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.
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…..how 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”.
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.’