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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Hurrah! Eh?

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To kick this chapter of with some light relief from the worlds most sensationalist newspaper (outside the UK)

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‘Magicians, Satanists hiding behind church’

Beyoncé and Jay-Z to hire French-speaking nanny

Sunset in Hwange National Park (Photo: DN)

Sunset in Hwange National Park (Photo: DN)

Our decision to drive to Harare by night paid off and we arrived on the outskirts in the small hours. The street lights were dazzling after the deep, rural darkness. The Rogers had told us about a park that allowed campers. This information was at least seven years old but we headed there anyway with little in the way of a plan B. We were tired and becoming short with one another. A silence replaced the previously cheerful conversation. The following hour of wrong turns and U-turns tested us further. The campsite was nowhere to be found. Eventually we decided that a gated building-site with the remnants of a communal garden were our best bet. There was no one in sight so we decided to put a tent up and try to explain ourselves in the morning. We were promptly ambushed by three police officers.

After patiently explaining our situation to the startled guards, who had been patrolling the area, everyone calmed down. It was agreed that we were to stay and wait for the boss in the morning. We were so tired at this point that we would have accepted a night in a prison cell.

The next day we met the boss, who opened introductions with a jokey,

“So. How much do you want to pay me?”

His candour was refreshing after last night’s lengthy admonishments. Within minutes of straightforward business we were free to hit the town.

National Emblem for Zimbabwe (Photo DN)

National Emblem for Zimbabwe (Photo DN)

On the surface, the Harare was functioning. Dollarisation had come in to remedy the astronomical hyperinflation of the Zimbabwean dollar. The Z$ had essentially been abandoned in 2009 when the government legalised foreign currency transactions whilst at the same time limiting cash withdrawals to 100billion Z$ (far less then the value of a loaf of bread). Inflation at this point was around 96% a day with extra zeros continually being added to the bank notes.  US Dollars were fine for big purchases but life became difficult with change as there were only grubby dollar notes in circulation. South African Rand were sometimes used but more often than not the retailer would try and offer something of a similar value. A parallel system of barter had evolved. This lead to some complicated situations, such as me trading a pen to photocopy my passport and upon protesting that the pen was worth more than the photocopy, receiving my change in chewing gum.

We spent the weekend in Harare, meeting people and organising our onward travel. Priority number one was, as always, to set up a base and get clean. Out in the countryside our grubby appearance fitted but now we were amongst business men, diplomats and politicians in shiny, shiny suits. We dug out what ‘smart clothes’ we had managed to preserve. At last, Dan put some shoes on and combed his beard but remained in his old scrub trousers as he had no others. It would have to do.

In a leafy hostel near the Zanu PF party headquarters, we met the few intrepid travellers who had made the leap of faith up from South Africa. We pitched our tents in the garden. Over an evening the group increased. Introductions were made in the easy way that people who are mutually far from home are able to do. We spun a few of our well rehearsed yarns and soon we had all been invited to an exciting event.

On the other side of town the Zimbabwean Red Cross were having a fund raising concert in the -now disused- Mbare netball stadium. The huge concrete structure was testimony to the fact that Zimbabwe had once been a big player in international sport. Here, despite the nations economic problems, the great and the good of Harare were gathering to raise money to support the charity at home and abroad. Some of the evening’s big hitters included Fungisai Zvakavapano-Mashavave, Tryson Chimbetu, King Shaddy and my personal favourite the Dembo brothers; struggling to make a name for themselves in the shadow of their recently deceased father, the legendary Leonard Dembo.

The evening was electric. Students, professionals, musicians and crowded in around bars and flaming braais. We were warmly welcomed. Up on stage each act gathered the crowd up to dance along. The Dembo brothers’ band in particular had lengthily and complicated dance routines to accompany their 20 minute songs. They had a classic Southern/Eastern African style with a syncopated easy rythm, a bouncing slightly independent base overlaid with joyous, melodic guitars and harmonised singing. How they were able to co-ordinate all this, whilst spinning and jumping in perfect unison, is totally inexplicable.

We awoke the following morning groggy and aching from over enthusiastic dancing. With bags of clean washing and fresh supplies we packed up our tents and left the city in the direction of Great Zimbabwe. These ancient ruins from the 14th centaury had been known about since the early explorers. ‘Zimbabwe’ itself means ‘large stone house’ which doesn’t give much credit to the intricate, concentric fortifications. I had to admit that I had not heard of any ancient, stone buildings south of Ethiopia. The most amazing thing is how long the academic world was unable to conceive that the decedents of this great trade empire were the Shona tribe. Complex theories were conceived to attribute the ruins to the Arabs or the Phoenicians. With the Rhodesian government, these theories gained a political agenda. Suggestions that the site was constructed by black people (or even that the ruins existed) were suppressed.

