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.
After all the adventure we had in the Republic of Congo, we were keen to make the next few days as easy as possible, especially as Stanley was not at his best. We fixed a few things up in Dolisie, but it was a very small town and there were limited services available. James at least managed to get the brakes bled, surrounded by police, drinking at 9 o’clock in the morning, James trying his hardest to blend in and also, to fix the bonnet, so the risk of driving into someone were slightly minimized.
We had a decision to make with the impending Angolan visa. We were certainly cutting it fine with four days to make it across two countries not renowned for the greatest road networks. We could drive to Brazzaville and risk the Kinshasa crossing, reported as bribery central, with the serious chance that our DRC visa would be rejected as it was applied for in a country that we were not resident, also with the added cost of a very expensive ferry crossing, upward of two hundred dollars. Option 2, was through a small town called Lowzi, and was popular with overlanders. This option had appalling roads, reported by every overlander we had met as the worse roads in Africa. Option 3 was to sacrifice our Angolan visa to get into a part of the country called Cabinda, which was not connected to the mainland of Angola, but did have good roads and nice border crossings, however, we would need to apply, wait and pay for a second Angolan visa. As you can appreciate, none of these options jumped out at us. We knew the Lowzi route had been passed by our Italian friends a week before, but they made it very clear it was no picnic. In addition, they had a much better car than ours, newer and with much more kit so we couldn’t be sure Stanley would make it. Many discussions were had and we decided on the Lowzi route. We drove to Brazzaville, and camped at a Vietnamese restaurant known to allow overlanders to camp for free and decided that despite our tight schedule, we needed a break and some time to fix a few things on Stanley so stayed for 2 nights, eating lovely Asian and Vietnamese food. We also met another overlander, on a motorbike, who had been stuck in the Republic of Congo for 6 weeks, shipping parts and becoming very unwell with Malaria. We took the time to count our lucky stars we had only been delayed by five days!
We left Brazzaville early, as in, before 6am. We were both nervous and I had slept very little all night knowing it was going to be hard. We took a fabulous road to Kinkala, and then a slightly less fabulous, but still tarred road to Boko where we were stamped out of the Republic of Congo, still 30 miles from the official border with the DRC. The road immediately fell apart. It resembled a dried river bed, with massive ravines which split the road into several parts. We drove exceptionally slowly, with me in front of the car shouting instructions to ensure Stanley never fell down one of the massive ravines or storm drains which could easily by ten feet deep. We rounded a corner and found the road continued up an incredibly steep hill. We started up it but with seconds were rolling down. I walked the entire hill, in 35 degrees, pacing out the route he would take, and then James put Stanley in to Low gears and crept up. It was just doable. After rounding the corner, and realizing we were both sweating and had only driven 3 miles of the 25 to the border, we kept going. It didn’t get better, but the road had clearly improved from when the Italians had done it. They had had rain non-stop and had both been suffering with fevers of over 39 from Malaria. We were both on top form and the sun was out, so God knows how they managed it. We crept up and down steep hills, avoiding ravines and storm drains, with me instructing James to creep forward one meter here, and turn 10 degrees there, watching each tyre at all times, over roads which I would normally not have said were passable by a car. One wrong step and that would be the end. There would be no getting Stanley out of here. Eventually, we made it to the official border. We showed the immigration officials of ROC our stamps and they showed us through the barrier to the 5 miles of No-Mans Land which separates the two countries. We would, at that stage, have said the roads could not get worse. Of course, in the No-Mans Land, the roads were maintained by No-One, so we would have been wrong. The road had been hit by a landslide God knows when, and had not been repaired. Someone had cut another path, but this was steeper than the road we had just managed, and with more ravines then road. I walked the landslide path and it seemed, just, doable. Although, I did leg it back to James and Stanley when I found a man with a gun walking towards me, who turned out to be a helpful hunter who agreed. Just. Doable. The drops were colossal, with over 20 feet of landslide on each side, but between the two of us, we got him through it. Managing one and a half miles in over an hour. This road was so isolated there was even a sign which welcomed us to Congo Belge.
We reached a padlocked gate, which marked the entrance to the DRC. I got out, and walked into the village. It made me think of walking into a town in a Western movie. It was isolated, dusty and run down, and as I walked the 500m to the centre, there were five men, walking down the centre of the road towards me. In my mind, the theme tune of all great Western movies played out. No one said a word until the men got closer, clutching a key. I spat my tobacco on the floor and exclaimed, “Howdy, Pilgram” (No, I didn’t)….“The key! Excellent!” assuming that the key would have been lost, forgotten or taken off to the pub 20 miles away by the Chief. I immediately got questions. “You speak French?” “Yes, a little.” “You are Belgian.” “Why would you speak French if you were not Belgian.” Err…. What this resulted in was me explaining in my somehow, much better than normal French, that I learnt in Francophone Africa, and am in fact British. BRITISH. Definitely British. Grrr… Belgians etc. Of course, my passport was in the car so any sensible person would just have spoken English. Not me. I walked John Wayne and his friends to the car where I explained to James that he was going out with a moron. After searching the car and our passports we were allowed into the village, and into the immigration office, which was a tiny shack. He explained they had lots of tourists through these days, and showed us a pile of photocopies of passports. On the top of this pile was the passports of our Italian friends! They had been through two weeks earlier. We possibly have different ideas of “lots of tourists.”
