For a detailed trip itinerary, click here or for more info on the company that runs it (African Trails) visit:

Want another perspective? There are now a few other blogs for the trip all listed half-way down on the right-hand side of this page.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

South Africa - Part 1 - Springbok, Lambert's Bay, Stellenbosch & Cape Town

Ah yes...South Africa...or as the locals say it “Sith Ifrica”. This place was both a ball and a ball-ache for us...but let’s start with the good stuff...

We crossed the border from Namibia pretty early in the day and the first major town we passed through was, appropriately, called Springbok. Here we had another opportunity to make use of the local ‘Pick’n’Pay’ supermarket for stocking up on snacks and for cook group to get what they needed for that night.

A funny incident happened either on the way into here or on the way out: there was a police checkpoint in a lay-by that must have had at least half a dozen police vehicles in it (ranging from patrol cars to vans). There were maybe twice as many police and a couple of them had dogs with them too. All was good and they asked the usual questions to Norm and checked his papers. I’m not really sure what happened next but from what we heard, the main police guy said something like “do you have any drugs with you?” Norm must have misheard or misunderstood the question because he answered “Oh yeah. Just a couple.” Fortunately, the miscommunication was reciprocated by the police officer who smiled, nodded and sent us on our way. Only in Africa!

After Springbok we reached a place called Lambert’s Bay where we stayed for two nights (Saturday 7th August and Sunday 8th). It was a cool spot – literally and metaphorically, in that we froze our backsides off in 4°C temperatures but at least got to watch whales (Southern Right, i think) come into the bay at dusk. We spent our time here just exploring the quaint wee fishing town, eating at the local fish restaurants and, lest we forget, we spent one sunny afternoon doing a truck clean. One night, Homeless and Kim’s mate Keith came and joined us as he’d been in a surfing competition nearby. You could see how happy these guys were to see each other and catch up – each exchanging stories from their last 5 months apart. On one of the nights, The Fam cooked us up a veritable feast of soup followed by mac and cheese followed by rice pudding. Meanwhile, Berbs joined Keith, Kim and Homeless at a house party with the rest of the surfing fraternity and the next day he was paying the price for polishing off his banana liqueur (purchased in Namibia).

From Lambert’s Bay we drove down to Stellenbosch (a region famous for its wines and cheeses) and we’d heard so much about the legendary wine and cheese tasting sessions (frequented by most overlanders en route) on our way down the west coast. As we pulled up outside ‘The Stumble Inn’  hostel everybody was geared up for decent day of wine-tasting (read: drinking-related debauchery) as a kind of final outing for all the passengers before some went their own way upon reaching Cape Town. But...

For Lara and I, this was not the case.

Way back at the start of the year, before even leaving for the trip, we both had relatively new passports (each with at least 20 clear pages in them). As part of getting sorted for the trip, we noticed that the African Trails website recommended that all passengers on the Ultimate Trans trip had 25 clear pages in their passports. “No problem” we thought “we’ll just get some new 25 page passports done” (at a cost of about 80quid from recollection).

Flash forward a few months, and Lara and I are walking back from immigration on the DRC/Angola border thumbing through our passports and thinking “oh sh1t!”. Having started the trip with purpose-bought brand new 25 page passports, we were already down to about two or three clear pages left; we’d be lucky to make it to South Africa let alone all the back up the east coast to Istanbul. 

As you’ve read, we did make it as far as South Africa, but just about and with only the upcoming week stopover in Cape Town to sort out new British passports.

So, rather than hang around and enjoy ourselves with the other guys in Stelly (Stellenbosch) like we had been so excited about doing, we chose to optimise our chances of a swift new passport turnaround by just bombing straight down to CT by train from Stelly. This was on Monday 9th August and the truck was due to join us again in CT on Wednesday 11th August with a view to leave with a whole bunch of new passengers (plus most of the original ones) on Wednesday 18th August. In short, we had little over a week to get two new British passports turned around... 


The train journey down was pretty unremarkable with the scratched plastic windows leaving us to gaze moronically at other passengers gazing moronically back at us along the two inward facing benches that ran the length of the train. We arrived in CT late in the afternoon and the setting sun was already reflecting off the town-facing side of Table Mountain.

In bitter mood, we got a taxi straight to Ashanti Lodge (where the others were due to be joining us in a couple of days) and treated ourselves to one of their en suite guesthouse rooms (as opposed to a dorm bed). Early the next day (Tuesday 10th August) we went straight to the British Consulate on Riebeck Street, where the woman behind the desk was as helpful as she possibly could be giving us new passport forms but at the same time dropping the bomb that we couldn’t get new passports in Cape Town...only in Pretoria. 


