How Did It Go?

Cabinda track 300L
In December 2006 I set off from Kilkenny on my motorbike through Europe and across to Morrocco, to travel down the western length of Africa to Cape Town. One of the most common questions I was asked in Africa was “For what purpose?” usually with a puzzled look of incomprehension. And still am asked – why? I had no simple answer – a nomad festival in the Sahara, getting to South Africa, time for another ‘adventure’ – but really it has something to do with “Because I can.” I’m sure there are many folks who would love to take off on a bike around Africa if given the opportunity, but most have commitments that deter them. And of course part of the appeal was the challenge – the route I’d chosen to take was little travelled, it was uncertain whether I could make it (although, naively, I never actually doubted I’d get there) and it would most certainly be an adventure. Plus I would use the opportunity to fundraise for a charity I supported!

And Home Up The Other Side
Having successfully completed that journey to Cape Town, I returned back up the east coast of Africa, through the Middle East, Turkey and across Europe back home. The whole journey took twenty months which included a few delays - major bike surgery and a neck injury (both in Addis Abeba, one of the most pleasant of African cities), and a month of waiting for a response to a Libyan visa application (also not exactly a hardship, hanging out in the Red Sea snorkelling resort of Dahab).

Snorkel pose

Before the trip I detailed the preparation involved, the equipment I planned to take with me, and described my bike.

So how it did go?

Essakane 250L
I was very keen to visit the Festival-au-Desert, a centuries old event held at a caravan crossroads at an oasis near Timbuktu in Mali. Thousands of exotically robed Tuareg nomads many on tall elegant camels, clustered together or swaying across the sands; the intoxicating music by bands from the desert, Mali, Senegal and other parts of West Africa; all in a remote setting among the sand dunes of the Sahara - the festival far exceeded my expectations and was one of the highlights of the whole trip. I continued down the Atlantic side of the continent towards Cape Town.

The way south from Nigeria was at times challenging. The greatest difficulty was probably the lack of information on route possibilities, and road conditions. The undeveloped infrastructure – which meant accommodation and eating options for this passing motorcyclist were rare, roads were in most cases in poor repair sometimes just muddy tracks, and fuel availability limited – gave the trip a real sense of an ‘expedition’. And as a result of the adversity, that much more satisfying. In places, I would have been, if not the first white man (possible), certainly the first white man on a motorbike!

Congo roads - you never knew what to expect around the next bend
Mer d'Eau

Muslim Madonna, Ilha de Mocambique
Muslim Madonna 300L
Where the west coast route was a challenge, the east coast is more developed and was taken at a more leisurely pace. I was looking forward to enjoying its attractions - wildlife, and the British colonial legacy in Tanzania and Kenya; startling mountain scenery in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe and Simien Mountains of Ethiopia; the change in cultures from the Bantu based and Arab influenced kiSwahili in southern and east Africa, Amharic in Ethiopia and the Arabs further north; idyllic deserted beaches and delicious seafood in Mozambique and Tanzania (including of course that little jewel of an island Zanzibar); the antiquities of Egypt…

Bike preparation
The bike, a 2002 BMW F650 Dakar, is what is known as a ‘dual purpose’ type - designed to be comfortable on sealed roads as well as being capable off-road. I added a few bits and pieces at the start of the trip – panniers, extra tanks, wider foot pegs, protection - and this report covers how the bike and additions performed from Kilkenny to Cape Town.

Journey time
The estimated date of arrival in Cape Town was March 31st 2007, my actual arrival date April 14th. If I pushed things I could have made the original date, but due to a few logistical issues (my parents finding a flight to get to Cape Town to be here to greet me) I slowed down a bit once I hit Namibia. I then spent two months experiencing South Africa before striking north for Swaziland, Zimbabwe and the east coast, in no particular hurry it has to be said.

The war destroyed roads in Angola were the worst I came across on the continent.
Angola road

Bike familiarisation and Riding experience
Not having exhibited any great interest over the years, I had just a basic level of mechanics. Improvement was needed - I was going to be dependent on this machine to get me through the continent in one piece! As well as my limited mechanical knowledge, I had no enduro riding experience. The BMW Off Road Skills course, while expensive, was a very worthwhile investment (not to mention some of the best fun I’ve had standing up!). It meant I could approach unstable and difficult terrrain with slightly more confidence.

Mud tyre 300L
But there is no substitute for experience. At the beginning of the trip for example, on a bike heavy with luggage I dreaded the prospect of mud. I still don’t like it but now understand a little better how to deal with it. Also the idea of sand made me uncomfortable, something to be avoided if possible. Even gravel and loose rubble made me anxious. A couple of months into the trip, entering Nigeria through a pretty obscure border post, I elected to take what appeared to be an official road on my map. It might have been official, but it wasn’t a ‘road’ - basically for nearly two days I followed a dry river bed in first gear, through uninhabited bush on the edge of a game park, with what I imagined to be hostile Muslim fundamentalists or wild animals ready to take advantage. I really didn’t want to come off there, and certainly needed to avoid being stranded for the night! But the experience increased my competence – and confidence - hugely, liberating me from my fears of riding solo through challenging terrain, and reassuring me for what might lie ahead.

