A Change of Plans

Words and pictures by Words and pictures by Charlotte and Andrea Borgato

When Lotta and I first came to SA, we didn’t know what awaited us. Like many young couples, after years of struggling and working hard we urgently needed a break. So we searched the internet for suitable destinations and found a promising guesthouse on the beach in Kommetjie, just outside Cape Town.

Just a few days into our holiday we got struck down with ‘African fever’, an indiscriminate love for the continent and its people, and we decided to get married. We enjoyed a memorable and beautifully romantic wedding, even though all our wedding gear was stolen the day before the big event.

A Change of PlansWe’d set off on this trip with just our backpacks and a rather low budget; we didn’t have a plan, just a rough idea. Our intention was to travel around the world for another five months with SA as the starting point. But this idea seemed irrational after we discovered how nice the people are here and how gorgeous the country is.

The answer came to us after reading SA4x4. We read the editor’s call for help to find a 4x4 for under R50 000 to travel Africa with, so we thought if he can find one, why can’t we? Fresh from Europe, we knew nothing about 4x4s and safari equipment, so we read every book and magazine we could find on the subject.

Our internet search soon provided us with some prospects: Defenders, Range Rovers, an ’85 Cruiser as well as a Nissan Sani came under close inspection. But when we came across the red ’92 Range Rover, we knew immediately it was the one. Eddy was selling it because he was moving to Australia – we could sense that he loved the vehicle and was sad to sell it. He gave us our first off-road lessons during the test drive! Before paying the R44 000 purchase price we had the Rangie checked out by a garage.

With a thumbs-up from the expert, we closed the deal. Why did we opt for a Range Rover? This vehicle is spacious enough to sleep in and combines impressive off-road abilities with comfortable long-range ability. Driving around Africa isn’t only about going off-road – you’ll do lots of mileage on tar or gravel. The next days were spent doing paperwork such as registering the vehicle and buying a Carnet de Passage. Then we equipped the Range Rover with everything we considered useful for the trip: jerry cans, tent, sleeping bags, spare parts, tools, compressor, binoculars, GPS and more. Finally, on the first day of February, we set off. At the Noordoewer border post we came across a German couple, Robert and Anne, who’d just arrived in their ’69 minibus from Berlin. Grateful for their useful advice, we ventured along the Orange River into the Namib Desert. In this harsh yet beautiful world it took only a few days before we felt free and at peace with the whole world.

We’ll never forget the sights of wandering oryx on the red dunes, or the stillness of the sunrise in Sossusvlei. Botswana greeted us with thousands of colourful butterflies. Many of them didn’t escape our vehicle and soon we had so many insects in the radiator that we had to stop, clean it and fit our seed net. After Maun, we spent some amazing days in Moremi Game Reserve. Soon after crossing the notorious First Bridge we had our first serious off-road challenge: we got stuck in the middle of a huge swamp. The water level rose, along with our feelings of desperation. With the water now level with the doors, I jumped out into the dark and stinking waters. I found a tree trunk, and levered it under the rear wheels. And out we came! How sweet it was to toast to this success at our campfire, sipping a good glass of wine, while hyenas, elephants and hippos in turn paid us a visit. It was one of those magical moments in the African wilderness!

Then we sped north along the sandy tracks through Savuti, where we had to cross the channel which was carrying water for the first time in 28 years. Charlotte was convinced that this was a good sign as she’d been born 28 years ago! Well, the gods smiled on us and we crossed easily. Our luck held. Chobe greeted us with some of the best wildlife sightings ever: not only herds of elephant, buffalo, hippo and many antelope, but fish eagles and marabou storks above and crocs and water monitors in the water below. We even spotted a green mamba! Thanks to the rainy season the sun was sometimes hidden behind dark clouds, but those same clouds often made a perfect backdrop for some of our photographs. What’s more, much of the wildlife had their offspring in tow – more great photos. The border crossing to Zambia, across the mighty Zambezi, reminded us of Africa’s other side: loud, dirty, badly organised and with plenty of opportunists and crooks. It took us hours to get through, trying to avoid paying for services not required. The rather expensive entry visa, along with road toll, service levy and the mandatory third-party insurance already cost too much. But we agreed it was worth the money after visiting Vic Falls. We dared the bungee jump and took a microlight flight too. How different is this country to the dry Namibian countryside: it’s lush and green wherever you look!

We travelled many kilometres in Zambia and found the Zambian people refreshingly friendly and helpful. After visiting Luangwa National Park we crossed into Malawi with only one thing in mind: relaxation. We headed to Cape Maclear where camping along the shores was a fantastic opportunity to recharge and read some nice books while sinking deeply into the sun chair. Malawi creeps under your skin, into your heart! It’s a top-notch destination which offers a reasonable infrastructure at an affordable price. Then we entered Tanzania. In Mbeya, the first major town encountered coming from Malawi, a heavy rain surprised us and we had to stop at a dodgy ‘inn’. In the middle of the night, my wife woke me up: diarrhoea, shivering, fever and abdominal cramping required immediate action. As I tried to leave the room to get our first-aid pack out of the vehicle, the door key broke. So there was no way to open the massive door.

The windows were barred, the room phone didn’t work and my cell phone had no signal. And with the noise from the storm, nobody could hear me screaming for help. We were locked in, just like in a prison. Had our luck left us? Charlotte was suffering but we had to wait until morning, when the receptionist came with the hot water buckets to knock on our door. Thankfully, Mbeya had an efficient clinic and we soon got medical help. What proved to be typhoid kept my wife in bed for three days.

