Date of Trip: April 2006
I decided to take a break from work for 2 months and go travelling around Africa. It was something I have wanted to do for a long time. There are over a dozen different companies offering overland trips for various lengths and I chose a company called Oasis Overland because it had spaces available for the dates I wanted, the prices were competitive (including most meals and a lot of excursions), and the itinerary included Zimbabwe, which many overland trucks do not currently visit.
I spent my first night at a hotel in Nairobi, and was introduced to the truck the next morning. It was bright yellow (a very popular colour for overland trucks) and you had to climb retractable metal steps to enter it. Inside, the coach style seats were against the walls, in 2 lines facing inwards. The bottoms of the seats lifted up to reveal 2 person lockers.
In the floor space between the seats were 3 ‘Eskies’ (big white cooler boxes regularly filled with ice) and a dustbin. These all doubled up as makeshift tables for books, card games and feet. The truck also had a square area at the front with a mattress and pillows and 8 more seats facing around it — known as ‘The Beach.’ The roof of The Beach was tarpaulin and could be rolled back to let in the sun. The sides of the truck were also tarpaulin, and were usually rolled up so you could kneel on the seats and enjoy the scenery.
Security was a concern for me before going out. But I found that the truck had a hidden safe, which needed 3 keys. This had just enough room for everyone’s money belts including passports. In addition, the truck would either be locked up or have someone staying with it on the road and in towns.
Normally you would have 2 crew members — a driver and a tour leader, but we had a trainee driver, so we were lucky and had 3 crew. The crew sat in the cabin at the front of the truck, and on the road the only way to communicate was to push the buzzer to stop.
There were just 8 of us joining in Nairobi, and I was surprised to learn that most people on the truck had already been on it for almost 3 weeks, travelling to Uganda to see the gorillas and seeing some of the highlights of Kenya. There were about 28 people on the truck during the tour, with a couple of people leaving or joining on occasion — and this is pretty much full capacity. They were mostly British, but also American, Australian, and New Zealanders (ages ranged from 19 to 37).
Travelling on the truck was fairly comfortable, apart from the odd occasion where you go over a big bump, and it can also be a bit of a squeeze if you are sat next to someone with broad shoulders. You rarely sat in the same seat twice, and there were plenty of interesting people to chat with. There was an on-board library with dozens of books to read, and we usually had music playing as there was a stereo system for plugging in your MP3 or iPod.
Also, there were regular stops for the bathroom (usually the side of a road) but also shops and service stations where you could buy snacks and magazines.
In groups of 3, you were responsible for cooking dinner on a rota system, with help from the tour leader. This involved going to the local markets and stores to get the ingredients. What you decided to cook was up to you, although sometimes you were limited by what was available. Food was stored in the Eskies and under the floorboards in the truck. In the evening you would then cook in huge pans over an open fire. You would also be responsible for washing up the cooking gear afterwards, and preparing breakfast and lunch the next day. As we also ate out on occasion (either paying yourself or out of the kitty) you only needed to cook 3 or 4 times in total.
I should add that everyone is expected to help out where necessary. This would mean sometimes sweeping out the truck, disinfecting the Eskies or fetching firewood. But tasks like this were fairly minimal and everyone got involved.
Another reason the trip is such a good price is that you spend a lot of the time sleeping in tents. Less than half the people on the trip were couples, so you had to find yourself a tent buddy to share a tent with (hopefully one who didn’t snore too much). The tents were easy to assemble, and took fifteen minutes to erect or take down, but usually when rolling it up you would get muddy hands. I think we had at least 8 bush camps where you were out in the wilds with no bathroom, electricity or running water. But in many campsites there was the opportunity to upgrade to a dorm room for $2, or something better for a little more.
Internet is quite often available throughout the trip and sometimes at very good prices. However, it cannot always be relied upon as in some countries it frequently crashes or can take 5 or 10 minutes to upload a new page. A good tip is to type your message in Word and then paste it onto the email so you won’t lose it.
I was travelling from 9 April to 30 May, as these were the most suitable dates for me to take a career break. But I was dismayed to find when I did my pre-trip research that April is the raining season for Tanzania. If it rained I was going to grin and bear it, but as it turned out, there was almost no rain at all for the entire trip (not in the countries we visited anyway).
I will now tell you about the trip itself:
I was only in Kenya for one day, so I really cannot comment on it. At the border crossing there were many people trying to sell souvenirs, although this isn’t intimidating as you are part of a big group of people. Several of our group bought giraffes about a foot tall for $5 each. Very good value for money, but I was concerned that with the entire trip still ahead of me I would quickly run out of storage space, so I did not buy any. You do see plenty of markets and souvenirs during the tour.
