Monday, September 8, 2008

Eat my dust, Obi-Wan

From The Sunday Times
September 7, 2008

When Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman completed Long Way Round - their 19,000-mile motorcycle ride from London to New York, via Europe, Asia and Alaska - the actors raised the bar for gap-year travellers the world over. Their epic ride was filmed for TV and young men fantasised about following in their tyre tracks, leaving everything behind and hitting the open road with nothing but a bike and a buddy.
Sitting at his desk in the City of London, Tom Smith, a recently graduated economist in his early twenties, was one of them. Not content with just watching and wishing, he and two friends decided to recreate the second of McGregor’s great adventures - Long Way Down - a 15,000-mile journey from Britain to South Africa, shown on BBC2 last year.
Only Smith wanted to go one better. Whereas McGregor and Boorman had been followed by a team that included two off-road vehicles, their drivers, a couple of cameramen, an editor and a producer, Smith and his friends would do it properly. That meant no cushy support team, even though they faced collisions, breakdowns, hungry lions, temperatures as high as 50C and weeks when bad food and upset stomachs saw them dropping several jeans sizes.
“We thought doing it unsupported would give us more freedom and make it more of an adventure, but it was also a financial necessity,” said Smith, as he neared the end of his three-month journey last week. Part of that adventure has been a series of breakdowns that meant he’d just spent an uncomfortable 1,800 miles riding pillion over rough ground.
“We wanted to do it off our own backs but there have been times when if someone had said, ‘Here’s a shiny new bike to ride,’ we would have accepted that with open arms. If something went wrong with our bikes - and it has done - we had to either fix them ourselves or find someone who could, which, when you’re in the middle of nowhere on a dirt track, isn’t always easy.”
It was June 3 when Smith, on a well-timed sabbatical from his job at the Bank of England, set out from London on his specially adapted Kawasaki KLR650, leaving an “out of office reply” that must rank as one of the coolest. It said simply: “I’m not in the office at the moment - I’m riding across Africa.”
He was joined by two Canadian friends he had met a couple of years before while studying for a masters in economics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Yarema Bezchlibnyk, 33, - known as Jerry - had learnt to ride only nine months before, while Tyson Brust, 30, studying to be a doctor, had been riding for about two years. “Tyson’s the navigator, Jerry’s the linguist and I’m the money man,” said Smith. “Thanks to my job I know all the exchange rates.”
It had taken a couple of years to assemble enough money for the trip (about £15,000 each), to kit out their bikes with tougher suspension, crash bars and stronger bolts, and have some basic off-road training.
They planned to travel across Europe, through Syria and Jordan, then down through Africa, roughly following the Long Way Down route, via Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Botswana, arriving in South Africa early this month.
All their gear, including tents, sleeping bags, first aid kits, spare parts such as tyres and brake pads, a video camera and clothing for all temperatures had to be carried. “Food had to be found along the way, often from small roadside stalls, sometimes from generous families,” said Smith. “Goat meat, or, more accurately, goat gristle stew, lots and lots of rice and camel stew.”
The new diet didn’t agree with them. “After leaving Turkey our bowels developed a bipolar disorder, flipping between a dammed state and one of uncontrollable flooding,” wrote Smith in his blog. “It’s when the dam bursts that you run into trouble. In that situation it was not uncommon for one of us to yell ‘campo’ at the others - our code word for telling the other two to carry on ahead while business was taken care of in the nearest bush.”
The cries of “campo” went on for weeks. “We could definitely move our belts up a few notches tighter after that.”
In Ethiopia, where the roads were a bustling mix of cars, bicycles, donkeys, horses, dogs, carts, people and farmers moving herds of livestock, they were dicing constantly with disaster. “Ethiopian roads are very dangerous; we all came off our bikes there and there were lots of near misses. We met up with a couple of other bikers along the way and we saw one of them crash into a small child who ran out in front of him without looking. The kid was okay - he broke his leg but he’ll make a full recovery. It was a horrific sight to see.”
