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Big Boy vs Africa

An interview with Dorette and Guillaume de Swardt


Moyale, Ethiopia

All images © Dorette de Swardt - scroll over images for captions

While on our own scooter trip, we were often confused with a couple that was crossing Africa on a 150 cc - on their honeymoon.

"No, no", we reassured our inquisitors, "they must be some other crazy travellers". Then I read their article in Go Magazine and just had to get in touch.

The following is my interview with Dorette and her hubby Guillaume on their experience as newly-weds traversing Africa on a Big Boy motorbike, without the benefit of a Carnet de Passage or much of a budget.

Though I could summarise this, I feel that the detail in this interview makes it really interesting reading, and I think you will too.

1. Where did you start your Africa sojourn from?

Pretoria, South Africa


2. Why a bike?

The motivation for using our small 150cc was two-fold. Firstly, we did not have the budget for another vehicle and secondly, why not? It was a fun, new way to explore.

3. What inspired the journey/this particular one?

We have always wanted to travel Africa extensively so it was something we talked about often. But, after falling victim to violent crime in Johannesburg we decided that rather than doing it 'one day' we couldn't wait any longer to see our beautiful continent.

4. Did you carry food?

Some yes. We had a small side pannier and could fit a couple of packs of two minute noodles or pasta or biscuits etc. Nothing that needed to be kept cool though. We bought a cheap, small, soft coolbag in Namibia, which was clipped to the back of our backpack, but it did not keep anything fresh and was just extra weight so we had to get rid of it.

5. Do you have a mission? Or a cause? Do you support any kind of NGO?

This trip was our honeymoon so we decided to support various charities as our paths crossed with them, by donating money or equipment or creating awareness. We also focused on helping individuals, assisting with the setting up of small community businesses, creating CVs to help them find a better job or building a website etc.

6. Do you think your travels have influenced the world in a positive way? Have you had a positive impact?

We hope so. We are in contact with some of those we were able to help along the way and though their lives were impacted positively, life goes on and the money, equipment or advice we gave is only as good as what you do with it.

Equator with a little Ugandan boy

7. What is the biggest distance you covered in one day?

In Zambia we drove 477 km in one day from Livingstone to Lusaka. The road was great but it still took us 11 hours.

8. Why Big Boy?

We had one at home and decided to just take it and see how far it gets. We expected to make Livingstone and with some luck perhaps Dar es Salaam but, the further Big Boy went the more we grew fond of it and it became clear that we were not willing to complete this journey using any other vehicle.

It became a journey of three - Guillaume, Dorette and Big Boy and none of us went anywhere without the other two.

9. What was the fuel usage like? I saw on your site you could get 210 km on a 10 litre tank?

Yes, we could do about 210km per tank depending on the quality of the fuel and road. Sadly we did not have space to carry fuel with us (at most we could squeeze two one-litre plastic bottles of petrol in somewhere) so we ran out of fuel quite often.

Guillaume installed a petrol filter before our departure because we often had no choice but to buy petrol diluted with paraffin and sold in old coke or water bottles on the side of the road.

10. What gear did you bring with? Please detail everything!

For riding, for ourselves we had only our helmets, riding jackets and gloves. We rode in jeans and hiking boots.

For the bike we carried an extra chain (this broke often due to the overloaded weight it had to pull), tyre filler and some basic tools like spanners and bolts and ducktape.

For cooking we had a paraffin stove - the most expensive thing we had after the bike - two plastic "sporks", two small water bottles, a pot and a cheap pocket knife.

For sleeping/lodging we had a small tent, two 3cm self-inflatable mattresses, one sleeping bag and two small blow-up pillows.

We each had two pairs of pants besides our jeans (one long and one short), three shirts, three pieces of underwear (and two bras for me) two pairs of socks and "plakkies" (flip flops). I also had a skirt and bathing costume.

We did not have towels but had a thin piece of cloth which we used for drying. As we went along we threw away old clothes and bought "new" ones at local second-hand markets. But the number of items remained the same.

We also had a small "first aid kit" with some basics.

