Out of Africa

By Isabel Wolf-Gillespie 

In September 2013 my husband Lloyd Gillespie, my sister Raphaela Wolf and I along with our ridgeback Mr P arrived back in Durban after 4 months and 18 days on the road for the Rhino Knights campaign around Southern Africa.

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Rhino Knights, is a campaign aimed at educating children on the importance of wildlife conservation with the current rhino poaching crisis spear-heading the campaign. From Durban I ran and cycled 9 300km through some of the most beautiful countries in the world to raise awareness for Africa’s wildlife locally and internationally. Lloyd and I have worked on this for over a year pouring all our heart and energy into it and the preparation period was incredibly stressful, hitting barrier after barrier, having to battle through people’s doubts.

I am sitting in front of my laptop with an overwhelming amount of admin to do but I am not sure where to start to be quite honest… Normally I write a list and tick off the boxes as I am going along but today, very untypically for me, I feel my mind drifting off every so often and I catch myself starring out the window for I don’t how long thinking back at the countries and lands we travelled through…

Our memories of the South African leg of the journey were hugely shaped by the extreme cold we had to face and endure. Our route took us from warm Durban on the first day, suddenly into the freezing cold conditions of the Drakensberg which we all struggled with. We headed out with two additional Rhino Knights team members, Johnny and Craig, who showed their support and cycled for three weeks with us. To cycle in freezing conditions is extremely difficult and much harder on the body. The icy air that enters the lungs needs to be warmed and the flow of frosty air while riding, creeps into every little seam or slightly open zip causing shivers right through the body. We rode and ran through Matatiele, Mount Fletcher and over Naude´s Pass (2 500m) along portions of the mountainous Freedom Challenge route to Rhodes and further through the beautiful Karoo to the Cape. South Africa and its rainbow colours have always had a special magic to me and during our travels they became clearly evident. South Africans often despair at the state of the nation, but not everyone is filled with fear, contempt, distrust and negativity. We met lots of warm and hospitable on route, from all groups and walks of life that are overwhelmingly positive about this great country.

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Of course it is not all moonshine and roses out there, but we firmly believe that what we put out we got back. Before we knew it we reached the border to the second country of our campaign, Namibia. I had never been to Namibia before but have heard plenty about it. Namibia is beautiful, wild and very remote and typical of a semi-desert. We were welcomed by mild, warm days full of sunshine and cold, rough nights. “Big sky country” springs to mind when marvelling at the seemingly endless views and space out there. Within hours of entering Namibia it had taken a piece of my heart which is hard to put into words. Somehow the land, its people and animals resonate within me and I feel connected to it all. Namibia is authentic, wild and free and it is clear to me that we will return to it one day.

Our route took us from Vioolsdrif to Ai-Ais/Richtersveld National Park. A few days before, I made the small mistake of not changing into my running socks after cycling, which resulted in terrible blisters on the bottom of my toes like I have never had before. Every step after that was painful but luckily the hot, healing waters of the springs were exactly what I needed to soothe my sore feet. Further north we passed the mighty Fish River Canyon and through the villages of Bethanien and Hermelinghausen. We decided after seven days on the trot to take a rest to visit the world-renowned Sossusvlei sand dunes in the Namib-Naukluft National Park. The dunes in different shades of red, orange and violet are unique, dynamic and continuously being moved by the wind. Animal life on the dunes firstly seems sad and non-existent, but if one takes a closer look, countless tracks of snakes, insects and other life become visible. Entering the bustling city of Windhoek, which has everything to offer, was somewhat of a shock after the remoteness and silence of the semi-desert.

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The coastal town of Swakopmund in the heart of the desert felt like a ghost town, always covered in mist at first. Save the Rhino Trust Namibia is based there and getting together with them for some awareness talks at schools turned the town into the warm, welcoming place it actually is. After a talk to a special group of children in an afternoon education centre in the middle of the township, a girl came up to me and asked me a question that literally took my breath away and made me speechless. “Where do you take the inspiration from to do something like this?” My fumbled answer something along the lines of “A strong mind and heart and when there is a will, there is a way,” didn’t do it justice. I felt it wasn’t what I wanted to reply to her but she seemed happy and wandered off excitedly chatting with her friends in tow. Only later did the answer I wanted to give her hit me like a thunderbolt, and this is what I should have said: “You children are my inspiration! Whenever we visit a school and speak to you I am inspired to carry on afterwards.”

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The dry and harsh Damaraland and Etosha National Park marked our way further north, through the Caprivi, where we drove to Victoria Falls so that I could participate in the Vic Falls marathon as part of the awareness drive for Rhino. The organizers Wild Frontiers, Wild Horizon and Adventure Zone kindly sponsored my entry and Super Sport filmed the marathon and is doing an insert on the campaign for much needed awareness! It was my very first 42km ever and somehow I managed to come in as 10th woman of the race! This actually was a little miracle because the evening before the race I drew money from the ATM for food and the machine gave me U$ 50 short…!! Looking at the exchange rate U$ – ZAR this is a fortune and it really upset me deeply. I didn’t know, but the 10th woman won a cash price of U$50 and balance had been restored again.

From Vic Falls we drove back to Namibia to continue the trip by bicycle and foot.

