When Bill and Christine Theron left Zimbabwe in the mid Seventies they never thought it would be 30 years before they would be in a position to carry on discovering Africa. So at the ages of 64 and 74 (Bill), they were more than ready for a four-month adventure, covering 23 000km
Taking full advantage of our pensioner status, Bill and I planned a four month trip into Africa – something we’d longed to do since we were, well, young. Our vehicle? A standard 4×4 Hilux. The only add-ons were Old Man Emu shocks, a long-range fuel tank and a fancy aluminium canopy. The cupboards and roof-rack were a DIY job, performed at our farm in KwaZulu-Natal. What made our trip so interesting was that we strayed from our itinerary from day one. Hitting the road by 7am on D-day, after planning to leave at 2pm, set the stage for 120 days of spontaneous travelling and deciding where to go as we went along. If something sounded interesting, we would drop our vague plans and set off in a new direction. The first serious change of plan came when we arrived at the Shire River on our way to Malawi. The ferry that was supposed to transport us over the river was happily docked due to windy conditions. After a frantic look at our map we discovered another road leading to Malange – only about 100km out of the way. In our humble – and quite inexperienced – opinion, this was surely better than waiting for heaven knows how long for the wind to settle down. The terribly corrugated road wreaked havoc on our thought-to-be state of the art canopy. When we made it to the Malange border post in pouring rain, we were just in time to discover that the back doors had been shaken off their hinges, just three days into the trip. Accepting there was not much we could do about it, we took a hot shower and dozed off at the Malange Golf Club.
Up with the birds, we drove through Malawi via Lilongwe. It was a tedious stretch with countless roadblocks manned by what I would call not the most pleasant cops. Demanding chocolates and cold drinks and just about everything else we had, our offer of lukewarm bottled water didn’t go down very well. As a result we were fined R300 for not having red reflective tape on the back of the vehicle. This apparently brand-new law saw many a motorist – including locals – being robbed of hard-earned cash. We headed for Matema on Lake Malawi to take a break from driving and to bolt the back doors together. Navigating another bone-jarring, corrugated and very dusty road from Taduma to Nyakanazi via Sumbawanga, we saw real rural Africa.
Poor, dusty villages, everything covered in red dust with the rattle of the canopy doors adding a miserable melody to the scenery.When we stopped to give a very hungry looking dog a bone from our previous night’s supper, some kind guy pointed at our doors. They were open. The sight was enough to make anyone burst into tears. Everything we owned was covered in fine red dust: the kitchen surface, the bedding, the whole lot. The intention was to bushcamp that night, but that was now impossible. So we made another change of plan after consulting our map. Biharamuloo was our refuge. For the amazing price of R33 per person we had a clean room, hot shower, breakfast and lots of water to clean the shambles.
This was the start of a never-ending battle to keep the doors shut. We tried ski rope, then chain, then wire and eventually resorted to buying 25m of square tubing and made a couple of brackets and bolted them across the doors. This was not so user-friendly in retrospect, so we had to go hungry for a few days, fearing that we wouldn’t get the doors closed again. After another few days on shocking roads, we hit tar about 80km short of the Ugandan border. Uganda proved an easy country to travel in. The border crossing was painless, albeit a bit long-winded. The fruit and food we found on the roadside was amazing, saving us from opening the canopy doors too often. On one occasion we were stopped at a roadblock and asked the policeman where the nearest market was. He promptly left his post, accompanied us down the road, shouted at some unseen vendors to bring food, and then even reprimanded them for overcharging. The Ugandan roads by and large were not bad, but the drivers are something out of this world.
Our taxis wouldn’t stand a chance against these guys. Despite this, we enjoyed the game parks, which were reminiscent of the good old days when one could pretty much do as you pleased, but there was very little game, presumably thanks to the Idi Amin-era. The camps on the Nile were something to remember. One site, near Bujagali Falls, was especially stunning. We camped right on the water’s edge with the sound of rapids surging all round us. Unfortunately the facilities left a lot to be desired. Murchison Falls was truly awe-inspiring, with the mighty Nile pounding through a narrow gap between two heads. We then pushed on to Kampala, since I wanted to see the chimpanzees. This turned out to be not such a great idea, since we knew we would get there late. Arriving in African capital cities after dark is not advisable. The traffic was a nightmare, our GPS was snatched from the window when we pulled over to ask directions and we had to stop at countless garages to find someone who could direct us to the backpackers’ lodge. This was a tad tatty, but at that stage anything would have sufficed.
