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Big Trip special: Death defying trip to Africa

By Dave Rawlings -

General news

 03 January 2008 01:00

Shot at twice, nearly blinded and found dying at the side of the road – all in
a day’s riding.

Sam Manicom has travelled the world several times over and here he talks to MCN’s Events Editor Dave Rawlings about his death-defying adventures during his first trip to Africa.

I was working my way through the ranks of a department store chain in Jersey and was about to become area manager. Then all of a sudden I thought “there must be more to life than this”.

When I decided to go I didn’t even have a bike licence, but within three months I had a licence, a bike, I’d sold my house and was ready to go.

I was born in West Africa and lived there until I was 10; I wanted to go back there to see if it was how I remembered.

Some of the things I remembered were the same, such as the smell of the land. Africa has a unique smell just before the rain comes and that hadn’t changed.

The trip was going to take me through Wales, England, France, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland and back into South Africa.

For some of the journey I was travelling with another English couple, Mike and Sally. We’d heard so many stories about trouble in Sudan and Ethiopia that we decided to travel together for two reasons, the first safety in numbers and secondly Mike was a brilliant mechanic. The naysayers were proved right at the Sudan/Ethiopia border.

On the Sudanese side of the border everything is immaculate, the army wear perfect uniforms, the buildings are all breeze-blocked and whitewashed. The sentry box to cross the border has a proper barrier and guard.

On the Ethiopian side the barrier is a rope with some string hanging off it. And the road is pot holed with dogs wandering around and instead of an army it’s old men and young boys with guns. The kids were as young as 12 with AK47s that were as big as them.

There was even a group of them throwing a hand grenade between them, much like you see kids in England throwing a tennis ball.

Mike and I went in to sort out the paperwork, while Sally looked after the bikes. 

It was while we were in there that the two sides started shooting at each other. Sally was thrown to the ground and the children with guns were jumping on top of Sally trying to protect her. We ran out of the cabin to get to Sally whilst shots were being fired all around us.

It was terrifying, but it helped us out because the army Brigadier who wanted to throw us into prison (we’d upset him earlier in the day on the way to the border) wanted us away from there as fast as possible so we were ushered through. No-one wanted a dead tourist on their side of the border.

The British Embassy had had ‘advised’ us to stay away from Ethiopia but they had said under no circumstances should you go to Zaire. Our only other option was to put the bike on a plane and we didn’t want to do that, we wanted to ride.

We decided that the government will always err on the side of caution but there’s a big difference between being warned and being told not to go so we opted to miss Zaire and take Ethiopia instead.

We were warned by the British Embassy at Addis Abeba, Ethiopia, that travelling further south would be dangerous. But we thought we’d go and take it day by day.

The roads were great, we hardly saw any army or militia, people were waving at us and up in the mountains there were hailstones the size of golf balls that were shredding trees.

We’d made it halfway between Addis Ababa and the Kenyan border when we stopped at a little village where everyone told us not to go any further. We decided to ask a teacher, as they are usually well informed and even he said we shouldn’t go.

So we spent a day watching what the traffic was doing, because we’d worked out already that if buses and trucks were going then it wouldn’t be that bad.

We noticed that buses and trucks were going but none were coming back so it was either a good sign or a bad sign so we decided to ride the whole stretch in the day. We were about 50 miles from the Kenyan border when we saw the first signs that all was not well.

There was a minibus at the side of the street with smoke coming out of it, pools of blood at the side and belongings strewn everywhere.

We’d been warned about an army checkpoint in the bottom of a valley. If we were stopped the army would steal everything we had.

We got to the top of this hill and saw right into the valley where the army were set up with a tree across the road which they moved back and forth as people came along. We sat at the top of the hill, where it was quite cool and watched them all day.

As the temperature rose the soldiers got more lazy and stopped pulling the tree across properly. The road was steep enough that we coasted down the hill with our engines off.

By the time we got to the bottom we had built up enough speed and when we were about 25 yards from the check point we fired the engines, which started thank god, and gunned it through before they had time to pull the tree across.

We caught them by surprise and as we got through we heard a rattle of gunfire behind us. When we eventually made it to the border we were the first people to ride across Ethiopia north-to-south for 20 years.

When I was in Southern Africa, I had to cross the Namib Desert en route to Durban. I got to the edge of the desert and waited for four days at a place where I knew lots of travellers stayed the night before crossing. I wanted to find someone else to cross with.

Nobody came; it was an expensive place to stay and eating a hole in my budget. So I thought “sod it” and I went alone.

The riding was pretty good the sand was white so the glare was going to be bad but I was early and could see the undulations in the sand and everything was fine.

Then I saw in my mirror a 4x4 blatting up towards me, usually people in the desert stop and chat and make sure everything’s ok. This guy didn’t and as he went past I was surrounded in a big white cloud of sand and that was the last thing I remember.

Apparently the 4x4 didn’t hit me I had just ridden into a waist deep hole in the road and nosedived.

I woke up four days later in hospital; I’d actually been in four different hospitals in that time. I’d been found by two German tourists in their 4x4 who found me sitting at the side of the road.

My eyes were full of broken glass from my glasses and they used all of their water to wash my eyes out and if they hadn’t I would’ve been blind. I had 17 bone fractures.

The bike survived better than me. All the plastics snapped and were put in a box as was the rest of the bike. And the bike followed me from hospital to hospital as the locals arranged its transportation.

When I came out of hospital I got everything fixed locally for under £100 when it was about £800 worth of repairs.

I missed my scheduled cargo ship from Durban but after the bike and I were better I was back on the road and off again.

You can read about all of Sam’s amazing adventure in his book ‘Into Africa’, which can be bought from
www.sam-manicom.com