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The Big Trip: Africa

Nairobi to Cape Town by overland truck

sunny 26 °C
View The Big Trip on lucid's travel map.

After wandering like 'real' travelers through Thailand and Cambodia it was fantastic to know that the next 7 weeks would be guided and we would no longer have to worry about how to get everywhere and how much to pay to see what was worth seeing. This trip was all encompassing, intense (in terms of the amount of time we spent on the road) and extremely enjoyable. Of course there were times along the way where things ground us down, like the 4am wake up calls, 15 hours driving, people we were forced to be around but didn't like and other little issues but none of it really mattered once we arrived at each beautiful destination and went looking for animals, camped in the middle of game parks, looked out across many amazing sunsets and settled down in our little circle to eat at night. It was like having the best holiday ever, again and again as we entered each new country.

Kenya

We flew into Nairobi, and spent a day recovering in the hotel from jet lag. It was a 9 hour flight from Thailand and had lost about 5 hours through time zone changes. We didn't venture out of the hotel since Nairobi had been described as a particularly dangerous place and we didn't want to take the risk of being mugged before the trip had even begun. We set out early for our 3 days Masai Mara trip in a minivan with 4 other people, 2 of which were going to be joining us on the main trip. We were glad to get out of the city, which is incredibly polluted (which says a lot since we had come from 2 very polluted Asian cities just recently). Even with a folded bandana over your mouth and nose it is possible to smell the exhaust fumes.

The first period of excitement came at a police checkpoint somewhere outside of Nairobi. Our driver was pulled over and we were threatened that if we did not put our seat belts on we would be taken to court. A simple enough request you would think but finding a working seat belt in the minivan was easier said than done. Luckily there were only 6 of us in the 10 seater van because there were only 6 usable seat belts. As we were waiting to be moved on a truck passed us, oblivious to the stinger across the road (which marked the checkpoint) and promptly ran straight into it. The policeman started shouting at the truck driver and eventually got him to reverse and pull onto the side of the road (along with a number of other cars and trucks). The obviously drunk policeman signaled to our driver to reverse and move on, so our driver reversed and hit a car parked behind us. After he was hauled out of the car, pushed around and shouted at for a long time, he was forced to pay the driver of the car behind for the damage and we eventually continued in our journey.

About 3 hours later we reached our destination at the entrance to the Masai Mara Game reserve and camped there for the next 2 nights. We saw lots of animals at the reserve but mainly from a distance, which meant my measly 2x zoom had no chance of photographing anything. In the evenings we were cooked for and played cards until 9pm (when the lights were turned out), when we crashed out in our luxury tents. While we were there we had the opportunity to meet some of the local Masai warriors from the neighbouring village, who put on a dance for us (for a small fee).

On the way back to Nairobi we were held up for 2 hours by a traffic jam caused by the closure of a complete section of motorway. The diversion sent us onto the opposite side of the road where we managed to creep along until it was time to return to the open section of motorway. The slip road was just wide enough for 2 lanes of traffic but had cars on the right side of the road and wrong side of the road edging in all directions. Meanwhile a large digger was reversing into the traffic while men screamed and waved little coloured pieces of material at each other trying to control the flow of traffic in their friends' favour. Our driver held his own and was probably the best driver out of the whole bunch but had the finger pointed at him as if he had caused the chaos. Miraculously we did manage to escape onto the motorway but it really drained the remaining energy out of us and everyone was tired and grumpy for the rest of the journey back to the hotel.

Tanzania

The next day we joined the big truck and after a trip to the supermarket for supplies, set out on our way to Tanzania. We had been warned that the road was the worst we would encounter throughout the whole 42 day trip but being at the back of the bus (last on...worst seats!) certainly made that experience worse. I had started to feel unwell after the first hour or so and spent much of the journey across 2 seats, with attempts to sleep hindered by the frequent bumps in the road that sent me over a foot into the air each time! From the truck we could see the construction of the new 'road' but we had to travel for 3 hours on little more than a dirt track. By the time we crossed the border and traveled the much shorter distance to camp (at the alligator farm), I had a fever and was laid up in my tent until morning. My husband had been ill with the same symptoms in Thailand, which we worked out was 48 hour flu, but there was a niggling worry that I might have been sick with malaria. The next day one of the other girls came down with the same symptoms, but I already felt a bit better and didn't want to miss the trip to the Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti.

