The Great Trek
(South to East Africa in a Toyota 4Runner)
GB 2 ZW: Great Britain to Zimbabwe: my original Trans-African Expedition.
Engine: 3.0 Litre Turbo Diesel
Price: GBP 5000
CC: 2982 cc
BHP: 123 bhp
Year of Manufacture:1994
Actual GVM: 2900kg (!)
We decided to quit our jobs in the UK and try out the new South Africa, but after 6 months of “running the gauntlet” on Johannesburg’s roads and constantly jockeying for position with gun-toting Combi’s (informal mini-bus taxis that run all over Southern Africa and are predominantly used by the working classes) and Mercs (formal ministerial taxis that run all over Southern Africa and are predominantly used by the corrupt elite!) we decided we’d have better luck fighting off Kenya’s matatus (informal mini-bus taxis etc, etc but this time East Africa and they are much, much worse drivers than their southern cousins but at least they won’t shoot you if you honk them for cutting you up!) instead! Leaving the “rainbow nation”, our first destination was Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. Here dropped we dropped off a trailer full of household goods and spent a month at “preparing” before we harnessed our oxen, packed our wagon and set out to follow the “Great North Road” on the next part of our “Great Trek”.
Our “team of oxen” is actually a 2nd Generation Toyota 4Runner that we shipped out from the UK when we emigrated to SA. (It was a mission to get the vehicle shipped to Africa, let alone to get it into South Africa, in one piece and with nothing missing and to do it all duty free, but that is another story!) The 4Runner is the UK version of the Japanese produced Hilux Surf and they share the same running gear and many of the same body components. The main area of difference though is the engine: UK 4Runners are equipped with either the 3.0L Turbo Diesel or the, rather tardy, 3.0L petrol engine.
Our truck came with the 3.0 Turbo Diesel non-ECU, 1KZ-T, unit, a beast of an engine with tons of low down torque but with a propensity for overheating. After splitting my first cylinder head in the clay pits of England, and thereafter paying for a very expensive recovery and repair, I decided that in order to get the cooling I wanted that I’d have to enlarge the radiator. The original radiator is a tall 3 core unit and so I had this rebuilt but this time with 5 cores. These extra cores increased the depth of the radiator and so it no longer fitted in the gap left by the old one. The engine bay could not be enlarged and so I had to start looking for something to “loose” in order to gain the extra depth I needed. The radiator fan is connected to the drive shaft by a viscous coupling unit and by removing this I could gain the 2 inches clearance I needed. So we “lost” the viscous coupling and, after we had a new flange fabricated, we squeezed the new radiator in. This does mean that the fan now turns all the time – it is now “hard wired” as the Yanks say – and this means that there is a lot more engine noise and the fuel consumption has gone up marginally, but otherwise all the benefits are all positive.
Before we left the UK I decided to change some of the original equipment (OE) parts. I started by upgrading the lacklustre Toyota suspension with a heavy duty Old Man Emu (OME) set-up: HD springs, Nitro-Charger gas shock absorbers and a steering damper. Next was the addition of a Safari snorkel, which raised the air intake to roof level, and the extension of standard diff and gear box “breathers” to the same height. The 4Runner comes with twin batteries but these are run in parallel as they are used for starting purposes. By separating the two batteries, re-routing the cabling and through the simple addition of a solenoid split charge relay, the first battery became my starting battery and the second became my accessories battery. This accessories battery is hard wired (!) to my two 800 series IPF spotlights mounted on the roof – these are essential for night driving in Africa,(I know, I know, everyone advises against night driving in Africa but come on, who do you know anyone who voluntarily grounds themselves from 6pm to 6am every day?). I also added two internal 12v sockets for permanent connection to the accessories battery, these supply constant power to the GPS (an old Garmin III Plus mounted on a suction RAM mount) in the front and provide for a 12v fridge in the rear. I am also looking to install a third socket in the rear for my 12v drill, compressor and external neon lighting.
Other important additions were a “swing-out spare wheel carrier”, an ARB winch bullbar (one day I’ll be able to afford a winch – I hope!) and a roofrack. As the 2nd Gen 4Runner does not come with any provision any length of roof rack, I simply fabricated one out of a combination of Thule roof bars and 12mm marine ply, which gives me a huge platform (1.2 x 2.2 m) on which to mount my rooftent and to store empty jerrycans etc.
