Road Trip Reflections.

Our 6 month road trip was such a privilege – to have that amount of time and freedom and to spend so much time in Africa’s parks and reserves.  A number of places we had been to before, 20 years ago when we drove an ancient and ill-equipped Toyota Corolla around much of Southern Africa. How times have changed – we now have a 4×4, a fridge, wi-fi and a satellite phone.

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But the biggest change of course is the shocking increase in human numbers, and the loss of so much wild space – Kenya’s population has more than doubled in the last two decades, Tanzania has lost 60% of its elephants in the last five years, Malawi’s national parks are barely functioning, Zimbabwe’s carnivores are disappearing rapidly and Africa’s lions, this continent’s most iconic species, have halved in number in just the last 10 years.  How can this be – when we are all connected globally and better informed than ever before? We know what is happening – and it is happening on our watch.

National parks are now just small islands surrounded by a sea of mankind. It is hard not to get depressed and to perhaps think we have seen wild Africa’s final last gasp… long can the protected areas, and Africa’s large megafauna, survive the ever increasing pressures from humans and their insatiable demand for land, water and resources – exacerbated now by the rampant escalation in poaching for ivory, rhino horn and bush meat.

And yet we cannot give up, we must still hang onto hope – we met so many dedicated conservationists on our travels.  African Parks Network is doing extraordinary work in Africa’s most dysfunctional reserves, and as we have seen before in the early 90’s, poaching can be controlled with tough legislation and strong government leadership, when there’s a will.

In contrast to this, one of the biggest highlights of the trip were the people we met – so many friendly, cheerful and helpful Africans –  we never had a “bad experience”.

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We must have gone through 40+ police road blocks and 12 border crossings, and never once did we have any aggro or hassle (Kazangula Ferry excepting).  Clichéd though it sounds, the poorer the people the friendlier and more welcoming – the Malawian boys playing soccer on the beach with their ball made out of plastic bags, the helpful national park staff in Ruaha who welded our tent poles back together after they were trashed by baboons, the 16 year old garage mechanic who fixed our battery with his bicycle lamp bulb and piece of wire, and the numerous traffic police who just wanted to talk about the latest Premier League transfers.  Before we left, a Cape Town friend advised us to carry a gun (which we ignored, I hasten to add) – why does Africa still have such negative and intimidating connotations? I much prefer Bob Geldof’s description of Africa as the “luminous” continent.

Perhaps this quote by Beryl Markham (a remarkable pioneering Kenyan woman who, in 1936, was the first person to fly solo east to west across the Atlantic) best sums up our road trip experience…

‘Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just ‘home’. It is all these things but one thing — it is never dull.’

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September: South Africa – coming home

Our road trip finale was the Kruger National Park – entering in the far North at the Punda Maria Gate.  We chickened out of the infamous Beitbridge Border Crossing from Zimbabwe –and instead took a rather circuitous route from Hwange in Zimbabwe back into Botswana.  Our 12th and final border crossing was the best yet – the tiny, remote Zanzibar Border in the Tuli Block.  Crossing at lunchtime we were only the second car that day, and we had to wait for the impala and baboons to get out of the way first, before could cross the dry river bed.

Returning to South Africa, our cell phones sprang back into life.  It felt good to be back “home”.  We then pelted across Limpopo Province, desperately trying to make the Kruger Entrance Gate at Punda Maria before the 6pm closing time.  To our dismay, there were no campsites or lodges close to the gate outside the park, just mile after mile of Venda villages in the fast approaching dusk.  Driving ridiculously fast, and fearing spending the night in the car, we skidded though the entrance gate at 10 minutes past six. With much tutting and sighing (understandably) the receptionist, who already had her bag and coat ready to leave, arranged for an escort to take us to Punda Maria camp, and pay the late arrival fine.

I know Kruger is sometimes criticised for being too developed, with its tar roads, developed camp sites and Mugg & Bean coffee shops – but the more time we spend in Kruger, the more we love it.  It really is a huge park, easy to escape the crowds, stunning scenery and an incredible variety of wildlife. And boy is it good value!  With a Wild Card and a tent, Kruger is an absolute bargain – a fraction of the price of the eye-wateringly expensive reserves of East Africa.


Mike suggested we finished our road trip with a “bang”, and thanks to an unbelievable last minute bargain on “MT Beds” discount website, and the plummeting Rand, we ended up at The Outpost Lodge, near Parfuri. This has to be one of the most stylish lodges we’ve ever had the privilege of staying in – stunning and very modern rooms, open on 3 sides, perched high above the Luvuvu River bed.


We saw hardly any game though – but this was more than made up for by our wonderful guide – a walking encyclopaedia of bird calls, and we spent two mornings in the fever tree forest, unique to this area, trying to tune in to a myriad of birdsong.  And lo and behold, on our last night drive, having seen nothing at all, we had a fleeting glimpse of our first ever aardvark!  An unexpected  champagne moment to end our trip!


After our last night at Olifants camp, we drove out of the Park – into our new home town of Hoedspruit.  Amazingly, we had managed to rent a place online – not actually having seen it – and so rocked up at the rental agency, filthy dirty after 6 months camping – to be handed the keys to our new home on Raptors View in Hoedspruit.  Amazing what you can do with wifi!

