We left behind the relative familiarity of Kenya and crossed into Ethiopia – harder than we thought it would be as there was no sign indicating that we had in fact left Kenya, or that we were due to switch to the right hand side of the road. So after a short foray headlong into oncoming traffic, before the penny finally dropped, we went to sort out the paperwork. They gave us our customs paper, on which they had listed all of our electronics, checked the chassis number and documented every part of the country that we intended to visit. They do seem to love paperwork. Our first impressions were pretty poor, but I think that had more to do with someone’s septic tank being pumped out next to us as we waited for the 2 hours for their lunch break to finish so we could do our paperwork. We always try to draw a line under borders, as I am yet to find a border that I would like to spend more than the minimum required time at, and we pottered off into Ethiopia.
We drove north to a town called Yobelo, where someone had marked there was a good motel you could camp at. We arrived and found a disgusting parking lot, with a urinal in the corner, and the lady asked for 20 dollars to camp – we politely declined and went to the other hotels in town. After a few better options, we found the main hotel of the town where we got a room for 10 dollars, with our own bathroom, with minimal running water and electricity – much better. The real perk to the hotel was አማልክት ስራ, which means God’s Work, who helped us through our first food order. Food in Ethiopia is the pinnacle to their culture, and is nothing like we’ve ever seen before. Gone are the days of never ending variants of maize, cassava or wheat as the pride of the country. We ordered goat wot – a type of stew that is eaten with your right hand, using injera – a bread substitute which resembles the warmed hand towels you get on planes. Gods work told us his sister was the cook, and high on the good Harar beer, tasty wot and injera we ordered kitfu. We asked for a taste and got a whole dish, and despite the power cut we quickly realised our mistake – it was raw beef, to be eaten with false banana bread. After having been proudly told his sister was the chef and this was one of the countries specialities, James and I fell out as he refused to eat it. I did my best, munching through very spicy raw meat in order to maintain face with this lovely man who had been so kind to us. I haven’t quite managed to order it again.
The next morning it was time for tea and coffee, all done in the hotel grounds at a small stall run by two ladies. They brew the coffee and then serve it to you with your own charcoal burner filled with incense, pouring it in front of you from frightening heights. The tea is filled with sugar and cardamom, and makes me think I’ll be getting withdrawal symptoms from all the sugar I’ve been consuming since I got here. It is, however, delicious.
We went up to Awassa, after several false starts including no fuel as there was a power cut, and then falling down every pot hole you could dream of on the road north. There we stayed in a nice guesthouse for a few days, in order to finish off James’s work. From here, we made it to the Bale Mountains National Park. This is made up of 3 distinct ecosystems, the Gaysay Grasslands, the Sanetti Plateau and the Harenna forests. The first thing to say about all of them is they are very high. We drove through the grasslands on the way to the National Park Head Office, and one of the baboons ran head on into our car, and after our last experience we were barely slowing down. He jumped up on the bonnet and stared at us through the windscreen. He must have heard what we did to his friends in Kenya…The first night in the park, we camped alone in a clearing above the park entrance, with warthog and mountain nyala circling our camp through the evening, at around 3000m. We made a big fire, after collecting firewood, both of us hugely out of breath and needing to sit down often – it did take a while to get used to the altitude.
We ascended the plateau the next day, and the terrain changed drastically. As we hit 4000m all the trees and plants disappeared, except the everlasting wildflowers and giant lobelia. And then we got a glimpse of the rarest carnivore in Africa – the Ethiopian wolf, loping across the plateau in search of rodents. He is much smaller than other wolves, about the size of a dog, and there are approximately 500 left in the world, most up in Bale. It was freezing on the plateau, and we had planned to camp at the campsite, at 4100m, however, we both quickly changed our minds as the winds battered us at midday. On the plateau, there is the second highest mountain in Ethiopia – Tallu Deemtu, at 4377m. Neither James or I had either been this high, and the fact that they have the highest all weather road, and we could take Stanley, meant it had to be done. Some would say taking a 17 year old car with a dodgy radiator to 4377m is a silly idea, especially as we have had our fill of terrible diesel, and Stanley was puffing out black smoke, but not us, so off we went.
We descended from the plateau, through the cloud line. As you drove toward the edge, it looked like we were about to drive off the edge of the world. We broke through the clouds, into the forests with twisted trees, covered in lichen and cloud cover. It’s called a cloud forest, and really seems like a magical place.
We found another campsite in the forest – campsites a bit of a grand word, more of a clearing, but the track to it was quite wet and muddy, but seemed not too hard for Stan. We made a fire, and then just as it was getting going, the heavens opened, and didn’t stop for most of the night. We got in the car, and ended up watching a World War 2 movie (why James??) and eating crackers and cheese. We then ran up to bed, and I spent the entire night worrying about the state of the track would be in next morning. Well, we’ll just say we made it but were spectacularly muddy.
We had our last visa run to do in Addis, where we needed both an Egyptian and a Sudanese visa. Addis is a huge city, which just like Ethiopia, seems to be the meeting of worlds. The restaurants there reflect the varied population, and we tried Ethiopian, Yemeni, Italian and Middle Eastern, whilst waiting for the paperwork. Our favourite was an Ethiopian bar which served beer and meat (cooked this time), and that was all. You buy your kilogram of meat from the butchers outside, and then the restaurant barbeques it up, with spices and serves it with injera, and more beer.
THE thing to do in Addis, is to visit Lucy. She is the oldest, most intact hominid in the world at 3.3 million years old, and she lives at the National Museum. Well, it’s only right to pay your respects to someone that old. She is tiny, and when they say most intact, it shows you quite how unintact the other specimens must be! But you can clearly see differences in her skeleton to our own, and can understand the excitement she caused when they thought she might be “the missing link.”
Ethiopia is the second most populated country in Africa, after Nigeria, and to our minds has certainly been one of the most unique. They have their own alphabet and language, Amharic, a semetic language, and their own clock. The day starts when the sun rises, at 6am, so 7am is known as 1 o’clock (this led to much confusion when trying to work out what time happy hour was), as well as their own calendar which makes it 2010. The people, at first glance, wore us down, with constant cries of “Farengi” and “You! You! You!” everywhere you go, but as soon as you spoke to people, they were exceptionally kind and welcoming, making themselves the polar opposites of the people you meet on the street. There is also an inordinate amount of begging. Of course, as in every other city, there are people down on their luck, disabled or homeless, who use begging as a way to make enough money to eat, and this is obviously not my complaint. What drove me mad, was grown men, wearing clothes far smarter than mine, with fashionable accessories and phones, begging for my sunglasses or men with bellies the size of Buddha begging for food. Men would come over to beg, and then start preening themselves in Stanley’s mirror. It was all a bit strange, especially in a country with so much pride, and independence, having been the only country in Africa not to be colonised.
Ethiopians are mostly Orthodox Christian, with a smaller proportion of muslims, and their most impressive set of churches was next on the list. Lalibela is made up of 11 churches in the town, which were built by King Lalibela in 1150AD. Among them is the largest rock hewn church in the world as well as the infamous St Georges church, built underground into the rock, in the shape of a Greek cross. We spent a day walking around all 11 churches, through the underground tunnels that connect them and marvelling at the time and effort it must have taken to dig each of these out of the rock. They were stunning, and I have never seen anything quite like it.
Our last few days in Ethiopia were spent in Gondar, a town in the north-west of the country, which is famed for its castle. As we set ourself up for heading into the desert, we bought fruit and vegetables in the market, once we’d found it. Our normal methods of navigating were down, as maps.me is pretty poor in Ethiopia and the internet is substantially poorer. Instead we resorted to the oldest method of finding the market - following the donkeys. Normally, either James or I will have enough of the language to ask for fruit and veg, and a grasp on the numbers. This was not the case in Amharic, so complete hysterics ensued from the ladies behind the stalls, as we tried to exchange money for onions, tomatoes and limes. We ended up with 10 bulbs of garlic somewhere in the mix (luckily we’ll be alone for the next 1500km) and people nearly fell off their chairs when we said thank you.
Throughout our time in Ethiopia, the 3g was turned off. The reasoning behind this is that one year ago, during the secondary school exams, some of the papers were leaked before the exam, so the government turned off the entire countries internet. This seemed like the definition of biting off your nose to spite your face, as surely the economic impact of having no internet for a week must be catastrophic. We needed the internet to send of some of James’s work, as it’s seems unprofessional to drop off the map for that long, so we dressed ourselves up, washed and everything and went to some of the posh hotels, however, even the Sheraton hadn’t seemed to work out how to get through the governments protection. We heard the Hilton had managed it, so headed over to find hundreds of businessmen and women in their suits, lying of the floor, clutching their electronic devices as the room filled with beeps . It looked pretty desperate, but the Hilton staff were wandering around serving gin and tonics throughout the carnage. I suppose they’re trained for this sort of disaster. Throughout this whole week, not one Ethiopian we spoke to thought this was unreasonable – making it clear there was no other way a country could possibly deal with cheating in school exams without imploding its entire economy. It was all quite odd.
So, here we are again. There’s been an 8 month gap in updates due to James and I getting jobs, being grown ups and generally having much less fun. But now, the three of us are together again and it’s time to finish this circumnavigation of Africa. We hope.
