Dreaming of a Tar Road

Tim Hull is just an average guy living the dream. His mission: to travel the world and learn about the games people play. Remarkably, having set off from London on a classic Triumph Thunderbird four years ago, both he and the bike are still going. Writing now from Johannesburg, Tim tells of the extraordinary journey so far, in his own words

I've just arrived in South Africa after four years travelling overland through Europe and Africa on a classic Triumph Thunderbird. I'm a computer games designer turned globetrotting, motorcycling, anthropologist filmmaker. A bit of a mouthful, I know, but it's difficult encapsulating all that life's become since I escaped Old Blighty. My existence back in the grey-dom of London seems far distant to the plateau of bright horizons where I sit today: my life now is about living out my dreams not suppressing them.

A journey like this is not for everyone. You must cut down to the bare bones and set yourself adrift from all that you've known, perhaps never to return – well, at least not as the person who departed. I closed a business, learnt to drive a bike, got hooked on global bike stories, planned a route, set up a charity appeal, built a website, bought a bike and equipment – but more important to me than all of this was a concept, a mission to keep my creative mind from wandering, a target worth aiming for. Without a strong objective my determination to continue would have fizzled out years ago.

I've set out on a global journey to seek out, uncover, observe and play games that tell us about history, culture and psyche. Everywhere I visit I make a film about one indigenous game that reflects the culture of the people who play it. The games and sports I find are as wild and varied as you'd expect the places and people to be – and from this undertaking I've derived an experience of riches beyond all expectation. While I travel I hope to raise awareness about the charity Right to Play, which aims to create a healthier and safer world for children through the power of sport and play. Anyway, that's the mission my trusty Thunderbird and I set out with four years ago.

As I drove across London's dreary streets on a particularly dull and overcast September morning in 2003, I was bursting with anticipation for the adventure ahead. For six months I pottered around Europe on a tour of farewells to old friends, I truly expected to evaporate in the Sahara or meet an untimely end at the hand of bandits in the Congo. Friends and family thought much the same: 'What! Africa, on your own, on a bike… are you mad?' Perhaps not mad, but stupid, naïve or ignorant sprang to mind.

However, rolling off the 30-minute ferry from Spain to Morocco, the bright and magical reality of adventure began to entwine itself around me like detailed Islamic decoration might encrust a luxurious riad palace in Marrakech. Everywhere I saw only beauty: rosy rural redheads grafting in galumphing green meadows under blue ribbon skies plumed with golden red tinted clouds. I'd entered a sumptuous world saturated with the colours of nomadic myth like illustrations sprung from a children's storybook.

I was almost completely blind to the poverty and severe constraints on society until I met the children living on the streets of Tetouan. Playing their chaotic and daring games, such as Dinifri, I learnt about the Berber strive for braveness. The children's smiles and laughter shone out above the rubble of their building site playground, transcending the unjust rule of an uncaring king.

Crossing West Sahara into Mauritania the pace of my journey shifted into a very slow gear. I was no longer rushing in London time, but musing along in African time, eager to understand more about indigenous people, places and their games. Three months in Mauritania with nomadic women and their game of mathematical strategy called Seig. Ten months in Senegal for Njom, a traditional sport of wrestling. Four months in Mali picking up the meditative game of Awale, that chiefs used to facilitate important decisions. Fourteen months in Ghana enjoying Ampe, a girl's jumping, clapping game that brought communities together.

Up to this point the only repair I'd undertaken was when a motorist had hit my stationary bike so hard the front forks and wheel had to be replaced. After that a 'mechanic' helped me by dropping my carburettors on the floor and those also had to be replaced. Bit by bit I was learning something about maintenance, manual in hand and plenty of time to test things out. I counted myself lucky, though, since I almost certainly wouldn't have made it this far without Triumph sponsoring me with parts sent out by courier. But the slower I went the more I enjoyed the experience. I was learning everything at once: how to ride and repair a bike, communicate in foreign tongues, research and make films about games – it was all new to me.

At each step of the journey people would warn me of the next place, the Mauritanians would say: 'Watch out for Senegal, that's black Africa, its dangerous there, they will eat you.' The Senegalese were the warmest people I'd ever met, but then they would say:  'Watch out, the Malians, their witchdoctors, they can kill you with just one touch!' Yet the Malians were extremely hospitable towards me, but all the Francophones would say: 'Pay attention, those Anglophones are not to be trusted, they'll steal when your back is turned.' The Ghanaians were also very gentle and I had no cause for fear.

