Rob and Dee Overland in Africa 2014 – 10,000 miles – 4 months – 10 countries

Zambia

We realize that there are many folks out there reading our blog to assist them in planning their own trips- with that in mind I have prepared a series of posts with the type of nitty-gritty detail that will help others intent on their own adventures. I have placed this series under the pre departure or preperation tab on our website.

Driving in Southern Africa

First off I have to say that doing our own self-drive safari was fantastic. In one or two places we did commercial safari drives like 95% of the foreign tourists do and there is no comparison to the type of experience you have. Self-drive was for us a far better experience. A good guide will likely spot the game from farther away and will undoubtedly see one or two things you miss, but you will see plenty on your own and the experience of sitting 15 feet from a lion with no one else around is awesome.   If you are serious about taking pictures as I was, being able to stop EXACTLY where you can frame your shot properly makes all the difference between snapshots and quality photographs.

Best advice- don’t plan on driving too far each day. 350 -500 kilometers a day on average is great. And as you will read everywhere- NEVER DRIVE AT NIGHT IN AFRICA.   There are black people in dark clothes walking everywhere all the time. DON’T DRIVE AT NIGHT.

The actual speed you drive will be dependent on several things- mostly how good your eyesight is and how tall you are- REALLY. On many roads there are potholes that will destroy your vehicle – I found that given my mediocre eyesight and short stature if I went no faster than 100 kph I could see a pothole ahead and swerve or slam on the brakes fast enough to avoid destroying my front end. You also need nerves of steel, and good spatial judgment.

Many of the roads are barely wide enough for two trucks to pass each other and there is no shoulder at all. A typical driving moment will be looking ahead and seeing a truck doing 120 kph coming at you slightly in your lane, a bicycle going your way at 15 kph and two ladies just ahead walking with water jugs on their head. You have about a millisecond to determine whether you can swerve around the ladies walking, then cut back into your lane before the huge pothole ahead, then decide if you need to speed up or slow down to not pass the truck at the same spot in the road where you will encounter the bicycle.

In many countries you may pass 20 or 30 people walking per kilometer and not see another vehicle for half an hour. Potholes will always keep you on your toes. Even if you have not seen another vehicle for half an hour it is critical to continually check your rear view mirror. On one lonely road where I had not seen a car for 45 minutes I started to swerve into the other lane to avoid a pothole and at that exact moment another car that I had not noticed was starting to pass me. We nearly collided- and it would have been my fault.

In Tanzania the roads are really atrocious. The asphalt is sometimes only three inches thick and the trucks are so overloaded that they sink into the asphalt. On the hills they sink in the worst and the road from Tunduma to Dar es Salam is so bad that your tires are riding in deep grooves like mini toboggan runs. The ridge between the two grooves may be six inches higher so changing lanes or diving off the road when the oncoming buses take your lane is very hazardous.

Breakdowns and wrecks are everywhere. It is not uncommon to see a truck broken down on the road with the crew camped out for days awaiting parts or alternatively seeing them rebuilding entire engines or transmissions right on the road where it died. On our last day in Tanzania we counted 10 wrecked semi tractor-trailers. Ten, in one 200-kilometer stretch of road! These were entire trucks tipped over on their sides or rolled completely onto their backs and looking like a dog with its paws in the air. One was still smoking as we passed it, another had a load of clothes and there were dozens of people gathering up clothes and trying them on right on the road. Another had come down a hill and at the bottom of the hill was a huge pot hole across two thirds of the road. Just past the pothole was a curve and the truck either swerved to miss the pothole or hit the pothole and lost control and rolled completely over as he hit the curve.

Despite the carnage you will see everywhere, in general African drivers are quite good. Specifically they are good at judging clearance on their narrow roads. In the US if two drivers approach each other on a narrow road both usually slow down, but in Africa they will often pass within inches at 120 kph never letting their foot off the gas. In cities they may follow another car separated by only a foot or two.

African drivers in many countries are blessed with X-ray vision. This is clear from the fact that they will often pass on a completely blind curve. You see this more often in Tanzania and other Muslim countries where they believe in “inshalla” or the concept of “God (Allah) willing”.   If it is your day to die you die and if it is not your day to die you don’t die- it is up to Allah, not you, so passing or not passing on a curve has little to do with it.

