Is now a good time to travel Zimbabwe?

Travellers who have been to magical places like Mana Pools, Gonarezhou and Kariba will always return to Zimbabwe. However, currently there is uncertainty about what to expect from the numerous police roadblocks and the cash crisis in the country.

The magic of Mana Pools.
The magic of Mana Pools.

Zimbabwe, with its political turmoil of many years, is still facing a huge economic crisis and has become expensive if you don’t come from a dollar based economy. Due to these factors the once flourishing tourist industry of Zimbabwe has dwindled to add just a few drops in the state revenue bucket.

In spite of all the negative factors, we are some of those Zim lovers who will always return, no matter what. Shortly before our visit at end August 2016, we were quite concerned about the cash crisis and reports of harassment by the Zim traffic police. However, I am glad to report that we enjoyed Zim as much as ever, even though it was sad to see the decline in the overall state of this magnificent country.

We opted to travel through the Kruger NP, exit South Africa in the north of the park at Pafuri and drive 61km on the backroads of Mozambique to enter Zimbabwe at the small but efficient Sango border post. We chose this route as we wanted to bypass the notorious Beitbridge entry point and also because we had heard that the traffic police roadblocks were particularly bad on the Beitbridge – Harare main road.

For us this turned out to be a wise and very pleasant option as we really enjoyed Kruger NP and found the short Mozambique stretch very interesting. I would advise against doing this route during or shortly after the rainy season as you have to drive across both the Limpopo and Nuanetsi River beds.  We had an easy border crossing at Sango and thoroughly enjoyed the magical ambiance of Mabalauta camp in the south of Gonarezhou NP before we continued north. The friendly immigration officer at Sango informed us that this quiet border post only gets about six vehicles per day during the peak season! The Australian passport holders in our party managed to obtain Zimbabwean visas at this small post.

Caming at Mabalauta in Gonarezhou.
Camping at Mabalauta in Gonarezhou.

Current cash situation

The Zimbabwean dollar was abandoned as the official currency in 2009 in favour of the American dollar. Bond coins have been in use for some time now and are used for giving change of less than one dollar, but seem to be regarded as a bit of a joke by most local people. The Zimbabwe Reserve Bank reputedly plans to release bond notes in October this year, but nobody we spoke to was happy about it as they don’t have any trust in a local currency after the collapse of the Zimbabwean dollar. It remains to be seen if government will indeed print the bond notes.

At the moment there is a shortage of US dollars and banks have limited the amount of cash that can be withdrawn per day. For this reason the South African rand is accepted everywhere (except by informal stall holders) even though you might not always get the most favourable exchange rate. It is possible to pay by credit card in most formal stores.

Travellers would be wise to bring sufficient cash (US dollars or SA rand) for the holiday expenses that they cannot pay by credit card. Currently there is no restriction on the importation of currency in Zimbabwe, however, keep in mind that you have to declare an excess of USD 1 000, Euro 1 000 or ZAR 20 000 when you enter or exit the country.

Take enough one dollar notes with you, as most consumables in Zimbabwe (from a pen to a loaf of bread!) nowadays cost one dollar.

The shops in Zimbabwe are well-stocked but anything more than the basics is more expensive than in South Africa. Fuel is readily available (although you don’t always get 50ppm diesel) but it is also more expensive than in SA.

Current police roadblock situation

During our visit people in Harare protested as they were sick and tired of the constant traffic fines. Apparently they could not leave their homes for work, school or shopping without getting a daily 20 dollar fine!

According to hearsay the police officers had not been paid for the last six months; hence their concentration on road blocks and fining citizens and tourists alike for even the slightest offence.  This week the Finance Minister of Zimbabwe admitted publicly that government is battling to pay civil servants.

Shortly before our arrival it was reported on Facebook that there was a huge improvement on road blocks between Harare and Bulawayo, and Bulawayo and Vic Falls. People were mostly waved through at roadblocks and no lengthy harassment was reported on these roads.

We did not traverse any of these routes, but we travelled on the main road from Masvingo to Bulawayo and on to Plumtree and did indeed encounter many police roadblocks.

Our route through Zimbabwe.
Our route through Zimbabwe.

At one road block a police officer threatened to fine us USD 5 per log for the firewood that we carried on our roofrack. According to him we needed to show a receipt or a permit for the wood as chopping trees for firewood was, according to him, not allowed in Zimbabwe. As we had bought the wood from the roadside we didn’t have either a receipt or a permit and the officer would not accept our assurance that we did not cut the firewood.

We knew that the police were just out to fine us, so we refused to pay and did not offer a bribe either, offering instead to be arrested and charged.  When Pete, my travel partner, indicated that they would have to jail him for the ‘offence’ the officer let us go with a warning to take note of our ‘offence’ for future reference.

Other than this incident between Masvingo and Bulawayo, we were waved through six more road blocks on this stretch and at one stop asked for the vehicle’s Temporary Import Permit (TIP) and Pete’s driver’s license. Between Bulawayo and Plumtree we were stopped once and were just greeted and waved through by the friendly police officers.

In spite of us reading up on all vehicle requirements and doing our best to adhere to them all, our vehicle wasn’t checked once. Even our homemade front number plate (which we made whilst staying over in the Save Conservancy since we lost ours in Kruger NP) passed the test!

Current legal vehicle requirements:

  • You must carry a driver’s license at all times. Domestic driver licenses issued in Malawi, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland are valid in Zimbabwe. All other visitors must have an international driver’s license.
  • Foreigners should always carry a passport.
  • All foreign registered vehicles require a Temporary Import Permit (TIP) which can be obtained free of charge from the customs official at the border post.
  • It is required to have two warning triangles (plus two more if you tow a trailer or caravan), a 1 kg serviceable fire extinguisher, serviceable spare wheel, working jack and wheel spanner.
  • All foreign registered vehicles must display their international license plate country code (bold block letters in uppercase on a small white oval plate or sticker) near the number plate on the rear of the vehicle.
  • It is required to have tape reflectors on each corner of the vehicle: white on the front and red at the rear.
  • Trailers and caravans must display reflective T-signs on a black background: a white T-sign must be placed on the extreme right on the front of the trailer/caravan whilst two red T-signs must be placed on each side of the rear of the trailer/caravan.
  • If the combined length of your vehicle and trailer is more than 8m, you must have a continuous yellow reflector strip down the sides of both the vehicle and the trailer.
  • Pick-ups, twin cabs and light trailers must have a continuous red reflector strip to within not less than 40cm of the outer edges at the rear.
  • Pick-ups and twin cabs are classified as commercial vehicles and must therefore display Gross Vehicular Mass (GVM) and Nett Vehicular Mass (NVM) figures on the left side.
  • Note that all reflectors must be of honeycomb or diamond grade.
  • A reflective emergency jacket is recommended.
  • In addition to headlamps vehicles are not allowed to have more than two pass-lamps, fog-lamps or spotlights.
  • Your vehicle’s number plates, windscreen, headlights or the driver’s window may not be obscured by mud or dust. A windscreen with a crack that obscures clear vision is also illegal.

 

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Kruger NP south to north and beyond…

We did the last of our last shopping in Malelane, a town with good facilities, before we entered Kruger at Crocodile Bridge in the south-east of the park. We were heading for Pafuri in the far north of the park and opted to stay at smaller rustic camps where possible.

Our first stop, Crocodile Bridge Restcamp, is a quaint, well-shaded medium-sized camp with excellent facilities. It offers camping with neat ablutions and lodging in pre-erected tents or self-catering rondavels. Facilities include a fuel station, well-stocked shop, ATM, coffee shop and indigenous nursery.

