Sunday, 24 May 2015

Cape Town Baby!

We were now high tailing it south, and very excited about arriving in the beautiful city of Cape Town.  By now, we had travelled 18,000 km (16,000 thousand on, 2,000 thousand off the road), through 21 coutries in 3 continents. Stayed at 13 hotels, 10 hostels, 1 motel, 3 friend's houses, 11 wild camps and 37 camp sites. Crossed 17 borders by land, and 3 by boat. Done 5 oil changes, and fortunately had no major breakdowns. Visited 9 national parks and seen all the big 5 game and mountain gorillas. Navigated dozens of police checkpoints. Made many many friends, and were now nearing the end of the trip of a lifetime.

But I had one final trick up my sleeve.

I'd decided it was about time to pop the question a few months before we left, and even talked to Anna's father and bought a ring. I thought about asking many times in the trip, but the time never quite seemed right, but I was literally running out of road.

The drive into Cape Town is spectacular, with the city overshadowed by the colossal Table Mountain in the background, and eventually stunning sea views sneaking into view, but I can't say I took much in. I was terrified. 

I'd always said I would ask before I knew what the answer would be, but that was really adding to the tension. A little bit of google earth research had revealed that the beach at Camps Bay looked quite nice (well, from space at the very least), so I chose there and booked a swanky hotel and a posh dinner in the hope it would be good news.

On arrival I was starting to seek out an appropriate spot, but was desperate for the loo, which didn't seem like the right state to proceed in, so we found a lovely sea front public lavatory. Then whilst Anna washed her hands I picked out a spot on the rocks overlooking the beach.

Under weak pretence I suggested we walk on to the rocks and the dropped to one knee and said my (pre-prepared) bit. (It wasn't really worth pre-preparing, Anna doesn't remember it!)

She said yes!

Which was good, because it would have been a bit awkward otherwise. 

I have quite literally never been happier than that moment on the rocks. 

The rest of the week was a blur of celebration and packing up our lives ready to head home. What an amazing place Cape Town was to spend that weak.

Our trip over, we boarded our flights after 4 and a half months in motion, time to head back and celebrate with much missed family and friends.

And the Beast? We'll he's staying in Cape Town for now; ready to fight another day...

Just after popping the question on the rocks

View from Table Mountain

Wine Tasting in Stellenbosch

The view from our amazing hotel the night we got engaged

The workshop of the guy who made Anna's engagement ring

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

In to the cauldron...

We nearly bought a car without air conditioning. By this stage we had travelled through most of Africa without really needing it, but after the first couple of hours in southern Namibia, surrounded by unbearable heat for most of the day, it became clear it was worth every penny.

It was 40 degrees plus every day, and we were forced into an existence where we were only outside for the couple of hours either side of sunrise and sunset. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the main things to see in this part of the world are massive sand dunes, and giant arid canyon (as well as making the most of the local German connections by eating a wide variety of apple strudel!)

Sand dunes as far as the eye can see in Sossusvlei
Dried up lake beds - hard to believe that there's ever water...

Big canyon at Fish River

This photo get across how hot and dry it was quite well

This is proper frontier country, and you really felt out of it, barely seeing another person in a full day of driving.

With that in mind, you can understand how at odds our accommodation on our last night in Namibia seemed. We landed mid afternoon at Ai-Ais, a natural springs with several pools to sooth aching limbs (unfortunately, they are hot springs - not ideal!) You can imagine how impressed Anna was in this situation (ie 40 degrees, only hot pools to cool off in), when I started playing the stupid game where I drove away every time she tried to get in. Luckily though, this game highly amused the local park ranger, who happened to have a luxury villa going spare that night, and decided to bestow it upon us for free!

That night we slept in air conditioned luxury, with an odd treat of being able to watch the Oscars under the beautiful desert stars from our personal hot tub!

From here, we continued south into South Africa, our last country. It was then that I started to get nervous.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Namibian Nomads

Our arrival in Namibia was inauspicious. Having taken the off road track from near Gunmare in Botswana (quite a bold move in wet season), we bumped and swerved our way to the small shack which marked the border. A brief view of register revealed no Brits had been this way in a year (kudos!), and after teaching the unfortunate army guys stuck at this remote outpost, how to fill out our paperwork, the little wire gate was opened and we were on our way into wild Namibia!

