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.
To be fair I have seen 4 year olds with machetes. It’s an essential tool. What makes this moment special is 6 men with machetes in hand are walking towards us with serious intent. Its tricky timing as I am busy cutting onions for dinner. Emma has to be fed within 20 minutes of stopping her run for the day, I’m not sure about the reasoning for this but that is the thing that must be done. We are rushing, a little late, as we couldn’t find a good spot at the right mileage. I don’t have time now to chat to men with machetes.
Woocash and Robert are busy with the fire and setting up the campsite and get to watch their approach with rising concern. We had driven 100 metres off the road to an area of trees to hide Cleopatra but hiding a large 4×4 with a bright yellow bumper is tricky. And they probably saw us drive off the road and across the field.
As they arrive into our camp I turn round to greet them. It has to be me, Robert and Woocash don’t speak Portuguese. There’s a little tension in the air. After a friendly greeting, I go on to tell them why we are there, their faces relax into smiles. I guess they didn’t want to fight either.
The leader asks our names. “Woocash” says Woocash. Its caught the leader out. “Eh?” “Woocash”
“Woocash” This looks like it’s going to go on for some time.
An exasperated voice behind the leader bursts out: “Woocash!” There is the definite tone of “you blithering idiot”.
I grin inside, it doesn’t matter what the culture, the emotions younger people feel at times for their elders are the same across the world.
Happily, the food is ready for Emma and Mike when they arrive. Emma has just run her furthest distance of the journey. 73 kilometres! In fact, Emma is feeling so good, she tells us to go ahead tomorrow to Pemba, to prepare for her arrival. They will be there in a couple of days!
Montepuez at dawn
Fetching water from the Mission by bicycle
Deadly scorpion in camp again
Fresh Watermelon from yesterday’s market
Number of Days: 87
Total distance run by Emma: 3838 km, 2384 miles
Daily average distance run by Emma (including rest days): 44.1 km, 27.4 miles
Mike is ill again but happily nowhere near as bad as before. He swops with Robert. Robert cycles as Emma’s support and Mike rests in the car. The day starts just before dawn.
Children here are scared of us. When we stop at a borehole the group of children sitting there jump up, grabbing the younger ones in their arms and run. At another borehole, men came running from a distance towards us, which was unnerving but they simply wanted to help. The night before we had had to move camp in the evening as local people surrounded us, curious. As the crowd grew, we felt uncomfortable. We moved a few miles down the road and found a quarry inhabited by a couple and a digger. They let us stay and were singularly uninterested in us, focused on doing their job and getting back to their country.
Whilst preparing lunch, we are mostly left in peace, a local man stops to check everything is okay, before heading on his way. However, when Emma and Robert arrive a crowd of about 30 curious people gather.
Having lots of people watching us is not at all restful for Emma and she needs rest with the distances she is running. So, I go to speak to them in Portuguese or maybe Spanish, I’m not quite sure, I speak some sort of Spangueselish. I drag a reluctant Woocash with me: I’m not going to make a fool of myself on my own.
At first, as I approach, the younger ones hurriedly stumble back, slipping in their haste, unsure of my intentions and whether I am armed. Everyone starts to laugh which is a good start.
“Bom dia, com estas?” I politely ask.
They politely respond. Encouragingly.
Portuguese isn’t their first language either. Communicating becomes a bonding experience. They offer me words when I get stuck but sometimes I don’t understand the words they are offering. Confusion wins and giggling breaks out. Some do seem to understand me and explain the bits that make sense to the rest. I attempt to tell them Emma has run almost 50km already that day and over 3000km from Namibia, through Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi. They make suitably impressed noises at Emma’s phenomenal achievement: oohing and ahhing and hmming. I think they have understood the story so far.
I explain that Emma needs to rest for a couple of hours. Then, my language skills completely falter and I have to act out how having lots of people round us, looking at us makes us feel shy. I feel ridiculous but its kind of fun. They nod and smile understandingly. This looks hopeful or maybe they feel it is the safest option with the crazy lady. Someone asks for a cigarette and I tell them we don’t smoke. To emphasis the point I run on the spot, then pretend to smoke a cigarette and give out a spluttering cough. They laugh, Woocash laughs and I laugh. Result.