James arrived in Nairobi before me, and was greeted at the hostel we left Stanley at as if he was a long lost friend. How dare we not call and say we’re coming! Cuddles all round. Do we need any help with the car? When’s the Missus getting here? Talk about feeling welcomed back. I arrived late one evening, to be met at the airport by Stanley and James. I must have felt like I was coming home as it came as a bit of a shock that I needed a visa – maybe I’m not quite as African as I think I am. Then again, I waited in the diplomats queue as it was shorter, so maybe I am. It was a joy to see Stanley again, who turned on no questions asked, having only been started once in our absence when a large tree threatened to fall on him. Thanks Karen Camp.
He needed a bit of work, but this had all been planned since the off. Nairobi is a hub of mechanics and tyre merchants and generally useful people and we had planned a long time ago, Stanley would get the works in Nairobi. The guys at the camp helped us find Jas, who quickly got the idea of what we wanted. Yes, I might have put the pressure on by explaining this is the final leg of our journey, and this is his last service, so if it all goes wrong now… He now has sparkling new (second hand) rear suspension, new bushes here, there and everywhere, and has been greased and oiled to within an inch of his life. He also had threadbare tyres so we organised to have two good and two bad – some things are bloody expensive in Africa – organised by Mickey, a Sikh man who runs the only tyre shop in Nairobi that has our tyres. After we were all set, he invited us to lunch at his temple. Being our first time at a Sikh temple, he talked us through the washing and the donation, and we were served lunch together. The principle is that every man should eat together, regardless of wealth, so everyone eats on the same level, the same food and donates a secret amount of money to pay for the lunches. Anyone is welcome to this, of any race, religion or sex, and the food was scrumptious. We took our extra tyre with us, and thought long and hard about carrying it with us to Egypt, but then the gardener said he needed it for a flower pot, so his needs won out.
There was another guest we got to know at Karen Camp, Pete, an ex-army man who had decided to give up his day job, and learn to be a safari ranger. His sole inspiration was Sir David Attenborough, and there we can completely relate. He had signed up to a years ranger training in South Africa, and was having his first experience of the bush in the Masai Mara. Well, barbeques were had, and dinners out and pleasant time was had by all.
We left Karen Camp with a heavy heart and made our way up to Mount Kenya, We stayed at a community campsite on the way and had the odd experience of staying at a campsite that seemed to have been designed by someone off their face on acid – with it’s giant replica of Mount Kenya, with rivers, ravines and peaks all inscribed on the centre piece of this resort. From here, we drove on to Samburu National Park. This was to be our last traditional national park in Africa, and we told ourselves it was to make sure Stanley was up for the job ahead, but actually, we just wanted our last glimpses of lions and elephants to get us through those long Cambridge evenings. The park is semi-arid, and because of this has a unique selection of wildlife, boasting the Samburu Seven – Somali ostrich, Reticulated giraffe, Grevy’s zebra, Generuk gazelle, Vulterine Guinea Fowl, African warthog and Beisa Oryx, and we caught a glimpse of a few of these on the first day, but mostly it was a day of safari where you look forward to your beer at sunset. We made our camp, with a beautiful campfire, making the most of our earlier stop at a posh supermarket with all our goodies from Carrefour.
The next morning, we planned to get up early and get out and make up for our poor luck the day before. We got up and started putting the tent away when a troop of baboons came through, and eyed us in the way only a baboon spying tourists hoarding a car full of food can. We chortled to ourselves – we are not beginners at the art of monkey hustling. We were wrong. Very, very wrong. One ran straight at me whilst I tried to brush my teeth with the door open. I shouted for James for back up as she failed to back off, despite throwing half my bottle of water and half a tube of toothpaste at her. James got the catapult, which we had carelessly not got out before, and she ran off. We laughed again – others would have been toppled by her, but not us. We started a one door open policy, with one guard. James climbed onto the roof to shut the tent, and the door that would normally fall shut on its own, remained open for a fraction of a second too long. Ten baboons, in unison, bolted to the car, with the alpha male at the lead as he jumped through the door and sat on the passenger seat. The door then firmly shut. His troop gathered round screaming at us and the car as their leader had somehow fallen for this trap and was stuck inside. I was of little use as I was clutching bread and a piece of cheese, which does not have a calming effect on a troop of baboons. The door was surrounded, but James opened it as I went to the other side and screamed at the baboon to leave. They all disappeared and we were left holding our bread and cheese, with a large amount of baboon shit in and around the car.
After this rather startling start to the day, our morning was somewhat of a dud. Although we did see a lovely tortoise. When it came time for lunch, neither of us could quite deal with the idea of going back to the campsite and trying to make some food with the baboons. Luckily the Serena hotel was nearby and we hid out there, with their beautiful meals, guarded by local tribesman with catapults. I do wonder if maybe the monkeys and the Serena are in cahoots. I have visions of a banana per baboon, and they get to keep the spoils…
That evening, we headed to the campsite, and waited til nightfall to do anything. Unfortunately, so did our neighbours – 3 buses of students who had set up camp next to us with a large speaker system. Isn’t that why everyone goes to a national park? We were, as you can imagine, livid and I continue in my arguments with the Kenyan Wildlife Service. By the next day, we were both fed up and good to go, but thankfully, Samburu had a bit of a treat for our exit. We happened upon a few tourist cars gathered in one spot – always a good sign, and as we vied for position, we had a stoke of luck as a lioness stalked out of the bush right next to us. So much so that our photo was interrupted by me shouting at James to put up the window up. Beautiful.
The drive north was quite breathtaking, and a real change from the scenery we had seen around Kenya. The streets were lined with the Samburu people, who wear tens of necklaces and are always accessorised by a spear or a knife, as well as a small herd of cattle. They are strikingly beautiful, and I matched their level of staring at my pasty, white skin. The terrain is barren, to put in politely, and as you head further north it becomes more clearly volcanic with black rocks stretching as far the eye can see, with the mountainous country of Ethiopia just visible in the distance.
Kenya, the birthplace of mankind, really is a spectacular country. It has so much to offer, with such diversity from one side to the other. We’ve had quite a stop start time with it, but we both agree it won’t be long til we’re back.
We'd like to thank Ding.com for their continuing support of our trip!!!
Apologies. Firstly for the long gap between posts, and secondly that the coming posts will be quite different from the previous ones. Stanley, James and I had decided that we needed to hang up our travelling shoes for a few months, so this post will tell you nothing about circumnavigating Africa. Sorry.
I had signed up to do a Diploma in Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in Tanzania and Uganda, and this is where we have spent the last 3 months. The course is run by the School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in London, in combination with other universities, and this year had 72 participants, arriving from 29 countries but it does have to be said that I was the first participant to arrive overland from England. The purpose of the course is to improve the knowledge of tropical medicine for both western doctors, whose exposure to these diseases is low, and for local doctors to get a chance to hone their skills
After setting up home for 6 weeks in a hostel at the bottom of the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, walking distance from the district's hospital – Mount Kilamanjaro Christian Medical Hospital I got to know my course mates. There were almost a dozen Tanzanian doctors on the course, and as we were in their town, they wanted to welcome us the proper way, and by that I mean the Tanzanian way! They organised a huge dinner, held outdoors after school one day and had barbequed two goats on a spit, which is the traditional meal for a celebration. It was one of the girls from the UKs birthday, and so she gained the honour of carving into the goat. I was standing next to the course organiser, watching her stick a knife into their animal, head and all, when he noticed she looked a little uncomfortable. I explained that was likely as she was a vegetarian and this would not normally be part of her dinner plans.
The first few weeks were spent doing lectures on everything from Malaria to Leprosy, and the afternoons were spent on the wards, seeing how the hospitals worked and seeing patients. My only experience of African hospitals had been Sierra Leone and I was quite surprised by how much Tanzania differed. The hospital was better equipped, there were more doctors and nurses. There was still far too many patients, with people lying on the floor and in the corridors, and the colossal impact of HIV could be seen everywhere. Every other patient we went to see was young and had been completely ravaged by HIV, and this in a time when anti-retrovirals drugs are freely available. I was quite shocked by how bad things still are.
After a few weeks on the wards in Moshi, we split up into small groups and went off on field trips. I chose to go up to the mountains to a town called Lushoto on a mission to find out more about traditional medicine and how it is used in these rural settings. We spent a week interviewing traditional healers, and went to one of the small villages. Here we were welcomed by the healers, and they put on a dance as we arrived. We watched and clapped and then carried on with the interviews. What we didn’t realise was this was going to happen everytime we went to a new healer's house. Their followers would come with us and start dancing each time we got to a new house. I was happy as anything dancing away, and each time we got to a new house, the ladies would dress me up with a headscarf, and skirt wrapped around me. By the end of the day we were all exhausted, but it was such a memorable day, seeing the equipment they use and discussing how they would manage patients. Everything from medicine to exorcisms were used as their treatments. The point of going up to mountains and seeing this was to understand why traditional healers are so commonly used and whether there is any way to utilise the respect that the locals have for their healers, and integrate this into conventional medicine, however, yes, I was mostly there for the dancing.