Not the most formidable border

Disadvantages of crossing borders off road: sometimes you reach a dead end / lake

Unfortunately, for all of Namibia's wildness it does maintain a deep love of paperwork, and we had to get a foreigners driving permit, which is apparently only available from Windhoek, on a Tuesday, under a fair wind. Fearing the police would fine us without it, we dutifully headed in the other direction (hadn't seen a policeman in a while!)

Our destination was the incredible Etosha National Park - our last proper safari of the trip. If you google photos of Etosha, you will find some unbelievable photos of the watering holes there, which look like the queue for Noah's ark. The reason for this, is the dryness of the surround areas - there is no water for dozens of miles around, so any watering hole becomes an animal Mecca. Unfortunately, as we drove into the park, the heavens opened (good news for Namibia, which was in the middle of long drought, bad news for us) - and suddenly there were plenty of puddles for the animals to drinks from everywhere.

As a result the animal viewing was sparse but we had only one thing in mind. We'd seen plenty of the other big 5 animals on our trip, but were missing a rhino. Etosha is famous for Rhinos, so we thought we had a good chance. On the first morning we drove around the various watering holes and saw very little. We eventually turned on to one of the rougher tracks, more to kill time than anything, and after a while approached a pool on the left with two very large shapes in it. RHINO! An amazing sight, given how solitary they usually are. It was unclear whether one of them was quite keen on the other, or wanted a fight, but after a while it gave up either way and disappeared into the bushes. Something must have been in the air, because later on we saw a bit of Giraffe loving too (a bit light the fight on the BBC series Africa, but a with lot gentler neck action!)

Fighting / loving Rhino

Canoodling Giraffe

Getting going with the Braii routine
Chilling out on Safari, watching the Rhino

After travelling with some Saffas earlier in our trip, and talking A LOT about the South African obsession with the Braii, we thought it was about time we got into it, and Etosha marked the beginning of our nightly bbq routine for most of the rest of the trip. I was doing a mean Boerewors by the time we got to the Cape!

We then made a fleeting trip to Windhoek to pick up our papers (we did get stopped by the police in the end, but Anna charmed her way out of a ticket!), and were quickly off to the very german coastal down on Swakopmund.

The car needed some running repairs, so we had a hang around a couple of days on the coast. Fortunately, a friend of a friend, Henry, is a geologist working in the dessert just outside Swakop, and became our excellent host for the weekend! After showing us the sights and sounds of this small town, and introducing us to crazy drillers, and even more crazy local farmers alike, we felt like we had gotten a pretty good feel for the town. We even managed to find somewhere to watch the rugby again - was 3 for 3 on the six nations games, despite being on the road.

Killing time by the beach in Swakopmund
One weird phenomena we noticed in this town, was that of Pay Day Saturday. We were there on the last Saturday of the month, and on that morning, the town was buzzing. The shops of full; the cafes and restaurants we jam packed. That was, at least, until about 1pm, when everyone decided they had had enough fun for the month, and it turned into a the same sleepy retirement town again!

After a couple of days static, we were keen to be on the road again, and out of Swakop, we were quickly off the tarmac, and on to the gravel road (it would be a good 600km until we say tar again). I love getting off the tar a bit, but this really wasn't as fun as elsewhere - the roads were dead straight, there was noone around, and it's all too easy to let your speed get away from you, and start sliding around on the gravel. It was also chewing up my expensive tyres.

Fortunately, my tyres were in better nick that than a car we found about an hour out of Walvis Bay. It was a young German couple who hired a car in Windhoek with rubbish tyres, and had a blow out. We were starting to make a habit of being a roadside rescue team, and I think they were truly shocked when we turned up from nowhere, changed the tyre for them in 10 mins, and then got them on their way. They looked in dispair when we arrived. It was just the kind of thing to lift your spirits before a long drive. We were heading south into the cauldron of South Namibia - things were about to get very hot!