In order to gain more a little more clearance, to “Africanise” my wheel set-up, (and not just because I’d seen it in Chris Scott’s great book on expedition preparation: Sahara Overland!), I changed the original 265/70 tyres on OE 15 inch alloys for 750/16 Michelin XZL tyres on 16 inch LandCruiser steel split rims. I’m glad I did as I find that the majority of “professional” photographic & hunting safari outfits in Southern and Eastern Africa use Toyota LandCruisers and these are all equipped, as standard, with steel split rims and so replacements are generally available and easily sourced. Split rim wheels are also easily repaired, either in town by a so called “professional” (I use the term loosely) or, more importantly, in the bush by you. Having two spare tyres is also another pre-requisite of any long distance road journey – the chance of having two punctures in one day are slim but not unheard of - so rather than let it ruin your day by putting my “easily repaired” claim to the test, take a second spare.
Now I’ve tried many tyres (Pirelli, Dunlop, BFGoodrich etc) and all these seem quite adequate for the urban-bundubashers out there, but if you’re looking for a tough and effective expedition tyre, the best is the Michelin XZL as used by the British Army the world over. The only tyre I would choose over the XZL is the XZY, another tyre from Michelin but this is a 12 ply road tyre rather than a 10 ply off road one.
Due to the expense of dealer servicing in SA and the good condition of the roads between South Africa and Zimbabwe, I only did an oil and coolant service in Jo’burg. We were covered by the AA in South Africa (They do a really fabulous service in and around Jo’burg but we never had need to call upon them once we started on our journey so can’t comment on their service outside town) and Beitbridge is only 350km from Bulawayo, and so I thought we’d risk it.
The Johannesburg (South Africa) to Bulawayo (Zimbabwe) road is a long dull stretch of tarmac and the tedium is only relieved by the South African Highway Police. These worthies are obviously underpaid, under-worked and very corrupt as they litter the route north with their speed traps. They lay in wait for unwary motorists, one armed with the radar gun, and the rest asleep under a nearby tree, until some bored motorist blunders into their “field of fire”. Once you’ve been “caught”, you’ll be “invited” to join the police officer, at his car to “discuss” the problem. You’ll quickly find out that you can avoid the 200 Rand (approx. GBP20) fine (per offence!) if you buy him lunch. This lunch usually costs around R50, which isn’t too bad, but after the second or third time you get stopped, you start to develop the eyes of an eagle as you squint into the sun, searching out the untidy pile of recumbent figures under a tree, who if you’re lucky, are usually given away by the sun glinting off the piles of discarded Coke bottles that surround them!
The only other break in the tedium is the actual Beitbridge Border post, but saying it is a “break” in the tedium is rather a misnomer as the Zimbabwean side of the Limpopo River is an agonising combination of shitty toilets (and I do literally mean shitty), arrogant officials and long winded, tedious form filling. Once all these forms have been filled in, you need to fight your way to the top of one of the nebulous queues and then beg, bluster or bribe your way into the country! It can literally take forever and I mean this seriously as our longest wait at the Zimbabwean side of the Beitbridge Border Post was over 10 and a half hours long! Compare this to the 20 to 30 minutes one spends on the South African side and you can appreciate my deep, and not so subtle, loathing of the place.
Beitbridge, which like many other border towns is full of long distance trucks, whores, flies and the obligatory pack of mangy curs – sorry, I mean money changers and other dubious “fixers”, then it is a straight run through to Bulawayo. My only advice here is: “Do what I say and not what I do”, and don’t drive at night! The road passes through some of the driest and poorest areas of Zimbabwe, but none the less, there are hundreds of bloody goats, scrawny cattle and, at night, wildlife such as warthog and impala to look out for.
At home in Bulawayo
Once I got to Bulawayo it became critical that I put my vehicle through a much more vigorous service. I took the truck round to my local Toyota dealers and asked them to change ALL the oils, fluids & filters as well renewing both fan belts and the front break pads. Here we discovered a problem: the retaining pins holding the brake pads in were corroded and jammed solid (we obviously forded one too many rivers!) requiring them to be drilled out and new pins to be fabricated, but once this was completed we were ready to depart.
