4 adventurers crossing
Written by Leif Sollie Images by Leif Sollie
After our first visit to South-Africa in 2003, we were captured. Little by little did we expand our radius, and gradually an idea took form. It turned out to be a round trip more challenging than we had ever expected. We just might have bitten over more than we could chew.
After we visited South-Africa for the first time, Cape Town and the wine districts soon came to be our favourite destinations. To begin with, we went on safaris and followed the main tourist trail. Slowly we got more courageous and went off the beaten track, criss-crossing South-Africa in a rental car. I would especially recommend going during our winter season from November until March. By then it will be summer in South-Africa with temperatures from 25 to 35 degrees Celsius.
DE WETSHOF ESATE IN ROBERTSEN
STEENBERG FARM IN CONSTANTIA
You don´t need to go far. Within a two hours’ drive from Cape Town, you will find close to 650 vineyards, many of them immensely beautiful. Some even have their own restaurant and offer accommodations. When it comes to South African wines, there has been a surge of quality and many labels have become international bestsellers.
I have found my favourite places outside of Cape Town. On the west coast, two hours north of Cape Town, you will find Paternoster, a small village with white houses, endless beaches where you can stroll for hours, pick exotic shells, and enjoy the sunlight reflecting from the water waves. If you instead of going north, drive four hours east, you will come to Wilderness, renowned for of its lakes and beaches, forests and mountains.
South-Africa is a country where fine cuisine and good quality wines go hand in hand with beautiful locations. But it is also a country with high levels of inequality. Even almost three generations after the end of apartheid we have experienced some rather unhealthy attitudes from white people.
After having visited South-Africa, many times I got my eyes on Namibia and Botswana. Our longest trip so far was going from Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, through the orange desert up to Ethosa close to the Angolan border, then going south along the Atlantic coast where pink flamingos gather in the shallow water, before ending up in Cape Town. A fantastic trip!
Skeleton Coast in Namibia was another magical experience, a four-day safari trip where we flew into the national park. I can also highly recommend a round trip in the Okavango Delta in Botswana.
It was after having explored a larger part of the southern Africa; an idea started to take form. What if we rented a Jeep and crossed Africa from west to east.
Years went by but after a while we were coming up with something that started to resemble a route. We would fly from Norway to Windhoek in Namibia where we would rent two Jeeps and drive east into Botswana, then head north to Zambia, cross the border to the neighbouring country of Malawi before going east through Mozambique, and end up in Johannesburg in South -Africa. It was an ambitious plan, and we would be on the road for close to a month. It turned out to be more than challenging and it didn’t start out very well.
In Windhoek we were picked up at the airport and transported to the rental company where the cars were not available. It wasn’t until 28 hours later, after endless waiting in the hotel that we could pick up the cars and start our journey.
There, in the remote hotel outside of Windhoek, we bumped into four other Norwegians who were in Namibia to check out the possibilities for fish farming. It´s a small world.
At the same hotel gaping visitors experienced something they had never seen before: A rare hailstorm. After a couple of minutes, the courtyard was covered in white, and the kids were making snowballs for the first time in their lives. Half an hour later it was all gone. Almost 30
degrees Celsius has that effect on snow.
For us this was only the beginning of a long journey, and the first stage was extensive. We were to cover close to 400 kilometres in one day. We were also to cross the border between Namibia and Botswana. Little did we know that the border control would take so much time.
First, we had to fill in our papers to leave Namibia, then show our Covid-certificates, receive new stamps and new entry documents to enter Botswana. And when you thought there wouldn´t be any paper left and they would be out of stamp ink, we had to queue up for tourist visas, for car fees and more stamps on more pieces of paper. Hours went by and we ended up driving on severely bad roads in total darkness. In those situations you really appreciate large, reliable Toyota HiAce 4x4.
Out of the darkness we could spot our first accommodation, a small safari camp with dismal bedrooms. But on the other hand, the zebra steak was excellent, and so was the Windhoek Lager, possibly the best lager in southern Africa.