Warthog foraging for something edible in elephant dung.
Warthog foraging for something edible in elephant dung.

Heading north on the main road we had a coffee stop at Nkumbe viewpoint, situated on top of a koppie overlooking the Nkelenga River and faraway plains.

A beautiful Kudu bull.
A beautiful Kudu bull.
Impala with soft doe eyes.
Impala with soft doe eyes.

Tshokwane would be a good lunch stop as this popular, well-shaded picnic site also has toilets. However, as we had shortly before had a coffee stop, we opted to pull in under one of the majestic trees at Satara Restcamp and make lunch. Travellers who like eating out would enjoy lunching at the Mug & Bean or Debonairs Pizza restaurant. Satara is one of the main camps of the park and has a full range of facilities.

Driving north we experienced beautiful animal sightings; the two most special being a gigantic python curled around a tree trunk a few metres up from the ground, and two young male lions who dragged their kill into a bush. Also interesting to observe was the behaviour of the different elephant herds; at one stop we saw two young males mock fighting and at another the whole herd was taking a mud bath – an activity which they clearly enjoyed.

Apart from it being the dry season, the veld was extra dry due to the current drought in Southern Africa. This led the elephant to congregate around the few functional waterholes and enjoy mud baths.

Balule is a small, rustic camp with no electricity. Lamps are lit at night in the ablutions and water is heated by gas.   The campsites are set out in a circle around a grassed and shaded island which also has a lapa with excellent wash-up facilities and an urn with boiling water on tap.

From Balule we diverted east from the main tar road that heads north through the park to the Letaba River via Olifants Restcamp, situated on the Olifants River.

A Ground hornbill.
A Ground hornbill with conspicuous red face and throat patches.
View of the Olifants River.
View of the Olifants River.

Just as we were heading for the Olifants River viewpoint, set high on a koppie with a magnificent view of the river, we were spoilt as we saw a leopard crossing the road right in front of us. Within the first day and half in the park, we were lucky enough to have seen all of the Big 5 (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo)!

Leopard on the move.
Leopard on the move.

On our second day we pulled into Letaba Restcamp to have lunch and a midday break and that evening we particularly enjoyed Tsendze Rustic Camp, as the spacious campsites were set under big Mopane trees. The neat ablution and wash-up facilities provide hot water via gas as the camp has no electricity. Being more rustic it doesn’t have a shop, restaurant or the manicured look of the other camps. For the first time in the Kruger Park it felt like we were camping in the bush…

On our third day in the park we saw big herds of buffalo and, in amongst the dry grass and low Mopane trees, a busy honey badger scurrying about its business in the bush. This resilient little animal will take on any enemy and is beautiful with its sleek posture and black-and-white fur. Quite a unique sighting!  Another delightful sight was a family of seven giraffe which included young.

A buffalo herd kicking up dust...
A buffalo herd kicking up dust…

One of the most interesting sightings was in a dry section of the Shingwedzi River. Elephants had dug a hole in the dry sand and as we arrived at the viewpoint, one had his trunk down the hole, quenching his thirst. There was a small, muddy pool close-by which they used for bathing. We observed how the elephant would first drink from the clean hole and then bath in the nearby mudhole. We sat enchanted, watching two more behemoths cautiously descending the steep embankment a few metres from us and follow suit.  With each new arrival the elephant that was drinking would make way for the newcomer at the drinking hole and go and have a bath. It seemed that the drinking and bathing were tiring, as these beasts would take a break after a while, resting their trunks on their tusks.

Shingwedzi is a reasonably big camp and since it was unseasonably the hottest day of our trip thus far, we were grateful to cool our feet in the swimming pool. Set on the Shingwedzi River, this is a beautiful camp with excellent facilities. It was almost totally rebuilt after the 2013 flood – and so high was the flood level mark that it was difficult to fathom that the dry bushveld around us could have been so inundated just three years before.

Flood level mark at the Shingwedzi camp restaurant which overlooks the currently dry riverbed.

We had an early start the next morning as we had to head for the Pafuri border and were spoilt with a brief sighting of three lionesses with six cubs.

A quick glimpse of three lionesses with cubs.
A quick glimpse of three lionesses with cubs.

Overview

Looking back on our drive through the park, we specifically enjoyed the drives next to the Olifants, Letaba and Shingwedzi Rivers.

A peaceful scene on the Olifants River.
A peaceful scene on the Olifants River.
A White Heron in the shallow water of the Letaba River.
A White Heron in the shallow water of the Letaba River.

It was also interesting to see the variation in the vegetation, from wooded and open grassland savannah in the south to mixed thornveld and woodlands in the centre of the park and then to open savannah grassland with stunted Mopane in the north.

Shy little Klipspringer.
Shy little Klipspringer.

The area south of Satara, with its greater rainfall, is known to have a high density of game which attracts many predators and we have indeed seen most game in the southern section of the park. However, we saw plenty of elephant, hippo, antelope, buffalo, crocodile and birds along the Shingwedzi River. At Kanniedood pan we counted 14 crocodile from one viewpoint!

Crocodile basking in the sun.
Crocodile basking in the sun.

If one takes into account the standard of the facilities and the number and variety of animals you see in this national park, which is the size of Wales, it is no wonder that it is still regarded as South Africa’s prime park.

Initially we saw this visit to Kruger as a route to get to Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe without having to use the notorious Beitbridge border crossing. However, we gained new respect for this magnificent park, with its excellent facilities and prolific game.

kruger-map

Briefly traversing Mozambique

The border crossing at Pafuri in the far north of the park was quick and easy, as was the entrance to Mozambique.  We were quite surprised when the Mozambican immigration official informed us that it was possible for those of us requiring visas to get them at this small post, even though we didn’t need it as the three Australian passport holders in our party had already obtained theirs in Cape Town.

An Impala Lilly at the Pafuri Borderpost.
An Impala Lilly at the Pafuri Borderpost.

At first the gravel road north up the borderline with Zimbabwe was mostly deep sand, but also had a few rough patches due to dry mud. It was clear that this road would be less than ideal during the rainy season, especially since one has to cross both the Limpopo and Nuanetsi Rivers, neither with a bridge.

Crossing the dry Limpopo Riverbed.
Crossing the dry Limpopo Riverbed.
Passing through a well-wooded patch.
Passing through a well-wooded patch.
Carting dry grass.
Carting dry grass.
Crossing the Nuanetsi Riverbed.
Crossing the Nuanetsi Riverbed.

During our coffee stop in a well wooded area just after we crossed the Nuanetsi, we realised that we had lost our front number plate, most probably in Kruger. When we passed a Spaza shop in a little village, we bought a peace of cardboard, taken from one of the boxes of the stall holder, with the intention to make a temporary license plate.

Friendly villagers.
Friendly villagers.

We found the 61km drive through this remote part of Mozambique pleasant and interesting. As we progressed the sandy track changed to good gravel, with patches of orange, yellow and green leafed Mopane trees lining the narrow track.

Narrow track winding through Mopane trees.
Narrow track winding through Mopane trees.

We had a long but productive day, leaving Shingwedzi camp at 06:00, just as the gate opened. Then we managed two border crossings (SA to Mozambique at Pafuri and Mozambique to Zimbabwe at Chicualacuala/Sango), quibble with the Mozambican border police at Chicualacuala about our missing number plate, report it to the border police as we entered Zimbabwe, have a coffee as well as a lunch stop and yet arrive at Mabalaute Camp in the south of Gonarezhou at 17:00! We found this route to be a good option for travellers heading for Mozambique or Zimbabwe.

