Sitting in Johannesburg after returning from our “Round the Cape” road trip, we were left with six weeks and a blank slate. Well, not quite, we did plan to be in Uganda by June, so really, four weeks. And a whole lot of options for getting there.
Since Ethiopia has always fascinated us, and got nothing but the highest reviews from the people we have met, we considered flying to Addis Ababa and spending all of our time there before flying to Uganda. Looking into this, though, we discovered it was about the same price to fly from the US to Addis Ababa as it was to fly from Johannesburg to Addis Ababa. Either way it wasn’t particularly cheap. Plus, Ethiopia is so spread out and its roads so difficult to navigate that to properly visit the country would have required all the time we had…plus more. Ethiopia, though still high on our places-we-want-to-see list, would have to wait.
We also thought about heading straight to Dar Es Salaam or Nairobi and doing the traditional East Africa tourist trail. We could climb Kilimanjaro, do a safari circuit through the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, and Masai Mara, tackle Mt. Kenya, and chill out on Zanzibar. And while there’s certainly a huge amount of appeal in those attractions, we didn’t want to feel like we spent all of the remainder of our trip immersed in tourist activities but separated from the general population. We had a desire to experience Africa on its own terms, not just hop from sight to sight.
So, in the end, we opted for the journey and not the destination. We decided to go overland from Johannesburg to Kampala, through Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, and Kenya. We would see Africa from buses and minibuses, boats and trains. We would stop to take a break or change modes of transport and in the process spend time in cities that would never make most traveler’s radar but which are the focal point of life for many Africans. As these weren’t tourist cities, there wasn’t the usual circuit of tourist restaurants, hotels, and amenities, so we would join the locals in bargaining for bananas from street vendors, washing our clothes in buckets, and seeking the rare hotel with hot water. On our overland journey, we would get as close to the African population as possible (literally, as we were often practically sitting on their laps, holding their babies, or watching as their children smeared bananas onto our pants). We would learn patience when our bus broke down, and we were left standing on the side of the road for hours, and we would learn to take in stride the total disintegration of any plans we might have, proving ourselves more flexible than we’d ever thought.
On June 17, when we fly from Nairobi to Bangkok, we will leave behind the continent of Africa without having stood atop the peak of Kilimanjaro, crossed the Serengeti in a 4WD, or seen the stone churches of Lalibela. If you had told me that would be the case when we were planning our trip, I would have gasped in horror. After all, these are essential African experiences. But once you hit the ground, perspectives change. I have no doubt we will return to Africa. And I know that arranging safaris or climbs or Ethiopian vacations is not difficult; it is possible even within the stingy framework of American vacation systems. But planning a trip with limited time around minibuses and ferries and trains and buses, all of which run when and if they feel like it, is not so easily done. And that’s why we did it now. Seize the day, they say. And that’s what we did, even when our day was spent squished with about 20 other people into a minibus smaller than a Dodge Caravan.
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