Uuzilo participants’ stories are theirs to tell, should they wish.
Stephanie, 34, a U.S. Navy veteran from Greenville, SC, lost her partner of nine years in a motorcycle accident. In her grief she reached out to Uuzilo, then participated in its first motorcycle expedition in 2018. The following, in her own words, is Stephanie’s story:
“The piercing ring of my phone awoke me from a deep sleep. Struggling to see, the screen flashed, it was Frank’s mom. I horsely answered. Her hysterical voice asked, “Is Frank with you, is he home?” State Troopers, she said, had just informed her that Frank had been involved in a motorcycle accident on I-85 and had been killed. In that instant, the life I knew slipped away, like a wine glass shattering on the ground into a million pieces, never to be pieced together again.
It has been two months since Frank’s death and I’m barely treading water. I am angry all the time. I have no time to process, to grieve, to figure out how to live in this new life. During this period of despair I learned of a new non-profit, Uuzilo, which takes people suffering from loss and puts them on a motorcycle — in Africa — allowing the silence, beauty and experience of the African people and wildlife to help them heal. I now anticipate my Africa expedition will provide a life-altering experience for myself and [Uuzilo participants] who may follow in my dust.
I have always loved to ride motorcycles and wish to continue to ride to honor Frank’s memory.”
We arranged to visit Stephanie in April of 2018 at her home in South Carolina, determining she would participate in Uuzilo’s first expedition. While in the area we were invited to visit the nearby BMW Performance Center and U.S. Rider Academy. Gary Hardin, Chief Motorcycle Instructor, graciously offered to train all Uuzilo participants prior to their departures for Africa, beginning with Stephanie. On May 20 she climbed aboard a BMW R1200GS and drove off-road for the first time.
Tucker and Arai helped out with a helmet, “...if I’m being totally honest.....I’d rock the pink and white girly one in a heart beat LOL.”
With thoughtful instruction Stephanie met challenges presented by South Carolina heat and terrain with enthusiasm, determination, and newly refined skills which will serve her upcoming expedition in Africa.
In Virginia we attended RVA Bike Night where we met Brian Pangelinan of Tucker, who is helping Stephanie and Uuzilo with gear, and Allen Butler, former U.S. Army (Iraq/Afghanistan), who honored all playing his pipes...
...and Bryan Estes, Sgt. U.S. Army and Firefighter/EMT with Henrico (VA) Station 21, gave us a CLS (combat life saver) “brush up” in the Virginia “bush” saying, “I’ll teach you the same thing I teach my Joes!”
Stephanie expedited her passport application for her first overseas trip (not aboard a Navy vessel) while Uuzilo’s Director expedited making a passport holder for her July departure.
June, 2018, Limpopo, South Africa - We arrived ahead of Stephanie to make final arrangements and inspect and service the bikes with fresh oil, brake pads, and tires suitable for Namibia.
When original parts are unavailable, “ ’n boer maak ’n plan” (the farmer makes a plan).
As we were preparing to depart for Africa, Garmin generously provided Uuzilo with an inReach Explorer satellite communicator to help ensure our safe journey.
With only a few days remaining before her departure for Africa, Stephanie sorts her thoughts and gear at her home in South Carolina, finding inspiration in the young poet, Erin Hanson.
June 28, 2018, Stephanie boarded Delta Airlines’ sixteen-hour direct flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg, South Africa. The following evening, after our four-hour drive from Limpopo, we met her at O.R. Tambo airport, picked up pizzas, and checked into a high-rise Holiday Inn in nearby Pretoria -- all feeling like we were still in the States. The following morning we were reassured Stephanie would fit nicely into our routine when she beat us to coffee.
We returned to Limpopo where Stephanie, who was a welder in the Navy and later trained as a BMW mechanic, quickly took up inspecting the BMW R1200GS she would ride during the expedition, making a few minor repairs and applying a navigational a cue to remind her on which side of the road to drive.
After a day of wrenching and familiarizing herself with her bike we took Stephanie for a ride in the mountains of Limpopo. The BMW U.S. Rider Academy training was immediately evident as she popped up, “meerkat” style, and handled the bike off-road with confidence she otherwise would not have had.
After her first ride a day was spent sorting equipment and packing the bikes. With help from the “kleintjies” (little ones), Stephanie tested a tent donated by REI in Washington, DC.