The very fine 'bulldust' in the Nubian Desert, Sudan

Many off-road bikers recall when they eventually ‘got it’ and began to enjoy sand. (Sam from Northern Ireland who I met in Kenya on a lightly loaded KTM, was looking forward to the Nubian Desert in Sudan, and planned to look for lesser sandy tracks through the desert in Egypt.)

My turning point came riding south down the largely uninhabited Mozambique shore of Lake Malawi. Cobué, the village where the passing ferry dropped me, is one of the most isolated villages in Africa and, according to locals, mine was the first overland motorbike to travel that route. I was certainly a little apprehensive as I’d heard of long stretches of sandy track. But these circumstances were conducive to accelerated learning – I had to! There was a definite effect I found in shifting my body weight back, off the front wheel, and
not giving in to the instinctive reflex to ease off the throttle when the front wheel starts tugging sideways. The rear wheel drives the bike through the soft surface despite the front wheel wanting to dig in. What a thrill to ‘get it’. Subsequently, following the Nile River through the Nubian Desert and its often soft sand turned out to be the most enjoyable riding of the whole trip for me! (Unlike KTM Sam though, I can’t say I went out my way looking for deep sand in Egypt.)

The Mozambique village of Cobué on the eastern shore of Lake Malawi, where my bike - the first seen there - was unloaded onto the beach.

As the intention was to record my journey on a website, I had made the decision to indulge in a laptop. My brother Sean in a former life was a systems designer for Apple Macs, and so the decision on what laptop to carry was straightforward. And I never regretted it. The iBook G4 went through a lot and survived 40,000 kms of African roads until finally the hard disk gave up in the Middle East. Of course as well as a tool for writing, the laptop served as a great store for information – the bike’s manual and a DVD on some major engine surgery which was both a reassurance, and very useful; visa practicalities for various countries; seasonal weather patterns; snippets of travel information picked up; and much, much more (including iTunes!)

I would have to say that while it was not an absolute necessity for the trip, I became attached to my laptop. The exercise of documenting the journey gave me more of a focus. Travelling solo, without that focus, I’m sure it would have been difficult at times to maintain the sense of commitment to the whole enterprise.

I was very fortunate to have Sean advise me on the website design and look after its maintenance for the journey south to Cape Town. Ill informed on the ins and outs of website design, it is a testament to (the software package) RapidWeaver’s straightforwardness and versatility that I managed to look after, without too much trouble, this new website for the second part of the journey.

Samburu warriors encountered in the bush, northern Kenya
Samburu warriors 300L
Travel Insurance
I have to thank AA for sponsoring my travel insurance the first part of the journey. I subsequently used World Nomads, one of the few companies that will cover travel on a motorbike bigger than 125cc. I had a compact camera stolen on a train journey in Mozambique which they wouldn’t reimburse me for (I didn’t witness it being stolen. But if I did witness it being stolen, surely I would prevent the theft…). But they did cover my return flight to Ireland from Addis Abeba for neurologist’s treatment without any dispute.

As well as the
usual jabs, I had to decide on what to do about malaria. There is no vaccine available, the conventional practice being to ingest a daily or weekly prophylactic/ preventative. This doesn’t prevent the malaria carrying mosquito infecting you but decreases the possibility. After much research – the risk of malaria in Central Africa on the west coast from Nigeria south is extreme – I decided against taking prophylactics as I had it in my mind the journey may continue back home up the east coast of Africa, and the idea of my liver having to process six or eight months diet of these toxic pills didn’t appeal. I was mindful that some religious and aid workers lived in some of these high risk areas, and they couldn’t obvously take the prophylactics on a continuous basis. I also understood malaria is not a virus to be taken lightly, is potentially fatal, and once contracted never actually disappears. The first precaution is to minimise the opportunities for the mosquito to bite. Very luckily I didn’t get malaria (travelling solo it would have been that much more risky). Not wishing to tempt fate, I elected to take the anti-malarial Larium from South Africa to northern Kenya. It has a reputation for possible 'psychic disturbances' but apart from a few uncomfortable dreams, it didn’t bother me.

The fairly sober Bradt’s ‘Africa Overland’ guide warns of ticks, mosquitos and fleas, jiggers, putsi and tsetse flies. Then there’s the risks of giardia, bilharzia, skin infections, snakes, meningitis and rabies. Apart from bad sunburn in the rarified air of the Simien Mountains I was extremely fortunate healthwise, not suffering from anything more uncomfortable than the expected fleas, bedbug bites and odd loose bowel. I rarely cooked my own food, eating local and water was often local too. Bilharzia is a hazard swimming in Lake Malawi but a test I undertook in Kenya was negative.

