Most people go to the beach for a week in the summer. Mike Valigore & Kelly Hatch went to Sub-Saharan Africa — for 4.5 months.
While the rest of us were sipping mojitos in lounge chairs, Mike and Kelly were getting charged by elephants, swimming with great white sharks, visiting some of the most ravaged (and awe inspiring) parts of the world and sleeping, almost exclusively, in a tent.
Here is a bit of their story.
You went to South Africa, Mozambique, Zanzibar, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Botswana, Zambia and Namibia. How did you pick this route?
Kelly: We chose based on flights. It was cheap to do round trips out of South Africa. If we had more time we would have done more.
What were others reactions to you going to Africa?
Mike: There is a lot of stigma with traveling to Africa.
Kelly: People’s reactions made me nervous. When we told them we were going to camp in Africa for four months, they would tell us everything we should be afraid of. They were obviously giving us a list of their own fears.
What were those fears?
Kelly: Animals. Robberies. Disease.
Did any of those fears come to fruition?
Kelly: No. We did get sick once. But we went into it [the trip] knowing that would happen. There were animal charges and things like this, but nothing where we felt really unsafe.
Wait, did you just say ‘animal charges’?
How did these ‘animal charges’ occur?
Kelly: We rented a car in South Africa and were doing a self guided safari. We had a huge bull elephant come at us. We had to retreat from him. Even when we retreated he was still coming after us. At the last minute he turned and walked away. He was definitely trying to tell us to get out of his space.
Mike: When we were in the [Democratic Republic of] Congo one of the adolescent gorillas kept charging Kelly. We are not sure why. We think it is a part of showing their dominance.
I was pretty surprised to see that you went to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Isn’t there a war going on there?
Mike: Yes, there is. A lot of people do not know about it. It is one of the most ravaged places on the continent.
What is going on in the Democratic Republic of Congo now?
Kelly: There are a lot of rebel groups. There is still cannibalism in certain sections. There is no governance. There is no infrastructure. It is a completely lawless place. There are a lot of factions of rebels. There is still war going on in the park. Park rangers have received help to slowly push out one of the rebel factions left over from the Rwandan genocide. A very small section of the park is re-opened and this is where we wanted to go – to see the gorillas and the volcano.
Mike: It [the Democratic Republic of Congo] was the highlight of our trip. The volcano and the gorillas were the two most awe inspiring sites that we saw in one place. There was a huge gratitude for our tourism. People are so grateful that we were making the effort to come visit.
What type of person is suited for visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo?
Kelly: I think you have to be the type of person that is willing to accept that something might happen. I was pretty nervous. You can always be in the wrong place at the wrong time and I think there are a lot of wrong places in the Democratic Republic of Congo, so your chances are a little higher. As a traveler, if you are willing to accept a few more risks to get off the beaten path then there is a definitely a reward for that. A huge reward.
Did you see any signs of war?
Mike: The last day we were there when we were coming back from seeing the gorillas our car was stopped and we were told there was a problem ahead. An hour prior two rangers had been ambushed by one of the rebel groups. When we were allowed to pass we saw their bodies in the street.
What can tourists do to stay safe in the Democratic Republic of Congo?
Mike: Organize a tour. They will help with visas. The visa to the Democratic Republic of Congo was the most challenging visa we had to get. Although in the last few months I think they have revamped the visa process to make it better.
Kelly: The park is really committed to safety. They really want tourists
to come. They have guards for you. They organize drivers for you. Tell the park you are coming and they will organize everything.
Why the Democratic Republic of Congo for the gorillas instead of Rwanda or Uganda?
Kelly: Cost was one thing.
Mike: It was a hundred dollars cheaper.[Mike & Kelly laughing]
Kelly: The winter season in Africa is prime tourist season. The permits to see the gorillas, especially in Rwanda, are booked sometimes a year out. On a backpacking trip it is not possible to plan like that.
Mike: They give out 60 permits a day in Uganda and Rwanda to see the gorillas. We were the only two tourists going to see the gorillas in the DRC. It was a really special experience.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about Africa?
Mike: There are a lot of them. One of them is that extended backpacking trips are not as easy as they are in South America, Europe or Southeast Asia. The infrastructure in Africa is not quite there yet, but there are still a lot of tourist areas that make it possible.
Kelly: People think the whole area is lawless. The big cities, like any big city in the world, can be dangerous. I feel more danger back home in Miami than I did ever traveling on buses and through villages in Africa. It is a misconception that it is not safe. Everyone looks out for each other in Africa and they do the same for you. Also, everyone thinks there are lions running around everywhere. People have taken over the animal’s land, so the animals are really only in the parks.
What about the poverty?
Kelly: I think poverty is a relative term. It is hard to compare their lifestyles and possessions with our own. It is just different. There are definitely some areas where drought, overpopulation or lack of government support affect the people. It is hard to travel through and to witness, but it is all the more reason to fight for just governments and anti-corruption. Together those can do a lot for the people of Africa.
And what did you guys eat?
Mike: Fruits, hard boiled eggs, rice, corn flour is really big out there. With the corn flour they add water and it is kind of like a mash potato consistency.
Kelly: We found out pretty quickly that they only eat one meal a day. A really early dinner – before the sun goes down. In the morning they might have a couple of biscuits or a banana.
What would you say was the biggest surprise?