Great Zimababwe from a hilltop (Photo DN)

Great Zimababwe from a hilltop (Photo DN)

The city had reminded us of how much more comfortable we were camping out in the bush. That night we made supper in the shadow of the hilltop ruins. We had a single-malt and sat up talking for some time. There was a chill in the clear air that we were unfamiliar with. Our route was taking us south with the winter. We crawled into out tent to lie like sardines, neglecting to pack up the food and plates. We rose early the next day, but not as early as the monkeys who we found industriously and systematically ravaging out campsite.

From Great Zimbabwe we drove in an arc, through the Indebele tribal heartlands (the other main tribe of Zimbabwe of Zulu origin) and the city of Bulawayo. Dropping away from the central Highveld, the Western edge of Zimbabwe seemed to be an endless forest with little sign of occupation. At night we would drive for hours without seeing the lights of civilisation. Our destination was Hwange national park.

Pleasant spot for lunch! (Croc 30 ft away) (Photo: RWH)

Pleasant spot for lunch! (Croc 30 ft away) (Photo: RWH)

We reached the official edges of the park at the dead of night, although it seemed we had been in wooded wilderness for hundreds of miles. The forest was thick where we turned off to make ourselves invisible for the night. By spotlight, with the engine turning over slowly in low range, we wove our way through the trees, stopping occasionally to hack down a branch or trunk that blocked our path. The signs of Elephant were everywhere. Splintered wood and ripped bark were scarred into the forest as well as mounds of dung in various stages of returning to earth. That night, the still air was alive with noises. I sat on the roof and listened to the yelping jackals and a howling lament that we later learned to be from the painted dogs. Occasionally there was the undulating peep of a Hyena contact call.

This had become a night time ritual. We were comfortable in our constant vigilance. Camped on the forest floor, it was hard to go to sleep. Eyes closed, I placed each sound into a mental landscape; from the distant crashes to the sharp snaps that seemed inches from our resting heads. We strategically placed knives, clubs and machetes around the tent in case the worst came to the worst but mostly, we relied on hiding.

I seemed to be the lightest sleeper. Rich, who was still suffering from hearing difficulties from his Kenyan ear infection, was the heaviest. In Kenya I had hunched in moonlit terror as a bull Hippo roared and munched its way through our camp as he had dosed serenely. In Mozamique we had all lain awake in our thicket, listening to the nearby drumming and chanting that started up in the small hours where before we had been certain of our solitude.

Nothing however compares to the visceral, sinking realisation that upon waking, somebody is slowly, with patient stealth, unzipping your tent.  This had happened, only once in Tanzania. At 4am in the morning, in a forest camp. Without moving, I slowly woke up as the sound of the zip filtered into my consciousness. What must have been an opportunist thief, ceased his work, when I turned my torch on, only to blind myself on the flysheet. I went back to bed assuming I was hearing things, but then I heard the chains of the car being slowly examined. I grabbed my baseball bat and hesitated. The sounds stopped. As the silence continued, ringing in my ears, I began to doubt myself. Five minute later, I heard more shuffling and Dan’s semi conscious voice mutter a confused,

“Hello? Bass?”

At this point I gathered the courage to leave the tent with head-torch and cudgel in hand. My narrow beam did little to cut through the encroaching night. The flicker of movement seemed to vanish behind every tree just before my torch fell on it. By the time a stern faced, boxer-short-clad Dan appeared, axe in hand, it was clear we were alone again. The only sound was Rich’s peaceful snoring.

On safari (Photo: SW)

On safari (Photo: SW)

Once Mozambiquan, forever smitten

Mozambique

 

(Photo: RWH)

(Photo: RWH)

In Mozambique, ghosts of Portuguese and Swahili settlers wander amongst faded colonial grandeur, unnoticed. The inhabitants of the remote north have quickly returned to the lives that they lived for hundreds of years before the colonists arrived. The only memories of the old times are the Portuguese language, the food and pastel mansions crumbling among the mud huts.

