11th to 16th August: Ruaha National Park, Tanzania
It’s 3 years since I was last here. Fortunately, nothing has changed, including the pricing! Ruaha is the biggest National Park in Tanzania; it’s vast at over 20,000 km sq., if you include the affiliated areas it’s over 40,000 sq. kms. It’s dominated by the Great Ruaha River and at this time of year, all the animals congregate at the water source.
There are a number of different biomes that make up Ruaha, it has beautiful tree lined river beds, open savannah, baobabs that dot the undulating landscape and it never feels busy. The scenery is stunning with mountains providing a magnificent backdrop to the open savannah. You can choose to drive into areas where you’re guaranteed to not see another vehicle or take the relatively busier but game guaranteed Ruaha River road.
Elephants are plentiful and are so gentle and relaxed. Even though it’s winter, it’s very hot in the day – mid 30’s C.
I’m staying at the Tourist Bandas, cheap and cheerful. I didn’t have much luck with my first two drives so I took out one of the workers who seems to have some inside knowledge and he led me to a mating pair of lions.
Ruaha is definitely one of my favourite reserves on the whole continent. It’s still very much an untrammelled wilderness , there are relatively few people, fabulous vistas and great variety of fauna and flora. I’m now starting to get the hang of the place and know the best places to find the action.
Although I never take anything for granted, Ruaha has a very healthy population of lion and once again, it didn’t fail to deliver on my expectations. I managed to see two separate lion hunts, one a success, the other a failure. The first was an impala; there were 7 lionesses with a well thought out strategy. Two of them flushed out a herd of impala, straight into the path of the other crouched lionesses; poor things didn’t stand a chance.
In contrast, I was sitting with two lionesses on the banks of the Musugasy river the one morning when opportunity struck in the shape of two zebras. I watched the lions stalk the zebras and follow them to the river bed. Then one of the lionesses made a hash of it by just running straight at the zebras, giving herself away unnecessarily and not giving the second lioness time to get in position. So much for stealth! It was interesting to see the two lionesses together after the botched hunt. They were still the best of friends as though nothing had happened. Imagine that if it were humans!
Interestingly, nobody appears to get out for early morning game drives in Ruaha; they seem to wake late and have breakfast before going out. Very odd, it’s no secret that most predators are active early evening / night and first thing in the morning. I’ve had my best sightings to myself at the crack of dawn with nobody else around. I must say that everyone is very friendly and the lodges and Guides all too ready to share sighting and offer advice.
I did get to see a leopard chased out of a tree (from afar) by a troop of baboons. The leopard had to retreat, he was so way outnumbered. It was all quite comical watching the squaring off and sabre rattling between them all.
The elephants here are very laid back and gentle, and they are quite plentiful, so too are the giraffe and there’s also a great variety of antelope too.
The Bandas are situated in a nice spot of the Ruaha River and from there I saw a lion on the opposite bank on a few occasions and just missed a croc take a small Dik Dik, right below camp.
On the third day, I started hearing unusual noises from the rear of the Landy. There is a Park garage and they are quite helpful, so I took it there. Another two shock absorbers were broken. That’s testimony to just how bad the road surfaces have been in Tanzania. I only had them fitted 11,000 km ago and they’ve broken already! Fortunately, the garage managed to salvage two old shocks from somewhere – good enough to get me to my next destination in Mbeya when I can get them replaced.
17th to 21st August: Mbeya Hotel, Mbeya, Tanzania
It’s a full day’s drive from Ruaha to Mbeya. Once again, the road was a nightmare for most of the journey. The main road between Iringa (close to Ruaha) and Mbeya is being rebuilt. The temporary access road is just awful – it was over 500kms of a bone-shaking ride. My poor Landy has been well battered! I decided to stay at the Mbeya Hotel for the night before proceeding to the border with Zambia. One night turned into four nights! I was befriended by a few of the ex-pat locals. Paul Metcalfe, in particular, was so very kind in tucking me under his wing and introducing me into his circle of friends (that will teach you, Paul!). A lovely warm and welcoming bunch that invited me out to a delicious Indian Street food gathering and even Kevin’s 18th birthday party on a Saturday night.
I hope to get to see you all again and thank you so much for making a stranger feel so welcome and part of the crowd; I was touched by your kindness and hospitality. I can’t remember everyone but a big thanks to Paul, Gary (I owe you a drink!) Lynn, Jasmine, Louis, William, Tristan, Kevin (and family!) Camelia (hope my views on the Almighty didn’t offend you 🙂 ) et al. You all added a sparkle to my long journey; something I was in desperate need of!