…..And so 6 months after leaving Cape Town, and 27,444 kms later, we start the next chapter of our lives in South Africa.  We left England to fulfil a dream to live in Africa, close to the bush – and after 4 years in Cape Town we have finally made that happen….

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Zimbabwe: Yet another wild goose, or rather, wild dog chase….!

After overnighting at Pioneer Camp in Lusaka (John and Jane – we missed you!) we made a last minute change of plans, and decided to head for Mana Pools in Zimbabwe. Conscious we are running out of time (how can 6 months have flown by this fast?!), we had decided to forgo Mana and head straight for Hwange instead – but as we passed the turnoff to the border at Chirundu, we felt we couldn’t come this close and miss Mana out. So we made African border crossing number 10, leaving  Zambia, crossing back into Zimbabwe.

Unfortunately unbeknownst to us, we managed to coincide with Zimbabwe’s school holidays, and Mana’s main campsite, Nyempi, was packed with huge family groups. But heading out on game drives at dawn, we actually saw very few other cars- the families preferring to stay in camp, no doubt rearranging their excessive mountains of gear!
Mana Pools has to be one of Africa’s most beautiful parks, with its Zambezi River setting and sunlit glades with ancient riverine trees.


Mike spent a frustrating few hours trying to photograph the legendary old bull elephant that has learnt to stand on its hindlegs to stretch up into the trees to reach tasty branches. The Ranger had told us we would “definitely” see wild dog – as there were at least 2 packs denning – and so proceeded a somewhat frustrating 5 days, driving around, yet again failing to see the wild dogs.  They are such elusive, ephemeral predators, covering huge distances, so you never know when or where they may materialise. Sense of humours were seriously beginning to fail …..

We spent our last night at Chitake Springs, 50km inland away from the river, and legendary for its remote, wild setting and bold lions.  This was the first time we had ever managed to get a booking here, although I must admit we couldn’t quite work out how to see or find the game, as there are no roads – just a viewpoint down onto the riverbed where the springs seep out.  We had a noisy night, with lions, elephants and hyenas all racketing around the tent , and what at first I thought to be a forest fire, as I awoke to hear crackling and rushing – but which turned out to be a huge herd of buffalo passing by.  At dawn, we managed to see three lioness and their cubs on the far side of the riverbed – but too far for Mike to photograph.  As Mike stomped back to start packing up the tent – I persuaded him to come and sit with me on our folding chairs, in the river bed by our campsite, to watch the birds come and drink from the puddles.  We were sitting there quietly reading our books – when all of a sudden we heard a lapping noise behind us.  There, not 8 metres away, were two wild dogs. They had come to find us! Goggle eyed, and with our jaws on the floor, we watched them drinking, taking not a blind bit of notice of us.  And then just as quickly and silently as they had materialised, they disappeared back into the bush .  Five days – and all for 2 and a half minutes – but one of our most magical and unexpected sightings ever.


After a couple of days admin in Harare, and enjoying the heady delights of Pick n Pay (I never thought I would get excited about a supermarket  -we have obviously been on the road a long time!) we then spent a chilly night in the Matopos Hills.  Next stop was Hwange.  We were last here 20 years ago……and once again, nothing has changed in Zimbabwe’s National Parks.  The staff are still as delightful as ever – but the infrastructure is all sadly rather dilapidated with obviously no investment whatsoever in the last two decades. However we were glad to see that the boreholes and pans are still being pumped, thanks to local fundraising efforts, so there is still water for the game.  Mike managed to get two nights camping at one of the “exclusive” (ie just us) picnic sites  – Mandavu Dam.  Close by is the wonderful Masuma waterhole, with a hide right next to the water – where 20 years ago, we had seen our first ever wild dog.  We spent an enjoyable day sitting here, watching the game coming and going… and chatting with two Americans, Cathy and Jim, who were as obsessed with wild dogs as we are.  Indeed Cathy had only ever seen a fleeting sighting of one dog, once, despite numerous African holidays. At the end of the day, we said our good byes and drove off in opposite directions – only for the two of us to unexpectedly come across a pack of 7 wild dogs lying in the road!  As it began to get dark, and we started worrying about Mandavu picnic site closing its gates, the dogs finally got up and trotted off into the mopane woodland – looking very thin, so they had obviously not eaten for a while.
Next morning at dawn we returned to the hide at Masuma – once again to find Kathy and Jim.  We hardly dared confess that we had been lucky enough to see wild dogs the previous evening.  At lunchtime, we left them in the hide and returned to pack up our camp at Mandavu.  Lo and behold, 100 metres from our camp, there were the same 7 dogs, lying under a tree– their bellies distended and swollen – with squadrons of vultures coming into land – the dogs obviously having just made a kill.  The dogs were moving nowhere, as they lay there in the heat of the day, digesting their meal.  We gambled on the dogs staying put – and so went hurtling off to our picnic site, to ask the resident attendant, Fortunate, if there was any way he could radio the picnic site 20km down the road, to see if the Americans were still sitting there.   We dashed back to the dogs – who luckily had not moved.  Amazingly, it was just us on this sighting– until, much to our delight – Kathy and Jim’s car came rattling round the corner.  Kathy had tears of joy in her eyes – and we got as much pleasure from them seeing the dogs as we did seeing the dogs for ourselves….
Wild dogs – the most addictive substance I know!