The next day we set out to reach a safari camp in the outskirts of the Kalahari Desert, the large sandy savanna covering much of Botswana and stretching into Namibia and South-Africa.
Farm animals walked along the rough and bumpy road and often in the middle of it. Equipped with GPS and Google Maps we still thought this would be a smooth ride. It was only to follow the route on the screen we thought and let us lead onto a road that was supposed to take us in the right direction. How wrong can you be. We could do nothing but make a U-turn.
Thanks to a soldier we met, we understood that there was another road running along a wildlife fence through the sand dunes 100 meters on the side of the main road. We went full throttle and climbed a hilltop to get onto something resembling a road, being not much more than a two-wheel track in the sand.
Another fence ran on the other side of the tracks. It was in a deplorable state and animals crossed in and out as they wanted to. The message we got was clear. If we hit an animal, we would have to pay what the animal costed. After a few kilometres we nearly ran into a full-grown giraffe. When you meet them up close, you fully realize the size and the height of the animal. We flinched and just barely managed to stop.
For hours we drove alongside the fence. We couldn’t go fast, and we almost got stuck from time to time. No signs, nothing that could indicate we were on the right track. Just kilometres and kilometres of endless sand. But then – after hours of monotonous driving, we met a driver in a jeep waiting for us. From then on it was pure joy all the way to the safari camp where a singing welcome committee awaited us.
Thamo Telele is beautifully situated by a large waterhole where the animals came to drink. Spring was yet to come, the landscape was arid and dry, and the animals gathered around the waterholes to quench their thirst. From our luxuries tents in the wilderness, well equipped with a double bed, toilet, shower, and a wardrobe, we could watch antelopes, zebras, and lions by the water.
We were woken at 5 o´clock in the morning, when still dark. Slowly, during breakfast, the morning broke. It was chilly, and we needed a warm jacket. As the sun was ascending the sky, the nature came to life. From 5-6 in the morning our first safari drive lasted for about 5 hours. After lunch we went for a new drive for about 3 hours. The seats in these safari jeeps are not the most comfortable ones, so you can feel it in your body after a full day. But you will spot a lot of animals!
After driving for kilometres through the dry wilderness we came to a waterhole surrounded by trees and bushes. Different kinds of antelopes, warthogs, buffalos, giraffes, and zebras gathered around the water. After a few minutes four lions turned up, a male and three females. The other animals kept a safe distance, but in the heat during the middle of the day, lions are not up for hunting. It´s not until the evening or at night-time they will go after their prey. The following days we saw masses of different antelopes, small groups of elephants and giraffes, and one single leopard.
But no rhinos, no cheetahs.
Our main purpose with this trip was to visit several safari parks to see if the wildlife was as diverse and spectacular as it used to bee, or if snipers, safari tourisms, and interference with nature were about to destroy the habitats. It is an amazing adventure to encounter all these animals in their true surroundings. If they end up in a bad zoo, we have made a terrible mistake.
WWF are working hard to stop snipers and to protect and restore species and their habitats. Still, we saw game hunters arriving at an airport in Zambia with «masses» of weapons, and in Namibia you are still allowed to hunt for cheetahs. That belongs nowhere when you get to know there are only 7000 cheetahs left in the world.
I Shinjukus bakgater opplevde vi en religiøs prosesjon, et stemningsfylt skue i sin fargeprakt.
You live safely at the Private Game safari-lodges. After dark you will be escorted by guards when leaving your tent for breakfast or dinner. The comfort is good, and so is food and drinks. An afternoon safari is always completed by a «sundowner» meaning something to drink and a little snack outdoors before returning to camp.
After three days we were off. And from Maun, Botswana´s fifth largest town, situated up north, we were flown into the next safari camp. The flight lasted no longer than 50 minutes, and we flew over sumps and savannas, rivers and lakes, mostly open landscapes only broken up by woodlands and clusters of trees.
