26 5 / 2014

Suzi is gone.  Just like that, in the shocking finality of three little words, so everything has changed.  No warm-up, no warning, no hint as to what was to come.  Just stupefying shock confronting me right there very early one Thursday morning.  I’d got up for work at quarter past 5 (as is now my habit having rejoined the world of paid employment) and by 5.40am I was more or less ready to leave the flat and just down to the final few stages of getting ready.  My iPod was on shuffle and as I stood there in front of the bathroom mirror in my leathers, brushing my teeth, a very special song came on.  Instantly I found myself transported back to a moment of such complete and utter delicious happiness that to contain it was impossible and before I knew it, I was bobbing my head along to the music like a Churchill dog over a speedbump,  grinning away to myself in a crazy, happy, silent disco for one.  You see, I wasn’t in South East London any more, I was on the Stelvio pass in Italy, laughing to myself as I noticed that my mascot Donkey appeared to be throwing himself over the side of the bike with reckless abandon each time Suzi leant into a switchback.  Donkey is naturally blessed with a permanent grin and so seeing this little fellow practically throwing himself overboard like this with such infectious enthusiasm made me laugh – that and the way that Suzi appeared to be registering her disapproval at his juvenile decadence by groaning and shuddering in perfect tandem.   It was relatively early on in the trip at this stage but already it was clear that Suzi, being something of an older lady, had a keen sense of duty and decorum and found Donkey’s youthful exuberance somewhat trying.  It was hard not to be amused by this unlikely duo on that perfect sunny day, lungs full of crisp mountain air and souls full of happiness, taking on switchback after switchback as though they would go on forever.

After a few heavenly minutes of daydreaming, the track came to an end, the mountains faded away and I returned to the bathroom and the obligations of my morning.  With 2 sturdy “clomps”, I slotted my feet into my sturdy biking boots and was  just about to to pull open the front door, when I suddenly remembered that one of Suzi’s wing mirrors had come a little loose the day before.  Congratulating myself for remembering, I picked up my pocketsized adjustable spanner and left the flat, stomped up the side steps and with my left hand, opened the side gate that leads out onto the driveway where Suzi is parked.  Taking several strides out onto the drive, my right hand holding the small spanner held aloft, ready for action, I stopped dead in my tracks.  Something in the picture before me was wrong.  It was like I was in a real life scene of that Victorian parlour game where you are shown a box of random objects – one is taken away and you have to name what it is.  Except I couldn’t understand what I was seeing.  The wheelie bins had been moved all over the drive and nothing was where it usually was.  And Suzi was gone. Suzi was not where I left her.  In fact, she was no-where to be seen.  And there I stood, tiny spanner still held aloft, fixed there frozen like an oversized Bob the Builder in the woefully ironic “Can he fix it?” pose as my brain refused to compute the meaning of this empty space where Suzi should have been.

And then, without warning, I suddenly understood.  With a lurch of sickening horror, I dropped the spanner and raced over to where the chunky chain I’d used to lock her up with was still hanging from the wall anchor.  Praying to myself that the thing was still locked and that this was some sort of amnesia, that perhaps I had left her at work last and had somehow magically forgotten, I picked up the padlock in my hands, my heart in my mouth.  It was still locked.  I breathed out hard and took a few deep gulps of air, so far from understanding but wanting to believe this was just a lapse of memory, that my daydreaming of only a few moments ago had made me forgetful of whatever I had done with the bike the night before, that it was all going to be OK.  But then I spotted the glint of jagged, freshly cut metal further around the chain and once again, the now undeniable horror consumed me.  “No, no, no, no” I repeated as I ran the broken links through my hands and felt the sharp new edges with my fingers.  “No, no, no, no, no” was all I could say as a crushing force took hold of my temples and the whole world began to shake.

I ran back towards the gate, my legs struggling to hold my tremoring body upright and almost giving out from beneath me as I leapt down both steps at once.  It had become very difficult all of a sudden to breathe and my throat had tightened fast.  My hand was shaking too violently to get my key in the door at first, but after several attempts I managed it and raced towards my laptop.  I needed to ring the police but had no idea what number to ring, so as I waited for my laptop to load up with interminable slowness and then, momentarily unable to unleash the surging adrenalin any more through motion, huge wracking sobs began to spill out of me as hot tears flooded my face.  I crumpled down onto a chair, completely overwhelmed and consumed by shock, grief and loss, utterly devastated.

The police turned up within 20 minutes and took a statement as I continued to struggle to accept or understand what had happened.  How could it be that I could have travelled with Suzi for a year through Africa, encountering riots, banditry, bribery and shocking poverty, finding myself forced into situations where I’ve had to leave her  completely unattended and packed up to the hilt with all my possessions and never once seeing anything but respectful curiosity and care towards the bike, then come back to London only to have her stolen within a fortnight?   How could I even begin to understand what that meant?  And why, of all the bikes in London, would any thief go to the trouble of cutting through metal to steal her?  After all, to the average eye she is nothing but an elderly, sun stained, battered and bruised old lady of a bike.  Her beauty isn’t of the obvious, superficial kind, but an altogether more subtle one that only age and thousands of miles of (mis)adventure can bestow, and to a depth that only I can understand.  No-one could look at something as mundane as her tired old exhaust pipe and remember with a smile and a cringe the moment in Malawi that I looked on in mute horror from the confines of my guesthouse bedroom as the owner’s little daughter stole her chance to furtively poke a curious index finger up Suzi’s exhaust pipe, just moments after I’d parked up.  (I’m happy to report she wasn’t burnt, by some miracle).  Nor could anyone but me ever stand on Suzi’s footpegs and immediately grin at the memory of riding offroad along a dirt track through a small village in Zambia as a middle aged man in a once white ragged T-shirt and broad straw hat punched the air and cried in delight as I rode past, nodding at him and tooting the horn with an equally delighted laugh.  He only had 3 teeth in his head but he knew how to make each one count as I’ve never seen it – his smile was such an unforgettable picture of excitement and joy.