We set off in Safari vehicles that evening, passing through villages, watching people selling red bananas and seeing countless baboons on the road and in the trees. We reached a very muddy camp and spent our first rainy night sweltering under a damaged and unbreathable tent cover. Early the next morning, after taking down our tents in the dark and eating beans on toast for breakfast, we set off for the crater. It was surprisingly cold as we drove up the muddy road. We stopped briefly at the entrance gate to use the toilet and were met with a sea of dung beetles, crawling in and out of the toilet basins and all over the floor! It really was a stark reminder of what toilets are used for! As we passed the entrance the road narrowed and followed a continuous turn right round the crater. It was misty and progressively colder as we went further up. I had to add more layers of clothing and zip up my jacket until only the smallest hole was left exposed on my face. We couldn't gauge the height we were or what any of the surrounding scenery was like through the mist until we reached the top of the crater.

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The view from there was breathtaking and as we descended the 2000ft into the crater, it just became more and more magical. Somehow the animals seemed happy there; Impala skipping about and playing with each other, zebras rolling about on the ground, and countless other animals, living together harmoniously. The elephants were the largest and oldest we saw throughout the entire trip, and we encountered our first group of lions, just feet away from us.

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After our morning game drive, we left the crater and continued on the 2 hour journey to the Serengeti National Park. The views everywhere were stunning, and we spent nearly the entire time hanging out of the roof and letting the wind and dust batter us. Once we reached the park we had an afternoon game drive and then journeyed deeper into the Serengeti to set up camp. We spent the evening sat round a camp fire and watching the stars.

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Early the next morning we had breakfast, packed up our tents and set off on a morning game drive. It didn't turn out to be particularly productive, but we did get a distant view of a leopard sitting in a tree. The leopard was one of the few animals we hadn't already seen but unfortunately neither my eyesight nor camera were up to the job of getting a clear view of it. I did get some pretty good pictures of other animals that morning however.

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We spent that afternoon on the long drive back to camp at the crocodile Farm, where our truck chef had prepared a barbecue. Everyone had seen pretty much the same animals but it seemed that our driver was the most proficient at finding them first...and we had the photos to prove it! Our next destination was Dar Es Salaam, on the coast. We spent some of the afternoon in a bar there and then continued on to our beach campsite. It was lovely there, with the beach just outside the gate, hot showers and a nice bar area. We only spent one night there before being dropped off for the ferry to Zanzibar. We spent 3 nights on Zanzibar, the first sightseeing in Stone Town and the next 2 relaxing on the white sandy beaches.

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Stone Town is run down but with some interesting historic buildings relating to the slave trade. We went on a day long Stone Town and spice tour while we were there. The tour guide was a very strange but amusing guy, who spoke in a mixed jumble of different accents despite the fact he has never left Zanzibar! He took us round the historic sites, some of which we very poorly maintained, then we ate lunch at a local woman's house. She made an amazing beef and rice dish that was flavoured with a little of every spice grown on Zanzibar. The final and best part of the tour was to the spice farm. We saw examples of the plants, smelled the spices, drank lemon grass, masala and ginger tea and watched a guy climb a coconut tree with only a rope between his ankles!

The next few days were pretty uneventful and we couldn't sunbathe much because it was either cloudy or raining on each day. Some of us had massages and pedicures from the local women along the beach. They weren't particularly expensive but the women were completely untrained and didn't really do a good job of either the massage or pedicure! I think it's necessary to go more upmarket to benefit fully from the Zanzibar experience.

The boat journey back to Dar Es Salaam was horrendous! Everyone was given sick bags at the beginning of the journey but none of us expected we would be as sick as we were. Shortly after the boat left the harbour I started to feel unwell and most of us went outside and sat on anything available. For the next 2 hours everyone on the boat was being sick and felt nauseous until the boat arrived at the port.

After two more nights in Tanzania, we crossed the border into Malawi.

Malawi

I didn't know what to expect from Malawi. All I knew was that it was a very poor country where many organisations had helped to build schools and hospitals and to provide donations of money, clothes and medical supplies. The reality reflected these pre-conceived ideas but I was surprised by how pretty it was. I had never imagined what it would be like to swim in a freshwater lake that was so big it looked like the sea.

