Author Archives: bristoltocapetown

The Last Post… CAPE TOWN!!

We made it to Cape Town!

Table Mountain from the water

Cape Town and Table Mountain from the water

In general keeping with our tardy blog posts, this news is a little overdue. We reached Cape Town at the start of December and tucked Ambi away in storage in Stellenbosch. On 12th December I flew home and after watching my plane take off from the top of Table Mountain, Harry flew to Australia for Christmas with his family.

I’ll attempt to keep this post brief and round off the last few exciting experiences that we had towards the end of our journey. Continue reading to hear about… Citrusdal’s hot springs, visiting Robben Island the day before Mandela died, getting caught in a blizzard on top of Table Mountain, becoming honoured guests at the Appletise factory, visiting Cape Aghulas, urging a very unhappy Ambi to crawl her way into storage and the sadness with which I left such a magnificent continent.

Sunset over the Twelve Apostles

The Baths

As you may remember from the end of the last post (if your remarkable stamina got you to the end…), we entered South Africa via the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in the North West. The roads were long, but beautifully tarmacked so we quickly covered the distance to Citrusdaal near the West Coast where we were eager to visit ‘The Baths’ that Carlos and Susie (that lovely couple we met in the Okovango Delta) had recommended. It felt like we were there to traditionally ‘take the waters’. There was no rush, no 2-hour time limit and a never-ending supply of mineral-filled hot water. We stayed in a lofty attic of a charming Victorian bathhouse at a reduced rate because there were bats nesting in the roof. We had free reign of all the areas: two large pools, one cool and refreshing the other hot and steamy, a warm mountain rock pool up a steep hill and private jaccuzi baths that one could fill at leisure from an industrial sized tap that only spurted naturally hot mineral water. Oh, and a trampoline! My inner child was so happy. This special place was the perfect remedy for our stiff limbs that had stooped inside Ambi for almost a year. We will always remember it, however, because Harry got stung by a scorpion.

DSC01831

Charming Bath-house with bougainvillaea

Scorpion Attack

Late at night while I was working on the last blog post distracted intermittently by the squeaking bats, Harry was outside having an epiphany sparked by the Orion Nebula, barefoot, in a rocky garden. Over the sound of the bats came a yelp of shock. I raised my head momentarily pondering the bleak possibility of Harry tripping down the wonky steps, and carried on typing. Seconds later he hopped in frantically pointing at his foot, shrieking “I’ve been stung by a scorpion! I’ve been stung by a scorpion!” I could see blood dripping from his foot, “Lie down, stay still, I’ll go and get the medical kit…” There was so much shock and adrenalin pumping round his body that he seemed quite unable to sit still and was still hopping around yelping when I returned, covered in dust, having had to dive, in the dark, into Ambi’s deepest, dustiest cupboard to retrieve the medical bag.

I insisted that he sit down, and I took a look at his foot. It looked entirely normal, no swelling, no redness. The skin on the sole was so thick and tough after a lot of barefoot meandering throughout Africa that I would like to see a scorpion try and get his stinger through it. “Are you actually in pain!?” I tentatively asked. “I don’t know!” he responded, still surging with adrenaline. “It doesn’t look that bad… Did the scorpion have big pincers and a small tail or the other way round?” The one thing we had been told to remember about scorpions is that the ones with big pincers, small tail are practically harmless and small pincers, big tail can be deadly. It was about then that I realised it was the other foot dripping with blood, “Erm, how did you do that!?” “Oh, I didn’t realise… I must have cut it on a rock running in.” He had been so shocked to have been victim to a scorpion sting less bothersome than the nasty bee sting I had suffered that day, that he failed to notice that his other toe was almost dangling off and bleeding openly onto the floor. Good that I brought the medical kit in… I bandaged it up and then we went outside, shoes on, armed with torch and camera, to find the pesky scorpion. We saw four big black beasties, and one that seemed to be eating a smaller brown version. I couldn’t bear to look at them for long, scroll down quickly if you feel the same!

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The little blighter.

Chez Grand Daddy

Cape Town reputably being one of the coolest cities in the world, we sought out a suitably snazzy place to spend a few of our last nights on the continent. The Grand Daddy hotel right in the centre of town boasts ten old Airstream trailers on the roof, each interior designed by a different artist with a different theme. We chose to sample a few. One night was in Goldilocks, in a cutsie haven of blue and white check, with three different-sized chairs to sit in and three different-sized bowls to eat from. Harry was quite upset that the trailer did not include a bear costume, as the website had suggested… The next night we were John and Yoko in a Beatles themed trailer complete with guitar and tambourine and a guestbook containing lots of raunchy comments describing in detail what previous guests had got up to. Our favourite was ‘Love of Lace’ with a predominantly pink and black theme with everything trimmed with frills and tassels.

From one small enclosed space to the next...

From one small enclosed space to the next…

We had not realised however, that staying on the coolest rooftop in Cape Town meant having various hip events going on outside our door. One night was a vintage fair, another a Christian film festival and another a red carpet fashion show. During the latter evening I happened to be dining with Cloe, a beautiful South African girl I had met in Malawi, while Harry, buried in lacy cushions, shamelessly peered through the curtains at the catwalk models strutting their stuff.

Table Mountain’s Tablecloth

Jarek and Harry marvelling at the mist

Jarek and Harry marvelling at the mist

Table Mountain is probably the most distinctive backdrop to any city in the world. It first loomed into view as we came down the highway from Citrusdaal, and took us by surprise. In December, it is often shrouded in a ‘tablecloth’ of cloud and mist, and we waited for a day of good weather to make the climb. It is now possible to take the cable car up, but Harry insisted that it would be embarrassing to say one had visited table Mountain but not made the climb oneself. We chose our route (the shortest and steepest) and teamed up with a friendly Polish chap name Jarek on the way. It was a lot colder than expected, especially on turning a corner into the full force of the wind and mist. I regretted not bringing enough layers. As we reached the plateau, the weather worsened and we could barely see each other, let alone the expansive view over the city. A man came to tell us that the last cable car down for the day (due to bad weather) was leaving in five minutes. Harry was keen to trundle down the other side; but the cold got the better of me and I shamefully took the cable car.

Unadvisable...

Unadvisable…

It worked out quite miraculously as Harry enjoyed Jarek’s company and I met two lovely American girls in the cable car who I walked into the city with (making me feel less bad about not walking from the top.) They had also been in Malawi so had met a few of the characters I had become friends with during my time there and to my delight, they were intrigued to try Ethiopian food. I had been trying to steer Harry into an Ethiopian restaurant since Ethiopia, but the injera had not made such an impression on him. We found an Ethiopian restaurant that resembled a jungle and were surprised when the waiter ushered us to a low table in a lofty mezzanine accessed by a narrow rickety ladder. Not quite as authentic as in Ethiopia, but the food was yummy and suitably covered in berber chilli powder.

Cape Town from Table Mountain

Cape Town from Table Mountain

Robben Island 

While staying in Cape Town we could not forego a visit to Robben Island where Mandela was held prisoner for 19 of his 27 year sentence. We had been warned that the tourist ferry and buses around the island give you a very limited amount of time to explore, so we booked two tickets each so that we could get a later ferry back. As accustomed as we had become to having poorly informed guides at attractions like this, the ex-prisoner who showed us around gave us a fascinating insight into what life was like as a captive on Robben Island and shared personal stories from his own experience.

Mandela's Window

Mandela’s Window

I was unimpressed however by the lack of initiative of other tourists as they queued to see Mandela’s cell and all take the same photo, then filed on and off the buses without exploring the rest of the buildings. We stood in the yard where the famous posed photo of the prisoners working was taken and peered into Mandela’s cell, a bare box room with a small blanket and a bucket. One of the most interesting parts of the tour was to the cave near the lime mine where Mandela and other more senior political prisoners shared news and taught the younger inmates whilst chained together in pairs.

The famous cave

The famous cave

We enjoyed creating our own dramatisation of a prisoner and his beloved visitor in the row of sound proof cubicles in the Visitor’s Centre and then took a walk around the surprisingly large island, taking temporary refuge in the humble mosque when it rained briefly. There was a strange sense of desolation on the island, many derelict, disused buildings and we weren’t sure whether we were actually allowed to be out exploring or not. Nature had regained these parts of the island, flooding the buildings and strangling them with vegetation; penguins nesting under the bushes and seagulls in the rafters. We even saw a couple of what seemed to be deer (?) cantering through the trees.

Forgotten Shelter

Forgotten Shelter

We were delighted to find the African Penguin colony, and in search of a couple of big shipwrecks to the north of the island, we forged on, rather unwelcome, into a seagull breeding colony. I was stupidly convinced at the time that we should just follow the path through quickly, but as the great birds started swooping intimidatingly closer and closer to our heads, we retreated. One of the most surprising sights on Robben Island was the plethora of tortoises. We saw no less than 6 of them crossing the paths, slowly and steadily. The north of the island is so infrequently visited, we were alone with the shipwrecks, tortoises and a plethora of wonderful Abalone shells.

Jackass Penguins

Jackass Penguins

Little were we to know that only the next day, Mandela would take his last breath. We were sat in our decadent Love of Lace trailer with a buoyant Canadian couple we had met over dinner when I had a strange urge around midnight to check to BBC news, perhaps I was missing home. And there it was, all other news seemed irrelevant, Mandela had died. None of us really knew what to say or whether it was appropriate to carry on laughing and joking as we had been, after a few morose minutes, we did anyway. A few people have asked what it was like to be in South Africa at the time of Mandela’s passing. We retreated to the countryside the next day so were not caught up in festivities in the streets of Cape Town. All of the billboards showed a face of Mandela and there were many handmade signs saying RIP Madipa; people paying their own respects. Flags were at half mast, but everybody seemed to be celebrating the life of their hero, as one should when a great man lives to a great age. Harry felt it keenest when, in lots of little corners, small silences were held, with only a few people in attendance.

Robben Island Shipwreck

Robben Island Shipwreck

The Sweet Aromas of Appletise

Whilst most tourists go to Stellenbosch to visit the famous vineyards, we escaped the city and headed East towards Elgin. We had a rare appointment at the Appletise Factory, the home of the fizzy drink Harry had loved since his early childhood. On arrival the manager greeted us and decked us out in white lab coats, hair nets and ear plugs. A factory of international standards, the camera was forbidden and we had to sign disclaimers agreeing to keep the secrets of Appletise’s magic ‘Muthi’. I was impressed by Harry’s ability to ask so many detailed questions and appear overtly enthusiastic about the process of cleaning bottles, sticking labels on them, mashing apples, extracting the ether, infusing the pulp with carbon etc. I was quite mesmerised watching the neat lines of bottles twirling their way along conveyor belts, and laughed when one machine began to malfunction quite dramatically: A small lake of Appletise was forming on the floor around an industrious mechanic desperately trying to fix it. Every now and then he extracted a crumpled Appletise bottle from the machine and threw it over his shoulder.

No photos beyond this point!

No photos beyond this point!

Just after the carbonator there was a huge tub of cans that had been either too full or too empty as they continued on the line and were being trashed. With the encouragement of the production manager we helped ourselves to a couple of cans. Crucially this was to be Harry’s first taste of Appletise before pasteurisation. It was incredible. Harry was overjoyed to have seen the source of his addiction and to have learnt exactly what goes into making his only source of vitamins in early youth.

As much free Appletise as we could drink...

As much free Appletise as we could drink…

Cape Aghulas

We still didn’t feel we had quite reached a final destination. Cape Aghulas, Africa’s southernmost point was the new target and we enjoyed a lovely lunch in Hermanus on the way. We were unlucky to have missed perhaps the last mother and calf whales of the season in the bay only the day before. Constantly scanning the water as we took the coastal road, we accepted that we were too late for whale-watching and saw it as a reason to come back. There were more seals to greet us at Cape Aghulas along with a very friendly lady working in the light house who mentioned that our favourite British cyclists, Tim and Sharon who we met in northern Kenya, had passed that way a few months before us (on bikes!!) They are now cycling from the Southernmost point of South America up to north America… www.north2northcycletour.wordpress.com Go team GB!

The Southernmost tip of Africa

The Southernmost tip of Africa

For our treasured last night in Ambi, we parked as close to the Southernmost tip as we could, about 20 yards North. The temperature of the sea was noticeably different on one side to the other, where the Atlantic meets the Indian Ocean.

Proof!

Proof!

Ambi’s Last Struggle

We planned to tuck Ambi away into storage near Stellenbosch, hire a car and then have a relaxing last few nights at Camp’s Bay Retreat, another recommended haunt from a fellow traveller. However, half way into our journey from Cape Agulhas to Stellenbosch she began to express reluctance to go anywhere. Harry checked underneath and discovered that the half-shaft was disconnecting from the front diff! Amid unnerving clunking and grinding sounds, Harry managed to encourage her to Stellenbosch where we bedded down for the night. The following morning we went looking for a mechanic. We were out of luck, all the Land Rover specialists were fully booked before Christmas and then closing for a month. This resulted in the last terrible bout of stress trying to decide what to do with her. We pulled into another less-reliable looking mechanic’s and thankfully, they helped Harry get the half-shaft sorted. We wanted to enjoy our last few days and not worry about more mechanics, so we tucked her away with Duncan at African Overlanders and asked him to deliver her to Roverland for due care and attention in our absence.

Cape Aghulas Shipwreck

Cape Aghulas Shipwreck

We bolted the grill between the cabin and the back, sorted through the food cupboards, tucked away the valuables and tightly tied down a huge tarpaulin over the roof. I hugged her across the bonnet and couldn’t help but shed a few tears. She had been my home for almost a year, and I loved her. I felt like a tortoise leaving her shell behind. With just a rucksack each, we drove away in a hire car and left all worries about Ambi’s well-being behind. The trip had ended now, the remainder was just a holiday.

Saying Goodbye

We enjoyed our stay at Camp’s Bay Retreat immensely. An 18th Century Dutch manor house, the main building was ordained with old hunting trophies and the gardens were lusciously overgrown with stepping stones leading to mysterious curiosities. An old swimming pool set with stone pillars at each end now played home to numerous spawning frogs and another path lead further down to a meticulously organised herb garden. On the morning before my flight, we had breakfast on a veranda overlooking the ocean and I tried to savour the sounds of the birds, the smell of the bougainvillaea and the magical feel of the whole continent.

Goofing in the garden at Camp's Bay Retreat

Goofing in the garden at Camp’s Bay Retreat

It felt very strange to be leaving without Harry. When the plane took off, it was as if I’d left my heart on the ground and I was filled with a sudden emptiness. Why was I leaving? I loved this continent and knew I wanted to come back already. It was a sad day. After depositing me at the airport, I later discovered that Harry had climbed table mountain again and watched my Emirates plane fly north into the distance.

The Green Mile, Cape Point

The Green Mile, Cape Point

Last Words

We both want to extend a huge thank you to everybody who has been reading our blog and supporting us in our adventure from back home. It has been a hugely exciting, challenging, surreal experience and it now feels very strange to be back in the homeland. Was it all a dream!?

We are in fact nipping over to Cape Town for a week on 1st March to collect Ambi from the mechanics and make sure she is in tip top condition and also deal with some documentation problems for shipping her home. She’ll be packed into a container aboard ship at the end of March and hopefully arrive in Southampton in good time for the classic British summer festival season!

To wrap up our admin I will be producing some sort of photo book with snippets from the blog, if anyone would like one please let me know! A post about Malawi and Temwa is also on the editing table…

Thank you, esteemed readers, you have been an exquisite audience.

Stay classy. Over and Out.

Anneka and Harry xxx

Thank you and good night.

Thank you and good night.

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25th November, Upington

Yesterday, we bounced out of the Kalahari Desert into South Africa: The only country in Africa considered part of the first world. A land of fine wine, tough biltong, rugby, beautiful scenery and Charlize Theron. Even twitching is a cool pastime here, and the animal count includes everything from lions and rhinos to penguins and orcas.

A helpful overview...

A helpful overview… Purple is Ambi’s tracks, Blue, our air miles.

Triumphant as we feel to be within a stone’s throw of the cape and our final destination, this post will perform its designated role and cast back to our frolics in Namibia. After leaving Botswana via Ngoma Bridge we traversed the Caprivi Strip to Rundu, the point at which the Okavango River flows south into Botswana before spreading into its spectacular delta. Then we made for the Hoba Meteorite and the mining town of Tsumeb on the way to Etosha National Park before heading for Outjo and some friendly cheetahs near Kamanjab. We then tracked North into Kaokoland, home of the Ovahimba, and struggled along the Kunene river road from Ruacana to Epupa Falls. By recommendation of a great French couple we met in Opuwo, we headed west into the desert via Orupembe and Purros, to Sesfontein and eventually, via Springbokwater to the Skeleton Coast. We followed seals down the coast to the colony at Cape Cross and carried on south to Swakopmund where we parked ourselves for a week or so, seeing to Ambi’s needs and revelling in hassle-free antique shops, restaurants where you get what you ordered and the refreshing sea air. Woah! This is going to be a long one… From Swakopmund we explored the region to the South and Southeast; spying unexpected creatures in the Namib Desert, gazing over the ‘moonscape’ and hunting Welwitschias. We then took the road to Sossusvlei via the Kuiseb Canyon where two revered German men and their dog hid (and survived!) for two years during WWII. We camped in the dunes at Sossusvlei, took in the grandeur of the Namibrand Reserve and then darted East to leave the country via Mata Mata into the Kalahari Gemsbok Park. After finally spotting wild cheetah we crossed into South Africa and here we are today, only 8 hours drive from Cape Town.

Phew! Now for more detail! I’ll try to handle the highlights in bite-size chunks so that you can dip in and out/grab a coffee or more popcorn in between…

Metal From Space

The border crossing from Botswana via Ngoma Bridge and over the Chobe River was as beautiful a way as one can find to leave a country and after such an interesting stretch of our journey in Botswana, the Caprivi Strip in Northeast Namibia seemed comparatively dull. The area, ceded to the Germans by the British to give them access to the Zambezi, consisted of essentially one long straight road surrounded by a seemingly unchanging flat landscape of Mopane woodland and gravel. Thankfully the mind-numbing road was taking us somewhere interesting…

Hoba Meteorite

Harry suitable poses with ‘Teach Yourself Geology’

After chilling out at a lazy backpackers on the Okovango River, we were lucky to notice, courtesy of that denizen Lonely Planet, that the biggest meteorite in the world resides in Hoba near the copper mining town of Tsumeb. It is, unsurprisingly, a massive lump of metal (60 tonnes!) mostly comprised of iron (84%), some nickel and a few traces of other metals. Its dark shine was unlike that of any substance I’d ever seen. It felt a little bit magical, so we camped next to it for the night.

To Etosha: Life in the Salt Pans

Namibia’s most visited National Park, Etosha, is a unique and surprising place to view such an array of wildlife. Dense mopane forest borders vast saltpans yet it also plays host to one of the healthiest rhino populations in Africa. The Okaukuejo campsite reminded me of Centre Parcs – an entire village with a petrol station, gift shop, huge restaurant, pool etc. – the total opposite to our preferred minimalist unfenced campsites in the bush. The one benefit of staying in a place like this was that someone had come up with the ingenious idea of erecting floodlights over a busy waterhole; the only waterhole in a 20mile radius. This resulted in a strange stadium-esque atmosphere where people would sit out late at night on tiered benches in silence watching the animals come to drink, (seemingly unfazed by the bright lights: but then again, they have no choice…)

Blessed with astounding late night stamina, we were the last people remaining around midnight, and by that time six rhino including one mother with a baby had come to the waterhole. It was astonishing enough to see rhino: We could not believe our eyes when we saw a solitary White Rhino earlier in the day frozen in the middle of the salt pan – we thought it might be a statue. But to see such a number of rhino interacting with each other was truly remarkable. It was surreal. These prehistoric creatures remind one of the many evolutionary twists and turns life on our plant has undergone, they are reminiscent of the dinosaurs and appear as old as the rock.

Admittedly a stolen photo - but taken at the same waterhole!

Admittedly a stolen photo – but taken at the same waterhole!

Thankfully all of the rhino that we saw in Etosha were still endowed with their beautiful long horns. It saddens me to realise quite how realistic the prospect is that our grandchildren will never see a live rhino and only know them as an interesting extinct creature like the Mammoth. However, unlike almost anywhere else in Africa, Namibian Black Rhino populations are on the up.

The huge creatures don’t do themselves any favours: the female can only birth once every five years and is very picky when choosing a mate. Many of the countries we have visited have a shoot-to-kill policy on catching poachers and I am starting to understand and agree with this short shrift attitude.

