Cape Town to Cairo 2012

Day 40 to Day 44 - July 6th-10th

On our way to Isiolo, we rode 250 kilometers in all, starting with about 130 km on nice paved roads on which we could travel 60 mph.  The remaining 100 km were deep dirt roads with patches of sharp rocks and deep sand.

Our next stretch was 300 kilometers from the village of Isiolo to Moyale at the Ethiopian border. We didn’t know what road conditions to expect from the 300km that awaited us. One person said it was 60km of nasty road like yesterday and the remaining with asphalt.  A second person told us that it would be 80km of bad road with the rest smooth and well-graded, giving us the potential to go 40-50mph.

A third road forecast was given to us by a Dane we met in Nairobi.  He said the entire road was awful.  He had a breakdown in the middle of it and narrowly escaped being eaten by a pack of hyenas.  The breakdown occurred at nightfall.  The hyenas were menacing and closing in on him, and he didn’t have a gun or spear.  He was convinced that he was a goner.  He used his SAT phone to call his wife in Denmark and she had the presence of mind to call a nearby police station in Kenya.  The police rushed out and rescued him just in time.  As our day began, I was considering which of these three had given us an accurate report.  If the Dane was correct, 300km is a long way on awful roads.  Would we end up having to camp out with the hyenas?  Helge was confident, convinced that we would make it to the Ethiopian border.

As it turns out, the Dane was right.  It was a miserable, gnarly road with sharp rocks, patches of sand and ruts that were about a foot deep.  In the extremely rutted areas, there were “drive-arounds” where truckers had driven around to avoid the badly rutted patches or to avoid rocks too large for their tires.  These “drive-arounds” provide a choice of which pain to endure – the deep ruts where you have to concentrate on staying in the rut because it is not possible to climb out of it without falling over, or the “drive-around” that could have patches of sand which for my steering geometry is very difficult to handle, particularly at higher speed.


Roger and Vince went on ahead in front of me.  They had no intention of being eaten by hyenas; they definitely planned to make the border by nightfall! I was lagging behind, a victim of my steering geometry, not my motorcycle-riding confidence!  Helge lagged behind, too, and that is not unusual, because he often stops to take photographs and talk up the locals.  I later hooked up with Roger and Vince, but Helge was absent for too long and Vince went back to find him while Roger and I waited by the road.  It turned out that the two plugs Helge had put in after a nasty slash in his front tire were not holding, so it was leaking.


Helge, making lemons into lemonade, decided to shoot a video covering all aspects of how to install a tube in a tubeless tire.


The video shows all the steps you take: removing the wheel, “breaking the bead” to separate the tire from the rim, soaping the outside of the tire for lubricity, inserting the tube, blowing it up partially so that it seats appropriately, soaping the tire again, and inflating the tire until the “bead” resets.  This requires the help of two elves – Vincent, the alpha elf, and me, the beta elf or elf-in-waiting.  We were scurrying about supplying Helge, who is the lead actor, production manager and director, with the proper tools and props.  An event like this deserves media coverage, so Roger was the paparazzi recording the action.

It is interesting that we have had to “tube” two tubeless tires because the slashes were so large that the original plugs would not hold.  In both instances where we had to install tubes, the tubes punctured in the location of the original slash.  Our supposition is that in a major slash, the steel cord is torn; the tube gradually works its way through the tear in the steel cord and punctures.  The solution is to put some sort of patch between the tube and tire.  Ideally, the patch would be made of a material that is thick enough to prevent the wire from puncturing the tube.  The best approach, however, would be not to have the puncture in the first place, to run slower and keep the tires at higher pressures, making it more difficult for sharp rocks to pierce the tire and use the rim as an anvil.

With the flat fixed, we proceeded through a number of towns, each with a slightly different character. In one town, Helge was videotaping a group of children that he persuaded to dance for him.  They watched his video, squealing with delight asking for more.  Some of the nearby parents were amused, others were concerned.  In the end, the town loved Helge – he was the news event of the day.


Yesterday, we saw a few camels – today we’ve seen hundreds.  Virtually all of them are doing the same thing camels do in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan or Turkmenistan.  They are eating or walking, but they are not doing anything productive, and we have not been offered them on a menu.  Why do people keep camels?  What do they do?  I still don’t understand it.


The day wore on, and we were all getting tired.  I fell in the sand twice and was forced off the road by a truck I was passing, sideswiping some thorn bushes.  But none of this was the problem.  The difficulty I am having is in maintaining concentration while looking ahead for sandy patches and in holding the handlebars tight enough in sand or heavy gravel.  There is always a best “line” through the road.  I seem to pick the ones that aren’t quite so good!

By the time we reached Moyale at the Ethiopian border we were exhausted.  Our choice was either to camp in town (no hyenas but a lot of gawkers) or stay at a hotel that web reviews described as having the “smelliest toilets in all of Africa.”  But a third option presented itself when a man along the road suggested a newly built hotel.  It was less than 100 yards away from the largest mosque in town and was clearly an important part of the local Islamic community.  They gave us the best rooms in the hotel, facing the mosque on the fourth floor (no elevator).  The rooms were like other places we have stayed — about 12’ by 12’, with the shower having the same electrocution device.  But the room was clean, a welcome relief after a full day of riding a challenging dirt road. With the exception of the rhino road, this was the best day so far for challenging and exciting riding.

