Riding the Dark Continent – Part I

Story by Glenn Roberts// Photos by Glenn Roberts and Rene Cormier
March 1 2014

Considered to be the world’s oldest continent and the birthplace of humanity, Africa was once called the Dark Continent because of the mystery that surrounded it, and for its unforgiving and treacherous land that only the bravest adventurers would explore.
Times have changed. Our group of Motorcycle Mojo enthusiasts set out on the trip of a lifetime, and our cluster of adventurers enjoyed it immensely.

We trekked to Africa to participate in one of Renedian Adventures motorcycle tours, but our time on the African continent began a few days early to take in Etosha National Park, a side trip organized by Renedian. In Etosha, we would witness animals in their natural habitat in a park that preserves 22,000 square kilometres of northern Namibia.
Arriving at our Etosha accommodations in the early evening, we got our first inkling of what our living quarters would be like on our tour, and our first taste of the type of food we would be eating for the next three weeks.

Our accommodation was a large safari tent erected on a permanent platform with outside toilet and shower facilities, tastefully enclosed on the sides with walls of locally harvested sticks tied vertically. While it wasn’t the Ritz-Carlton, the tent was unique and featured a comfortable bed and air conditioning. Dinner consisted of a wide variety of food laid out on a long, stone bar top, with chefs preparing a variety of meat for those daring enough to try it. In addition to beef, chicken and pork, there was also zebra, eland and blesbok. Africa is rife with all types of meat, since anything that has four legs is fair game – literally. The whole continent is a meat-lover’s paradise.

The following day and a half were spent in a safari vehicle, searching out various animals in and around Etosha’s watering holes. These are the social gathering places for animals, and most of them co-exist with each other, with the exception of lions; when a lion is present at the watering hole, all other animals move to the side and will not venture to get a drink.

Etosha is the real deal, and it’s a life and death struggle for the animals. We just missed witnessing a male lion taking down a kudu, but arrived in time to watch him enjoy his feast.
It was fascinating to see the many species of animals, but we were all anxious to get on with the Spectacular South West Africa motorcycle tour from Windhoek to Cape Town. Our 13-day adventure would allow us to log approximately 3200 kilometres as we explored a number of routes on a variety of supplied BMW motorcycles.

In addition to Gwen and me and our daughter Emily, our group consisted of a wide cross-section of professions. In no particular order, I will introduce Paul van Hooydonk, a retired police officer and our only western guest, from British Columbia. Jim and Debra McKeown – Jim is in the construction business and Debra is a certified natural health practitioner who gives amazing massages – something that I cashed in on a couple of times during the trip. Terry Jones and Jeni Marinescu are in the energy consultation and efficiency industry. John Marcassa is a dentist. Ian O’Hagen and Denis Lajoie make their living in the engineering and construction industries. Jeff Dawkins is an amazing photographer. Bob Braun is a house builder and the life of the party. Cathy Knelson is a court reporter, on her second tour with Renedian Adventures. To round out our group were Rene Cormier, lead guide and owner of Renedian Adventures; Henk, our tail gunner, who made sure no one fell behind in the group; and Chuckie, driver of the chase vehicle that carried our luggage and spare bikes and parts. With only 2.3 people per square km, Namibia is one of the least densely populated countries in the world, so if any one of us had bike troubles, a repair shop would be out of the question. Chuckie would get us on the road again.

Africa Elephants Day I – Windhoek, Namibia
The first official day of the Motorcycle Mojo–sponsored tour was an easy one. During the morning briefing, Rene covered all topics, ranging from the rules of the road and common courtesy to various laws we may not have been aware of, and added, “In Africa, there are first-world rules, but third-world enforcement.” He continued with the types of terrain we would be encountering, animals we would see and the general life of the Namibian people. The afternoon was a free day for the newly arrived to recover from very long flights and to get acquainted with each other.

While Gwen, Emily and I had brought trinkets over for children we might happen to meet, the previous group of riders who brought the bikes north from Cape Town told us of their chance encounters with locals, prompting our group to purchase soccer balls and pencils and pads of paper for the kids. Neither Jim nor I are shopping enthusiasts, so we took one for the team and secured a table at a local downtown pub so the shoppers could have a place to safely stow their purchases. At a dollar a beer, we didn’t mind.