 

Over several hundred kilometers the road from southern Malawi to the Indian Ocean deteriorated from tarmac into a mud track, furrowed and ruined by rainy season run off. Villages became less frequent until we found ourselves driving through thick tropical forest bare of any kind civilization. This was a welcome change after seeing nothing but hand-ploughed land since the Sahara desert. It did not really strike home how densely and universally inhabited Africa has been until we found a place that wasn’t. Camping in this thick jungle was not easy. We had to pick a path through the thorn bushes, creepers and giant car-trap spider webs. It was worth it though, to sit tight around our campfire, to listen while distant drums beat from a wild Africa that flowed out wide and black beyond the flickering light.

 

Find Bas in the elephant grass (Photo: DN)

Find Bas in the elephant grass (Photo: DN)

Driving so far away from civilisation was exciting but came with a little apprehension. What would we do if something happened? What if the car died or even worse, a crash? The road was white sand and stones, flat and unused but blighted with potholes that could swallow the car. Driving at midday is the most treacherous. The sun sits high overhead and casts a flat light that renders all the bumps and holes in the road invisible. It was under these conditions that we lost control of the car. At 40mph a sea of potholes materialized from the blinding white road and knocked Tess into a skid. The back of the landie drifted out wide on the carpet of small rocks. Bas pulled it back but we swung out the other side even more violently. For 150 yards we skated across the surface, each exaggerated skid brought us closer to flipping over. The rubber of our tyres squealed under the strain and the luggage flew around possessed. One by one we lost our cool and started to scream in fright. Bas wrested control of the steering and ditched the car over the edge of the road, down a gully into tall grass where we rolled to a halt, every one breathing hard.

 

Bushmen (Photo: RWH)

Bushmen (Photo: RWH)

We stepped out of the car, a little shaken. Rich crawled underneath to assess the damage. Nothing seemed wrong. We couldn’t believe we had been so lucky, or unlucky depending on your point of view. Tess creaked back up the embankment onto the road and set off again towards the coast. As we drove, my mind was filled with imagined scenarios. People say that above the bandits, the terrorists and the wildlife you are most likely to come a cropper in Africa as a result of the roads. They are right, and what would one do if it happened miles away from the nearest civilisation. Our near miss brought the reality of a serious injury or massive mechanical failure into sharp focus. Would we have enough food? Who would go for help? Someone would have to walk to the nearest village for assistance and it would likely take several days, longer still for the people waiting with the vehicle. It seems there is a reason the road less travelled is not, well, more travelled.

 

Ibo, a tiny island a few miles off the North Mozambique coast at Pemba, was our destination. At the end of a sandy track, too bright for my cheap sunglasses, were a large baobab tree and a driftwood kiosk selling cokes. We left Tess in the hands of the kiosk man to guard and took off our shoes. Wading through the mud into the shallow mangroves we approached a dhow bound for Ibo. Ibo is an abandoned colonial holiday spot scattered with decaying buildings. White sand and sharp crags of black volcanic rock encircle the island. The atmosphere on Ibo is very much that of island life. Nothing happens too quickly, everyone knows one another and there is no crime.

 

(Photo: DN)

(Photo: DN)

On our second day in Ibo a small boat took us out to snorkel at a shallow reef. The water was a warm, blue world. The coral was dotted with great wrinkled clams that snapped shut in a fizz of bubbles when I touched them. I have never scuba dived and this underwater landscape was a new experience for me. It was thrilling to dive and mingle with the marine creatures imagining for brief moments that I was allowed to be one of them. I wore myself out chasing bright little fishes through coral corridors. They flitted easily away from my pursuit like sparrows escaping a hawk.

 

Shallow reef snorkling trip (Photo DN)

Shallow reef snorkling trip (Photo DN)

Our boat chugged slowly through the chop as we returned from the reef, our skin drying slowly in the low sun. All of a sudden the Captain shouted to us from the wheel, the engine rattled and cut out. Warm and a little dazed I pulled my fins on and bowled out of the boat. The cold water broke on me with a start and everything was suddenly silent and black. The open sea was cold, dark and deep. Alone for a few seconds before the others plunged in beside me, I was taken by a trace of fear. Perhaps it was the chill, or the deep unknown beneath me but it felt unnatural after the shallow, colourful reef. Quickly a shadow passed below me, easy and swift. It banked left and joined three more shadows. Each beat its tail hard and then whipped off into the blackness. They came again, this time closer, slowing as they passed. There were four dolphins batting though the water, wet pebble eyes considering me as I floated.

 

I kicked hard to get close. They did not flee, they flanked me slowly as if to encourage me to come with them. Arched streamlined backs, they began to dive. Snatching a breath I dived down with them and almost imperceptibly the nearest glanced back at me, noting that I had followed. The four strong bodies spiraled deeper and deeper. I could not keep up. I returned to the surface, panting.

