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I teach abroad and continue to pursue the life I was given as if it was my last. Many people think it is. In my spare time, I enjoy lapping up ice cream, reading spy novels, and euthanizing manta rays.

Friday, January 13, 2012

28 Daze

December 1
Kampala, Uganda to Lake Naivasha, Kenya

I was ill prepared to leave. After a week of finishing up my first semester, I had just one night to concentrate on the next month of my life. I spent the better part of it washing, worrying, texting, and locking stuff up for the month. I had run errands for my car, my job, my friends, and my students. All that was left was to set my alarm and wake up when it rang.

So I did.

What I hadn’t planned was food, water, lodging, or any other measures to make leg one of many, many legs run smoothly. I have the tendency to avoid stops (“I’m making really good time!”) and keep going despite stomach rumblings, gas shortages, currency conundrums and waning daylight. Predictably, ass I entered Kenya, I began developing pangs of hunger and signs of irritance (yelling expletives at 18-wheelers in an empty car is kind of fruitless, after all). At each junction, each town, each road block, my wits were tested. And they failed. 

(Don't ever drive more than ten hours on an empty stomach. It will kill your soul)

At five minutes to dusk, after eleven grueling hours on the road, I pulled into Carnelly's Guesthouse and camp, where, after a murderous first day, I sat down to a heavenly large pepperoni pizza, an ice cold Tusker, 1.5 bottle of water, and a completely new lease on life.

The drizzle was almost welcoming, as I traipsed back to my tent in the dark, groping for balance, with a stomach full of food, and a very keen sense of being far away from home.

December 2
Lake Naivasha to Hell's Gate National Park

I woke up with a vow never to repeat Day One. To ensure its follow-through, I drove straight to Hell’s Gate (only 10 km away) and to the vacant public campsite. I parked, avoided bat shit, and cooked up a breakfast of Vienna sausages, spaghetti and beans.

The view from my isolated and vacant campsite inside Hell's Gate NP
In the span of thirty minutes I had gone from busy morning commute to completely alone. Besides a few rangers driving by the campsite there was no one in this national park. A plethora of birds and wart hogs circled the camp as I set up my tent and cleaned my dishes with the tap from the camp ground. Then I put on my hiking boots, filled up my water, and set off an a five kilometer walking safari to the gorge at the opposite end of Hell’s Gate.

The Gorge inside Hell's Gate National Park

It is bizarre to walk past giraffe and zebra. More bizarre is their apparent fright at seeing you.

My evening drive through the buffalo track yielded two jackals and a hyena and nearly got me stuck in several marshes and bogs off-roading it just before dusk. When I got back to camp, I made a quick fire from nearby kindling, cooked up spaghetti and meatballs, and swatted at invisible mosquitoes till I couldn't take it anymore and got snugly in my tent.  

December 3
Hell's Gate National Park to Moshi, Tanzania

I couldn’t sleep. It was still early (5:10 a.m. to be precise) and after tossing and turning for another few minutes, I got up, broke down my gear and set off on a pre-dawn game drive through the park's buffalo track. I managed to find the two jackals I had seen twelve hours earlier and scared the crap out of four wart hogs burrowed in their dirty hole. I saw zebras grazing, giraffes lazing, and antelope crazing. But nothing more. As the orange horizon grew lighter east across the valley, I turned towards the park's gate and got back on the tarmac road headed for Nairobi.

Back on the main road I gassed up my car, got a fantastic cappuccino in a to-go-cup from a bald Kenyan barista (just love those) and saddled myself in the front seat for a long drive to Moshi. I was in a great mood to drive: tired but alert, kooky but focused, weird but not crazy. And I had some good music and an open road to chase.

The road from Naivasha to Nairobi is incredibly scenic. The entire landscape is incredibly verdant and at times alpine. I went up the Rift Valley, passing crater lakes and dormant volcanoes and then descended through pines and firs towards the capital of Kenya, where a succession of round-abouts and traffic jams were sure to test my mood. 

Sure enough, a fire hydrant burst in the center of town, slowing traffic as I checked my watch and tapped my forearm with impatience. Driving through Nairobi entails following the road, going past four to five major round-abouts and continuing on a straight path towards Mombasa.

That part finished, I drove through the southern slums, industrial sludge, and depression towards the turn-off for Tanzania. I missed that very junction (really? No sign for Tanzania? At all?) and got stuck behind a dozen or more semi-trucks, delaying my flight from Kenya a good hour. You would think a bright green sign that read: Border this way would be pretty important. There wasn't one. Instead, I had to ask a curious cop how to get back on the right track and out of his country.

Once in Tanzania, I searched for the perfect 'pit stop' place to relieve myself. It's a real art to finding the perfect pit stop in Africa. There are seemingly always one or two pedestrians, shepherds, vultures, bikers, or misanthropes within eye contact of the bladder-provoked driver who parks on the shoulder. This makes the stop very unnerving and unsatisfactory. No one wants to be interrupted while on a pit stop. You just wanna do your business in peace and get back in your car. It took some searching but I finally spotted a nice stretch of straight-away good enough for a minute of repose.

I got to Moshi, Tanzania at 3 p.m., found an ATM and met Azizi, our Kilimanjaro fixer, at the Bristol Cottages in the center of town. Azizi found me a guest house to sleep in, stored my climbing gear, and took me out to eat with a Canadian med student in town for the weekend. I liked Azizi immediately, and was saddened to hear he wouldn't be our guide during the climb (he had a group of 23 Norwegians coming in the following day that required the most experience guide the Tour Company had to offer. Azizi was that very man).

December 4
Moshi to Tanga, Tanzania

my first view of kilimanjaro after three drive-bys. This was on the way out of town on an early Sunday morning.

If I was a naïve east African driver on the verge of a mental collapse, day four was - to that point - my nadir. Unfortunately, it would only get worse.

Despite seeing Kilimanjaro for the first time on my way out of town, the drive and morning soon became ugly. In Tanzania speed traps are announced much like bad news; that is, they are dumped on the public at a time when they aren’t looking. The 50 kph zones come in the same way. You never know when they’ll hit. Even if you are following the speed limit austerely, the cops often make up another infraction in order to get inside your wallet. No fire extinguisher. No vest. Overtaking a truck in a solid yellow line. Ugly face. Wrong insurance. Bad Swahili. Expired insurance. It doesn’t really matter what they make up. It’s getting your license back that matters. And the only way to do that is wave some dirty money in their faces or wait them out. 