Monday, 8 April 2013

Becoming a Bush Pilot

After the long and hard road to Livingstone, it was time to take stock. We only had 3 weeks to get to Cape Town, but now, after all that driving, the odds were shifting in our favour. A quick check of the sat nav, revealed we were only 3 days drive from the Cape if we headed straight for it, so there was a time for a bit more fun on the final leg of the trip. For us, that meant heading straight west into Botswana and Namibia, to visit the Bushmen for a while.

A grand way to start a more fun based bit of the trip was a visit to Victoria Falls. Anna had been before, but not when the river was in full flow. The locals call it the 'Smoke That Thunders', and it was hard not to agree as you approached the falls; you heard them well before seeing them. The rate of flow was incredible, and it was impossible not to get soaked as you looked at them. Later in the afternoon, we wound our way down to the riverside to the scarily named Devil's pool (though the scariest thing in reality was fighting off the insistent baboons with sticks and stones who thought we might have food). Overall an amazing day - a true natural wonder.
Epic falls

They look innocent (note tiny baby), but they were soon to be chasing us down the path!
Awesome whirlpool-iness at the Devil's Pool - the bridge you can just see in the background is the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe
Getting very wet from the Smoke that Thunders

Feeling a bit more chipper and rested, we headed on to Botswana by crossing the Zambezi river on a barge (approved level of border), and landed in town just in time to take a cruise into the Chobe National Park. It's pretty wet in Botswana right now, so driving isn't so easy, but the cruise was a great way to get up close to some pretty amazing Elephants without being in too much danger (they can't swim as fast as they run!) A nice treat for Valentine's day, followed by a very fancy meal (inc. roses and chocolates) at the amazing lodge we were staying at (fortunately we were allowed to camp in the car park).

On the border between Zambia and Botswana - approved on the James' scale of proper borders
Elephants are in great danger all over Africa, but in Chobe, this is just not true. Numbers are booming (which is pretty good, because I really love elephants, and half a memory card full of photos to prove it). Our best elephant based experienced was driving along the road between Chobe and Maun. We saw our first triangle beware signs with pictures of elephants on them, which usually obviously means you wont see any. Then 10 minutes later we saw a sign that had been bent in half and joked that there must be elephants nearby. Sure enough, another 10 seconds and we saw a couple of huge males grazing by the side of the road. Sadly a few minutes late for the best photo opportunity ever.

Getting up close and personal with the elephants

Our next stop was Maun, a dusty, end of the world type town, which marks the edge of the Okavango Delta. The main reason we were going was my obsession with a tv show called 'Bush Pilots' ( The show follows rookie pilots who turn up in Botswana, usually from the UK, with a bare minimum of flying experience, and try to find their first flying job. Our trip to Maun was basically the fan tour. We stayed at the hostel where they bunk whilst waiting for work, ate at the Bon Arrivee restaurant outside the airport where they hang out, and obviously took an incredible tourist flight over the Delta itself (for any Mum's reading, we found a pilot will well over 100 hours experience, don't worry!)

The delta is an incredible place. Because it gets so completely flooded in the wet season, the population has always been limited to a few small villages hemmed in on the higher ground, who get around in canoes. This has meant that the area is wonderfully remote, and rammed full of wildlife. Really amazing from the air (though Anna did need to make use of the facilities a couple of times in response to the pilot dipping the wing to look at elephants!)

Looking healthy and happy - notably, pre-flight
Our worrying small vessel
Flying low over the swamps, lovely reflection of the clouds and sky in the water

We capped off our trip to Botswana, by driving as far as we could into the Delta, and staying at the Swamp Stop. As you'd expect, this had the most insects I've ever seen anywhere, and no mozzie spray was strong enough. Though our main guilt was the number of beautiful butterflies getting caught in our grill as we drove along. It was more or less like driving through a wall of them, so not much I could do.

Butterfly trap, but the car is still going strong!
The car was still going incredibly well, though my level of improvisation was gradually increasingly. Some rain water had gotten into our front differential, and the oil needed changing (which unfortunately involves squeezing oil in, up hill). Although my first attempt with a piece of gas hose taped to the end of squash bottle was thoroughly unsuccessful, I managed to get the oil in using our pump powered camping shower. Fortunately, there have been showers in every campsite since then - not looking forward to the first oil based shower! The car needed to be in top shape from here though, as we were about to take a slightly less trodden route to Nambia...