Etosha's Salt Flats

Etosha’s Salt Flats

In the park one morning we came across an Ostrich family with an impressive brood of twelve twittering chicks huddled safely in the shade of the proud mother. We also spied a few sleeping lions and have since considered that there really are a lot of lions in Africa compared to the other cats. Etosha is also home to the rare Black-Faced Impala and a good population of Brown Hyeana which have been scarce (and highly endangered) everywhere else. There were the usual elephant, this time looking rather white from the salty mud and many species of antelope. Even though we looped around the ‘cheetah territory’ a few times with hopeful eyes we still did not spy the elusive spotted cat…

Up Close and Personal with the Ferraris of the Animal Kingdom

 

Reluctant as we were for our first cheetahs not to be of the totally wild and free variety, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to stop off at Otjitotongwe Lodge and Campsite (24km from Kamanjab) where the owner has four domesticated cheetahs running around the grounds of his house and a further eight in ‘semi-wild’ environments. A little bit dubious at first, we learnt that the family had initially captured two cheetahs that were threatening their livestock, and intended to release them into Etosha. For some reason the government would not sanction the release and they ended up keeping them. One soon had a litter of cubs and these were raised entirely in captivity, now fully domesticated. The owner did not offer much information to why he had at least a further six in expansive enclosures that were dependent on his feeding them everyday, but one presumes they were captured on other farms where they posed a threat.

Oi that's my hat!

Cheetahs actually make great pets: Unlike other big cats, they can be easily domesticated and do not have a tendency to ‘turn’ on their owners as they reach adulthood like lions do. It was a real joy to scratch them behind the ears and play chase around the garden (it is obvious who won…) just like pet dogs. They even had a tough little dog-brother who joined in with their games! One took a liking to the feathers in my hat and stole it from my head a couple of times: Utterly delightful animals. We agreed that if we ever live in Namibia, we will have pet cheetahs. They seemed to have an easy, happy life like any other well-loved pets, although it is sad that they have lost the need to do what cheetahs do best: sprint at up to 80kmph.

Along the Angolan Border 

Having read that the Northern reaches of Namibia are the least travelled, have the worst roads and are home to one of Africa’s most traditional tribes, we decided we had to go. We drove North to Ruacana, once famous for its’ waterfall now diminished to a trickle due to the subterranean hydroelectric dam that provides almost all of Northen Namibia’s power. Loaded up with as much petrol as we could carry (this was the last town with a shop and fuel for a while…) we decided to attempt the treacherous road to Epupa Falls along the Kunene River which forms the natural border between Namibia and Angola.

Rocky and steep in parts, it initially wasn’t as bad as we had expected and we enjoyed a peaceful stop 30km along at the Kunene River Lodge. The owner, Peter, was a bird expert and took us walking to try to locate some of the regions’ endemics, particularly Cinderella Waxbills. It was not our lucky day but we found the landscape remarkable: there had been a drought in the region for two years and it was painfully dry.

After discussing the road onward to Epupa with Peter we decided to go for it. It is always hard to judge what a road will be like by someone else’s description: Their standards may be very different and their 4×4 far more or less capable than Ambi. It was awful. There were five big climbs up boulder strewn scree slopes at drastic angles. I got out to film some of it and once again thought that the top-heavy weight of Ambi was going to topple over the cliff edge. Harry’s now fine-tuned skill at coaxing her through the tricky sections was admirable, although he still turns red and shouts during the process. Of the rocky variety, this was probably the worst “road” we had attempted. We had to rebuild parts of it and use the sand ladders to bridge some gaps.

Happy to never be in a hurry, we broke up the journey and camped at a sandy spot by the river. We were hot and flustered and only had enough water for cooking and drinking. Harry gallantly scrambled down the steep riverbank to fill a bucket while I threw rocks into the water to scare crocodiles away. I’d never appreciated a bucket of cold murky river water being poured over my head so much.

Kaokoland

The Himba of Kaokoland

Fortunately, we were visited by some of the people we had come to this region to meet. The Himba women looked elegant and beautiful; their skin smeared with red ochre (hence their nickname: The Red Tribe) and their arms and legs adorned with copper and leather creations. By contrast, the Himba men we met seemed to be drunk and an embarrassment to their women. We gave a woman a 10kg sack of maizemeal for her family and she was very grateful; her father or perhaps grandfather carried on asking us for food and cringing, she tried to shut him up and point at the heavy sack. One man shared a cup of tea with us in the morning and when we offered him a piece of biltong he made off with the whole bag.

The Fall of Epupa Falls

Arriving in Epupa was initially an anti-climax. The town, if one can call it a town, was littered with empty beer bottles, animal bones and scraps of plastic. We found a good campsite and enjoyed a swim in the pools at the top of the falls, but were surrounded by very large Germans who all drove hired white Toyota Hiluxes: a different breed to us entirely. We left with some disdain that the nearby lodges and camps could not be more proactive in removing the coke and beer bottles from the waterfall area.

Near the falls, we enjoyed laughing and haggling with the Himba women selling their handicrafts and I wondered if they minded that I did not have my breasts out too. The following day I traded a no-longer-needed bag of clothes with them. We then took a rafting trip along the Kunene that was to my delight, infinitely more gentle than the white water rafting in Uganda. The highlights were the falcons following us down river and a few very big (4-5m) crocs skulking back into the water out of sight.

Cows can swim?

Cows can swim? – The Kunene River

Thankfully there was another road from Epupa down to Opuwo, somewhat better maintained than the river road. On leaving the area, Harry remarked, “I’ve never seen so many breasts in such a short space of time in my life!” Shortly after, we had our first flat tyre since northern Kenya. It would have been an easy switch to our spare if the new jack had raised Ambi’s buttocks high enough. Digging a hole around the tyre in the stoney gravel required an axe and at least half an hour of sweat and frustration. A friendly French couple stopped to check if we needed help and we thanked them but waved them on.

Escaping Opuwo to the Desert

We arrived in the dirty, smelly town of Opuwo: a convergence of many cultures: The Herero (a tribe whose women imitate the early German missionaries by sporting traditional Victorian dress and large hats that made them resemble colourful hammerhead sharks), tourists heading North and numerous desperate Himba whose family herds had been devastated in one of the many droughts. ‘Opuwo’ is a Himba word that means ‘the End’ – end of the road. In this case it was to mark the furthest north that the South African administration could move into Himba territory.

At the only respectable lodging in town, up on a hill, we were greeted by the French couple that had stopped on the road. Jean-Marie and Francoise had started a new travel company ‘Aventure & Vous’ and were in Namibia for the fourth time, now on holiday after guiding their clients for a fortnight. They had the low-down on what to do in Namibia, were very entertaining and forced us to practice our French.

Jean Marie, Harry et Moi

Jean Marie, Harry et Moi

They suggested that we take a route through the desert towards the Skeleton Coast Wilderness area instead of going straight south to Sesfontein. We took their advice and initially cursed them as we struggled hilly gravel tracks and mountain passes, but then the landscape opened out with imposing slate mountains and pure stretches of sand between, hosting herds of Springbok, Gemsbok, Giraffe and many Ostrich. We had one of our best wild camps in this area close to Orupembe, and a memorable sunset hike across sand dunes up one of the slaty mountains. The main joy was that it was cold, we were closer to the sea and the heat had finally waned. We also had our clearest sighting of the two Magellan clouds, in fact galaxies, which are visible in the Southern hemisphere.

DSC04384

From this epic camp, we drove towards Purros Canyon and the shocking realisation that there was no petrol available. It dawned on us then that we would not make it to Sesfontein… Thankfully the French caught up with us at this very moment and kindly offered to escort us onwards. I am sure they regret the decision. 10km into our onward journey we had another flat tyre – the tyres were finally giving up on us: fair enough after what we had put them through. Jean Marie helped Harry replace it with the dodgy tyre that we had only repaired the day before.

Jean Marie helps out...

Jean Marie helps out…

To reward ourselves we had a lovely little lunch under the shade of an enormous acacia tree before setting off again. 80km later and 20km from Sesfontein, we ran out of petrol. We tried to switch over to LPG, having known since Turkey that we still had an emergency reserve of about 25litres, but it would not fire up. Perhaps it had been so long that Ambi had simply forgotten how to use LPG. We were quite embarrassed at Ambi’s performance – she had been doing so well! Feeling that it was their fault for recommending this route, the French sped off with a jerry can while we waited in the midday sun. We enjoyed their company over an interesting meal (bright green custard!?) at Fort Sesfontain then headed for the Skeleton Coast…

Reaching the Atlantic

Knowing that Ambi was not entirely content, burdened as she was with a plethora of slow flats that needed topping up every 50km or so, the most direct route to a town where she could be medicated happened to be straight down the Skeleton Coast. We came south through Palmwag and then tracked West via Springbokwater towards Torra Bay, a little apprehensive about what permits would be required after gleaning contradictory information from different guidebooks. In the end it was a breeze. We filled in a form, were given a (free!) transit permit that allowed us into the Skeleton Coast National Park area on condition that we left the same day. This was the only time in Namibia that we actually obtained a permit for one of the many roads that you are told requires one… Driving directly West felt cooler by the minute, the chilly sea mist rolling towards us. It was only then that I realised that growing up in England, one is never far from the ocean, and it surprised me how much joy and relief I felt to see it after such a long time. For Harry it was even more significant. It was comforting, and nice to have to put a jumper on.

South of Walvis Bay

South of Walvis Bay

I cooked bacon and eggs huddled in Ambi sheltering our little gas hob from the wind and we sat on a concrete wall, legs dangling, sipping our Yorkshire tea feeling right at home. I thought I saw something in the water and it was confirmed when Harry excitedly exclaimed that there were Bottlenose dolphins in the far breakers and numerous seals traversing the shallows. After a few more minutes gazing it was indeed clear that I had not imagined it: There were seals everywhere, and curiously, they popped their heads up in between dives to check what we were and, I’d like to think, to say hello. We took a bare-footed walk in the cold sand, being pleasantly surprised when it turned out that not all the seals slouched on the beach were dead, some of them dashed back into the waves as we drew close. On rounding a corner to reveal a green lagoon, four flamingos took flight and circled over me like flying pink pencils, before resuming their position. This surprised me, I had imagined flamingos as more lake birds.

We ruffled the dense fur of a very recently dead infant seal and marvelled at just how soft the fur is beneath the waxy sheen. We followed jackal spoor from one carcass to another, and found a few planks of driftwood from a now invisible shipwreck. It was a memorable morning and such contrast to the dusty, sweaty weeks in the desert. It did not feel like Africa, but I liked it.

For once, we exited the area on time, dutifully handing our permit in on the gate south. We were bemused to have not been asked to get a permit for the next area, a ‘Recreation Reserve’ that attracts a lot of fishermen, and drove along the stunning coast towards the campsite at Mile 108 (108 miles from Swakopmund). It was desolate, a concrete yard and sad looking building housing the lonely young watchman and a fenced area for camping beneath big water tanks. We bought some water from him and decided we would make our own camp a few km back up North. We found a spot right by the sea, partially hidden from the track by a sand dune: Perfect.

The Skeleton Coast

The Skeleton Coast

Not so bright or early the next morning, we carried on to the Cape Cross Seal Reserve, where one of the biggest breeding colonies of Cape Fur Seals is to be found. We had been warned to take clothes pegs for our noses as the stench of seal poop can be rather invasive, but it wasn’t as bad as we had imagined. The colony has about 250,000 seals, most of which were in the water hunting out of sight, but we had arrived at a good time of year to see lots of babies and male seals on land for the breeding season. The birth cycle for seals is somewhat extraordinary: The females, after mating, postpone the development of the foetus for four to five months and then undergo a seven month gestation. They birth at this time of year, October/November, and then are impregnated again five days after giving birth. Madness: They are pregnant the whole year round aside from the five days spent recovering from giving birth.

We laughed at the big males ‘Ow ow owing’ their spot and lording their status over each other, and pined over some of the babies who looked to be quite abandoned in the hot sun while their mothers were out fishing. At such a young age they were blind and helpless and it was quite a task for the mothers to attempt to drag them in their jaws towards the cool water. The mortality rate for baby seals each year is over 30%, largely due to over-exposure to the sun and not enough fish.

 

The Serenity of Swakopmund 

From Cape Cross, via the uninspiring sight of Henties Bay, we gleefully arrived in Swakopmund and felt warmly welcomed at the Scottish-owned B&B, Brigadoon.  Ambi was in for a treat; Harry returned from the first trip to ‘LR Parts’ with a grin on his face reporting that manager Albert was sorry he did not have all the parts we needed but could get them from Windhoek in a day’s time. Wow! We remembered being told in Addis Ababa that we would have to wait two months for a part to ship from Dubai; this was not the Africa we knew.

We arrived in Swakopmund with two shredded tyres, a buggered viscous fan that transpired to be from a TDi engine not a petrol V8, a leak to the front diff, a leak to the transfer gearbox and shredded bushes. To top it off, whilst in town sorting out parts, the clutch master cylinder gave out. Thankfully Albert at LR Parts is a legend and the mechanic Quakie knew land rovers like the back of his hand. Anyone passing through who has similar problems should seek them out.

As we wandered the streets we were amazed at the apparent efficiency, cleanliness and charm of Swakopmund. In comparison to other African towns it was surprisingly hassle-free. There were ‘car watch’ assistants ready to guard your wheels for a small set fee, a distinct absence of homeless people, very few hawkers and at night, it was totally silent and empty. We did something we had not done since England: we went to the cinema. The popcorn was stale and the film awful but I was transported out of Africa for a couple of hours. On the way back we saw a young bare-footed boy running from one dustbin to the next scavenging for food. I thought this place was too good to be true – it was all a bit too perfect and I imagined something like Twin Peaks where under the surface, darkness is lurking. It was as if crime and suffering was suppressed and dealt with somewhere dark and undergound: every shop had a remote-controlled iron gate across the doorway and the presence of the car-watch men spoke of a problem solved.

Near Walvis Bay

Flying Flamingoes near Walvis Bay

My favourite couple of hours spent in Swakopmund were at Peter’s Antiques. It occurred to me that as a child, I abhorred my parents dragging me around yet another ‘anti-queue’ (as I pronounced it) shop as I did not yet appreciate the value or significance of random old objects, but they will be glad to hear that this has changed. Peter’s Antiques is full of artefacts from all over Africa, some that we recognised such as Maasai spears, Turkana head-rests and Congolese masks and others that we curiously grilled Peter on. His knowledge and experience was outstanding: he not only remembered something about every item and where it came from, but had witnessed many tribal ceremonies himself and had seen these objects in traditional use. My imagination whirled as I imagined the wooden eagle headdress being held by a grass-skirted dancer, the young boy wearing a moulded pregnant-belly before being circumcised and the skilled fisherman aiming the long barbed spear at a small, slippery fish…

On returning to Ambi, we found a note in French on the windscreen: our friends were in town. It being a small town, we found their car rather quickly and were writing a note to leave on their windscreen just as they strode up to us. We proceeded to share sundowners at The Tug restaurant, on a small pier over the water and enjoyed their company once more. They roped us into agreeing to go quad biking in the dunes with them the next day, which. Was. Excellent. In hindsight I wish I hadn’t opted for an automatic: it set the speed rather slow for everyone else and my bike also started spurting hot engine oil at my leg about half way through (perhaps because I’d had the throttle on full consistently for almost an hour!?) At that point the guide put me on the back of his bike so we could all go faster for a bit. I modestly held on to his hips and thought it forward of him to move my arms round his whole waist, but I soon realised why… The force at which he turned corners on a vertical dune thrust my helmet up over my eyes so I couldn’t see anything, and I am surprised that I did not choke him as I held on for dear life. Overall it was great fun and a thrilling way to see the dunes, the reception also had two blue and yellow Macaws who were a delight to meet.

Taking it slow on Tommy's Desert tour East of Swakopmund

Taking it slow on Tommy’s Desert tour East of Swakopmund

Back in Swakopmund the next day, we took advantage of various shops with knowledgeable managers. We had to accept that our faithful Lumix was not going to work again till she had been through a service in the UK, so if we were to post any more photos, we had to buy a camera. We were told that the whole of Southern Africa had stopped selling Lumix cameras, as they are very susceptible to dust (Oh…) so Harry’s hope of replacing the camera with the same one was thwarted. I managed to persuade him to move one step up in the camera world and get the compromise between a point and shoot and an SLR: a Sony with a 50x lens. I couldn’t wait to try it out on animals.

Welwitschia Hunting

On a jaunt East from Swakopmund, we spent a couple of days looking for these rare two-leaved, everlasting plants that were made famous by David Attenborough’s Secret Life of Plants. We thought that ‘Welwitschia Drive’ might be a good place to start. We were somewhat distracted from our mission by the jaw-dropping ‘moonscape’ on the way there. It reminded us of Cappadoccia in Turkey, and we had to sit for a while and take it in before continuing our search.

'Moonscape' near Swakopmund

We saw one lonely Welwitschia on the first day and it was one of the most unusual plants I had ever observed. Appearing to have bundles of thick green leaves surrounding a woody centre, it provided refuge from the African sun for some very colourful bugs. We came across a desolated campsite, without even a lonely guard to take money from us. It was hidden from the road so we parked up for the night. We took a pensieve walk down a dry sandy riverbed, trying to identify the numerous different animal tracks underfoot: The usual jackals, ostrich and what appeared to be very large porcupines.

Welwitschia Drive

Welwitschia Drive

We had much more luck the next morning and found many more Welwitschias, big ones, small ones and all hosting the same colourful bugs. We seemed to remember hearing somewhere about a symbiotic relationship between plant and bug but couldn’t find anything conclusive on t’internet.

Welwitschia Bugs

It was quaint to see how people treasured these unique plants; we often found them encircled with stones and for one particularly big one, a heart of stones. I was mesmerised how something could evolve to be so successful in this one particular desert environment, and not exist anywhere else on the planet. The local name reflects this: ‘tweeblaarkanniedood’ – ‘two leaf can’t die.’

The Sheltering Desert

One of the must-sees in Namibia, and our next destination, was the red dunes of Sossusvlei in the Namib Desert, however on the way Harry had determined to trek into the Kuiseb Canyon to visit a site of particular interest…

Back at the Museum in Tsumeb, he had been recommended a book called The Sheltering Desert. It tells the story of two courageous German geologists, Henno Martin & Hermann Korn, who escaped internment at the start of WWII by taking refuge in the desert for over two years. They had limited belongings, and survived by hunting game and following game tracks to find water. Inspired by their story, Harry was keen to visit their first ‘home’, which was now accessible along a 6km track followed by a 2km walk.

Henno and Hermann's Cave

Henno and Hermann’s Cave

Geologically speaking the Kuiseb Canyon is a wonder and the fact that these two men forged an existence there for so long, equally so. They called their ‘house’ Carp Cliff in honour of some very out of place (but very nourishing!) Carp that had some how found their way into a pool far below the cave. After relaxing a while in the shade of the conglomerate rock shelter I headed back to Ambi to make lunch while Harry followed game trails down into the canyon.

Big Dunes

Sossusvlei has big credentials. Some of the world’s largest sand dunes stand imperiously over empty white vleis (valleys): a surreal setting you might recognise from numerous music videos and films including ‘The Fall’. As we tracked over the dunes to Dead Vlei on the evening of our arrival with one or two fellow wanderers walking along sand ridges to our side, it felt for a moment like we were making some sort of pilgrimage to a distant land. As far as the eye could see were rolling hills of red sand, blue sky and as we crested a dune, the brilliant white mud flat of Dead Vlei, punctured by lonely and long dead boughs.

Off to climb Big Daddy

Dead Vlei, Harry off to climb Big Daddy

It was hard to believe that any life survives here, but after our Namib Desert tour with Tommy, we knew that there would be many snakes, spiders and little reptiles hiding deep in the sand. Gemsbok, Springbok and Ostrich also paraded the area, and we looked curiously at their tracks up and over the dunes.

The restrictions on camping amongst the dunes themselves were tight. Cunning as we are, we decided to appear legit and pay for camping at the campsite near the entrance gate 60km back. If we could sneaky Ambi away behind a dune we could have the place to ourselves. As long as we weren’t caught before sunrise, we could then claim we drove in with early birds.

In the late afternoon hot sun, Harry took it upon himself to reach the top of the highest dune, Big Daddy. I slumped myself against a dead tree and watched the little white dot that was Harry get smaller and smaller. In landscape like this, I have now learnt that everything is a lot farther away than it looks, and what I thought would be a short hike up the dune took Harry over an hour. He had asked me to take a photo of him when he summitted, but did not realise that he would be so hard to find in the camera’s viewfinder even at full zoom. After the tough, impressive ascent he gleefully leapt down the 325m wall of sand in about 20 seconds and returned to me dripping with sweat.