In Africa you will usually see the bicyclists leap off of their bikes and dive off of the road as soon as they hear you coming- I always thought this strange – did they think I would run them over if they did not get completely off the road? The answer is YES. In Africa size equals right of way. The trucks and busses would definitely not swerve, slow down, brake or take any other evasive action- it is incumbent on the bicyclist to get out of the way. This is nowhere more evident than in Tanzania.

In our first few hours in Tanzania I was run completely off the road three times. Usually you will see a truck coming your way and then a bus will pull out from behind the truck. The bus will see you and flash his lights- this is a signal that he is taking your lane and you better get out of the way. They think this is nothing unusual. The bus is bigger and he now owns your lane. All three times this happened to us on our first day I was forced to slam on my brakes and dive off of the road into the ditch. As the roadbeds are usually raised with no shoulder this meant driving off about a one foot drop into the ditch and getting completely off the pavement- the alternative was a head on collision with a bus doing 100 kph. I do not use the term “run off the road” in a figurative sense- if you do not exit the pavement you will likely be killed. In one of these instances I had to use four-wheel drive to get back onto the road.

In almost every country there are a number of hand signals that you will see and you might want to ask local drivers what they mean.

One common signal is that as you come up on a car or truck in-front of you moving slowly he will signal with his left turn signal. In Tanzania and Zambia this means you are clear to pass, him and there is no traffic ahead. Unfortunately, in So. Africa they use the right turn signal to mean the same thing- this is confusing as if a truck were planning on a right turn to a side road he would also use his right signal- in which case that means don’t pass. I found it best to only pass when I personally could see ahead rather than trust the trucks signal.

One signal I never did figure out was often when approaching a vehicle of a similar size going the opposite direction they would put on their left turn signal. As if to say I may be taking part of your lane so move over. I think the first one to signal has the right of way- but about this one I am unsure.

A few other tips:

Speed bumps are everywhere and often unpainted. They are large enough to wreck your front end. Make sure you get in the habit of looking for the signs indicating speed bumps or rumble strips and slow down well in advance. Many places have two sets of rumble strips that will jar your teeth loose if you go over them too fast, then these are followed by serious speed bumps, then you go through town slowly and at the other end of the town you may encounter two more speed bumps and two more sets of rumble strips.

In many countries you are required to carry small red triangles to put in the road if you are broken down to warn drivers coming towards you to slow down. You may also be required to have yellow traffic vests to wear if you are stopped on the side of the road. Other items are fire extinguishers, yellow triangle decals on your bonnet (hood) and tailgate or boot (trunk).

In Zimbabwe there are police checkpoints every 30 or 50 kilometers. They may ask to see your driver’s license or check your brake lights, triangles, vests, fire extinguishers, etc.

If you see a bunch of recently cut tree branches on the edge of the road this is a signal that a truck is broken down ahead of you and you had better slow down.

Speed Traps

Speed traps are very common – especially in Tanzania where you may see one every 50 kilometers or more especially on the road from Tunduma to Iringa.   As you approach a speed trap the drivers going the opposite direction will likely be flashing their lights at you to catch your attention, this may be followed by a hand signal with a downward motion signaling you to slow down, or some of them may extend their arm out the window and rub their thumb and forefinger together indicating cops wanting money.

If you are not VERY careful you could spend a fortune getting nailed at a dozen speed traps in a single day.

Here are a few suggestions:

If you are entering a town and the trucks which normally go like a bat out of hell are suddenly going slowly – DO NOT PASS THEM- there is a speed trap just ahead.

If a combi (mini-bus) driver signals you with flashing lights or the hand signals mentioned above- just slow down and be patient. If you slow to 30 kph for five or six kilometers just about the time you get really impatient and speed up again is where the speed trap will be.