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Malawi: “The elephants are in the swimming pool, Mamma” and other conservation challenges.

African Parks Network, the inspirational African NGO that specialises in turning around Africa’s failing national parks, is taking over the management of two of Malawi’s National Parks – both of which we visited. It is all well and good delineating and proclaiming National Parks, but if there is not effective management, and poaching and human encroachment are not controlled, the parks are soon emptied and exist in name, and historical recollection, only. We had met the new management couple, Craig and Andrea, earlier in our travels in Tanzania – I do not envy the challenges they are taking on.

First we camped at Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve – a beautiful woodland reserve on the Bua River. Although there were plenty of signs of elephants – we did not actually see any ourselves – and it was worrying to hear that the elephants are leaving the reserve and entering the surrounding farmland, and had in fact killed a villager just last week. We went on a guided walk with a Park Ranger – who was very keen and engaged – but asked us if we could help teach him the birds. He has been photographing pages of the bird field guide, using his mobile phone – tho for some reason he’d started at the beginning of the book – i.e. the penguin and seabirds page!


We then spent 3 days camping at Liwonde National Park – Malawi’s wildlife jewel in the crown. It is a truly beautiful reserve, on the banks of the Shire River, and we were delighted to finally see herds of elephants.


Indeed the elephants wandered through the campsite just as it got dark, and the gardener came rushing over to warn me “the elephants are in the swimming pool, mamma” – as they had broken through the perimeter fence, and were merrily chomping on the trees around the pool.

We did a scenic boat trip, and were excited to see skimmers, a very brief bat hawk – and a pair of Pel’s fishing owls – always a thrill.

We also had the opportunity to spend the evening out with two UK bat researchers – funnily enough one of whom had been a volunteer at the Wildscreen Festival. For the first time ever the bat species of Liwonde are being assessed, and we helped the researchers rig up long mist nets and record the bats caught. It was amazing to see the two girls’ dedication, sitting out there in the dark, night after night. Our evening had a dramatic ending as a herd of elephants blundered towards the nets – and the scout had to hurriedly fire off a gun to divert them away.


Liwonde is the only National Park in Malawi that still has rhino – 10 heavily protected black rhino, behind an electrified inner “sanctuary”, with chips in their horns and armed guards. We went rhino tracking on foot, with the researcher and his telemetry aerial. He decided to try and find a female, with a young calf, last seen 7 days ago. We were very excited when we crept up on them in thick bush…..but then horrified to see the small calf limping badly, with a snare cutting deeply into its horribly swollen foot. Snares set by local villagers for bushmeat are a huge problem. Even in this fortified sanctuary, the rhinos are still at peril – not poached for their horns (yet) but accidental “bycatch” in snares. Indeed four rhino have been killed in the last two years by snares here.


It was a sobering and sombre return to camp – having witnessed at first hand just some of the complex conservation challenges this beautiful and friendly country faces …………..And of course, the biggest elephant in the room is Malawi’s human population – more than doubled in the last 20 years.

Malawi – Meanderings

African border crossing No.8: – and our best yet, crossing from Tanzania into Malawi. An all time record 40 minutes, no handing over of fistfuls of US$ – and a beaming Customs man welcoming us to his country. In all our years travelling in Africa, we have never made it to Malawi – so it is great to be exploring a brand new country. Immediately you notice how little traffic there is on the roads, after the chaos of Tanzania – everybody here is walking. And after filling up with fuel at the border town of Karonga– we realise why there are no vehicles – petrol is extortionately expensive here, presumably because Malawi has to import it all, and with no coastal access.

Our first stop was the very laid back and rustic Chitimbe Beach campsite, at the northern end of Lake Malawi. Here we met our first overlanders – a truck full of gap year Brits, all glued to their screens rather than actually experiencing the country! A convoy of Afrikaanse 4×4’ers also pulled in, with much testosterone revving, arranging their 10 vehicles in a circular “lagaa” –and true to form, they brought all their food and drinks with them, never once stepping foot in the bar and spending any money. At dawn the next day both the overland truck and the 4×4 convoy departed noisily, leaving the beach to just us and the camp dogs….

Next we ventured up to Nyika National Park – a high, chilly plateau of Afro-montane grasslands, bizarrely resembling Scotland. Instead of red deer, there are herds of eland, zebra, reedbucks and beautiful roan antelope. The near freezing temperatures were a shock and we had to abandon the idea of camping and resorted to hiring a Parks cottage for 2 nights – the log fire and hot bath clinching the deal. Nyika allegedly has one of the highest densities of leopards in Africa – and although we saw fresh droppings on the roads we failed to spot this elusive cat. Instead we saw another serval – never having seen one in 25 years of African travel, this is now our fourth this year! Nyika is also home to various special montane birds, and there was lots of excited ticking in the bird book.


Sadly the nearby Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve, at the base of Nyika was a huge disappointment. The guidebook said it was in a state of “transition” and we had been warned it was very run down, with a bad poaching problem – but nothing prepared us for the completely derelict, uninhabitable camp. Godfrey, the National Parks Warden, in his threadbare uniform, had been so delighted (and indeed astonished) to welcome his first visitors for obviously a long time – but then looked so dejected as we drove back out, 60 minutes later, asking for our entrance fees to be refunded. It was so sad to see the deterioration of this park – previously an important wildlife corridor to the adjacent South Luangwa in Zambia.