11. How did you fit everything on the bike/attach it on etc?

Guillaume built a caddy which he mounted to the back of the bike (like one would find on a bicycle). On this we placed our backpack containing most of our belongings, using a custom made pulley system. It stood upright on the caddy, and I sat with my back against it.

The tent was tied to the front of the steering wheel after we installed a metal "case" there to hold it.

The two side panniers were mounted to the left and right of the caddie at the back of the bike. One contained the spare parts and first aid kit and the other the food and cooking equipment.

12. How much did it weigh? I saw on your site 270kg?! Is that with you both on it and the gear and weight of the bike?

Give or take yes. The breakdown was more or less as follows but it changed as we added and lost belongings and weight.

Guillaume 88kg
Dorette 52kg
Bike 110kg
Luggage: 30kg
Total 280kg (Maximum carrying Weight is 100kg, so we were roughly 70kg overweight)

13. How did you find the whole sponsorship process?

We told Big Boy of our mission and they offered to give us a brand new Big Boy to use for the trip - instead of the two year-old one we already had and were planning on taking. It was great because it gave Guillaume the opportunity to test everything on our bike and then install it on the new one.

They gave us exactly the same bike, in the same colour, just new. As the relationship with them grew they also donated towards petrol, which was enough to get us more or less to Dar es Salaam.

Guillaume approached a handful of companies for sponsorship before we left but not many were interested, probably because we decided to do the trip for ourselves and not so much for publicity. After that we did not pursue the topic too much.

14. Did you have any issues with the Big Boy?

Yes, all the time. We broke down often and had to do a lot of welding to the bike. The wear and tear on the poor vehicle was harsh as we really pushed it far past its limits. Luckily, these kind of bikes are used all over Africa and the mechanics are basic so we never once struggled for too long to get a part or to get it fixed.

Man welding bike

15. Do you and Guillaume know how to do any kind of basic bike repairs?

Guillaume is an engineer and had been driving Big Boy for a while so he could to most of it. He often just needed the tools or parts which he would get from mechanics.

16. Did you plan at all or just go?

We did do some basic planning. Most important things like visas, a couple of vaccinations, preparing the bike and having a general idea of where we wanted to go.

But we had travelled Kenya, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho the year before (end 2010 and during 2011) without doing any planning so we did not consider it very important to over plan the trip. We liked the idea of playing it by ear.

17. Do you map out your routes beforehand?

We had a basic route - to Egypt Via Zambia and Tanzania - but it changed within the first two days after our departure. Mostly we would just decide where to drive the night before and we'd go for it. Also, we did not take a map with us.

We had an old GPS which helped for as long as the battery would last (about 30 minutes when not plugged in) but for the rest of the time we just asked locals for directions and sometimes took photos of other travellers' maps to get an idea of the roads in the area.

18. Any incidents? Please detail your misadventures specific to travelling on a bike!

There were many in the 6 months so I'll give the highlights.

We had three falls.
One on a very sandy road in Botswana - no injuries. These small bikes don't do well in sand.

Big boy bike struggling in Sudan desert

One on a very, very bad road filled with potholes in Tanzania - just scrapes and bruises but the bike did take a bit of a beating.

One on the main highway leaving Nairobi in Kenya heading west towards Uganda when our tire burst. Guillaume managed to get the bike back up after some skidding and though we had no major injuries we were almost hit by a truck which came up behind us. We got the bike off the road just in time.

Trucks would force us off the road often, especially in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

In Botswana an elephant chased us down the highway. It was just a (prolonged) mock charge so we got away.

In Tanga, Tanzania, we got stuck in muddy clay caused by a couple of days of rain but which was drying quickly due the extreme heat. It took us 7 hours to cover 70km and we lost the front mudguard because it broke off due the weight of the drying clay. We almost lost the chain too but were able to salvage it.

Mud all over Big Boy bike

In Dar es Salaam our one side pannier was stolen (containing medical equipment and cooking equipment). It was quite a blow as we lost important things like all my contact lenses, malaria medication and our very expensive paraffin stove. We did not take any prophylaxis for Malaria, just the treatment in case we contracted the disease so it was an important part of our "first aid kit".

