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Zebra the Land Rover: Cairo to Capetown and the Lessons In-Between

We are Jan and Vale. We both share a passion for travelling and between us, have visited 61 of the world’s 195 countries. We would like to share a few short glimpses into our recent Cairo to Capetown overland journey and some of our tips for people who are thinking about embarking on their own overlanding journey.

We are lucky enough to travel every day in our jobs which is great, but we spend a considerable amount of time at airports and in aeroplanes. To get away from this, during our time off we decided to take up overlanding in our Land Rover Defender 90, Zebra!

Egypt - Never Drive at night

Zebra-the-defender-in-egypt

After a stressful few days in the Alexandria port completing paperwork, gaining permits and attaching our Egyptian licence plates, we were finally on the road and ready to begin our adventure. The sun was setting as we left the port and it was already time to break our overlanding rule number 1: Never drive at night.

Places to camp around Alexandria are not easy to come across, so we were forced to head 250km to Al Sorat Farm just south of Cairo. Driving on European roads couldn’t have prepared us for the journey ahead.

At a total length of 7.4m with our overland trailer attached, there is a lot to keep an eye on and in Egypt, the road rules are rather different to what we are used to in Europe. For instance, a 3 lane motorway has 7 lanes of traffic. Think of the gap between cars parked in Sainsbury’s carpark, then add 100kph. It’s not for the faint-hearted! We arrived at our camp a little shaken but in one piece. Here, we would spend a few days giving everything a reshuffle, setting up some sort of routine and visiting a few of the tourist attractions.

From Cairo we headed to the east coast and down to Hurgada where we spent a night and took the opportunity for some snorkelling in the Red Sea. The roads were fast, in good condition and very quiet. It was a nice break from what we had experienced on our way from Alexandria. Back inland to our next stop; Luxor, where we paid a visit to the Valley of the Kings to learn about the ancient Egyptian history. It’s really incredible how the structures are so well preserved even after 4000 years.

We spent the next days heading south to Abu Simble, where we would cross the Nile and proceed to the Sudanese Border. We were late arriving at the boat, but the boat was also late arriving to the port, so luckily we got on. It was a tight fit but they managed to squeeze us in. This was our first border crossing and I’m glad to say everything went smoothly.

Sudan - Wild camping

Our first night in Sudan was spent in a dusty car park in Wadi Halfa. We can’t always be picky about where we stay, especially if we want to abide by our number 1 rule, which is no more driving at night. Up to now we haven’t done any wild camping. We were advised against it in Egypt by many different sources as well as the locals and the police. However, here in Sudan, now that the situation has reached a level of calm, it is safe to do so. We took the opportunity to head off the beaten track and find some beautiful wild camp spots in the desert surrounded by small rocky mountains and sand dunes.

The Northern half of Sudan is nearly all desert so we cracked on making our way South to the capital Khartoum, where we needed to get our visas for Ethiopia. The diesel in Sudan costs approximately £3 for a full 60l tank. It’s even cheaper if you buy it on the black market but it’s often dirty, so best avoided!

As we headed south from Khartoum to the Ethiopian border, the roads progressively got worse. It was a long drive so we stayed half way at Al Qadarif, again in a dusty car park on the outside town. From there to the Ethiopian border was 130km. It took 5 hours, at an average speed of 26kph. The road was awful. Potholes were over a meter deep and big enough to fit the Defender and trailer completely inside.

Ethiopia - Bandit controlled roads

zebra-the-defender-in-ethiopia

We managed to cross into Ethiopia in the early afternoon. Our plan was to stop close to the border at a hotel that allowed camping in their courtyard. After we took a look through the gate at the mountain of rubbish, we opted to continue an extra two hours to the larger town of Gondar.

After an hour on the road, we came to an army road-block. They signalled for us to pull over before asking us a host of questions; where are you from, where are you going, what are you doing here and what football team we supported. After answering their questions, they told us; “you have to turn around, you cannot go any further. This road is too dangerous and controlled by bandits during the night.”

This was our first experience of having to turnaround due to a road block and it put us in a bit of a conundrum. The original place we planned to stay close to the border was now an hour away. We had passed another hotel 30 minutes back which I had taken a mental note of as a possible plan B. As the sun was now setting and not wanting to drive in the dark on the bandit controlled road we decided to return to plan B.

Now, these things shouldn’t worry you or put you off making a trip, it’s all part of the adventure. You just have to use your common sense, forward thinking and always try to have a backup plan. The Government's travel advice website is a great place to go for information before setting off on a trip to unfamiliar places. Its kept up-to-date and the information is always detailed when it comes to areas to avoid.