The safaris in this part of Africa goes through a completely different scenery, but the wildlife is the same. With one exception: In the lakes and rivers there are lots of hippos. Most of the year there is enough water in the swampy Okavango Delta for the hippos to thrive. During the day they are lying in the water to cool and then at dusk, they lumber onto land to graze on grass.
They look so lazy and cosy, but the truth is a hippo is one of the world’s most dangerous species. 500 people are killed by hippos in Africa every year, and with their large gape and canine teeth they can bite a crocodile in half. With that knowledge in the back of our head, we were to cross a flooded track to get back to the camp. «It´s quite deep, » the driver said and ask us to put our feet up. That was when a hippo showed up on our «roadway». It refused to move, and you don´t argue with a hippo, not even from the safety of a car. All we could do was to back up and take the long way home.
You never grow tired of the rich wildlife, of flocks of antelopes and zebras, packs of African wild dogs hunting down their prey. We consider the lion to be the king of predators, but the lion only prevails four out of ten times. When it comes to hunting, the wild dog is a much more impressive hunter with a success rate of 80 percent.
We saw masses of wild animals, but still there were certain species we were more eager to spot. And finally, in the dry grass a leopard was dosing in the sun. Although the African leopard is relatively widely distributed across the continent, other subspecies are endangered, threatened by snipers and prey depletion. This leopard, lying in the grass, was one out of two leopards we observed during our near four weeks on safari. But still no rhinos or cheetahs to be seen.
3-stjerners restaurantens inngang til venstre. Vår favoritt, til høyre.
From the capitol of Lilongwe in Malawi we flew to Lake Malawi and the island gem of Likoma Island. The lake is bordered by Mozambique, Malawi, and Tanzania and reminds you of a pacific island where you can live on the fat of the land with good food and drinks. Lying on the beach with our feet in the warm water taking in the beautiful view of this being Africa´s third largest lake, we wondered why farmers and households hadn’t built an irrigation system to water their dry fields.
After lazy days on the beach we headed for Huntingdon House, a fantastic, well kept, and magnificent tea and coffee plantation in old English colonial style. I would have loved to spend a couple of days here, but due to delays and another long drive we didn’t arrive until well after dark. All we had time for was a G&T, dinner, and straight to bed.
Then our nightmare began.
We had been recommended to cross the border and drive into Mozambique towards a river where a ferry would take us over to the other side.
But first we had to spend hours on the border to get out of Malawi. More stamps, more paperwork, and more dollar bills went from hand to hand. Then another kilometre or two to the next border checkpoint to enter Mozambique. Here we were to be photographed before entering. Normally this would have been considered a simple procedure. Push the camera button and we would have been perpetuated in four colours. But none of the employees knew how to use the equipment and we became their guineapigs. Five hours later they came to a result they could live with. At a temperature of 30 degrees C, and without air-condition in the waiting room, we had to retreat to our cars from time to time and let the cooling system run at a maximum pace. Just in order to survive. There was no toilet paper, no possibility to buy a bottle of cold water, and when we finally were allowed to cross the border, we realized the road we were to follow for hours was nothing but a track in the sand.
More hours went by, and finally we reached the ferry quay. There we were met by astonished Africans wondering how we had planned to bring our two cars across the river. The car ferry we had been recommended had been out of business for years. Now there was only a small passenger ferry crossing the river. There were no other ferries or bridges to take us over. Our only solution was to drive back to where we came from. It was starting to get dark, and it wouldn´t be possible to drive any further before the next day.
On our way to the ferry, we had passed a small village and decided to spend the night there. We had a whole bunch of visa and credit cards, but hardly any cash left. In the small village there were two ATMs, but no money. In the end we managed to find four cheap rooms and something resembling food. But at least we got ourselves a beer – and the rooms could only be described as unique.
I have travelled a lot and experienced quite a few things through the years, but this was the most uncomfortable sleeping accommodations I have ever been out for. The showers didn’t work. Nor did the toilets. There was no water in the sink, and everything was immensely dirty. If you had to do what you had to do, you would take a ladle from a bucket of water and flush away your remains.
