What My Epic Road Trip Across Southern Africa Taught Me

by | Mar 21, 2024

Laura Simpson from Intent on Safari on her epic road trip across southern Africa
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Last updated on April 15th, 2024

Featured image: Laura Simpson on her road trip across southern Africa | Photo provided by Intent on Safari

Reflections from a coddiwomple* trip through eight African countries

by Laura Simpson, Founder, Intent on Safari

As a European with my heart in Africa, it is simply impossible to drive across the African continent, and not reflect on just how lucky, and privileged, we are. In August 2023, I set off across Africa with my husband Colin McConnell, a fourth-generation African born in Kenya. We explored the wilds of Southern Africa, driving 17,607 kilometres across eight different countries in our Land Rover defender 110. This road trip was fulfilling a lifelong dream to coddiwomple* across Africa. While we were at it, we turned it into a fact-finding mission, hoping to discover new gems for our safari business, Intent on Safari. 

During my road trip across Southern Africa, I learned to appreciate things that, in the past, I would have taken for granted, or not even thought about. We have freedoms that for many, are unimaginable. Our passion for wildlife and conservation was on the forefront of the agenda, and we were lucky enough to spend time in 15 National Parks, including some of the big names such as South Luangwa (Zambia), Chobe (Botswana), Etosha (Namibia), Hwange & Mana pools (Zimbabwe).

*Coddiwomple [Ko-dee-wom-pl] (verb) to travel in a purposeful manner towards a vague destination.

A vehicle drives down a dirt road while the passenger gives thumbs up out the window during a road trip across southern Africa.

Laura and her husband Colin on their road trip across Southern Africa / Photo by Laura Simpson

Lessons learned from my road trip across Africa

In sharing my reflections and lessons learned, I hope that it helps others realize that the things we take for granted, might be the exact concepts that empower us, in how we choose to live.

1. I am thankful to have dreams

In the Western world, we have the mental headspace to think about our hopes, our dreams and our aspirations. We are encouraged to dream big, be anything we want to be, and define what makes us ‘special’ (although the latter gets my back up – this puts so much pressure on us – we can’t all be a Nelson Mandela).

Driving through small villages, where you see the majority of people going about their daily activities, you wonder – do they stop to think about their hopes and dreams, or is that concept a luxury? My money says their headspace is all geared towards survival. What will I feed the family today? Where we will get school fees from?

In Zambia, we met someone who explained that in their language the word for’ tomorrow’ is the same word used to describe ‘yesterday’. How can you focus on your goals and ambitions for the future if they also describe the past? I appreciate that I have the opportunity to make my dreams a reality.

2. I am grateful for my passport

A European passport literally offers the world in travel freedom. Yes – I am guilty of complaining about politics back home, as I don’t feel the current political situation in both the UK or the Netherlands are representative of me, or my beliefs. However, I am very grateful to have been born in this part of the world, as European passports opens up the world.

We are welcomed anywhere – we may have to buy a visa, but that’s it. I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I was never able to leave the country I was residing in. Think about that. I was speaking to a Zimbabwean Lady whose husband has a UK passport, but she only has the ‘green mamba’ (Zim passport). She was denied a visa to the UK, to join her husband to visit family and friends as she was told she was at risk of never leaving. It hit home – this was something I will unlikely ever have to worry about. I have the freedom to go anywhere.

Wise Banner thin

3. I appreciate the security of hard currency

If you earn dollars, euros or pounds, your money is pretty safe, in the sense that it is highly unlikely, that overnight, your savings will be worth less than the paper it is printed on, as was the case in Zimbabwe a couple of years ago.

Or as has been the case in Malawi recently – when their currency devalued by 44.5% (Bloomberg). This means that whilst the bag of maize meal that feeds a family of four, for one month, goes up in price to 59,000 Malawian kwacha. (the equivalent in USD dollars is $33) The minimum wage at 50,000 kwacha a month (approximately US$30), stays the same.

I’m not saying that the situation in the Western world is always peachy and that this would never happen to us, but we do have a lot more security than most places on the planet, where such occurrences happen multiple times, in one’s lifetime.

A pride of lions relaxing in southern Africa

Pride of Lions in Moremi, Botswana / Photo by Laura Simpson

Photographing the sunset in Matusadona National Park, Zimbabwe / Photo by Laura Simpson

4. I appreciate the Internet

I am an old soul and am as technically challenged as they come. Having said that, I do appreciate that the Internet has made this road trip across Africa possible. It has enabled us to keep our business up and running. Without the option of keeping Intent on Safari alive, I don’t think we would have been comfortable or confident to drop off the radar for six months. The Internet has also made it very easy to stay in touch with family and friends whilst on the road. I was able to hear the fabulous news that I had a new nephew, and was able to be there for my mother when my aunt passed away. Technology made it possible for us to be away, but still stay connected with everyday life. It gives us the best of both worlds.

