Mara Milestone Moments

Mara Milestone Moments

We follow the tall and stately shape of an old Masai scout leading the way through fading light. As we reach a small clearing in the bush, a glowing camp fire welcomes us. The toothless but friendly scout drapes a red Shuka over each of our shoulders and offers us chilled sundowners. We are here tonight to relish a fancy bush dinner in celebration of Simoné’s 30th birthday, right on the escarpment overlooking the magnificent Masai Mara. As we gaze at the dying sun setting alight the endless valley below, we agree that this is decidedly touristy. But it is sometimes necessary to do said touristy things – you only live once after all. We also agree that this is indeed a mighty milestone. Not only is it a special birthday, but we have also reached a goal in visiting a destination we only ever dreamt of. Over dinner we reminisce over the momentous experiences of the past week or two in some of Kenya’s premier wildlife destinations, the Masai Mara and Amboseli.

Amboseli National Park is one of those places that most people have seen photos of, even though the park name might sound unfamiliar. Being on the border with Tanzania, the park likely offers the most classical views of Kilimanjaro – complete with elephants in the foreground. In fact, the ellies of Amboseli are legendary. Not only are some of the last remaining large tuskers in Africa found here, it is also where famous researcher Joyce Poole did her groundbreaking studies on the savannah elephant. Much of what science now commonly accepts about elephant behaviour and social structures, was first noted here – a true milestone for conservation.

We camped at Amboseli Eco Camp outside the park and got to meet the dusty steppe winds for which the Kenyan side of Kili is known for. Entering the park was a smooth process, with the kind folks from the Kenyan Wildlife Services (KWS) efficiently relieving you of your hard-saved dollars. The upside is that Kenya’s parks are much more rational about vehicle fees than their neighbours, so it is a less painful experience to the pocket. As with most East African parks, the main road turned out to be a washboard highway. However, the fun started once we got off it at the first available opportunity.

An incredibly scenic and compact wildlife sanctuary awaited us. Open plains where pot-belly lions bask in the morning sun and Masai giraffe journey in the background. Marshes where countless elephants wade waist-deep all day long to relish the juicy greens. Vast soda lakes where Flamingo flocks forage photogenically. We even saw a few rare critters such as an African civet and a serval, both systematically searching the fringes of the wetlands for some unlucky rodent.

Towards the end of the day, the ever-present clouds around the mountain lifted to briefly reveal the grand dame in all her splendour. This must surely be one of the places in the world where tourists seem more interested in selfies with a mountain than with the animals. But we must admit, it was difficult not to cue Toto’s factually-questionable-yet-immortal lyrics of Africa while driving around this spectacular part of the world. One for the books indeed!

Magical Mara

The overland traveller should just accept that all roads do indeed go through Nairobi (sort of) and that there is no elegant circle route to visit all the famed wilderness areas of Kenya. Hence, after making our way via crazy Nairobi and Narok, we meandered all along the rift valley to find ourselves in one of the most celebrated conservancy areas in the world – the Masai (or Maasai) Mara. We entered early through the Sekenani gate and headed to the Mara river bridge to enter the so-called Mara Triangle. Slowly meandering along the river, we stopped to watch early-morning hippos, something that pairs well with sunrises and hot coffee.  

Sharing a border with the Serengeti, comparisons are unavoidable yet unfair for each is spectacular in its own way. The landscapes in the south are similar to the Tanzanian side of the ecosystem, with vast grasslands dominating the surrounds. As we moved further along the river, volcanic outcrops and undulated hills started to appear, eventually terminating in a towering escarpment forming the natural northern boundary.

Wildlife encounters proved to be truly spectacular. Being late August, many of the famed blue wildebeest mega-herds were now concentrated here. Seeing the horizon and hills entirely filled with these animals, hearing their snorts and grunts from afar, and feeling the dusty earth vibrate as they move in their thousands is something no camera can capture faithfully. We missed out on seeing them cross the river, but judging by their content and knowing smiles, the local crocodiles did not.

Carnivores obviously have a good time here, simply picking off young or injured animals from the daily drive-thru menu. Half-eaten carcasses dotted the plains, indicating a saturated ecosystem where even the local Rüppel’s Vultures have that post-Christmas-dinner look. Just before sunset, we drove into a postcard when we met with two cheetah brothers scanning the horizon from a termite mound. After grooming and stretching, these healthy animals literally walked off into the sunset, possibly in search of moonlit prey, something Mara cheetahs specialise in.

