Inspired by Banff film festival and after a touch of tequila, Emma and I thought she should run from the west coast of Africa to the east. This is our story of dreaming up the idea, researching it, planning, training and running the distance.
This day held one of my favourite moments of the trip and, of course, it involves children laughing. We had put up a tarpaulin to shelter from the threatening rain clouds but, as the crowds of children gathered, we shifted it to act as a privacy barrier. Emma and Mike had arrived for breakfast stressed from being screamed at by excitable children. A few of the watchers drifted off to school but the less well dressed ones stayed. I am guessing, but may be wrong, that they didn’t have enough money for a formal education. So, in order to enable the team to have some peace, I went out to the children to be their focus and had loads of fun.
The children were sweet and friendly and tolerated my lack of language skills and crazy antics. I taught them how to spin their leg under themselves, did a few yoga moves, sang songs – “heads, shoulders, knees and toes.” And several times I tried to teach them the Mexican wave (they had surrounded me in a circle and I thought it would be fun).
One girl, Margaret, spoke a few words of English and had the confidence to be the first to try things. Thank God for her. Mostly, the children laughed and giggled and looked up at me with shining eyes and smiles. Pushing in to touch me at times then running away squealing when I looked at them.
An old man came up to me and asked, “Why do you do this?”
“Because I like children.” I reply.
He smiles and says, “Thank you.”
He went on his way to the fields to work.
That thank you and smile that went with it and the sound of children laughing, will warm me for the rest of my life.
At last, I saw Mike and Emma setting off on their journey, hopefully at least a little rested, and disappearing down the road. I could stop, pack up the car, say goodbye to the little crowd and revert to being an introvert. Onwards we go to Mangochi and Lake Malawi.
A view of Lake Malawi whilst looking for a bit of privacy
Number of Days: 74
Total distance run by Emma: 3143 km, 1953 miles
Daily average distance run by Emma (including rest days): 42.5 km, 26.4 miles
Alarmingly, we see wild fires less than a mile away. However, people, cows and dogs are going about their business without looking at even those fires that are near straw huts. So, we do what everyone else does and ignore it.
Robert explains local people start fires to flush out small animals, which are caught for food. I guess Zambians are as experienced with fire as the Swiss are with snow.
With fires around, I am not keen on camping beside the road. Luckily, we are allowed to camp here under this fantastic tree which makes Cleo look like a toy truck instead of the Landcruiser with extra suspension she really is.
Robert swiftly disappears to chat up the locals who are having a meeting about development in the area and receive some tasty meat and sadza, which I am very happy about. I still haven’t mentioned to the team the possibility we could run out of food as we don’t have any Zambian money to buy any. Why bother them?
In the night the wind gets up.
Advice Moment: When travelling in a windy place, do not take a roof tent. The wind sweeps between the layers of the tent and struggles desperately to get out, crashing the fabric up and down. At moments, shaking the whole car, I dreamily wonder if we will take off. Fortunately, Cleopatra is a big girl and all the kit inside and us on top, adds up to over a tonne so it would have to be some wind to fly us into the sky. In future, I think twice about putting a tent under a massive tree.
Nobody gets much sleep.
Number of Days: 35
Total distance run by Emma: 1537 km, 955 miles
Daily average distance run by Emma (including rest days): 43.9 km, 27.3 miles
Brenda’s Best Baobab is a gentle giant of a tree. Wider than several people and disappearing into the sky, surrounded by a deck for tables, the Baobab stands quietly.
Upon crossing into Zambia we soon come across small shops catching attention with their delicious smells and fresh shiny fruit and vegetables. As predicted there are several banks in … but not one of them is working. “Maybe tomorrow” the locals tell me helpfully but tomorrow we’ll be miles away. I silently mourn the unattainable healthy fruit and vegetables available and decide, for the sake of team morale, not to mention that having cleared our stocks of food before crossing the border, we may be a little short for the next 5 days.
Unexpectedly, the Sesheke town rolls on and it is clear that we will not find a camping spot by nightfall, which is how we have found ourselves at Brenda’s Best Baobab, an immaculate looking campsite. But, with only 5 kwacha, we are hoping for Brenda’s generosity. Her encouraging staff usher me to her rich green lawn outside her house, where I stand scruffy, dirty and awkward.
Brenda herself is very friendly and happy to offer us free accommodation as a donation to the success of our journey. Her belief in us is yet another reason I hope we raise more money. I would show you a photo of this lady who is both the kind of person you don’t mess with and successfully puts you at your ease. However, when she got up in the early morning to say goodbye she said she was underdressed and did not want any photos going up. A friend of hers had had a photo taken when she was nursing a baby and it ended up on the internet, with the mother, someone who is normally well dressed, feeling extremely embarrassed.
Brenda kindly lets us use her kitchen and unimpressed by our dirty pots allows us to scrub the soot off the bottom of them. I also get to cook over a gas stove, I love cooking over a wood fire but a little variety and the easy cleanliness of gas makes for a nice change.
Emma is keen to get to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and have her very well earned 2 day break. She wants to start early whilst it is still dark but Brenda tells a story of a friend walking home at night from work, who was killed by an elephant. Emma agrees to wait until dawn.
