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.
Elephants! It is sometime between 3am and 4am and dark, when the first crack of a tree being broken near our tent wakes me. We are camped deep in the bush, surrounded by trees. I nudge Woocash and Robert awake (who both claimed to be awake already). Woocash, Robert and I are sleeping in the tent on top of the car, the guy ropes are tethered to the ground and the occasional tree. I really hope an elephant won’t snap a tree attached to the tent and get frightened. Emma and Mike are sleeping in Mike’s tent on the ground. We hear them get up and head to the car. Happily, they don’t step on a snake or scorpion. The car door slams on their way in. Above them, we tense a little.
Knowing the risks makes no difference to the magical moment of seeing the dark shapes moving slowly around us and hearing elephants snapping, munching and making deep contented noises. We are silent and still. Eventually, the elephants move off into the darkness and we all breathe out with joy at the experience, and having come out alive.
Try getting out of here in a hurry
Robert directing Woocash out of the forest. I am the marker for the only exit across a little gulley
We all get up and head onwards to the ocean. Not far now.
Day 81 distance run: 67.18 km, 41.74 miles Day 82 distance run: 65.11 km, 40.45 miles
Number of Days: 82
Total distance run by Emma: 3569 km, 2217 miles
Daily average distance run by Emma (including rest days): 43.5 km, 27.0 miles
This 3 second video is definitely in my top favourite moments. It’s early morning, Emma and Mike have already set out and then these children come whirring by on their bicycles, pedalling fast down the hill that aspires to be a mountain. Calling out in that joyful way of children: “Morning!”
“Morning!” I almost sing back to them.
As they whizz into the distance, I am left with chirrups and bird noises.
It was here also that we discovered a mini but potentially lethal scorpion sleeping under our blue barrel. These ones can put an adult in hospital and kill small children or the elderly. How do I know? Robert told me. And he knows as one stung his uncle. This article tells you more but essentially, what scorpions don’t have in pincer size they make up for in lethal injection.
Emma and Mike have to tackle huge hills up and down along this route. Some of it on a”corrugated road”, which is exactly as you would expect but probably worse, bumpy in the car and worse on a bicycle or on foot. A combination of bumps and soft sand.
Meanwhile at the less impressive end we have had flies in our eyes! Mopane flies are technically bees but then you wouldn’t be able to bond with me over a love of “Catch 22”. They are in our eyes, and ears and up our nose, busy collecting our secretions to make into honey, so Robert says. Which is amazing. I am the source of honey, I have no idea if I make good tasting honey. (Wikipedia says they are only collecting moisture but what does Wikipedia know, there’s no moisture in my ears). The little things are remarkably robust. I more than carelessly pinch them out the corners of my eyes, and they regularly stretch themselves out to fly off my fingers. However, They don’t help to make Emma as comfortable as possible. Cooking dinner is a test of my focus and inner zen. We resort to hiding ourselves in Cleopatra with the air conditioning on until it is dark and they fly home to bed.
Number of Days: 44
Total distance run by Emma: 1906 km, 1184 miles
Daily average distance run by Emma (including rest days): 43.3 km, 26.9 miles
3am. The young man gets up in the dark and drinks water. Without a torch or shoes he sets out into the Equatorial darkness. His way is lit by stars and the moon as he carefully navigates the dusty path, wary of snakes and scorpions. He is conscious that not long ago there were lions and elephants living in this area and there are still wild dogs hunting in packs. As dawn rises, 2 hours later, he is almost half way to his destination. School. He can speed up in the light. 20 kilometres he travels each morning, without breakfast, studies all day and then makes the return journey home, arriving late afternoon, when he can finally eat.
This day, however, is unusual, he meets white people from countries he has never had the chance to be to, running on the road. Choosing to run more than the distance he runs to school everyday (well, only one of them). Traversing his country and continent. A luxury experience and education he cannot imagine.
