Our return to South Africa was only supposed to be a week or two at the most. We had lined up repairs with both Conqueror, the trailer manufacturer, and Zone Off Road, a Jeep specialty shop in the Johannesburg area. Roger and Jenni, our friends from Khaudum Park, had offered us a place to stay at their house. Crossing into South Africa, we had planned everything we needed to get done in a week, as we weren’t sure how long South African Immigration would give us. As it turns out, they stamped our passport for 90 days without blinking. It took longer to convince Customs they could issues us a Temporary Import Permit (TIP) since our Carnet was still in limbo. It took 45 minutes and two managers to get the TIP issued, but we were back in South Africa, with enough time to get our repairs done without rushing. Our goal was still to get done in time to explore Swaziland before mid November so we could get through Mozambique before the South African school holiday rush filled every available camp ground.
It was fun to spend a little time with our friends, though they were leaving just after we arrived, driving north through Ethiopia and Sudan. We were excited too hear about both, as they are on our list of “Maybe” countries. Maybe we’ll visit, if it seems safe when we get to that point. We had a couple of days to catch up and swap stories with Roger and Jenni. Since we had last seen them, they had travelled into Zambia and seen the source of the mighty Zambezi river among other places.
We wouldn’t have the place all to ourselves, Roger’s two adult sons, Lee and Kevin, lived at the house also. It was fun to get to know both of them. We learned about some fabulous bands from them, and even got to see one in concert! They took us to local hotspots and some awesome markets. Tiffany, Kevin’s girlfriend, even invited us to a birthday party for her grandmother. She turned 92, and was the life of the party, even taking a celebratory shot with her granddaughters!
We dropped off the trailer for it’s repairs and headed to Zone Offroad to pick up a Spare Tire Carrier. We had to get the spare off the roof rack, the excess weight was causing damage to the fiberglass roof of the Jeep. While we were at the shop, we asked them how to address some problems we had noticed with the suspension. Once we started discussing what it did and how much the Jeep weighed, they quickly determined that our shocks were not up to the task of our heavy Jeep. They were sure they had a solution, we decided to spend the money on new, high grade shocks. While they were fitting those, we determined that heavier springs would be best also, so we ended up with all new suspension components.
A couple of days later, we drove over a small bump in the road, at city street speeds, and experienced our first “Death Wobble!” The death wobble is when something flexes that isn’t supposed to in the front suspension and steering mechanisms, causing both front wheels to wobble back and forth uncontrollably. The only way to stop it is to slow down to nearly a stop. We immediately called Zone and headed back to the shop, slowly. They were not shocked, it is common to find a death wobble after beefing up part of the suspension. They were able to find the weak links, and replace them that day. They recommended that we go get our alignment checked, just to make sure that didn’t play a role in our death wobble. On the way to the alignment shop, we heard a noise from the transmission. The same noise we had heard when we first picked up the Jeep from Bruiser. The same noise we were sure had led to the transmission losing 5th gear about a year prior. Needless to say, we were not happy to hear this noise. After conferring with the guys at Bruiser and the team at Zone, we decided to pull the transmission and have a local shop look into it. Luckily, Conqueror was done with the trailer and we were able to get it back “home” before the Jeep was scheduled in for the transmission work.
Though we were separated from the Jeep, we did stay busy. It may sound strange, but after nearly six months living out of our camper trailer, Jen was pretty excited to have an oven. She baked cookies for the guys at Zone Offroad and a birthday cake for me. I was loving it too, we seldom get home baked goodies on the road. We also met up with friends and fellow travelers as they came through Johannesburg. Iain and Malin, whom we had met in Gaborone, came through on their way back home to Europe. We had a wonderful lunch with them and got to hear all about their trip to Angola. Only a week or so later, Paul and Julie, the Australians we traveled through Namibia with, also came through on their way back to Australia for the holidays. We shared stories of our travels, theirs through Zambia and Malawi, and ours through Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. We also got to hear of their future travel plans, once they’re back from spending the holidays with family in Australia. We are all keeping our fingers crossed that we may get to meet up with them again in East Africa.
Ultimately, we were without the Jeep for about 4 weeks as the shop looked for the cause of the noise. Luckily, it was not the problem we thought it was, the nut holding 5th gear on the tail shaft. This is what had failed last time, and is a common problem with this transmission on Dodge trucks, behind the Cummins 6 cylinder diesel. Our motor, a Cummins 4 cylinder, doesn’t put out the same power and torque as those used by Dodge, so we didn’t think it should be a problem. Since it wasn’t the common problem, that left us scratching our heads as to what was wrong. As ours may be the only transmission of it’s kind in all of Africa, and they guys at the local transmission shop had never seen one, they were super thorough and even inspected the Jeep transfer case to make sure it was in good working order. When that got a clean bill of health, they took a few more measurements and found the tolerances inside the transmission to be out of spec, and the likely cause of the noise. They put it back together and made sure it was in correct spec and we were back on the road! However, by now, we couldn’t see Swaziland and make it through Mozambique before the crowds took over. We had to either skip Swaziland, or stay in South Africa for the length of our visa. Since we had heard fantastic reports on Swaziland from everyone we knew that had visited, we chose to explore South Africa until our Visa ended and then see Swaziland until Mozambique was clear again in January.
About this time, a fellow traveller and friend, Dan Grec (of The Road Chose Me) arrived into the area. We had met Dan in north Idaho in September of 2015, just after we sold our home and quit our jobs. He was having some work done on his Jeep at Zone and camped nearby. We loaded the trailer, said goodbye to Kevin, and headed over to meet him. We spend a couple of nights camping with he and Emily, his girlfriend. Dan had come down through West Africa from Spain over the last year, and was a wealth of information on what to expect in that part of Africa. It was great to reconnect with him for a couple of days before he and Emily had to go meet visitors from home. We promised to meet up again further down the road.
