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Fear and loathing on the honeymoon trail

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The doomsayers warned Peter and Debbie Simpson not to spend their honeymoon driving from Cairo to Cape Town. And they were proved right as the trip started with a robbery and almost ended with a crash. But the optimists were right too.

Debbie Simpson checks out herds migrating across the Serengeti. Photo / Peter Simpson
Debbie Simpson checks out herds migrating across the Serengeti. Photo / Peter Simpson

The merchants of doom outnumbered the optimists. "You're doing what? Driving across Africa? You must be mad," they said on hearing of our honeymoon plans for a Cairo to Cape Town road trip.

"You'll get sick. You'll be robbed, shot, killed. Take a gun. Go somewhere else."

How right they were. We were robbed, threatened at gunpoint, nearly killed, and bickered as our bad luck became a curse. The heat and dust and roadside chaos closed in day after day.

But the optimists were also correct. We had the trip of our lives. We would go again tomorrow.

A bit over year ago we got married and prepared for our long safari. We re-mortgaged our flats and bought a Land Rover 4X4. We read expedition manuals, bought spares, tools, camping gear - and fully lived up to the maxim that novices and newly acquired bank loans are quickly parted.

We booked our vehicle on a ship from Britain bound for Alexandria, in Egypt, and flew out to await its arrival.

At the port, I was called to customs, dreading the prospect of unloading all our gear. I worried needlessly.

A gang of thieves had jemmied off chains, handle and lock and taken anything of any worth: spares, camping gear, tools, medical kit, fishing gear, clothes, food, CD/radio, gifts for locals of books, pens and secondhand clothes - everything we needed for a six-month expedition. They even swiped my wife's contraceptive pills.

There was nothing we could do but file police reports, replace what we could... and carry on.

Ten days later, we embarked on the desert road to Cairo and the Pyramids in a sand storm.

We felt upbeat. The gloom-mongers had warned us of an African disaster, and we had been lucky to get ours over with at the start of our dream trip.

How wrong we were. Worse was to come.

We made good time through Egypt and caught the Lake Nasser ferry to Sudan. We chose the Nile route south, following it to the great river's very source in Ethiopia. Sand, rock, potholes and mile after mile of corrugated dirt track lay ahead, along with stunning night skies alight with galaxies over desert camps, miles from civilisation.

After a month in Ethiopia, we crossed into Kenya and bumped gingerly along the notorious Ngaso Plain, praying we would not fall victims to the dreaded Shifta, merciless nomadic bandits.

We navigated the Chalbi Desert, before heading west to the eerie, volcanic Lake Turkana, also known as the Jade Sea. Samburu tribe corrals and low-slung villages of thatch and mud huts broke the desolation.

We stopped for lunch under one of the ubiquitous acacia trees, sitting motionless to stave off the heat, listening to cicadas and other rustling sounds rising from the sizzling earth.

Out of nowhere appeared a young Samburu tribesman in bright red ceremonial skirt and jangling, multi-beaded jewellery.

He was about 15. He gestured to the water bottle. We were low, so I poured a small cup and offered him biscuits, which he took. He again requested the half-full bottle. I gave him another cup, but it was the container he wanted. "No," we said firmly, and he left.

Twenty minutes later he was back with an A47 slung across his chest.

He pointed at the bottle. I took a closer look at the old, battered gun, which had a magazine attached.

I noticed he was wearing two watches on his left wrist. Bounty from his last hold-up? Timepieces of his dead victims?

I offered the bottle, but made it clear he must hand me the gun. He clutched it and for a few long seconds we eyeballed each other. I gave in and handed over the bottle. He smiled, turned on his dusty heels and walked off into the bush.

We headed south-east, down the Rift Valley and across the Korante Plain.

We spent several days, often lost, navigating the most memorable drive our of lives: dry river beds, thick jungle, steep, rocky outcrops covered with sharp, whispering thorn bushes. The only signs of Western modernity were decrepit old missionary buildings now used as cattlesheds.

We aimed for the graded road that would take us to the frontier settlement of Archers Post, and from there planned to pick up the road to Nairobi.

For more than a week we had rarely made it out of third gear. Maybe it was the complacency of at last reaching a road that appeared on our map that brought about our near-death disaster. I remember the crash vividly. The memory induces mild panic now.

Debbie was driving. I remember looking at the speedometer. She was doing just under 70kph. Too fast for a corrugated road. She slowed down, but the speed crept up with the prospect of reaching a town and supplies. Suddenly the rear of the vehicle violently fish-tailed out to the left.

Debbie over-steered. The rear-right wheels swung around. We headed for the ditch.

"Go straight!" I yelled, as she grappled with the steering wheel. We span left again. "Brake! Brake!" Stupid instructions.

I remember the air being sucked out of the cab as we flipped, crashing down on the driver's side.

I got out immediately, through the hole left by the shattered windscreen. I had pain on the side of my head. I could not see my wife.

We always drove with the windows down. I imagined her trapped, hanging out of the door, pinned down by the vehicle.

I remember screaming out and thinking, "If she's trapped, how will I ever lift the thing off her?"

I scrambled back in, removed some debris and saw her, lying motionless. Her eyes opened.

We climbed out of the wreckage. Debbie had a small graze on her elbow. We were upright, walking. No blood, no broken bones. My wife surveyed the Land Rover.

"What have I done?"

We hugged. What did it matter? We were alive.

We were about 190km from the nearest town. After about an hour and half, a cloud of dust appeared in the shape of another Land Rover, filled with Kenyans who helped us right ours. It started first time.

By nightfall we had found a decent campsite and spent a few days nursing whiplash and mulling things over.

Were we cursed, we asked ourselves? The theft - now this? Should we call it a day?

The repairs took a month, but at the end the Land Rover looked like new.

The remainder of our trip was memorable for the sheer beauty and adventure of Africa.

The friendliness and resilience of the Africans we met is unsurpassed.

Nothing can compare with the roar of Victoria Falls, or the mass exodus of migrating herds across the Serengeti plains, or the chance to watch cheetahs stalking prey.

Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Malawi and Mt Kilimanjaro are just three of the wonders that come hand in hand with whatever crash and theft life may throw at you.

We headed south through Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa, the ultimate destination.

Several days into Cape Town's luxuries, we found ourselves toasting the thieves who ensured our great safari began with such heartache - making off with all those essential supplies, including Debbie's birth control pills.

"I think I'm pregnant," she announced. And she was.

Our son, Oscar Reggie Simpson, was born on February 7, 2005. A bonny boy he is, too.

Our respective parents suggest we sell the Land Rover to make up some of our losses.

Can you imagine the disbelieving looks we give them?

- NZ Herald

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