It was my privilege to meet this young man and slowly realise what an incredible person he is. I had joined Emma running. I do this occasionally to keep her company and add variety. For me, it’s refreshing to be moving, to be in the environment. There is the gorgeous view of the Zambezi, cutting through the valley far below us, dust beneath our feet and Cleo is the only car. As sometimes happens, school children excitedly run alongside us. We are a novelty. They run close to Emma, but too close, almost tripping her and shouting and laughing. I drop back and try chatting. It works and they slow to my pace. They are wonderfully exuberant and great company. All on their way home from school. Robert hops out the car to run and translate their stories for me. As the children drop off to go to their homes, we are left with this last young man. He is the tired looking man in the middle of the photo.
The conversation takes place between the padding of our feet and haltingly.
“Is it safe to travel in the dark?” I had naively asked.
“No,” He answered, “There are many animals that will bite you.”
Eventually, discovering he has little opportunity to drink water, we offer him some.
“Would you like the container? ”
“Yes” is the quick and happy reply.
Now, he has a bottle to carry water on his journey.
He exchanges contact details with Robert and we hope that SEED will be able to do something more constructive and empowering in the future. I think he would make a good employee.
Or maybe I missed a trick and he would make a great athlete. If you have the resources behind you and wanted to help this young man I am sure we could find him again.
Meanwhile, Emma has continued battling with her pain to run a phenomenal distance.
Number of Days: 41
Total distance run by Emma: 1734 km, 1078 miles
Daily average distance run by Emma (including rest days): 42.3 km, 26.3 miles
Distance run today: 51.73 km, 32.14 miles
If you have enjoyed reading this, please consider making a donation to The SEED Project, a highly cost-effective charity, praised for its innovative and long term sustainable work. Or you can make a donation to our fundraising page:
Ah, morning. Late morning. Victoria Falls Town is small, one main road with several side streets and a market. For one wonderful hour I potter around the tourist shops. I spot a fresh fruit and vegetable store and establish that the seller will be there on the day we leave. There are no tarpaulins, a request from Mike, but there are rechargeable batteries. Victoria Falls is very expensive for tourists but Robert and Woocash go adventuring; they twist and turn through streets to end up at a real local market where prices are cheap. I kind of wish they had told me about it. With unerring skills, Robert also discovers the best place to buy chicken and sadza. Its in the petrol station.
The Internet remains a flirtatious tease for both Emma and I. Eventually, I manage to update the blog and put money on my post office card whilst watching elephants and vultures. I like vultures. They keep the place tidy, aren’t picky about their food and look glorious gliding in the sky.
With excellent timing, my driving licence has expired. It’s a small logistical issue, I can renew it through the World Wide Web, which is awesome. (Being able to do this from Zimbabwe is somehow more amazing than from a laptop in the UK). And we will have to detour to Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, to collect it from Robert’s house, providing it arrives in time. Woocash is the only legal driver in the meantime.
Whilst emptying and cleaning the car thoroughly, this cheeky monkey ended up in the driving seat holding the steering wheel! He admires Cleopatra as much as I do. But retreated to the tree when he saw me.
After that, Woocash went to make friends with him. I don’t think he was so keen.
I did the biggest shop of the whole trip, as we won’t be passing any towns for 2 weeks or more. Way to much to fit in the storage trays, the extra food has to be stashed behind and under seats as if it is contraband. What are you smuggling? Tinned tuna, pilchards and tomatoes. Yummy. My speedy shopping style is destroyed at the till, after 45 minutes trying every card machine in the shop, bless the cashier. I ended up running to the nearest cash point.
We have two fantastically touristy indulgent wonderful evenings.
If you are hungry this is the best experience. There is dressing up and dances and food and face painting and more food and dessert and more desserts and drumming. Happiness glows around our table as we munch our way through all the different flavours.