Camping at Eluai on a beautifully situated koppie, we watched a thunderstorm roll over the plains with ominous beauty and were serenaded by lions tormenting the herds in the valley below. Dawn was met by colourful hot air balloons serenely floating multitudes of tourists across the misty savannah. Parked under a lone sausage tree, surrounded by nothing but thousands of wildebeest and zebra, we later enjoyed what must surely rank as one of our all-time favourite lunch spots. After another blissful day in paradise, we exited at Olooloo gate to celebrate our milestones at Mara West camp with a dinner on the rift’s precipice.

As we talk about the wonders we seeked and found here, we decide that it is true that what you get by achieving your milestones is not as important as what you become by achieving your milestones (with apologies to Goethe). Both the Masai Mara and Amboseli will indeed provide ample photo opportunities and enable you to tick items off your bucket list. But perhaps it is rather the moments in between and a deepened appreciation and care for the creation, that give true magic to the miles.

Some helpful trip tips:

    • Masai Mara Basics
    1. You can either visit the Masai Mara National Reserve (East of the Mara river) or the Mara Triangle (West of the Mara river). Generally, the Mara Triangle has less safari vehicle traffic and enforces strict game viewing rules (a very good thing). They have a good website with latest tariffs payable at the gates:
    2. In the Triangle, your permit is only valid for a calendar day (irrespective of what time you enter). If you sleep over inside the park, it is valid until 10h00 the next morning.
    3. August – October is peak season and generally the time that you will most likely encounter migrating blue wildebeest herds.
    4. Potential Mara river crossings are big drawcards and many vehicles sit at common crossing points all day waiting for one. Unless you have many days in the park, rather explore the many other beautiful areas also.


    • Amboseli National Park
    1. Book your park permits online the day before:
    2. KWS recently increased their park fees for international visitors, but the good news for South Africans is they reduced it for all African citizens.
    3. Amboseli sees many day visitors and safari vehicles, all wanting photos of elephants in front of Kilimanjaro. Avoid the main (corrugated) road and take a packed car lunch to avoid the (only) picnic spot.
    4. One day is enough to cover the entire park’s road network. However, Kilimanjaro is behind clouds more often than not. If this is important to you, allow a few days to give yourself a good chance of seeing her in her full glory!


    • Campsites
    1. Mara Triangle:
    • Oseki Maasai Mara Camp just outside the Sekenani gate is well worth a stop before entering the park.
    • Eluai public campsite inside the triangle is spectacular and usually quiet – no need to pre-book it.
    • Mara West lodge just outside the Olooloo gate is not cheap, but the view is worth it.
    1. Amboseli NP:
    • We enjoyed the rustic Amboseli Eco Camp about 30 km outside the park.

    Fantastic Beasts (and where to find them)

    Fantastic Beasts (and where to find them)

    Guineafowls with vulture-like heads. Gazelles with 4-foot-long necks. Ostriches with blue legs. You would be forgiven for assuming such creatures are taken from the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. But in the dry Kenyan bush, fact is indeed sometimes stranger than fiction. Ever since reading about the existence of the otherworldly animals that call these parts home, we simply had to journey to Kenya to see them for ourselves.

    Despite all the naysayers predicting otherwise, we finally made it through the border post without a vehicle Carnet. It seems fortune does favour the brave (or the ignorant). In fact, we were so surprised that the officials let us through that we didn’t know where to begin in this beautifully diverse country. So, we did what came naturally and crammed in as many national parks as our allotted time (and limping credit card) would allow. First on our hit list to explore were the Tsavo area and Samburu reserve, known for their interesting African creatures and so much more. Here is what we found.

    Tsavo East National Park

    To avoid the death-defying cement trucks of the Mombasa highway, we drove along interesting back-roads via the Taita hills. Some quintessential scenes painted the roadside picture, including local villagers with teeth filed to points waving at us and Kilimanjaro peeking shyly through her cloudy scarf. We set up camp close to Voi, just outside the Tsavo East National Park, and cracked open our first dew-cold Tusker beers. Exploring the park exceeded our expectations of a dry and dusty wilderness sparsely populated with game. Dry it surely was, but life abounded, including creatures we did not expect.

    Not long after entering, we were treated to a pride of twelve lions along a dry tributary. The red elephants of the area also put in plenty of appearances – beautiful tuskers dusted in the brown-red earth commonly found around the Tsavo plains. Lesser kudu browsed the fringes of waterholes – smaller than their more common cousins and with almost hairless necks. Golden-breasted Starlings and Rosy-patched Bush-shrikes showed off their fantastic colours. On the dusty plains we found the endangered fringe-eared oryx, an almost comical version of the gemsbok with their large flappy ears. Speaking of comedy, nothing quite prepares you for your first real-life sighting of a gerenuk. These rare gazelles with their seemingly-photoshopped long necks and habit of standing on their hind legs to browse had us chuckling every time we were lucky enough to see them.

