Only defining the Kalahari as a desert is akin to only appreciating a diamond for its strength. The Kalahari plains burst to life after the rains. Springbok pronk in plains of finger grass, and kaleidoscopes of African Monarch butterflies dance around wild dagga flowers.
Travel to the Jao Concession to see the place that sits between earth and water, as a cloud does between air and rain. A flowing land made completely soft and flat by tens of millions of years of slit and sand. A place where lavender waterlilies bloom over rivers painted sangria red with tannins, or glowing aqua blue above the white Kalahari sands.
On my Kruger self-drive safari, I spent six days in the far north, seeing very few people, but also very few big animals, and that was a fine compromise. I found more packs of painted dogs and watched herds of elephants cross swollen rivers dyed red with earth. I watched birds, turtles and chameleons hunt. I was pleased to be happy in the north with such small sightings.
Ibo Island feels like an heirloom, passed from culture to culture through the ages. The Swahili, Arabs, Indians, Dutch, Malagasy, British, French and Portuguese have all left their imprint on the island. Some are harsh colonial scratches on its soul, while others are picturesque like the Swahili sails on the fisherman’s dhows.
This isolation combined with the unique geography of an archipelago on the east African coast really piqued my interest snorkeling Quirimbas National Park. I envisioned sailing between some of the islands with a snorkel and a fishing line and exploring the marine ecosystem. I found exactly what I was looking for on Rolas Island.
The most memorable part of scuba diving Tofo was the incredible visibility in the water. For my first time, I got vertigo on one of my safety stops watching divers about 25 meters below me circling around a coral bommie. It just felt like I was suspended in the air. These conditions were perfect for crisp underwater photography, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in it.
The locals have learned to navigate the tidal sand bars and offer trips from Vilanculos out to Bazaruto and Benguerra islands in Swahili dhows. We saw rare humpbacked dolphins and manatees on the way out. The islands combine the stark beauty of the Namib desert dunes with the azure water of the Seychelles.
We arrive at the Kolmanskop ghost town just after dawn, as the rising sun illuminates the dunes, but before we can feel its heat. Not only is there no one else there, there is no sign of anyone else having had been there for decades. There are no ticket booths, or tour guides. There are not even footprints in the sand, as the winds sweep the dunes back into place every day.
Flying over the Namib Nauluft National Park around Sossusvlei, you glide over artful wisps of star and crescent shaped dunes. They seem to be connected in long scripts as if purposefully painted by a calligrapher’s brush. For those that can decipher this “Sand-skrit”, they tell ancient tales of wind and rain in geological time.
These small beetles are the bottom of the food chain for a diversity of cleverly adapted desert animals. Most are miniature to limit their need for scarce resources, and have found ways to blend into the dunes, making their hidden worlds hard to find. However, all life leaves little signs in this world of misty moving sand, and those that have learned to read them can take you on one of the best desert safaris in the world.
The pinnacles, natural arches and piles of boulders of Spitzkoppe are famous challenges for African rock climbers, as well as spectacular landscapes for some supermoon photography. After hours in the land of the supermoon, we walked in single file back down the slot canyon, ducked through the dark cave portal, and arrived back in reality. We brought back images of a dreamland under a supermoon that had not been that bright since 1948.
Everyone giggled uncontrollably. The adolescences entered the crescent with more trepidation, moving across it quickly, more self-conscious of their movements. However, the women would follow with large arching leaps through the crescent to encourage them to express themselves more freely. In their small community, the dance seemed to say, show us proudly who you are, so we can support you.
Overall, the trip from Kasane to Maun was grueling with long days in the car, where anything you need is scorching hot and covered in choking layers of dust. Being self-sufficient for your vital supplies, relying on GPS for navigation, battling through deep sandy roads, and co-existing with wildlife at night means every moment is an adventure, and that is both tiresome, and invigorating.
For any adventurous wilderness enthusiast, self-driving through the Chobe and Moremi wilderness from Kasane to Maun should be on your bucket list. It takes careful preparation, but allows you to go explore some of the best wildlife areas in Africa on your own, and it is nothing short of incredible.
