The Fate of the Bushmen

Our route through Botswana was pleasingly obvious: we would enter via the north east border town of Kasane, traverse south west through the huge Chobe and Okovango National Parks, and then take a long straight road west through the Kalahari Desert and into Namibia. This path would take us through the wild north using off road tracks and safari trails, avoiding any major settlements. The roads would be awful and in some areas pretty remote, a good day’s drive from anyone. We would be missing the Botswana of punk metal and Ladies’ Detective Agencies, but this was just what we were looking for, a chance for some prolonged bush camping after the relative civilisation of Zimbabwe. 

Look out  (Photo: RWH)

Look out (Photo: RWH)

The Okovango is the biggest inland delta in the world. The majestic Kavango river is fed by the rains in Angola, taking six months to wend its way downstream to Botswana, where it is completely absorbed by a Kalahari that has not seen rain for months. The Okovango’s own rainy season combined with this paradoxical arrival of water in its dry season means that lush marshland of the delta is kept well hydrated all year round. When the rest of southern Africa is parched the Okovango delta is in flood, supporting a huge variety of wildlife without the need for migration.

This makes Botswana a premier safari destination, something which is very evident in parts of the north from the gleaming tour cars and exclusive game lodges. The creation of national parks is great news for wildlife, but has brought bad fortune on a number of the indigenous tribes, in particular the Gana and Gwi, collectively known as the San (‘Bushmen’). It’s not just national parks that displace these indigenous people however. There are lots of reports of cattle ranches and massive mining projects ejecting the San from their hunter-gathering existence, in particular in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Wherever the truth lies in these stories, with diamond deposits worth an estimated $3.3 billion and a massive tourism industry which is only expanding, the fate of the San is still very much up in the air. he tourism bubble had pushed prices far out of our range, and camping in the park’s official sites wasn’t an option. The solution lay in carefully timing our exits from the parks to take advantage of the fact that the gates are often miles inside the park boundaries. This meant that we could find secluded wild camps outside of the gates but without leaving the reserves.  Sounds great on paper, but some intimate experiences with a selection of huge terrifying beasts made us a bit apprehensive. Driving through dense scrubland attempting to find our first such camp, we couldn’t help but take extra note of trees that had been ripped up by elephants, the huge feline tracks which freshly criss-crossed the sand, and fresh dung on the ground.

We had passed a ranger a kilometre back on the track who had joyfully informed us that there was a pride of nine lions on the road heading this way, and if we were lucky we might bump into them. We grimaced at him and continued off road, selecting a camp as the light failed. We could hear kudu and elephant nearby. It was pitch black now, darkness as only Africa can serve. A fire was our first and only priority – possibly one of the only times when I did not have food on my mind. It and the dubious sanctum of the car were our only defences. We cursed our feeble torches as we scuttled blindly around for firewood, the reflection of a light on the retina of a beast being the only way to reliably spot them in the dark; red for predator, green for prey. Fortunately the wood we found was dry as a boot, and a fine blaze was soon pushing back the black of the night with the distinctive blue flame of acacia hardwood. We set our blackened pots on the makeshift tripod of stones, a technique lifted from the Africans, and sat uncomfortably close to the heat, not wanting to turn our backs on the night. We chewed our curried kidney beans pensively, listening to the curious ‘whooo-oop’ of hyena, now close and then far. We knew from a semi-tame pack in Ethiopia just how heavy and menacing those intelligent beasts were. Despite repeated attempts to make other conversation, we couldn’t help but stray back to discussing just how reliable the information that animals are scared of fire really was. This and the following evenings were vivid, all our senses alive with drops of adrenaline; they displayed the distilled essence of the whole trip, are unforgettable in our minds.

Circle of life!  (Photo: RWH)

Circle of life! (Photo: RWH)

During this period our lives were dictated by the sun, and we rose each day to rake over the fire for coffee and protection. The Milky Way, more known to us now than at any point in our lives before, would peer down blearily, brilliantly, before being rudely extinguished by a spreading crimson from the east. We would be driving by sunrise, camp broken, car serviced. Appearance was a forgotten farce, long hair askew and clothes torn. We felt as close as we could to being bushmen, for this trip at least. We revelled in it, perhaps in naivety – we could opt out of this way of life, we knew it was a temporary state. But for us in these moments it was pure and all consuming.

