African Roads

It's a long and winding road

Ah, African roads … If you think we battled along everyday dragging trees off the road and building bridges to get us across wild rivers, you are quite mistaken.
Our trip took us along well used roads, initially created by local tribes, Arab slave traders, missionaries, colonists, adventurers, aid organizations, coffee exporters and overland trucks.
Roughly 90% of the roads were tarmac roads in fairly good condition – for “tarmac” does not equal “good road”.
We encountered heavy road works (thanks to China and Taiwan) in almost all areas where there are still dirt roads today (except Namibia). This will be nice for following travelers, for us however it was quite a nuisance. In Africa there are no detour signs, so we ended up many times in complete dead ends, mud, villages or construction site maintenance areas, everything in the car (including us) covered in dust. Often we had to go back for quite some time before we found the through way – the trick is to follow the local mini bus drivers, they usually know the way. Also on less frequented roads, the “spoer” or track through the construction site is formed by the trucks passing through. That means the track is too wide for our wheelbase and the middle of the track is piled up too high even for our clearance. So often we had to drive with one set of wheels up on the rim and the other set in one side of the track making Tembo lean in a 45° angle – not very comfortable, not very fast and always in danger of huge stones hitting the underbody.
The road conditions in Africa are 100% linked to the weather. Roads we could pass without problems were impassable just a few days later. In southern Kenya we had to wait 12 days for two bridges to get restored after a flood.
Many of the dirt roads we rode, we took on our own free will, deciding against the tarmac alternative. However there are still some few genuine African roads left on the Cape to Cairo tour (if not for long anymore):

- Wadi Halfa – Dongola and on to Abu Dom, Sudan, along Nile (construction for tarmac road currently under way)
- Abu Dom Junction – Khartoum, Sudan, once a tarmac road now a huge construction site, maybe one day again a tarmac road
- Gedaref – Gallabat (Sudanese-Ethiopian Border), Sudan (construction for tarmac road currently under way)
- Gallabat – Gondar, Ethiopia
- Blue Nile Gorge (45km), Ethiopia – terrible, mud slides in rainy season, not really a road anymore, more a, well, mud slide. If you think: pah, only 45km! These 45km take you down from 2.500m altitude to 1.000m and back up to ca. 3.500m …
- Moyale (Ethiopian-Kenyan Border) – Isiolo, Kenya – really bad road, with bandit attacks and often mandatory convoy driving. Deteriorates even more after rains
- Lunga Lunga (Kenyan-Tanzanian Border) – Tanga, Tanzania
- almost all roads in Namibia around Fish River Canyon and Sossusvlei

All the roads within National Parks and most of the roads leading to the parks are dirt roads, also most of the roads leading to campsites, the roads in small villages and off the beaten tracks. For example in Tanzania: the coastal road between Tanga and Pangani, the roads on Mt. Kilimanjaro and south of Dar Es Salaam to the Selous Game Reserve.
Even in South Africa there are many dirt roads left – try the one between Strandfontein and Lamberts Bay on the Western Cape and you will learn to hate it.
Quite frankly we have learned to hate dirt roads and often had tears in our eyes when we saw a stretch of tarmac appearing on the horizon. Well, Tembo is maybe not the most comfortable choice of vehicle for that matter – no modern suspensions and shock absorbers present, just some good old leaf springs. The loving expression of “bone shaker” comes to your mind: after some km of bad corrugations the noise of the engine combines itself with the rattling of all our belongings and the noise of the car seemingly falling apart and causes an earsplitting sound that drives you up the wall …

At home in Europe one hunts for dirt roads – in Africa one runs from them. Well most of the times.
Dirt roads in good condition are a treat though and the nicest drives we had were on nice sand pads without traffic and without corrugations!

So does one still need a 4x4 to drive through Africa?
Until now one still needs it, especially the high clearance of a 4x4. But only on very few occasions. The moments we actually engaged the high or low gear 4WD on a normal stretch of road (not in national park or going to a campsite) was
- in Northern Sudan to climb back on the road we “lost”
- in Northern Sudan to get through some deep sand parts
- in Southern Sudan, having to make a detour through knee-deep mud, because trucks were stuck on the “normal road”
- in Ethiopia up the Blue Nile Gorge
- some water crossings or road detours along the trip in various countries, but nothing major

However you miss out on most of the fun without a 4x4, since access to the really wild places is mostly 4x4 only – and that’s what we want, right!

So here is our list of our most loved and most hated stretches of roads (not necessarily linked to road conditions more to personal conditions at the moment of driving):


Not everyone got a car Siwa Oasis, Egypt

Our Favorites - Let's Do it Again

Marsa Matruh – Siwa Oasis, tarmac, Egypt
Wadi Halfa – Dongola, dirt road, Sudan
River tracks in Samburu National Reserve, dirt road, Kenya
“Short-cut” Tanga – Peponi Beach Resort, dirt road, Tanzania
Kibiti – Selous Game Reserve, dirt road, Tanzania
Morongoro – Mbeya, tarmac, Tanzania
Sangilo Sanctuary – Nkhata Bay via Mzuzu, tarmac, Malawi
Chimoio – Save River Bridge, Mozambique
Inhambane – Tofo Beach, tarmac/ sand pad, Mozambique
Nossob – Bitterpan, sand pad in Kgalagadi National Park, South Africa
Road down to Ai-Ais, dirt road, Namibia
Road to Sossusvlei, tarmac/ sand pad, Namibia
Chapman’s Peak Drive, tarmac, Cape Town, South Africa