At last, it’s time to say “Obligada” and “Good Bye”. The leaders signal it is time to go to the others, tugging a few of the reluctant ones along with them. I guess they understood then. I appreciate their consideration, when it must have been tempting to stay and stare at us being strange.
Emma goes on to run a whopping 70km!
In the evening, we camp near a village. An elderly villager insists that we come and stay in the village and that it isn’t safe for us to camp outside the village. He’s worried about elephants and bandits. We stubbornly stay where we are, everyone is tired and we are not up for socialising. But we appreciated his concern. The rains have started. I think it was Mike who came up with this architectural design in the photo beneath. He’s clever that way.
Number of Days: 83
Total distance run by Emma: 3640 km, 2261 miles
Daily average distance run by Emma (including rest days): 43.9 km, 27.2 miles
It rained last night and flowers are slowly coming out.
At lunchtime, as we sat on the ground munching our dinner, two police, one with a gun and one with a baton parked their 4×4 beside us and walked over. They were very serious. They asked us if we had a gun and told us we were in a national park where it is illegal to shoot animals.
I responded (in Portuguese) “No, I think guns are dangerous”.
The police officer agreed adding, “if you don’t know.”
The police then asked to search our vehicle. Behind and under the seats they discovered our hidden stash of tinned tuna and tomatoes. Upon finding this, I’m sure I heard a muffled giggle coming out of one of the policemen. Once they knew we weren’t poachers, I guess, they could relax.
We hope we don’t get mistaken for poachers during the night. I don’t think they would be so friendly in that case.
This young woman came to help me out and then took over as I was too slow. Bless her.
Assessing the route as we drive into the bush
Preparing the ground for Emma and Mike’s tent
Number of Days: 80
Total distance run by Emma: 3437 km, 2135 miles
Daily average distance run by Emma (including rest days): 43.0 km, 26.7 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
We emerge from our overnight hiding place in the bushes excited to be crossing into a new country.
In Livingstone we bump into my Mum. I mean I knew she was in Zimbabwe but, I was in the midst of fussing over something, when she pulled up in a taxi behind me. She had brought us cold drinks! Cold drinks. That needs saying twice or even thrice. There is nothing as gorgeous as a cold drink when you are sticky and stinky and have been sweltering in the hot sun for days. When I drink cold water in this state, it tastes like honey.
Livingstone itself, is a busy border town with everything we need. Money changers and diesel. I am worrying about Emma as she has been in a lot of pain but when she arrives she is in good spirits, particularly for seeing my Mum. Variety is an essential spice for Emma. I have no idea how she runs for hours a day.
Mum’s taxi driver knows of an idyllic place for our picnic lunch under a huge tree, where elephants like to hang out, and up a riverbank from crocodiles. The taxi driver is the son of a chief in the area and has extensive understanding of the local animals. I consider the impractical idea of taking him with us.
After lunch we head for the Zimbabwe border. Visa requirements for UK citizens are $50 and for Polish citizens only $30. I joke to the Immigration Officer:
“You like Polish people better than the British.”
“No,” He deadpans back, “We like you better, you pay more.”
The immigration officers, as always, are intrigued by Emma’s achievement, friendly and helpful.
The border is stunning. We stand at the top of vast cracks in the earth cutting down to the river below.
And then we are in Zimbabwe, a completely new country for Mike, Emma and Woocash, Robert’s home, and my history.
To be honest, I just love this moment and wanted to share it with you. I don’t even know why I like it so much. Possibly, I like that we are helping people out, or may be it’s the whole male only moment of men working together with boys to resolve a mechanical problem and all from different countries – the boys from Zambia, Robert from Zimbabwe and Woocash from Poland. I think that must be it.
Did you notice the wooden pump? And the yellow containers are to be filled with water at the bore hole and then they cycle home with them. Many people don’t have bicycles and walk several kilometres a day to fill up. We often fill our water from the boreholes and don’t even need to purify it, which I find amazing as it wasn’t like that when I visited 20 years ago. But we rarely carry it more than a few yards to the car. Living as we do now, longing to be clean, makes me appreciate the easy availability of fresh clean water in the UK.
The scorched scenery in the first photo will be from fires that are set deliberately.
