A Pinchbeck on Elm Street

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May 18th 2013
Published: May 18th 2013
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Africa is big. Very big. Too big for one man to see all of it at once, so I settled instead for just seeing nine countries, which I thought was a fair start. Overland tours are fairly straight forward. You travel on a big truck with a bunch of like-minded people, camping in tents, helping cook, and sampling a wide range of local beers as you go. Most nights are spent camping with a few dorm rooms thrown in for good measure.

My trip was for fifty-six days, taking in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. I’ll be blogging each country in turn, and as I am now nearly three months behind, we’d best get started.

From South America, I took a flight to Johannesburg. I had booked a room for the evening and got a transfer from the airport. When we arrived at the hotel complex it was guarded, with razorwire all around, and I wondered for a second quite what I was doing, but this is fairly common in Africa it turns out. Better safe than sorry and all that. My room was nice and I took full advantage of the swimming pool, completing fifty lengths. I felt like a hero afterwards and celebrated with macaroni and cheese, two beers and an early night. Sweet!

The next day I flew to Entebbe airport in Nairobi, Kenya. At the airport I met Mitch and Cassie, an Aussie couple starting the trip with me who would be travelling through to Zanzibar. More about them later. We then had to wait for some others. And then we waited some more. And a little bit more. Then finally, with everyone arrived from their flights, we headed to the campsite. We missed the pre-departure meeting, but met our tour guide, Christy, and then proceeded to have a cheeky beer or two and meet more of the people who were starting the same time as us. The evening was spent playing pool with two other Aussies, Nicole and Fallon, which was a nice introduction to campsite life, and we also met a guy living in Nairobi who, several weeks early, had seen lions crossing and lounging on one of the main roads. This was supercool. I had arrived in Africa. The very next morning, we set off.

We drove alongside and then down into the Great Rift Valley, with some amazing views along the way. I also got some elephant bookends, my first African purchase, and a definite insight into the fact that my bartering skills would need some improvement as I’m pretty sure now I paid way over the odds. Still, they will look awesome in the non-existent apartment that I own. I suppose I should point out that they are not actual elephants that have been trained to stand very still, but are, in fact, wooden carvings. We saw our first lot of wildlife on the way, too: zebra, giraffe, springboks and elephants. The real kind, not the wooden kind.

The next day we upped the ante on the wildlife watching with a game drive in the Masai Mara Reserve. We saw buffalo, Thompson’s gazelles, hippos and wilder beast. By the end of the drive my camera-shutter figure was developing calluses and I feared the day that I would have to go through my pictures and actually sort them out. Thankfully, you lucky people, I found the time to do so. The Reserve was pretty awesome, and left us all feeling that the rest of the trip would surely follow suit, and by now we realised that no amount of suspension can prepare a vehicle, or a posterior, for the condition of most of the roads. Buns of steel, baby, buns of steel.

After the drive we went on a tour of a local Masai village. The people there were friendly, talkative and showed us their traditional method of creating fire. Them boys can rub sticks like they’re going out of fashion. We then had the chance to go into some of the homes where they tried (and in my case succeeded) to sell us various trinkets. The village was good, but I was amazed by the amount of rubbish that littered both the village and the surrounding area. For such a proud people, I would have thought they would take more care of the land that they were living off, but it seems that’s quite a common thing in East Africa.

The Masai are still a very traditional people. The home I went into with one of the tribesmen was built in the traditional way, and he himself talked to me about how their rite of passage from boy to man-hood included them spending time in the wild, having to kill a lion to prove themselves warriors. Quite how this sits with the modern day preservation requirements I’m still not entirely sure, but the scar on his head certainly looked authentic. We also were told of how, when taking a wife, cows are traded depending on how much they think the wife is worth. I didn’t write down how many cows the girls on our trip were worth, but I’m sure they would fetch more than the average. They may also be reading this so I feel a certain obligation to say so 😉

A 5am start the next day was less than fun, and we spent the day on the bus driving to our next location. We passed a huge amount of tea plantations on the way, seeing the men and women with their baskets on their backs picking the best tips from the plants. Hopefully, none of them water the plants with urine while out there all day, but I suspect this may only be hopeful thinking on my part. We certainly saw plenty of it in other parts of the trip. Just something to think about if you’re reading this with a cuppa. We also saw a huge amount of people in Africa seemingly just walking at random along the roadsides, but with the lack of transport options available to them, most are walking to work or back home. There are lots of school kids as well, in different uniforms, which reminded me of why I booked my volunteer work in the first place.

On arrival at our campsite that night a few of us swam in the pool and we sat around chatting and having a drink or two after that. Swimming was bliss and made me wonder why I never went more often back home, but a number of the campsites we would be staying at would have them which I was looking forward to already. The next morning we had another early start and went through our first border crossing, now on our way to Kampala, Uganda.

There were twelve of us on this leg of the trip, plus the three crew on the truck. I shall attempt a brief description of each of them so you have some idea of who I am referring to in the forthcoming blog entries.

Christy – our tour leader. Christy is an Aussie now living in Kenya. She is more laidback than a deckchair and a general good egg.

Steve – our driver. Steve is a quiet Kenyan. He plays a mean game of pool and loves reversing. A lot. Steve would find a way to reverse even if the truck had no reverse gear available. True story.

Joseph – our cook. Joseph is also Kenyan. He enjoys a tipple of the local brew and has been known to offer said ‘medicine’ at dinner time to a lucky few.

Mitch and Cassie – a (fairly!) recently married Australian couple. Mitch used to be a rugby superstar but always had his wife there to beautify him again. She has done a good job over the years, given what she had to work with.

Nicole and Fallon – Australian sisters. Nicole is a traveller at heart and thankfully gets on pretty well with her sister. Fallon is blonde. But that’s not her fault.

Zane and Claudia – a Kiwi couple living in London. Claudia is a definite foodie with a liking of jazz. Zane is the most competitive man known in this universe. But also a good bloke.

Carolyn – an American, but we grew to like her a lot. She has freckles and runs. As in jogging, not as in the shits (sorry, mum). She also likes a beer or two. Most pleasing.

Anita – the only South African. Straight shooter. Anita coined the phrase ‘Hydration is key’. This is only one example of her many achievements.

Clemens – ze German. Clemens is a unique creature. My tent mate for the first leg of the trip. Equal parts fun and seriousness. No fear of anything.

Emma – a fellow Brit. Sometimes sports a bandana. Wise for her age and funny to boot. On occasion. Good at playing Bao.

Joey – the second American. Able to take magazine worthy gorilla photographs. Has a large chin. May be deployed in the event of a war with floatation devices as a Navy grade aircraft carrier.

Next up - Uganda...

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