The next day we headed for Entebbe — small, quiet and clean. We even had the luck of seeing a shoebill stork there. The border crossing into Kenya was easy. Our first night at a camp outside Eldoret, Naiberi River Camp, was amazing. The camp, grounds and restaurant were among the best on the trip.
We met other overlanders there and got lots of helpful tips on the road ahead. Heeding their advice, we changed our route to go via Lake Bargoria to see flamingoes bathing in the hot springs, or geysers, as they are called.
We set up shop at Fig Tree camp, under enormous trees and had an unforgettable breakfast the next morning with the bubbling of geysers in the background. Next was Lake Turkana, which had become notorious for hijackings and attacks by Somali rebels. Luckily we went through unscathed. Maralal to Loyangalani was a long, demanding drive. The only vehicle we saw all day was that of a couple from Gauteng who gave us some more information. From there we went to Marsibit and the Ethiopian border, where we were hoping to camp at an oasis called Kalacha, which we somehow missed.
This bit was tricky with no GPS since there were dozens of tracks through the desert. We took Kevin Bolton’s advice (we attended one of his GPS courses): Don’t panic — go back to the basics. Subsequently we kept heading east by tracking the sun. We reckoned we would meet up with the main road, but after a few hours started panicking anyway — until we saw some rooftops in the distance. At this village, a Kenya Red Cross vehicle kindly put us on the right track. Darkness was already falling when we saw faint lights in the distance, which we hoped was Marsabit. But we were getting weary, so we just camped in the desert in a howling wind, and moved on straight to Moyale in the morning.
Crossing into Ethiopia was a disaster from beginning to end. Driving conditions were horrendous with everything on the roads — donkeys, cars, people, livestock, you name it. The roads were generally in a fair condition, but we found the people unfriendly and unhelpful. Even after dishing something out to the never-ending hands and cries of “give me, give me!” their attitudes remained unchanged. In fact, if you don’t give them something, you get a stone hurled at you. I don’t know if it was the age factor or whether we were just not used to the pressure of constant harassment, but we couldn’t get out of there soon enough. Not even the prospect of Sudan, which we had set our hearts on seeing, could make us change our minds. After just a week we were back at the border town of Omerate. The drive from Arba Minch to Omerate was the only pleasant memory we have of Ethiopia. We saw Africa of a century ago.
Traditionally dressed women kept our cameras flashing at a fee of two Birr (roughly the same as a rand) per shot. After getting our passports and Carne de Passage stamped, we got directions and headed back some 14km to a lone tree where the track leading to Ileret at the Kenya border started. Although we were told the road was straight, there were tracks in all directions. How we missed our GPS! We carried on through the Sibiloi National Park and camped at Kobi Flora where many fossils had been discovered. The camp was right on the banks of Lake Turkana, and staff members of the camp caught four bream which we bought for R12 — a truly great supper. The drive through these arid regions was amazing.
Heading for Nairobi to get our papers stamped, we yet again had to stop at the side of the road to fix the canopy’s doors. An army patrol vehicle stopped, and its friendly occupants told us that we were in bandit territory. They offered to escort us to safety and helped us to find our way to Nanyuki. We stayed there for a few nights so I could see the chimps at the rehabilitation centre. On the road to Nairobi, we cringed as we hit a roadblock. Since our Carne was not yet stamped in Kenya, we were told that our vehicle would be impounded. Bill demanded to see the boss and after a brief haggle we were fined R850. It goes without saying that no receipt was forthcoming. We managed to find Jungle Junction Camp in Nairobi, which caters only for overlanders.