Our car took a real hammering on the rough roads up to Nyika – with yet another puncture, and then the immobiliser stopped working. So we spent an unexpected night in the service town of Mzuzu, with joy of joys, a Toyota garage! We spent a forgettable night in a non-descript motel – just us and Lionel Ritchie’s greatest hits in the deserted dining room. Next morning Mike dropped me off at the heady delights of the brand new Shoprite Mall – with the best supermarket since Nairobi. Laden down with shopping, I tried to find a taxi to the Toyota garage – only to discover that the only form of transport here are the motorbike couriers. There was much hilarity as the “Mazungu Mamma” hitched up her skirt and climbed aboard to ride pillion ….. ‘when in Malawi’ an’ all that….!

We hit Lake Malawi heaven at Makuzi Beach, half way down the lake, and spent an idyllic and very relaxing three days camping here and not doing very much. Our only neighbours were an entertaining Swiss couple who were also doing a similar 6 month road trip – and we compared routes and border crossing tales over several Malawian beers.

Our next lakeside stop was Cape Maclear, and we treated ourselves to a room on the beach at Chembe Eagle’s Nest to celebrate our BIG wedding anniversary (how can we possibly be this old?!). We spent a very chilled day, snorkelling amongst the myriad of multi-coloured cichlid fish, and feeling very blessed.

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Tanzania: Chimpanzees and Wildebeests…….almost.

Two of the must-do’s on our Road Trip journey were the Serengeti and seeing the chimps. After much debate, we chickened out of trying to self-drive into the Serengeti  – just too vast, roads known to be shockingly awful, both the 12 hours to get there and in the park itself, and doubts as to whether we could actually find any game ourselves.  On top of that were the extortionate fees for the public campsite (with no facilities whatsoever), and the daily fees to bring in a foreign car. So we threw caution, or rather our credit cards to the wind, and paid for an all-inclusive four day trip – the decision made easier by a very generous last-minute booking discount. Thank you Grumeti Expeditions!

We flew into the Northern Serengeti, and stayed at the very lovely Lemala Mara mobile tented camp.  Although we had visited the Serengeti back in Easter 2010 (when we got stranded by the Icelandic volcanic dust and were forced to stay an extra week – what glorious serendipity) we had not visited this northern section before, bordering the Mara River and Kenya’s Masai Mara.   Scenically this has to be the most beautiful part of the Serengeti – vast open rolling plains with the classic flat-top acacia vistas – truly stunning.

Although we knew we were too early in the season to see a river crossing, the wildebeest migration should have been in this northern area by now. However nobody had told the wildebeest this, and they were two weeks behind schedule, and still days to the south. So we set off on our first game drive a little disheartened, only for our guide, Freddie, to hurtle off at break-neck speed, as an advance party of about 600 wildebeest had just been spotted heading for the river.  Well for the next 3 days, we watched this herd, and another much bigger phalanx, teeter on the river’s edge –gnu’ing backwards and forwards, with much dithering and to-ing and fro-ing and no signs of leadership.  All in all – we spent a total of 12 hours, parked up in our vehicle, hoping and willing the herds to cross – but sadly no such luck.  However we did have spectacular sightings of lions, leopard and cheetah – and Freddie our guide always managed to be in the right place at the right time.  Indeed on our last morning, we spent an enchanting hour with a mother cheetah and her two small cubs, playing in the grass – just us, not another vehicle to be seen.
(See Mike’s Serengeti pics on Exposure)

Back at the airstrip, waiting to depart, we then realised why we had had the cheetah to ourselves.  All the other cars had been watching the wildebeest FINALLY cross the river……..!! I’m ashamed to say I failed to retain my sense of humour, when another tourist offered to show me their video……. 😦

After a night back in Arusha, staying with wildlife photo-journalist Sam Owen and her very welcoming family – next stop was Mahale National Park, to see the chimpanzees.  Getting here entailed a four and a half hour flight in a very little plane – all the way back across Tanzania to Lake Tanganyika in the far west, followed by a two hour boat trip.  Again, we had looked at the logistics of trying to drive ourselves to Mahale, but there is no road access and we would have to have chartered a boat for a 12 hour journey from Kigoma.  So flying in was the only really way of getting here – and we justified this bucket list trip to celebrate our BIG wedding anniversary this year! The other guests on the same 3 night package comprised the no-nonsense Scottish couple, Kirsten and Alastair, the silent Dutch couple (whose names we never learnt) – and Roberto and Marco, the very charming, gay Italian ball-room dancing champions (but of course)!  You only get two “goes” at tracking the chimps -so there is a lot of hope, not to mention, financial investment resting on the excursions. It was made all the more fraught, by our guide informing us that now is the dry season, and so the chimps are dispersed, and not in the big groups, as the food  is quite sparse. On Day 1, it was all rather frustrating, as although we saw a mother and her two offspring, a 6 year old youngster and her enchanting baby sister, they spent much of the time in the trees, and we kept having to rotate away from them, to allow other tourists their allocated slot. Finally we returned, just as the trio moved to the ground – with the youngster dangling and bouncing in front of her mother from a vine, spinning around, as if to say “Mum, mum look at me”. Magical.