In Mwanza, Tanzania, I was admitted to hospital for a respiratory disease probably contracted in Rwanda the days before. I spend half a day in hospital on a drip before being told to spend 5 days in isolation in a hotel room, reporting to the hospital every morning for interveinal antibiotics.

Dorette de Swardt hospitalised in Mwanza, Tanzania

Getting lost happened all of the time - as you can imagine the case would be if you did not have a map. We always found our way again though, sometimes it just took a lot of time, petrol and arguing.

In Ethiopia we had to drive through the Highlands during the rainy season. Temperatures can drop to about 8°C and the mist and rain covers the landscape. You can't see much ahead of you and the rain pours down for hours on end at times.

We had no rain gear and only a hoody each as we had been driving through warm conditions all the way. Within the first 10 minutes we were soaked to the bone, puddles of water in our shoes and wet right to our skin. The icy wind and being open on the back of the bike made it almost unbearably cold.

In Sudan we took the wrong road to the border with Egypt and the tarmac came to a sudden end with nothing but desert ahead and about 250km to drive through it to get to the next town. Most bikes can't get through the sand, nevermind a 150cc with its thin wheels.

Pyramids at Meroe, North Sudan


Going back and taking the right road would have taken at least 5 days (a route of over 1400km) and we had only 6 days before our visas expired but more importantly there were only 4 days before the weekly ferry leaving the country departed. There is no road between Egypt and Sudan, you have to take the ferry and it only departs once a week - if you are lucky. So we had to hitch a ride with a truck and spent 30 hours travelling 150km through the Sahara desert ... unprepared and very hungry and thirsty.

In Egypt Guillaume had to spend a couple of hours in hospital, also for a respirator infection but was discharged after getting some oxygen, a drip and antibiotics.

19. Tell me some of your most scary/dangerous or just challenging experiences on this trip.

Definitely the fall on the highway heading out of Nairobi when our tire burst and a truck almost drove over us. That was a very, very close call and we were well rattled after that.

In Wad Medani, Sudan, a police officer in civilian clothing tried to cause some trouble. Initially for disobeying him because we did not stop when we passed him. He was not in uniform so we didn't know he was a police officer. He found us, forced us to go with him to the police station and was ready to lock us up.

Luckily his superior was busy watching the soccer match on TV in the police station and just wanted to get us the hell out of there before anyone scored a goal. So he checked our passports and told him and us to bugger off. Phew!

But, the policeman then followed us back to our "hotel" and tried to get us to go with him to his house where he would "sell us gold". I have to mention here that being in a country governed by Muslim law was different - we weren't sure what we could or could not do and how to deal with authorities.

Also, I had hardly any rights as a woman and was literally the only woman in town - all the local women were at home on the outskirts of town. Obviously we declined his offer for gold and were hoping to be rid of him but he came back, again.

The hotel mentioned was not really a hotel. It was a room on top of a shop with no electricity. It was already late at night and Guillaume had to leave to find petrol for the next day's drive whilst I had to get food for us for the next morning as we had to drive through the Sahara desert and had to leave long before the sun was up.

I stayed close to the "hotel" scouting the shops around it to find bread and water. After my husband left I saw that the policeman had waited for me outside the hotel. He engaged with me again, this time tying to get me to walk off with him for a cup coffee somewhere.

When I refused, telling him that I had to pack for our departure, he sat in front of the "hotel door" to "keep watch over me". It was very scary, not having my husband around and unsure if he was okay, sitting in the dark in the room all alone knowing that this power-high policeman was waiting for me outside.

For all I knew this man's buddies were holding Guillaume up somewhere. Knowing I was the only woman in the area made it so much worse.

After about half an hour there was a loud banging at the thick metal door between me and the shop but no answer when I asked who it was. I panicked; he had come for me and it was dark, I was alone and I had only a small can of pepper spray, which I wasn't even sure would still work.

The banging would not stop so I had no choice but to open up eventually. It was Guillaume! He did not hear me over the noise of the shop and the longer it took for me to open up, the longer and harder he banged at the door, worried that something had happened to me.

