Traveling more than 10,000km overland is no easy feat anywhere in the world – let alone Africa, where in many countries, tarmac-laden roads fade into dirt tracks (or dead ends) without notice and it’s made even more complicated when, during the first leg, your truck is driven by two amateurs intending to go wild off-road. That was only the beginning of what became a very rough and bumpy first-leg through the African continent. Nevertheless, over the past 75 days, I have learned more about fixing cars than in eight years of engineering studies put together. With every broken fan belt, oil change, oil or water leakage, loose bolts or battery problem we get to know yet another side of the vehicle and by now we know what needs fixing just by the smell or the sound of it. And so, knock on wood, our long journey home continues to thrive. We crossed sweeping sands of the Namib desert, to the far reaches of Mount Kilimanjaro, freed ourselves from a muddy Central Kalahari, dove in turquoise waters of the warm Indian Ocean, sought the Big Five in golden savannah and compiled redundant paperwork at almost every border crossing. Africa is a continent full of remarkable stories to tell, and while it is not an easy task to accomplish, the lessons learnt and the experiences made from this mesmerising adventure make every last kilometre worth it.
No matter how long you have been on the continent, at first glance you are inevitably a tourist. The appearance and noise level of our beast alone suffices for plenty of attention and the sight of two mzungus inside (a common reference for ‘white skin’) inevitably leads to a variety of gestures. Some pause their intense debates, drop their jaws and simply can’t believe their sight, others start smiling and vigorously wave towards us, some give their thumbs up, others whistle or start yelling. Children try to catch up, police officers try to fine us for not having a right wheel drive, army generals joke that we stole their vehicle. Whatever is thrown towards us we stick to our No. 1 rule: “Just smile and wave boys, smile and wave…” in order to defuse the somewhat frightening encounter of our vehicle. On the other side, we make the most heartwarming acquaintances both with locals and with other mzungus alike. People from all over the world and so we had the pleasure to explore Lake Malawi and Tanzania with Sarah and Tom from London, René and Dominique from Bern and Rikke and Niklas from Copenhagen. We obviously exceeded our passenger capacity, but Rikke, Niklas and I found comfort in hiding in the back of the truck and had the most enjoyable views from outside the roof window. And so we headed north through the lush greenery of Malawian mountain passes, drove parallel to dramatic river rapids and across bridges that seemed to collapse under the weight of our car. At last, we reached the long winding downhill road to Lake Malawi. For both my father and myself the sight of this enormous lake was a jaw-dropping experience. The cooling breeze of the wind and the sight of water as far as our eyes could reach was simply dazzling.
After a memorable stay at the endless shores of Lake Malawi, we soon arrived in Chitimba. Here we stopped for a day trip to Livingstonia, a Scottish missionary town from the 19th century set high above the lake. The Unimog was too big for the hillside road and so we had to organise some other means of transportation. Riding “public transport” as we had to on this trip from Chitimba to the just 15 km remote but 900-meter high village, turned out to be a nerve-racking ride with dozens of hairpin bends on a road hand cut out of the mountain. Steep mountain walls on one side of the road and easily a 100 feet drop if not more on the other side, this was the reality of our three-hour drive up the hill in a mini-bus. A 2-wheel drive mini-van with slick tires that almost fell apart due to the shear load of people squashed inside resembling a game of human Tetris. Whether it is four people sitting on the front passenger seat, or two tons of groceries, six mzungus and another seven local passengers on the three rear benches with non-existent leg space you soon stop questioning “will they fit?” and start thinking strategically on how to sit reasonably comfortable while remaining close to the nearest “exit” in case of an emergency. This 10-mile journey to supposedly scenic Livingstonia came at a hefty price but upon arrival, it was all the more rewarding as our eyes wandered across the stunning views of Lake Malawi and the thick thunderclouds covering the distant mountains of Mozambique.
We decided to stay the night to enjoy the time-warped architecture of Livingstonia, chat with the friendly locals and compliment the stunning views with a delicious self-made dinner. All too soon we were facing our horrid return journey. We would have liked to stay longer, preferably hike back but our 7-day transit visa for Malawi came to an end and left us with little flexibility. And so we had to take the marginally faster mini-bus back to Chitimba, pack our stuff and head for the Tanzanian border. Here, once again, we registered our vehicle at countless offices, stamped our Carnet de Passage for exit and entry, paid our visa fees and toll road taxes which once again had to be paid in the local currency. After seeking an ATM and two hours later we were allowed to enter Tanzania.
As we left southern Africa behind, we entered Tanzania, our first eastern African country with access to the beautiful Indian Ocean and the Zanzibar archipelago. Here in historic Stone Town, with its fascinating labyrinth of narrow streets and numerous street markets, we made our first encounter with the intriguing Arabian culture of which we will see more and more on our northbound trip. The elaborately carved wooden door and window frames manifest the deep cultural roots of the spice islands while the sound of prayers from nearby mosques add to the authenticity of Stone Town while also reminding me how very distant we are from home. Zanzibar, probably more famous for the magical beaches brings landscapes of palm-fringed beaches, white as white sand can get and turquoise water dotted with wooden sailing ships to life. Since neither my father nor I am big fans of excessive beach holidays, we reduced our stay to the bear minimum. I completed my open water certificate in a few days (a fascinating experience that brings a whole new dimension to life, but that is another story…). My father used the time well, to organise the rest of our trip going through multiple scenarios in case we fail to obtain one of several and often difficult to obtain visas required on our proposed trip back home. The evenings were spent on the beautiful beach, diving through the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean and playing card games with our friends.
