  We told them we would wait till midnight.  The one lady brought us tea and four slices of brown bread.  It was all they had to offer.  They even offered us two beds for the night as we had no place to stay.  Another staff member noticed that my motorcycle was parked outside and was very concerned about its safety.  She said that we need to bring it inside the hospital so I ended up riding my bike through the ambulance emergency entrance, past reception and into the operating theatre where Rob was treated!  Unbelievable!   

 My bike in the emergency room of the Impilo Hospital.  Shelves bare.  The operating room is beyond the door in front of my motorcycle.

 The wonderful staff.

10 pm rolled around and still no Colin.  The security guard had notified the police, so when the officer arrived we were questioned on what happened.  We explained everything.  He thought that Rob’s bike was gone.  Both Rob and I believed Colin would return, but the officer was quick to state that no one is that nice here and no one should be trusted like we trusted Colin, upon which he started to write up a report.
At 11 pm Colin finally showed up!  Everyone was ecstatic! After a group picture, we were on our way. RobC headed straight to Johannesburg, South Africa, 1200 km to the south and I went to the local hotel as 14 hours on the road through the night was not a good idea on a motorcycle.

RobC ... "The end of the road!!"

Dear family, friends and blog readers,

This blog entry will be a little different from the normal chronological postings. Exactly one week ago, on Sunday the 13th of February, while driving south from Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, I had a fluke accident, landed on the rough blacktop and ended up with a couple of scraped arms, some sore bones and ligaments, and unfortunately a dislocated thumb that also sustained a compound fracture of the distal phalanx (tip of the thumb). The thumb tip was also punctured, creating the possibility of sepsis (infection) in the splintered bone, and the risk of amputation. That diagnosis led to the conclusion that my motorcycle trip was finished, just a little more than two months before our scheduled termination. I could either sit it out here for a month or go home, heal and resume normal life with my family. Together with my riding partner and my wife I opted for the latter and will fly to the US tomorrow night, Monday the 21st.

You will be reading the details of the accident and the incredible events in getting medical attention for me in the normal chronological blog postings. We eventually wound up down here in Johannesburg, South Africa, 1200 km (750 miles) south of the site of the accident, to have my bike repaired and prepared for shipping to the US. While waiting for the bike to be repaired we took advantage of the location to do a three-day Safari in the world-famous Kruger National Park, home to the Big Five: Lion, Leopard, Rhino, Cape Buffalo and Elephant. It was a marvelous trip (despite some of the aches and pains and early risings) and it put a nice exclamation mark on RobT's and my adventure in our attempt to circumnavigate four continents in six months on two motorcycles.

 Rare picture of both Robs at a canyon on the way home from the Kruger National Park

RobT will resume the route going north by himself via Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania to Kenya, where he may be nearing the end of his six-month leave, and ship his bike home from there. You will be reading about his adventures in this blog and I, for one, will be following him closely. He was a great partner on the road and during our off-the-bike times. We had many incredible riding adventures, interesting meals, varying sleeping quarters, conversations and social times together. It is very hard for me to walk away from this epic trip and to terminate prematurely, but as the doctor here in South Africa said, "The Big man upstairs is trying to tell you something!" So, I am glad I have my life and I am looking forward to being with my family again and to dream about other destinations to explore.

I look forward to seeing many of you and sharing adventures and pictures with you and I may even chime in on this blog from time time to add a comment or to edit my partner's shady Canadian English.  :-)

Rob Croese  or

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Day 126 - Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Today we embarked on yet another white water rafting adventure.  Can’t come to the great Zambezzi without rafting one of the world’s wildest rivers.  Water levels were high, so rapids 1 through 14 were closed ... too dangerous.  The trip started at rapid 15, but not before an extremely steep 200 meter descent over rocks and tree roots to the river.  We saw 8-inch long and about ½-inch diameter millipedes on the trail. The rafting journey ended at rapid number 24, where there was a grueling 200 meter climb to get to the "braai" (BBQ and beers) to celebrate our adventure.

Before we started we were given our safety briefing and the option of whether we wanted to flip the raft during the trip.  The first one was called the “washing machine” followed by rapid 16A and 16B which were endearingly called the “Terminator1 and 2”.  Both 16A and 16B were  Class-5 rapids with 18 foot standing waves!   We hit the “Terminator” and I got thrown out of the raft at 16A along with 2 other members of our raft and went down the second Class-5 rapid while in the water.  What an amazing experience!  I had to time my breathing with hitting the waves.  The other 2 rafts flipped over completely.  The rest of the river was fairly tame because the water level was so high.  We'll have to come back in August when all the rapids are open from 1 to 24 and most of them are Class-5.  We heard no one gets past “Oblivion” without flipping, rapid Number 18. 