(We kind of expected as much as Lara’s younger sister had only recently been mugged in SA and had to go through similar rigmarole to get her passport back.) Additionally, we couldn’t complete the forms and send them off that day as we needed a counter-signatory (from somebody – preferably a non-related professional -  who had known us for a number of years) as proof that we are who we say we are. Again, we expected something along those lines and had briefed in Neal (co-passenger and Professor of Astronomy in an American university) about how he had met my dad on holiday in Vegas five years ago, that they’d kept in contact and that he’d recommended Lara and I join him on this trip. How’s that for proof of character?
All the same, we still had to wait til the next day (when the other passengers were due at Ashanti)  for Neal to sign the passport forms and photos for us. As soon as they arrived, I stuck our forms under Neal’s nose, got everything signed and ran to the nearest post office to arrange prepaid courier to-and-from the British Embassy in Pretoria (at a cost of 90GBP for the courier and combined total of about 300GBP for the passports). With everything safely sent off, we could do nothing else to expedite things so just tried to see as much of Cape Town as possible and try to forget about our stresses (for now).

Everybody dispersed during the day and did their own thing with the idea of sticking to a plan we’d made several weeks previously of going out for food together. The evening came and whatever troops had reconvened went out to a Mexican restaurant called ‘Mexican Kitchen’ which was just off Long Street. The food was great but the atmosphere was somewhat subdued: Lara and I were stressed (as you know), Neal, Karen and Squirt had come to the end of their 5 month trip which had been 7 years in the making (Neal is only allowed that much time off work once every 7 years) and was due to start his two month placement at CT university the next day. Furthermore, not everybody was there...

Over tacos, margaritas and burritos, the guys told us about what we had and hadn’t missed out on in Stelly. The long and the short of it was that they’d had a couple of good nights, but whilst Lara and I weren’t there on the wine-tasting afternoon, neither were Leon, Homeless or Kim: they’d left for CT by car the same day Lara and I did. Leon called it a day there and stayed at home in CT and I think Homeless went back to Stelly in his own car after a quick visit home  – in fairness to these guys, they’d got too close to home to not make a premature homecoming.  We were told that, without 5 of the 16 passengers there for the wine-tasting, company was thinner on the ground than it could have been.

After dinner, we said goodbye to The Fam (Neal, Karen and Squirt) as they drove to their rented home outside of town. The rest of us walked back to Ashanti where Kay, Berbs, Sonya, Yoichi, Lara and I slept in a dorm together (Lara and I had checked out of our en suite room that morning).

Early on Thursday morning (12th Aug), Lara, Sonya and I did something we thought we’d never do...

Click here for a comprehensive downloadable visitor's guide of Cape Town.


Friday, 17 September 2010

Namibia Part 3 - Swakopmund, Dune 45, Fish River Canyon & Ai-Ais Hot Springs

If Etosha hadn’t reminded us that we were leaving the remote parts of Africa, Swakop definitely did; Ruby now had numerous friends coming and going through the town and they too were filled with overlanders; continental (European) restaurants were everywhere as were all the sorts of shops and outlets you’d see in any European town. We stayed at Swakopmund Lodge in 6-bed dorms (a nice break from the 28 days of bush-camping in tents) and upon arrival were shown a promo dvd of all the activities we could do in our three days there: canoeing, fishing, horse-riding, sand-boarding, go-karting, quad-biking , bush-walking, para-gliding, aerobatic flying and of course...skydiving!

We all went for a mix of activities but Kay, Laraldo, Homeless, Sonya and I all put our names down for the tandem skydive which – weather permitting – would be the following morning. That afternoon, we had a stroll around town, found an internet cafe, had a few drinks and did just about anything we could to take our minds of our upcoming death-plunge.

The next morning (Monday 2nd August) we were picked up by the skydiving company’s shuttle bus and went to their HQ where we nervously filled out indemnity forms and waited for the green light...which never came. (Too many jumpers that day meant we wouldn’t all go together, so instead of splitting us up, they postponed our jump by two days.) With everybody amped up and with some adrenaline to make use of, the gang opted for an afternoon doing a go-karting grand prix. I didn’t get involved but from what I gather, Normski had a controversial win to Homeless and Berber Dave’s dismay (Homeless 2nd, Berbs 3rd, Kim 4th, Son 5th, HH 6th...Laraldo came last).

Laraldo had to change karts as she gave this one a flat tyre.

Laraldo: Good-to-go in kart No. 2

Revving up and ready to go.

Marjane/Normski & Berbs
Marjane congratulating Homeless on coming second.
Berbs reluctantly stands in 3rd place on the podium... Marjane celebrates his win.
The day for the skydive finally came and fortunately (or unfortunately depending upon how you look at it) it was a beautiful day. We were taken out to a spot in the desert where we put on our ultra-gay jumpsuits and awaited further instructions...for about 10 seconds: “Adam – you’re up. We’ll take you up on your own first as we have an odd number of jumpers.” Great. No time to get pumped but I guess no time to get too nervous either. Within minutes I was in the plane and within a further 25 mins I was being launched out of said plane 10,000ft above the ground. We were told that the first 3 or 4 seconds were the “Oh shit!” moments and after that, it’s about 30 seconds of free-falling before the chute opens...then another 5 or 10 mins til landing in the dropzone.