At the end of our week in the mountains, we met up with some of the other groups down on the Tanzanian coast as a little weekend away. We rented a dhow and twenty of so of us sailed off to a sand dune in the middle of the Indian ocean, had some lunch, built some sandcastles and played some games. My favourite part of the trip was something that has become a course ritual – teaching the Tanzanian and Ugandan students to swim. Apparently, a couple of years ago someone was so keen to learn they launched themselves off the edge of the dhow in open water, with no life jackets or arm bands, and one of the teachers had to jump in after to bring them back to the surface. Our teaching methods were a bit kinder and some of the girls taught the basic strokes in the shallows next to the sand dune. It was a bit of a hit and they almost had to be forcibly removed when it was time to leave, but then again if you had learnt to swim in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Tanzania, it might be quite hard to remove you to. Certainly a bit more glamorous than Branstom Sports Centre in Essex...
One of my friends on the course, Jess, had an accident whilst we were in Tanzania, and somehow managed to get a broken piece of glass into her foot. After a few days it became clear that this was slightly more than a flesh wound and that some of her tendons had been cut. With many sad faces, she was shipped back to the UK in order to have an operation and her tendons reattached. Somehow she managed to turn it around and get back with two weeks, but that left her in a bit of a pickle. She was meant to climb Kilimanjaro with her fiancé in the one week half term, but this was clearly out of the question. Do not fret. Stanley, the saviour of many a situation, stepped in. After quietly waiting outside the hostel for the six weeks of the term time, it was his time to step up again, and we planned a week overland trip from Tanzania to Uganda through Kenya with Jess and Cal.
We started it off very nicely with two nights in a posh lodge in Tsavo East as we had the luxury of residents rates and afterwards drove further into the park and did what James and I are better at, camping in the middle. We set up the two tents and a fire and some dinner, and Cal strode off confidently to try and find some firewood. I was looking up at him with my head torch beam when we heard the roar of some nearby lions and watched as Cal moved faster than either of us thought possible, running back to the sanctuary of Stanley. We put their ground tent as close as we could to ours, but I did feel a bit bad climbing up to the roof of Stan in an unfenced campsite leaving them on the floor. I woke up in the middle of the night and whilst an elephant was happily browsing past us, I started imagining all the scenarios – the attack by lions of my friend who was unable to weight bear, the elephants climbing over their tent – and woke James to tell him they’d have to come and get in with us. That was met with a swift and clear response, so I stayed awake and stared at them all night. Really what i should of done is thrown James out and taken everyone else into the penthouse.
We had a lovely week, with nights down at Lake Naivasha in Kenya, moving through into Jinja in Uganda, and eventually arriving in Kampala, to the next stage of the course. We were based in Mulago hospital, which amongst other things, is renowned for delivering the most babies per square metre in the world, with 250 babies delivered a day – really we needed baseball gloves for catching babies rather than midwives. Wandering round these wards, it was startling to see bays of women suffering from complications of long labours that are incredibly rare and I have never seen back home, partly due to the huge numbers of babies being born and the wait for things like caesarean sections or other procedures. Some days on the ward were quite shocking, like seeing a little girl suffering from tetanus with spasms throughout her body for days on end. This in a time when it is completely preventable and all but disappeared from the western world. Tuberculosis was another window into a different world - the TB ward was made of breeze blocks with holes in, in order to ventilate the rooms and keep infection rates down. It did make for a breezy ward round though.
In addition to working in the main hospital in Kampala, I spent a few weeks visiting the smaller establishments of the country. One of the most memorable was a week in Hospice Africa, one of the first hospices in Africa, set up by a doctor from the UK & Ireland, to provide much needed palliative care in Africa. Dr Ann Merriman started Hospice Africa Uganda in 1993 and over the past two decades has overcome huge hurdles in order to initiate and implement an adapted model of palliative care and the hospice in Africa. One of the her achievements that stuck with me was that in 1993 morphine was illegal in Uganda. Not only did she successfully campaign for them to change the law, she also started her own factory with the hospice so they could manufacture cheap and easily accessible morphine. I spent a morning in the production line of her, now quite fancy, factory and we made over 900 bottles of morphine.
For a bit of a break from the city, and a foray into medicine in the more rural areas, a few of us headed up to Amadat, a town in the northeast of Uganda, near to the border of South Sudan and Kenya. This hospital leads the way in the treatment of a rare disease, called Kala Azar and it allowed us to get some first hand experience of this, as well as an understanding of charities such as Medicine sans Frontieres(MSF) and Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi), who fund the drugs and tests that the hospital needs. The hospital we were working at had originally been set up by MSF during an outbreak of Kala Azar and eventually taken over by the Uganda Ministry of Health. The disease is officially classed as a neglected tropical disease, which ultimately means that as it only affects people affected by poverty very little money goes into its research and drug development but the doctors on the ground were really keen to show us their latest research into this disease. It was great to see such a cohesive and competent team, and that the drugs and tests from DNDi were making such a big impact on the ground. As part of our week there, we ran outreach clinics trying to identify children with Kala Azar in the community. I think the only way to describe this experience was as an extremely steep learning curve. The first day we set up our mobile clinic, with a triage desk, a lab with a few tests, doctor stations and a pharmacy and awaited the trickle of patients. Well, the flood gates opened, triage got drowned and then went on to get baked as the sun rose and we realised we had set up triage in the sun with no shade, and no barrier from the onslaught of patients. That night, we limped home after seeing over a hundred patients and went back to the drawing board. The next day went much smoother, after setting ourselves up a tarpaulin up over triage and employing a man with a big stick to take over crowd control. Odd the things you learn on this course.
Uganda was also a sharp introduction to city life after 6 weeks in the sleepy town of Moshi. Every few days there was another bag snatch or robbery, affecting all different nationalities of students. This escalated to on the last night when even the course directors bag was stolen, including his laptop, and upsettingly, all of the transcribed exam results. This made for an interesting graduation where we all graduated without actually knowing whether we had passed or not. This seemed a unique African ending to our quite unique course. We didn’t let this stop us celebrating and the farewell parties went on for days.
This may seem to some like an odd way to have spent 3 months in Africa, but the knowledge and the exposure to tropical diseases which I have minimal involvement with back home was astounding. Working alongside colleagues from all over the world really gave me an insight into how other health systems function, and how similar our education is worldwide. I met exceptionally inspirational people, both students and teachers, who had, to name a few, run centres for Ebola patients, responded to humanitarian crises all over the world and participated in ground breaking research. And that was what people had done before the course. Now I have friends spread out all over the world, working in Sierra Leone, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand... (you get the idea). I can’t wait to see what they all achieve.
After the rather disappointing news that the Malawians and Irish ceased their reciprocal free visa 2 months ago, and the inevitable pulling out of huge pile of dollars, we made it to Malawi, and made it to Lilongwe that night. We treated ourselves to a great curry in the capitol, something we were both craving. The restaurant was great, with curry as good as back home, but some interesting service. After our meal, we were delivered the bill in record time, despite not having asked for it. Not having quite finished, I asked for a second glass of wine, and was met with a blank stare and then the waiter shouting “What? Wine? But you have had the bill!” As I saw his manager leg it across the restaurant and drag him away, James nervously pointed out that he may want a beer in a bit. The waiter grumpily took the bill away and started despairing at the additional maths I had put on him.
At the hostel in Lilongwe, we noticed a sign for a triathlon that weekend in one of the towns on the lake, Cape McClear, and with James having done a few triathlons before , this seemed a good place for us to head for the weekend. Cape McClear was an absolutely stunning destination, with a sandy, golden beach and the lake so clear you can see the fish around you as you swim, and we were both happy to stay there for a few days. James signed up for the triathlon and renting a bike, and I volunteered to help out with the organisation. The rest of the day was spent checking out the local clinic, run by a charity called the Billy Roland Malawi Project, an Irish run charity which supplies eight healthcare professionals ever four months to the rural community, with a view to me applying to volunteer in the new year.
The morning of the triathlon arrived, and with collectively an hours sleep between us, due to our poor choice of accommodation, right next to the bar, we got the start of the race for 6am. James was lent a bike, which seemed to have been bought over the Africa as a part of a charity project, and had CycleAfrica written on the side. Possibly not the use they were hoping for, but it wasn’t terrible and I kept the time, as James and 50 others dived off into Lake Malawi to swim the 800m of the first stage. It was pretty well run, with the only real differences between this triathlon and any of the others he had done being having to avoid strawberry sellers as he ran round town, and being overtaken on the ride by two Africans carrying several 20 kgs of charcoal. Despite this he still managed a respectable 9th. After the triathlon, there was a swim from the nearby island, a kayak race and a volleyball competition. It was a geat mix of Malawians and ex-pats, and the party carried on all day (after we went home for a nap) and night, with local bands and a party on the beach to finish. As we danced at eleven at night, the local kids came for a dance too, and were eventually sent home after trying to steal the empty bottles to return for a small fee. It was regretted the next morning, but what a fun day.
We moved up the coast to meet some friends, at Livingstonia. This is a town where missionaries settled in Malawi, their third choice, after being ravaged by disease and the difficult to convert of the other sites they had tried. It is high in the hills and offers stunning views over the lake, as well as a distinctly Scottish church.
A few more days on the beach, games of volleyball and Carlsberg beers (disappointly the only beer available in Malawi, as some government official sold the sole rights to brewing to the goliath of undrinkable beer), and our time in Malawi had come to an end. We made our way back to the camp after a few drinks, and found a genet, a cat like animal had moved into our car. They're normally super shy so it was a bit of a surprise. We were very pushed for time as we still had 1000 miles to drive to get to Moshi, in Tanzania, where I am planning to do a course in tropical medicine for 3 months. Despite only spending a week in this tiny country, we are both completely in love, and thankfully we did have a reason to leave, or I think we both would have struggled!