The afternoon was spent with our three biologist friends touring Victoria Falls at the various lookout points.  There was group of Japanese tourists adorned in various colored rain ponchos that were being sold at the  gate.  We figured we didn’t need them.  Another error in judgment. We got SOAKED. We had a hard time keeping water off the camera equipment.  Not much to see as the volume of water was extremely high, which created a huge mist.  It was like a tropical downpour.  Amazing gorges and the Victoria Falls bridge looks like it was out of the 40s (probably was) created out of rusted, riveted iron “I” beams.  It took you back in time. 

So I guess you pee over the falls?

We ran into our biologist friends from Botswana.  Small world.

 All there was between you and the drop on the other side of the rocks was a small sign warning of slippery rocks.

Victoria Falls Bridge built in 1905.

We encountered the worst persistence in selling goods seen yet.  A guy approached us in town and then found me 15 minutes later at the campsite.  The camp ground is a secured and fenced compound.  He tried to sell me stuff,  trade for my shoes or a shirt, through the bars of the fence.

Day 125 - Kasane, Botswana to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

We woke up to thunder and thought we had time before the rain came, if it did come.  Well, half hour later the rain came, so we both stayed in our tents until about 8 am and soon after the sun made an appearance.  We packed our wet gear into our panniers thinking if it gets hot out today, these things are going to stink.  We couldn’t find anything decent for breakfast, so we had to settle for a couple of thin sandwiches with cheese and tomato and a pop.  No coffee to be found anywhere!!  

The Zimbabwean border was 10 km away.  This area has 4 countries bordering at one point, Namibia, Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe.  We saw the long line of trucks again patiently waiting to cross into Zambia.  We found out later that there are 2 ferries to Zambia, each has a capacity of one truck and 5 cars.
We got to the border, and the building on the Botswana side looked identical to the one on the other end of the Kalahari. It was even set up the same on the inside.  Another easy process.  The Zimbabwean side was far more run down and simplistic.  The immigration and customs officers had a sense of humor, which was nice as the process took some time.  75 USD for me (Canadian) and 30 USD for RobC (Dutch passport) for the visa and 46 USD each at customs to get the bikes into the country.  It was the most expensive border crossing to date.  There were some real characters in the line (a truck driver hauling fruit from South Africa to Victoria Falls for example) which eased the frustration of the process.  It turned out to be quite a fun time.   

With the border crossing finished we were on the road to Victoria Falls, 80 km away on a narrow 2-lane paved road.  We arrived in Victoria Falls expecting a somewhat larger town but there was nothing much here.  We located the Shoestring Backpackers Campsite.  Something out of the 60’s complete with a Rastafarian at the entrance selling his artwork.  5 USD for a campsite but the place had no Internet.  We decided to check out the Victoria Falls Rest Camp.  Perfect!  10 USD for a campsite with a bar, restaurant, Internet, toilets and showers.  We set up our wet tents and headed for a late lunch, then into the “town”  to check it out.  Bank, fuel station, one bar and lots of businesses selling tours, activities and crafts.  If it wasn’t a tourist destination there would be nothing here.  

We rode through the “townships” and I was floored by what I saw.  Extreme poverty as I have never seen.  People walking along the streets thhat were covered with patches of sand and garbage alongside the road.  The homes were shacks, litter strewn around, several families living in one single dwelling.  Everyone was keenly aware of our presence.  Some would not make eye contact, others would wave when waved to and still others waved without looking directly at us as if it was a forced gesture.  I felt like an intruder, an outsider.

Later that day, after reserving a rafting adventure on the Zambezi River for the next day, we stopped at a local bar, Hunters, and met some very interesting locals.  Met a young guy nicknamed Shakalaka.  He was a local merchant trying to make a living selling arts and crafts.  After some conversation and a couple of beers later we headed back to our campsite.

 Not sure who would book with these guys.

 RobC, being a linguist, was intently listening to one of our local friends and trying to decipher the slurred language he was speaking. (Ed. his slurring was not a feature of the language.)  :-)