The speed traps are just that – traps. None are on the open highway as in the US, they are all where the speed drops from 100 or 120 kph to 30 or 40 kph for a village or planned village or something similar. In a day of driving you may hit 50 villages where the speed drops from 120 to 30 kph, but it is the village where the 30 kph sign is barely visible behind a tree that the cops use for the speed trap. If you see the 30 or 40 kph sign it will not be enough to remove your foot from the gas and coast yourself down to 40 – by then you will be past the sign. Rather you will need to brake very aggressively to get down to 40 by the time you reach the sign.

You may need to crawl along at 30 or 40 kph for a long time and even when you get back into open country, wait until you see the end 30 kph sign before resuming your normal speed. The end 30 sign is a 30 with a slant line through it. If you slow down in time and drive slowly for the length of the spread out village and then get back into open country and think, “OK I can now speed up there is nothing around me”- don’t speed up yet. There is likely a speed trap just around the bend—wait until you see the end 30 sign.

Despite these warnings you will likely get stopped. The police honcho will be sitting on his ass in a chair under a tree with a radar gun and his underling will walk into the road , stand on the center line and flag you down.   Arguing will get you nowhere, their only purpose is to collect money. We heard that some of the police buy their own radar guns and receipt books. They always offer you a receipt so I think this is probably true. I was stopped a number of times and at first I paid the fines which ranged from $10- $35. Finally I got tired of it. I honestly don’t know if I was guilty of speeding or not but I decided I was not paying any more, especially when I saw locals or combi or truck drivers going faster than I was pass on by. After that I pulled over where indicated. When the cop approached my window I simply told them I was not paying and drove away. The first time I did I had been stopped by a woman police officer who told me I was still doing 100 kph when I passed the 30 kph sign. The fine would be over $130 US. I told her I was not paying it and to have a nice day. I had no idea what to expect as I drove away- would she be drawing a pistol and steadying her two handed grip to blow out my tires? Was she sprinting to her car to give chase or radioing ahead for a roadblock? What I saw was comical- I watched as her mouth dropped open and her shoulders slumped forwards in disappointment. She was crushed. I’m sure she already had a new dress picked out with the fee she was going to charge me.

After that I did the same thing several times. At one place by a dam I was stopped by a military guy who struggled to invent an infraction of which I was guilty. After he came up with an imaginary breach of the law, I told him it was Saturday and I never paid bribes on Saturday, then I walked back to my truck and drove away.

Later I heard a number of clever methods other overland drivers had used to avoid being taken.

In Mozambique bribes are a way of life, but in other countries they are trying to crack down on them and gently threatening the cops that you are going to report them sometimes makes them back off.

One guy had his wife start crying and the cop got so worried he let them go. Another started stuttering and mumbling in his foreign language and was let go.

Spells and curses are still a big part of Africa-less so with educated people like cops but still a part of life.   One guy kept pointing his finger at the cops and muttering incantations in his native language while he rolled his eyes in his head- the cop beat a hasty retreat.

Someone suggested making a bunch of fake copies of US $20 bills and telling the cops you can only pay them in US dollars then giving them the counterfeit money. Pretty funny but don’t make them good enough that the US treasury would think you were really trying to counterfeit.

The best one we heard was a guy who had an official looking form that he said was from his home country and his country REQUIRED him to report any violations he got overseas. The form had to be signed by the African officer and a picture taken. Needless to say none of the local cops were willing to sign his form and all of them thought a warning would be sufficient.

Have fun.

Rob

 


