Africa from the overland truck

Victoria falls, Zimbabwe

After a long day walking under the hot Zimbabwean sun, I find myself exhausted and taking a moment to recover as the sun sets. I doze off only to wake up to melodious chanting, drums, the mbira and hosho (rattles). I walk out into the cool fresh air and there they are, a group of musicians dressed in their traditional attire (animal skin around their heads, busts, waists, arms and calves) surrounded by a group of tourists dancing along and taking pictures.

I am immediately transported back to an afternoon in Masai Mara a few years ago. That was one of my first visits to the African continent. I had sat next to the musicians and listened to them till the end of their show. Now, after having lived on the continent for three years, I smile, give a donation and walk by. I’m annoyed at myself for not distinguishing the cultural difference of this performance and the ones in the mall in Joburg close to where I live.

In the restaurant sit other tourists, mostly from other parts of Africa, as appreciative and uninterested as me. I order the Thai vegetable green curry, grateful for the only vegetarian option on the menu. The one part of this holiday that I don’t look forward to is the food. I don’t have to worry about putting on that extra holiday weight. Perhaps I might even come back skinnier like I did after seeing meat hung on the side of the road in Dakar.

I realize that I have forgotten my wallet in the room. I proceed to pick all my stuff up – a good South African practice – and then decide that it’s safe to quickly go and come back. During the day today as I toured the sleepy little town, I asked a lady where to find hats. She stood up and said she would walk me to it. She left her shop – door wide open – and walked with me to the shop down the street.

It has been twenty minutes and my food is not here. The waiter in his crisp white shirt (but faint familiar body odor) flashes me his generous smile and tells me for the second time that my food is on the way. Every one here greets me like I’m an old friend and almost seem like they are happy to see me. I wonder if that is the warm culture of this place and if it would be the same if I were a local. Once a friend from overseas told me how respectful my fellow Mauritians were – in his hotel, whenever he asks for a service, the staff put their hand to their heart and bow before responding to the request. What a clever little gesture to demonstrate servitude! I’d never seen such a thing before.

After dinner, I glance at the dessert menu. Nothing interests me. The family at the table next to me – perhaps East African judging from the beautiful trim features of the mother – order a glass of orange juice for each of them. Orange juice for dessert. What a great idea! I get one too. I remember ordering orange juice during a lunch interview back in my last year of college in the States. It was the two interviewers and the two of us preselected interns. Over the course of the summer internship, the other intern – who turned out to be one of my best American friends – brought up the orange juice episode. We order that for breakfast usually, she said, we were all a little thrown off when you ordered it for lunch.

The bill arrives. I pay and get change back. Any change I get back has been very old used US dollars with no crisp notes in sight. Old trillion Zimbabwe dollar notes are now sold for 3 US dollars in shops as souvenirs.

I stay on long after the performance ends. I feel safe and at ease here, ironically the way I often I feel when I set out to a foreign place on my own. I’ve once equated it to being a stranger in a place. Sometimes to having no agenda or plans. Sometimes to just being on my own.

Tomorrow I head to Victoria falls – one of the seven wonders of the world. I wonder why the name hasn’t been turned into a more African name yet. Clearly my lack of knowledge fails me yet again… ——- About to leave…

So turns out that Victoria Falls does have an African name – Mosi oa Tunya – which translates as the smoke that thunders.

Today I will meet my tour guide and discover my tour mates who I will spend the next eight days with. After Vic Falls, we will drive to the Chobe National Park in Botswana, then to Kasane in Namibia at the entrance of the Okavango Delta. We then visit the delta for two days, after which we will make our way to Joburg through Maun and the Tuli block. The whole trip is about 2500kms.

I have carefully read and highlighted my pre-departure pack, of which it says:

* Your tour dossier is a guide only, this is Africa, the distances we cover are huge, things change frequently, for a number of reasons.

* Tours by nature are not only about destinations, they’re about journeys.

* Don’t ever compare Southern Africa to East Africa, they are two completely different destinations!

* Switch off from the outside world. We stay in remote locations and the idea is that you enjoy your natural surroundings away from cities.

I can’t wait.


Typical day on the road…

The past two days visiting Vic Falls (from the Zimbabwe side), the Chobe River and the Chobe National Park have been phenomenal. Today we will cover some 400km from the Chobe National Park and enter Namibia travelling through the Caprivi Strip, at the north edge of the Okavango Delta.

I wake up early and get ready. The shower is warm, the bathroom clean. Nothing less I would expect from Botswana, where at the immigration checkpoint lies a handwritten poster of the ten ways to build better human relationships. The list includes things like speak to people, smile at them, recognize them by name, be generous with praise, be nice to everyone – if you try hard enough, you can like anyone. I promise I’m not making this up.

We silently pack our tents. I share mine with Lara, a sunkissed Portuguese girl living in Angola, with the kind of body that most of us can’t get our eyes off.

