Africa: The Last Leg

Already on the beautiful island of Zanzibar we were planning the last leg of our African trip. This meant some frantic online searching for safari-equipped 4X4s and of course our plane tickets to get back to Namibia. We managed to secure both, although waiting until the last minute to book our bush and camping-equipped 4X4 was not a good idea in retrospect- it was the end of April which is the beginning of the busy season, and these vehicles are in high demand. We finally found one though with a very reputable company (this is also a very important consideration when renting in Namibia), Savanna Car Hire in Windhoek. We got ourselves a Toyota Hilux double cab equipped with a rooftop tent, fridge, and all the camping and emergency road gear you can think of for a 15-day rental which set us back around $100 per day with all of our insurance included- not bad when you consider that you are completely self-sufficient for that period of time. The only other expenses you can expect are the camping fees which average around $30 per site and, of course, fuel. There are however plenty of places in Namibia where you can find a secluded place to pull over and set up camp without paying any fees at all, but if it’s the fancy washrooms with showers, restaurants and many times even swimming pools you want, you will need to pony up on the campsite.

Our first night in the desert

If you're going to drive in Africa, you gotta learn the signs!

Having been to Namibia a few months prior on our overland tour, we knew there were some places we wanted to return to and spend some more time in, namely some areas in the Namib Desert, Spitzkoppe, and Etosha National Park. As well there were also places that we wanted to explore for the first time such as some areas off the beaten track in the Damaraland and Kaokoveld regions. As with any road trip there would also be some more impromptu stops and in some cases these would prove to be among the highlights of the trip. So, a portion of our road trip was planned and at other times we changed our course and decided to wing it, but our 15 days went without a hitch and we loved every minute of it.

Inside Dead Vlei

Another scene from Dead Vlei

After leaving Namibia’s capital of Windhoek we headed south into the Namib Desert, spending our first few days around the incredible sand dunes and desertscapes of Sossusvlei. We started our mornings before the sun came up and usually didn’t return to camp until well after sunset. Not only are the times around sunrise and sunset the most photogenic, they are also the moments of the day that offer some reprieve from the oppressive temps that is all to common in this part of the country. Many afternoons the mercury climbed to well over 40 degrees Celsius. After we had our fill of the desert we headed towards the Skeleton Coast until just north of the Cape Cross Seal Reserve which is a real treat for all your senses! Here the mornings can be downright chilly and the winds blustery but its rugged scenery is well worth checking out. We then headed inland again spending a couple of nights in one of our favourite places… Spitzkoppe. We were blown away by its beauty the first time around and knew that we couldn’t leave Africa without becoming a little better acquainted with the area.

An oryx poses pretty, Sossusvlei

The seal colony at Cape Cross

Spitzkoppe by night

We then pushed further into Damaraland through the Brandberg area and onto the incredible territory of Twyfelfontein. This region was a spontaneous stop for us and became one of the trip’s highlights. It was here where we discovered many amazing petroglyphs that dated nearly 5000 years old. It was also in this area where we hung out with a herd of over 30 endangered desert elephants and spotted a couple of cheetahs to boot! From Twyfelfontein the roads became progressively worse which signaled our arrival into the Kaokoveld (Kunene) region. This area is arid at best but the further north we pushed, beautiful Baobabs became more prevalent. At some points we couldn’t have been more than 30 kilometers from the Angolan border but we based ourselves out of Opuwo, the hub of the Kaokoveld and the capital of Namibia’s northern tribal lands. The town itself is a hubbub of activity. OvaHimba push shopping carts through the supermarket aisles, Herero women trade their wares in the streets, and groups of Zemba girls hang out on the corners. It's truly a colourful display of life. We did head out to one Himba village not too far from Opuwo which was a nice insight into their culture and a fun afternoon. This experience was much more positive than the one we endured during our overland tour. This time it was just us, our interpreter, and a village full of Himba women and children who were just as happy to spend time with us as we were with them.

