Archive for September, 2011

Darren writes 19/29th September (Sorry.. No pics as internet connection too slow)

Into Afra.

Addis had given us rains daily. We had been at Wims restaurant and bar, lodging for almost 3 weeks because of the latest mechanical issues but on the 18th September we woke early to warm sunshine and packed motorcycles. It was time to continue our journey. We had planned a ride into and through the Danakil Depression to see its geological wonders and the last couple of days had mostly been given to preparation for this trip. We were told about the Afar people and the volatile tribal conflicts within their region and of course the area, north, in the Danakil, has remained sensitive since Ethiopia’s war with Eretria. However, at the present time, there’s ‘peace’ within the whole region and so we planned to travel trough from the south, heeding the warnings to avoid photography, gatherings of people and riding after dark.

A couple of hours of crazy congested traffic, descending south from Addis, gradually thinned as we turned North-eastwards and approached the infamous Afar region. We stopped at a small town called Awash, ate some enjura and rested from the rising heat. No real issues here but as soon as we tried to drive out of town a man started shaking an automatic weapon at us. We sped past! As we descended a hill, on coming trucks flashed their lights at us prompting us of something ahead. Before us was a military guarded bridge. They couldn’t speak English but made it quite clear that we couldn’t pass over the bridge that spanned a deep, narrow gorge. We were confused and they were insistent. Other vehicles passed one at a time and eventually someone who did speak enough English for us to understand, explained that motorcycles were legally prohibited from crossing the bridge for security reasons and we should turn back. Even trucks and cars were only allowed to pass one at a time and if they were to stop they would be fired upon. No way had we come this far just to turn back so we found another option was to courier our bikes, one by one, atop of a pickup. Eventually a man called Abdela Mohammed came to our rescue. First he wanted payment but then agreed he would transport our bikes free of charge. It was the first time we had found our bikes lashed atop a vehicle when they were in perfect working order and we were still bemused to the notion of this motorcycle ban. I went first and after being dropped the other side and awaiting Russell, I discovered that the bridge was venerable to strategic strike by the warring factions of the Afar people. The last bombing was by motorbike, hence the 2 wheel ban! Russ arrived and Mr Mohammed kindly warned us to arrive to a village 2 hours north to sleep before sunset as the road became more unsafe to banditry after nightfall.

We became more and more aware of just how volatile the region was as men, young and old, armed themselves with Kalashnikovs and knives. The Pastoralists here are a tall and thin race and though beautifully dressed, appeared a hardened people as was the environment they inhabited. The highway was sporadically peppered with military protecting this logistical route and as we passed we would stand and salute them which was normally reciprocated with respect and surprise. This was the road from Addis to Djibouti and because of its status was protected. Soon we would have to turn off north into the Danakil and into the geographic depression of below 100m.

Samara was the last town and the last chance for fuel before turning off the main highway and into the Danakil. We had to buy it on the black market at 150% of its value and probably 80% in quality. We filled our tanks and our 24litres of containers. The next stop would be Lake Afrera, just over a 100miles away through a scorched volcanic landscape that as we continued to follow dropped in altitude and rose in temperature. This part of road was new tar and could have been an awesome winding ride with sweeping curves and a smooth surface but with temperatures in their 40s we kept our speed to a maximum of 50mph in order to protect our bikes from overheating. 50mph soon was found to be just a little too fast though. The heat on the tyres/ inner tubes was too great and without warning my front tyre burst. I lost all control and after a short fight against the inevitable, I smashed into the rocks that lined the sides of the road. Another dent for my helmet, a few cuts and bruises but by God’s grace, I could stand. The bike, however, looked a bit of a mess! Russ and I dragged it on the road and started the task of making it rideable. Most of the front, around the head light had been smashed beyond repair and various parts were consequently left as a monument at the crash site. With inner tube replaced and my dials taped to the mud guard, we rode on.

The heat was unbearable and the winds were like a million hairdryers, sapping our energy but the rugged beauty of the region and the fascinating tiny villages with their colourfully dressed women and gun clad men kept our attention eased away from the need to drench ourselves in freezing water. We had a hundred more miles to ride before a town where we could sleep. We knew we couldn’t stop and as the sun was falling we agreed to ride side by side by the single beam of Russell’s bike. After an hour of riding by night and only 30 miles to a bed in the town of Lake Afrera , a rope stretched across the road brought us to an abrupt halt. A heavily armed roadblock was our next obstacle and the military and police there forbade us to continue. Not because I was without a headlight but for our own security. They provided us, instead with a patch of ground on which to sleep and a few of the young soldiers made for some interesting conversation.

