BootsnAll.com interviews adventure writer Brandon Wilson, author of the new book “Dead Men Don’t Leave Tips: Adventures X Africa“.
BootsnAll: Today we welcome Brandon Wilson, author of a new book called “Dead Men Don’t Leave Tips: Adventures X Africa.” It’s a 10,000-mile, 7-month transâ€“Africa overland adventure. First, tell us how it all began.
Brandon: A few years ago my wife, Cheryl and I were living in Hawai’i, when life suddenly looked too predictable as we settled into suburbia and married life. It was especially hard since we’d spent a year circling the globe just a few years before. Once that gets in your blood, well, it’s a sweet addiction.
BootsnAll: Why Africa?
Brandon: Like most kids of our generation, I was weaned on Saturday morning Tarzan films, then progressed to those classic African travel memoirs and National Geographics. We’d already done the smorgasbord of world travelâ€“our list of “must-sees” or “must-dos.” We picked up a round-the-world ticket valid for a year. Then we worked through our dream list: Tahitian beaches, Fiji kava parties, shark fishing off New Zealand, the King Kong and samurai film lots in Japan, kickboxing in Thailand, the temples of Bali, a camel caravan in India’s Thar Desert, a climb up to the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid, a score of Grecian and Turkish archaeological sites, nude beaches, champagne tastings, and all the Eiffel Towers, Taj Mahals, Stonehenges and museums you could imagine. We made it a point to travel lightly ($35 a day for two), stay and eat with locals. Still, after a year, we only brushed the surface. We were ready for something more intense and less hurried. So crossing Africa seemed like the solution.
BootsnAll: As confirmed independent travelers, why’d you book an overland trip with an organized group?
Brandon: We asked ourselves that same question every day! I guess the notion of crossing Africa on our own, even with our experience, was a little daunting. The more research I did, the more we discovered the complexity: the number of visas, inoculations, languages, uncertainty of bribes, civil wars, black market dealings and dangers. Usually, we welcomed a fair share of these, ah, challenges. It made travel more exciting. But grouping them together for a year or more…well, I figured that joining one of these do-it-yourself safaris would allow you to have the best of both worlds.
BootsnAll: What do you mean?
Brandon: Well, your driver and assistance would take care of the paperwork, greasing of palms and mechanics of getting you from here to there. They had the knowledge, so you wouldn’t have to re-invent the wheel. You’d still have the opportunity to meet the locals, camp across Africa for a year, collect water, cook around the fire and experience all the great adventures. Plus, you’d be joined by an international group of like-minded fellow adventurers.
BootsnAll: Sounds reasonable.
Brandon: Yes, in theory. In practice, it had several flaws. First, our guide/driver and assistant were far from experienced. One had never been to Africa before and the other was a half-blind xenophobe that had only driven the eastern portion.
BootsnAll: And your route was far longer.
Brandon: Yes. We left from England to Spain. After crossing the straits, we landed in Morocco then headed east to Algeria then south to Togo. From there we headed east through the Central African Republic, Zaire (Dem. Republic of the Congo) to Burundi and Kenya, then south through Mozambique to South Africa. There were 17 countries in all, over 10,000 miles and dozens of different cultures along the way.
BootsnAll: And what about your fellow travelers?
Brandon: That was another surprise. There were nearly twenty of us from England, New Zealand,
Australia, Canada and three Americans. But nationality had little to do with it. We were shocked to discover that our companions had little travel or camping experience. Some were even on their first trip away from home. For us, it was inconceivable to see many of them deep in card games with the stereo cranked up as we passed some unforgettable wildlife, natural wonder or landed in a solemn village during a Ramadan fast. We were on a totally different trip. We wanted to wallow in the minutiae of African life: to talk with Africans, share in their culture, hear about their lives and dreams.
BootsnAll: How did you cope?
Brandon: I’m not the most patient of men at times, I’m afraid. All too soon it came to a head. We suffered a breakdown in the middle of the Sahara. There was little water and no sanitation; still the overlanders spent their days sunning or playing cards until they started to drop from the 100-plus degree temperatures and infections. Our guides were oblivious to it all, holed up at the one local air-conditioned hotel. At this point, we decided we were better off on our own. We confronted our “guide” who was satisfied to wait for the part without checking on its status. He said that we could leave, but not get back our thousands of dollars. However, if we stayed with them until Nairobi, they’d refund our money for the second half of the trip. Well, eventually, he did check on the gearbox â€“ only to discover that it was still in Heathrow Airport. It had been bumped off flights for fourteen days. We’d have two less weeks to explore Africa. Meanwhile, the overlanders were dropping like, er, flies.
BootsnAll: So, you eventually set off on your own?
Brandon: We immediately began distancing ourselves and began exploring on our own. While the rest of the group set up for “tea,” Cheryl and I would take off into the jungle down rutted tracks. Once free from the stifling cocoon of a truck, locals approached us. They wanted to know why we were walking through the jungle. I had the real sense that they’d never seen crazed “mzungus” like us before. They took us into their homes, introduced their families, showed us their prize boar head stuck on a pole or shared their dreams of travel. I realized how similar we all are and reveled in that experience. We couldn’t wait to set off on our own. Still, we stuck it out till Kenya, and then Cheryl and I traveled with locals for several months, “polepole” to Cape Town.
Brandon: Swahili for “slowly, slowly.” It’s the equivalent of manaña. Nothing in Africa ever moves as quickly as you’d expect. As soon as you accept that, the better you can cope.
BootsnAll: What types of challenges did you encounter?
Brandon: The rules changed daily. At first, there were the basics: where to camp, find food that didn’t involve monkey parts, locate clean water, bathe out of the reach of crocs and bilharzia, protect yourself from malaria-carrying mosquitoes and other diseases. Then there was the problem of changing money, many times on the black market. We also had to deal with corrupt border officials. There was the very real challenge of crossing the Sahara eight feet at a time (our half-blind driver hit every soft piste along the way). And we always wondered when some muddy pool deep in the central African jungle would swallow our truck.
