Big Trips special: Cotswolds to Cape Town, 12,474 miles

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With Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor riding on their adventure to Cape Town with support teams, film crews, sat nav, mechanics, doctors and satellite phones, MCN spoke to Nick Clarke who did the same trip without even taking a puncture repair kit...

I wanted to do something worthwhile for charity and my good friend Nick (Graham) wanted to do something as well. We had both previously lived in South Africa and one night in our local pub with a few beers, and a bit of bravado, inside us we said we would ride to Cape Town.

We both had charities close to our hearts; my son was diagnosed with leukaemia at the age of six and Clic Sargent, Barry Sheene’s charity, were great and helped us through it and Nick’s daughter suffers from anorexia so he wanted to do it for EDA.

It took two years of planning before we even got on the bikes.

We were hoping to set off in October 2006 and decided that the BMW off-road school in Wales would be a great training weekend.

Nick had only passed his test the year previously and didn’t fall off once; I however, have been riding for years and fell off countless times. If the course did anything it took the fear out of riding off road on big bikes.

When we set off we were both on second-hand BMW R1150GSs, mine had 15,000 miles already and Nick’s had 25,000 on the clock.

The guys at our local dealership, BVM Stroud, took out our catalytic converters as they pointed out that 95Octane petrol might not be that easy to get hold of. They were right. In Syria we had to put diesel in them, so they were a bit clunky towards the end.

Our original plan was to ride down to Marseille, get a boat to Tunis and ride the north coast of Africa to Libya, but two months before we were to set off the Libyans refused us entry so we had to go through Turkey, Syria and Jordan to get into Egypt, which added 2000 miles to our journey.

It also rained all the way from Gloucestershire to Turkey.

We had our first drama in France, as we were riding along the Parisian highway when one of Nick’s panniers fell off and scattered everything across the road, which they then had to close.

One day in and we were already a pannier down. We got through Europe as fast as we could because we felt that the fun would really began once we got to Egypt.

We followed the Nile down to the Red Sea. We’d got all this way without falling off once and then, two miles out of Aswan, in southern Egypt, we hit this road of molten tar – no road signs, no warnings, nothing.

We went for about a mile and both fell off. We limped into Aswan and had to try and clean all the tar off the bikes.

Whilst in Egypt we were really lucky, as it was Ramadan. There were no tourists whatsoever, so we managed to get these great pictures with no one in them.

We also got into a bit of trouble in Egypt. I had my air-saddle stolen off my bike and when I went to the police to report it they threw my statement back at me, saying I could not accuse anyone of stealing.

I had to say that I had misplaced my saddle and if anyone knew where it was, would they return it.

This was so the crime figures didn’t look bad for the tourism industry. Needless to say, no-one admitted to finding it.

We then wanted to go into Sudan, which you can only do by boat. The boat only runs once a week and vehicles follow in a barge behind.

Because it was Ramadan the boat was hardly running and the barge wasn’t going at all. We had to carry our bikes on to the passenger ferry and leave them in the onboard restaurant, its not easy lifting 240kg of bike on to a boat.

When we got to the other side we then realised there were no roads, no signs and very little except soft sand. We had to follow the lorry tracks and within half a mile we both had fallen off.

And it was like that for six days until we got to Khartoum. We went for three days without food and dropped the bikes loads.

After you drop the bike for the third time you just leave it there and camp. This was a low point and we really started to argue due to tiredness and hunger.

Also some mornings we’d wake up in the desert and there’d be wolves circling our tent, which was quite unnerving and added to our misery.

When you arrive in Sudan you have three days to get to a police station and confirm you’re in the country. As we were struggling to get anywhere fast we registered late. And as we were leaving the Sudan we were arrested because our passports weren’t stamped.

And they weren’t going to let us go until we paid them huge amounts of money. Well, $80, but that was more than a week’s worth of food. We also lost the second of Nick’s panniers in Sudan.

We got held up at the Ethiopian border for 24 hours but then we had the most amazing ride through the Ethiopian Mountains. It’s known as the roof of Africa and you can see why, no roads and no other traffic but fantastic riding.

We went into Kenya next and the roads were like the surface of Mars, red loose gravel and ruts so deep that the cylinder heads were hitting the side of them, jerking the wheel and sending us flying over the top.

Our bikes’ suspensions were taking a hammering. We got to Marsabit just as the monsoon season was starting and had to load our bikes onto a cattle truck for a couple of hundred kilometres whilst it poured down – doing this somehow managed to cut my ABS cable.

So with my rear shock gone and my ABS broken it was like riding an air bed as we limped into Nairobi. We took it to a BMW dealer who couldn’t find another shock. We couldn’t get one from Germany, South Africa or anyone else.

We eventually got one sent from BVM Stroud, where we’d got the bikes from, which arrived within two days.

When we were riding in Zambia a herd of elephants crossed the road in front of us, which was quite scary.
When we were 1000 miles away from Cape Town we stopped for a night after riding 900kms.

I didn’t realise but my pannier had been sitting on the exhaust all day and as I took it off it burst into flames so I lost all my clothes and we were down to one pannier.

I wouldn’t say that the trip was life-changing, but travelling through certain countries you have your faith in human nature restored.

The Sudanese people have nothing. They have a war going on and yet they were the most hospitable people and any food or water they had they were willing to give to us. We were never short of water thanks to the generosity of the people of Sudan.

It’s also amazing what you can learn without realising it. We only had paper maps and no sat-nav, so we learnt where we were going by the sun and the stars without really knowing what we were looking at. As long as the sun was on our left in the morning we were going the right way.

Throughout the trip we rode from sunrise to sunset and we probably only stopped for lunch three or four times. We wanted to be in Cape Town for December 15, which is my son’s birthday and a celebration of him being in remission for six years, so we were under certain pressure.

We gave ourselves 70 days and got to Cape Town in 69 so it was pretty close.

We both lost one and a half stones on the 12,474-mile trip, which we completed on one set of tyres. We didn’t have one puncture and the bikes were amazing, even with the beating which they weren’t supposed to take and having everything from 80 octane petrol to diesel put through them. We’re both still riding them now.

Overall we raised a total of £124,000 which we split between the two charities, which made the whole trip worth while.

To read about Nick and Nick’s complete journey, visit their website at

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Dave Rawlings

By Dave Rawlings