Emma continues her incredible achievement in a lot of pain. We are almost at the border and almost time for a rest. She keeps pushing herself to get there sooner. Mike is always by her side.
Number of Days: 36
Total distance run by Emma: 1591 km, 988.5 miles
Daily average distance run by Emma (including rest days): 44.2 km, 27.5 miles
In constant pain, Emma with a determined gait, still covers phenomenal distances. We try running with her to provide support and variety for her day. Before, she would chat happily but now she conserves all her energy and focus on running. It’s hard to know what to do. I do come up with this make shift idea: (video of me cooling her feet).
Peaceful breaks are a challenge. Children come running, their little legs spinning as fast they can as soon as they see us. I feel a sense of obligation as guests in their country but having them watching us closely at every rest stop is not restful. Woocash and I cook as quickly as we can and then move on to meet Emma and Mike but even then, at times, we still have to swiftly pack up and drive 1 mile down the road, as the children come running after us. Emma arrives at her breaks looking stressed from the constant attention. Once a small child had run up and slapped her. I can only assume that the child thought Emma was a ghost or something. I suggest Emma calls us on the radio when children surround her but she doesn’t believe we can help and so never asks. As every metre hurts, the mismatch between the car’s measurements and Emma’s measurements become a significant irritation for her.
We pass road works: a sign says, “Apologies for the 15 minute delay” which makes me chuckle. I come from the UK. I love my country dearly but for sheer politeness Namibia and Zambia are winning. The road itself is good quality.
The main highlight of the day, however, is Robert chasing us down in a minibus taxi. If you remember, Robert is SEED’s Project Manager and is on the trip as our guide, to gain experience and consider expansion into new areas. Having travelled overnight from Harare to Victoria Falls, Robert caught sight of Cleopatra (the car) in the distance travelling in the wrong direction, which confused him (we were returning from a breakfast in hiding) and persuaded the driver to accelerate to catch us. I was thinking who is this crazy driver trying to overtake us until everyone chorused “Robert” as they saw him frantically waving out the window. His cleanliness makes him stand out. Woocash is instantly happier, the two of them have a budding bromance, and the whole team seems re-energised for seeing Robert.
Number of Days: 34 (almost 5 weeks)
Total distance run by Emma: 1,482 km, 921 miles
Daily average distance run by Emma (including rest days): 43.6 km, 27.1 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:
At Samsitu Campsite we have beds, which importantly means that, despite having to get up in the night to drive back 35 km to where Emma stopped the day before, we don’t have to pack up the tent. Win. We are still up long before dawn, but get stuck at the padlocked entrance to the campsite. Doh! Mike and Woocash disappear to find someone to open it. I worry vaguely about crocodiles and snakes and the embarrassment of waking people in the night. Finally, we are on the road, it is empty except for a few people walking in the dark. I am struck by the silence.
As the sun rises higher in the sky more and more people start wending their way to school and to work. At breakfast, as soon as we get our porridge out, children come running. In a rush, we pack up our food and drive round the corner, where we can eat in peace in the car. But there is something I can’t put my finger on about this. We are running and hiding from children!
Later, whilst Emma is running and we are settled at a police roadblock, ready to go through together, I get chatting to a teacher who explains that we are in a very poor area and points out that many of the bins at rest points along the road are empty because children will scavenge for whatever they can. I remember how some children gasped in wonderment when they saw all our toilet paper. As a team, we have decided that we should not give away food and money and definitely no sweets. I’m against giving away sweets but I, and other members of the team, struggle with not giving away food to hungry children. It doesn’t seem right. Yes, it may only help them for that meal and it can create a culture of dependency but what are the alternatives. The SEED Project, one of the charities we are raising money for, works with communities to help them find long term sustainable solutions to their problems, this is a positive cycle, where communities better their situations and also increase their capability and belief that they can solve future problems for themselves. But there is no SEED here and we have to make a decision to do the run and hopefully raise money or, to stop and stay and do real long term work – that’s not what team members have signed up to do. I don’t even ask but it sits uncomfortably with me. I do, however, contact The SEED Project and encourage them to expand to this part of Namibia. If you know of a charity working in this region please post about them in the comments below.
