Overland

 

As we rolled out of Nairobi, on a crisp and clear Kenyan morning, even the diesel fumes and bleating taxi horns on the Uhuru Highway seemed to be full of good cheer. There were none of those usual feelings of trepidation and nerves that I was used to on the first morning of a ‘big trip.’ For years I had been travelling under my own steam - frequently alone and almost always by public transport. Now I had been lured back to the Dark Continent on a road-trip of a very different sort: in a huge, wallowing yellow truck that was known in villages and backpacker lodges all over East Africa as ‘The Whale.’


Far from travelling on a wing-and-a-prayer, our itinerary had been carefully worked out to fit in most of the must-see sights of the four countries that separated Nairobi from Victoria Falls. The vague worry about where I would spend my first African night had been lifted from my shoulders onto those of Paul and Lisa, the driver and tour leader who would be responsible for finding us secure campsites during the next twenty-one nights. I was free to sit back and watch the world go by.

The overlanding brochures had all offered the chance to become part of a wonderfully balanced group of ‘like-minded fellow-travellers’ - in blind optimism I imagined a secret clique of world-wise souls who had learned invaluable lessons that were beyond the grasp of independent travellers. But the crates that were stacked in The Whale’s belly made me think that it was more likely that I was joining a gang of crazed 20-something Aussies who were intent on fuelling the entire trip on bottles of chilled Tusker beer. It was a love of wildlife and wide-open spaces that had brought me to Africa but as we rolled towards the Tanzanian border I was already asking myself whether the most fascinating wildlife activity might be that outside the truck or in it.

Of course, it takes all sorts and the stereotypical overlander no longer exists. There were Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, Canadians and even four Argentines, from all walks of life among The Whale’s cargo. Two out of three passengers were females and the average age (about 28) testified to the fact that increasing numbers of ‘career-gappers’ now see overlanding as an opportunity to fit in the maximum amount of experiences before responsibility stakes its claim once again. What we had in common was a shared optimism for the 4,000 miles of African highways and dirt-tracks that lay ahead and a secret hope that not quite everything would go according to plan. This was Africa after all and we wanted a little bit of ‘rough’ to be taken with the ‘smooth’. An African overland trip is not for people who believe that the destination is more important than the journey - the days on the road can be long, hot and dusty - or for those who do not want to spend night after night with just a few millimetres of nylon between themselves and the African wildlife. This is not a guided package tour either and everybody had to be prepared to do their share of shopping, cooking…or digging The Whale out of mud-holes. 

Our journey led us through Ngorongoro Crater to the Serengeti where we off-loaded into a convoy of Land Rovers and were lucky enough to witness the great migration with a level of exclusivity (3 people to a Land Rover) that even the best lodges cannot always guarantee. Then, onward to Zanzibar (via Kilimanjaro), through the vast savannah of southern Tanzania and down the ragged strip of tarmac that follows the shore of Lake Malawi. Overland crews are constantly testing out new routes and searching out the best campsites, and being able to reap the fruits of the overlanding grapevine is one of the less obvious advantages of a trip like this. You camp in picturesque valleys you would never have found alone; you cross remote wildernesses where no local bus could have taken you; you feast in local villages where your crew are already long-term friends with the headmen. 

In a couple of short weeks we were entering what had become my favourite African country. I had travelled in Zimbabwe on other, more stressful, occasions (covering the aftermath of a particularly tense election) but I knew that, under more relaxed circumstances, this beautiful and hospitable country would be a highlight of the trip. By the time we arrived at Vic Falls - to raft the Zambezi and hurl ourselves off the bridge into ‘111-metres of Big African Air’ - we had tracked white and black rhinos on foot, celebrated sunrise over Great Zimbabwe Ruins, watched wildlife in several of Africa’s most impressive national parks, swam with horses across a crocodile-infested river (having been assured that their thrashing hooves keep the crocs back) and partied the night away on the old colonial Vic Falls Express.

