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southeast Africa: when trips go very very badly

southeast Africa: when trips go very very badly

Old Jul 23, 2022, 10:43 pm
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southeast Africa: when trips go very very badly

I recently returned from a three week self-drive trip in southeastern Africa. I flew Qatar Air (via Doha) into JNB, and out from Lusaka (Zambia). I rented a fully equipped 4x4 Toyota Hilux (sold as the Tacoma in North America). Specifically, I flew into Johannesburg, South Africa, drove east through eSwatini (formerly known as Swaziland), up Mozambique, across Malawi, and finished in Zambia.

I'm sharing this story mostly as a cautionary tale for others. This trip did not go well. I made bad choices, and paid a very high price.

Bad things happened, starting with this barely 6 days in:

How did that happen, you may be wondering? Well, that seemingly harmless bridge was about 3 hours of driving from pavement, on what could generously be referred to as a bush track. Most of the time, if I was lucky, I could see at least one tire track. Some of the time, I couldn't see anything resembling a track or road, and the grass had overgrown whatever once constituted a road long, long ago. The lesson here (one of many) is just because your GPS claims there's a road, doesn't mean its been maintained, or even used, in a long time. That "road" might cross bodies of water, where a bridge may or may not have ever existed. Even if there was a bridge, it may not exist any longer. And even if the bridge is still there, it doesn't mean that the road at either end of the bridge still exists. In this case, the road was literally washed away at the north end of the bridge, and filled in by plant life, making it seem like the road was still there, until it was too late. I drove into a six foot deep ditch, which I was ill prepared to escape. While this Hilux was fairly well equipped, it did not include a winch, and there was no way to recover at that angle without a winch.

I spent two hours increasingly desperately attempting different tactics to get myself rescued. 4x4 low, with diff lock disabled and sand ladders got me about a foot out of the hole, but that meant the rear of the vehicle was increasingly less and less grounded, and the edge of the bridge deck was high centering the truck, making it impossible to reverse further:

For a while, I hoped someone else would come along, and potentially be able to help me. I tried screaming to attract attention, I held the horn down for minutes, but absolutely no one ever came along. I had somehow managed to get myself stuck in one of the rare parts of Mozambique that is seemingly uninhabited, and no one else drives this hell road. Plus, since the truck was sitting at such an extreme angle, it was just about impossible to shelter inside, as literally everything that wasn't strapped down was rolling forward (including me). That roof top tent would have been a great place to shelter, but not at a 45 degree angle where even setting it up was impossible.

I concluded that if I was going to get help, I had to walk there. That was the beginning for a 3.5 day ordeal. I spent the first night sleeping on the ground in a dense forest, where swarms of mosquitoes descended, and it rained off & on for much of the night. On day two, I had to walk through 2 meter (~6 foot) tall wet "tunnels" of grass for over an hour. The "road" led through a swamp, where I waded through knee deep water & mud for nearly an hour:

I ended up walking nearly 50 km (30 miles) over the first two days, and eventually got close enough to civilization that I came upon a guy on a motorbike, and paid him to drive me the rest of the way to a real town, with cell phone reception. After that, it was another 3 hours of being passed between different motorbikes and crowded vans (think 23 passengers crammed into the size equivalent of a passenger van) before I got to the city of Beira, where I started the fun process of trying to find someone who help me recover the vehicle.

That's when I eventually met the owner of this abomination:

That awful Nissan truck (no clue what model it was originally) had nearly bald tires, an overheating engine, and a dying battery. I spent 15 hours riding in the cab with the driver & his friend, from Beira all the way back to where my Hilux was stuck. Most of that drive was actually on the paved road, which was often more pothole & crater than road. Also, there was a deep sand water crossing:

That awful truck was ill prepared for both. After watching the two guys cluelessly attempt to drive through this sandy mess for an hour, I eventually convinced them to air down their tires, after which they conquered this portion of the road, and got to the main event, rescuing the Hilux:

They pulled me out, and we then started the drive back to civilization. Then their truck's battery died, and they got very very stuck in the same deep sand that trapped them on the way there. After burning another hour without being able to jump their battery or tow them free, they had to abandon their truck and get a ride with me back to civilization. I reached a camp site just before midnight, about 19 hours after that day started.