Back on the trail, somehow I was expecting the Botswana border to arrive with a “BANG, YOU MADE IT” but it was just like any other day. We got to the Tsumkwe border post which is one of the smallest border posts I have ever crossed an international boundary through. There was a building with one office and two officials each seated at their own little desk. As we approached the gate and fence, the few people that lived in huts nearby came running to great us. It seems they need to take every opportunity to sell their goods when travellers pass through. The Tswana’s welcomed us warmly into their country and we left the border in great spirits… only to be thrown into the deep end 200m down the road. The road was thick with heavy, deep sand and my spirits plummeted… It was impossible to get through this with the bicycle and after 500m of struggle and with a seemingly endless sand road ahead, I burst into tears. “I can’t carry on like this! I am going backwards here. I would rather run all day, every day than cycle through this!” So after a short break that’s what I did, I put my running shoes on and started running through the sand. It was slow going but at least I was moving forward. After about 7km we came to a crossroad and to our excitement that’s where the road turned into gravel. With new found energy I was back on the bike with wings attached to the side, that’s how fast I felt I was going. As we entered Botswana it showed its warm, hearty and friendly side but also its harshness and struggles. The villages we passed through were filled with poverty but the people greeted us with such a warm and friendly smile as if we had met before. We were on our way to the Okavango Delta and elephant and lion tracks were clearly visible all around us. Wild animals live amongst the people and their herds of cattle, donkeys and goats that roam the land freely. The delta is one of the wonders of the world but the town of Maun was not what we expected. A dusty road leading through houses, dirt and noise into the centre of town didn’t look like “The door into the famous delta”. Setting up awareness runs, evening talks and finding contact people in advance for Maun had been a challenge for some reason. But after a school talk at Matshwane Primary School I had a chat to one of the moms and from there everything gained momentum. The result was accommodation, an awareness run, an opportunity to sell shirts and network at the monthly market while meeting incredible, conservation-orientated people.

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Maun was also the place where Lloyd, Raphaela and my path split temporarily as Lloyd was given the opportunity to do environmental talks in the Okavango Delta under Wilderness Safari’s banner. With many words of warning from the friends we made in Maun about their serious concerns of girls traveling alone Raphaela and I, along with Mr P, headed out of Maun and through the remaining part of Botswana (Maun – Nata – Kasane) into Zimbabwe alone. Southern Africa is full of game and wildlife and camping in the bush on the side of the road has always been exciting and meant that we had to be very aware of elephants, lion, hyena and more.

Our route further took us from Kasane through the Kazungula Border Post to Victoria Falls heading South passed Hwange to Bulawayo back into Botswana and Francistown. After passing through to Palapye and the Tuli Block we eventually entered into our “home country” South Africa again. From there it was on to Musina and across the border into Zimbabwe again, at the Beitbridge border crossing, on route to Malilangwe Conservation Trust and Savé Valley Conservancy.

Yes BEITBRIDGE, the border post that can be very chaotic filled with long queues of people, cars and trucks!

Most of us know Zimbabwe has gone through and is partially still going through some challenges. The media has been full of bad to shocking news, but no one ever writes about the goodness in the country. I don’t really read the newspaper nor do I watch the news but Zimbabwean news had still reached me and created a certain expectation and image of the country in my mind. I have tried very hard to not let those images affect me or make me prejudiced but this was not always an easy task.

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After having travelled through Zimbabwe only with my sister I can honestly say that this image has been removed. This country is nothing short of amazing!

Raphaela always insisted that I take a break every 30km to eat something, take a breather and to get more water. We generally pulled off on the side of the road we were on and she would open the back of the bakkie, bringing out fruit and other snacks. On one of these occasions an old man walked slowly and under obvious discomfort up to us, he greeted us and asked, with worry clearly audible in his voice, if we had a problem with our car and whether we needed help? He said that he would call someone to fix the car if needed.

This was the very first time since leaving Durban about 6 500km earlier that this had happened, and we were both stunned and touched by the kind gesture. After all the nasty warnings we were so pleasantly surprised by how well we were treated throughout.

The highlight of our stay in the Kingdom of Swaziland was by meeting Ted Riley, a man whose testament is the conservation of wildlife in Swaziland.

Another memory of Swaziland was entering it via the Saddleback Pass leading over the Drakensberg Mountains. The steepest and longest pass of the journey leading up from the Barberton valley below took a lot of strength, willpower and breath!

Despite all the great memories of the trip there have been also been challenges along the way, and one of them has always been our financial situation. We have self-funded 95% of the campaign, but every cent spent has been more than worth it.

I’m originally from Germany, having only lived in South Africa for the past five and a half years, and when I came to this country for the first time I’m embarrassed to say that I knew nothing about Africa, its wildlife or the current situation. The challenges behind conserving South Africa’s beautiful animals and their natural habitats are far greater than I ever expected.

Earth Awareness’ mission is to create social change through environmental education and awareness and our focus for 2014 is education in schools, locally and hopefully worldwide. We have visited over 45 schools throughout Southern Africa educating over 18 000 children and young adults on the importance of environment and wildlife conservation and we have only just started… I believe that the future of conservation lies in the hands of children and our aim is to create social change all over the world. My aim is that these children grow up into conscious and caring individuals affecting others by living as examples.

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We have quite a few interesting projects and joint ventures with the Blue Sky Society trust and the Lawrence Anthony Earth Organization in the making. Sport builds bridges over all borders, between every social level, it affects everybody positively at a personal and community level and that’s why we have chosen it as medium to reach people!

Get involved with Earth Awareness

How you can get involved, support or donate? Send us an email mailtoisabel@gmail.com  or call +27 (0) 76 577 1936. For more information on Earth Awareness or to view a full campaign report please visit www.earthawareness.co.za .

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