 

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Kruger NP via Swaziland

As we were heading for the Kruger National Park from the Golden Gate NP in the Free State, we had the choice of either sticking to the beaten track or driving through Swaziland. I was quite keen to explore the latter route since I was curious to get a feel for the smallest country in the Southern Hemisphere.

We entered Swaziland in the south-east at the Lavumisa border post near Pongola. It’s a big and reasonably busy, but nevertheless efficient border post. We spent most of the hour it took to declare our electronic equipment at the Customs counter as we exited South Africa, as we have learnt that it is best to do this when you leave SA in order to avoid paying import duty upon your return. The competent and friendly official was meticulous in describing all the equipment, with values and serial numbers, on the computer system.

For the first time we were provided with a comprehensive printout on a SARS (South African Revenue Service) letterhead which we could keep for future use when we enter or exit SA. It is nice to know that SARS is at last so technologically advanced that we no longer have to declare all our valuables each time we cross a border.

Entering Swaziland was reasonably painless and the only fee we had to pay was R50 for a Temporary Import Permit for the vehicle. Even though the official who searched the vehicle indicated that we needed a permit to import meat into Swaziland, she said that she would ‘this time’ let us through.

To be honest, I didn’t really expect much of this kingdom and was therefore pleasantly surprised to see the extent of agriculture amongst the dry bushveld thorn. We passed big bright green fields of sugar cane and colourful bougainvilleas lining the MR8 main road going north. Sugar cane seems to comprise most of the agriculture in the south-east of Swaziland; we passed many of these irrigated fields, a distillery making cane spirit and a sugar mill.

Passing by big sugar cane fields.
Passing by big sugar cane fields.

We found that it is possible to pay with South African rand everywhere and that this currency is at parity to the local currency, the emalangeni. You can pay for fuel by credit card, but not all fuel stations have facilities for electronic payment. Also, 50ppm diesel is not available everywhere.

The Swazi people seem to have an entrepreneurial spirit. There are numerous road stalls selling consumables like fire wood, wood for building purposes, fruit and vegetables. We were quite curious when we passed stalls with plastic buckets that had cords and electric plugs hanging from them. We stopped to inquire and learnt that electric elements were fitted to the buckets for heating water. A very ingenious African innovation…

An entrepreneur selling plastic buckets with electric elements.
An entrepreneur selling plastic buckets with electric elements.
Take-away mealies (corn).
Take-away mealies (corn).

Although the condition of the tarred road was good, the going was slow. The speed limit in Swaziland can rise to 120kph but is generally 60 or 80km/h, with ferocious speed humps being used frequently to slow vehicles.

Sondzela Backpackers got raving reviews on Tripadvisor and so we intended to camp there. Shortly before we reached that destination, we stopped at Malandelas, a Bed and Breakfast/Restaurant and a tourist hub which also offers an internet café and tourist information. The whole complex has an arty feel to it and the tables of the restaurant are set under large shady trees.

Seating under majestic trees at Malandelas restaurant.
Seating under majestic trees at Malandelas restaurant.

The friendly gate guard at Sondzela referred us to the nearby Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary as no vehicles were allowed on the Sondzela grounds, which meant that we would not be able to use our beloved rooftop tent.

We arrived at Mlilwane in the late afternoon and were greeted by a warm and welcoming Swazi lady. The entry fee to the sanctuary, which was proclaimed in 1964 and is under patronage of King Mswati III, is only R40 per day and, with camping at R105 per person per night, it is extremely reasonable. Mlilwane, which is Swaziland’s oldest game reserve, is owned and managed by a non-profit making trust for the benefit of nature conservation and the benefit of the people of Swaziland.

The more than 2 000 snares found in the sanctuary on display.
The more than 20 000 snares found in the sanctuary on display.
Trees reflecting in the Mlilwane dam.
Trees reflecting in the Mlilwane dam.
One of the resident crocodiles.
One of the resident crocodiles.

As it is not home to the Big Five, visitors can bike, walk or ride on horseback close to zebra, wildebeest, antelope, hippos and crocodile. I am not big fan of canned game viewing like this, but must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed the nyala walking through our camp and particularly the warthog family that lay snuggled up around the communal camp fire at night.

A nyala bull walking through camp.
A nyala bull walking through camp.
The warthog family takes the front row around the communal campfire.
The warthog family takes the front row around the communal campfire.

With the excellent facilities (it also offers accommodation in Swazi grass beehive huts and a restaurant), activities like tribal dancing and the game experience it is no wonder it is so popular among foreign tourist groups.

Swazi dancing at Mlilwane.
Swazi dancing at Mlilwane.

Although the campsite was a bit too busy to our preference, we thoroughly enjoyed our well shaded stay.

Camping in a gumtree forest.
Camping in a Eucalyptus forest.

Swaziland seems to be more developed and in touch with the outside world than Lesotho, and this was also evidenced by the Convention Centre and 5 Star Hotel that is going up at Ezulwini, not far from the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary.

As we needed to make up some travel time, we preferred to use the MR3 highway to bypass the Mbababane city centre and found it to be in excellent condition. We were advised that the route through Piggs Peak and Matsamo/Jeppes Reef border post is the most scenic and we indeed enjoyed the scenery. As we neared Piggs Peak, the landscape reminded me of Mpumalanga in South Africa. It was green, hilly and forested with hectares of gum and pine tree plantations. Unfortunately the Phophonyane Falls were non-existing due to the prevailing drought.

Plantations near Piggs Peak.
Plantations near Piggs Peak.

As we neared the border, we were surprised by large citrus orchards and banana plantations around Ngonini. I was pleased by the little I had seen of Swaziland and traversing this little kingdom was definitely worthwhile. From there we were only a short way from the Kruger National Park.

Swaziland map
Our route through Swaziland.

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How we make maps

Map growth over the last couple of years
Map growth over the last couple of years

This October we are celebrating 10 years of selling GPS maps in the retail market.  We actually started with our first commercial maps back in 2005 but it was only until 2006 that we launched the first maps on a CD and then later migrated to SD card.

While designing the new cover I thought about the last decade and how things have changed.  At the heart of T4A maps is  community mapping but the technology made it possible to do so much more than what we used to ten years ago.

The basic idea

Tracks4Africa started out by sharing tracks and waypoints and from this data we later started building a map which grows organically as people travel and contribute data or comment on aspects of the maps which needs to be updated.

Most people do not realize that we build maps from community sourced data, however there is a strong base of people who contribute whenever they travel.  Some people even map their home towns and send us all this data.

The basic idea remains that travellers who visit places knows best what should go onto the map and it is actually just the way in which they communicate this to us that is changing.

GPS tracks and waypoints

The basic way of contributing to the map is by recording tracks and waypoints with your GPS.  This data is then downloaded to the computer and the file containing the data is mailed to us.  Today this still represents a large percentage of the data we receive.  Our mapping team will then start working on the data and depending on the nature of the data they may communicate with you to get clarity or request more information.

At this point in time this is still a very prominent part of our map building process and we have trained staff with domain knowledge to process each data contribution (for which we are very grateful).  However we know that today, better ways exist to collect data and where many people still prefer to record data with their GPS there is potentially a much bigger source of data if one look to different ways of using GPS technology.

Satellite imagery

Satellite imagery became common place and this is a great aid to our mapping team to check data we receive.  You can identify roads, buildings and other features which enhances the map.  As an example, if someone stopped somewhere for a while we can see this from the GPS track and if no waypoint was created we can turn to satellite imagery to see if there are any infrastructure at that position.  This could lead to further investigation or they could mail you to ask if you remember what this place was.