BootsnAll: Were there other, more pleasant challenges?
Brandon: Sure, lots of them. We had the chance to photo-stalk mountain gorillas, climb Kilimanjaro, whitewater raft down the Zambezi class V rapids, climb an active volcano, catch the gun-run through Mozambique’s civil war, hunt dik-dik with Pygmies and so much more.
BootsnAll: Did you ever have any trouble with the military?
Brandon: Usually when we crossed borders, we had to grease palms. These officials are paid so poorly that they see overlanders as an easy target. What option do you have? You either pay up, or have your truck, bags or person torn apart and are delayed for hours.
BootsnAll: How did the trip change once you set-off on your own?
Brandon: First, there was this sense of relief. Travel is such a personal experience and to subject it to “group-think” means that you’re constantly compromising your “dream.” Once we left the group, we were thrust into everyday African life. We stayed in local falling-star “hotels,” ate in local restaurants and arranged our own means of travel. Sometimes that meant spending 36-hours on a 12-hour bus ride. Or hiring guides and porters for your own climb up “Kili.” Yes, in some ways it was more work. But for us, it was infinitely more satisfying. For me, part of the attraction of travel is to know that you make it from here to there on your own wits. You eat local food without becoming sick. You find a safe place to sleep at a (nearly) local rate. You meet, talk and share experiences with locals. In the end, you come away with more than photos and souvenirs. The destination permanently becomes a part of you.
BootsnAll: Other than crocs, a trip like this is probably hard on your health.
Brandon: It can be, but we were lucky. No croc attacks. But on the first part of the trip, our companions came down with four cases of malaria, one of hepatitis and a few mystery diseases. Fortunately, we kept up with our meds. Other than food poisoning and a bad cold, we came out of it unscathed.
BootsnAll: How long did the trans-African trip take?
Brandon: Seven months from Morocco to Cape Town. That even seemed rushed. We could have taken
years. The distance is like crossing the U.S. from New York to Portland, Oregon four times!
BootsnAll: What surprised you most on an adventure like this?
Brandon: It blew away all those African stereotypes that had formed from watching films, reading the news and watching non-profit infomercials. As Westerners, we have a tendency to think of Africa as one big place. In reality, it’s composed of hundreds of different cultures, languages and peoples. By Western standards, much of it is poor. But we can’t apply the same standards to African life. The people we met had such vitality and love of life. I’ve never been to a place where the people are so quick to smile and welcome you. Nor have I been to a place where the kids are so eager to learn. We were constantly approached and asked for pens or paper. At first, we thought it was all a scam. Then we learned that kids throughout Africa often can’t attend school without bringing a 25-cent pen. By controlling education and censoring media, Africans are kept in the dark about how the rest of the world lives. After seven months, I left Africa with the firm belief that they are motivated and want to create better lives for their families, just like people anywhere. Often, only their governments keep them down.
BootsnAll: Would you make the same trip today?
Brandon: In a heartbeat, only I’d do it all as an independent traveler and try another African region on for size.
BootsnAll: By the way, where’d you get that name â€“ “Dead Men Don’t Leave Tips?”
Brandon: It’s funny. I thought for months about a suitable title, something that might encapsulate the experience. I toyed with “Polepole,” but how many speak Swahili?! Finally, I remembered a phrase that Pascal, my friend, had yelled at an Indian taxi driver and that I screamed at our driver as we began to careen over the walls of Ngorongoro Crater. “Dead Men Don’t Leave Tips!” seemed to encompass so much of the experience.
BootsnAll: Why’d you write “Dead Men Don’t Leave Tips?”
Brandon: The book is a series of great adventures in that classical African travel genre. However, I wanted to make this more real and not some concocted fiction that was written in the wide brush of the typical travel writer. I wanted to give readers a real sense of what it’s like to cross the continent, the highs and the lows, the triumphs and defeats, just as I did in “Yak Butter Blues,” my book about trekking across Tibet. Nothing is glossed-over. It’s all there. Much like my Tibet book, we spent a lot of time with local people, so I hope this book helps to add a human face to Africa. If we can better understand their immense challenges, inequities, exploitation and tribal racism, the world can go a long way toward solving Africa’s problems on a global level, beginning with debt relief.
BootsnAll: Besides circling the world for a year, then Africa and Tibet, have you had other big adventures?
Brandon: Sure, we were in Eastern Europe when the Berlin Wall came down, we spent a year living in an Arctic village and a while “Down Under”. We’ve also caught a Blue Bird bus through South and Central America back to the States and island hopped the West Indies. Lately, I’ve concentrated on European long-distance treks. I love the beauty of travelling lightly with a ten-pound pack, one-step-at-a-time and reducing life to the basics. There’s no better way to escape the noise of everyday life or for total cultural immersion. Since Tibet, I’ve trekked the Camino de Santiago across Spain, the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome and St. Olaf’s Way across Norway. Cheryl and I trekked the Dolomites to Salzburg then through Bohemia to Prague.
BootsnAll: What did you learn from this adventure?
Brandon: Follow your dreams. There are plenty of naysayers and lots of excuses not to push the limits. But half the battle is your commitmentâ€“10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, as they say. It’s amazing what can be accomplished once we focus and take that first step.
BootsnAll: Thanks for being with us. Both “Dead Men Don’t Leave Tips” and “Yak Butter Blues” are available from all major online booksellers, including BN.com and Amazon. If you want to learn more about Africa, see expedition photos, explore links, read a chapter, or even get a signed copy of Brandon’s books, visit www.PilgrimsTales.com.