Injuries were mercifully minor. My motocross boots prevented on a few occasions at least, definite injury. Then on the Wild Coast in South Africa I was invited to join a few local lads for an afternoon’s riding around the mountain roads. Trying to keep up with their lighter motocross bikes I was recklessly speeding, took a bend downhill too fast, and couldn’t keep the bike on the track. The front tyre burst on a sharp rock and my poor bike was flung down the road, slamming first on one side then the other. Looking at its badly mangled handlebars and other bent parts I felt so guilty, allowing this to happen to the machine that had looked after me so well. Luckily my body got off lightly with a sprained wrist and a few cracked ribs (laughter was agonising!).

More painful but actually less damaging was when a goat came flying towards me in the extreme north of Mozambique at 60 kph and headbutted my foot: actually my fault, apologies to the deceased goat’s family. The pain that shot up to my skull convinced me my foot was broken. But it was just sprained. Those boots helped again. (For the record the only other animals killed were a young goat in an Angolan village, and on a fast road in the empty Masai plains a decrepid dog that slowly moved across directly into my speeding path, following its death wish I‘m convinced.)

Camping at 4,000m in the cold, cold Simien Mountains, Ethiopia
Simien camping

The major health issue of the whole trip was a neck problem that developed in Addis Abeba - a combination of an old rugby injury and a year biking on African roads. After treatment from a Dublin neurologist, two months later I was back on the bike. Touch wood the neck is still ok as I write this.

And in 48,500 kilometres

- the only thing stolen off the bike was a two dollar carabiner for hanging my helmet (my first night in Morrocco, then its replacement my first night in Egypt!)
- the thick security cable I carried was used just a couple of times, when the bike would be unattended for a few days. Through Europe I was a lot more cautious.
- despite the extra payload and rough conditions, the factory rear suspension held up despite strong advices to upgrade (too expensive).
- not once in the year and a half in Africa did I feel under threat of violence
- the bike didn’t get one puncture (thanks Iggy Clarke of Blakestown Tyres for the Contis)!

Useful Small Things

Silk sleeping bag liner – used as a sheet on not so hygenic beds, a light cover in warm weather, and an extra layer for the sleeping bag in cold.
Nuts for the mirrors. The first casualty when the bike takes a tumble (which happens now and then!) are the mirrors and BMW replacements are expensive (cheap Yamaha ones were fine, if not as good). Most useful was to weld a bolt onto the severed mirror stem and with the new nut, screw it back on!
Straps used by motorbike dealers for transport. They are compact, will not break, and really easy to tighten. Used to secure the bike in small boat river crossings and on the back of the odd pick up.
Earplugs – I wore them all the time. Great helmet (Arai Tour-X) but not a lot of insulation. Also handy for sleeping sometimes in noisy hostel or near busy road.

Ethiopian coffee ritual
Ethiopian coffee

These sponsors have been achnowledged on the website from the start of the trip. Countless others have helped in various ways, big or small. Off the top of my head I am thinking of the heart warming support from the small community in Ballyouskill where I live; of Bertrand the Sahara man, freely forthcoming with recommended additions for the F650; Paul Grant from Hypercycle in Naas took an interest from the early stages and emailed detailed suggestions while the bike was under the knife in Addis Abeba; Aidan and the generous gesture of a spare cylinder, head and piston. And my mechanic teachers: Dion for his irreverent approach to customising, Conor and Stewart for demystifying the F650, Roland in Yaoundé, Tomas in Port Shepstone, Chris in Nairobi, and Flavio in Addis Abeba.

In my
report at the end of the first part of the trip to Cape Town I paid tribute to three individuals without whose contribution it would have been a very different trip, and I’d like to repeat it. Iggy Clarke of Blakestown Tyres who coordinated the “bike stuff”, pulling in favours from suppliers, hassling his customers to donate, using various biker forums to spread the word. My brother Sean, who when he offered to look after the website probably didn’t realise what a time consuming, thankless task it would be. I hope he appreciates due to his effort, how much the charity SELF HELP have benefitted from the exposure. And after initial reservations (“oh no, what the hell is he planning now?!”) my dad, Ed Bergin, threw his support and help behind me, which was really appreciated.


Whether fleeting or more personal, constant encounters and friendships made the trip memorable, and small acts of kindness and generosity reinforced for me an optimism in, and connection with humanity. At different times the adventure was exciting, daunting, exhausting, energising, scary, thrilling: and again and again it challenged my responses to such a variety of situations. Undoubtedly I had a charmed existence on the bike. Fortune, luck and my guardian angel.

Pyramid pose