The wildlife was spectacular. Avoiding entrance fees as much as possible meant taking some unusual routes through the parks, tracks which led us through areas seldom frequented by visitors. Zebras and giraffes strolled around, majestic kudu and dainty impala making elegant retreats, and hippos snorted muddily from the river. Elephants were everywhere; 50,000 of them in this area of Botswana and north western Zimbabwe alone. Intimate experiences with leopard and lion left us breathless and full of wonder. It was a tiny glimpse of how African fauna must have been before population explosion and mass hunting, and it was wonderful.

Stay away!  (Photo: RWH)

Stay away! (Photo: RWH)

At a town called Maun the tarmac began. It stretched west, seemingly endless, two golden highlights igniting in the inevitability of the burning sunset. Its perfection was a mockery of the 500km we had just fought to cross. We celebrated another successful offroad leg, and amused ourselves with the thought of being able to cover the last week’s distance in a day on this new road surface. We gave Tess a proverbial pat on the head, flipped down the sun visors, and set off towards the sun, stopping only to pick up some congratulatory cold beers.

On safari (Photo: SW)

(Photo: SW)

The road to Namibia traverses the northern fields of the Kalahari desert. This is cattle land, dry scrub plains with huge farms claiming the entire landscape. There are endless fences, herds raising dust clouds which linger on the horizon. Cowboys canter along the side of the road, spurs and breeches in evidence, their horses oddly more at home in this terrain than any vehicle. It seemed as though the landscape was on loop for these 800 kilometres, the only variance being a subtle contour in the road. It was a time for reflection. Our trip was beginning to come to an end; flights booked, still unconvinced that we would actually make it, we had a lot to do before we left this mesmerising continent.

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Photography Exhibition!

We’re pretty excited that the Royal Cornwall Hospital have asked us to exhibit photos from the trip in the hospital. We’ll be exhibiting a small selection of shots from Monday 6th October for 3 months, with a full selection of over twenty images being displayed in January. The photos will be on sale, with all proceeds going to our partner charities.

Stay away!  (Photo: RWH)

Stay away! (Photo: RWH)

We’ve Done It!

Late on the evening of the 10th of June, exactly nine months after the team set off from Perranporth, the Cornwall to Cape Town expedition arrived in Cape Town. The punters of Long St, central Cape Town, found their evenings interrupted by the arrival of a large red Land Rover, complete with three foot Kudu horns on the front, firewood piled on top, and POLICE in large letters on the side. They may have wondered why the occupants appeared so elated. Scarce did they know that this was their 21,758th mile, their 30th country, their 243rd day.

L to R: Bass, Tess, Dan and Rich triumphant in Cape Town (Photo: Guy Wallace)

L to R: Bass, Tess, Dan and Rich triumphant in Cape Town (Photo: Guy Wallace)

We would like to thank our families, friends, and everyone who has made this trip possible. It really has been one of the best experiences of our lives and we could never have achieved without the help we have received.

Please keep popping back to read the rest of the story about how we made it to Cape Town. It’s a fair old yarn. And don’t forget about that big red ‘Donate’ button on the right of your screens!

The overjoyed team on arrival (Photo: Guy Wallace)

The overjoyed team on arrival (Photo: Guy Wallace)

The Two Sides of Malawi

It was with some urgency that we set out towards Malawi. The ‘Administrative, Budget and Planning Board’ that had been threatening for some months now to meet had finally congregated in the Tanzanian equivalent of a greasy spoon, yielding some worrying conclusions. We were seven months through a nine month trip. We still had 5,000 miles and five huge countries to see. We had spent 60% of our entire budget in the initial two European months. Dan had no trousers left…

We set off for Malawi post haste, determined to make the most of our time left on this continent. Our first decent tarmac road for days meant we could creep up to our top speed of 55 mph. This turned out to be a bit of a terrifying experience. Something had changed, worked its way loose, or worn out, something we had missed despite our daily checks on the car. It wandered across the road like a distracted cow, correcting direction as violently as if it had been spooked. Safe as to say that handling isn’t Tess’ strong point at the best of times. In a car that takes a half turn of the steering wheel to produce any effect and only has three brakes, one of which intermittently seizes on, our movement was something akin to a drunkard with his legs tied together. This 500 mile leg also proved too much for our drive shaft, which had been protesting thanks to a disintegrating universal joint. The team took a relaxed and very protracted lunch as we dropped the drive shaft off, managing to replace old joint with new thanks to a forward thinking quartermaster and the best of Land Rover tools: a lump hammer.

