A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Africa: The Road Trip

Leaving for AfricaIt’s been a whirlwind first week here in Africa; after 40 hours in transit from Washington, DC to South Africa, a fellow travel blogger—and friend—met me with a smiling face and a plan at the Johannesburg airport. When we first noticed our travel plans matched up we decided to team up for a South African road trip before I head out solo.

These next few months in Africa are a new adventure for me as I head overland in search of grassroots, local-level enterprises, so this marks the first dispatch in a new weekly series on the site that will share some of the quick impressions, smaller anecdotes, and updates on my route. I often overlook the details in the stories I craft, but emails over the years indicate that these missing nitty-gritties baffle some readers. In a story, it appears as though I magically appear in a new place. The reality is often hours of bus rides, plane flights, rough hotels, endless negotiations for vegetarian food, and a lot of days spent getting lost and asking many questions (which already baffles Gary—I am forever stopping random strangers and asking for help!).

Road Tripping South Africa (and Lesotho)

I finished my first week on the continent of Africa. First impression: It’s enormous. I over-estimated my ability to travel north in a mere four months. Africa looks large on the map, but the reality on the ground makes it ever the more evident. And a roadtrip? Well, it drove home the point even more so.

The initial plan was to go overland up through Africa toward Kenya until June, but that seems less likely now that I’ve seen that our 20+ hours of drive time this past week took us through hours of unpopulated, shrubby flatlands broken up by an occasional hill or a massive field of sunflowers. And we haven’t even crossed half of South Africa. Vast, anonymous distances separate the larger cities; if you’ve ever driven across Texas for 10+ hours, this is akin to that. It just never ends.

A welcomed break in the monotony came from a side-trip to the Kingdom of Lesotho, a separate, landlocked country lying like a pebble tossed on a map of South Africa. The landscape erupted from the red plains and this tiny country is mountainous and culturally very different. Few white South Africans seem to live there, and shepherds wearing blankets and traditional hats tended their sheep along the roadside. After hours of seeing few people, driving into Maseru, the capital, was an explosion of lively food vendors, chaotic streets, shouted “hellos” followed by vigorous waving, and rapid chatter in Sesotho.

We spent just a few hours driving through and lunching in Lesotho; one day I’d like to return and explore more of the mountain towns—our micro car doesn’t have the engine power to make it there this trip.

Cape Agulhas

Visiting Victoria Falls

I jumped ahead though, because before driving south from Johannesburg, we caught a flight to Zimbabwe and spent a weekend exploring Victoria Falls, which straddles the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Initial impression of Zimbabwe: expensive, easy and friendly. Outside of Vic Falls, I hear the prices are more on par with other regions of Africa, but we visited in the off-season and only a few, expensive restaurants were open this time of year. Another thing that surprised me, and I may be naïve, but English is truly a default language in this region of Africa and I loved having the ability to chat and ask heaps of  questions. Lots of readers fear the language barrier, but here, as with other places, it’s often a non-issue.

Rainbows over Victoria Falls in January when the Zambezi River is full.

The bridge connecting Zambia and Zimbabwe

Our focus was visiting the falls, which are spectacular. I could wax poetic over the Victoria Falls, but the word “spectacular” sums it up nicely. I’ve never visited any of the other major waterfalls in the world, neither Niagara Falls nor Iguazu Falls, but even so, this waterfall rates.

Vic Falls is also called Mosi-oa-Tunya, which translates as “The Smoke that Thunders,” a very fitting name if you visit in the wet season when you’ll witness the largest falling sheet of water in the world as the Zambezi River pours through the gorges.

One thing of note, and if I had done my research perhaps I would’ve known, is that this is the rainy season for Victoria Falls.  So, while the Zambezi River is gorgeous and full, much of the falls were completely obscured by the dense mists created by the gushing water. Actually, mist is a bit of a misnomer, at points it was as if we were walking through a full, mid-summer Florida rainstorm as gusting winds lifted the water from the gorge and into the viewing areas. There are a few things, like rafting and swimming in the river, I would have liked to have done, but opted not to this time around—I’ll be back in dry season one day!

Also, we visited both sides of the falls, which meant a quick border crossing for the afternoon. And while Zimbabwe claims most of the falls viewing areas, both sides are worth a visit because Zambia offers gorgeous viewpoints of the falls from a bit further back. If you’re in the region, I’d suggest doing both.

victoria-falls-zambia

Called “The Smoke that Thunders” in the local dialects, the force of the water hitting the gorge creates a think mist around the falls.

What’s Next

This week Gary and I finish our drive down the coast. Although we’ve been moving quickly, we also stop at each and every UNESCO World Heritage site in South Africa — Gary’s goal is to visit every sight in the world. We will end our road-trip in Cape Town, with a stop at Robben Island, the Cape of Good Hope (and Cape Agulhas where I’ll reach the southernmost tip of Africa!), and topping it off with a visit to the iconic Table Mountain. Then, I fly solo for the next few months as I move north; I have a lead on a Cheetah Conservation Center outside of Cape Town I plan to check out, and some readers shared projects in Namibia as well—I’ll share more details as I start researching these grassroots projects in the region.