If I have to say, I think the availability of aerial photography and satellite imagery is one of our biggest aids in the office, however with it comes a very tempting trap.  So many other map makers simply trace data from satellite imagery and some even have sweat shops  where cheap labour is used to churn out thousands of kilometers every day.  There are some areas on the map where this can be done, however if your aim is to build a map for remote travel then this approach will quickly get you into trouble.

We use imagery as a backdrop against which we can check GPS data. We will also fill in gaps where it is very obvious that a road continues.  We also use it to verify the position of a place.  Many lodge owners will send you their GPS coordinates and we need to check if these are in the correct position before adding it to the map.

Vehicle tracking systems

Vehicle tracking systems are used all over Southern Africa and while the primary aim of these systems are to facilitate vehicle recovery in the event of theft or fleet management, these systems are also a good source of new track data.  Tracks4Africa acquired a stake in one such company, a small one compared to industry standards but a very innovative and flexible one at that.  We integrated our systems with the vehicle tracking system to offer various services, but anonymously we can collect data on where vehicles travel.

Some of our most complex innovations are centered around this source of data.  There are many aspects of the road network that can be derived from a live source of tracking data.  Most people would be familiar with traffic services offered by the likes of Waze.  We look at this data in a slightly different manner:

  • New roads are identified automatically and flagged for inspection by our mapping team. New property developments are always cropping up and just a single track through such a network of streets can raise the flag to map out the new neighbourhood.
  • The average speed at which vehicles travel can be updated from such data, very similar to live traffic but more static in our case as we focus on remote areas. With each new map we run a set of calculations to identify where road speeds have changed.  For example, a bad gravel road may have been upgraded and now the average travel speed increased and this route might become a more viable option.
  • Different vehicles travel at different speeds. A big truck vs a sedan vehicle will yield different average travel times and by identifying vehicle types (where the data is not anonymous), we can extract what we need for different vehicle classes.  While our focus is on travel we envisage that separate routable road networks may surface as this data grows.  One example of such a vehicle group is of a 4WD vehicle rental company whose vehicles are used by travellers all the time.  This data is ring-fenced for more in-depth analysis.
  • From track data one can identify stops and overnight places without having to source specific waypoints from these travellers. We create overnight stops from this track data which is entered into our point of interest research team.  We can also easily compare these stops to our current POI data and start building up a record of popular places.
  • One of the most irritating aspects of travelling during school holidays is the delays experienced at border posts and other popular places. While this is a work in progress our algorithms are being developed to identify places where seasonal delays are experienced which could lead to handy travel information for future trip planning.
  • Tracks data can also show when last a road or more specifically bridges and ferries were used. If certain infrastructure start showing signs of falling out of use we are now able to flag these for inspection.  Sometimes a ferry is replaced by a new bridge or a bridge has simply been damaged by floods which could affect your trip planning.
Our team having fun
Our team having fun

Capacity building and spatial capability

When we started out building a geographical information system (GIS) of travel information the GIS technology was adequate for our purposes, but it has progressed extensively over the years.  A few years back we found ourselves in a position where we had to grow our GIS capacity.  We worked in silo’s and often work was lost.

So we made the massive jump from working on separate GIS files to an online GIS data repository.  We built a system to our needs where we can house all the tracking data and use it when working on the map. Now we have several GIS technicians working on a single data base.

With this development we also enabled our teams to work with SQL scripts to automate mundane tasks.  As an example, we have an algorithm stepping through raw GPS data to extract average travel speed per road segment.  This was a task that was done manually just five years ago and took endless hours to complete.  Now we simply run a script to do the work in the background and anomalies are flagged for inspection.

We also integrated our point of interest research with our GIS data base.  This means that our data researchers can insert and edit new points directly to our GIS without having to have any GIS skills per se.  We have also enabled our teams to work remotely to an online repository which means that some of our researchers can work from home, remote locations or while on the road.

Our customers would not see these changes and investments however we have increased our capacity to such an extend that we can now tackle very large projects without having to worry about the underlying infrastructure.

During 2015 our mapping team took on the daunting task of integrating all the suburban streets of South Africa into our map.  I thought that this would have been an enormous task, taking tears to complete.  However I was pleasantly surprised when the team came just six months later to report that the job was done.  Now we are on the lookout for places we have missed and where new developments are pooping up.  So next time you look at the T4A map in your (South African) town you will notice that the streets are complete.  If not we would appreciate a heads up!

Another big project which we could not have handled without this infrastructure is the integration of large point of interest data sets. Our maps are for travellers and the number one question asked by travellers is: “Where do we sleep tonight?”  So we started to look at integrating the data sets of booking engines.  It is in their interest to get as many of their listings on various platforms and we signed up.  What we quickly noticed is that the location data from these sources are not that great and our researchers must verify the location of each new listing entered onto the map.  This is aided by a custom web page which brings up all the supporting information required to verify a listing and it is all done online.

What next?

There are plenty of room for improvement in the way we allow regular travellers to contribute to the map.  Be it new places, updates to existing places, adding photos or reporting errors on roads.

We have launched our Guide App last year and this app is destined to become a data collector as well.  The idea is to allow users of the app to easily report errors or new data.  This data will be uploaded to our data base and entered as data submissions.  This will allow travellers to report problems right there on the spot when you most irritated with it!

We are also looking at ways in which we can allow users of the website map to report problems.  We are currently building our new Southern Africa Atlas (a book format).  The cartography for this atlas will be published on an internal website for various people to peruse the map and report issues before we finalise the production version for proof reading.  The same technology is destined to be used on our web map.

If you read this far, thanks for your interest in the way we work.  As you can see there is a lot happening in the background and we are constantly investing in our technology to improve the way we work and ultimately create reliable and up to date travel information.

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Lesotho: kingdom of snow

We left Himeville at the foot of the Drakensberg after a peaceful night’s camping at Goxhill Trout Lodge, situated on a working dairy farm close-by. We were heading for the famous Sani Pass and then Lesotho. I was particularly excited as it would be my first visit to either and we were hoping to see the remains of snow that had fallen three weeks prior…

It was quick and easy to exit South Africa at the border control at the bottom of the 8km pass. The dry brown grass clad smooth, rounded foothills of the mountains and wooded valleys were spectacular as we ascended, more so because they contrasted with their white snow covered tops.

The tops of the Drakensberg mountains were capped with snow.
The top of the Drakensberg mountains were capped with snow.

Signs at the bottom and the top of the pass indicate that only 4WD vehicles are allowed access, and one can imagine that it must be challenging even for these when it is wet or snowy. Indeed travellers have become snow bound as bad weather has suddenly encroached, only to recover their vehicles weeks later – so one should enter prepared with sufficient spares, food, water and warm clothing. Now the pass was dry, rough, rocky and slow, but not difficult to drive.

The start of the pass.
The bottom of Sani Pass.

The views were, however, absolutely breathtaking both looking up the pass and back down to the valleys below.

Looking back to the valleys below the pass.
Looking back to the valleys below the pass.
Vehicles coming down Sani Pass.
Vehicles coming down Sani Pass.

Even though I’ve heard a lot about Sani Pass, it took me totally by surprise. As we ascended, there were patches of snow next to the road and we passed by an impressive frozen waterfall, where snow melt flowing over rocks by day, froze again at night.

Me in front of a frozen waterfall.
Me in front of a frozen waterfall.

The Lesotho border control is at the top end of the pass where immigration was surprisingly easy. We were stamped in without having to fill in any forms and only had to pay a R30 vehicle fee, without showing any vehicle registration papers.