We load the adventure truck. The adventure truck is a truck with a bus like structure built on top of it. It’s a nifty little (or big) truck. At the back of the truck are our lockers. On the side, there is space to fit our tents, chairs and food. Inside is a built in freezer. There is even a custom size opening to fit two folding tables.

At 7.30am sharp we depart. We drive about half an hour and the adventure truck slows down. Road block. Giraffes are crossing the road. Thankfully we are tourists and this is welcome entertainment. We admire their print (apparently smaller pattern than those in East Africa) and try to distinguish the males from the females (who have more hair around the ears since they fight less and are also lighter in colour).

Next to me is Ashley, sleeping with her mouth open. Ashley is Canadian, most likely in her early twenties and is on this trip with her co-worker Kurt. They claim not to be together and are likely not. I sense though that she wouldn’t have wanted Kurt to see her sleeping with her mouth open. The couples – Julie and Dimitri from Belgium, Leanne and Gerard (pronounced Herard) from South Africa, and Keith and Mia also from South Africa, sleep on each others’ shoulders in the front.

The road is long, the check points numerous. We diligently get tested for Ebola. To prevent foot and mouth disease, we walk through fabric drenched with antiseptic to disinfect our footwear (as the cows cross the borders quite freely on either side). We find a little structure with a toilet on the side of the road and decide we can use it. We have seen worse. Hold your breath and don’t look, is the advice we follow. We decide that next time though, we will just stop for a bush toilet (that basically means just going behind the bushes).

I want to reach my snack bag in my locker but Kurt is sprawled across the back, his legs across the aisle. Kurt, in his early twenties, South African, has beautiful blue eyes and chubby cheeks. Once almost an Olympic swimming finalist, he converses with me about business with a quiet unpretentious confidence. Kurt lives – in all places – in the Ponte towers in Joburg. Now this is very controversial. Ponte is one of the most historical buildings in Joburg – seeing the best and worst of the city. Built in the shape of hollow towers in the pre-apartheid period, it used to be the Ritz of Johannesburg which privileged white people called home. Post-apartheid, many gangs moved into the building and it became extremely unsafe. Ponte City became symbolic of the crime and urban decay. The core was known to be filled with debris five stories high. There were even proposals in the mid-1990s to turn the building into a high-rise prison. Ponte has cleaned up since. But still, the main reason I know of Ponte is through the documentary Africa Shafted, which depicts life in Ponte, where residents, often foreigners, live the realities of xenophobia. I can’t help ask Kurt how many other white people live there (of the 4000). There are about five of us, he says.

We reach the River Lodge in Namibia as the sun is setting. We put up our tents by the banks of the Chobe River. We find the showers and eat whatever is cooked by our camp leader, Mxolozi. Tonight is pap (South African Afrikaans for ground maize) and stew. We drink our beers and talk about our travels and compare the differences of our home countries to the ones we live in. We contemplate on whether or not it will rain in the next days. We contemplate on our highlights of the trip so far. For many of us it’s the boat ride on the Chobe River – as the sun set, we saw as many as five crocodiles and numerous hippos. Some of us are disappointed that the game drive in Chobe was in the middle of the day – too hot for the animals to come out. We didn’t see any cats (leopards, hyenas or lions) but we did see giraffes, elephants (one was even feeding from its mom), zebras, kudus, impalas and many more. We wonder what the people in the villages that we travel through live on. Once we have washed up, we sleep in our sleeping bags to the sound of the night.


The crocodile

According to Dimitri, there was a crocodile that got out of the river and was going through the garbage. He hardly slept. But it was a dog – Lara saw it. She also thought it was a crocodile and was freaking out too. But she managed to get a good glimpse of it through our tent. I slept throughout like a baby.

Today, we clock another 300km today to the Okavango delta. Every year, more than 11 cubic kilometres of water flow from the Okavango River into the Delta (shaped like a hand), irrigating more than 15 000 square kilometres of the Kalahari Desert, making it the largest inland delta in the world. We have been promised a lush paradise home to Africa’s most beautiful wildlife and bird species.

African massage is also what has been promised – the road is not tarred all the way.


Okavango Delta, Botswana

We reach our camp site after a boat ride and a long drive with an African massage that made some of us nauseous. We are shown to our room – tents with stretcher beds. What luxury that we don’t have to set up our tents ourselves! On our way to our tents, our host points out a snake in the grass. Come see, she says. No fucking way, I think, but politely smile and shake my head.

During lunch, we find ourselves being visited by cows. The manager dutifully shoos them away.

The next morning, at the crack of dawn, we set out in our mokoros (canoe like boats but with a flat base) to an island in the Delta, with our experienced polers guiding us. The water on the delta is barely waist deep. The delta is filled with day water lilies, which are still closed in the early morning. We find our way through the reed, which float well above the sandy river bed with roots dangling free in the water.