These unannounced stops occurred three times in a span of an hour as I wound my way toward the Indian Ocean, emptying my wallet and increasing my heart burn.

The scenery was changing as well. Green valleys gave way to groves of palm trees and sand dunes. Mountain ranges with lush foliage turned into flat ribbons of tarmac lined with fruit trees and desert vegetation.

When I got to Tanga, the smell of salt and sea and the catch of the day permeated through my windows and filled me with a sense of hunger. I was in luck. The fried tilapia and boiled potatoes might have been the best meal I have had all year. The lemon, the white meat, the cold beer, the horse flies circling the table…it was very all very appropriate.

Tanga is a sleepy town (even more so on a lazy Sunday) but it is about the last bastion of civilization until Dar es Salaam hundreds of miles south along the Indian Ocean. In the center of town stood a couple of banks, an open-air fruit market, a cafe, bar and the port. I drove along the sea-shore drive until I had seen enough, then flipped a u-ey and made my way towards the campsite twenty-eight kilometers south along a very rocky road. 

On the home stretch, the gasoline stench permeating from my trunk grew stronger. When I finally parked in the sand pit and unpacked my car I found out why. Nearly have of the 20 liters of fuel had spilled out onto my carpeted floor, ruining two of my novels, and soiling nearly every plastic bag I had in the boot. I quickly removed everything, found a nearby hose, washed off the car and foul-smelling goods best I could, and then hung them up to dry overnight. Then I went and splashed around in the ocean, dove in the beach side pool, had a beer and some dinner, and relaxed under the immense sky and moon before my worries and stress began to subside and I remembered why I was on this trip in the first place: to enjoy myself and have an adventure. Not everything was going to be rosy. Certainly almost none of it had been to date. But the trip was just beginning.

The rocky charm of the Indian Ocean just south of Tanga

December 5
Tanga to Mikumi National Park, Tanzania

More cops, more bribes, more frustration. The straight shot south from Segera to Chilenze was anything but, littered instead with police checks, speed traps, and awful speed bumps with no warning. And I was running low on gas.

Masai men walk to market day in northeastern Tanzania

Just after the Chilenze turn-off, I found (after two fruitless searches) a gas station with petrol and drinking water. I fueled up and shared my last mango with the two female attendants. They seemed pleased but who knew for sure. Neither spoke English and my Swahili wasn't quite conversational yet.

In Morogoro (a nice town set amongst the green foothills of the southern mountains) I got provisions for the night at Mikumi: beans, ramen, juice, cookies, and a loaf of bread with peanut butter. And two cans of tuna.

Mikumi National Park has four public campsites. The ranger who accompanied me to case them mentioned only two contained running water and a fire pit. The first one was under a large baobab tree that smelled of elephant dung and danger. When we couldn’t get the tap to stop, we circled round and went for campsite #2. This was also isolated, 5 kms from the ranger station and entrance, far away from any upscale lodges, and right in the thick of the predators of the night. I should have sensed the ominous skies as a portent for the night to come, but was too distracted by the beauty and wilderness as the ranger departed and left me to my own devices. “Make a fire, set up your camp, and don’t drive after dark,” was all he recommended. I managed to do one of the three. Even though I felt alone, I wasn’t.

At shortly before 9 p.m. I was snug in my tent, texting friends, and trying to seem calm. There were the incessant sounds of pestilence outside, the quiet ruffle of wind, and the crickets and bats who gave me an occasional shriek to let me know I was being watched.

And then I froze. I can honestly say I have never been more scared in my life. The breaking of twigs and branches were followed by the hiss and snarl of something very large outside my tent. Sequestered as I was, I could not – and dared not – see what it was. I lay flat on my stomach, frozen on my mat, breathing as calmly as I possibly could under the circumstances, as something very large and imposing (and P-O’d) circled my tent.

Was it about to attack? It certainly crossed my mind. I clutched my swiss army knife with my left hand and tried to plot out an escape. Open zipper, open tarp zipper, step out, run five feet with keys in hand to driver-side door, get in car, drive away. I repeated these steps to myself silently, as the beast outside continued sniffing, snarling, and circling my humble abode.

At first, I thought it had to be a lion. The sounds, the size, the circling. It all made sense. Elephants (as large as they are) don’t really make sounds when they walk. And they usually track in herds, not alone. Whatever was outside was definitely alone. Maybe it was a leopard, hunting for human breast plates. They usually hunt between 7-8 p.m. This wasn’t too long after that. Perhaps they felt my presence and wanted a closer look. And smell. And taste! 

Or maybe it was a buffalo. God, I hoped not. If so, I was dead meat. Literally.

For five minutes, I lay paralyzed on my sleeping mat, clutching the only form of aggression I could muster. A frickin' Swiss Army knife. Was I insane? My entire fist would be in a lion’s mouth before they ever felt the sting of sharp metal in their throat. Pitiful.

Luckily, after five minutes of prayer and personal berating (“how stupid can you  be, Mulka. I mean what were you thinking!?”), I heard the sound of animal eating grass. A very good sign. Maybe I would escape after all.

Or not. As quickly as I gained hope, I heard sniffing and circling around my tent again. Time for dessert? 

Miraculously, as quickly as it had come, it continued past my campsite and out of my life forever. The sounds of the night returned to the campsite. I breathed a sigh of relief. Now that the crickets and jiggers and horse flies were back, I could fully exhale, move my sweaty limbs into evacuation position, and get ready to enter my car for some much needed mental decompression.

I drove around the park for a good hour, with the A/C on full blast, trying to settle my nerves and resolve to re-enter my tent and go to sleep.

But I couldn't. I couldn’t because I could not live with myself if the same thing happened again. So I tried to get comfy in the driver’s seat and fall asleep.

But - again - I couldn't. A mosquito kept trying to attack me. The heat from inside the car was overwhelming without the A/C. I was so tired, so fatigued, so out of it. And the night wasn't quite over just yet.  

Just as I was settling in and falling asleep, at 1 a.m., a ranger truck approached the campsite with its high beams pointed straight into my windscreen. 
“Um, good morning?”
“We saw your lights on driving around. You were told not to drive in the park at night, correct?”
“Yes, but a wild animal came near my tent and nearly attacked me and freaked me out and I couldn’t sleep so I drove around to gather my wits and….and…”
(I was listening to how crazy and wild my story sounded to these men at one in the morning in a Tanzanian national park. They must have thought I was on meth).