We were informed by the Immigration officer that the road improved from here but we still had 30 miles til we got to the town of Lowzi. We set off and initially, it did improve. There were still massive hills with ravines up the centre, but they were clearly maintained and we were happily managing 10 miles/hour. And then came the mud. There were multiple parts in the road where it was entirely mud for 200 metres, most often leading into bridges with no sides. Stanley was spectacular, fording through the thick mud and water, with enough grip to get onto the bridges on track to cross them. Needless to say, we walked everything after our previous experiences, and I jumped my way across every bridge, to ensure they could hold my 60kg, so they would surely hold Stanleys three tonnes. We drove through more and more villages as we got closer to Lowzi, and they made me feel very uncomfortable. We have driven through every village waving and smiling and 99 percent of the time we are greeted with the same. In the DRC we were greeted with people shouting, “Give me all your money” and chasing after the car. This was such a massive difference to ROC, where people had been selling us bananas up until the last 10 miles, happy to get a good price for goods they’d grown. There were also no wells, and no evidence of any input from NGOs, just one exceptionally poor village after another. We got into Lowzi and headed straight for customs and got out carnet stamped with no problems. They asked us to go to immigration in the town and register but this was shut. As we drove away, a man stopped us – the Chief of Immigration. He needed more copies of our passports and visas. He asked us to come first thing tomorrow to register, and we agreed, despite being very keen to get the first ferry across the Congo and get out of this country as quickly as possible. We headed for the Catholic Mission in the town and were welcomed into their oasis, with bathrooms, showers and a safe compound for Stanley that we could camp in. We made dinner – homemade burgers with cheese, gherkins, onions and tomatoes, with 10 children peering over the wall, despite complete exhaustion. James insists on proper dinners every night, especially after days like that!
The next morning we were up again at the crack of dawn and head to the Immigration office to register. Amazingly, they were open early and we filled out the required forms. We were just about to leave when the lady explained the forms cost 10 dollars each. No, we won’t be paying that. At which point she produced two stamped receipts from the official book – becoming harder to say no… We head to the ferry, and were one of three cars to be loaded on, and fifty people, and sailed across the Congo. We knew the main road was 120 km away, and ploughed on through the mud. It was definitely drying out, but there were still areas under the trees that were thick, and thigh deep in water. We managed to get stuck in some tracks from a big truck, and I jumped out to direct James as he repositioned, as a snake flew out from the other side of the car, and off into the bush. We managed to get free and head off again making really good time and getting to the main road by 1pm. As we enjoyed our first real road in several hundred kilometres, we decided that we would prefer to push on, and get to Angola as soon as possible. It was only a few kilometres this side of the border, and maybe 50 on the other so manageable before sunset. We followed the roads on Maps.me, and turned off, and the road become awful again. Not that it mattered, we were so near, we just kept going and the road got narrower , and wetter, and then eventually we crossed a river on three logs and we began to question our wisdom at our route. We pulled up at the barrier, and found a much bigger road leading in. Whoops. We head to the barrier and already know what awaits us – a 50 dollar toll. We try and fight our way out of it but it’s a fee that everyone meets on this route, and the alternative is to take a different border with a very bad road. We pay. But we’re not happy. We drive on to the border and are both amazed by what greets us. We are both pretty seasoned at African borders but this was a new one. People were everywhere. It was impossible to drive, we just moved forward and bumped people out the way. There were carts filled to the brim with goods – biscuits, drinks, noodles, and they were all heading towards the DRC. The mud was up to your shins. It took us an hour to make it to customs, where we found all the carts were being stopped, most of which were being driven by people with Polio, who were very unhappy about having to go through customs. So much so, that we watched the customs police chase after the carts, and then fights would erupt right in front of us, between the customs official, and a disabled man. There was no way we were leaving Stanley in this, so James stayed with the car and I sorted the carnet and the passports. The immigration officials were even wearing Wellie boots. It was amazing. We then passed into Angola, and this took another hour, as we needed to drive through an impromptu market that seemed to have sprung up, selling all kinds of rubbish. We repeated the process and were stamped into Angola. A sigh of relief could be heard all the way back home.
Liz Jarman & James Nunan
Our trip from Essex to Cape Town & back again
Km travelled : 50818km
Countries visited: 30