Our next stop was the Simien Mountains. The tarmac roads disappeared and the views became absolutely incredible. We made our way up to 3500m before crossing the peaks. The high altitude reduced our engine power considerably, but with good use of the low box, the Defender had no problem hauling 1000kg of trailer up and down the mountain trails. After crossing the mountains we travelled East reaching the height of -127m below sea level in the Danakil Depression.

Kenya - The big 5 

zebra-the-defender-in-kenya

Our first 2 nights, we camped at an abandoned safari lodge in Marasbit National Park. The lodge was very spooky, as if it had been left from one day to another. Rooms still made up and glasses still on the bar, but everything completely covered in dust and cobwebs. It was a peaceful few days and a well needed chance to relax.

From Marasbit NP, we began our Safari route south, first stopping at Lake Nakuru where we had a super successful two days of animal spotting; lions, leopards, rhinos, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, impala and gazelle. Its was absolutely amazing to be able to take our own vehicle through the game parks and experience these intimate animal encounters with not another tourist in sight.

We spent a total of 14 days in Kenya, visiting several national parks, seeing the big 5 as well as plenty of other incredible animals.

Malawi - How to navigate tropical rain

zebra-the-defender-in-malawi

Next up was Malawi, this is where the rain started. We were now crossing the ITCZ (Inter Tropical Convergence Zone). The ITCZ is where the trade winds of the Northern and Southern hemisphere converge, causing a belt of low pressure that circles the earth near the equator. This area sees some of the biggest thunderstorms in the world and we got to experience them first hand.

We spent the week making our way down lake Malawi. During the days the weather was nice, with blue skies and very few clouds. But by the time the sun was setting, you could see the thunderstorms moving in and once we were in our tent getting settled for the night, the rain would start and wouldn’t stop until around 10am. It rained for about 12 hours every day for the whole week, and when I say rain, I mean RAIN.

These heavy rains cause havoc. Drainage isn’t managed well and roads turn into rivers in no time at all. The soil is very sandy so its easily washed away creating huge holes that are then often filled with water. The perfect trap for the unsuspecting Land Rover driver. We then had the problem of water crossings, what were tiny streams are now raging rivers. You can easily get into serious trouble if you don’t do it right, you can wreck your vehicle, your gear and your whole trip in the blink of an eye.

We approached all of our serious water crossings in the same way; with caution! First off we assess two key factors; how deep is the water and how fast is it flowing. There is no rule of thumb for what is okay and what is not okay. For us, if the depth is below the top of the bonnet and you can easily hold your foot in the water against the flow, then we start to consider a crossing. A poking stick comes in handy and is a great way to find out what the bed of the river is made up of. Hard is good, soft is not so good. Lastly, have a look across the river to your exit.

When we are satisfied that the water is not too deep or flowing too fast, that the bottom is nice and firm and that we have a decent exit point, we take the plunge. Using a low gear, we establish a pace that creates a bow wave in front of us and we keep this going to follow the wave all the way to the exit point. Hopefully all goes well and we make it to the other side, but we are always prepared for something to go wrong and if it does, we keep calm and try to take things slowly. A rushed decision could easily put us in a to a tricky situation, but the key is to properly assess the crossing to begin with and avoid these situations in the first place.

Homeward Bound!

We have now concluded our trip! We were “locked down” in Namibia for 6 weeks after being refused entry to South Africa at the beginning of the pandemic. Namibia ended up being our favourite country from the whole trip so I guess it’s lucky we got locked down where we did. In the end we did manage to make it to Capetown in a British Government convoy as part of a repatriation effort. It was an absolutely fantastic experience but what a different world we have returned to.

The Defender and our overland trailer are currently in a container on the way back to Italy - somewhere around Dakar, the last time I checked. It should arrive into Livorno around the middle of August and we hope to spend a few days exploring Tuscany before heading home to Milan.

We have a bit of work to do on the Defender when it finally returns. The rough African roads took their toll on the poor suspension, as well as the alignment of just about everything.

Having the Alps on our doorstep, we have plenty of short trips planned exploring the mountain trails. We hope to do a big tour of the UK next summer and tie it into a few of the Land Rover shows. It would be great if we could get a stand and promote our overlanding experience and this is something we will look into. We also had an invite to the Abenteuer & Allrad overland show in Germany to exhibit our vehicle and trailer but it has been cancelled which is a huge shame.

Norway is also on our wish list as well as the Pan America Highway, but we need a little time to save again before those trips!

You can follow our overland adventures with Zebra via our Instagram page - @defender.adventure

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