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Elephant Hide and Seek

As Steph hits the road to Africa once again to Recce our new Moroccan tour, I have chosen a chapter from Home by Seven to share in this weeks BLOG.



Chapter 28 begins in Namibia, on the final leg of Stephs 4 year journey with Rhonda the Honda. I hope you enjoy this excerpt from Stephs amazing travel journal. Copies are available in our online shop. https://www.motojunkies.co.uk/product-page/home-by-seven Pete



I woke up next to the Okavango River to the unmistakable sound of grunting hippos and shrilling cicadas. I packed my tent, said goodbye to Namibia and followed the flow of the river south across ‘the Caprivi Strip’ to the Mohembo border crossing into Botswana. This is the fourth-longest river system in Southern Africa, and like me, it was on a mission to get to the Okavango Delta – a swamp brimming with wildlife slap bang in the heart of the Kalahari Desert. (The Okavango is very unusual in that it doesn’t run into the sea, it just flows into a ‘tectonic trough’ in the Kalahari and evaporates). Botswana was a country I’d been looking forward to immensely, purely for the wildlife and abundance of elephants that were no longer hunted there, and could roam free across the land.

It was a lovely dirt road ride in, through a small section of the Caprivi Game Reserve, with signs warning of lions and elephants, and an extra big sign saying, ‘Disclaimer – Enter at Own Risk’. It reminded me of a sign I had on my bedroom door as a kid and I smiled as I imagined lots of teenage wildlife leaving clothes all over the floor and mouldy cups under their beds.  I saw neither elephants nor lions however, but I did see lots of antelope-type ‘things’ and made a mental note to myself to ‘brush up on antelopes’.

Just after the border, I stopped in the small town of Shakawe to refuel and to see if I could get a sim card – a usual first job in most countries. I ended up changing $100 there at a reasonable rate and got the sim card from the shop next door. While I sat there on the appropriately bench-shaped tree inserting the card, a man came over and sat next to me, so close our arms pressed against each other’s.

“Hello” he said, and may have given his name but I forget what it was as I was more concerned with our close proximity and the unmistakable aroma of unwashed man in the midday sun.

“Pleased to meet you”, I replied as I made a point of moving away slightly. As I did, he reached over and brushed the hair out of my face. I stood up coolly but said in no uncertain terms (in a voice I normally reserve for naughty dogs, drunk...you know the list by now!) that touch was definitely not cool,

“It’s OK because I like you”

“It is not OK because I don’t want you to”. I clearly had a special case here.

“I like white women”

“Good for you”. It was the best I could come up with at short notice.

“I love you”

“You’re crazy”

“Yes I am crazy!”. I thought it best to leave whilst we were in agreement and reached for my jacket and helmet. He watched me for a while as if pondering what to do, then stood up, grabbed my arm roughly and announced,

“You must stay with me”. His smile had gone and his eyes looked desperate now. I pushed him so hard that he stumbled backwards and fell over. That surprised me as much as it did him. As he was getting up I got on my bike to leave but paused long enough to say,

“Good luck with those white women” and turned the key.

He ran at me and tried to drag me off the bike. At least I think that is what he was trying to do. He could have been trying to get on the bike. It was all a bit awkward. Rhonda was already off the stand, so I was trying to keep her upright while trying to get him off me. If this guy makes me drop my bike, I’m going to punch him in the face. It’s too hot for this shit.

Just then a group of four guys came running over. I wasn’t sure for a second which side they were on and my stomach lurched as I remembered those words of doom in South Africa, “You will be pulled from your bike, raped and murdered”. Thankfully they were on my side and started untangling his arms from mine, then dragging him off me while I wrestled to keep Rhonda upright. I thanked them ardently, fired her up and promptly set off. I watched in the rear-view mirror as they let him go and he chased after me through the traffic like an impassioned jilted lover. His arms waving frantically, getting smaller and smaller as the distance grew between us and our beautiful yet pithy relationship lay shattered on the African-red soil. It hadn’t been a great chat up line!