Let's take a shortcut on the Swahili Coast, south of Tanga

The Bad & The Ugly

Abu Dom Junction – Khartoum, dirt road part north of Khartoum, Sudan
Blue Nile Gorge, dirt road, Ethiopia
Wondo Genet – Yabello, Ethiopia
Moyale – Isiolo via Marsabit, dirt road, Kenya
Nairobi – Mombasa, last 40 km outside Mombasa, Kenya
Strandfontein – Lamberts Bay, dirt road, South Africa
Upington – Twee Rivieren (Kgalagadi N.P.), last 45 km dirt road, South Africa

Mud, trucks & busses Blue Nile Gorge, Ethiopia

You Are Never Alone!

… That is actually true for everything you do in Africa, anywhere in Africa. However concerning the African Roads it is the ultimate truth. Just because this is a nice and smooth tarmac road built by some Austrians with EU money, you think you have the sole right to use it, since you have a car … Wrong! An African Road is in the hands of the people and villages along its way; it is the artery pumping through people, cattle, busses, donkey carts, bicycles and more people. Everyone is entitled to use the road at any time for any purpose.

In villages all the main shops, liquor stores, market stalls, brothels and hotels are along the main road. On market day the goods are presented right next to the road and hence all the busses stop right next to the stalls and hence all vendors come to the busses and hence all the kids come to see what is going on and hence all the cattle the kids are looking after follow them onto the road.

On Sundays, before and after church, entire village populations walk in their best clothes to the nearest church of their faith using up the entire width of the road.

Rural Africans don’t own cars, the majority owns (depending on the region) camels or donkeys and the very fortunate own bicycles. A Malawian proverb says: “If you own a bicycle, you are rich.” Hence our fellow travelers on the roads were donkey carts loaded to the rim with goods and the entire family, cattle boys with their goat herds – it is easier to walk on tarmac, men on bicycles with their wife/ mother/ sister on the rear rack with the youngest child strapped onto her back.
For kilometers around villages we encountered women carrying firewood or water on their heads, while breastfeeding their babies, walking along the road with swinging hips.

The for short- and long-distance travel the only medium of transportation available are busses. Depending on the area there is a choice of busses:
- huge and shiny ones with religious messages or the logos of favorite soccer clubs
- old, rusty buckets held together with duct tape and dust, that had already lived several lives before coming to Africa (one bus still sported the words: “Sea Aquarium Hong Kong”)
- busses with chassis so twisted that they move on the roads like crabs so that we could easily see every single row of passenger clearly advancing towards us
- mini-busses blasting the newest gangsta-rap with the “conductor” hanging out of the broken side door, stopping every 5 meters to squeeze in even more passengers
- a combination of the above

One thing all the busses have in common, always, is the speed. They all go way too fast ignoring road and vehicle conditions. And of course ignoring everyone else on the road …

African cattle considers roads to be their proper home, serving as resting place, grazing place, stable or just a place to hang about with friends and to check out the traffic. Here are the typical reactions of the different types of animals when encountered on the road:

- Cows: are big and strong and they know it. They will only move reluctantly. A big Land Rover stopping only millimeters away from their faces with screaming breaks does not impress them in the least bit
- Donkeys: are somewhat slow and simply could not be bothered to move. Mostly they just stand in the middle of the road and stare you down with heavy eyes. You are the one that needs to move, not the donkey
- Goats: only realize in the very last second that a car is approaching (which is quite surprising if you consider the noise Tembo is releasing with rattling sand boards and a loud diesel engine) and then the cannot make up their mind which way to escape. “Left? Right? No, left again. Oh my friends are all on the other side. Quick, let’s join them”. Gaargh!
- Chickens: are even worse than goats. They simply cannot make up their minds on which way to go. And they always change their mind the moment you drive past. We had many close encounters and our friends Antje & Jens made it their ”hobby” to stir up some feathers. Just outside Moshi an unfortunate chicken collided with Antje & Jens’ Landcruiser and we saw it disappearing in a ditch in a cloud of feathers describing a prefect ballistic curve
- Dogs: are seen more often dead than alive in Africa. They are not very car wise (well, how could they?) and often cross the street oblivious to oncoming traffic
- Monkeys: hide by the side of the road and ambush you throwing stones. Well, not really, but they certainly look like they would love to do it :-)

All this makes traveling through Africa exotic and special, but it also makes it very dangerous. One always has to expect the unexpected and one is always confronted with very little space and a cumulating of different travel speeds, traffic regulations and potholes …

Oh, and never ask a local about road conditions. He will always tell you that it is in perfect condition. You can’t blame him. Either he has never been further away than a few km around their village and simply doesn’t know or to him the sheer existence of the road makes it just perfect. And of course he would never want to tell a foreigner something bad so he is polite and says hakuna matata, no problem!


Market Day On the way to Malawi, Southern Tanzania

Golly, these guys are big! Tembo next to the long-distance busses, Mombasa, Kenya


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