“I am not born for one corner; the whole world is my native land” ~ Senaca
Departure: We must go!: December 20, 2017
And then the day was here! Our many years of obsession and a year of planning finally climaxed on December 20th, 2017. We had planned to set off at 5am but we could not leave until 3pm for we needed our car in the best condition. Now comfortable with the mechanical state of our car and equipped with our travel documents, car insurance, road safety equipment and stocks of food, coffee, camping gear and money in cash and at bank, we were finally going away to places mostly unknown ‘in the name of freedom’ and ‘in search of magical places!’ But there was still that sense of uncertainty deep inside each one of us because the journey we were just embarking on was still so far away from reality. No one we knew personally had indeed ever done it! But we were going!
Knowing what you need or don’t need on such a long trip is an important element of road tripping
Harrison, Otti and myself belong to a small, informal, non-celebrated travel club called Adventure Drunkards and every end of year, we do something we’ve never done. Our fourth member on this particular trip (the Subaru) later named ‘Baby’ would become a perfect companion.
So after several months of planning and anxiety, the journey was finally here and we set off, but hell soon broke loose! Just about 25km on the road, we would be flagged down, almost pleadingly, by an unknown vehicle that had just struggled to overtake us for the sole purpose of making sure we stop. In a quick flash, we didn’t know what the hell was happening; on the first thought, we wanted to ignore, but looking at the insistence of the car stopping us (with occupants flashing their hands uncontrollably in every direction), we stopped by the roadside around Budo on Masaka road. One of our tyres was smoking profusely and had we not stopped, our car would have caught fire any moment from then; which would have ruined our car, our trip or even our lives. We thanked these good Samaritans and they continued as we called the mechanic to come and sort the issue out (which turned out to be tight brake pads on the disc causing heavy friction). During that moment of waiting, we would be engulfed by deeper uncertainty but the boys kept the slogan; we must go!’
At this point when the boys were supposed to be devastated, they were in high spirit!
Indeed the issue would be sorted and soon we were back on the road; speeding toward Masaka at sunset and singing along with Passenger around the same time when everyone else was on a shopping spree and traveling to their villages for Christmas, we were indeed unstoppable, non-conformists running away from the conventional and it was very clear that this trip was about nothing but freedom.
Tanzania: Not a piece of cake driving through this vast country: Dec 21 – Dec 24
We spent our first night in Masaka and headed for Mutukula boarder before dawn. The usual boarder post ‘chaos’ gave us a quick glimpse into what was ahead of us before crossing into Tanzania at 0900 hours. Tanzania is such a vast country and we had a task of crossing it vertically almost from head to toe. We could be again welcomed by two lady traffic officers at Kyaka (about 30km from Mutukula boarder) who, after meeting all the road requirements, still exhorted money from us! The traffic officers we could meet ahead turned out rather friendly, we could drive by the edge of Lake Victoria around Bukoba area and enjoy beautiful woodlots in Biharamulo and Rusahunga before spending a night at Kahama.
The infamous 50 speed limit keeps in face to haunt you!
The rest of Tanzania would be characterized by ridiculous traffic rules (the constant 50 speed limit), an impassable road after Tabora and the change of route (costing us 300km) and what we termed ‘defiance’ when we broke all the traffic rules driving from Singida, Dodoma, Iringa, Mafinga and finally to Mbeya, reaching at night, covering over 850km in one day. Mbeya is the closest major town toward the TZ/Zambia boarder of Tunduma. Mutukula to Tunduma through Dodoma-Mbeya is about 1800km.
Zambia: In the infinite vastness of virgin woodlots, Christmas with amazing friends and visiting Victoria Falls: December 24 – 29, 2017
It’s now Christmas Eve and we crossed to Zambia at the Tunduma/Nakonde boarder post. Tanzania being our immediate neighbor with prior regular visits, Zambia seemed like the official start of the journey. The road; running from the northeast countryside, was at first potholed before it became very good. Driving through a vast woodlot of albizias, tarmalines and acacias accompanied with torrential tropical rains with fewer cars on the road, 120km/hour speed limit, the clear blue skies and with the company of beautiful songs by Passenger and Oliver Mtukudzi at sunset, the road trip we had always imagined was officially here!