The Ebb and Flow of the Okavango Delta hen the water in the Okavango Delta is high, it is an alluvial fan with marshy islands in the middle, and finger lakes extending far into northern Botswana. Day lilies dot the water, and mokolwane palms and papyrus reeds line the waterways. The reeds are […]
Khwai is a tapestry of ecosystems, each with its own enchanting character. In October, the Khwai river is reduced to a stream. It flows slowly like silver solder into a groove, giving its surface a metallic cobalt sheen in the afternoon. On its banks, majestic elephants wade through marsh, ripping reeds in slow motion with their trunks. Hippos float in river bends, and wallowed cranes, and saddle billed storks poke around the papyrus reeds for a meal.
The Savuti sun seems to descend into the eyes of the lions, setting them aflame with devious focus. They emerge from the surrounding shadows to set ambushes in the dark. Even the elephants seem weary. In fact, Savuti is famous for a pride of lions that hunts elephants. An extremely rare feat, even for these king cats.
I stayed a week, and felt this wild park grow familiar. Sitting by the campfire and watching the sun’s glowing orb set over pods of hippos in the Luangwa river, and the stars float in overhead on a moonless night is the epitome of a wild safari. I do not know if there is a better place to do that than South Luangwa National Park. So, although it will always be a place where I will have to look all ways before getting out of my car, I am so happy to now have a connection to the ecosystem that will certainly bring me back for years to come. Now I know, South Luangwa was the park of my dreams.
While scrambling to Sapitwa peak is certainly worth the effort, it is a mistake to plan a quick trek to just do so. Mount Mulanje is a place to meander, sitting by the waterfalls, cooling beer in the swimming holes, and making fires in the mountain huts under the starry nights. We spent four days and three nights trekking Mount Mulanje, and felt like we needed more time.
Looking into the eyes of the hippos of Katavi, you can see the intense stress in their eyes as fights break out around them. Hippos are constantly opening their mouths in gapping yawns, which display their teeth as warnings to their neighbors. The fighting inflicts deep wounds on the hippos, which ooze blood and fester in the poo. Even babies are attacked or can get crushed in the heat of battle.
Lake Natron might be the most beautiful place you never want to visit. The images of desert snow, hidden waterfalls in slot canyons, and neon red waters full of flamingos were enough to ignite our expedition there. It is stark beauty at its best, but unfortunately, it is fiercely guarded by a gauntlet of fees and tolls from the Tanzanian Government. This has significantly decreased travelers to the region, and hurt the local Maasai community that depends on the revenue they bring.
The beauty of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is defined by the sheer magnitude of the Western Breach, the green misty valleys of Barranco, the most massive glaciers left in Africa, and the gaping Ash Pit in the heart of the mountain. It is certainly worth climbing it to gaze at these natural wonders. However, the irony is that easily over 90% of those do climb Kilimanjaro, do not see these sights. They are smitten with a climber’s disease which ranks altitude above beauty when selecting a mountain to climb, and choosing a route up it. It is quite an unfortunate mistake.
To really get a good feel for the country you will need time, patience, and unfortunately, if you do not live there, some deep pockets. Kenya is an expensive country for travelers, and getting around it is often difficult. However, I highly recommend making the effort, and advise taking your Kenya road trip to these six major areas around Kenya.
Ethiopia is both one of the most frustrating countries to travel, and also one of the most unique and rewarding. It feels like you are being transported into another dimension where life is fundamentally different. That is something increasingly rare in our quickly developing world. It is something worth traveling to experience.
The sweat on your hands melts the sandstone you are gripping back into little granules causing your hands to slowly slip from the small holds on the cliff face. You have to lean in, and let go with one hand to dry the other on your pants. You are desperate to keep moving upwards towards Abuna Yemata, but stuck trying to decipher Amharic instructions from your guide about your next move.
While the conditions on Erta Ale are brutal, the show is spectacular. It feels like the lake is alive, changing its moods without warning. Sometimes it flows all in one direction, down into a hole at one edge. Then a fissure in the metallic black crust will slowly pry itself open, exposing a shape like a radioactive snake. This is the time to wait and watch until hot molten, the color of the sun, leaps through the chasm like a ballerina on center stage.
