An African Roadie: Part Two
In part two of an African Roadie, we catch up with Charlie and Alex waking up in Livingstone, Zambia. The previous day was spent white water rafting on the Zambezi river below Victoria Falls, followed by a lively booze cruise on the wide waters above the Falls…
A nauseous feeling swirls in my belly, as I instantly regret the night before. Every part of me wants to fall asleep again in the knowledge that this day will be a long, painful journey. And then I start to sneeze. Yesterday’s unassuming sniffle has turned into today’s full- blown cold, with an unstoppable runny nose, compounded with a rum-related sore head and total exhaustion. I wince at the thought of what’s to come.
We’re due to collect a Land Rover from Africa self-drive specialists Safari Drive and make headway on what’s listed as a six-hour drive, following a two-hour vehicle briefing. I picture the day strung out as much as the endless river of green streaming from my nostrils,and dream of fast-forwarding to the evening’s campfire. Collecting the vehicle has been arranged for 8am at Waterberry Lodge, some way out of town. It’s 7.20am and we still have no idea where the lodge is, just that the vehicle is patiently awaiting our arrival.
“Get up, Alex,” I shout. Amazingly he rises, and in the space of minutes we have packed in the tried-and-tested, throw-everything-into-a-bag- as-fast-as-possible fashion that women so often denigrate. The staff at Jollyboy’s Backpackers give us one night’s stay free for being so entertaining the night before. This has never happened on any of my travels and it concerns me greatly. But my worries are soon forgotten by the pressing need to move on.
Soon enough we are leaving one of Livingstone’s oldest hostels, one that has been serving travellers since 1995. Set around a courtyard, with a pool, bar, dormitories and A-frame private rooms, it serves as a comfortable spot to see the Falls. We sadly shuffle off, jumping into a taxi driven by an expansive local who tells us it’s a 25-minutedrive to Waterberry Lodge. We’re going to be late. But, considering the night before, and the freebie granted by the hostel, it seems like a result. The driver, though, decides to punishus anyway as he plays the same pop tune on repeat, apparently enjoying his ancient tape machine, rolling the song round again and again. Technology in these parts is far behind the West, and on the potholed, unpredictable roads of Africa, tape rules. We’re told it’s music from Southern Zambia – upbeat, catchy, very African, but rather nauseating when heard the ninth time over.
Finally the taxi turned off down a dusty track and after a further 10 minutes of battling the sandy road, we rolled up at the small oasis that is Waterberry Lodge. Sitting on the banks of the Zambezi, it’s a tranquil spot where I could have spent a happy few days, but the day was only just moving into second gear, so having met Gail, our Safari Drive contact, we were straight into the briefing.
There is a sharp disconnect between reading the information that a travel company issues, and the reality of being there, on the ground, mission in hand. A month earlier Safari Drive had sent us the travel pack, stuffed with road maps, our holiday itinerary, a booklet of helpful info on Africa – such as what to take, dos and don’ts, exchange rates, nuisances – along with detailed information on the vehicle. We excitedly poured over our intended route, so thought we had a fairly good idea of the trip we were about to undertake. How wrong we were.
Studying the route with Gail made us realise that what appears to be a small distance in Africa is something akin to crossing the UAE. Twice. Before any smart arse accuses me of not looking at the map legend, it’s not my style. There’s diligently preparing for a holiday and there’s preparing for a military campaign. The holiday mentality dictates a well-intentioned look over the maps, drawing lines where lines sort of seem necessary, then discussing more important things, such as what to listen to on the open road, and who would eat who if lost in the bush.
The planned route had been carved out over various emails between myself and Clare at Safari Drive, with her suggesting a route and me annoying her by then suggesting something totally different. Then I’m told my route is not possible, so we go back to her original, well- informed suggestion, which would see us travel through Zambia, Namibia, Botswana and back into Namibia again.
An hour later, Gail had explained to us the many, many varied pitfalls along our route. Sitting there, now fully attentive, we had covered dealing with border guards, finding a road not even listed on the map, and the whereaboutsof various obscure campsites hidden far off the beaten track.