The long and winding road  (Photo: RWH)

The long and winding road (Photo: RWH)

All of this didn’t make for a relaxing drive. We approached the Tanzanian-Malawian border late at night, predictably finding a huge steel gate proclaiming it closed. We found hawkers, tinkers, fixers and beggars, spectral shapes melting out of the grimy darkness, their outlines sharpening against the greasy light of burning paraffin wicks on the market stalls as they approached to grasp and knock at our windows. We were exhausted from being on the road for days, from a string of washed out camps in soggy sleeping bags. We retreated into a nameless hotel and paid over the odds for a slice of foam and an icy bucket of water.

Dry slumber, sweet coffee and the emerging morning sun revealed a town reborn. The spectres were friendly today, distinguishable as individuals, helpful Christians. After so long on the road, it still surprises us how the body’s basic needs influences perception so much. We were ushered into Malawi with smiles and without the need to pay for a visa. At the many police road blocks, we were greeted with friendly but stringent adherence to the law, and a peculiar eagerness to exhibit Malawi’s beauty to tourists. One officer in particular stands out. He bounded eagerly to our window and enveloped our hands in his that were clad in white cotton. Eyebrows arched, eyes sparkling, he leaned in and, as though he had only just clapped eyes on it himself, asked us “Have you seen our LAKE!?”

Lake Malawi  (Photo: RWH)

Lake Malawi (Photo: RWH)

The very north was lush, the road a raised cob through endless flooded rice paddies, a hangover from Tanzania. People padded along the road, dried mud extending up their ankles like socks covering their bare feet. Sit-up-and-beg bicycles meandered along, sugar cane, firewood, or children clinging to the back. Before long the road began to rise, and we found ourselves in a completely new landscape, where huge rounded tors pushed up from great expanses of planes. Woodland appeared, hardwoods of size and density that we hadn’t seen since Europe. Although it had lost none of its strength, the sun had begun to cast shadows at midday again, and no longer dropped like a stone at its setting. We were southward bound, and Capricorn was closer now than the Equator.

Our goal was Zomba, a small city which had been the British colonial capital back when Malawi was Nyasaland. It is a green and leafy settlement, full of parks, croquet lawns, tea houses, botanical gardens, a golf course, and even a gymkhana club. Modern Africa has had its way here too, however, and the streets writhed with the movement of minibus stands, maize sellers and wooden stalls, all bustling to the cracked music of the local bars. We were here to run a feasibility study for an international research study, and would be staying in a district hospital a few miles outside of Zomba.

As a traveller or backpacker you could be forgiven for thinking Malawi is a progressive, developed African country with a flourishing economy and good infrastructure. It would be easy to navigate from hippy hostel to plush lakeside campsite, experiencing the beauty of the country and the company of those Malawians lucky enough to work in the tourist industry. In reality, Malawi has one of the least developed economies in the world, highly dependent on aid and IMF/World Bank input throughout the ‘00s. 70% of their export revenue is raised from tobacco sales, the price of which is dwindling. Despite having a multi party democratic political system, the international community has expressed repeated concerns over senior level corruption and human rights breeches including illegalizing homosexuality, freedom of speech, and censoring of the press; there is only one television station, and it is government owned.

Attending clinic  (Photo: RWH) Written informed consent obtained for publication online from all relevant parties in accordance with current UK General Medical Council guidance.

Attending clinic (Photo: RWH) Written informed consent obtained for publication online from all relevant parties in accordance with current UK General Medical Council guidance.