Ngorongoro Crater. This National Park is very exciting as you are surrounded by a ring of mountain and you have the chance of seeing many types of game. Although, as with most game parks you are not allowed off the tracks and you find yourself wanting to get a bit closer to see some of the animals better. A tip for when eating a picnic lunch, try not to do it too openly, as I had a huge eagle swoop down and grab a chicken thigh while I was eating it.
The Serengetti is probably one of my favourite National Parks. They only allow so many people in at any given time (a bit like an exclusive night club). But once you are inside you are surrounded by miles of rolling grasslands with nobody else in sight. There are islands of rock on the sea of grass and if you are lucky you can find lions sleeping there. We were very lucky and found 2 leopards sleeping in crooks of trees. As we were leaving the park we saw 2 male lions lazing in the grass…
Our guide bounced off the track and took us within four meters of the closest lion. It got up disgruntled and looked at us balefully before loping off. After taking a quick few snaps we drove back onto the track before any wardens arrived.
Also to see is the island of Zanzibar. The beaches here are idyllic white sand surrounded by palm trees. The sea is a beautiful azure and warm, but not always easy to swim in because of rocks. The people are colorful and friendly and the food is good and cheap. I was introduced to smoking Sheesha pipes, which is very popular in this part of the world (scented tobacco, smoked through a big pipe with a bowl of water at the base).
In the capital, Stone Town, there are a lot of Arabic influences, and it is full of twisting alleyways and grubby Moorish buildings. If you decide to try eating out at the fish market in the evening, be sure to negotiate the price for each item beforehand. I managed to get lost going back to the Hotel as the alleys twist about more than in Venice. A man with a beard and a white galibayah, carrying a shepherd’s crook came up to me. He had a little boy trotting along behind him. He asked if he could help me, then took me back to my hotel and refused to take a tip.
Malawi has plenty of beaches along the Lake, and is a good place to catch up on your suntan. There is also horse riding here if you are interested.
The country has its own Carlsberg brewery, and that is pretty much the only beer available. But at only 100 Kwacha (70 cents) for a 200ml bottle, it’s good value for money. (Beer is cheap throughout Africa).
The people of Malawi are so friendly, they invite you into their homes to show you their way of life as you are walking past. People are happy for you to take their photos, and they do not expect anything in return. Little kids wave and say hello wherever you go, they continue saying hello and you eventually realise that it’s the only English they know. We gave some kids drinks and snacks as we walked along, and before we could stop them, they threw the litter in the river…
There are street vendors here who fry Kasava at the road side (a root vegetable that tastes like a cross between potato and parsnip). You dunk it in salt and eat it like chips. I was told that it is Malawi’s McDonald’s.
You need 2 passport photos for your Mozambique Visa, and although it is possible to do that in Malawi, it is probably cheaper and more convenient to do it at home before you travel.
We spent just one day in Mozambique, as we needed to pass through it to reach Zimbabwe.
Because of the country’s current economic and financial problems, I changed $80 into local currency and became a multi-millionaire. $10 = $2,000,000 ZIM. It wouldn’t be so bad, but the biggest notes are $50,000, and most are $20,000, and it is a very slow and painful business when you join the queues to pay for anything. Six of us went to have pizzas, and the first 3 had eaten theirs, while the fifth person was still being served.
I was very excited about visiting the ruins of Great Zimbabwe. They are the biggest stone ruins in Africa after Egypt. The main sites are the Hill Complex and the Great Enclosure below it. It was awe-inspiring wandering around inside it. I felt I did not need a guide, the ruins speak for themselves.
When you camp at Antelope park, you can go on safari on horse back, and also walk with lion cubs when they are let out of their enclosure twice a day. They are as playful as domestic cats, climbing trees, jumping on each other and rolling about. I walked away from the group to take photos and one of the lions decided to jump up and grab me, so I can say they are about four feet standing on their hind legs (at ten months old). They are part of a programme to release lions into the wild.
In Matobo National Park you get to see Rhinos and bushman rock paintings.
Victoria Falls is very wide and falls in both Zambia and Zimbabwe. The entrance fee is $20 in Zimbabwe, or you can cross over the border into Zambia ($10 visa) and the entrance fee is $10. It is a spectacular sight, and it’s quite tricky taking photos as there is always a thick mist of water which comes and goes like a fog, and icy cold localised showers every five or ten minutes directly over the Falls. My favourite side is in Zambia, as you get to stand on top of the Falls.
