Our journey, Cairo to Cape Town overland, began in the ancient biblical country of Jordan; after finally clearing our vehicles through customs and exploring the Lost City of Petra, Lawrence of Arabia’s hideout in the desert of Wadi Rum and soaking in the Dead Sea we made our way via ferry to Egypt. Egypt presented us with many challenges, navigating the confusing temporary import processes to bring the vehicles in and then getting them out of the country, driving in mad chaos and understanding the rationale to police escorted convoys. We took time to visit the ancient Pyramids, temples honoring Pharaohs and took a relaxing cruise up the Nile River on a traditional felucca before shipping the vehicles and ourselves across Lake Nasser to Sudan. Taking on the Nubian Desert in northern Sudan was a test for driver and vehicle, off-roading through some of the most unforgiving desert terrain in Africa for over 340kms before we were back on tar seal and heading toward the Capital, Khartoum; we camped next to Lord Kitchener’s gun boat before making our way East to the mountainous country of Ethiopia. 5 expedition Land Rovers, 3 Aussies, 5 Kiwis and 1 German; 4 months from top to bottom of the Africa continent.
The border crossing from Sudan to Ethiopia was uneventful. The Immigration Building is off the main road, through a galvanized iron fence and into a basic building (a building easily missed!); while the Immigration Official completed his manual Interpol search of all our names (6 books with names hand written in – not sure the last time is was actually updated!). After an hour or so our passports were stamped and we were officially in Ethiopia. We began to ascend into the mountain ranges; it was not long before the land became lush and green and the air became thin as we reached over 2,000m above sea level.
Ethiopia is a stunning country embedded in history; there are remains of castles which housed Emperors for hundreds of years and secluded Monasteries on Lake Tana guarding ancient religious books and icons centuries old. Many Christian orders still practice ancient rituals, monks are forbidden to speak and there are monasteries women are not allowed to enter all set amongst imposing mountain ranges.
Driving in Ethiopia is a totally different ball game. It is only recently tar seal roads have been built connecting major towns, the roads are busy with hundreds of people walking, herds of goats, cows, sheep, camels and donkeys all sharing the road with trucks, buses and cars.
The people are friendly, if not a little reserved, with the exception of the kids who stand on the side of the road and chant “you, you, you, you, you, you, you, you,” a simple way of getting foreigners attention.
We spent 2 weeks exploring the sites in Ethiopia, starting in Gondar and the Royal Enclosure – a castle in the middle of town; mystical Lalibella with 11 churches carved by hand out of rock; ancient monasteries on islands on Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile river, and the bustling city of Addis Abeba.
As our time in Ethiopia was nearing an end it was time to make our way south toward the border of Kenya. We took 3 days to reach the border stopping to soak in hot springs near the Rastafarian capital of Shashamene. As we headed toward Kenya we started to descend from the highlands; the land became drier and more arid; looking more like how the media portrays Ethiopia. The further south we traveled the warmer the days became and the less populated the area. Finally we reached the border town of Moyale, topped up diesel and crossed into Kenya.
We were entering “real Africa”, the land of the Big 5, acacia trees and grassy savannahs. We still had 2 full driving days on what we believe is one of the worst roads in Africa. This road has not seen a grader for years let alone road building machinery! The “road” is built out of sharp volcanic black rocks; where there are no sharp tyre chewing rocks there are deep wide corrugations.
In total we had 250kms on the first day to cover and 260kms on the second – all in first or second gear with a top speed of 30kms per hour. This road tests patience! The first morning we were spoilt for game – a reminder you are in Africa. As we bounced our way along tens of dik diks (little antelope) nervously darted off the road into the bushes, most of us spotted Nyala (large grey antelope and quite unique to Northern Kenya), vultures flew over us and Weaver birds busily renovated their houses. The going was slow, local Samburu tribes people waved as we passed; but we made it to the little service town of Marsabit in good time.
The following day we started at 6am once again. For the first 50kms we were driving through a protected area and everyone was on the lookout for Elephants. 1 vehicle had to give way to an old bull and young elephant crossing the road; putting on a show flapping his ears and shaking his enormous head before surrendering and gracefully moving off into the bushes.
The road conditions did not improve although the locals in Marsabit were very convincing when they told us the road was in good condition. The sharp rocks were not really an issue however the corrugations never seemed to end. By the end of the day tempers were short and we were all exhausted – something to be expected after driving over 500kms in 1st and 2nd gear!
After a few local beers, a good night’s sleep and back on tar, spirits had lifted and we were on the final 300km stretch to Nairobi, the Capital of Kenya. After a few days of driving on deserted roads Nairobi traffic came as a shock. Nairobi is a typical African city, poor road infrastructure, an explosion of population coupled with an increasing middle class resulting in far too many vehicles vying for limited road space.
As we edged our way toward the city the traffic congestion and chaos thickened. It is amazing how 2 lanes can quickly turn into 6; matatus (local mini vans taxis) drove onto the footpath and centre strip; vehicles squeezing between vehicles and the odd donkey cart also stuck in a traffic jam. Bumper to bumper literally means bumper to bumper – leave an inch between you and the car in front and someone will try and squeeze in.
Nairobi National Park was high on everyone’s list to visit – and took the opportunity to spend a day in the Park exploring and game viewing. Nairobi National Park is a hidden treasure boasting black rhino, giraffe, lion, leopard, crocs, hippos, eland, gazelles, tortoises, vervet monkeys, baboons, zebra, warthogs and hundreds of bird species all with Nairobi city skyline in the background. It is rather amazing a game park with wild animals live and co-exist so close to 4 million people!!
