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Old 10-23-2009, 05:05 PM   #1
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Islands, Falls, Rocks and Blocks (South Africa -> Botswana -> Zimbabwe adventure!)

Kubu Island, the Victoria Falls, Matopo Hills and Tuli Block 2009

Thursday the 24th of September was a public holiday in South Africa, and an ideal opportunity to do a decent trip.
It was time to take another look in Zimbabwe, where we had last been three years before.
I also had some unfinished business to see Kubu Island in the Makgadikgadi Pans of Botswana (the yellow blob northeast of the central kalahari).

Total planned distance: about 3000 km over 6 days.

It’s the first across the border trip for mrs Owl’s Dakar, and I soon discover that it needs quite a few mods for a serious trip.
The biggest job is that ridiculous sidestand: first we extend it, then the frame gets beefed up at the attachment point.

But grandma, what big feet you have!

Out with the halogen lamp, in with a slimline HID unit. It’s dazzlingly bright, but runs cool.

Next, comfy footpegs and a proper protective screen to keep the bugs off the visor.
Mrs Owl’s feedback during testing is positive until she drops it and the headlight dies.

At least the footpegs and new screen get the thumbs-up.

Goodbye HID, hello Nightbreakers!

Finally, some crashbars that would protect the feet more than the engine. More about that later.
If I could have found one, I would have fitted a sealed battery too. But it’s Unobtanium out here.
So much for “Adventure Ready”, but at least the engine seems to be reliable

North of Pretoria, where we live, is the Limpopo province. It’s mainly bushveld, with lots of game farms and hiking trails. Unfortunately, the renaming of towns and streets has become a national pastime here, causing some confusion when the maps, road signs and GPS are out of sync. In order to get a head start we leave straight after work on Wednesday night. First stop for some food in Modimolle (Nylstroom).

It's after ten pm when we finally strike camp in the veld near Laphelale (Ellisras).
The next day is overcast and cool.

Heading back to the main road turns out to be much easier than the night before. Slowly the office worries fade as the horizon beckons in the distance.

Some game biltong (dried meat, a local delicacy) for sale along the way; here are lots of game farms where you can hunt for meat or trophies.

We cross the Tropic of Capricorn en route to the border- we are offically in the tropics now, but the weather remains pretty cool.

The Limpopo river separates South Africa and Botswana as well as Zimbabwe. The bridge across has a single lane.

It looks like the Russians got here before us.

We hang around in a slow queue at Customs. I get tetchy until we discover the trucker counter around the corner, as we still have 400km to go today.

Although most of the major roads in Botswana are good, stray animals are always a major hazard, especially at night.

Donkeys in particular, as they don’t move and really blend in with the scenery. Unlike these ones, which are made to move along a fair clip. Trust me, you need every lumen you can get out here.

Botswana is characterised by regular veterinary checkpoints to control the spread of foot and mouth disease. This one must be for a Korean strain.

Just outside the Lethlakane fuel stop the gravel starts and the rate of progress plummets. The road is corrugated with soft sand on top. A new road is under construction alongside, but it’s coated in poepstof (very fine, soft dust).

We made the mistake of sitting down for breakfast at the Laphelale (Ellisras) Wimpy, which was packed. The border crossing at Martin’s Drift was likewise full of people in transit and when we filled up in Palapye (Botswana), our credit cards were rejected at the filling station so we had to exchange Rands for Pula (local currency) at the bank. Each of these delays cost about an hour so unsurprisingly, the light is fading by the time we reach the edge of the Makgadikgadi Pans despite really putting the hammer down for the last 2 hours.

Riding in the dark is not ideal, but at least it's a good test for all the farkles.

The initial part of the track onto the pans is quite sandy, and tricky to navigate at night, even with a Night Breaker. It winds between the bushes, constantly splitting and rejoining where drivers have tried to find better traction. Progress is slow and our water is being used at quite a rate, even in the cool weather. Perhaps there are advantages to doing this at night after all.