We took a short walk outside.  A loudspeaker from one of the Islamic buildings was blasting, dispensing advice in a revival style about how to sleep better. I wanted to suggest that if he turned his volume down a little bit maybe those who had already fallen asleep could sleep a little more soundly.

On July 7th promptly at 4:00 am, there was a call to prayer, and at 5:00 am there was a more detailed prayer (click to hear part of it) from the minaret of the mosque a few hundred feet from the hotel.  Over the same loudspeaker, the imam led a call-and-response prayer involving the congregation.  In all, this was several hours of broadcasting.

We had the bikes packed and ready to cross the border into Ethiopia when we found out from a local travel agent that we could no longer get a visa to enter Ethiopia at the border.  The only places to obtain a visa now are at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington or Nairobi or at the airport in Addis Ababa.  There were no attractive options, and in the back of our minds we were thinking that perhaps we had been set up.  It would be a three-day run back to Nairobi by car (we certainly wouldn’t do it on a motorcycle) to get the visas.  It would perhaps involve a wait and then a three-day ride back to the border.  None of us had an appetite for that.  The owner of the hotel where we were staying lives in Nairobi and arranged for us to charter an airplane.  So we left the bikes packed and exported them into Ethiopia, covered them up and paid a guard to watch the bikes around the clock with his AK-47.  The plan was to take a plane into Nairobi and check out of Kenya, then take a regular commercial flight to Addis Ababa and check in to Ethiopia at the airport.

We were driven to a small dirt airfield where our charter plane arrived.


They pulled 30 gallons of fuel in jerry cans out of the baggage area and poured it into the wing, filtering it through some cloth fabric, in order to have enough fuel for the trip back.


It was a tight fit for all of us with our baggage.  The plane used the full runway and labored to climb.  Inspection of the instrument panel showed that the plane was equipped with exactly the same GPS as I have on my motorcycle.

On the way back to Nairobi, we flew over the road we had just driven.  It didn’t look any better from the air than it did from the ground:


As we entered Nairobi, we flew over thousands of acres of greenhouses that supply cut flowers to the world’s flower markets, particularly to fulfill the demands of smooth-talking Casanovas in Amsterdam and the UK.


We were met at the airport by Yahya Khalif, one of Mohammad Khalif’s sixteen children (he has twelve sons and four daughters).  Yahya is a delightful young man and enlightened us about what it was like to have 11 brothers, with whom he works every day, and four sisters.  The family includes four wives living in two compounds.  The family gets together once a week for dinner.  He spoke adoringly of his brothers and sisters.  We had the opportunity to meet three of his brothers.  They were all thoughtful, attractive and exceedingly courteous.  Yahya is in his early 20’s and has only one wife and two children.  I asked him if he would eventually have others wives and he said, “Of course.”  He said that his wife would be supportive and would undoubtedly be heavily involved in planning the second wedding.  There is no competition among the wives – they all enjoy being part of a big happy family.  The sons work in the family enterprises, each of them having a defined role.  The eldest son, who is in his early 30’s, has the most important leadership position among the sons.  We were grateful to them for helping us get out of the visa mess.  I hope we can return the favor and have them visit the States.


Yahya dropped us off at the international airport in Nairobi, and late that night we caught the plane to Addis Ababa, where we stood in a two-hour line to get our visas.  The Khalifs arranged for a car to meet us at the airport and drive us directly back to the border to pick up our motorcycles, but for a number of reasons, we were unable to connect with our driver.  We checked into a hotel and picked up the driver the next morning.

We had lunch on the road.  An hour before nightfall the car broke down.  We flagged down a minibus full of people and Helge struck a deal with the driver as follows:  the driver would empty his bus of passengers at the next village; Helge would buy him a spare tire, pay for a permit allowing him to drive to the Kenya border, and pay for gas plus a fee.  So within two hours of the breakdown we were once again on our way south to the Kenya border.  I had purchased a large bag of M&M’s that I intended to share, but instead I used it as a pillow as we bounced down the road.  We drove until well after midnight, found a motel, slept for four hours, then continued on to the border.  The driver was fantastic; he handled the minibus with five rows of seats as though it was a Ferrari.  We cleared the motorcycles through customs, rode 500 kilometers arriving at nightfall and stayed at a fancy resort by a large lake.


At the Sudanese embassy in Nairobi and at the Kenya Ethiopian border we met two couples riding “two-up.”  They are spending 5½ months on a motorcycle trip from Cape Town all the way up through Europe.  We had a marvelous conversation with them.  All of us were amazed that they are able to traverse the 600 mile dirt road from hell riding “two-up.”


The next morning we got a late start and drove to Addis Ababa in the rain.  There is a summit meeting of African nations going on this week in Addis Ababa, so the hotel situation is tight.  We checked into the Sheraton, but they could only assure us of one night unless there are cancellations.

Even though the visa faux pas in Ethiopia was frustrating, fatiguing and moderately expensive, it only cost us two extra days, and we had an idle day built into our original schedule.  The visa office that Helge had used told us we could get the visas into Ethiopia at the border and that it was not necessary to get them in advance.  A good rule for the future is to obtain visas for all politically unstable countries ahead of time, and if for some reason you cannot get them in advance, consider changing the route.  For us, it was necessary to go through Ethiopia because the alternative was southern Sudan or Somalia – this is a pretty tough neighborhood.



Isiolo, Kenya to the border of Ethiopia
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