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Seeing Africa by Road

The New York Times logoThe New York Times 14/12/2016 JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
Threading through the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa near Kokstad. © Jeffrey Gettleman/The New York Times Threading through the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa near Kokstad.

We had made it to Tete, Mozambique. The sun was sinking behind the Zambezi River like a scoop of orange sherbet as we sat on the motel’s deck taking in the quiet close of another long day on the road. But we avoided one another’s eyes. The table in front of us was cluttered with maps, notebooks, competing spreadsheets and empty beer bottles.

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“I don’t know, man,” Robert said. “Mozambique’s interesting, but it kind of reminds me of Spain in the ’80s. Maybe we should go our separate ways.”

For days, tensions had been building. It was hard traveling with another family, facing the endless decision-making of a road trip, especially this one. Robert and his wife, two Dutch friends whose children are about the same age as ours, were hankering to go west to see Botswana’s Kalahari Desert and the ruins of Great Zimbabwe. I had promised our two boys, Apollo, 6, and Asa, 4, that we would hit the beach in Mozambique, fabled for its pristine coastline.

But this wasn’t just a quibble over the route, which, in the spirit of this trip, we had always intended to be flexible. We were getting on one another’s nerves. No. That’s too soft. We were annoying the bejesus out of one another.

We were locking horns over everything — when to stop and fill up the jerrycans, which little guesthouse to sleep in, whether to get chicken and chips or omelets, again, for dinner, great chunks of silence sitting between us at meals.

Two married couples with five young children between them traveling through six African countries and 4,250-miles in 16 days. Here, they pass a bakery in Inhassoro, Mozambique. © Jeffrey Gettleman/The New York Times Two married couples with five young children between them traveling through six African countries and 4,250-miles in 16 days. Here, they pass a bakery in Inhassoro, Mozambique. And now as we contemplated the nuclear option, breaking up, we were staring down the most treacherous road of the entire trip: Mozambique’s Tete corridor, where a conflict that had claimed thousands of lives was reawakening.

Some people had just been ambushed, the motel manager told us. “By who?” I asked. He just shrugged. “Bandits? Rebels? Rogue police officers?”

It was all the same to him. “And from Inchope to Save,” he said offhandedly, mentioning two towns on our map. “Meu Deus,” he said, closing his eyes. “That’s even worse.”

The next morning my wife, Courtenay, and our sons jumped into our truck. “Roll ’em up, lock ’em up,” I said as we swung out of the parking lot. We headed down a long, bright highway by ourselves. I’d told Robert that we would meet him in Cape Town, though who knew if either of us would actually make it. Cape Town was still nearly 2,000 miles away.

This odyssey — driving across the bottom half of Africa, without any firm plans — started out as a lark. We were at a birthday party at Robert’s house; at the time, (which was late last year), we all lived in Nairobi, Kenya.

During the festivities, Robert abruptly turned down the music and called everyone outside. He has worked all over the world for the United Nations and other international organizations and speaks about 38 languages. You know what military officers call “command presence”? Well, Robert has it in spades: tall, handsome, confident, topped by a wicked crest of pure white hair. He also has an awesome smile.

Robert and family take one of many breaks during the African odyssey. © Jeffrey Gettleman/The New York Times Robert and family take one of many breaks during the African odyssey. The instant he told everyone to go outside, I knew what he was up to. He was going to give his wife a car, and I could tell from the glint in his eye that this was as much a selfie gift as anything. Stepping into the driveway, everyone gasped and started laughing: He had bought her an old green Land Rover Defender, the ultimate safari vehicle, and wrapped it in Christmas lights adorned with Chinese lanterns.

Maybe we had all had a little too much to drink, but in the glow of the moment I swung my arm around Robert’s back and mumbled, with Champagne breath: “With a car like that, you can’t just drive to the mall. Hey, man. Why don’t we drive to Cape Town?”

Of course, we could have flown to Cape Town. But we were all hopelessly smitten by the historical, romantic and mystical experience of traveling Africa overland: covering all of that beautiful countryside, savoring the long distances, losing time, not just passing through landscapes but being absorbed by them. I think each of us was also a bit worn down by the rigors of our jobs and of being mommies and daddies to young children. We believed, perhaps naïvely, that turning our Christmas vacation into a challenge could rejuvenate us.

It was the most ambitious road trip any of us had ever planned: 4,250 miles one way, 16 days, six countries, five young children, four hardheaded adults and two questionable trucks. “Sounds like a bad Christmas carol,” Courtenay muttered. To be honest, she was never into it.

