Africa

Africa is a remarkable continent comprising more than 50 countries and just about every landscape imaginable from baking deserts to snow-capped mountains, dense jungle and wild coastline. Alistair was lucky enough to visit four of those countries – Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda – in 2007. Here is a feature article he wrote for the Herald Sun newspaper describing his amazing experience.

NEXT time you are cursing the traffic on one of Melbourne’s major arterials, take a moment to imagine the following scenario.

The road you are on has been left to fall into disrepair for, say, three decades; pollution standards have reverted to the 1950s; bicycles are allowed on the freeway but only if weighed down by ridiculous loads like 300 bananas or 70 bright yellow plastic jerry cans; every road sign has been removed; the traffic includes open-tray trucks crammed with animals, couches and people (sometimes all at once); exit and entrance ramps have been replaced by anarchic roundabouts that might have three lines or they might have eight; all speed cameras, booze buses and any other evidence of a police force is missing except for an occasional jeep that screams past piled high with men in army fatigues wielding machine guns; salespeople walk between vehicles flogging a startling variety of merchandise – wallets, sunglasses, wooden carvings, bags of oranges, genuine “Gavin Klein” watches, meat on a stick, car parts, Groucho Marx-style plastic nose, glasses and moustache – and farmers are allowed to drive herds of cattle down the out-bound lanes.

Catching a lift in Uganda

Then you will have some appreciation of what it is like to drive in east Africa, and why the co-pilot doesn’t spend much time promoting hire car services when planes land at Nairobi airport. Fortunately, they don’t have to. There are hundreds of operators who will happily accept the challenge for you, with one brand perhaps the bravest – or craziest – of all. They are called overlanders.

Overland tours travel between two distant points in a self-sufficient vehicle on journeys that can take weeks, even months. Passengers can hop on for all or part of the odyssey; I signed up for four weeks of a 58-day jaunt from Nairobi to Cape Town. That section alone covered thousands of kilometres and crossed five international borders, in an 18-ton, 224-horsepower truck named Shangani. The truck – there were severe penalties for anyone caught calling it a bus – carried 24 passengers from nine countries plus enough tents, food and cooking gear for all of us and our two guides.

The word “guide” doesn’t do them justice. They are responsible for taking care of the passengers, negotiating with border officials, buying all supplies, maintaining the truck and driving on those roads, to mention a few of their myriad tasks (others included keeping hungry baboons out of the camp kitchen, a job at which they were only partially successful). They work 24 hours a day for 110 days straight (a full circuit from Cape Town to Nairobi and back again), before having about three weeks off then starting the next cycle.

Roadsign at entrance to Kifaru Ark Nairobi Nationa Park, Kenya

My tour headed east from Nairobi, through Uganda to Rwanda to see eight of the 600 or so mountain gorillas alive in the wild, before retracing the roads back to Nairobi and starting the long journey south. We visited two of the world’s great wildlife reserves – Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve and Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, before I hopped off and the bus disappeared into the dust.

An overland journey can essentially be divided into three elements: transit, stopovers and sub-contracted activities. Some days consist of nothing more than travelling hundreds of kilometres, but, on African roads, they are never boring. Often a long transit day will be followed by staying in a destination for two or three nights. Over dinner at these places local tour operators try to sell their version of African adventure to the tour group, signing up as many as they can for activities from rafting to skydiving and volunteer work – painting a primary school in Uganda was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.

Chibiere village, Uganda

In other locations a local operator is called in to run the show for two or three days. This was the case on our tour for safari trips into the Serengeti and the Masai Mara, and for our trip to Rwanda. That can have distinct advantages, mainly local knowledge; the driver of our van for the game drives would occasionally slam on the brakes, disappear on to the roof and peer through a broken pair of binoculars at a distant speck before dropping back into his seat and starting the engine, muttering “hyena” or something similar. Those parks were straight out of an African wildlife documentary – seemingly endless plains studded with acacia trees and animals beyond counting.

The lions were my favourite. Up close the biggest of the big cats are simply awesome, especially when you see them in action – we were lucky enough to happen upon a pride on the hunt. The final death-throes of a large buffalo were a bit gruesome, but it was nature, red in tooth and claw – literally. Other regular sightings included elephants, giraffes, leopards, rhinos, hippos, cheetahs and huge herds of zebra, wildebeest and various forms of antelope.

Topi, Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

But leaving the truck sometimes had its dangers. In Rwanda our national park guide, who was supposed to be leading the way to the gorillas, disappeared over the horizon in his four-wheel drive, leaving us to flounder in a two-wheel drive van (known locally as a matutu, they carry everything from people to poultry). We pulled the van out of the mud twice before giving it up to the Rwandan rainforest and setting out on foot, relying on directions from local children as we wandered through local farms, wondering how long it would take anyone to notice if we never returned. We did eventually find our guide and, soon after, the gorillas; observing a six-month-old playing with his mother from about three metres away (while the guide made “soothing gorilla noises” and a 200kg silverback watched from jungle nearby) was something I will never forget.

Overland tours are not cheap. On top of the tour cost there is a large “local payment” that covers park entry fees and similar costs. And all of the optional activities have to be paid for separately. On the plus side the exchange rates in east Africa are extremely good – 1800 Ugandan shillings, for example, to $1US.

Vervet monkey grooms its young, Uganda

There is also some work involved. On our truck travellers were assigned a duty group, reminiscent of school camp days – each day we would tackle a task such as unpacking the truck, preparing meals or washing up. And everyone was expected to know how to put up their own tent every night.

We stayed most nights at specially built overland campsites, which usually consisted of somewhere to pitch tents and a bar, which sometimes included a computer with internet connection. In major game parks we camped in “open campsites” where we were advised to check for animal eye-shine with a torch before making a midnight toilet walk.

Every time something didn’t go quite right – the bus got bogged, we took a wrong turn, a rear-vision mirror was wiped out by an oncoming truck, or we briefly considered what it would be like to live the rest of our lives somewhere in the Rwandan countryside – the answer from the guides was always the same: this is overlanding; it’s all part of the adventure.

Rwanda countryside

And while we didn’t exactly trek into the deep, dark jungle with a blunderbuss, it really did feel like an adventure. An adventure with a group of friends and a couple of guys who knew their way around, which possibly removed some spontaneity but probably saved our lives (or at least a lot of money at border crossings). I will definitely miss it.

So if you are stuck in traffic and see someone tooting their horn maniacally, swerving between cars in a ute stuffed with animals, people and furniture or trying to sell you a cheap wallet, have some sympathy. It’s probably a travel-sick overlander.

Safari buses watch a lioness teach her cubs to hunt