Surviving an African Road Trip – Tanzania to Mozambique

Mud trails, Mozambique Africa
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Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost, 'The Road Not Taken'

Road trips are a fantastic way to see the country, to discover new delights and experience life away from the bright lights and extravaganza of tourist spots. My family and I are now old hands at road tripping, so much so that a four-hour drive now seems like a quick trip up the road for us. We have travelled all over southern Africa by car and had many adventures, but perhaps none so ridiculously challenging and fun as our two trips through Tanzania into Mozambique. Our first trip had us travelling from our home in Northern Mozambique up to Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania, and back. Our second trip was part of a massive drive from South Africa, up through Botswana, into Zambia and then across to Tanzania and finally down into Mozambique. That trip was wrought with many hilarious moments, and plenty of hairy ones too. I'll be posting more stories about that trip in the future. For now, this post will be focusing on Tanzania and on how to survive when unexpected situations arise.

Road trip essentials

Driving through an African village

Before you set out on the road, you need to make sure you have the essentials to keep you going. Even more so in Africa where there generally isn't the convenience of having service stations every fifty kilometres with the luxury of flushing toilets, refrigerated drinks and fuel for the car. Therefore, by far the most essential item to bring with you on an African road trip is... toilet paper. Ah yes, that simple little item that is often taken for granted in the western world is a definite essential for the African bush. If you are so blessed as to find a service station in the middle of nowhere, Africa, and if it actually has a toilet (which might actually be just a hole in the ground with a few pieces of bamboo stuck around it for minimal privacy), then the chances are that there will be no toilet paper to accompany said toilet (and probably no flushing mechanism either). No, the majority of the time, your toilet experience will be stopping in the bush, squatting down behind a tree and being extremely grateful that you brought toilet paper with you.

Other essentials include plenty of food and water, a torch, wet wipes and duct tape, which can be used for practically anything, including mechanical and medical patch-ups in the bush. You might want to bring a jerry can full of fuel, too, depending on the size of your fuel tank.

How to plan a road trip through Africa

Exploring Africa by road

Now that you have packed the essentials, you are ready to go. Learning from our mistakes, though, is a great idea... and trust me, we have made many of them! Here are a couple of things to consider before taking off.

Road trips without proper roads

Tackling Africa's dirt roads by car

Oh, the joys of African road travel. Before setting out for Tanzania the first time, my husband and I checked our GPS to map out the route, which told us how many kilometres we were from the border, and how long it would take us to get there. It wasn't far at all - only two hours away - so we planned to drive to the border before we took our first break. Of course, we didn't take into consideration that the GPS assumed that the road would be paved, seeing as it was the trans-national road into Tanzania. In reality, the drive took us seven horrifying hours braving roads not only made of dirt but with huge fissures slicing through them and 'potholes' large enough to eat the car. We have a very good four-wheel drive vehicle, thankfully, and could handle the road conditions - would have enjoyed it, even, because we generally love off-roading. However, the problem came with the extra five-hour delay which we had not factored into our plan, and which caused more problems later, as you will read soon.

That first trip was in the dry season when the roads had been baked by the hot African sun for months and were hard as rock, if not cracked and fissured. Our second trip, after days and days of adventures travelling through Botswana and Zambia, occurred in the wet season, and all that dirt had turned into a river of sliding mud.

Mudding can be extremely fun: slipping, sliding and whooping with joy. On this particular trip, however, we were carrying in excess of 300kg worth of supplies for our home in Mozambique on the roof of the car, which made the slipping and sliding a little hair-raising as the car threatened to topple over a few times whenever it slid into the deep trenches made by passing trucks.

On that particular trip, travelling through the Tanzanian side, we came across a section of 'road' which the council was working on. A detour had been made through the bush - basically just a wide stretch of mud - and as we inched our way across it, we passed many large trucks that had become stuck in the mud. Consequently, they left huge craters in the road as they dug themselves out, which we had to dodge as we edged our way slowly around the trucks. Eventually, we made it to the border, piled out of the car, and went to get our passports stamped in the little customs hut. The passport officer looked at us and then leaned over to look out the window behind us.

"It's a good thing you have a four-wheel drive," He said conversationally, "Otherwise I would have advised you to turn around. The road ahead in Mozambique is practically impassable right now. Knee deep with mud."

"Oh, that's fine," We naively replied, "We just made it through all the mud in Tanzania."

"It's worse." Was all he said as the stamp banged down onto our passports like a gavel, sealing his ominous words.

We didn't make it far before the road became so ridiculous that we could do nothing but laugh and cringe as the car nearly tipped over again and again. There were deep crevasses everywhere filled with sucking mud and hip-deep water. The car would not drive in a straight line, no matter how we wrestled with the steering wheel. Our friend, who was driving her car in front of us, eventually became thoroughly stuck and try as we might, we could not get her car out of the mud. What was worse was that it only became more treacherous further ahead so even if we managed to get her out, it would probably only happen again. And again. We couldn't go back, however, because this was the only way home.

We were stuck for over an hour, scratching our heads and trying to plan a way forward. We found some locals with machetes and thought about asking them to cut a new path for us through the undergrowth to the side of the road, but it was just as muddy there too. No other cars had passed us on the road. We were truly stuck with nowhere to go and no way out of it. We always believe in looking on the bright side of every situation, though, and managed to find something to be thankful for... we had remembered to pack toilet paper. We had been through many impossible situations in the past and always managed to find a way out of it. The most important thing to do in these situations is to remain calm and not panic. There is always a way. It might just take some time to discover what it is.

