Rookie Ride into Zimbabwe: A Dutchman Testing Africa, His Gear and Himself

Photo credit: Michiel van Dam

Dutch native, Michiel van Dam, shares his experience riding an adventure bike in Africa for the first time. In part one of this story, he journeyed through Botswana. Here, we pick up his trail in Zimbabwe.

Following our ‘Rookie Ride’ through Botswana, my South African riding buddy Johan Kriek and I enjoyed some R&R at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Shortly after experiencing Nyami Nyami and the Thundering Waters, we are back on our trail through Zimbabwe, and onto the road winding down to Bulawayo.

Photo credit: Michiel van Dam

In that pleasant city, we’re supposed to meet with Riders for Health—a UK-based organisation that’s sustained by donations from motorcyclists all over Europe. Riders for Health teaches field workers, teachers, healthcare workers and the like to ride and maintain the small motorcycles they use in the African bush.

Our meeting was arranged months in advance and was confirmed on numerous occasions. Johan and I are supposed to ride with one of the riders, so I can ‘show and tell’ motorcyclists back in Europe about all the good work they are supporting with their donations. It will add a nice touch to my African bush experience and the resulting reports.

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Yes, we do meet John Mudenda on his Suzuki, all happy and eager to ride with us on his free Saturday. But then bureaucracy sets in. “Everything was arranged via Riders for Health HQ,’ I exclaim in my innocence, while Johan gazes noncommittally out of the office window of a Dr. ‘So-and-So’ who has to give final approval.

These things take long—Johan knows it, but I don’t. In Europe, you have a watch, but in Africa, you have the time, I learn. The Health Ministry and Riders For Health HQ in Harare play with me until I get fed up and jump on my orange motorcycle, fuming with rage.

Photo credit: Michiel van Dam

So a few days are lost waiting when we could have been riding and exploring instead. And Bula’ really is a pleasant city, with friendly people, broad and clean streets leading us to the Municipal Museum, with exhibitions that even Johan finds interesting.

Saddle uptime doesn’t come one moment too soon, and the ride eastward to Gweru is a really great one, taking us through astonishing beautiful landscapes. You came for the Heart of Africa, ‘doctor’ Dutchy? Well, here you have it, more than your senses can feast upon. Outside of Gweru, we book into our safari tents to round off a day of true African experiences… good and bad.

Photo credit: Michiel van Dam

There are not many antelopes to be seen in Antelope Park, but there are supposedly 110 lions here—and a herd of elephants thrown in for good measure. It’s supposed to be a nursery for lion cubs that get walked every morning, before eventually being set free somewhere else in the mythical untouched African heartland. Although, I think the lion keepers would be hard-pressed to show me that location on the Michelin map of Africa in my tank bag.

The lions are locked up in their cages, but when their mighty grumbling shakes the very earth I am sleeping on, I feel cold shivers running down my mattress.

Photo credit: Michiel van Dam

“Tinkerbird, lovely creature,” says Johan in the morning, the man with seemingly endless knowledge of what hovers over African soil, and what creeps, slithers, scuttles and sneaks across it. As usual, Johan is up before the first rays of the sun hit the earth. He puts on the kettle and waits for the Dutchman to wake up.

Quite hesitantly this morning, I must admit, as there are a few unfamiliar activities on the program, like walking with lions and sitting on elephants. A small stick is supposed to keep the predators at bay, and a handful of dried fodder to coach the elephants into letting me near them, without sticking up their snouts at me and nonchalantly trampling me to a heap of human residue. But as with the roads so far, I also come out of these experiences a little shaken but unscathed, and definitely a stronger person.

Photo credit: Michiel van Dam

Gweru, like Bulawayo, has an old colonial feel to it and doesn’t look run down at all. There’s no litter on the streets and no graffiti on the walls. It would be difficult to find a street that clean and neat around my house, in the centre of Amsterdam.

The KTMs purr along the broad avenues, lined with palm trees, before heading towards Masvingo through a landscape that is already imbued in my subconscious. Is it prehistoric genetic material in my DNA, or because of the Tintin comics from my childhood? Yellow grass, red earth, rolling hills strewn with bomas and traditional huts, and houses and trading posts in the bigger towns, along that wonderful African road we’re riding.

Photo credit: Michiel van Dam

When we stop at such places, people come up to us to talk, smiles and handshakes all around. Men climb on top of a big bus, strapping bales of luggage to the roof, balancing on top like the elephant whisperers did on their animals earlier this morning.

Photo credit: Michiel van Dam

One of the elder gentlemen who was sat on a bench in the shadow of one of the numerous liquor stores and butcher shops speaks out to me: “Why are you out there in the sun taking photographs, instead of sitting with us in the shade and talking with us?”

Photo credit: Michiel van Dam

1-0 for Zimbabwe.

After the monotony of the bush in Botswana, Zimbabwe dictates another pace of experiences. This time yesterday I was walking with lions and feeding elephants. Now Johan and I saunter along in the sacred silence between the Great Zimbabwe Ruins.

Photo credit: Michiel van Dam

This civilisation thrived from around 1180 to 1680, its decline set in at the time the Dutch set sail from Amsterdam to buy and sell the world. It’s still fresh when we climb the hilltop where the emperor had his sacred enclosure. We climb on the rock where His Majesty used to sit and sip his beer, looking over his empire on the plains below. A local man pops up out of nowhere and kindly, without asking or pushing, guides us through the passages and over the walls.