Arriving at Dallol drenched in sweat, it feels like we have found nature’s toxic waste dump. The landscape is oozing neon celeste, rust, canary and emerald. Our guide requests everyone to stay behind him because of the odd acid pool or release of deadly gases. However, he wanders off, and immediately everyone is off on their own like a bunch of drunken scientists on Mars, poking things and taking selfies with sulfuric acid.
The epitome of visiting the Mursi tribe was when our guide (not jokingly enough) asked the chief if he could marry his daughter. The chief basically spat in disgust. Of course not, he explained. Only a Mursi man is suitable for her. It was the perfect example of how, despite the harsh conditions of daily life, he still held the people of his tribe above outsiders. He was not interested in the relative material wealth of our guide, he was interested in maintaining his culture in his bloodline.
The bull jumping ceremony in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley is a rite of passage for every young man in the Hamar tribe. The young man must strip naked, and run across the backs of bulls in front of his village. It is an indisputable test of bravery. However, it is not the most impressive part of the ceremony, or the most intense trial of courage of the day.
So instead of being two hours from the border, we are actually a minimum of two days away. It is a mental punch to the face. Our gas, water and patience are starting to run low. We drive hard all day. The road to Juba was paved once, but we mostly drive next to it, as the potholes are so bad it appears to have been shelled in a great war. At Nachok town we veer east on a dirt track, and do not see any other vehicles besides a military transport until long after we cross the Ethiopian border a day later.
Gnats swarm around us so thickly that swatting in front of our face feels like running a hand through a bucket of rice. We have to turn-off our headlamps to keep them away, but that leaves a gnawing feeling in our stomachs as it means we cannot see approaching crocodile eyes on the water. It is estimated that there are over 10,000 crocodiles in Lake Turkana, and Central Island National Park is their breeding ground.
On the complete opposite side of the country, the Abertine Rift in the southwest provides some of the most uniquely beautiful landscapes and wildlife in the world. From the tree climbing lions in the Ishasha sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park, to the crater lakes of Kasenda, the Chimpanzees in Kibale National Forest, and the great Gorillas of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. This region is not to be missed, and offers wild experiences that are very hard to find elsewhere in East Africa.
In a society that has been governed by a council of elders, guided by rainfall, and defined by warriors, the people of Karamoja must now find their own way to integrate more deeply with the people beyond their borders so that future generations can thrive. This transition has already begun, and completing it successfully will be one of the biggest challenges the Karamojong have faced. There is nowhere in the world where you can just trade in your gun for a lifetime of education or professional experience.
Kidepo Valley National Park is the destination in Uganda that everyone recommends you visit, but nobody has actually been to. Located in the North Eastern corner of the country, pushed up against the borders of South Sudan and Northern Kenya, tribal warfare, rebels, and notoriously bad roads have kept it isolated from just about everybody. However, this seclusion has fueled its legend as one of the last surviving tracts of unadulterated wilderness left in Uganda.
The crashing water creates an aura of spray, which shoots directly back up into the air. It nourishes an oasis of flowers and foliage, and fuels vivid rainbows. Giant vase shaped Angel’s Trumpet flowers, colored Apricot and peach, hang upside down below the falls, harboring strange horned chameleons with bright yellow heads, as if doused in sunlight.
Then we hear the baritone beating of tree trunks all around us, and a group of male chimpanzees comes swinging aggressively through the trees, screeching loudly. Branches and leaves pour to the ground around us. The females climb higher on trunks and scream back, all the trees around us start swaying with chimpanzees, and I feel very much like a dazed red colobus monkey on the ground. It is an impressive show of force.
The snow-capped peaks of the Rwenzori Mountains tower to the west, and the dense woodlands of Kibale Forest National Park stand to the north, stocking the Bigodi Wetlands full of water and wildlife. It is one of the best places in the world to see primates, with nine species jumping through the treetops during the day, and four nocturnal ones that emerge under the moon. Further, the birdlife in the swamps is exceptional, as the wooden walkways traversing them allow you to go deeper into the ecosystem than usual to find what is hiding in the reeds.
Lake Bunyonyi is surrounded by terraced hills where local farmers grow groundnuts, plantains, sweet potatoes, and cabbages in patchworks of adjoining fields, so it appears like someone laid a volcanic red and verdant green quilt over each hill.