 

Several more times they passed us; we were awkward in their world. They urged us to play, but our sluggishness disappointed them. After a while they left us to find better sport and we returned to the boat. Everyone was vibrating from the encounter, speechless and yammering at the same time. The interaction was magnetic. A simple, good-natured relationship had developed in only a few minutes between each of us, alone in the dark sea, and a pod of dolphins. The experience was alien and yet wonderful. As we set out for home we saw the pod coursing ahead through the water. The furthest of them leapt out of the surf sending a fan of droplets from its dorsal fin that caught the light.

 

At dawn the following day we returned to the mainland. The dhow sailed nimbly through the shallow mangroves bringing island women and their wares to the market in Pemba. Huge cloth wrapped baskets and nylon sacks filled the small boat’s hull leaving only the edges for numerous passengers to jostle for seating above the spray. The bright and beautifully patterned clothing of the Mozambican women was striking in the dawn light. The lines on their sun-weathered skin were also worn well.

 

Mozambiquan Fishwife (Photo DN)

Mozambiquan Fishwife (Photo DN)

The road south from was smoothly graded, prepared by the Chinese for the construction of a new highway. Natural gas has been found off the coast so Pemba will soon be the newest raw material exploitation centre in Africa. This will probably lead to a brief explosion in the tourist industry on Ibo and surrounding islands. The property will be bought up and converted to luxury hotels for the gas company employees. In a few years the gas will dry up, the industry will leave and the island people will once again return to their small, quiet lives.

 

(Photo: DN)

(Photo: DN)

In Ilha do Mocambique the contrast between old colonial majesty and island tradition is also stark. The main square is cobbled black and white like the streets of Lisbon. The tessellated motif imitates the pattern left in the dust after island women have swept the earth in front of their door. The market brims with fruits we had never seen before, breadfruit, flat bananas, sun-dried mangos. At the seafront young men skip up the streets from the fishing boats with the catch of the day, sharks in their arms and rays on their backs.  Old ladies hunch over charcoal fires cooking red snapper on skewers. Tongues of flame lick the spiced fishes, drops of lemon spit and crackle.

 

Our fish supper (Photo AV)

Our fish supper (Photo AV)

With a huge tropical fish for our dinner we left Ilha and drove down the coast. A few kilometers after the last village we made a way through the bush to the beach and lit a fire.  After a brawl with numerous large purple spines and several punctured fingers our meal was scaled and ready. The fish cooked on the wood fire while we lay watching the southern constellations track the sky. These shapes that had been so foreign to us now seemed like home, more so even than the northern stars since roofs have become a rarity. As we waited for our dinner we mused, even fretted a little about how much the trip has changed us. We have occasionally entertained worries that we would not easily reassume our old lives. After eight months speaking almost exclusively with each other, how will we converse with people whose opinions, habits and characteristics are unfamiliar? How will we kick habits like walking barefoot through the middle of town or showering only twice a week?

 

Skills we have learned which are indispensable here will quickly become useless back home. The capacity to sleep soundly in a hut that is crawling with spiders as big as your hand will no longer be necessary in Cornwall. The ability to gather wood, build a fire and cook a fish on it will also seem distinctly obsolete when we cast our mind back from the queue in a fish and chip shop. Perhaps the most difficult thing will be to reintegrate with western opinions. There is a marked difference between the acceptable topics of conversation in Africa and at home. In Cornwall a few eyebrows might be raised if we try to argue the benefits of restoring the ivory trade, discuss Mugabe’s commendable achievements before the economic collapse or the futility of charitable work in Africa. On the other hand it will probably be good for us to learn to keep our opinions to ourselves occasionally. The fish was great.

 

Wild camping on the coast (Photo: RWH)

Wild camping on the coast (Photo: RWH)

In the morning we lifted our mosquito nets to see the sun creeping into the world over the brow of a shimmering silent sea. The earliest fishermen were scudding along the horizon in their shallow bottomed sailing boats as we paddled about in the water. It was difficult to leave such a lovely scene but like on so many other perfect mornings we packed up and set off to the next destination on our journey. We were heading to Chimoio where Alki would find her bus to Tofu in the south of Mozambique. Alki would leave the trip for a couple of weeks to go on scuba safari, pursuing giant manta rays.

