Author of guide books, ex-editor and now editor-at-large of 4×4 Australia, off-road tour leader and organiser of southern African 4×4 tours for Australians. Meet Ron Moon
We arrive at the Farm Inn, a lodge and small nature reserve east of an ever-encroaching Pretoria. People scurry about, packing various bits and pieces into a group of 4x4s parked outside.
A tanned, bearded man comes out of the room, doing up the butt ons on his safari shirt. “We’re just doing the last-minute things,” he says with an Australians accent. “We’re leaving for Botswana tomorrow. Hi. I’m Ron Moon.”
They might not be known to South African audiences, but in the large Australian off-road community Ron and his wife Viv are household names. In their travels in Australia they’ve covered every remote corner of the continent, producing a flood of articles that have appeared in nearly every magazine and newspaper around the country. They have also contributed to or written 13 guidebooks on Outback Australia.
Viv is also a first-class bush cook. Her regular cooking column in 4X4 Australia magazine has been a long-running hit for more than 16 years and she has also written two cookbooks, Viv Moon’s Outdoor Cookbook and Viv Moon’s Travellers Cookbook.
Between 1987 and 2001 Ron was the editor of Australia’s leading 4WD magazine, 4X4 Australia, and in that time he gained an enviable reputation as one of the most travelled and “hands on” 4WD experts in the country. Today he is the editor-at-large, which allows the couple to travel more frequently and more widely.
And it also allowed Ron to tackle a new challenge – organising 4×4 tours in southern Africa for Australians, who fly over, get into a rented 4×4 here and go off-roading for some 21 days.
“In Australia so-called ‘tag-along’ off-road tours into the Outback are very popular, so in 2004, in partnership with Anthony and Karen MacDonald of Red Desert Tours, we started Legendary Outback Expeditions (LOE) to lead exclusive expeditions into the remote areas of Australia’s outback,” says Ron. Having fallen in love with Africa on the first of his 10 visits to the continent 20 years ago, he decided the next logical step was to explore the opportunities of taking Australian off-road adventure enthusiasts on a tour of southern Africa.
“LOE is well known for its Outback trips, and it wasn’t difficult to get a group together to join us on the southern African tour,” says Ron. It’s quite expensive – about 18 000 Aussie dollars (R130 000) excluding flights – but it’s fully catered. They mostly camp, as the tour group are 4×4 enthusiasts who’ve been on several Outback trips, so camping is nothing new to them. The rental vehicles are equipped with rooftop tents.
At the time of writing the Aussies were about to embark on the second southern Africa tour organised by Ron and “Macca”, as Anthony is generally known. They were due to see Botswana and Namibia before cruising down the West Coast to Cape Town, where the tour was to end 19 days later.
The inaugural expedition, last year, was a great success. “We had our Patrol shipped over to South Africa because we planned to drive overland to London after the LOE trip.” The Patrol in question is a 4,2-litre diesel converted into a double-cab “ute”, as they call a bakkie in Australia. The chassis was lengthened by some 600mm, and a camper sits on the rear “bak”.
Before setting off on the 2007 southern African tour, Ron, Viv and friends used the opportunity to drive up the Sani Pass to Lesotho and to visit the battlefields in Kwa- Zulu-Natal, the Royal Hlane National Park in Swaziland and the Kruger National Park.
Then it was back to the Farm Inn in Pretoria to meet up with the group that had flown in from Australia, and a South African guide, Bertus Hanekom. “It just Travelling north of an impressive line of inselbergs and towering granite-slab mountain peaks in northern Mozambique. These tall and impressive domes absolutely dominate the area around them. Left: Crossing a wooden bridge in Tanzania, with the planks creaking ominously. Below: At the entrance to the Namibia’s Skeleton Coast Park. The vehicle is a custom-built Nissan Patrol double-cab. makes it that much easier to use a local guide,” says Ron. “Bertus is a family friend whom I’ve known for a long time, and he is very good at what he does.”
This 16-day guided trip was to take in the Itala Nature Reserve, southern Mozambique, Kruger National Park, Kubu Island in the Makgadikgadi Pans region, Moremi in the Okavango Delta and then south through the Kalahari Desert back to Pretoria.
Once in Mozambique, the group followed a sandy track to Ponta Malongane, and set up camp at Campismo Ninho, located on a small patch of land in the steep hills above the beach and Indian Ocean.
Highlights were a visit to Ponta do Ouro to buy seafood at the market and to enjoy a bit of the local colour and culture, and the village of Salamanga, where the oldest Hindu temple in Mozambique – built in 1908 – is situated.
A couple of nights were spent in the Kruger National Park – one night at Bergen- Dal and the next at Balule. “This is a top little camping area. Some of the people in our group had a range of fantastic animal sightings that included lion, leopard, wild dog, white rhino, elephant, buffalo and a lot of antelope. Once again Kruger had not disappointed!”
Then it was off to Botswana and the village of Mmatshumo, gateway to the Makgadikgadi Pans. “We took a wrong turning and had to backtrack to the town and ask a lady on the steps of the post office the right way to Kubu Island.” Maun and the Moremi Game Reserve in the Okavango delta were next on the itinerary, where the animal sightings were good – “a herd of some 150 elephants crossed the road in between our convoy”.