Next day we set off, minus the wife of the silent Dutch couple who decided not to go as she didn’t like the waiting around …. (dur?!).  This actually worked to our advantage as it meant we could all stay in one group.  Very quickly we found another female chimp, with a tiny baby on her back, walking along the trail in front of us – the baby comically hanging upside down to get a better look at these strange apes following her.
Unfortunately she quickly moved onwards and upwards, leaving behind the cumbersome bi-pedal primates. We then spent a couple of hours lying around on a path, waiting as the trackers vainly searched for more chimpanzees.  Just as we were resigning ourselves to no more sightings, we heard our first chimp hootings – and off we dashed, madly crashing through the forest, in the direction of the noise.  And there in front of us on the path were two males, trying to attract the attention of a female.  All sorts of posturing – but the female was having none of it – and kept grimacing and shrieking.  The males gave up and ambled over to join another three males, on the ground.  We ended up sitting right next to the group of 5, for a spell-binding 30 minutes, watching them peacefully grooming and holding hands – with our guide whispering what was going on and who was who – one choosing to nonchantly come and sit right next to Mike. Then all hell broke loose as the female reappeared, and the males started screaming and hooting – and you realise just how strong and powerful the males are. Suddenly the two biggest males started throwing rocks around and shaking branches – and then barrelling straight for Kirsten and I, sitting on the ground 10m in front of them. We sat there, rooted to the spot, eyes boggling above our surgical masks, hearts pounding, as they charged right past us, dragging branches and shrieking. Only for Mike to hiss “but why didn’t you take any photos”….?!

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Mahale – TICK, an amazing bucket-list experience!
Mahale finale

Kenya: Nairobi or bust!

We left Iringa in the dark at 5.30am to start the long trek across Tanzania to Arusha.  No-one in Iringa seemed to know how long the journey would take, or which route northwards was now tarred.  Reaching the sprawling metropolis of Dodoma 4 hours later, it took us three goes to find the new tarred road – even the police could not advise us on the correct route – no one seems to have travelled away from their home town, and you always worry that people are telling you the answer they think you want to hear, rather than the correct answer.  Finally we struck westwards, via Singida, a long way round to Arusha – but tar all the way. Congratulating ourselves on arriving in Arusha after a 12 hour slog, we then spent nearly two hours navigating the terrible traffic from one side of town to the other!  We tottered into Karama Lodge – only to be immediately invited to join a free wine tasting evening! Things were looking up J The lodge wanted guest feedback on potential new wines – tho’ I’m not sure our ‘quantity rather than quality’ palates were quite what they were looking for. … We spent an enjoyable day in Arusha catching up on admin, laundry and restocking – we were last here in 2010, when we got stranded in the Icelandic volcanic dust debacle, and were “forced” to spend an extra week in the Serengeti. What serendipity.  That evening, we got talking to some interesting people in the bar, and ended up all having dinner together. Craig and Andrea Reid are conservation managers for the laudable African Parks Networks – and have been responsible for turning around Liuwa National Park in Zambia, and Mvue in Malwai – truly inspirational, dedicated and humble people, and we had many contacts in common. On Sunday we set off for Kenya– running the gauntlet of our 6th African border crossing – dodging the hustlers, and handing over fistfuls of dollars for visas, car tax and associated bits of rubber- stamped paperwork.  We finally cruised into Nairobi, thankfully on a Sunday – so the traffic was not quite as chaotic as normal, and it was with huge delight and relief we arrived at our friends, Leanne and James Haigh’s beautiful home in Westlands.  What a treat to be with good friends, home-cooked  food – and the joys of a washing machine! Next day we lurched headlong into the death-defying Nairobi traffic, and bravely navigated our way across town to meet up with Wildscreen friends Jonathan and Angie Scott, for lunch at their house in the country, surrounded by trees, dogs and birds.  Jonathan is a true gentleman, and made us feel so welcome – and it was lovely to catch up. On the following day, we commenced our adventures with Bristol friends, Bob and Liz Reeves – our rendez-vous with them was the only fixed date in our diary since we left Cape Town, more than three months and 10,000 miles earlier.  Bob and Liz visit Kenya annually – and they had planned a great tour for us.  Firstly two nights at their friends’ holiday home on the shores of Lake Naivasha.  Mike and I first visited here 26 (?!) years ago, on our first ever African trip –long before the acres of flower poly-tunnels had bloomed– but good to hear that the quality of the lake water is much improved, and the flower industry is now tightly regulated.  We visited some old haunts – Joy Adamson’s atmospheric house at Elsamere – and a new experience, walking amongst the giraffe on Crescent Island.

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Liz and Bob Reeves are very involved with Lewa – a private reserve on the Laikipia Plateau, and their annual Tusk Trust charity marathon  – and have volunteered here many times over the years.  They knew everyone, and great fun was had by all manning a water station, with the local Masaai in all their finery, and hobnobbing with all sorts of interesting people including the (clothing) Bodens and Pippa Middleton.  Lewa is stunningly beautiful,  real “Out of Africa” scenery – and the four of us had a wonderful  adventure together, after the marathon hoopla – visiting a rural school, spotting birds and  nocturnal lions, meeting a three week old rhino calf, tracking cheetah…..oh, and failing to see the wild dogs that everybody else saw (…again!).
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Our final night with Bob and Liz was spent back in Nairobi, and a fun finale dinner with their friends, including the affable Alan Dickson – who had previously helped Mike organise his Kingfield school trip to Kenya. Thank you, Bob and Liz for being such enthusiastic and positive travel companions.