Zimbabwe and Zambia are separated by the Zambezi, and the powers at be have built a dam which is shared by the two countries. This formed Lake Kariba, and this was our next destination. The dam itself was very impressive, however, after a little googling and reading it seems it is not quite as good as it looks, as it is riddled with cracks. But this did not deter us from the adorable border crossing that you have to drive across the top of the dam.
In markets in Africa, fruits and vegetables are sold in piles which correlates to the lowest denomination of local currency. In Burkina this equated to 20p, in Cameroon 30p but in Zimbabwe this is $1. As I’m sure you can appreciate, $1 equates to A LOT of peppers, or tomatoes or nuts. Before leaving, we wanted to use all our filthy $1 notes, as they would never pass for legal currency in any other country, and so the car was packed to the gunnels with fruit and veg, and Zambezi, the excellent local beer. We felt the smug feeling that comes with finishing all your foreign currency – until we hit the border and needed to pay $1 for the toll for crossing the dam. So ensued half an hour piecing together $1 out of every other currency we had not been so fastidious at getting rid of. I think they had never seen a “mazungo”, (white man who travels aimlessly for no reason) make such a fuss out of a dollar.
And then it was on to Zambia! We had visited on holiday a few years before and we were both keen to see some more of this giant country. We stayed at Lake Kariba but there is something less that satisfying about camping next to a lake you can’t swim in, due to the abundance of hippos and crocs. We made the most and did our washing, caught up on the latest from the olympics and cleaned the car in a stunningly beautiful campsite, with zebras that needed to be chased out of the bar (apparently not for hygiene, but they kept forgetting the floor was too slippy for their hooves and falling over like Bambi).
One of our aims when we decided to travel around Africa was to avoid African elections, which are notoriously troublesome. Despite this, this would be the third country we have traversed with elections in full swing. In Zambia, the same president had been voted back in a few days ago but there had been protests in Lusaka and the opposition was claiming an unfair election. We were not too keen on spending more time than totally necessary in the capital and so stayed on the outskirts, and spent the evening talking to some of the locals in the bar, getting a better grip at what was going on in the city.
By now, after a few months in Southern Africa we were beginning to become a little elephanted out. So when we heard about a little park in the north of Zambia, near to the DRC border which specialised in a rare type of antelope, this seemed just up our street. Sitatungas are tiny, shy, water dwelling antelope that are specialised for their habitat with long, special hooves. We camped right next to the swamp in the wetlands, and fell asleep to the sounds of the forest. At six the next morning all we needed to do was fall out of bed, and set up our chairs overlooking the water, and were rewarded with sitatungas and black lechwes, another swamp dwelling antelope, grazing in front of us, with the mist hanging low over the wetlands. It was so peaceful. Or is was until the Tetzes flies arrived.
We discovered that down the road, only 60km, there was the place that David Livingstone died, and his heart was buried beneath a tree, so his heart would always be in Africa. Having driven all this way in a car named after his fellow explorer, it seemed only good manners to pop in and say Hello. Driving along the dusty, bumpy road at 30km/hr, it didn’t seem that there had been that much had change since Livingstone and his men had passed through. The area was still strewn with mud huts with people living in abject poverty. It could have been 100 years ago. Well, except for the addition of the occasional solar panel or satellite dish.
The memorial site itself was quite impression, with a giant cross on top of a stone block, and a tree lined driveway and gate leading towards it. We paid our respects and as we went to leave got cornered by the most pathetic attempt at a sting. The local children, who could speak no word of English, demanded $15 from us for visiting the memorial. They shut the gate and stood by, laughing derisively. James got out and opened the gate and I drove through, the kids staring in astonishment at how we had managed to avoid their “fee”.
We decided to drive across the Zambezi escarpement, in order to enter Luagwe National Park from the north, and had been warned that the road was hard going. Over 8km, we dropped about 1000m in altitude, and Stanleys now quite bald tyres slid down the escarpement beautifully. The views over the surrounding countryside were breathtaking. The only campsite en route was shut, and as we pulled up some antelopes rushed off after being disturbed. The Tetze flies were out in full force, and they were clinging to the car for dear life. There were 16 on the snorkel alone and neither of us wanted to get out, and risk their viscious bites and set up camp, so we decided to keep driving and bush camp further down the road, near the entrance to the park.
We arrived just before sunset at the gate the park, and one of the rangers was happy for us to camp in his tiny village. With us being so close to the park, it made sense to stay close the men with guns! As we made popcorn (our latest camping discovery) we watched the sunset over the park, and as we sat looking at the stars after dinner we were visited by an elephant browsing in the bushes. We heard gunshots off in the distance at around three in the morning, and the next morning the ranges all heading off it that direction on the search for poachers.
The next day we drove through the park, traversing the much less travelled north, fording rivers and crossing causeways. We were rewarded with herds of elephants, hippos, puku and warthogs to name a few, and planned for a night drive that evening. No one, except organised groups, are allowed to drive in the parks at night, as it would make it too difficult to spot poachers and the chances of hitting animals would be too high, so this was the first time I had even had a chance at spotting nocturnal creatures. It was a very strange experience. We saw things that we would never have seen alone, including a pride of lions, two leopards and a handful of genets and the guide was getting so much closer than we would ever. It was great to see so many hard to find animals, however, after spending months looking for hours to get a glimpse of different animals, it felt so staged and almost zoo like. We were surrounded by other game cars, and hundreds of cameras. It was just very different to our previous game drives and I think we’ll both appreciate our time with Stanley that little bit more.
We camped outside the park, oddly surrounded by British cars, and spent the next few days at war with the local baboons, who were atrocious, and won the war by stealing one of our corn on the cobs. The camp had many nocturnal visitors, and one night we woke to a large bull elephant walking through the camp and quietly grazing. It was so great watching him in the moonlight out of the tent window, until the night watchman decided it was time for him to move on. He threw stones and sticks at the giant pachyderm and when he still wouldn’t leave his dinner, he picked up a stick from the fire and hurled it towards the elephant, and us… The elephant, scared by the site of fire flying through the air at him, ran off in a random direction, which happened to be directly towards our tent. He changed direction at the last moment and run off towards the river, but it was a long time til we started breathing again and even longer til I fell off to sleep.
We flew back to Jo’Berg, after almost a month at home. It felt great to be back of the road and our short trip home had revitalised both of us to travelling. We retrieved Stanley from a lovely family who had been looking after him for us, and they also offered us dinner and a bed for a night, living us to our experience of all South Africans and their insane generosity.
The plan had been to progress into Mozambique, however, after some light googling, we found that some of the roads we would have had to pass, were… troublesome. These roads now required a convoy in order to drive along them, and some of these convoys had been targeted by armed rebels. So that was a no for us. The plan quickly changed for Zimbabwe, and I for one, am extremely glad it did.
Arriving in Jo’berg, we drove to Pretoria to set up camp to fix up Stanley. This took us a bit longer than we expected, as we needed to order some parts, and we spent five days in the country’s capital. Although pretty, we struggled with things to do for five days, so when James heard the Lions were playing in Johannesburg in the Super Rugby final, we seemed to acquire tickets faster then I could say no. We got the train there, and got an eye-opening bus ride through the city before we arrived at the stadium and saw the Lions (South African) destroy the Highlanders (New Zealanders). After dancing with the celebrating rugby fans, and listening to an ad hoc brass band that had come to watch, we head home very merry.
We left South Africa, after a car service and acquiring a few bits and bobs for Stanley, and headed towards the only border with Zim. Beitbridge, has a bit of a reputation for being a long winded border, but with Zim being our 24th country on the trip, we decided to get on with it. Well, the reputation is well earned. It took hours. Nine, in fact. The queues were just phenomenal. There was the same amount of stops as any other border, but each queue seemed to last at least two hours. Zimbabwe has extremely strict rules on what can be imported, in order to protect the few remaining dollars that they have, and support their own industries. However, South African goods are much cheaper, and what results is thousands of people crossing the border each day to shop in South Africa, and then bring back the limited amount they are allowed in the same day. Each must be stamped in and out of each country, and also searched to ensure they are not bringing in over their quota. It took forever. We also discovered an Italian family who had just rented a car for their holiday, who were also stuck in the chaos. This was probably not the introduction to Africa they were hoping for, but they seemed to be coping well. Finally, after receiving all our stamps, insurance and tax we got back in the car and immediately realised our error. We had parked near the entrance so as not to obstruct anyone else. No one else had followed suit, but had abandoned their cars nearer the offices, blocking the path to customs and through into Zim. So we had to sit, and wait for everyone to also complete their paperwork.
