We hiked for four days between mountain huts in the High Tatras, we had large portions of the trails to ourselves. When we did pass trekkers, they were almost all Slovakian, or from neighboring Poland or the Czech Republic. The whole Slovakian experience was impressive. The mountain landscapes are beautiful, the mountain culture is rugged, and the mountain bars are open for breakfast.
Tales from the trails, of adventure and intrigue, from some of the roads less traveled
Have you ever laid in your tent at night listening to the scurrying sounds outside your tent and ventured to see what was stirring? Night safaris are silent and spooky. You have to walk slowly and scan systematically with your flashlight for the reflection of eyes. Any sound requires careful inspection. It is never a good idea to stray very far from shelter. However, on our night safari in Tsavo East National Park, we learned that danger lurks in the campsite too, if you take the time to look for it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
However, dawn brought bad news. In the darkness I had parked the car on the splintered top of a buried stump. I had punctured the tire, and now we were without a good spare. We would have to spend the next three days deep in the bush driving very carefully on treacherous roads. The drive along the Sand River in the north of the Serengeti revealed a professional safari car on its side in the middle of the river. The bloated bodies of trampled wildebeests floated around it. We imagined the havoc that must have ensued.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Leaves blink beady yellow eyes and stretch out razor sharp praying mantis arms, twigs spring tendrils, transforming into stick bugs, and lantern bugs position themselves on tree trunks sipping sap. The canopy blocks the stars and the moon, and as a blanket of black descends, iridescent mushrooms glow lime green on the forest floor.
Then literally, just for a few seconds, the rising sun burns through the fog, displaying the ledges and vertigo inducing gullies that surround the small pinnacle upon which you perch. Golden red light refracts through the mist, and as if in the eye of the storm, everything seems still.
The thundering vibrations from wildebeest hooves pulse through your body like the drum beats of an approaching army. It’s a dull and distant rumble, but it is visceral and it makes you feel vulnerable and connected. You suddenly feel not much taller than the swaying blades of savannah grass, and imagine how helpless you would be if the thousands of migrating animals veered and trampled through the camp.
Sound ceases except for the front of the canoe brushing through an awning of six foot high bulrush, draped into the river as we drift downstream along the bank. The guide’s eyes beam ahead and we are all laid flat on our backs in the canoes with our paddles extended lengthwise down our bodies.
The show is spectacular. The volcano mostly smokes, but then a couple times a minute it spews lava in a fiery shower, like a whale spout, and then occasionally it bellows quite deeply and launches car sized molten boulders far into the sky above our heads.
However, for those willing to take a shallow plunge, the reward is spectacular. The sun illuminates the jellies, causing them to radiate golden light through the emerald green lagoon. As you dive through them, it feels like gliding through a million stars in the night sky, some gently brushing across your mask, and along your skin, pulsating on their path towards the bright spot of sun on the lake.
In Vava’u, the far northern islands of the Kingdom of Tonga, the water is so clear you feel like the sun’s rays are penetrating all the way to the bottom of the ocean, but you know just beyond their reach, shrouded in the gloomy depths, is a full grown 80,000 pound, 60 foot long, female humpback whale with her newly born calf.
They are bull fighting with a tiger shark. It is so heroic and you are stoked to be in the arena with them, you just wish you had a rodeo clown. Every once in a while the shark misses the fish head, and turns towards us, mouth gaping in expectation.
We were not entirely comfortable there, as we knew rains upstream might flood the river bed in the darkness, but all that descended that night was a piecing alpine cold. We had not brought sleeping bags to save weight, and long before dawn we were all awake willing the sun to pass over the surrounding peaks and flood the river valley below.
About every two to three weeks during the beginning of the rainy season, I start waiting for a couple of sunny days in a row and then hike the two and a half hours out to the river to see if it is low enough to cross. Two weeks ago when I did exactly this, I really wished I had not.
The guide picks you up one hour before midnight. He does not need to know where you are staying because the small village of Pura Besakih has only one guest house. The guide speaks broken English, and patiently waits for your final preparations before departure. With a smile, he sets off. Immediately, you are struggling to keep up in the pitch black. He ventures off the rural roads into the fields, “So the dogs won’t attack us,” he explains. This is first time you are glad you have hired a guide.