That was the great thing about Suzi.  She wasn’t showy in a dominating, big, beefcake 1200cc GS kind of a way.  She was just enough, no more but definitely no less, capable of bringing great excitement, inspiration and a little sprinkling of magic into the lives of so many people we met along the way, not least mine.  And if you haven’t worked it out already, she was more real to me than any “inanimate” object I’ve ever known, my trusty companion who helped me escape from numerous, very memorable dodgy and downright dangerous situations along the way, never once letting me down when I needed her (which was all the time).  I needed her not just as a piece of machinery, a getaway vehicle, but also as a friend and confidant in the way that, if you’ve ever seen the film Cast Away, the Tom Hanks character had his Wilson.  I was completely alone and often really scared, nervous, tired and uncertain, so she became the friend I needed (along with Donkey of course) to get me through those times, to talk to, to seek reassurance from and to give me the courage to continue.  I loved her.

So that’s it.  Back to three most unwelcome little words.  Suzi is gone.  You might think that I’d be really angry at whoever has taken her, but you know whats strange?  My anger isn’t directed that strongly at the thieves.  No, they are the really sad acts here, because what kind of completely desperate low-life steals from someone – especially something as personal as a motorbike (and especially from a girl)?  That’s not the behaviour of a real man, but a cowardly shell of a person who has completely and utterly missed the point of life.  I pity them.  Instead, I’m afraid to say that right here, right now, my anger is directed firmly at the police.  During this whole process, the best I’ve seen from them so far is a lethargic indifference (“check eBay and Gumtree, its full of stolen stuff” – er, isn’t that YOUR job?? - “there’s nothing we can do” – no, you’ve got that sentence confused with “we are doing nothing”) to at worst, mocking sarcasm (“we can’t just send out all our officers to spend all their time looking for your bike you know”).  But beyond this, what has made me the most angry is the staggering incompetence that I have been met with.  Two days after the theft, I was sent a letter explaining to me that the case has been closed (!) as there is no CCTV footage of the criminals, no witnesses and no fingerprint evidence, but that I should be comforted to know that should Suzi be ridden through an ANPR camera (that’s Automatic Number Plate Recognition to you and me), a message will instantly be generated on their systems. 

Spotting the obvious flaw in this system, I subsequently rang the police and asked what would happen if the thief removed the original numberplates.  “er….well then the bike won’t be spotted”, the policeman explained.  Not such a brilliant system after all then, it would seem.  “So lets assume my bike no longer has her original plates on then”, I suggested, “what happens if you turn up somewhere and find a load of stolen bikes, how will you know if my bike is there?”  “Ah well we have experts who can look at VIN numbers on the frames and things”, the policeman explained.  Deciding to leave nothing to chance, I decided to check another detail.  “So, given you know my bike’s Reg number, can I assume you have downloaded all the relevant details like her VIN number from the DVLA?”, I asked.  “Er….no”, the policeman replied.  I was aghast.  “So, I’d be right in thinking you don’t have my bike’s VIN number?  And therefore wouldn’t have a chance of identifying her even if you did find her?”, I said, horrified to have tripped over this fact.  “Er….yes”, he replied.  There was a brief pause. “But you can send those details in if you like and we can put them on file”, he offered somewhat lamely.  HOW something as basic as this fact finding wasn’t established with me at the outset, I will never know or understand, but again this all comes back to the attitude that in the police’s view, it’s a hopeless case anyway.  And I’ve got insurance haven’t I, so there’s no harm done?  After all, its “only a bike”. 

The only moment where the police have seemed at all animated is when they check (almost every phone call) that I have signed up to the vehicle recovery scheme.  I was pretty amazed to hear about this.  It was explained to me by the police that often a stolen bike is found but by the time the police get there, its been stolen by someone else.  But, praise be, for only £300 the police can make sure that if the bike is found, an officer waits with it until the recovery service arrives and it is taken back to a secure pound.  Now of course, I’ll do anything to get my bike back, so I signed up to this remarkable scheme quicker than you can say “protection racket”.  Curious, eh?

If that wasn’t enough to nark me right off, the last gem I’ve heard from the police all too frequently of late is that plenty of bikes are taken out of the country within 24 hours and disappear into Eastern Europe, “and there’s nothing we can do if that’s the case”.  How any vaguely intelligent person can make this assertion leaves me (almost) speechless.  Is it humanly impossible to inspect the contents of vans exiting the country and ask to see some kind of proof of ownership of the motorbikes inside?  Of course not – after all, vehicle checks happen on the way in the country, so whats the difference?  Well, I’d suggest that the government and therefore the police only really care when there’s a risk of illegal immigration or lost tax revenue, so a stolen bike leaving the country doesn’t bother them much at all.  Never mind the fact that, aside from the thousands of decent people affected by this wave of crime each year, when you sit down and bother adding it up, the stolen motorbike market in the UK is worth a massive c£100m.  One can only assume that those in power believe that all this money is being donated to a “Cello lessons for the Disadvantaged” fund or some such in Big Society Britain.  Otherwise wouldn’t more basic checks and balances such as border searches and social media surveillance be put in place to stop this free-for-all from happening every day across the country? 