One of the petroglyphs in the Twyfelfontein area

Desert elephants, Twyfelfontein

Himba woman near Opuwo

After leaving Opuwo we made a beeline for Etosha National Park, entering from its westernmost gate. We spent our first night at Okaukuejo and our remaining nights at Halali, our favourite of Etosha’s camps. We had such great experiences with Etosha on our Nomad overland tour, but nothing could have prepared us for all the wildlife we spotted during our days of self-driving in the park. We really got to know some of the animals during this time; their habits and schedules, which made tracking them a whole lot of fun. Being in your own vehicle you can also spend as much (or as little) time as you want with each animal encounter. During our time in Etosha we saw more animals that make sense to list, and slept each night under the stars with the calls of the wild all around us. These were also very early mornings and late returns to camp, but there can be no question that the best time for wildlife viewing is during the early morning and late evening hours. We were rewarded royally one morning when a lone leopard crossed our path. The sun just came up, and it was just the leopard and us- one of our favourite experiences for sure! After Etosha we spent a couple of nights in the Waterberg region and that took us to the end of our 15-day road trip through Namibia. We put on a staggering 4,700 kilometers in those 15 days but man… was it worth it!

Night shot of a rhino at an Etosha waterhole

Male lion at the golden hour, Etosha

Early morning encounter with our leopard

Two exhausted lionesses and six reasons why!

Another male, another golden hour

A lone lioness and acacia tree

A black-backed jackal scurries along

We caught the Windhoek to Cape Town bus a couple of days later and there in Cape Town is where we enjoyed our last six days on the African continent. After four months we had come full-circle to the city we had started our journey, and one of our favourite cities in the world. We rented a car for a couple of days to explore some of the other sights scattered around the Western Cape and fell even deeper in love with the area. There can be no doubt that our trip to Africa was epic and one we will always remember and one we will probably always want to replicate. Seven countries and four months of experiences that we will cherish for the rest of our lives. But this will not be the last we see of Africa!

The colourful surf shacks at Muizenberg beach

 

The Tanzanian Devil: A Travel Horror Story

I'm forever writing about the amazing things we see and do along our travels- the warm and interesting people we meet and the good times we have together and that's because that's the travel norm. But I also believe it's my responsibility as a travel blogger to report on the more sinister side of traveling the rare times they arise. Maybe this story will merely entertain some travellers (and I hope it does) or maybe this story will help others in making a better decision than the one I made or at least as a reminder to not let your guard down even when you're having the time of your life. Traveling is a gateway to amazing new experiences and encountering amazing and interesting new people. But for every 100 great experiences you are bound to have one bad one and for every 1000 wonderful people you meet there will always be that one you wish you didn't come across at at all. This is a story about one of those experiences and one of those people.

There are no short distances in Africa, and, together with poor roads, old and unreliable buses and inconvenient transport schedules, said distances can make for long and grueling overland journeys. 30-some hours after leaving Mzuzu we arrived in Tanzania’s largest city and unofficial capital, Dar es Salaam. It was late and pitch dark so we checked into the first scuzzy guesthouse we found in the Kisutu area which sufficed for a night but the next morning we relocated to a slightly less sketchy place down the block… the Econo Lodge – the setting for our only horror story during our travels through Africa.

Econo Lodge, Libya St., Dar es Salaam

Upon checking-in the staff advised us to leave our valuables in the storage lock-up behind their desk when we went out which made sense at the time… Dar es Salaam has a sinister reputation and at times it seems as though there’s a certain pride in upholding that reputation! Anyways, we had bus tickets to shop around for and some supplies to replenish for our next destination, Arusha- the gateway to safari lands. So left our valuables in the hands of the staff we did and then slipped off into the city to run our errands. A few hours later we returned to the Econo Lodge to retrieve our bags only to discover that one of them had disappeared. Hyo Jin’s bag containing our passports, some money and other important travel documents was still there where she had left it, but my bag containing every piece of camera equipment I brought had vanished. Panic instantly sunk in and thus began the ensuing 10 hours of chaos. It was 7 in the evening. Of course I started yelling and screaming at the guy who remained behind the desk. If awards were handed out for epic fits thrown at hotels by guests I’m sure that I would have received top honours. I insisted that he call the police and he insisted that he didn’t know the phone number for the police! Hmmm. So I then insisted that he called the owner, manager and all the other staff who were on shift that day. I was seeing red but who can blame me? Within that bag was over $12,000 of camera gear not to mention all the images that I had captured thus far on our trip… this would be a devastating loss to say the least and I wasn’t about to let it go without a fight. One by one the other staff members started returning to the Econo Lodge including the owner (and his family). It was now 11 p.m. Then came the hours of dodging responsibility and offering of excuses. “Maybe you didn’t leave your bag in our storage room”, “perhaps you should have another look in your room”, “maybe another guest has taken your bag by mistake”, “this has never happened here before”… this wasn’t doing me any good! The fact of the matter is that the Econo Lodge in Dar has a piss-poor system for keeping their guests' belongings safe. Yes there is a room behind the desk which they encourage their guests to utilize for the safe-keeping of their valuables but this room isn’t locked and there is no system of identification whereby each bag would be tagged and a receipt offered and when retrieving your bag you would have to hand in said receipt. On top of this, we saw other hotel guests and who knows who else entering and leaving this “secured” room every few minutes at their leisure. Yup, this place was a nightmare and had we known this is how they ran their hotel we never would have entrusted them with our valued possessions in the beginning. We did however come up with a definitive timeframe in which the bag disappeared since we had checked on it just an hour and a half before we came back to discover its disappearance. During this time the nice day-shift ladies left for the evening and only one employee remained at the desk. This was the same employee who said he didn’t know the number of the police. From the offset we suspected that this guy was the dodgy bugger responsible for the heist, but what can you do with a suspicion? As we talked to each of the staff members they seemed to share our suspicions though. By 2 a.m. things were going nowhere fast and emotion-induced exhaustion was starting to set in. I told the owner that we were not leaving the hotel until my bag was found and if by morning I wasn't reunited with my bag that I would personally be bringing the police to their establishment and informing any potential guest who walked through the door to go elsewhere. I had also showed each of the staff pictures of my camera bag which I had on my phone and requested that every guest who was leaving in the hours to follow be checked for that bag and their rooms searched once vacated, although I knew very well that it wasn’t fellow travellers that had taken it. At one point during the night the owner had taken the guy who we suspected all along to the office where it appeared that a serious talk was taking place. At 3 in the morning the owners and the day staff left the hotel and returned to their respective homes and we retreated to our room where we tried to get some rest and give whoever was responsible for my bag heist the opportunity to get it back without our prying eyes on them. We were supposed to leaving on a bus to Arusha at 6 o’clock that morning!