Instructions and price list- not cheap at P100 per person (we are talking camping here, after all). See for details!

Once we enter the pans, the going gets easier as there is a dry crust on the surface. The terrain opens up an we spot a few rabbits scurrying about.

There is a veterinary checkpoint 24 km from the island. If you miss it you are in for a long ride along the fence, as I experienced on a previous trip. The route is not exactly signposted, with many splits to local kraals or detours around rutted parts of the track.

‘t is deep into the night when we finally reach the island (you are actually supposed to book!). There are 14 campsites, of which Camp 3 is free so we unpack to pitch our tent underneath a small baobab.

1NiteOwl screwed with this post 10-31-2009 at 02:44 PM
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Old 10-31-2009, 04:36 PM   #2
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Kubu Island

I mentioned “unfinished business” at the beginning: five years ago when our Africa Twin was almost new, we undertook our first trip on it to see Kubu. We were inexperienced and GPS-less, so we missed the turnoff at Mmatsumo village (a very easy mistake to make) and ended up stuck in the mud along the veterinary fence in the dark. With a puncture (spot the flat wheel) and no torch.

We managed to drag the bike out and fix the flat the next morning, but it was the first and last time we used “dual purpose” tyres- they have absolutely no traction through mud. Live and learn.

Back to the present: the camp attendant claims most of our newly exchanged Pulas when he does the rounds after sunrise. It buys a cleared site, fireplace (rocks), longdrop toilet and 5 litres of water. Oh, and scenery.

Not a bad place to wake up in. There are not many animals to be seen, but bird life is surprisingly plentiful.

Here are some of the neighbours roughing it.

Unlike the pans, there are rocks and baobab trees galore on Kubu.

I realise I need to know more about geology to make sense of what I see.

The variety in texture and colour of this granite is markedly different from the piles of stones around the big trees. Some are rough, some are round.

We decide to ride the circle route around the island (notice the standing water from the previous night’s rain) before moving on.

There is not much else in the vicinity- the eastern part here (Sowa pan) extends for more than 1000 km2. These are the remnants of one of the largest (but very shallow) inland lakes in Africa, which dried up some 10 000 years ago when the climate changed. As the water evaporated, the lake bed was exposed and the island is now surrounded by pans- flat expanses of sand rich in salt deposits. The elevation here is about 3000 ft AMSL.

It’s a photogenic place, with the trees almost in human poses between rocks which have been smoothed by the ancient wave action. Unfortunately the overcast weather takes away the “punch” from the pictures, but you get the idea.

A "baby" baobab reaching out in an almost human pose.

They are typically only found north of the Tropic of Capricorn, and survive in dry climates by storing vast amounts of water in their thick trunks.


Salted turds, anyone?

Many vehicles get stuck here as the rain drains away slowly, and the salt forms a fragile crust over the soft stuff underneath.

Like this.

The way out of the Pans is north, towards Nata. It’s mostly “tweespoor pad” (two-track), with sneaky bits of sand here and there.

Further on the road passes some villages, usually built around the bigger trees. The only feasible farming here is with livestock, particularly donkeys and goats. Water is pumped from boreholes and stored in these containers.

Not surprisingly, the borehole water is quite brackish.

Since wire and poles are in short supply, most of the construction is done with natural materials. Note the door built into the base of this tree.

We continue northwards along the edge of the pan.

A large part of the route is through bush that constantly smacks the mirrors out of alignment as you can’t really ride on the "middelmannetjie".

It opens up to savannah…

..until it finally reaches the Gweta-Nata road.

The new crashbars prove to be useful, but not very durable.

From Nata there is a 300 km stretch to the border between Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe at Kazungula. It’s a pretty straight road.

It starts well enough, despite the slight drizzle- we might yet make it through the Hwange Reserve before the border post at Pandamatenga closes at four.

But our progress rapidly diminishes when we hit the potholes and associated roadworks.

Most cars get beached in the soft sand and have to be extricated by 4x4s.
At least there are quite a few elephants along the way to make the ride more interesting. Here a baby crosses the road.