Bwindi’s vast swaps, sheer peaks, and dense canopy make it foreboding enough, however, once inside its boundaries, the giant mountain gorillas ensure you realize that they are the true guardians of Bwindi, and the ones who may decide if you ever make it back out. Overall, the experience is exhilarating, and as much as the gorillas feign aggression, they also show their gentle and playful sides.
It is hard to keep-up with them, as the trail climbs over a kilometer up in just over four kilometers of hiking, and it is so muddy it feels like climbing up a wall of melting chocolate ice cream. After an hour or so of scratching upwards while slipping downwards, we are sweating in the jungle humidity, being pelted with rain, and I begin to think the ranger may have had a point.
Five days before we were scheduled to climb Nyiragongo volcano in DR Congo’s Virunga National Park, a new vent opened in the crater spewing lava into the air, and creating a cascade of lava “a firefall” into the lava lake in the crater. Upon arriving at the Virunga National Park headquarters in Goma, the park staff assure us they have rushed volcanologists up the mountain, and while the United Nations has put all their staff on evacuation alert, Nyiragongo was safe to climb.
A terrible cracking sound comes from behind us as the dominant silverback decides to make his entrance into the clearing by snapping a tree right next to us, and pulling it down with a single hand. He walks by us on all fours, not showing us his face, but ensuring we see his size, and his silverback. He passes the other gorillas, and moves deeper into the jungle, and we all follow like part of his family.
Ishasha lies in the Southern sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park. It is a fabled place in Uganda where prides of tree climbing lions live in the canopies like troops of monkeys. This behavior is rare enough that there is still debate over what drives a 180 kilo (400 pound) cat to clumsily scratch its way up a tree, but sightings seem to be becoming more common.
The jungle heat hits us as we descend past the giant bamboo, and views open up of the rolling hills. The porters and guides start finding chameleons all over the trees with horns like triceratops. The land feels ancient wilderness. When we make to the ranger’s station at the park entrance, we stop to sign out, and looking at the registration book, we realize that no one has entered the park in the last six days.
It rains for several hours again in the night, and it makes me feel trapped, knowing the kilometers of tussock meadows between us and the bottom of the mountain are slowing turning into waist deep sludge. Our gateway out is closing. My feet are tender, swollen, raw-open wounds, and I can tell they are already infected.
I drift into consciousness multiple times in the night, waking in a panic that it is time to go and it is still pouring rain, and then the last time the nightmare is true. At 5:30 am, as if on autopilot, we start pulling over, strapping on, cinching, buttoning, and tying on layers and layers of gear, until I am wearing everything I have brought up the mountain.
Bernard points West towards the Congolese border where a Congolese plane flying an aid mission crashed into the mountain mists. Then in a matter of seconds, the mists rise from the forest floor, absconding the surrounding peaks like a bridal veil, as if scolding us to wait until we summit to inspect the peaks.
The shriek of the hyrax pierces the blanket of darkness, and sends a chill shivering up your spine. Its call sounds like the frantic wail of someone that has been mortally wounded, and is slowly dying alone in the woods. As the hyrax call to each other, it seems like haunted spirits are flying around the jungle wailing in the night. They are the mountain banshees of the Rwenzori.
However, the elevation gains were daunting. We would be climbing 3,456 meters [11,338 ft.] in the first four days to a height of 4,620 meters [15,157 ft.], which is higher than anything in the continental United States. Then we would loop back down the mountain in two days.
There are about fifty crater lakes around Kasenda in Western Uganda guarded by steep volcanic slopes, but you would not know it, because hardly anyone does. They are due west of Kibale National Park, and just East of the Rwenzori Mountains, and right off people’s maps. Even Ugandans who have heard of them have trouble pronouncing their tribal names, so the whole region generally slips off the radar of travelers.
The Great African Road Trip is scheduled to pass through 17 countries in East and Southern Africa, and log over 20,000 kilometers. This article outlines the best ways to track the trip, and will be updated periodically.
This piece gives an overview of the plans I have made for my Great African Road Trip, which will traverse 16 countries and cover over 20,000 kilometers over the course of 2016. I talk about preparing to be unprepared, and finding purpose along the way.