Harry mirage

Harry mirage

As the sun fell, casting ever-changing shadows, we plodded through the sand back towards Ambi and lay ourselves flat on the nearside of the last dune, watching the last tourists leave the area like spies with our binoculars. It was the most successful illegal camp we had mustered: In the stunning, warm light of sunset we walked barefoot back to Ambi and felt privileged to have this magical landscape to ourselves.

It meant rising early though… We had to be awake before any other tourists drove in for sunrise and make it look like we had done the same. We packed everything away and took our morning tea up onto a dune, looking over smugly at the early birds who thought they had arrived before anyone else. In hindsight, sunset was much more impressive than sunrise: the warmth in the colours of the evening made for much more interesting photos than the crisp pale morning sun.

Conservation at its Finest

Following another recommendation from a fellow traveller, we had booked to stay at Wolwedans who host a series of tented camps in the Namibrand. They are considered pioneers of eco-sustainability, land and wildlife conservation, and cultural preservation.

If Botswana had been our favourite country for wildlife, Namibia was top of the charts for its breathtaking geological marvels. The landscapes were vast, open and expansive, transformed in colour as the sunset drew shadows away from the mountains. The uniqueness of the Namibrand is that you feel like you are there alone and have all the beauty to yourself: it is such a huge area and the tented camps’ exclusivity keeps the peace.

Dancing White Lady

Dancing White Lady Spider

We were appointed an excellent guide, Simon, whose knowledge of the geology, wildlife and conservation projects was unrivalled. He could dig a Dancing White Lady spider out of the sand dunes and also tell us how the land had been formed millions of years ago. He had a genuine interest in his work, and this was evident from his continued search to discover the secret of the ‘fairy circles.’ Appreciated much better from above, these mysterious circles are patches of sand that do not support life. Many theories have been put forward as to why they remain bare ranging from termites to underground gas vents to alien interference. Simon had even collected samples of the sand and grown plants in it outside his lodging, but the same seeds would not grow in situ within one of the circles. It was baffling, and possibly worrying, as they seemed to be getting bigger and spreading to cover the whole landscape.

Fairy circles

Fairy circles

The community-centred nature of Wolwedans meant that our dinner was announced each evening in a variety of languages, including the famous Damara-click languages that you might recognise from the film The Gods Must Be Crazy. This was presented as a form of light entertainment (slightly strange after three nights!) though the preservation of these fascinating cultures is also an intended by-product.

I was particularly impressed with the cheetah and leopard rehabilitation programmes that Wolwedans is involved with. A number of these endangered cats have been captured in areas where they pose a threat to farmer’s livestock before they are then released into the Namibrand area. Once there is sufficient funding for a tracking collar, the cats are released and researchers are able to keep an eye on their whereabouts. Simon told us that they hope to introduce lions soon as, whilst the Springbok population is now under control due to the presence of cheetah and leopard, the Gemsbok numbers are disproportionately high. To solve this problem (and to generate more funds), Gemsbok had been sold to a nearby hunting reserve. Introducing their natural predator would be a more sustainable approach.

Sunset

A Quick Overview

We succumbed to temptation and took the opportunity of a day in the air over certain areas of Namibia we did not have time to visit. Our morning flight took us over the breath-taking Fish River Canyon and to the German mining town of Luderitz, where we had a couple of hours to explore Kolmanskop. Once a highly prestigious town built on the back of the region’s diamond rush, Kolmanskop has subsequently been swallowed by the advancing dunes.

Fish River Canyon

Fish River Canyon

At one point diamonds could be found on the surface of the sand without any costs of excavation. As soon as this became known, the Germans built a town and instigated the strictest rules and constraints on their 800 Namibian workers. Life at that time in Kolmanskop was luxurious, they even had ice delivered each day to their kitchens by a little steam train that choo-chooed down the main street. After the emergence of richer diamond fields near the mouth of the Orange River the prosperity of Kolmanskop began to fade. By around 1950 it had been deserted, quite literally.

It was a fascinating place to explore, from the Kegelbarn to the swimming pool, and to see how, with money, it was possible to have whatever you wanted out in the desert. The most atmospheric buildings were the hospital and bachelor barracks, each room now piled high with sand almost to the ceiling and a few old paintings on the walls.

From Luderitz, our bright young pilot, Richard, flew us up the Skeleton Coast to catch a glimpse of the remote seal colonies and shipwrecks, notably the Otavi, a guano-carrying vessel that ran aground in 1945. He then dramatically rose up through the sea mist to the clear blue-sky further inland and pointed the nose towards Sossusvlei. We could see Big Daddy dune and Dead Vlei and got a lasting impression of how half the country is covered with bands of shifting sand.

Otavi Shipwreck

Otavi Shipwreck, and all those little black dots are seals!

Flying back over the Namibrand, we were happy to spot Ambi in the little sandy car park, so insignificant amongst the vast sweeping plains, dunes and mountains. It was mesmerising to see the thousands of fairy circles from above and to appreciate that as much as science has explained, there remains a great deal of mystery in the world.

The Kalahari Gemsbok Park/Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

Armed with the new camera, and an unfaltering enthusiasm for spotting game, we ventured east to lap up our last National Park experience. The Transfrontier Park is a sort of no-mans land between Namibia, Botswana and South Africa: we were stamped out of Namibia on entrance at Mata-Mata but not stamped into South Africa until we left via Twee-Rivieren five days later.

Finding his feet, a baby Springbok being encouraged by his mother

Perhaps we had got our hopes up too much. After hearing great things about this park we were a little unimpressed at the layout as compared with other parks we had visited. There was one long, fairly well maintained sandy road along the dry riverbed from North to South and only a couple of well-trodden loops off it. The most enjoyable times we have had in parks are where we can really get lost on little winding trails away from the main routes and find quiet shady spots to have a cuppa and keep any sightings to ourselves. It was also unbearably dry which meant that the area failed to attract the usual flocks of colourful waterbirds, although it was a very good place for observing raptors, particularly the Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk.

Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk

Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk

Nevertheless, after a sparce first couple of days, we were tipped off about a group of lions, two of which were repeatedly mating, and further north a cheetah displaying herself openly beside the road. Two firsts for us in one day! The mating pair were unashamedly doing their business again and again (what stamina!) right in front of the cars. We thought this a little strange, as two other females and a goofy male in the pride were lounging only a few metres away. A mating pair will usually take themselves away for a few days, to mate upwards of a hundred times with only about ten minutes break inter coitus; we stayed to watch the snarling liaison until the cock crowed thrice, voyeurs as we are, then broke away to find the cheetah…

Getting it on...

Getting it on…

Looking into the distance for the spotty cat we slapped ourselves when we found her a mere metre from the road. Soon the two other cars left, eager to be back before the gate closed at 19.30. She got up, stretched, went to drink some water and walked right around Ambi a couple of times, seemingly sizing her up as an object to mount for a better view of the Springbok in the nearby valley. She was so elegant, silhouetted by the evening sun, with her focus entirely on the Springbok in the distance. We were sure she would soon hunt, but could not push the limit too far with being late back at camp. It was irritating as that is just the time of day when cats become more active. Sure enough, on the return south, we met the same group of lions mobilising for their evening endeavours.

Still, we felt satisfied that we had finally had a sighting of a cheetah, moreover a close-up view on our own. We watched her slinky form disappear into the dry grasses as she considered what she wanted for dinner, and reluctantly went back to camp.

The following days brought many great encounters with lion and a dramatic electrical storm during our night up at Garagab camp. Possibly our last notable National Park moment, of this trip at least, was in the campsite on our final morning. Failing to be up at the crack of dawn, as we often are, this time we had the benefit for being around when the mongoose family felt safe enough to emerge from the burrow with their babies. At first one little head popped up, eyes fixed on Mummy, perhaps hoping for a food parcel, then as we sat quietly and waited, two more babies came out for morning playtime. They were just about the cutest things we had seen, and unlike their close relations and neighbours, the Ground Squirrels, mongeese are ferocious hunters and strict carnivores.

Curious little Yellow Mongeese

Curious little Yellow Mongeese

We had a surplus of eggs, and wondered what they would make of one. The male sniffed it out and could tell that it was something interesting, but needed some guidance on cracking a hole in the shell. Harry tapped the egg with a spoon and straight away the mongoose was rolling it over, letting the juicy contents drip into his mouth. A baby came and joined the game, then they sat on their hind legs with full bellies positively beaming.

More often than not, small interactions like this are infinitely more rewarding than watching a sleeping lion in a line of other cars. We felt that we had had our fill of the park, and after five nights, ventured south into our final country, and along the excellent tar road to Upington, S.A.

And that is where we leave you for now! As you may have gathered, we are now in Cape Town! (30th November) We will be posting our last in a few weeks… This epic journey is coming to an end… For now!

Thanks for stopping by once again…

Anneka xx

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31st October, Opuwo, Namibia

I’m once again trying to write an entertaining blog post beneath the distracting cacophony of chirrups and tweets of the various beautiful birds fluttering around me. Needless to say we have now reached our penultimate country, Namibia, and as we expected, it is hot and a little less expected… stormy!

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We crossed the border from Zambia to Botswana via the Kazungula ferry, a very short journey across the Zambezi River. We were soon in Kasane, a town with all the necessary amenities. Always keen to give mention to the inspiring travellers we meet, at Kasane River Camp we met a French family who had been travelling for six years, their youngest daughter having been on the road since the age of ten months. I was very impressed by her confidence and her English when she said of a cat “She ‘az four bebees, I can show you if you like?” How perceptive that she recognised a fellow kitten lover.

After umm-ing and ah-ing about our route through Botswana, we plumped for an anticlockwise attack on the north: first dropping south to Nata, before exploring the Makgadigadi Salt Pans and heading West to Maun and the Okovango Delta. We could then drive north through Moremi and Chobe National Park so as to finish with a drive along the Chobe riverfront to the border with Namibia at Ngoma Bridge.

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The Salty Expanse of Makgadigadi

Replete with petrol and supplies for the remote saltpans, we headed south to Nata then west for about 25kms before twisting south again onto a dirt road that supposedly led to Nwetwe Pan. It was a roller coaster of a ride. Encouraging Ambi through the sand, dodging ostriches and choosing the best tracks to follow at each turn does not make for smooth passage. We decided not to push too far in one day and made a wild camp just off the track, fully in the middle of nowhere. It was a curious camp, as countless caterpillars seemed to think that we were trees to climb up and every few minutes we plucked another one off our shoulders in the evening light. We reached the salt the next day and made for Kubu Island, a few resilient rocks and baobabs in the middle of a dry lake of salt. In the wet season Kubu can actually become a real island as the pans fill with water, making for exceptional reflective photography of the sky.

A few hours into cavorting around the pans we realised that everything was drying out: our skin, lips, eyes and nails were all turning white and crackly. Kubu Island was a desolate place comprising ancient volcanic protrusions of rock with only a few lonely baobabs staking a claim to the limited moisture available. The grandiose trees that we had admired throughout the trip were different here; the bark was starched ochre red for a reason still unknown to us and those that had lost the battle lay strewn, dried to dust in the position that they fell. We had fun playing with perspective on the vast white sheet of salt and frolicked around this wide empty playground to our hearts content.

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We decided to return to Adventure Camp at the edge of the pan choosing society and good company over the lunar landscape. Earlier we had spotted some seldom seen kid like-minded people, in a group of more than ten! We were to learn that it was a public holiday commemorating Botswana’s Independence and these bright young things were working in Gaberone (the capital) and had come on a trip to the Salt Pans to create their own sort of mini festival. We had not imagined we would meet anyone on the saltpans, let alone a group of people we immediately clicked with and who possessed a similar penchant for silliness and colourful clothing. We wiled away the evening around a camp fire with a drum, guitar and my plucky attempts on the mandolin (first public performance jam of the trip…) We skewered marshmallows on sticks and I spent a while trying to ‘tweezer’ glass out of a man’s ear after hearing a very vague story of how it had got in there.

New comrades aplenty, we ventured back onto the salt the next day, spurred on by pro-active plans of yoga and ultimate frizbee. Regrettably the wind had other plans and took it upon itself to escalate to gale force. Most of us huddled together with scarves tied around our heads like Lawrence of Arabia. The more adventurous (or ridiculous) types took big sheets of canvas out into the windy flats and tried to take flight. Others climbed the rusty baobabs to get a higher view of the nothingness.

Another reason to stay longer was an agreement to give perhaps the most ridiculous and colourful of them all a ride to Gweta, where he had abandoned his trusty car a few days earlier. Nix is one of the most positive, happy and helpful people we have ever met. He was completely unfazed by the fact that, before leaving and due to breaking the jack earlier in the day, we had to brick up the axle and dig a hole around the tyre to take it off and rescue the brake calliper that had mysteriously fallen off and was running against the wheel rim. Harry mused on the incompetence of the mechanics who had somehow failed to bolt it on properly when it was changed in Lusaka, either that or the bolts sheered, an unlikely proposition. As a result the brake fluid line had snapped and thus emasculated our brakes. Harry bent and crimped the line to the afflicted calliper in an attempt to restore some brake pressure but to little avail. All the while Nix threw himself at the challenge and seemed joyful at the adventure of getting to Gweta with no brakes.

It was one of the bumpier rides I have ever taken. I was playing DJ in the back while Harry bonded with Nix in the front, and at one point I shouted an unrepeatable expletive as my head hit the roof and various items flew off the shelves at drastic speed toward me. “How about going slower!?” I suggested. It was not only the sand, the sharp turns in the tracks and not having any brakes but the worst and most obstinate obstacle on African roads: donkeys. They simply do not move, however close you get at whatever speed, loudly shouting and honking the horn, they stay put and sometimes asleep in the middle of the road.

Despite busily calculating where the best place for me to brace myself would be in the event of tipping over, it was an exhilarating journey. We passed many elegant ostrich, galloping off into the distance and a couple of sprightly springbok living up to their name. It was quite a joy to see wildlife after the emptiness of the saltpans.

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Arriving in Maun

We said goodbye to Nix in Gweta and decided to rest there for the night before making a plan to deal with our absent brakes. Unlike the quiet sandy path we had just bested, the road to Maun was tarmac, busy and had police and vetinary checkpoints. Nix was on the phone to Riley’s (a good spare parts shop in Maun) the next morning offering to arrange parts to be sent to Gweta, but Harry decided we should push on to Maun where he could get into a yard and do it himself rather than trust another mechanic. It was fairly dangerous. We almost collided with a couple of rather disgruntled ostriches but managed to roll up to the police checkpoint without them realising we had used the gears to smooth our ‘docking’ about 2km back.

Once in Maun we raced around in a futile effort to sort the problem the same day: Not the African way. First to Riley’s to buy new calliper bolts but by the time Harry had realised they had the wrong gauge screw thread on them and had turned his head back towards the shop, Riley’s had shut. We gave up in a tired and sweaty heap and thought that sleep would be the best solution.

Next morning, Harry jumped to it and arrived back surprisingly quickly saying he had got the calliper back on and, in lieu of any available parts for a special girl like Ambi, had taken the broken fuel line to some other rickety place to be welded… Too good to be true, the welding was shoddy to say the least and he was back at the mechanics the next day in some kind of vicious ground hog day loop. One silver lining to the otherwise cloudy process of taking the tyres off innumerable times was that he and Crispin at Mac Motors had noticed play in the wheel bearings: One more thing to correct. Thankfully when I next saw him that evening, he proclaimed Ambi fit and well for the Delta and the journey north, whatever water crossings may beset our path.

Our duty to Ambi done, Nix was keen to take us to a safe swimming spot down the river and we endured another hilarious ride surfing along sandy tracks in his car Baba G. He told us that an acquaintance of his had been taken by a croc only the week before and that her body had yet to be recovered: A story that then appeared all over the news. This swimming spot was on a sand bar and the water was clear so you could see quite far. Nevertheless, we kept a wary eye.

On the way back we managed to get Nix’s Nissan stuck in the sand (despite his claims that he bought the car because the model was highly praised on Top Gear.) I took to the driving seat with the boys pushing behind and somehow managed to drive off with the hand break on, then proceeded to get us stuck again. We tried various combinations of more weight in the back, bouncing up and down between the tyres, digging and putting sticks under the tyres… Eventually help arrived in the form of a passing Botswanan Defence Force truck and the four muscly men therein who took team Baba G to new heights and out of the sand.

The Okovanga Delta

We spent a homely couple of days at The Old Bridge Backpackers shooting hustlers off the pool table. It is a great place and wise man David, who was moonlighting as manager, helped us book a dream trip into the watery ways of the Okavango. Our third anniversary was fast approaching and we thought we might as well use it as an excuse to do something special. He paired us up with another couple, Carlos and Susie, for a long boat journey into the delta and a night at two game lodges with connecting flights in light aircraft. Even at low water most of the areas are not accessible by land. Having not taken to the sky (apart from the bungee swing) for 9 months, the opportunity to see some of Africa from above was an exciting prospect.

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The boat journey wove through the winding networks of waterways, some wide and sweeping with sandy banks and others narrow and towered over by bulrushes and papyrus. We saw Jacanas hopping from lily pad to lily pad (known as the ‘Jesus bird’ for walking on water), Squacco Herons taking flight as we woke them from their daytime slumber, fish darting from the boat in every direction and further into the delta, elephants wading in the cool water. Seeing these huge beasts from the lowly position of a boat in the water was a new experience. Harry commented that he likes to see them in water best, as they are clearly at their happiest, feeling cooler, thirst quenched and more playful.

David at the Old Bridge had warned us not to expect to see too much game other than elephants and hippos at Moremi Crossing (our first camp) as the activities were mainly water based. We took a mokoro (dug-out canoe) to a nearby island then walked for a couple of hours. About halfway, we mounted a termite mound for a better view and I spotted that unmistakable shape of a cats head peeking up through the long grass as a reedbuck sprinted past. Remember, food runs. “Lions!” I said. Our guide thought it was unlikely and was sure they were hyenas, but as we waited and looked through the binos, I picked out two female lions about 100m away. We were on foot with no gun; this was not a National Park but a ‘private concession’ where weapons were banned and the guides worked on a ‘trust’ basis with the ridiculously named ‘PDAs’ – potentially dangerous animals. Having been fairly close to lions on foot at Mana Pools and experienced their generally nonchalant behaviour when relaxing in the shade in the heat of the day, we were delighted when our guide agreed that we should walk towards them. As expected, they rose and walked off in the other direction.

The whole Okovango region was a spectacle for birds and having now become a bit of a twitcher, I was eagerly spotting new species at every turn. Worth a mention were the highly endangered Wattled Cranes, a handsome Pel’s Fishing Owl and numerous woodpeckers and flycatchers around the camp.

Carlos and Susie were a truly inspiring couple and we valued their company greatly. Running on seven passports between them, they had lived in S.A but are now based in Brisbane where Susie trains counsellors. An insight into alternative branches of the therapy world, my conversations with her were enlightening and very encouraging.

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After an all day 80km boat journey into the delta, it was bizarre to be back in Maun in just a twenty-minute flight. We headed back to Ambi, safely stowed at The Old Bridge and I was all too willingly roped into a poker game with Nix and co. Unbeknown to me, one of Nix’s friends was a world-class player and made a lot of his money playing poker. This man swept all our chips (actually black-eyed beans) from each of us young’uns in turn in the most smooth casual way imaginable, reading our post-pubescent poker faces precisely and bluffing then double-bluffing his own ticks: A master. I would have felt privileged to lose my last chips to him but instead was duped off the table by a late buy-in drunk German man with a foul mouth named Reinhardt. He met my bets on every raise and I went all in with pocket aces when a third appeared in the river… The lucky bugger picked up a flush on the last card.

While Nix drowned his sorrows over an early blow out after two buy-ins on the poker table, he wrote something special that he personally requested to be included on the blog: 

“I was standing in the dimly lit dusk of the post fiery sunlight of the afternoon Makgadikgadi sun, tending to burning potatoes on an ashy fire, I looked up to see the beautiful silhouette of two dusty bedraggled hippies climbing out of a giant blue mechanical ladybird. The faint whisper of the finest of future friends flickered through the analysis of potential outcomes to meeting strangers in the middle of NOWhere.

Turned out we both loved pineapples.

Infinite roads leading through infinite spaces lead to that fire, and with a certain amount of oomph, the music and festivities emulated the wind, kicking the dust into full force.

Its two weeks later today and I still love them.”

