4x4ing up north to Malawi

Posted by Tim Skelton on 2 February 2011 Tags:, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

We set off on the morning of the 16th of December 2010 for what was to be one of SA Adventure’s biggest challenges yet. 6900km, 17 Days through 7 countries, not only were we embarking on an adventure of a life time, but we also had the Land Rovers packed to the max with supplies for the Village of Hope Orphanage in Lilongwe, Malawi. We had a mission that needed to be achieved and the pressure was on to see if we could complete this epic journey that we had set out to. Despite all the negative commentary, people telling us “it could never be done”, “you don’t have enough time”, “Africa will get the better of you” we were determined that we were going to succeed! We were doing what most people only talk about and we were doing it with a purpose!

3.30am and we awake to the sound of our alarm, with it still being dark outside and the rain slowly washing over the driveway. With that we were off and heading to meet up with the rest of the team that were brave enough to take on this Northward bound challenge. We had a quick briefing and a warming cup of Wimpy coffee, and then said farewell to the big city lights as we drove in convoy towards our first destination – Siphiso Camp, Swaziland. The journey was a misty one, but the mist made day break more beautiful than ever. By 11 am we had crossed the border into Swaziland with no hassles and were happy to see the sun.

Along the road you tend to come across some strange signs, we came across one that read “Pedestrians and cyclists beware of lions”… you have to wonder what a cyclist would actually do if he came across a lion. We were lucky enough not to encounter any lions but did get a glimpse of some giraffe and impala. It felt like in no time at all we were pulling up to our first camp, Siphisio camp, which is in the Mlawula game reserve
We were fortunate enough to have the campsite all to ourselves. Our camp took minutes to get sorted, so we had time to do some Geocaching, dance in the rain and find shelter in the bird hide. We ended a perfect day, the typical SA Adventure way, around a good braai!

Day 2 started relatively early with us packing up our camp and having a nice cold shower. The drive out actually took us through the heart of the park, which presented us with some amazing views! We passed some small rivers, of which Mark thought was prime water to take a dip in, to cool down. Once we exited the park it was a straight road to the border.

We were disappointed to see Swaziland go so quickly, but were very excited to hit our next venue – Xai Xai in Mozambique. We had to make a pit stop in the crazy capital city of Maputo to fetch our last team member, Daniel (who was joining us from Belgium). More than happy to say goodbye to Maputo, hello open road… Xai Xai here we come… along the way we had numerous stops to take advantage of what Mozambique had to offer, mangos, pineapples, nuts etc, we soon arrived at our campsite for the night in Xai Xai.

Camp sorted, it was time to hit the beach so, headlights on to lead us through the darkness, we made our way to the Indian Ocean. The Ocean felt warm, rather inviting. In fact it was so insistent on us going in that Dawn, a passenger in “the flea” (Landy 90), could not resist taking a tumble. A mighty wave had swept her off of her feet and the only way we could see where she was, was by her headlight, it looked a bit like a bright light in a washing machine. Well that was it; we had such a laugh that none of us were really able to help her. Ah, Dawn and her tumble, she will never live it down… our little “Indian tumbler”.

Early start again as we waved good bye to Xai Xai and headed for Retief Camp in Pomene. Not even 15 minutes after leaving camp, we stumbled across an old, abandoned hotel right on the beach. It looked like somebody had literally just closed the door and walked away. The “owner,” an African gentleman, insisted on taking us inside to have a look. As he could only speak Portuguese and none of us fully understood it, we managed to communicate by drawing pictures in the sand and established from him that it was built in 1963 and assume that it was abandoned in the 1980’s. What a fascinating place, filled with intrigue. It still had marble kitchen tops, still had the parkay dance floor. You could just imagine how it once was, in its full glory. Anyway we had time constraints, so thanked him for his time and headed on. We had not got far when the Pajero needed some attention! It was every 30km to be exact. We stopped at a road site restaurant called the Jolly Rodger and managed to repair the Pajero. Finally were on our way again. Our 6 hour journey had turned into a 12 hour one, so our arrival at Retief camp was a dark one. We decided around dinner that we would stay there for another day, for some much needed rest!

What a magical time, we spent the day snorkelling in a “lagoon” which had been created due to low tide. There were not many fish around but it was a pleasant way to spend the day nonetheless. Ronald (one of the locals) had baked us fresh bread (pao), sold us some shells and did some washing for us! What more could we ask for? We ended the evening with Tim’s famous Mozambique Peri Peri Chicken.

