A Travellerspoint blog

December 2019

Roof of the World pt. I

How to get into one of the unique countries in the world in style!

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Basotho Cowboys

Basotho Cowboys

People travelling a lot tend to look for the unique. Places and countries that don’t resemble anywhere we have been before. It sounds spoiled, but it’s easy to get numb visiting numerous cathedrals or waterfalls. Not that it doesn’t continue to be fun, exciting and insightful, but some of the excitement dies down when you’ve been visiting ten waterfalls in twenty days. Or when every single town thinks their church is a glories landmark, but you have just been to the region’s most elegant cathedral. I think you get what I’m getting at.

Lesotho is one of those unique places on the globe. A mountainous highland that by historical coincidences happens to be independent of South Africa that otherwise wholly surrounds it. Lesotho is a place full of African cowboys (and sheepboys) with scenery more at home in the Himalayas than Africa. The fact that Lesotho has the highest lowest point in the world, at 1,400 metres above sea-level should help drive home the point that the country is the Roof of Africa.

Lesotho Border Post

Lesotho Border Post

The fact that I’ve found Lesotho cold, wet and miserable for most of my time here isn’t enough to dissuade me from absolute adore the place. Driving through the rain clouds, stopping in random villages to warm myself in front of the dong-fired stoves and the locals’ hospitality if probably my favourite way of being uncomfortable. Especially, when the local herders, wrapped in their characteristic blankets, Seana Marena, and their faces covered from the cold, regularly send greetings my way from the roadside.

Sani Pass from Above

Sani Pass from Above

The fact that I’m actually driving my bike around Lesotho wasn’t a given, however. Coming from the South African east coast, the only way into the country was through the Sani Pass. This is an overland’s dream challenge, and the pass is justifiable famous for its impossible assent. It’s about 30 km of decent dirt road to the foot of the pass, which beings as the South African border post. From there it’s just 8 km to Lesotho’s border post on top of the pass. However, in those 8 km, the road climbs 900 metres, making an average incline on 11 percent. That’s more than any mountain in the Tour de France – just for reference.

On top of that (pun not intended), there’s no road to the top. There’s a washed-out dirt mess of large rocks and loose gravel. This is no road for my little scooter. Regardless, up we went. A guy on a big overlander motorbike, filmed me grinning as he was driving down the pass (he and his buddies hadn’t dared driving up). A, seemingly, local white guy – also driving down – just stared at me with a disapproving, almost angry, look while shaking his head. “You’re no fun” was my only comment as I struggled past him. Luckily, the times I struggled the most getting up the pass, no witnesses were around to see my almost fall down, almost drive over the edge, and almost having to get off the bike and push. Somehow, I manage without having to get off the bike once.

Scooter on Top

Scooter on Top

Having driven the glorified scooter this far south of Tanzania, the most frequent reaction I receive is surprise and disbelief. I got the same reaction when I bumbled over the last rocks and around the last switchbacks just below the top of the pass. Not from the Basotho border officers and one of the guides making regular tours up the pass. People have done crazier shit than me, apparently. A couple of years ago a group of Italians drover there Vespas up the pass after having driven the down here from Italy. But for everybody else, the feat and the bike seemed utterly incomparable. To the degree that members of various online fora for overlanders and bikes wanted to take my photo. Seemingly to have at hand every time someone bragged that they had gotten their purpose-built dirt-bike up the pass.

The best thing about Sani Pass? Someone had the insane idea to build a pub on top. Claiming to be Africa’s highest pub, I could conveniently celebrate with my first taste of Basotho beer once I got up to the 2,874 m summit. And that is the way I prefer to enter a new country!