The road to Maun was fairly straightforward after that, unless you count getting fined for speeding after racing two ostriches. They reached 40mph (according to my speedo) before peeling off and disappearing into the bush, leaving a cloud of dust and narrowly avoiding a warthog and a giraffe as they went. Just after that there was a dip in the road, and in the dip was Mr Policeman hiding behind a tree with his speed gun. I was doing 70km/h (43mph) in a 60 zone, and it turns out ostrich racing is not a valid defence for not noticing the signs. The fine started at 800 pula (about £55).

“I don’t have that much and wouldn’t pay it even if I did. That’s ridiculous”. I exclaimed.

The policeman repeated in a jovial mimic,

“That’s ridiculous”, emphasising my scandalised high pitch.

We both laughed, and the ice was broken. We agreed on 200 pula. I left saying I had learnt my lesson and would pay more attention in future. I did in a way. Within five minutes I was already over the speed limit again but paying more attention to the dips and shady spots under the trees where police might be lurking. It was too hot to hang around.

The Old Bridge campsite just outside Maun offered shade and refreshments. I set up my tent after quickly calculating which tree would give shelter from the sun for the longest time, had a cold shower, and quickly followed it with a beer; a ritual I have repeated too many times to remember. There is no better feeling in the world than holding your first cold beer after setting up camp and removing sweaty riding gear after a hard day’s ride.

This wasn’t a bad place. Situated right on the river, it was a typical backpackers’ stop, mostly full of the hired 4x4 brigade and twenty-somethings who often believe that they invented travel and say things like, “Oh, I don’t do the tourist thing”, as they sit in a tourist spot and book onto their next guided tour. It was the kind of place I could enjoy for a short time only, but enjoy it I did. I drank overpriced beer in the shade by the river, took a sunset boat ride amongst the abundant waterlilies, birdlife and elephants, and later played the card game ‘Shithead’ with some fellow travellers, including Rowen and Andrew, my Aussie friends from behind the petrol station in Namibia, and Ben, a young American I had met back in Cape Town. I had recognised his beat up old Kawasaki KLR650 in the carpark as soon as I’d pulled in. It was great to see them all again.

I took a horse ride while I was there, and as I jumped off the horse at the end, my right shoulder screamed out in searing pain. I fell to my knees and stifled the urge to scream while Cash, the horse I had just been riding, nestled my hair and offered a comforting touch as I crouched next to his gigantic hooves and waited for the worst to pass. It was touching to see that he clearly felt my pain and whilst staring at his massive hooves just inches away from my face, I was glad we had bonded during the ride. I vowed then that if my shoulder got any worse, I would ship home – happy that I had made it to Africa and counting my blessings for getting to the seventh continent in one piece. Tim would understand. Still – I cried that night while having a beer with my young KLR-riding American friend Ben. The thought of not finishing was heart-breaking, no matter what I tried to tell myself. Ben had already decided this was where he got off. After three months, he’d had enough of the road. Two weeks later, he flew back to the ‘States, leaving his faithful old KLR behind with the hope that one day he would return to finish his ride across Africa. To this day, he has not returned.

I refused to dwell on my own worries as I made my way further east towards Nata, then took a left, north, towards the appropriately named Elephant Sands Eco Camp. I knew the last five kilometres up to the camp was going to be tricky going on deep sand, but Billy Ward had told me this place was well worth a visit if, like me, you love elephants. Elephant Sands was once an old hunting borehole, now used by tourists to camp out and get close-up-and-personal with the thirty or so wild elephants who dropped in most days for a drink and a bath. The only shooting there now is with cameras, and the elephants have become relaxed enough to ignore the tents that come and go around them.

