Part of any good trip is planning. And part of any good planning is asking those who know. Thusly motivated, I have been trying to contact and ask (occasionally naive) questions of anyone who has done a fair amount of traveling through the African outback. By far and away, the most experienced African explorer that I have spoken to was Ockie Muller, who – together with his wife May – spent nearly a year traversing Africa in a converted Unimog. It was an inspirational undertaking, covering almost every country on the East African coast and many more besides.
They have painstakingly recounted their journey on their website www.african-dream.co.za and have even gone so far as to record actual average day rates and expenses in the various countries they traveled through – making their site a goldmine of cost and experience-related information for anyone thinking of exploring the East African coast. Ockie, who now works as an expat in Nigeria, was kind enough to give up his time to answer my questions about his trip and advice for my own, which follow below for anyone who might be planning a similar journey or who would love to simply take a moment to live vicariously through their memories.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourselves?
Ockie: “I was born on a crisp snow white morning on 30 April 1956 in the Karoo town of Sutherland in the Roggeveld region of South Africa. I grew up on our family farm Phisantrivier; attended the local primary school in town, and completed my school education at Paarl Boys High in the Boland town of Paarl. I completed my Civil Engineering degree at the University of Stellenbosch in 1979. After my compulsory two years of military service in the Air Force, I started working with Africon Engineering International as a Supervising Resident Engineer on construction sites across South Africa. Since 1993 until late 2003 I worked and lived full-time in Mozambique, involved with various road rehabilitation projects all over Mozambique. The ruggedness and remoteness of the construction sites in Mozambique kept my dream alive of one day exploring the Continent of Africa.”
May: “I was born on 25 September 1968 in the town Humansdorp in the Eastern Cape Region of South Africa. At that time my parents were living on a farm close to the little town called Misgund in the Langkloof area. When I was 7 years old, my parents moved to Grabouw, where I grew up on an apple farm in Grabouw and completed my school education in Grabouw at the local school (Grabouw High School). After school, I completed my secretarial diploma at the Stellenbosch Technicon during 1987 after which I started my working career. In 1993 I started working for Africon Engineering International – in 1994 I moved to Maputo (Mozambique) where I was involved in assisting with the opening of an office for Africon Engineering. Ockie & myself got married in February 2000. I automatically became part of Ockie’s “African Dream”, and I have never been disappointed! Ockie and the “African Dream” have become a very special part of my life!”
We managed to obtain an old ex military armoured troop carrier based on a Mercedes Benz Unimog chassis during November 1999. At the beginning of 2000 we stripped it completely, and only utilised the chassis, engine, gearbox, front and rear differentials.
After a long search we finally found someone that was prepared to custom built a motorhome according to our specifications. During the next 2 – 3 years our dream-home took shape in the workshop of Mobile Lifestyles (+27 12 3352021) – the owner: Fredrick Potgieter. The maiden voyage to test our vehicle was undertaken during June/July 2003 on a 4 week trip through Namibia.
We had further alterations/modifications made on our return by both Mobile Lifestyles and Steelite (+27 12 3357317) – the owner: Jan Bernadel.
Our vehicle was finally ready at the end of May 2004.
In your own words, what motivated you to undertake the trip you did?
- I had a dream from very young to see the Assekrem Pass in the Sahara in Algeria – originated from a photograph in a magazine regarding the Paris to Dakar rally – I finally managed to drive up the Assekrem Pass & stayed over at the Sanctuary on top of it during the Sahara-crossing trip from Tunis to Lagos in 2007 – it was well worth it !!
- We were curious about Africa beyond the well-known Southern Africa region (gorillas, river Nile, Ethiopia’s strange tribes, rain forests, strange animals & birds)
- We have a continuous urge to explore the unknown
- We enjoy the outdoors & wildlife
- We enjoy being in control of our own destiny without too many rules & constraints
How was your experience of Africa different from any initial ideas you had about the continent?
- Africa poses very low security risks as long as you act sensible
- Border posts beyond Southern Africa are easy to cross
- Africa’s people are extremely friendly
- Africans do not realize that there are a large number of white persons living in RSA & that these white persons have been born there for a number of generations already – people especially ignorant northwards of Nairobi – we were also asked many times why we did not return to Europe with “all the other white people” when Mandela became President
- Africa is in general many more years behind the rest of the world as generally realised as far as development is concerned
- Africa is being exploited by a small number of Africans (politicians) that are connected to outside firms & governments.
- Africa could be “heaven-on-earth” if the relevant leaders would put the interests of their peoples 1st – resources & wealth is abundant & needs to be directed in the right direction: health, education, infrastructure development
- Ethiopia does not consist of mainly desert areas – the Rift Valley is extremely beautiful in Ethiopia
Which were your favourite and least favourite countries to travel through?
- Most favourite: Uganda (fantastic nature) with close 2nd Sudan (fantastic friendly people & beautiful Sahara scenery & ancient structures – pyramids, buildings, etc.) & Ethiopia (amazing scenery & interesting tribes – whole country seems like being back in the Old Testament of the Bible)
- Least favourite: Botswana (unfriendly people) & Rwanda (arrogant attitude & feeling of being unwelcome – racism very strong)
Do you have any particular memories of the trip which make you laugh or feel saddened?
- Happy: Africans in general living in harmony with Nature
- Laugh: Numerous incidents of almost “child-like” beliefs of normal rural Africans
- Sad: Exploitation of uneducated masses of Africans by minority in power; degradation of Nature & Resources by this same minority in their greed for self-enrichment
- Sad: Mass tourism missing out on the real Africa (especially Kenya’s more well-known Parks & Serengeti in Tanzania are being swamped by mini buses racing from one “kill” to another with cameras flashing left, right & center……)
- Sad: Initiation rituals that scar people (especially women – circumcision) for life
- Sad: Experiencing the Genocide Memorial in Rwanda
- Sad: Mass “Fly-in & Fly-out” tourists handing out throwing sweets, T shirts, etc to Africans while driving past at high speed – seems degrading to the Africans scampering around & fighting for these “gifts”
- Sad: Africans becoming a nation of pathetic Beggars due to free hand-outs, soft loans & grants, etc from so-called “Humanitarian” NGO groups & organizations – really a HUGE problem !!
Do you think that the perceived danger of travelling rough through Africa is overstated?
- Africa is very safe as long as you remain in harmony with the circumstances around you & do not act stupid
- Perception of security risks is definitely unfounded & overstated
- Important to take special care with eating, etc in order to maintain good health
What advice would you have for others hoping to travel up through Africa – and up the east coast in particular?
- Switch off your watch & calendar, spend more time than planned in the places that you enjoy – realize that you might never get there again…
- Relax & accept that Africa has its own pace
- Do not even try to arrange fixed appointments ahead of time
- Ensure that you have more than enough time available for your trip; plan your itinerary & then add at least one third more time
- Do not miss Uganda