Big Game, Big Fun

Albee's African Bike Safaris

Close your eyes for a moment and try to picture your ultimate getaway. Apart from location, who would you go with and what would you do? The last 20 years of my life have been consumed by motorcycle riding and have taken me all over the world. I've covered races in Austria, the Czech Republic, England, France, Spain and Switzerland. I've ridden in Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico, Peru and all over the United States, including Hawaii. But I never expected that I would find nirvana riding in Africa with three-time world champion Greg Albertyn.

I always imagined my dream vacation taking place on some exotic tropical island with a beautiful blonde--my wife--on my arm. Motorcycles would be part of the equation as long as the dirt was loamy and the single-track challenging. Africa, however, proved to be just the opposite. Riding in this unfamiliar land wasn't all that out of the ordinary; it was actually one of the easiest, least challenging things I have ever done on two wheels. Yet Africa captured my imagination.

But before we get into that, let me tell you what brought our group to this rugged, untamed territory.

I was fortunate enough to take part in the maiden voyage of Albee's African Bike Safaris. This is a joint venture between Albertyn and his older brother, Colin. We were promised the experience of a lifetime, the rare opportunity to see wild animals up close and first-class hospitality. When Albee told me about his plans, it sounded impossible. His promises had exaggeration written all over them.

By the end of the first day I realized I had totally underestimated this trip. First off, the accommodations were stunning. Day One we rested at a small game lodge full of personality and character. By the end we'd stayed at three such places, each slightly different from the others but all very inviting and staffed with friendly people skilled in the fine art of making American tourists feel at home.

Along the way we partook of several activities. We started our trip by visiting Victoria Falls, which some consider one of the seven wonders of the natural world. More than a mile wide and 355 feet tall, this is nearly twice as wide and twice as tall as the Niagara Falls, and is an amazing display of Mother Nature's raw power. We also toured the world's largest crocodile farm--home to over 45,000 predators soon to be turned into belts and handbags--and an island where the government relocated 60 black rhinos to keep them safe from poachers. Aside from the 400 miles we rode on the fleet of electric-starting Suzuki DR-Z400s, we did a lot of traveling by boat, which added a different element to our trip and was something that none of the other adventure groups we've used have included in their normal packages. Boat travel also offered a unique way to see the things we wanted to see the most, which was the incredible wildlife that lurked everywhere. That brings up this caveat: Although you may see animals while riding, for the most part they are afraid of the noisy bikes. It's only after you turn off the engine and stand still for about 10 to 15 minutes that beasts of all shapes and sizes start to emerge. Also, the time of day that we rode was when most of the animals were resting. A good time to see large game is in the early morning or late afternoon hours while they are feeding. This is actually ideal because it keeps them off the road when you are riding and minimizes the chance of a collision. Still, we kept our eyes peeled at all times for the occasional stray that would wander into our path--and yes, it did happen.

But you owe it to yourself to wake early and stay up late to go on one of the many optional driving or walking safaris. This is where we received the richest rewards Africa has to offer. A lot of the animals near the places we stayed are actually accustomed to the Land Rovers that can hold 11 people in tiered theater style seating. This is how we found the biggest game, and were able to get within 30 feet of crocs, elephants, warthogs and zebras. You can see much of the same animals by foot, but walking is best to see smaller animals like monitors--a type of large lizard--and a wide array of birds.

A final highlight of the trip was the last night when we slept on a houseboat. Now this wasn't the typical houseboat like you'd use on Lake Mead in Nevada. In fact, it was more like a 75-foot fishing vessel, but it definitely exceeded our expectations.

Because the weather was so pleasant when our group went at the end of May and the beginning of June, we wore shorts when not riding, and while on the boat, slept on the deck instead of in the four rooms. Along with the two speed boats that were tethered to the ship named Shenandoah, we docked at a small island in one of the many channels of Lake Kariba. At one time this was the largest man-made lake in the world. And because nighttime is not disturbed by televisions, cell phones, diesel trucks, police cars or any other man-made disturbances, most of the interior of Africa abounds with amazing sounds as the animals go about their normal routine. Forget hearing a pin drop; if a hippo passes gas, every creature within a mile radius will hear. The sounds are absolutely incredible, and yet everyone claimed to have gotten some of the best rest in their entire life.

As you would expect in a third-world country with so much wide-open space, there are few restrictions. And because tourism is one of the country's primary sources of income, we didn't get hassled at any of the airports. Even though we brought in enough gear bags to stock a large dealership in Anytown, U.S.A., we walked right past customs with just a smile and a wave.

One of the things that surprised me most is that none of us wanted to leave. You know how you can go on vacation and after a few days you start suffering from homesickness as well as sensory overload? Well, that wasn't the case on this trip. The things that I thought I could never live without like Starbucks, pizza and satellite television never entered my mind. The crew at Albee's African Bike Safaris did such a fantastic job of entertaining us the entire time with things like booze cruises, campfires and sightseeing, that we never had any downtime to miss home.

About the only thing that I would do differently next time is take my whole family, and I'm already planning a return trip for 2003.

HOW THE TOURS WORK
The groups are limited to 10 riders including the two members of the safari staff. Most trips last seven days in Africa, with about four to five days of riding. Typically, people will fly into Johannesburg on South African Air (a Delta affiliate) and then take a 90-minute flight to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Before arrival, Albee's crew will discuss options with the eight riders to determine what they want to do and see. Tour operators will make slight deviations to the normal route upon request. Cost per rider is $5600 with airfare ($3900 without), and includes everything from accommodations and meals to loaner Suzuki DR-Z400Es, fuel and all normally planned activities. Albee's African Bike Safaris is also equipped to handle people who don't want to ride, but do want to experience the adventure. These people can ride in one of the support vehicles. For more information, call 909/688-9900 or visit www.albeessafari.com.

SAFETY PRECAUTIONS
Because motorcycle riding is inherently dangerous even without having to worry about all the wild animals, Albee and his crew have taken some extreme measures to ensure the safety of all participants. For starters, there are two game wardens--one who leads the group and another who rides sweep--and at least one packs a sidearm at all times. There are also two four-wheel-drive support vehicles that carry spare parts, a rifle, food and water. In the event of an emergency, each member of the group is insured with MARS (Medical Air Rescue Service). Using a handheld GPS and the satellite phone, the group can call in Life Support which will dispatch a King Air aircraft that can land in the bush. It's not exactly like calling 911, but it does give you peace of mind so that you don't feel like a researcher stranded in Antarctica.

TIPS AND OTHER THINGS TO KNOW
As you would do with any travel outside the U.S., consult your doctor to see if there are any special precautions you should take. All visitors to Zimbabwe will need a drug to fight malaria. Most doctors will prescribe a series of pills called Lariam that is taken once a week.

Fortunately you don't have to worry about the drinking water and the need for bulky purifiers or iodine tablets. Everywhere we went there was plenty of bottled water, but you might want to stay away from juices and anything that is not cooked. Only one member of our group suffered from the Pepto-Bismol Express, me, and that only lasted one night, and was cured with a dose of the pink medicine.

You also don't need to worry about a visa to enter Zimbabwe. They can be purchased at the airport for $30. All you need is a passport.

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