The Beast

Transporting bicycles through Africa is no easy task.  Milton (of MK Cycles, our Sister Shop in Zimbabwe) shares with us the details of the various interruptions he encountered while hauling 41 second-hand bicycles from Gaborone to Bulawayo.

As I said, my trip back to Bulawayo with the bikes was an epic adventure of sorts. I had initially hoped to leave Gabz early on Friday morning, but when I showed up to collect the truck and trailer we discovered that The Beast didn’t have a "blue book" (vehicle registration) and that it was still registered to its former owner who had long left Botswana.  At this point, we were really screwed! Then enter Jane; one of Rob’s finest in my humble opinion.. we quickly proceeded to misrepresent to the police and transport department (in the nicest and closest-to-legal way we could) that we had been sent at just that moment by the original owner to get a new blue book for her.  And I guess our combined awesomeness was proof enough that we weren’t a pair of crims up to something dodgy and they signed our affidavits etc. and sent us on our merry way; blue book in hand!!  Of course, it took most of the morning and a bit of the afternoon, but it was beter than the two alternatives (i.e. no trip or prison for presenting false info to the police).  The next step was easy; getting the vehicle cleared by the police for international travel. This took us about two hours and at promptly 15:30 we were ready to roll.

The driver (Washington) and I hooked the trailer to our trusty vehicle and proceeded to the filling station where we gave The Beast 76 litres of yummy diesel. This, as you would know, isn’t a problem if the car you are filling up has an actual diesel engine. The Beast, however, runs a 24 valve, 6 cyclinder petrol engine (clear proof that a tough manly exterior can be fueled by sweet fruity wines and ciders!!).  We only had to drive two hundred meters before the error of our ways was clearly apparent. The Beast began to lurch violently and belch out thick plumes of white smoke. I then rushed back to the filling station to ask for a spanner and extra containers so we could drain all the fuel and called Terry and Rob and Steve and Boz to let them know what had just happened. To my surprise, no one reacted as though something cataclysmic had happened. But  I was gutted. I had just wasted $100.00 of fuel , a few more dollars on the guys from the filling station who helped us out, nearly killed the car that Rob had freely lent to us, wasted Terry’s time and money on a mechanic (Terry came over with a mechanic to help us out and called a mechanic to make sure the car was fine) and wasted our own time all in one stroke. I spent much of the night mourning and obsessing over my careless mistake and mourning what it had cost.

Fortunately, the plug on all Toyotas is easy to find but unfortunately, if you’re not a regular hand, it takes a bit of time to unscrew and also involves a fuel shower. Needless to say, three hours were spent correcting this unfortunate misadventure and at around 20:00 I had washed all the diesel away and we were once again on our way towards Zimbabwe.

We drove steadily (read as very very slowly) because we knew we only needed to get to Francistown at 8 the next morning and we even stopped at 3am to catch some zzz’s. But at around five in the morning we had our first encounter with the police. We were stopped and promptly fined for driving a trailer without a registration disc. At the time, we must have been very very sleepy because we, too, looked for the disc but could not find it.  But it was in fact hidden under the tarp we’d put over the trailer. And so we paid a BWP100.00 fine and pressed on towards the border. We passed through the Francistown without incident even though we had to stop briefly to refuel and rest. Unfortunately, we left without having breakfast because we overestimated the efficiency of our customs officials. We arrived at the border and around 8:30 and whisked through the Botswana side. At the Zim side, however, we were immediately presented with three challenges.

1. They refused to clear the car for entry because I was a Zim resident and the car was Botswana registered.  This is despite the fact that we had stamped and certified letters giving me "authority and permission to use the vehicle anywhere in Botswana, Zimbabwe, south Africa and Namibia."

2. An internet-based Zimra entity known as "The System" was working in sporadic stops and starts and so the clearing agent could not register our documentation. This is especially funny because the Facebook on all the computers at the border seemed to be working just fine

3. The staff at the border (clearing agents especially) aren’t the brightest of stars.

We immediately set upon solving the only problems we could. We asked Terry to send us new versions of the letters of authority for the vehicle and proceeded to print and sign them on his behalf. And we also encouraged our clearing agent and Zimra staff to hurry up with a combination of smiles, threats, and long moments of time to let them work on our stuff.  It may seem as though these are solutions which are easy to implement, but the fruits of our labour only materialized at 21:30 hours, when at last we got our paperwork and left the border for Zimbabwe. We were both totally famished at this stage, but mercifully we made it to Bulawayo a little after midnight (we were delayed at each of the three roadblocks by police hoping that the bikes had either been stolen or smuggled into the country).

Having learnt from our first batch of bikes, I thought that I’d spend Monday doing inventory and catching up on MK Cycles news. I also thought I’d send my documents ahead so all the unnecessary delays could take place BEFORE we got there.

And so we set off for Francistown  on Tuesday morning to pick up our second batch of bikes and were twice stopped and fined for faulty brake lights on the trailer.  We also stopped as we passed through the border to make sure our clearing agents received our paperwork. “I’ve been working on it,” the (silly) man said. When we got to F-town, there was driving rain and somehow one of the wipers on the car had packed up.  And also, our contact had taken a road trip somewhere and it would be at least an hour and a half before he got back.  So we passed away the time by having a healthy lunch and praying the rain away. As is the custom in Africa, our guy showed up two hours later and we spent a further 45 minutes packing the bikes.  We arrived at the Bots border at around 18:00 and spent thirty minutes sorting ourselves out there and then proceeded to the Zim side where disappointment galore lay in wait.  Not only had our clearing agent done very little, but he’d also gone home for the night and refused to come back and get our papers done. In a fit of rage, I promptly found another clearing agent who promised that he would work on our stuff quickly and charged us to be at the border at 08:00 the next morning.  I left him my papers and the trailer at the border.

The next morning, we were at the border looking for our shiny new clearing agent.  We found him lounging around in his office. He then told us how he hadn’t worked on our documents because he was afraid of our old clearing agent.  After I’d told him very roundly that if he said he’d do it and that I’d be unpleasant to both of them if he didn’t get himself into gear, he went to contend with our old foe; The System.  He managed to tell The System that MK Cycles was at the border but he didn’t tell it that we were income tax registered (this error cost us $65.00 and cost him $50.00).  At the sheer weight of his announcement, the system collapsed and the internet was rendered good for nothing other than Facebook.  It returned at around 16:00 and finally we were told we were “free to leave” at 17:30-ish, but Zimra had questions for us first.  For the next thirty minutes we were quizzed about why we bought second-hand bikes, why they cost so little, and finally, why the fonts on our last two invoices were different. They seemed satisfied and set to let us go, but them they had yet another question; "are you sure you have just 41 bikes in that trailer??????"

By this time, all I wanted to do was do a Genghis Khan and fill a mass-grave with clearing agents and Zimra guys.  But instead, Washington and I unpacked the trailer, counted the bikes and then reloaded them. This time we left the border at 22:30 and after the customary police stops, we were in bed at around 1 in the morning.

Fortunately, The Beast braved this ordeal nearly as well as we did and only needed minor repairs, coolant, oil and regular drinks of the correct fuel. We returned him in one piece on Thursday…..

So there it is, how I got all the bikes to the shop.  Between now and the next time, I hope something changes to make it quicker and less costly.