Posted by askgudmundsen 12:20 Archived in Lesotho Tagged mountains travel overland motorbike lesotho southern_africa sani_pass Comments (0)

Sharktastic

Why diving with sharks is fantastic and why we should do more to protect them

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Shark in the open

Shark in the open

As we swam closer to the cave, one of the seven or eight Ragged Tooth Sharks in there decided the attention was too much. It came straight at us, peered off to the left and disappeared. Probably looking for another cave where curious divers wouldn’t disturb its rest. The rest of the sharks continued chilling, with a few of the bigger, braver ones closest to the cave opening. About two metres from us. Those were not the first sharks of the dive. Earlier, another cave had revealed two enormous sharks, reaching 3 metres in length. In between the caves, I and our lead divemaster had basically bumped into one about the same size turning a corner of coral rock.

Let me get this out of the way early. Sharks are not vicious monsters whose favourite hobby is to slay humans. Regardless of what pop culture has taught us, through masterpieces like Jaws and abominations like the Sharknado franchise, sharks aren’t protagonists. If anything, we are (I’ll get back to that). Rather, sharks are marvellous, intelligent and timid animals. Yes, timid. Most sharks, when they encounter boats, divers or the like, prefer to swim in the opposite direction. Just don’t splash around in the surface, pretending to be a seal.

Ready for sharks

Ready for sharks

Sharks do unfortunately sometimes injure or kill humans. In the last decade, six people have been killed worldwide by sharks annually on average. That’s six people a year across the globe. To put this in perspective, that’s less than lightning (1,000 deaths/year); drowning while bathing (20 deaths/year); while taking selfies (350 deaths/year); and being left-handed (2,500 deaths/year from using products made for right-handed people). In the United States alone, two people are crushed to death by ATMs annually. I would argue you should be as scared of drawing out money as of sharks.

58 % of the people killed by sharks are surfers because sharks tend to mistake them for seals. Once the shark realises its mistake, it will just about always spit out the poor surfer. The tragedy is that these deaths and injuries can be avoided. Durban has cut shark incidents to near-zero by installing shark nets on the city’s beaches. Shark-related injuries in South Africa now happens where there are no nets.

Shark Cave

Shark Cave

My dives off South Africa’s east coast aren’t my first shark encounters. I’ve dived with sharks in the Red Sea and the Caribbean as well. Always without incident. The depressing fact is that diving in shark “infested” waters bring me close enough to see the injuries we have done to sharks. Scars, cuts and disfigurements are clear signs of sharks being caught in nets and as by-catch of fishing vessels looking for a smaller catch. Often though, it’s much worse. Illegal finning – the act of removing sharks’ fins for human consumption – is a billion-dollar industry. An estimated 73-100 million sharks a finned, mutilated that is, annually. Sharks exhibit slow growth rates and low reproductive rates, and can not keep up with the pace of such an industry.

Less severe, but worth considering for the travellers out there, are the legal industries. South Africa is a mecca for cage diving. It’s a multi-million-dollar industry. While most outfits brand themselves as conservationists broadening knowledge about sharks, looking into it these outfits, too many have little to show for their claims. Sure, most outings will include a briefing, information of sharks’ threatened status, and the horrors of finning. But baiting sharks with fish chum, possibly smearing the cage in it, I would argue, doesn’t really work. Showing people in a cage, hunting and angry-looking sharks is not my idea of doing anything good for the images of sharks.

Baby shark

Baby shark

Then there’s the whole question of the baiting of sharks change their natural behaviour. Critics argue that baiting make sharks more likely to associate humans with food and distort their natural migration patterns. The scientific evidence seems to be inconclusive. Not surprisingly, the most vocal supporters of baiting are from the cage dive industry – just like the most vocal arguments for the practise increasing threats to humans often comes from surfers. Personally, I have the option of diving with sharks without needing a cage or bait. It will probably mean that I will never see a great white and only if I’m insanely lucky will I see a tiger shark. But I’ve seen plenty of other sharks, so ditching the cage dives and an industry I neither like nor trust is an easy choice. If you, on the other hand, don’t dive and dream of seeing sharks, all I ask is that you vigorously research the different outfits before you book your dive.

Individually, these are difficult problems to deal with other than the obvious. Don’t eat shark fin and consider whether to do that cage dive. That said, most of you are probably entirely on par with this. But awareness is the first step in the right direction, and I hope anyone reading this has, at least, become a little more enlightened. By all means, go back to watching those scary shark movies now – just spare a thought to Bruce, the friendly great white from Finding Nemo, once in a while.