What others have to say about Brenda’s and contact details:
This is a tense time. Local knowledge is invaluable and we have been warned that the area Emma is about to run through has lions in it. Mike is no longer on the bike beside Emma but inside the car.
The car is beside Emma so that if a lion is spotted she can get in as swiftly as possible.
Woocash is driving and I am on top with binoculars. I know from experience how incredibly difficult it is to spot a lion.
Staring at a strange looking burnt tree, I realise after a moment that it is an ostrich, stationery in the forest. It moves away as we get closer. Ostrich can be vicious when they want to be, lions aren’t the only animals to be wary of. Although of course in the excitement of seeing an ostrich, I forgot all of that and simply yelled “Ostrich, ostrich!” Everyone looked right and for a moment failed to keep look out left, which was the side Emma was on.
The strangest thing about this forest is how silent it is. There may have been lions in the grass watching us for all we know but we don’t spot them. We are wary when we stop to eat and rest but never see anything and we all make it safely through.
However, the stress is too much for everyone and although Emma ran through dangerous game parks in her previous run along the Freedom Trail in South Africa with only her brother on a bicycle as support, we make a very good decision to turn left and run through Zambia instead of Botswana and the Chobe National Park, which is full of animals.
The only thing is that I have not prepared for us to cross into Zambia. I don’t know requirements for the border crossing at all. Lets hope its an easy one. This will be my first land crossing in Africa and my first with Cleopatra, the car.
No of days: 30
Total distance run by Emma: 1,305 km, 811 miles
Daily average distance run by Emma (including rest days): 43.5 km, 27 miles
The policeman, at the entrance to the Caprivi Strip in Namibia, is laughing at me: I have just asked about shops.
This thin wedge of land between Botswana and Angola is renowned for lions, elephants, buffalo and wild dog. Every day is a risk assessment. It will take Emma several days to run through it and her safety is paramount. Lions and other carnivores chase moving objects. We will also be sleeping in our tent on the side of the road. Lions usually hunt when the heat of the day is over and during the night. We enter the area with caution, armed with knowledge from Charlie Paxton as to where along the way we are at risk from which animal. Initially, there are houses and people but these eventually stop and the stillness is eerie. We cannot see any animals at all.
We aim to keep the car a few metres behind Emma and Mike. This annoys Emma, who hates the car being so close and noisy (it’s really noisy) and creates tension with Woocash who worries Cleopatra (the car) will overheat: stopping and starting is not good for her. I am sitting on top of Cleo with binoculars, wrapped up in clothes in the early morning, as it’s cold, and in the afternoon, as protection from the sun. It is wonderful to be out in the fresh air. The others seem unduly worried that I will fall off. But I have myself snuggled in well, with handholds planned in the event of sudden breaking or accelerating. In my turn, I am constantly checking out for buffalo (we are in the buffalo hunting area). I have a fearful vision of an angry buffalo or elephant charging out of the bush at Emma and Mike.
Then, in the silent trees, we see a family of elephants. Well camouflaged, little ones, medium ones and a big mama. We are all delighted. Woocash utterly fails to follow the safety plan, to keep the car beside Emma and Mike, and picks up a camera whilst driving. We really need a cameraman for these moments. I would have loved to have taken a photo of Emma as she ran past this family munching quietly in the heat. But I was busy assessing safety. Luckily, Woocash did do some filming as I can show you this lovely film:
That night, as always, we are in the tents soon after dark. Whilst the rest of us slept, Emma heard an elephant snapping trees around us. The following day, Charlie calls to check that we are okay, nearby villagers had had to flee their homes in the night, as angry elephants damaged human property. As so often during this trip, I wonder if there is some stronger power keeping us safe. And if so, I wonder why.
We keep going, out of the elephant area and into an area, apparently, inhabited by lions.
Have you had an encounter with elephants? Please feel welcome to tell your stories or thoughts in the comments below.
As this is all in the same day as crossing the border, the distance travelled and day are the same as the previous post.
Upon arrival in South Africa, the nice lady on the desk told me that the longest she could give me a visa for was 90 days (that’s great, I only need 12 hours) but I won’t be able to restart my visa unless I returned to my home country. Eh? Apparently, unless I return to the UK during those 90 days I will have overstayed my visa and on my re-entry in 5 months time, am likely to be arrested or refused entry! It seems too illogical to be true. I think/hope she must be confused and file it in my head under ‘problems to worry about later’. I ask her to give me a week’s visa. Wanting to be helpful, she gives me 3 months.