So now two things are clear – Suzi is gone and the Police have closed the case.  And in fact, there’s a third to add to the known known.  Crying about losing Suzi is not going to help me find her again (if it was, she’d definitely be back with me by now).  Therefore, I have a choice.  I could either take the easy route and give up now, acknowledging how difficult it might be to find her, that she may already be somewhere in Eastern Europe and may never be seen again.  I could try to forget her and pretend that I never cared, that she was always just a heap of metal and plastic; that this doesn’t really matter and that if out of nothing other than self-preservation, its time to move on.  But I can’t do that.  It would be the most horrible betrayal of Suzi herself and everything that this Africa trip stood for and I owe it to too many people to keep searching until she is found.  Because if there’s one thing that my trip showed me time and time again, its this:  we are only here in this life for the briefest of flashes and if you don’t stand up and fight for the people you love and the things you believe in while you’re here, then what on earth do you stand for?    

I guess the one positive thing about this situation so far is how incredibly kind people have been in trying to help her.  Already I’ve had several sightings of her in the local area by complete strangers (sadly neither sighting turned out to be Suzi), a great deal of support from my friends in the biking and overlanding community as well as all those who read the blog.  Suzuki are advertising Suzi’s disappearance on the front banner of their Girl Torque website https://www.suzuki-gb.co.uk/mx/my-suzuki/girl-torque/and Trail Bike Magazine have the story on the front page of their website http://www.trailbikemag.com/   - all of which is a great way to get the word (and photo!) out there.  I’ll also be on BikerFM this Wednesday sharing some of my best stories of our adventures and appealing for more people to help.  If you’d also like to help and are on Facebook, then please “Like” and “share” my SuzisGoneWalkabout page as much as possible to get more people looking out for her – I need this to go viral!  I believe this is the best way of finding her if she is in the UK so every “share” really, realy helps.  If you have any other ideas, please do let me know at clairegoesbikeabout@gmail.com – I’m open to (almost!) anything.

In the meantime, I leave you with a few of her basic details and some of her best photos from our adventures.  I just hope that one day, Suzi will be found and perhaps when she is ready, we’ll be able to head out again, the three of us reunited for another adventure.  All I know is, whatever way we go, I don’t think I’ll be able to resist heading back through Italy to the Stelvio Pass to relive some of that delicious laughter that we knew that late Autumn day.

Come back soon, Suzi.

 Reg: RO56 ENF

Unique, distinguishing features:
- very unusual large, 17 litre slightly yellowed see-through plastic Safari fuel tank
- blue Acerbis hand guards 
- Fatbars (chunky handlebars) with foam handgrips tightened on with metal wire, a Garmin sat nav bracket in the middle of the bars. The bars have been raised by 2 copper looking bar raisers.
- non-standard red “on/off” switch fitted to the handlebars 
- ignition key is on the left hand side of the bike underneath the handlebars next to the top of the left fork (non-standard)
- kick start (non-standard)
- if you duck down in the middle of the bike, you’ll see two bits of matt black metal strips (suspension linkages) with the words “Lust Racing” in white and red lettering
- if you look at the right hand side of the engine, there is a round metal discs on the engine casing with the word “B&B” engraved onto it. 
- white metal ammo case with faded union jack sticker fitted above the exhaust
- metal plate glued to the exhaust (its a heat shield for soft luggage) with the words “Giant Loop” on it
- rear luggage rack
- metal bash plate
- mismatching wing mirors (left is black round mirror, right is rusty chrome rectangular one)
- large black windscreen (non-standard)

26 5 / 2014

24 12 / 2013

Merry Christmas to you all!  Donkey was keen to share his Christmas story with you all, so here it is below.  If you’ve actually come to this website for the first time and are looking for the “normal” African stuff, please just keep scrolling down or look at “older entries” - they are all there!

I hope you enjoy Donkey’s story.  As ever, his tales are based around true events and for some of you diehard readers, the Ethiopian boy who Donkey mentions may sound familiar from my blogs roughly a year ago when I first entered Ethiopia.  Unfortunately what Donkey says is true, our friend is still very sick and the fantastic charity who we’d hoped might be able to operate on him are so busy, they haven’t been able to get around to him yet.  We keep sending them all his latest ECGs, bloods and various test info but alas its not been his turn yet.  Time isn’t on his side though as his condition is serious and nearly one year on, I’m starting to think that a Plan B might be the next best option.  

We need to raise $5000 (very roughly £3500) if we are going to look at paying for this operation to be done in Ethiopia, so please bear with me as I start to think about how this can be done sensibly, practically and effectively.  I do have some good contacts in Ethiopia, not least a great Cardiologist, which is a good start, but clearly there are some pieces left to work out.

This is definitely the ultimate in unfinished business and it means a massive amount to me to help Getahun so watch this space. In the meantime, do let me know (contact details are all on the “contact me” tab) if you have any ideas or suggestions of how to help, or indeed if you would be prepared to donate towards this surgery.  