21st to 22nd August: Kings Highway Stopover, Zambia.
It was time to leave Mbeya. Paul came around to the hotel to say goodbye and I’ve vowed to return – sorry Paul! Louis helped me with a contact at the Border, which did help get me through without too much hassle. The Zambian side, with it’s 5 payable taxes, was as confusing as ever.
I was only about 2kms from my destination, Kings Highway when was held up by traffic police (yes again!). They searched the vehicle looking for something to fault. After no success, I was asked for all my documents, which I duly produced. When it came to Third Party Insurance the policemen took the document, threw it the floor and accused me of being in possession of a fraudulent document. For the uninitiated, even though I have fully comprehensive insurance that covers me right across sub Saharan and east Africa, it’s still mandatory to purchase third party insurance when travelling through these countries. I recall a long, long time ago, a very wise old man said to me……”Charles, if you want to be happy in Africa, don’t ask why!” as I said, very wise man! Anyway, I purchased COMESA third party insurance for 6 months when crossing the border from Malawi to Tanzania, way back in March. Now, these Zambian traffic police were alleging that what I bought was fake. It had a seal and looked the part but they assured me they had been on a course and went about describing how they could tell is was fake. Each certificate has a red serial number on it. They said in my case, the red serial number was not embossed and didn’t show through on the other side?! What?? You serious. Then, the Superintendent wet his finger to remove a red dot that sits on the left-hand side, the bottom of the certificate. He said, if it’s real the red dot will come back, if not it’s a fake. Although it did not come back straight away, it was there the next morning! The more junior police officer came over and said…… “I feel really sorry for you, we’re going to have to arrest you” ……….I asked for what…… “for being in possession of a fraudulent document, ignorance is no defence” ……….. “I’m the innocent victim of fraud, you can’t hold me responsible” and anyway, I went on to say, please don’t feel sorry for me, feel sorry for these poor people (pointing at the dishevelled locals). He shrugged that off and continued with his diatribe. In the end, I just said…..”OK guys, you gotta do what you gotta do but as you’re about to arrest me, I insist that I call the British Embassy and seek out a proper defence.” It all went quiet and then they just let me go. It would seem that they were corrupt cops, hoping I’d offer a bribe rather than be arrested. Subsequently, I showed the 3rd party insurance on a number of occasions and nobody else questioned it.
22nd to 23rd August: Eureka Campsite, Lusaka, Zambia.
The next day I decided to get all the way to Lusaka. It was a 13-hour drive but the Great North Road, apart from a few potholes in the early stages, was in good nick and the roads were virtually empty. I arrived late, had a quick bite and straight to bed.
I was up early to get the shopping done for my next destination – Lower Zambezi Nat. Park. No sooner had I finished the shopping and was on my way out of Lusaka than I was pulled over for speeding – 64kmph in a 60kmph zone – USD $30.00, thank you!
23rd to 29th August: Mvuu Lodge, Lower Zambezi, Zambia
The drive to Mvuu was about 6 hours. Mvuu is a lovely spot on the banks of the Zambezi. I was camping here and the facilities were very good, my own ablutions and kitchen. They even brought firewood and lit a fire for me every night. it was here that I met Shaun and Kathy and Craig and Katie from Zimbabwe. We got on famously and they were ever so kind and generous in inviting me over for some storytelling and a few beers and G&T’s.
Shaun has been a farmer in Zim and what he has endured is incredible. Three times he’s had his farms and his life’s work removed from him, being the victim of farm invasions. And each time he’s found the will and strength to come bouncing back. The resilience and character of these people is truly remarkable. There’s a line in Kipling’s “If” that sums it up……”If you can watch the things you gave your life to broken, And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools”. Neither is there any hint of resentment, bitterness or anger. In fact, he only speaks in the highest regard of the people of Zimbabwe and the country as a whole. Amazing attitude.
It was nice to be back on one of Africa’s most beautiful and famous rivers – well it does spawn the magnificent Victoria Falls. On the second afternoon, I went out for a sunset cruise, visiting the hippos and the odd croc, plus lots of elephant on the banks of the Zambezi.
