This trip has been long in the planning. I specifically wanted to retire relatively young, whilst my wife Anne and I were still comfortably able to withstand the rigors of a prolonged trans-African expedition. A long, leisurely self-drive exploration of the remaining wilderness areas in East, Central and North Africa was the priority. We are prioritizing many really off-the-beaten-track destinations and I hope are well geared-up for these. These days almost the entire Cape to Cairo route is on surfaced roads and has been done in sedan cars. It is the side tracks that will be the highlights and the challenges.
I was initially inspired by the trip reports that Dawie and Catt posted in 2010 on my favorite 4x4 forum when they entertained us all with their trip from the Cape to England. See here http://africapicture.blogspot.com. For some years now I have been doing ongoing research and have been following many trip reports, websites, magazines and published data from a wide variety of sources. I strongly recommend the 4x4community forum (www.4x4community.co.za) for overland travelling especially in Southern Africa.
We planned to set off in mid-April 2015 starting with a bit of a nostalgic trip to some of the old favorites in Botswana, before going on to the Caprivi in Namibia which we have not explored in any detail previously. The Botswana portion is the only part of the trip that we had booked in advance and is the only time we will be travelling on a fixed route or on a fixed time schedule. Then in sequence we will visit the following; parts of Zambia, most of Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan and possibly on to Egypt. We then plan to tour all the way back south, excluding Uganda and Rwanda on this leg, but adding Malawi, parts of Mozambique and Zimbabwe. I would estimate that we will cover in excess of 40,000km.
As we have covered most of our neighboring countries extensively in recent years the emphasis of our trip will begin in earnest once we reach northern Zambia. Although our budget will allow us to take the odd break in more luxurious accommodation, most of our stops will be camping in established campsites or wild camping where the locality demands it. We have been advised that something in the region of US$100 per day should cover the costs for the two of us. Obviously it could be done far cheaper but this would mean less time in the expensive game reserves, budget camping and no expensive gorilla walks or the like. Many of the planned destinations will only have camping available by the nature of their isolation. However I am no Boy Scout and where appropriate we will be staying in chalets and the like. I find no enjoyment in slumming it in a tent when more comfortable accommodation is right next door. Obviously at many destinations camping will have a “closer to nature” advantage. We have no time constraints or fixed routes and travelling solo will allow us the flexibility to give each destination the time period that we decide it deserves. I expect the trip to last for almost a year. The earliest decision was whether to travel via East or West Africa. I have visited the West African countries of Gabon and Angola on a few fishing trips and although beautiful, I was not really impressed given the relative paucity of game reserves, wildlife resources and the like. As born and bred Africans we do not have a major compulsion to immerse ourselves in the often contrived circus of tourist African cultural experiences. I think Ebola was the final decision maker against West Africa as were the extremist Boko Haram rebel groups active there.
Next we needed to decide on how far north to journey and here I need to emphasize again that we have no set wish to claim the iconic Cape to Cairo plaudit. At this stage I am still in two minds as to whether Egypt should be included in our schedule. The fact that the border post between Wadi Halfa in Sudan and Abu Simbel in Egypt is now beginning to open to civilian road traffic, may still swing our decision. However this crossing by road appears to be very expensive costing about US$275 after paying for the fixers, baksheesh and the various fees on both sides. It works out cheaper than the ferry which previously was the only option. This is mainly because one is saved the costs of accommodation whilst waiting around during the tedious preparations. Because of the to and fro nature of our trip we will have to suffer this cost and the delays twice. At the back of my mind I have also felt that Egypt is more Arabic than African but many of our fellow travelers have perhaps persuaded me otherwise. The other initial problem with Egypt was that if included, the cost of the Carnet deposit more than doubled to 200% of the value of your vehicle. The final factor is that our interests are more biased towards wilderness areas than the cultural and historical spheres. Nonetheless the prospect of camping in the Western and White Deserts as well as a visit to the Red Sea and the many historical sites of Egypt is appealing. The endemic birds of the various areas of Africa have been noted and some of the planned destinations will have exposure to avian delights as a central theme. With my long lens I hope to produce some decent bird photographs.