A few hundred miles up the road, Brust collided with a dog in similar circumstances, flying off his bike onto the tarmac and injuring his shoulder. “I was doing maybe 30 or 40mph and I barely had time to touch the front brake and my front wheel went right over the dog,” he recalled. “The dog actually got up and ran off, but after that kind of impact I doubt it would have survived. It left me pretty shaken.”
Bezchlibnyk, the least experienced of the group, once lost control of his bike while riding up some steps into a hotel courtyard and crashed into the lobby. Temperatures peaked in Sudan, where it was 50C in the midday sun, and the trio had to take breaks in the shade to recover.
“We were wearing jeans and T-shirts and still sweating buckets and drinking water constantly - you’d have passed out in leathers,” said Smith.
In Kenya they biked across the Masai Mara national park, spotting wildebeest, cheetahs and elephants - all from a safe distance. “On our way there we were riding around looking for a campsite and it was pitch black. When we found one, we were warned about driving around in the dark as there were elephants about, which may have explained the huge piles of dung in our path - apparently they are quite dangerous,” said Smith.
On a good day they managed to cover 250 miles; when they needed to make up ground they travelled as far as 450 miles, but on some days, particularly in Tanzania, where the unmade roads were bumpy and sandy, it could take 12 hours to cover just 100 miles.
“In one 150-mile stretch full of rocky terraces and deep sandy ruts, Jerry dropped his bike at least 14 times. Tyson and I fared slightly better, we only came off about three or four times.”
The following night, after another arduous ride, they were struggling to make up time. With darkness falling, they were warned that lions had been spotted close by, so the team pushed on for another 30 miles, Smith nursing a sprained ankle from a tumble and Bezchlibnyk struggling to steer his bike, which had been damaged by his many falls.
On closer inspection the following morning it was clear Bezchlibnyk’s bike had a cracked frame and could have split in two at any moment. Remarkably, they found a local mechanic who welded it together, but the next day Bezchlibnyk was so preoccupied with his frame, he didn’t notice one of his panniers drop off - the one containing his passport and all his papers. “He didn’t notice his case was missing for 60 miles,” said Smith. “And since our cases look exactly like those that drug dealers might use to haul vast quantities of cash around, it’s almost certain it was being prised open in some Tanzanian village by then.” Bezchlibnyk headed off to Dar es Salaam to get new papers, hoping to rejoin his friends further along the route. Smith and Brust set off alone but within a few hundred miles they, too, had ground to a halt. “I forgot to check my engine oil - a cardinal sin in the motorcycling world and one that I paid for dearly,” said Smith.
Starved of oil, his Kawasaki broke down north of Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, and there was no getting it going again. No local garage could get the parts quickly enough, so the plan was to get the bike trucked to Johannesburg for repair while Smith carried on the trip on the back of Brust’s bike. They covered almost 1,800 miles like this, including a few hundred miles across the Botswana salt flats - “like riding across the surface of the moon and pretty hard when you’re riding two-up”.
With his Kawasaki still languishing in Malawi, Smith rented a BMW F 800 GS to cruise the last few hundred miles in style. Then, as if the trip hadn’t been eventful enough and with just two days’ biking left, he and Brust decided to do “the world’s highest commercial bungee jump” – throwing themselves 708ft off a platform on the Bloukrans River bridge near Plettenberg Bay in South Africa.
They finally made it into Cape Town on Friday with Bezchlibnyk not far behind. After 15,000 miles in the saddle, Smith admits he’s going to find it hard to go back to his desk at the Bank of England, though thanks to a diesel shortage in Malawi, there has been no truck to transport his bike to South Africa and his ailing Kawasaki is still stranded. “I’m going to have to go back and get it at some point,” he said.
The trio are raising money for two charities: Riders for Health, which provides and maintains motorcycles for healthcare workers in Africa, and Dignitas, a charity that aims to improve access to treatment for HIV and Aids in Africa. For more information or to donate, go to