All of Renedian Adventures’ tours include a well-maintained motorcycle, accommodations and most meals. Our first official feast of the trip was at Joe’s Beerhouse. We found a large, multi-room restaurant, filled to the ceiling with all kinds of relics and memorabilia. The most unique item may have been the stuffed giraffe neck, stretching high above, keeping an eye on us. Also, Joe’s might just be the Jägermeister capital of the world, as there are thousands of empty Jäger bottles in multiple rows, lining the walls of the restaurant.

Rene recommended I order a Game Knuckle. I have been friends with Rene for about eight years and had no reason, until then, to doubt his advice. The smirk on his face after I gave my order to our server was indication enough for me to be wary in future. It turned out that my Game Knuckle was a knee joint of a large, deer-like animal, and I’d estimate there were about three kilograms of meat on it. It was coated in a gravy so thick it didn’t drip. Its size was so outrageous that other restaurant patrons came over to photograph it. Looking around the table, I noticed that Paul had also fallen prey to his trust in Rene.

Africa Motorcycle Trip

Day II – Windhoek to Sossusvlei

Our introduction to the bikes revealed a mix of fully serviced BMW R1200GSs, F800GSs, and single- and twin-cylinder F650GSs. Henk would follow up the pack aboard his big KTM 990 Adventure.
The large, rolling, sandy hills covered with light brown and pale green shrubbery around Windhoek strongly reminded me of the arid Kamloops, British Columbia, area. The terrain flattened out as we rode farther south out of the city. For the first 50 km or so, we were on smooth pavement, but our first encounter with gravel would be today, and we would be riding on gravel for most of the next few days.

The excitement began soon after we left Windhoek. A cow and two burros were being a little rambunctious on the opposite side of the highway. Just as we approached them, the cow ran across the highway and almost took out Bob, who skillfully manuoeuvred his bike onto the shoulder and into the grassy area of the ditch, and rode back onto the road as if nothing happened.

Our first gas stop was an impromptu meeting to discuss what to expect in the next few kilometres. Even though it was no secret in the tour description – and mentioned in emails – that gravel experience is highly recommended, we found out at our initial riders’ meeting that four of the group had no gravel experience. Because of Emily’s many years of experience teaching dirt riding to all ages, Rene handed the meeting over to her for a brief tutorial of what to expect when riding on loose terrain.

The gravel started out as wide, hard-packed dirt roads, in excellent condition with the exception of some stretches of washboard-like ripples. Just as we were getting comfortable with the near-perfect road surface, we hit a stretch of loose, sandy gravel that I estimated to be about 20 centimetres deep. At times, it was a white-knuckle struggle to keep the two-up R1200GS upright. Rene told us afterward that all gravel roads in Namibia get maintained at least once per month – which means grading loose dirt from the roadsides onto the road, leaving this loose surface behind to be packed down by the occasional car or truck passing by. While these soft spots are unexpected, he said we could be assured they only do 10 km at a time.

No one dropped their bike, but Jim and Debra did go completely sideways on their R1200GS at one point, managing to straighten it out before running off the opposite side of the road. Ian later said that if it wasn’t for Emily’s tutorial explaining what to expect in loose gravel, he’s not sure he would have made it through that stretch. After completing this section of road, I had flashbacks to when I first spoke to Rene about the magazine sponsoring a tour. It was in his hometown of Edmonton during the 2013 motorcycle show. We discussed which one of his four distinct adventures that I thought would be suitable, and I suggested the Spectacular South West Africa tour, which features 40 percent gravel. He questioned my judgement a couple of times during the conversation, but considering that there are plenty of gravel roads in Canada and that most potential guests would be familiar with them, we felt it would be a most fitting way to experience rural Africa. Another unique road we encountered was a roadbed of interlocking bricks. Labour is cheap and abundant, and equipment is expensive, so it’s easier to hire locals to lay interlocking bricks, even if it’s for many kilometres.

We were caught by surprise when rounding a corner to find a large pile of bricks left in the roadway, and a large area of sand covering one side of the road. The climate was hot and dry, making the dirt roads extremely dusty. We stopped in a small settlement called Solitaire for fuel and for something to wash down the dust. Carrying water with you is a must, and the chase truck always has a good supply. I also realized that eye drops, saline nasal spray and lip balm would help to combat the effects of the dust. The dust doesn’t just affect your body; it was here that we realized that our point ‘n’ shoot camera had gotten dust inside from using it while riding. The sun deserves a great deal of respect as well, so a wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen was always in order.