We would hope to reach Ethiopia during the dry months towards the end of 2015. I think this country would take up to 2 months to explore thoroughly. The plan then is to continue onto Sudan at least. The low population density, ultra-friendly people, wild desert camping and the history of Sudan appeal. The Nile has always held a peculiar fascination. From the comfort of my office at home, theoretical highlights would include a wide variety of options. We have never seen the Savuti Channel in Chobe Botswana with water in it and here too we have not spent much time in the isolation of the Makgadikgadi National Park. In Zambia seeing the Shoebill “Stork” would be a major plus for me. Exploring Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania and visiting the isolated southern parks and reserves are the reason for us choosing the seldom used western entry into Tanzania. The northern safari circuit here can obviously not be missed. We want to try and organize camping in the Special Campsites wherever possible as the joys of living alone amongst the animals is one that appeals. Rwanda and Uganda have their own crater lakes, primates and birds to offer, along with the few remaining equatorial and mountain rain forests in Central and East Africa. Visits to the gorillas of Rwanda or Uganda and the chimpanzees and other primates of Lake Tanganyika, Rwanda or Uganda are obvious attractions. We can also look further north for the elusive Shoebill if Bangweulu in Zambia does not produce the goods. The highlands of Tanzania, Kenya and especially Ethiopia are a top consideration because of their beauty, endemic birds and animals such as gelada baboons, Ethiopian wolf (Simien fox), forest nyala and Walia ibex. The Rift Valley, Ethiopia’s Danakil depression and Erte Ale volcanic lava lake should be a marked contrast. Kenya has so many pristine destinations that one is spoilt for choice. Sudan attracts because of the reputed friendliness of the people and the opportunities to wild camp in the desert. Visiting Egypt despite its obvious historical attractions, may still be in the balance and will depend on how we are lasting the pace. Remember that we would still have the return journey before us. An outside option is that we can ship the vehicle back from Egypt or Sudan. The permutations are endless and there is no point in setting too many contrived goals.
The next decision hinged on timing of the trip. We wanted to reach Zambia before it dried out too much and whilst the waterfalls and Bangweulu Swamps in the north were at their best. This is why we are setting off in mid-April. We should be in Tanzania during the dry season beginning in June. With all the wonderful game reserves, islands and Lakes Tanganyika and Victoria to explore, I would imagine we will spend quite some time here. I would guess this country and Kenya would be our priority objectives given their wonderful wildlife resources. The game reserves here are going to cost an arm and a leg, but I trust that we have sufficient financial reserves for this. Just to emphasize again that on the way north we plan to travel more towards the west and the center of the various countries.
On the way south we plan to route more to the east and the coast. For instance in Ethiopia we will probably cover the Afar area, Tigrai and Lalibela with their historical churches etc, on the way south. In Kenya and Tanzania we can then visit reserves we missed on the way up like Amboselli, Tsavo and Selous (if not seen on northern leg) as well as the coast and Zanzibar and or Mafia Island, Pemba and Lamu (depending on the security situation). We love the tropical coast of East Africa. It may well be that we enter these areas during the rains. On the way south we hope to include Malawi, northern Mozambique and certain areas in Zimbabwe such as the Eastern Highlands and Gonarezhou. By the time we reach our neighboring countries we may well be travel weary, thus my provisional planning here has been less structured. We will play it by ear. Certainly, future local travels in Mozambique and Zimbabwe could cover the areas not visited on this trip. It has been great fun planning and researching this trip as you can imagine. However any preconceived ideas we may initially have cosseted, can be changed at the drop of a hat. I would imagine that friendships struck up with fellow over-landers will alter some of our plans.
Most of those on the trans-Africa route travel from north to south so that there will be plenty of advice available as we cross paths. We also look forward to the friendships we will make and there is every possibility of picking up travelling companions for parts of the exploration. I am well aware that as quoted, the plans of mice and men oft go awry and it will be very interesting to see how much of our wish-list type schedule published under the banner of Proposed Itinerary, we manage to complete. I must emphasize though that we will not feel we have failed in any way should any curtailment or deviation occur.
The main objective of all the research and planning is to try and ensure not missing any highlight due to ignorance. I would hate to find out later that we had blithely driven past some incredible place because of lack of research. The greatest difficulties in planning have been the issues of visas for South Africans for Kenya and Ethiopia. Almost all of the visas for South African citizens can be arranged at the point-of-entry border posts. It seems that Kenya has reacted to South Africa’s new visa policies by tightening up on their own requirements. At present these new, more stringent regulations have been postponed, but it may still come to pass that we may have to fly back to SA to present ourselves at the Kenyan embassy in Pretoria for our visa applications. So be it, but I am reluctant to apply for this visa before we leave as it will place time constraints on our travelling. This is the very thing we want to avoid. For Ethiopia it seems we will have to courier our passports to Pretoria during the trip, whilst remaining in Kenya or Uganda. We each have the permitted two South African passports and could courier one of them to Pretoria as Ethiopia does not require you to appear in person for the application. The only requirement is to apply for the visa in your country of origin. If one applies before leaving then you are running to a fixed time schedule which is precisely what we want to avoid. The other option for Ethiopia is to apply and pay for a 6 month visa and then see if they are happy to extend it at their embassy in Nairobi. We have finally decided to leave without this visa and will wing it when the time approaches. Thank goodness the same does not apply to our Sudan visa which we will obtain in Nairobi. This is apparently fairly routine. A late development a few weeks before our departure was a change in the Egyptian visa regulations. It appears that they have new requlations and they will no longer be issuing visas at the point of entry. Egypt instead requires that the visa is applied for in person at the Egyptian embassy of your country of origin. The longest visa they sometimes grant appears to be six months. It is most unlikely that we will be in Egypt by September or even October. With all their bureaucratic crud I suspect Egypt will not be part of this trip. I will keep an open mind and see what develops. Some years ago when they first attempted to introduce a similar visa regulation it was rapidly withdrawn after widespread complaints.