Eventually, after another hour had passed and we were beginning to despair of ever getting out, the impossible happened in the form of two huge trucks with monster tires as tall as me appearing out of nowhere. One appeared from behind us, and the other in front. They both arrived at the same time after hours of not seeing a single vehicle. The truck driver in front of us took one look at our predicament and promptly pulled out a massive chain, attached it to our friend's car and towed her out of the mud and to the road ahead. Our car was able to make it through, but we were still scratching our heads wondering how we could continue without getting stuck again, all while thanking our angel in disguise profusely as he grinned at us and continued on his way, when the truck driver who had come up from behind told us he would drive in front of us and we could follow his tracks. If we got bogged, he would tow us through.

Full of joy and renewed determination we set off once more, following the truck which literally made waves of water and mud as it thundered through the craters, leaving them clear for us to get through. He took us all the way to the paved road, and when we thanked him with our rudimentary knowledge of the Swahili language and tried to give him some money for his trouble, our second angel in disguise of the day vehemently refused, patted us on the shoulders and went on his merry way.

Border crossings

Border crossing from Botswana to Zambia

As a result of road conditions and the GPS' total lack of ability in calculating times on African roads, it becomes very difficult to plan and time arriving at a border to correspond with the border post's hours of operation, but you should always check operating hours before you travel to at least try and avoid being stuck overnight at a border. We have experienced that several times, and it's not fun.

The first time we travelled from Mozambique to Tanzania when we were so completely put out by the extra five hours of driving, we ended up making it to the border half an hour after it closed. We had planned to get there by lunchtime. Plans are always so nice and perfect. Too bad they often need to be thrown out the window on an African road trip. About the only thing you can plan properly is the actual route you will take. Everything else needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, an open mind and a heaping spoonful of flexibility.

We made it to the border to find the gate shut and a guard standing beside it pointing his AK-47 at us.

"Hello, Chief." (They love it when you call them Chief or Boss.) We smiled respectfully at him.

"Border's closed. Come back tomorrow." He replied gruffly. We gave him sad eyes - the children are experts at it - explaining that we had nowhere to go. This border post was in the middle of nowhere, not even a small village nearby. No hotel. No restaurant. We would be roughing it that night. He eventually relented, opening the gate for us and allowing us to park our car inside the compound where we would have a little protection as we slept in the car, waiting for the passport officer to arrive the following morning at 6 am. We made a dinner out of the various small snacks we had in the car, making the most of the situation as we laughed and joked and squeezed into the car to lie half on top of each other and doze until the morning.

It is essential that you keep your humour during trips like these. As long as you can laugh, everything will be fine. Frustration and impatience should never be passengers on your road trip.

Road trip without a destination

Zebras at the Zambezi River, Victoria Falls

After reading about road conditions, unexpected mishaps and border crossing times, it should become clear that the best way to road trip long distance in Africa is to have a very flexible plan if any at all. We never bother to book accommodation beforehand, as we just don't know what time, or day, we will make it to where we are going, and find it best to just drive without a destination, allowing the path to take us where it wills, as fast or as slow as it wills. This takes the pressure off trying to make it to a certain destination at a certain time, which leads to major frustration and even panic when unexpected adventures creep up on you. It's much better to just go with the flow and enjoy every moment, good and bad. Live for the adventure. It is, after all, the journey that changes us and not the final destination.

On our first trip up to Dar Es Salaam, we had planned to arrive in Dar at a respectable hour, maybe in time for some dinner and a leisurely search for a nice hotel. Of course, due to the road conditions, it was almost midnight when we eventually rolled into the sprawling city wondering how on earth we would find accommodation at this hour. We ambled wearily through the city, eventually stopping at a service station to ask someone for directions. As soon as we pulled up, a man approached the car, trying to sell us a mobile phone, which is a regular occurrence in Africa. We asked him if he knew of any accommodation in the area. He smiled wide and informed us that he lived in a holiday apartment complex and the owner was his friend. He immediately phoned him and organised a 2 bedroom apartment for us at a discounted price! The apartment turned out to be wonderful and the perfect place for us to stay while we were there. Things always work out in the end.

Why road trip?

The Zambezi River, Zambia, Victoria Falls

So after reading my account of some truly challenging moments, you might be thinking, "Why on earth should I ever consider a road trip in Africa?"

The answer is simple. It is truly the best way to see this magnificent land, experience the life and end up with plenty of stories to tell the grandkids one day! I'll never forget the magical moment we were driving at dawn through Botswana, the sun just rising and beginning to kiss the world awake, when an elephant ambled out of the bushes and stopped by the side of the road to watch us pass; or the time we stopped at a small Tanzanian village after a long day's drive to buy some chicken and flatbread being cooked on a fire by the side of the road, laughing with the locals as I tried out my extremely basic Swahili on them; and then there was the enchanting time we stopped for cocktails at sunset overlooking the great Zambezi River at Victoria Falls in Zambia, letting the peacefulness of the place wash over us and rejuvenate us after days of driving. There are so many reasons to road trip, including the adventures and challenges which just add to the extraordinary delight of it all. So off you go. Get in your car and drive off into the sunrise... and don't forget the toilet paper.

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