I’m here drinking with my two travel buddies around a campfire in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, when I spot the pair of silver eyes staring at me from across the campfire. Before we can scarper to our roof tent, our unwelcome dinner guest is chased away by a laughing six-year-old boy. The boy’s father is in quick pursuit – not in fear for his son’s safety, but to egg him on. It turns out that the hyenas have become so used to campers at this site – and vice versa – they visit regularly to scavenge for scraps.
We don’t take any chances and lock ourselves in the car for the night.We’re in the middle of an 11-week road trip along the east coast of Africa which, somewhat unconventionally, we begin in Windhoek, Namibia. We choose this western starting point so we can hire wheels from Foley Specialist Vehicles, who service Land Rover Defenders specifically for driving across the continent.
And, conveniently for three guys with no gear (and not much of an idea), they provide us with everything from camping equipment to tools and spares, as well as insurance and vehicle carnets (a requisite document for border crossings). All we’re left to worry about now is driving the entire length of Africa…
Dunes to deltas
We’re told that Swakopmund, Namibia, is a favourite holiday destination for South Africans and Germans (it only gained independence from the former in 1990 and was a colony of the latter until the end of World War I). But when we arrive it’s all but empty. Not that this bothers us – we’d planned to spend just one night in this surreal seaside town en route to Dune 45 in the Namib-Naukluft National Park.
At 170 metres high, Dune 45 is more mountain than dune, and when we finally arrive its grandeur is accentuated by the strong winds that whip across the surface. It’s as if the dune is on fire – an image that leaves an indelible mark in my memory.
The border crossing from Namibia to South Africa is relatively hassle-free, and much as we’d have liked to spend some time in the country’s wine region, stocking up on Chablis, we’re working to a strict time frame, and speed onwards towards Botswana.
First stop: Okavango Delta, a haven of wildlife and big game, which we plan to see first-hand by means of a DIY safari. By DIY, I mean cobbling together the entrance fee for the Moremi National Park and driving through its dense undergrowth and swampland in the hope of seeing an elephant or two … what could possibly go wrong?
Quite a lot, actually, but it helps that there’s a convoy of Land Rovers just ahead of us, which we follow through some of the Delta’s deeper water traps. Driving unassisted through this sort of terrain is, in itself, an amazing experience. We pass a handful of giraffes, minding their own business as they graze on buds and shrubs, as well as a few romping zebras, but none of the ‘Big Five’.
A little disappointed, we agree to head back to camp, when our attention is caught as the undergrowth up ahead begins to fizz with movement. After a minute or so, an enormous bull elephant emerges, followed by his herd – a hulking collage of elephants of all sizes. We sit in silence as the endless parade ambles across our path. We’d waited all day to see an elephant, and are now dumbstruck, watching the hundreds that make up the plodding grey convoy for the best part of an hour.
Do it: Dune 45 in Namibia is five hours’ drive from Swakopmund, along the C14/B2 highways. Entrance to Moremi Park starts at £80pp.
After a month or so of driving and intermittent safari, we’re craving some respite from the car, and make a beeline to Zanzibar, Tanzania. We take a two-hour ferry ride across the choppy waters between Dar Es Salaam and Zanzibar island before stumbling into Stone Town, just as the sun begins to set. It may be the end of the day, but the bustling night market has just kick-started into action.
Still laden with our rucksacks, we stumble through the hubbub of activity, mesmerised by the sights, the shouts of hawkers selling their wares, and the smell of barbecued fish and meat. It’s so atmospheric, I could have wandered the narrow, winding streets of this old part of the city for weeks.
Do it: Azam Marine, Tanzania, operates a ferry service from Dar Es Salaam to Zanzibar, tickets from £23pp.
No girls allowed
The most testing stretch of road we encounter runs from Marsabit, northern Kenya, into Ethiopia. Not only is its surface better suited to a mountain goat than a four-wheel drive, but it’s a renowned stomping ground for outlaw highwaymen. We’re advised only to travel in convoy, but there’s a problem with that – there are no groups travelling on the day we plan to depart. Regardless, we put our foot to the floor and, after a nerve-wracking day of driving through bandit country, we arrive in Ethiopia.
The 1430km Northern Circuit, which starts in the capital Addis Ababa, is a popular route with road-trippers. Enjoying the smooth, empty roads (courtesy of massive Chinese investment in the country), we marvel at the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and the fallen obelisks.
But our most memorable stop on the Northern Circuit is Debre Damo, a men-only cliff-top monastery (even livestock has to be male, in an attempt to further dissuade monks from friskiness). As I dangle midway up the rock face, suspended by nothing more than a rope held by a skinny man at the top of the cliff (this being the only way up), I begin to regret visiting this particular site of cultural interest. But after a moment’s brief panic, I continue my ascent and arrive at the monastery’s threshold, bones unbroken.
The complex’s buildings are a wash of green, yellow and red, a colourful contrast to the desolate, arid landscape. The views from the top of the cliff are so engaging it’s clear why the monks spend their days gazing over the rugged terrain. After perusing the grounds, we’re ushered into a small dark room by a goblin-like man, who shows us the ancient manuscripts and copies of the Bible that have resided in this monastery for centuries. For the privilege we’re then asked for money and are told we won’t be lowered down from the cliff until we pay. Begrudgingly, we hand over $10.
Do it: Debre Damo monastery, Ethiopia, lies 12 hours’ drive north of Addis and about 50km west of Adigrat, the last stop on Route 1 before turning west onto Route 15. Follow the road to Bizet, and keep an eye out for the turn-off to Debre Damo on the right.
Go hard; get home
Inconveniently, the only overland route from Sudan to Egypt is via a once-a-week ferry. Worse still, the ferry does not operate during the month-long religious holiday of Eid, which is why we’ve been camped in Sudan Desert, just outside Wadi Halfa, for two weeks.
A desolate backwater of a town, it resembles the moonbase Mos Eisley from Star Wars – in short, it feels like the end of the world. Needless to say, with nothing to do other than wait and eat falafel, the unity of our triumvirate is put under severe strain.
Luckily, the ferry arrives before one of us commits bloody murder, and we spend a night gently floating towards Aswan, Egypt – which we find is a haven of McDonald’s and, importantly, places to get beer. These luxuries tide us over until our car arrives.
Then it’s a mad dash through Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Europe, before dropping off our trusty Land Rover at the Foley garage in Essex. It took 79 days, which I think isn’t bad going until I remember the overland record from Cape to Cairo is 11 days, 14 hours and 11 minutes. But where’s the fun in that?
Do it: The Sudan to Egypt ferry should be booked through a fixer. Try Mr Mahir (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Getting there Fly from London Heathrow to Windhoek, Namibia, via Johannesburg, for £997 return with British Airways.
Overland: Need to know
Vaccinations A yellow fever jab (and the documentation to prove it) are essential, as are malaria tablets. fitfortravel.nhs.uk
Vehicle hire A fully equipped Land Rover Defender for a five-month Cape Town to London journey costs £12,000 fromFoley Specialist Vehicles
Get under the bonnet City of Westminster College offers car maintenance courses for £300. Invest – you won’t regret it.
Overland bus If you’re not keen to go it alone, try the many overland tourist truck companies instead. Dragoman Overland is one of the more established.
Photos: Getty, Thinkstock, Oliver Robinson