5. Less really is more

Calling Andromeda (our Land Rover) home for almost half a year gave us all the freedom in the world to come and go as we please, and that feeling alone was worth gold. It was also a good lesson on what you really ‘need’ in life.

And the truth is, you don’t need a lot! I would love to say that we started out as minimalists but this was not entirely the case. We quickly down-scaled en route. All our ‘extras’ were either given away – or stored in a bag that was kept in the bowels of the car, and never opened again, because we simply didn’t need it. It felt very liberating to not need so much ‘stuff’ and it is my every intention to keep this mentality going when we return home.

I can’t imagine anyone back home, appreciating a bucket – but on this trip, I wouldn’t have been without it. Our bright yellow bucket (with an unmatching blue lid) was the washing machine (contributing to our dignity), helped fetch water (practical), acted as a chair (offered us comfort), and doubled as storage, keeping the back of the car organized. It helped make life easy and manageable.

‘Home’ while on the road / Photo by Laura Simpson

6. I learned the value of trusting myself and my instincts

I am guilty at times, of overthinking things and worrying about the ‘what ifs’. What if the rains wash away the road? What if we have to cross a river? What if we get stuck? What if we break down? I would lie in the roof tent at night, anxiety would get a hold of me, and I would waste so much time worrying about something that might never even happen.

If we had heard from previous travellers about a slightly more ‘adventurous’ off-the-beaten-track route, I was almost inclined to NOT go – because …. what if? The overthinking of ‘what if’ scenarios happened to me countless times during the trip. Were the sandy roads in Botswana really that brutal? Would we have enough clearance for the steep rocky descent in Malawi? What if we get lost in Namibia? In my head, every situation carried a 10/10 on the catastrophe scale. In reality, they were more a 4 out of 10.

So, my advice to my future self, and anyone who recognizes themselves in this – is to trust that you have a sensible head on your shoulders, you are well prepared, and are capable to assess whatever situations you stumble across. Worrying about it all beforehand is not only a complete waste of time, it takes away from being in the moment.

7. Take reviews with a pinch of salt

Reviews are a funny thing. We tell ourselves over and over again, that we shouldn’t care about what other people think about us. But at the same time, we won’t buy a product, or book a trip, unless we have checked the opinions of countless strangers, and verified that it is indeed worth it, or will make us happy. Whilst on the road trip we came across many fellow travellers and exchanging ideas and tips is what it’s all about. I have learned to not let reviews from the ‘so-called experts’ add pressure to my experience.

Victoria Falls is a great example of this: If you check the internet there are tons of reviews informing you, not only the best month of the year to visit the falls – but down to the best hour of the day! For example, ‘Don’t go at mid-day as there is absolutely no chance of seeing rainbows in the mist’ or ‘December – March the falls are so strong – all you get is mist – too much mist.’, or ‘September – November it’s dry, no mist – no drama for your insta selfie. etc. etc.’

If you read enough from the self-proclaimed experts, you could convince yourself that there is only a couple of minutes, on a handful of days, that the Victoria Falls is worth seeing. What pressure! Not to mention a complete load of nonsense. See it when you are in the area, at an hour that works for you. The falls were fabulous – absolutely amazing, and I can’t imagine they would ever disappoint anyone.

Dead Vlei, Namibia / Photo by Laura Simpson

Camp gourmet cooking in Kafue National Park, Zambia / Photo by Laura Simpson

8. I have learned the value of appreciating the simple things in life

On this road trip across Africa, I learned that the simple things in life make the difference. They don’t need to be once-in-a-lifetime events. They don’t have to cost you your entire savings. They can occur every day, if you’re happy to look out for them. Often, they come in the form of a connection. A connection with nature. A connection with people.

Special moments from my trip include:

  • The sundowner on the Nxai plains where it was just us and the salt flats
  • Camping under the most beautiful Baobab Tree in Botswana
  • Watching the Electrical storm in Linyati
  • Catching up over a homemade Thai curry in the desert of Namibia because by chance, we bumped into our French cycling buddies
  • Connecting with two Swiss travellers who we shared a table with us Windhoek. Our love for Land Rovers, and having a giggle over the challenges of exiting roof tents in the middle of the night for a pee bonded us instantly.
  • Watching the England- Samoan rugby game with two Samoan Brothers in the middle of Zambia
  • Standing on the Dead Vlei salt pans
  • Sitting by a campfire and listening to the sounds of the bush
  • Sleeping in the roof tent
  • Beans and rice after a 6-hour border crossing!
  • Having sundowners with two quirky Scotsmen in Savuti
  • Enjoying starry skies
  • Watching the sand dunes meet the Atlantic Ocean in Namibia

It’s the simple things that have made the longest lasting impressions. That’s why I’ll look forward to doing another road trip across Africa again soon .

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