. . . LAND ROVER OVERLAND EXPEDITION

. . . AFRICA 1999
     
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Africa 1999
 

The Team

Journals
1. The Start
2. Southern Arrival
3. Cape Town Comfort
4. Namibian Sand
5. Africa Wins Again
6. Into the Margin
7. Kwaheri Kilimanjaro
8. Ugandan Abandon
9. A Turn into War
10. To Congo and the Worst Road in Africa
11. Mozambique Madness
12. Malawi to Zambia
13. Revisiting the South

Around-the-World 2001/02
Panamerican 2003
Various Trips
Planning an Expedition

 

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Midnight Checkpoints
8 June, 1999  (1,960 km)
(Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe)

We’d driven over 1100km in one day and were only fifty kilometres out of Lusaka, cruising, almost midnight.  Suddenly, BANG, the windshield shattered. Uncomprehendingly I saw a little hole in the windshield, right in front of Tim. We’d been shot!?… No, there was the rock nestled on the left windshield washer. Two guys had heaved a 2” rock into the windshield as we sped past. If it had been any larger it would certainly have gone through and wounded or killed.

Tim and Amy Mechem stepped off the Airbus into Malawi’s humid chaos on May 31st ready for an adventure, but unaware of just how much excitement and danger was in store for them.  After several weeks of rough travel I was the first shocking sight - and over the next few days they absorbed a new world.  The adjustment could have been much harder though, for Malawi is one of the gems of Africa.  A tiny country with a population of 10 million, it is renowned for its beauty and its people. 

The Warm Heart of Africa
“The tourist brochures bill Malawi as ‘the warm heart of Africa’ and the hype is true; Malawi’s scenery is beautiful and Malawians really do seem to be among the friendliest people you could meet anywhere.  For most visitors, the country’s main attraction is Lake Malawi, stretching some 500 km along the eastern border.  The high profile Liwonde National Park is at the southern end of the lake, and there’s an ever increasing number of hotels, lodges and camping grounds being built along the southern and western shores.  The diving and snorkeling here are highly rated.” (Lonely Planet, Africa – the South)


First day in Lilongwe, Malawi - Jeff and Tim


Cement bridges, dirt roads - halfway to Monkey Bay


Luxury on the lake - the lodge in Livingstonia

Glancing at Tim on the ride into town I recognized the same dizzy feeling I had experienced a few months ago.  Not really culture shock, more of a culture jolt in a sea of nostalgia.  He had not been back to Lilongwe, his childhood home, for almost 15 years.  He spun around in the front seat and described things eagerly to Amy in the back seat, “There are the big silos that Banda, the former president, constructed to feed the whole country in case of famine.  Oh those beat up vans are the mass transit system – people cram in till there’s no more room and they roar crazily through traffic.  My school!  Our supermarket!”  We tracked down his old house, greeted Southern Baptist family friends in town, and wandered through the town Tim glancing this way and that.  I’d joked with them on the way into town that they looked far too clean and suave– my shirts had lost that degree of whiteness several dozen bucket washes ago.

“Muli bwanji!” (How are you!) Tim dusted off his Chichewa and launched into a conversation with the golf club guard.  English is widely spoken in Malawi, but as in most places, people really open up if you speak the local language.  The Lonely Plant mentioned that camping was possible at the Lilongwe Golf Club and after a quick tour of the grounds we decided it would work just fine.  I decided to use the same strategy I’d used with John and Alex earlier – a first night of gritty low cost accommodation to set expectations so that the nicer places to follow would be really appreciated.  Amy raised an eyebrow but pitched in like a trooper, helping to pound down tent pegs and laying out sleeping bags.

In it’s heyday the club must have been very nice, but several decades of gradual decline had stripped the sheen from the facilities.  Dinner was served on a wobbly plastic deck table on the terrace, but the fish and chips were absolutely fabulous and we walked back to the tents in high spirits.  June means winter in the southern hemisphere with night temperatures falling to 10-15 C, so we crawled into our winter bags to stay warm for the night.

Deprivation and Luxury
Dawn broke and I crawled out into the damp cold to shower. Real hot water! Oh man, that can be such a luxury after a few weeks of cold showers and I soaked it up for twenty minutes. 

Next stop, the southern tip of Lake Malawi to Monkey Bay. Now I will tell you that I was on my best behavior while driving, doing my best not to scare the passengers. Stanley was in fine form and we motored down the highway over occasional potholes and rough gravel at a sedate 80kph.  An hour or so south of town we decided to cut east across the mountain range on a dirt track to save a long detour. Weeks of tame pavement driving had left me with a deep need to hit the dirt and a grin stole on my face as we veered into the bush.

Most dirt roads suffer heavy erosion in the rainy season when water pours out of the sky and races down the most convenient course – usually the unguttered dirt road. As a result the best driving line is usually found by dancing along the knife-edges of gullies and occasionally hanging a wheel edge off the edge of the track. Honestly I was taking it slow – 2nd gear and about 30kph (Kevin, John, Alex – you be the judge), but as we crested the mountain ridge and began the sheer, cliff-edge, zigzag descent into the valley thousands of feet below, Amy asked quietly from the backseat – “Isn’t this a bit fast?” “Oh, nooo”, I explained breezily, “I usually drive much, much faster.”  “Oh for sure”, echoed Tim in a moment of temporary insanity, “we could be going a lot faster.”