At dusk, while crouching silently behind a stick-thin tree, well away from the safety of the viewing point where others had gathered, I held my breath and looked on helplessly as the imperious herd approached. My plan for getting a photo of Rhonda and some elephants had been sketchy at best and now it was too late to change my mind. The elephants were everywhere and Rhonda looked like a Matchbox toy as they towered over her. Having spotted the well-worn path and elephant dung, I had parked Rhonda right next to their regular route through to the watering hole, hoping for a dramatic photo opportunity. This was a one-shot deal. If I had misjudged their behaviour, I was going to pay, and so was Rhonda, but I had decided it was worth the risk and promised myself I wouldn’t cry if she got crushed. We’d had a good run after all. At least that’s what I told myself. On reflection, I’m pretty sure I would have cried like a vegan in a butcher’s shop.

I watched from my stake-out with a sense of overwhelming elation and respect as, one by one, they passed by us, just metres away. The youngsters stopped, with a look of shock, before shuffling off as fast as they dared without losing face. Others took a closer, inquisitive look at this strange two-wheeled animal, and some displayed a mild annoyance at me, shaking their heads and flapping their ears before continuing. Now this was a ‘life hit’! Thankfully, none of them touched the bike and none of them charged. Of course, they could have crushed us both in a flash. It had been a crazy risk but sometimes those, ‘sod it’ moments came up and I was helpless to deny them. More reason to try it, than not. Our luck had been ‘in’ that day. 

Botswana was beautiful and I spent my last nights on the river Chobe near Kasane taking in the abundance of wildlife it attracts; dozens of elephants, hippos, crocs and birdlife. I even got to see my first drinking giraffe. What a sight it was as it splayed its gangly legs apart and reached down for a sip, before springing effortlessly back up again. I was having quite a few ‘first’ experiences lately – a mother and baby elephant swimming, a pied kingfisher catching a fish, and who could forget, the best damned Irish coffee I had ever tasted from one of the nearby cafés. (The latter wasn’t technically a ‘first’, but it was so good I had to give it a mention.)


***************


I crossed the border by ferry at Kazangula, the ‘quadripoint’ on the Zambezi river where Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia all meet (and there is now, since 2020, a bridge). I was spoilt rotten In Zambia – I mean really spoilt. Billy Ward had once again come up trumps and had put me in touch with a guy I would later call, ‘The Crocodile Man of Zambia’. Ian, as he’s otherwise known, owns a crocodile farm in Livingstone and Billy had suggested he might let me put my tent up on his land.

“No need for that” he announced when I asked where the best shade for my tent was, “you can have the castle!”.

The ‘castle’ was actually a modern-ish square tower (complete with fire escape) set amongst the trees with a pool out front. It was 5-star luxury and totally unique. “Ewan McGregor stayed in that very bed whilst filming The Long Way Down” Ian said as he showed me around my new home. “It’s all yours for as long as you like”. Great! I could now boast that I had slept in the same bed as Ewan McGregor from Star Wars and Trainspotting! (the two events might have been several years apart, but let’s not get caught up in the details!). I had the whole place to myself, including that lovely inviting pool out front and a maid who tidied up for me and tucked my labels in whenever they poked out the back of my vest. Surely, I couldn’t be this lucky?

I ran up and down the spiral stairs, jumped on the four-poster beds, and ran up to the turrets where I had a great view and a roll-top bath. Life did not get any better than this. These days I was ecstatic if I had any bed and a flushing toilet. This was something else!

The next few days were spent in a whirlwind of sightseeing based mostly around Victoria Falls. First by walking across it, then by walking underneath it, and finally by flying over it in a helicopter, thanks to my host, Ian’s good connections in the area. As Dr. Livingstone himself once said, it is ‘a scene so lovely, it must have been gazed upon by angels in flight’! 

Zambia has its problems. It is one of the poorest countries in the world. The deforestation due to its rapid population increase and charcoal usage, as well as its over-dependency on copper, is stripping the country of its natural resources and leaving its people, wildlife, and economy, exceptionally vulnerable. It’s no wonder Zambia has so much illegal wildlife trafficking. The Chinese are always on hand to buy more than the odd pangolin or illegally poached elephant tusk, and who can blame the local man who steals them to feed his starving children? The problem, as ever, is global and it’s going to take a lot of time and hard work to put it right.