It’s limping badly from an injury to the left rear leg.

Further on is a bull elephant you don’t want to mess with. Elephants have a rather inefficient digestive system and need about 200 kg of food per day to maintain their physique. The weight of this one is probably about 6 tons- they can easily uproot trees (and push over cars). Because there are no fences, they cross the road as the please. At least they are easy to spot in the daylight.

Shortly before the border we pass a thatch trading post. This thick grass is a popular roof covering as it provides effective insulation from the heat. The bundles get laced onto a wooden frame over a hut, combed straight and then trimmed.

Unsurprisingly, we miss the Pandamatenga border post and carry on to Kazungula, where we refuel everything, unsure of the fuel situation in Zimbabwe. Once again it is dark by the time the immigration and customs guys are done with our passports, and we carefully follow a local 4x4 on the 70 km trip to Victoria Falls after being warned of the elephants on this road (they can be remarkably difficult to detect).

There’s a new food emporium in town where we get fresh pizza and coffee before hitting the shower at the Amadeus Garden guest house. It’s an easy place to feel at home in and Hartmut (the owner) is a loquacious and entertaining host.

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Old 10-31-2009, 07:02 PM   #3
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Excellent report and photos!!
Keep it coming.
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Old 10-31-2009, 07:22 PM   #4
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Wow! Another fantastic African adventure ride!!

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Old 11-01-2009, 08:32 AM   #5
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I'm very happy to see you post again. I just know it's gonna be good.

You guys are not scared of doing distance hey?
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Old 11-01-2009, 12:44 PM   #6
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More of a Recce than an Adventure


Thanks for the bump, but this was hardly an adventure, more of a recce run.

The main purpose was to provide a glimpse into these far out places for people possibly considering riding here, and particularly to give South Africans a snapshot of Zimbabwe in its present transition.

Zimbabwe is a wonderful country, but the lack of tourists and the lack of maintenance of the facilities is obvious, as you will see in the next instalment.
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Old 11-04-2009, 08:55 AM   #7
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Zimbabwe is maybe the next tour for me - Eastern Highlands. Roll on your report. Thanks in advance.


I often wonder where that road goes? And that, has usually made all the difference. Appologies to Mr Frost
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Old 11-04-2009, 07:45 PM   #8
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Another Niteowl report!
Nate in N.E.

Yes, I have a Dakar problem -- that there are 50 weeks of the year without Dakar!

They don't expect you to finish. That's why it's the Dakar. -- PPiA
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Old 11-04-2009, 08:17 PM   #9
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Great stuff
I'd rather die living than live dying.

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Old 11-15-2009, 02:40 AM   #10
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Victoria Falls

The next morning, we cool our heels in the saline pool. Deckchairs are parked invitingly around the edge.

In the parking lot, there’s a serious 4x4 giving wealthy European tourists a taste of Africa. In comfort.

Look at that luxury: sunshades, aircon, onboard fridge, even an onboard loo! To round off the experience, these trucks drag along a ruggedised trailer carrying a gourmet kitchen, tents, deckchairs, you name it.

A fresh breakfast awaits before we go to check out the town and look at the waterfall.

The Victoria Falls Hotel was built next to the railway line more than a century ago and is known as the “grand old lady of the Falls”. It was part of the grand British plan of an empire stretching from the Cape to Cairo. We drop in for a guided tour by Edgar, one of the porters and get VIP parking.

There’s a magnificent view over the Batoka Gorge to the bridge connecting Zambia and Zimbabwe downstream of the Falls.

Although it’s still an impressive building, there is a noticeable lack of guests.

And despite the political rhetoric, strong British links remain (this is Stanley’s Room). Surprisingly, it was designed by an Italian architect more than a century ago when the Cape to Cairo railway reached the falls.

After a cup of coffee, we’re off to the waterfall, where you are greeted by vendors selling the local handcrafts and (Zim) dollar banknotes with ridiculous denominations printed on them. Remnants of hyperinflation.