More soon, I have a photo essay of Victoria Falls coming this week!

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22 Responses to A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Africa: The Road Trip

  1. Jaryd Krause March 29, 2014 at 9:43 pm #

    Amazing shots, this is a trip I have held high on my list and am closing in on it as a filter through everywhere else. As you said there is a lot of ground to cover so I might try and spend a year or more in Africa, thanks for the great post

    • Shannon O'Donnell March 31, 2014 at 12:41 pm #

      A year is a good idea — the distances feel even more vast when you are on the ground and contemplating 10 hour bus rides just to get to the next town! But it’s worth coming, there have been a lot of challenges, but also so wonderful this past month traveling here.

  2. Travel Genes March 8, 2014 at 12:18 am #

    Very Nice and detail writeup about Africa. It will guide new travelers to plan properly…

  3. C.C. Chapman March 7, 2014 at 10:02 am #

    What a beautiful post (in words and photos). I’m psyched that you and Gary got to hook up and share some fun on the road together.

    Can’t wait to follow along.

    • Shannon O'Donnell March 9, 2014 at 6:19 am #

      Thank you CC! It was such good timing that we were both here at the same time and could do that stretch before heading in different directions. :)

  4. Sand in my Suitcase March 6, 2014 at 11:44 pm #

    Great post! We too visited Victoria Falls when the mist obscured a lot of the views (we went just at the end of the rainy season). We had to wear raincoats most of the time (the spray drenched us like rain), and we sloshed through ankle-deep puddles on Knife Edge bridge. The sound was deafening. But we could really appreciate the power of the waterfalls!

    • Shannon O'Donnell March 7, 2014 at 1:13 am #

      Wow, it sounds even stronger when you were there!! Yikes, we didn’t have the puddles on the bridge, but we did get drenched. As you said, it dies give a healthy respect for the power of the falls. :)

  5. joannahaugen March 5, 2014 at 3:42 pm #

    This sentence, above all others, spoke to me: “The reality is often hours of bus rides, plane flights, rough hotels,
    endless negotiations for vegetarian food, and a whole lot of days spent
    getting lost and asking many questions…”

    I haven’t spent a lot of time in a lot of Africa (I lived in Kenya for eight months and took one trip to Uganda during that time), but I found that every day took effort. Things didn’t come easily, even when I assumed they would or common sense would tell me otherwise. It’s a place that requires patience and flexibility, but the rewards can’t be found anywhere else in this world.

    • Shannon O'Donnell March 6, 2014 at 2:52 am #

      Effort is a good word for it Joanna; I’ve only been here a couple weeks and I had or gotten how much effort every day takes to get even the smallest things done.

  6. Tasha Hacker March 4, 2014 at 2:55 am #

    I am so in love with South Africa. Just did a month-long trip through there last fall and just fell in love with everywhere – the scenery, the animals, Cape Town. Enjoy your trip with Gary! Looking forward to reading more!

    • Shannon O'Donnell March 4, 2014 at 7:11 am #

      I have heard so many people say the same thing yet I didn’t understand why — now I do! Cape Town is such a great city, I am looking forward to exploring it for a few weeks :)

  7. theegetawaygal March 3, 2014 at 12:14 pm #

    How cool to meet up with a fellow blogger and friend for part of your trip, those will be great memories. I love that you are sharing your journey and not just the destination, very fun. I have not yet had the pleasure of visiting Africa, so I am looking forward to following along with you and seeing it through your eyes. You aways share amazing pictures! Safe Travels!

    • Shannon O'Donnell March 3, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

      Thanks so much for the support; it’s been a lot of fun to combine travel styles and see how ankh they traveler approaches things!

  8. Jimmy Dau March 1, 2014 at 10:17 am #

    It’s massive isn’t it? You can fit the states, china, india and most of Europe into the landmass that is Africa. Looking forward to seeing the coming updates :)

  9. Trusted Traveller March 1, 2014 at 1:33 am #

    You have already so so much and your adventure is only just beginning. Can’t wait to continue to read about it. I love that Vic Falls shots with the rainbow. Stunning!

    • Shannon O'Donnell March 1, 2014 at 4:07 pm #

      Thanks! It’s been a whirlwind first week, and now I am heading to Cape Town and am excited. Thanks for the support :)

  10. Heather February 28, 2014 at 6:57 pm #

    How exciting! I’ve always wanted to visit Lesotho ever since I found it on a map and wondered how it could exist inside another country. And, of course, Victoria Falls top the wish list. Great photos!

    • Shannon O'Donnell March 1, 2014 at 4:06 pm #

      Lesotho was small, but lovely and I do recommend visiting! :)

  11. Riana Autumn February 28, 2014 at 4:38 pm #

    Gorgeous pictures of the falls – can’t wait for more! Make sure to visit the penguins in Simons town when you do Cape Point!

    • Shannon O'Donnell March 1, 2014 at 4:06 pm #

      Thanks Riana, taking your rec and heading that way tomorrow! Penguins are in my near future. :)

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