Next up, we set about checking off the vehicle inventory. What we were about to travel in was a fully kitted out, all-terrain vehicle, the 110 Land Rover Defender. Much like a Winnebago full of road-tripping Americans, we had everything on board, but weren’t off on a July 4 holiday to chomp burgers in a national park. Taking on Africa meant we needed extra long-range fuel tanks, a fridge freezer, a roof-top tent, a side awning, a gas stove, a BBQ grill, spare wood, a fully stocked mini-larder, fold-up chairs and table, a huge fresh water tank and, brought by us, the most important feature – an iPod adapter to listen to my numerous playlists, and Alex’s infinitely better music.
Ready to roll, with two sachets of flu medicine in my belly, we were waved off from Waterberry Lodge, with Gail looking concerned, but relieved to see us on our way. That said, she could have been looking panicked, clearly terrified at the thought of us taking on her local roads.
The rest day we were to cover a distance of roughly 250km, cross into Namibia and head along the Caprivi Strip untilwe reached a camp site atMazambala Island Lodge. The beauty of being a self-drive tourist is that you aretotally free to stop where youplease along the route, havea picnic, talk to locals, or justsunbathe on the roof. Thedownside is that you are meant to arrive at certain agreed locations each evening, regardless of what may crop up each day. And Africa throws up every eventuality, often with remarkable regularity.
Our first such event occurred just over 20 minutes after leaving Waterberry Lodge, whenI started to complain that the car was driving heavily. Regardless, we pushed on, but a kilometre down the road the Land Rover’s engine cut out and we rolled to a halt on the verge.
At this point, Alex decided to take the wheel. He turned the key and, surprisingly, it kicked into life. Maybe I had been hallucinating. Maybe it was the medicine. But, believing that my mind wasn’t as addled as Alex thought, I started to pour over the instruction manual. Normally I wouldn’t go near one, but in my fevered state I was still sure the car sounded unusual, and just had to prove the point. Much like a maligned grandfather who swears by cod liver oil and leeches, I too was sure of myself, despite now being ignored by my co-driver. Finally I found the problem – we were in the wrong gear. Yes, even though I’d spent six months working as a safari guide after leaving school, I still hadn’t managed to spot a crucial flaw – we were travelling inlow diff, meaning the car was supposed to be battling tough mud, or craggy rocks, toppingjust 10km/h, not the 100km/h we had been averaging for the past hour. We pull over, make the necessary gear change and head off with the engine purring like a leopard on heat, rather than a hippo on branflakes.
And then the cops pull us over. There’s a certain thought that goes through my head when I get into trouble with police overseas.It also affects my bowels. Not being fully compus mentus, I was in surprisingly good form to cope with Zambian police officers. Normally in Africa a little charm goes a long way – but a very close second is a smallwad of cash. The problem this time was that the car was missing a certain sticker to say we had paid road tax. Fortunately, the farm manager from Waterberry Lodge was in traffic right behind us, so he took over the problem, sending us on our way before I could start improper “negotiations”.
We were now problem-free, cruising the highway in the middle of Africa, heading for the Namibian border. All around, as far asthe eye could see, was low-rise sparse bush with infrequent scattered villages and their dangerous livestock. Not dangerous because they have any particular homicidal tendencies, but because they will stroll into the road at any given moment, most likely just when you’re about drive past. It makes for slightly uneasy driving, and unfortunately forms a morbid connection between spotting a cattle herder and impending vehicular doom. Carefully we carried on, warily watching every beast, trying to judge the likelihood of it taking a last minute suicidal stroll into our trajectory.
After two hours we arrived back at the Zambezi River, where the Safari Drive itinerary accurately predicted there would be “boredbut amusing” veterinary officials. All across Southern Africa are checkpoints such as this. The aim is to stop foot-and-mouth disease from spreading, which is prevalent across the region. Livestock farming is a large employer and economic contributor to the region, so keeping tabs on the problem is paramount. I remember serious disinfectant pools at the side of all roads surrounding farms that were affected whenthe disease last hit the UK. Not so in southern Africa, where authorities are happy to just aska few questions about what food products arein your car, leading to any dairy products being confiscated. Not being an expert on the issue, or wanting to challenge the system, I answered the basic questions and drove on to the border.
