One last photograph on the London Bridge and then a short drive to Westminster Road, where I turned into the driveway that led to an underground garage, removed the roof rack and parked the Land Rover in Bay 2. I looked at it one more time and touched the bonnet, secretly hoping the car would come to life and give me a farewell hug. No reaction. Instead, I gave the keys to the doorman, turned around and headed to the exit, into the hustle and bustle of a Thursday night in London. Adventure completed.
What had begun with a simple email in June 2015, led me to Nairobi in January 2016 and ended 6 months later in August 2016. It felt as if a lifetime had passed, as Africa, the Middle East and Europe provided a constant source of unexpected experiences and emotions. For this final blog, I have gone through my journal and my memory to dig out the journey’s challenges, the highlights and the most stressful moments, as well as a short summary of my journey through Europe.
Mechanics: I knew all but nothing about cars before I set off to Nairobi in January, and I came back feeling like I was ready to open a Land Rover garage. As the saying goes: “Land Rover: Making mechanics out of owners for the past 60 years.” The mechanical condition of the Land Rover and my lack of mechanical skills were probably my single most pressing concern before I set off. A breakdown in the Western World usually involves little more than a call to a breakdown service, or worst case a taxi home. In Africa you can’t take reception or breakdown services for granted, and so when you’re exploring remote places on your own, the risks related to a breakdown and the knock-on effects of the breakdown increase exponentially. I tried to minimise the risks by buying a satellite phone, stocking up on 40 litres of water and food to last a week, and generally trying not to be very irresponsible. Of course, some people would argue that the journey itself was irresponsible!
Route: I had studied the travel advice website of the UK Foreign Office in detail before departure, and finding a safe route back to Europe was far from easy. To avoid red zones, in Eastern Africa I had to navigate between Congo and Somalia, in Northern Africa I had to avoid South Sudan and Egypt, and in the Middle East almost every country was off-limits including Syria and Iraq. In the end, shipping the car to circumvent hotspots was the only way to do it, and shipping in itself was a time-consuming, expensive and frustrating process. I had also considered shipping the car to Turkey, which in the end I didn’t and was a blessing seeing the coup that took place there only a month ago. A friend described my journey as “a geopolitical steeple chase”.
Watching cheetahs hunt in the Masai Mara (Kenya): There is something tantalising about watching a predator hunt. It arouses the senses, makes adrenaline run through your body, creating a tension that keeps you on your toes while the drama plays out before you. It’s the interplay between the prey and the predator, the hunter and the hunted, the strong and the weak. In the Masai Mara, with my INSEAD friend Vittorio, we were lucky enough to see a mother and her two sons hunting. It was small prey, a hare, but the speed and the agility of the cheetah, and the subsequent dynamic between the family members while eating the hare was fascinating. The hunt was set against the stunning backdrop of the Masai Mara, one of the most beautiful national parks I have seen in Eastern Africa, and perhaps the whole African continent.
Climbing the Erte Ale volcano (Ethiopia): The northeast of Ethiopia, bordering Eritrea is known as the Danakil depression, which lies more than 100m below sea level and is one of the most desolate, hot and unwelcoming places on earth. What’s more, it’s a dangerous area, as it is still a conflict zone between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and for this reason it has been marked red by the UK Foreign Office. Yet a few travel operators venture into this territory, as the area has a lot to offer including the Erte Ale volcano, which is home to one of only seven active magma lakes in the world, as well as salt plains and sulphur lakes. The tour lasted 4 days and was unforgettable. Driving for 7 hours through the hot desert and across lava fields, hiking another 5 hours to the top of the volcano and standing on the edge of a crater with exploding magma left a lasting impression.
Rescuing turtles in Watamu (Kenya): Along the tropical Kenyan coast there is a marine park known as Watamu, where very rare leatherback and green turtles nest, year after year. We stayed with the Local Ocean Trust, and for three days helped them release turtles that had been caught by fishermen back into the ocean, and also watched baby turtles hatch and instinctively make their way to the ocean. The mix of awe-inspiring nature, aqua blue water, white sandy bounty beaches lined with palm trees, the resilience and steadfast determination of the turtles and the inspiring work of the local ocean trust, made it one of the highlights of the adventure.
Standing face to face with our ancestors in Volcanoes National Park (Rwanda): While climbing Mt. Bisoke in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, we ran into a family of gorillas. The shape of their hands and their feet, the hair on their bodies, their human-like gestures, the inter-family dynamics and the hierarchy of the silverback, combined with their sheer power and the knowledge that thanks to conservation efforts their numbers are slowly increasing again, made for a humbling experience.