That night represented the last substantial human interaction we would experience for a fortnight. David had assisted us in booking campsites up through the safari parks and this was to be one of the most exciting game areas of the trip. Jerry cans filled to the brim and food cupboards overflowing, we only had a short drive to the first camp at Kazakini, where the realisation dawned that our GPS and leisure battery had simultaneously failed. More importantly we had our first visit from a honey badger:

From what we had heard they are persistent, vicious versions of our friendly badgers back home. They have even been known to attack elephants when provoked and given their long sharp claws and their predilection for aiming them at the genitals it is no surprise that they count as one of the four animals that lions steer clear off. So we were wary and were not sure how close one should let a honey badger get, or what course of action to take if it does come close. He circled us, and came closer three times to about 5m away, each time changing his mind and turning back again. It seemed no coincidence that he had arrived just as I had served up dinner and I was sure he’d be back later to raid the bins. In the sparkly torchlight, his sinister green eyes stood out looking ferocious but all in all he was a beautiful, sleek creature.

We also found a very small, very dead, leopard tortoise next to the ablutions block and wondered what had made him come to such a paralysing fate. We couldn’t leave him there as bird food and weren’t sure what course of action to take, so we named him Ned and popped him into an old egg box to consider later.

Day of Death

The anniversary Gods shined upon us; we could not believe our luck that the 10/10/13 in Moremi was the most action-packed day of wildlife we had experienced on the whole trip. It began as a day of death. We came across a dead buffalo surrounded by over one hundred vultures, then a dead elephant with a similar number of peckish parasites. The third large carcass was another buffalo still being eaten by a pride of lions who were taking it in turns to rest in the shade as one by one they went to eat some more and charge off audacious vultures. We could also see a new competitor emerging: four large crocodiles had grounded themselves on the opposite side of the carcass and more had their noses pointing in the buffalo’s direction from the water.

If the rest of the day did not pan out as it did, we would have called ourselves stupid to leave such a dramatic scene on the riverfront. However, less than half an hour later we came across two hyenas feasting on a male impala. They seemed to have eaten their full, and after stupidly wandering in circles for a bit with their tongues dangling out of their mouths sideways, they lay down in the grasses nearby. We were just discussing how it was unlikely these two dogs could have brought down this impala alone (seemingly severely lacking in intelligence) and perhaps they stole they kill from another predator when Harry spotted a spotty cat. An immaculate female leopard was making her way towards, presumably her kill, and we were only 5m from it. We held our breath and prayed that she would not be intimidated by our big blue beast. She took her time and I climbed into the back as silently as I could to get a better view from the back window.

She slinked up to the impala carcass, ignoring the stench of hyena and dragged it behind a log, carefully covering all the innards with dirt to presumably save them for later and hide the smell from thieves. She proceeded to eat the impala right in front of our eyes. It was at that moment that a rustling and clunking sound in the van made Harry say “Shhhh!” “It’s not me!” I said. Rustle, clunk, rustle clunk. “Shut up!” He said. I had an inkling that Ambi may have a resident squirrel. Early that morning, I woke to a rustle and saw one on the front seat, assuming that it darted out the window again at the sight of me… but perhaps not… More on that later…

We watched the leopard for almost an hour and became desperate for the loo but knew opening a door would scare her off. With bad timing, the hyenas showed themselves again on the opposite side of the leopard just as I quietly snuck out of the back door. A possible war on two fronts was too much for the timid leopard and she frantically bounded off into the bush. We carried on to camp lost for words, knowing we had witnessed something that wildlife documentary cameramen wait days in the bush to capture.

Startled by the day’s activity, we hurtled along the sandy roads to try to get to camp before dark. Turning a corner at high speed, two figures appeared in the path and “STOP!” I shouted. We almost ran over a male and female lion, presumably away from the pride to mate on the comfortable soft warm sand of the road. They looked at us, eyes gleaming in the headlights, as if to say “Yes, and?” We waited a while and shone our light in their blinking faces. They were unfazed and did not move. Harry turned onto the rough verge around them, swinging only a foot or so from the huge male who looked up accusingly into my eyes and rose onto his haunches.

What must have only been a few seconds felt like an age as I was sure the lion was going to launch himself at me through the open window… Fortunately we carried on past and tucked ourselves safely into bed.

Sevuti Special

We made our way up through Moremi into Khwai Community Area and then into Savuti (part of Chobe National Park) where we were visited at our campsite by the rare and seldom seen wild dogs. By this stage our camera had failed us, so you will have to take my word for it! As we sat with Ambi around sunset, a pack of nine Painted Dogs (my preferred name for them), including smaller puppies, came down to the river to drink. Their incredible social behaviour was immediately demonstrated as some kept watch while others drank. They showed no fear of a large bull elephant who was also taking his evening drink in the river at the same time. We laughed as some of the puppies tested the elephant’s temper by running forward and back and between his legs. It seems that being the next fastest runners after the cheetah, the dogs fear nothing. A guide had told us that when antelope see cheetah or wild dogs, they take no chances and leg it straight away: if they see lion or leopard, they know they can out-run the predator.

On the gravel road to Savuti we came across a broken down truck harbouring three skinny, tired men who claimed they had been stuck there for two days with no food. Their starter motor had failed and all they needed was a tug to get going: we could not believe that not one safari car going past had stopped to help in two days… It only took five minutes, after one snapped rope Ambi hauled the truck forward on the second attempt and the engine started. They were very grateful and looked glad to finally be on their way to food…

Other interesting sightings we had in this area included two antelope species we had not seen before: the closely related Roan and Sable. Both large, elegant and with long sweeping horns, they were imminently impressive but shy antelopes due to their history of being hunted as trophies. It highlighted to us how special this area of Northern Botswana is: supporting rare species that we had not spotted before.

We had a fairly perilous drive through more deep sand from Sevuti to Chobe riverfront and almost ran out of petrol. We had known it would be close, but if not for the unexpected new tarmac road from Kachikau, we would not have made it. Ambi’s consumption is poor at best, but trudging through deep sand drains her tank more than ever. We arrived in Kasane with about 5 litres left and filled up before heading back to the Chobe Riverfront. Our leisure battery had conked out so we bought a new one and were thrilled to have electrics once again! (We had somehow survived with no phones, cameras, kindle – not even anything displaying the time – for our week in the bush.) Unfortunately the problem with our GPS was not battery related and we had to accept Africa had finished her off too.

I think that is enough to manage in one mouthful! The next post will take you into Namibia along the Caprivi Strip and up to the Northern Kaokoland. We are currently in Opuwo readying ourselves for the Skeleton Coast and some mega sand dunes.

Love to all back home as always,

Thanks for stopping by xx

P.S. Ah! The squirrel! We did indeed have a stowaway… It took us the best part of an hour after we saw the Wild Dogs to coax the terrified little thing out from behind the bookshelf with Salticrax (our new favourite savoury biscuit.) He had been with us at least a day, a very bumpy day and we can only imagine he hid under the middle seat too afraid to come out… Bless.

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26th September, Livingstone.

A sunny hello from Zambia once again! (We’re actually now in Namibia almost a month later… sorry for the delay…)

This post picks up from Lusaka, crosses into Zimbabwe at Chirundu, saunters around Mana Pools National Park before conquering the Binga road to Vic Falls and bringing you back over the border into Zambia. Some of the activities in Zimbabwe and around Vic Falls have been the most exhilarating of our trip; so prepare to go wild, peer through the mist and take the plunge!

The can swim, and they do.

Mana Pools National Park

The road south from Lusaka into Zimbabwe was fraught with ‘deviations’; i.e. 50km stretches of hideously crevassed, dune-like diversions off the “soon” to be resurfaced main road. Time and time again, just as we thought we’d come to the end of Max’s Thunderdome, another sign appeared: ‘Deviation in 1km.’ How boring. The border itself was one of the most annoying we had come through (still, a breeze compared to Egypt) with various offices, including Interpol, to visit and extract documents from. Amazingly, we got away with adapting our ‘Comesa’ insurance that ran out in July to expire in July 2014; officious, but perhaps not the most observant of customs officials. I spent most of the time warding baboons away from Ambi while Harry tracked from office to office. One huge male opened our roof window and peered right in; being bigger than me and baring long fangs I decided to give him some space and thankfully, he bounded off without causing any damage. Cheeky youngsters went one way round the back of the van when I went the other, much to the amusement of a few locals watching my valiant defence.

Once across the border it was not far to Mana Pools, reputably the only National Park with big game where you are allowed to walk alone without a ranger. This was why we had come – freedom in the wild, finally. We had reached peak season and the campsites were filling with South Africans with elaborate and varied displays of camping equipment; the usual pull-out awnings, tables and chairs but also deep freezers, braais and soda streams!? Some of them even had small electric fence systems, supposedly to protect them from hyenas and the very nature they had come to visit… We were slightly baffled, but all the more happy to accept three dinner invitations to different camps on consecutive evenings.

Mana Sunset

Our first couple of days were actually spent at the campsite attending to a poorly Ambi: Demanding girl, she’s never 100% happy! The ‘monkeys’ (I quote Harry) who looked at the leaky radiator back in Lusaka had reattached our fans somewhat haphazardly and the hi-tec-cable-tie fixings we’d come up with had snagged the radiator in a few places making the leaks worse. On trying to reposition the fans, it was further snagged and there was no option but to take the whole thing out and find the necessary welder… Just as the impossibility of this mission began to take shape, a lovely Zimbabwean couple came over and offered their toolbox, admitting, however, that they did not know how to use anything in it. While I drank passion fruit juice under a shady tree with Jeannie, watching over her sleeping babe, Harry and Chris discovered the remedial delights of ‘steel putty.’ A few sweaty hours later, they had sealed up the gashes in the radiator, submersed it in water to check for bubbles, and refitted it in Ambi’s bosom.

Jeannie cooked up a storm and Chris impressed us with a perfectly pitched whistle of the “uh uhhh no-you-don’t” variety that smoothly deterred a good-natured bull elephant from walking right over us. We had not had many hyenas cruise through our camps before however every night at Mana they announced their arrival with unmistakable giggles. They came within a few metres but were always encouraged off by a ‘hey’ or ‘tsss.’

The following morning Harry realised that there were still a few spots to seal up on the radiator and had it all out again; the only advantage of the blistering heat being that the putty dried quickly. We made it out on a game drive later in the day and saw numerous kudu, eland and countless elephant and buffalo.

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That evening we were lifted away from the restrictions of our meagre rations by a retired South African duo with an abundance of well-chosen luxury camping gear. Whisky and soda on ice was not something we had been expecting to be presented with out in the bush but very glad of it we were. We chortled every time Tim broke the conversation to ask me “Naw, ma angel, are ya sure ya got enough ta drink there?” They provided great dinner entertainment with dramatic stories of elephants charging them in the Kruger. Tim and Yvonne showed huge interest in our trip (without hiding their thoughts that we were slightly mad) and insisted that we must stay with them in Durban.

The following day we were surprised to have a visit in the camp from a fellow British over-landing couple, Richard and Sophie. They recognised Ambi from the blog! The bizarre overlanders’ network revealed itself to us as we had both read blogs of the same travellers and met some of the same people along the way. Dinner conversation was slightly embarrassing when I started recounting stories that they had already read about online. Another great, like-minded young couple, we were sad not to be going in the same direction and unfortunately had only one evening together. We laughed over having had the exact same conversations with our respective spouse: ‘Have you secured the drawers?’ ‘Should we fill up the jerry cans?’ ‘We should let the tyres down in this sand!’

Richard and Sophie

Fellow Brits: Richard and Sophie

We had so far paid for one night in the park and had stayed three, partly because we had been limited in our roaming capacity by Ambi’s malaise. We had read on t’internet that the annual Mana Pools Game Count takes place on the first full moon in September, the coming weekend. The campsite had started to fill up with WEZ (Wildlife and Environment Zimbabwe) members taking part in the count and we decided to get involved. In true Harry and Anneka style, we rocked up at the admin desk the night before, offering enthusiasm and energy and they spontaneously found us a team and let us join in. It was great to be part of such an interesting activity and to walk transects of the park with natural experts on birds and big game. I was appointed scribe and had to record our best estimates of the number of animals and which direction they were going, to contribute to a vat of statistics that give WEZ an idea of animal populations, how they move around during the day and the changing territory year to year. By the fourth walk we were somewhat exasperated by the heat, seeing herd upon herd of impala in the haze, all blurring together as we lost count again and again. Everyone murmured agreement when I said: “Shall I just write 67?”

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We were joined up with a fantastic team of real old boys who knew Zimbabwe through and through, regaling us with marvellous stories of the old Africa we had dreamed of. John Batis was our trusty driver and a fantastic character. We returned to the truck to find him ‘cleaning his teeth’ with beer and laughed at his approach to a herd of buffalo in our path: “Get out the f*cking way you bucking fuffaloes!” A lifetime in the bush… nothing fazed him. One evening he served us a delicious traditional Zimbabwean dish, Oxtail stew and sudza (the maize version of nsima) and wistfully recalled the last Oxtail stew he had made in the bush… In naughty schoolboy style, he had thrown the leftover bones inside one of these electric fences to spite the ‘woosy’ South Africans. He proved the fence to be entirely useless: The hyenas came and tore the whole thing down to crunch on the bones, much to the terror of the frightened South Africans. I had mixed feelings; apparently a member of the group using the fence had a brother killed by a lion… If lions are your real worry though, I’m guessing that if one does want to eat you, a one-foot-high electric fence isn’t going to stop him.

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The hyenas were audacious though: a couple of them dragged a large cooler box half way across the camp one night. I had one lovely quiet morning watching baby monkeys trampolining on the top of tents, and had an elephant come very close to eat from the acacia tree I was sitting under drinking my tea. When he noticed I was there, only about 2m away (elephants have terrible eyesight and rely mostly on smell) he took a turn into the river to eat the roots of the tree through the collapsing bank.

The Game Count came to a close with a fantastic braai and drinks evening (thank God, because we had completely run out of supplies) which we spent mostly in the company of a fellow tall man called Marc. Totally comfortable in the wild, he told us stories of standing down sprinting lions and trekking across glaciers in Nepal. There were two male lions lounging very close to the camp in the shade of a tree and we stood atop a termite mound 50m away watching them together.

The Binga Road 

Having enjoyed an entire week in Mana Pools, and smugly got away with a few free days in between our arrival and the Game Count, we headed to Kariba for supplies and some local knowledge on the best road west to the falls. We found Ian at ‘Warthogs’ to be entirely savvy and helpful and pored over the map with him while England lost the cricket on a luxury TV in the background. He led us to a gas supplier to replenish our cooking gas and we took his advice, filled all our jerry cans and attempted the dirt road tracking west along the southern shore of Lake Kariba: the shortest but probably the slowest route.

We were met with more generous spirits along the way where we pulled off along a grassy track to find a quiet spot to camp. A local farmer came to check we were alright after his young boy had seen us and presumably run home to say something to the effect of ‘Daddy there’s two strange azungos [whities] with a big blue car in our field.’

Grassy Camp

He was happy to accommodate us and unlike other country bumpkin Africans we had met, respected our privacy and left us to enjoy a perfectly peaceful camp in long golden grasses near his homestead. Sitting outside in the waning heat of the evening, we had a few spidery visitors and marvelled again at how we had seen so few scorpions. In the morning we paid a short visit to his homestead, complete with goats, chickens, various wives and children and donated a much-appreciated $5 for his hospitality.

The next day brought yet more dirt road and after stopping only to marvel at some swooping swallows over a river, we arrived at possibly the greatest landmark of our trip, the mighty Victoria Falls.

Here it is

Victorious Victoria Falls 

We recently met a traveller who said: “Ahh, there was hardly any water, it wasn’t that big.” I firmly disagreed. Even at this time of year when the water level is at its lowest, Vic falls were the largest amount of water being hurled over a cliff face that I have ever seen. The mist billowing up from the crashing water 100m below obscured the view of the gorge, giving the impression of a great abyss, from which, if there has to be a place, Satan will one day rise. We imagined how the anticipant David Livingstone must have felt on his first excursion, paddled in a simple mokoro (dug-out canoe) to a small island balanced precariously at the top of the falls. He saw the spectacle both as the beautiful natural phenomena it is but also as a massive impediment to his onward progress.

Before Livingstone became the first European to discover the falls in 1855, locals, unsurprisingly, regarded the area as sacred. The sound of the crashing water could be heard up to 40km away. Hence the local name Mosi-Oa-Tunya: ‘The Smoke that Thunders.’

Double Rainbow

While it is neither the highest nor the widest waterfall in the world, it is classified as the largest, with substantial width and height (almost 2km wide and over 100m high) resulting in the world’s largest sheet of falling water.

Over the last 100,000 years, the falls have been receding upstream eroding the sandstone-filled cracks to form the gorges. The river has fallen in different eras into different chasms which now form a series of sharply zig-zagging gorges downstream from the falls. The sizes of some of the gorges indicate that we are not living in the age of the widest-ever falls.

Determined to experience the full force of the falls, we bungeed into the gorge, swam to the edge and peered into the spray and also took a night tour to see the effect of the perfectly timed yet totally coincidental full moon. Harry won the bet that the human eye would not be able to discern colour in the lunar rainbow, although it was still pretty remarkable. I was convinced that the colour would be visible, alas no and it was impossible to do a long-exposure shot with all the Asian tourists flapping about trying to take flash photos of a waterfall in the dark 500m away from their camera. Laughing arrogantly and in an aloof fashion at perfectly reasonable tourists seems to have become something of a hobby of ours.

Freefalling

Advised after the savage removal of one of my kidneys, to never bungee jump, I opted for the softer option of the bungee swing, which still includes a 100m freefall without the jarring bounce at the bottom. Instead, you swing gracefully back up the other side and continue swinging back and forth until they haul you back up the cliff. Harry insisted that I go first, which worked out well, as I may not have done it if the nerves had had time to build up. The man assisting me did not give me time to think, he simply counted 5…4..3.21 and pushed me off the edge. I had left my conscious brain on the platform and am still unaware as to what really happened, thank fully the cogs kicked in as I was swinging back up the other side of the gorge, happily marveling at some kingfishers preying below me.  Watching the video replay, I realize I had not been as graceful as I imagined, screaming and clinging to the rope attached to my waist for dear life. After I had triumphed over fear, Harry had no choice but to be a man and show that this was just a walk in the park for him. He enjoyed the way down but had unexpected trouble orientating himself the right way to climb up the cliff again. As far as he was concerned the way up was much more frightening as the ropes began to twist and creak with his weight and the shoulder of his harness came loose.

We had more fun and games the following morning at the Devil’s Pool, a small but deep pool right on the edge of the falls on Zambian side. On arrival we were told that even though we’d witnessed people jumping into Devil’s Pool only yesterday, the manager had decided that this was no longer allowed and we had to enter on our bottoms edging down the rocks. As you can imagine if you have ever been swimming with Harry, he was having none of it. First in the line, to the highest rock and star jump right in (see video…) Not quite as audacious, I jumped from a lower rock, much to the dismay of our guide who was very angry at the prospect of losing his job because of us. Harry spoke to the manager afterwards, claiming full responsibility for jumping in under instruction that he was not allowed to. Problem solved. This has been a recurrent theme in our experience of African companies, like back in the Ngorongoro Reserve; there always has to be some staff member to blame and they can’t quite imagine how tourists might make a decision for themselves.

Life on the edge

The real thrill of Devil’s Pool was being let loose to lie on the edge of the falls with a direct sightline through tons of cascading water; the worst part was our slippery fish of an African guide thinking that he needed to hold my bum firmly incase I slipped. We could see a mesmerizing double rainbow in the spray below while our toes were nibbled by little fish in the pool; all in all it was one of the most memorable mornings of the trip.

The Lion Walk

Also in the area is the chance to ‘walk with lions’, a rare opportunity only possible due to the vast quantity of cash it generates for the lion conservation projects of ALERT. The said lions are later instated in a ‘semi-wild’ environment where they will not face troubles in their social interactions based on their familiarity with humans. In my growingly conservationist mindset, I was still unsure what was really going on here… but would not let the opportunity slip to tickle a lion behind the ears like I do with Maurice. When we approached the two lionesses and our guide asked who would like to go and pet them I could not understand why no one else jumped in, so I did and followed instructions to approach the lions from behind and stand up if they start playing with each other. The 2 yr old lionesses were unabashed by our company, I only wished I could roll around and play fight with them without getting substantially scratched!

New pets

The Livingstone Redemption

Ambi’s last night in Zambia was spent in the yard at Mtonga Art centre, having Ambi decorated by the heavily dreaded Peter Mtonga and his red, yellow and green wooly hatted brother. He made sure that we were familiar with redemption colours, knew why I was his sister and blessed our ears with Bob Marley on repeat continuously aside from a 2-5am break. I borrowed some paints as I had an epiphany that what Ambi needed most was some paw prints up and over the bonnet. Cheetahs often climb on top of something to get a good view of their prospective prey on the plains.