    The park combines with the Tsavo West National Park to form the largest protected reserve in Kenya and it is a gem for lovers of wild places. The dry and windswept landscape is vast and covered with thorny shrubs. Although seasonal river courses and waterholes provide some respite and greenery in some areas, the lushness of the perennial Galana River seems almost out of place. Lined with palm trees, filled with hippos and banked by red hot rocky surrounds, it is reminiscent of the Kunene landscape in Namibia. You will not find the tourist hordes that frequent the more famous East African parks here. Instead, you will find a wilderness that is as unique as the creatures that frequent it.  

    Phantoms of the station

    Most folks with a keen interest in East Africa would have read The man-eaters of Tsavo, or at least seen the film based on it. In 1898 two male lions developed both a taste for human flesh and a few bold tactics to source it, and subsequently terrorised the Indian labour force building the railway to Uganda. For some, this true story inspired a lifelong fear of big cats (because all lions will claw through a roof to get at you, right?). For others, it gave a glimpse into a very different time to have been in wild, untamed Africa. The old Tsavo railway station area is where most of the action went down, and it still exists.

    We found the old station and railway in the bush among the thorny shrubs not far from the modern equivalent. Abandoned and derelict, the station has seen better days. But if you know the story, you will appreciate that it has also had its share of wild adventure in days gone by. When Col. J.H. Patterson waited up for the man-eaters here using himself as bait he almost became part of the ghastly statistics: “The deadly silence became very monotonous, when suddenly, to our right, a dry twig snapped. My eyes were strained by prolonged staring through the darkness. It was quiet again when, with a sudden bound, a huge body sprang at us. ‘The lion!’ I shouted, and we both fired.”

    Walking along the same platform and through the dilapidated ticket office, we invariably felt a cold shiver or two pass down our spines. Perhaps this is not a place to visit at night. At least not if you are afraid of ghosts, or of darkness.

    Samburu National Reserve

    After navigating the crazy Nairobi traffic, catching up on chores and stocking up in the upmarket (and expensive) shops of the appropriately-named Karen suburb, we headed further North to the Samburu National Reserve. This fascinating reserve is known for hosting the so-called strange five, some of which we also saw in Tsavo. A beautiful Grevy’s zebra welcomed us close to the gate with its fine barcode-like stripes and large ears. Here we also encountered the Somali Ostrich, with its light blue legs and white neck ring. Reticulated giraffes ambled toward the river. Synonymous with the reserve, they sport beautiful coats of near-square block patterns. A cheetah mother sat under a tree with her three cubs, as always on the look-out for potential lunch. A birding highlight of our journey was seeing flocks of Vulturine Guineafowl with their electric blue feathers.

    Samburu is perhaps a little out of the way of the more popular Kenyan destinations, but we found the trek more than worthwhile. It is located in a semi-desert on the dry side of Mount Kenya and hence its landscapes are dominated by arid and dusty woodland. The Ewaso Ng’iro river flows through it, with the Buffalo Springs natural spring extending a year-round lifeline to its animals. The majority of roads follow the river course, providing great game viewing in this piece of paradise.

    Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities. Sitting around a crackling campfire on the banks of the dry riverbed that night we listened to lions and wind. We decided that perhaps if Dr. Seuss had been to Kenya and experienced its fantastic beasts, he would agree that sometimes fantasy is not even needed to enjoy life to the fullest.

    Some helpful trip tips:

    • Kenyan logistics
    1. To enter from Tanzania, try the small Tarakea border post. It is quiet, efficient and we got a 30-day TIP for the vehicle without hassle – no Carnet de Passage was even needed.
    2. Apply online for a Kenyan e-visa (it takes a day or two) and print it out beforehand. South Africans don’t pay anything, but must still register and print out the pass to speed things up at the border.
    3. We found Safaricom to be the network with widest coverage.
    • Kenyan National Parks (KWS)
    1. All Kenyan national parks run by the KWS now require visitors to book and pay their visits (even day trips) only via the national e-citizen platform which you used to obtain your visa.
    2. It takes a while, but the good news is you can book and pay online before your trip, theoretically speeding things up at the gate.
    3. National parks are more cost effective for foreign vehicles in Kenya than Tanzania due to more reasonable vehicle permit costs. Find the latest tariffs here:
    • Tsavo East National Park
    1. Use the gate close to the town of Voi where you can find fuel and supplies.
    2. In the dry season, most game seem to congregate in the Southern region, but exploring further afield is well worth it if you enjoy wild places with few tourists.
    3. To visit the original Tsavo station which the famous man-eater lions frequented, use the access road to the Maneaters Lodge just off the Mombasa highway. No entrance fee.
    • Samburu National Reserve
    1. Samburu’s fees are similar to those of the KWS parks, but only took cash when we visited.
    2. The public campsite inside the park is well worth it – beautifully wild and located on the river bank.
    3. Meru National Park is relatively close by and would be a sensible park to combine on a trip to Samburu if you enjoy remote wilderness spaces.
    • Campsites
    1. Tsavo East: We enjoyed Boma Simba Campsite bordering the park fence close to Voi.
    2. Samburu: The public campsite inside the park, or Kisimani Eco Lodge about 30 km away.
    3. Nairobi: Jungle Junction is one of those crossroads where every overlander will likely end up.