Many thanks and happy Christmas to you all

Claire xx

24 12 / 2013

It was a quarter to midnight on a cold, crisp Christmas Eve night in Scotland as large white snowflakes tumbled thick and fast from a silent sky.  Like all good boys and girls, Donkey should have long since been tucked up in bed, fast asleep, dreaming of all the exciting things that Christmas Day would bring.  But he wasn’t.  Instead he had been very busy all evening making his first ever batch of mince pies especially for Father Christmas and was quite determined to stay up and give them to him himself. 

Claire had gone to bed over an hour ago and had encouraged Donkey to do the same, not least because he had a terrible cold and needed his rest.  But Donkey was adamant that he should stay up and most certainly in denial about his cold.  “Doh, Claire” he protested with his nose all asnuffle, “I am dot going to bed, I have dot got a cold!”, he said, before sneezing so violently that he had blasted half of the loose pieces of Claire’s 1500 piece jigsaw puzzle into the blazing log fire, only to be consumed by flames and lost forever.  Fortunately for Donkey, Claire loved her little friend enough to see the funny side of it (but only just).

At last the clock struck 12am and Donkey’s little heart beat faster and faster with excitement at the prospect of Father Christmas appearing down the chimney at any moment.  But midnight came and went, as did half past, one o’clock and then two, with no sign of even the slightest hint of an arrival.  By 3 o’clock, Donkey had drifted off into a gentle doze, when all of a sudden, there was a gentle knock at the back door.  Donkey awoke with a start and peeped out from underneath the blanket, hardly daring to move, unsure what on earth would be making that noise at this time of night.  Then the knock came again, but this time accompanied by a deep man’s voice calling “Donkey my little friend, its freezing out here - let me in, its Father Christmas!”.

With enormous excitement, Donkey leapt off the sofa straight into his slippers and ran over to the back door.  In strode Father Christmas, looking just as splendid as Donkey remembered in his beautiful bright red suit, bushy white beard and great big smile.  Donkey was in such awe that for a moment he forgot himself, but then remembered about the mince pies and ran back over the sofa for them.  Picking up the plate, he proudly held them out towards the great man and beaming his own great big smile, he announced, “Father Christmas, I made these specially for y….for yo….yo……ATHISHOO!!!”    He’d done it again – but this time he’d sneezed right over the mince pies!

At this, Father Christmas roared with laughter most heartily until he looked down and noticed that Donkey was still holding out the plate of pies for him and looking up at him most expectantly, completely unaware of what he had done and why these delicious treats may not be quite so tempting now as they once were.   Father Christmas had some fast talking to do.

“Ah now, my little friend”, he began, “Sad news.  My wife, Mary, has told me that I have to cut back on all the pies.  My BMI is through the roof apparently – I can’t even fit down the chimneys any more as you can see, that’s why I’m having to use the back door -so she’s insisted that this year, I must only snack on the carrots that get left out for the reindeer.  No more pies for me”, he said, tapping his rotund tum with his hand.  At this Donkey’s head hung very low as he registered this crushing disappointment.  This wouldn’t do at all.  Then Father Christmas had an idea.  “Ah, but wait, do you know who absolutely LOVES a mince pie, Donkey?”, Father Christmas asked his little friend.  Donkey shook his head sorrowfully.  “Why, of course, its Rudolf!  Not many people know that but they are his absolute favourite!  He’s only allowed one a year as a special treat but I’d say these are the best we’ve seen by far!  Do you think he could have one Donkey?”.  At this, Donkey couldn’t believe his ears as he beamed with pride.  He eagerly nodded his head and offered up the plate once again.  Father Christmas selected one with a wry chuckle and carefully placed it in his pocket.        

“Now Donkey”, said the big man as he moved to take a seat.  “Sit with me a moment.”  Donkey scrambled back up onto the sofa beside him and stared at him adoringly.  “This year, all the elves have told me what a very good Donkey you’ve been, travelling through Africa with Claire, being so terribly brave and making friends with all kinds of new people.   We think you deserve a very special present.  So what would you like the best?  A pair of skates perhaps, or a shiny new sledge?”.   Donkey shook his head.  “Doh thank you Father Christmas”, he replied, “I have an old sledge that I share with my friend Deddis the Hare but I crashed it the other day and landed headfirst in a giant heap of sdow, that’s how I ended up with this cold”, he explained with a sorry sniff.

“Oh dear”, replied Father Christmas with a warm smile.  “Perhaps this will do the trick”, he said, showering Donkey with a small pinch of sparkling dust that he had drawn from his pocket.  Instantly, Donkey felt as good as new – his cold was all gone!  “Jeepers creepers, that’s astonishing!” Donkey declared, truly amazed by what had just happened.  What a surprising evening this was turning out to be!  Father Christmas chuckled to himself once again and asked Donkey what gift he would like.  Donkey thought very hard for a moment.  “There is one thing”, he began, a little unsure of himself.  “Excellent, excellent”, cried Father Christmas, excited to know Donkey’s wish.  “What is it, young Donkey?”, he asked keenly. 