Thursday, 21 February 2013

The Long and Dusty Road

Four months was always an ambitious timetable for a trip as long as ours, and with a bit too much fun, and a bit too much customs admin behind us, we were sitting a bit too far north with a bit too little time when we finally set out from Kigali. Anna had already travelled quite a bit in this part of the continent, so we had always been planning to do it fast, and allow ourselves some more time to enjoy Botswana and Namibia.

We spent 10 solid days driving, racking up around 4,000 km, heading through central Tanzania, down lake Malawi and across the Great East Road through Zambia as far as Livingstone. 

Some of the highlights and lowlights are below:

  •  Crossing a proper border between Rwanda and Tanzania, which is a flimsy bridge over a massive torrent of a river with huge rapids (I really don’t like borders which are just a line on a map)
  •  Exploring the less trodden route through some of mining towns of north western Tanzania; hungry after a long day on the road, we wandered into a dusty cafe and I practised my best Swahili "ni kuna chakula” (“Is there food?”), to which a chips omelette was produced – a culinary delight!
  • Masai warrior on a bicycle.  In fact, pretty much anything and anyone on a bicycle - even bicycle taxis which are a great idea

  •  After our horrible day on the road to Iringa (see below), sampling the most incredible steak and fresh vegetables at the Old Farm House Camp – this healed many wounds
  • Finding a posh coffee plantation to camp in Mbeya, where we could swim in the gorgeous pool, and got to camp next to the helipad (they weren’t expecting anyone that day, but said we’d have to move quickly if one appeared!)

  • Winding through the colourful hillside towns of southern Tanzania near the Malawian border, where the locals were very cheerful and beautifully dressed
  • Benefiting from some of our car based misfortunes (see below), to be in Lilongwe at the right time to see Wales overturn the French in Paris, with the big group of fun ex-pats we met in town
  • Being handed a copy of the highway code at the Zambian border, and finding out that all cattle being herded on the road at night (a common sight in Zambia) should have a white light on the front animal, and a red light on the back one – the herder should also wear a high vis jacket.  Sadly never actually saw this in action...
  • Bumping into old friends on the road; a group of 3 lovely couples we’ve met along the way, which we had a great time exchanging stories with
  • The rain of Livingstone stopping in time to enjoy the majesty of Victoria Falls in full flow: Incredible!

Low Lights

  •        Turning out of Tanzania’s uninspiring capital, Dodoma, to find the road I expected to be tar to be horrible bumpy gravel all the way to Iringa (including having to get towed out of some mud along the way) – despite the incredible vast mountainous forests we were seeing out of the window
  •          Discovering a broken wheel bearing at Chitimba on Lake Malawi (potentially caused by the evil road), and having to crawl into Mzuzu to get it fixed (in a bloke's back garden)
  •          Getting locked out of the boot at Kande beach, and not being able to wash until we made a detour to Lilongwe to fix it
  •         The number of overturned trucks on the road in Zambia; the terrible accident that happened there recently seems like it was inevitable

Short stop in Rwanda

We’d heard that everyone in Rwanda is terribly polite and this proved to be the case.  The first people we met after the border were these lovely students who came to welcome us to their village and the country as we stopped to take some photos at a lake.  They had been learning English in school and were keen to practise (a lot of the older generation speak French but nobody is particularly keen on France post 1994 so English now seems to be the language to learn).

We were even more surprised when we got to Kigali and the roads were beautifully clean and all the motorcycle taxi drivers wore helmets and even carried a spare one for their passengers! 

In Kigali we met up with Kamanda - a friend of a couple of guys from our work.  He works for Friends of Rwandan Rugby, an NGO that promotes the sport in Rwanda.  Here's their website if you're interested in going out to help with their work as Tom and Rob did.

He took us out for some drinks and music in Kigali, but sadly we couldn't make it out to the women's rugby tournament he was running as James had some tummy troubles.

Rwanda delivering on the 'Land of a Thousand Hills' tagline...