Most areas we intended to pass through in Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland and South Africa were relatively safe for drivers, northern Mozambique being the one question mark. But it wasn’t as though we had AAA for back up. You break down in rural Malawi or back roads Tanzania, where there aren’t any spare parts or much transport, and you might as well get comfortable for a week. And our truck was no spring chicken. It was a Nissan Patrol, sturdy as heck but 11 years old and with more than 100,000 miles and a few rattles.

This all might sound risky, maybe even reckless, but I’ve lived in East Africa for more than a decade and felt comfortable traveling here, knowing the region was more accessible than most people appreciate.

As the push-off date approached, our mountain of gear stupidly grew. (When you take a road trip, you’re the worst packer. You think: “Oh, yeah. We’ll have all the room in the world.) Soon we were running out of space in our operational staging area. Our guest room was heaped with mosquito nets, tarps, sleeping bags, bed rolls, tin dishes, flats of water, a monstrous medical kit containing everything from malaria prophylaxis to Tums, copies of our passports, visas and this thing called a “Carnet de Passages,” a very official-looking customs document that allows you to cross borders in your own vehicle. We’d also packed too many clothes, a satellite transmitter, spark plugs, granola, nuts, fuses, boxed milk, an air pump, a tow rope and seven packages of Huggies, for the long rides.

Little did we know that within a few days, in Malawi, we would enter the dominion of Shoprite, a South African chain, where we could have bought many of these supplies if we had actually needed them.

Kenya

As we pulled out of our driveway, car stuffed, I looked up to see dark clouds and bright sunshine, the dramatic, schizophrenic lighting that often illuminates Nairobi’s equatorial skies. We passed zebras in Kajiado, an area that used to be rural but in the frenzied urbanization of Nairobi in the last 10 years is now more like a suburb. By midday, we reached the Tanzanian border.

We spent the next hour and a half waiting in lines, to get our passports stamped, to get our yellow fever cards checked, to show our Carnet de Passages. Then we were free, out on the road again chugging past trucks with inspirational messages emblazoned on their backsides such as “Love Your Enemies.”

Tanzania

We crossed into Tanzania that same day, and the landscape immediately opened up: lush, green savanna unrolling from the sides of the highway. We passed through a string of villages, each specializing in a particular commodity. In the first, everyone along the road sold chickens. In the next, eggs. The village after that, oranges. We motored through spiky sisal fields that ran for miles and miles and ended in a town where dozens of people were selling wooden hand-carved stools — they were actually carving them along the road, flakes of wood shavings littering the highway’s shoulders — being gently stirred by the wind of our passing wheels.

In rural Africa the economy isn’t hidden, as it is in the United States. You drive right through it.

Robert was right behind me as I took a curve, perhaps a little fast. Ahead, I saw a man in a white uniform step out from under a mango tree into the road. Shoot. A police officer. He had his arm up, which meant stop.

Mikumi National Park near Morogoro, Tanzania, hosts all the iconic African wildlife. © Jeffrey Gettleman/The New York Times Mikumi National Park near Morogoro, Tanzania, hosts all the iconic African wildlife. In eastern Africa, most traffic officers don’t have guns, radios or cars. You could blow past them and probably never get in trouble. It’s essentially an honor system: You stop because it’s the right thing to do. The officer sauntered up to my window with a black plastic object that I could have sworn was an old hair dryer. It was actually a radar gun, one that looked like it belonged in “Smokey and the Bandit.” I had been speeding, he said.

I don’t think the radar gun even had batteries, but I knew the game. In East Africa, it’s called “kitu kidogo,” “a little something” in Swahili — a euphemism for a bribe. You have to always let them make the first move. “Do you know the fine?” the officer asked. Earnestly, I told him I did not. “Twenty thousand shillings,” he said. “But,” he smiled, “if you don’t need a receipt, I make it 10.” Who was I to argue?

Soon we were whizzing past baboons shrieking from trees. Our boys kept a running tally of all the animals we saw: monkeys, giraffes, zebras, ostriches, gazelles, antelope, warthogs, even elephants. Tanzania is rightly celebrated for its wildlife.

If we’d had the time — which we didn’t — we could have gone from national park to national park and made our drive one endless safari. We did camp one night next to Mikumi National Park, home to all the big wildlife species. The Tan-Swiss Lodge was perfect: a clean spot for tents, showers and a nearby restaurant, $7 for each adult, free for children.

A few bites into dinner, I could tell that the food — burgers, chips and roast chicken — was fresh and had been made with care. As we bedded down, I heard lions grunting in the distance. Or maybe it was just Robert snoring in the tent next to me.

Malawi

“Man, never in my life did I think I’d be here,” Robert said, smiling in the doorway of a border town barbershop where we went looking to change money. “Malawi was always distant in my memory, like this little country lost in the middle of Africa.”