There were reptiles crawling the walls, and the carpets were past their golden ages. In the morning we woke up with a mosaic of insect bites covering our bodies. But at least breakfast was included. It´s important to appreciate what you have.
After breakfast we queued up outside of the only bank in the village. The man in front of us received two large bags with a bunch of notes the size of a brick. The local currency was obviously not much worth.
Finally, it was our turn, but the cashier told us he couldn’t give us the money. We had to withdraw cash from the ATM outside. After some discussion he agreed to help us. The instructions were on a local language and difficult for us to understand. In the end we got our money and were back on track again.
We decided to return to Malawi. Our whole trip with accommodations were prebooked and prepaid, but there was no way we could keep on. We had lost too much time and would never make it to the next stop.
When re-entering Malawi, the electricity on the border checkpoint was gone, and all we could get was a momentary stamp in our passports, with a strict order to turn up at the office in the capital to pay for our tourist visa. We did as we were told but were informed that we had entered Malawi illegally and had to go back to the hotel and apply for a tourist visa online. Once the visa was granted, we could come back to the office and get the proper stamp in our passport. Only then would we be allowed to leave the country.
There are numerous police controls along the roads in Malawi, checking on everything. Naturally we managed to get a speeding ticket for both our cars. Driving 69 km/h in a 50-sone turned out to be costly – 250 Norwegian kroners for both cars. But this car passed the police. He would probably have lost his license there and then if he had been stopped in a control in Norway.
As if this wasn’t enough, 70 percent of all the gas stations we passed on our way to Lilongwe were closed due to gas rationing. Malawi has been forced to pay for gas and diesel in US dollars and were obviously out of currency. Cars were lining up for kilometres and people were waiting patiently in front of the few open gas stations. We were lucky to find a station where they still had some diesel left so we could make it to the end of our journey.
At this point our patience was wearing thin. It came to a peak when a beefy army guy with a machine gun at hand stopped us and wondered what we carried in our cars. He checked in the back and obviously found everything ok. But ended with the following command: I am thirsty. Don´t you have a cold Fanta? As if we were a travelling snack store.
We had crossed vast areas, passed small villages, and driven through remote places. And when you visit Malawi, you will also come to one of the poorest countries in the world. 15 years after my last trip to Namibia and Botswana it doesn´t seem to be much progress outside of the cities. There is severe poverty, and many people live in primitive houses and shacks. Work is hard to find, and a small piece of land and a couple of goats and hens is what keeps them alive.
After two nights in Lilongwe, we returned our cars, changed our plane tickets, and could embark on Ethiopian Airlines to Johannesburg before heading back to Norway. We had crossed five borders, driven about 3000 kilometres, often on bad roads, we had seen lions and antelopes, leopards, and elephants – but still no rhinos or cheetahs.
And we had learnt a lesson. You can plan as much as possible, but it won´t keep you from frustration, from a stamp routine from hell, or from pure bad luck.
But this can be good to know:
Be sure that all tourist visas are prepaid and valid. In some countries they can only be bought online, not at the border checkpoint.
Bring enough cash, meaning US dollars.
Renting a car in one country, crossing borders, and driving through other countries, can cause problems. You must pay road taxes, and the authorities are especially aware of smugglers. At one checkpoint our cars were thoroughly checked for drugs and weapons. This took time.
Don´t trust blindly an itinerary that others have planned for you.
In many African countries they don´t accept USD issued before 2015. We never got to know why. But be prepared that some of your USD notes will be refused.
Visa cards or credit cards were not accepted at any of the border checkpoints we passed.
Be prepared for many long queues to get you papers signed and verified.
And our conclusion is as follows:The best safari camps in South-Africa are just as good as the ones we visited coming to the number of animals you will see. Singita Boulders Lodge in Kruger National Park, Kwandwe Private Game Reserve outside of Grahamstown, and Shamwari Private Game Reserve in Eastern Cape, hold the same high standard or better, even if they are not cheap.
But have a nice trip if you still have the courage and the motivation to follow in our wheel tracks.