Notice at the top of Sani Pass.
Notice at the top of Sani Pass.

Very exciting for me, the top of Sani Pass was almost completely covered in snow and the wind that swept over the highest pub in Africa (at 2 874m) was icy cold.

In recent years, Chinese construction firms have tarred a network of roads across this mountain kingdom and as we headed north-west on one of these, the newly completed A1, we could see traditional thatched roofed stone huts and their hardy herdsmen wrapped in blankets on horseback.

Basotho man on horseback.
Basotho man on horseback.
Wash day in the highlands.
Wash day in the highlands.

It was good to make our way slowly up and down the soaring slopes with their sweeping bends, where the snow gave way to golden brown grasses as we temporarily descended from the high ground around the Sani Pass. This part of Lesotho is rural, undeveloped and, apart from the snow, very dry at this time of year.

Dry low ground...
Dry low ground…

Next, as we approached the Maluti Mountains, with the road rising to heights of around 3 200m, the landscape turned into a white fairy tale world and at times one lane was still deeply covered in snow. We saw half frozen streams and frozen waterfalls next to the road as we headed for New Oxbow Lodge. This was the one night on our trip that we were not going to camp!

Reaching the snow of the Maluti Mountains.
Reaching the snow of the Maluti Mountains.

On the way we passed the Afriski Mountain Resort, one of the few such resorts in Africa, and we could see skiers gliding down the single, straight track. This run, which must seem quite simple to experienced overseas skiers, used to European and US ski resorts, still provided lots of fun for locals.

Thick snow covering half of the road.
Thick snow covering half of the road.

The next morning we descended Moteng Pass to lower ground where we saw more signs of agricultural activity, although all the crops were harvested. The landscape which is dry and brown at this time of year, was dotted with houses amongst the beautiful sandstone rock formations.

Fertile ground and beautiful rock formations.
Fertile ground and beautiful rock formations.

We left Lesotho at the Caledonspoort border post, in drive-through ‘McDonalds’ style. Without even exiting the vehicle, we had our passports stamped from inside a little window at the side of the border control gate. In spite of what I had read about rather extensive Lesotho border regulations, these were the easiest border crossings I have ever been through in Africa.

With 7 000km to cover in our five week trip, we only skirted the eastern side of Lesotho, but our two day visit was well worth it. Next time I’d like to experience more of the natural beauty and culture of this little kingdom. If you look at the Lesotho tourism website, you will realise that it has a lot more to offer!

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Visa-free overlanding with African Union passport

Having a valid passport and the necessary visas are two of the foremost requirements for any traveller. Apart from the annoyance of applying for visas, it can also be costly and hence African overlanders will be happy to hear that an African Union passport which will give them access to 54 countries is under way.

The dream of having one passport that will allow African citizens to travel the continent visa-free is one step closer to realisation with the new electronic African Union passport that was presented to the incoming chairperson of the AU and the Rwandan president at the African Union (AU) Assembly held in Kigali in July 2016.

The African Union passport that was presented to dignitaries at the AU Assembly.
The African Union passport that was presented to dignitaries at the AU Assembly.

The aim of the AU is to allow African citizens visa-free travel within their own continent by 2020, which is in line with the African Development Bank’s (ADB) plans to abolish visa requirements for all Africans by 2018 – a move which would aid business and overall travel on the African continent.

However, travellers should not get too excited as this passport, which will have inscriptions in five languages (English, French, Arabic, Portuguese, and Swahili) is still a long way from being accessible to Joe Public.

Although the passport is currently exclusive to government heads and diplomats, the AU says it is here to stay. Non-dignitaries will have to be patient, however, and it remains to be seen if this idea comes to fruition.

Interim actions to ease travel regulations

The long term aim of the African Union is to promote a self-reliant continent and countries such as Seychelles, Mauritius, Rwanda, and Ghana have taken the lead in easing their visa requirements.

Apparently Kenya is also in the process of easing visa regulations for most travellers, to enhance tourism in the country. The country also launched e-visas for UK and Irish travellers in July last year and discussions regarding regulations between Kenya and SA officials took place in July this year. One of the decisions taken to ease travel regulations was to issue three year multiple entry visas for frequent travellers. Visa service fees have also been decreased by more than R300.

The East Africa visa which is valid in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda is another good initiative to open up Africa but some have found that it is not that practical, as it isn’t available at all border posts.

Free movement of people on the continent can indeed create a “strong, prosperous and integrated Africa”, but it also may have disadvantages. Increasing terrorism is a real issue and the absence of strict immigration rules may aid the migration of terrorists across the continent. Also, there is the fear that non-nationals will take jobs that could have gone to local citizens, apart from the loss of government revenue from visa applications.  However, for the overland traveller, any efforts to reduce visa red tape and promote friendly and welcoming immigration officials will be welcomed.

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10 Reasons to visit Zambia

If you want to do some exciting overlanding, Zambia provides an excellent option to get a real taste of Africa.  The country has a lot to offer in terms of natural beauty, scenic back roads, interesting places to visit, exciting activities, variety in accommodation options and on top of it all, friendly people!

There are at least 10 reasons why you should visit Zambia:

 The iconic Victoria Falls

Zambia shares the incredible Victoria Falls with Zimbabwe. You will be as amazed at this spectacular sight just as David Livingstone was in 1855, being the first white man to lay eyes on it, saying ‘scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight‘.  If you slip across the border you can see these iconic falls from the Zimbabwean side as well. Otherwise you can take a helicopter/microlite/scenic flight from Livingstone to see them from the sky. If you are really courageous you can splash in Devil’s Pool from where you can look right over the edge of these massive falls.

  1. Adrenalin activities on the Zambezi River

For the adrenaline junkies there are a variety of activities to enjoy on the Zambezi River. You can go white water rafting, abseiling, swinging or bungee jumping over Batoka Gorge.

  1. Amazing wildlife areas

South Luangwa and Kafue are the most popular National Parks of Zambia but the Liuwa Plains National Park is also a favourite for people who have visited there. The ambiance and spectacular number of animals in South Luangwa is extraordinary, while Kafue is the biggest game park in Africa. November, the beginning of the rainy season, is the best time to visit Liuwa Plains. You will then not only see dramatic skylines and pans exploding with flowers, but also large herds of wildebeest migrating from neighbouring Angola.

South Luangwa has a special ambiance.
South Luangwa has a special ambiance.
Puku in South Luangwa.
Puku in South Luangwa.
Itechi-Techi Dam in the southern section of Kafue NP.
Itechi-Techi Dam in the southern section of Kafue NP.
Early morning on the Busanga Plains in northern Kafue.
Early morning on the Busanga Plains in northern Kafue.
  1. Birding

Many of the smaller parks boast beautiful landscapes and prolific birdlife. More than 420 bird species have been recorded in Lochinvar, which is situated on the southern edge of the Kafue flats.  Over one million fruit bats roost annually in the swamp forests of the Kasanka National Park which is situated west of South Luangwa. Over 330 bird species have also been recorded in Kasanka, including rarities like Pel’s fishing owl, Pygmy goose, Ross’s loerie, Osprey and Wattled cranes and Shoebill storks. The nearby Bangweulu Swamps also offers amazing birding.