Most of the visitors are locals, so business is not brisk. From 12 April this year (2009), only South African Rands and US Dollars became legal tender.

Each part of the 1.7 km wide waterfall has a name (you’ll have to go there to find out more).

The southern end of the largest waterfall in the world, according to the International Waterfall Classification System.

The drop is 108 m but there is visibly less water than on my previous visit.

It’s even more spectacular from the air, and the water vapour is visible from miles away.

It’s known locally as “the Smoke that Thunders” (Mosi-oa-tunya). Downstream in the Batoka Gorges are a series of rapids which attract white water rafting fans from far and wide. See for details if this is your scene.

There’s a bungee jumping service from the middle of the bridge which links Zimbabwe with Zambia by road and rail.

It’s an imposing drop, but I feel absolutely no desire to take the plunge.

We visit the local Shona curio factory. On display are herds of giraffe made from local hardwoods, clay buffalos and hippos in an area the size of a football field.

There is a miraid of creative Shona stone carvings large and small made from soapstone, springstone and serpentine (Mashonaland is the central northern region of Zimbabwe, around Harare).

We are the only customers, so we get swamped by the traders vying for a deal. I buy a small Zimbabwe bird as a memento. Check out the detail.

Mrs Owl wants to see some real animals, so we book a ride. Can you guess what this is?

Bush taxis!

A close up of the hide. Note the fine hairs between those coarse cracks.

There’s a special scaffold for clambering aboard the tandem saddle. It’s a bumpy ride, and a long way down.

…and we’re off, with babies in tow.

The trunk is powerful yet nimble. With it, an elephant can uproot a tree or pick up the mahout’s spike. It can suck up peanuts as easily as a pile of dust or a bucket of water.

Below the trunk is where the food goes in. Elephants get six sets of molars during their lifetime, and eventually die of starvation when the last set is worn away:

They live to about sixty years of age, and have memory that would make Intel blush.

You can also go for a booze cruise and watch the sun set over the Zambesi (the river or the local beer).

Or you can take the paddle option.

Hippos are a risk on the river, as they are very territorial. The guides smack the sides of the canoe to arouse their curiosity so that keep their heads above the water, rather than take a dive below. This can be very dangerous, as they tend to surface underneath the boats and snap at them with their huge teeth.

Elsewhere along the river, dragonflies ply their trade. They have more time to spend here than we do.

1NiteOwl screwed with this post 12-12-2009 at 12:58 AM
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Old 12-12-2009, 12:28 AM   #11
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The Matopos Rocks

All too soon we have to move on, and head back south to Bulawayo along the western border of the country through Matabeleland.

The initial part of the route follows the eastern border of the Hwange (Wankie) game reserve, so it's game-fenced to keep the animals off the road.

The last time I had to get fuel across the border in Zambia, this time there’s plenty of the stuff in Vic Falls and along the way too, so our jerry cans turn out to be unnecessary, but worthwhile all the same as the fuel in Zimbabwe goes for over R10 per litre ($1.25), compared to about R6.50 in Botswana.

We get reacquainted with a novel concept straight from our neck the woods- toll roads. They charge US dollars, but unlike in South Africa, bikes go free (we have to pay the same as cars back home).

There is noticeably little traffic and compared to the one next door in Botswana this road is in excellent condition. Unlike this truck which lost control when the front tyre burst.

We stop a bit further down the road to have a drink and stretch the legs. It’s hot and the landscape is dry.

Along the “new” road we find these old two-tracks. They are the remnants of what went for a road in what was Rhodesia at the time of UDI. I remember driving along these strips during one school holiday; when you passed somebody, each vehicle kept two wheels on one of the strips.

It gets greener further on, and more densely populated.

There are even a few neglected picnic spots between the trees where these two siblings cautiously approach us to take a closer look.

After four hours, we’re getting close to Zimbabwe’s second-largest city.

The town is quite run down, and most shops have a rather limited supply of foodstuffs when we try to buy supplies for supper.