Zambia – a favorite. Friendly, helpful, open folks so well demonstrated by the large amount of “how can I help?” we received from everyone passing by in cars, on bikes or on foot when we had our truck breakdown on the rutted dirt road to Kapishya. Wide diversity from wilderness of north Luangwa to first world Livingstone near Victoria Falls. I especially liked our two day drive leaving Buffalo Camp in North Luangwa National Park on to Mfuwe the entrance town for South Luangwa NP. We were on the road – dirt tracks – for at least six hours each day and only saw two other vehicles until we got to the tarred road outside Mufwe. Good encounters with locals along the way. Gave a lift to a guide going to his village for his days off. This was at the pontoon boat where we loaded the truck onto boards over floating oil cans and the strong operator pulled us across using a claw fashioned out of a tree root on the wire stretched across the river. Glad we had local knowledge since this was the one place we had trouble getting any info about possible passage. The guide was so pleased his mother could send a message ahead to the potential camp site and park gate operator that we were on our way. This out there telegraph system (infrequent cell phone service) twas back up for rescue in case we failed to show up. Stopped at one of the larger villages when the woman operating the pump caught our eyes. She was dressed in robin’s egg blue wrap skirt, green shirt and yellow head wrap and had an authoritative air about her. We found out she was the elected pump supervisor, an important village position. Kids were excited and when I suggested a song they treated me to “How I learned my ABCs” in another language! We shared some colored pens and then Rob brought out a soccer ball which was a big hit! Not many pass by and very few stop here. Along the way on the second day we started to see some bicyclists. One guy told us it was a three day ride to Mfuwe and he had only a spare jacket and woven straw mat tied on his bike. He gladly accepted a bottle of water and some crackers. Scenery was great – close woods, deep sands and occasional wild life. And that was just two days on the road between game viewing in national parks. Livingstone was a jump to first world. Lots of traffic, stores, etc. I liked my visit to the museum which had good coverage of the explorer/missionary David Livingstone and an in depth review of the politics(political shenanigans) of the country since independence in the 1950s. So much of Africa struggled with throwing off colonialism only to contend with tribal rivalries and vast corruption under their own rule. Experiencing Victoria Falls was a treat. Being there, walking along the wet path on the point of land parallel to the powerful falls must be experienced. Pictures give you just a small introduction to the majesty of it all. And then rafting on the Zambezi where the hike down to the river was an adventure in itself. It was over 1000 steps down a steep incline which had a ladder of sorts built out of tree branches. I took careful steps in my hiking boots sometimes getting an assist from Richard a local scampering down the side tree supports in bare feet! Those are just a few insights into this great adventure we are having. Travel on! Sent from my iPad


Had and awesome time rafting the Zambezi river just below Victoria Falls.Victoria Falls   Rafting the Zambezi The falls are awesome- about a mile wide over the falls then going into a twisting canyon about the size of Glenwood Canyon on the Colorado River.  Glenwood gets about 20,000 cfs max max and the Zambezi must be in the hundreds of thousands of CFS.  (I intend to find the exact stats soon and post them. After seeing the falls and going rafting I took a helicopter flight over the falls- those pictures soon.

Victoria Falla aerial 1

Rob PS sorry for the lousy formatting A few more recent pics- stories to follow:

 

Rob


A whole series of interesting events have transpired lately. Serendipity, luck, coincidence, who knows?

On our way into Serengeti we had briefly met a wonderful So. African couple, Mike and Hester, who we later ran into a second time at a campground in southern Tanzania. We enjoyed each other’s company so much we made a plan to meet a week later in So. Luangwa game Park, but a delay for our broken front wheel caused us to miss them.

When we did arrive in So. Luangwa Game Park we meandered around looking for leopard and lion and passed a number of other vehicles doing the same without bothering to stop and chat. Late in the afternoon, and for no particular reason we did stop to talk to another couple in a Land Cruiser- I have no idea why we stopped to speak with only this one car out of the dozens we passed, but we did. It turned out they were also from So. Africa and were friends of our Mike and Hester whom we had just missed. We later had drinks and a wonderful evening with them, learning about their lives and experiences in unpredictable Africa.

Two days later when we went to leave a campground in Chipata, Zambia the campground owner asked us if we could deliver her daughter’s passport to her in Lusaka where we were headed next.   We agreed of course. Unfortunately the road as so many here was badly potholed and one particular bounce broke a bracket on our roof rack holding our spare diesel jugs and spare tire.   After that I drove very carefully the rest of the day to keep the rack from bouncing against the truck’s roof.

Along the way we passed a westerner on a heavily loaded road bike. I passed him then stopped and got out of the truck waiting for him to come abreast of us. When he stopped we offered him, food water or any tools or help he might need, all of which he turned down. He was from Switzerland riding the length of Africa- a very formidable task. I finally offered him a giant chocolate bar I had and he shrugged but grinned hugely when I shoved it into his hands.   His home, Switzerland is known for some of the best chocolate in the world and, I apologized for handing a Swiss person a bar of Cadbury but he laughed and said it is energy and calories make the bike wheels turn.

