The door to door mishap coincided with the timely return of another good Cargilfield friend, Ed Douglas-Miller, from a stint working on a game farm with the well-known conservationist Clive Walker. Ed was the source of the flawed intel that had landed me in trouble at Jan Smuts; he had arrived in South Africa a few weeks before me on a one-way ticket and ghosted through immigration with not so much as a backward glance. He had some time to kill before he returned home, I needed a break from selling, so we planned a fishing expedition to the Matopos Hills in Zimbabwe.
Ed procured a motorcycle from somewhere, more of a low slung tourer than a sit up and beg on off roader, and one typical clear sunny Joburg morning we set off North towards Zim, a solid 500km days drive away, each with small holder bags strapped to the back of seats with bunjee cords, one of an African road trip’s more essential items, and our passports.
My fuel tank was good for about 125kms at 80km per hour, then it would start to splutter, a signal to switch the valve to reserve tank, which bought another 25kms. 150kms isn’t very far in Africa, and nowhere near enough for the kind of expedition I had in mind for later on, but in South Africa and Zim fuel wasn’t a problem, and petrol stations, especially in apartheid South Africa, came along frequently enough.
Less comfortable was a full day in the XT500 saddle at 80km per hour. That distance on long hot straight roads was an arduous task that ate up the whole day, even restricting ourselves to short breaks of twenty minutes or so every 100kms, to fill tanks or take photos. On the flip side, the road North was in excellent condition, we drove through lowveld bush dotted with rocky kopjes, where the African sky reached to the ends of the earth, all the way up to Louis Trickhardt, about 100km from the border.
If we thought we were toughing out a long, hot, gruelling ride on motorbikes, it was hard to imagine what kind of hardships the early voortrekkers, who settled this uncompromising landscape, must have endured. They were part of the Great Trek of the 1830’s, which meant they migrated by horse or wagon overland from the Cape Colony, some 2,000 km’s to the South West.
Man or mouse, Loius Trickhardt had certainly earned his earthly immortality in the small town named after him. He, along with many of his fellow pioneers, gave their lives in a massive effort to escape bureaucracy, and create civilised settlements that many South African generations have gone on to enjoy. It’s important to try and recognise great deeds and sacrifices in the context of their times, not ours, and as silly as it sounds, even experiencing just a modicum of the discomfort those hardy folk endured made it easier to appreciate their legacy, and go softer on purported indiscretions.
With the dramatic sandstone rock faces of the Soutspansberg mountains visible high above us in the distance, we took a brief rest and a refuel, and let the bikes cool before the climb out of Loius Trickardt through Wyllie’s Poort mountain pass, and on towards the border. After slogging across the lowveld, this was a welcome change of scenery from the back of a bike, and the mountains had lakes and trees that would have offered more shade and water, but on foot I still can’t imagine it was a walk in the park for early explorers. The mountains always look pretty and accessible from afar, but strap on walking boots and even light bush takes some traversing.
Every fresh wave of voortrekkers meet their own match, and my nemesis was the mighty mosquito, which was unfortunate in a continent like Africa. I had already discovered it only took one to ruin a night’s sleep, and wreck a havoc of plague like blotches on precious porcelain white skin. But I was still completely unprepared for the ruthless special forces that ambushed us in Beitbridge, Zimbabwe’s border town with South Africa.
We crossed the River Limpopo and made the border post just before it closed. And even with Ed showing off his immaculate immigration official handling skills, the sun was dropping fast by the time we were through passport control and back on our bikes, so we checked into a random guest house in town. There should be a large neon sign at every border post warning against staying in border towns, for all sorts of reasons, but exhausted and with African roads after dark the greater of the evils, we had no choice.
White walls, open windows, air conditioner, shower that works, the rooms always look inviting enough when you first stumble in off the road dusty and disorientated. Later, when shower doesn’t drain, windows don’t close and air conditioning doesn’t work, you fear the worst. But you soon learn it’s the tell-tale red spots all over the walls with bits of mosquito attached that herald Armageddon. Then, all you can do is lie back and prepare for the night after the day before, as the enemy float in on waves of suffocating heat. Just as you’re on the edge of sleep, a sly hum into auditory canal is your face the music call; eyes blink open, light on, let battle commence, the swat team versus the bite team, ’till death or dawn do us part.
Over breakfast the following morning I read through puffy eyes that Beitbridge was named after the actual bridge over the Limpopo we had crossed the previous afternoon. It was called Beit Bridge in memory of a British Randlord named Alfred Beit, one of the founders of De Beers with Cecil Rhodes. The Beit Trust was established to channel his considerable gold and diamond mining wealth into infrastructure projects in the region.
This is all noble and fantastic, and it seems the Beit name, pronounced ‘bite’ with a South African accent, has leant itself to more than its fair share of worthy causes in the region and beyond. Enough, one hopes, to more than compensate for any colonial improprieties. But without wanting to offend anyone’s post-imperial revisionism, in the light of developments, would the town not be better off named Bitebridge, and the bridge itself Bite Bridge, or even Mosquito Bite Bridge? I’m sure sacrifices were made building both, of course they were, but who recognises the exceptional valour of the malaria armed border mosquito, the unsung hero of the battle to keep pasty white motorbikers out? They were there before anyone.
Bulawayo was the next stop, where we expected to pick up some fishing gear and any permits we’d need for the recreational area of the Matopos Hills where fishing and camping were allowed. This area was protected for wildlife, but big game like rhinos, elephants, buffalo and lions were restricted except in rare cases to the Matopos national park, so motorbikes were allowed. There were parks in Africa where the wardens didn’t care if you buzzed in on two wheels and helped feed the lions, but mostly in war torn countries further North with less developed wildlife tourism infrastructure.
For the most part Lions are quite lazy, especially if well fed and nourished, and inclined to while away a hot African day in a shady place, but if you did happen to catch one on a hungry or playful day, a motorbike could suddenly look to big cat like a running mouse looks to a small one, and what cat can resist having a go at that?
Since there were no fences, there was no room for complacency. While most animals which pose a danger to human life are quite shy and prefer not to stray onto settled areas, every now and then, especially in a drought, they’d wander onto a recreational one, before being chased back where they came from by wardens when sitings were reported by startled campers. So while I’d definitely had the worse of it on the open road, speed and comfort wise, on the dirt tracks inside the recreational area I fancied my chances in a game of one big cat and two mice.
Ch 3 – Uncle Bob’s Crocodile Farm