    The search for Simba

    The search for Simba

    ‘We are driving through The Lion King!’ It was hardly surprising for super-Disney-fan Simoné to make this on-point observation as we slowly meandered through the grassy savannah studded by flat-topped acacias. The mighty Serengeti National Park surely ranks high on the bucket list of many people, particularly nature fanatics like us. We had always thought this king among national parks to only be reserved for those that enjoy high tea and heated towels. However, since finding out that one can indeed self-drive and DIY camp inside, we started hatching plans to make an overland pilgrimage to Simba’s kingdom. We visited the Serengeti during the dry season and opted to also visit the lesser-known but spectacular Tarangire National Park shortly thereafter. Here is what we found.

    Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. Mufasa

    Coming from Rwanda, we headed up Lake Victoria’s shoreline and stopped by the beautiful campsite of Rocky Bay lodge where we were welcomed warmly by its SA-expat owners. Taking the Mwanza Bay ferry, we eventually made our way to one of the north-west entrance gates of the park. We visited early in August, which meant that the bulk of the famous blue wildebeest herds were concentrated in the north of the park, starting to cross the Mara river on their eternal clockwise trip toward greener pastures.

    Shortly after entering, we were quite simply awed by the sheer number of animals. Thousands upon thousands of wildebeest staged in herds of various sizes, some milling anxiously while contemplating the dreaded river crossing. Travelling south, herds of zebra, topi, and Coke’s hartebeest dotted the landscape. Driving through the central plains, the ubiquitous Thompson’s gazelle abounded and Grant’s gazelles showed off their impressive horns while iconic Maasai giraffes ambled across the horizon.

    Birdlife was equally impressive. Aptly-named Superb Starlings proved as common locally as its Cape Glossy cousins in South Africa and eye-catching Yellow-necked Spurfowls called from open savannas. White-headed Buffalo-weavers chatted in trees, and African Orange-bellied Parrots foraged among palm trees.

    Everything the light touches is our kingdom. – Mufasa

    All things considered, it is the awe-inspiring landscapes that we will remember most of the Serengeti. We tried to cover as much as possible of the park, and the landscapes are more varied than you might imagine. Expansive rolling hills dominate the north, as it would keep doing into the Maasai Mara across the river. Recent controlled burns looked very much like Scar’s shadowlands with its smouldering ashes and embers still glowing. Around the central area, classic and enduring images of old Africa abound with the park’s signature flat-topped Acacias dominating the open grasslands (and yes, the giraffes do journey across the horizon). Further south, the plains stretch as far the eye can see. These are peppered with isolated rocky koppies around which we found many lion tracks. It was therefore not a giant leap to imagine Mufasa and Simba sitting on one of these real-life Pride Rocks to survey their magnificent kingdom at dusk.

    I’m surrounded by idiots. – Scar

    We have always harboured a certain uneasiness with tourist game viewing vehicles. Although certainly not always the case, the unfortunate stereotypical jeep jockey often chases big sightings in exchange for even bigger tips. In the flagship East African parks, this Ferrari safari industry is taken to a whole next level, particularly in the high season. Loaded cruisers speed and swerve dangerously on the badly corrugated entrance road, hogged sightings make lion congestions in central Kruger look like driving school, and public bush campsites more closely resemble rock music festivals. We therefore quickly learnt that these parks should be visited with the right frame of mind – focusing on their unique beauty and many strong-points while managing your expectations of other aspects described so faithfully here by Scar.

    Carnivores, oy! – Timon

    The incredibly high density of herbivores in the Serengeti means that the number of carnivores follows suit. We saw an amazing 31 lions in just 24 hours, including having an early morning coffee with a real Mufasa sunning himself majestically on a rock. We found three cheetahs, many hyenas and even got a glimpse of a beautiful Serengeti leopard. Great was our excitement when we came across a lone African golden wolf patrolling his koppie territory. We did not even know that these interesting creatures are found in these parts, so this was a real treat indeed. In Tarangire we were serenaded all night long by multiple lion prides, and found a treed leopard in the morning. If great cat sightings is your cat nip, you must simply put these parks on your to-do list!