“Wanna see?” and without waiting for an answer, quick shift to third, bounding forward. Then it was really fun – hairpin curves of slippery rocks require an acute angle turn facing into the cliff slightly to allow the rear to skid ever so gently around, correct, bound from rut edge to boulder, quick brake before holes to load up the front springs and accelerate sharply over to “float” the suspension, four wheel skid into major bumps (never bottom the suspension – never “toss the cookies”) charge eagerly out into the next turn, slide, drift – Tim looks over with a big grin. We’re a bunch of boys again, living the African childhood dreams we made bumping in the back of the family car on roads like this - “Man if I had a 4x4 I’d race into these hairpin turns and “float” the suspension over the bumps…”. Amy sucked it up for half an hour but her life kept flashing before her eyes, and the danger forced her tone up a notch, “Isn’t this a bit FAST?!”  I reined in the truck.

We finished the trip on smooth gravel with occasional patches of epic washouts followed by a leprous paved road with poorly dirt-patched potholes. After a few hours of battering, most people enter a numb zone where you just sit and take the beating. Even at a moderate speed we were completely sick of the road by the time we arrived at the resort, and were all the more overwhelmed by the manicured lawns and polished comfort of the lodge.  Situated amongst palm trees beside a lapping beach, and nestled against a towering granite escarpment – the campsite oozed safety and contentment. We strolled back along the kilometer-long beach to the lodge for a dinner in pampered luxury, an indulgence forgiven by the ridiculously cheap prices of food – even resort dinners.  There is certainly something about hitting luxury after a rough camp and a battering day through choking dust and potholes.  Dizzy with pleasure.

1200km Dash to Lusaka
We soaked up the easy life for a few days and then turned up the lake road along the western shore, which turned out to be a spectacular drive, to Livingstonia. Oh the fruit covered pancakes – I dream of them still. Back to Lilongwe for e-mail – incredibly slow, incredibly expensive. We’d planned to stay for the night but it was still early afternoon. Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, was our next destination, still about 900km and a long drive away. Deciding to split up the driving we headed toward the border and crossed without incident. At 6pm in the failing light we arrived at our intended stop. I wanted to keep going and presented our options, “We could CAMP here, or we could be daring and drive through the night to Lusaka and stay in a CHALET”.  Admittedly it wasn’t a fair comment and I don’t think Tim and Amy knew the level of danger we faced on an African highway at night. It wasn’t as bad as Rwanda or Burundi – but it was still high.  It was a main road that had some overnight bus traffic for security, we had a solid dependable vehicle, so we opted for the road.

It was an unforgettable trip.  First, a quick snack stop at a run down trucker’s restaurant - fifty eyes locked on us, sitting on a filthy couch, eating fried bread with black tea, watching the cockroaches scamper along the exposed rafters. The road degenerated until it was an unending mass of axle deep potholes pounding us into and beyond numbness. Trucks roared around the corners in swirling dust that left me groping blindly for the edge of the road. And then the elephant grass. Over ten feet high, it walled the road like a long hallway, whipping past dizzyingly. Around 10pm we reached one of Zambia’s most impressive bridges spanning a deep chasm – or so Tim told us because we could see virtually nothing.

We gave away the last of the shortbread cookies to the soldiers at the checkpoint and passed easily. Climbed out of the bridge up the escarpment through a tunnel of flickering candles at roadside stalls, the vendors waiting patiently for night busses and trucks, and almost immediately were on a glassy new paved road. Sixty kilometres out of Lusaka we had to stop to refuel. Siphoning was an easy procedure after months of practice; unlock the jerry can cap lock, unlock the tank cap, smack the can caps and they bang open with a whoosh of gassy air and dripping petrol, hose in, a quick suck on the siphon hose and the petrol shot down from the roof, 17 litres per tank, 68 in and done, curl up the hose and stuff it back under the rear seat with the tin accident triangles – just in case.  Shivering in the night chill I wandered over a field crispy with frost, the rising full moon silvered the open fields and quiet road – it was one of those moments.


A view of Lusaka through the broken windshield


Hard bargaining at the market - Amy and pals


Five star dinner at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge


View of the waterhole from the dining room - live dinner entertainment

We’d driven over 1100km in one day and were only fifty kilometres out of Lusaka, cruising, almost midnight.  Suddenly, BANG, the windshield shattered on Tim and I. Uncomprehendingly I saw a little hole in the windshield, right in front of Tim. We’d been shot!?… no, there was the rock nestled on the left windshield washer. Two guys had heaved a 2” rock into the windshield as we sped past. If it had been any larger it would certainly have gone through and wounded or killed. Almost immediately we hit a checkpoint and pointed out the damage. The soldier’s eyes gleamed at the prospect of action and grabbing their machine guns they piled into the front seat one on top of the other – they had no car of their own. We headed back toward the scene of the attack. An alcoholic tincture wafted over to me and I wondered if this thing could possibly get out of hand. By the time we returned the guys had vanished into the field and I almost felt relief - who wants to see a man get gunned down?!