I wish I could say this was the end of the badness, but alas no. While the truck was fine after this point, literally two days later I entered a new hell. I was now nearly 48 hours behind schedule (after slashing the remainder of the Mozambique itinerary), and needed to enter Malawi soon, or there would be no point in going at all. On all of my maps (I had 3 different ones), the most efficient way to get to the Malawian border post that I wanted was via a road that supposedly took around 4 hours of driving. In reality, that road started off as a relatively reasonable dirt road, and gradually degraded into yet another bush track, in far worse condition than anything I had experienced thus far. There were pits of pudding consistency mud. There were 3 foot deep ruts that swallowed everything that entered them. There were small/short concrete "bridges" over seasonal lagoons that had failed long ago, requiring driving through the 8 foot tall reeds and mud to circumvent. There were multiple sandy water crossings. And then there was the 6 foot deep river whose bridge had failed years ago, and was simply no longer passable by anything that didn't fit into a dug-out canoe. When I reached that bridge, I had been driving for nearly 6 hours, and was about 2 miles from the last road of the day. Two miles from being less than an hour from the border. I could not continue, but I was very very afraid to turn back the way I came.

I searched my maps for an alternative, and found a 110 mile route that seemed viable. It meant driving east when I wanted to go north & west, but it was better than returning the way I came earlier. I drove for over 4 hours across more scary water crossings, and past tiny mud hut villages, and eventually onto relatively good condition dirt roads until I reached another river, where the bridge no longer existed. Ten hours of driving into the day, with maybe 2 hours of day light remaining, and I was once again stopped by a river that no longer had a bridge.

After chatting with a local in some of the worst Portuguese ever uttered on this planet (yes, Mozambique is a former colony of Portugal, and their official language is Portuguese, English is quite rare), he pointed me to yet another different route back to pavement. My map claimed there was a shortcut road that would avoid 20km of driving, so I showed that map to the local guy, and he enthusiastically insisted the short cut was viable. In the dwindling light, I was now driving south (keep in mind the border post was north west). I had long ago given up any hope of reaching the border that day. Even if I did make it back to pavement, I had at least 4 hours of pavement driving, and the border closed at sunset (6PM). The shortcut road was basically just a walking trail between remote farming villages (mud huts, no electricity, very spotty cell coverage at the slowest speeds imaginable). At this point, it was my only hope, and it seemed like it might just work. As daylight faded, I was driving in total darkness past random villages and people wandering around in the night, but the distance to the end of the shortcut road was counting down and I had barely 1 mile left.

Then the road turned evil, as had happened twice already that day. You see, there was a river between me and the end of the road. I couldn't see the river (it was dark, plus the forest had grown too dense), but the road had become an insanely steep hill. With a foot wide, 3 foot deep trench running down one side, from rain erosion. If any tire fell into that rut, I knew it would be very bad. But the "sides" of the road were also very steep, meaning that I'd have to drive at a very off camber angle down this hell road. Picture a road shaped like the letter U, where the most flat, stable part of the road was partly replaced by a trench that would swallow anything that fell into it, and that's what I was attempting to drive, all down hill on wet sand & mud. Despite my best attempts, I still slid into the trench. Partially driven by panic and desperation, I managed to reverse out of the trench, while some part of the under carriage of the vehicle scraped against the road surface. Yet, somehow, I freed myself and managed to continue driving forward down this hill, until a bunch of people walking up the hill (from the river below) stopped staring at me in disbelief and told me "nao ponte, nao ponte" (literally, 'no bridge'). Yup, I shaved a few years off my life and tortured the truck for nothing, as there was no bridge across the river. Even if I somehow made it the rest of the way down the hill, in the dark, I could not cross the river. I did all of this, yet again, for nothing. And now I got to do it again, in reverse, as I couldn't turn around. I still honestly have no clue how I backed my way up that hill, in the dark, but somehow I did, and then managed to make a 15 point u-turn to drive out of there. At some point, whether it was trying to drive down, or attempting to reverse back up, I ripped up something (I think its part of the skid plate) under the truck:

Now every time I drove over literally anything that was more than a couple inches tall, it brushed the dangling metal, and made the most horrible sound. The looks that I got from random people when this happened were truly special. Additionally, the front bumper and left wheel well was truly wrecked from dragging against all manner of crap. This needed attention as it was rubbing on the tire, but since I was no where that I could even attempt to fix this, I ignored it as best as I could, and drove onward in the dark.