 

On the road to Chimoio our clutch failed, the first major mechanical failure of the trip and real disappointment so close to the finishing line. At the side of the road, in the midday heat dismantling the master and slave cylinder. We succeeded only in making the problem worse however as we were unable to put it all back together. The only solution was going to be to remove the engine or drop the transfer box. As we did not relish the idea of doing this at the side of the road we decided to attempt to drive without a clutch until the next big town to get it fixed. The next big town was Mutare in Zimbabwe.

 

After dropping Alki at her bus we departed for Mutare making quite a scene. In order to set off we had to push the car up to first gear speed. Then like a bobsled team we were to run alongside the moving vehicle and leap into our seats. What actually happened was Bas and I both went for the same door, in confusion I trod on Bas’ flipflop tripping him onto the tarmac. I then jumped for the door, hit my head on the frame and bounced back out to join Bas on the tarmac. These antics were viewed by large crowd of market goers and pedestrians who all dutifully cheered and jeered our ridiculous display. There was a similar farce at the Zimbabwe border crossing. The border is on a slight incline so we recruited the help of the surly border soldiers. They reluctantly put down their AKs to throw a their weight behind Tess, who choked and jerked into gear and pulled away leaving them in a cloud of black smoke. Welcome to Zimbabwe.

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.

Dancing with Demons from the DRC

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A huge plate of chips-a-myeye weighed heavily as we stepped among the crumbs of broken concrete in another filthy trucker stop town. We arrived at our chintzy bed and breakfast, the “Triple J Hotel’s” [sic], and were about to turn in when Bas noticed music coming from a dimly lit building across the road. I was sent off to investigate while Rich, Bas and Alki remained. I found the building lit but empty and the music resonating from still further away so I pressed on into the solid black night. Cat’s moaned as I picked my way between warped shacks and squalid passages. After walking for much longer than planned I found a tiny square covered by a ragged tarpaulin and hemmed on all sides by surrounding buildings. The music bounced and roared in the tight space. Yellow glare from a single bulb cast faces into shadow, fusing a mass of black bodies into a single dark beast dancing, shouting, writhing and fighting in celebration.

 

As I watched, a white eye from the depths of the beast fastened on my white face and a stillness spread from it. A legion of eyes turned to see me while the mud-caked sound system continued its lonely crashing beat. Moments passed and I began to imagine a flicker of hostility in this dark well of eyes when the body of a woman leapt across the light and grabbed me by the arm. She dragged me roughly beneath the tarp and smiling, danced me to the middle of the crowd. The instant she did so the mass dissolved into individual bodies and danced with me.

 

As I jumped and stamped along with the rhythm of bare feet beating the packed dirt my dance partner was dragged away into the crowd by a thick arm. An African buffalo of a man replaced her and danced for a short while under the glow of the bulb without breaking my gaze. As I tried to turn away to dance elsewhere he took me by the hand and dragged me out into the shadows at the edge of the music. He spoke to me quickly in a language I didn’t recognise and tried to drag me away down an alley between two buildings. I resisted but he was strong and I was lead down three or four backstreets.

 

Suddenly we stopped and the man stared at me showing a muddle of fear and anger that I could not differentiate. He then pushed open a sheet of corrugated steel in a doorway and turned on a light to reveal a heap of sleeping bodies covered in soiled blankets. He crashed around waking all, to show them the guest he had brought. He told me his name, Nicko, and pointed to his mother among mire of fabric. She blinked her tiny wrinkled eyes as Nicko buzzed around her explaining my presence.

A friend of Nicko’s was able to translate. Nicko was Congalese, his father had had his arm cut off with a machete, then been killed by the army. These people were all refugees from the war in the DRC. Nicko returned from his mother and told me urgently that I had to leave. He said I must not dance at this celebration I must stay here in the room with the refugees and his mother until it is over as it is not safe for me. I suggested that it would be perhaps better if I left altogether and he agreed.

 