Next day I went to the Lower Zambezi Nat. Park for the day. When I arrived at the gate, there was an official called Moffat who took my money but had no change. Jokingly, I said……… “OK, you can keep the change, just show me where the big cats are!” He said, “Oh, the lions killed a buffalo in the riverbed yesterday, I’ll send you out with one of my men who knows where they are”. Sure enough, there they were!
I made my way along the banks of the Zambezi, amongst all the game and headed for an area known as “hippo city”. It’s very green and lush and full of enormous and beautifully clean hippo pools. It was there that I noticed a lodge vehicle waving me over. I went to say hello and met Gwen and Buddy from Oklahoma. Gwen has been visiting the Lower Zambezi every year for a long time and they told me I’d just driven straight past two pairs of lions. They took me over to where I’d been driving and there they were; all sprawled out on a lush green carpet. Thanks you two, very nice sighting!
29th to 30th August: Makuti Lodge, Near Mana Pools
My next destination was Mana Pools, the other side of the Zambezi River, in Zimbabwe.
I had been having some small issues with the Landy. The TC and ABS light were coming on constantly. I thought it was probably one of the sensors playing up; nothing too serious.
I made my booking for Mana Pools at the office and was taking the horrendously rutted road into the park when the amber engine glowed. I stopped and restarted on three occasions but the light returned. I was not taking a chance, I had another 70kms of really badly corrugated road to get through before arriving at Mana Pools and simply couldn’t afford to be broken down in such a remote location. Now, before you Toyota geeks have an orgasm about the prospect of a Land Rover breakdown, relax, it turned out to be only a loose battery terminal! Although at the time I had simply no idea. So, no Mana Pools, unfortunately. I didn’t feel too bad as I’d spent 6 days on the other side and they are quite similar.
I stopped at a small lodge, just up the road, Makuti Lodge before making my way to Harare to get the Landy fixed up the following day. I stayed in the same room we had stayed in a whole three years ago. There was the same notice on the table about “renovations” that was there three years ago. Nothing rushed in Africa hey!
30th August to 1st Sept: Borrowdale Suburbs, Harare.
I called Shaun to confirm my plans. He and Kathy kindly put me up and played marvellous hosts for two days whilst the car was being sorted out at a contact that Shaun had. As mentioned earlier, it was only a loose battery terminal in any case. Shaun introduced me to Andre and Tanya of Zimtow. They are Land Rover specialists in Harare and have a great workshop with all the latest gear. Andre is a real Guru on Landies, a true expert and he gave my vehicle a full medical examination and applied a couple of small fixes before setting me on my way. I will be making them my centre of excellence in the region going forward, they come very highly recommended. Just wish I had someone like that in SA!!
En route to Harare, I passed through numerous roadblocks. One such was not occupied. There were two police on the side of the road, they were just walking. About 5 kms further on there was a toll booth. Three police with rifles approached me to tell me I’d failed to comply with a police officer’s order. What?! You’re having a larf?! No they’re not, go back 5 kms and speak with the offended police officer. When I arrived back I was given the BS act of how I’d broken the law and ignored his sign to stop. I was forced to sign an admission of guilt and handover USD $20.00.
Shaun and Kath have a beautiful home in Harare in a very nice suburb and it was such a delight to have soft white sheets to sleep in and my own en suite bathroom – forgotten what that was like! I was pleasantly surprised at how nice and civilised Harare is, a far cry from many of the African cities that we have visited on the trip.
They invited a bunch of friends around on the second evening and I put together a slide show of our trip to date for them – poor people having to endure that! But they were most polite and seemed to find it quite intriguing! Hey folks, thanks for all your hospitality and charitable efforts in taking a waif in off the streets and helping him on his way! Next one is on me!!
1st Sept. to 7th Sept: Gonarezhou National Park, Zimbabwe.
With Mana Pools behind me, 5 hours the north, I decided to visit Gonarezhous; somewhere I have never been before. It’s a true wilderness experience and a great place to be with nature, far from the madding crowds.
It’s now on the up with poaching coming under control, roads and facilities being upgraded and the game becoming less skittish. There is a great diversity of fauna in G’zhou, I saw elephant, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, eland, sable, impala, kudu, nyala, jackal, hyena, buffalo, duiker, klipspringer and others I have simply forgotten. Sadly the only predator I saw was jackal, although there are 12 packs of wild dog and plenty of lions around – they just hid from me! The game is still shy and skittish but, according to what I was told, becoming less so. There are few people in G’zhou and I had “directors campsites” all to myself. They were very remote and isolated. I stayed in Hlaro (close to Chilojo Cliffs) and Chamulavati. Chamaluvati was my fave. It’s right on the banks of the Runde River and the area felt exactly like the Lower Zambezi, same vegetation, trees, palms etc. There is also the Machinwa Pan very close by, probably the best place in the whole park to view game.