After a few days seeing the sights, and servicing the vehicles we were off to the shores of LakeNaivasha. After a visit to “Elsamere” the home of Joy and George Adamson better known as conservationists made famous through the movie “Born Free”, we took a walking safari through Green Crater Lake; a little hidden treasure that truly deserves justice – the small area boasts lush green grass and acacia trees; a favorite to an array of animals including giraffe, eland, dik-dik, kudu, warthog and zebra. Marcus, our local guide, spent the morning explaining different fauna and flora and uses by the local people.
We continued our journey through Western Kenya stopping to explore Lake Nakuru National Park, famous for Rhino and Flamingoes. We spent the night camping amongst the wildlife and defending our food from curious troops of Baboons. Having forgotten to stock up on essential supplies we arranged local game rangers to deliver beer to our campsite; much to our delight it arrived albeit a little warm.
Uganda, made famous by the dictator Idi Amin in the 1970’s, is one of our favorite countries. The people are warm, friendly and very laid-back and relaxed. Totally unperturbed by western travelers they certainly go out of their way to make one feel welcome. Winston Churchill described Uganda as the “pearl of Africa” and one has to agree with him.
We spent some time exploring the capital of Kampala, trekked critically endangered Mountain Gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest; enjoyed a very civilized picnic on the banks of Lake Victoria at the source to the Nile River; took on the white water with grade 5 rafting; explored local villages on quad bikes and generally soaked up the culture of Uganda.
It was time to travel to the other side of Lake Victoria to the Western entrance of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. There is always something special about entering the SerengetiNational Park for the first time. Possibly has something to do with it taking on average 1 hour to enter the gate as the rangers seem to be in no hurry to fill in the pages of paperwork!
As we entered the gates the plains opened in front of us with herds of wildebeest and zebra grazing on the sweet green grass. A classic sight from a classic game park. The grass was tall and green; plenty of food and plenty of animals – this was to be an unforgettable couple of days.
The first afternoon we saw everything but elephant and lion – however hyena, jackal, topi, red hartebeest, zebra, wildebeest, ostrich, eagles, vultures, hyrax, hippos, giraffe etc etc….. it seemed every corner we turned there was another herd of animals. The Serengeti was alive and we were in the middle of it.
As the day was ending and we headed to our campsite there he was sitting tall in the grass, gazing at us, a large male Cheetah. He sat watching us watching him – what a magnificent powerful creature. After a while the Cheetah, clearly was looking hungry, got up and wandered off in the distance to see what was on the menu tonight.
The following day the radios were running hot; lion here, elephant over there, hyenas around this corner, and the migration was impossible to miss with tens of thousands of wildebeest, zebra and buffalo following the lush green grass. By the end of the day there were smiles all round and stories of the days events.
As the sun went down and we retired to our tents the hyenas sung in the background. This is the Serengeti; living up to every expectation.
We woke early again and game drove our way out of the park toward Ngorongoro Conservation Area. A couple of kms from the gate we came across a pride of lions sitting by the road side; an old male lion who continued to sleep even as we drove next to him; a young male who kept a watchful eye and a mum and her 2 young cubs played in the grass. The cubs were particularly interested in chasing butterflies while mum ensured they didn’t stray too far. The perfect way to end our stay in the Serengeti.
The Ngorongoro Crater had a lot to live up to. As we sat around enjoying a cold beer an old bull elephant wandered into the campsite. He slowly made his way toward our camp; keeping a watchful eye on us as he moved slowly alongside our tents. Everyone was in awe; what a magnificent creature gracefully making his way through the campsite. He was later joined by a second elephant. A herd of about 15 elephants were heading toward the camp from the other direction. The herd moved around us casually. Shortly after the Rangers pointed out 3 hyenas moving to our left less than 10m away.
As the sun dropped so did the temperature, so a campfire was in order before the cold night air saw everyone retreat to their warm beds.
The following morning we game drove through the Ngorongoro Crater – described by many as the “Garden of Eden”. The Crater was alive with animals but the highlight was when a Land Cruiser stopped to watch a pride of lions; the lions decided to move under the Cruiser into the shade much to amazement of the passengers!
With a few days of amazing game viewing it was time to continue on our way and take in some culture. We stopped for a couple of nights at Meserani, a Masai village in the middle of Masai land. A visit to the local village was a superb way of gaining an insight into Masai culture; we shopped at the local market where women busily wove mats and beaded traditional jewellery and took part in some traditional Masai dancing rituals.
After the hot and dusty Masai Lands we were all in need of a bit of beach time. So we headed to Dar es Salaam and boarded a ferry to the Spice Island of Zanzibar. Zanzibar was truly a fantastic place to relax for a while and take a break from traveling. From the north beaches we headed toward StoneTown but not without taking a few hours to explore the spice plantations. Babu, our local guide and budding young chef, took us on a magical tour through the plantations; a chance to pick and taste fresh tamarind, munch on the seeds from the cinnamon tree, grind some cardamom and if that was not enough climb a coconut tree and feast on a traditional Zanzibar meal in an open eating area.
Stone Town is a great little town nestled between plantations and the ocean. It is hard to imagine this was the “place of no return” for slaves taken from the East African coast. The haunting history of Stone Town is enough to make you shiver, the old slave castle and market are reminders of what the Island was most famous for.
With the best of the best seen and done in Tanzania it was time to continue to the lesser known country of Malawi. It took 3 days to drive across Tanzania to the shores of Lake Malawi.
As published in Overlander 4WD, Australia and Land Rover World, UK.