The next decision was how to report on this trip. I have decided to go the route of a registered website and had this domain www.slowdonkey.com registered and the website professionally designed. I will provide links to updates on various sites and forums, especially my home forum www.4x4community.co.za. The exact routes and schedules evolving during this trip will be flexible and of course the possibility exists that after some months our appetites for this sort of travel may be sated and we will meander back home. Many of the popular campsites on the road north can be overrun by the dreaded overland trucks and trip reports and campsite advice from like-minded people appear to be important. The number of previously difficult roads that are now surfaced courtesy of mainly the ubiquitous Chinese, is unbelievable. Almost any information one obtains might already be out of date such are the rapid changes in infrastructure. It seems that the last great unsurfaced routes are the two between Northern Kenya and Ethiopia. To those that will claim that present day trans-African trips are far less rigorous than those of yesteryear, I can only counter by saying that the more easily we can move from the developed centers to the wilderness the better. All the more time to be spent in truly wild areas. When reading the stories of the old hunter-explorers I cannot at times but think that perhaps I was born in the wrong century.
Travelling solo is a risk and I have minimal mechanical and technical expertise and will be dependent on others for help. I would like to include an extract from our trip report to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana during April 2014 to illustrate how inept one can feel by being stranded when travelling alone.
“Now, in the interests of the popular cliché of “transparency”, I am compelled to relate an inconvenient and frankly embarrassing “tail”. There’s always a sting in the tail is there not?
Driving along I noticed a strange sound from the tyres. Stopping I discovered that my rear, driver-side tyre had deflated almost completely. No puncture was visible and I hoped to merely inflate the tyre, locate and plug the puncture and then be on our way. This unfortunately had occurred in a rather awkward situation. The two-track road was fairly sandy here with a very high central island (middle mannetjie). Anyway out with the compressor and pump up the tyre, but to no effect. Test the compressor, yes it appears to be working well. Inspect the tyre again but no puncture visible, however the inside area of the tyre in contact with the ground, was not accessible to inspection because of the sand and the high central island between the tracks. Nothing for it but to jack the vehicle up. Problems inserting the bottle jack under the chassis due to the high middle mannetjie. No problem, just dig out the middle mannetjie, but although sandy most of it was bound down by the tree roots and could not be cleared manually. Spade? Uh-oh this had been left in camp in our haste to pack up in the drizzle, so I had to grovel with my hands. First mistake and totally contrary to my policy of never leaving camp without a spade, just in case of it being needed for a recovery situation. By now there were many piles of loose sand and the place was a mess. Nothing for it but to remove the Hi-lift jack from its mounting and use it to raise the vehicle. I am familiar with using a Hi-lift jack but have great respect for it and its dangers. I observe all safety precautions, place it on the baseplate and pump the handle to raise the vehicle after chocking the wheels. Why are decent sized rocks so difficult to find when you really need them?
By now the sun has burnt away the clouds and I am beginning to sweat in the heat. Not very pleasant. The base plate shifts in the soft sand and the jack has to be lowered and its angle adjusted and the baseplate stabilized further before the vehicle can be raised sufficiently to free the tyre. I could now inspect the tyre and to my dismay I find that there is a very large gash in the inner aspect of the sidewall that had not been visible in the sand. No problem, I have 2 spare Goodrich all-terrain tyres. The one spare is removed and now we strike the real snag. I cannot shift any of the wheel nuts on the punctured tyre at all. I spray with Q20 and try my other wheel spanner, the multi-size cross member type. I soon realize that a better fulcrum is available with the original standard Toyota spanner. Apply it and ask my wife to help to no avail. Get out the rubber tent peg hammer and beat the …. out of the wheel spanner handle. Jump on the handle when applied to the nut. In frustration I wrench the handle and almost tear my biceps muscle completely off at the elbow. An awkward injury that made any application of force using my right arm very painful thereafter. Uh-oh I think we are stranded. At least the drizzle had stopped.