In Samara, 100 miles south, we were supposed to have bought permits to enter the Danakil but as we knew we were also expected to have a guide and a military escort we had spared the expense. It would have been impossible to carry a guide and 2 soldiers on our bikes and so our plan was simply to try our luck without. To have an adventure under our own steam, though, was soon going to prove to be something more of a challenge and difficulty than almost any part of our whole African adventure so far.

Sandy plains and rocky tracks led us to our final 12.7km to a camp from where we could climb up to Arta Ale, the magma filled creator and highlight of the Danakil Depression. By the beginning of this track were already suffering heat exhaustion and had become low on water which incidentally may have been tea. It was about 11am and the temperature had already been in the mid-40s for a while and the altitude had also been 100m below sea level since Lake Afrera. ‘12k.. we can get there and rest’ ..so we thought! The track had other plans for us! It was a tormenting rocky pass over an old lava flow and required concentration and endurance which was beyond us under the severe sun. With our energy levels at minimum and our continuing struggles to simply to breath, we were forced to seek shade. But there is no shade in this burnt desert. We made shade by sheet tied to the two bikes that stood parallel to each other and under sheet we laid exhausted and breathless! The hot wind was no relief but our motorbike clothing was protection from it.

5 or 6 hours passed, some of which had been slept through and the others were spent wondering what we were putting ourselves through! By 5pm the heat hadn’t eased and our rest hadn’t replenished our energy by much. We contemplated if we could ride the last 6Km or to sleep the night where we laid.

Food, water and morale were low!

To be continued….

Russell writes, pics by Darren 14/9/11:

My preconception of Ethiopia was of the images of parched landscapes and starving millions, however, that was in the far south east. They surly have their millions, 85 million, and the sizable population can mainly be seen from the road, or so it seems. Travelling from Moyale in the south to Addis Ababa right in the centre of Ethiopia it was clear we were in their wet season with lush highlands, swollen streams and muddy side streets. The road was tar which meant the 800 km to Addis could be done in 2 days, however, you had to keep your wits about you. Cattle, goats, donkeys, horses and dogs lurking on the side of the road could step out at any moment, and very often did as one poor dog tried, to his demise on my pannier. Add to that large numbers of people who needed constant reminding not to walk out in front of us, random knackered old horses standing still in the middle of the traffic and crazy drivers who indicate one way and turn the other. I nearly came unstuck with the latter, locking up the rear in an emergency stop avoiding a deceptive lorry.

Sharing a meal by the fire with the lovely Holland staff

At the end of the first day from the border, we had achieved a first for our bikes (despite leaking water pumps and no shock absorber): 250 miles before the reserve light, which equates to 88 mpg, one of the reasons we chose this bike. To most bikers this isn’t particularly cool or something to blog about, but when you’ve done 20,000 miles living atop a single cylinder, it is! Once we’d finally pulled over, relieved after fighting through the dark on these roads, we were guided to a pension by a nice lad called Seaside. Yes, we had to double check we heard him right! We enjoyed a drink with him that evening celebrating fuel consumption and our 25th African country.

Coffee princess

Addis Ababa; not a holiday destination with its belching busses, uncontrolled emissions, crazy drivers, run down grey buildings, and daily rains. But we found a haven in the nice little Dutch place called Holland House with lovely staff, hot showers and cold beer. The building we stayed in was soon overtaken as we utilized rooms as a kitchen, drying room and workshop, all at no extra charge. It was really handy to have a dry place to work on Darren’s bike and to keep it while waiting for a new suspension to arrive from the UK. Being stuck again with break downs and waiting around for parts with nothing to do was really beginning to wear us down, and after the first week, I was finding it quite depressing. There were a few things to enjoy as we waited; the smiles of the staff here who make us very welcome,amazing coffee, finding a good pizza, finding a gym (running on these polluted streets was not an option) and a place to watch the opening games of the rugby world cup. The thing that really lifted me though, was realizing that this is another trial, it has a weight I have to endure, however, there is one who’s weight or presence is immeasurably greater than any weight or trial that we could be under. This makes a trial bearable and even allows a little joy to lift a heavy brow.