Thankfully, there are people who care, and I was lucky enough to stay with such a couple in Lusaka, the capital, as I passed through. Dedicated conservationists and former police officers from Amsterdam, Marianne and Remco had given up their comfortable lives back home to head for the less convenient Zambia, in the hope of making a dent in the wildlife trafficking trade.

When I arrived, they got a call from one of their team, saying a pangolin and her new-born baby had been rescued from a man who was carrying them in a sack. Pangolins are quite rare, and very shy. We still know very little about them and few get to see one close up. I was invited to come with them to check it out. My excitement at meeting one, was tinged with the sadness of its situation. The adults often fared badly once they had been captured and the baby, we discovered, was barely a day old – probably born in the sack in which it was found. This poor shy anteater was just a tiny ball of scales, and mum was not planning on uncoiling herself to feed her baby. Clearly traumatised by their experience, we didn’t hold out much hope for them. The baby later died, after every effort was made to save her. The mother survived and was flown out quickly to an area where she could be released again. These creatures are so sensitive that any prolonged captivity often kills them.

Unbeknownst to me, my hosts had more than one or two nights’ B&B in mind for me during my stay. Before I knew it, Marianne was rushing me off for a couple of relaxing days at Mukambi Lodge, a luxury bush camp owned by their friends and situated right on the river in the heart of the Kafue National Park. This was the place that dreams were made of. Elephants, lions, hyenas and hippos roamed free and the sounds at night while we were safely tucked in our four-poster bed were magical. Marianne and I enjoyed a game drive (where the highlight was five lion cubs) and a sunset riverboat cruise (with rather large G&Ts), whilst we stayed in a luxury cabin with a bath on the decking outside, overlooking the river. On our last morning we packed our bags and walked towards the car, just a few metres away from our cabin. Breakfast was in the main building maybe five hundred metres away. It was not advised to walk alone due to the abundance of wildlife. The elephants were a particular threat there as they had a long memory and hadn’t quite forgiven humans for some particularly harsh atrocities in their not-too-distant past. Only the year before, a man had been killed while walking to his cabin.

Half way across to the car, I looked up to see a big bull elephant standing just a few metres away from us. Marianne still had her head down and amazingly, neither of us had noticed it until that second.

“Marianne” I whispered. She looked up.

“Shit!” she replied and we both slowly and carefully tiptoed to shelter behind the car. Quietly, we opened the door and put our bags in. “We can’t get past it in the car” said Marianne. We had already been warned not to even move around in vehicles if one was close. After ten minutes, with no signs of the elephant moving, we decided to try to make it on foot, using the round huts along the way as shelter. They were spaced about fifteen metres apart.

With our hearts racing, we made our way to the first one as slowly as we dared. No sudden movements – run and you’re as good as dead. I dared a sneak look around the side,

“Shit! He’s coming this way!”. We tried the door of the hut but it was locked. Images of being chased around the hut by a wild bull elephant popped into my head and I let out a nervous giggle, “What do we do now?”. We waited, then peeked again, to find his back was slightly turned, having spotted a nice bit of mango tree just inches from our hut.

“Let’s go for it!” Marianne whispered. And so, we did. From one hut to the next, slowly and steadily all the way to our well-earned breakfast. Elephant-dodging was hungry work!

Two weeks later, I found myself sitting by my campfire overlooking the Luangwa river that separates Zambia from Mozambique, and reflecting on my last three weeks in the country formerly known as Northern Rhodesia. My life had been made so very easy in this country. This had led to the odd feeling of guilt. I should have been roughing it, surely? Not taking up these good people’s time. The Zambian community, both bikers and ex-pats alike, would hear nothing of the sort though. With a dodgy shoulder, and Welsh blood boiling in the ever-increasing heat and humidity, I had been taken in and overwhelmed with kindness, good humour, soft pillows and copious amounts of whisky. I only had to put my tent up once across the entire length of the country. Rhonda too, was taken care of and I felt we were both coming out the other side, having had a good overhaul of our major components – ready to take on the rest of Africa, and whatever it might throw at us. Sadly, I’d had to leave Skully (my springbok skull) behind after my new friends had warned me it was not worth the risk of taking him through any more borders,

“We will keep him safe until you return one day” promised Remco as I tore myself away and waved my thousandth goodbye.

