Coffee morning. Frail, pink light on the distant hills. [PubQuiz at breakfast]: You know about Napoleon's wife, right? Eager to go, loading bikes took ages. The venerable XR 600 already down with a puncture in the parking lot. An ill omen. FundiPhil does the change even though it's not his bike. Setting precedent. Above: Breakfast puncture repair It was big dirt past the Mbeya Range. Dusty dirt. Fesh-feshy dirt. The kind that puffs and piles as you ride through it, pulling at your tires. The light was already angry with us it seemed. Long stretches with trees and fields and a handful of humanity. An old brick cattle corral and squeeze chute next to an empty weekly market area looking ghostly and dry, suspiciously smell-free. Above: Dusty exodus Galula church, built almost a century ago by French White Fathers, would have seemed decidedly out of place if it weren't for its run-downedness, which matches the rest of the country. Awful lot of work to just let turn to dust, but that's a common and boring story here. The tracks from Google Earth I made had launched us north, but weren't exciting enough for the boys up to that point. There was grumbling among the troops. We needed a morale boost. Above: FundiPhil and the sugarcane, a lone baobab, Galula Cathedral So we doglegged it left on one of the other options from my digital recon mission. Track was smaller, more inviting. Fast, but narrower. It was choose-your-own-adventure kind of riding in some places. Still dusty. Very dusty. Moon and Mars dusty, also sandy and deep and the bush was thickening. There were few humans to behold apart from the seven of us raising an ungodly racket and atomizing the planet with our tyres. Above: In and out of the dust, bottoming out in the Songwe River Valley All that dust took us to the river I'd seen on Google Earth. I half expected it to be dry, but it wasn't. As usual, Bean took the first baptismal drop without hesitation. Following his success, we took turns crossing without incident until an overeager and winded PhatBilly twists one too many times on the throttle and lurches up the riverbank into the adjacent field, crashing to a stop in the thorn fence and riverine spike-reeds. Observers local and imported found the sight equal parts puzzling and amusing. Above: Fording the river Wet but drying fast, we climbed out of the valley on the escarpment's brushy flanks. High plains up there. Big views. Dry, scatty, scratchy were yonder hills and the sun like a slap in the face. So we stopped for drinks and a bike fix (Ajax's something or other bolt was misaligned). Then later, at the Amani Hotel in Bilajina village, we devoured rice, beans and beef until we were warped and bloated and only really wanted to sleep it off among the bones and chewed up fatty-cartilage joint bits like drunken knights of some cast away plastic-clad order. Above: Billy's fall and our beverage stop Above: Pay first before service (that means YOU, dusty biker hooligans) Above: Mr. Bean's hungry for beans But instead, we lit fire to the bikes. Another big dirt spread us out wide to avoid choking on one another's dust. Nobody complained and the bikes ate it up. The stony outcroppings and bluffs on the horizon, the lack of people and cars, the wide blue sky's vacuous depth, gold mining camps (formal and otherwise) and bush fires set the scene for the next act and entertained the senses. Above: Bikes, buttes and brushfires GilleMonster'd broken a subframe bolt on the 690 (If you're keeping track, that's 3 mech-issues so far). He had the sense or the luck to stop beneath a beautiful widereaching shadetree to allow us to help or supervise (blue collar/white collar) according to our willingness and abilities. Monster, Bean, Ajax and FundiPhil used chisel, hammer and hacksawblade (yes, Ajax carries all three) to remove the remains of the bolt while PubQuiz and I offered advice from a remote position and PhatBilly putzed around the edges feigning helpfulness. Two bikes passed in the meantime, carrying who knows what. Then appeared the googly-eyed, skirt- parka- and Wellington-wearing, oversize-helmeted, nutjob biker apparition from the north. Batshit only touches on the crazy here. He was flying towards us on an AG intent on some point in the distance and suddenly slammed on the breaks halfway past as if he'd only just caught sight of us. Disembarking, he mumbled this and that to an uncomprehending FundiPhil, commented sagely on the operation taking place on the 690 and posed for a few photos before vanishing into the dust like a fart in the wind. An odd, but good omen he turned out to be. Above: Nutballs and broken bolts, strict division of labour Because from there on, the road rocked. Deep sand. Thick forest. Nobody at all to be seen or imagined out there. The perfect temperature. The acute afternoon light flashing through the trees like a strobe at a rave, speed taking the place of X in our veins. Good honest riding. Above: Afternoon light to Gua Then, Gua all of a sudden. Our destination for the day. A little village, but a good one, with respectable digs (6 good rooms, concrete floors for the bucket bath and a cramped little storage closet for GilleMonstar to sleep in) and a competent outsourced staff (beers from the hotel, food from some lady acting as impromptu take-out and boiled egg and salt-roasted peanut delivery) that catered for us well above expectations. Cleaned up, and gassed up in advance for the next day, we worked on bikes and bodies as the sun sat and the kids thronged. Above: PubQuiz the thorn surgeon, FundiPhil on the bike Night fell and Thomas (local drunk and considerable pain in the ass) arrived to chat. PhatBilly, perhaps giddy with the day's ride, attempted politeness awhile before asking him to excuse himself (PhatBilly used other language) repeatedly until it became a rally cry for the team: "Rock Off Thomas!" We chowed down on a kilo of salty peanuts, sorted breakfast’s delivery, and devoured a massive rice and bean feast. The next day would be a long one on a small track through the wilderness. And not all of us would make it through unscathed. Above: Nightfall and Thomas Here's 6 minutes of the day's best clips... save one. Chasing Monster in the deepest dust, he suddenly vanishes into a cloud so thick it blocked out the light. I approached in the eerie twilight to find him waving like a lunatic next to the horizontal 690, frantically trying to keep me from ploughing into him. I swore I had the helmet cam going, but alas... Above: Mbeya to Gua, day 1's dusty riding and a river crossing More to come. Link to next day.