The highlight of Gonarezhou is the Chilojo Cliffs. They really are spectacular and the best time to photograph them is around 5.15 pm, when the sun is going down and they are glowing every different shade of red. You can see them in the pics.
I had a few interesting encounters with elephant during my stay. The first night, I had just arrived at Chipinda Pools and was quite dirty and dusty. I was making my way to the ablution block when I heard something behind me. I turned around to find a young male elephant bull, right on my heels, well about 20ft away. He seemed relaxed but I ducked out of the way, who wouldn’t ?? That night I had a team of elephant bulls breaking branches with an almighty crack at all hours of the morning. They were really close, too close and I wasn’t taking any chances and made an escape to the dining rondavel.
The following day, after moving to Hlaro campsite, I open up the tent to find a lovely surprise – a nice juicy thick-tailed scorpion, clinging to the inside of the tent! It was a parabuthus – the deadliest type. The very sight of them turns my stomach, and I’d been sleeping all night with that thing alongside me. Another good selling point for camp beds!
One afternoon I was making my way to the viewpoint to photo the Chilojo Cliffs when I spotted a herd of elephant some 300-400m ahead. Knowing how nervous and skittish they are I stopped the car to allow them cross before proceeding. Before I knew it, she was right on top of me. From nowhere a raging 4 tonne Matriarch was charging me at full speed. She came from an angle of 45 degrees forward and to the right. I now have this abiding image of the elephant charging straight for me etched in my memory, clearer than any photograph I’ve ever taken. I actually thought…… “this is it! She ain’t stopping”. To provide some perspective here, I know a bit about elephant behaviour and have been charged on a number of occasions. But nothing like this. I know what the shake of the head means, the turning sideways, and I always check the status of the tail. A tail at 180 degrees means serious stress. There was no time for any of that, as I said she was on top of me, screaming and bellowing, ears flared, breasts flailing, tusks (they were big) pointed straight at me and dust flying everywhere. She pulled up no more than 10ft from me, there was dust for Africa, it was as though the dust and air all around me were filled with her rage.
It was terrifying but at the same time, I was transfixed and in awe of the sheer might, power and force of this raging giant. Even in all of this, I found a shred of humour. She had a small baby by her side that was imitating mummy. If the youngster had been on its own it would have been hysterical – but she wasn’t. Now the elephant started to kick up dust, I guess she was readying for another, possibly fatal charge. I managed to keep my cool and was conscious of the fact that if there is one thing in the world I’m crap at – it’s reversing! In a fraction of a second, I decided I was not going to reverse out at full tilt, I’d only lose control. So…..I reversed at a steady pace, hoping that that would be enough for the elephant to back off. She didn’t back off, she chased me for another 300 metres at least. But she wasn’t gaining on me, I had the feeling she was pacing me, seeing me off, well out of the way. Eventually, she gave up the chase and went back to the herd, still trumpeting and bellowing away.
And that, dear friends, is the one bush incident I will never ever forget. The scariest moment ever and a very serious sphincter test!
The rest of my time a Gonarezhous was quiet and……….safe!
7th Sept. to 8th Sept: CopaCopa, Kruger National Park
Time to leave Zim and head home! It’s 5-hour drive but I needed to stop and get a fix made to the Landy. One of the Wheel lock nuts had broken from all the crazy roads and had led to the wheel bearing becoming worn. I stopped at Chiredzi Croco motors to get it fixed. Fortunately, I had a spare set of wheel bearings I was carrying with me. Just as well as there are no spares outside of Harare. On reaching the border at Beit Bridge (notorious for delays and poor service) everything went swimmingly well and I was almost through all the formalities within 30 mins. There has to be a gotcha hey??! Yes……….. “where is your South Africa Police Clearance Certificate for the car?” ……… “ Why do I need that in Zimbabwe, especially as I’m leaving – not entering?”. They made it clear they wanted a bribe or I’d be there for a very long time sorting this out. The official said “You’re a big man, think of a way to settle this”………….as much as it goes against the grain, I said “OK, will $10.00 work?” He wanted $20.00 but we settled on $10.00 and I was back in South Africa.