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We went on a walk through one of the villages and visited the local school and hospital. The walk did bring the reality of the educational and medical situation home to me, but I didn't feel the expected sensation of shock or pity at the simplicity of things. The teacher in me looked at the action plans in the Head Teacher's office and tried to understand the school issues in context. I considered how it would be possible to provide a good education to so many pupils in dark classrooms with no resources, but realised that in Malawi there are many basic issues to deal with before education can take precedent.

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Zambia

After spending 5 days in Malawi we crossed the border into Zambia. We didn't do much besides driving for the next few days since Livingstone is at the far West of the country. The supermarkets were notably better but more expensive here and the effect of tourism was evident in the standards of our campsite. The complex had everything from smart hotel rooms to chalets and tent pitches, with a restaurant on the bank of the Zambezi River. From here it was possible to see the distant spray from Victoria Falls but the good view came when we crossed into Zimbabwe the next day.

Zimbabwe

Crossing the bridge into Zimbabwe was the first impressive view we had of the Victoria Falls area. There were so many opportunities for adrenaline activities and animal interactions here. As well as visiting the Victoria Falls National Park we walked lions, rode elephants and threw ourselves off a 100ft gorge! It was a fantastic 3 days!

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Botswana

We arrived into Botswana and spent the first evening on a game cruise on the Chobe River. It was a very calm way to see the animals in their natural environment and an opportunity to watch young elephants playing with each other on the shore and even one that had immersed itself in the river up to his neck. The sunset was absolutely beautiful as we cruised back to the jetty.

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The main attraction in Botswana was the Okavango Delta. We travelled with people from the local village by Mokoro to a remote spot, about an hour into the delta, where we set up camp for the next few days.

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We saw hippos, giraffe, elephants and reed frogs during game walks and mokoro rides. We could drink the water from the delta and also swim amongst the reeds, although the water was pretty cold! On a trip further up the delta we saw large amounts of hippos, not pleased to see us invading their territory. They grunted loudly, splashing water in our direction and one thrust himself into a barrel roll in the water.

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At night we ate around the campfire, sung songs and watched the locals perform for us. It was a very relaxed time, in pretty surroundings.

Namibia

We had been prepared to experience something special in Namibia, since everyone we spoke to leading up to our trip there had told us it had the most diverse and beautiful geography across the country. I was looking forward to seeing this but my real excitement came from the prospect of some adrenalin activities.

Our first stop was at Etosha National Park. We were camping but we did get to experience a small part of the wealthy person's holiday in Africa here. The main park building is in the shape of a castle fort and has restaurants, shops, a guest lounge and a swimming pool. Most guests were staying in chalets near to a watering hole, which is lit up at night to allow people to observe the animals visiting the area. We were lucky enough to see and video three giraffes drinking from the watering hole after only an hour of waiting.

During the 2 game drives we had while at Etosha we didn't see much wildlife. On a night drive some of our group saw some rhino, but we had definitely seen more animals, closer on our visits to other game parks.

From Etosha we drove across the park to a Cheetah park, where we camped for the night. There we saw wild cheetahs being fed and could stroke the owners' pet cheetahs. They were surprisingly friendly and similar to domestic cats. They purred while being stroked and licked some of us (which apparently felt like being rubbed with sand paper!).

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From the Cheetah Park we continued on our journey to the beautiful mountains at Spitzkoppe. Some of the group went on a tour round the area to see cave paintings and find out a little of the history. Others climbed the mountains and took photos of the amazing view. In the evening we made a fire and eventually camped under the stars. At dawn, a group climbed the mountain to watch the sun rise, before having breakfast and starting the journey to Swakopmund.

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I was getting increasingly excited as we got closer to the African / German seaside town. I played music I used to listen to in the car on the way up to my 'local' dropzone in Scotland. It had been two and a half years since I had last jumped out of a plane and my adrenalin was already pumping before I had found out where the airport was in Swakopmund.

We stopped at our hostel, dropped off our things and went straight to the adventure sports booking centre. I was keen to head to the dropzone to get some refresher training but we also booked on a beginner's sandboarding course. Some of the group came along to do a tandem jump and I managed to get 'refreshed' by one of the parachute instructors there. Unfortunately the winds were too high to get anything done that day but we went back the following morning. I managed to borrow equipment and do 2 amazing jumps. The scenery is beautiful above Swakopmund, with the sand dunes bordering the town, the bay in the distance and the massive expanse of desert. It was almost difficult to find the little dark squares so far below, that were in fact the DZ packing huts.