Just before we could move on into Botswana, Ambi had another obligatory date with a mechanic. This time the exhaust was welded back together after a combination of rust and one too many bumps. The roof rack was also welded back on as we discovered it had been hovering above us only held by the delights of gravity; the bolts having sheared at some unknown point on our journey. Nick at Foley’s managed to find us an old viscous fan from a spare V8 he had lying around, and installed it to eliminate the undue strain on the radiator caused by the previous shoddy fan fitting. Lastly, the lock on the driver’s door had broken and I was relieved that this could be fixed so that I did not have to let Harry out every time we stopped. You may wonder what we think about having chosen an old Landy instead of a modern Toyota and having in one sense done a tour of African mechanics’ workshops, well…

Our first scalp, found in the sand before a water crossing...

Thats all for now folks! A more up to date post is on the editing floor… Thank you for your patience xx

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6th September, Lost count of the days… Lusaka.

Cherished friends and family, (trying to upload more photos… please bear with us and the slow African internet…)

Our adventure, as is the way in Africa, did not go exactly to plan. We were running out of time and some of the realities of events back home were calling. So we made a new plan. Harry returned to England for 2 months to see to various duties, while I stayed put in Malawi and really made myself quite at home.

The beautiful Usisya

The beautiful Usisya

I hope not to bore you with a long trailing blog post of all that has happened since Northern Tanzania, so I will try to stick to the highlights. Since the last substantial post, we traversed Indian Ocean from Pangani to Zanzibar, drove the length of the country down to the beautifully rugged, Ruaha National Park, then crossed the Malawian border. We visited Livingstonia in Northern Malawi before Harry parked Ambi up on the lakeshore in Usisya under the watchful eye of the Temwa team and left me to my own devices for a while… fast-track 2 months… and he gallantly returned with fresh supplies of fizzy laces, new Birkenstocks and various accoutrements for Ambi.

Stunning South Luangwa

Stunning South Luangwa

Now we are in Zambia having spent a week in and around South Luangwa N. P. (the best yet!) and currently find our sorry selves once again in a sprawling capital city, this time, Lusaka. Ambi is, unsurprisingly, receiving some attention from a trusty and recommended mechanic, Fabian. This time her ailments include a malfunctioning fan (essential in the heat of Namibia), one set of faulty rear shock absorbers (currently shearing a hole in the mounting plate), another set of totally caput rear shock absorbers, a leaky brake caliper (we shouldn’t have to use the gears to help slow us down) and a few more minor blemishes. (We still maintain that she is an awesome vehicle perfect for the challenges of African roads!)

To keep to the tradition of chronological ordering, a few words about our last couple of weeks in Tanzania before Harry set sail…

Over the High Seas to Zanzibar

After tiring of the beurocracy and officialdom that veiled the delights of the Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Natron, we decided to escape to the beach and the warm Indian Ocean. We traversed bumpy sandy roads to the coast and discovered a friendly few beach huts at Pangani, north of Tanga. We had a memorable barbecue on the beach under a huge baobab tree and watched a pretty green snake catch and munch down a ghecko in the lodge’s boutique (gladly assured that it was not a green mamba.) Leaving Ambi in safe hands, we took a 15 horsepower fishing boat over to Zanzibar: an unexpectedly rough 4-hour journey. Both a little queasy, we felt rather estranged from the world at about the midway point where we could no longer see the mainland nor the islands of Pemba or Zanzibar. We were being rocked side-to-side, front-to-back; the humble fishing boat feeling increasingly small amid the growing waves of the Indian Ocean. The fisherman was desperately trying to plug a hole in the bottom of the boat to stop water gushing, yes, literally gushing, around our feet and when we asked what safety precautions they had taken, he said “we have spare engine and mobile phone.” I could not imagine that we were remotely in range of phone signal, and simply had to close my eyes and wish the next couple of hours quickly by.

The boat to Zanzibar

The boat to Zanzibar

In contrast, the journey back in the same small boat was delightful. The sea was calm, the sun bright and we were lucky enough to have a few curious visitors swim alongside the bow momentarily; I’m sure you can guess whom…

Finally on dry land...

Finally on dry land…

Zanzibar gave rise to mixed feelings in us. It was a pensive time as we were trying to make decisions about whether to go home, postpone the rest of the trip or battle on. We hugely enjoyed the more rugged beaches of the North, Nungwi, and in true Harry and Anneka style, cart-wheeled into the waves, did headstands on the sand and I attempted dives from the top of Harry’s shoulders. The famous Stone Town was left rather undiscovered, both of us seeking less people, more peace. We circumnavigated the island in a terrible hire car that I reveled in ragging along the sandy lanes. One fantastic rest spot worth a mention was Selous Beach Huts on the North East of the island, a bar built from an old boat, cocktails to die for, cute airy huts and a sweeping, silent beach. Its’ perfection must have had something to do with the female English manager!

Happy Gallavanting Hirecar...

We were lucky to experience Zanzibar before the peak season hit, and in remote corners enjoyed having the clear blue water and pristine soft sand to ourselves. It was, however, hard to ignore the string of commercial resorts littering the shores and once again we mused over what the place may have been like 20 years ago. All of Zanzibar was once a coral atoll beneath the sea and the now exposed cliffs of dead polyps were quite a sight. The young boys of the island impressed us with their daily acrobatic workouts on the beach: an activity that is so ubiquitous that it could only have arisen from the fact that there just ‘ain’t much else to do!

Thankfully on return to Pangani we found Ambi as we’d left her, albeit with an unfortunate party of ants inside; ‘Doom’ in hand, we drove on to Ruaha in Southern Tanzania. We totally underestimated the distance; in hindsight, Tanzania is huge, but we proudly managed to make Dar Es Salaam our first successfully avoided capital city.

Southern Tanzania

We had heard news that the UN were increasing their presence in the Congo due to ongoing unrest in Africa’s dark heart and true to form, the very next day we were held up by a 20-vehicle-strong convoy making their way along the Western road to the Congolese border. Brand new armored vehicles, ambulances and supply trucks were all being transported on blacked out lorries interspersed with army escorts. This sight offered us a reminder of the darkness that still grips parts of Africa and the effort still needed to dispel it.

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Ruaha, in stark contrast with the northern parks, was far less visited, vast, and a complete breath of fresh air for our wild spirits. The rules and regulations were barely enforced and the unattended camps by the Ruaha River were the epitomy of calm. A shaggy male lion walked right in front of the headlights as we first drove in after dark, forced to drive in to a campsite as we were not allowed to camp outside the gate. We took advantage of a lodge owner’s unparalleled knowledge of birds and enjoyed a magical nighttime visit from two young bull elephants. To vary the mass of prose I’m feeding you, here is a poem about that:

The elephants came at midnight,

To the netted window we flew.

Under the full pearly moonlight,

A memorable image they drew.

Munching a tree right beside us,

And peering right in through the net,

We held all our breaths inside us,

As out to the river they set.

Away from the herd, two young males,

Bounding freely about the camp,

As if they’d been downing the ales,

Brawling whilst getting feet damp.

They twisted their trunks in a lock

And dug bulky heels in the mud,

Took weight of each other in mock

And tested their strength as they stood.

We watched them for some treasured time

Jostling in the river’s shallows

A grand vendetta they did mime

So gently in moon-kissed hallows.

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First Impressions of ‘The Warm Heart’

After such a serene final experience in Tanzania, we were still fairly excited to be leaving and discovering the famously warm, friendly Malawi. Supposedly one of the poorest countries in Africa, Malawi surprised us with the lack of begging and prevalence of brick as opposed to mud huts as well the amount of money being pissed away on alcohol. Malawians are experts in retaining high spirits and made us laugh more than once when introducing themselves with names such as ‘Obvious’, ‘Blessings,’ ‘Health,’ ‘Gift’ and even ‘Cheapaschips.’ I heard later on from a Malawian woman that it is traditional to name your baby after how you feel after giving birth. I was therefore surprised not to meet more people called ‘Relief’ or ‘Tired’ and wondered about the nature of the ‘Cheapaschips’ episode…

My favourite baobabs, Usisya

My favourite baobabs, Usisya

Malawi is justifiably known as ‘Africa for Beginners’. It is not yet dominated by big safari companies, chains of lodges or activity organizations charging big dollars for each minute you spend there. You can ask a local fisherman to take you fishing in his dug-out canoe for a few hours and tip him 2000 kwatcha (£4) or go hiking in the hills with a local guy without him expecting any payment because he likes hiking. The national parks cost $5 entry per day, not $50 as in Tanzania and you can get a plate of decently cooked rice and beans for 300 kwatcha (60p.) It felt like a fairly modern African country in the sense that there was no talk of tribal history, renewable energy projects everywhere and aside from the irreplaceable chitenges, everyone was wearing hand-me-down T-shirts from the West: Clothing donated by missions and Western charities ends up on the market, priced affordably. I was lucky enough to find an Elvis Presley T-shirt, a Tinkerbell hoodie and some outstanding purple and black chequered jeans: Incredible! One of my favourite sights was an ageing woman carrying firewood, chitenge round her waist and on her head, and in between, a rebellious, black ‘Van Halen’ T-shirt. Respect Ma’am.

The Heights of Livingstonia

Falls near Livingstonia

Falls near Livingstonia

Harry and I took a calculated risk in encouraging a reluctant Ambi up a 15km scree-slope to reach Livingstonia, the eponymous colonial outpost. (Dr. Livingstone I presume…?) On the treacherous vertical cliff face overlooking Lake Malawi stand two impressive rest spots, Mushroom Farm and Lukwe. Both these campsites/lodges are unimaginably well equipped and self-sufficient given their remote, dramatic perch on the edge of the escarpment. With permaculture gardens, compost toilets, solar showers, perfectly flattened parking spots for overlanders and rooms that would comfortably house hobbits, not to mention the excellent food cooked on interesting kiln-like fires, we felt on top of the world. We hiked up to a towering waterfall and sat crouched in a cave behind the water watching it cascade before our eyes and late in the evening, lazed in hammocks hanging tentatively over the cliff. From this elevated position we were initially unaware of what monthly spectacle we would witness looking out over the lake. The rest of the world drifted away from my concern as I saw a full, dazzling red moon rise over a lake dotted with hundreds of sparkly lights from the fishermens’ oil lamps, mirroring the stars above. Why isn’t the moon red in Bristol?

From Livingstonia, looking over Lake Malawi

The red moon rising over the lake of stars…

We hiked a further few hours up to Livingstonia itself, a Scottish Presbyterian red brick hilltop lined with non-indigeneous pine trees planted in the days of Empire. It did not feel like Africa; the local women even baked scones that were so worthy a rival to Devonshire cream teas that we bought an entire bucket. (They cost less than 2p each.)

 

Is this Africa!?

Is this Africa!?

First Sight of Usisya

After this last cultural escapade, we drove on to Mzuzu to meet Tonderai, Managing Director of Temwa and decided to tackle the unrelenting road to Usisya, where Temwa is based.  We were determined to complete the treacherous off-road track through the mountains before sundown, straddling deep crevices and dodging large boulders. On this occasion it was not Ambi that faltered but the scantily serviced Temwa car guiding us that burst a tyre. Whilst Moyo, the driver, switched it for the spare in a jiffy, we took in our first view of the serene sandy Usisya, lapped by the clear blue lake. On the last downhill stretch into the village Ambi gave a sigh of relief that took the form of radical brake failure. We put this troubling issue to the back of our minds for the time being, as she was going to be laid to rest for a few months.

The road to Usisya

The road to Usisya

By this stage Harry had booked his flight back home and we had just two days in Usisya to accustom ourselves to the reality that we would be apart for a while after spending such an intense time in close-quarters. Juxtaposed to us wanting to kill each other at various stages on the trip, we had a blissful couple of days on the beach, I was thrilled to have Harry by my side meeting the Temwa crew and tears rolled when we hugged goodbye.

I have written about my time in Malawi on a separate page because the experience felt quite apart from the momentum of the trip.  To remain in one African country for 3 months, alone, was a vastly different adventure and I learnt things about Malawi that we did not have the time to uncover in other countries. In brief, I spent the first 6 weeks in Usisya getting to know the Temwa team, visiting and joining in on their projects. After long (expensive!) phone calls with Harry about the most sensible plan of action, we then decided that I would stay out in Africa and await his return, to complete our journey this year. I spent the next month travelling around Northern Malawi, helping out at various lodges and had a delightful spontaneous visit from my dear Mum and brother, our first family holiday abroad since I was 7!

Reunion at Last

As for Team Harry and Anneka, our road trip was put on hold until mid August when Harry returned, refreshed from the West and full of renewed energy and drive. We reunited outside a restaurant in Mzuzu with a very long, overdue hug, much to the amusement of young women selling their vegetables nearby. Surreal to see each other again, both knowing we had undergone a vastly contrasting last 3 months, we were anticipant of the next part of our journey and headed to Usisya to collect Ambi. Getting there proved difficult to organize; my visa was running out and we were short of time. Thankfully a jolly Welshman named Gareth was easily persuaded to drive the rough road in his bright yellow Volkswagen camper. We would never have made it had the road not been worked on very recently: Harry was thrilled to see that getting Ambi out again would be nowhere near the struggle of the journey there.

Happy campers

Happy campers

We had a great last supper with Dani and Gareth, culminating in the latter leading us in a chorus of Frank Turner anthems, at the top of his lungs.  We thanked Temwa and Harry donated a football and a netball for the local children, before setting off again! Ambi was raring to go: One night in Mzuzu then to the closest part of Zambia: Mqocha, a remote border crossing on dirt road that no one we asked seemed to have heard of. It only occurred to us as we approached that this crossing may be too remote to even stamp our carnet de passage, but actually, it was the easiest, friendliest, quickest crossing we had encountered.

 

Showtime at South Luangwa

Harry had not yet been back a week and we were already heading into a National Park. South Luangwa was unlike any we had been to so far. We camped outside the park at Croc Valley; being situated on the other side of the river made no difference to the elephants crossing and parading through the camp, or the baboons clanging branches on the roof in the early morning sun. Bliss: We were back in the wild. The audacity of the South Luangwan elephants was a new experience for us. We had only parked up for 10 minutes when a roaming young bull sniffed out our fresh vegetables and tried to get his trunk in the back of the van. The guards were vigilant and quick to scare him away with shouting and rock throwing. At Croc Valley very recently, one of the elephants had helped itself to a plate of chilli con carne. Afterwards, perhaps because of the spicyness or his recalling the fact that he is an herbivore, he trumpeted it all over all the guests in the restaurant.

'Avin a giraffe?

‘Avin a giraffe? South Luangwa

Stories such as this about these affectionately named, Ellies, were very amusing, however there is a real risk of cars being upturned if they can smell food inside. There was much talk about the notion that the Ellies should fear humans and naturally stay away from the camp, however, the camps have been built within their territory and we perhaps have to respect their dominance. Always having believed that lions were king of the savannah, we later witnessed lions sleepily getting up from a comfortable snooze and moving out of the way to let elephants pass. I think that their sheer size says it all, really.

The elephants came to tea

The elephants came to tea

We were subjected to various counts of huge generosity while visiting South Luangwa. Croc Valley made no record of our arrival so only charged us for 2 nights camping instead of 4 and a very friendly South African fellow camper lent me The Birds of Southern Africa with trust that I would return it to him in a few months in Johannesburg. This book revolutionized my bird watching and I was already spotting various new species on the river that afternoon.

White-fronted Bee-eaters

White-fronted Bee-eaters

We did a great morning safari walk and learnt about the ‘Small 5’ (Buffalo Weaver, Lion Ant, Rhino Beetle, Leopard Tortoise and the Elephant Shrew) and the ‘Green 5’ (Buffalo Beans, Lion Tail Grass, Rhino Thistle, Leopard Orchid and Elephant Grass.) Our slightly eccentric French walking companion, Basil, also accompanied us on an afternoon drive where the density of the wildlife was simply astounding. Vista after vista of elephants, giraffe, buffalo, zebra, various antelope, stunning flocks of Southern Carmine Bee-eaters and lots of birds of prey.

Taking a rest

Taking a rest

We ventured much further on our next day in the park and got ourselves into a minor pickle. We presumed that we could cross the river further east and camp outside the park again, but there was no crossing and we could not make it back to the main gate before nightfall. Generously, Nicole at Kaingo Camp took pity on us and welcomed us in; her only concern was that she might not have enough lamp chops. We were escorted to dinner with six other guests, all older Europeans, mostly photographers. It was a bit like an interview; we were the spritely young couple who’d spontaneously arrived in our own vehicle in the dark, and our journey was (slightly overwhelmingly) the talk of the evening.

Our minor pickle had worked out well. We had been treated to a posh lodge experience without a hefty bill and were in the perfect location to go hunting big cats early in the morning, and so we did.  It seemed to me that those rangers or guides lucky enough to see really wild and exciting things are the ones that are in the bush day after day, year after year. It felt like 8 months in Africa was finally being rewarded: we were lucky enough to witness three lionesses take down a Puku (small antelope) right in front of us.

The kill

The kill

The drama of the kill itself did not shock me so much, rather the teamwork of the lionesses and the way they used the environment to their advantage. They had spaced themselves out along the river, with about 50m in between each other. The one closest to us began to drive a petrified Puku towards the river in a hasty chase and when she tired, the second lioness took over the chase. The third waited until the Puku thought it had got away, and sprinted out of the bush (we did not even know she was there until this moment!) to trap the poor antelope with water on one side and three lionesses on the other. As instinct determined, the Puku made a run for it anyhow like in a game of ‘Bull-Dog’ but failed to breach the attacking barrier and the third lioness locked her chops around its’ neck kicking up a huge cloud of dust in the process.

Snack-time

Snack-time

As the dust cleared the lioness dragged the prize up onto the dirt road about 10m in front of us. She pinned the Puku down, her body hiding more than half of it from view, while her compadres greedily and speedily tore apart their share and gulped it down. The understanding between the 3 ladies was evident: After the other two had eaten almost half of the Puku, the one who had made the kill growled and took her half that she had been sitting on, into the bush for herself. Fair enough, I thought. The other two lionesses individually took a last bone each with adjoining stringy sinews and capered off into the bush as well. We quickly saw why they had adapted to eating quickly: the vultures descended in a matter of minutes and hyenas would not be far behind.

Messy chops

Messy chops

Perhaps unconventionally, a stealthy Fish Eagle got the last scrap of meat and whisked up into a tree to devour it. True to form the vultures made a lot of noise, hung around the bloody kill sight and seemed rather dumbfounded to why they were late again. It had all happened so fast; after 5 minutes you could barely still see the blood on the lioness’s muzzle.

None left for us!?

None left for us!?

Returning to Kaingo for breakfast, we had unintentionally garnered the best story to share from the morning game drive, the Europeans all slightly disgruntled that they had been watching the rest of the pride of lions lazing in the shade only a kilometer downriver. It just so happened that that morning in particular, we found ourselves in the right place, at the right time, and we were lucky.

The pride

The pride

Looking for our Leopard…

We had been in and around South Luangwa for almost a week and still not seen a leopard, even though the latest survey of this park concluded that there is at least one per every square kilometer: a higher leopard density than any park in Africa. We decided to take just one more chance and do one last night drive… And it paid off.

The sun still in the sky at the close of a hazy afternoon, we drove down narrow, wooded trails through what looked like perfect leopard territory: shady trees close to the river and lots of prey around. I had almost lost hope, checking every single tree with my binoculars, but the moment came when the shape I saw in the shade of one tree did not look like a branch or gnarly bit of trunk at all: It was a cat’s hindquarters, and its’ ears popped up at the sound of our engine. “Stop, stop stop!!” I almost fell off the bonnet with excitement.

Spotted

Spotted

It was indeed a beautiful leopard, calmly sat on a horizontal branch. To our astonishment, a second, bigger, male leopard clawed his way up the tree and lay next to the first. Just as we were wondering whether we had been so lucky as to find a mating pair, a third, smaller leopard also bounded up the tree, meaning that this must be a mother and cubs. I wondered how long it would be before the mother leaves these two cubs, they looked big enough to make a kill for themselves now. However, size isn’t everything; the mother keeps the cubs until they are about 3 years old and have developed the skill set required, for example, to drag an antelope up a tree to store for later, away from hyenas or the prying eyes of vultures. Cunning cats…

The female cub nonchalantly slumped herself over a branch with her chin perched on a knobbly bit of bark and her four legs dangling down either side. She went to sleep while her brother stayed alert: perhaps still a little inattentive to be ready to fend for herself.

The happy family

The happy family

We watched the delightful trio for almost an hour, and when dusk settled, they descended from their perch to hide in the grasses and begin their evening’s hunting. We tried to follow the rasping sounds of the young male confusedly attempting to mount his unimpressed mother, but they moved away, deeper into the bush.