From a medical point of view, Malawians born today can expect to live to 50 years, if they make it beyond 5 years old; 8.3% won’t. The HIV/AIDs prevalence is 10%. The maternal mortality rate is one of the highest in the world. CRADLE, the study with which we are working, aims to help tackle the last of these problems by determining if a nationwide blood pressure monitoring service for pregnant mothers would reduce mortality. It would aim to identify and treat those mothers at risk of pre-eclampsia, a condition which can be identified by high blood pressure in pregnancy, and can progress to eclampsia, which can be fatal for both mother and foetus. Our job was to work out if running such a service in Malawi was a possibility.

As it turned out, this feasibility study led to our best experiences in this country. Guided by Grace, a hugely hospitable battleaxe of both Malawian and British citizenship, we bounced around the country side, visiting rural clinics and health centres. Tess was integral to our work, as most of the tracks were used by a four wheeled vehicle only once a month, bound for the very clinics we were visiting. Elephant grass encroached on both sides, and we crawled through villages and past markets seldom seen by outsiders. Cyclists would swerve into the long grass at the site of us, staring nonplussed as we passed, apologizing furiously.

Health education at the beginning of clinic  (Photo: RWH) Written informed consent obtained for publication online from all relevant parties in accordance with current UK General Medical Council guidance.

Health education at the beginning of clinic (Photo: RWH) Written informed consent obtained for publication online from all relevant parties in accordance with current UK General Medical Council guidance.

The clinics themselves are often run in the village church, Malawi being 80% Christian. Invariably, tens of women and children gather under a tree outside, waiting for the health workers to arrive and deliver an educational talk to begin. Then they all line up to be seen by respective professionals; all nurses and clinical officers, no physicians. Family planning, infant vaccinations, maternal advice and monitoring; all bases were covered in these multipurpose clinics.

We were surprised by the clarity of organisation of healthcare here; the system for information gathering and auditing is really impressive. The facilities themselves of course suffer from under investment and under staffing, but the whole sector seemed to have a positive ethos for development. We wondered if this was a legacy of Dr Hastings Banda, the British trained GP who led Nyasaland to independence and ruled Malawi under a one party system for 33 years. We are hoping to feed back or assessment to CRADLE in the near future.

Towards the end of our stay, we received an invitation from the District Health Officer to visit him in his office. We were assured this was a great honour, and indeed the security and establishment suggested as much. Ushered into his office we were greeted by a portly man of short stature, who rose from his excessive leather wing-backed chair to extend a well manicured hand from within his rather ill fitting suit. I was reminded greatly of the Fat Controller, if any of you can remember Thomas the Tank Engine. This was a ceremonial handover of the blood pressure monitors that we had smuggled across Africa in the back of our car, originally intended for the CRADLE project in Ethiopia before they had pulled out of that country. There were many smiles, many handshakes, a few photos, and we were ushered out again.

The District Health Officer  (Photo: RWH)

The District Health Officer (Photo: RWH)

The time had come to leave Zomba and the excellent company of Grace. The Administrative, Budget and Planning Board had been unable to agree on whether we should go to Mozambique or Namibia, and so we had compromised by committing to visiting both. Although geographically inconvenient, especially given our time and budget deficits, this solution would also afford us the excuse of driving through Zimbabwe and Botswana. As it turned out, visas for Mozambique require letters of invitation and confirmation of accommodation booking, both of which had to be ‘drafted’ in an internet café before application. Having successfully duped the embassy, we set off towards Mozambique, skirting south along the crystalline shores of Lake Malawi. Tess still wandered across the road, but given the state of the roads in Mozambique, we didn’t expect to get above 40mph the whole way.

Bandits! (The Lake Turkana Road Part III)

It was about on day two that the bushes on our rear suspension failed. Long suffering, these rubber buffers prevent a metal on metal clash in the suspension components. Although this didn’t halt our progress, it made us wince every time we hit a medium to large bump, which happened about every three seconds. It did nothing for our confidence as we had days of off road still to drive, and it sounded as though the car was falling apart! Fortunately Land Rovers are built of stern stuff, and Tess struggled on.

We pulled into Loyangolani, the first convincing Kenyan settlement towards the south end of the lake with two flat spares. We breakfasted, wincing despite ourselves as the gomister (tyre repair guru) bashed our tyres off the rim with a sledge hammer. Punctures fifteen and sixteen. I did a complete double take as a young man wandered past wearing the Exeter University rugby team strip. I recognised it from a hundred yards, as several of our friends played for the university during medical school. He had bought it from the local shop, and had no idea why I was so excited – garments are purely functional here, and he spoke not a word of English. I returned to my chapatti and chai and wondered whose footsteps we were following.

