In Africa with motorcycles and cigars
Text: Heinrich Villiger / Photos: Werner Roux
A cigar tour put to the test. With 110 HP beneath him and an abundant supply of cigars, Heinrich Villiger (81) and friends did a tour from Windhoek to Cape Town. Here is his report.
What draws a cigar smoker to Africa? It’s not as if cigars are manufactured or well-known cigar tobacco is cultivated there. This is the general opinion of cigar lovers. The first statement is true; the second, false. The wrappers from Cameroon and the Central African Republic (CAR) qualify among the top class. Unfortunately, in the last few years, production thereof has decreased considerably, so that these types of tobaccos hardly have a greater importance on the world market. In Malawi an excellent dark fired tobacco is produced from Kentucky seeds, which is essential for the manufacturing of a high-grade Halfzwaare or Zwaare fine-cut for roll-your-own cigarettes. But the large and undamaged leaves are also processed by the cigar industry as wrappers for “black” cigars; smaller leaves and sections go in the filler. Throughout my decades of work in the cigar industry, I have bought very large amounts of tobacco in Africa. Not only provenances from the previously mentioned countries, but also delicious filler tobacco from the Peoples’ Republic of Congo (Congo Brazzaville) and from Angola. Decades ago, though, cigarillos were also produced in Africa, which is why back then, the Swiss company Rinsoz & Ormond (Vevey) had a subsidiary in Bouaké (Ivory Coast) – no longer operating – and SEITA, the former French tobacco monopoly, produced cigarillos in Bangui in the Central African Republic (CAR). Many business trips took me to these countries; two years ago, for the first time, also to the tobacco growing regions of the South African Republic, where tobaccos are cultivated for the national smoking tobacco, sniffing and chewing tobacco production. Here, too, the World Health Organization (WHO) dug up the hatchet against tobacco consumption. But despite this, in these poorest countries of the world, tobacco is also one of the daily small pleasures of a population that does not benefit from the blessings of our civilization and has other problems besides smoking bans.
The standard mode of transport for my trips into tobacco growing regions were Landrovers, as a general rule, and more than once I dreamed of being able to dash through these constantly changing wonderful landscapes on a motorbike. This opportunity arose in November 2011, and this with a group of entrepreneurs who for many decades have indulged in motorcycling – all of them cigar smokers, by the way. The group was composed of eight motorcyclists – the six aforementioned, including me, an American guest and the tour guide Jurgen, who runs such trips in southern Africa professionally. With the exception of the American guest, who, due to his small build had to use a smaller BMW, we all rode BMW 1200 GS, a so-called road enduro. The group was followed by a cross-country support vehicle carrying our luggage – with a trailer for all needs, for example for loading a possibly damaged bike.
All participants met up on the eve of our departure in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. I first became a little uneasy when the tour guide Jurgen Muess eyed me up and down somewhat critically and casually mentioned that he had never had an over-80-year-old on any of his trips. It became clear to me what he meant by that after we set off the next day. For our first leg to Swakopmund on the Atlantic Ocean, 400 kilometers lay ahead of us. Jurgen took off with a small head group, and after 10 minutes they had all disappeared – despite the legal maximum speed limit of 120 km/h. I followed with the rest of the group without any problems – the oncoming trickle of traffic warned us of the few radar traps by flashing their lights. With empty tanks, we all met up again on the outskirts of Swakopmund. So that was the prelude to what was to come. As long as we rode on asphalted roads, I didn’t have any problems following Jurgen – even if a bit behind. But the hell began the next day.
From Swakopmund we travelled south toward Cape Town, that is, in daily legs of between 360 and 400 kilometers – a total of about 3000 kilometers from beginning to end. It wasn’t long until the asphalted roads ended – and then came gravel and dirt tracks up until the Namibia/South Africa border. I’m not a so-called off-road-rider, but I did quickly get used to riding on gravel and trails – just like the other friends. It became more difficult when we had to ride through fords (dry for this time of year) where the debris had collected. But here there’s only one solution: close your eyes and put your foot on the gas – where, actually, you should have your eyes open. Even trickier was the part where individual stretches were blown over with loose drifting sand. Here, sometimes, I couldn’t summon enough strength to steer my vehicle through the breeze. Then we loaded it onto the trailer for the critical stretches – a concession to my 81 ½ years.
But we were compensated for our exertions by the splendid and magnificent landscapes, above all in Namibia, which is almost indescribable. There were long stretches of regions devoid of people – no houses, no humans, no fields – just the endless road leading into the vastness, each motorbike leaving behind it a long trail of dust. But sometimes there was a herd of antelopes or zebras, or once a mother ostrich with her young, like a flock of chickens passing over the track. Highlights of the trip were the Namib Naucluft Park, with its world-famous dune landscape, and Fishriver Canyon – after the Grand Canyon in the USA, the world’s second-longest canyon. Around half-way through the trip we crossed the border to South Africa in Vioolsdrif, in a valley where the temperature was 46.5° Celsius. Here we sweated profusely under our motorbike outfits. Slowly the landscape became greener and more agricultural. The closer we got to the Cape the more European the landscape became. We rode through the vast vineyards and, toward the end, another stretch along the Atlantic Ocean – from Hermanus to the Cape of Good Hope – before returning our motorcycles in Cape Town.
The journey was strenuous and demanded a lot of concentration. The accommodation in lodges and simple family hotels along the way were perfect; the food and board was impeccable and varied. And the wonderful thing about it was that every evening, with a good glass of wine and an excellent premium cigar, we enjoyed a magnificent starry sky.