Our four-year obsession and a year of planning were finally here on December 20th, 2017. We had planned to set off at 5am but did not leave until 3pm as we needed our car in the best condition.
Now comfortable with it’s mechanical state and equipped with our travel documents, car insurance, road safety equipment, stocks of food, coffee, camping gear, cash and visa cards, we were finally going away to places mostly unknown ‘in search of freedom’ and ‘to explore magical places!’
But there was still that sense of uncertainty deep inside each of us because the journey we were embarking on was yet to unfold. No one we knew had done it, but we were going!
Harrison, Otti and Rusho (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 trip (the Subaru) later named ‘Baby’ would become a perfect companion.
Our first night was spent in Masaka, almost 400km away from our planned destination. Starting at 5am the next day, we headed for the Tanzania boarder of Mutukula and were done with boarder clearance by 9am.
We now had a vast country before us to cross almost from head to toe, a distance of nearly 2000km. Our next couple days would involve driving through vast game reserves in Biharamulo and Rusahunga, impassable roads after Tabora (that forced us to drive back to Nzega so we could go through Dodoma), the ridiculous traffic rules with 50km/hour speed limit on every small settlement and what we termed ‘defiance’ as we raced at night toward Mbeya, breaking all these traffic rules.
December 24th.Now at the TZ/Zambia boarder of Tunduma/Nakonde, Zambia immigration takes us into a room for special questioning. We keep calm. The officer, after explaining to her that we were adventure travelers on a road trip, she could not fully comprehend this. It was here that we learnt; no one expects a bunch of ‘African kids’ to be traveling for traveling’s sake… on their own continent!
Driving in Zambia is one of the best experiences! After a short distance on a pot-holed road, the countryside soon became a paradise; with a wide clean highway, endless vastness of woodlots and torrential rains.
Driving in the afternoon and later at sunset with the songs of Passenger and Oliver Mtukudzi was really refreshing. That road trip feeling we had always dreamt about was here!
We spent Christmas and Boxing Day at friends’ (James and Gloria) home in Lusaka and later headed to Livingstone, visited the magical Victoria Falls and met and made friends with other awesome travelers at Jollyboys Backpackers, where Paul Harrison turned out to be the most awesome of all!
75km from Livingstone is the Chobe River that marks the boarder between Zambia and Botswana. Across Chobe is a different world with a different people and a different system – Botswana.
Aboard a ferry, we crossed the River at Kazungula. Botswana was our ultimate destination so this came with a lot of excitement. The people at the boarder post (and let alone in the entire country) are remarkably fewer, the systems are working and there is no idle bunch of brokers trying to take advantage of you. We were referred to a clearing agent named Masego, who was so nice and very professional and cleared our vehicle in record time.
We then drove 10km away to the beautiful town of Kasane in Chobe National Park and spent a night camping at Big 5 Safari Lodge where we indulged with the ‘Big Boys’ mostly from Namibia and SA.
It was such an amazing experience seeing how the best do it! The next days were spent on the endless road usually with few to no other road users for hundreds of kms but a company of elephants and other wild game.
New years’ eve found us in the town of Maun at Old Bridge Backpackers from where we launched an expedition to the Okavango Delta (world’s largest inland Delta and a truly magical experience for me!)
On new years’ day; we drove to the small town of Kang in the middle of Kalahari. Kang is very lovely and is a base for the ‘Big Boys’ on expeditions in the Kalahari and Namib deserts. Later, we went down through the Trans-Kalahari highway to the capital Gaborone where we spent two nights at a friend’s farm camping under full moon and enjoying long breakfasts with the goats, chickens and farm pets, before heading out to Francis town, crossing the Tropic of Capricorn, another highlight and a rare privilege, and ushered into Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe took us by surprise; with the best boarder clearance system for the vehicle, a few checks after the border post (which is normal) and 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 that in Zambia was here too and I found myself imbibed into this magical green immensity. No wonder, the white settlers couldn’t miss this opportunity!
We spent a night in Bulawayo (an impressive city) 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 finally felt like the freedom we had been searching for!)
Harare turned out equally awesome; we checked-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 by the locals about the local currency (the Zim Dollar or bonds) and the new Mnangagwa government is simply a continuation of the RG Mugabe reign.
It’s January 6, 2018 and we head East to the Zim/Mozambique boarder at Nyamapanda. After checking out of Zim and proceeding to Mozambique immigration, we were 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.
So we were now nowhere, out of Zimbabwe and not in Mozambique! After trying all entry options in vain, we explained our case at the Zim immigration who let us in again, drove back to Harare but decided to ditch Mozambique and retreat north to the ‘homely’ and familiar Zambia through Kirundu boarder.
Back into Zambia
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 good job and we then could also put new tyres and the ‘Baby’ was back in great shape.
We now headed out to Malawi through the Great East Road and the border 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 Malawi. The other highlight was that we encountered 32 roadblocks for a day’s drive between Lilongwe and the northern border of Songwe, including being flagged down by a military hardtop in what looked like an action packed movie.
Back into Tanzania
Back into Tanzania, we spent a night in Mbeya at the same Hotel where we had slept on December 23rd. It felt like 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 had 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 missed the turn at Lusahunga and got 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.
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 7 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 adventurer traveler living in Kampala. Check out his blog & Instagram @rushongoka