The next morning began with a similar routine; we were now getting quite into things and were on the road clocking good mileage… until about lunch time. That was until the Pajero decided to pack in again! After much deliberation we decided that the rest of us had to push on, that the Pajero would go straight into Beira and get its head gasket replaced and meet up with us in Malawi on the 24th at the Village of Hope!

The Landy’s made good headway to Gorongoza National Park, only be told on arrival that the park is closed due to it being rainy season? Luckily, as we were winding our way out of the narrow dirt roads back to the main road, we passed a ranger, who told us there was a place to stay but it is on a farm and not part of the park. With no other choice, we went there. Well, were we glad we had made that decision. Owned by the Ranger Sakkie and his father Piet, this wonderful campsite had fantastic facilities. Piet came down and joined us for a beer once we had settled in and told us about the area being a high witchcraft area… later in bed you could actually hear the chants in the valley!

We started the next day by visiting Piet at his home. He and his family had lived there for 8 years, first in a tent, then in a reed house and now finally a brick structure; however it had no doors or windows in it. It was strange to see a house fully furnished with no doors or windows but when you walked in it did give you a remarkable sense of freedom! Anyway we were soon on the road again, after filling up the Landy’s and a local’s motorbike (which Tim had a spin on) we were heading for Malawi.

Our reliable GPS, Brenda, took us to a town called Sena, which was supposed to have a ferry crossing that could take us across the Zambezi River to Mutararra, but to our dismay the ferry was no longer operational. So we had to do a 250km off road detour, cross a different river called the Rio Shire to get 3km away from where we originally were. Well… we arrived after a 4hour off road experience at the river crossing, only to be told that the ferry was not running as the river had been in flood. It was now late afternoon and our hopes of reaching Malawi by night were becoming slim.

TIA (This is Africa) and when in Africa, think like Africa, you cannot fight it, so with our humblest begging (and many US Dollars later) we managed to make a deal with the locals to get the ferry going just for our crossing. As dusk set in, we were on the ferry, enjoying what proved to be an emotional experience, the spirit of Africa felt at its full capacity! Once across, the logs were put in place to get the vehicles off, our deals were dealt with the locals and night 4x4ing was on the cards. Dijane (Driver of the Flea) was doing so well and had agreed that once we reached the border, we would stop for the night. Late night Tuna Sandwiches and some spectatorship from the local children was an end to an exhausting day. I won’t mention what the facilities are like at a border post, I will let you use your imagination… and then go beyond that!

The next morning we managed to pack up our “border camp” quickly, and finally we had reached Malawi! Our first few kilometres in Malawi saw us help a local pull his wagon out of some sticky mud, as his cattle were unable to do it. We stopped for lunch in the middle of nowhere and found the local children playing football with a ball made out of tightly wrapped plastic. Tim and Daniel decided to have a game with them, with one of the footballs we had loaded in the Landy. The children went mad when they saw us driving off and the ball not going with us, you should have seen their faces, realising that they would be keeping the ball, such delight! We made another stop in Blantyre just to get as many supplies as we could with the other funds that had been raised. Finally just before nightfall we reached our destination Mgoza Lodge at Cape McClear. We would be spending the following day there.

We woke up to what could be defined to me, as heaven. Lake Malawi is a fresh water, crystal clear mass of water, the shores of which were filled in the morning with mothers washing clothes and the fisherman casting lines. At 12.30 we had arranged a boat trip to the island. It was brilliant, we snorkelled around for hours, with millions of little fish. The locals then prepared our lunch, which was fish (caught that morning), rice with tomato and onion gravy. The afternoon was soon over and we were back on the boat to the mainland, but not before a stop to visit the fish eagle, he swooped down right in front of us, as they tossed some fish to him. That night we walked the town just to take in the vibrant reggae sounds.

Feeling refreshed we hit the road again, it was a big day – we were headed for the Village of Hope Orphanage! We made it in no time at all and to our surprise arrived at the exact same time as the Pajero! We met the missionaries in charge of the village, David and Connie, and did some final preparations for the children. After offloading everything and sorting it out, it was time to meet the children and take a walk around the orphanage. The children then gathered to sing us some songs and tell us a bit about themselves. That was it, we had achieved our mission – and on time! Since it was Christmas Eve, each child received a pack from us which contained Christmas toys, writing utensils, toothbrushes and paste, a tee shirt, etc. Their faces lit up with joy, they could not believe that they were able to keep them, not just look at them! What an emotional experience, but one that made our journey incredibly meaningful and worthwhile! The Pajero had been having some more problems and it was decided that it and its team should call it a day at this point and start heading back to Johannesburg.