Finally, we got the car searched, and I rallied a few customs officials to try and get them to speed up and get to us quicker. I explained to the official we had been there for nearly nine hours, he replied, “Yes, well we try to see tourists quicker.” He clearly thought I meant this as a compliment as to how quick they were…
We made our way to the nearest campsite, and passed out in a haze of straight-to-wok noodles and South African beer. The next day, we were off to Gonarezhou National Park, a little known park on the border of Mozambique and South Africa. It is in fact the other side of the border to Kruger, so should prove to be a lovely place. We arrived at the campsite on the shore of the Limpopo river and discovered we were to be totally on our own. There were a few other tourists, mostly Zimbabweans, but the campsites were incredibly spread out. We even had our own shower and toilet block. As we pulled in, we jumped out of the car as we realised a pod of hippos were parked right outside our camp spot. I reacted even faster when I realised an elephant was munching its way towards us from the other side of the campsite. This was clearly going to be an amazing place. We set up our campfire and tent, and watched the sunset over the hippos, and other than the odd grunt from them, all was quiet. We slept deeply and woke the next morning to a pile of elephant poo outside the tent. It seems we’d had visitors.
We drove around the park, and encountered few other tourists, but many an elephant, as there were around 11000 in the park. We had a very peaceful day, and had a walk up to waterfalls at the end of the campsite. We passed some other tourists, who seemed to be having trouble from the baboons. On entry to the park, the officials are very clear – the baboons will have anything that you leave out. They had possibly not heeded this warning, and had set up a tent that they called “The Kitchen Tent.” This was their first mistake. Their second was leaving it unguarded, as a team of baboons expertly tore open the tent and extracted their food from their cool box. Clever.
That night, we settled down to another quiet night and were both relaxing into the unfenced campsite. We were just about to pop to the side of the river for a final pee before bed, when my head torch caught a glint heading directly towards the fire. I jumped up as a hyena continued to slope towards us, with a wry little smile. James lobbed a rock and he ran back off into the night. We got in to bed quite quickly then leaving a smouldering fire. I awoke in the night to the sound of a large animal outside, but there was little moon and I couldn’t see him. I was just about to wake up James when the fire suddenly started hissing and spluttering, as if someone had poured water on it. I woke James, and we both studied the fire, as we heard the sound of said very large mammal plop into the water. These are the facts. Our interpretation of this is one of two things. A) The large animal, likely a hippo, was walking past the fire, at exactly the moment when it spontaneously started hissing or B) The hippo peed on our fire. I know what I believe.
Next on the cards, was a hike up in the Chimanimani Mountains, so we drove up to the nearest town through field upon field of coffee and sugar cane. The area had clearly had some Irish influence throughout the years, as there were names like Roscommon and Cashel on the farms and villages, and the farms were flanked by long, tree lined drives. It was stunning, and as we ascended further it began to look like a Nordic forest, rather than the African savannah we imagined. We worked our way up to base camp, and started the three hour hike from 1800m to 2200m where a hut was situated that you could either stay at, or use as a base. We made it there around four pm, to discovered our tranquil mountain had been taken over by 30 local school children, and there would not have been space to stay in the hut, even if we had wanted to. We decided to head off in search of a cave for the night and with some locations marked on our extremely basic map, we set off. The map was incomplete at best, but with some luck and by navigating by the rivers and waterfalls, we managed to find our cave just in time for sunset.
In Digby cave, just down from the waterfalls, we bedded down for the night and made a little fire to keep us warm, and “for morale” as James always says. James wandered off for a pee – possibly the least relaxing pee of his life, as the fire spread like, well, wild fire through the cave. I was happily pouring tea as I looked up and noticed, screamed for James and jumped up and rescued our bag, which was seconds from being engulfed. James stamped it out, and it would be fair to say we both had a lot more respect for our campfire from then on. We even went down to the river to get extra water so we could be a makeshift fire service if necessary. The mountains were so quiet through the night, and every time we woke, we could stare up at the stars. Beautiful.
The next day we made our way back down to camp, and the weather got worse with every step we took down. We were lucky as when we got down the wind was blowing a gale and rain was definitely threatening so we had a hot shower – the man running the campsite had lit the fire for our showers already as he knew we were coming down, and it was hugely appreciated, and an emergency beans on toast and drove as fast as we could away from the bad weather, and down the mountain.
That evening we made it to Great Zimbabwe, which is a bit of a rarity in Africa. It is a ruin of an 11th century – 15th century civilization, which is in amazingly good nick. Most buildings in Africa are built from wood or mud, and so don’t last particularly long but this was a stone civilization and is now a World heritage Site, and rightly so. We walked around the ruins and it was very refreshing to see a historical site in Africa that had nothing to do with Europe, and their involvement in the continent.
On our way north to our next destination, we drove though some good sized towns. As mentioned above, Zimbabwe is having a bit of a problem with currency. In 2009, after extensive hyperinflation of the Zimbabwean dollar, the government made a novel decision. They decided to use U.S. dollars, admittedly not with the sanction of the USA. In fact, Zimbabwe has four currencies – USD, Pula, Rand and GBP. Now, the currency has been generally accepted, but there is a huge deficiency of dollars in the country. They will not allow internationals to take out any money in the country, and locals are limited to a small amount they are allowed to withdraw. This has resulted in huge queues at ATMs and banks in the towns around the country.
After a quick stop off in Harare, for a posh lunch of pizza and sandwiches, we head off to Mana Pools. This is meant to be one of the most remote and wild parks in Africa and we were very excited. We entered the park and made our way to the campsite. Our site, number 12, cheaper and therefore away from the banks of the Zambezi had been completely taken over by a South African family. They obviously needed a lot of space as they seemed to have brought everything they could think of, including the kitchen sink and a maid to man the kitchen sink. We went back to reception to complain, and after much ado, we were told to find somewhere else. So we did. By the water, in a huge plot. We would have even had space for a maid of our own. We had some lovely neighbours, but however nice they were, they were nothing compared to the animals we had wandering through. Every hour or so, a small herd of elephants would come through, eating the berries off the ground. They were completely unphased by the campers and were a joy to watch, day and night.
The first few days were quite uneventful in terms of big sightings and we enjoyed our morning and evening drives surrounded by elephants, kudu, impala, fish eagles, warthog, hundreds of hippo and we even got an exceptionally rare sighting of African Wild Dogs, of which there are 400 left in the world (This was possibly one of James proudest moments as he located and tracked these on foot). But on our last night, things got really interesting. We drove off early and spent a few uneventful hours game viewing. We were getting to the stage when we were going to give up, sit on the roof of the car with a beer, and watch the sunset overlooking the hippos and crocs, when we spotted a lion. And then five others. We stayed with them, watching them groom each other and then wander off to the water until the last moment we could so we could get back in time for curfew. We joined a small procession of cars, high-fiving each other and bombing it back to camp, when we drove into four African Wild Dogs feasting on an impala. We stayed as long as we could, flaunting the curfew rules and eventually pulled ourselves a way. We once again drove into a pile of cars, pointing their lights of into the distance, as we saw a leopard slope off away from the camp. What an incredible evening, and we celebrated with a braii with some of our neighbours, as hyenas ran around the camp
Thanks to Ding.com for supporting us with communication throughout our trip. Zimbabwes has been a weird mixture between 4G and no signal for days.
We leave Namibia and head onto the final country on this leg of the journey with a huge amount of excitement, getting the immigration officer to apply our final sticker. The northern cape continues the desolate theme however it has one treat which we’re both keen to explore. Etosha had been exceptional but we had seen very few predators. The Kgaligadi Transfrontier Park is known as one of the greatest national parks in the world for predators and for us, was a must. It happily coincided with my birthday. So we booked the last campsite in the place and drove towards it. The night before was spent outside the park, to save money on park fees, and what a bargain we found. The campsite was right outside the national park and was the home of a meerkat sanctuary, so we decided to brave the meerkats for the evening. We arrived, read the sign that meerkats bite, and should not be petted, and James jumped out to discuss camping. As soon as we drove over the threshold, I spotted three meerkats and squeaked this information to James who was outside the car. He turned, and not wanting to scare them backed towards the car. They then charged him, which resulted in him legging it back to the car, jumping as they nibbled at his ankles. He had to run round the car, whereas they could run under it, champing at his shoelaces. As I wet myself laughing at James running from three creatures which are small enough to fit in the palm of his hand, the lady who runs the campsite emerged and called off the bandits. She was a professor of animal behaviour, who had spent most of her life studying dwarf mongeese, but had recently diversified into meerkats. She was rather amazing, and we sat watching the little critters til sunset, as they squeaked and manically dug around us, hearing all about their social interactions.