It had been frustrating at times to be part of the great touring circus and we frequently wished we could stay for longer but many of us had made lasting friendships and we had all stacked up more than a few once-in-a-lifetime memories. Still the overlanding faith had failed to convert me entirely. I knew I would never totally give up the freedom and uncertainty of backpacking. Then, a few months later, I began planning a return to some old South American haunts…and overlanding snared me for the second time. 

I just had to accept once again that I could never see all I wanted to see if I insisted on following Kipling’s advice that ‘he travels the fastest who travels alone’.

 

 

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By Mark Eveleigh

Africa again


On safari, the lion might be king of the jungle, but the leopard is the hardest of Africa's big five to spot. Deep down, I feared I'd only ever get to see the African animals so vividly captured in my childhood picture books as a blur in the distance; a glimpse of a giraffe through the tree tops, or the bulk of an elephant's outline disappearing through the brush. There was little chance of seeing a Leopard.


But I was ready for my Kodak moment in the cringe-worthy way only a tragic tourist can be. I'd bought an expensive camera with two lenses I barely knew how to use, wildlife photography books weighed down my backpack, and heavy binoculars borrowed from my Dad remained permanently stationed around my neck. At least I wasn't as bad as the guy who brought night-vision goggles. 

Despite my low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself in the thick of animal encounters, throwing chunks of meat to a cheetah and her cubs in Namibia, scratching a lion under the chin in Zimbabwe, and being charged by a rhino in Zambia. Of course I'd see a leopard, I smugly told myself two weeks into my 56 day overlanding trip, as I watched a herd of elephants use their trunks to snorkel across the Chobe River in Botswana. But as the stamps filled up my passport and the national parks flew by on our journey north, there were no leopards.

I began to get nervous.

At each National Park office I'd run in to check the chalkboards for any sightings of the elusive creature. Many times we'd stop to stop to study the dappled shadows of a far off tree, only to clock up another false alarm. At night I even began to dream of leopards. We returned from the bar one night to find a cluster of guards with guns, shining a spotlight into the black jungle that rimmed our campsite. After ushering us to a safe spot on top of our overlanding truck, our guide turned and grinned at me. 

"You'll never guess what just wandered through the camp. A leopard!" I would have happily been eaten by it at this point. 

The last day of my safari coincided with my birthday, and I knew what I was going to use my birthday wishes for. "All I want to see today is a pussycat, up a tree, with spots." I declared at breakfast.  But after a full day of game driving, there were no leopards. My friend tried to make a joke of it.  "Here" he said, handing me a permanent marker. "Go grab a lion and colour it in".  Sensing my disappointment, he promised to take me to see one at the zoo when we got home. 

But I wanted the real thing- that magic moment of glimpsing a wild animal for the first time in its natural environment. Suddenly chatter broke out over the radio. Our guide sped off down a dirt track, before pulling up next to another vehicle. Five metres up, slung across a branch and half asleep, was exactly what I had wished for: a pussycat, up a tree, with spots. The rare tree dwelling lion, with its spotted fur, opened one eye and let out a low hiss, before promptly falling asleep again. It wasn't quite the member of the cat family I wanted. But it was pretty cool. 

I left Africa disappointed that I had not seen a leopard, but in a way I was kind of glad. It just gave me a reason to come back.

 

 

 

By Shaney Hudson

Botswana

 

 

Somewhere beyond our comforting little circle of firelight the lions were hunting. In the hour before sunset we had seen the East Side Pride rise lethargically to their feet and wander off to begin their bloody nightshift. By first light the springboks would be pronking playfully again, kicking up their legs in apparent joy at having survived the night, but while we nursed our drinks and warmed our hands, terror and death ruled out on the dark savannah.

 

 

An almost solid canopy of stars hovered over us. In the entire 52,000 sq km of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve there was little, beyond the ineffectual flare of our fire, to detract from their brilliance. A pair of jackals whined – worried by the smell of our braai steaks – at the edge of the little colony of ‘civilisation’ that we had created. As inevitably happens on long evenings around an African campfire, the conversation turned to close-shave animal encounters. Six years as a Botswana Wildlife ranger and more than a million miles as a 4x4 safari guide had equipped Bart Vandepitte with a supply of dramatic campfire yarns that looked set to outlast even our stack of mopane wood.