We could spend a night at Mpika and head out at 0500hours on Christmas day toward Lusaka through Serenje and Kapiri. The natural woodlots were still a marvel and only could shrink as we got near Kapiri and let alone Lusaka where big commercial farms became prominent. We reached Lusaka at around 1500hours and James (our friend-host) picked us and led us to his home in Kasisi in what looked like a diplomatic VIP treatment! If you have never been to James and Gloria’s home, then you have never experienced hospitality in its true authenticity. We found the family and a few friends waiting for us (Uncle J and his crew led by Shuko Banda!), Davido and of course Gloria (the chief host). Berbecue and ‘Mosi’ and great conversations that evening and finally dinner with the family turned out the perfect way to spend our Christmas! We could wake up to coffee mugs delivered in bed and shortly treated to a sumptuous breakfast by Gloria. A visit to Kasisi Agricultural College (meeting Br. Paul and Bridget and discussing points of synergy with the Open Impact Institute) and later a visit to James’ farm and touristic strolls in the city of Lusaka before retiring home to another sumptuous dinner, made our boxing day very fruitful and enjoyable.
Above: James (our host in red) and Uncle J (seated). Below: James (right), Bridget (center) and Br. Paul (left) at Kasisi, Lusaka
As always, we were ready by 0500hours to hit the road to Livingstone, equipped with packed breakfast (very nice meat pies, again Gloria getting out of her way to give us her best!), we were very excited heading out to the home of Mosi-oa-Tunya through Kafue, Mazabuka and Choma. Shortly after Lusaka, the woodlots came back and I could not stop indulging with this beauty unmatched. Just toward Livingstone, the woods are so calm, so peaceful and so magical that I found tears rolling! We reached Livingstone in the early afternoon and checked in at Jollyboys Backpackers (the perfect place to stay) where we camped, had access to an open guest kitchen and connected with several other holidaymakers from around the world, but the best of all would turn out a one Paul Harrison! The next day, we went down to the Zambezi River and visited the magical Mosi-oa-Tunya (the Smoke that Thunders) or Victoria Falls, one of the 7 natural wonders of the world! The intimidating cliffs, the misty trails, and the thundering falling sheet of water is such an unexplainable experience.
Another night at Jollyboys, strolls and cycling, and having more great conversations and time with Paul Harrison would make our stay in Livingstone such a jolly experience before heading out to the boarder of Kazungula. Nakonde to Kazungula is 1668km.
Botswana: The Home of Chobe, the Okavango & Kalahari; Big on tourism, beef and working systems!: Dec 29, 2017 – Jan 4, 2018
Livingstone was really amazing. We could extend our stay for half a day and almost lured to stay long but we had to leave. Set off at 1300hours for the Zambia/Botswana boarder post at Kazungulu. The Chobe River just north of the Zambezi separates the two countries. The boarder post is just 75km from Livingstone. We checked out of Zambia and took to a ferry on the Chobe River to cross to Botswana side. It was different; cleaner and non-congested, working systems, and no stupid questioning by the immigration officers (for the first time we felt like someone understood who we are and why we were doing what we were doing). We could be directed to a very professional clearing agent named Masego who not only cleared our vehicle in record time but made us feel a whole new experience. We could sit down and read a book at a boarder post without the hustle of loitering brokers for the first time! And for the first time again, we could be searched properly (in a good way) by the customs body but also by the agricultural quarantine department (who actually could not allow our potatoes in – as a measure to guard against disease transfer – something I appreciated!) all acting professionally.
With Maseho at the Kazungula Boarder post on Botswana side, above, Maseho’s uncluttered office.
It was coming to sunset but we only had 10km to drive to our destination – the wonderful small town of Kasane that sits on the edge of the Chobe River in Chobe National Park. We had been anxious and excited about Botswana and surely looking forward. Driving at sunset past the elephants, on a cleaner road, with the sight and sound of the river is close proximity, past several awesome safari lodges and in the company of other travelers especially from Namibia and South Africa would never have been a better way and first impression to usher us into our dream destination. After rounds looking for accommodation in vain, we finally got a camping rather ‘glamping’ spot at Big 5 Safari Lodge to the amazement of what we found in our company. Camping in Chobe or Botswana in general is nothing like we had always known. When the attendant at Chobe Safari Lodge indicated that the camping spots were sold out, we couldn’t understand what she was talking about and pleaded with her to show us just an open spot where we could pitch just one tent. She also could not understand what we were talking about. We were in two different worlds. Only when we got a spot at Big 5 could we understand what the earlier hotel attendant was talking about. Camping is for the elite and every camping spot is designated and has its own facility with a bathroom, toilet, sink and a barbecue grill. The ‘Big Boys’ as we called them drive their 4X4s with trailers (looking like aircraft equipment while in use) fully stocked with all kinds of supplies from frozen steak to Champaign and everything in-between! Spending a night with the Big Boys was not only a revealing but also an incredibly inspiring experience.