“Well, you see, the thing is Father Christmas, the thing I want most in the world isn’t exactly for me, but it would make me more happy than you can possibly ever imagine.  You see, its for a boy I met in Ethiopia called Getahun.  He’s really nice and a great friend of mine, but the thing is you see he’s not very well.  He’s got a big problem with his heart and Claire and I have been trying to help him.  He hasn’t got the money for the operation that he needs so Claire has been trying to get a special charity to help him, but its been a year since we tried and they have been so busy, they still don’t know if they can help.  I’ve emptied out my piggy bank and I’ve only got 67pence and his operation costs £3500, so that means that…..”   Donkey tailed off as he struggled to do the mental maths in his head.  “Well that means that we’re still very short of money.  But he’s my friend you see and I don’t know what to do.  And I have to do something or he probably won’t be here for next Christmas.  Except now I’m wondering if maybe some of that magical dust in your pocket might make my friend better like it did with my cold?” he asked hopefully.

Father Christmas had been listening to Donkey’s story very carefully and was now looking most thoughtful indeed.  He stroked his beard very slowly as he thought, and thought, and thought.  After what seemed like a very long time, he began to speak.  “My dear Donkey, I do of course know Getahun because he’s one of the other boys and girls on my rounds and I know how sick he is.  But sadly his heart problem is a bit of a big job for my magic dust – that’s only good for coughs and colds and scraped knees I’m afraid.  What I think you need is two things.”  Donkey drew nearer to hear these suggestions.  “The first, is hope.  You have to keep hoping that your charity will be able to help Getahun out and make sure that you do all you can to help his case.  Hope is a very powerful thing Donkey as I believe you already know, so never forget that.  However”, he said, with a dramatic pause, easing himself back onto a thick pile of cushions, “the other thing you need is a cracking Plan B!” he said with an easy grin.  “And by that, I mean you might want to think about raising the rest of the money somehow so that you can buy Getahun the operation just in case the charity can’t help for any reason.  Make your own luck!”  he suggested with a smile. 

Donkey sat for a moment and thought about what Father Christmas had said.  “I could do a cake sale!” he cried, all of a sudden full of inspiration.  “Fantastic idea, Donkey, yes that’s the stuff, get thinking and see what you can do.  You’ve so many friends, I bet if you really thought about it you could get the money raised with a bit of their help and ideas in no time!”  replied Father Christmas encouragingly.  “And also, what about selling some of your stories of your adventures?  I bet some people would pay to read those?  Just a thought” he added, with a mischievious twinkle in his eye.  And with that, he heaved himself up off the sofa and paced his way back over to the back door to where his great big stack of presents lay.  Rummaging around in the enormous bag, he pulled out two boxes.  The first he shook noisily and said, “This one’s a present for Claire, a new puzzle….I’ve a feeling she might be in need of a new one”, handing it over with a conspiratorial wink to a slightly bashful Donkey.  The second, a far bigger parcel, beautifully wrapped in shiny red paper, he handed over to Donkey with great ceremony, adding,  “Now I know you’ve said that you don’t want any presents Donkey, but I really think you deserve something special.”   Donkey was quite thrilled by how beautiful this parcel looked and was almost lost for words. 

“Thank you very much Father Christmas and thank you for coming to see me!  I’ll remember what you told me and I can’t wait to open my present in the morning”, he said, reaching up to give the man a big hug.  Father Christmas knelt down and gave his little friend a squeeze.  “Merry Christmas Donkey and careful how you go on that sledge in future!” he said with a chuckle.  Donkey waved him goodbye and closed the door, all of a sudden feeling terribly tired.  He had such a lot to be getting on with!  But for now, it was time to tuck up into bed, ready at last for a good night’s sleep.     

24 12 / 2013

Donkey with his plate of mince pies

Donkey with his plate of mince pies

23 9 / 2013

By the end of July, I’d finished work with Microloan and had begun the final leg of my journey to Capetown.  I’d deliberated for a long time over what route I should take and had seriously considered heading South from Malawi into Mozambique to explore that vast, volatile and relatively undiscovered country of Portuguese dialect and Latin temperament.  Though my interest had been piqued by the uniformly negative, accepted truths about the difficulties of travelling through Mozambique, including monstrous potholes, high prices, impossible bureaucracy, hostile locals and warring rebels, with the only saving grace reported to be the beauty of her diving sites, in the end I’d decided to head West instead.  For me, the far greater pull of curiosity lay in discovering Zimbabwe, a country synonymous with the greatest failure in Africa, a once most powerful, productive country marched to complete economic and social ruin by a despotic octogenarian still in power today.  I would only have a week to discover something of the spirit of this complex country and by an unavoidable coincidence, this week would collide with the highly controversial Zimbabwean Presidential elections.   Given the appalling track record of violence at previous elections, at first I feared that I might be putting myself in unnecessary danger by visiting at such a time, but after contacting some locals in Harare, I was assured that events were expected to proceed peacefully.   I put my fears to one side and headed West.

 It took several days to travel from Lilongwe in Malawi, across Zambia over towards my border post of choice at Lake Kariba.  It’d be suggested that this might be a much better option than the main border post at Chirundu, some 65kms East of Kariba, as Chirundu took all the major trucking traffic and the chances of very long queues and general hassle would be far greater there.   Indeed after a memorable night’s camping at the Eagle’s Rest campsite on the Zambian side of Lake Kariba, surrounded by signs of “beware of the Hippos!” and disturbed by a violent storm in the wee small hours,  I promptly arrived at the quiet Kariba border post on the morning of 30th July.   Having gone through all the necessary and lengthy procedures on the Zambian side, I collected my gate pass, mounted up and rode along to the machine gun toting soldier at the border gate.  The guard walked over and took the pass from my hand. “You go to Harare alone?” he asked me, clearly a little surprised to see a girl alone on a motorbike.  “Yes!” I replied with a grin that I hoped was large enough to mask my spiking nerves at what might lie ahead of me and create a little of the confidence that I would certainly need.   The man grinned back with a large white smile.  “You are very brave!” he said.  “Oh yes!” I called back with a cheeky smile, curling my heavily jacketed left arm up in a strong man arm pose.   With that, the soldier burst out laughing, clipped his ankles together and with a smart salute, waved me on through the gate.   Laughing back and so grateful for this moment of light-heartedness, I waved my farewell and set off down the slaloming road towards the no-mans land of the Kariba dam.