After I described the animal and the sounds and the encounter, the three rangers flashed their torches towards the weeds and brush to see if any trail had been damaged or any prints had been left. If there was any indication of the animal, they never told me.

“I am sorry for your discomfort. Can you please come to our offices at 9 a.m. and describe what happened further.”

It wasn't a question. 

“You are going on a game drive in the morning, correct?”
“Yes, at six.”
“So come after. Good night.”

Sunset in Mikumi National Park (the calm before the scare)

A hornbill grounded in Mikumi

The scene, two hours before the scariest moment of my life

December 6
Mikumi to Kisolanza Farm House, Tanzania

I woke at dawn, stiff and out of sorts in a reclined car seat staring at an emerging red ball of sun rising from the eastern plains. I started up my engine, let it run in neutral for a second, than released the e-brake and rolled out of my slumber and tried to find some animals. What an absolutely weird twelve hours it had been. I barely noticed giraffes, elephants, buffaloes, and wart hogs as my car sputtered down the murrem and gravel roads. 

After twenty minutes of driving, I spotted a lioness staring intently south towards a herd of approaching buffalo. I put the car in neutral, then shut it off completely, parked on the cement bridge, and waited. 100 meters away, under the shade of a tree, stood a very pensive lionesses and male lion, snarling ferociously at a herd of 150-200 buffalo. Things were about to get interesting.

Buffalo approach the lion's den with lethal intent

The lioness senses danger as the buffalo chase her up a tree

The lioness uses the tree as a safety net while the buffalo herd waits for it to make a move
The lioness and lion disappeared under the foliage of the tree, as the buffalo herd surrounded the tree. Where were they? I waited two-three-four minutes and finally put the camera’s lens to good use. Up in the tree, the lioness lay still, hissing down at the buffalo, but safe from their attack. And there she would stay until they disappeared. After all, cats climb trees when they are bullied. And these buffalo were in no mood to play coy. They were coming after the lions like Dahmer goes after human flesh.

I drove on but saw nil and then circled back at a quarter to nine to check on the lioness. The buffaloes had retreated a few yards but were still eyeing her. And she hadn’t moved an inch. As for me, I had a date with the warden of the park, and hurried back to pack up my tent and belongings before we met at his quarters.

Our meeting consisted of my repeated recounting of the close encounter, my sincere apologies for driving at night around the park, and my insistence on really being shaken by the whole ordeal. I think the young warden thought I was nuts and let me go after we exchanged email addresses (he wanted to see the photo of the lioness in the tree).

The rains hit really hard as I left the park and reached the town on Mikumi (a real downer). I was low on fuel but because of the rain and my mood, I kept driving. I still had another 80-100 kms before my fuel ran dry and I figured I would see another filling station by that time.

I figured wrong.

About 20 kms after my gauge read “E”, I stopped in a village to inquire if they had petrol. Luckily, they had ten liters for just over market price, which got me to Iringa, and a proper filling station and café for a late lunch. I bought two more “big” waters, a bottle of coke, baked beans, and a plate of fish, potatoes and fried bananas. Delicious.

It was 2 p.m. and there was no way I was getting close to Malawi before dusk. I noticed a highly recommended farm house just 50 kms away.

The bathrooms and firepit where hot showers and running water put a smile on my face

The farm house was really a sprawling expanse of grass, brick huts, and thatched roofed shelter that served as diner, bar, and campground. I pitched my tent, took a much needed hot shower, and cooked up the last of my ramen and spaghetti with meatballs for an early dinner. Then I went to the bar and ran into my first African Overland Tour Group. 

What is an African Overland Tour?

It's a rambling bus or group of buses that run from Cape Town to Nairobi, Kenya (or vice versa). The bus stops each night and provides food and tents for each of its clients. These clients tend to be young, single, rowdy, and adventurous. And they tend to take over each campsite they frequent.

December 7
Kisolanza Farm House, Tanzania to Chitimba, Malawi

Happy 81st, Dad!!! You would have loved the sunrise and drive. The morning was filled with Bob Dylan, John Denver, Joan Baez, deep thoughts, empty roads, and a steaming border that led to an ominous stretch of perilous speed traps inside Malawi: the hornet’s nest for automobile drivers.

Ten minutes into the country and I was fined $15 for not having silver reflectors on the front of my car. Why wouldn’t they fine me for that? I tried the “I work for the government” routine but it didn't fluster the men in blue. 

Malawi struck me as a kind of gorgeous step-sister to Uganda: it was very lush, had lots of banana trees, and lots of people walking on the side of the road. But hardly any moving vehicles. Suddenly, it was just me, bicycles, pedestrians, and the occasional semi. The roads were glorious: paved, smooth, straight, and wide open. When I saw Lake Malawi for the first time, I grew even more excited. I had no idea a lake could be so blue and beautiful. It blew the doors of Lake Victoria and its bilharzia infested shores.

My first stop was the gorgeous and secluded Sangilo Sanctuary Lodge.

Winston, bartender and resident Rasta, was barefoot and dread-locked at the beachfront bar. Mark, the English expat/owner, soon came down to welcome me as I pitched my tent. I ordered a beer, put my feet in the sand, and drooled at the prospects of relaxing here for the night. There was just one other guest, a German man and his motorcycle, who lay prostrate on a lawn chair reading a book in Dutch with dark sunglasses and pasty white skin.

After I re-emerged from the lake wet and happy to set up my tent, Michel from Hamburg came up to introduce himself and see where I was headed.

The two of us ate dinner under the stars and compared notes on Africa. He had been motorbiking from Europe to Africa for seven months. I was envious. He gave me some tips on other places to see in Malawi, places to avoid, and roads to beware of while I described  places worth visiting in east Africa. After dinner we both rolled upstairs into our respective tents, bid each other adieu and fell fast asleep. I heard his motorcycle roar to life just before dawn, heading north towards the Tanzanian border. Thus goes encounters on the road. You meet people, you pick their brains, you share some laughs, and then you go your separate ways. 

The lovely, semi-private beach and bar at Sangilo Lodge
December 8
Chitimba to Kande Beach, Malawi

At breakfast, Mark started in, as I was surveying my map of Malawi, “The good thing about Malawi is your driving days are only 200 kilometers.” He should have added, “The bad thing is fuel costs $17 per gallon on the black market and it's the only way to buy fuel at the moment.”