 

There was the time when he wandered to the edge of his camp at night to ‘mark his territory’ (doubtless a side-effect of several bottles of Zambezi) and spent many long minutes face-to-face with the King of the Jungle himself…with only his ‘trouble-shooter’ in his hands. The different philosophies for dealing with such animal confrontations are well known but I had never met anyone who had been forced to test them out under such horrifyingly vulnerable conditions.

 

In the event of a lion attack, Botswana-based wildlife writer Clive Walker warns in Signs of the Wild, ‘one’s inherent desire is to flee…but this carries with it the certainty of a permanent end to lion-watching.’ Instead, the thing to do is to stare into the cat’s eyes…unless the cat is a leopard in which case this can be fatal and you should watch its tail instead. If you’re being charged by a rhino or buffalo, climb a tree. If it’s an elephant that’s after you the tree probably won’t last long and some experts advise that ‘casting off clothing and other items has been known to delay elephants.’ What they omit to point out is that it’s impossible to outrun an elephant with your designer khakis around your ankles. There are few times in the normal run of everyday modern life when such a breach of local etiquette could be punished by stomping to death by a three-ton herbivore, or by being eaten by a living nightmare from the cradle of mankind.

 

A long – and no doubt terrifying – collective experience has taught the San Bushmen how to deal with these threats and how to befriend the desert. Bart and I had just spent a few days learning what we could from these greatest of survival experts. (As I understood it, if I was ever lost in the Kalahari, my first priority would be to kill an eland bull with a knobkerrie root club. Then, using its leg sinews as a string for my bow and its scrotum as a pouch for my stash of wild dagga, I would surely be able to survive indefinitely.) I kicked another mopane log into the fire and opened the last bottles while Bart recounted the time that he and a Botswana Wildlife colleague trekked through the southern-Kalahari desert hunting game for their pot. They had completed a six-mile circle when they finally spotted a steenbok…which had cunningly positioned itself so that the first narrowly-missed bullet shot out on their Land Rover’s headlamp. It was strange to think that, here in the centre of the world’s most extensive sand desert, we were also only a hundred miles from its largest inland delta. The Okavango, with its population of crocodiles, hippos, swamp antelope and millions of water-birds, is Botswana major tourist draw-card.

 

A friend of Bart’s had recently been paddling a Spanish tourist through the waterways of Moremi Reserve when a large bull hippo took violent exception to their trespassing. Guide, client and £3000-worth of Nikon metalwork went into the drink …but a delighted tourist got on the plane to Madrid, vowing that it was the best holiday he had ever had. Unless they actually leave some part of themselves behind in The Dark Continent, you never hear anyone complain about an unnecessarily close animal-encounter. There is definitely a temptation for journalists to sensationalise – not to say invent – accounts of animal-human conflict. Even among the overland truck community (where a good story is known to travel like wildfire) I was unable to find any firsthand knowledge of a crocodile attack on a girl in a crowded campsite in Chobe Reserve. According to one Botswana newspaper, ‘a crocodile – estimated to be three metres long – dragged her tent, in which she was asleep, to the water’s edge.’ Apparently the reptile came out of the water again later…and ate the hastily vacated tent! With mopane and Zambezi supplies exhausted, I climbed into the Toyota’s rooftop tent to listen to the snooker-ball click of the Kalahari’s famous barking geckos. I had only been asleep about an hour when sixth sense awoke me and I grabbed my torch in time to see the bright eyes and powerful shape of a leopard prowl past the camp. Buzzing with adrenalin I lay awake thinking of all the spine-tingling close-encounter stories that I’d heard from Botswana.

 

There’s the ranger who tells about a freezing Kalahari night that he spent trapped under his Land Rover kicking at the paw of, what he still has the good grace to refer to as, ‘a playful young lion’ that was trying to hook him out. There was the guide who was forced to shoot a rhino at point-blank range while it was trampling him and yet another who spent a full twenty minutes wrestling with a large croc that was clamped onto his leg.