The single track road was thickly bound with rolls of barbed wire, which after a few minutes of enforced tunnel vision, opened out onto a narrow road right across the Kariba dam wall – on one side, a massive expanse of perfect blue water, on the other a sheer,  steep drop down into the gorge of the Zambezi river.  It was a stunning scene of natural beauty harnessed by a gigantic feat of human engineering - this is one of the largest dams in the world.  Much as I’ve never particularly been interested in concrete structures, the enormity of this construction was hard to overlook.  The temptation to stop to take a photo was huge, but I was very aware of being watched and was loathed to do anything to unnecessarily provoke any attention.   Instead, I slowly but steadily proceeded along the dam wall and up the winding road towards the Zimbabwean border post.  

Much as the traffic on this side of the border was also light, the process was far from swift.  Not only was the paperwork lengthy, but all instructions by the border guard had to be repeated several times as I struggled to hear him over the noise blaring from the large, wall mounted flat screen TV, airing an episode from some kind of bizarre hybrid US crime drama inspired by both CSI Miami and the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.   I had to fill out many forms both for myself and the bike so perhaps it was in tackling this vast stack of papers that I failed to give one important box the attention it deserved.   Alas the consequences of my haste soon manifested themselves.   The border guard was checking through one of my entry/exit papers, when his pen rested next to my response to the line item: “Occupation”, which I had given as “writer”.   The guard looked at me searchingly.  “You say you are a writer”, he accused.  I gulped, suddenly realising my error.  He went on.  “What kind of writer are you?” he demanded.  “Shit”, I thought, knowing immediately that I should have claimed to be a teacher or a doctor or in fact anything other than what I am - I should have known that it would raise suspicions.  Given Zimbabwe isn’t exactly famed for its tourist industry these days and with a highly scrutinised election just days away, me presenting myself as a writer from the UK would of course be viewed with high suspicion, not least as it is illegal in Zimbabwe to express negative views about Mugabe.  I quickly decided that my best bet was my proven fall back in such dodgy situations, which was to bluster on through in my “dippy/naive tourist” mode and hope for the best.  I took a deep breath.  “Ah yes!” I confirmed enthusiastically, “I am a writer….of children’s stories!  And I’m here for a wonderful holiday to relax and see your beautiful country!”,  I crashed on with Donkey-inspired cheer, trying my best to mask my fear and gloss over my rather flawed cover story.  

The guard regarded me coolly.  “OK”, he said slowly and unsmilingly, never breaking his gaze on me.  “But you must not do any of your writing here”,  he commanded.   He then proceeded through the rest of the document, the one which listed my intended date of exit and border post.   Once all my paperwork had been checked and with my mind still quietly racing, my documents were stamped and just as I thought I’d finally be able to get out of there unscathed, the guard issued me with one final instruction.  “You must take this pass here and go to see Interpol, they are behind this building”.   I had no idea if this was standard procedure or not for Zimbabwe but this was certainly a first for my African crossings.  As I headed out of the main building to find the Interpol office, I was quite certain that I was about to be cross-examined in a dark room for hours about my journalistic intentions and most probably never seen again.  Suffice to say that after a patchy night’s sleep, my “writer” gaffe and the growing fear that there might be someone waiting for me at my chosen exit border, I was feeling more than a little paranoid.  However when I went in search of the Interpol “office”, I struggled to find it, so went over to three men jovially sitting in the sun on some old plastic office chairs.  “Excuse me, where is Interpol please?” I asked.  “We are Interpol!” said one of the cheery men, who took my papers and without so much as a passing glance, stamped them with gusto and handed them back.  As I walked back to my bike, ready at last to leave, I couldn’t help but laugh to myself.   Yes, I had made a schoolgirl error with my papers but no-one was about to follow me and no-one would be tracking me.  This wasn’t the set of CSI Miami, it was Zimbabwe and it had far bigger problems on its hands than a bizarre but harmless motorcyclist.  I’d need to be smarter in future but for now, it was time to forget it and move on, fresh and ready to tackle whatever should  come next.

After a 360km ride past an endless patchwork of abandoned, weed littered fields, I eventually came to Harare and stayed there the night, keen to push on the next day towards Mutare.   I wasn’t keen to linger in Harare, in part because the next day was the first day of voting and I thought it best not to be in the capital at that point in case anything did kick off, but also because I had met a guy in Zambia who had told me that his grandparents lived just north of Mutare and would always welcome a passing traveller.  When Adriaan, the young man in question, gave me their address, he mentioned that they lived at Drifters, which immediately rang a bell.  If you’ve read any of my earlier blog posts, you might remember that when I returned to Ethiopia after Christmas, I was reading a book on the plane called “The Last Resort” by Douglas Rogers, all about how Douglas’s parents had tried to protect their backpackers resort called “Drifters” from being taken under Mugabe’s 2002 Land Reform.  In a bizarre twist of fate, Adriaan’s grandparents, the De Klerks, were mentioned in the book as one of the major white farming families who had fled to Drifters for shelter after their farm was taken in 2004 and indeed were now still living in one of the small houses on the site.   Suffice to say, I was really interested to visit them and having been assured that it was OK just to turn up, set off that Wednesday, 31st July from Harare for the 250km ride South. 