    Life’s not fair, is it? – Scar

    There is a looming dollar-shaped shadow over Tanzania’s beautiful national parks, particularly to overlanders and budget travellers. Much has been written about it, particularly regarding the rather unjustified and exorbitant fees for private vehicles that are making it increasingly unfeasible for self-drive visitors. It will perhaps suffice to simply state that the fees are not going to go down any time soon, so hurry up and plan the trip if it is at all within your reach. We still felt that this trip of a lifetime was absolutely worth it, although we will never complain about SANPark fees ever again!

    Hakuna Matata! – Timon and Pumbaa

    There are very few places left in Africa, indeed in the world, where it likely still looks exactly what it must have looked like a few hundred years ago. It was therefore an immense privilege to visit these grand parks of Tanzania, let alone drive ourselves around them in Baloo. These are places where animals of all shapes and sizes still thrive in their hundreds of thousands, migrating unperturbed along ancient paths as they have done for millennia. These are places where the golden sun rises every morning (cue Elton John), and where there is hope for conservation efforts. These are places where, at least for a moment or two in time, animals can have no worries.

    Some helpful trip tips:

    Serengeti NP

    1. The park can roughly be divided into Northern, Western, Central and Southern areas. The classic flat-topped acacia scenery and busiest area is mostly central (around Seronera).
    2. The blue wildebeest migration moves in a clock-wise direction throughout the year. If you want to see them, plan your focus area ahead (
    3. Public (aka not exclusive) campsites are very busy with tour operators in the dry season, so arrive late, leave early and don’t expect facilities or atmosphere that match the cost.
    4. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area borders the Serengeti on the East and is just as expensive as the Serengeti, even if just transiting (more if you want to go down the crater). Therefore, plan your trip to enter on one side of the park and exit on another to avoid doubling costs.
    5. The road from Seronera to the NCA is notoriously badly corrugated. Avoid at least part of it by detouring towards the beautiful Gol Kopjes.

     Tarangire NP

    1. Seeing mostly day-tripping tourists from Arusha, there are less overnight campers in Tarangire than in the Serengeti.
    2. Tarangire is less about ferrari safaris, and more about beautiful baobab landscapes, a wonderful river and denser bushveld like southern African wilderness areas.


    1. Stock up and treat yourself at The Village.
    2. Those empty South African Cadacs can be filled at Manji’s Gas.
    3. Book your rattled cruiser in for a well-deserved service at the well-oiled Arusha Toyota (expat SA manager included).
    4. Foodies, coffee and wi-fi snobs should try Coffee Culture.


    1. Lake Victoria / Mwanza: Rocky Bay Lodge
    2. Outside Serengeti (West): Ikoma Safari Lodge
    3. Outside Ngorongoro (East): Foresight Safari Lodge
    4. Arusha area: Twiga Lodge
    5. Moshi area: Simba Farm Lodge

      Crossing a thousand hills

      Crossing a thousand hills

      When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable. When Clifton Fadiman noted this, he might as well have been describing overland travel through Rwanda. As far as African states are concerned, Rwanda is truly unique. After spending a month in neighbouring crazy-but-cool Uganda, we meandered through this tiny landlocked country in Baloo. Having been fortunate enough to enjoy a fly-in Rwandan trip a few years ago, the expectations of a road trip through this developing nation were high. As it turned out, overlanding through it proved very different. We encountered ups and down aplenty, both literally and figuratively. Here are a few of the inclines and declines that you can expect in the land of a thousand hills.

      Headliner Act

      This tiny landlocked country is no stranger to making international headlines. The well-known Tutsi genocide of 1994 strikes at the very core of modern Rwandan society. Whether driving through the rural areas or just visiting Kigali, memorial sites dot the landscape. It is recommended to visit some of these to understand more about the whats and whys, but be prepared for some very graphic content that emphasize just what humans can truly be capable of – and not long ago at that.

      These days Rwanda is making headlines for much more positive and uplifting reasons. It is proudly one of the fastest growing economies in Africa and foreign investors are competing to get in on the act. At ground level this is also apparent. We found modern and well-designed buildings dotting Kigali, new developments under construction everywhere, first-world clinics and hospitals popping up throughout, and entrepreneurs advertising startup micro-businesses in almost every town.

      Spring Cleaning

      The first comment most travellers give is just how clean Rwanda is, and for good reason. Driving through most other parts of Africa, one becomes semi-accustomed to everyday scenes of grimes against humanity: heaps of yesterday’s garbage burning in the backyard; rivers foaming with Omo and goodness-knows-what-else; Marabou Storks ambling along sidewalks, picking their way through mounds of delicious litter.