We were a full four days drive into Kenya before we found ourselves on a road that could be classified as having two carriageways. We were unpleasantly surprised to find ourselves on the wrong side of the road when a great pickup full of jackfruit came tearing around the corner. There was barely time to wonder at the irony of this given the amount of times we have rounded corners in Africa to find our carriageway occupied by something with big momentum and small brakes. We swerved back to the left for first time since England, and rattled on our way.

Celebrations in N Kenya

Team beer on Dan’s Birthday (Photo: DN)

We found a particularly beautiful riverbed surrounded by acacia trees and steep hills. The shadows were lengthening and we had business: it was Dan’s birthday. We turned ‘upstream’, away from the deserted road, and slid our way into the forest. There in the safety of the bush, we celebrated with precious Ethiopian beer, cherished single malt, and well travelled Swiss fondue.

We set off late the next day, perhaps not as sharp as usual after the celebrations. As we passed west of Baragoi at the southern end of the lake, we were waved through a fairly significant military checkpoint. There’s a heavy military presence up here, and we read no significance from its existence. A few more kilometres and one of the Swiss’ tyres falls victim to the sharp rocks on the track. Well practised, they swapped over their wheel while we made the team some coffee (just what you need in the midday heat!). We crouched in the six inches of shade that the car threw this close to the equator, and waved as a church group passed in a Land Cruiser, priests in the front, children leaning cheerfully out of the back. We commented on its passage as even this far into Kenya another vehicle on the road was still a noteworthy event. I saw Bass and Michael, one of the Swiss, exchange glances and a raised eyebrow as we packed up, but thought nothing of it, as none of us really understand how Bass interacts with anyone.

As we rounded the next corner, barely two minutes after the church group, we knew something was very wrong. A hundred yards ahead, the Land Cruiser lay was splayed at an odd angle, its doors swinging. The children huddled in the back, and we could see the priest and driver sitting by the car, head in hands. We stopped, and took a moment to scout the situation. This was setting off all sorts of alarm bells. This was perfect ambush territory.

We approached cautiously, game faces on, hearts thumping. There was thick vegetation on each side of the road, good cover for villains. I could see bullet holes aplenty down the side of the Land Cruiser. There was an oil spray from the engine block. The windscreen was shot out, as were the back windows. We crouched by their car.

Bandits attack in N Kenya

Bullet holes in the children’s compartment (Photo: DN)

The priest greeted us eagerly: he had a split brow, and was nursing his arm, which was cut and bleeding. We quickly asked about casualties. None hit, both adults assaulted with rifle butts and robbed. Six bandits, AK47s, they had apparently fled. There were two children missing, who had run off into the bush.

We herded the group towards our Land Rover, and squashed them inside or planted them on the roof. We made the executive decision to go for back up before searching for the two that were lost to the bush. Speeding across the rocky piste with eleven people aboard really put Tess through her paces. We passed a band of men, perhaps seven strong, all with rifles on the road about a kilometre back. They looked at us innocently; we could see no animal herds nearby, no reason for them to be together and armed. They chose to ignore our passing. We made it back to the military block unscathed. Afterwards, I thought again about this unknown platoon, who could so easily have turned on us. How can you tell the difference between an armed shepherd and a roving robber? Fighting any guerrilla war must be impossibly difficult.

Inside the car, the mood was business. The children had recovered somewhat, and sat quietly. We have not a drop of military training between us, but thankfully we’re all used to being in high pressure situations because of our jobs, and this kept our heads cool. We piled out, and quickly informed the officer in charge of events. He explained that this was a trouble spot (although they had neglected to mention this to us at the roadblock!), and that they frequently had fatal attacks on this road. They did not have any vehicles at that outpost however, so they would have to use our two cars and a third volunteer who needed to pass through. We were dispatched back with a roof full of soldiers, the priest, the driver, and the children. The Land Cruiser was as we had left it, a sadly disabled hulk. The soldiers fanned out to form a perimeter. Looking again, I realised how lucky the occupants had been. There was a hole through the cab two inches about the driver’s head rest, and holes throughout the back compartment. The children must have hit the deck at the sound of the first shot, otherwise many of them would have been hit.