I completely underestimated the fuel crisis in Malawi. Michel stopped me cold when he asked me how much fuel I had in my jerry cans. 
“Um…ten gallons.”
“That’s all?!” he replied. “You must to get more.”

When I made inquiries, it became clear I needed to search for black market gas at each townhouse, outhouse, or pump house I passed. I had my first chance in Mzuzu, about an hour inland from my destination (and four hours from Lilongwe). It took me an hour to find a petrol station that had the right mix of seedy men in their early twenties eyeing me and my car like a turkey sandwich on Black Friday. It was there I met the youngest and worst negotiator I have ever met. “You pay 16,000 for 20 liters.”
“No, man. I’m not paying more than 12.”
“Okay you pay 12.”

Five minutes later, behind two semis and a rusty Datsun filled with jerry cans brimming with diesel and petrol, our deal got done.
“You pay 16.”
“You just said 12!” I complained.
“This is black market. Not white market.”
I laughed to myself ruefully. “And it was black market five minutes ago when you told me 12 (You Idiot!).”

We settled on 14,000 and what seemed to be the smallest 20 liters I have ever seen.

Once I dropped ninety bucks for the gas, I hit the tarmac for a gorgeous drive down the lakeshore to Kande Beach, and my second introduction to African Overland trucks.  
Kande Beach at dusk
This campsite was no Sangilo Sanctuary. In fact, it was kind of a dump. But the beach and lake more than made up for it. I lazed all day long by the beach, swimming, snorkeling, drinking, and eating, as countless Australian men in the twenties flirted with countless European women in their twenties.

Kande Beach at 7 a.m.

A Danish girl in blond pigtails came out of the tent nearest me and began asking me questions that seemed a tad on the condescending side. “Did you just stay with the driver all day?” she began, laughing at her own question.
“What are you talking about? I drove here myself.”
“You’re not on the tour?”
“What tour?”
“Africa Overland.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. You can come hang out with us if you get lonely.”

Did I have a pathetic sign stapled to my forehead?

Instead of sauntering desperately over to twelve kids in the hopes of “hanging out”, I ended up meeting a nice Dutch couple for dinner and drinks and avoided the raucous night of a “Friends” marathon on one of the overlander’s laptops behind their truck. What party animals!

Malawian women: the queens of head balancing

December 9
Kande Beach to Senga Bay, Malawi

The next morning, after a spell of hard rain the night before, I awoke to the same Danish girl’s voice. She was talking to a young couple from Sydney, obviously about the rain.
“Yeah, it was coming down so hard. I feel so sorry for him…”

When I unzipped my tent ten minutes later, the Danish girl was folding up her things and hanging up her wet clothes on a string to dry. “Oh, you poor thing. Did you get really wet last night?”
“No, not at all actually,” I answered honestly. She obviously had.

Note: My REI gear (tent, mat, and bag) were a perfect 22-0 on the trip. I didn't get wet, blown, sandy, or eaten alive the entire trip

The Dane just stared at me as I folded up my tent, waved good-bye and walked lazily into the lake for a pre-breakfast swim. So glad they were headed north and I was headed south.

Jumping in Lake Malawi before breakfast, as the sun rises over the lake really sets the tone for a great day. But once I had done it, and the overland trucks had pulled out of dodge, and the surly receptionist had taken my towel, returned my deposit, and half-answered my navigation questions, I wanted to burn some rubber as well. Kande conclusion: great beach, amazing lake, gorgeous setting, and very unhelpful, shady looking, half-baked staff. If I was twenty-four with my buddies, Kande would have been an awesome spot. Alone, in my mid-thirties, capable of choosing when and how I left each campground, I chose the road. And never looked back.

Later in the day…
I passed two cyclists at three different times during the drive from Kande to Senga Bay and pondered whether they were headed for Senga Bay as well. Turned out they were. 

Henrik and his wife were biking across Africa to promote the preservation of endangered animals. We traded info on Zambia and Uganda as the sun set and dinner was cooking. 

I also met two fantastic English girls volunteering in Malawi for three months, a very helpful owner (Pam) and had one of the best fish dinners with mashed potatoes of my life. The owner had tons of relevant intel on Mozambique for me as well. I really appreciated her time and information as we sat on her lawn chairs in the darkness and discussed Mozambique cars, roads, campsites, and visas.

Cool Runnings campsite and lakeshore, Senga Bay, Malawi

December 10
Senga Bay to Lilongwe, Malawi

(In case you were wondering, yes. I'm getting fairly sick of writing about myself)

I made it Mbuya Camp on fumes with no petrol left in my jerry cans. Time to park the car, pitch my tent, and hope I could find “a guy” at the campsite to help me buy more black market fuel. It didn’t take long. The cook was that very guy and after his game of pool, he took me out of the gate to look for 20 liters at the nearest bus stage.

I spent the rest of the day primping my car, checking emails, stocking up on provisions (Lilongwe actually had a Shoprite), and laying low. The pool at Mbuya camp provided a nice refuge from the incessant noise filtering from the bar and pool hall on the grounds. 

December 11-12
Lilongwe, Malawi

Staying in Lilongwe was neither my plan nor my intention, but it became a necessary evil when I realized how much work I needed done on my car before I left for Zambia on the 14th. First of all, I had to buy oil and change it. Secondly, I had to buy a rim for my spare tire (in case I had to put it on in the middle of nowhere. Next, I had to buy all my gear for Mozambique and its challenging traffic laws (yellow reflector vest, fire extinguisher, and blue squares with yellow reflector triangles on both the front and rear bumpers). I also had to apply and pick up a Mozambique visa at their consulate. All of this was done in an unfamiliar town and in a country that had no fuel.

I was also meeting, Heidi, a fellow Fellow (English Language Fellow) from Blantyre, Malawi after her pre-holiday trip to Victoria Falls. At dusk, I picked her and her new BFF (Asian, Dutch, Dentist…forget his real name) at the bus station in Lilongwe and went directly back to Mbuya for dinner, drinks, and giggles. It was great to have real company again after a fortnight of strangers and locals. Heidi and I have dealt with similar constraints and issues as teachers in Africa and our stories reflected all the similarities our jobs entail.