July 4, 2018 -- Independence Day -- Stephanie set off on Uuzilo’s first motorcycle expedition. She eased onto the road while acclimating to the weight of a fully-loaded bike. Crossing South Africa from Limpopo in the northeast to the Northern Cape on the west coast in some 1,500 motorway kilometers over three days her confidence grew daily, allowing us to encourage her to ride off the front -- to “discover” -- during the final day’s ride to the ocean where we saw flowers in Namakwaland (thanks to recent rains) and Stephanie saw the sunset on the Atlantic for the first time. Discoveries for all.
After a couple days rest and allowing the winds to subside we crossed into Namibia (Stephanie’s first border crossing) and drove the newly paved road through a stiff wind to Rosh Pinah where we put in fuel and took on water and provisions for an overnight in the veld. After another twenty kilometers of tar Stephanie finally experienced a gravel road (previously a challenging track of dust and pits, now graded -- one of the best gravel roads we have traveled) allowing her to “comfortably” adjust to conditions we would travel throughout Namibia. With some more off-road instruction we established a pattern of driving ahead of Stephanie and waiting for her to navigate difficult sections at her own pace, free of our dust. We followed the Orange River along the Namibia/SouthAfrica border where we eventually made “wild camp” near the river, prepared steaks and coffee over the fire, and gazed upward explaining to our “sailor” why the North Star was not visible in the magnificent southern sky.
The following day we entered some of the most desolate and beautiful sections of Namibia, skirting along the southeast boundary of the Fish River Canyon. The roads became slightly more corrugated, but Stephanie went well carrying a little more speed and confidence while realizing motorcycle travel in Africa is taxing mentally and physically.
We reached our next stop after a short day on the road and quickly set up camp and washed some clothes. We then set off to the Fish River Canyon viewpoint where we enjoyed the canyon’s beauty, Stephanie updated friends and family with the Garmin inReach, and we all got to know each other a little better. Stephanie’s sore throttle arm received some “bush therapy.” With camp already made we enjoyed a rare and beautiful sunset ride “home” (we never -- unless absolutely unavoidable -- drive after dark).
“It reminded me of a roadtrip I took with Frank in the desert,” Stephanie reported after the long, hazy meander across the Namibian plain.
A routine was soon established: coffee, discussing hazards of the “road,” maintenance, stop-hydrate-enjoy-the-view. Stephanie’s confidence and skill grew as road conditions gradually deteriorated.
We made camp in the old German farming town of Helmeringhausen where we climbed a nearby koppie (rock outcrop) and signaled to Stephanie (with voice and “flash”) while she signaled friends and family with the sat-communicator.
Namibian roads are identified by letter and number, generally categorized in descending alphabetical order depicting road quality (A’s and B’s indicate the few tar motorways; C-roads indicate well-travelled, “well-maintained,” gravel roads; D-roads are less-traveled with possible sand; and so on). We carefully made our way north along D-roads, as the heavily traveled C-roads bear the bulk of tourist traffic and the Namibian road graders struggle to keep up (conditions deteriorate with loose gravel, sand, and corrugation). To make our destination of Sossusvlei, the most visited site in Namibia, we were forced to navigate C-roads (C19), which presented Stephanie with her greatest challenge thus far.
“I know better than to quit on a bad day,” she confided along the way.
With encouragement and establishing intermediate goals (“the next hill, the next tree, the T-junction”) we made it to our [Sossusvlei] camp where a jubilant Stephanie greeted perfect strangers with the feat of her day.
The next morning we set off early to visit Sossusvlei (bikes are not allowed in National Parks, so we hitched), the “Dead Marsh,” where the seasonal (occasional) Tsauchab river drowns in a sea of red sand, deep in the Namib. The enormous dunes, cracked earth, and isolation left Stephanie with a sense of reverence, inspiring her to look inward:
“When you are most vulnerable, someone will walk into your heart and leave deep footprints. Sometimes it’s for a good reason, most times it’s not. So your heart becomes like that dry desert bed. Dried, cracked and nothing grows on it and everything planted there just withers away. Then everyone that comes afterwards walks on the hardened surface without leaving a mark, unable to tell they were there at all.
I think I am that way now. I am just waiting for the rain to come.”