      None of that will do for Rwanda. For starters, they have an anti-plastic-bag policy that is well enforced. Your car gets inspected at the border, all groceries come in paper bags, and even the plastic baggage wraps of paranoid South African passengers must be left at the airport. Then there are the community clean-up days. Started after the genocide as a form of community service that involves all of society, this is a very inspiring initiative. Driving through Rwandan towns on cleaning days we witnessed young and old joined in the act of washing out gutters, sweeping pavements and cleaning streets. We even saw police cars patrolling the fringes of villages to make sure everyone is busy cleaning. Imagine that back home in South Africa.

      Mighty Dollars

      As elsewhere in Africa, the Rwandans prefer squeezing you with the mighty US Dollar over the local currency. In comparison with a visit only six years ago, the cost of most things have also dramatically increased. At overlander or budget traveller level this means that their beautiful national parks are essentially out of reach. To put it into perspective, a day in Akagera or Nyungwe is even more expensive than the famously high cost of a day in the Serengeti! Along with the general lack of camping grounds in lieu of lodges and hotels, it seems that the country’s tourism is simply not aimed towards us mortals that eat local supermarket food and are okay with cold showers.

      Coffee and Adventure

      We entered the country in the North close to Ruhengeri and visited the brand-new Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, a beautifully designed building that was high on our must-see list. The campus is a centre for gorilla conservation and scientific research and involves beautiful exhibits to learn more about mountain gorillas. The building itself is also inspiring. Built from local volcanic rock and bamboo, it blends beautifully with the surrounding flowing hills with views over the mountains which the Rwandan gorillas call home. Taking the volcanic back roads, we then bumped along the foothills of the Virungas. Here we stopped for enormous King Kong-size artworks made from papyrus and sipped delicious cappuccinos made from local beans by baristas that would challenge any in Europe.

      Our fondness of the road less taken (or our exhaustive search for budget camping) took us onto the Congo-Nile trail. This confusingly-named trail traverses the hills along the shores of Lake Kivu, being the water shedding ridge along which water either drains into Congo (to the west) or Nile (to the east) systems. It is mostly a hiking or cycling trail, but parts can also be driven by 4×4. We thus found ourselves rattling along happily, crossing mountain streams on dodgy-looking wooden planks (if the vrot bakkie in front could pass, so can we, right?). We spent a few nights at one of the trail base stations on the shores of the lake, doubling as a local coffee washing station. Between coffee shrubs, heaps of freshly plucked coffee fruit and views of the many tranquil islands and coves of the lake, it was a fascinating place to set up office and catch up on chores.


      Following millions of road bends and many Valoid tablets, our route took us through the Nyungwe forest. This is one of the most beautiful forests we have ever seen and we would have loved to stay longer and explore if only an American fly-in tourist could take pity on us. Unfortunately none did, so we were content and happy with views over the steamy and rolling hills of primeval forest, roadside L’Hoest’s monkeys and beautiful birds such as the Lühder’s Bushshrike.

      Fuelled by yet more well-crafted cappuccinos, we made our way to Kigali where we set up shop in an Airbnb flat for a week. We mostly used the time to recover from flu and catch up on work, but in between also explored this wonderful city. Very unlike most African cities, Kigali is clean, safe, well-structured, without too much traffic, and has a very modern air about it owing to the many new developments around. We shopped for fresh produce in well-stocked supermarkets, got bread and real cheese(!!) from great delis, and sampled (you guessed it) cappuccinos at street cafes. A highlight was also a lunch at Heaven, a restaurant with amazing fusion cuisine. They also have a remarkably inspiring back-story which the owner wrote a book about – a book which just happened to be the very first gift I ever gave Simoné.

      When we eventually made our way to another border to exit back into Tanzania, we were left with mixed feelings about Rwanda. There are certainly many challenges that might make an overland journey through it difficult, such as sleeping in hotel parking lots or having to miss out on some of the wonderful parks. However, the country is blessed with many truly unique facets that can mostly be summed up as inspiring. From its cleanliness and commitments to righting wrongs from the past, to its modern developments, natural beauty and conservation ethics. So, will we be back to cross these hills again one day? If we can, yes. For all these things – and the cappuccinos!

