Two months into my Dark Star Safari, my first blog. For one reason or another, the focus has very much been on the journey itself, getting organised, connecting with my co-pilots, navigating East African roads, people and bureaucracy but above all enjoying what this part of the continent has to offer (more about that later), more so than getting down behind my laptop and writing. In fact, getting away from my laptop was one of the reasons for undertaking this journey in the first place. But now, while waiting for the Land Rover to be repaired, I’ve found the time to sit down and reflect about the last eight weeks, and perhaps the journey in general.
First, for those who are curious about how I ended up driving a Land Rover from Nairobi to London, in the About the Journey section I go into more detail so will not repeat that here.
Second, a brief explanation of the origin of the journey’s name, Dark Star Safari. It was named after Paul Theroux’s classic book, in which he describes an overland journey by public transport from Cairo to Cape Town through most of the countries that I will cross on my journey, but in the reverse direction.
As with my Solar Africa journey in 2010, in which I cycled from Cape Town to Nairobi, I left preparations to the last-minute, which by now I‘ve realised is in my nature. On this trip I’ve met overlanders who have spent up to two years preparing the journey, but that doesn’t work for me. I had set a deadline for myself, my flight to Nairobi, on the 22nd of January, and in the three weeks after Christmas I did whatever I could to get ready. My biggest concern was related to the integrity of the Land Rover, which was 25 years old and known to have teething problems. I therefore spent time observing a friend who is an expert mechanic, and also spent time with two Land Rover garages who gave me a crash course Land Rover maintenance with one of their mechanics. By the time I arrived in Nairobi I knew the theory, but I had never changed more than an oil filter, so the real test was still to come.
The Art of Land Rover Maintenance in Nairobi
The first two weeks in Nairobi were hectic, as I had another deadline to meet, which was the arrival of my friend Kathleen Hertel on the 9th of February, who would join me on the first section of the journey. I found the Land Rover in a derelict and neglected state. For 8 months it had been parked in the garden of a house in the Lavington neighbourhood. The front left tire was flat, the battery was dead and all the permits had expired. Using my amazing friends Joe and Ruth’s house as a base, for two weeks I raced around Nairobi on a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) trying to get the Land Rover ready. The Automobile Association of Kenya helped me with third party insurance, renewing the foreign vehicle permit and the carnet de passage. Simon’s Mud Rover in Karen garage fixed everything from the brake discs to the battery to the roof rack, while I went on an endless search through Nairobi to find a rooftop tent. A little over two weeks after landing in Nairobi, the car was ready, so I thought.
Exploring Kenya’s National Parks
Together with Kat I headed to Amboselli, one of Kenya’s premium national parks (NP). My first mistake was trusting Google Maps. In Africa, Google Maps doesn’t distinguish between tar and dirt roads, so if a dirt road is shorter, Google Maps will happily send you off into the bush, which can often take twice as long and a lot of frustration. Nevertheless, we made it to the border of Kenya and Tanzania on the first day. I also quickly learned to be careful where and when to order meat in East Africa, as the chicken that we ordered at the campsite was about as tender as my Havaianas.
Amboselli NP was truly spectacular. The open savannah set against the majestic Mt. Kilimanjaro, combined with hundreds of elephants and other wildlife, was unforgettable. We camped at a public campsite in the park, and spent most of the day doing game drives. Unfortunately, three mechanical problems not picked up in Nairobi surfaced. First, in Namanga, the windscreen wiper came off in the middle of the highway. Not much later one of the shock absorbers caved in, and then the brake disc began making a high-pitched noise. While these issues did not ground the car to a halt, I was quite stressed out. While I had taken the necessary precautions in terms of water and food, how do you fix a car in the middle of a game park, surrounded by elephants, lions and other predators? Some bush mechanics helped me fix the windscreen wiper and the brake issue, but the shock absorber would have to wait till a big city.
We continued our journey to Tsavo West, a NP next to Amboselli the size of Israel. While the thick brush made it nearly impossible to see animals, we did see a young leopard along the road, which unfortunately disappeared right after we reversed to observe it. Our permit was only valid for 24 hours, and since the park was so big we had to race to the exit to make it out in time, also before darkness. I turned into a path to the Ziwani gate and ended up on a track that hadn’t been used in a long time, resulting in the most adventurous off-road experience up to that point. Trees had fallen onto the track, bridges had broken so we had to cross dry river banks, and the wild animals hadn’t seen people in a long time, resulting in an elephant charging the Land Rover as I was trying to photograph it. The massive delay meant that we had to drive in the dark to our campsite by Lake Chala, a mysterious crater lake by the Kenya-Tanzania border. In the end, we never found the campsite and just set up our tent by the base of the crater, in the middle of the wilderness. That experience made me feel ultimately free, being able to sleep anywhere I want, just by setting up the rooftent. The next morning we crossed the border into Tanzania and slept in Arusha that night.
Mount Meru, Ngorongoro and Serengeti National Park
In Arusha Kat left and I was joined by Stella Romana Airoldi, a Dutch friend who started a jewellery business in Uganda. She was meant to go to Uganda but decided to join me as the elections made it risky to travel to Uganda. While waiting for her arrival I stayed with Mary and Gwynne in Arusha, a lovely family who I had met in Thailand the year before. Gwynne helped me repair the shock absorber and many other teething issues, while Mary fed me the most delicious food!