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After a night in the hostel bar, drinking cocktails and watching tragic 80s music videos in the bar, we went to bed in our dorm room, to prepare for sandboarding in the morning. Half the people on the course were beginners and it didn't take long to realise that sand is pretty unlikely to kill you. It was easy to control the speed we went but not so easy to maintain balance. The sandboarding was fun but climbing the dunes to do it was torture, and enough to take it off my desirable hobbies list.

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Swakopmund is a sleepy but attractive town with a strange mix of cultures and a strong German influence. White people are very much the elite people here and it was strange to be submerged in an environment that didn't feel wholly politically correct. There was access to good food, bars and restaurants but the tourist market is aimed at a much wealthier person than the average overland truck traveller.

After three days of action packed activities in Swakopmund we continued on through the desert towards Sossusvlei. Here we were able to take a guided walk through the desert and learn a little about the history, people and survival skills necessary to live in the area.

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On the way back to camp from Sossusvlei we stopped off to climb one of the largest sand dunes in the world, to watch sunset. The climb to the highest point was very tiring and took about 30 minutes. We were so high and the path was so narrow (as wide as a person) that I felt quite nervous of falling off the dune. Besides never being able to clamber up again it wouldn't really have been a problem though.

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On the way back down, most people ran down the side of the dune and walked for about 15 minutes to get back round to the truck, whereas I decided to walk back the way we came (which turned out to be a bit quicker).

Fish River Canyon was our next destination the following morning and we arrived in time for sunrise. The canyon is the second biggest in the world, next to the Grand Canyon, and having seen photos of the Grand Canyon since, it is almost equally as impressive as it.

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South Africa

On the way to the Namibian border we were able to stop off at a local butcher for some chlli kudu biltong. It was never something I had eaten or wanted to eat before heading to Africa but there's something quite amazing and addictive about biltong when you're sitting on a truck driving for days on end.

Our first stop in South Africa was at Orange River, where we had the opportunity to go canoeing or just relax by the river or at the bar. By this time, we had lost virtually all traces of 'real' Africa but it was quite a welcome trip back to civilisation.

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We spent the following night at a wine farm, where we camped in a storage building for the night. We had the opportunity to do very generous wine tastings of some of the wine produced using grapes grown at the vineyard (and it only cost £5). After everyone was suitably tipsy, we were able to buy bottles of the wine cheaply at the bar, and the party continued into one of the latest nights of the trip.

The next day we drove until we arrived at Cape Town, where the official overland trip ended. We spent 3 rainy days in Cape Town and met up with some of the people who had left the trip 3 weeks before at Victoria Falls. Unfortunately we were very short of money by this time and couldn't afford to go to Table Mountain, but we did manage to see 5 films at the very reasonably priced cinema. Cape Town is a very attractive city but didn't feel particularly safe, with all the beggars, homeless and prostitutes. The restaurants had a good mix of food and it was possible to pick up souvenirs from nearly all the countries we had seen on our trip and have one last ditch attempt at haggling the price down. Unless you have a lot of cash to spare however, don't fall into the trap that you might send home your souvenirs to save money...one of the people we knew were quoted about £300 to send home their array of wooden animals and masks.

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Hostel prices in Cape Town were affordable and most will offer reasonable transfer prices to the airport.

The end of the Africa trip

By the time we had reached the final couple of days in Cape Town we were glad to be going home. I say home but actually for me, heading to Conneticut for the next three weeks was also something new. For my husband it was going to be the first time he had been to the States since moving to Taiwan two years before.

We had waited for a year for our Africa trip and it was no disappointment. It was definitely the best way I can imagine to spend 48 days of my life and I recommend it to anyone with an ability to rough it, sometimes with cold or no showers, early mornings and long days spent on a truck, traversing Africa's interesting roads. We met lots of people, some interesting, some annoying, some smelly! I speak mainly of our fellow passengers on the truck, not the locals along the way (although the same is true of them also). We saw the best of every country we went to, without feeling too much like rich western tourists. What I valued was the opportunity to truly relax, whether it was on one of the long journeys by road, on the beach in Zanzibar, sitting round eating dinner at night, or in one of the many campsite bars. It was an escape from real life and the opportunity to observe other countries and try new things. A truly fantastic experience!

Posted by lucid 03:39 Tagged tourist_sites

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