I don't know what came over me. What on earth was I thinking? After one year spent traveling across Africa and its numerous border crossings, I had become an utterly cynical creature of habit, all too used to victimization at the hands of frontier officials. Those hands, I must add, had never once reached toward ours in greeting. Instead, with palms out, they gestured impatiently time after time for the payment of bribe after bribe. An accepted component of everyday life there, corruption seems as natural as eating or sleeping. After twelve months of this, one might be excused for thinking that's the way the rest of the world works - at and around the edges where no one ever bothers to inscribe the rules.
So first off when we arrived in Perth, a city of two million people on Australia's west coast, I wanted to familiarize myself with the indigenous ways and means of importing motorcycles. To get all of the cards out on the table, so to speak. That's why I blithely asked the customs officer what the going rate for outback kickbacks was. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't trying to force any currency in the form of Down Under inducements on this guy. I just wanted to know what passed for reality on this particular edge of the world, the "Red Continent."
He was astonished! His face flushed and his lips quivered. Maybe he was counting to ten. Obviously, no one queued in this line of his had ever had the effrontery to go there before. Oh, no - you didn't... "Mate," he finally says, "if you don't want to end up in prison, you'd better not ask these sorts of questions here."
I understood, then. Africa was over there, almost an Industrial Age ago. This is now. Still, we had heard hair-raising stories about shipping motorbikes from Africa to Australia: They have to be toothbrush-clean and even so, they are likely to be parked in quarantine for a couple of weeks because the Aussies have reasonable fears concerning the introduction of African pests. Stop right there: We have more than enough weird fauna, thank you!
To receive a coveted "OK, now go about your business" from the quarantine officer, we had spent four stressful days cleaning our motorbikes and leaping through hoops here and there for all sorts of highly important documents. Long live the Bureaucracy!
Finally holding the "dangerous goods" (the KTMs) and "pest certificates" in our greasy hands (sore from all those toothbrush gyrations), we knew we had done our best. But still, we felt uneasy watching our loyal travel companions, properly tucked in wooden crates and sprayed with lethal insecticides, soaring away on a Boeing 747. Would we ever see them again?
Oh, what easy lives those carefree backpackers lead! They don't need to worry about bureaucratic hurdles. They simply get on the next bus that's rolling through the night to a new destination. All they have to do is lean back in their comfy seats and watch the world go by behind tinted glass while eating popcorn! That's what we thought, but when we couldn't collect our bikes as planned in Perth (due to yet another bureaucratic snafu), we became backpackers ourselves. And it was dreadful. Those two days seemed endless!
We discovered a good portion of the backpacker's life is really a bore, as it mainly centers on collective hanging around with fellow backpackers while waiting for public transport. You follow the herd, and there's hardly any opportunity to flee the mainstream, to spontaneously follow an inviting dirt track to a lonely hilltop where you can pitch your tent in the setting sun amid a stunning view. Carted off in a can with a hundred other tourists, you only rumble to the next "must-see" attraction described in the guidebook. I won't even get into the absurd length and breadth of the ongoing arguments over who has the most tattoos and the wildest of Rasta dreadlocks.
You also don't have any chances of meeting people like Kirby, a motorcyclist we befriended in Swakopmund, Namibia, who happily put us up for the night and gave us an intriguing, local's tour of the area.