Dawn start from our home in the bush!
We fuelled and re-packed (To be honest we OVERPACKED the car! When we put the truck on an axle-weigh bridge we found that it weighed in at 2900kgs! 400kgs over the GVM) the car the evening before our departure and we planned to leave at first light the next day. Of course first light came and went and after breakfast at Haefelli’s we departed later than originally planned (partly due to the fact that I had to wait for the Pharmacy to open as I was swiftly coming down with Tonsillitis!) but we hoped to make up time on the good road up to Victoria Falls. The day was hotter than expected and so we stopped to refuel, both passengers and , at The Halfway House before carrying on to Victoria Falls.
Arriving at the Falls we were originally going to stay at the Municipal Campsite however we decided to push on and spend the night in Livingstone. We quickly saw a doctor about my tonsillitis and then quickly crossed the bridge over the mighty Zambezi River and would have crossed the Zambian border equally as quickly if it wasn’t for my wife trying to re-negotiate the price of our visas with a very tough Zambian Immigration Officer!
We had been led to believe that the name “Jollyboys” was like a magic wand, the waving of which would make the visa fee miraculously disappear. You can imagine our shock when they pulled out a “Jollyboys booking form” which showed the names of the people who had booked there, together with their passport numbers. It seems our friends forgot to mention the fact that we actually needed to book 24hrs in advance to allow them to send our details to the border post. If we had then we could have avoided paying the US$ 65 per person visa fee (for British Citizens) which is waived for visitors pre-booked into Zambian establishments.
My wife, Thoko, and our packing from the front…
…and from the back. White reflectors are required by law on the front, yellow on the sides and red on the back.
Eventually we paid up (though we did get a discount: 2 for 1 as my daughter was included on my visa) and checked into Jollyboys, which is a very clean and tidy backpackers lodge situated behind the Livingstone Museum. This lodge primarily caters to the young backpacking fraternity but we also met a couple of other couples overlanding in their vehicles. One small problem: whilst reversing out the next day we were hit by a bakkie driving in. A genuine 50:50 error but the irate driver (who bore more than a passing resemblance to the “Little Britain’s” Vicky Pollard character) wouldn’t accept co-blame and she had the time to spare to argue about it but we didn’t, so we couldn’t visit the Police and file a proper report for our 3rd party insurance, so we gave her more than enough US dollars to cover the “damage” and promptly set off for Lusaka.
We passed a fuel station in Zimba and so stopped to fill up. Some chaps popped out of the station and said there was no fuel in the pumps but that they had some “round the back” that we could buy. We asked were the next fuel station was and these rogues told us there were no filling stations between Livingstone and Lusaka and as we were not willing to retrace our steps we decided to buy some fuel from these “gentlemen”. As we should have expected, 50kms down the road was a filling station! The fuel we had been sold was cheaper than the official rate but we think that’s because it is siphoned from vehicles that have filled up in Zimbabwe (where the fuel is very cheap: 40 US cents a litre, the cheapest fuel on our trip) before starting their long trip through Zambia.
Sundown on the TamZam Highway
So we were now on the “Tamzam Highway” that crosses Zambia and Tanzania and terminates in Kenya. Although we had been warned that the roads in Zambia were in pretty bad condition this was only apparent in the towns were presumably the roads are maintained (badly) by the town council as opposed to the national roads which are the responsibility of central government, otherwise the roads were in excellent condition. Entering any town or urban area is preceded by a series of road humps or “sleeping policemen”; these are at times large single humps or a series of small bone shaking mini-humps that ensure that you slow down to near crawling speed. Many cars race over these humps but they were primarily the “Matatus” and private vehicles with “soft” suspension set-ups: soft suspensions ensure the passengers’ comfortable ride but it is the vehicle that takes the beating and this careless driving shows itself in cracked chassis mounts and higher maintenance costs.