Its also perhaps worth mentioning at this point that the weather by now was turning cold – and I mean really cold.  Not just “mulling over the prospect of pulling on a light jersey” cold, I mean “wearing every single item of clothing you’ve packed and still so freezing you can’t feel your hands and are actually shivering” cold.  Unluckily enough for me, Southern Africa was experiencing an atypically cold winter and it wasn’t about to get better.   Riding in this weather was really grim and despite doing my best to embrace the power of positive thought and think of somewhere really hot, I was still freezing cold and consequently far more exhausted after being on the bike after a day’s riding than usual.   You can imagine then how relieved I was after 4.5 long hours in the saddle to finally spot a modest little signpost just 13km North of Mutare for Drifters.  With a noisy “hooray!” in my helmet, I turned off the main road and wound up the track towards Drifters.  At some point it seems that the Rogers lost the battle to save Drifters, which is now being used by some construction workers as a base for the road development project along this stretch.  Realising that I didn’t have a house number or any more precise way of finding the De Klerk house, I asked one of the workers where the De Klerks lived and was pointed to “one of the houses” up the track.  Indeed, it soon transpired that there were 16 houses all spread out throughout the wooded grounds and after a couple of false starts and further enquiries, I finally pulled up outside the right house. 

Spotting an older lady surveying the scene from her armchair on the veranda, I quickly removed my helmet in order to avoid any undue alarm and walked across the grass towards her still fully togged out in my space invader-esque riding suit.  “Hello, is this the De Klerk house?” I asked in my very own “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” moment.  The lady remained in her armchair as she coolly and quickly studied my face before breaking into a broad smile and announcing with what would soon transpire to be her trademark directness, “Yes it is.  But I have no idea who you are”.   I laughed  and reassured her “Quite right, we’ve never met before.  But I did meet your grandson Adriaan two days ago in Zambia, with his wife Laura?  He suggested that if I was passing through this area, I should pop by and say hi.  I hope that’s ok.”  With that, the lady rose from her chair and bounded towards me, giving me a big hug and holding my shoulders tightly with her hands, asked  “Child, my goodness have you come here like this?” (She held up her solitary, lit cigarette, smoke curling into the breeze).  “All on your own, on that motorcycle?”.   “Yes, that’s right, from England”, I replied with a laugh and a nod.  “All that way!” she cried, “My goodness, well, do you have any place to stay tonight?  No of course you don’t, well you must stay here tonight with us, and in the morning I’ll ask my girl to clean that riding suit of yours, you’re filthy and we can’t have you leaving here like that, its not decent!  So in that case you’ll stay tomorrow night as well as it’ll take a while for that to dry.  Now, come with me, I’ll get you a cup of tea and some rusks, and I’ll introduce you to the old man, he’ll not believe this”.  (“old man” is what she very affectionately called her husband Piet, who at 83 was only 3 years her senior!).  

With that, Mienkie shuffled off in her tracksuit and slippers, apologising for her lack of “elegance” but citing the cold weather and the prohibitive expense of heating their 2 bedroomed cottage by way of explanation, through the sitting room and into the kitchen, which Piet was just entering from the porch.   The first thing that struck me about Piet is his size – a remarkably tall and well built man despite his age (it later transpired that he had captained the Rhodesian Rugby team in the 1950s!), with a close second being his warm smile and twinkling eyes.  Once Mienkie had related the story of my arrival to him, he stood for a moment quite amazed.  “Well”, he said, “I must say that we are very privileged to have you come to stay with us”.  This was not the last time that either Piet or Mienkie would say this to me over the two days I stayed with them and on each and every occasion I sincerely countered that the privilege was all mine. 

I wasn’t sure at first whether the subject of their farming history would be a taboo subject or not, but indeed it soon arose over that first cup of tea.  Their farm, Kondozi, was developed from scratch by Piet, a South African by birth, and it had once employed 6,000 people from the local area.  At 3000 hectares, Kondozi had been one of the major suppliers of all kinds of baby corn, mange tout and green beans for Tesco and Sainsburys in the UK and was originally earmarked as being exempt from the Land Reforms of 2002 as it was an export producer, but in the end greed overtook reason and in 2004 Piet and Mienkie were “chased off the farm” at 2am one night by hundreds of soldiers with water cannons.  Its hard to imagine just how terrifying that event must have been, or how one could possibly accept such an epic theft, to have all that you have worked for and developed for decades taken from you by people who have no idea at the very least how to farm the assets they have taken, to watch everything you created turned to ruin. 