We could leave Chobe at 0600hours on the 30th and headed for the town of Maun through Pandamatenga, Nata, and Gweta a distance of 295km. Driving in Botswana feels like having an endless highway all to yourself, except, you have the company of the elephants and other wild game! The traffic rules are very friendly and the traffic officers are so professional. We made a short stop at Nata to refuel and another stop at a Lay By in Sibuyu Forest Reserve and drove through Titume under a very hot sun before making it to Maun in the early afternoon. We found our way to Old Bridge Backpackers, which brought back the memories and the kind of community we had experienced at Jollyboys.
On new years’ eve, we could make a day trip to the Okavango Delta (world’s largest inland delta covering 18,000sqkm). An expedition on the Mokolo (local canoe) deep into the delta would emerge one of the most magical experiences of my life; the lilies, the birds, and the entire aquatic vegetation sent me speechless. The understanding that water travels for 6 months from the highlands of Angola to reach the delta and travels another 6 months to reach its final draining point in the Kalahari Desert makes the trip such a humbling privilege. This was for me a dream come true after several years of obsession with the Okavango (the name and the delta!). After a walk at the island and a lunch break, we could hit the Mokolo again to the village of Boro, an incredibly magical experience almost at sunset.
The Mokolo trip into the Okavango Delta
We spent our new years’ eve at Old Bridge and connected with great people (like Dave and Irene). I personally stayed out at the bar and enjoyed fireworks and the company of other travelers.
Somewhere in Ghanzi, Botswana. Freedom is priceless!
On new years’ day, we hit the road again, now heading into the heart of Kalahari through Ghanzi and finally to Kang. Kang is a small beautiful desert town settlement and is a gateway for many ‘Big Boys’ doing adventures in the Kalahari and the Namib Deserts. We checked in at Kang One Stop and took evening strolls in the neighborhood and chanced into local tribesmen and their herd at Kang-pen, in what surely was an experience of us connecting with the desert with a beautiful sunset and an early full moon. I felt so much in harmony and in love!
At Kang-pen in the middle Kalahari. I would be consumed!
We then could take to the trans-Kalahari highway through Jwaneng and Kanye to the capital Gaborone, and spent two nights at a friend’s farm outside of the city camping under full moon and having long breakfasts with goats, chickens and farm pets in the village of Kgatleng about 30km from the city. This was a much-needed rest after the blissful days in Kasane and Maun and the long drives through Kang and the trans-Kalahari highway. On one fateful night at the farm however, the desert winds stroke (what we would later name ‘Monsoon’) and nearly carried Harrison and his tent away in the middle of the night before he fought back and reinforced his tent’s grip with boulders and logs and positioning the ‘Baby’ as a shield in what turned out a very hilarious story for the next couple days.
Finally on January 4, we headed out northeast to the beautiful city of Francis Town through Mahalapye (where we were privileged to cross the Tropic of Capricorn) and then Palapy. In Francis Town, we caught up with a friend – Happy – whom we had made in Maun and drunk nice coffee with her before heading to the Zim boarder in the afternoon in what was another beautiful drive on wide and almost empty roads.
Zimbabwe: The beautiful countryside, the jacaranda avenues, gothic architecture and extending to us an ‘asylum’: January 4–7, 2018
Zimbabwe took us by surprise; we would be welcomed by the best boarder clearance system for the vehicle thus far, a few checks after the boarder post (which is normal) but we could meet no other roadblocks or traffic police. Diving from Plumtree to the city of Bulawayo was such a stretch with beauty unimaginable, the woodlot belt like the one in Zambia was now back and I found myself imbibed into this magical green immensity. No wonder, the white settlers could never have missed such an opportunity! We could make it to Bulawayo at sunset (an impressive city) an d spent a night in the upmarket suburb of Bulawayo Central and then head out to Harare the next day through Gweru (where we had a coffee breakfast on a Lay By at 7am on one of the most amazing mornings amidst clean farms in what really felt like the freedom we had been searching for!) and then Kwekwe, Kadoma and Chegutu. Harare turned out equally awesome; after checking with a mechanic at Rotten Row, we found our way and check-in at Small World Backpackers (which turned out one of the best places we stayed) on 9th avenue just near State House! The gothic architecture and the avenues lined with Jacaranda trees were for me a marvel and another obsession come to life. However, the signs of a broken system could not go unnoticed and the mistrust of the local currency (the Zim Dollar or bonds) by the nationals and that the new Mnangagwa government is simply a continuation of the RG Mugabe reign was evident.