Posted by askgudmundsen 05:26 Archived in South Africa Tagged diving travel overland sharks motorbike shark dangerous south_africa southern_africa deaths baiting cage_dive finning Comments (0)

The Lonely Roads

A hermit on wheels’ confessions

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Lonely Roads

Lonely Roads

I’m simultaneously trying to avoid two cows that have stepped onto the road and wave to some very excited children, who insist I should give them more of my attention than the cows. For some obscure reason, this is the moment my brain decides to come up with the perfect comeback to a discussion I lost at a meeting six years back. Welcome to the lonely life of riding a motorcycle through Africa alone.

Those damn cows

Those damn cows

Driving a motorcycle across half a continent is invertible a solitudinous undertaking. Hour after hour, often day after day. Alone on the bike. Without a radio, let alone human company. While it can be tedious, it’s also something I’ve come to quite appreciate. It’s undoubtedly not for everybody, but before I move to a cave somewhere to become a troglodyte (i.e. hermit), I might share a few of those dull hours on the road.

Naturally, a lot of the time is spent on the actual driving. While I’m pretty comfortable on the bike after having driven it for more than a year, there are still a ton of things to keep concentrating on. Cattle crossing the road, near-invisible speed bumps, children who need a wave or thumbs up. Then there are the outright fun parts, especially when the road’s winding down mountains and hills. On these, I can keep up speed and slalom my way downhill as if I was a racer – it’s about the only time the glorified scooter drivers fast. Not much time for daydreaming if I want to stay on the road.

Mountain road

Mountain road

Elsewhere, on the long straight roads, there’s plenty of time for daydreaming and enjoying the view. The beauty of being on a motorcycle is the perceived vicinity to the nature around you. Not protected by a car’s chassis or windshield, the full force of the wind is a stout reminder. So is the sun’s baking rays warming up the leather jacket. More importantly, there are no blind angles. On the bike, I have an almost 360-degree view of my surroundings – depending on how much I twist around.

I’ve always enjoyed driving, regardless of which of the two types of road mentioned above. But flying through the developing landscapes on a motorcycle, sitting in the elements is second to none. I’m happy spending a lot of my day merely driving, with a smile on my face. It’s a little like sitting on a dark and stormy evening, looking into a fire. It’s mesmerising. Nothing else is needed.

Younger me

Younger me

The many hours alone are also a perfect time for self-reflection and, frankly, self-improvement. Something I’ve always insisted should be part of any form of travel. Different thoughts or episodes from the past tend to pop up if there’s nothing else to occupy my mind. Whether it’s finder the perfect answers to those “I should have said” episodes from years’ back or becoming better at accepting dumb things I’ve done in the past that comes back to haunt me from time to time. I don’t per se need to be on a motorcycle to do this, but it does provide me with ample opportunities to deal with the ghost of the past. To phrase it in an overdramatic way.

Plenty of impressions

Plenty of impressions

Other than the driving and the self-reflection, I obviously use much time thinking about what to write home about. Small quirky impressions from the road. I keep coming up with all these fantastic, witty and clever paragraphs or new ideas for this blog. Alas, I can’t write them down, and I simply don’t have the time to stop constantly, get out pen and paper, and write it down every time I come up with something new. So inevitably, once I’ve arrived at my destination and open my laptop, I’ve long forgotten all the Shakespearesque brilliance I’ve come up with during the day’s drive…

Lastly, it should not be understated how similar singing while riding a motorbike is to singing in the shower. It’s pretty must a must. Though practising one’s singing while riding do have the added bonus, for talentless people such as myself, that the helmet will muffle all the terrible tunes I release upon an innocent World that, frankly, do not deserve me adding to the ongoing horrors.

Posted by askgudmundsen 00:59 Archived in South Africa Tagged reflections travel overland lonely tanzania malawi zimbabwe motorbike south_africa southern_africa loneliness Comments (0)

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