Leaving Zambia for Namibia we assumed would be a quick stamping ritual, as seen at the airport, but that was purely wishful thinking as the Namibians took one look at us and said: “Exit stamp”. “Yes please,” was our natural response, to which we were told to drive back into Zambia, find the customs office, get the required stamp and return. Easy enough, we think. Sadly, the Zambians had other ideas.
First up, they’d hid the office in question, and seemingly told the Shesheke locals to ensure tourists stay in the country by giving them inaccurate directions. A few dead ends later, we found the building behind a high fence, stashed away just off the main road. The second hurdle was the bureaucracy that we would soon come to realise is endemic at every official post in the region. Their main tool is the tedious logbook they use to keep tabs on who’s driving what, and why they are on their roads. And every damn detail has to go in it. VIN number, chassis number, model, year, then all your details and travel plans. Diligently we got all the info out of the car, grumbling at every turn.
Once done, it was on to the next hurdle – getting the exit stamp from the passport office. A short march down a corridor that was stashed floor to ceiling height with boxes of confiscated liquor instigated a little urge to have a few in the afternoon sun, but the officials offered none. So, with the requisite stamps pressed into our documents, we were soon back in the car, again heading for Namibia. The same palaver of logbook details had to be dealt with at the Namibian checkpoint, leaving little room for celebration when we were eventually back on the road, still having to cover a hundred kilometres before our final stop.
We now found ourselves in the Caprivi Strip – an unusual extension of Namibia that runs along the top of Botswana. The thin sliver of land extends for about 450km, yet averages only 75km from top to bottom. It ended up as part of Namibia following a treaty between the German and British governments in 1890, with the Germans, who ran Namibia as German South-West Africa, wanting access to the Zambezi, in return for territory, including Zanzibar in East Africa, going to the Brits.
The first stop on the Strip for most travellers heading west is the town of Katima Mulilo, where we needed to buy supplies. The mood in the car by now had dropped to fresh lows, and turned exceptionally sour. A desperate need to feed, fuel the car and tackle the remaining 80km overwhelmed us. With Alex snapping at locals who were too close to him as he punched in his details at an ATM, we knew the day was getting close to a bitter climax.Once fuelled and fed, all had been forgiven, and we took a moment to appreciate our surroundings. A football match had just finished, locals were pouring into the area, pick-up trucks were full of families heading home, although in these parts car ownership isn’t high, so most were walking the roads, blending into the classic scene of kids playing in the street, donkeys roaming freely, cows and goats being herded (probably to a spot dangerously close to passing cars) and street traders out in force trying toflog anything to everyone. At moments like that, you can’t help but love Africa. Life is lived in the streets; the vibrancy is addictive.
But, the call of the road beckoned and we headed for the highway. We were soon lost,an event that should be almost impossible considering the low number of main roads. But we achieved it nonetheless and spent a joyless hour driving the wrong way round Katima. By the time we left town, night had fallen and we were about to break one of the cardinal rules of driving in Africa. In fact, it’s one of the only rules Safari Drive has – “Don’t drive at night”. So, on our first full day, around the time we were supposed to be sitting by a campfire, cold shandies on the go, with the BBQ almost done, headlights were instead being switched on, and our average speed had to drop to 20km/h. A Land Rover’s headlights are weak, meaning the livestock situation becomes even more deadly at night, with the only option being to drive at a snail’s pace. Being overtaken by a tractor is hardly the biggest ego boost in travel, and so, three hours later, we finally arrived at Mazambala Island Lodge campsite in one piece, elated to have made it through the day.
Situated on an island in the flood plain of the Kwando River, you get a sizeable spot, meaning privacy from other campers, your own re/ BBQ area, running water and, in the daylight, a view over the river. The rooftop tent on the Land Rover was popped up, which is truly one of the best pieces of kit ever invented, and you’re safely away from snakes, animals, bugs and other unwanted intruders. Genius. And withthat, we had completed the first leg of our trip. Total exhaustion swept over, further pills were popped, as Alex made a fire and I preparedthe culinary masterpiece of Super Noodlesand beans. If every day on the road was to beas eventful as this, then we were in for a tough adventure. But, as the fresh dose of medication kicked in my thoughts turned to waking in this stunning spot, with a clear head and a full day planned. We were in the African wilds after all and, ups and downs considered, I wouldn’t have traded it for anywhere else.
(FIRST PUBLISHED IN 2009, iQ Magazine)