During this time, the regular prayers of the neighbouring mosque, the Sunday service of the Churches of the Wonders of the Holy Saints broadcast via powerful loudspeakers, the subwoofer sounds from passing cars and the ever-present music from somewhere reminded us that Africa is loud – Africa likes to share noise even if some people don’t want to hear it. During the following weeks we made our way up to Dar Es Salaam, visited Zanzibar and fled the heat driving to the big northern national parks. First we stopped at Kilimanjaro – most of the time hidden by thick clouds. Then we joined a two-day safari into Ngorongoro and Serengeti, where we saw the big five. Even without wildlife, Ngorongoro has a beauty of its own. Kenya gave us the opportunity to see Kilimanjaro without clouds. Driving to Nairobi required all our attention.

The closer we came to the city, the more chaotic the traffic. We left Nairobi for Mount Kenya, the holy mountain, only to find it also covered with clouds. The rainy season is definitely not the right season for mountain hiking. At the Thompson Falls we had our first encounter with the notorious black mud. Even with the car standing still we slipped slowly but inexorably towards a ditch. But thanks to the power and off-road prowess of our Range Rover we navigated this stretch without problems, although dozens of other vehicles struggled and got stuck.

In Eldoret we enjoyed the beauty of the overland Naiberi River camp site. Raj, an Indian entrepreneur and the friendly owner, invited us to the best Indian dinner we’ve ever had! At Jinja, Uganda, we jumped into the White Nile. But the real adrenalin-kick came with the rafting tour, down some of the finest rapids in the world. Then we carried on north to the Murchison Falls National Park with a stopover in the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, where on the walking safari you can encounter these beautiful animals, getting as close as 15 – 20 metres. Murchison and Lake Victoria, generally acknowledged as the source of the Nile, is a beauty on its own, with lots of wildlife and fabulous landscapes. And, best of all, you can visit the nearest relatives of humankind, the chimpanzees. Chimp tracking is not only informative, but also a lot of fun. We could sit for hours watching this happy animals playing, but, sadly, we’d now reached the northern-most point of our trip, and with only one and a half months left, we had to change direction and drive back to SA.

The southern part of Uganda is full of lovely hills, completely covered with tea plantations and banana palm trees. In the background a series of huge volcanoes act as a fine setting. Everything is green – the full, dark, healthy green of central Africa. At Lake Bunyonyi we relaxed for a few days and visited a school project and a plantation before we carried on to Rwanda. Here we had to get used to the new language and driving on the right-hand side. With my Italian we managed to get through. The first challenge was the border crossing, where the officer was of the opinion that no visa could be given at the border – he wanted us to drive back to Kampala in Uganda, some 500 km away. It took us time and patience and a long talk about Italian soccer before we finally got into the country. Soon after it began to pour down from the grey sky. We couldn’t visit the gorillas but went to Lake Kivu and many of the genocide memorials along the way to Kigali.

This little country seems so united today, and the people are so friendly, despite the heavy burden of grief almost all of them must be carrying. On our way back, we crossed Tanzania on a fine tarred road from west to east in just two days, driving from sunrise to sunset and reaching crazy Dar on the evening of the second day. From Dar to the Mozambican border new adventures (as we call them now, but back then we just called them ‘real hassles’) awaited us. While a new road is in construction, the detours are in the worst imaginable condition. Many of the Chinese-built trucks, with their low clearance, got stuck in the mud, and on the worst days we managed no more than 50 km in eight hours. But, thank God, most of the roads were tarred. The biggest challenge was to find the new Unity Bridge, crossing the Ruvuma River, the newest border crossing.

After various unsuccessful attempts we finally found the right track and reached this border post in the middle of the bush. We were surprised by the brand new high-tech bridge with Chinese technology and African style. If they manage to build some roads leading to this bridge, that would be great, but as of today, the poorly maintained tracks on both sides make it rather difficult to get there. Onwards, the road to Pemba had some of the finest potholes we’ve ever seen, which made driving slow and taxing. But after a while conditions improved and we reached this beautiful town on the shores of the Indian Ocean. Have you ever had a chance to swim with dolphins? You can do it here and you really should.

Then we visited lovely Ilha de Mozambique, carried on to Mount Gorongosa and finally reached the picturesque Tofo Bay. Here, after so many kilometres, we gave ourselves a much-needed rest. We spent magic days walking along the white beaches up to Barra Bay, reading books or just hanging around the dune bar and enjoying the sound of the ocean. Days like these will stay within us for a long time, warming our hearts when we most need it. But all good things must come to an end. After more than five months of travelling we had to think about going back to our real lives. Crossing the border back into SA was like coming back home: fine roads, plenty of petrol and good tourism infrastructure. On our way back to Cape Town, we visited Umfolozi Nature Reserve, crossed Swaziland and drove along the magnificent Wild Coast.

Every day was full of emotions as the realisation of reaching our final destination grew stronger. On 3 June we arrived in Cape Town and over the next few days we sold our beloved Range Rover and all our gear and fled back to Europe the day the FIFA World Cup began. This trip has changed us. It’s probably changed our lives forever. It’s definitely changed our opinion of Africa. Even with its obvious problems, the beauty of the African continent has no equal in the world; and the African people, whether white or black, are unique when it comes to friendliness, warmth and helpfulness. We will never forget those many smiles.

Thank you, Africa.

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