Realizing that we are going to spend some time here and perhaps even sleep in the RTT, I appreciate that I needed to lower the Hi-lift yet again. This is the operation that I most respect as I have seen the injuries that an uncontrolled flailing jack handle can cause. Now another problem, the meshing of the jack will not release due to sand jamming it. I try to blow out the sand with the compressor and clear it out by hand to no avail. I loosen all the attachment bolts and drive the vehicle off the jack successfully. But the jack is jammed in the jacking point and is embedded deep into the sand. Nothing for it but to dig out the base of the jack manually and eventually free it. Test and find that the nuts on the three other wheels are easy to loosen, sods law! By now my patient wife has made me a cup of tea and I am able to step back, relax and allow my frustration level to subside. I was in a filthy state with sand and debri all over the place and dirt embedded deep under my fingernails, as if I would never get them clean again.
It is now obvious to me that we are probably going to have to spend the night there as late afternoon is approaching and vehicles are unlikely to pass down this little-used road at this time. No problem as we are carrying all our provisions and have plenty of water and ice-cold drinks. We contemplate using our satellite phone to contact the gate but decide to give it until the next morning as we do not want to be a nuisance and I was frankly embarrassed to be stranded because of such a trivial problem. I am left to contemplate my folly in not going through my usual pre-trip routine of having my wheels rebalanced and realigned and having the tyres rotated. I had last done this in Aug prior to our Namaqualand Flower trip but we had a rushed schedule prior to this departure. I also had plenty of time to contemplate that if I had been travelling with the friends as originally planned, their talents and added strength would soon have had us out of this pickle. To be totally honest this was the first time that we truly missed them, but they were in my thoughts now I can promise! Having settled down, I then had an uncharacteristic flash of near-brilliance. I am always reluctant to lubricate this jack with grease in sandy conditions because I fear that the mixture of grit and grease would only make the jamming worse. I carry one of those puffer bottles of powdered graphite that locksmiths use, for instances of a jammed padlock. I applied liberal amounts of this to the working parts of the jack and voila the jack was now working as smoothly as a Toyota diesel engine.
We had not packed any chairs and this did not help matters as we sat around waiting for help. To pass the time I walked up and down the track, bird watching. Later I took out my macro lens and took some photos of the many small wild flowers in the surrounding bush. This particular area was relatively poor in animals and I felt pathetically grateful when two red hartebeest had the courtesy to keep us company. It was now dusk and all we had to do was to have a good night’s sleep and await someone’s arrival in the morning. As solace to a troubled soul I even boiled some water and gave myself a close shave which temporarily was a morale booster. I remained convinced that two-man power would be all that was needed to loosen the cursed wheel nuts. Our morale was a little low and all we wanted for supper was some heated, canned Woolies bacon and lentil soup, a new range and delicious I can tell you.
I then realized that we had a further problem, we had also left the ladder for the rooftop tent (RTT) in camp. To allow room for the gas bottle and 4 jerry cans on the front of the roof rack, the RTT was set back a little, with a bit of an overhang at the back. This needed to be negotiated now in order to clamber into the tent. One look at this obstacle and the normally imperturbable Anne declared that she was sleeping inside the car. This was the last thing I wanted as I really did not want her dozing through the night in the car seat, whilst I was snoring away in the comfort of my bed. That would not be good for marital relations. Anne is now nearly 60 and is obviously no longer the most nimble of people. You should have seen our children’s faces when I described to them how she first had to clamber onto the rear bumper of the vehicle with the rear doors open, then onto the cooler box strategically placed, before scrambling onto the door mounted spare wheel. The overhang of the tent base made the next move difficult, with me pushing hard upon the most prominent part of her anatomy and propelling her into the luxury of the RTT. I am not sure which of us was the most short of breath after this and it was strategically vital that I kept a straight face.
MAROONED IN THE KALAHARI!