To cheer ourselves up after their departure – we cuddled orphan baby elephants and kissed a giraffe!
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After exploiting James and Lea’s hotel and laundry services once again, we headed off to Amboseli National Park.  We had never been here before, and had an enjoyable couple of days, camping here (yet again we were the only campers) with Mike trying to photograph the elephants beneath the majestic back drop of Mount Kilimanjaro (ellie formation and cloud-free mountain top never quite in synch).  We also had our second only ever sighting of a (distant) serval, hunting in the long grass – and we left Amboseli, and indeed Kenya on a high.
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Tanzania: two wheels on our wagon…….

From Lake Tanganyika, we undertook a lengthy drive to Mbeya, which took way longer than expected.  Tanzania’s roads are proving a shock to the system – on tar we’re averaging only 70kms/hr, due to all the speed humps, speed restrictions through villages – and numerous police blocks.  I must admit, all the police are very friendly, and only too delighted to talk to Mike about the UK premier League, and their favourite teams – although we still got stung by three speeding tickets – in one day! At Mbeya we stayed at the recommended “Coffee Lodge” where we randomly met up with overlanders Stan and Anne again.  We smiled through gritted teeth to hear about the pack of wild dogs they had seen in Katavi, 10 minutes after we had left them.

From Mbeya was another long haul to the hill-top town of Iringa. First stop, Neema Crafts and Café – the inspirational centre run by disabled Tanzanians.  The café is staffed by deaf people, so your orders must be mimed or written down – who needs Swahili ?! Next stop, finding a street artist to make us a bodged rear number plate – ours was last seen somewhere en route to Lake Tanganyika. Luckily we met wazungu Pastor Paul, who knew just the right person….

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Adam, the street artist, who made us a new number plate

After a night at the recommended Riverside Camp (the only other guests were some earnest young American missionaries… was an abbreviated dinnertime conversation) – we set off for Ruaha National Park.  Three hours in and three quarters of the way there, on yet more corrugated roads, the car started making a terrible dragging sound. Mike crawled under the car to realise that the engine skid plate had come loose (again) – and we had the lost the spare wheel from under the car – AGAIN.  Despite turning around and retracing our steps, we failed to find the spare wheel – although amazingly we did find Pastor Paul who recommended a garage to us back in Iringa.  Poor Mike spent his birthday in a hot, dusty backstreet garage, getting the engine plate bolted back on and trying to buy a new spare wheel – “this one is nearly the right size, Sir”.  10 hours after setting off, we ended up back at Riverside Camp….. TIA…..

Not being able to face the road to Ruaha again, instead the next day we headed east, to Udzungwa Mountains National Park.  This is part of the Eastern Arc Mountains, one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots – stunning indigenous forested mountains, still protected because of local cultural beliefs that this is home to their ancestors.  We stayed at the Hondo Hondo campsite, and arranged a guided walk into the National Parks for the next day (with Tanzania’s extortionate National Park fees – every 24 hour day has to be timed carefully).  Our guide met us at dawn, and we set off on the agreed 2 hour hike to look for indigenous primates.  We ticked off the Iringa red colobus, and the more common black and white colobus fairly quickly – all that remained now was the endemic Sanje mangabey monkey.  3 hours later we were still ascending vertically, when we finally rendezvoused with the “Mangabey Monitor”, clad in his ripped wellie boots.  Unfortunately two troops of mangabeys had had a run-in that morning – and both troops were now much higher up in the mountains than expected.  Why do we never learn when an African tells us “it’s not far”……? 4 hours in, and still hauling ourselves up vertical slopes, clinging onto saplings and on our hands and knees, we both had a serious sense of humour failure – not to mention serious lack of water and provisions.  Thankfully, the mangabey monitor’s cell phone rang (!), and his monitor mate called to say, just another 100 metres more – upwards.  And there, finally was a troop of 50+ silver Sanje mangabeys, above and around us, doing their mangabey thing.  Totally enchanted, all tiredness forgotten – and feeling so privileged to see this unique species, found only here in this remnant patch of forest.  The rest of the day was spent comatose in the tent, resting our aching limbs – boy, are we unfit after 3 months spent sitting on our backsides in the Hilux!

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After 2 nights, we left Udzungwa NP, and made our second attempt at Ruaha.  This time we made it to the Park boundary just before nightfall, and spent the night outside the Park, at the very lovely, if somewhat empty, Tandala Lodge, having negotiated a bargain last minute, drive-up rate. Next day, we finally entered Ruaha NP.  What a truly beautiful national park – and once again devoid of tourists other than us.  It was worrying to read that the life-giving Ruaha River is now dry for several months of the year, due to over-extraction upstream for rice production – and that Ruaha has had 60% of its elephants poached in the last five years….. although we saw elephants  a-plenty. We camped at the Public Campsite on the riverbank – just us, with the elephants, impala and hippos– one of our most idyllic pitches ever.