By mid-day the heat became oppressive and the wind began to turn the eastern skies -- the direction of our camp -- to brown. We returned to find our tents straining in the gale. Inside, our sleeping bags partially buried in sand. We hastily packed for the eighty-kilometer ride to Solitaire where we knew shelter and food waited. An overland guide had informed us the roads were not bad, citing a few patches of corrugation. Indeed, we encountered rattling conditions that took its toll on the bikes, but Stephanie went well. After assuring ourselves she was through the last difficult stretch of sandy gravel, we sped off the final thirty kilometers to secure camping and food for the night as Stephanie made her way cautiously behind. In Solitaire we found our long-time mountaineering friend, Pasquale, an American who owns the petrol station, restaurant, and nearby rest camp -- an oasis for dusty travelers. While organizing our accommodation a passing tourist located us, clad in our jackets and helmets, and informed us Stephanie was stranded on the side of the road, unhurt. We rushed back to her ensuring her safety and flagged a passing vehicle to provide her with a lift. Meanwhile, Pasquale sent a truck to recover the bike, which had lost a rear suspension bolt in the final stretch of corrugation. We were all safely in Solitaire by sunset where we feasted at Pasquale’s buffet and ruthlessly mocked the same guide whose road report, he now deemed, was less than accurate. The following day, Robert, a former Airbus aerospace engineer (now living in Solitaire), endeavored to get Stephanie’s bike back on the road. Unable to secure the necessary parts from BMW in Windhoek, Robert set about manufacturing the needed parts from an old cylinder head bolt (hardened steel) and brass, lathed in his workshop to exact specifications. Within a few hours Stephanie was back on her BMW.
“What if I fall?”
The following day was chilly. We set off late into a stiff wind on the C14 toward the coast and Walvis Bay, two-hundred-thirty kilometers away. We maintained our routine of waiting for Stephanie after difficult stretches of road. After the first, we paused at the crest of a hill until she passed -- thumbs up -- then overtook her and passed to wait at the end of the following patch of sand and gravel. From our next vantage at the summit of a low rise we watched her headlight twinkle intermittently in the distant dust, occasionally losing sight in low spots. Our engine off, we marveled at the silence. Zebra grazed in the mid-day sun. A passing tourist stopped, “Your friend is on the side of the road, resting, she’s ok!” Another few minutes passed. A second tourist stopped, “There’s a motorbike down and a lot of people standing around!” We raced back to Stephanie finding her sitting on the side of the road, surrounded by tourists, her bike badly damaged.
Stephanie departed Solitaire wearing heavy, heated gloves and several layers of clothing beneath her jacket. Struggling to feel the throttle through thick gloves and overheating -- battling a heavy bike in wind and sand -- she elected to stop in a terrible stretch of road to remove her gloves and layers. After regrouping she spied a 4x4 approaching from behind and attempted to regain the road and return to speed ahead of the distant vehicle. Her bike began to fishtail in the sand resulting in her loss of control. Upon arrival we quickly examined Stephanie for any signs of trauma -- alertness, breathing, responsive extremities -- and concluded there were no signs of significant internal or external injuries. Fortunately, we were able to make communication again with Pasquale who, for the second time in three days, organized a motorcycle recovery thirty kilometers from Solitaire. To expedite transport, a kind German couple offered to drive Stephanie in the direction of Solitaire. We met Pasquale halfway and transferred her into the capable hands of our friend and veteran of Everest and Africa. We all (including two French E.R. nurses coincidentally having lunch in Solitaire) concluded Stephanie’s injuries were not serious, yet opted to organize a local vehicle (saving significant time) to drive Stephanie through to Walvis Bay/Welwitschia Hospital for evaluation. She was kept two nights (twenty-four hours from check-in) with x-rays and CT scan results normal, superficial damage to ankle and foot, soreness, and some bruises.
“Oh, but my darling, what if you fly?”