The road itself is lined with people selling both fuel and food. Fuel is sold in ubiquitous yellow containers whereas the food ranges from dried fish to a haunch of venison (Waterbuck usually) and live animals. The chickens held up by one leg weren’t too bad but what was a little disconcerting where the “hamster-like” little Mole Rats dangling by one leg and obviously being touted as “fresh meat” although I doubt if there is much meat on a Mole Rat to make a decent sandwich let alone feed a family of four! I tried to take a picture of one group of “salesmen” and was nearly lynched in the process as I refused to pay for the photograph and only just managed to make it back to the car with my honour intact but, sadly, minus any photos.
What impressed me most was what a gloriously green country Zambia was.
Before pulling into Lusaka we saw a large snake on the road and so pulled over to take a closer look. It turned out to be a large (nearly 2m) Black Mamba that had been run over by a truck (there was a lot of damage done to the carcase). On getting back into the car we noticed that we had a flat and so pulled further off the road to change it. It was on the near side rear and whilst jacking off the tow hitch (using a Hi-Lift) the vehicle slipped further into the bush and so I had to use the OE bottle jack that came with the car. Luckily Toyota provides a decent jack with the 4Runner and you can even use it with the LandCruiser 16” tyres I have retro-fitted.
As we entered Lusaka we saw a tyre repair shop and so dropped off the flat tyre. After getting the tyre off the rim, we discovered the tube was burst rather than punctured, split right across the middle - it must have been a pothole impact that caused the puncture, so how it held together until we stopped is a mystery to me.
In Lusaka we stayed at Lui Holiday Homes as everywhere else was full to capacity and ate at the Lusaka Holiday Inn. The Holiday Inn buffet was great and we all attempted to make pigs of ourselves, I nearly fainted from a protein overdose and my wife ate half-a-dozen quail before I could convince her that eating such tiny game birds smacked of colonialism and the “Happy Valley” set. My daughter Jasmine managed to wangle herself a free dinner by telling the head waitress that: “She should try modelling as she was so beautiful!” The flattery is strong in this one.
On the road both to and from Lusaka there are a great many Police checkpoints, all they are interested in though is the COMESA yellow card insurance and at no point were we asked for a bribe. However, one policeman in Zambia did ask if we had any magazines or newspapers to read as he was bored and so we have made it a point to always take a few old magazines on our future trips.
Leaving Lusaka we travelled North and were supposed to bear East at Kapiri Mposhi but, as my navigator was asleep at the time, I missed the turn. It wasn’t until we passed a sign saying “Welcome to the Copper Belt” that we realised my mistake and so we had to quickly double back on our route as we didn’t fancy our chances with some AK47 toting DRC rebels! If I had kept an eye on the GPS I would have noticed but I had changed it to the numerical display page: mileage etc, and didn’t notice us going off course until I saw the sign post!
Tip: Use a mutton cloth hood that protects the GPS both from prying eyes and the sun.
Once we got back on track we travelled East to Mpika: a dusty little town with a serious lack of hotels. After looking at several sleazy cockroach infested dives we decided to stay at the Mazingo Hotel which looked like a cross between a 50’s Butlins Holiday Camp and a concentration camp! Hot water comes via bucket on request but the mosquitoes and mildew come ensuite!
From Mpika we travelled to Mbeya. Halfway between Mbeya and Iringa we had our second puncture and then pulled into a dusty tyre repair place in Makambako. Now I’ve always practised strict cleanliness when fixing a puncture and reassembling the spare but these guys work in the dust and dirt and include a handful of it free with every puncture repair they do.
The Mpika / Mbeya road is another hot and dusty trip especially the latter stages up to the Tunduma border post. Here the touts and “Mr. Fixits” swarm around the car like flies and even run alongside the vehicle hassling you and trying to convince you to use their dubious services. Here we parked opposite the Custom’s building and I stayed guarding the car whilst my wife went inside to sort out the paperwork. Previously we have heard that this border was quite problematic but as long as you avoid the touts and have all the right paperwork (including photocopies of your Car registration, Police Clearance and Passport) then the place is quite straight forward and we even got a Temporary Import Permit for free . We were warned by the AA in Zimbabwe that Tanzania was now a signatory to some legislation which compelled them to request carnets from motorists but were pleased to note that this wasn’t being enforced at the time. There is no telling what the situation will be in the near future so don’t take chances.. Remember that Tunduma is on the Datum Line and so the office closes at 5.00 on the Zambian side, which is 6.00 on the Tanzanian side. Again the COMESA yellow card insurance is very handy as proof of insurance and is required at every Police checkpoint.