My last ride in Zambia, to the border, and out of the country, was a beautiful one. The roads were in great condition and the countryside stretched out for miles around me in the cool morning breeze. Dotted with rustic villages and the usual fruit stalls, I pottered on through, waving to the kids as I went. I felt relaxed and happy. My shoulder wasn’t even hurting. All that luxury living had paid off. I stopped at the next lot of kids to see what they were selling to the truckers on the side of the road. I hoped for a nice bit of fruit for breakfast, but as I got closer, I realised they were cooked mice on a stick, like a kebab. They were whole; eyes, feet, tail, the lot. This was not something I had seen before, but they seemed popular with the truck drivers. A quick snack on the road to keep them going to the next stop. Tempting as it was to try, I decided against another ‘sod it’ moment, but gave them a few kwacha anyway and took a photograph for my collection before jumping back on Rhonda to the usual waves and cries of, “Mzungu! Mzungu!” (a term usually used for any white person in Africa, but literally translated means ‘aimless wanderer’, so I liked it), and heading into Malawi.

Once across the border, I aimed straight for Nkhata Bay in the north, after reports came in that there had been a spate of blood-sucking vampires on the south side of Lake Malawi. More accurately, there had been problems with the locals who believed that blood-sucking vampires were amongst them, and that it was probably the fault of the foreigners who must have brought them – or were them. This would have been funny, were it not for the fact that eight people had already been killed by vigilante groups in the area. The deadly mob violence that resulted had been so alarming that UN agencies had relocated their staff away from the southern districts. The US embassy also moved out its Peace Corps volunteers, and following attacks on ambulances believed to be carrying blood-suckers, hospitals also halted these services to the worst-affected areas. In response, President Peter Mutharika visited Mulanje, the district with the highest number of incidents, and condemned the lynch mobs but also the suspected vampires. “If people are using witchcraft to suck people’s blood, I will deal with them and ask them to stop doing that with immediate effect,” he said. I imagined him then sitting down with a group of vampires and asking them nicely to stop.

All seemed peaceful at the northern end of Malawi though, so I spent a week there writing and trying to stay cool in a little hut overlooking the lake, before heading into the mountains of Tanzania.

After nearly twelve thousand African kilometres, seven countries, five speeding tickets, one puncture, one broken nose, and absolutely no blood-sucking vampire sightings, I sat in the bustling city of Mbeya listening to the Islamic call to prayer of the muezzin resonating through the cool evening air, signifying the beginning of my East African adventure. From the majestic towering Baobabs in Angola, to the regal elephants in Botswana, the unrivalled sunsets of Zambia and, of course, the long desert stretches in Namibia – Southern Africa had given me all the ingredients for a great adventure, and I suspected there were plenty more adventures to come, as I inched slowly but surely closer to home.


**************

“Are you ready?”, shouted the man over his shoulder. I braced myself, held onto the bars, and looked ahead. I was not ready at all and didn’t think I would be any time soon.

“Yes, ready!”, I lied. The rope tightened, and I felt myself being dragged off the dirt path and straight into the chaotic traffic of Dar es Salaam. Rhonda, for the first time in our 110,000 kilometre journey, had broken down, or to be more precise, had refused to re-start after a stop.

