Drakensberg Part 1: The Amphitheatre

Campsite at Amphitheatre Backpackers

After a brief layover in Swaziland, we made our way to the Northern Drakensberg (a.k.a. the Dragon Mountains in Afrikaans and ‘Barrier of Spears’ in Zulu) in South Africa. With our base at the beautiful Amphitheatre Backpackers near Bergville, we set off to explore the nearby natural wonders.

Sentinel Peak at the Drakensberg Amphitheatre was the subject of our first day trip. Although the Amphitheatre is visible from our campsite, the trailhead is two hours, 22km of road construction, a town named Phuthaditjhaba (try pronouncing it), and a narrow mountain road away on the backside of the mountain.

I could try to describe the vastness and grandeur of the mountain with words, but pictures do a much better job telling the story.

Eugene navigating ‘The Gully’

View of the North from the top of the Amphitheatre Escarpment

View of the South from the escarpment and the beginning of the chain ladder descent

Climbing down the 40m chain ladder

Exhausted after a long day of hiking, we were looking forward to a cold beer and a hot shower back at the campsite. Unfortunately, the mountain just wouldn’t let us leave. On the narrow mountain road that led to the trailhead, a negligent truck driver took his semi off-roading and blocked all traffic from passing.

In my mind, there were only two real options for getting out: 1) move the truck or 2) drive around the truck. The truck was clearly not going anywhere on its own. Even if a big enough tow truck did miraculously show up to tow the semi out, it is questionable whether it could actually get into a position to dislodge the truck. With trees and steep slopes guarding both sides of the road, driving around was not an option. With the sun setting in the horizon and no progress in sight, It became a real possibility that we would need to spend the night wild camping.

Since Africans generally lack the equipment to properly fix broken things, they are creative experts at making broken things work. In a stroke of problem solving genius, a team of park staff got some saws to cut the trees and shovels to relocate dirt to widen the road so that the cars could pass.

Amazingly… it worked!

Free at last!

Follow my Odyssey on Twitter @AlpheusChan

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Mozambique – Air, Fuel, and Fire!

Broken roof carrier – Farewell! (..and good riddance!)

It took only 150km after our maintenance stop in Beira before our beloved came to a grinding halt. Joyously leaving town, we had but glowing praise for the Purple People Eater as we cheered ourselves on out of the city. How incredible was the ‘smoothness of the ride’? The ‘immediate power’ when putting the foot down? And the stress free driving from the ‘reduced running temperature of the car’!!! The PPE had never run better and we were rocking out as we made our way to the paradisical coastal town of Vilankulos, on our longest driving day of the trip so far, a lazy 550km south along the EN1.

And just like that, as we swerved around yet another set of knee deep pot holes and were nearing the top of another hill – the dashboard erupted in a glory of colourful magnificence. Emanating a dazzling array of yellow, orange, red and green – with unknown icons and words suggesting T-BELT, ( ! ) and OIL – I realised we had a pretty significant problem. And then we lost all power, the steering wheel required herculean strength to manoeuvre, and we came to a stunning halt on the shoulder of the road.

Hoping for some kind of miracle I turned the key to ‘Start’; rather expectedly – nothing came of it. The starter was turning but the engine would not budge. After realising we would need to hitch a ride to the next town to fetch a mechanic to come and help us, we  decided to put our new found fundi skills to the test. Cars need air, fuel, and fire to get going (thanks, Mr Brian!) and after some elimination, we realised it was a fuel issue. And we had just replaced the fuel filter.

Fixing the diesel filter

The fuel filter hadn’t been fitted properly and was leaking diesel. Air was getting in, which was affecting the fuel pressure into the engine. After tightening it up and pumping the filter, the car would start but quickly lose pressure again and stall. Not only was the filter not fitted correctly, the glue on the rubber seal had disappeared. After super-gluing the seal back on, pumping the fuel filter, and turning the engine over, we were back in business.