We wished each other well and went our separate ways. A few hours later Dee and I rendezvoused with the daughter awaiting her passport. As a thank- you she handed us a giant bar of fine Lindt Swiss chocolate.   Our two minor good deeds had resulted in swapping cheap Cadbury chocolate for fine Swiss chocolate.

After the passport delivery we continued on to the campground where I was hoping I could find a mechanic or welder who might be able to fabricate some kind of bracket to strengthen our roof rack. The piece that had broken was specially made to go into the roof of our Toyota truck and as it was 4 pm on Saturday afternoon finding the correct spare would be impossible.

As I was pondering the broken bracket I remembered an incident that had taken place when we purchased the truck.   Behind the broken roof rack is a separate rack that holds our roof top tent and I had pointed out to the truck outfitters the tent brackets were very rusted. They went in search of brackets and came back with a set of new brackets in a box but upon inspection they were not the tent brackets I needed. The guy helping us just threw the box into the truck and said, “Well, maybe you can use these for something”.

When Dee and I sailed around the world I carried enough spare parts to just about build a second boat, but since I knew we were going to only own the truck for four months I did not want to invest in spares. Dee was quite shocked when the only spares I brought with us were an oil filter and a diesel fuel filter. In addition to the filters literally the only other spare parts were the box of “incorrect” brackets. I did not really remember what the brackets we had were, but I decided now to open the box and see if there was some way we could use them to our advantage.

To my surprise they were the exact “2011 Toyota Hilux truck roof rack brackets” we needed.   In no time at all I had the entire rack repaired with the exact bracket designed for it.

So of all the hundreds or thousands of nuts and bolts and specialized pieces of a truck what are the odds that the one single spare item we carried was the one that broke?

 

Rob

 

 

 

 


I’m sitting on the bank of the Luangwa river. The sun has just set, painting the sky an ostentatious orange – reminiscent of Doug West’s paintings of an Arizona sunset. In front of me there are at least 50 hippos bellowing and snorting and getting ready to leave the water where they spend their entire day, for the bank where they pass their nights grazing on plants.   I’ve just watched the first star come out after a long day of driving in a remote corner of Africa. Six hours on a 4 wheel drive road, many river crossing and we have not seen any other tourists in 3 or 4 days- in fact only one vehicle in days of driving.

The African sky is an interesting one, often framed by Mopani or flat topped acacia trees near camp. Last night I looked at the Southern Cross hovering over our campfire on a different river and mulled how despite its peacefulness, the southern sky always seems alien to me.

I’m actually mystified by this.

Even though I lived in the Southern Hemisphere for over 4 years and spent hundreds of nights at sea on my boat looking up at the Southern Cross and others in the southern sky I never feel quite right seeing the southern constellations.

I’m not an astronomy buff. Despite the fact that I have spent thousand of nights camped out under the stars in Colorado or Utah, or on my boat in the northern hemisphere, I can still identify only a few constellations or planets- really just the big dipper, the north star and Orion. I admit I’ve done lots of drugs but never quite enough to make the Scorpio scorpion out of a few bright spots in the night sky.

And yet, even though I cannot recognize most of our northern hemisphere constellations somehow by spending so many night in a sleeping bag looking up at them, they have entered my sub conscious. Maybe they are a part of my DNA. I’ve been happy and at home in Australia and Africa but still when lying in a sleeping bag and gazing a the night sky it never feels quite right unless I can place the dipper and follow it’s two leading stars to Polaris- our north star and my guiding light.

In the 1800’s Cowboys herding cattle north from Texas to the railhead at Cheyenne, Wyoming alternated turns on their night watches by watching the big dipper rotate around Polaris.  And much as am loving both Africa and traveling, I won’t be home until I too can watch the Big Dipper do its night dance around the North Star.

Rob


Well the internet died after I typed a page story about this experience. Here are a few photos – I’ll rewrite the post later.