Apollo, 6, checking out the Tanzanian scenery. © Jeffrey Gettleman/The New York Times Apollo, 6, checking out the Tanzanian scenery. One of the most pleasant African countries, Malawi is also one that Western tourists rarely visit. It is small, green, landlocked and friendly. Never aggressively colonized like Kenya or South Africa, its raison d’être is the lake. Lake Malawi is home to a thousand kinds of fish, more than any other lake in the world. It’s a beautiful place to swim and snorkel, with little industry or pollution. Scientists say you can catch bilharzia, an infection caused by a parasitic worm, but the risks are minimal along isolated beaches, where most tourists tend to go.

As soon as we crested a hill and for the first time spotted Lake Malawi sunning itself, Courtenay said: “Can I sit in a beach chair just once on this trip? Is that asking too much?”

Robert and company supplied the answer: Butterfly Space, a small eco-resort on Nkhata Bay. It sounded amazing, from the guidebooks: “spacious beachfront,” “picturesque beauty,” an “oasis.” We booked it from the road, calling just a few hours ahead. We did that a lot, conducting a little internet research the night before or flicking through a guidebook, which gave us flexibility, because we didn’t know how far we would get each day.

We rolled in at night, always a no-no; in the dark it’s hard to tell what you’re getting. A guard steered us to a campsite that smelled of dog poop. As I was helping Robert set up his tent, I noticed garbage strewed everywhere. But I didn’t want to sound negative about a place he had picked, so I kept my mouth shut.

“Hey, mon.” It was a voice from the bushes. “Uh, yeah?” I answered, looking around. A young man stepped out, dreadlocked and glassy-eyed. “Name’s Happy.” “Happy what?” Robert growled.

Robert and I hadn’t eaten for hours, and the two of us were dangerously crabby. We just wanted to get the tents up and find some food. “Happy Coconut, mon,” the young man answered. “Happy Coconut. I’m soooo happy.” Robert shook his head and whispered, “I think the guy writing the guidebook was high when he passed through here.”

Several of the residents of Mikumi National Park in Tanzania. © Jeffrey Gettleman/The New York Times Several of the residents of Mikumi National Park in Tanzania. Butterfly Space slithered with tattooed travelers smelling of patchouli oil and Malawi Gold (the cheap and potent local ganja). We weren’t prudes, but it didn’t seem to be the ideal family spot.

The next morning we hit the road. We tended to drive about 10 hours a day, starting around 8 a.m., and by dusk we would find a small hotel or guesthouse, usually for no more than $50, sometimes for as little as $10.

Road trips are as much about what is happening inside the car as out. Our collective brood, all boys between ages 4 and 7, did surprisingly well, napping, looking out the windows and pulling each other’s hair only occasionally.

The roads were tarmac all through Malawi and Tanzania. The only problem was gas. Malawi has few fuel stations, and I ran out twice, rescued by Robert.

I think our best day of the entire trip was shortly before we split up.

We had treated ourselves to a classy old whitewashed hotel, the Sunbird Livingstonia Beach Hotel, on Salima Bay. It wasn’t even that expensive, around 90,000 Kwacha a night, or about $125, and we took the day off from driving to swim in the body-temperature lake and get tossed around by the waves. I didn’t want to leave. But Robert and his team hadn’t signed up for a beach holiday, and driving all the way to Cape Town had been my great idea, after all.

When we told the room steward that we had to go, he shook his head wistfully. “It’d be great to see other countries, see how other people live,” he said, folding a sheet. “In Malawi, everyone’s born in Malawi. They live in Malawi. They die in Malawi. They don’t see anything else.”

Asa, 4, and new friends in Praia Do Bilene, Mozambique. © Jeffrey Gettleman/The New York Times Asa, 4, and new friends in Praia Do Bilene, Mozambique.

Mozambique

The instant we crossed the border, it felt as though we were in a different place. This is a huge benefit of arriving in a new country by land. You immediately get a sense of its development, its atmosphere, its spirit, which is hard to do in an antiseptic international airport. One of the few former Portuguese colonies in Africa (most of the continent was grabbed up by France or England), Mozambique has a palpable Latin vibe. The storefront colors were zanier, the clothes tighter, the music louder. As we cruised through a tiny village blasting salsa, Courtenay turned to me and asked, “Is this country deaf?” We were without comrades now. We had emerged unscathed from the scorched wastes of Tete and were flying downhill toward the legendary Praia do Bilene beach, on Mozambique’s southern coast.

When we pulled in, I couldn’t even hear Courtenay’s yelling which way to go because of the roar of motorcycle engines. Young South Africans raced around on Ninja bikes, shirtless or in bikinis. We discovered that Mozambique during Christmas is a bit of a South African colony.