Shoebill Stork (photo taken from the internet)
Shoebill Stork (photo taken from the internet)
  1. Source of the mighty Zambezi River

The Zambezi is Africa’s fourth largest river system and it runs through six countries on its 2 574km long journey to the Indian Ocean. This mighty river which has been harnessed for hydroelectric power at various points, including the Kariba Dam between Zambia and Zimbabwe and Cahora Bassa Dam in Mozambique, has humble beginnings in western Zambia as a little spring that discharges water at around 30 litres per second. Thus the Zambezi starts as a little puddle, but it is exciting to follow its rapid growth. Barely 3km from the source it has formed into a stream about two metres wide and another 60km downstream it increases so much in volume that it feeds a 33KV hydroelectric plant.

Small beginnings for the mighty Zambezi River.
Small beginnings for the mighty Zambezi River.
  1. Waterfalls galore

Whilst the Victoria Falls are Zambia’s best known attraction, few people know that the Kalambo Falls are at 221m is the second highest uninterrupted waterfall in Africa.  There also are a number of little-known but beautiful waterfalls that are worth visiting during or shortly after the rainy season (November to April). Zambia consists of three separate plateaux (Southern, Eastern/Central and Northern/North-western), each one separated from the next by escarpments that drain the plateaux in the form of spectacular waterfalls. Get the guide book published by Quentin Allen and Ilse Mwanza to explore these spectacular falls.

Nyambwezu is one of the many lesser known falls of Zambia.
Nyambwezu is one of the many lesser known falls of Zambia.
  1. Historical sites

When the famous explorer David Livingstone died in Zambia, his heart was removed and buried under a tree at what is today known as the Livingstone Memorial Site. Apart from various other monuments and museums, Shiwa Nganda (Africa House) has an interesting history.  Stewart Gore Brown built Shiwa Nganda for his young English wife in the early 1900’s. The intriguing tale of his commitment to his dream and of her unhappiness in this magnificent home as well as in Zambia can be read in the book ‘The Africa House’. The mansion in northern Zambia can be visited by appointment.

Shiwa Nganda was built in 1855 by Gore Brown.
Shiwa Nganda was built in the early 1900’s by Stewart Gore Brown.
  1. Fishing in Zambia’s major rivers

Zambia has three major rivers: Kafue, Luangwa and Zambezi. All three are great for fishing and at certain times of the year keen fishermen contest to catch Tiger fish, mostly from boats.

Fishing on the Kafue River.
Fishing on the Kafue River.
  1. Pristine wilderness/natural areas

Zambia has some pristine wilderness areas to visit, like the Mutinondo Wilderness Area and Kapishya Hot Spring in the north-east and Luena Flats in the south-west.

Mutinondo is a unique geographical area, covering 10 000 hectares and provides habitat to over 1 000 plant and 324 bird species. There are over 50km of hiking/cycling trails, all maintained and signposted. The paths meander at times next to the Musamfushi River, through Miombo and riverine forest to various waterfalls, pools and around gigantic black granite rock domes.

Big granite domes against colourful Miombo woodland.
Big granite domes against colourful Miombo woodland.

At the Kapishya Hot Spring, on the Mansa River, gallons of clear, sulphur-free water bubble out at a temperature around 39 degrees Celsius. A weir was built below the spring to form a crystal clear shallow bathing pool, surrounded by lush trees.

The Kapishya Hot Spring.
The Kapishya Hot Spring.

It is challenging and exciting to traverse the Luena Flats between Lukulu and Limulungu where you will find little in the way of roads, but many options to make progress in your 4WD vehicle. It is impassable during the wet season and during the dry season road conditions vary between multiple track options of deep sand and long grass hiding hardened, rough mud. The area is totally flooded each year by the Luena River. The water overflows into the Ndandu channel which is the widest tributary to the Barotse Floodplain.

Friendly villagers on the Luena Flats.
Friendly villagers on the Luena Flats.
Deep sand on the Luena Flats.
Deep sand on the Luena Flats.
  1. Unspoilt African forests

In western Zambia you will be astounded to see long stretches of unspoilt African forest. Even though harvesting seems to be mostly well-managed, now is the best time to go if you still want to see pristine African hardwood forest. There are a large number of proclaimed and protected forests throughout the whole region west of Kafue National Park. It is incredible to experience a bit of what is left of unblemished Africa.

Passing through pristine African forest.
Passing through pristine African forest.

Zambia map

Go to the Zambia Tourism page to find out more or read about our visit to Zambia in 2015.

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How to be safe around elephants

It was twilight and not a good time to be out on foot with predators lurking around. The next moment we were shocked to a standstill! A big elephant bull was standing a few meters from us, clearly annoyed with our intrusion. It is difficult to say who got the biggest fright, us or our armed guide!

This incident happened a few years ago when we went for a guided walk in Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools National Park.  Then, if it wasn’t for the flooded river crossing, we would have been back at camp well before dark.

In many game areas in Southern Africa the camps are unfenced, which means that elephant can visit at any time. We had an elephant visiting our site while we were pitching our tent and also at night whilst sitting around the fire.

In situations like that is important to remain stationary. Do not approach the elephant or try to chase it away. When we walked into the elephant at Mana Pools, we stood still for a few moments before we very slowly retraced our steps.  If you keep calm the chances are good that the elephant won’t see you as a threat and will mind its own business. Of course there are no guarantees, as these people experienced whilst eating breakfast in Mana Pools.

Remember that it is best not to take fruit into a game area where elephant reside.  Elephant love fruit (especially citrus and apple) and have been known to take desperate measures, even overturning vehicles once they get a sniff of this delicacy.

Most people love elephants but know that these placid giants can be extremely dangerous, especially when they have young. Elephants are very communicative animals and humans can read a lot in their postures, stances and gestures and by doing so, prevent themselves from getting into life threatening situations.

How to approach an elephant sighting when driving a vehicle

  • Slow down as soon as you see the elephants. Do not go “rushing” into the sighting.
  • Assess the situation regarding escape routes, terrain and animal behaviour before settling down to watch.
  • If there are young ones in the group, you must be extra cautious and keep an extra safe distance.
  • Do not go closer than 50m to the animals and switch off the engine. If the elephants are comfortable, you can sit quietly and enjoy the experience.
  • Do not to let the elephants approach to within 20m of your vehicle and never allow them to touch it. If the elephants approach within this zone, switch the engine on, wait a few seconds and slowly back away.
  • If switching the engine on appears to aggravate the elephant, switch it off immediately, wait a few minutes and then try to retreat again.
  • If you are in an open safari vehicle, do not stand up or make sudden movements on the vehicle. This may frighten the elephant and cause a threatening or aggressive response.
  • If an elephant shows threatening behaviour, slowly retreat and give it space.

The following are the most obvious threatening behaviours displayed by elephants:

Standing tall

The elephant is standing or moving with her head held well above her shoulders, the chin is raised and the elephant looks down at her adversary over her tusks with eyes open and her ears maximally forward. The animal appears to increase in height and will sometimes deliberately stand upon an object such as a log or anthill in order to increase its height. (Elephants normally stand or move about with their eyes cast down.) A direct gaze with the chin raised as opposed to tucked in, looking down over the tusks, is primarily used by females as a warning toward non-elephant threats, such as predators and people, as if to say: “I’ve got you in my sight, so watch it”.

Shaking the head

If the elephant shakes its head abruptly so as to flap the ears sharply, it is annoyed. The shake usually starts with the head twisted to one side and is then rapidly rotated from side to side. The ears slap against the side of the face or neck making a loud smacking sound. Head jerking (a single, upward movement followed by a slower return) and head-tossing (the head is lowered and then lifted sharply so that the tusks make an arc) are also mild threat displays.

Spreading the ears

The elephant faces an opponent head-on with ears fully spread (at 90 degrees from the body), presumably for the purpose of appearing larger. Elephants sometimes spread their ears when they are excited, surprised or alarmed.