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The idyll was short-lived however; as we returned from our first exploratory game drive to discover a troop of baboons had trashed our campsite.  Even though we had left no food out – they had still destroyed the tent, breaking the poles, shredding the contents of our toiletries bag and leaving shitty handprints over everything.  In despair, as darkness fell, we tried to retrieve everything – only for the troop to boldly climb the tree above us, and with a final victorious salute, dump a steaming turd onto my chair. We admitted defeat, and spent an uncomfortable night on the floor of the concrete cooking shelter, under our mossie net, with a rain of sawdust and droppings from the rodents scuttling around in the roof. Mike left to have a shower, and stomped back shortly to say “The bloody baboons have taken all the hot water…..”. To cheer ourselves up, we tucked into our wine and chocolate rations – 3 days worth gone in one evening – big mistake L Amazingly, the next day, the mechanic at the National Park HQ workshop managed to weld our tent poles, so our tent was re-usable.  In fact, the mechanic was to become a good friend of ours – as the following day he helped fix a dodgy connection on the car battery.  After more than 3 months on the road, without any mechanical hitches, the trip to Ruaha proved a real challenge for the Hilux – the finale being a puncture on the morning of our departure. After 3 nights, we limped back into Iringa, and spent another afternoon trying to reattach and replace various essential parts of the car……

Tanzania: pole pole

Due to the border hassles, we crossed into Tanzania much later in the day than expected. We immediately noticed the difference between Tanzania and our travels further south – welcome to East Africa.

The land is intensely cultivated, with small shambas, smouldering charcoal fires and people everywhere – particularly hordes of children.  The ubiquitous mode of transport is now the bicycle, and this is also the main goods carrier –laden down with gallon drums of water, sacks of mealie meal and precariously balanced towers of bricks. Due to our late arrival, we ended up unexpectedly spending a night in the bustling town of Sumbawanga (yes, apparently the same name as one of the Quidditch teams in Harry Potter?!). We failed to find the recommended guest house from our Footprints Guide Book, despite swearing at the sat nav, and as darkness fell we ended up at the Sumbawanga Country Club.  Never has an abode been so inappropriately named…..!  But Mr Sackman, the rotund and congenial manager was delighted to welcome us – it was obviously awhile since he’d had paying guests.  We had a forgettable dinner in the deserted dining room – accompanied by a blaring TV and Swahili soap opera – and breakfast featured a flask of warm brown water (not sure if it was tea or coffee?), a tin of Blueband margarine and a cold frankfurter. The next morning was spent getting cash, buying fuel and navigating our way round the veg market and wooden shacks or dukas – the luxury of supermarkets now a dim and distant memory.
Next stop – Katavi National Park – a bone shaking 4 hour drive on terrible corrugated roads, made all the more tortuous by the newly built, but as yet unopened, brand new graded road running alongside.  It was a shock to the system to have to pay the hideous sum of US $160 per day for both of us, CASH, for a Tanzanian National Park and their somewhat rudimentary facilities. But Katavi is a very wild and beautiful park, and we loved the flooded grasslands, huge herds of buffalos and spectacular bird-life. In 3 days we only saw 2 other cars (not surprising, at those prices!) – one of these was the “Slow Donkey” land cruiser – driven by retires Stan and Anne – our first other overlanders who had also driven from South Africa. We were a little too early in the dry season to see the famed 200+ hippo conglomerations, but we camped at “Hippo Pools” and were treated to some spectacular hippo cavortings – the first time we have ever seen hippos rolling 360 degrees right round, swollen pink belly up, with a stubby leg at each corner – hippo synchronised swimming.
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It was full moon, and so we slept with all the canvas flaps open on our tent.  We were woken by cracking branches, and a breeding herd of elephants surrounding our tent.  What a thrill and privilege – but oh how vulnerable one feels, lying on the ground, with just a thin nylon mesh between you and the elephants, 10m away! Unfortunately the tsetse flies were some of the most vicious we have ever experienced, which meant our game drives were conducted with the car windows hermetically sealed, and thus photo opportunities were somewhat limited.  It proved impossible to open the windows – and still poor Mike was bitten to pieces. We appreciated the advantages of the printed book over an e-reader  -try thwacking  a testse with a Kindle!
After roughing it in Katavi, we treated ourselves to a splurge at the Lake Shore Lodge on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.  This came highly recommended (thank you Charlie and Emma, Jono and Anne-Sophie) – and was well worth the bone-shaking 3 hour drive on yet more rutted roads. One of the most beautiful places we have ever stayed – in the world – made all the more special by the congenial South African hosts, Chris and Louise.  It was the week of Mike’s birthday, and so we stayed in a beautiful lodge – open to the lake.  Amazingly, Mike and Louise share the very same birthday, and they very kindly a bottle of South Africa’s finest wine to celebrate the joint birthdays, two days early. A good time was had by all…..
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Zambia: Bordering on the ridiculous!

Before we reluctantly left Botswana behind, we did a quick side-trip to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. I’d not been here for 20 years.  Last time we had camped at the very basic Municipal Campsite in town. This time, thanks to Go Botswana, we stayed at the beautiful Victoria Falls Safari Lodge – high up on a ridge, overlooking a waterhole. And very lovely it was too! We also spent a relaxed couple of nights in the Zambezi National Park – in one of the ZimPark’s riverside chalets.  Again we last stayed here 20 years ago –and the décor was still exactly the same, NOTHING had changed – other than the somewhat dramatic escalation in price in US$, now Zimbabwe’s national currency. The other 19 huts were all empty….