I still needed to backtrack this awful "short cut" to the road that would get me to pavement, and it was now 7PM, and I had been driving for 13 hours and was barely any close to the border than when I woke up that morning. I mentally debated how much longer I wanted to drive, when I knew the border was already closed, and would not re-open until 6AM the next day. After another 30 minutes of driving in the darkness, I found what looked like a flat clearing beside the road, and pulled over. Within a minute or two, a small crowd gathered, and by some miracle, one of them spoke nearly flawless English. Apparently I had parked in front of the village school house, and the (only) teacher spoke English. I asked permission to camp there that night, and not only did he grant me permission, he even offered to make me dinner and give me a bed to sleep in. Of course, I very gratefully & politely declined the offer. I had food, and a tent, and wasn't about to take anything from people who were living in mud huts on pennies/day. Despite that, I was definitely the best entertainment in the history of this remote village, as 6 or 7 people gave color commentary to my every move that evening. I setup my tent, made dinner, shared my leftovers with the spectators, and then retreated to my tent for the night. While it was too dark to get any photos, Google's satellite view actually does capture that exact spot, including the school house, and the speck of road running past it here.

The next morning, I got up at dawn, packed up, and drove back up the short cut road. When I reached the intersection of the shortcut road and the "real" (non-shortcut) road, there was the equivalent of a rural strip mall, with a long line of small stalls selling anything & everything you could possibly want when living in this isolated pocket of Mozambique. I pulled up to a stall that seemed to to be the 'Home Depot', and through the magic of Google Translate, communicated that I wanted to buy metal wire to attempt to put the parts of the truck that were falling off back in place. The guy didn't have what I wanted, but another stall did, and he chatted with them, they fished around for a minute and offered me a small coil of metal wire for the equivalent of 80 cents. As soon as I paid, I apparently was also paying for repair services. The guy and a random other guy went straight to the truck, threaded the wire into place to tie the bumper and wheel well back into place. These guys were absolute professionals. It was clear that they knew how to work with metal wire, and this was not the first time they used it to tie stuff into place. After a few minutes, everything was back in place. I attempted to pay them for their help, but they refused my money. I thanked them repeatedly, shook their hands, and off I went. (Spoiler, the wire that they put in place lasted the rest of the trip). Another two hours of driving on a not-great, but real road, and I finally made it to pavement. Another four hours of driving, and I made it to the border that day, more than 2 days behind schedule.

Thankfully, the remainder of the trip was relatively uneventful. Of course those 6 days of hell effectively wrecked a large chunk of my itinerary. I ended up sacrificing the second half of Mozambique, and 2/3 of Malawi to get back on schedule. If you've read this far, congrats!

Other things that did not go well (but were not the traumatic disaster described above):
  • Police in Mozambique (especially) as well as Malawi & Zambia were corrupt. Mozambique cops either artificially inflated my speed to claim I was speeding, or artificially deflated the speed limit, to again claim I was speeding. The fines were relatively small, but it was still frustrating & annoying. The police in Zambia fined me for "illegally crossing a solid line". Except that whatever painted line may have existed on that road decades ago was no longer visible.
As for what went well on this trip:
  • Snorkeling on the Bazaruto Archipeligo (Mozambique) was quite lovely. Its a mostly hidden gem that few people know about.

  • Hiking in the Ntchisi Forest of Malawi was really lovely. Its a semi-tropical forest with dense, green stuff growing everywhere, colorful birds, and monkeys up in the trees.

  • I saw literally hundreds of hippos in North Luangwa National Park (Zambia). If you love hippos this may be the best place to see them. Didn't see that much of anything else though (2 elephants, a few zebra, some monkeys and plenty of antelope)

  • Border crossings were surprisingly, and shockingly easy. I'd had some unpleasant experiences in other parts of the world (including elsewhere in Africa), and was expecting the worst. But every single border was either sleep/dead or very efficient, or both, making for no real issues. The Lundazi border (entering Zambia from Malawi) wins the prize for the most sleepy border of all. They were literally asleep at their desks when I arrived at 1PM, and I was apparently the first foreigner crossing that day.

The big lessons for me on this trip:
  • If road conditions are not what is expected, turn back. Don't convince yourself that its worth the stress to save time, as you'll likely not save time regardless.
  • Rent and bring a satellite phone if traveling solo. Its worth the expense to avoid having to walk huge distances in adverse conditions.
  • Don't walk on an unknown path unless there is very high confidence that its a more efficient route than where you came from. Walking north from the truck, instead of south definitely cost me more time (both walking and driving), and money (I was much further away from the truck, and had to pay a lot more to get rescued as a result).
Its unlikely that I'll self drive in Mozambique ever again. Its just too damn hard, and even with the lessons that I learned, its not worth the aggravation dealing with their awful roads. I'd like to give Malawi another try, as I regret missing out on so much of the planned itinerary, and it seemed to be a genuinely beautiful country with friendly people, and relatively decent infrastructure. Zambia was nice, but this was my second time there, and I don't feel like there's much that I've missed overall at this point.