Mozambique: Languishing in no man’s land!: January 6
It’s January 6, and we head East to the Zim/Mozambique boarder at Nyamapanda through Mutoko. After checking out of Zim and proceeding to Mozambique immigration, where we were supposed to buy visas on entry but could be told that they were out of visa papers and that we could only get clearance at the Mozambique Embassy in Harare or use the southerly boarder post at Mutare. One particular lady immigration officer was so ruthless, inhospitable and simply barking at us (for something that was never our fault but their crappy system). So we were now nowhere, out of Zimbabwe and not in Mozambique, simply languishing in no man’s land! After trying all entry options in vain, we came back to Zim immigration and explained our case and the officers let us in again in what looked like an asylum, though with a comment in our passports ‘reexamine’ which left Otti very uncomfortable. We now could drive back to Harare but decided to ditch Mozambique (mainly because of their harsh system and people) and retreat north to the ‘homely’ and familiar Zambia through Makuti and Kirundu boarder.
Back to Zambia: The perfect sanctuary: January 7 – 9
But our car was now pleading for mercy. Losing power often, we literally dragged it back to Lusaka where we replaced the fuel filter and pump, after a back and forth that got us literally stranded in Lusaka for 3 days. But finally, our mechanic, James, did a great job and we then could also put new tyres and the ‘Baby’ was back in great shape.
Malawi: The home of roadblocks but also the beautiful Lake Nyasa: January 10th to 11th
We now headed out to Malawi through the Great East Road, Chipata and the boarder post at Mwami on January 10th. We spent one night in Lilongwe and then headed north to Karonga driving for a long stretch along Lake Nyasa, which was the highlight of the country. The other highlight was that we would be treated with 32 roadblocks for a day’s drive between Lilongwe and the northern boarder of Songwe, including being flagged down by a military hardtop in what looked like an action packed movie. One of the police officers at one of the many roadblocks asked us for ‘Fenta’ or what turned out to be Fanta (the soda) – another way of soliciting money from travelers, which we gladly declined to offer. At the boarder post of Songwe, our car and belongings (which by now had earned the name – clutter) would be searched and re-searched by customs officers who expected the 3 young travelers to be carrying contrabands and would make a killing in bribes, but were devastated and humiliated when they found nothing illegal after very long and detailed searches, a culmination of a country where we were most never understood.
Back into Tanzania: Feeling of homecoming would soon be replaced by crazy traffic rules: January 11th – 14th
Back into Tanzania, we spent a night in Mbeya at the same Hotel where we had slept on December 23rd. It felt like a homecoming. Tanzania had never been so close to home than how it felt that evening. With a few hundred bucks left, we had to race to cross this vast country again making it to Dodoma through Iringa on Jan 12th and driving through Singida, Nzega, Kahama and finally to Nyakanazi the next day in what was the most annoying drive we ever experienced having to deal with the infamous 50km/hour speed limits for hundreds of kilometers and the extortive traffic police officers.
Our final assault started at 4am from Nyakanazi on the morning of January 14th, driving through a forested area before dawn in what looked like a very suicidal move. We could miss the turn at Lusahunga and get lost to the Rwandan boarder at Rusoma before coming back to the right turn and heading for Biharamulo, Bukoba and finally Mutukula boarder in the late afternoon.
Back to Uganda: January 14th
The great feeling of being back home was soon replaced by the craziness on the Ugandan roads (something we had totally forgotten), a distance that would take us about 2 hours to drive in southern Africa, took us nearly 6 hours to drive from Mutukula to our final destination in Kampala.
11,421km had been down in 27 days and the road had been the destination.
In the end, the price for freedom and magical experiences is always high but non-comparable to the insights, the adrenaline, the thrill, the lightness and the unfair advantage that we always emerge with!
Rusho is a serial adventure traveler currently living in Kampala
You can follow him on instagram @rushongoka