Preparing for a road trip in Africa

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A road trip through Africa first seemed possible to us after watching Long Way Down, a travel documentary by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman. They embarked on an epic motorcycle journey from the northernmost tip of Scotland, south through the UK, France and Italy, crossing into Tunisia by ferry. From Tunisia, they continued riding south through the entirety of Africa, ending in Cape Town after three months on the road. It looked like the perfect adventure, and we wanted to emulate exactly that!

It also made us buy motorbikes. It's a very influential show...
Ewan McGregor also made us get our licences and buy motorbikes. It’s a very influential show…

The seed of adventure planted, we began to fantasize about destinations. We hoped to immerse ourselves in the spirit of the continent by letting ourselves get lost (but not too lost), and let the journey dictate where to go next. We wanted to discover this mysterious, exotic and misunderstood place by meeting it’s people, getting lost in it’s wilderness, and we wanted to do it the hard way, with every flat tyre, engine problem, and navigational challenge along the way.

We looked at travel brochures and immediately decided a 4×4 safari tour bus, with guides and champagne and pre-prepared sandwiches was definitely not for us. So we researched local public transport options, buses, trains and intercontinental flights, and settled on a rough overland route that would take about five weeks. Finally, we booked our flights for winter 2010.

We were excited to travel. But we weren’t very prepared.

Then along came my uncle Jan. A Cape Town resident, Jan came to visit us in Australia for my dad’s wedding a few months before our trip. Boisterous, amicable and cheeky, Jan had heard about our upcoming travels, and had a proposal for us. He had a 4WD that he wanted us to use it for our road trip, despite that fact that he couldn’t actually come along personally. Wow! Private transport, what better way to travel! We were introduced to Wessel, our cousin (and the same age as us), who ran an art gallery in Cape Town. He was also going to be coming along with us on the trip. We got along well together, and it would certainly be advantageous having an Afrikaans speaker along for the ride.

Jeff and I arrived in Africa feeling a little underprepared. But Jan knew the continent well. Inbetween midday beer breaks and kudu steak dinners, we drove all over Cape Town for the supplies and documents we would need for 5 weeks on the road. Jan had organised the carnet de passages, a customs document guaranteeing payment of customs should we fail to re-export our vehicle from a country. In other words, a promise that the car we drive in to a new country will be driven back out again (and not sold along the way). We had our identification certified at the police station. All of these documents we stashed in a hidden zipper pocket behind one of the rear seats. On the bumpers, Jan had stuck a kaleidoscope of legal stickers; a black ZA in a white circle (compulsory for South African vehicles to cross other African borders), a blue and yellow warning triangle for Mozambique (required for towing a trailer, but we had one anyway), and red and white reflectors to satisfy Tanzanian road rules.

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We stocked up on cooking and camping equipment; tents (the sleeping bags we brought from Australia), inflatable mattresses and a pump, plates, cutlery and barbeque (braai) equipment, camp chairs and a folding table. We bought big bottles of water, and food; cereal and long life milk, cans of beans and spices and snacks. Wessel was bringing his iPhone; we planned to buy a new SIM card in every country to stay in contact with Jan. There were 2 Jerry cans on the roof, to be filled with diesel along the way, as well as 2 spare tyres. Loaded in the back was a well-stocked first aid kit, a toolbox, puncture repair kit, and a mini-fridge which was connected to the car. The car also had a GPS (although several countries would prove to be unmapped), and an extremely detailed road map which would prove to be invaluable.

That night, we packed everything away in the car, ready for our departure. We hung a South African flag on the dashboard, and brought a toy rubber snake. We practiced unfolding our tent, a fast-setup flexible circular frame, until we were happy with it. Jeff took Jan’s BMW motorbike for a ride (so very reminiscent of Long Way Down!). That night, Jan took us to a restaurant in the city in his other car, an Audi A4 turbo, which made short work of the Cape Town highways. Over an ostrich steak, we discussed our planned route, what to expect and our feelings about the adventure. It was regrettable that Jan couldn’t accompany us the whole way, but we were going to meet him in a few weeks in Zanzibar, 6000 kilometres away. We went to bed early that night, because tomorrow we had our first drive. An enormous distance all the way to Namibia…

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