This guy was doing the scissors to my hair as I plummeted obliviously.

Superman pose.

Safe & Sound on solid ground - happy days!
I really wasn’t as nervous as I thought I’d be (at least nowhere near as nervous as on the bungy I did at Vic Falls 10 years ago) but it was a shame to not have a friend on the plane with me to get amped up. Back on the ground, my mouth was set to motor-mode and the corners of my lips damn-near met each other around the back of my head. It was all over too quickly but I was beaming and buzzing. Now I could kick back with a beer and watch the others go up and come was cool listening out for them too; hearing them screaming as they came within earshot a thousand feet or so directly overhead. (In fact, I could tell when Lara was coming down as the air seemed to turn a distinctive blue colour...Sheila, Mel: she might not want to show you the video of the jump, but if she does, I swear promise it wasn't me that taught her those words!) I had to admire both Kay and Laraldo who were both pretty nervous about just the thought of jumping (Lara doesn’t even do fair-rides) but both went up in the last flight and came down as ecstatic as I did. Son and Kyle were also equally stoked. That evening called for laughs as we had a group viewing of our souvenir dvd and photos.

Laraldo displays her boss-eyed thumbs.

The Supergirl pose!

The next day we had a scenic drive, passing into the Tropic of Capricorn on our way to Naukluft Park, home of Dune 45 (one of the biggest free-standing sand dunes in the world...I might need to double-check with the LP on that). We camped nearby and got up early in the morning to see the sunrise from the much fabled dune only to be told that only people who paid to camp inside the park had that privilege...everybody else had to wait another hour. When we were finally let in, Ruby was in familiar company again as overland trucks huddled around the foot of the dune with on-board chefs and helpers cooking breakfast and laying the tables as their passengers made the 10-15 minute hike up the dune.

Crossing over the Tropic of Capricorn on our scenic drive to Naukluft Park.

I know, a bit dark. But it says "Sesriem - Namib Naukluft Park"

Laraldo at the foot of Dune 45
I took this from the top...Homeless halfway up the dune. (Overland trucks in background.)

Kay - looking tired, but persevering to the top.
Son, Berbs & me chilling taking some time to reflect at the top of Dune 45

You can’t really argue with the shapes and colours concocted by the African sky, winds and sand at that time of the morning.

The view from the bottom of the can see everybody hiking up its spine.
The view from the top was undoubtedly breath-taking: you can’t really argue with the shapes and colours concocted by the African sky, winds and sand at that time of the morning , but (and shoot me for saying this) I feel like I had been spoilt coming down the west coast through the Sahara as I’m certain the dune Laraldo and I climbed in Morocco was at least 1/3 higher than this one and Dune 45 had nothing on the view of the vast sea of sand provided in the Sahara. Just my opinion though.

The truth is, I can’t really remember what we did for the rest of that day (although I do remember Norm frolicking around the Namib Desert like a female gymnast with a roll of toilet paper) and I don’t have any photos to help I’ll assume it was a long drive day followed by a bush camp to get us to Fish River Canyon in good time for sunrise the next day.

I don't remember much about the afternoon after Dune 45, but I do have this photo of Norm skipping around like a female gymnast with some toilet paper.

Ok...I’m running out of superlatives here. Fisher River Canyon? Stunning/awesome/awe-inspiring/breath-taking/marvellous/amazing . It was any and all of these plus more. I had never heard of the place so my lack of expectaion might have helped my appreciation for it. But if you’re lucky enough to have ever been to the Grand Canyon, this is Africa’s own, less touristy version of it.

Fish River Canyon

Check the wee bird in the foreground. He wasn't camera shy...


Me 'n' Laraldo - obligatory couple shot.

As if this spectacle wasn’t enough, Laraldo and I helped Sonya squeeze out her ‘jigger flea’ eggs from inside her toe over breakfast (I had mine sunny-side up). As jigger victim number four (behind me, Karen and Berbs) Son went straight in at the top of the charts with the biggest and most impressive egg-sack. (Little did we know at the time, Homeless was incubating the mother of all jigger fleas in his’ll have to read about that one in our Zambia blog entry due shortly!)

Squeezing out Sonya's jigger flea eggs over breakfast.

Our final stop in Namibia was the Ai-Ais Hot Springs. The springs themself weren’t really much to look at (nothing more than a slightly ornate well with a rail) and the water was too hot to bathe in (as we had done in the awesome Wikki Warm Springs in Yankari National Park in Nigeria) but there was a giant-sized swimming pool within the adjacent hotel complex which we used (for free) as the African sun beat down on our heads.

Homeless launches Squirt in the pool at Ai-Ais (which was infinitely more exciting than the hot springs).

Feeling totally chilled, and in reflective mood, we bush-camped with HH, Homeless and Kim’s homeland (South Africa) staring at us from a distance and the next day we finally got there.

We're coming to see you Mr Mandela.