The next day we drove into the Kgaligadi and were educated as to what an organized National Park was. My God. We needed to check in at various locations. There were maps. They had fuel and cash machines. This was all a bit of a shock, but one we embraced happily. We immediately headed off for a game drive (we were a bit late setting off as James couldn’t stop rubbing the meerkats' bellies). After six hours driving, during which the highlight was spotting a melon and not an animal in sight, we headed home suitably disgruntled. On arrival back to the campsite, we discover that everyone else had been watching a cheetah with her three pups devour an impala. “Tomorrow will be better” “You have to work for your animals” etc. We are up at sunrise and back out into the park. It is still a desert National Park, like Etosha, but it has much more scrub and there are red dunes disappearing off into the horizon, with huge flocks of ostriches running across the grassland. We eventually spot a pack of Hyenas at around 4pm, after having been on the road all day, and we watch as they lounge beneath a tree for shade. The next day is my birthday, and we had planned to do a night drive, so we were both quietly confident our animal count was going to go through the roof, until we pull up to our campsite and the signs clearly says no night drives this evening. Oh, and we have of coursed missed some more cheetahs during the day. We decide to head out straight away, find a watering hole and sit there until something comes, and if nothing does, we shall have a beer and watch the sunset. We arrive at the watering hole to see the bum of a lion disappear over the horizon, both sigh and open our beers. What then ensued was incredible. The lion came back and sat down beautifully positioned in front of Stanley, joined immediately by his lady friend (National Geographic style journalism this). They then preceded to mate for thirty seconds, and then both pass out. James and I watched this occur every 10 minutes for the next hour, until we realized that we were bordering on perverted. It was so difficult to leave, and the sun started setting, and we needed to get home in time for curfew - one of the many rules of the park that had been explained to us. It became even harder when they came and sat in front of the car, continuing their shenanigans. They passed so close if I wasn’t such a wimp and had the window up, I could have reached out and petted them. Us, and a few die hard fans stayed with the lions far too late, and eventually put our foot down and drove homewards, arriving 20 minutes late. Not too bad, we thought. As we arrived back, another lion was pacing around the fence surrounding the campsite, making her way to the watering hole, being followed by a handful of jackels and everyone abandoned their fires to watch her drink. As we lit our fire, and congratulated each other on our excellent game viewing, one of the wardens came to join us, along with a fine for being out after curfew. Maybe I’m not so keen on these well organized national parks. We grudgingly accepted, but both secretly agreed it was well worth it.
The next morning, on our slow meander out of the park, we spotted an African Wild Cat, and spent a good twenty minutes watching her, before it dawned on both of us that she could have been switched for a domestic cat and we would have no idea. We paid our fine on the way out, but the girl at the desk was so charming it was impossible to have a bitter taste. What a great park, especially if you like melons (Oh grow up)!
We head to Upington, the first town of any note in South Africa, with a view to finding a nice hotel on the Orange river, a restaurant and a 4x4 shop – all the necessities. We located a cute chalet, with the most outlandish bathroom and I set myself up in the bath with feet and scalding hot water, whilst James tried to find the poshest restaurant he could for my birthday dinner. This turned out to be the Irish bar, so we put on our glad rags – jeans and a clean T shirt, and headed over for what turned out to be pretty good pizzas and questionable clientele.
So now we were getting very close to the goal of our whole trip – to make it to Cape Town. We drove the 700 or so miles over two days, stopping at a vineyard for wine tasting on the Orange river, and arrived in Cape Town late. It seems I had forgot to phone ahead for the marching band and ticker tape parade. We had been getting quite lazy over the last few weeks as the weather has got colder, and camped less and less however, it was still such a treat to arrive at our Air B&B flat in the centre of Cape Town with a nice safe, underground parking space for Stanley – well, he deserves a treat as well. We spent just over a week in the city, and what a fantastic city it is. We drove around the peninsula to Cape Point, and it must be one of the most beautiful coast roads in the world, went down to the penguins, ate fish dinners in the restaurants on the V&A waterfront and had the obligatory photo at Cape of Good Hope.
A few days after our arrival there was to be a rugby match between Ireland and South Africa. I do wonder how long James has known this and how long he had been trying to coordinate our arrival with this match, but he assures me that is not true. I believe him, millions wouldn’t… So we headed off to Newlands stadium to watch what turned out to be great game, with the end result being a very happy James, and a stadium of less than happy Springboks. A pleasant evening was had surrounded by Irish & English in one of the many lovely pubs in Cape Town, and it was generally a very enjoyable return to civilization. Cape Town felt so familiar and friendly. I wonder if it’s just the European influence, or the lack of cities like it on the way down but I found it hugely enjoyable and we both struggled to leave when the time came to move on.
The last thing we planned to do was a Cape Town essential – climb Table Mountain. We planned to climb the most simple route, the Plateklipp Gorge which is meant to be a 2 hour hike, so simple that in fact I only put my hiking boots on as an afterthought. Being not very bright, this was the only route we had looked up, and after an hour when we were confronted with a sign saying India Venster we realized we had somehow lost the path. However, it was a sunny cool day and we decided to carry on via this new route. This was our first mistake. Our second mistake was assuming the signs further up the Venster saying “experienced climbers only” and “Use chains and ladders at your own risk” was an exaggeration and their way of weeding out the weaklings. As we later found out India Venster is a very difficult route. Well, we worked that out quite quickly but googling it afterwards sends shivers down our spines. In total it took us four hours, and most of my shins. It was not a hike, more a less than dignified scramble including pulling yourself up chains and staring blankly at a flat cliff face trying to work out how on earth you're meant to get up it. At one stage, we decided we could no longer see an obvious route, and decided it would be safer to turn around, despite being a few hundred feet below the cable car. As we started descending, we met the very chirpy tones of Cleo - a South African woman/mountain goat. We told her our problem and she insisted on us joining her merry crew of equally underprepared foreigners. She leapt at the wall we thought impassable whilst singing, taking photos and carrying her own little posies' water bottles and phones, and ascended it in seconds. It seems she's been climbing this mountain her whole life, and my God she was good. With her help, we made it to the top just in time for the final cable car, and the views were spectacular, with a cloudless view over the city and sea. At the top we met 2 Irish medical students who chirped how they would have taken our route but decided against it after reading that several people had died on it this year alone. After getting back to our accommodation, we looked up the route and the first thing we found was “5 reasons people underestimate India Venster.” Well I can safely say we had achieved all 5 of those, but at least the pain in our thighs and bruises on our shins will remind us for a while how ridiculous the idea had been.
The Cape of Good Hope is the most southwesterly point of Africa, a not very impressive title, but it is of huge historical significance. It is the point where sailors finally could go more easterly then southerly, and was named due to the optimism this offered with regard to opening up trading routes with India and the East. It was previously thought to be the most southern point of Africa, and where the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean meet, however, this is actually Cape Agulhas, which is 150km to the east, so this is where we headed next. We stayed at a lovely backpackers located 5km from the Cape and the next morning, approached the end of the first stage of our trip. I must say, it felt very strange after 21000 miles to finally be arriving at this point, and we both felt very proud of ours and Stanley's achievement. Stanley had to be left 150m from the actual most southerly point but I think we can forgive him this. We bounded down to the plaque and both stood staring at it, smiling our most dazzling smiles. It felt very good. I asked James what we should do now. He shrugged and said, “I suppose we start going north.” So this is what we shall do.
It’s been an incredible journey, with some spectacular highs and some devastating lows. We have learnt so much, unfortunately nearly all of it the hard way and mostly how not to do things rather than how to do them. I’m sure we’ll learn that bit later.
Somehow, despite next to no mechanical knowledge between the two of us, our car has made it in one piece. Well almost one piece. Stanley is 80% of the car he was when he left, with 15% butchered Toyotas and 5% Gaffa type.
Somewhere along the way we have lost the modern obsession with plans. We now make none, to the point that we are infuriating to be around, especially if you ever ask, “What are you doing tomorrow?” We have met plenty of people who would be testament to this. We would often change our destination two or three times a day, however I suppose this makes us exceptionally difficult to follow as we never have a clue as to where we are going.
We have been to beautiful, off the beaten track places and met amazing people, from a whole host of cultures and backgrounds. We have slept in campsites, hotel car parks, police stations, convents, churches, schools, yacht clubs, a logging camp, the middle of a road (that was a bad day) and swamps (that was a worse day). We changed location so much that in the early days, it became a common occurrence that one of us would wake up and ask the other where we were. Often it took us ages to remember what country, let alone what town, and it wasn’t that reassuring when the answer is Mali or the DRC. We have not only got to experience this incredible continent but also had the privilege to see the subtle changes that you can only see from moving from one country to the other. Africa, far from being a scary, unwelcoming mass has been endlessly friendly, helpful and an extremely enjoyable place to be.
The most incredible thing of all, after 6 months sharing a Landcruiser, is James and I don’t seem to want to kill each other. Yes, there were certainly times, including one when I would have happily left James in a Nigerian jungle, when he left the mosquito net open all night or when I wake James up in the middle of the night and insist he comes with me to go to the loo in case a lion eats me. What exactly I expect him to do I’m not sure but I’ve seen his skills with a honey badger so I want him on my side.
Now, we are going to take a couple of weeks off and plan the next stage. As things stand, we plan to drive up the East Coast of Africa but for now it’s time to go home for a well deserved holiday.
We left Epupa falls, glad to finally be heading south again. It’s hard to change your habits. The north of Namibia is famed for the Kackoveld –classed as the last true wilderness in Southern Africa, and it stands up to its title. It is remote. There are very few paved roads, and the majority of the routes are made up of 4x4 trails. We chose our route careful, knowing that some of the routes are affectionately called “car killers” and there was no way we were putting Stanley onto one of those routes out of choice. We both enjoy off-road driving, and Stanley has proved himself again and again, but there is something very unsatisfying about driving off and trying to find these routes when they’re not essential. Every road we drove served a purpose, so now we happily waved the huge convoys of white South African Landcruisers off, as we took the road most travelled. Even these, in Namibia, are stunningly beautiful, driving through mountains and deserts, with the threat of desert elephants jumping out at you at any point, and you are completely alone. We came across a herd of giraffes whilst driving, followed by some ostriches feeling real joy in seeing these animals going about their daily life in the complete wild. We camped at community run campsites and wallowed in the strange middle ground we lived in. The campsites, run by the locals tribes, have electricity and hot water and yet we can drive for hours and find not a soul. You can understand why people would love this land, with huge skies full of stars and complete silence when coming from our busy, modern world. However, coming from the bush, I think James and I missed some of its charm. It was just so sandy. And dry. I’m considering taking shares out in Nivea after upping my moisturizing regime from never to four times a day. Call us miserable bastards, but you can keep your beautiful views and starry skies, as long as I get white sheets and a steaming hot shower, with fluffy white towels. And so this is what we headed for.