Almost everyone I'd met warned me against Nigeria: 'Nigeria and its people are the worst of Africa, don't go there, it's better to take the boat.' As luck would have it – and I've been lucky this way in almost every country I've visited – I found a guide to show me the way in – and out the other side. I even managed to make a film about Akhue, a game that is still used to name Edo kings today. I caught the end of the raining season in Cameroon but reaching Gabon I encountered the worst road of my life: a jungle road with mud, sand, steep descents riddled with ravines and nobody for miles. It was a serious test of my will lifting the bike each time I fell and thought of turning back, but returning 600km through the same poor conditions kept me trudging forward.

In Congo I found myself filming boys making and racing their bamboo toy cars. The people were as welcoming here in Central Africa as they were in the North and West, but they too had their fears: 'Don't go through the Pool region, the Ninja rebels are there, they will make demands.' I took the plunge and sure enough there they were, the Ninja rebels left over from the war – a ragtag bunch that looked like a 70s reggae band in military garb, dreadlocks, stylish hats and trench coats. No instruments though and to my relief no guns either. Whups and howls whistled around me as I came to a halt. A large tree branch barred my passage. There was only one thing to do, flip my lid and return a big beaming smile. The general bowled up to me and beamed a smile back.

'What is this?' I demanded, 'It's a post,' he explained. 'Yes, but what's it for?' I continued, 'Oh don't worry, you may pass, no problem. Hey, you there, raise the post!' he ordered. Later I got stuck in the mud and lost at a fork in the road, but at each turn the Ninja arrived behind me in convoy and helped me on my way.

To avoid the masses at Brazzaville-Kinshasa, I took a mountain pass into DRC: a back route that I now know is best left well alone. I fell so badly I took to walking each step of the heavily eroded and seldom used path before driving along it. The grass was so tall I couldn't see the way ahead, but finally I caught sight of an opening and houses in the nearby distance. I'd never been so glad to see civilisation. That night I drank sugarcane hooch with the immigration officer and the rest of the village to celebrate.

I hoped for better roads but instead Angola's 2000km of unrelenting, treacherous, meandering pathways, scorn with landmines lay ahead. To make matters worse the Angolan embassy had sentenced me to a 5-day transit visa, a truly gruelling punishment.

Misjudging the slalom course of crater-shattered tar at anything above 20km per hour resulted in a hardy smashing of suspension accompanied by sturdy whiplash of the neck – oh, and not forgetting a crushing of the nether regions. Each day began at sunrise and ended 12 hours later at sunset when it was all I could manage to beg villagers for shelter on their well-beaten paths – it was commonplace to see men with metal detectors scooping up landmines behind bushes at the side of the road.

The corrugations were rattling the bike and I to an early grave. Improvising with plastic string I kept my accident-battered headlight and baggage from falling to pieces. I worried endlessly about potential breakdowns: chain snapping, tyre puncture, engine seizure, short circuits. I willed myself on day and night with a single luring thought: tarmac. I found myself dreaming of a tar road superimposed over the endless sea of sandy swelling craters, a mirage of denial and hope.

Then on my seventh day and last few drops of fuel I saw it: the beginning of a tar network smooth all the way to the Indian Ocean. The Angolan immigration officer was about to question my over-stay, but saw my helmet and promptly stamped me through on my way to my tarmac heaven in Namibia for a well-earned rest.

Strangely the journey felt as if it was over. There was no struggle at the border, no trouble finding parts or welders, no hassle locating a safe place to sleep. It was somehow all too easy, but the games continued to enthral me. The children of Olukonda demonstrated a traditional competitive dance of endurance called Okochokwa where two competitors perform a wild and strenuous dance until one gives in from exhaustion.

With yet another game in the bag I was off to Botswana, but because well-maintained campsites are so common in Southern Africa it is very difficult to ask people if you can live in their village. So from a tent in Ghanzi I filmed the oldest game in the world, Five Stones, but there in the Kalahari Desert they call it Diketo and play it with 10 stones. With another game off my chest and in the can, I decided it was finally time to hit South Africa and settle up my account with the continent.

The desert road was long and hot. Then, just as I arrived at Kang, my radiator burst and flooded the ground below. Luckily for me, as on so many occasions, my bike decided to breakdown in a town or city, and not alone in the bush. Disassembling the radiator I found the hole and plugged it with a magic steel-like putty. I was back in business, but for how long? All I could think of now was my light at the end of this long hot tunnel, Mike and the mechanics at the traditional Triumph dealership in Johannesburg.

In September 2007 I finally arrived, and although the Thunderbird is the completely wrong bike for African roads, it's the utterly correct bike for breaking the ice. In most cases the bike and I make such an impression border officials and children alike are compelled to salute. The mechanics at Triumph are astounded to see the engine and clutch have been faultless throughout, but the thing I'm most pleased about is that the games I find are as wild and varied as you'd expect the places and people to be.

Next up, the Americas.
To follow Tim on his epic journey visit www.globaltimoto.com
To support the child's right to play log on to www.righttoplay.com/globaltimoto