The grounds of Solitaire are littered with old-growth cactus and strategically placed skeletons of vintage cars and trucks, offering an ideal setting to explore an otherwise desolate, but beautiful desert environment. Solitaire consists of a small group of buildings that include a couple fuel pumps, a general store and a restaurant that’s famous for its homemade apple pie. A blackboard at the general store displays the 2013 rainfall to date as only 39 mm, but they received zero rainfall from February to August. I have never thought before about what to do with leftovers, other than to put them in the fridge and forget about them. If you have a doggy-bag from a restaurant meal here, it isn’t unusual to give to a local. A gas-station attendant at Solitaire was ecstatic to receive the lion’s share of my Game Knuckle from the previous evening’s meal. Later that afternoon, we arrived at the Agama River Camp, our accommodation for the evening. Standalone buildings offered all the amenities, including a rooftop designed for sleeping under the stars, just in case sleeping indoors is too normal for you. With no light pollution in the desert, an unbelievable blanket of stars stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions. Although it was a bit windy, many of the group took to the rooftops that night.

Because they lack infrastructure that we take for granted, rural resorts must be self sufficient, and Agama runs on solar panels and generators, and features a restaurant with bar, fire pit and swimming pool. A small area of grass surrounded the pool, and we didn’t mind sharing it with a family of warthogs who stopped for a few blades of the green stuff. At that evening meal, we were fortunate to have one of the cooks come out and translate the menu into her native, and very ancient, clicking language, a dialect where many of the words contain a clicking sound.

Day III – Sossusvlei sand dunes

This was a non-riding day, but one we were all looking forward to. It had been arranged that John, the owner of Agama, would take us into the Namib Naukluft National Park to experience some of the world’s tallest and most picturesque sand dunes. The sand is a reddish-brown colour due to the oxidization of the sand’s high iron content. This became evident when John dropped a magnet into the sand and it was immediately covered with grains clinging to it. He explained that some of the sand dunes we would see are temporary and would change shape and location depending on wind, but most of the large sand dunes are permanent and have been in place for hundreds or thousands of years. Thought to be over 55 million years old, the Namib Desert is considered the oldest desert on earth. We stopped at Dune 45, so called because it is 45 kilometres from Sesriem.

Because of its proximity to the road and its curving organic shape, it is said to be the most photographed sand dune in the world. But our day’s destination, and challenge if we chose to climb it, was Big Daddy. Standing at 325 metres, it is one of the tallest sand dunes in the world. It took us about 1.5 hours to climb it, and after marvelling at the 360-degree view the top has to offer, it takes just a few minutes to run down its steep side. One of the most unique sounds I’ve ever heard is the vibration the sand makes as you run down. The sand grains rub together under your feet to create a vibration you can actually feel, and bystanders can hear it fifty metres away. At the bottom of Big Daddy is Dead Vlei, a saltpan that has not seen water for hundreds of years, with the exception of a sprinkling of rain in the wet season. Still standing in the saltpan are 900-year-old trees, so devoid of moisture and insects that they do not rot.

Day IV – Sossusvlei to Helmeringhausen

Passing through the Naukluft Mountains and Quiver Tree Gorge, the landscape was starting to change to more rugged surroundings than the desert of the previous days. This day, on our way to Helmeringhausen, would be the only day of the tour that we would not see any pavement, and while it was pretty easy going, we did have a few pucker-up moments due to unexpectedly loose road surfaces. Namibia was colonized and occupied by the German Empire during the 19th century, and Helmeringhausen was originally built to house the German Schutztruppe, a small, colonial, camel-mounted armed force. All of our riding days finished during mid- to late afternoon. We arrived at Helmeringhausen in plenty of time to clean up, take a refreshing swim and sit under the trees at the bar area to trade stories of the day’s ride.

Denis forgot he had his brand-new Blackberry in a pocket when he began smashing his riding pants against a wall to extract the dust from them. He apparently has a new Blackberry now. After a traditional braai (barbecue), we were fortunate to be able to sit down with Bjorn, the current owner of Helmeringhausen. Once in the South African Special Forces and later an independent ocean-diamond miner, he bought Helmeringhausen and now enjoys looking after his “town,” which has a hotel, restaurant, general store and fuel. Like all the accommodations we had experienced so far, Helmeringhausen is in the middle of nowhere, but with unique buildings and rooms, and the food was outstanding. Most of the group was already stopped after a particularly challenging stretch of road when Gwen and I approached, and I saw Debra on her hands and knees in front of the bikes. Not knowing what had happened, my heart sank, as I feared the worst. Be sure to check out Part II in the April issue of Motorcycle Mojo Magazine.


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