Four years earlier I had spent some time with my friend Tony in Wales practising for this very moment, but being towed now felt like a far cry from those green fields where the only obstacles were the slow-moving sheep and the fast-pursuing sheepdogs. I had no control and had to trust in a guy whose towing skills were yet to be determined. The rope had been tied to my bike and so there was no quick release. My horn was not working and my screams of, “Nooooo, I can’t fit through there!”, were left trailing behind me as we squeezed through the gaps between the moving cars with millimetres to spare. Why was he filtering? Had he forgotten I was attached to him? All I could do was hold on, keep the bike upright, and hope that he had not lied when he said we only had two kilometres to go.

I left Rhonda with Dennis the mechanic (and reckless tow-er of motorcycles) and caught the ferry over to the island of Zanzibar (aka Unguja) while he figured out what was wrong with her. It was still hot and humid in Stone Town, the old part of Zanzibar City but I managed in my flip-flops and sarong (the same purple one I’d used as a hijab in Iran). I did feel strange without my motorbike, and more importantly, my riding gear. It was what defined me, it was what I felt most ‘me’ in and in all honesty, it made me feel less ‘tourist’, more ‘adventurer’! I had to stop myself telling anyone who’d listen that normally I’d be wearing big boots and body armour! Quite ridiculous really, but there was a genuine sense of something missing without Rhonda. In part, and quite ironically, it was nice not to have the burden and responsibility of a motorcycle with luggage, yet it was the very thing that set me free. But mostly I felt naked without my sidekick. It was as if someone had just surgically removed my Siamese twin.

Zanzibar was fun. I danced with the locals until 3.30am, I read a book on my Kindle, wrote my blog and recovered from my hangover overlooking a white beach and turquoise sea, and I got happily lost in the historic city, with its medina-esque narrow winding streets. If you are a single white woman (of any age) and you need an ego boost – go to Zanzibar. The men are young and beautiful with good skin and surprisingly white teeth. They are very keen to admire you and tell you how beautiful you are. They are also, no doubt, very keen to find an affluent wife who will provide for them – but don’t let that put you off. Once they realise you are skint and you have no interest in taking home a souvenir anyway, they soon get down to the important stuff – dancing! And boy can they dance! 

It turned out that Rhonda’s ailment was merely a defunct starter relay. Dennis the mechanic found me a working second hand one and we were soon back on the road and heading for the cooler climes of the Usambara Moutains in Northern Tanzania. I was happy to leave behind the humid and grimy port of Dar es Salaam (now a city of over four million people), with its busy roads and aggressive mosquitoes that buzz in your ear at night with high-definition clarity. After a few hours of working my way north through the crazy traffic – narrowly avoiding the bus, and the motorcycle (or piki-piki in Swahili) with a wardrobe on the back, coming the wrong way up a dual carriageway – the climate and environment completely changed.

The cool air enveloped me as I climbed the series of switchbacks up the mountain into the little village of Lushoto, and the moist green foliage gave me an overwhelming sense of home. As I climbed and tried to take it all in, I saw a movement in the verge. Suddenly, an eagle flew up clutching a snake. I ducked and narrowly avoided both as they wrestled with each other in mid-air. As I composed myself and laughed with delight at this unexpected treat, a crowd of people (clearly members of a local tribe) with painted faces and brown robes carrying spears, came into view, marching as one, with a real sense of purpose. I was glad I was not their ‘purpose’! “This place is like something from a Terry Pratchett novel”, I thought.  “All we need now is Rincewind and a giant turtle!”. It was totally surreal and a wonderful breath of fresh air.

Whenever I thought I had seen it all, the world provided a whole new scene, and with it, a fresh perspective and the energy I needed to keep going. My shoulder even felt mildly better and it was the respite I so desperately needed before taking on arguably the toughest section of my African leg. I had missed out a couple of countries – Rwanda and Uganda, leaving them in the pile marked ‘Come back when re-energised physically and financially’ and I was pushing on towards home now. I wasn’t in any great rush, I was enjoying Africa immensely, for the most part, nor was I up for any major detours either. My mission was to get home safely and happily while still enjoying the ride. Once again, the nay-sayers had been wrong.





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