We also had a fantastic encounter with a British expat living in Lilongwe. I stopped him in mid-stride as we were into our fourth beer to ask him how I could annoy him with questions about football/soccer. He hated me immediately. His acute intelligence and overwhelming cynicism, coupled with his disdain for American English, provided just enough fodder for twenty minutes of fascinating discourse. Until, that is, he up and left Heidi in mid-story, to continue his night of debauchery two tables away from us. All I managed to learn is that the best way to annoy a Brit is to mention terms like “field” instead of “pitch” and “jersey” instead of “kit” when watching an English Premier League match. 

The next morning, I dropped my passport off at the Mozambique embassy, fueled up the tank enough to get to the Zambian border, had about four cappuccinos, got introduced to Malawian gin, met Ben (Turkish/American), Heidi, Heidi’s Dutch/Asian BFF, and Ben’s Brandy for more chicanery.

"You're Korean, right?" "Um, no," was how the dentist to my right became our instant friend

We kept buying cokes and Ben kept pouring Brandy. Friendship ensued.

December 13
Lilongwe to South Luanga National Park, Zambia

The sun-drenched drive from Lilongwe to the Zambian border was a trifle on the rough side. Waking up hungover and getting right in a car is not recommended. Luckily, I made it safely and pulled in at the first filling station in Zambia I could find to fill up on regularly priced petrol. It was a glorious moment of the trip. 

From Chipata to South Luangwa, I had to navigate 110 kms of awful deviations, puddles, pot holes, and gravel, before I entered the lovely domain of "one of the most majestic parks in Africa..." (Lonely Planet, Zambia).

The South African cyclists had told me to go straight to Marula Lodge and not to look back. Marula is a great little lodge right on the Luangwa River, with elephant, hippo, crocs, and other game lurking very, very near to my sleeping quarters. “Don’t leave any food in your room,” the owner advised as I got the key and set down my bag. “Last night, an elephant broke into another room and destroyed it searching for the mango juice a couple had left. Be careful.”

A wonderful Polish couple, Magda and Przemyslaw, and not so wonderful Pakistani family of four (couple, baby, and nanny) were the only other guests staying at Marula. After a quick lunch, I learned the Polish couple were interested in a night drive that left in at 3:30 p.m. The reason: the night before they had witnessed a leopard killing a puku right in front of them. When I saw the video that confirmed it, I was in. The three of us left with guide David and spotter John at a quarter to four, in search of something just as scintillating.

(In case you are of the opinion it's not a small world, in talking with Magda, from Wroclaw, Poland, as we sat under a thatched roof in Mfuwe, Zambia, we proceeded to discover she had been an exchange student ten years prior in Yelm, Washington (U.S.A.). That town - hardly big enough to find on most maps - lies about 12 miles from Olympia, WA, my hometown. Crazy.)

After two hours of sunlight, hippos, crocs, elephant, zebra and impala, the sky grew dark, we stopped for a snack, John turned on his hand-held spotlight, and the five of us went in search of cats. 

Przemyslaw (say that five times), Magda, and David enjoy our mid-drive snack before sunset (David looks on)
John, left, gets out the spotlight minutes before our leopard encounter. David, seated behind the wheel, gives instructions

It was the most amazing hour and a half of a game drive I have ever experienced. At 7:05, nearly in the same exact spot they had seen a leopard the night before, David spotted a predator’s eyes prowling under a tree to the right of us. We stopped, turned our hopeful eyes towards it, and waited. “It’s a lion…no, it’s a leopard. A male leopard. A big one!”David cried.

Quite honestly, I couldn’t identify it at all. But as we drew closer, the familiar spotted pattern of the leopard's coat became visible. Even better, it was targeting a family of sitting duck impalas just a few feet away from it. We stopped directly behind the leopard, watched it crouch, wait, and then spring, at full sprint after two baby impalas towards the thicket of trees in front of us. In five seconds, it was over. A dead impala, hung from the leopard’s craw, as two other vehicles converged on the scene.

The leopard circled the area, retreated up a tree, and waited, as a hyena dejectedly strained its neck to see what it had just missed. We parked under the tree, shined our spotlights on the upward branches, and took breathtaking photo after photo, and video after video of the awesome creature lying contently above us. 

the male leopard protects its kill up in the tree

December 14
South Luangwa NP, Zambia

I was still on a natural high from the night before. I took a morning drive that netted nothing extraordinary and then returned to the lodge to swim and relax until another night drive commenced, this time with the Pakistani couple.

A mother with her two-week old (an estimate) calf

By 7:15 p.m., after an hour of fruitless searching, David lamented it was time to turn back towards the park gate. Disappointed as I was, it dawned on my how lucky we had been the night before. I concentrated on that. But at 7:40, about 2 kms from the park entrance, we converged on three vehicles in neutral by a row of thick heather and shrubs. The guides discussed and then David told us a male lion, a very shy male lion, was under one of the bushes. Moments later, it reluctantly appeared, bloodied at the mouth from a recent kill. Our problem, and the problem each and every night, is that the park closes its gates at 8 p.m. We had very little time to trail the lion. Another problem was the Pakistani woman to my left was screaming in excitement at the lion. I felt like doing some screaming myself. "You know," David said calmly. "When you yell, cats will disappear." Moments, later, her cell phone rang and she began speaking Urdu at normal volume as we tried to track the lion across a dark field. As Lloyd Christmas once said in Dumb and Dumber, "Some people just aren't meant for life on the road." 

As we drove onwards, we spotted another leopard, in the exact same crouch, trailing two more impalas, about to spring on one of them for another kill. Remarkable. But it was 8:04 and our time was up. We had to leave. No amount of pleading or bribery could buy us more time. We exited the park, got back to Marula, at our dinners, and traded stories to the lodge's owners before heading back to our respective rooms.

December 15
South Luangwa to Blantyre, Malawi

Our spotter, John, and his son, John Jr., Magda and Przemyslaw, and I all packed in my car for the bumpy drive from Mfuwe to Chitapa. John’s son had had a large bean stuck in his ear for the past year (I’m not kidding) that needed extraction. Why wait a year? I have no idea. But nonetheless, I drove them an hour to the local hospital. The sun was blinding and the road awful. Afterwards, when it was just the three of us, we settled in for a nice conversation for the remainder of the drive to Chipata. I dropped the Polish couple off at the bus station just before 8 a.m. for their trip to Lusaka. It was nice having company in the car for a change.