I was overjoyed to have finally seen the ‘Big 5’ and was all the more happy that we had spotted the leopards ourselves. South Luangwa is reputably good for viewing cats and it certainly did us proud.  The elusive cheetah still remains high on our list and Chobe National Park, soon on our agenda might just be the place.

We were in the South Luangwa area for over a week due to a petrol shortage and had to resort to buying black market fuel again to be able to do our game drives and make our way out. Thankfully, this time, the black market petrol looked and smelt like petrol, was not pink nor kerosene and Ambi was glad.

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From there we decided to take a recommendation from an adventurous South African couple, Ashley and Tara, to seek out Fabian’s workshop here in Lusaka. Although the foolish Zambian boys working under the trusty Fabian have broken all sorts of small bits of Ambi in the process of fixing the big issues, we have her back from the workshop and plan to leave Lusaka tomorrow. Harry is very excited about his latest purchase, a ‘Hella’ spotlamp that runs off the 12V car plug. If cheetah have suddenly changed a millennia of behaviour to hunt only in the dark, we are now equipped!

I am impressed that you have made it to the end of another lengthy post… I promise from now on to try to post shorter posts more often, as has been suggested by a few readers!

Huge love to all back in Blighty. Thinking of you all. I’m sure we’ll come home one of these days!

xxxx

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Breaking News!

Moni!

We’re in Malawi. A breathtaking country boasting Africa’s third largest lake, sweeping cliff top views and the reddest, most thoroughly seductive moonrises we’ve encountered thus far. Appropriate then that we have decided to pause the trip here, stashing Ambi with Temwa on the shores of Usisya just north of Nkhata Bay. Hopefully she will not be rendered a wheel-less carcass prior to our return!

Whilst I am routing through Lusaka before returning to London tomorrow (6th June), Anneka has decided to make the most of her talents and time and will stay safely ensconced with Temwa, assisting in whatever way she can. Primarily in the library and with the aids awareness groups. She plans to return to the UK towards the end of June. Phase 2 of our trip will commence when weather conditions are favourable. The rains batter Malawi from December through till May making our exit road impassable whilst escaping early towards Zambia and Namibia in October may be perilous; it is widely referred to as the suicide month due to the inescapable heat.

FYI The tracker is not active in Malawi. Also Anneka has very little access to email where she is in Usisya but sends all her love xx

This little vid is for all the cheeky children x

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Day 113: Arusha

Habari!

After our third sweep through Kigali we headed south-east out of Rwanda via the bridge at Rusumo Falls. In 1994 this crossing served as the funnel through which an estimated 500,000 Rwandans – half of them within one 24 hour period – fled from their home country to refugee camps around Ngala and elsewhere in northwest Tanzania. Journalists reporting on the exodus described standing on the bridge and counting the bloated bodies of genocide victims tumbling over the waterfall at a rate of one or two per minute. 

From that thought-provoking border post, Ambi has followed the initial plan for once and ferried us into Tanzania and around the south shores of Lake Victoria. We enjoyed a beautiful lakeside camp in Mwanza, Tanzania’s second largest city, before crossing the vast plains of the Serengeti, stumbling through Olduvai Gorge and the Ngorongoro Crater, then venturing over the lava flows of Ol Doinyo Lengai to Lake Natron. Now our rump rests in Maserani Snake Park, a fantastic camp 25km west of Arusha run by two South African veterans, Ma & BJ. As eager as I am to tell the tantalising tale of our wild experience in northern Tanzania, there is still much to say about Rwanda…

Beautiful Rwanda

Despite her traumatic recent history and the absence of a free press, the Land of a Thousand Hills seems to have it all: Ancient rainforest, volcanic mountain tops, pristine lakes, clean developed cities, smooth tarmac roads, lush green tea plantations, beautiful birds, grassy plains, swampy marshlands and best of all, gorillas. Our time there included my most astounding interaction with an animal, the most stunning lakeside drive of our whole trip, and treks through some of the oldest montane forest in the world.

Nyungwe Forest Reserve

We were to learn that Nyungwe is run rather differently to the Game Parks we had previously visited. Instead of paying entrance fees, you pay to do certain activities such as ‘Golden Monkey tracking’: $90 or a ‘canopy walk’: $60. We arrived just before sunset and played dumb, taking ourselves on the canopy walk trail and succeeding in avoiding the fees. We were impressed by the many delicate vibrant flowers and variety of ancient trees and had some childish fun jumping on the precarious walkway in attempt to upset each other’s balance. A smooth tarmac road wound its way through the forest and as we floated by we saw a loud group of Great Blue Turacos and a troop of L’Hoest monkeys. We actually saw more wildlife in the clearings around the roadside than when walking in the dense forest.

We made camp and the following morning placated the quizzical rangers at the park office by booking an ‘activity’; chimpanzee tracking in the nearby Cyamudongo forest. (There are also chimps in Nyungwe however it appears that the rangers have ‘lost’ them and can no longer be bothered to take people tracking there.) With this diversion in place, we snuck off for another covert walk, this time up Mount Bigogu, the highest peak in the mountain range. After the treacherous trekking in Nechisar Park, my stamina seemed to have improved!

Trampling through ferns, bracken, mossy swamp and clambering up ridges, we continually followed the little pink ribbons that marked the trail and emerged through the cloud to the top. There we found a ranger’s post with a high metal fence surrounding it – apparently to protect the meteorological equipment – and we seemed to disturb a very bored ranger taking an afternoon nap. He was glad of the visit and unbothered by the fact we had ventured up there without a guide, perhaps because we shared ginger biscuits and precious toffees with him. He was all too eager to shake my hand for a long time, possibly having been rather starved of female company whilst holding a lonely post atop a mountain.

I have decided that I much prefer hiking mountains to gorges – after the tough ascent you know its all downhill! In good spirits we retraced our footprints back to Ambi, peering through the foliage towards the end to spy any angry rangers waiting to claim money from us. Thankfully, our second cheeky jaunt had also gone unnoticed and we felt proud of our cunning though slightly sad to have missed any monkeys.

The Pan Troglodytes

The day before our trip to Cyamudongo we caused confusion in the park H.Q. when we resolved to camp in front of their office in preparation for our 4.30am departure the following day. Significantly this was not one of the ‘products’ on the park’s price list! There was lots of talk about what to charge the strange mzungos (‘white travellers’) who wanted to sleep in their car, so much so that in the end it was free. The only way to track chimpanzees effectively is to know where they make their nest the night before and be there at dawn – once on the move they cross ground very quickly and, in the thick forest, it is almost impossible to keep up with them. It is also worth remembering that they are not fond of human company. Given what we learnt at the chimp sanctuary in Kenya this is not surprising and one could argue that a fear of humans is an entirely healthy disposition for a chimp to have. It has taken the rangers 4 years of approaching them every day for them to become comfortable with human visitors.

Harry commented on the sad fact that the chimps had been ‘islandised’ in this 4km2 hilltop forest. Once part of a far larger area, it is no coincidence that it is the easiest place to track them in the country, it is also the most isolated. Tea plantations and human settlements have encroached further and further, felling trees to fuel their growth. Nevertheless, our first sight of a chimp casually lain against a tree trunk high up in the canopy gazing out over the valley was otherworldly. A debate ensued about whether or not our closest relatives have a keen aesthetic sense and I thought that this was sight enough to show that they do. The young male let us watch him from the forest floor for a while before appetite got the better of him, at which point he dropped down the tree-trunk, gorged himself on a cornucopia of figs and headed off into the undergrowth.

Following the troop’s shrieks we trekked down into thicker forest, off the trail and through the bush, where shoulder-high nettles and winding vines attempted to trip us with every scrambling step. There we saw three more chimps cavorting around in the treetops before swiftly swinging down to the ground to move off on their knuckles. I marvelled at their hands and feet – so similar to ours as they grabbed fruit and branches with their ever so valuable opposable thumbs. The rest of our group did not seem keen to trek on through the dense undergrowth in an attempt to find the main body of the troop so unfortunately we ended there but were left feeling happy to have had a face to face with a free chimp.

Lake Kivu

After taking some advice about the standard of the dirt road, we headed back north along the shores of Lake Kivu, which marks the border with the D.R.C (formerly Zaire.) This route wound its’ way up and down the hills and around the edge of this stunning though foreboding lake. Set in the Albertine Rift, the western arm of the Great Rift Valley, Lake Kivu contains so much dissolved methane and CO2 as a result of ongoing volcanic activity beneath its bed, that it possesses explosive capabilities. I was mesmerised, at every turn another breath-taking vista came into view. Our camera failed to capture it. We spent a night in Kibuye where we met a well-seasoned Auzzie couple, Greg and Emma. Whilst listening to their plans to travel by public transport from S.A. to Singapore, we watched as the sky was lit red by the largest lava lake in the world, that of Mount Nyiragongo in the D.R.C.

Gorillas in the Mist

As we headed back north to Kigali and the R.D.B. (Rwandan Development Board) office we grew more and more excited. After exchanging more Abrahams than I care to think about for our triplicate permits, we made for the Parc Nationale des Volcans in northwest Rwanda. Keen to be free of any camera wielding, unseasoned Americans, we opted to visit the ‘Sousa’ group: the largest habituated family of gorillas and also often the furthest from the trailhead. This fact acts as a notable annoying tourist filter. Not only were we given an expert guide who had known the Sousa group for 16 years, but also to my delight, the group had nested only a two-hour hike away the previous night. Our guide, D, explained that during the rains the gorillas are most often found on the top edge of the bamboo forest where other leafy vegetation begins: They like to combine new bamboo shoots with other leaves to make a healthy salad and will keep alternating between the two areas to balance their diet.

As we approached, D made some low grunting sounds to announce our arrival and see if the gorillas were in a good mood. We received the appropriate grunts back, meaning that we could proceed. Before our first meeting, I had no idea that we would be able to get so close to the gorillas and that they would be so interested in us. One friendly fellow took a liking to me, stroking my hair then smelling his hand while another was very interested in Harry’s video camera, trying to steal it from him! After an initial slap on the thigh when one tumbled past me (D said that this behaviour was just ‘showing off’) I was amazed at how gentle they were; when one grabbed my arm it was a slow soft grasp. The females were the grumpiest!

These huge creatures seemed incredibly at ease with our visit and D had to pull me back a couple of times to stop us getting too well acquainted. To be directly face to face with a bulky gorilla that could easily rip your head off if he so desired was altogether scary but overwhelmingly exciting. I felt like my heart had literally stopped beating as I tried to stay still and keep eye contact with my new friend. Before our precious hour was up, we were treated to a playful display from ‘the twins’ who were only three years old. They would climb up a flimsy tree then launch themselves to the ground, flinging the branches back, making a lot of noise. I thought that it was interesting that a few of the youngsters liked to hang around with the big silverback, who played a very caring fatherly role. And he really was HUGE, weighing 280kg. I was only sad that the hour went by so quickly and we had to say goodbye.

Red Rocks

Our last couple of days in Rwanda were spent at ‘Red Rocks’ – a backpackers/campsite that also runs community projects including art classes for local children. They were a friendly bunch and some of the girls even took on the lengthy task of braiding my hair! I was touched when one of them asked me: “Do you have your parents?” So many young Rwandans were orphaned by the 1994 genocide and now live with other surviving relatives or friends. Supportive community centres such as Red Rocks play a key role in enriching these girls’ lives and giving them a social hub and new opportunities.

Into Tanzania

Contrary to what we had prepared ourselves for, the route into Tanzania was well paved albeit severely potholed. The border crossing was a swift no-nonsense affair and we soon found ourselves bumbling along towards Mwanza, on the southern shore of Lake Victoria. Although there is now a circuitous tarmac road to Mwanza, for some reason we chose to take the lakeside route, a dirt track with huge crevices carved by the tumultuous rain. Cursing our decision a few times, we were overtaken by a tractor and decided to turn back to take a comparatively better dirt road to Kamanga where we could catch a ferry across the gulf.

We camped at the old Mwanza Yacht Club: once a busy, competitive club frequented by British old-boys, but now more of an ex-pats drinking hole. It was one of the best campsites we had visited: it was right on the lake with an array of kingfishers and darters skimming the water, we had a palm tree-bordered view of Mwanza, free canoes to take out for a paddle and all-importantly, a washing line. We spent a couple of days there catching our breath, gazing serenely out at the water accompanied on the jetty by a couple of monitor lizards. After a stroll into town we returned with Pacho and Mocha, two local artists whom we commissioned to give Ambi some new décor.

The Serene Serengeti

The drive from Mwanza through the definitive African landscape that is the Serengeti National Park was one of the main motivators behind this trip: vast plains, acacia trees, high dry grasses, water holes and kopjes (volcanic rocks protruding from the ground that act as Pride Rock for many a lion) spread as far as the eye can see. It was hard not to hum ‘The Circle of Life’ as we crossed this still uninhabited paradise, by and large the same as it has been for millions of years.

Huge herds of zebra, nervous harems of impala and grumpy-looking buffalo littered the grassy floor whilst eagles, vultures and an array of stunningly colourful smaller birds such as the Lilac-Breasted Roller filled the skies. At the few river crossings we came to, the biggest crocs we had ever seen lay side by side along the banks and the cool pools under the harsh sun were full of lazy hippos. We had a special experience with a herd of elephant when the long-tusked matriarch led the group closer and closer to us over half an hour or so, clearly curious about the strange big blue box that is Ambi.

We came across two prides of lions relaxing in the heat of the day atop their resident kopjes and watched the cubs tumbling over each other in play on the rocks and their flickering tails just visible above the tall grasses near their mother sleeping (with one eye open.) Although gutted to have still not spotted a leopard or cheetah (a hard task after wet season when the grass is high,) we were incredibly lucky to see a beautifully patterned Serval Cat who crossed the track just in front of us.

Another memorable sighting was a huge Tawny Eagle Owl perched on a tree trunk just by the roadside at dusk. He turned his head all the way around to check what we were up to and otherwise remained exactly still for the half hour or so that we watched him.

Every now and then mongoose would cross the road in front of us and we learnt that when there is one, a few more always follow. We also caught up with a tortoise using the road as a flat highway and when we pulled up beside him, he retreated into his shell in fear presumably hoping that we would mistake him for a rock.

We also saw some very cute Bat-Eared Foxes, Black-Backed Jackals which had beautiful smooth coats and in stark contrast, a ragged mangy Spotted Hyena. At one point, we had to slow down for an elegant Secretary Bird (Harry’s favourite bird) that was using the road for a running take-off. All in all, we discovered that it is true that the Serengeti has one of the densest and most varied wildlife populations on the planet.

We spent three days trundling through and on the last day, near Naabi Gate where we would enter the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, I said to Harry for the second time: “Is that just heat haze on the horizon!?” This time, it was not… it was the wildebeest migration. As far as the eye could see there were wildebeest (referred to as Gnus by the Maasai.) We climbed Naabi Hill at the Gate to get a better view and were astounded at the sheer numbers; they covered the plains for more than a 180-degree vista and stretched into the distance until they were a blur of dots in the haze. Wow. Further along the road we met some of them as they crossed our path. Their drive to run, seemingly unnecessarily, is bewildering. We later learnt that it is the zebra working alongside that actually navigate and motivate the migration as they have excellent memories, whilst the wildebeest have an accurate sense of where there is water.

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area

The road off Naabi Hill into the conservation area was perforated by the worst corrugation we had come across, we went slowly but were happy to be distracted by the many Maasai grazing their herds on the land whilst other grazers went about their business. When Harry asked a Maasai mzee why they did not eat the gazelle, impala or gnus, he said they were fit only ‘for the dogs’ and that it was not traditional. I could not help but reflect that blind traditions may have their uses after all. Having smilingly got away with not naming a camp as a destination we were free to camp wherever, as long as a ranger did not see us! Harry liked the look of a small hill that had some tracks going up it; not exactly a subtle camp spot but the view over Olduvai Gorge and towards the crater highlands was exceptional. Our spot was near a Maasai boma (a circle of thorny acacia branches built to enclose their animals) so it was only polite to get tribal permission to camp on their land.

A man was already striding towards us across a huge cleft in the hill that sadly looked like it had been quarried, inevitably followed by a few excitable children. Harry led the interaction and with very limited shared language, mimed “can we sleep on your hill?” The Maasai chief seemed delighted at the prospect and invited us to look at his boma, his many goats and also his wives and children. We politely went along and marvelled at the many goats in his herd, complimenting them and their number as much as his children. We gave him a small amount of money in gratitude and were left to our own devices to make dinner and go to bed. Or so we thought… The children were very interested in us, keen for gifts of biscuits, sweets, chocolate or anything they could get and the trek up the hill was no deterrence. We pacified them with our trip cards, sewing kits, some black bananas and a photo shoot outside the van and then had no choice but to usher them away, using the very useful Maasai word ‘Serena!’ (Goodbye!) They still peered through the windows in fascination at our cosy little house for a while longer before nightfall, and the bogeyman that is Harry, scared them back to the boma.

We woke early next morning so as to maintain the illusion that we had been out on an early drive, rather than reveal the truth of our having spent the night on the hill. These rangers are a capricious bunch. With no one but Maasai in sight we made breakfast and were soon greeted by the tribal chief once again. He decided to take us on a walk through Olduvai Gorge. He pointed out leopard tracks in the sand but gestured not to worry as they had gone in the other direction, plus, he wielded a hefty spear. It was a stunning start to the day. He showed us another toothbrush tree, using his knife to cut a stem and scrape the bark off one end to rub against our teeth: a natural antibacterial. He also mimed how they use the aloe vera plants to make alcohol when they mix it with honey and jabbed an acacia tree with his spear to show us the sap that emerges: a healing ointment for skin conditions. This combined with the amount of fossilised wood and bone strewn around the area made for a fascinating walk.

Our Maasai friend was keen for us to come back to the boma and drink cow’s milk and blood with him, traditionally the Maasai’s main source of nourishment. We politely declined the blood but had a taste of a milky oat drink that they had prepared for brekkie. Oats are not traditionally part of their diet but many families now get some supplies from town with the money they make from tourists.

Thankful to the Maasai for sharing some genuine aspects of their lifestyle with us, we purchased a spear from them and gratefully received gifts of the famous beaded jewellery that the women make. They were adamant that we should return to stay with them a second night but given the park fees and the state of the road we had to keep moving. We carried on to the Olduvai Gorge Museum where we wrestled with the implications of Louis and Mary Leakey’s exceptional work. We also had the closest look we could at the famous hominid footprints of Laetoli. Unfortunately the actual site has now been re-covered to protect the footprints from the elements and the all-pervasive acacia roots.

The small museum was excellent. It contained bones and fossils of many extinct species of animal that used to walk the Serengeti plains: a three-toed horse (the Hyperion of Hamlet fame), a giant giraffe with large sweeping horns and antelopes twice the size of a buffalo.

The gorge is about 50km long and, due to changing tectonic activity and the flow of water, now reaches a depth of up to 90 meters. As a result the six geologically distinct ‘beds’ that have been exposed above the black basalt at the base of the gorge, map a period going back 1.9 million years. As layers of volcanic ash and rock were laid down in sequence between sedimentary layers, fossils were preserved from each era. We learnt how Homo habilis and Australopithecus boisei had lived side by side, the former being smaller but with a larger 600cc brain and the latter much bulkier but with a smaller 500cc brain. Homo habilis remains have been found in layers containing huge numbers of stone hand axes, hence the name ‘handyman’. By a point roughly 1.5 million years ago Homo habilis had evolved into Homo erectus and Australopithecus boisei had disappeared from the fossil record. Make of that what you will. The most recent skeleton found dates to 17,000 years old and is that of Homo sapiens, a modern man.

Eager to walk the area where the first hominids had stepped, we wandered off through the gorge following a trail and signs to the archaeological sites. This seemed a harmless activity, as did the further walk we took up the other side of the gorge, through a (remarkably modern) Maasai village and out onto the plains towards the crater highlands.

However, it was clearly a big problem. After two or three clicks a man, panting and out of breath caught us up and cocked a rifle, pointing it at us. “Get back!” He shouted persistently. We calmly asked what the problem was but this was as a red rag to a bull. He started counting to three whilst aiming the gun at us. Harry was rightfully angry to be approached in this way but I suggested maybe we should just retreat a little since we were actually being held at gunpoint.

This man was not someone to reason with… Another turned up who spoke far better English and was asking us who gave us permission to go walking by ourselves. He did not seem to understand the possibility that we had just seen a path and walked it alone, not coming up against anything that said we could not do so. There had to be someone to blame who let this happen… We were marched back to the office by the museum, well technically not – we moved far quicker than these two men and arrived long before them. However, on arrival we had to sit like naughty school children and explain our actions to the area manager. They even asked us to write on paper what had happened to give to the Conservation Area manager!

