Daniel Rintz 38, is a German film-maker who became well-known for his movie Somewhere Else Tomorrow that chronicled his ride around the world. Now he is back on the road, making his way up through Africa with his girlfriend, Josie, riding a BMW R1200GS and a BMW R80GS.
Agressive Baboons are something we don’t want to start a fight with. They’ll not come down from the trees after dark as they fear the lions. So dinner is easier. But at first light when the jungle awakens they are the ones scouting around our tent. They will steal the cheese off your sandwich even if you’re armed with knife and fork. It's like a zoo - only without enclosures. Months later we had an even more intimidating wildlife experience in Namibia. We had to cover thousands of suspension- killing, corrugated dirt roads, manoeuvre sand pits and stretches of rough gravel in order to reach the places we wanted to see. Some motorcycle tour operators in Namibia stopped going into certain areas as they have learnt the terrain kills their equipment too quickly and it stops being profitable.
Luckily we were on our own bikes, able to weigh the risk of wrecking the bikes against the desire to see a destination. The blistering hot, but beautiful red sand dunes of Sossusvlei, the awe-inspiring Fish River Canyon and the Skeleton Coast are all mind-bogglingly beautiful. So beautiful we didn’t mind the strain on equipment and ourselves. Though everything in Namibia is just a variation of desert; ‘The most beautiful “nothing” you will ever see,’ as they say. And we couldn’t agree more. One afternoon near the Ugab river, we happen to be in the area right at the end of the dry season when animals are forced to share the very few water holes that are left before the much anticipated rain reinvigorates the land and allows wildlife to spread out over the vast steppe again. They are colossal, though you will not hear them. But as they move through the bush, even a dozen of them, you will only realise the situation you’re in when they appear right in front of you. We were petrified and simultaneously amazed by about 12 elephants that calmly and majestically quenched their thirst only meters away.
Our curiosity got the better of us and we went on to capture the scene with our cameras from what seemed to be a safe distance. Just when our cameras’ memory cards were about to overflow one of the bigger elephants turned around to face us. We ducked behind a bush. He flapped his ears and trumpeted. We knew what that meant and headed for the hills fast. We were scared and confused as they didn’t seem to be bothered by us before. Finally another elephant fake charged us. Our hearts pounding, we hid behind some boulders on high ground. We were out of sight. Eventually the entire herd quietly and steadily marched across the campsite, right between our hideout and where our bikes were parked. It hit us, they weren’t bothered by us, we were just in the way of where they wanted to go. Too much excitement for one day.
We’d heard good things about Angola and were excited about exploring it, but we couldn’t afford it. We tried everything‚ to charm, to bribe, but nothing worked for the Angolan embassy official in Windhoek, Namibia. It was either 500 Euros for regular 30 day visas or a more reasonable 120 Euros for transit visas. We opted for transit only, but that gave us a gruelling schedule.
The heat became more intense the further north we rode. Every morning we peeled ourselves out of the tent at first light or 4:30am. Sleeping cocooned in a muggy substance the natives call air easily motivated us to get up early. Often without breakfast we hit the road before sunrise. We knew we had only a few comfortable hours on the bike before the sun’s intensity started frying our brains and dehydrating our bodies faster than we could sip water from our hydration backpacks. The traffic picks up at around 8am, the intense heat degenerates every truck driver’s patience and then pushes dangerously hard on their right foot at just before noon.
‘WE HAD ONLY A FEW COMFORTABLE HOURS BEFORE THE SUN FRIED OUR BRAINS FASTER THAN WE COULD SIP WATER’
Even though we knew our ability to sufficiently focus was exhausted by early afternoon, we often had to push on to make the day’s distance. We spent 12 to 14 hours on average riding each day in Angola. That left little time to connect with people and get a feel for the place. We have to return some day.
Just after we made it out of the fast and hazardous traffic of Luanda, Angola’s capital, Josephine’s battery light started flickering like a cheap, plastic Christmas tree. I knew we did not have the time to get to the bottom of the problem. Only the night before we learnt that every extra day spent exceeding the visa’s expiry date will cost about 100 Euros. Per person. I decided to quickly find ourselves an additional battery so we can swap if Josie’s eventually fails. Miraculously we found one, although a much smaller version, within only four hours. I also got some guys at a junkyard to prep me two fat cables with eyelets on either end. I put the new battery in my tank bag and connected it to my onboard battery to charge it. We kept on riding like this, Josie with her lights off and not using indicators. At turns in busy traffic she stuck her foot out, other drivers seemed to get the hint. The next day her bike stopped running with a big bang. We swapped batteries as planned and continued. When I estimated the need for the next swap we were right at the border to the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC.