We ride out west to the Matobo National Park as the light fades.. Luckily the entrance gate is open till 10 PM and after paying the park fees we ride the 24 km from the gate to the visitor area. Once again we only reach our destination by nightfall, where we have a great meal after chatting with the local guide and policeman looking after the site. Here's the view greeting us from our campsite as the sun rises:

We have a good breakfast before setting for the “View of the World” in the crisp air.

This is the final resting place of Cecil John Rhodes, the founder of Rhodesia (Zimbabwe + Zambia), founder of the de Beers diamond company and an imperialist with the dream of stretching the British empire from the Cape to Cairo. He also founded the Rhodes Scholarship for study at Oxford by students from the British Colonies, the USA and Germany to promote peace in the world. Bill Clinton was one of the beneficiaries (in 1968).

Rhodes was one of the wealthiest men of his time who died when he was only 49 years old. In his will he requested to be buried in the rock overlooking the “View of the World” and bequeathed the land of the Matobo National Park to the people of Rhodesia (today's Zimbabwe). Surprisingly, it's all still pretty much as it was originally set up.

This was declared a World heritage site in 2003.

It’s a memorable setting with spectacular views over the rocky Matobo hills.

After braving the breeze at the top, we pack up our tent and pay our “hosts” (this is their only form of income). Although they sweep the place clean every morning, no maintenance gets done on the few facilities that there are. The toilets have stopped flushing long ago and there is no water in the taps because the pump is broken. The policeman is as neat as a pin, but very few visitors actually arrive to appreciate his immaculate uniform.

There is a circular route around our campsite, on which we set off.

There are rocks galore in this region known as the Matopos batholith, but very little game. We don’t spot any of the rhinos relocated here (from South Africa) nor the black eagles that the area is renowned for.

We are dwarfed by the size of these granite boulders, pushed up millions of years ago with the edges blackened and smoothed out by erosion like giant pastries or split down the middle by the thermal stress of countless solar cycles.

Everything is in balance here...

But you have to be careful! (narrow bridge ahead)

We take a shortcut through the Matopos research station back to the main road, where we turn west to the Plumtree border post.

I get there on the last whiffs of a very depleted tank. We get helped by Nobody-

That’s her, closest to the Dakar.

Across the border there is an entire cottage industry carting fuel from the Botswana side to Zimbabwe. This guy is a small operator dragging this cart across the border in order to eke out a living.

Next to him is a more serious operation loading up a 2 ton truck with plastic containers. All that fuel and no static discharging anywhere in sight. They tell us they make R4 a litre on their shipment (about half a dollar). So a potential profit of nearly $1000, but certainly not without risk.

1NiteOwl screwed with this post 12-12-2009 at 12:44 AM
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Old 12-12-2009, 05:45 AM   #12
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Great report and pictures Thanks for the work of sharing this part of the world with us.

A '00 KLR 650 40,000 miles, A '07 1250S 74,000 , A '03 5.3L Chevy Truck 78,000 + '43 style dude , Simper Fi ;-)
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Old 12-12-2009, 06:44 AM   #13
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Very interesting! In America we have roads that are open range where you have to watch for Africa you watch for elephants! Loved the close up shots of the elephants.

Thanks so much for sharing! More please!
"Life shouldn't be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well-preserved body, but rather a skid in sideways, champagne in one hand, body thoroughly used up and worn out, screaming WOO-HOO, what a ride!"
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Old 12-12-2009, 01:14 PM   #14
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Originally Posted by 1NiteOwl

After four hours, we’re getting close to Zimbabwe’s second-largest city.

The town is quite run down, and most shops have a rather limited supply of foodstuffs when we try to buy supplies for supper.

Great report reminds me of when I was there in '99 but I can't believe what's happened since. Bulawayo was a clean, smart place with thriving shops and a proper big town atmosphere.
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Old 12-12-2009, 02:08 PM   #15
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I have heard from Fez a fez and fine dust but I like POEPSTOF the most.

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