The policeman was still there but we locked ourselves in and decided to sneak out the next morning before he could cause any more trouble.

20. How did it feel, just the two of you, mostly alone and on the road?

Most of the time we did not get to speak to each other much because of the helmets and noise of the bike so there was so much time for thinking, on the open road with just the sound of the bike and your surroundings. We had seven months of introspect. It was lonely at times however - not being able to chat as one would in a car, or not being able to listen to music.

21. How do you think travel on a bike compares to other forms of transport?

There are pros and cons. It is definitely more difficult but it was worth it. In the cities we were never stuck in traffic and we felt more in touch with locals and our surroundings. We weren't "distracted" by other things (like sleeping in a car, chatting, music, eating) so we really just looked around us, at everything, all the time.

It felt like we did not miss much - even though there often wasn't much to see. I did learn to nod off at the back of the bike, especially on days that I was ill, but not for longer than a couple of minutes at a time, it was quite dangerous and I almost fell of once or twice.

Having such limited space made things tough. There were no luxuries or extras. Also, on a bike you are exposed to, and suffer because of, the elements like heat, cold, rain and dust and mud more than in a car.

Not being able to lock your vehicle is problematic wherever we stopped one of us would have to stay with the bike to guard our belongings. I think bikes aren't as comfortable and sociable as using a motorcar either.

22. How did others react to you?

Disbelief was the general theme. Most thought we were telling lies when we said we drove that bike all the way from South Africa, but it also created so many laughs and in general people were keener to help us out because of the way we were travelling.

Eating noodles in Tanzania

23. What's been your favourite destination/experience in Africa? Please share some of your best memories/stories?

Tanzania was amazing, from it's stunning beaches on the south coast to the savannah in the west, we loved all of it. The most bizarre thing was to see, and interact with Masai Warriors along the way! And, seeing Mount Kilimanjaro, knowing that we had driven all the way there, was a very triumphant moment.

Sudan was very special. It is not the kind of place you'd fly to for holiday and explore, so driving through it was such an extraordinary experience. Seeing the Pyramids at Meroe in the Nubian desert, where we spent the night camping in the desert with nothing and nobody around was probably one of the most surreal moments.

Getting to experience such strict Muslim culture - which is so different from what we are used to and often misunderstood in some ways - and just spending time in a country that is not really on most lists of places to see was a highlight for us.

Ethiopia is a must. This was our second time in Ethiopia and we will go there again. It is a very special nation, with a rich history, a unique culture and also so different from anything else you'd encounter in Africa.

24. Are you keen to travel more in Africa? Would you do it again on a bike?

Yes … and most of the time yes. If we could we would be back on the road now. But, our first child will make his/her appearance early in May so at the moment the only thing getting bigger than our wanderlust is my belly.

Biker on muddy clay in Tanzania

Some days we think; "God, never again on that bike" but other days we remember all the crazy things that happened and just want to pack up and go. We would love to travel the western part of Africa but perhaps we should see South America first.

25. How did this travel affect your relationship! I think that's a burning question as for us it was really, really tough!

You really get to know the best and the worst of each other when you spend 95% of your time just the two of you in each others' company. We had a lot of disagreements but we also had a lot of fun and became a good team.

Half way up the continent we just had to give each other a certain look to indicate what to do or say to an official or how to react (especially in difficult situations). Initially we had some great team building but the further north you move the more difficult things become and we unravelled quite a bit towards the equator.

Tanzania, although one of our favourite countries, was also the most difficult. We had so many fights. We did not see eye to eye on many things and being all alone, just the two of you, really makes things worse.

African kids painting bike

You have no moral compass or soundboard to tell you what to do. You can't go out with your friends to take a break or talk about your marital problems or ask your parents for advice. It is just the two of you, morning, day, evening and night. Emotionally you are in the dark, feeling your way around and hoping that you'd make it through.

Most of the time you are very hungry, tired and sore - you don't sleep well, you sit on a 150cc all day and you eat whatever you find, which often was nothing until dinner and then dinner was bread with chips. Your energy levels are low, you are dirty and tired, your body is aching and then you have to make important decisions or one of you makes a decision or does something that has a negative impact and everything explodes.