I stopped the night at CopaCopa, just outside Punda Maria gate.
8th to 12th September: Kruger National Park
I just had to make the Kruger the one last stop on the trip. Bang for the buck, it’s still the best value game reserve in Africa – bar none and served as my introduction to wild Africa, all those years ago. So I’m staying at Shingwedzi Camp and Letaba for two nights each. I just couldn’t bring myself to set up camp again and have taken cottages with en suite…………at a fraction of the cost I’ve paid to camp in most of Africa’s other National Parks. I’m really impressed with the improved standards in the KNP, everything from the chalets to the roads are in the best condition I’ve experienced in 35 years of coming to this park. “They” are doing a fine job and IMHO being the best custodians the park has ever had. I now feel treated as a customer and not as an intruder, as I did in the old days!
And it’s good to be back in South Africa. I’m looking forward to catching up with all my friends and, of course, enjoying again some of the creature comforts and first world luxuries that SA has to offer. Not to mention that I haven’t been stopped at a roadblock just yet 🙂 !
But also, I’m tinged with a little sadness to be leaving behind the feeling of being a part of and woven into the fabric of “my Africa” on the road. Let me explain……… I remember taking business clients to a big football game in Euro ’08. We sat in a Corporate box, behind a glass screen, being lashed up and watered and fed in decadent style. However, I felt out of it, I just wanted to be out there in the crowd, feeling the passion, tension, emotion and atmosphere. And whilst I was there watching, like everyone else, I didn’t feel part of it. And that’s a little bit how I feel about my connection with Africa in SA; in comparison, I feel a little removed. It will be shopping at the supermarket and the Mall now and not picking up bananas off the road, that kind of thing. On the road I was this intriguing, strange “Muzungu”, I guess. Quite a novelty to all the locals that touched us along the way and the subject of much attention. Not so anymore, I’ve lost my cult status 🙂 !!
And so it is. The Final Act is over and the Curtain is about to fall for the very last time on our epic journey. This is my last entry in this “Blog”. For me it’s rather been “Dear Diary”, for that’s actually what it is, a record of 6 months adventure in Africa, the ups and downs, the laughs, the frustration, the vibrancy, the chaos, the colour, the excitement, the unpredictable and sometimes the downright scary! But never, ever the dull! It’s been a magical experience, humbling in many ways, and much of what I’ve seen and done has touched me deeply. And I hope it’s changed me a little for the better in some small way.
It’s been 6 months and 8 days on the road. We’ve travelled over 22,000 kms, over 550 hours of driving, visited 10 countries, over twenty National Parks / Game Reserves and taken over 6000 photographs. But what counts the most is the bucket load of memories that we will cherish forever.
All it leaves is to say Thank You. Thanks to all of you lot, who took the time to read about our “Safari Njema”. We’re well aware that most of you have busy lives and your comments and support have been a constant source of encouragement along the way. Special thanks to my two good friends, Carlo Godridge and The Ank, the former for being in charge of the “control centre”, keeping track of our daily movements via satellite, the latter for the numerous phone calls we received in the back of beyond. It was great to hear a friendly voice from home.
To my trusty Land Rover, that was subjected to the most hideous abuse on the worst roads imaginable but never let us down – I got to know you well on this trip. The bond deepens!
To the waving, cheering and smiley people of Africa, with their effervescent attitude, who continue to laugh and smile in the face of adversity. I hope that one day all your dreams and aspirations come true.
To those who work tirelessly for little or no reward, to conserve, protect and preserve the wonders of Mother Africa’s nature. As I write, the helicopters are flying overhead, searching for poachers. It breaks my heart. Never give up, we can win this battle!
And of course, the stars of the show, the truly awesome wildlife that is the very heartbeat of Africa. I pray the miracle that is you will entertain, excite and inspire folk, the way it has with us, for many generations to come.
I thought, dreamed and planned this trip for many years, to see and experience the wonders of Africa and made that a priority in my life. It was something I worked toward and have made sacrifices for. It is often the case in life, that reality never quite matches our dreams and expectations. Nothing could be further from the truth in this case. It’s been an honour and a privilege to have been a moving part in my very own African Neverland! You can find it too ……. “Second star to the right, straight on till morning.” Simply Unforgettable.