As I walked back towards the party I saw that Bas had followed the music as well and was to be seen dancing with gusto in the midst of the crowd. He had clearly become worried that I was having fun without him or perhaps had been kidnapped, in that order of importance. I pushed through the crowd and was forced into further dance offs. I danced along and tried to keep up with my being passed from person to person like a new toy. Eventually I was able to get a word in Bas’ ear. “I am not sure we are particularly welcome here, I think perhaps we ought to go” He looked around. Outside the dome of dusty light there stood a semi circle of men watching us, arms folded and brows low in the dark. “I see…” whispered Bas back at me. We began edging our way towards the alley that we had arrived from but our way was blocked. Several people were carrying the body of a man towards the centre of the dirt floor. They lowered him to the ground and people started fanning this, seemingly unconscious, man with their clothes. The man began to convulse on the floor, kicking his legs out and arching his back while people feverishly wafted their jackets at him. A young man in a clerical collar, silver jewellery and dark sunglasses approached. He took hold of the fitting man firmly by the head and began loudly repeating a prayer in Swahili. The man on the floor was soon rid of his demons and leapt to his feet. Four more people replaced him on the floor and commenced fitting and writhing to the visible delight of the crowd. As the priest wrestled with them I noticed another white face in the crowd. Rich too had surrendered to his fear of missing out and followed us. While the crowd was engaged by the miracles being wrought before their eyes we slipped away towards home.

 

Nicko caught us before our escape was complete. He crushed us in turn across his thick chest as he bade us an earnest farewell.  He proudly told us he used to be a driver before he was forced to flee the Congo. To prove this he pulled his wallet from a pocket and opened it. The small nylon wallet was almost bare. It contained no money, no photos, no scraps of paper or receipts. There was only a single card bearing the words “RDC – Permis de Conduire”.  I wondered why he carried the wallet with him at all. A fugitive’s few possessions are still possessions I suppose.

Tanzania: Car Jackers!

Many months later, fleeing from the dark, we would remember these dazzling steps along a sandy ridge in the Sudanese desert. At midday we had tramped away from the quivering road to an old fort on the dunes. Among the crumbling ruins we found a hovel concealed in the shadows of the fort’s walls. A man clothed in rough cloth became visible in the doorway; he beckoned us inside. Slowly, hibiscus tea simmered on coals and he watched us. He murmured gently as it boiled, “on your road you have a danger, you have to move as one.” He said, “you see it first and run. Before the time to chase, you run, all in their place and all eyes forwards.” The hermit hissed as he spoke. Quietly finishing our tea, we spat back the hibiscus petals that fell into our mouths. We did not make sense of the man’s words until the day we were chased.

 

Broken Brake line (Photo AV)Tanzania was in bloom as we crept up behind the lonely blue hulk of Kilimanjaro. The rocky Mwenzi peak looked like the prow of a great ship, wrecked on an atoll in a wide green sea. A smattering of snow at the summit was a rare and melancholy sight, simply because it bears such cruel comparison to Hemingway’s“impossibly white” mountain of a few decades earlier. In Tanzania the borders of game reserves are less well defined than in Kenya. Elephants scuff the bark from the trees at the side of the road and impala flee, bouncing across the plains, from the roar of our engine. We found our camps by pushing a path from the road into the 10 ft elephant grass to fall asleep with the rustle of crickets and the barking snarl of leopards. At Lake Challa we climbed down 100m of steep jungle to jump from rocks into splendid blue water in the crater. In Moshi we tried to sell our old tyres. We were discovering that they were worthless, even in Africa, until we met a man plying a trade in recycled shoes made of tyre rubber. This was particularly opportune as Bas was woefully undershod subsequent to a disastrous flip-flop blowout a few days earlier.

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In the sparsely populated interior of Tanzania, our route took us through several vast national parks, this gave us all a great sense of moving through the real Africa, the wild, empty Africa of Livingstone and Stanley. We traversed hundreds of kilometers of green bush, red dirt and sunsets stained violet by the rising dust. In the Mikumi national park we came across a male water buffalo grazing a few metres from the road. In person they are enormous, like a huge cow, reinforced for Africa, with heavy crescent horns and a square frame of thick muscle. Rich got out of the car to photograph the placid animal when another, very different, bull arrived from the bush. The second had a broken horn and a face covered with scars and bitterness. He took an immediate dislike to Rich and dropped his head low to scowl through his thick brows. We shouted to Rich to get back in as the animal was clearly spoiling for a fight. While buffalo damage to the car might be a fun story, buffalo damage to Rich would be difficult to explain to his mother. Rich could not reach his door so leapt onto the back ladder and scrambled into the window as the bull feinted a charge at him.

Angry Buffalo (Photo DN)

Angry Buffalo (Photo DN)

This was an incident that prompted the development of a system for unexpected hazards. Should we need to get out of a situation quickly and someone is trapped outside the car they must climb to the roof, rather than gamble on the temper of any of our fickle door mechanisms, and then slither down into a window while the driver makes good the escape.

We have a system for communication from the roof as well. This was developed after a surprise elephant encounter in thick woods (the person on the roof had no means of telling those in the car that they were eye to eye with a grey wall of angry wrinkles).