The next morning was a new day with new hopes, but by 11H00 we had been there for 24hrs and Anne persuaded me to phone Matswere Gate for help via the satellite phone. Here I reached Punie who was most helpful once she had got over her incredulity of us being marooned because of over-tight wheel nuts she immediately arranged that the police, always on duty for emergencies, dispatch their Land Cruiser bakkie and willing hands to rescue us. Well at least it was not a Land Rover! As fate would have it within 30min of us phoning we heard a vehicle approaching. This was a hired Land Cruiser (once again I was grateful) with a charming Austrian couple (what else can I say?). They immediately offered to help. Up with the Hi-lift jack now working as smoothly as melted butter. Our newly found best friend, Robert Stiener stood well clear as he had heard reports of a fellow Austrian being air-evacuated from Moremi with a jack-induced smashed jaw a short while previously. With the power of two men and despite my very painful right elbow we were able to loosen the nuts with some initial difficulty and within 2 ticks we were mobile again. How embarrassing!”
Fortunately when it comes to personal health we are on secure ground. Anne and I have no health problems but our personal fitness will be tested with some of the excursions and hikes such as viewing the gorillas and chimps and trekking to the top of the active Erta Ale volcano in the Danakil Depression of Ethiopia. Some of the other forest and birding hikes will test my lung capacity too. Unfortunately neither of us have scuba diving certificates but are at home in the water and will enjoy the snorkeling. Anne does not have much of a head for heights and does suffer from sea sickness. We both tolerate heat well, but I have a severe aversion to cold and we will need to be well kitted out to tolerate the cold of the Ethiopian and Kenyan Highlands and the desert nights. We are taking hot water bottles like real softies. We shall see!
Our freezers will enable us to carry about a three week supply of frozen meat and other foods requiring freezing, but obtaining supplies further north will test our ingenuity. Eating well as a pleasurable part of any trip has always been a priority of ours. Cold drinks are high on the list of priorities and our second fridge/freezer between the front seats will hopefully suffice. We have also resolved to be willing to try the local cuisine along the route. We will both have air evacuation travel insurance. Insuring our vehicle is a vexed question as it is difficult to obtain insurance north of the equator for an overland trip to remote destinations without too many exclusions. After numerous enquiries including international companies, I have decided to forego any vehicle insurance. Each country we visit will be covered by compulsory insurance but this is not likely to prove of much help. The prices I was offered for comprehensive vehicle insurance proved prohibitive and the cover incomplete. We plan to travel with a supply of new US$ notes, including small denominations and will each carry both Visa and Mastercard credit cards.
We have an Ippisat Pro satellite phone and will buy sim cards and air time for our mobile phones in each country as we proceed. Anne has an I-pad and I will be taking a laptop and external hard drive. I am not the most computer literate but should cope. For entertainment we have an Ipod loaded with old favorites in the line of music and also movies on the external hard drive. On the road we will have some audio books to listen to when on boring sections of the road. Photography is going to be one of my focal points on the trip. I still have a lot to learn but I am well equipped in this regard with the two Canon bodies and have a selection of wide angle, macro, zoom and telephoto lenses as detailed elsewhere. These expensive items will be in easily accessible, but lockable foam lined drawers within the vehicle. Obviously my interest in animals and birds will be the main photography emphasis but the people and landscapes promise to also be worth recording. I will be taking some basic fishing equipment and am looking forward to Tiger Fish, Nile Perch and also some coastal fishing.
As (South) Africans with deep roots of over 200 years, I feel we are reasonably well equipped to understand and cope with the undoubted rigors of independent African travel and our many previous trips will stand us in good stead. We have had the whole gamut of vaccinations and boosters, including rabies and yellow fever. Many of the travelers doing this sort of trip are younger than us, but with age we have a more flexible budget, more time available and more travelling experience than some others. We in fact are looking forward greatly to those we meet on the road and the kind of comradeship that travel to isolated places brings. We are both well-travelled internationally and hopefully will be able to find something in common with most of those we meet. Given the opportunity I have no problems with socializing over a number of “cold ones”. Anne is very friendly and sociable and I daresay likeable. We shall see!
Please, we would welcome all and any ongoing advice available from the vast resource of experience that many out there share so readily. I am sure many of you have done similar trips, or parts thereof. I would value any advice so as not to miss more obscure but interesting destinations and also the best campsites. Heads up as to hazards, practicalities and suchlike will be welcomed. I am sure this type of information would also be of interest to others contemplating similar excursions, so that no contribution will be wasted. Specialized advice on particular countries will be invaluable. Any useful contacts readers may have that might prove helpful along the way would be great and in return I will endeavor to keep the postings I make as interesting and information-rich as possible. There will be a CONTACT link on the blog and please feel free to comment and advise. I need to thank those that have already proved so willing to help in the preliminary planning and preparations, some with incredible sacrifice of time and effort. I also need to thank my original mentors for introducing us to the joys of exploring the African wilds. I will update from time to time on our preparations, the planning has been great fun.