#2 South Africa to Namibia (Windhoek by air)
This is, frankly, a disaster. As I was monitoring changing visa requirements for 3 nationalities across 6 countries, I enlisted the help of a company who advised me that none of us needed a visa in advance for Namibia. So I was more than a bit surprised when I happily zipped through border control, collected our bags and turned round to see Woocash waiving and shouting for me. Polish people it seems need a visa in advance! I took some convincing that this was not a mistake on the customs lady’s part. To her absolute credit, she was amazingly helpful. Your average person would have found my disbelief annoying. Lucky for us, she was exceptional. She was not going to allow Woocash in but allowed me to check her assertion on the internet, helped us sort out return flights and allowed Woocash out to buy water and to go for a smoke, which he needed amidst all the stress (not that he was admitting any stress but this is his first time out of Europe). Woocash had to take the next flight back to South Africa and sleep another night in the airport, bus it to the Namibian embassy, where he was soundly told off alongside a lady from Slovakia who had made the same mistake, and then granted a visa 4 hours later. He and the Slovakian woman flew back that evening.
Emma, who arrived a few days later, in her turn, stepped away from customs only to discover that her passport had been stamped for 1 month, which is why she has been running so fast – in order to get to a border on time.
So here we are at Mohembo (which is inside a game park!). We have decided that we cannot risk taking Woocash out the country, as he might not get back in again. Which means Emma and Mike are stepping across the border, turning around and coming right back in again. We have been warned that customs officers do not take lightly to this kind of mucking about and can make travellers wait indefinitely.
We arrive at the crossing at 6.30am in the hopes that the officers are still in that sleepy stage when the most important thing is how many sugars there are in your coffee. Woocash and I settle down to wait in the car. I get to write two sentences in my diary and we see Emma and Mike are on their way back. I was told Africa was slow! What is this super efficiency? Emma and Mike have had a perfectly easy friendly crossing there and back.
I hope UK customs officials are as helpful and welcoming to foreigners, especially foreigners who accidentally mess about with the official rules.
For now, Emma is about to run through Bwabwata National Park, we make safety action plans in case we see a carnivore or elephants.
Advice for other travellers
Check your own visa requirements and advice regularly up until you leave (Mozambique became much more strict due to the civil disturbances they had).
Do NOT rely on advice from visa companies.
At the Namibian border tell them how long you would like your visa stamped for as you hand your passport over, before they stamp it.
Many thanks to the customs lady in Namibia, you were amazing.
No of days: 27
Total distance run by Emma: 1138 kms, 707 miles
Daily average distance run by Emma (including rest days): 42.15 km, 26.18 miles.
Feel welcome to post stories of border crossing disasters in the comments or links to your stories.
No, I am not talking about Mike and Emma. I am not sure how they would take that. Hippos are wonderful animals. I know they’re the biggest killers in Africa. But really? Above Puff Adders, Mosquitos and Humans? They get a bad press because they are easily scared and then bad things happen as they are trying to flee to safety or defend their territory. Also, if you are in a green canoe they might mistake you for a crocodile and break the boat in half. Crocodiles are their evil neighbours, sharing the same river and occasionally attacking adults or killing baby hippos. It’s no surprise then, if you look anything like a crocodile, they are going to freak out. Admittedly, some of the males are inclined to show off and can be aggressive. But, as long as the hippo is not scared of you or one of those alpha male types hippopotami are adorable. They lie around in mud and harumph. Check out the story of a family and their friendly hippo.
Andy from Samsitu Camp has set us up with places to stay all along the river. At each stop I am hoping to see a hippo.
Frustratingly, we arrive after dark at Camp Ndurukoro and leave before dawn, so we don’t get to see any animals as Emma runs relentlessly onwards as she has to reach the Botswana border before her visa runs out.
At the last town on the way to the border, Divundu, the only fuel station is officially out of diesel and expect a delivery tomorrow. It is the first time a fuel station is empty and it would be when we really need to fill up. Woocash and I estimate, with careful driving, we could just get to the border and back. But we might be wrong. Luckily, the manager upon hearing our story, allows us to have what little they can spare. Which is really nice of him. And we sort it all out before Emma gets there.
Emma finishes early and we head south to Botswana. Finishing early always makes for a happy vibe. On the way, we camp at Ndhovu Safari Lodge and get to catch up with Ken, who is a bit of a hero. He defuses mines. Demining is incredibly dangerous as you probably know. But after a bomb exploded whilst Ken was working on it, the pain he had to go through made him even more determined to continue with this job and protect innocent people and animals from harm. A truly amazing person. Ken also got bitten by a poisonous snake that was sleeping under his desk, which he accidentally nudged with his foot. He still lives in that house.
At Ndhovu lives the lonely hippo. To my absolute joy, he makes an appearance tonight. He steadily munches grass through the camp, careless of the excited people and dogs around him. He’s an elderly hippo and gets attacked by other hippos. As a result, he took refuge where other hippos don’t go, in the human campsite. One time after a particularly bad fight, he headed into the campsite and put his head down on an old tyre round the back of the owner’s house. The owner’s dog took care of him, licking his wounds. And now they are good friends.
You can meet Chomp, the hippo, in this video. Ken tells Emma and I about Chomp. I particularly like the moments where Emma identifies with the hippo and Chomp considers a lifesize statue of a hippo.
Chomp continues eating grass on his way to his peaceful night’s rest. And we head back to bed.
Total distance run by Emma: 1099 kilometres, 683 miles
No of days: 26
Average daily distance run by Emma (including rest days): 42.3 kms, 26.3 miles