We did not think it was a big deal and Harry had to restrain himself from attacking with all the rational power he could muster. We were happy to take responsibility for ourselves and it was clearly a fairly safe area as young Maasai children were grazing their goats on the plains where we were walking. “You come from England and think you know everything about this land!” The chief kept shouting at us. We claimed that this was not the case and we just went for a short walk… Eager to end this painful interaction we agreed to pay a $20 fine to cover what we should have paid a guide. However we refused to pay the extra $50 they wanted for ‘disturbing an archaeological site’. Harry had unthinkingly produced a fossilised bone from his pocket, rescued from the path of a truck passing through the site… After a pointless debate about whether we would pick up a lion because it was in the road and at risk, and growing tired trying to illustrate the complex differences between the animate and the inanimate, Harry insisted that this was not a serious problem, that we were never intending to keep the fossil and we could put it back in harm’s way on the ground near where we found it. (I kept the other pretty rocks and smaller fossils in my pocket well hidden.)

Tails between our legs, we drove off, ranting to each other about how ridiculous it all was and how inappropriate the use of the rifle was. If the guard was coming to protect us from wild animals why aim the gun at us!? It was a total abuse of his position; he should have lost his job immediately for acting in that way. Then again, there was perhaps a small possibility in their minds that we were poachers… All that we could conclude was that there is no logic: This is Africa.

“Respect my Office!”

We carried on towards the Ngorongoro crater and after deciding against camping in the brooding rains on the crater rim, stayed at the very friendly Rhino Lodge, a cosy spot run in conjunction with the Maasai. Eager to forget the irritating events of the day before, we drove to the main HQ early in the morning to buy a permit to enter the crater, the geological gem of the area. On having our current permits checked we were once again ushered into an office, this time of the chief warden of the whole Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

He was not a pleasant man: “Would I come to your house and just go wandering around upstairs without your permission!?” He was speaking as if the Conservation Area was his own back garden. I calmly explained that we had dealt with the issue yesterday, agreed to pay a fine, were sorry and that was it… “So now you are disrespecting my office!!” The conversation escalated… He ranted about his visit to England and how many regulations he had to follow there (clearly still carrying a big chip on his shoulder) and kept insulting us: “You people come here and think you know everything, well you don’t! You know nothing!”

Harry was at the end of his tether: “Maybe we should just leave the area now…” “Yes, that is what I want you to do!” The Bantu boss firmly responded. “We were going to pay another $200 to go into the crater but maybe it is better that we leave…” “Oh, you want to go into the crater? In that case you can pay the $200 and leave after.” The corruption was rife. This man did not care about the principles or whether we should be kicked out for breaking the rules; he was eager to make more money and at the end of the day, that is what we are to these sorts of people, dollar signs. He took absolutely no notice of our statement about the man who pointed a rifle at us and said casually that we could go and tell the police in Arusha or whoever we wanted, he didn’t care.

It is understandable that these areas of natural beauty and archaeological significance are protected and there are entrance fees to visit them, but I could not help but see it as a perverted use of the precious land to make money. Our unfortunate interactions had drably coloured our spirits and it took most of the beautiful drive down into the crater to get over it. The sight of flamingos on Lake Makat and the surreal landscape in the crater soon helped us forget about it and we were treated in the afternoon to our closest encounter with a big cat yet.

Six lions, three female, three male, were lazily snoozing in the sun right next to the track and were quite nonchalant about the presence of three cars. They rolled over, pawed the flies away from their eyes, stretched out, yawned and were simply delightful to watch for an hour. It was remarkable, being cat owners, just how familiar we were with every movement they made. I wanted to go and join in the cuddle pile and roll around in the grass with them! Our guide did not advise this… It was unsurprising that there were no grazing animals in a 300m or so radius all around the lions, these guys really are king: everything fears them.

Nearby we spotted two herds of elephants and were initially confused as matriarchal groups do not usually enter the crater, it being treacherous to bring their young down over the rim. These herds definitely had young elephants with them and we seemed to be experiencing a very rare occurrence; it is usually only lone bull males that come down here. The verdict was that they must have used the roads.

We left the area the following day, and cast in our role as naughty children, did so an hour or two later than our permit permitted. Thankfully we avoided paying another days’ fees by doctoring the forms. Having had enough of bureaucracy, we ventured towards the serene, less-visited area around Lake Natron. We camped near some Maasai again, this time interacting with two women who spoke no English but were thrilled to meet us and exchange some gifts. We gave them some pasta, miming what to do with it as they looked quite confused and they gave me a bracelet and later brought us some fresh milk, hopefully as a sign of having succeeded with the pasta.

In two minds about whether to take the awful, rocky road that crossed the lava-flows of Ol Doinyo Lengai, we persevered and in the end the reward justified the abuse that Ambi was put through. We drove right up to the edge of Lake Natron, which appeared to merge with the sky in a seamless tryst. We sat and looked at it in silence for a while, reminding us of something from ‘Life of Pi’. It is a unique caustic soda lake, no more than half a metre deep at any point, a still, shimmering mirror to the sky. Whilst being lethal to other life forms, it is a significant lake for flamingos and contains particular nutrients that turn their feathers pink. Since pinkness and an elaborate courtship ritual is the main criteria on which a mate is chosen, this lake is vital and over 3 million gather here from June to November. We watched a few permanent residents sifting their beaks in the unique way that they feed and found a few eggs laid in the reeds near the edge.

We reluctantly left the lakeside and followed a stream to where we had heard there was a waterfall, only to then be escorted the last kilometre over rocks and through the river on (wet) foot by a Maasai boy. Panting and sweating from the stifling, caustic heat of the day, we gladly stood under the waterfall cascading over us through a cleft in the rocks.

After a perfect day, we were once again bombarded with bureaucracy over dinner at a boma where we had camped. A Maasai man visited us to tell us that we had to visit his office. It seemed incredibly ironic to be told this by a tribal man in full robes and jewellery, but then he of course had a mobile phone on his belt.

We had paid district fees (‘tourist taxes’) at three road blocks (where there was no mention of reporting to an office) to reach Lake Natron, we had tipped our Maasai guide to the waterfall and we had paid to camp, surely there were no more fees that could be eked out of us!? When we explained this we received another: “You are having no respect for my office!” Coming from Maasai however, with whom we had previously had such peaceful and positive interactions, it was sad. The tribal people have seen how the Conservation Areas and National Parks work and they understandably want a piece of the pie. There is no Government or police stamp on this office that says we do have to pay (extensive) fees to visit the lake or go to the waterfall, but we were unsure what the Maasai might do if we refused. We did refuse however, and he refused to leave us to eat our dinner. Eventually I just said, “Fine, we will come to your office before we leave in the morning, please go now.” I hoped that the ‘office’ and the road barriers were run quite separately as it was fully within our intentions to just drive off in the morning.

We were up early, Harry having barely slept for planning what to do in every possible circumstance that might arise at the roadblock. Amazingly, the man smiled as we were fumbling for our receipt of the district fees and said “Ah, don’t worry, I remember your car.” He let us go straight away and we heard no more of the angry Maasai man and his office.

By nightfall we were having a beer in the friendly confines of the Maserai Snake Park campsite, run by a savvy South African couple, Ma and BJ. We spent three days there enjoying the peace and quiet, aside from the noises of lovebirds twittering in the trees, barn owls screeching at night and helmeted guineafowl pecking their way across the grass. We visited their snake park at feeding hour and watched Black Mambas gulp down some terrified fluffy chicks, held a baby Nile Crocodile , had a running race with a Goshawk and shook hands with a friendly Yellow Baboon. We are always hugely appreciative of rest spots like these, run by wise old hands who are the beating heart of the overlanding scene. For twenty years Ma, BJ & Deon have devoted themselves to the community. They have built a medical clinic that specialises in snakebites and burns and treats over a thousand patients a month, a Maasai museum, boreholes and classrooms.

More than half way through our trip, I am starting to miss home a little more. The freedom we have felt in other countries has been squashed in Tanzania by corrupt police stopping us regularly and checking for the silliest of little things to try and claim a fine (so far we have not paid a single bribe) and the high fees and bureaucratic nature of how areas are run. Ma and BJ were reminiscing about the good old days where you could just drive off into the bush, aware of the risks, but completely responsible for yourself with no one to answer to. It is sad how much the country has changed to shape itself for a certain kind of tourist visitor, and to quote Denys Finch Hatton in Out of Africa: “It will never be the same again.”

Having heard that the ‘main’ road south to Dodoma is terrible, we are forgoing Tarangire N.P. and are instead leaving to go south-east towards the Indian Ocean, considering a trip to Pemba Island, before then tracking south and back west to Iringa, through Ruaha National Park (apparently huge and barely any visitors) and then south into Malawi.

Love to everyone back home, we are thinking of you all. Particularly our great friend Ed ‘the shed’ Lowe who through misadventure, as was his adventure, is no longer with us. The process of coming to terms with this news hasn’t even begun.

Thanks for stopping by xx

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Day 104: A Brief Video Message

Shot in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya. Including tracks: Colonel Hathi’s March (The Jungle Book OST) & The Circle of Life (The Lion King OST)

We’re in the Serengeti heading east. The days ahead promise the delights of Oldupai Gorge and Laetoli… More to follow

x

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Day 91: Kigali

Salut!

Would you believe it! Even after everything that has befallen this little country, Rwanda still speaks French.

Before delving into the kaleidoscopic beauty of the place I should first fill in some significant gaps, Samburu National Reserve in Northern Kenya, Ol Pejeta Conservancy in the Laikipia region west of Mt Kenya and our antics on the White Nile in Bujagali, Uganda.

Samburu National Reserve

Arriving at Larsen’s Camp in Samburu after the hell of the Moyale road was akin to plunging into a perfect hot bubble bath at the end of a filthy, arduous day. Enjoying the glorious flat, sandy tracks, we followed the lead of another vehicle and pointed our binoculars in the same direction, only to espy three elegant lionesses sunning themselves on some rocks amid the grasses. Our first hour in a game park (discounting the wilderness that is Nechisar) and Bam! Lions! Unbelievable. We approached and a few minutes later the lionesses slowly padded through the grasses towards the river (we could only think it was to escape the vehicles, as more had arrived.) Then a very rare spectacle occurred: they decided to cross the 50 metres or so of shallow water, one by one, to finally disappear into the bushes on the other side. The three felines did not look terribly comfortable as the water dripped from their chins; lifting their paws high above the surface with each step. It was slightly sad to see them feeling crowded by human presence and eager to have their peace and privacy, but a remarkable sight to witness.

Defassa Waterbuck

Defassa Waterbuck

Early next morning, we embarked on a nature walk with two armed scouts and a handy guide. The latter was able to distinguish between leopard and lion tracks, point out the Weaverbirds’ ‘decoy’ nests and gauge how long the python was whose shed skin we found. We also picked up a female Grant’s Gazelle horn, Tawny Eagle feathers, teeth from a Gerenuk skull, a patch of waterbuck fur and porcupine quills: A successful hike! My ears pricked up when our guide spoke out “Ahh. A kill has happened here…” Instead of the usual Zebra or Impala however, it was the remains of two cows, most likely killed by lions. He described how local pastoralists became desperate during the severe drought of 2009 and would bring their animals into the park area in the hope of finding green pasture, even though it was forbidden. In this case the risk did not pay off and they left with two less of their precious assets.

Serval poop - A crunchy diet...

Serval poop – A crunchy diet…

Our guide was also well-informed about the distinct habits of different antelope: he told us a popular Borana story about why the little Dik-dik always uses the same toilet spot, whereas almost all other animals poop where they like. It goes like this: There was once a meeting of all the animals and the Dik-dik was in line just after the elephant. Absent-mindedly, the elephant laid a football-sized number two that covered the poor tiny Dik-dik from head to hooves. From then on he decided to always poop in the same spot so as to one day have a pile big enough to get the careless elephant back!

We went on another drive that afternoon and were delighted to see an array of antelopes: Grant’s gazelle, Impala, Dik-dik, Beisa Oryx, Waterbuck and my favourite, the Gerenuk. Gerenuks, sometimes referred to as ‘giraffe-necked antelopes,’ can stand for long periods of time reared up on their hind legs; giving them the elevated advantage of being able to eat the tender shoots on higher branches that no other antelopes can reach – genius! (They also have notably big ears.)

Beisa Oryx

The Elegant Beisa Oryx

Mealtimes at Larsen’s Camp were an amusing fiasco. The management had employed a Samburu Warrior (and given him a nametag reading ‘David’ although his real name sounded like ‘Kristia’) to simply keep the monkeys away from the food. It was a serious and challenging job; one would distract him attempting to steal from an abandoned table while another snuck under the sides of the tent and raided the condiment sideboard. Kristia had to be creative in employing new tactics to keep the greedy thieves at bay: his latest idea was a stuffed toy leopard which he kept hidden in a bin liner and if things really got out of hand he only had to show a flash of the furry spots for the monkeys to scarper.

'Don't go without me!'

Cheeky Black-Faced Vervet Monkeys

It was on that day that we met the fantastic Frederic and his beautiful fiancée, Eugenie. After some complimentary, quinine laced G&Ts we had dinner together and exchanged tales of African adventure. It was inspiring to hear about Eugenie’s research into the Turkana pastoralists and her current ventures for UNICEF, as well as Frederic’s experiences gathered during ten years spent free-lancing, photographing and filming on the continent. This hard-earned wisdom combined with a shared love of Land Rovers and a genuine enthusiasm for theories about aliens visiting the earth in ancient times, was enough to win Harry over!

The following day was mostly spent relaxing at the camp – with no shortage of wildlife! I spotted a handful of beautiful birds including the African Wood Hoopoe, Red and Yellow-Billed Hornbills and the shimmering Hadada Ibis. Whilst cheeky Black Vervet Monkeys swung overhead, a huge crocodile lay very still, basking in the sun (thankfully) on the other side of the riverbank. We took a game drive later in the day and came across a hillside of giraffe: the sight of their curious heads popping up over the tall trees made me giggle like a little girl.

Reticulated Giraffe

Reticulated Giraffe

On our drive out of the park we caught sight of our first family of the grandest of them all, African Elephants. We couldn’t have missed them or even avoided them – they were standing in our path, browsing on the trees either side. We took some time to watch how gracefully they moved, despite their tremendous bulk, and humbly drove on when they gave us the trumpety-trump, ear-flapping signal that they had had enough of us hanging around.

Yum yum

Munching at peace

Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Laikipia

All in all, my first game park experience was going to be quite a hard act to follow. We drove on before spontaneously deciding to camp at ‘Hippo Hide’ in Ol Pejeta Conservancy, near Nanyuki. Ol Pejeta is the home of 96 highly endangered Black Rhinos and 4 Northern White Rhino, of which there are only 7 in the whole world. The sad reality of poaching had irrevocably embedded itself in my mind by this point. During our walk the following morning, our Turkana guide, Patrick, told us that a Black Rhino was killed only a fortnight ago in Old Pejeta (stiff stomach required: http://www.olpejetaconservancy.org/about/news/poachers-strike-ol-pejeta-conservancy) Shockingly the remaining Northern White Rhinos, kept under serious 24-hour surveillance, had their horns removed so as to prevent them being targets. Although this was justified as the lesser of two evils, it was upsetting to hear what measures have to be taken to deter these crazy poachers. The illogical mindset of Chinese medicine men trying to cure impotence and Saudi Arabians desiring the prestige of a rhino horn knife handle was boiling my blood.

Baraka the Blind

Baraka the Blind: He got the horn.

A Kenyan woman I met in Nairobi shared my anger and had tears in her eyes when she spoke of the Chinese presence in Kenya. Whilst they are there, ostensibly, to build roads there is also an inevitable connection with poaching and the abuse of Africa’s mineral wealth. Maggie said that the Chinese have an attitude of ‘Europe have had their time raping Africa, now it’s our turn.’ Ouch… We spoke about the problem of game reserves & national parks failing to feed enough money back into the surrounding local communities and as a result creating bitterness amongst local people. Given the daily sight of wealthy tourists arriving to spend a relative fortune combined with a lack of education about wildlife conservation; it is understandable why a local might accept an offer from a wealthy Chinese businessman, of more money than he’s ever seen, to put pay to a rhino or two. The sad fact of the matter is that it is the local African that is caught and either shot or jailed, whereas the Chinese man may get a fine. One such culprit left Africa with the equivalent of a $300 fine in Kenyan shillings only a few weeks ago…

Feeding Baraka

Feeding Baraka

Amidst these hard feelings, we visited and handfed a docile, blind Black Rhino, Baraka, who is confined to his own enclosure. The ranger explained that having lost one eye in a fight and the other to a cataract, Baraka would not survive with other rhinos or be able to succeed in a mating ritual as it involves no small amount of physicality and moreover, impressing the female by winning the fight. He would surely lose any fight due to his disadvantage so instead will spend his days greeting visitors and providing an educational spectacle for local school children.

Ol Pejeta is also home to the only chimpanzees in Kenya. Two groups adding up to a total of 36 individuals are cared for in the conservancy. All were rescued from troubled backgrounds or born within the sanctuary. Harry had a lot of fun goofing around on all fours, playing copycat games with the chimps on the other side of the fence. He even inspired one to attempt a headstand! Although it will be special to see our closest genetic cousins in the wild (hopefully here in Rwanda this weekend) I was totally charmed by them and the way in which they communicated with us. Inspired by the activities of Jane Goodall, the sanctuary had rescued the chimps from travelling circuses, cages hung in petrol stations and as orphans of the bush meat trade.

Cuz

Clever Cuz

From Ol Pejeta, we attempted the most direct route towards Nairobi and encountered more ‘black-cotton mud’ so swiftly did a U-turn and were happy to take a round about route on smooth tarmac. Unsure what percentage of drivers on the road actually had a driving license, or even primary schooling, we dodged them on the highway pointing out the existence of a slow lane to the many truckers at fault. Having Frederic and Eugenie’s address in the Sat Nav made the journey into the city relatively painless (compared with the likes of navigating the narrow streets of Istanbul, pick-axing our way through Cairo or finding a mechanic in Addis.)

Nairobi

Our lengthy 10-day stay in Nairobi was a whirlwind of western comfort, cultural highlights and afternoon rain. We visited the David Sheldrick Foundation Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi National Park and stood watching, with one hundred other tourists, as baby elephants were marched in by a ranger, fed with milk and encouraged to have a healthy mud bath. They reminded me of oversized pet dogs playfully hankering for more food, although totally unaware of their bulk and strength, requiring a very firm hand from the rangers. Cute as they were, what I found most interesting was their need to bond with a particular parent-figure, in this case, one of the rangers. When first brought to the orphanage, often traumatised after losing their mothers, the elephant will form a close bond with one ranger who must stay with the elephant 24/7 – the ranger even sleeps on a bunk in the shed with the baby elephant. Some of the babies sought out human help by going to a camp in one of the parks, pining for their mother who had perhaps died from drought or poaching. The instinctual trust in humans is remarkable given the history of poaching these elephants have been exposed to.

"More more more!"

“More more more!”

We also paid the National Museum a visit and marvelled at the many hominid skulls found along the course of the Great Rift Valley, most notably from the Danakil Depression, Lake Turkana and Olduvai Gorge. The collection is the largest and most comprehensive in the world and perfectly illustrated the challenge faced by paleoanthropologists trying to map out hominid evolution. If this wasn’t enough, we learnt what we could be up against in the bush in the ‘Snake Park’ and revised the scary topic of Kenya’s colonial past. I had a wonderful reunion with a boarding school friend whom I hadn’t seen for over 10 years – having grown up in Kenya, Panvir was one of my first inspirations for wanting to visit Africa. We also did something we would rarely do at home: went to watch a show-jumping competition!

Yes, really, that happenned.

Yes, really, that happenned.

Meanwhile, back in Jazzy’s Yard, Ambi was having a full makeover. On our first visit two days after admission, we saw the pile of muddy, rusty broken parts that had been surgically removed. Jazzy, a legend, had already got all the new parts in and was keeping his boys hard at work fitting them and tightening all her nuts and bolts. New King springs, XGS shocks plus a double system on the rear axle, brake cables, and a full service were all on the menu. Whilst Jazzy was determined to have it done in three days, the untimely fall of this strange thing we’ve forgotten about called the weekend, and a national holiday celebrating the swearing in of Kenyan president elect Uhuru Kenyatta was to hold us in the city a little longer.

Our home for 9 days while Ambi was in surgery...

Our home for 9 days while Ambi was in surgery…

While bunkered down in ‘The Box Room’, (formed from an old generator housing and a lean to perched on a concrete island in a swamp) at Karen Camp, run by larger-than-life Dougie and his two huge dogs, we met two intrepid Norwegians. Espen and Malin were doing a similar trip in reverse so we revelled in sharing tips and co-ordinates. They had many fascinating tales of working Antarctic summers ‘on the ice’ and travelling the Americas, it was once again a shame not to be going in the same direction.