Back to the station, the police filled out a report in detail and signed it with a flourish. I leaned against the cement desk thanking God it wasn’t any worse, Amy fussed over Tim removing bits of glass, and Tim was stoic as ever. As we left the captain hit us with that familiar Zambian refrain, “Do you have anything for me today?”   Like I said, if you go to the police they shake YOU down.  Finally Lusaka, the Eureka campground, and a 3 person chalet with comfortable beds and plenty of blankets. I was angry at the incident and proud of my passengers, Tim was quietly adjusting to his near death experience, and Amy, flushed with adrenaline, talked us all to sleep.

Driving downtown the next morning, my third time in Lusaka, I was angry.  I own this town today, no screw-ups, no accidents, bash danger in the face.  Tim needed no coaching, having lived with his family in Lusaka for several years.  We parked the truck in front of Nando’s on Cairo street and shrugged off the urchins.  Even fast food restaurants have their own security guards.  I tapped the guard on the shoulder, “See that the truck is ok, I tip well.”  I’d handed out pepper spray and glared at the hustlers as they started to circle – we were left alone. 

E-mail, change money, a good cup of coffee, and then sightseeing.  Tim led us around the city to his old haunts and schools.  We bought a soccer jersey from one of the intersection hawkers.  Tim found his old house and the owners graciously invited he and Amy inside to look around.  After twenty minutes they appeared, thanking their hosts.  Tim scratched his head, “That’s really weird, they’ve torn down some walls and really changed things… Ahhhh, hmmm.  Crap.  That’s not my old house, this one is!”  Once again, the owners invited Tim and Amy in to look around.  Half an hour later and looking sheepish Tim came out.  “Yeah, the second one is definitely the one.”  Amy laughed, “I wonder if the block is going to talk about the tourists who went into different houses saying they used to live there.  They’ll probably think we were casing the joint.”  We had a good laugh heading out of town.

Back in Victoria Falls Again
Four hours later we arrived in Livingstone, the Zambian sister city to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe – and our destination for several days of adrenaline sport and a chance to catch our breath.  We decided to stay at an inexpensive place for the first four nights and spend the savings on fun stuff.  Richard Sheppard welcomed us back to Fawlty Towers and I felt like I was back home. 

The next day we woke up lazily and cooked up some breakfast.  Tim and Amy left to fly over the falls in a helicopter and came back still buzzing from the experience.  Having seen the falls from above in an ultralight, I could understand the feeling.  What a spectacle - the world's longest and biggest falls.  The next day we rented bikes to go down to the falls park on the Zambian side.  Although not quite as nice as the Zimbabwe side, the park has a long bridge suspended over the gorge where you are enveloped in spray.  The falls thunder down almost immediately in front of you and the cliffs drop away below.  We all were soaked by the time we got back to the bikes, but worked it off in a mad pedal back to the hostel to get ready for the dinner cruise.  An hour later we were floating in the gentle Zambezi above the falls with bbq smoke wafting up to the top deck and cold drinks.  The sun set, bathing the river in red, and the dusk gently closed around us.

We awoke not so gently the next morning.  Late, tired, and irritable - we were herded into a one ton truck with no springs to bump out to the whitewater rafting launch point.  Having done the river once already, I dreaded the fatigue to come - but this was the biggest commercially runnable whitewater in the world and Tim and Amy wanted a piece of it.  Sure enough, by the third set of rapids my arms were burning.  "Get ready, next set is the big one!  It's a three set wave train and the stacks are 20 feet high.  Remember what to do if we get thrown..."  and we were on top of it.  With the rainy season the river was running high and most of the big rapids were half submerged, but this set peaked at high volume and it was a monster.  As we ploughed into the head wave and were lifted up, Tim and I stared, fascinated at the twenty foot drop right under us.  Then we were down and thrown into the wave face, the boat bent in the middle - the river trying to splatter us into the trough, but the boat held and we crested screaming like a pack of hooligans.  People die on the Zambezi pretty regularly and we were amazed that the rafting still continued.  "It wouldn't if we were in the States mate", replied our guide.  By the end of the day we were tired and sun baked, ready to relax, but we still had to lug our gear 700 feet up the river cliff to the take-out point.  When we finally made it back to the hostel we crashed for the day.  

For the last day in Victoria Falls we went over to the Zimbabwe side to check into the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge.  Comfort, immaculate grounds, and a dining room with five star cuisine overlooking a waterhole.  We watched elephants walk in after dusk, gray shadows in the gathering dark.  An African choir serenaded us, coffee, desert, and a warm night tucked away in our own chalet.  One thing about the good life - it sure is good after you've had some tough stuff! 

Next journal, back into Etosha, down the skeleton coast to Swakopmund, and finally to Cape Town.

 

Copyright January 1999-2011
All rights reserved - Jeff Willner
Contact: jeffwillner@yahoo.com