After getting the keys to a rundown rondoval at a seaside hotel, we scampered to the beach, to sand that sparkled — but not in the way you might imagine. It was the day after New Year’s. Thousands of beer bottles lay at the water’s edge, as though they had been vomited up by the sea. The place was a pigsty, but our boys loved it, collecting dozens of dirty bottles and making giant bottle castles.

In Kenya, you’d never see that. Poor people would have been all over that beach, scooping up the empties to make money from recycling. Courtenay and I found the whole scene depressing and consoled ourselves with heaping plates of rice, pãozinho (Portuguese rolls) and shrimp so succulent and tasty that even the boys — who usually flee at the sight of anything unusual on their plates, especially if that unusual thing has eyes — gobbled it up.

But our clock was ticking. Robert was somewhere out there, chugging his way south. Though we’d had our disagreements, I missed seeing that dark green Land Rover behind me.

As we hustled toward the Swaziland border, a wall of brown, stubbly mountains rising before us, I guess I started to zone out. I didn’t see her until it was too late. A corpulent police officer stepped out from under a tree. That was always their strategy: Hang out in the shade and wait for a victim. It was the equivalent of the American patrol officer on a motorcycle hiding behind a billboard. She walked into the road, arm up. When I pulled over, she fanned her face.

Hitting the beach in Inhassoro, Mozambique. © Jeffrey Gettleman/The New York Times Hitting the beach in Inhassoro, Mozambique. “Que calor, que calor,” she said. (How hot.) “Indeed,” I responded.

She asked for my license. I gave it to her. She asked for my insurance. I gave her that as well (a special Mozambican policy covering who knows what that I had spent $60 on at the border). She frowned.

The boys stirred in the back seat, as she made a leisurely loop around the truck. She returned to my window. “You pay fine,” she said.

“For what?” I asked.

Her eyes darted around. “Baby no have seatbelt.”

“What? He just took it off. We’ve been stopped for three minutes.”

“Baby no seatbelt. We go police station Matola.”

“Matola?” I said incredulously. “Isn’t that an hour away?”

“Then pay fine here,” she said, staring into my face. “Three hundred meticals.”

After I handed it over, she waved happily goodbye.

Swaziland

The Kingdom of Swaziland is a strange little place: population 1.4 million; per capita income $8,500, not bad by sub-Saharan standards; and one of the world’s lowest life expectancies, at 52 years. AIDS destroyed this place, possibly because it is a country in between. In Africa, transit points have become H.I.V. hot zones; long-haul truckers are some of the worst culprits for spreading the virus. Swaziland’s roads were good, its landscape barren and windswept. We drove end to end in 2 hours 48 minutes 7 seconds.

South Africa

By the time we reached South Africa, we had six days of vacation left and more than 1,000 miles to go. I had visited South Africa nearly a dozen times, but I had never driven the country. The landscape was dreamy: rippling green hills, tall trees and miles and miles of farms and vineyards stocked with grapes so plump and juicy, you just wanted to pull over and pluck them.

I found myself asking: “How did this happen? How did South Africa get all the good land?”

We caught one of the most beautiful sunsets I’d ever seen. Over the west side of the N2 highway, fingers of light reached into a cool, dark forest. We made three stops on the way to Cape Town, our favorite being St. Lucia, a well-kempt town sporting carpets of crab grass for front lawns. It felt like Boca Raton, Fla., except for the 3,000-pound hippos lumbering through the neat little streets at night. Set in a large estuary filled with life, St. Lucia is a great place for a boat tour to see hippos and crocodiles, which we enjoyed, booking through Hornbill House, the bed-and-breakfast where we stayed. We were all eager to get to Cape Town, arguably one of the world’s most stunning cities. Our boys were excited to see the penguins at the Simon’s Town penguin colony. I was ready to stop driving. Courtenay just wanted the trip to end.

As we curved around a mountain near the penguins, bubbling with the sense of triumph at having made it, a familiar green Land Rover hurtled toward us. I tooted madly. We pulled over and hugged, a lot, in a parking lot. It was great to see Robert, his wife and their children, and we were sorry that we hadn’t been able to stay together the whole time. But we had adventures to share and the children were talking fast: “We saw crocodiles!” “Well, we saw a castle!”

I wished I had seen more. Driving across Africa was far more doable than I expected: The roads were safe, the border crossings not too hellish, and it was no sweat booking hotels by cellphone on the fly.

But we should have taken two months, not two weeks. Then we could have explored more wildlife parks, slipped off the main roads and lingered in small, charming towns, as opposed to getting up at the crack of dawn and strapping in again.Robert, God bless him, arranged for two couples to fly to Cape Town and drive our vehicles back to Nairobi, because they wanted to have the same road trip experience. On that final Sunday, we loaded into our trucks one last time and drove to the airport, his truck right behind mine. Then eight hours later, we were all back home.

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