In Chipata Town, I filled up my car, 10 liters in each jerry can, and re-entered Malawi for the long drive to Blantyre, some 500 kilometers east of the Zambian border. I wanted no part of the fuel shortage, so my M.O. was simply to drive thru, stay the night at the nearest and cleanest campsite, then bomb to the Mozambique border the following morning.

After a long but beautiful drive towards the southeastern tip of Malawi, I pitched my tent next to an Italian couple who had just come from Mozambique. The female, a vivacious spark plug, could not say enough bad things about the country. “Horrible!” she kept repeating in broken English. Her boyfriend was more judicious in his reviews. “If you own car, it can be perfect. We take bus. Not perfect.”

I ate dinner with two young English volunteers who invited me to their poolside table for drinks. The three of us talked over Africa and exchanged anecdotes on our months of adventure. Two beers, and a beef steak later, I was back in my tent for a very early night. I had to be up by 5 to commence my Mozambique adventure. And I was nervous about what that meant. 

December 16
Blantyre to Nampula, Mozambique

I woke at 5, packed my car, gassed my tank from the remaining fuel in my jerry cans, and headed east towards the bright red ball of sun and the beckoning border.

Majestic Mount Mulanje in Southern Malawi

The roads in northern Mozambique

All along this had been the worrying bit. The roads, the red tape, the cops, the rainy season. There were so many variables and so little information on what to expect. I wasn’t sure if I would be car jacked, hijacked, or just simply jacked. All I knew was to keep my eyes open, use the Spanish I knew, and be friendly. And hope.

At the border, just prior to 9 a.m., the guard at the gate searched every square inch of my car. He overturned every bag and rucksack I had packed, and scoured every nook and cranny my car had to hide drugs? Guns? Liliputans? After ten minutes of heavy breathing and sweating (I can never relax when they search my stuff, even when there is nothing to hide) they let me through.

The next 192 kilometers were rough, dusty, and dirty. My shocks, tires, and suspension were getting their most rigorous test of the trip, and my fuel gauge was nearing ‘Empty’ once again. Finally, after driving 22 mph for four hours, I reached the heavenly tarmac on the outskirts of Mocuba, found an ATM, got cash, fueled up my car, bought some snacks, water, and sundries, and drove gleefully for the remainder of the day on beautiful asphalt road towards Nampula and the Indian Ocean.

Sick of me yet?

I’m nearly half way done with this trip and this blog. How could you quit this when I’m about to tell you of Nuno Lopes, his brown, wavy hair, the maitre’ d at the Quality Inn restaurant, who found me my most expensive room of the trip in downtown Nampula, car insurance, gave me directions to two nightclubs in town, and asked if I wanted to party once I got settled in? It was Friday night after all. And it was Nuno Lopes, the guy who could you get you things in Nampula.

Problem was, all I wanted was a shower, a change of clothes, and a comfortable bed. For $105, I got that, secure parking, and a street urchin who kept trying to wash my car as I was driving it. I also got cigarette butts and last night’s dinner in my bedside ashtray, a view of a Catholic church and a shanty town, and A/C that nearly froze me to my bed sheet as I drifted off to sleep for the next eleven hours. 

December 17 - 18
Ilha de Mozambique

Without a doubt, a highlight of my trip. What an island. What a beautiful, decrepit, charming fricking island. I loved every second I was there.

From Nampula, I drove onto the 3.5 km causeway to Ilha de Mozambique by noon, turned right at the museum and headed on a bumpy tarmac road until I saw a sign for a pension at Casa Branca, in a charming square overlooking the azure sea and warm, powdery sand. A young woman sat idly outside the front door and brought me inside to tour the charming guesthouse. For the next two nights, it would be my home.

By the early afternoon, I was right where I should be, at the beach, drinking, eating fresh fish, people watching, and swimming within fifty lengths of pods of dolphins.

I walked around the fascinating fortress just before dusk, glimpsing breathtaking views of the island from all four angles. Then at night, I met three local women and one male tour guide, who took me the beachside fish house for wonderful company, drinks, fish, potatoes, more drinks, Malawian gin, then a nightclub on the opposite side of the island that I scarcely remember.

The next morning...

The power in Casa Branca went out at ten minutes to six. The fan stopped working and I started sweating. I could't sleep, I had a pounding headache, and the heat was pummeling my body with devilish abandon. I had to get up.

Luckily, I had the best hangover cure coming my way: iced coffee; the coldest, juiciest mango I've ever tasted; fresh, warm croissants with local jam, and a thirty minute swim in the Indian Ocean. I was a new man and spent the rest of my Sunday repeating the day before with total disregard for what was happening anywhere else in the world.

December 19
Ilha to Pemba, Mozambique

The thousand pound elephant in the room was the road north to the Tanzanian border. Could I make it? Was it passable? How long would it take? When should I leave? What happens if it is impassable? What was my Plan B and C? All of these thoughts flooded my brain as I drove silently in the car from Ilha to Pemba (yep, still no ipod charger or radio stations).

Note: somewhere in Malawi my ipod car charger had mysteriously vanished from my car. I must have kicked it out as I was parking my car. This was a cruel mishap that cost me six days without a phone or music to play in my car (the car charger was the only way I could charge my ipod too)

Eight klicks before Pemba I saw the turn off for Pemba Dive Camp. Something about the huge rain puddles on the sand road gave me an empty feeling about the future of this trip. As I descended deep into a lush grove of trees, I saw the thatched huts of a typical bush campground. A few tents and caravans were visible but for the most part the place was dead. As I parked and walked towards the shoreline, the sea itself seemed marshy and uninviting. And I didn’t see any scuba gear or diving signs anywhere. What the F-?!

The South African woman, weathered, overly friendly but officious, took me - literally - by the hand to my campsite. And I couldn't get rid of her. 
"I have a lot of things to tell you," she started. 
No you don't. I'm camping here one night. I don't need to know where the refrigerator, staff quarters and kayaks are. I just want to pitch my tent and relax. 

She interrupted me as I was cooking, eating dinner, staring up at the stars, and brooding over the news the expert on Pemba had given me two hours before:

"There's no way you're getting into Tanzania. Not with your car. Not in two days. Not by yourself. Not during the rainy season. The road turns into a swamp."

I was screwed. Plan A was thrown into the murky, seedy Pemba rubbish bin, and Plan B sprung to life. 

