Travel from Johannesburg to Nairobi in 10 days driving a Peugeot delivery van (called Henry) with two cats who loathe car journeys? Tracy Brooks’ friends and family all thought she and her husband were mad.
On a date years back, when a man with gorgeous blue eyes asked if I liked camping, I replied that I was a luxury lodge woman and wouldn’t be caught dead in a campsite. One wedding and nearly 20 years later, I’m a camping veteran.
It helped that the then boyfriend, now husband, was eager to ensure I shared his love of camping and the outdoors. Forget sleeping bags and fiddly camping pillows, he packed down pillows and duvet and did the lion’s share of setting up the camp. Alan would wake me with a hot cup of tea then leave me to contemplate my toes while he prepared breakfast, cooking every meal and washing up after them. The level of spoil tapered off but we’ve got camping down to an efficient, comfortable experience involving minimal toil. Why we embarked on this latest adventure was a simple matter of my husband wanting to test his campervan on an African road trip. As for the cats, they refused point-blank to settle in at their ‘cat sitters’, giving us no choice but to surrender and let them travel with us. The trip took two days longer than planned, the cats had us running around in circles on occasion and Henry’s clearance kept us on the main road.
The drive from Johannesburg, and the first few hundred kilometres into Botswana was unexciting and tedious, perking up after Nata on our way to the Zambian border. “What’s that crossing the road ahead? It’s an elephant! An elephant and we’re not even in a reserve!” I cried, hands grappling to get the lens cap off my Nikon. What a novelty – unfettered wild game heedless of the juggernaut transport trucks thundering past.
A WIDENING GAP
The link between Botswana and Zambia entails vehicles and people squeezing onto a ferry over the Zambezi towards the Zambian checkpoint. I climbed out of Henry to photograph the ferry and the spectacle of two men wrestling with an overladen bicycle determined to gallop down the ramp faster than their feet. Hesitating about stepping onto the ferry while an enormous truck was nudging its way on, I suddenly realised that the gap between jetty and ferry was widening and the ramp rising. Without any fanfare, the ferry was chugging deeper into the crocodile infested Zambezi and my husband, Henry and the cats were on their way to Zambia while I was standing firmly in Botswana. Anxiety is a super booster and a spectacular leap clutching camera, sunglasses and hat signified my undignified boarding technique to the undisguised amusement of the other passengers.
After re-joining my team and having my passport stamped, I was despatched to cat and van sit while the helpers took Alan off to conquer the nightmare of red tape. I’d strongly recommend you accept the help of one of the ‘helpers’ at Kazungula to navigate you through the maze of immigration paperwork and queues. Eventually Alan and his posse stormed back to Henry. “Are we done?” I asked. “No,” he snapped. “They insist the van is a commercial vehicle and we don’t have an export permit.” Back and forth our group went but the officials refused to budge. We paid so much over the odds that the ‘helpers’ reduced their rates in sympathy.
AN UNWELCOME VISITOR
At the campsite in Livingstone, Alan jumped down to open up the side door while I hovered in the cab, collecting the detritus of two days’ travel. Glancing up when the driver’s door opened, expecting Alan, I was almost eye level with the largest baboon I’d ever seen. He proceeded, at a leisurely pace, to help himself to the lollipops we keep handy to oil some sticky officials.
Waving my hands had absolutely no effect and the hairy simian strolled with his treat to the adjacent dustbin, hunting for something else to munch. After this, our camp went into lockdown mode but the ape was smart enough to wait for us to tire of the constant untying and unlatching everything and we returned one afternoon to find the remnants of a much anticipated Christmas pudding strewn around the site, along with shards of our wine glasses.
His timing was excellent, however. We’d spent a magical time at Victoria Falls and were still bubbling with adrenalin, and took the trail of campsite destruction in our stride. We were fortunate that the Zambezi River was low, revealing the magnificence of the massive gorge usually hidden by water. The falls are a photographer’s dream but it is difficult to capture an angle that hasn’t been seen a million times before. Despite the many visitors, it is possible, however, to find a spot for yourself to soak in the spray and the breathtaking power of nature.
Back on the road, driving in Zambia was a series of halts at interminable police checkpoints. Every few kilometres we were stopped and questioned as police, military, municipal and immigration officials took turns to examine our paperwork. The stop/start grew tiresome after a while, and my husband finally snapped when a policeman asked yet again if he had a driver’s licence. “Yes,” Alan retorted. “Do you?” This cop swiftly waved us on.
“LOSE THE CATS!”
Henry rattled and bounced on the 60 km stretch of road to the Tanzanian border, our first experience of bad roads and once again, his commercial registration raised its irksome head. Absorbed by the border bustle of colour, noise, squalor and fascinating types of goods carried on foot, head and bicycle, I started when the door wrenched open. “You’ve got 30 seconds before the inspector arrives to inspect the van, so lose the cats,” Alan hissed.
Tossing a towel over the cat on my lap, I leaned my head out of the window and chirped, “Good morning” to the rotund man officiously dressed in a suit groaning at the seams. He didn’t even glance my way, a good thing as the be-towelled cat was lashing her tail in fury. “Sorry about the mess, the Zambian roads are dreadful,” said Alan in an effort to explain the state of our earthly goods, sprayed about Henry’s innards by the shocking road. “You live in here?” the official asked incredulously before waving us on.
The potholes, roadworks, cargo trucks, goats, cows and bicycles continued and it was slow going to Ntengule Coffee Farm and Lodge near Mbeya, our recommended stopover. Set on a lush mountainside with magnificent views, Ntengule is a peaceful haven and we spent half a day cleaning, tidying and battening down the hatches before toasting a spectacular sunset with some good South African red wine in decent glasses – outdoor and simple doesn’t mean sipping Merlot from a plastic cup.
The moment was short-lived. Within the hour, a ferocious storm landed. The poles on our gazebo buckled while we cowered beneath the awning, hanging on desperately to prevent it flying away. Packing our drenched collection of possessions away, we got back on the road to face the trip’s most frustrating driving conditions – the Tanzanian speed limit and enforcement thereof.
Within an hour, we’d collected two spot fines for exceeding the scantily-indicated limit, draining our cash. Fortunately, past Iringa the new highway is a wonderful piece of road and the speed limit well sign posted, so the hawkeyed tension eased. Onwards we sped for Namanga and Nairobi.