Back in Dar es Salaam, where we parked our truck at a local backpackers we filled up on groceries and got ready for our 550 km leg to Mount Kilimanjaro. 550 km is a reasonable distance to cover when driving on German Autobahns, in Africa this distance is a different story. With breaks, we consider ourselves lucky if we manage to average at 50 km per hour. This implies, however, tarmac roads in good condition, little traffic and rare police check. Conditions rarely met since entering Zambia. But as it turned out the roads in northern Tanzania were above and beyond our expectations. I never thought I could be so thankful for freshly paved roads. On top, we were rewarded with an epic journey through the remarkable beauty, winding roads, rolling hills and fertile valleys, lush landscapes of Tanzania. I remember the very moment my father pointing out that we ought to see Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance. He had been here before and so he easily recognised the enormous circumference of the world’s tallest freestanding mountain. However, due to weather conditions, we were hindered to soak in the incredible view of Mount Kilimanjaro. Photographed numerously from every angle it is certainly one of Africa’s most magnificent sights, yet we had to remain patient. In order to increase our chances, we entered Amboseli National Park in Kenya. We arrived at our campsite but still, no sight of the mountain. Instead, thick rain clouds hovered above our heads. Disappointed, we called it an early night. Nevertheless, some hope remained and so I prepared my camera gear the night before and set my alarm for just before sunrise. Boy, this was the place to get up early. It was freezing and from the temperature, it was clear that all the clouds had faded and with the slow rising of the sun only the brightest stars remained visible. There it was. From golden savannah and magnificent acacias on the lower levels, the mountain rises through lush rainforest, alpine meadows and a barren lunar landscape to the twin summits of Kino and Mawenzi. Watching the sunrise across herds of elephants, zebras and buffalos is a mesmerising image of Africa and most certainly ranks high on my most memorable experiences. We stayed the day to soak in this remarkable view, the wildlife and the stunning sight of Mount Kilimanjaro.
We had to depart soon as crucial paperwork was waiting at the Ethiopian Embassy in Nairobi. Here is the predicament. The Ethiopian Embassy in Nairobi only issues tourist visas to residents of Kenya. Tourists from other nations have to obtain their visa in their home country, i.e. Berlin for us. We have heard from multiple people that the only way around this problem was to FedEx our passports to the Ethiopian Embassy in Berlin. This, however, would have left us very vulnerable in Kenya. Yet, little hope remained, as I heard from two dutch overlanders who successfully obtained two visas by getting a letter of introduction from their dutch embassy and a lot of begging. This, however, was in May 2016. So we drove through the frustrating traffic of Nairobi entered German soil to ask for a letter of introduction. To our disappointment, Germany doesn’t publish letters of introduction and so the only piece of paper that we obtained was a statement by the German Government, that it doesn’t publish letters of introduction nor letters of recommendation for visa purposes. Better than nothing we took our chance and headed to the Ethiopian Embassy on the following morning and arrived just before opening hours. We were lucky, we were the only visitors. There are in fact two gates. One for the embassy and one for the consulate. We took our passports to the entrance gate of the embassy and I politely asked the security guard if we could obtain two single entry tourist visas for Ethiopia. She looked down on me, slightly arrogant and asked: “What nationality?”. “German… and here are two letters of introduction from our German embassy.” She looked surprised as if I had plenty of experience in this kind of paperwork. She took both passports and the letters which obviously weren’t letters of introduction. Nervously, we sat outside the embassy wondering if the waiting was a good sign. 20 minutes later she returned both passports and our letters which were marked and signed by a statement in Ethiopian. No idea what it said but she told us to go to the consulate in order to apply for our visas. This came as a complete surprise and with high hopes and regained confidence, we walked over only to hear from the security guard that they do not issue tourist visas to Germans. Again, I kindly asked for two visas. Without the slightest idea what the ambassador had written on our two german statements, I handed it to her as my last resource. A final attempt to obtain our desperately needed visas. If this failed, we were indeed in big trouble than I thought. She studied the signed letters intensely, almost annoyed. Then she looked back at me with surprise, again back onto the document and a few seconds later she waved us through the gate. “Wait in the lobby!”. After six hours of waiting, paperwork but mostly waiting (we needed photocopies of our passports, passport pictures, a complete itinerary of what we wanted to see in Ethiopia and where and with whom we were staying. This, I pulled last minute out of my fingers booking hotels on booking.com like a mad man but which I then could cancel afterwards just for the sake of our visas) we finally found two single-entry visas from Ethiopia glued into our passports. At last! Luckily our adventure wouldn’t end in Kenya and we have high hopes to explore the medieval world hewn from stone in Lalibela and observe the no less dramatic landscapes of the Simien and Bale Mountains.