It was without enthusiasm or relish that I accepted my fate. Plan B added 1,200 kilometers to my trip. Plan B called for me re-tracing my steps out of Mozambique, out of Malawi and back through southern Tanzania. Plan B, in a word, sucked. 

At least I got a gorgeous sunset to mix with my foul mood in Pemba, Mozambique

Outdoor movie theater in the slums of Pemba

December 20
Pemba to Mocuba

The worst mood of the trip. Doing the same drive in reverse. Not stopping for Shiite. Fuel, food, water, drive.

In Nampula, I stopped in the grocery store to buy biscuits and met a middle-aged, white-haired man I had spoken with four days earlier on Ilha de Mozambique. “You were in Ilha?” he asked politely. I smiled and shook his hand. “Oh yeah, I remember you.” I told him of my plight, the wicked turn of events, and the wonderful time I had in Ilha. “You visited Ilha and that is the most important thing. It’s a special place. The other islands are for tourists. Ilha is still for us.”

At 5 p.m. I reached Mocuba, found the best looking hotel I could find (The Venus Inn), parked in the rear, ordered dinner, changed my first flat of the trip, and did what I usually do at that point in the evening: stuffed myself until I grew tired and then went to bed.

Not sure if this lady was thrilled to be photographed through my windshield

River bathing in northern Moz

December 21
Mocuba to Lilongwe, Malawi

You can’t find an empty patch of road to get out of the car in Mozambique without being swarmed by villagers.

Everyone lives near the road. Why?

Land mines.

The mines get cleared from the main roads first, then slowly provincial road, back roads, and then wilderness tracks get de-mined. Or rather will get de-mined. Thus, everyone builds their huts off the main roads. And Mozambique appears much more populated than it really is.

I really was beginning to wonder if my car would take me back to Uganda. Not only was the spare tire rattling along perilously the first ten minutes out of Mocuba, but I had apparently developed another chink or two in the rear of my car. My shocks were dying and my patience was wearing thin. I got out three times in the span of thirty minutes to check each wheel. Then I prayed the tarmac would come as fast as possible.

Just before the border I bought petrol from a shady looking mob under a bottlebrush tree. The group surrounded me, then took my remaining fifty dollar American note for thirty liters of petrol. They were delivered in beakers, test tubes, and two liters bottles, while I nervously paced and waited for the cops to converge on our location.

the lovely tea plantations near Mulanje, Malawi

Once back in Malawi (for the the third time) I drove straight through the gorgeous tea plantations, past lovely Mount Mulanje, through urban Blantyre, and smack dab into the biggest a-hole cop/speed trap of the trip. No sense in complaining now. The thirty dollars I relinquished was going nowhere but the greasy, shady, dishonest hands of the quartet of policemen and women who cornered me on the hilly stretch of tar from Momba to Lilongwe. It was their attitude that rubbed me the wrong way. One young cop in particular. “Don’t play with me,” he finally warned, fifteen minutes into my silent protest on the shoulder of the road. “You won’t win.”

Back at Mbuya Camp, the Christmas decorations were up, the bar was nearly empty, and the place was mine. No sign of Ben, Heidi, or the Asian/Dutch dentist. No sign of anyone. Not even the cook/black market petrol guy was around. The only other patron at the bar was a nice Scottish kid whose parents lived in Kampala. We traded stories of Uganda while we waited for the place to get hopping.

I'm still waiting...

December 22
Lilongwe to Chitimba

I had a nice breakfast chat with Pam, co-owner of Mbuya Camp, and an expat in Malawi for going on six years. I lamented how much the cops had screwed me out of money on the trip.
"Check the lorries coming the other way. If they flash their lights, it means the police are behind them. If they point up, it means they're far away, point down means they are right close."

I followed her advice and didn't lose any cash the whole day. Or the next.

But my car was slowly disintegrating before my ears. Something was definitely wrong in the rear axle. The spinning was growing louder and louder the more I drove out of the capital. When I turned the wheel, a grating sound ensued. Not good news.

I finally made it back to Sangilo Sanctuary, where a hot baguette, two beers, and the same campsite awaited my arrival.

December 23
Chitimba to Kisolanza Farm House, Tanzania

I had breakfast with an English couple and the lodge's owner, Mark, before taking a last swim in Lake Malawi, showering upstairs, and packing up my things for the 100 km drive to the Tanzanian border. The Brits had climbed Kilimanjaro in 1968 and 1972 and reveled in stories of the mountain and their adventures decades ago.

With clear heads and bright daylight, Mark and I looked at my front tires and then at each other. We both knew the score. Metal was coming off the front left one and the right front wasn't in much better condition. "About 5 kilometers up the road is a town with a Cash 'n Carry. Go in there and look for the tires on the side of the road. Those guys will rotate and replace the front tires for next to nothing. Throw away the front left one. They won't buy it for a nickel."

Good as his word, the boys in the village rotated, patched, and pumped up my good tires.

An hour later, at the Tanzanian border, I suffered another setback. My wits were numbed and my guard was down. I made the mistake of trying to exchange Kwatcha for Shillings as I was making a photocopy of my insurance card. Never multi-task when you're at a border. You'll lose your shirt. I wasn't paying attention to the bills and ended up getting $10 less in return.  How?

Four guys shoved wads of cash in my eyes while their hands were playing games with the stack of bills they handed me. I got four notes less than what I should have. What can I say? It was a rookie mistake.

Consequently, I didn't have enough cash in Shillings to pay for the TIP (Temporary Import Permit) for my car (a $20 fee for vehicles staying more than 1 week). Luckily, I found a few spare notes in my reserve envelope and, after an hour at the border, finally made it into Tanzania.

Merry Christmas!!! Here is what Santanzania Claus has in store for you: How about six police road blocks inside of an hour? Was that on your Christmas list? Ho ho ho.

Interesting Meeting: Cop #5 inspecting my warning triangles, reflectors, and fire extinguisher.

"I'm not agreeing with your fire extinguisher."
I showed him the photo of the car on the item. "This is solely for a car, sir."
"I'm not agreeing. I'm just not agreeing..."
In the end, he relented, and let me go without a fine.

I was an hour away from the farm house when darkness fell and the rains began. A month prior I had vowed to never drive after dusk, but had now broken my promise two days in a row.  Fog rolled in. I hadn't eaten a thing in hours. I knew the kilometer mark I was looking for, but the sign off the road was well-hidden. I slowed at every village, every sign post, every moving bicycle, looking for the dirt road leading up to the campground. Finally, at a quarter past eight, I found it, exhaled, and drove slowly up the rocky path towards Kisolanza Farm House. By the time I reached the gate, it was absolutely pouring.