      Some helpful trip tips:

      • Borders
      1. Get the East-African Tourist visa if you plan to visit Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya together, but remember it gets nullified once you exit to any other neighbouring country. It is better to get it online, but not impossible at the borders.
      2. Two items foremost on the car-search agenda at Rwandan borders: plastic bags and drones.
      • National parks
      1. African Parks is managing both the Akagera and Nyungwe Forest National Parks and both are truly beautiful, although their park fees have escalated exponentially over the last year or two.
      2. The main road through the Nyungwe Forest is public so it is possible admire this beautiful forest without the park fees.
      3. Camping is possible inside Akagera, and for something very different, SA’s Lowveld Trails Company offer seasonal wilderness hiking trails inside the park (
      • Gorillas
      1. Rwanda’s mountain gorillas are in the Volcanoes National Park in the north. It is easily accessible via Ruhengeri and the trekking not as strenuous as in Uganda.
      2. Rwanda’s gorilla permits now cost more than double those of Uganda.
      3. There is a brand-new research and educational centre just outside the park sporting a world-class building and beautiful exhibits to learn more about mountain gorillas (
      • Kigali
      1. There are no real camping options – an Airbnb apartment might be your best bet.
      2. The National Genocide Memorial Museum is recommended to understand more about Rwanda’s modern history, but be prepared for some very graphic and emotionally stirring exhibitions.
      3. Our favourite restaurant is Heaven – fantastic cuisine with a fantastic story (
      • Campsites
      1. Rwanda doesn’t generally offer camping – overlanders need to manage their expectations! Backpackers with ground tents are catered for in some places, but rooftop tents not as much.
      2. You will usually be able to find hotels or lodges that allow you to camp in their parking areas, using an open room’s ablutions.
      3. The general exception is the region on the shores of Lake Kivu, where the various basecamps intended for hikers/bikers on the Congo-Nile trail also offer good and cheap camping.

      Finding rift valley pearls

      Finding rift valley pearls

      The pearl of Africa. Travellers in Uganda are reminded of this on every t-shirt, coaster and Crowned Crane fridge magnet in curios shops. Winston Churchill most likely did not know this will become the tourism industry’s choice slogan when he penned it in his My African Journey. But it is equally possible that neither locals nor visitors know exactly why the great British Bulldog likened this country to a natural gemstone. We drove from Lake Albert in the north along the Albertine rift down to Bwindi in the south to find out and discover more about this so-called pearl.

      Coaxing Baloo up the escarpment along Lake Albert we passed Pete Pearson’s roadside monument where it is easy to imagine the big game hunter of old overlooking the plains below where massive elephant herds still roamed far and wide. As we headed south, we passed a variety of landscapes. The savannah woodlands gave way to populated hills of banana plantations before we passed through the Kibale National Park. Known as the primate capital of the world, this evergreen rainforest is home to 13 species of primates – the highest density in Africa. Emerging from the forest, we passed countless tea plantations for which the cold high-altitude conditions are ideal.

      In Fort Portal we stocked up at Andrew & Brothers, an old family-owned little supermarket that values friendliness and decent prices. Fort Portal overlooks the magnificent Ruwenzori Mountain range famous for its multi-day hikes and rugged beauty. Its snow-capped peak, Mount Stanley, is third in line for Africa’s highest point. We stayed at Kluge’s Guest Farm where we sampled a great combination of German cuisine and local delights. Here shy black-and-white colobus monkeys joined us in camp and African Blue Flycatchers foraged nimbly around the trees with their cute flicking tails.

      Moving south we reached the Queen Elizabeth National Park. Straddling the equator and including parts of both Lakes George and Edward, it is known for its tree-climbing lions. Upon hearing that we wanted to camp inside the park, the gate officer laughed and simply shook her head at us crazy muzungus. Don’t we know there is nothing at the wild campsites? ‘That’s why we want to go there’ is apparently not a sensible reply either. Either way, off we went on our merry way to explore.

      Despite numerous negative reports from others about the park and its low game numbers, we experienced it as a beautiful park with magnificent landscapes and animals. We were lucky enough to catch fleeting glimpses of two families of giant forest hogs – a surprise for us as these rare hogs are usually restricted to dense forests as their name implies. We saw lions on five occasions, including subadults sleeping in a massive euphorbia tree and a male lying directly underneath a game viewer, either seeking shade or inspecting the impressive Cruiser underbody. The unique landscape is dominated by grasslands and euphorbia trees interspersed with large herds of Ugandan kob and buffalo. In the park we also came across another rare species in Uganda, namely self-drive overlanders – the first we encountered after a month in the country. They just happened to be fellow South Africans from the Northern Cape and seemed rather surprised to be greeted by an Afrikaans couple asking for biltong.

      Camping in the park was exactly the type we love most – surrounded by no one and nothing else but the bush and its creatures. A herd of elephants browsed the fringe of the campsite, a lone buffalo bull inspected Baloo, and after a short but heavy rain downpour we lay listening to multiple prides of lions calling from all directions in the cool nighttime air. Morning was met by hippos grunting from the misty Kazinga channel and Fish Eagles proclaiming a new dawn in Africa.