 

By a campfire, on the banks of the Limpopo River, another guide told me about the time he woke up to find a hyena chewing on his boot.

“You were lucky she didn’t run off with it,” I laughed.

“Bloody lucky – I was still wearing the bugger!”

 

 

By Mark Eveleigh

Mountain bike

 


 

As I lay in the dust under an acacia bush with the rear wheel whirring three inches from my left ear I wondered once again why mountain-biking in Africa should be presenting such a challenge. This was no iron-man conquest of the Dark Continent. We weren’t pedaling grim-faced into the forbidden quarters of what the colonial’s once knew - with carefully concealed respect - as MMBA: ‘miles and miles of bloody Africa.’ We were simply a group of thirty-somethings who were more interested getting to meet the locals than in breaking bones or records.

 

Fair enough, we were in a remote corner of Botswana and the main difference between this and the usual potter around the local park was that the locals here included the lion and leopard that I’d spent the last week alternately searching for (in vehicles) and avoiding (on horseback). Still, at this time of day I knew that the lions would be lazing in the shade and would be unlikely to bestir themselves unless I actually fell under the acacia that was provided that shade.

 

Lying in historically un-tamed land on the northern bank of Kipling’s ‘great gray-green, greasy Limpopo River,’ Mashatu Game Reserve also boasts some of the largest elephant herds anywhere in Africa; and I was soon to realize that this could apply equally to either ‘largest herds’ or ‘herds of the largest elephants.’ I’d already been lucky enough to count 95 animals from a Landcruiser parked on the - to my mind - inappropriately named Disappointment Kopje, but herds of up to 400 have been reported.

 

When you view game from a vehicle, you are essentially a passive witness. When you travel through ‘predator territory’ on something as insubstantial as a bicycle you are entering their world…and would like to think that you do so only as a temporary guest. As I plucked the second set of acacia thorns out of the seat of my safari shorts I remembered a cartoon that I’d seen in the ‘discovery room’ at main camp: two hyena are chewing on the twisted frame of a bicycle and one says to the other, “the pink meat was delicious, but I just can’t seem to get any marrow out of these bones.”

 

But, aside from the wide-eyed surprise of a herd of impala, the grunts of bewildered wildebeest and a herd of zebra that kicked their heels up in undisguised glee, the local fauna had nothing whatsoever to do with my current bedraggled state. The sad truth was simply that I kept falling off my bike! Tentatively - and tenderly - I re-joined our little cycle-mounted pioneer column (commonly referred to as a ‘crank of cyclists’) as it pedaled onward into the bushveld, keeping eyes peeled for both game and the veritable mountains of elephant dung that are just another exotic obstacle to a mountain bike safari.

 

“Treat them as roundabouts,” shouted Jou Mazebedi, our guide, “- but don’t worry too much. They make a soft landing.” Jou has been a ranger for 12 years and, though a leading member of Mashatu’s ‘Meals on Wheels’ racing team, he was happy to make allowances for what he obviously considered clumsiness of near legendary proportions. (Although I had an idea who might be the star of the next discovery room cartoon). Not even Jou would claim that cycling is the best way to see animals: vehicles can get you closest to the big cats and what better way to see the plains herds than to gallop with them on horseback? But a mountain bike safari is an experience in itself: you have the close-up interest of a walking safari yet can cover greater distances and there’s the occasional thrill of a ‘gnarly downhill riverbed section.’

 

Not being famed for my mechanical diagnostic skills it took one such section to make me realize that the brakes were on the opposite sides to where they are on European bikes. Even a light touch to (what I thought was) the back brake in a bowl of bull-dust was enough to send me sailing off into the vegetation. Having made this reassuring discovery I kept as close as possible to Jou; he was invariably the first to spot the wildlife and was always ready with an informative angle on the smaller things, from industrious dung beetles to edible mopane worms. And also he carried a big gun.