We left Dan and Emily and headed towards Lesotho, thinking this would be a good time to explore the mountain kingdom, as it is known. As we set up camp near the border, I noticed that my iPad was locked and would only let me reset it to factory settings. This would mean losing everything I had stored on it, much of it I had neglected to back up. I was beside myself and tried to find a way around this. Internet connectivity in the rural part of South Africa where we were camped was slow and intermittent. We finally determined that we should go back to Johannesburg to utilize the fast and unlimited internet at Roger & Jenni’s. We contacted Kevin with our tails between our legs, and he was glad to have us back. I checked with an Apple store and they were able to help me reset the iPad and potentially get access to my online backup. That access would take a couple of weeks, so after a few days, we headed out to explore more of South Africa.
Our travels took us to the Blyde River Canyon, a beautiful, mountainous area in north eastern South Africa. The river may be small, but it cuts through some amazingly scenic countryside. We then stopped in Nelspruit to pick up a funnel that filters water out of fuel as we fill the tanks, for when we are questioning the quality of fuel. From here, we headed towards Lesotho. Working our way through pine plantations and more traditional farm ground, we ended up crossing into Lesotho near where we had planned to only a week or so before. Crossing out of South Africa was a breeze, and once we were in Lesotho, it was like we had crossed into another time. Lesotho seems so different than it’s neighbor. The markets are bustling, opposed to more western style storefronts. Frequently, we encountered tractors on the roads. Numerous times we saw someone plowing their field using two cows to pull the plow. And everyone smiles at you. Everyone. We immediately noticed how friendly everyone is. Finding camping was a bit of a stretch along the northern edge of the country, but we saw something on our guide that grabbed our attention, called Roads Camp. The GPS led us to what looked like a road maintenance yard, complete with road graders and dump trucks. A kindly gentleman offered to find his boss so we could ask about camping. It turns out, they do offer camping, in their training compound. Here, they hold seminars for roads engineers and construction managers, and they’re set up to house the students. When they aren’t full, they offer the rooms out to travelers. A loading dock at their soils lab made a great level spot to set up the trailer and we enjoyed our first night in Lesotho watching locals walk home from work, stopping to talk with everyone they met along the way.
Our next stop was a small town in the interior of Lesotho, deep in the mountains. Semonkong had been described to us a “an African Wild West Town, where people still tie up their horses outside the taverns.” This sounded fun, so we headed that way. Once the road turns toward the interior of the country, it picks up elevation quickly. And they do not shy away from building the roads steep. On most of the hills, I put the Jeep in 2nd gear and just crept along, to keep from overheating. Arriving in Semonkong, the description was right, we did see horses tied up outside bars. The lodge, where we camped, was down in a narrow river canyon. The local villagers brought their cows and goats through the property to drink at the river. As we hiked to a waterfall on the river, we could see why, it was the only place they could get down to the water, the river cut a deep gorge through the mountain meadows. The waterfall is tall and impressive, and I am sure it is spectacular after the rainy season, when the river is high. It was a great walk through the meadows and village, and everyone said hello to us. Even the guy that then admitted he doesn’t speak English! After the hike, we enjoyed a meal at their restaurant, the Duck & Donkey. It may be a small place, in an “African Wild West town” but that meal was the best restaurant meal we have yet had in Africa!
An acquaintance of ours was coming back to South Africa from the States and had agreed to bring a few items back for us. He let us know when he would be back and where to meet him, so we made our way towards the border. He had given enough notice that we weren’t in a major rush, so we stopped for one more night in Lesotho. Here, at a camp in eastern Lesotho, we bumped into a family from Portland! They were visiting family in Cape Town for Christmas and took the opportunity to explore a little of Southern Africa while on the trip. It was fun to chat with people from home. The next day, we crossed back into South Africa, headed for Bloemfontein to meet our friend. While in camp, we heard from Roger and Jenni, they would be home from Christmas and wondered if we would join them. Lacking any other plan, we agreed and were very thankful for the invite. Once more, we reached out to Kevin to let him know we would be back. I think we could hear him laughing from Johannesburg! I also heard back from Apple and now had access to my online backup for the iPad. I was relieved, months of information was not lost! Back at Roger & Jenni’s, I set to work getting an appointment to get new tires for the Jeep. Ours were not worn out completely, but they would not last all the way to Ethiopia and back, and it seems new tires were cheaper in Johannesburg than further north. We even fit in a trip to the movies to see the newest Star Wars before Roger and Jenny returned. It was nice to see Kevin and Tiffany one last time, they were moving to England, flying out on Christmas Day. Roger and Jenny regaled us with stories of their trip through Ethiopia and Sudan, encouraging us to go if possible. After a leisurely Christmas, we packed our things and left Johannesburg for the last time, headed for Swaziland.
We appreciate Roger and Jenni’s hospitality, as well as that of Lee, Kevin, and Tiffany. They were great about having us crash their home for much longer than expected. It was great to get a better picture of Johannesburg, a city we had avoided as much as possible in previous trips due to it’s reputation for theft and violence. It turned out that the city, while not fully rid of it’s troubled past, is reinventing itself with better security and a young, hip, entrepreneurial attitude. It was also great to meet all the wonderful people at Conqueror, Zone Offroad, and all the other shops that helped get us in tip-top shape. While we appreciated the comforts of home, fast internet, cable TV, an oven, and a bathroom just off the bedroom, we were itching to get on the road again. Our exploratory jaunts whetted our appetite to continue our travels. We are looking forward to Swaziland and beyond.