We reach the island and our guide tells us if we would like a ‘bushy bushy’, now is the time. After we have relieved ourselves, he gets us in line, shortest at the front (yes that’s me). We have been told to wear camouflage clothes (those of us who didn’t are put between those who did). We are to keep silent. If we see something, touch the person in front of us who will then touch the one in front of them and so on – so that the guide is ultimately notified. If we see any animals, follow the guide’s lead. If he says don’t move, then don’t move. If he says run, then run. If he says climb up a tree, then climb up a tree.

After all the anticipation, we don’t see any animals. We do however learn that wild sage is used to keep the mosquitoes away. We learn that no fence can stop elephants from invading unless they are electric. We are taught the lucky bean game. The lucky bean is a red little bean that looks like a ladybug. In the lucky bean game, one digs six holes in the sand and skilfully hides the lucky bean in one of the holes. Whoever guesses where it is hidden in is lucky.

We admire the marula tree and taste the syrup from the fruit. The marula fruit is fermented in the sun (Amarula liqueur is made from it). Sometimes animals get drunk off of it. What do they do when they are drunk, we ask. Oh they are just funny, our guide says.

After the island, we take our mokoros to the hippo pool. The hippo is responsible for more human fatalities in Africa than any other large animal. Because of their sensitive skin they spend all day in the water. They can stay under water for 6-7 minutes (they are able to close their nostrils). African legend has it that hippos go under water to talk about us human beings, and come out of the water and burst out laughing (the typical hippo grunt).

On our way back from the island, we stop to admire a tiny frog, half the size of my little finger, and brown with white spots. The ride is long and quiet except for the sound of the boats and the occasional hippo grunt (which we also hear at night as we sleep). I notice that the water lilies have now opened in the sun.


Last days – from the delta to Joburg

Today we are clocking another 700km from Maun to the Tuli block. The morning sun shines through the adventure truck. We are all pensive and still sleepy from a late night last night. Surrounding the African television (a bonfire) we spoke of the annoying camping tents zips, the view of the delta in air, the animals we saw and those we hope to see. Dimitri again relates how scary it was to wake up to a crocodile (it is now 5 metres long). We tell him again that it was really just a dog.

Our guide Mxolosi joins us. Every night Mxolosi briefs us for the next day. He is hard to follow. We are often left very confused at the end of it. We have decided that the confusion and mystery is part of the adventure.

His story telling goes something like this: “So I saw these two South Korean girls come running and all they say is Hippo! Killing!” He sniffs and pretends to sob. “So I go and ask the poler, what happened? He goes away and does not talk to me. So now I go to water. I take the mokoro and start to pole.” He now gestures and pretends to be poling. “I see the other people coming in their mokoros and they say ‘No! No! Don’t go!’ I say ok, then I will stay here and wait till everybody comes back. So let me tell you what happened. A hippo was under water and it came up and Swooshhhh! The mokoro was on top of it and Boofff! It just threw the girls off the boat! Now whenever I talk to the guide, and ask him how was the delta, he just goes away and doesn’t say anything.” I gather from the story that nobody died, but I am not sure and don’t ask, as a yes/ no question for Mxolosi usually takes twenty minutes (and that too it’s sometimes hard to decipher the answer).

Mxolosi also then tells us of the story of how he was arrested at the border. It is because of this trouble maker boy, he says. They are now on good terms and even ended up sharing a tent. At the border, travellers are required to disinfect their shoes. The boy refused to admit that he had more shoes than the flip flops he was wearing. So the border patrol decided to search the truck. And in the process, they found all the meat that Mxolosi was bringing in – huge implications in preventing the food and mouth disease. He was handcuffed. What happened then? He knew an officer and talked (paid) his way out if it.

So does Mxolosi still smuggle in meat after this episode? No he doesn’t, he says. I breathe a sigh of relief. But then he proceeds to explain that he keeps fifty pulas with him. If they ask to search the truck, those pulas come in handy. But do not try this, he advises. This does not work for mzungus (white people).



Today is the last stretch. Over the past few days we have clocked some 2500km. We have travelled in our adventure truck, a speedboat, mokoros, a 4×4, a helicopter (over Vic falls), a cruise boat (on the Chobe river) and an airplane (over the delta).

The sun is setting. Lara will stay with me tonight before heading back to Angola. Gerard and Leanne will drop myself, Lara, Julie and Dimitri at the Gautrain station at the back of their bakkie (basically a pickup truck in South Africa). I wonder if our friendships will blossom once we get back into our lives.

We cross the border to South Africa and inch our way to Joburg. As much as it’s nice to be back to the familiar Rand and not worry about roaming charges, I don’t feel like I went very far away. The people, the sun, the animals, and the colour of the sky – none of it has felt too foreign at the end of the day. I suppose somewhere along the way Africa has become home – home away from home, at least for now.


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