 

Mashatu’s bike safaris take advantage of an extensive network of natural ‘cycle lanes’ that are kept open by the passage of the area’s estimated 1,200 elephants. Suddenly Jou stopped to calmly inform us that - despite having free-range in a playground that is close to the size of Belgium - we were apparently traveling up the wrong lane on a major pachyderm highway!

 

Unbeknown to us support vehicles had been shadowing us from out of earshot and just as we raced into a small clearing to meet them the bushes began to crumple behind us and the herd rumbled past. First were the big matriarchs, then a group of younger cows, some with calves keeping close to their tree-trunk legs. Next came a gang of young bulls, but apart from a bit of ear-flapping and some boisterous trumpeting they all hurried on their way…until a huge bull decided to make his presence felt in a ‘rearguard action.’

 

I’m no expert on pachyderms and I’m not saying that he was the missing link between the prehistoric mammoth and the African ellie but he was certainly the biggest tusker that I’d ever seen. And he was definitely the most bad-tempered. I had seen young bulls put in mock charges several times already but this looked like the real thing and, following Jou’s orders, we dropped our bikes and retreated behind the vehicles.

 

The bull flapped his massive battle-torn ears and flailed his trunk from side to side, destroying a sizeable mopane tree in the process. He trumpeted loudly and pawed at the dust. Then he charged. The drivers revved their engines noisily and, as I snapped off a few photos, I wondered if a couple of tonnes of Japanese metalwork would be able to stand up to this much elephant! Just as it seemed that he was going to plough straight into us he skidded to a dramatic stop, swung from side-to-side as if trying to make up his mind and then crashed away after the herd, roaring furiously, and doing a wonderful job of widening the ‘cycle lane’ as he went.

 

As we turned our own backs on the ‘battleground’ I realized that I’d be taking something home from this safari that would stay with me far longer than even the most deeply imbedded acacia thorns.

 

By Mark Eveleigh

 

Safari

 

David Whitley goes giraffe and rhino-spotting from atop an elephant

 

Ahead of us, Michael plunges into the trees. His three startled riders try and dodge the thorns as he manages to uproot an entire acacia bush. “Takeaway food,” says Elias in front of me. “Michael always gets his takeaway food.” Michael, oblivious to the havoc he’s causing, wraps his trunk around the light snack and marches onwards. It is one thing to see an elephant on safari in Africa – but it’s altogether something different to hop on top of one and lumber through the sunburnt countryside. Suddenly the wildebeest and  antelopes look a little puny from up on high.

 

Of the six elephants in our herd, Michael is also the one who likes to threaten the rhinos. But on the flip side, he does a cracking job of playing with and looking after Titimalo. The nine month old super-cute elephant calf isn’t even his, but Michael seems to have taken on a surrogate uncle role. Such unexpected diversions aside, it’s beaming smiles all round for the novice riders. We’re all sat in imperious positions atop the elephants as we plod through the Letsatsing Game Park, and behind every bush is another giraffe, warthog, impala or zebra.

 

The Letsatsing Game Park isn’t technically part of the Pilanesberg Game Reserve that most people come to this part of the world for. It is privately owned, and there are no big cats to spook the elephants, but the big beasts of the Pilanesberg are just over the fence. And don’t we know it when a dominant bull elephant stares out our herd from the other side of the electric fence. Elias steers us away, commanding our lumbering steed to “get over”. It means turn right, and is one of the 36 commands that the elephants learn during their two year training period.

 

Not that the one telling them to stop eating has much effect. By the end of our journey, each of the five jumbos has a satisfying haul of foliage with them. Which, given that we get to feed them afterwards, is just plain greedy. Hand feeding an elephant is a rather bizarre experience. You can do it one of two ways – risking your trembling paw by putting the food directly into their mouth, or waiting for them to turn their trunk around so you can put din-dins into that. Either way, they seem grateful, and seem to give us a wave after feeding time is over and they’re released back onto the grasslands.

  

More photos here

 

 

By David Whitley