Swinging the trunk forward and blowing it

The elephant swings and tosses its trunk in the direction of an adversary, typically while trumpeting.

Tusking the ground

The elephant bends or kneels down, tusks the ground and uplifts vegetation as a demonstration of “look what I will do with you”. It is mostly done by musth males.

Mock charging

The elephant rushes toward an adversary or predator while spreading its ears and just stops short of its target, swinging its trunk forward and kicking up dust. A mock charge is often associated with shrill trumpeting.

Throwing debris

The elephant lifts or uproots objects and throws it in the direction of an opponent. An elephant’s aim can be very accurate, even at some distance.

Bundu bashing

The elephant causes a commotion to demonstrate strength, tossing its head and tusks back and forth through bushes or other vegetation while making a noise.

Charging

The elephant rushes toward you with its ears spread and its head raised or lowered while it has the apparent intention of following through. Its trunk may be tightly curved under so that the tusks can make contact first. A real charge is usually silent and extremely dangerous. Try to get away as quickly as possible!

See a full list of elephant behaviour, compiled by professional ecologist Audrey Delsink who is a member of the Elephant Specialist Advisory Group.

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Finding the roots of Tracks4Africa

By Johann Groenewald (co-owner of Tracks4Africa)

People often wonder how Tracks4Africa started out.   Today’s company with twenty-odd employees and product representation all over the world started out as a simple quest for information.  I asked founder, Wouter Brand, to take me on a trip to see where it all began.  The mode of transport would be Wouter’s only manner of travel these days – motorbikes and the destination would be nowhere specific, other than the remote Namibian landscape.

The bikes with Brandberg in the distance.
Our destination was remote Namibia.

Around the year 2000, GPS equipment became available for the recreational user and a few technically minded travellers quickly seized the opportunity to better orientate themselves to their surroundings.  Wouter recalls a trip to Namibia around that time with friends in  Kaokoland, which is a very remote part of Namibia and where getting lost is easy.  Knowing where you are is only part of the navigation story; knowing where to go is also vitally important.

Our trip started in George in the Southern Cape where I picked up Wouter and the bikes in our van.  As I was pressed for time I suggested that we transport the bikes to Windhoek from where the real action would start.

While GPS devices were readily available in 2000, they had no maps of any worth for the remote areas we now intended to travel.  At that stage manufacturers had the daunting task of mapping cities and national roads accurately enough to enable GPS navigation.  There was absolutely no focus on these remote parts of Africa, so travellers took it upon themselves to record tracks and waypoints which they then shared with one another.

Back then the only way of getting a route loaded onto your GPS was to transfer a track from somebody who had travelled that particular road. You could then follow it on screen, almost like we use the backtrack function these days.  You would also make sure that you recorded your own track as you drove because if you got lost you could retrace your steps.

Stopping in the Irindi Game Reserve.
Stopping in the Irindi Game Reserve.

Our trip in July 2016 would be very different.  We now have highly detailed paper and GPS maps of remote parts of Africa and our bikes are fitted with GPS’s and these latest maps.  On our first day we set off for Uis, the unofficial gateway to Damaraland.  We left the tar road at Okahandja and rode through the Irindi Private Game Reserve to Omaruru from where we continued to Uis. We stopped at intersections to check our maps as it is often difficult and always dangerous to read the map while riding, especially on unpaved roads.

On that first day I had to meet and get acquainted with my borrowed iron horse; it was a very long time since I was last on a motorcycle as a youngster. Getting used to the feeling of the bike slipping over the little sand berms on the gravel road was my main priority.

I met Wouter in 2001 and at about that time Tracks4Africa was born when a name for this community of travellers was suggested by Johan Strumpfer.  A website was created where these travellers could upload and download tracks and waypoint files.  Although the sharing of data was structured, no maps were available yet.

I had a very basic background in GIS (a Geographical Information System is a computer system for capturing, storing, checking and displaying data related to positions on earth’s surface) which I shared with Wouter.  He was a data analyst and as such used to writing his own software to achieve complex calculations.  Soon Wouter was compiling all the tracks and waypoints that had been uploaded by travellers to the website onto a map of Africa. There were no procedures and we had to make them up as we went along.

Wouter on his bike with Brandberg in the distance.
Wouter on his bike with Brandberg in the distance.

In very much the same way, but with modern equipment, we decided to travel around Brandberg.  Basil Calitz from Brandberg Rest Camp in Uis accompanied us on his Africa Twin to show us a few hidden gems; one being this stunning Quiver tree with Brandberg in the background.

Lone Quiver Tree near Brandberg.
Lone Quiver Tree near Brandberg.

Basil returned to Uis while we continued to Ugab Rhino Camp, passing Elephant Rock on the way.  There is now a new community campsite at the rock which we duly added to the map; the T4A traveller never being off duty!

Negotiating deep sand in the Ugab Riverbed.
Negotiating deep sand in the Ugab Riverbed.
The motorbike is dwarfed by the walls of the Ugab River Canyon.
The motorbike is dwarfed by the walls of the Ugab River Canyon.

As we entered the Ugab Riverbed, we had to negotiate the deep sand through the canyon.  Whilst we did not see any game it was a truly spectacular place to be and we were later informed that the elephants were on the White Lady side of the river.

The top of Divorce Pass with the Ugab Riverbed in the background.
The top of Divorce Pass with the Ugab Riverbed in the background.

As we exited the river to head north to Twyfelfontein, we had to negotiate Divorce Pass which is steep and rocky and got our adrenaline pumping. We were relieved to reach the top unscathed.

Whilst riding I was reminded of T4A’s development, when in the year 2003 we stumbled upon software which enabled us to create a map that would be compatible with the GPS we used.  Up till then we only had a map in raw GIS format; thus it was a great moment when we could load our own map to the GPS.  It was not routable (it could not give point by point directions) but we could load all our data at once onto the GPS instead of loading the individual tracks and waypoints.

I still recall testing this very first map on a trip in the Mkgadikgadi pans in Botswana – another place where one can get seriously lost.  Friends were following us as I drove. The route wasn’t clear, so I followed the GPS. When we emerged at the main road an hour later everyone wanted to know what this amazing ‘GPS-thing’ was which had given us the correct directions.  The greatest endorsement came from my wife who finally trusted the gadget I had been playing with.

Wouter taking a break in the Desolation Valley.
Wouter taking a break in the Desolation Valley.

Back to the present, after day two, Wouter and I found ourselves in Aba-Huab Camp in Twyfelfontein.  There we met another lone biker from the US.  At dinner he explained to us that he wanted to do this trip ‘unplugged’.  No GPS for him, only paper maps which he had bought at the airport. I told him they were only good for lighting the fire and gave him our T4A Namibia paper map.  He would not discard his own paper map, however, as he had made notes on it as he travelled I could not help but think that he was basically redrawing a bad map to try to make it useful.

Wouter with the Namibia paper map.
Wouter with the Namibia paper map.

The next day we rode together to Palmwag.  It was very uneventful gravel riding after the Desolation Valley.  After lunch we headed for Kamanjab and just as we took off, the American’s bike broke down.  He had a number for someone in Kamanjab which he called for a pick up but I whipped out my Tracks4Africa Guide App and gave him two numbers for garages in Kamanjab, one marked as a tow-in service.  I think it then dawned on him just how convenient it is to have information at your fingertips when you need it.  Being unplugged only gets you so far.