There were some really rough times and at one stage we had to sit down and contemplate if it would not perhaps be better to call it quits - the journey and our marriage.

But, we decided that that would just be stupid and once we found our stride, powered through our differences, and got used to the harsh conditions we were living in, we made a stunning team.

Elephant warning between Nata and Kasane, Botswana.

We often talk about all the things said, or sometimes shouted, in Africa's desolated landscapes and realise that the pressure brought everything to the surface to be dealt with all at once.

And now we are sorted out. The journey broke our relationship down but it also gave us the opportunity to rebuild it, from the bottom up, to resemble something better than anything it had before. It allowed us to shape our marriage and win ground in leaps and bounds, something that often takes other marriages ten years to do.

26. Where did you sleep at night?

We had a tent and camped most of the time. In Southern Africa you find a lot of camping spots but from Tanzania onwards it is more difficult. If we could not find camping we'd sleep in local hotels or even brothels (they were very cheap and we did not have a lot of money) and we desert-camped once too.

Camped at the pyramids, sudan

27. Apart from the expense, why did you choose to forgo a Carnet de Passage? It must've surely made your travels more difficult

We did not know how far the bike would go, so there was very little guarantee that we would get the money back. Also, we were never really planning on brining the bike back to South Africa money spent on the Carnet was money (probably) lost.

Yes, travelling without the Carnet made the journey very difficult at times (especially the border between Ethiopia and Sudan when we spent 8 hours trying to get in because of the lack of Carnet) but it also made for many great stories!

28. What is the best and worst food you encountered in Africa?

Best - Tanzania's Rice and Beans. We loved the stuff! It is exactly what it sounds like - plain rice with cooked beans.

In Kenya me made friends with a local man who took us to his house where his mother baked us a rice and coconut cake. It was fantastic. It is just rice, mushed up and mixed with coconut, then baked (but kind of more fried) on an open fire. Really interesting and delicious.

Egypt's street food. Shwarmas and bread rolls filled with all kinds of Mediterranean inspired cuisinefor under R15. Many travellers travelling from North to South don't like Egypt's street food so perhaps our standards were so low by this time that we found delectable what many others find disgusting. But we ate more in Egypt than perhaps any other country!

Oh, and the cheap local beer in all countries but Sudan and Egypt. Mmmm!

Worst - For me it was Enjerra, the staple food of Ethiopia. It is a flat pancake made from teff (a grass). The runny dough is left in the sun to ferment for three days, giving it its sour taste. I spent two weeks in Ethiopia eating basically only undercooked pasta with tomato sauce.

In the desert in Sudan we had nothing to eat for about 36 hours. In Wadi Halfa (in the Sahara at Lake Nasser) we found goats meat. We were so hungry - and it was the first meat we had since Addis Ababa - that we thought it was marvellous but thinking back, it really was not.

The meat was fried and often some pieces still had the animal's fur attached. We did not have forks so we would take the cubes by the fur and nibble as close as we dared to the skin. Disgusting now, but then it did not bother us at all - we went for seconds and ate basically only that and bread, twice a day from the same "restaurant" for the three days we stayed in town.

29. Any embarrassing travel moments?

In Ethiopia we were charged 30 Birr for a beer. We know that 30 Birr is not much but it should be between eight and 13 Birr. We already drank the beer so there was no going back but though we fought with the barman over the price he would not budge.

After making a huge scene, and angry at having been done in once again, Guillaume threw the money down on the bar counter and we stormed out of the bar. All the locals were staring at us and we were quite rude.

Two days later we ordered another beer at another bar in another town. The price came at 30 Birr. This could not be, we knew this was not the asking price. We asked the waiter to write down the price. Thirty she said, as she wrote down the number 13. Yes, thirty!

Seems many Ethiopians pronounce 13 as 30. We felt like such horrible travellers for being so very rude... but did find comfort in the fact that the barman must have been overjoyed at the massive tip the screaming ferangis (foreigners) gave him.

30. The craziest thing you did on your African trip?

There were a couple but two things jump to mind.