Bandits attack in Kenya

A soldier perches on Tess as we rig up a tow rope (Photo: RWH)

The soldiers asked whether we would tow the Cruiser to the next town, 30km west. We agreed that we would try, given that it meant we would also have an armed escort for that leg. Rigging up a tow ling took minutes thanks to a medical degree misspent rock climbing, and we crawled away, leaving two soldiers to continue the search for the missing children. We never found out what happened to them, but no more gun shots were heard after the initial assault, so we can only hope for the best.

I had planted myself in the driver’s seat of the Land Cruiser. There’s quite an art to towing off road, a recoiling cable breaking windows is not unheard of, and I wanted to be responsible if we damaged Tess. Two bullets had gone right into the engine block, and I knew that turning the engine over would just damage it further. Tess crawled forwards, puffing on the incline with Dan at the wheel, and we started to move. The strap would go suddenly slack as we descended a rise, then slap taught again. It required our full attention. We were wired.

The tow seemed to last forever as we ascended and descended rough hill passes. The priest described how they had rounded the corner and six men had opened fire without so much as a warning. The car had stalled and rolled to a halt, and the men had advanced brandishing their guns. They had taken all valuables at gun point, hitting the adults with their rifle butts. They had scarpered, just as we had rounded the corner.

I was assembling this story piecemeal, as I concentrated on the towing. I could hear the children talking in low voices through the bullet hole behind me. That missile would have gone straight through my head had I been driving; luckily Kenyans tend to be a few inches shy in height. Ahead I could see the Land Rover slipping and skidding on the loose rocky roads, and at one point I could clearly see chunks of rubber been torn from our rear tyres. Those aged and cracked shoes had served us well, but 15,000 miles, 16 punctures, and one blow out later they were finally giving up the ghost. When we eventually limped in to the town the steel bands were visible in more than one. We were thanked by the church, but departed shortly, conscious that we still had a fair way to go and darkness was falling.

That evening we camped on the shores of Lake XXXXXX. It was a sober group that sat around the fire and sipped a much needed beer. We could not dismiss the idea that it was our cars that the bandits were after, that they may have had a friend phone ahead from the village we had just driven though. Their spoils would have been a hundred fold had they targeted us instead. We were shaken by the days experiences, but not as much as we should have been. I don’t think any of us has let the reality of how near our miss was sink in – after all, we still have three months to spend in this continent. We retired to bed early, Bass and I in our tent, Dan and Dario in the Swiss’ roof tent, Michael in his hammock. I fell into a deep sleep, exhausted.

A raunchy young bull hippo (Photo: DN)

A raunchy young bull hippo (Photo: DN)

Although Africa has a reputation for having a relaxed pace of life, sometimes it can push you to your limits. At about three AM (why does everything happen at three AM!?) I was jerked awake by a hand slapped over my mouth. Bass was rigid beside me, and even as I tried to protest I was shaken by an ear splitting roar from just outside the tent. Sticking our eyes to the corners of the tent, we could see a young bull hippo about nine yards away, bellowing to its floozy along the shore in some sort of antisocial courting ritual. We could see Michael in his hammock behind it, trying to think himself into the landscape. These creatures kill more people in Africa than any other, by quite some margin. They are terrifying. The hippo took a minute to ponder our existence, moving closer to the tent and rippling the very fabric of the air with his snorts. At length he decided that his hormones were more important than his curiosity, and he stomped off in the direction of the distant bellowing female, his four ton body weight squelching great holes into the mud as he did so. Dan and Dario lay giggling in the sanctum of the roof tent, but the rest of us were too tired and shocked to communicate. We lay back without a word, blissfully comatose until the morning.

The joy with which we celebrated the advent of Kenyan tarmac was testimony to our knackered suspension. Its clunking had worsened bump by bump, and we were on day twelve by now. We slipped Tess back into High Range and turned west. Slowly civilisation started to win back. Nomads became few, homesteads frequent, and market towns appeared on the horizon. The density of AK 47s dropped off too, much to our relief. We exchanged rocks for lorries, and by the evening of the second tarmac day, we had joined the freight train of lorries that snake their way from Mombasa to Kampala. We were headed towards Uganda, the ‘Pearl of Africa’, and rain.