Apologies to the vegetarians reading this
And this fantastic looking bug outside
Booze cruise and elephants
The next afternoon, we are floating on the Zambezi before the falls and we can have as much alcohol as we want. Woocash doesn’t usually drink but it’s an offer he can’t refuse, he turns out to be adorably smiley after a couple of glasses of gin. I highly recommend the cruise if you are drinker and love animals. The captain points out rare birds and we search the shores for crocodiles.
Woocash & I
Afterwards we head out for dinner with an amazing view of a waterhole. Suddenly, there are gasps from the diners as people realise a large tribe of elephants are present. One walks right below our deck for a snack on the tree below us. Silently they appeared and then, slowly, their grey outlines dissolve into the night.
And then far far too soon it’s over and it’s the next day and we are leaving and I feel like I hardly rested or saw the town. Emma is not happy as she starts the run and it is difficult to know what to do.
Number of Days: 39
Total distance run by Emma: 1641 km, 1019 miles
Daily average distance run by Emma (including rest days): 42 km, 26.1 miles
Africat is inspirational. Its a large farm that has been converted into a game reserve and educational centre on big cats. Its also good timing for Emma to take a break. She’s keen to get there and finishes early in high spirits.
We have a long drive from Africat’s entrance gate to their main centre. Happily.
As soon as we enter this oasis, there are antelope, giraffe,and more warthogs.
We stop so many times to take photos that the Africat team calls us to check we haven’t got lost. When we arrive,
the first thing they do is feed us lots of cake.
The way to a runner’s (and her support team’s) heart is sweet carbohydrates.
The rooms are white and clean. A little overwhelming for our dirty crew. Instead of being crammed in a tent, we have a bed each!
Being utterly exhausted, the first night is most definitely for sleeping. Followed by an early morning game drive, followed by an introduction to the work at Africat, then radio, TV and newspaper interviews. We’re not here for a holiday.
Africat started with a farmer who had a problem with leopards. When he found that killing the leopards was not reducing the number of cattle being eaten, he started to study their behaviour. He set up a platform onto which only a leopard could jump. Jumping onto the platform would pull out the batteries to a clock so he would know what time the leopard appeared and would cause a photo to be taken. Clever eh?
Over time he was able to differentiate between the leopards. He discovered that leopards hunt at night and occupy territory, removing one leopard simply meant that another leopard would move in to that space.
He found simple solutions to reducing the number of attacks, he began bringing the cattle in at night and keeping calves in protected kraals. (Or, apparently, you can send a mule out with your cattle. Not sure who told me that. But mules are bad and can beat up a leopard!)
This approach of living in harmony with the wildlife, having solutions that do not involve destroying wild cats is at the heart of Africat’s work. However, in the days after, on our journey, some generous and friendly farmers (they gave us sausages, we were going to like them) felt that Africat’s solutions were no good for them. Their cattle herds were too big to bring in at night. Others, however, were fully supportive of Africat’s work, agreeing that killing or capturing leopards and cheetahs was pointless.
Clearly Africat’s educational work is successful but it needs more funding to develop their important work and make sure it is relevant to all farmers. (You can donate generously through our fundraising site or direct to Africat UK or, if you can, go on holiday there.)
Africat also rescues animals that have been trapped by farmers.
One farmer told me he had heard stories that Africat simply release the leopard on the edge of the farm but I think this is unlikely. More likely, as others discovered, if you move one leopard out another one will take over the territory. Its pretty tricky to tell one leopard from another.
In the early morning, first thing, we are given something to wake us up:
We visit young cheetahs that have been rescued and are in a small enclosure before being released into the wider farm, where they can hunt for themselves.
Once a big cat is rescued, they have to be looked after. Fenced areas have to be built and food has to be bought for them. This is very expensive, which is why, sensibly, Africat is focusing on education and understanding to resolve this human animal conflict.
This is exactly the type of project the Head over Heels 2014 team wanted to raise money for. Managing the balance between humans and animals benefits everyone: cheetahs, for example, keep population of small animals down to levels where vegetation can grow and this affects soil erosion and the survival of cattle and larger herbivores.