...although not all the time

Ugandan Discussions

The officials on the border gave us a pretty easy ride into Uganda (each border seems to have got easier as we’ve headed further south) and didn’t even bother to look at the car, so we were able to make our way to Jinja the same day.  It’s the first major town past the border, but we were particularly excited to go there as it’s the source of the White Nile.  Having followed the Nile right from where it empties into the sea, along through Egypt and Sudan, seen the confluence of the Niles at Khartoum and then followed the Blue Nile into Ethiopia, it was good to get to the southernmost point of the other brand as well.  The only key bit of the river we haven’t made it to is the White Nile stretch between Uganda and Sudan – we’ll have to see how South Sudan pans out before we can make it there.

The country looked pretty similar to the tropical west of Kenya, but there were a few key differences – enough bicycles to give Cambridge a run for its money, central/west African style clothes for the ladies with big puffy sleeves and, suddenly, LOADS of female backpackers.  I don’t think we saw a male muzungu for the first three hours we were there.  Apparently there are lots of volunteer programmes in Uganda, and maybe girls are just nicer.

We stayed at a beautiful campsite at the confusingly named Bujugali Falls, which aren’t falls at all since a major hyrdroelectric dam has been built.  The falls and rapids have now moved further upriver and it was there we headed for some white water rafting.  (For any parents reading, it was very, very safe I promise!).  It was my first experience so I was pretty scared beforehand, but as soon as we started I loved it – probably because the water was lovely and warm.  Given we’ve driven so many miles along the Nile and sailed down it a couple of times it was good to finally be in it, right at the source.

Campsite at Bujagali Falls

We picked up some useful tips for our journey ahead from the manager of the campsite, who turned out to be an ex-overland truck driver – best roads, best campsites, best restaurants in Cape Town, how to get through certain borders (give the border guards dirty magazines), where to find the best deserted beaches...  Then, we (ie James) did a couple of pretty tough days of driving to get us across to Kampala to get mountain gorilla permits and then out to the fabulously named Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.  Having enjoyed pretty nice tar roads most of the way, the last stretch into Bwindi was a bit scary – a rough road with some steep drop offs onto farmland and then into incredibly think jungle as we entered the park.  There had also obviously been some rain as shortly before we reached the park HQ we found a car with several vicars stuck in the mud.  The Beast hauled them out pretty easily, so we hope they got back to the main road before dark.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Maybe our good deed was rewarded, as we had the most amazing mountain gorilla tracking experience the next day.  There are about 10 habituated gorilla families in Bwindi  (the others are in Rwanda and the DRC) and you get assigned to visit one of them.  The rangers know where they saw the gorillas the previous day but they can be pretty far away or hard to find, so we had heard that people could be trekking for up to 5 or 6 hours in search of them.  Looking at the mountains covered in thick rainforest we weren’t exactly surprised.  Fortunately, the Bitukura family who we had permits to visit turned out to be hanging out about an hour away from park HQ so we had a sweaty but fairly short trek to get there.  A couple of trackers had gone ahead and were in radio contact with our ranger, who suddenly led us off the track into thick bush, cutting a path through with a machete where necessary.  A few minutes later we were brought to a stop and had to put our sticks down and get our cameras out.  And then there they were!

The first three we saw were a couple of juveniles and one infant playing pretty boisterously.  

You’re supposed to stay at least 7 or 8m away in case you give them some horrible disease, but one of them broke off to come and have a good look at us.  He came right up to me so I tried to look down and not make eye contact as we’d been told – although I reckon I probably could have taken him.  

That definitely wasn’t the case with the massive silverbacks who gradually emerged from the trees.  They were pretty intimidating but seemed to be in a pretty good mood and didn’t even mind the little ones coming and jumping on them a bit.  

This chap is known as The Judge - what you can't tell from the photo is that he was constantly letting rip with massive farts...

We were only allowed to spend an hour there but it really did feel special (there are only about 800 mountain gorillas in the world), although it was sad you couldn’t go and play with them as the kids looked like they were having a lot of fun.

As we left the park the heavens opened and a huge rainstorm started so we were pretty relieved that we had found the gorilla family so rapidly.  This was the first real rain of our trip so it was a bit of a shock.  Having been used to perfect/scorching sunshine most of the way, we got a bit miserable when we turned up at lovely Lake Bunyoni and couldn’t really go out as it rained all the time.  We decided to head for the border instead and had a spectacular drive through volcanoes and past mountain lakes into Rwanda.