The horizon is pink and yellow and purple and we are airborne, high above East Africa. Our destination is close - Mombasa at the Indian Ocean. Some 200 miles south of the equator in northeastern Tanzania, we see the majestic Mount Kilimanjaro. The rising tropical sun catches the flanks of the mountain, and glaciated Uhuru, Africa's highest peak at 19,340 feet, shines a bright orange. The highlands of Tanzania and Kenya stretch to the west and north, and the Massai Steppe to the south. Rivers swollen with dull water snake through lush vegetation and the green squares of the fields. We are to discover these are not rivers, but the roads we will be on today. The rains were unseasonably late this year, and although it is already the end of May, the land is still flooded.
Herbert lost his heart to Africa a long time ago. This is his nineteenth and my second trip to the continent. Cumulatively, Herbert has spent two years on two wheels doing 105,000 miles across 32 African countries; I have traveled 17 African countries in 10 months and ridden 22,000 miles on my motorbike. Our current plan is a loop around Lake Victoria. Our motorbikes are in the belly of the plane, and when we arrive, we will cross five countries, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, covering about 3,000 miles in four weeks, most of it off-road. This will definitely not be a package tour. We will camp, so as to be self-sufficient and independent. Besides taking photos for a catalog story, testing bike accessories in extreme conditions and documenting our journey on film, we are curious to find out what has changed since we both traveled here 15 and 5 years ago respectively.
Historically, Africa has attracted mainly negative world headlines. AIDS, corruption, famine, civil war - Africa is associated with danger and chaos. What many do not expect is the outstanding hospitality of its people. My experience is that the poorer the people, the more likely it is that they will give you their last possessions. And Africa has been the most extreme and intense of all the continents to which I have traveled. It has pushed my limits in all respects, and forced me to get to know myself well. For me, its fascination lies in its strangeness.
Smiles as welcoming as the sun
When we step out of the plane, the tropical sultriness and the humidity of over 90% at temperatures of 80°F weigh on our shoulders, as we are welcomed with typically African, bright and light-hearted smiles. The immigration officer gives us some good advice: "Use your tongue to buy. Prices are negotiable in Africa."
We know from experience that dealing with African officials can be a time-consuming process, with a lot of red tape. The best strategy is to be patient and to show that we are not at all in a hurry. After all, we are in a country that ranks 144 of 159 countries on the CPI (Corruption Perceptions Index). It is estimated that the average Kenyan city dweller bribes 16 times per month. Mentally prepared for the worst we get a positive surprise. No bribes, no abuse of power. Instead, our foreign motorcycles are processed with a document called a "Carnet des Passages" in record time.
We are southbound to Tiwi Beach, a paradisiacal place with white sand and coconut palms. Although the distance is a mere 25 miles, we will not make it with the few drops of gas left in our tanks. When we stop at the first gas pump, a crowd of curious onlookers instantly gathers. They have no clue that they are looking at a well-kept business secret: a preproduction bike, the brand-new BMW F 800 GS that will not be released for another year. The gas attendant is so taken aback by the Mzungus (friendly term for white people) on their big shiny bikes and all the gear that is strapped onto them that he spills gas onto the seat of my BMW 650 Xchallenge.