Christmas day, a day like no other Christmas, but a day just like any other on our adventure. We bid farewell to the orphanage and headed for Zambia, we had intended to go straight through to Livingstone, but with it being such a long drive and Christmas day we decided to stop in Lusaka for the night. We booked into Teckla Lodge, so that we could all have a HOT shower… only to discover at 10pm that night that the one room had no water pressure and no hot water, so despite having a pressure jet shower in the room, I bathed in a bucket! Obviously we were just not suppose to have hot showers.

After a wonderful breakfast, Livingstone would be our next stop. It did not take us too long and we managed to set up camp by 2pm. So we spent the afternoon bartering with the locals and walking down to the Bungi jump. R1100 per jump was a bit steep, so instead we watched from the sidelines while sipping on some Mozi beers. The pub was nestled in the trees above the bridge and offered an amazing sunset.

The Victoria Falls: what a breath taking sight! For those of you that have been there, you would know that you cannot describe this force of nature, and for those of you that have not been there, go there! No words can describe the sheer power and beauty of these falls.

We had now completed our stay in Zambia and were heading straight through the Caprivi Strip, Namibia to Ngepi Camp. We reached Ngepi at about 1pm and decided we were rather going to push straight on to Guma Lagoon Camp in Botswana. So we crossed yet another border and made our way to Shakawe, exchanging our money for the second time in one day. With our Pula in hand, Guma was another 1hour drive away. Once we got off the main road, it felt like we had reached the beach; the road had turned into beach sand. Guma Camp is nestled in lush bush, next to a lagoon off the Okavango Delta. It is a fisherman’s paradise. We enjoyed sunset on the deck overlooking the lagoon.

We started the next morning with a fishing trip. Not only did we catch and convince Daniel to kiss his first catfish, but we were also fortunate enough to float by some crocs bathing on the banks.

Back to land, pack up our tents and back on the road, this time heading for Audi Camp in Maun. Once settled, we took a ride to the cultural village and on our way back we rescued a little chameleon. He hitched a ride with us to the camp, where he was released into the forest. We would be staying another day at Audi.

It was nice to wake up whenever we felt like it, although at this point none of us could sleep passed 4.30am… so should I rather say that it was nice to have a lie in. The day was a lazy one, with us entertaining ourselves around the pool. That evening we went on a sunset power boat trip through the Delta. The bird life was astonishing, everywhere you looked there was a different species of bird. We ended the night with perfectly braai’ed Botswana fillet steak. There is just something about Botswana beef…

The next morning, after a good, full-house breakfast, we were on our way to spend our last night of 2010 on Kubu Island, an island in the Makgadikgadi pans. We spotted some elephant, eland, secretary birds, ostriches and a snake along the way. When we reached the pans it was exactly what all of us had hoped it would not be – wet! I had some unfinished business with these wet pans from earlier in the year (but that’s a different story!) We made the decision that we were going ahead. The pans looked a bit like Lake Malawi, the water coming just passed the bonnet of the Landy’s at times. The sludge pulled us in different directions, as we could not see what we were driving through. At one point I remember us stopping on a dry patch and watching the “˜Flea’ come through the water. When I looked at Dijane’s hands her knuckles were literally white.

We reached Kubu at about 4pm which gave us great sense of achievement. Kubu is a humbling experience; one can’t explain what it feels like be surrounded with nothing but ancient Baobab trees. The perfect way to spend New Year ‘s Eve!

Our last day of this adventure-packed trip started with us making our way out of the pans. The water seemed to never end, and at some points the ‘Flea’ thought she was flying.

We hit main road and tar had never felt that good. When we reached Kharma Rhino Sanctuary the thing that pleased us the most was the fact that there were ablution facilities.

After camp was pitched we took a quick breather and headed straight for a game drive. We saw a ton of animals- giraffe, rhino, zebra etc. It amazed us how many young the animals had running alongside them, which means that the environment was good! After a good shower and a night cap, we hit our stretchers in our tents for the last time.

We woke up for our last day, and it was a rather sad moment. We packed up and headed for Gaborone, where we bid our farewells to Daniel.
Suddenly we could feel a rush of energy leave our bodies as we crossed the border back into South Africa.

We had done it, 6900km! We had achieved what some believed to be unachievable!
What an experience, what an emotional journey!