Visiting the old city of Jerusalem (Israel): One of the most ancient cities on earth, the old city of Jerusalem is a historical gem born out of the Christian, Muslim and Jewish traditions. Within the pale limestone walls of the city, every square meter is occupied by a religious relic, surviving thousands of years of invasions and occupations by kings, caliphs and crusaders. The majesty of the city fused with the inevitable tensions between the different religious groups, makes for an electrifying experience.
Camping in the rooftop tent: I have always dreamed about sleeping in a rooftop tent, and when I finally bought the Eezi Awn rooftop tent in Nairobi, I was over the moon! 2.30m long and 1.60m wide, a comfortable mattress and two pillows, and perched high up above the ground, makes for a perfect camping setup. Highlights included camping on the rim of the Ngorongoro crater surrounded by grazing buffalos, watching the sun set from the rooftop tent over Lake Ndutu, camping along the Mara river by ourselves without a ranger, surrounded by hippos and eyes in the bushes reflecting off the light of our torches, camping with my father in the scorching heat 400m below sea level on the edge of the Dead Sea, setting up the tent in Wad Madani in Sudan in a side street when all the hotels in the city were full, and wild camping in the Aosta Valley in the midst of towering mountains and wild rapids flowing next to us.
Watching the sun set from the cliffs of Etretat (France): Visiting the little town of Etretat is a gratifying experience while exploring the rugged coast of Normandy. The charming town, the beach with pebble stones, the white cliffs and the natural rock arches have inspired famous painters such as Monet, as well as countless of tourists, to visit. The day that I visited Etretat, the dark blue skies were clear and there was not a cloud in sight, a gentle breeze was blowing over the sea and the red-orange sun was setting over the horizon. Sitting on the edge of the cliffs as the sun slowly set was one of those perfect moments one rarely experiences over the course of a lifetime.
Most stressful moments
Hearing the Land Rover’s gearbox fall apart: When I heard the gearbox of the Land Rover grind to a halt somewhere on a desolate and windswept road between Nairobi and Kilimanjaro, my heart sank. Deep inside I knew something had gone badly wrong, and what was to follow would be an agonising and disconcerting experience. The car was motionless, my co-pilot had to catch a flight the next morning, there were no spare parts and the bush mechanic had falsely claimed that he could fix the issue. The bush mechanic left me with a gutted Land Rover, a broken gearbox and more than a hundred nuts and bolts, sitting in the grimy parking lot of a 5 USD a night motel on the Nairobi – Mombasa highway, alone. It took a trailer and a week of repairs before the Land Rover was ready to continue its journey north.
Crossing the Jordan – Israel border: After crossing more than 7 borders without too many problems, I felt confident about crossing the Jordan – Israel border in the north on the Sheikh Hussein bridge, even though it was known as a particularly tough border. After 6 hours in which we passed through 16 checkpoints, x-rays and interrogations we were sent back to Jordan as the Israeli customs officials did not accept the authorization letter by the owner of the Land Rover, and demanded we would return with a ‘notarised’ authorization letter. Eventually it took five days of waiting for a letter to arrive by DHL from London to Tel Aviv, and another stressful 6 hours at the same border, in order to make it successfully into Israel.
- 22,000 km
- 15 countries
- 2 continents
- 8 co-pilots
- 11 breakdowns
- 2 bribes (Tanzania and Uganda)
- No flat tires
- No security incidents, no emergencies
- 4 sea crossings
- 1 broken back and 2 lungs intoxicated with diesel fumes
A note about Europe
The last stretch through Europe was a breeze compared to the Middle East and Africa. Open borders, well-paved roads, no corruption, ample availability of supplies, peace and relative security and an endless treasure trove of historical and contemporary sights, made for a welcome change. Together with Rene (INSEAD), Jonnie (Atlantic College) and Yael (New York) we explored everything between Athens and London, including the ancient city of Delfi, the canyons of Montenegro, the walled city of Dubrovnik, the Ferrari factory in Maranello, the Aosta Valley, the vineyards of Burgundy and the Loire, the romantic city of Paris, the castles of the Loire valley, the home of Monet in Giverny and the rugged coast of Normandy. I sped through Europe in less than three weeks, much less than it deserves, but knowing I will come back to visit these places and more at some point in my life.
I left for Africa full of excitement and anticipation, and came back to the Netherlands having experienced the adventure of a lifetime. Not in my wildest dreams could I have anticipated the awe-inspiring highlights, the challenges I had to deal with and the stress experienced during the unexpected setbacks. I came back to the Netherlands not a changed man, but a spiritually richer person, having learned a little more about the world and about myself. I am grateful for the opportunity I had to embark on this adventure, and look forward to the next instalment, which I’m currently figuring out!
Thank you for your support and your interest in this adventure, and I look forward to seeing you soon!
Big hug, Rick