Finally after more than 2 months, we left Botswana and headed for Zambia, crossing the border at the Kazangula Ferry.

Kazangula Ferry

We had been warned that this could take up to two hours. Leaving Botswana was a breeze – entering Zambia was another matter. As soon as we drove off the ferry into Zambian Customs and Immigrations, we were besieged by touts, hustlers and “helpers”. Mike stayed to guard the car, whilst I was swept through a series of ramshackle buildings by my throng of “helpers”, as I handed over fistfuls of dollars for visas, all sorts of rubber stamping, vehicle carnet inspections and a carbon tax.  My final challenge was purchasing the road tax –only to be told “the system is down” and I, together with several dozen truck drivers from across Africa, would have to wait for the system to start working again.  Two and a half hours later we were still waiting – the stifling room now full to bursting.  It never ceases to amaze me how Africans can be so patient and just sit and wait, accepting that nothing is going to happen and they cannot change anything – unlike I,  who was getting more and more stressed and irate. Knowing the border closed at 6pm, we were beginning to panic that we were going to end up having to spend the night locked in the ferry terminal with all the trucks – not the most salubrious of places to get stuck. Just as despair was setting in and with only ten minutes left til closing time, the Road Tax Officer finally decided to issue our receipts manually.  When I asked why he hadn’t done this three hours ago – he replied “well, now it is time for me to go home”.

Elated and full of relief, we jumped in the car and screeched out of the Ferry Terminal, only to be flagged down again immediately, and informed we still had to buy Third Party Road Insurance.  I was ushered into a dilapidated garden shed, still accompanied by my throng of helpers, and told I had to hand over a further $50 to an “official” who could not have been more than 15.  He laboriously filled out yet another form, which to me looked suspiciously like he’d designed and printed this himself with Letraset.  By then we were so desperate to leave the border, that despite worrying I was being scammed, I flung the $50 down, grabbed my Road Insurance “Certificate” and ran for the car.  4 hours after arriving we finally crossed into Zambia.

It was then a mad dash to cover the 50km to Livingstone, now in the pitch dark.  Tired and stressed, we treated ourselves to the first lodge we found, and downed our first (of many) Zambezi beers.  Next day we headed for Lusaka, hoping we might be able to get new shock absorbers for the car. Somehow we found “AutoWorld” and drove in not very expectantly – only for the Manager to say he would get his mechanic to help us immediately.  I asked where the nearest supermarket was, as I knew Lusaka would be the last place to stock up on groceries for a while, and the Manager said he would arrange a taxi for me. Such wonderful service after our frustrations the day before. We spent our night in Lusaka staying with Claire Stead, an educational contact of Mike’s and her husband Brett.  She is spearheading Africa’s inspirational “i-Schools” programme, distributing e-tablets pre-loaded with multi-media curriculum modules, to more than 2000 Zambian primary school children.  Amazingly she used to be a teacher in Bristol at Sir Bernard Lovell, one of the partnership schools with Mike’s old school.  Such a small world indeed.  Claire and her family made us very welcome, and we had a really enjoyable, if somewhat late, evening.

At 6am the following morning we started the long trek north, along Zambia’s Great North Road, playing “truck roulette” with the convoys of trans-African juggernauts.

Zambia road sideGod willing

There were numerous police road blocks, and we were waived through all of these, only getting stopped once.  To our astonishment, the cop specifically asked to see our Third Party Road Insurance Certificate – so we had not been conned at Immigration after all! After 12 hours of driving, we finally pulled into the metropolis (not) of Kasama, where we stayed in a guest house, bizarrely run by yet more ex Bristol teachers.  They had been in Kasama for 40 years – and I don’t think they had updated their linen, dried flower arrangements or dog beds since their arrival four decades earlier… 😦

Next day, we set off bright and early – planning to cross the border into Tanzania in good time.  We had been forewarned (thank you Emma Franklin!) that we had to detour 80km off the main road, to visit the port of Mpulungu, on Lake Tanganyika to get our Carnet stamped here, as the backwater border post we were crossing would not be able to do this.  We left the port congratulating ourselves on our good planning, before hitting the worst road of our trip so far – 25km of corrugated, crevassed hell.

border crossing

We arrived at the very quiet Zombe border, and proudly flourished our Carnet docket – all we needed now was to get our passports stamped to exit Zambia. Unfortunately the Immigration official was not present, as he had “other business to attend to”, and was back in the town we had left 25km earlier.  Despite begging and pleading for the Customs Official to stamp our passport, this was not possible and we were forced to turn around, and retrace our steps, back along the hateful rutted road.  Two hours later, we finally arrived back at the border, complete with the necessary passport stamp from immigration, and now all we needed was the Customs Official.  However he was still at lunch, despite it being gone 3pm, and knowing that we would be returning.  He finally sauntered round the corner, and casually reappeared behind his desk, issuing us with our crucial stamp – 4 hours after we had started this process.  When we asked why he was still at lunch after 3pm, he explained “it is very hot today”.
Just breathe deeply and keep repeating the mantra – TIA…. This is Africa….. we can change nothing.