Before my date with a hot shower and fluffy white towels, we stopped at the Cape Point Seal Sanctuary, where 10000 seals happily live surrounding a pedestrian walkway. Helpful, thanks. What an odd place? You get out of the car to the deafening bark of thousands of seals, lounging all over the sign for the park. We were unable to get into the pedestrian walkway without scaling the wall as the seals had blocked all the doors and we spent a happy hour with them going about their business around us. Well, mostly happy, except having to step over a seal, which had died in the walkway, after having become trapped. Some would question whether this national park had truly got to grips with conservation, if the animals were dying in the constructions made to view them. Not me, I bought a key ring.
Swakopmund is an oasis in the middle of the desert, and seems to be THE place to be in Namibia, certainly if you want fluffy white towels. We drove into this germanic settlement, and could have been just outside the Black Forest, if you discounted the huge amount of sand that seemed to follow us everywhere we went. We checked into a quiet backpackers, and Stanley got a few nights off being clambered on top of, and James and I lost some of our grumpiness, as we showered excessively and got a lecture on the weather, which as far as I could work out was “always sunny”. We visited their lovely restaurants, and even attended a street festival, heavily laden with lederhosen and beer. We heard the shouts of “That is the whitest man I have ever seen – he must be Irish” in a strong Clare accent, and after James had puffed out his feathers and explained he was the brownest he had ever been and some of his freckles had even joined together to be a tan, we spent the evening with an Irish marine biologist and his chums. All went swimmingly until I slapped one of them when his racism went a bit too far and then, well, it’s time to leave really, isn’t it? Well, after another lecture on the weather from the owners of the hostel.
We head off back into the desert, with a somewhat sand laden heart and were planning to head to a giant sand dune on the west coast. After two hours of driving, where we saw lots of sand, we both collectively decided there was a limit to how much sand we wanted to see and diverted away from, as we both termed it, “more sand.” We drove for hours, we crossed our last big geographical milestone - the Tropic of Capricorn. We decided to head to the Fish River Canyon, the second biggest canyon in the world, after the Grand Canyon. James has been here before, a sentence which I have to say far too often as my boyfriend is the most well travelled person I have ever met, but he insisted I needed to see it. We camped at possibly the poshest campsite. A national park campsite, with the normal (for southern Africa) Braii pit, electricity and spotless ablutions, but this had an ace up its sleeve – a hot water spring which supplied the Spa, the swimming pool and an exceptional pond at 65 C. Well, if ever there was a time I needed a hot spring spa (not a sentence you say every day) this was the time, and it washed away both the dust, and my increasing dislike of Namibia. This was washed away further as we drove to some of the view points over the Fish River Canyon, watching the sun go down and the stunning purple hue over this geological marvel. It was gorgeous. We would have loved to hike it (again for James) but our visas would not allow us. Onwards and leaving Namibia on a high note.
In total, we spent the best part of a month in Namibia. Strange that we spent so long in a country that neither of us are particularly fond of. But it does have some exceptionally beautiful scenery, wildlife and natural phenomena. I leave it with mixed feelings. In some ways, I hated it. It seems to have merged the worst parts of the African culture and the German, and lost so much of what makes each great. There was none of the African friendliness we are so used to and where they have embraced the modern world, with the shopping centres and supermarkets, they seem to have taken on only the worst parts. It is all industrial estates and fast food restaurants, with none of the treats that make African countries unique. In other ways, it is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever seen. It is immensely privileged with the treats the natural world has bestowed on it, with the Fish River Canyon, Etosha and the Kackoveld. I would highly recommend it as a holiday destination but maybe, for people not to see it as Africa, as it lacks almost everything I have come to know and love about this great continent. There are millions of people who would disagree with me on this but surely thats the whole point of travelling.
We would like to thank ding.com for their continued support throughout our adventure!
Namibia had been the dream for so long, all through the roughest parts of the trip – Everything will be great once we get to Namibia. There will be shops and toilets and campsites and campfires. There will be minimal bureaucracy. They speak English. It will be heaven. We cross the border, and heave a sigh of relief, and are immediately asked for money by a man spraying the car for foot and mouth. We head through customs and are hassled by fixers, strange after going through so many borders with no one there except us. We fill out our fisches, head to immigration and get our stamps, all without a word being said to us. No smiles. Nothing. We head to the desk to sort out our carnet, with the word “customs” above it, and fight our way through all the people gathered around the hatch. The woman pays us no attention and eventually I elbow my way in and put my carnet in front of her. She stares at me blankly whilst dealing with everyone else before us. This is not the place for customs. How silly of me, going to the desk with “customs” above it. This is road tax. So we fill out the forms and explain to the lady we have no local currency. She gives us a blank stare. She then calls for some other people to join her with their blank stares. “You have no money?” We explain we have money but no Namibian dollars. Being as we have just crossed from a different country I fail to believe this is the first time they have come across this. “You have Rand?” Standing next to the border with Angola, we explain that we do not have Rand – Why would we have Rand. We are 2000km from South Africa. We ask if they take dollars or have an ATM. More blank stares. We ask how much the road tax will be. More blank stares. Eventually, someone takes pity on us and explains there is an ATM near by and we leave the border to go and find it, withdrawing a random quantity of money as still no one will tell us how much road tax is. We pay the woman and head off to find customs, where we are met by more blank stares. This is not quite the border we had been expecting. We drive off into northern Namibia and head to the nearest town where we know there is a campsite. We drive past supermarkets, fast food outlets and clothes shops in awe, and arrive at the campsite. Which is deserted. We have already driven 350 miles and crossed a border and are very tired. There’s no way in, so we drive off into the setting sun to the next campsite – 40 miles away.
We pull into the campsite along side the hotel, and although it is not the Namibian campsite of our dreams, it is quiet, flat, has running water, a pool and pizza. We head off immediately to the bar, only stopping to check out the two motorbikes next to a ground tent that we will be sharing the campsite with, which both have British plates. It’s been a good while since we have seen British plates and get quite excited, heading off the bar to find their owners. There we find Helen and Jimmy, who are driving up the East Coast of Africa on their motorbikes, having had them shipped to South Africa. We join them for dinner, and I discover that this is The Helen. The Helen who cycled the same route we had taken over 22 months on her own, whose blog I had read (helenstakeon) and used to explain to my Mum how safe it would be! Her slight embarrassment by being called The Helen repeatedly is got over and we spend a lovely few days at the campsite with them, having barbeques, and making the most of the car shops, service stations and supermarkets. By the end of our time in Oshakati, Stanley's bodywork is no longer attached to the roof, but has made it back to his panels, he has two functioning tow points, has had a full service and even has a new steering wheel cover, as his own steering wheel has melted somewhere along the way and James and I can’t drive without getting covered in melted rubber. I spend our three days with our new friends feeling ashamed by the amount of stuff that we have, and have a big clear out. There’s nothing like talking to someone who cycled for 22 months carrying everything they need to make you think you probably don’t need four tea-towels. I reduced to two, Helen said I could even reduce to one, but that is clearly a mad thought, so I kept two.
Next was our big treat, something we had both been looking forward to for the whole trip. Etosha, reportedly the best National Park in the world, is a desert wilderness, blighted by drought, with a huge population of animals, including elephants, lions, leopards, black faced impala, springbok, ostriches – the list goes on, and we booked ourselves into their campsites for 5 nights. We pack up camp, and head off to get the last bits done to Stanley, which will only take a couple of hours and then we will start the three hours drive to the Western gate to camp outside, ready to pounce in first thing in the morning. The service takes a lot longer than planned, and we end up spending nearly eight hours in a Wimpy burger – living the dream – and get going very late. It’s nearly sunset but the roads are good, so we push on and get as far as we can before dark, but Stanley has other ideas and overheats. On the plus side, we watch the stunning sunset surrounded by a herd of wild donkeys whilst we wait for him to cool off and head off again. We have very few rules but one of them is do not drive after dark in Africa, but rules are made to be broken and this is Namibia, so there are no bandits so we plough on. We drive an exceptionally long road bordering the park and start to realise our mistake as we drive past two completely totaled cars. Animals are the problem here and this road is fraught with things jumping out at you. We drive past a collection of tow trucks and realize this is a very common problem. The sides of the roads are cut back to allow you some vision, but we still manage to narrowly miss killing a hyena, and very nearly plough into a herd of zebras – not quite the game viewing we had been expecting. We stay at a campsite just outside, driving in wired after both spotting anything that might jump into the road, praying an elephant doesn’t decide to take residence just in front of us. We have a simple dinner, made much quicker when the manager comes over and explains lions walk around at night so be sure to check the colour of the eyes with your torch. If they reflect green its okay, if they reflect yellow, be very afraid. I have one beer and no more as there is no way I am getting out of bed that night and run up the ladder at the speed of light. Through the night we hear the noises of animals walking through the camp, and I am convinced I hear the padding of a big cat, but that could well be all in my head. In the morning, we head to the camps very own waterhole and it feels like there is a show being put on and the animals all know their part. We start with hyraxs running around our feet, then the zebras and giraffes stalk across to the waterhole, with the odd oryx. They move on quickly, as a large herd of elephants follow them up. We haven’t even entered the park yet, and we are already seeing some of the most beautiful animals.