After Stephanie’s release from the hospital our good friend and (Namibian) Uuzilo member, Quinton Liebenberg, arranged for all of us to rest and recover, providing comfortable accommodation in nearby Swakopmund, an old German-settlement-turned-resort-town, on the Atlantic coast. Quinton and his wife, Keren, took us “Jeeping” in the dunes, flying in his bush plane, and shared copious amounts of coffee and laughter. Quinton soon offered it was time for Stephanie to “throw her leg back over the horse” and convinced her to climb onto the back -- as a passenger (also, a first for her) -- of his KTM990 for an excursion into the desert. Deep in the vast moonscape Quinton encouraged Stephanie to take control of his powerful machine declaring, “Don’t let the bike control you, it’s just plastic and metal!” With more instruction and encouragement Stephanie threw her leg over and drove on into the Namib desert. After a week of healing (with a dash of Namibian adrenaline) Stephanie’s confidence was restored. She was realizing the unexpected generosity of Africans and daily tests of life in a difficult land. We are all grateful Stephanie was not broken in her fall. We now see her becoming more whole:
“I feel a lightness that wasn’t there before. I am able to laugh easily and often without feeling shame. I realize that joy and pain can live in the same space, without one overcoming the other. I still miss Franco more than I can ever express and it’s still hard to think about never seeing him again but that pain doesn’t rip through me like it used to. Instead of wanting to shrink away from life, I find myself reaching out to connect with people.
I don’t know how to express my gratitude to [Uuzilo] for [its] selflessness and willingness to take a stranger...and share this wild adventure and meet people who changed my heart. [Uuzilo] has given me back my song, [singing] it gently to me when I forgot the words.”
After Stephanie’s recovery we determined her journey must continue despite the loss of the BMW. While Africa presents endless obstacles -- and rewards -- Uuzilo seeks to overcome life’s challenges; to carry on. Therefore, with our limited “startup” budget, we opted to rent a 4x4 and carefully plotted a route through remote regions of Namibia otherwise inaccessible on (our) bikes. The unplanned mode of transportation allowed us to provision for multiple days in the bush while creating more time to know one another and enjoy details often missed when intensely traveling by motorcycle.
We made our way to the former mining town of Uis where our good friend and (Namibian) Uuzilo member, Basil Calitz, a “bushman” of renown, helped further plan our excursion into his “stomping ground,” the Brandberg (burning mountain). Joining us for a portion of our journey, he led us along dry riverbeds where we encountered temperamental desert elephant, over windswept plateaus where he identified a “rhino rock” (polished by the territorial rubbing of passing rhinoceros), and shared his camp beneath a shepherd tree at the foot of the Berg.
After parting company with Basil we continued north over rocky passes and through desert riverine experiencing sublime expanses of the Brandberg and Damaraland.
Making our way north through Damaraland we arrived at the sleepy crossroad of Kamanjab where our friends Lars and Juanita (Yoo-a-nee-ta) Falkenberg operate a breakdown garage and recovery service. They are frequent saviors for weary travelers whose vehicles have paid a heavy toll on Namibia’s roads. When they are not on the road or under a broken vehicle, the Falkenbergs make art and drive motorcycles, Uuzilo through-and-through. We settled in Kamanjab for the duration of Stephanie’s trip where the Falkenbergs (polished the 4x4) opened their home and shared a short trip to Etosha National Park (where we taught Stephanie to take iphone photos through binoculars), and ventured into remote canyons in (and on) Lars’ invincible Unimog. Stephanie continued to receive unconditional support and love she has known throughout her Africa journey. She learned of other’s pain, their struggles, and offered her embrace in return. She shared a visit to the grave of Juanita’s brother, whose life was violently taken by poachers. She watched Juanita gather wiry, withered sprigs of bushman’s tea in the veld, later to remove the brittle buds and brew a therapeutic remedy for respiratory ailments. Placing a few frail twigs in a glass of water Juanita declared the “dead” limbs would come to life and blossom overnight, elegantly intoning, “The ‘boesman tea’ teaches us that everything in Namibia is so thankful for the little it receives.”
Stephanie returned to the United States August 12, 2018, the day after her thirty-fifth birthday. One never knows what Africa will give or take away. She experienced very good days and very difficult days. She never gave up. She rose to every challenge living Uuzilo’s mission to give those recovering from grief and trauma a reason the wake every morning eager to see another sunrise, to see what is over the horizon, Uuzilo:
“I have been so touched by Africa and its people...so open and loving to complete strangers. They have each given me a new perspective and way to connect with someone else. I feel such a lightness in my heart. I know I will always miss Frank, but I won’t close off anymore. I will reach out and grasp life with both hands. I can’t wait to to let people know about the things [I] have done and experienced, about the stunning beauty found in what I first thought was harsh, barren land. I now see there is always life, even in the desert. There is beauty. I want [Uuzilo] to grow and continue to touch the lives of future participants and the lives of the people that I am blessed to now call friends.”
UUZILO IS CURRENTLY ACCEPTING NOMINATIONS FOR 2019 EXPEDITIONS
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