The only person who remained on the desk was the dodgy dipshit! At 4:30 a.m. there was a knock on our door. I opened the door to find Mr. Dipshit himself standing there. He informed me that he thought he located my bag and that a taxi was outside waiting to bring me to it. Of course I was excited at the prospect that my bag was found, but this was Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and it was 4:30 in the bloody morning- there was no way in hell that I was going to get into a car with a guy I’ve never seen and driven off to a location that I didn't know. It would be very good fortune from the perspective of the hotel and the dipshit if I were to just disappear! I told the Tanzanian Devil to just send the driver to retrieve the bag and we would wait in our room until it arrived. He agreed and 45 minutes later I was reunited with all of my camera equipment. The story he came up with was that another traveller had accidentally taken my bag and checked-in to another hotel in a different part of the city. Once there he discovered that the bag did not belong to him and at 4:30 in the morning he called the Econo Lodge to report his folly! No doubt that this concocted story was a big ‘ol sack of hipposhit, but this moron believed that we believed his fabricated tale and he was now the hero not the villain. Whatever! We had my bag back and now had about 30 minutes to be on our bus to Arusha… and we were! But on our way out the door of the Econo Lodge, Hyo Jin and myself both heard the Tanzanian Devil mumble a few last words to us… “my wife is in hospital”. It took a while for us to process this statement, we were after all in a rush to catch a bus. But once on the bus we took the time to think it over and come to the conclusion that those words were offered to us as a confession and explanation. Either way, that man and that hotel was responsible for the worst day and worst night of our three-and-a-half months in Africa. That whole experience was unbelievable on so many levels. But the most unbelievable part is that we were one of the lucky ones who won our battle. Theft occurs all the time in Dar es Salaam. Muggings are commonplace in that city and much, much worse. But we came out of that ordeal with my bag and all of my camera gear unscathed. If it would have gone any other way, you would not have seen any of the photos you have seen so far on this blog and you wouldn’t be seeing any of the photographs to come (isn't that a sad thought!). In fact, it is difficult to say if our trip would have continued at all.

The Tanzanian Devil

One of the functions of travel blogging is to offer other like-minded (budget) travellers advice to the places they are planning to visit. Of course I do not recommend staying at the Econo Lodge in Dar es Salaam, but if you do (or wherever else you stay), keep your valuables on you at all times or invest in a sturdy lock and chain and lock your bags to something solid in your room. This is something we usually do but for some reason we let our guard down in Dar. Nothing will ruin a trip quicker than being separated from your most valued possessions so it pays off to be cautious.

Distances are long in Africa and you will experience long trips in uncomfortable buses and long waits in the middle of the night to catch them. But let’s put things in perspective… if this is the worst part about your journey through Africa, then you’re doing everything right!