Then Emma and Mike arrive and disrupt my thoughts and we are off through a police roadblock, where Emma is treated as a celebrity. The police are wonderfully friendly and call after us, “All of Namibia is proud of you.” I think Namibia may well say the same about them. The police made a good, professional, friendly impression on us.
I join Emma for her last couple of kms of the day as we enter Rundu, attracting friendly waves and shouts. At the finishing point, Emma stretches and a small group of children copy her movements – at least we can teach them this concept.
Rundu itself is a hot, dusty, busy town, with large supermarkets and fuel stations. We have 36 hours of shopping, cleaning, repairing and intermittent connection to the internet. Emma is happy to be on a break. I am hoping to see a hippo at the campsite.
Stopping to eat or go to the toilet has become a public event. Small children run towards us calling, “sweets, sweets”. Older ones stop and stare or join Emma running. There are people, everywhere. Every few yards there are clusters of homes. Some are neat with a sturdy fence surrounding them. Others are carelessly built, fenceless, at risk of wandering hungry cows. Cows, dogs, donkeys and goats ramble at will. Being in the second half of the dry season there are only dusty stalks of grass and spiky bushes for the cattle to eat. Through this activity the high quality tarmac road from Grootfontein cuts a straight line to Rundu: enabling cars to noisily speed and inevitably collide with innocent animals. A dead donkey and a crushed car lie on the side. Children seem to be wise and careful of the road.
First thing in the morning, one of the children from the previous evening arrives asking for food. I do not know if this is out of need or the simple joy of a gift from someone from another world. Erring on the side of caution, I give her an orange.
Children across the world go to school hungry, I have no way of knowing if she is one of them. In addition, I think my 7-year-old self would have been equally excited to have a gift from unusual foreigners. She grins with delight and bounces off, throwing and catching the orange as she goes.
For lunch, we find a quiet stop 20 yards off the road under a huge tree. Soon three 20 year olds come by, I think they are looking for a job, but stay to watch and chat while I cook. Kindly, they leave us soon after Emma and Mike arrive.
Whilst we are eating, in the distance a troop of small children head our way, but a swirling dust devil frightens them off. Dust devils are dangerous for children. Like a mini-tornado that arises from nowhere, stories abound that they can pick up an adult. Seriously! It’s not just an urban myth, it’s in Wikipedia. The small children don’t come back. Maybe they think we sent it. It feels like someone sent it as we get to finish our dinner almost undisturbed.
The school children are there to laugh and interact. Group no 3 are fascinated by everything and want something, anything. They don’t understand that we do need our kit and cannot easily get more. It’s a pleasure / pain experience: it’s great to connect and interact but after a while the pressure to entertain means it would be nice to have a break. Chatting to them is interesting, though, even with the language barrier. When I point out Namibia and Angola on our maps, with soft reverence they chorus, “Angola”. Many of the children are refugees displaced by the war. Clearly, their hearts long to go back.
But the team needs to rest. It takes several attempts before they will leave us. Short of an hour they are back, waking us up. We must be an exciting event, it’s not every day a woman who is running across Africa is snoozing in your field with her team and all their specialist kit. I try to distract them by showing them our leaflets about the run … then they all want a leaflet.
Emma has to give up on resting and sets off running early. The children shouting and screaming, scamper barefoot alongside her. This group drops off quickly but Emma has to deal with this frequently throughout her run. Luckily, she has Mike keeping by her at all times.
For the next 6 hours, there is nowhere to pee in private.
Nor can Woocash and I find anywhere to camp. Eventually, we stop outside a clean and tidy looking compound. A big friendly guy comes running up to check we are okay. When we ask him if we can stay on his land. He goes off to ask his wife. (I don’t know why it makes me smile when I write that. Maybe because he was a big impressive guy and everything he did was so cheerful.) His wife, however, is clear, “No, it is too dangerous.” They, themselves are about to leave and don’t stay there at the weekend. On his advice, we pick up Emma and Mike and head north to find a campsite.
Daylight was fading by the time we turned right onto a long dusty track to Samsitu campsite by the Okavango River. Emma and I were sure it was going to be closed. Happily we were wrong. Andy invited us to stay 3 comfy nights in beds. Hooray!