After the morning game drive, Emma and I are interviewed by NBC with a cheetah relaxing in the shade in the background.
It was slightly surreal, as were some of the questions.
Africat isn’t all about cats though. On our way in, we see one of these:
A Pangolin, like an aardvark, but not. Not even related. These annoy farmers as they burrow holes. Some farmers kill them as they believe cattle break their legs in the holes they make. But Pangolins are really useful. They eat termites and a termite problem is not one that is easily solved by humans. They are also highly prized in China as a medicine to make your life perfect. That’s what we all want, a perfect life, but I think travelling across Africa without a wash for 5 days is a better way to find it. Each to their own imagination, I guess. Seems a pity to unnecessarily kill a Pangolin though.
Due to being extremely busy all day with interviews and learning about the work Africat does, we decide to take an extra day off our journey to clean, repack the car, write blogs and make use of the internet. Using the internet is a slow process in Namibia, particularly trying to upload photographs to the blog. Which would be bearable if i always load the photo I want but sometimes I wait 10 minutes to discover it doesn’t look right at all. Its very frustrating. At the end of two days we are all ready to get back on the journey. Before leaving, Emma eats her body weight in cakes and Africat send us off with a bag muffins. So yummy.
Okay, agreed, this photo technically has nothing to do with the game park (although it was just outside it.) But I really liked the photo and it shows a lot of things about our life on the road. Emma running in the heat and sand. Us finding the only good tree for shade near the distance Emma wanted. Also, during lunch break, a tiny dung beetle tried to push my toe out the way as I dozed. Little feisty one.
Then we drove round the corner and discovered we are about to enter a game park in the Erongo Mountains. Its not marked on any of our maps.
The guard assures us we don’t need to worry about the rhino and elephant as they are over the other side. Emma will be fine. He says its okay for us to camp, which surprises us.
Finding somewhere to camp is tricky. We’re a little concerned about elephants coming by in the night. Elephants killed 300 people in 7 years in Kenya. African elephants are serious business. Although, humans have killed 100,000 elephants in 3 years … so, I guess, we would be more at risk if we were elephants. Still, we don’t want to be near an annoyed elephant. As a result, I move our campsite a little as it looks like its on an animal path to me. (We miss having an animal expert who would really know.)
Robert and I have decided to sleep in the car to save getting the other tent out, as we need to leave quickly in the morning. Emma, Mike and Woocash are in the roof tent. Emma’s blog post, says that all sorts of exciting things happened in the night. I slept through the lot except for the snoring.
We set off early into town, as Emma starts her first 2 hr run of the day. The bumpy roads rattle Cleo (the car) and Woocash and I argue over whether it is better to go fast and skim over the top or drive slowly and boing up and down more. I want to travel as fast as possible as I worry about Emma and Mike.
We drop off Robert and head back as soon as we can. We return to find Emma and Mike alive and zipping along. Emma’s ability is phenomenal. When they join us Mike asks if a bolt he spotted in the road is important to Cleo. Amazing eyesight and luck. Its for the rear brake calliper! Bouncing along has serious consequences. Woocash instantly gets under the car.
Two bolts have fallen out. We are still missing one and will need to sort that out as soon as possible (several hundred kilometers later).
At the end of the game park, the very friendly game park guard dances with us and joins us for a photo. Special moments that make the journey.
We encounter more friendliness that evening when we find a lay-by to park in. A man and his digger/road flattener are already there. He only speaks portuguese so we send Woocash (Polish speaker), as Emma suggests they might speak international english. Sure enough, Woocash comes back to tell us Frantz has no problem with us staying and even offered to flatten an area for us. Later, Frantz generously sends over some wood for our fire.
My goal with this blog is to offend everyone in the world at least once with my words… so no one has a reason to have a heightened sense of themselves. We are all ignorant, we are all found wanting, we are all bad people sometimes.