The group returned to Pretoria via the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and Gaborone.
When the rest of the group flew back to Australia, the Moons prepared for the next chapter in the adventure – driving from South Africa’s southernmost tip, Cape Agulhas, to Cairo and Tunis, and on to Europe.
It’s interesting to hear how foreigners experience our countryside. Ron wrote on his website: “The N1 is probably the least scenic drive south. The coastal route – the Garden Route – is much better. Still, we enjoyed the drive through the Free State – the gently rolling plains cut up into fenced farmlets and properties, some growing corn, others having cattle.
“It wasn’t until we were well past Bloemfontein that a few rocky hills and low mountains began to appear on the horizon. A few sheep began to also make an appearance as the country became drier.”
They headed for Cradock and Port Elizabeth, trying to get onto the N2 without having to go through PE, but after a visit to a rubbish dump and a detour through a township they decided to tackle the town traffic.
“Checked out Natures Valley, which is a little enclave tucked in amongst the high sea cliffs and small bays of this rugged hard-to-get-to coast. It’s a magic spot,” wrote Ron.
“But what a fabulous city Cape Town is! Our third visit and this time we even made it up to the top of Table Mountain. We picked an absolute corker of a day to take the cable car to the top of this flat-topped mountain that totally dominates the city and the sprawling suburbs below it. The views of the coast and into the hinterland beyond Paarl were fantastic! Yeah, it’s on the tourist trail, but you can’t miss it!”
From here their route led up the West Coast and the Orange River into “Fantastic Namibia”, as Ron described it. They spent a couple of days exploring the county – Swakopmund, Skeleton Coast, Kaokoland, Epupa Falls and the Etosha National Park. On their visit to a Himba village Ron noted: “We had seemed like time travellers – a Himba village is basically as it was a thousand years ago and we had swept in like spacemen, done our thing, took our photographs with digital cameras and videos and as quickly as we had came we had left.
“These people may seem poor, but they are healthy and are an extremely proud people who want to hang onto their traditional lifestyle, resisting the changes that threaten to swamp them! It had been a great morning!”
Getting into Zambia at Kazungula meant driving back to Botswana, through Maun and up to the border, crossing the Zambezi River by ferry.
“Headed to Lusaka and found the old joke about the drunken Zambian driver – who was caught driving in a straight line – to be true. The bitumen roads here in Zambia are chronic – big sharp-edged potholes make you duck and weave all across the tar, which is particularly hard through the towns and villages when you have to dodge and weave amongst the people, the vehicles (cars, trucks and bullock-drawn carts) and the local stock (goats, cattle and pigs).”
After Lake Malawi the route went into northern Mozambique. “Here we were at the border post in Mozambique trying to converse with a Portuguese official to organise our visas – and not having much luck – when in walked an Australian. Phillip Piper was a missionary working in the village of Cuamba as an SI Mission ‘teacher preacher’ teaching selected and keen local Christian people to be pastors.
“Speaking Portuguese, he paved the way for us through the official jungle of visas, passports, car importation, third party insurance and a newly thought up tax for imported cars that had only been in for a month. The officials were no problem – just our Portuguese!”
In Pemba they found another Aussie, Russell Bott, who runs Russell’s Place and was one of quite a few of their countrymen they would encounter on the trip.
Farther north they went – “we would go back to Zanzibar at the drop of a hat. It was fabulous!” Overcrowded and expensive Ngorongoro Crater earned a “never again”, but the Serengeti got a “You betya!”
The Patrol was serviced in Nairobi. Their impression of Kampala was one of “smog and manic traffic” and then it was on to northern Kenya and the swing towards Ethiopia – the country they dearly wanted to see.
It turned out an amazing experience, marred somewhat by crowds of children demanding money and stoning the vehicles if you didn’t comply.
Sudan turned out to be a pleasant surprise, says Ron. “Don’t believe all that you read in the news or see on the TV about Sudan. We found some of the friendliest people in Africa, nobody hassled us, while officials were polite and friendly. We also had our best bush camps of the whole trip and you have a feeling you are safe no matter where you are.”
Taking a vehicle into Egypt was a nightmare of red tape, and in Libya you need a heap of copies of your official documents, as they’re demanded at all of the many roadblocks.
After all that, entering Tunisia was a real pleasure – “filled out a ‘Visitors’ Card’, got our passport stamped and a form filled out for the vehicle, then we were waved through – no visa, customs or anything. Had to wait and see if getting out would be as easy…”
As it turned out they did need visas, but it was not a problem some 50 US dollars couldn’t fix.
The Africa trip finished when the ferry took them from Tunis to “civilised Europe”, as Ron described it.
Obviously their African experiences would fill a book, but readers who want to know more about the Moons’ adventure can go to www.loe.com.au for the full account.
The next big adventure? “Later this year we plan to head across southern Europe to Turkey and then strike north through Russia to North Cape, the most northerly point of Europe. After that we may head east across Russia to Hong Kong via Mongolia, or head south through Norway to Spain and across to Morocco and the west coast of Africa. Who knows?”
What a life…