The owner, Chris — a very knowledgeable guy — wasn’t stingy when it came to sharing information. The traffic in Nairobi was even worse than in Kampala. Two lanes become four and even five, and if you don’t have your bumper touching the vehicle in front of you, someone is bound to push in. Amazingly, there was no swearing or hooting. After three and a half hours of this, all intentions of filling gas cylinders went out the window. All we wanted was to be on our way. After two and half months on the road we were looking forward to a break at the sea. The coast of Kenya was awesome. We started in Malindi and drifted right down to the Tanzanian border. My favourite camp, Twigga Beach, was about 20km south of Mombasa. Idyllic white sand, palm trees, blue sea. You could order seafood from street vendors at a third of South African prices. We spent a couple of weeks there.
Every morning we planned to leave the next day, but ended up staying longer and longer. We eventually carried on down the coastline into Tanzania to a place called Peponi that was very well setup with hot showers — the first in what seemed like months. We crossed the Pangani River by ferry and booked in at Drifters’ Lodge. We were just in time to see turtles hatching from a local conservation project. Although we thought we would spend all our remaining time at the coast, we were getting bored. We wanted another adventure before going home. We’ve always wanted to see — and hopefully climb — the volcano called Ol Doinyo L’Engai (Mountain of God). On the way there we stopped at Coffee Tree camp at Marangu, right under Kilimanjaro. From there we had a fantastic view of the mountain — an awe-inspiring sight.
The road to Natron was rough and slow and totally isolated. We saw two cars in four hours. The worst of it was three barriers across the road that were put up by local tribes who demanded dollars before we could proceed. By the time we arrived at our destination, we had parted with US$85. We later heard that the first two barriers were illegal. Although the lake is invisible from the road due to the severe drought, the ambience of the place with Ol Doinyo L’Engai towering over you is very different to anything I’ve experienced.
Although I loved it, I’m not sure that it’s everybody’s cup of tea. We thankfully decided against climbing it. More than 2000m straight up, with not a tree or blade of grass in sight, didn’t look so appealing anymore. The dead Massai cattle didn’t help much, either. Back in civilisation, we went into Kenya once again, and then to Lamu Island. Fellow travellers along the way had told us we were missing out big time by not going there. Following their advice resulted in one of the highlights of the trip. The scary part was leaving our vehicle on the shore, since cars are not allowed on Lamu. In what locals described as a “safe” area, we parked the Hilux among a few other desolate cars, hoped for the best and jumped on the boat to Lamu.
This village, with its amazing alleys varying from donkey-cart width to crevices you literally have to hold your breath to squeeze through, was remarkable. Coral is used as building bricks in most buildings. The stairs to the bedroom we slept in were made with mangrove poles, hessian and cement. It was such a unique experience that the rest of the trip paled by comparison. It took us a few days of lazing around in Lamu to build up enough courage to head back to the real world.
The last bit of excitement remaining on the itinerary was to find a way across the Rovuma River. The ferry near Mtwara had sunk some time ago and we couldn’t get any reliable information as to whether the new bridge was open or not. Apparently there was a crossing near Songea, some 700km out of our way, so we decided to try the new bridge at Negomane. Steaming along on a good dirt road past Masasi, Bill luckily spotted a small sign saying Unity Bridge. We so nearly missed it. The locals in the area seemed to think the bridge was open, so we camped right there that night for the last time.
We set off the next day in search of the bridge and came across a sign reading “Masuguru Immigration”, which sounded hopeful. The door was firmly closed and we were told the officer had gone back to Masasi. After a phone call he agreed to come back but wanted US$50 for his service. After a lengthy wait he finally arrived, duly stamped our passports and we were on our way home via Mozambique. We headed for Pemba where we were hoping to find a tyre, since all seven that started off with us were dying a slow and painful death. Pemba has one of the best camps in Moz called Pemba Bush Camp, which we enjoyed thoroughly for a few days before heading home. Home Sweet Home. Or was it? After being away for four months, covering 23000km, we felt caged-in, lost and not at all at home. I don’t think we could ever tire of travelling or roughing it. The Hilux never missed a beat and we never felt threatened in any way. All that’s left to do now is count the days until we can take on another trip of this magnitude. It just goes to show that one is never too old to succumb to the travel bug.