Before leaving Dar, friends would tell me that we would be expert mechanics by the end of the trip – desperate times call for desperate measures!!

Vilankulos was slightly disappointing – overpriced, cold, wet, and rainy – so we gave the famed island of Bazaruto a miss this time round for when we come back with a bit more money ($1200 pp per night) and headed for Tofo.

Beautiful Tofo

The spectacular beaches off Tofo are not only a sun-lover’s paradise, they are also a stopping off point for some of the world’s most incredible migratory sea creatures. Whale sharks, Manta Rays, and Humpbacks are commonly sighted – and Tofo is another expensive tourist destination for this reason. We did venture out on an Ocean Safari with Tofo Divers, a very professionally run diving outfit, and although the Whale Shark eluded me once more (to catch a big fish, perhaps you really do need a ring?), we were lucky enough to encounter a pod of humpback whales migrating north, with some Junior whales in tow.

These languid mammoths of the ocean are truly a sight to behold, but unfortunately, we were not allowed into the water, given the protectiveness of the whales when cubs are about. We experienced this first hand: as we were entering the water with some dolphins, two whales, over 15m in length and over 30 tonnes, surfaced right before our eyes and nearly capsized the boat. An incredible experience seeing these animals up so close! I was disappointed not to feel a little nudge on our boat, but our team lead Richie, said he quiet literally almost shat his pants. Ha!

So we’ve made it to Maputo and are making a break for Swaziland in the next few hours.

Catch you on the flip side!

– Eugene

Farewell to Malawi

Due to the lack of Internet in central Mozambique, we’ve been unable to bid a timely farewell to our time in Malawi. Given how rough the last couple days were, I already miss Malawi. In comparison to Tanzania and Mozambique, travelling in Malawi was a breeze.

The biggest difference between travelling in Malawi and neighbouring Tanzania and Mozambique is the roads. The roads in Malawi are downright luxurious in comparison to Tanzania and Mozambique. Because of Japanese investments, the conditions of Malawian roads are improving at a rapid pace. In contrast, Tanzanian roads are poorly built and rarely maintained, often times you can see the road cave in because the road was not built on a proper foundation. The problem is exacerbated by Tanzanians’ unhealthy obsession for giant speed bumps. As for Mozambican roads, my first impression was “how did this happen?” How did potholes get so big, so deep? How are there so many? I hope they don’t bust my suspensions.  Having done most of my driving in North America, good roads are something I take for granted. Now I see a properly sealed road as an engineering marvel.

In addition to the roads, widespread English fluency, and surprisingly developed tourist infrastructure made our journey across Malawi exceptionally smooth.

The awesome staff at Mgoza Lodge in Cape Maclear

From Malawi to Tete

After 4 days of lounging, sea kayaking, and snorkeling in Cape Maclear, we made our way south to Zomba – Malawi’s old capital – to visit Jen, a friend of mine from college who just moved to Malawi for a fellowship. After 3 nights in Zomba, we headed for the infamous Tete Corridor in Mozambique.

As recently as 10 years ago, the Tete Corridor – the small strip of Mozambique separating Zimbabwe and Malawi – was considered one of the toughest drives in Africa due to poor road conditions and banditry. Although the recent mining boom in Tete has made the Tete Corridor safe for travel, it doesn’t make visiting any more inviting. One travel writer described Tete as ‘hot, humid, and dusty’ – a combination I didn’t even know was physically possible – while another described it as ‘malaria infested.’ Kind of like when a movie’s review is so bad it makes you want to see it, I am definitely intrigued to see Tete in all its crappiness.

After our unfortunate mandatory stay in Tete, I can confirm that Tete met all of my lowly expectations. The city is indeed hot, humid, dusty, and mosquito infested, not to mention grossly overpriced.

Even though I still have more to say, it is time to call it a post . As those of you who follow me on twitter already know, we are currently in Beira. It is time to get some rest in preparation for a long day of driving tomorrow. Off we go to Vilankulo.

Follow my odyssey on Twitter @AlpheusChan