After we created the first GPS map, things really got underway at Tracks4Africa.  The community realized that we now had the power to create our very own map of Africa, just the way we wanted it.  The T4A forum became a place where specifications were debated and new ideas presented.  It grew into a very lively discussion and years later we were told that it was a great example of open innovation where users give input as to how the product should develop.

Rules had to be established for putting data on the map.  We applied a ‘three recordings rule’ which said that three independent recordings of a remote track had to be submitted before it would go onto the map.  We also quickly realized that not all waypoints submitted should be included, e.g. the location for where ‘lion killed springbok’ did not make the cut.  But there was a great energy as like-minded travellers contributed years of travel experience.  We realized that it wasn’t merely a map, but a record of the collective travel experience of the Tracks4Africa community.

Wouter and I decided next to head to Henties Bay from Kamanjab.  As he had just had a shoulder operation eight weeks before the trip, we ruled sand and technical riding out and stuck to the gravel roads.  Between Uis and Henties Bay I started feeling a new sensation on the bike which turned out to be a flat tyre.  This resulted in my first lesson on fixing a tyre on the side of the road.  Wouter is a master of the craft and showed me his side stand hoist method of raising the wheel off the ground.  It still took us an hour to get the job done and made me realize how exposed one is on a bike.

Fixing a flat tyre on the way to Henties Bay.
Fixing a flat tyre on the way to Henties Bay.

Riding into Henties Bay it was misty and cold as we hit the salt roads and we gladly resolved to take a warm bed instead of a tent.

The Tracks4Africa map really grew from strength to strength in the years to follow and various mile stones were reached.  Even though the business really started when we sold the first commercial version of the map to cover costs, it was still just a hobby on the side.  Then in 2007 Tracks4Africa was the first company to offer a routable GPS map from Cape to Cairo… the rest is history. Wouter had to really pull out all stops to achieve this.

Back to the present and Wouter bid me farewell in Swakopmund after a daunting 70km in the mist from Henties Bay.  I had to get back to Windhoek and he was visiting friends in Walvis Bay.   On my way to Windhoek I had the inevitable second flat tyre, 50km from Okahandja.  As Wouter had all the tools and spares on his bike, I could luckily call on my good friend Mossie who stored the van for us, to come and collect me. Thanks partner!

Waiting by the roadside for Mossie to pick me up with the van.
Waiting by the roadside for Mossie to pick me up with the van.

The bike I was riding has the number plate “TSORO WP”.  Tsoro is the word for honey badger in the Pedi language and this has become the symbol of the Tracks4Africa community.  A honey badger is a small but relentless animal that will persevere to find what it wants.  There is also the myth of the symbiosis between the honey bird and the honey badger.  It is said that the honey bird will either take you to a snake or a beehive.  The snake is an enemy of the honey bird while the honey badger feeds on them. Honey is a treat for both and the honey badger will always leave some honey for his friend, the honey bird. This is the way in which the Tracks4Africa community operates as well.

But there is another trait of the honey badger which is very apt to Tracks4Africa founder, Wouter Brand.  Like the hyena and leopard had to admit defeat to the much smaller but ferocious honey badger, Wouter will not stop at anything and nothing will get him under.

Wouter is a true pioneer and it is only through his dedication that Tracks4Africa has become what it is today.  He would not like me to say this but he has survived cancer for three years now and even with the shoulder operation shortly before our trip, he still got on his bike and rode like the wind.  I salute and thank you for your guidance and the path on which you have set us all. It is an honour to count you as a friend and to have you as a business partner, Wouter.

As a parting note I have to say that the Tracks4Africa community is its essence.  Thank you to the people who call themselves Tracks4Africa data members; each one of you is a legend of independent travel in Africa.  If it wasn’t for you, sharing your data and experience, Tracks4Africa would not exist. Equally important are the map users who contact us with corrections. This is the best way we know of to map Africa.

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Spice up your trip to the Cape Winelands

The Cape Winelands area is renowned the world over, not only for the outstanding wines produced there, but also for its exceptional beauty. If you ever happen to be in the Paarl area, one place that will spice up your trip is Spice Route, a mere 40 minute’s drive from Cape Town.

Tasting wine under the old oak tree...
Tasting wine under the old oak tree…

Spice Route not only offers breathtaking views over the vineyards, Simonsberg Mountain and even Table Mountain on a clear day, but also a sensory feast for the palate. Owner Charles Back had in mind a one-stop gastronomical destination for local and international tourists when he bought Seidelberg wine farm and started developing Spice Route in 2012.

Entrance to Spice Route.
Entrance to Spice Route.

A selection of hand-picked artisan producers who put as much thought, skill and passion into their products as the Spice Route winemaker, offer their variety of products to people who enjoy the good things in life. Be warned that you need a full day to really enjoy all the specialities on offer at Spice Route, even though all attractions are clustered together under aged oak trees, some in the original beautifully renovated Cape Dutch farm buildings.

The De Villiers artisan chocolate factory is housed in one of the historical buildings.
The De Villiers artisan chocolate factory is housed in one of the historical buildings.

The gastronomic specialities include craft beer, biltong, artisan chocolate,  tappas, pizzas, home distilled products, cured meats, choice coffee, home-made ice cream, preserves, traditional South African cuisine and of course Spice Route wines. Art lovers will marvel at the art gallery and glass blowing studio.

What there is to do at Spice Route:

Taste

  • A choice of Beef, Kudu, Eland, Springbok and Ostrich biltong and ice-cold craft beer from the Barley and Biltong Emporium.
  • Delicious preserves and fresh products of the season at Brenda’s Deli.
  • A variety of Spice Route wines which are grown and made in the cellar at Malmesbury.
  • Italian and Spanish style superior quality charcuterie at Richard Bosman cured meats.
  • Artisan chocolate.
  • Fine grappa and eau de vie at Wilderer Distillery.
The Wilderer Distillery.
The Wilderer Distillery.
Fine grappa and eau de vie on taste.
Fine grappa and eau de vie on taste.

Enjoy artisan skills

  • See how they make the chocolate at De Villiers Artisan Chocolate.
  • See how the grappa and eau de vie are distilled at Wilderer Distillery.
  • Witness the entire beer production process at Cape Brewing Company.
At the Cape Brewing Company you can see how different beers are crafted.
At the Cape Brewing Company you can see how different beers are crafted.

Eat

There is a choice for every palate, from gourmet burgers at the Barley and Biltong emporium, to tappas and pizzas at La Grapperia or traditional South African cuisine at the Bertus Basson restaurant.

The outside seating at La Grapperia.
The outside seating at La Grapperia.

The not-so-hungry can enjoy home-made ice cream or delicious pastries with a choice of coffees at the Cottage Café. If you like Mexican Tortillas, you can look forward to Santa Annas which will open in November this year at Spice Route.

A choice of coffees available from DV Cafe.
A choice of coffees available from DV Cafe.

Be it winter or summer, you can either sit snugly indoors or if the weather is warm, enjoy the views on a pristine sunny day.

A room with a view... the inside seating at La Grapperia.
A room with a view… the inside seating at La Grapperia.

See

  • Feast your eyes on the artwork at the Barn Artists and fine hand-blown glass art at Red Hot Glass Studio.
  • At the Trading Company visitors can buy a variety of authentically handmade, limited edition products, most of which are made from natural and raw materials.
Fine pieces of hand-blown art at Red Hot Glass.
Fine pieces of hand-blown art at Red Hot Glass.

So renowned is Spice Route, that close to 400 000 people visit there each year, including local families whose children enjoy the playground, the open air and beautiful surroundings. Entrance is free but a nominal fee is charged for each tasting experience.

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