The end of the queue of trucks greeted us 8km before we reached the border gates. Truck drivers literally spend weeks before they’re allowed to cross. Surprisingly we were treated with priority and couldn’t get over the fact of how friendly and helpful the officials were. After all this is the country that is famous for Joseph Kony and his child soldiers. Getting all the documents processed gave us enough time to learn the officers’ life stories and in the end they arranged for us to pass the next road block without paying a fee. A road block/check point even they described as ‘bad-ass’.
'AFTER ALL, THIS IS THE COUNTRY FAMOUS FOR JOSEPH KONY AND HIS CHILD SOLDIERS'
Just a few miles after that border, with no shade in sight of course, Josie’s bike called for a battery swap. Luckily my bike did a good job charging the extra one. We reached a church that afternoon where we were allowed to camp for the night. Tracks4Africa maps and the iOverlander app/website are great for finding places like that. The pressure was off, we made it in time. But we didn’t want to linger in the DRC either. We had no way of gauging how safe it was. Listening to anyone’s stories, it wasn’t. We pressed on to reach Kinshasa. Information we found on the Kinshasa-Brazzaville border suggested that it’s one of the bad ones. Initially we were going to go around Kinshasa and cross from the big Congo (DRC) into the small Congo (RC) using a smaller border. But this meant going deep into the jungle facing several hundred kilometres of Congolese mud during rainy season. With Josie’s bike limping we thought this wasn’t a good idea.
We reached Kinshasa in the late afternoon in the kind of traffic I cannot appropriately describe to you – way worse and much more aggressive than I’ve ever seen before. Worse than Lima, worse than New Delhi, worse than Saigon, worse even than Jakarta. Everyone so frustrated and angry, drivers not giving the slightest shit. If I ever regretted having introduced Josie to motorcycling then it was at that moment. It took us 20 minutes to negotiate one big roundabout, only because a compassionate police officer navigated us through the 10-lane, chock-a-block mess by walking in front of us yelling, blowing his whistle and hitting bonnets with his stick. Without him we’d still be there.
Kinshasa and Brazzaville are separated by the Congo River which spreads about 3km at that point. They’re therefore the two capital cities closest to each other in the entire world. We learnt how the two Congos weren’t getting along politically, that the official ferry service was terminated years ago and left plenty of unemployed officers giving us unwanted attention. The highlight of the day was when we found ourselves facing about 50 desperate, high on snuff and drunk harbour workers, the barrel-chested kind that have necks as wide as their heads and arms that could easily be thighs.
‘WE HAD NO WAY OF GAUGING HOW SAFE IT WAS. LISTENING TO ANYONE’S STORIES, IT WASN’T’
That was after having run around in the heat for seven hours, sat out countless attempted bribes, waited for missing stamps, watched an officer beat the high-score in Tetris on his work computer and paid a non-negotiable fee of 300 dollars for the ferry. What the 300 dollars ferry ticket did not include (surprise, surprise) was to get the bikes on it. No one had thought of it. But when I looked at the boat for the first time it looked surprisingly small only docked 50 feet below. Our fixer suggested to pay the barrel-chests to manhandle the bikes onto the boat. My immediate thoughts to myself were: ‘We’ll unload the bikes, everyone will grab something and run off, the remaining guys will accidentally drop the bikes in the river, everyone panics, police arrive, they will want to avoid the headlines and sell us to the rebels as cannon fodder.’ OK, maybe not that bad, but I couldn’t see this working.
I left Josie in charge of watching the bikes and keeping the crowd at bay and had a look around. I found another, docked barge that we could get on using its ramp. If our boat came up adjacent to that barge we could actually manhandle the bikes down what looked about five feet. I grabbed our fixer and told him I wanted six helpers, no more. I picked the six least intoxicated and most reliable looking. A huge fight then ensued among the picked and unpicked and it felt like a movie scene. In a bad movie – although not a comedy.
It worked, the bikes made it on the boat and nothing got broken or stolen. We paid our helpers and when we stopped waving at them, gliding away from the docks, the noise of the boat’s engine replaced the hullabaloo of the crowd, the cool breeze over the river worked as a remedy for our heated heads. We felt relief and a sense of accomplishment for something that within Europe isn’t even a thought. Customs on the other side were straightforward though time-consuming and later that night we reached the well known overlanders hub Hippocampe Hotel. Talking to the host we learnt that taking the alternative route over the smaller border, the one we didn’t take because of Josephine’s failing bike, would probably have killed us. There are currently vicious fights between police and oppositions. So – R80GS – thanks for breaking down. We felt right in the middle of it in more ways than one. Africa is challenging and unpredictable. But we asked for it. That’s travelling the world on motorcycles for you.