From Tunduma we drove to Mbeya where we spent the night at the gloomy Livingstone Hotel. A clean but basic hotel, with 70’s style decor, that gave the distinct impression of having many more staff than guests!
We left Mbeya early the next morning and paused at Iringa, from here the Road runs either north towards Dodoma or east towards Dar Es Salaam.We decided to take the road toards Morogoro, as the road to Dodoma is meant to be very nearly impassable and frequented by bandits. This road runs, for 50km, through the Mikumi National Park and so this creates an unusual hazard for drivers. Speeding vehicles (and especially trucks) have caused a significant number of animal road kills including 7 elephant! To halt this carnage the road has been studded with speed bumps which ensure that you drive slowly and safely through the park. All in all it was another long drive from Mbeya to Morogoro (700km in total) where we stayed at the excellent New Acropol Hotel run by two accommodating Canadian ladies. To get there though we had to pass through a bit of a seedy area (looked a bit like Beirut on a bad day) and were warned not even to stop to ask for directions. Carrying on towards the way to the coast we turned north at Chalinze and then drove up to Moshi.
Mountains in the distance
At this point Id like to say this: The road is tarmac all the way from Zimbabwe to the Kenyan border and it is in really good condition in comparison to Kenya’s potholed village tracks. The only problem is the huge commercial trucks plying these roads, especially at night. Now these vehicles genuinely “hog” the roads, driving at break neck speed and with a real lack of care and consideration for other road users. As I said earlier, we are always warned not to drive on Africa’s roads at night due to the poor standards of driving and the poor standards of maintenance (both vehicle and road) but because of our self imposed deadlines, I had to make up a great deal of distance between the hours of dusk and midnight. Many of these truck drivers are unaffected by a normal car’s high beams and so do not respond to our requests to dip their very bright lights. This is where my IPF spotlights on the roof rack came into play, they are of a height and intensity to actually bother these arrogant fellows and they do dip their lights when I flash them with these. When the road is empty these spotlights also come into their own as they light up the road many hundreds of meters ahead and give one a long distance warning of any problems that would not normally be seen until it was almost too late.
Kilimanjaro from the hotel
So, having safely arrived in Moshi, we settled down at the very comfortable Bristol Cottages. Moshi is one of the basecamps for the ascent on Kilimanjaro and from here we drove to Arusha and then North, through Maasai territory, to Namanga Border Post and that’s where we finally got stuck! After driving all the way from South Africa without a “Carnet du Passage” we were finally forced to get one when the Kenyan Customs Authority refused to let our car in without one. We argued and we protested and we begged and we pleaded but they were not to be swayed. Finally we gave in, locked up our truck and put it into Customs Departments’ gentle care, and hopped into a Matatu bound for Nairobi.
This was the most dangerous and stressful part of our journey, but we arrived safely and finally organised our insurance Surety and Carnet through the Kenyan AA. Once we had this document, we hired a car to take us back down to Namanga (we weren’t going to chance a Matatu a second time that would have been really pushing our luck!) and picked up our truck so that we could complete our “Great Trek” by driving the final 200kms back to Nairobi.
This was my first “big” road trip with the whole family and I am pleased to say that both my daughter and wife gave a good account of themselves. Not once did I hear a “Are we there yet?” or an “I’m bored!”, although I will have to offer more than just vocal encouragement the next time I try to get my 7 year old daughter to go to toilet armed only with a shovel and a roll of toilet paper to fend off the many venomous snakes and incredible leaping insects that she imagines inhabit the bundu!
My “loony” daughter preparing to venture out into the bush!
In conclusion our trek of nearly 5000km cost:
Tolls : US $5
Fuel : US $415
Evening Meals : US $110
Medical : US $140
Service : US $300
Visas : US $385
Carnet du Passage : US $400
Insurance guarantee : US $351
Matatu : US $53
Hire vehicle : US $80
Accommodation : US $231