“But the worst part”, Mienkie explained “is not the money or the farm.  Those are just things really, they don’t matter.  The worst part is that I had my family stolen from me, my children and my grandchildren.  My boys used to live and work on the farm, but I hardly get to see them now, 3 of my 4 boys have left Zimbabwe, what’s left for them here now?  Farming is gone, its never coming back like it was.”  As I sat listening to Piet and Mienkie speak, it was hard not to feel shocked and appalled.  I wondered how it was that they hadn’t become consumed by bitterness or anger, instead balancing an understandable degree of frustration and resentment with a thankfulness and respect for what they still do have (namely each other, their friends and their family, albeit not as close as they would have liked).   Mienkie pointed my attention to the wall.  “Do you see that plaque there?  It says ““Debet esse parvus equus” , which means “there has to be a pony”. Do you know what that refers to?”, she asked.  I shook my head.  Mienkie explained that this was a quote that was always on Ronald Reagan’s desk.  It relates to a story that he often loved to tell about two brothers, one an incurable optimist, the other an incurable pessimist.  The boys were taken to a doctor by their parents as they were worried about their boys’ extreme personalities.  First the doctor tried to cure the pessimist, so took him to a room with a big mountain of toys.  Immediately the boy started to cry.  When asked why, the boy replied “But if I play with them, I’ll only break them!” he wailed.  A little amazed, the Doctor tried to assess the optimistic boy by taking him to a barn full of horse manure.  Immediately the little boy cried in delight, scrambled to the top of the dung pile and started digging away with his hands.  The doctor asked him what on earth he was doing.  The boy beamed with great delight and replied “With all this manure, there has to be a pony in here somewhere!”.   It was very much Piet and Mienkie’s way to walk on the side of optimism and constantly look for the “pony”, however much manure appeared to be in their way. 

In the days that followed, Piet and Mienke treated me with all the warmth and love that you might usually bestow on a family member, not someone who literally just sprang up out of no-where in your garden one day.  They amazed me (that’s a horribly overused word but in this case I do mean it) with their kindness, humility, generosity and above all optimism, which is something that has remained with me since.  When I came to leave their home, I felt it was appropriate to give them what I would ordinarily budget for 2 days on the road, not because I thought that in any way I had to but I wanted to – they couldn’t even afford to heat their home properly and I knew that since the farm had been taken, money was seriously tight.  But when I came to give Mienkie the money and before any debate could start, firmly insisted she take it (Mienkie is without doubt one of the most spirited, sparkiest people I have ever met so I was expecting a fight), she surprised me greatly by accepting it graciously before excitedly asking that she could give some to “my girl” (Irene) for scrubbing away so heroically at my riding suit, adding “She would be really thrilled at that”.  It spoke volumes about Mienkie that her first thought was to share what she had and to think of others, and yet again it saddened me greatly to think of what great unfairness had been done to her and Piet in the recent past.   It truly had been an absolutely privilege and honour to stay with them.

After several more weeks on the road, I finally reached the Cape of Good Hope, the most south westerly point in South Africa, one cold afternoon on Saturday 24th August.  It was somehow a shock to the system to arrive there.  Despite the logical part of my brain being fully prepared for this conclusion, the emotional part is still going to take a while to catch up I think.  Its hard to accept that that part of my journey is over and honestly some days its quite scary to think about this next chapter because this time there is no Michelin map showing me the way. Then again, I’ve learnt a lot of lessons on my travels that I’m having to keep in mind and remember now.  Like sometimes, not knowing every detail of the future (day, week, month) doesn’t always mean that it won’t work out well, usually in fact, quite the reverse.  Live in hope and not in fear.  And always look out for and follow the little markers that only I can spot to lead me to where I should go next.  

Some people ask if I’m going to return to “reality” now, which seems to me to be a peculiar sort of question.  There was nothing “unreal” about the people I met over the last year or the experiences I had, in fact that was the most real thing I think I’ve ever done (and far more real than attempting to predict future moves in the European equity markets I can assure you!).   So what are my plans?  I’ll be spending quite a lot of time in my little cottage in Scotland, writing my book and also getting out there giving presentations to all kinds of bike clubs, adventure organisations and anyone else all over the UK who might want to hear from me about what riding through Africa on your tod with only a little Donkey for company is really like.  Speaking of whom, Donkey meanwhile is mostly enjoying eating vast quantities of highland shortbread whenever he thinks I’m not looking, while also pondering what to do with his own stories.  He’d love to inspire the young adventurers of tomorrow and tell anyone who’ll listen about the wonders of Africa.  Food for thought…

On that note, the wood-burner looks like its hungering for another log or two so I’ll finish by saying thank you so much to you all (not least Suzuki GB for their unwavering support) for your constant encouragement and interest.  I’ll always welcome suggestions and feedback so if anybody out there has any pointers, requests, ideas (or part-time job offers…!) to share with me, I’d love to hear from you.

Over and out for now (and don’t forget the pony)…..Claire 

23 9 / 2013

Finding the way to his grandparents house with Adriaan at Pioneer camp, Zambia

Finding the way to his grandparents house with Adriaan at Pioneer camp, Zambia

23 9 / 2013

The lovely Suzi and I at Pioneer Camp, Zambia

The lovely Suzi and I at Pioneer Camp, Zambia

23 9 / 2013

a reassuring sign in any campsite…!  At Eagle’s Rest, Lake Kariba, Zambia

a reassuring sign in any campsite…! At Eagle’s Rest, Lake Kariba, Zambia

23 9 / 2013

Piet and Mienkie with their grandson Adriaan, his wife Laura and
Austin, who helps care for them.

Piet and Mienkie with their grandson Adriaan, his wife Laura and
Austin, who helps care for them.