Hypnotic Adventures (The Lake Turkana Road Part II)

Just before you read the next installment, we would like to thank eveyone who has suported us by reading this blog, and by kind emails and messages. It has really meant a lot when the chips are down to know that people are thinking of us back home.

We are now well over half way, and have clovered over 15,000 miles. If you have enjoyed reading this blog, or are as surprised as we are that we have made it this far, please consider donating to our charities. 100% of your donations go to charity, this expedition is completely funded by us! Just click the red ‘donate’ button on the right of your screen. Thank you.

Tess rolls over the rocks in the midday heat (Photo: RWH)

Tess rolls over the rocks in the midday heat (Photo: RWH)

There is no manned border on the Turkana road, and travellers are required to stamp exit paperwork in the remote Ethiopian town of Omorate, some 100km before the border. There is no Kenyan office at all, and anyone crossing this way must essentially enter illegally until they can reach Nairobi, or an exit border. It is sufficiently far south and west from Addis that any return journey is unthinkable, a fact the Ethiopian customs officer obviously takes advantage of on a regular basis. His exit stamps remained very much in their drawer in his dusty little office as he inhaled air through his teeth and inspected our documents. He smirked at us and shook his head.

“There is a problem with these papers” he said, leaning back in his chair and framing himself rather nicely against the huge anti corruption poster on the wall behind him as he did so. “I cannot let you pass. You must return to Addis”.

My sharp response was to request his name, rank, and commanding officer’s details, as well as to comment on his moral fibre, or lack thereof. Luckily my tongue refused to comply with both simultaneous commands, and instead I managed a sort of strangled smirk. I was annoyed at myself. We should be used to these sorts of situations by now, and it feels like a personal failure when you let yourself blood rise. It was obvious what this chap was looking for, but I was reluctant to offer him undeserved backshish for a fabricated problem. Corruption is a big problem in Africa (and unsurprisingly has been found to inversely correlate with the economic development of a country), but we had been pleasantly surprised about how upstanding officials had been thus far, with the hugely expensive exception of Egypt. Admittedly we have perfected the art of making things as difficult as possible for the overly inquisitive officer (our papers are in Addis; can I see your regulations for that offence?; you must take us to the police station for that; can we have a receipt for that fine?; let me just call my embassy and ask their advice). Even so, most frustrations arise from general system failure and incompetence rather than individual corruption.

The springs of the officer’s chair squealed in relief as he levered himself to his feet and sidestepped purposefully around his desk. I had regained my composure, and allowed myself to be led by the hand into a dark corner. Eventually we came to a reluctant and secret agreement. He produced his ink and pocketed our Jackson in one smooth movement, and left me flapping the damp page in my passport and pondering a sad last interaction with a country that had proved to be more alien and wonderful than we could have expected.

We had stayed the night before quite unexpectedly with none other than a Hubertus Von Pachmann. The man was everything his name promised. He had found us on the banks of the Omo, near Omorate, peering into the murky waters and wondering if the crocodiles were absent enough to allow a quick swim. We had happened to stray onto the grounds of a huge farm during our search for a swimming spot, and had bumped into none other than the Austrian manager of a 20,000 hectare property. From his appearance he was in every way the white African, from his toothy grin to his khaki shorts and sheath knife. Life out here was lonely, he told us, many hundreds of kilometres from the capital, and many thousands of kilometres from his wife and children back in Austria. Hubertus was of a persuasive nature, and we soon found ourselves abandoning our swim and settling in with beers and grilled Nile Perch in his back yard. We watched the Southern Cross work its way across the horizon as we heard about the life of a man who had grown up in Rhodesia, volunteering with the elite Selous Scouts when the fight for independence came. He had farmed in Rhodesia, Somalia, and Angola to name but a few, and found himself unable to leave a continent where he had spent and risked his life so many times. As we ate he smelt the rain, long before we caught a whiff, and sure enough thunder caps soon obscured the constellations.