When parking Tess we have learned a rhythmic tapping system from a pair of parking wizards in Istanbul. This has now been expanded to include other signals. Two taps for stop, three taps for go, and a continuous frenetic rapping for “an elephant is about to pull my head off!”.

 

We have many and varied systems for coping with the problems that have arisen so far on the trip. One is a system of co-piloting Tess in the worst of off-road conditions. The navigator uses a map and an old shabby sat-nav with an African tracks program to give the driver real time guidance on the contours of the road ahead. We have a code for communicating the location of approaching holes, rocks, mud, deep sand etc. The system allows us to effectively use six eyes instead of two to scan the road ahead. In addition to saving us from several catastrophes when we had no head lights the “six eyes is better than two” approach allows us to pretend we are racing in the (as yet un-realised) Cornwall to Cape Town Rally. _DSC0919

Before leaving Tanzania for Malawi we visited Ruaha national park. As we arrived the sun rose over a hill and shone silvery on the surface of the river. The waters of the Ruaha wind long loops among giant granite shards that burst roughly through the rolling green landscape, polkadot with Baobab trees. Being off-season and fairly remote we had the park to ourselves. We lost the day following elephant and antelope over some of the most breathtaking scenery we have encountered on the trip so far leaving the park long into the greying twilight.

Ruaha River (Photo DN)

Ruaha River (Photo DN)

 

Conversation bubbled through the car as we rumbled along the ruined track away from Ruaha. A few kilometres from the park gate we came across a pickup flashing it’s hazard lights in the narrow track ahead. Our voices lowered as we noted that there was no way past them. We could not think of a reason for a pickup to be on this isolated road and car-jackings being prevalent in this area, we paused a hundred metres short to investigate. I took the binoculars from the dash and focused on the distance. “There are a few men standing around the pickup, they have guns!”

Bas pointed out calmly, “everyone has an AK here that doesn’t mean very much”. “True” I replied, “but this is different, they aren’t slung over the shoulder like a rusty farm tool, these are on a short strap across the chest, and their hands are on the grips”

 

There was a hush in the car. “We should wait a little, to see what unfolds before we approach,” said Rich “Maybe turn the car around incase we need to get out of here quickly.”

 

Bas got out to help Rich to turn the car without dropping a wheel into either of the ditches running along the sides of the dirt track. Tap tap…tap tap…tap tap…TAP. “That is enough we will make it around”, said Rich.

Bas crept down the track to check on the pickup again. As soon as he raised the binoculars he started shouting, “they have seen us turning, they are after us!” At that moment the distant engine snarled to life and began burning towards us in a cloud of red dust.

 

Bas ran back down the track towards us, “go go go they are coming.” He leapt onto the ladder at the back and beat out the emergency rhythm on the bodywork to show he was aboard and we should bolt. As we gathered speed on the rough ground Bas scrambled up onto the roof and held tight. He cast a backward glance at the headlights that cut a swathe through the darkness behind us then slipped in through the passenger window.

 

The track flew around several bends and straightened. Rich threw a furtive look back in the mirror. The lights were gone. They must have given up. Maybe they knew we could not go back through the park gate. We were penned in. We consulted the map and found an older route away from Ruaha Park. The old road returned to the main track after 60 km. We had to take the old road and hope that we could reach the junction faster than they could or they would head us off. Minds set, we raced away though the high grass and low branches; this path had not been used in a long time.

 

Our spotlights shone a yellow corridor in the obscurity. Rich drove among the potholes and corrugations faster than we had ever dared before. The only sounds in the car were the raking branches, spitting stones and barked instructions. “Pothole 1…Rut running 2 to 3…Wooden bridge 300…Wet ford 100m”. My heart was beating tight as a bowstring as we approached for the crossroads.

 

For 90 minutes we drove, all eyes pinned on the road ahead, Hole 1 to 2, Rock 3, All silent. All stock-still. The sound of the car shaking itself apart on the ruined road jarred. Rut 3, Rocks 2 to 3, Ford, may be wet

How far is it, 17km.

Rock 3, Ditch 1, Soft Sand for 50m, 3km now

We peered into the distance, eyes bloodshot now from staring, the junction appeared. It was dark, too dark to see if anything waited for us there. We approached at ramming speed and skidded through the junction without stopping. No one saw the pickup, but who could say in the dark. We drove on for five kilometers, regularly scanning the mirrors, nothing. Still not safe, but we were forced to stop for respite. Rich’s white fingers were peeled from the wheel and he was thrown in the back to recover. It was another hour before we reached the nearest town. Lights and people, at last. The tide of adrenaline receded slowly over a jittery beer and we collapsed into a motel to sleep.