On the 9th April, the day of Kenyatta’s enthronement, Harry headed out with Frederic for some serious Landy appreciation. They hiked bare-chested up hills in Masai land, washed in mountain streams and had 360 degree views of Mt Suswa and the Great Rift before dropping in on the pre-historic site of Olorgesailie, most noted for the vast array of hand axes excavated there.

Playful as ever

Playful as ever

‘The Pearl’ 

Eager to be on our way once Ambi was ready, we crossed the border into Uganda, reputably the ‘pearl’ of Africa. The roads were delightfully smooth with lush green marshland either side. Fortunate as there were many directions we could go, visiting Duko’s yoghurt factory, trekking gorillas or tracking the White Nile. After a rather irritating morning searching for an elusive zip-wire over the river, we eventually discovered that it was out of action. A couple of pina coladas over a game of pool later, and Harry had somehow persuaded me that white-water rafting would be a good alternative and signed us up for an entire day on the unrelenting river the next day.

Who invited the flamingo!? Where’s his kit!?

Never usually one to opt for any activity that involves being thrown under water spontaneously, churned up in a washing machine and being carried facedown, downriver by a strong current, I was terrified. The practise drill of how to deal with the raft flipping entirely and what to do if you get trapped underneath did not ease my nerves at all.  I have never been proud of my swimming ability and knew that I could stay afloat, albeit moving slowly, in calm, still waters. I think the video Harry has prepared demonstrates the events of the day more fully than I can with words. Basically, we went under, a lot and I was rescued no less than three times by a muscley Ugandan kayaker and carried to safer calm waters.

[Tracks Include: ‘Gimme The Breaks’ – A-Skillz & Krafty Kuts feat. Kurtis Blow, ‘Jaws Title Theme’ – Andy Williams]

It was the third time on the trip where I thought ‘this might actually be it, I’m going to die.’ (The first being in a taxi at night with no headlights in Addis Ababa and the second that treacherously long walk in Nechisar…) Thankfully in our raft we had a surgeon and nurse and two missionaries: let’s just say I put my life in their hands.

We moved on from the White Nile hotspot of Bujagali to Mpanga Forest Reserve, just west of the capital, Kampala. There we spent a very peaceful (and cheap!) night on the edge of the forest and took a walk in the morning along the swampy trails. We were accompanied all the way by a stunning array of butterflies and brightly coloured dragonflies. We tuned in to the sounds of all the undoubtedly beautiful birds, but couldn’t see too many due to the dense foliage. We did however, incredibly luckily, catch sight of a troop Black and White Colobus Monkeys: apparently the ones that are usually shy and hard to spot! At first they swung from tree to tree seemingly scared of us, but one by one, came back through the canopy to check us out. Their inquisitive behaviour made us stop and stare for a while, forgetting all our previous worries about snakes and biting insects.

Black and White Colobus Monkey

Curious Black and White Colobus Monkey

On the trail to Rwanda we spent another night just outside Mburu National Park amid herds of zebra and a sounder of warthogs. We arrived a little late to complete our negotiation over entrance fees with the grumpy lady in the office and she promptly locked up and left while we were booking with a lodge over the phone! Disgruntled at the $150 fee to take Ambi in, we got an early night and awoke early surrounded by a beautiful eerie mist. Feeling refreshed by a good nights sleep in a cooler Ambi and an updated configuration of our mosquito nets, we drove southwest across the Rwandan border.

Rwanda

We were delighted to be on the list of Nationalities that did not have to pay for a visa to go into Rwanda, and quickly appreciated the green undulating landscape: Rwanda is known as ‘the land of the rolling hills’. Even Kigali, the capital, is perched atop a perfectly round hill. Arriving in Kigali was a surprise: modern shopping malls and functioning traffic lights are among the luxuries. It was bizarre to see the skyscrapers appear round the next hill, when the rural towns are relatively bare bones. Rwanda, with its dark recent history, is young and vibrant: 43% of its population of 11million are under 15 and 98% are under 65.

Here in Kigali we paid a harrowing visit to the Genocide Memorial Museum, where 250,000 of the Tutsis that died in the 1994 genocide are buried in mass graves. I was overwhelmed by images of the brutality that occurred so recently – in my lifetime – and struggled to comprehend how Rwanda has recovered from such a horrendous period. Almost everybody in Rwanda has a relative that was killed, there are no elders. Thousands of orphaned children were adopted by other families and many families disappeared altogether with no record of their existence. The country was left in tatters with bodies scattered everywhere. Corpses are still being unearthed and brought to the museum graves. It is remarkable today how friendly the people are, how clean the streets are (Plastic Bags are illegal here – heaven!) and how much more sensible Rwanda seems to be compared to other African countries: The motorbike taxis have helmets for their passengers, drivers obey traffic lights and the road layout is fairly logical. The country has bravely risen out of the darkness and is now becoming a very attractive place for tourists to visit. We are hitting the road today to venture southwest to the Nyungwe Forest Park: encompassing some of the oldest, most diverse rainforest in Africa. Residents include 11 types of monkey, chimpanzee, 380 bird species and 140 species of orchid! Yes, I’m excited! After that we’re heading north to the Volcanoes National Park to climb up the side of one in search of gorillas… This is what we came for.

So you are now up to date with our whereabouts. The tracker does not, like us, roam in Rwanda, but we expect to be travelling back through Uganda in no more than a week.

I hear that spring is finally on its way back home? We are still in the midst of the equatorial rainy season, although this bodes well for chimpanzee spotting: they tend to come down out of the treetops during the rains to the more visible forest floor…

Sending you all love and hugs.

Thanks for stopping by…

xxxx

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Day 81: Nairobi

Jambo!

Having had the noble intention to avoid all capital cities, we seem nonetheless to have frequented each and every one. This time though, we are in the capital of capitals, Nairobbery… sorry, Nairobi. You will be pleasantly surprised to hear that we have not yet been mugged, robbed, hijacked, kidnapped or speared through the heart by a Masai Warrior.

We have instead landed on our feet in the beautiful suburb of Karen, thanks to a very cultured and wonderfully generous Belgian/English couple we met in Samburu National Park. Frederic and Eugenie have taken us in, fed us, lent us their lovely shower and pointed Harry in the direction of the very best mechanic in town, Jazzy. They have made what could have been a very stressful city visit into a serene, calming experience.

P1070508

Mzee Frederic dans le jardin

In some respects Karen still evokes Kenya’s colonial past and has vestiges of England in the 1950’s. Billboards on the roadside read “Freshness is only a bathroom away!” and “Furnish your house on credit – pay later!” All the while Nairobi is strewn with grim slums that sandwich themselves between the growing hi-rises and highways. It has been all too easy for us to forget we are still in Africa when sipping a latte at the ‘Art Café’ or ordering bangers and mash at a gastro-pub.

Nairobi hosts not only the European and American NGO workers that are ubiquitous in Africa, but many other foreign settlers who have lived here all their lives and are proud to be Kenyan: Second or third generation British-Kenyans, white South Africans and Indian-Kenyans, all playing their part in the growing economy. It is entirely possible to live in luxury as labour is cheap – every family we have met has a local Kenyan housekeeper, gardener, and full-time nanny in addition to the essential Masai guard or two. I have felt slightly awkward in restaurants where all the staff are locals and all the patrons, white westerners.

Before this tangent toward the intricacies of life in our current location extends too far, we must first fill in some sizeable gaps following our departure from Addis Ababa. I will try to break up the text with lots of inspiring pictures and headings so that you don’t have to swallow all our news in one big gulp!

Into the Wild

Our stay in Addis was extended to a full week by the arrival of the prodigal son, Duko, who somehow managed to catch us up once again (even though he is carving through his miles on foot!). We went to a fantastic Belgian restaurant, incongruous among the derelict buildings, and despite their holding a private function, they let us sit outside and plied us with free wine and canapés. Needless to say we felt totally indebted to the manager and responded with poetry over a delicious lunch there the very next day.

The road to Arba Minch was comparatively well surfaced, not so much with tarmac as with entertaining children who have bizarrely taken to breaking out in a leg-wiggling, hand-waving dance when they first see a faranji. In pursuit of tips, their Jackson-esque skills often led them right in front of the car whereupon they only narrowly avoided annihilation!

On arrival in Arba Minch we surveyed the scene and took in the view over Nechisar National Park – a luscious green canopy stretched between Lake Abaya and Lake Chamo – it was to be our own private playground for the next couple of days…

View from Paradise Lodge, Arba Minch

View from Paradise Lodge, Arba Minch

Happily surprised at the relaxed manner in which Nechisar was managed, we battled along the rock-strewn riverbed of a ‘road’ to a spot on the northern shore of Lake Chamo. The foliage was dense and in the falling light baboons crossed our path, warthogs waddled off into the bushes and dik-dik skittishly sprung out of our way, all taking a curious look at us before they carried on.

Nechisar is a small park that only receives about 1000 visitors a year and as such they charge a basic $10 entrance and let you get on with it! There are no signs, fenced areas or reasonably maintained tracks: we had stumbled into the wilderness.

Looking over our campspot in Nechisar National Park

Looking over our campspot in Nechisar National Park

Our ‘camp’ was simply a flat clearing by the lake. We kept our distance from the water, hearing some splashing around but unable to identify what was lurking in the shallows in the dull evening light. There was a lot of flattened mud that suggested we were in hippo territory and on hearing a low groan and an upheaval out of the water, we quickly retreated back to the safety of Ambi and locked the door for the night.

The following day, I came close to dying of exhaustion. I imagined that we were embarking on a pre-lunch stroll but Harry clearly had something else in mind. He pushed me further and further, insisting that we were within a stone’s throw of the wildlife abundant Nechisar plains, whilst bribing me with the idea of catching a Toyota back when we reached the ranger HQ “just over the top of that hill”. I soldiered on and my fatigue all but disappeared when we crossed paths with a beautiful herd of Burchell’s zebra that were perfect posers. We spent some time watching them grazing, admiring their calm attitude, whilst I covertly sat down and rested my legs.

Nechisar National Park

Gilbert

As we summitted the hill, the somewhat aghast rangers rushed to bring us some much-needed water. Happy as I was to be rehydrating and refuelling with our precious biltong and dried mango, it was dawning on me that there was not going to be a Toyota coming to our aid and that we would have to walk the 15km back to the camp before sunset. At this realisation I was struck with a profound lack of confidence in my ability to go the distance. We somehow made it, but I will admit that tears were shed and military style encouragement on Harry’s part was necessary to stop me resting every time there was shade. The joy when Ambi finally came into view was unparalleled and the sight of our resident hippo bobbing about in the shallows 20m from her, a delight.

Painful, really painful.

Painful, really painful.

The next morning I took the binoculars for an early wander and, surprised not to have noticed them before, came across a number of crocodiles lain out at the waters’ edge and even more partially submerged in the water. At this same moment I was introduced to a spur-winged lapwing, the noisiest bird I have ever met, evidently protecting a nest by persistently chirping at me, pacing from side to side. Such silly behaviour so close to a crocodile’s smiling jaws will surely be punished one day, I thought.

Ambi’s Gallant Triumph Over Nature

There had been a huge lightning/thunder/rain storm during the night and, slightly worried about the potential state of the track out of the park, we packed up and got on our way, not getting very far before sludging to a halt in some deep mud. Thankfully a young barefooted lad came along and joined forces with me to pack rocks and branches into the muddy trenches to try to give us some traction. The sand-ladders came into their own once again and after half an hour or so of struggle, we were free.

Ambi: 1; Nature: 0

Not much further down the road, we experienced a different obstacle: knee-deep flowing water. The road was, actually, a river. Holding our breath, we urged Ambi through it, pausing on a small island and then continuing along the next stretch. Steam billowing out from under the bonnet, both Harry and Ambi needed more than a moment to gather their calm again.

Ambi: 2; Nature: 0

a good patch of road..

a good patch of road..

However our struggle to drive the mere 10km to the park entrance was only beginning – the next obstacle was a huge tree that had evidently been struck by lightning whereupon two vast limbs had fallen across the road. We got the saw out, before quickly admitting defeat: this was a mountain, not a molehill.  We trudged to the park entrance to get help, thankfully, now only a mile or two away. Birkenstocks were a bad idea – they were quickly squelched off in the mud and in an attempt to keep up with Harry, barefoot it had to be – actually the most effective approach to this infamous ‘Black Cotton’ mud.

Squelchy

Squelchy

On arrival at the park office, the rangers looked at us quizzically, seemingly having forgotten that there was even anyone in the park. They were more concerned about cleaning my feet (probably having never seen such a filthy faranji before!) than heeding our desperate plea for some strong men and preferably a chainsaw. This desire was slightly unrealistic however shortly after we were bumbling back to Ambi on the back of a Toyota with six men armed with axes and machetes.

Ex-military ranger of steel

The experienced rangers poured blood, sweat and tears into helping us, and were sorely repaid by biting ants fiercely defending their now dead tree. A couple of hours later, Ambi towed the last big branch out of the way, and our path was clear.

Ambi: 3; Nature: 0

Now within inches of the park entrance, and having had enough of nature’s tough obstacles, we tried to follow the Toyota’s tracks but as the back slipped out once more, we tumbled into the deep mud at quite an undignified angle. “Hoooooonnnk!” Harry thumped the horn hoping the Toyota men would return and rescue us once again. They offered many different opinions on how to win this round against nature… They attempted to tow us, but our wheels spun, only making the situation worse. Harry was dripping with sweat after attacking the undergrowth with a machete, trying to clear space around the submerged wheels, and we embraced the mud once again in attempt to dig her out.

Tractor needed...

Tractor needed…

Harry kept exclaiming: “It’s impossible! We’ll never do it!” My positive sympathies were shot down as naïve and ill informed about the seriousness of the situation, so I let the men get on with it. I thought of Mum saying ‘When there’s a will, there’s a way’ and put all my will-power into imagining Ambi driving free on an open road… Harry was working hard to dig out the ‘black cotton’ suction mud and get our sand ladders in place under the sunken tyres. The rangers then returned with a tractor and that, mercifully, had the traction required to get us out.

Ambi: 4; Nature: 0

[Track: ‘The Wondrous Boat Ride’ – Anthony Newley, Leslie Bricusse & O.S.T: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory]

The Moyale Devil

We had heard the horror stories, we had seen photos, but nothing could have prepared us for the treacherous journey into Kenya along one of the most famous roads in Africa.

The stunning spattering of Superb Starlings and voluptuous Vulturine Guineafowl were seldom appreciated above Ambi’s moans and groans and four eyes were needed on the rain-battered ‘road’ ahead.

At the border I shed some tears when, in the midst of our last injera, a young boy of about 7 persistently came to the table trying to steal our wallet. The waiter eventually clobbered him round the head and literally threw him to the filthy rocky floor outside, for him to then be taunted and carried off by his contemporaries. I just wanted to give the boy a hug; the sheer desperation in his eyes was heartbreaking.

After being stamped into Kenya by a large, loud, chortling Bantu of a man, we set off on the muddy trench of a road, hoping to conquer the 40km to Silolo, where there was apparently a mission that welcomed Overlanders. It turned out that even this plan was over-ambitious. We had to crawl through the deep trenches of mud, slow enough to avoid smacking rocks hidden under the mud and damaging Ambi’s undercarriage and fast enough to keep momentum to prevent us getting stuck or bottoming out (which did happen, we lost count how many times…)

Swim time!

I have never seen Harry in such a state. He was feeling all the responsibility for Ambi’s welfare, the fear of the dangerous section of road we were travelling (often frequented by Somali bandits) and the constant stress of dealing with the ‘road’ and myself offering useless comments. We had to stop at one point because he was hallucinating under the stress and put his head in his hands on the steering wheel in despair.  We just had to take it mile by mile and try to feel a sense of achievement each time we had crossed a difficult patch.

Boyana's Yard: Damballa Fachana

Bonaya’s Yard: Damballa Fachana

We came across a small village called Damballa Fachana at about 5pm and decided that we could not go on any longer in an attempt to reach Silolo. What the village lacked in size it made up for in spirit. Bonaya, a friendly Borena pastoralist tribesman approached us, speaking passable English, and was thrilled that we took him up on his offer of camping in the cattle yard next to his hut. We felt safe, protected and also rather crowded as the whole village gathered around to watch us prepare our evening meal. We were informed that the Borena do not eat breakfast or dinner, only lunch consisting of food provided by the World Food Programme and they simply drink fresh cow’s milk in the morning and evening. They don’t even eat their cattle, but sometimes bleed them to drink some necessary protein. Within a pastoralist community everything revolves around their cows and goats: It is polite to ask a man about the welfare of his herd before you inquire how his wife and children are!

A precious commodity in Damballa Fachana

A precious commodity in Damballa Fachana

Bonaya insisted that we drink the fresh milk and invited the chief over to talk to us. (White visitors were rare, the chief said they had had 3 visitors in the 18 years he had been chief and never a woman.) The chief, Wako, was very interested to quiz us about life in England. “I have heard that every person in England is given money from the government, even a new born baby!?” It was difficult to explain the ins and outs of the welfare system in Britain, and the anger that people feel at provisions being cut, when these Africans live in huts, trade in goats and rely on a basic weekly handout of beans and maize. He explained that he always talks to foreign visitors to gain information about other countries and particularly education systems, as he had formerly been a head teacher.

Wako returned to us early the next morning to say that he had been in the Mosque praying for our journey; that we would have no mechanical problems and there would be no more rain. We thanked him sincerely and knew we needed the help of any God that would listen.

Sorry we can't stop to help!

Sorry we can’t stop to help!

Miraculously, it did not rain. Had it continued to do so we would never have made it. We had difficulty where lorries were stuck in the mud and we had to make our own path around them, across flood plains and through more black cotton mud. It was painful to look on longingly at the new road under construction by the Chinese, unavailable to us. We managed to negotiate onto it for a short while, moving the stones out the way purposefully there to prevent people doing so – but then paid the price finding a route off it when it came to an end. We got completely stuck in soft sandy mud and had to call on the aid of a group of teenage ‘entrepreneurs’ playing in a lake nearby who altogether, and with the help of the ladders, managed to combine their might and push us out.

Sharon from Devon

Sharon from Devon

On the way to Marsabit some strange creatures came into view: Cyclists from Devon sporting GB flags! “Hi, what are you doing!?” I shouted out the window as we slowed down to speak to them. Tim and Sharon were in the midst of a 3-year sabbatical cycling from Nordkapp in Norway south through Africa before making their way up through the Americas.  We mused over what precious British commodities we could trade with them – they were eyeing up our Heinz baked beans which we could not bear to part with and we were jealous of their Team GB flags, having kicked ourselves for not being visibly British and constantly mistaken as German.

A huge positive that emerged from this meeting was the realisation that at least we were not cycling. They were stopping every few hundred metres to de-cake their wheels of the mud and making very slow progress. It was also fortuitous that we stopped at that moment or we would have lost our license plate – it was hanging off by one loose screw and cracked down the middle. Sad not to be meeting later in the day and sharing a meal together, we had to get going and make the most of the good weather.

Craterrific

Craterrific

Arriving in Marsabit, a lush volcanic outcrop in the otherwise extensive desert, our GPS led us to Henry’s Camp, a basic field with good showers, taps and a barbecue. Henry is a Swiss man who knows the country like the back of his hand and encapsulated the weathered, tanned, “I’ve been in Africa too long” look.

Next morning, eager to complete the last 130km before the long-awaited tarmac road, we were held up by a policeman adamant that we needed to pay for an escort. Dramatically he mimed washing his hands of us and relinquishing responsibility for our fate to the Gods. We knew it was a dangerous stretch, from Marsabit to Isiolo, but the foreign office had not reported any serious problems recently and it was not a legal requirement to have an escort. Thankfully, it was not as muddy as the ground we had already covered and we made it to the tarmac bandit-free, Harry kneeling down and kissing it upon arrival.

Relief

Relief

10km on the tarmac, we had a flat tyre – unbelievable that this would happen on solid ground after what we had just accomplished. I had the binoculars out on bandit watch whilst Harry changed the tyre as quickly as he could. From then on it was plain sailing to Archer’s Post and Samburu National Park – which I have decided to leave till the next blog post.

Thank you for reading! All those of you in the unbearably freezing UK can no longer be jealous – we have well and truly hit the rains and are experiencing Africa in a different, truly awesome, thundery, lightning lit light.

We will try to post soon about our antics in Samburu, Laikipia and Nairobi. Now that Ambi has a new set of shocks, springs, brake cables, fuel filters and has had a much needed service we are ready to hit the road!

Love to all xxxx

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