There are plenty of extreme sports available. Unfortunately, white water rafting was closed (in May the river is too high and the currents too strong). You can bungee jump here (104 meters, the 3rd highest in the world) and there is also the Gorge Swing.
I did the Adrenalin Day — Abseiling, Rap Jumping, High Wire, and the Gorge Swing. I couldn’t understand why some people thought the Gorge Swing was scarier than the Bungee Jump. I pictured it as holding onto a rope and swinging across like Tarzan. I was wrong! Your feet are tied together, and you shuffle to the edge of a cliff in a half crouched position, and when the assistant lets go, you plummet 54 meters free fall down the face of a cliff. Then the slack rope becomes taut and you are swung across the gorge at 140km per hour. Those 3 seconds of free fall are probably the scariest 3 seconds of my life.
Good buys at Victoria Falls are copper bracelets which you can get very cheaply. Admittedly they do eventually turn green and leave black marks on your wrists, but they do look nice.
Going on a river cruise in the Chobe National Park is highly recommended. It is probably the best place to see game in Botswana, particularly elephants.
The Okovango Delta is a must see in Botswana. Each dug out canoe (mokoro) made of sausage tree wood is flat bottomed, and when filled with 2 passengers, their baggage (sleeping bags, etc.) and a poler it sits very close to the water. You find yourself moving very carefully, as any sudden movement could swamp the mokoro. The poler has to occasionally bale out water as they all have slow leaks. You are taken along twisting waterways among the reeds surrounded by dragonflies.
We reached our campsite, set up our tents and went on a game walk. We were split into 3 groups and I thought we were lucky to have the main tour guide. But I’m sorry to say that the tour guides said virtually nothing, apart from pointing out a 2 week old anteater hole (and repeat this when we did a morning game walk). They could have made it a bit more interesting, pointing out animal tracks, explaining about the wildlife, insects and plants and maybe a bit of folklore.
It is certainly a unique experience being poled along the Delta, but as we brought and set up our own tents, brought and cooked our own meals, and washed our own plates, $110 for a one night bush camp is rather expensive. But they did sing very well around the campfire that night.
We entered Namibia in mid-May, which is Winter in the Southern Hemisphere. You need to wear 2 jumpers (in the evening and on the truck because of the wind chill factor) and there was even ice in the early hours of the morning. I bought myself a thermal inner lining for my sleeping bag to help keep me warm.
We went on game drives in Etosha National Park. The two we did in the early morning with the sun rising were bitterly cold, most who managed to get up, sat on the truck in their sleeping bags. We saw herds of springbok and zebra, and many other game. There were also lots of jackals in the park and at the campsites (which meant you couldn’t leave your shoes outside as they would be stolen and eaten).
You can get very close to cheetahs at a Cheetah Park near Etosha, and you get to see (and smell) seals at the Cape Cross Seal Colony on the Skeleton Coast.
Like Vic Falls, Swakopmund is another adventure capital of Africa — you get to go sky diving, quad biking over the dunes and sand boarding. All very recommended.
The Namibian Desert has some of the biggest dunes in the world and amazing landscapes. Jeeps can drive you in to see the sights for $10-$15 per person. But I chose the cheaper (free) option of walking.
We stayed in Stellenbosch and went on a wine tasting tour. The region is very famous for its wine. It is also a very good place to eat, particularly if you want to try some of the different game (it is the only town where I saw Zebra on the menu).
The truck then took us to a hostel in Cape Town and this was the end of our tour. However, I had decided to spend a few extra days in Cape Town before flying home. This gave me the chance to climb Table Mountain, visit the Cape of Good Hope to see where the Indian ocean meets the Atlantic, look at the penguins on Boulder Beach, and sunbathe on pretty Camps Bay.
In summary, I don’t think you could go anywhere else in the world and experience so many different landscapes, cultures, animals and activities, in so short a time, and certainly not for that price. The 54-day trip cost 680 GBP + a local payment of 330 GBP when you arrive — 1,010 GBP in total (about $1,860 USD). This includes the majority of your meals, and quite a lot of excursions and National Parks. You have to also pay for the Zanzibar ferry (40 GBP return) and a hotel in Zanzibar. There are a few optional extras in each country, one of the most expensive being the Serengetti for 2 days, which costs 100 GBP. The other major expenses are your flights and visas. Your visas are paid as you cross each country border. I would recommend this trip to anybody.