      Our next stop was the beautiful Lake Bunyonyi near the southern border with Rwanda. A natural high-altitude lake formed by a volcanic crater, it is exceptionally deep and the lush and terraced surrounding hills did well to relax our senses after a long day on the road. Few creatures occur naturally in the cold lake although interestingly, the invasive red swamp crayfish does well in its waters, providing food to locals after it was introduced from the US years ago.

      Not far from the lake, we bumped our way along a treacherous little mountain road to our last destination in Uganda – the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. Here we had an appointment scheduled with those enigmatic woolly residents that still take refuge in this rainforest – mountain gorillas. Tracking them down is a regulated affair requiring you to plan months ahead and smash your pink piggy bank to smithereens. However, when you finally arrive at the edge of the misty dark forest and peer into its mysterious world known as one of the most biologically diverse places on earth, you sense that all the preparations were indeed worthwhile.

      Mountain gorillas are the largest and rarest of the gorilla subspecies with only about 1000 remaining, half of which are found here. Tracking one of the family groups in Bwindi is not for the faint-hearted. Being less than fit after many weeks on the road, we sweated like suckling pigs in a Finnish sauna while climbing the near-vertical slopes covered in stinging nettles and dense vegetation. It is not called impenetrable without reason. After a 10 km hike (and what felt like the same vertical ascent), rangers tracking the gorillas led us to a lush green valley where the forest canopy opened and sunlight cautiously peered in. And there they were, as if the most normal thing in the world.

      They say that the first time you sit with a gorilla in the wild is an intense emotional experience. Having been fortunate to also see a group in Rwanda a few years ago, I can confirm that it is indeed no different the second time. The group we encountered had about 15 members and we spent time with them while they went about their daily business. The big silverback leader sat silently over to one side, lazily stuffing his face with fresh leaves and occasionally scratching his back with those massive hands. Females and younger males browsed around, inquisitively investigating us while babies played in the ultimate jungle gym, entertaining both themselves and us. When our allowed time with the group was up, we left them behind with a mixed sense of sadness and immense joy. These endangered but utterly remarkable creatures are slowly increasing in numbers and we hope that they will always remain protected in their mountainous strongholds.

      As we reminisce over our adventures in Uganda, we think of the variety of wonders we experienced. Moist rainforests, euphorbia-studded plains, broad rivers, snow-capped mountains, powerful waterfalls and massive lakes. Gorillas, shoebills, lions, rare birds, chimpanzees, forest hogs, rare fish. Considering the lesser-known other half of his quote, we couldn’t agree more with Mr Churchill: ‘For magnificence, for variety of form and colour, for profusion of brilliant life – I say Uganda is truly the pearl of Africa.” 

      Some helpful trip tips:

      • Gorillas
      1. Gorilla tracking permits are expensive and need to booked a few months ahead for an exact date.
      2. Uganda’s permits are about half the price of those in Rwanda.
      3. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest NP has four different base points from where various Gorilla groups can be tracked – we departed from Rushaga.
      4. You cannot book your permits directly with UWA anymore. A tour operator must book it on your behalf and they add a handling fee. We used Kabiza Safaris (, who did not add a large fee, sent us proof of the permits in advance, and had the originals delivered to us when we stayed near Entebbe to avoid us missioning into Kampala. We highly recommend them!
      5. Tracking gorillas in Bwindi is physically tough as the mountain forests are very steep and dense. Take enough water, snacks and rain-proof gear!
      • Queen Elizabeth National Park
      1. The park has three main sectors split by national through-roads:

      – Mweya (along the Kazinga channel with riverine thickets)

      – Kasenyi (next to Lake George with open plains)

      – Ishasha (bordering the DRC)

      1. There are public and cheap campsites in the Mweya and Ishasha sectors.
      2. Ishasha is famous for its fig tree-climbing lions, but we saw many lions in the other sectors too – some even in Euphorbia trees.
      • Campsites
      1. Fort Portal: Kluge’s Guest Farm is fantastic, clean and neat. Here you can also enjoy their great food, the host’s generous hospitality and look for colobus monkeys in the forest. (
      2. Queen Elizabeth National Park: Inside the park, we camped at the wild Mweya campsite 1 – it has an amazing view of the Kazinga channel! Just outside the park, we camped at Songbird, a beautiful place with very friendly owners. (
      3. Lake Bunyonyi: We camped at the Lake Bunyonyi Overland Resort right on the edge of the lake – a magnificent view! (
      4. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park: At the Rushaga sector there are not many camping options, so we camped at the Rushaga Gorilla Camp, a high-end lodge that also caters for overlanders. Although not cheap, it is right on the edge of the forest and their meals are worth the spoil after a long trekking day! (