Into the park we must go, and we drive through the barren wilderness, amazed that anything can survive there. We were worried it would be too touristy and there would be too many cars around each waterhole, but that first day we are almost entirely alone, waterhole hopping as there is very little to see in between. One of the waterholes is like the Etosha of the guidebooks, with fifteen different species gathered round all at one time, and we enjoy spotting all the game and herd animals, with a healthy dose of elephants just to keep my adrenaline levels up. We camp at the Olifantus camp site, which used to be an elephant abattoir in the days the elephants numbers were too great and meet a charming couple of holiday makers in a campervan from England, Rob and Jo who have the misfortune to be followed by us for the next week, with us turning up next to them at nearly every campsite. As the days tick away, we see lions, hyenas, jackals, rhinos as well as all the game animals and birds. We also have an encounter with a honey badger which was a little too close for comfort when he chased after me for our sausages. I abandoned the sausages, running off whilst James chased it off with a camping chair. At this stage I explained to him that honey badgers, despite the cute name, are one of the most lethal animals in Africa, with lions often abandoning their kills to them, and they also have a nasty habit of jumping up at men when threatened and clamping down on their testicles with their vice like jaws. He looked a bit ill after that, and I took on the full time job of honey badger watch.
Whilst watching lions at one of the nearby waterholes, a landrover pulls up opposite, and the lions are overlooked for a bit of overlander spotting. We definitely recognize the car, with its British plates and tiny flags down the side. This is one of the couples we have been following the whole way down, an English man and a South African woman whose blog has helped us out many a bad day. We head back to the campsite and find Rob and Mandy (wheretonextAfrica) and spend an extremely pleasant evening swapping stories, and mostly disasters, of the whole way down. It must be very odd for them as I seem to have an encyclopedic knowledge of their trip, having scoured their blog for border tips, routes and passable roads.
We struggle to leave this desert paradise and extend a day, and then have a real treat when Rob and Jo need to leave Etosha a day early, and give us their extra night. But eventually, we must go. We head back up through Oshakati, and up towards the Angolan border, where there is reportedly some stunning scenery. The towns and roads within Namibia we have seen so far resemble the mid west of America, dusty and barren with industrial shopping centres. I must say, we are not particularly sold on it so far, especially as every conversation we have is met with blank stares and often people turning and walking away mid sentence. I’m not sure if this is because of our accents, our colour or this is just the way people are, but our tempers are beginning to wear a bit thin and I am becoming overly British with talk of manners! It is very unlike the rest of Africa we have enjoyed where people are extremely friendly and want to chat. So we head up to Ruacana, and Epupu falls, driving along the Kunene river, which is truly stunning, and spend a few days at the community campsite there, run by the local tribes people. As we drive along the 4x4 tracks adjacent to the river, we see the tribes living as they would have done centuries ago. This is Himba country, and the women wear tribal dress, covering their bodies in paint, and with their hair formed into amazing sculptures. The men wear loin clothes, often teamed with a football shirt, just to add a modern twist. We get to Epupa falls where we discover our quiet campsite, at the top of the waterfall has been overtaken by a British film crew for the next few days. We decide that when the circus comes to town, its best to watch and stay for a few days, walking around the tiny village and watching the stark contrast between the Himba peoples normal way of living, and this British crew with their pick up, cameras, flash cars and drones for filming. It was all a bit odd.
James is napping after the excesses of a night with the film crew at their posh lodge, and I need some credit so walk to the local shop, which doubles as the bar. No one speaks English but I point at my phone and am directed by the crowd outside to a little hatch. I walk in and join the queue behind three Himba ladies in full tribal dress. They have left their machete on the ground and move it so I can reach the hatch and buy my credit. We go to the bar the next day, something we try to make a habit of as it is always interesting. There is a pool table and we order two beers (750mls each!) and watch the Himba men play pool in their loin clothes. A lady comes and sits next to me, and decides I am too white and starts to paint me, eventually stealing the dregs of my beer. It seems there is always one in every bar in the world.
It has been quite a change getting to Namibia, but not in the way either of us were expecting. Namibia, so developed in some ways, but in others far worse then many of the countries we have driven through. In all of Africa, it is the first place we have struggled to find drinking water, needing to boil our own. We have had to be super careful with diesel, as there are limited petrol stations, often needing to go well out of our way to make sure we have enough and cash machines are nearly non-existent in the north. This is obviously all things we expected in Africa, but this is genuinely the first country these have been problems. It is also the first place we have really noticed the black and white divide, and we both really dislike it. Having never been to South Africa, James informs me it’s about to get a whole lot worse. I also expected arid desert, with little in the way to look at and there I have been proved completely wrong. The country is stunning, with hugely changing landscapes and it truly is still wilderness with opportunities to camp completely alone in beautiful scenery. But this is just the north, we still have a long way to go through this colossal country.
Angola, a country which is only just out of the throws of a extended civil war, is great. With a huge injection of cash from oil money, this country is on the up, and this is obvious immediately. Angola is also one of the most expensive countries in the world, with Luanda being up there as the most expensive capital, so you can imagine in our planning, we had decided to fly through the country. However, we had discovered that since the fall in oil prices, the price of dollars had gone through the roof, and we still had the good fortune to be holding some. In the bank, a dollar will get you 185 Kwanza. On the black market, a dollar will get you upwards of 400 Kwanza, and this made for a very different experience for us. Suddenly, one of the most expensive countries in the world, has become very manageable.
The roads are stunning and we follow them to the next town where we immediately check into a hotel, with hot water, air conditioning and chilled beers and wash about three times each. It is no exaggeration to say we left a trail of mud from reception to our room. The town itself, Mbanza Congo, had supermarkets, parks, boulevards and most interestingly to us, no interest in white people. It was bliss, and such a change.
We head on from there to Luanda, where we have the privilige of being the latest in a long line of overlanders that are allowed to camp at the yacht club for free. It seems incredulous that after the poverty, mud and horrendous roads of the DRC we are 200 miles further south, and scoot in on beautiful roads to camp overlooking the harbor of the yacht club, with a line of skyscrapers glistening on the other side of the water. We spend a couple of days recovering from the Congos, and have the pleasure of meeting a couple of oil workers, Rob and Neil, who on hearing in was James birthday, insisted on taking us out for an excellent Indian meal, our first in a very long way. It seems the numbers of internationals in Luanda has plummeted with the oil prices. The country is in for a big change.
Whilst in Luanda, we have one big job. Laundry. It’s not exciting or glamorous but it is at this stage beyond essential. All our clothes are thick with mud from the river we lived in for a few days, and everything is beginning to hum. Prices in Luanda, so far, have been great for the worlds most expensive city. We can get a beer for 1 dollar fifty in a bar. Meat, and food in the supermarlet is cheaper then we’ve seen it all the way down, so we head off in search of a launderette. After going to a couple if dry cleaners and being unable to get them to just put them in the washing machine, we find a launderette. They make us count out all our clothes, and say they’ll be a big discount, so just count it all out and we make it very clear – no ironing, no dry cleaning just wash and dry. After they quote us 92000 Kwanza – just below 500 dollars at the official exchange rate, we can’t retrieve our knickers fast enough. We draw the line at setting up a washing line in the yacht club and have to leave for more laundry friendly facilities.
We head down the coast to Lobeta, driving on roads are lined with cacti and Baobab trees, and spend another few nights camping in Zula bar, which is another overlander friendly spot with he opportunity to camp for free. It is nice beachfront restaurant, not far from the town where we are able to finally shed a couple of extra kilograms of mud by getting Stanley washed, and setting up our own launderette on the beach. From there it is to Labango, where we camp on a farmyard - since getting to Angola, the land of no campsites, we have had to get a bit more inventive for our accommodation. Here, we visit the Serra de Leba which has to be the most fantastic mountain road I have ever driven on. After guiding Stanley through hairpin turns with views that take your breathe away, we found a bar at the top of the mountain where we could savour the view stationary. Whilst having a few beers, every Angolan tourist who is there to see the view becomes extremely interested in Stanley. They all notice his English reg and come over to talk to us, and have photos taken with him. We are very proud, and extremely glad we got round to having him washed! After about 30 minutes, another car arrives, and a film crew falls out. They come over and talk to us and ask if we would like to be interviewed for a documentary of tourism in Angola. With the fall in oil price, the country is looking for new revenue streams, and somehow this results in James and I talking about our trip with a map spread out over Stanley's bonnet. What an odd turn of events.
Angola was a lovely country, with bucketfuls of stunning scenery and charming people, however Stanleys handbrake hadn’t worked since a particularly stressful hill in the DRC and everywhere we went there was a strong smell of diff oil, so it was time to get him to a service. As we left Angola, their parting gift was the most advanced border we’re passed through yet, with our biometric passports getting scanned, tarred parking spaces and helpful and efficient officials. We wander through in amazement, and heave a sigh of relief when we see the obligatory goat walking through – it is still Africa.
Liz Jarman & James Nunan
Our trip from Essex to Cape Town & back again
Km travelled : 50818km
Countries visited: 30