Coffee ceremony at Holland House

We have now received the parts from the UK and Darren’s bike is up and running. The week is peppered with world cup games, so preparations to leave could take some time. But preparations for the next section must be thorough as we travel through the Danakil Depression with scarce fuel and water, lava lakes and 50 degree C temperatures. If we can slip pass the traffic cops, who we’ve been annoying for the last 2 weeks, then we will be off early Friday morning, possibly before dawn judging by today’s run in!

The road to Moyale

Russell writes on 4/9/11, pics by Darren:

Our time in Nairobi at Jungle Junction had been quite productive and provided an ideal place to relax, wash out the desert dust from everything, buy the Sudanese visa, tinker with the bikes and swap movies with other overlanders. There is a fully kitted commercial workshop on site, which was handy when I needed some help with my seized rear brake and changing the destroyed bearings in my rear swing arm. Darren also had a few odd jobs to do as well, like replace his leaking water pump and put in new steering head bearings. The bikes have been about the bush a bit by now and work seems to be getting more and more regular. Just as well our mechanical confidence and skills are rising to meet the growing challenges of taking two F650 GS Dakars around Africa.

One of the little luxuries we enjoy while on the road is being able to watch a movie on the netbook, and meeting other overlanders is like finding a little movie club. At Jungle junction I hit the jackpot with a lovely Spanish couple and their 7 Top Gear episodes we’d not seen, amazing! So we left Nairobi heading north towards the Moyale border crossing with Ethiopia rather than the Uganda / South Sudan route which was an option for a while. We chose not to take this option as it was much further and we didn’t know how long it would take considering the rains, river crossings, unknown border situations and known inter-tribal killings. The ‘bad’ road north into Ethiopia seemed to be the most sensible and timely choice.

Cheers to the northern

We made good progress on the tar road northward and past Mount Kenya, which sadly was shrouded in its cloud blanket. A few kilometres past it we stop at the equator as it’s a bit of a landmark for us, crossing back into the northern hemisphere. In fact a little celebration was in order with a drop of the local brandy. A few more kilometres down the road and we were starting to see evidence that we were entering the rainy season. Bush camp that evening was hiding on the side of the road north of Marsabit dodging the thorny bushes. No tea tonight but an early night with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 1, thank you José.

At least the suspension won't go on them

The next morning, no punctures, so we set off on the ‘bad’ section of road to the border, and yes, it is as bad as everyone says it is, especially for motorcycles. Not quite the 50km in 5 day slug through the Congo jungle, but it’s the unavoidable corrugations that rally slow you down and destroy your rear shock absorbers. About 20km into the corrugations Darren pulls over, oil pouring from under his bike, I’m thinking this looks like a show stopper. The shock absorber reservoir had popped as it over heated, and as it’s a seals unit there was no road side fix. I checked on mine, it was ok but red hot after absorbing all those corrugations. We let it cool, loaded what we could onto my bike to take the weight off Darren’s and steadily rode on. The corrugations continued into two gravel ruts with various gravel passing points, this was hard enough on a working bike, I didn’t envy Darren at all on his bouncing bike.

Bush camping goat pen style

This gravel section had taken us into far northern Kenya and into a very rocky desert peppered with stone walled goat pens. We pulled off the road for another bush camp, clearing out one of these pens we put the ground sheets down to camp under the stars. So this evening we had a noodle bush meal followed by snuggling down to Deathly Hallows part 2 with all the stars in the sky as our movie backdrop, lovely.

Back in camel territory

The problem with this road is that you can’t avoid the corrugations, even on the bike, you just have to aim for the least affected part. You can try off road, there is usually a track on the side but these are just as slow and very often deep fluffy dust. The last day on the bad road was very tiring as we had to do 170 bone shaking kilometres. We stopped to fix a pannier after Darren came off on a gravel rut, stopped to let my suspension cool down, and we also didn’t eat anything that day until we reached Moyale that evening. What did cheer us up, despite the annoying border town hassle, was Manchester United unleashing 8 goals into Arsenal against their 2. Tea that evening was a large zesty pancake type of thing with a bowl of spicy stew, a very typical Ethiopian dish, normally meant for sharing, but we had one each of course.

And into Ethiopia

In the morning as we went to complete the normal border formalities I noticed water dripping from my bike, the water pump seals were leaking and would need replacing, great more spanner time. Thankfully both bikes would be able to make the next 800km on the tar road to Addis Ababa where we could order parts and do the work ourselves.