We decided to to wait in line and go through the whole "no we do not have a carnet and we refuse to pay bribes" scene at the border between Kenya and Uganda. So we stamped ourselves in and smuggled the bike into the country when officials weren't looking. Risky, but we got away with it.

Upon our first entry into Kenya, and after so much effort spent on getting the bike in, they asked me how long we planned on staying in the country. I panicked and in order to make it sound good I said "roughly three weeks". So they gave us an entry stamp and dated it for three weeks only.

A month later, after having left Kenya and travelled through Uganda and Rwanda, we had to enter Kenya once again, but our entry stamps had expired by then. Not willing to go through the whole process once more, I took a black pen and changed the three into and eight. If we got caught, we would have had some explaining to do, but we did not and we got into Kenya (for the second time) without any issues and had another 4 weeks to spend there!

31. The place you don't want anyone to know about but will share because you hope nobody will read this blog?

Hahaha! The pyramids at Meroe, Sudan as mentioned. For travellers' credit, the Moyale Route between Kenya and Ethiopia. It is one of the toughest things a traveller can do in East Africa and you can't say you've made it unless you went (or rather suffered) through it.

32. Do you care about your impact on the environment when you travel? If so, what do you do to limit your impact?

We care about our impact but eco-friendly travel was not our main goal. Many things are "green" in Africa if you think about it - although they really aren't big on not littering and in cities the streets are filthy.

In first world countries the focus is so much on going green because we are so spoilt for choice. In Africa, people walk because they have no cars or use bikes because they are cheaper.

They eat organic because there are no massive shopping malls to go to and they slaughter their meat themselves. They don't have electricity in many places so no need to tell them to switch off the lights when they aren't home. Geysers... what geysers? You get the idea.

We travelled, slept and ate local so we were part of this basic (or as it is known in first world countries, green) living. We did not go out of our way to minimise the impact our trip had on the environment but we believe in many ways the impact was relatively small in comparison with other vehicles.

Pyramids of Giza, Egypt

33. How have your travels and adventures changed you?

We got rid of many of the materialistic things in our lives and learned that we did not really need them. We also learned to measure the value of things - in money but also in other ways. Is this really worth what we are paying for it? - economically speaking but also emotionally speaking. Sometimes you need to splurge, other times you need to realise that you don't need that crap to be happy.

There are things that we found we can't live without but other things (like owning expensive cars or jewellery) that we have rejected entirely. We were a lot like this before our trip but our travels escalated it. Now we measure everything in travel … this is basically a ticket to Dar es Salaam or that costs the same as what a whole week on the Kenyan coast amounted to. What do we rather want?

The trip also made us quite hardened towards life's struggles, people's "first world problems" in some ways; we don't know if this is a good or a bad thing.

Fixing bike on the side of the road in Zambia

34. How much support did you have from others?

Except for emotional support we were on our own regarding our journey.
Friends pitched in a couple of times to donate to some of the charities that were dear to us - especially if we wanted to but could not support them financially.

The original website was built for us by a friend and we then added content and changed it as we went along. We did not have any help with the blog or website. Our Facebook page was initially just a way to keep our friends and families informed all at once - avoiding mass emails - but got quite a bit of a following after a while.

35. What are your thoughts on eco-travel?

If you are travelling with respect, always keeping in mind that it is a privilege to be able to travel and that you should approach a country and its people with esteem, you will be part of a lot of eco-tourism by default.

36. What advice would you give to someone else wanting to do a similar journey?

Just do it. Don't talk about it for years and never get around to actually doing it. Prepare for when you return but know that things will never be the same again so don't worry about falling right back into your old life after the probably won't want to or won't be able to anyway.

37. What's the most important thing travelling has taught you?

That there is so much more to life than what you are, do or see around you.

Bike camped in desert, Sudan

38. Future plans?

For now, baby then more travels if we can! Perhaps not such long extended travels, but if we have any say in it, we'll never stop seeing the world.

39. Your final travel 'pearl' of wisdom?

No matter your means of transport, travel light! Every kilogram you don't really need is really just a big thorn in your side.

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