Photo credit: Michiel van Dam

No, we didn’t know that Masvingo, the name of this place, means ‘protective wall,’ and neither did we know that this hilltop citadel housed 2 500 chosen adults.
And Zimbabwe? Zimbabwe means ‘Big House of Stones,’ and that is the name this country got in 1980 after independence.

Step by step our guide takes us deeper into the mysteries on Great Zimbabwe. We learn to see things we didn’t see before—like the shape of that rock, is it not precisely the shape of a bird of prey, hovering over the earth? A fitting image, next to His Majesty’s beer-drinking rock.

Photo credit: Michiel van Dam

Animals, mythical or real, are of course an integral part of a trip through Africa, whether I like it or not. We get into the routine of parking our bikes and leaving our gear somewhere safe and then depending on someone to show us around places where the wild animals roam, in water and on land.

Isn’t it strange to place your personal safety, your chances of survival into the hands of a total stranger, someone that you have met only minutes ago? But the game viewing vehicle is already out into the bush with us aboard, no chance of getting back before the ranger decides it’s time. And then we are to climb out of the relative safety of the Toyota and follow our guide on foot through the bush.

Photo credit: Michiel van Dam

I wouldn’t get lost in Amsterdam but I would certainly get lost here in the Matobo Hills National Park. How do we know there are no dangerous animals around?

Well, we don’t—we’re precisely here because we want to have close encounters with dangerous animals! The heart-racing, adrenaline-pumping visions, smells and sounds of rhinoceroses are just a few meters away. When the guide signals get down, we sure get down fast. When he motions to follow, we certainly follow him without questioning, and when he motions to be silent there is not a whisper of any of us to be heard.

Photo credit: Michiel van Dam

I will never become a spoor finder or a tracker, lacking even rudimentary boy scout skills, and these humbling walks through the African wilderness certainly make me feel very small indeed. But I also feel a growing liking for this nature—the smells, the sounds, the sights, regardless whether I’m wearing walking sandals or motorcycle boots.

The sunsets outside of the cave that can only be reached on foot, containing beautiful bushman paintings. As with riding the dirt roads, I have to make a deliberate effort to appreciate the rewards. On the other side of the valley, the last rays of the sunlight up the Matobo hilltop where Cecil Rhodes lies buried. Around us are boulders that look like giants heaps of elephant dung, left behind on a trek from Cape to Cairo, with sacrificial altars between them.

Photo credit: Michiel van Dam

Stunning rock formations at the beginning of the day in Masvingo and at the end of the day in Matobo, with a hell of a nice ride over the long black ribbon between them. What more can I possibly expect or demand from the last day of our Zim adventure?

Via Plumtree border post we re-enter Botswana into the Tuli Block area where koppies break the monotony of flat bushland. Again there are no fences here, so I have to be wary of both my underdeveloped off-road riding skills and elephants and other beasts of horror hiding in the bushes next to the road, ready to jump on me and my KTM.

Photo credit: Michiel van Dam

We are back at the great grey-green and greasy Limpopo River. Well, actually right in the middle of it, on an island technically belonging to Botswana, but essentially part of that big beating heart of Africa that we’ve barely scratched on our trek.

In Europe, a trip this length would be considered a big undertaking, with other riders bowing in respect. In Africa, it’s just a ride around the block, with wide horizons stretching far and beckoning for more.

Photo credit: Michiel van Dam

This trip through Africa has taught me my place in the world again. No matter what gear I buy, it’s what I personally put into Africa that comes back to reward me. Johan and I sit around the fire, just the two of us outside at a safe distance from the river bank. The stars shine through the high canopy of trees, the noises of the bush start to get a familiar ring in my ears. That KTM of mine hasn’t seen the last of Africa.

The next day I prepare myself for another stretch of limping along the Limpopo.
Before disappearing at breakneck speed over the horizon, Johan tells me this unpaved road is the same one I had so much trouble on the first day into Botswana. It doesn’t seem that bad to me now. Have I mastered a riding trick or two during our Homeric motorcycle voyage through Africa?

Photo credit: Michiel van Dam

I’ve learned something, by choking on dust riding behind Johan and walking single file through the bush, where everything is out to either bleed me or eat me. Stick to the fresh spoor in front of me. No pioneering where dangerous crawling and slithering animals may bite my sandaled feet, or where I might get eaten by the quagmires an unpaved African road throws at me.

It’s not the gear that makes you a good photographer or a rider. Your own skills are more important—you get out what you put in. And there is Johan… he didn’t have to wait that long for me, now did he?

We cross the Limpopo across a flood bridge and enter South Africa. After the Platjan border post, I get more confident at riding that bad dirt road towards the black ribbon that connects Alldays and Marken. It’s been a long time since this road has seen a grinder.

Photo credit: Michiel van Dam

I sort of follow what I imagine to be Johan’s spoor. I plough through the uncertainty of deep sand towards stepping stones of safety, darker blotches in the road. Johan didn’t fall off his bike. This KTM doesn’t want to throw me off, it’s here to carry me and forgive my mistakes. Trust those tyres, trust the bike, and trust myself.

Suddenly, between the sweating and swearing trying to keep my KTM on track, I remember the first time that I managed to ride my bicycle straight as a small boy, instead of falling down and hurting myself. That moment of exhilaration is coming back to me, full force.

Photo credit: Michiel van Dam

I open the throttle to get to Alldays faster, where Johan will be waiting for me with a cold drink. I’ve gained confidence on this trip—this rookie has grown and learned a lot.

For now, only one burning question haunts me: why do animals in Africa all turn their asses towards me, except when they’re charging me?