Together with Stella we climbed Mount Meru (4565m AMSL) in three days, which was another highlight of the journey up. From the summit, the views of Mt. Kilimanjaro, which I had climbed in 2009, were stunning.
Stella and I then spent four days in Ngorongoro and Serengeti, where we saw so many beautiful animals, ranging from leopards to lions to cheetahs. We also camped in a stunning campsite by Lake Ndutu. There were no facilities, but the breathtaking views of Lake Ndutu and the wildlife made up for that.
Our journey continued to Mwanza, where we stayed at the local yacht club and were unexpectedly hit by the most powerful storm I’ve ever experienced while camping. In the middle of the night a storm began raging over Lake Victoria and straight into our rooftop tent. The tent poles flew off, and rain and wind entered our tent soaking us completely. I was worried the whole tent was going to come off, but fortunately it held. We picked up the pieces in the morning, and then continued our journey to Biharamulo, where we stayed in an old German fort, which was used as an administrative post during the colonial era. We had hoped to do some more game drives in the area, but the reserves were completely inaccessible for tourists.
Gorillas in Rwanda, chimps in Uganda and rhinos in Kenya
In Rwanda Stella left for Uganda, and I was joined by my longtime friend and Atlantic College classmate Gabriela Rosales, a girl from Venezuela living in New York. With Gabi we explored Volcanoes NP in the northwest of Rwanda, where the borders of Congo, Uganda and Rwanda meet. While climbing Mt. Bisoke, we ran into a family of 10 gorillas, which was a surreal experience! Rwanda was a real highlight, with very friendly people, good infrastructure, clean and beautiful landscapes. To realise that the country had been involved in one of the most destructive genocides in history only 20 years ago, it is a true miracle how the country has recovered.
In Uganda we stayed at beautiful Lake Bunyoni, while waiting for my debit card to be recovered, which had been ‘swallowed’ by an ATM in Kabale. We also visited Queen Elizabeth National Park, where we met Stella and her mother, who were also on a road trip together. After Tanzania and Kenya, game driving in QENP was a disappointment, with a highway running through the middle of the park, very few animals and lions with tracking collars. Not only that, the fees were extraordinarily high, which was completely unjustified. Later we also found out that the Rwenzori area had been embroiled in violent conflicts over the last two years, with nine people killed in Kasese right before we entered the park. We did enjoy hiking the Kyambura gorge, where we went chimp tracking and only after our second attempt saw three chimps on the other side of the gorge.
In Kampala Stella invited us to visit the Acholi quarters, a slum to the east of Kampala where the Acholi (a tribe from the north that had been badly affected by the violent campaigns of General Koni) live, and where Stella runs her jewellery business, 22 Stars. Women affected by violence, AIDS and other misfortunes make jewellery for 22 Stars and in return earn a small living. Stella introduced us to Susan, one of the lead designers and she told us our tragic story involving cancer, AIDS, death in the family, being displaced from her home by violence, living in the slum, trying to put her children in school. It was truly heartbreaking, and very much allowed me to put my life and my journey into perspective.
From Kampala we continued to Jinja and then into Kenya, where we spent two days in Lake Nakuru NP, seeing the most amazing rhino’s and many other animals. Two months after leaving Nairobi I was back ‘home’, where the journey had begun.
Hunting leopards, hawksbill turtles and crashing gearboxes
After Gabi left to New York, I spent a few days trying to sort out my Ethiopian visa and waiting for my next co-pilot to join, Vittorio Previtali, an INSEAD friend living in Milano. Vittorio stayed for two weeks, and together with him we visited Lake Naivasha, the Masai Mara, Watamu and Taita Hills. The Masai Mara was an incredible experience, in part thanks to our guide Bernard, who took us offroad to see the most amazing animals, including a leopard hunting, and three cheetahs hunting and killing a rabbit.
In Watamu we spent a few days with Casper and Emily, friends of my brother Alexander, helping out at the Local Ocean Trust, where Casper, a marine biologist, runs a turtle sanctuary. It was so rewarding to see their work, helping to conserve hawksbill and green turtles. Releasing turtles that had been caught by fishermen back into the ocean, plus seeing baby turtles hatch and dash for the ocean, was unforgettable.
Hiking in the beautiful Taita Hills, not in a National Park for a change, but simply through mountain villages, was a great experience. On the way back to Nairobi we had our first major breakdown, with the gearbox falling apart on the road between Oloitoktok and Emali. What made it an especially harrowing experience was the fact that it was in the middle of nowhere, right before getting dark. Eventually we managed to tow the car from Duko Moja to Emali, where a local bush mechanic claimed to be able to fix the car in less than three hours. Adding to the problem was that my co-pilot Vittorio had to catch his flight back to Milano the next morning, leaving me behind to sort out the problem. I was stuck in the Kindu hotel, more like a roadside motel for truckers, and at 6 USD a night, you can imagine where I was staying. While the bush mechanic took apart the gearbox, I tried to go through my options, and eventually decided that staying in Emali was not going to work, so had the Land Rover put on a flatbed loader to Nairobi. Expensive, but the only realistic option. In Nairobi I was hosted by the family of Nicole van Tongeren, a United World College friend, whose family has a beautiful home in Karen. From there I could oversee the repairs to the Land Rover in the garage in Karen, where this adventure started in January. In the meantime my next passenger, Adriaan Kroon, arrived. Together we’ll make the long journey north to Sudan, but first, the Land Rover needs to be reanimated!