If you want to read even more about this trip, I've got an even more detailed trip report posted here.
Craig6z, pjs, SanDiego1K and 56 others like this.
netllama is offline  
Old Jul 23, 2022, 11:21 pm
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That was quite an adventure! While sorry for your troubles, I enjoyed the report!
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Old Jul 23, 2022, 11:33 pm
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Originally Posted by lamphs
That was quite an adventure! While sorry for your troubles, I enjoyed the report!
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Old Jul 24, 2022, 12:40 am
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Wow. Great TR and ordeal. Lucky that an animal didn’t eat you when you slept near the broken bridge. Zero idea how you did it.

i think you recently did a TR to Iraq or Afghanistan or somewhere that I thought was dangerous. I’m glad you’re writing these TRs!!
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Old Jul 24, 2022, 12:45 am
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Originally Posted by gaobest
Wow. Great TR and ordeal. Lucky that an animal didnt eat you when you slept near the broken bridge. Zero idea how you did it.
Thanks. Yea, there are many ways that the entire experience could have ended with a far worse outcome. In a perverse way, I was lucky that I only lost time and money.

Originally Posted by gaobest
i think you recently did a TR to Iraq or Afghanistan or somewhere that I thought was dangerous. Im glad youre writing these TRs!!
Yes, I've also been to both Iraq & Afghanistan in 2021. I (mostly) travel to the parts of the world that don't get much tourism.
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Old Jul 24, 2022, 2:09 am
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Wow Once I started reading this, of course I could not stop - must have been a pretty terrifying experience! Thank you for sharing your experience - made for an interesting read for sure!

And of course, I am glad you got out of it in one piece!
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Old Jul 24, 2022, 2:27 am
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Originally Posted by SKT-DK
Wow Once I started reading this, of course I could not stop - must have been a pretty terrifying experience! Thank you for sharing your experience - made for an interesting read for sure!

And of course, I am glad you got out of it in one piece!
Thanks. Some parts were terrifying, others were exhausting & frustrating.
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Old Jul 24, 2022, 6:43 am
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I'll never complain again about not getting a second portion of caviar or JAL running out of Salon!

What an amazing report! Thank you!
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Old Jul 24, 2022, 7:55 am
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Thanks for sharing. Amazing that you kept your composure and were able to get yourself through it. It's amazing how much Google Maps / GPS will give routings that aren't really appropriate. Google Maps once sent me down a dry river bed in the Arizona desert trying to get to Lake Havasu City, and I was just in a front-wheel drive Pontiac mid-size car. Luckily, when almost getting stuck in deep sand, I figured out to turn around and head back to the interstates.

On the other hand, you got to have some amazing experiences with the locals, things that no other traveller or tourist, no matter how authentic the "tour experience" is, will get to have.

Enjoy reading your reports.
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Old Jul 24, 2022, 7:58 am
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Somebody needs to build this as a travel documentary with overlay fades of these road images to the images of the premiere plane service on Qatar that got you here in the first place.

I bet that will sell a lot a vacations by plane
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Old Jul 24, 2022, 8:44 am
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This sounds incredible. While I can't imagine doing all that without at least a satellite phone, it's impressive you seemed to keep your cool and find solutions to your problems eventually. Seems like the tricky spots you encountered are all part of a crazy adventure like this road trip!
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Old Jul 24, 2022, 9:04 am
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At least you didn't run into the muslim terrorists in northern Mozambique. It's a war zone.
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Old Jul 24, 2022, 10:05 am
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What a fascinating report. I'm impressed that you got yourself out. What an ordeal. hauteboy B747-437B
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Last edited by SanDiego1K; Jul 24, 2022 at 10:14 am
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Old Jul 24, 2022, 10:41 am
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We should have a special trip report section for "Kamikaze travel" where people do things which on the face of it would seem likely to have a high chance of having fatal consequences. Next up: Christian missionary duties in Pyongyang and bush meat BBQ in the Congo.
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Old Jul 24, 2022, 10:55 am
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Originally Posted by MikeFly
I'll never complain again about not getting a second portion of caviar or JAL running out of Salon!

What an amazing report! Thank you!
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