It poured. It should have been a time for celebration, jubilation. We had not seen rain for a full three months, and this was rain as only the tropics can muster. It bounced several feet off the concrete, thundered on the steel roof, cascaded through our ill fitting Land Rover doors to soak our worldly belongings. We sat silently, conscious of the endless river crossings we would have to face over the next few days, fully aware of our inexperience. Hubertus remained cheerful, told us this was a “just a spot of rain. Ja, it will be sucked up by the morning”. He was of course right. Dry as a bone, we set off the next morning refreshed and inspired.

The turning to Turkana was unmarked, unused, unceremonious. Had it been in the UK it would have barely qualified as a farm track. We exchanged wry smiles, selected Low Range, and turned south. We were excited and nervous, and for the next week every jolt, every new noise was an irreparable mechanical fault.

The rocky road (Photo: RWH)

The rocky road (Photo: RWH)

Everything seemed exaggerated here. The bush was wilder and more vicious, the river beds huge and treacherous, some hundreds of meters wide – but blissfully empty. The heat was more intense, reaching 45 degrees at midday when the sun would cast no shadow from a man. The road alternated between deep sand and large pebbles, which chattered angrily as we drove over them. I was transported by the sound to the winter swells raking the stones on St Agnes beach. Lake Turkana stretched across the western horizon just like that ocean so many miles away. We couldn’t shake the feeling how far we were from home, or anywhere else for that matter. It seemed an eternity since we had departed from the cold, misty headland of Droskyn. Here the nearest help was a minimum of two days drive in every direction. We carried all we would need: fuel, water, and food for 600km of wilderness, as well as a best guess of tools and spares that may prove essential.

Nomads in Lake Turkana

Nomads move their herds around this hostile environment (Photo: RWH)

As we drove we passed the occasional nomad in traditional garb, looking strikingly at home in their hostile environment. They shepherded great herds of camels and the ancient horned Ankole-Watusi cattle from one frazzled patch of grass to another. Everyone here has a high velocity rifle slung over their shoulder, oiled and ready. Being from a land where the most lethal weapon on show is a taser, guns make us nervous. It would be so easy for any of these men to relieve us of all we had and leave us to expire in this beautiful wasteland. We were greeted however with nothing but waves and stares, by people whose borders were tribal, not international. Addis Ababa and Nairobi were words whispered by the wisest of elders; these people are governed by the same rules today as a thousand years ago, and the Ethiopian Kenyan border is but an arbitrary line drawn by unknown, un-witnessed colonial powers.

Scouting the dry riverbed (Photo: RWH)

Scouting the dry riverbed (Photo: RWH)

We were in convoy with ‘the Swiss’, whose Vauxhall Frontera struggled to keep up with even our rheumatic vehicle.  Multiple times, they beached on the central islands that separated the ruts of the track. Each time, we would strive and sweat in the searing sun to dig them out. Tess groaned and roared, but each time succeeded where we had not in pulling them free. We were glad of their company, unshakable cool temperaments, and psy-trance music. Several times the path was lost, or proved impassable, and we struggled to keep up a pace faster than 15 kilometres per hour.

The sky was beginning to bruise as we pulled in to a small peninsula which protruded out into the lake. Here in the Siboloi national park is a small collection of buildings populated by countless skeletons and fossils, which has served for decades as an anthropologist’s frontier camp, and is the base for Dr Richard Leakey’s project which discovered the ‘Turkana Boy’, a 1.6 million year old Homo Erectus skeleton on the shores of Lake Turkana. We are finding that you really have to do something wild to impress anyone in Africa, and sure enough the greeting we received from the American anthropologist who resided here was as casual as though we had just strolled in from walking the dog. “Nice day?” he enquired, as we emerged shell-shocked from our traumatised vehicles. We stared as he lit his pipe, and discoursed about his life here. He resides in one of the most impressive and amazing places on earth, in my book.

Lake Turkana at sunset

The dying sun catches the ripples on Lake Turkana (Photo: RWH)

The sun was low slung, and scattered its rays in a thousand beads of colour as we ran down to the shores for a swim. The water was cool, and distinctively alkaline – almost soapy, and the sun caught the ripples and the top of the thunder caps that were throwing bolts of lightning across the eastern sky. We cooked outside, agoraphobic and mesmerised by this endless hypnotic space, and  wondered what was to come.