Kenya: The Swahili Coast

Like a worried war-time family gathered around the wireless, we crowded around a small window in a Greek hotel room to see a torrent of protesters surge around the Landie, hurling rocks and abuse at the riot police. In Tahrir Square we ate roasted sweet potatoes bearing inverted impressions of the anti-government pamphlets in which they were wrapped. In Sudan the people marched in anger at the murder and concealment of two student protesters. It has felt to us as we have traveled that the world is in mutinous temper. Kenya revealed itself to be no exception.

While we were discovering Uganda and Rwanda, elections were taking place in Kenya. We had not particularly intended to avoid Kenya during this period but it was a happy coincidence considering their last elections were marred by quite widespread political and intertribal violence.  On our return we crossed Kenya quickly, arriving on the Swahili coast after only the briefest of stops to attend a party that confirmed every rumour we had heard about the Nairobi expatriate scene.

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Our arrival was greeted with the warmest of welcomes from Bas’ parents, William and Lucy Wallace, and their friends Martin and Dawn Whetstone. A wonderful week was spent lounging by the pool, visiting idyllic beaches and mixing with the who’s who of the Malindi social scene. As we sipped cold beers in the Driftwood club we quickly forgot all about our intrepid expedition. We were delighted to be given the opportunity to speak at the Driftwood and tell a few of our tales as part of a cervical cancer screening fundraiser, which was excellent fun.

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On our final night this paradise was sadly a little tarnished. While sitting up late trading safari stories with the Whetstones and Wallaces, conversation was interrupted by the unmistakable sound of gunfire. Five shots echoed from the night and then it was calm. For several minutes we waited for more, hushed, then a crescendo of automatic fire filled the air. The volleys became more regular as shots were traded. It was a pitched battle between two well-armed adversaries and the sound was close by. David, the askari,estimated that the shots were 200 metres away, near the beach. The clash continued for half an hour and then stopped suddenly.

Martin and Dawn were calm and pragmatic as one might expect from old hands in Africa. “We would have heard on the phone if there was something to worry about” said Dawn. We speculated that it might have been Somali pirates fighting the police. Raids on the North Kenya coast were more common a few years previously before the international navy presence in the Gulf of Aden was increased significantly. After a nightcap to settle the nerves we retired to bed.

In the morning, the town was going about business as usual, it takes more than a gunfight to upset the balance in Kenya. It transpired that the police had stumbled across a terrorist militia, training in an abandoned building by the beach. In the resulting battle 4 policemen and 8 militiamen had been killed. The remainder of the militia had scattered. The story at the Driftwood club was that Bob, an 80-year-old ex-pilot and policeman, had spent the night keeping watch on his roof with a rifle, while his two askaris patrolled the grounds. It seems that lessons learned in the Nairobi police force die hard.

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With a fond farewell to the Martin, Dawn, William and Lucy we set off through Tsavo national park on our way towards Tanzania. A few hundred kilometers south and the wet season was in full swing, a mixed blessing. At 6 o’clock in the morning during a particularly miserable camp in the gravel of a petrol station forecourt we found ourselves in the heart of a tropical storm. It became apparent that we had pitched our tents in an almost imperceptible trench, which was quickly filled by the deluge, drowning us and all of our sleeping bags with us. On the other hand, however the recent rains had covered the, normally arid, Tsavo savannah with a lush green blanket. The red dirt track that transected the park was gaudy in its bright contrast to the insufferably verdant plains. The landscape was all the more beautiful, as one is so accustomed to seeing dry African savannah in wildlife documentaries.

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The Tsavo national park was the stage for the story of the infamous Tsavo Lions. In 1898 the Leut. Col. John Henry Patterson led a project to build a bridge over the Tsavo river as part of the Great Kampala to Mombasa railway. During the project two male lions repeatedly broke into the camp by night and dragged the Indian workers away to devour them. In an effort to deter the animals Patterson built huge fires and thorn fences around the camp. For nine months he hunted the cats, wounding them on several occasions. Patterson attempted to trap the lions by equipping a train carriage with steel barred cage in which two workers slept as bait. In the morning he found the carriage destroyed and the workers abducted. After 135 lives had been lost Patterson finally killed the pair and their huge nine-foot skins spent the following 25 years as rugs in his home before they were retired to a museum in Chicago.