Seven minutes later, I was guided back to the guest parking lot by a thin man with a bright torch soaked by the rain. "Can I still get dinner?" I asked meekly.
"We have food."
"For fifteen American dollars, I warmed my wet clothes by the crackling wood fire, rested my legs on the straw couch and slurped steaming tea and hot soup while the four-course meal progressed. I don't remember hitting the pillow.

The road in Southern Tanzania, just after my border mishap

December 24
Kisolanza Farm House, Tanzania to Same, Tanzania

I woke up in my tent to the crisp sunlight and dew speckled green grass outside the expanse of lawn I had rested on. "Happy Christmas!" said the farm house's owner, as I packed up my gear and warmed up my car. Oh yeah, I remembered, Christmas Eve. It was a quarter to seven in the morning and I had the urge to be on the road.

The sound emanating from the rear of my car was becoming louder and more intense. What the F- was happening? I had just rotated my tires and checked the pressure. What else could it be? Every time I turned the wheel I heard the friction coming from behind me. I guessed it had something to do with the frame or axle but had no empirical knowledge to base that on. I drove on. I drove all day, past Iganga, past Morogoro, past Chilenze and north towards Moshi. The sun was my marker. It's descent marked my energy level to a tee. Waning.

At dusk, I started to hit the pot hole stretch of road I loathed, which very nearly destroyed my confidence, temper, and vehicle.

Interesting Conversation: I had it all planned out to stay in the alpine town called Lushoto, set (according to my Lonely Planet) amidst the pines and foothills of a lush forest. Unfortunately I missed the turn-off in Mombo, at around dusk, and drove 40 kms further before I phoned the owner of the guesthouse I had planned on sleeping at. A heavily accented Swiss-German voice answered the phone jovially. "You have bad luck, ha ha ha. Better to go on to Same. You are too far to turn around."

I thanked him kindly and proceeded to curse myself and my Christmas eve as the night's blackness enveloped my sputtering engine and flood lights.

A nice stretch of road in the middle of Tanzania on Christmas Eve

Finally, just after 8 p.m., I saw the sign for "Elephant Lodge" and pulled off the road. The rustic, 1950's decor, coupled with the Christmas tree lights and disinterested waiting staff, made for a very fitting end to my Christmas Eve.

December 25
Same to Moshi
A pineapple farm in Northeastern TZ

My car felt every bit its fifteen years of age this morning. One of the tires needed air, the rear axle was rattling (again) and everything seemingly was creaking at the same time. Merry Christmas. I managed to get my tire pressure checked at a service station in Same and then proceeded to buy petrol and ease my way from Same (Sah-may) to Moshi in just under a couple hours.

The Blue Carib posing for its 15th Christmas (and first, presumably on foreign soil)

Once I arrived I noticed a catholic church right away and remembered what day it was. Both coffee shops were closed, as were most shops around the center. I found an Indian cafe (Cafe Chez) serving lunch and went up to the roof deck and ordered a chicken sandwich, iced coffee, and large bottle of water. I then phoned Azizi and drove to the guest house I had stayed at three weeks prior, checked in, handed in my dirty laundry, showered, had a beer, and took a very satisfying mid-afternoon nap until it was time for dinner.

Interesting Meeting: German man, 58, who was eating xmas dinner alone as well. He had just come down the mountain without bagging the summit (he had done a different route). I could tell he was still a bit out of it, complaining of headaches and general discomfort as we both lamented the lack of alcohol on the premises (Muslim owned, Austrian-themed restaurant). I tried to assuage his embarrassment of being carried down the mountain the best I could; meanwhile, I couldn't help but start to dwell on my upcoming climb. Time to get serious about the endeavor and realize this wasn't going to be a cakewalk.

December 26-27
Moshi, Tanzania

Moshi was similar to Lilongwe in that the car took center stage without moving an inch. I found a garage with the help of Azizi. Five mechanics took a look at both rear wheel axles before systematically tearing them apart. I don't pretend to know much about cars but felt I was going to get a severely less reliable car back in exchange for more of my money. I spent money on a bearing and waited overnight while the part came from Arusha, some 70 km away. Overnight, my left front tire become flat again (and again, by the time I drove it three blocks to our hotel) so I had little energy (or cash) left to devote towards the Blue Carib until our climb was finished. I handed the keys to the receptionist and told her to make sure no one drove off with my ride back to Uganda. Not that it was possible under current conditions.

Interesting Meeting: We had our climb briefing with Azizi and guide, Kibacha. Kibacha had a bright green button down, cargo pants, and a 2011 NBA All-Star game hat on for the meeting. He said all of about three words, deferring to the more experienced and well-spoken Azizi, to lay out the next six days of our lives.

December 28
Moshi to Machame Gate, Machame, Tanzania

In the end, I really was ill-prepared. I was ill-prepared for the bribes, the roads, the fuel shortages, the language barriers, and all the little things that come up each day you're traveling by yourself. But that was the fun of it, too. Making it up as you go really is an amazing way to see the world. Yeah, I blew some cash and time not having A to B charted out like some people like to do. But I also was surprised nearly everyday. The four weeks I spent in southern and east Africa were my last, best chance to see this continent. In five months, I'll be gone. I'll leave, just having scratched the surface. In a little over 15 months, I have visited 11 countries. There are over 60 sovereign nations on the continent. I am grateful for December. I am grateful for the lessons it has taught me.

So four weeks of fuel crises, car trouble, beach lazing, animal glimpsing, white-knuckled driving, people watching and cultural-enrichment has come to an end. There would be two more long, insignificant driving days in a few days, but for the rest of the year, I would let my legs do the talking and my car do some resting.

It was time to start the climb. The road trip was nearly over and the physical journey up to the roof of Africa was set to commence. What emotions did I have? Trepidation, anxiety, and fear come to mind. Why?

You wake up apprehensive and you know why. You see the mountain and your stuff laid out on the couch by the window. You see your hiking boots, your water, your gaiters, and your camera. You know what is before you. You know the investment that the next six days of your life requires. You know the financial investment that has already been submitted.

(Please see blog on "Kilimanjaro" for further details of my final leg of the trip:)

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