At every campsite or guest house, as they often double up, there is a pecking order of interest. At the bar be propped the veterans, ex-pats and locals, who passed through decades ago and became a permanent feature. They’ve seen it all before and still love it. They’ll chat to the part-timers, giving tips and one-upping their close encounters. They normally stay for work, or a woman, and somehow never seem to move on.
First, there are the overlanders. They come in all shapes and sizes. There are the gargantuan trucks that look like they could invade a small country, which accommodate organised tour groups and often move in convoy for a month at a time. Swamping the day tours and flooding the bars, they are the cruise liners of the savannah. Then you have the people of a certain age, who understandably have no desire to camp, and the money not to, who are driven in what you can only describe as a 4×4 pope-mobile.
When an overlander arrives in a 4×4 or on a motorbike, they become the focal point of conversation. The pope-mobile lot sit down next to them, making that huffing noise they seem to emit whenever sitting or standing. Where have they been? Where to next? Land cruiser or defender? (There is a fierce rivalry). They talk of the route they’ve taken, where is best and the dangers of going to the loo at night. Amongst themselves they discuss the trials of mechanical break downs or the worry of getting stranded in the mud for five days until the next vehicle happens across them; they are travelling through places that isolated.
The overlanders can reach parts which I can only hear about, and I live vicariously through their shared experiences, creating a hit list of places to revisit. For with my skinny wheels and slick tyres I am confined to the tarmac. But rustling up a group of friends to drive through southern Africa has definitely made it’s way onto my bucket list.
Late in the day, but in time for sun downers, the cycle tourer might arrive. Sweaty, dirt in the crooks of their eyes and smeared across their forehead like war paint; I always make sure I am hanging for breath to make sure they hear my arrival and see that I’ve had a tough day. The focus shifts from the overlanders in the direction of the tour cyclist; “How far have you come?” “Oh, just Cape Town…” they might say, clutching the bar for support. The cyclist orders a drink but someone says “let me get this one, you’ve earned it”, and they take a refreshing hard earned sip with a slight smile. Interests are perked and conversation now revolves about this impressive form of man-draulic travel.
But I was told by Rene, a German motorcyclist who when I met him was in a petrol station having a cigarette, of the final tier. It’s inexplicably rare but, on occasion, a walker arrives. Rene tells a tale of the 63 year old one armed German who strolled into a campsite with just a small bag on his back and a walking stick in his hand; Hans was walking from Cape Town home to Hamburg. The focus instantly dissolves from around the cyclist and now all are in awe of the walker, who now becomes the king of the campsite.