Kelly: We did not pre-plan anything except for the round trip ticket. We thought we would be able to get a lot of information from other travelers. But we very quickly realized we were not going to run into a lot of backpackers.
What was the worst part of your trip?
Kelly: The worst part was almost the best part in hindsight. There were times when we were on the buses and we were thinking, ‘Oh my god. What are we doing? Get me off this thing.’ But in hindsight we look back and some of our biggest memories are what we saw on the buses. The bus is the place of all kinds of happenings in Africa. They are business places, places of meeting and trading, connecting families. It was the worst part but it was the best part. But they were painful.
I remember the bus rides. The roads are so bad. They are bone jarring.
Kelly: They hurt everything. They push you to your limit. My patience limit for sure. We went into a fasting and meditative state most of the time.
Did you ever have anything stolen?
Kelly: Nope. Nothing. We had all of our important stuff in our day packs. Our other packs we would just give to some random guy who said he was the bus guy and he would take them somewhere and when you got out he would remember your face and give them to you.
So explain this tent experience to me. Were you mostly sleeping in organized campgrounds or was it like, ‘Here is a patch of land. Let’s put up the tent.’
Kelly: It was mostly in established camp sites. A lot of guest houses have areas they designate for tents. Even some of the luxury lodges have an area for camping for $10 a night and you can use their amenities. There were other times especially in remote Namibia where we would free camp on a patch of land, but you have to be careful because camping on someone’s land is a no-no.
A friend of mine asked me to ask you about bugs?
Kelly: We were lucky. I think the winter season is the way to go. We hardly saw any bugs.
Did it get really cold?
Kelly: Depending where we were, yes, especially at any sort of altitude. We had ice on our tent a few times. The deserts were really cold at night.
It is impossible to talk about all of the experiences you had. Can we do highlights by area? Starting with Namibia?
Kelly: Souselevi…for the landscapes. An hour before you get to it the landscape does not look anything like it and then you hit these huge dunes that look like you are in the heart of the desert.
Kelly: We had to go through Zambia pretty quickly because there is not a lot of infrastructure to get around. Definitely Victoria Falls. It lives up to its hype.
Kelly: The Okavango Delta. It reminded me of the Everglades in Florida, except as you are canoeing through a hippo pops up or an elephant is shaking a palm tree or you are wandering around on an island where you are camping and a herd of elephants runs through.
Mike: The Serengeti or Zanzibar Island.
Kelly: The ferry on Lake Tanganyika. To be able to be on a boat and watch the trading of the villagers paddling out to the boat that comes every 2 weeks and to watch all the business take place for three days — was very cool.
Mike: The Genocide Museum.
Kelly: It was pretty eye opening. Also being able to interact with the people on the buses and knowing their recent past and recent history and to see how positive they are.
Democratic Republic of Congo
Kelly: I have to say the gorillas but that volcano [Nyiragongo] is pretty damn cool. I would see them[the gorillas] every week if I could.
Mike: Yes, definitely.
Kelly: The Mnemba Atoll.
Mike: The diving there was exceptional.
Mike: The people.
Kelly: The people were fantastic. So incredibly friendly. Almost excitable. Always happy. Very vibrant personalities. It is one of the poorest countries in the area, yet they were the most energetic and vibrant. The southern end of the lake is also gorgeous.
Kelly: Tofo, you could spend years there and not see all the reef.
Mike: The beaches and diving were exceptional.
Kelly: The Transkei Coast and its giant cliffs for miles and miles. It takes 1.5 to get it from the highway and it is still untouched. There are a lot of individual tribes and cultures. It was really refreshing to see in a westernized place.
How much did all of this cost?
Kelly: Our daily budget averaged around $30-40 per day. Our activity budget for diving, the Kilimanjaro hike, treks with gorillas and chimps, skydiving, safaris, and more fun stuff like that ran us almost an extra four thousand. So depending on your style, it can make a huge difference. Malawi and Tanzania are the least inexpensive by far except for the activities and park fees in Tanzania. Camping or local guesthouse accommodations only costs about $5-10 [USD]. An 8 hour bus ride might be around $6 to $12. Food from local markets and out of the bus windows are super, super cheap, and a meal at local small eateries runs about $3, but if you eat at backpackers or lodges it can get up to $10 to $20 per meal, so again, it depends on your style. South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zambia are all more pricey. A tent really helps out in those countries. One thing is certain though, always bring more than you budget, because once you are there, you want to experience everything.
Mike: The poorer countries, Malawi & Tanzania, for food & transport you can plan on $25 – $30 / person for food, hotel and transport. We probably camped the least in Tanzania. It was $5 a night for two people to get a room. I think we spent about $10,000 each.
What about racism? Did you see any? Feel any?
Kelly: I think after such a deep period of Apartheid, it takes a long time for equality to set in. Traveling through South Africa you can still see the inequalities, from the inland shanty towns to the beachside mansions, and sometimes feel the tension, hesitance with smiles or stone hardened faces. The heavy hand of colonialism in Southern and East Africa was not so much a conflict of race, as it was of power, but the Apartheid was, and I think you can feel that difference as you travel through.
We did not get a lot of time with locals in South Africa because there is a separation. Everywhere else, everyone was completely welcoming. There are places where there is a lot of western aid and I think in places, like Tanzania, where I think people looked to us for handouts.
Do you get the impression that these handouts from western nations are helping?
Mike: Not at all. It just causes dependency.
Kelly: We talked to a lot of locals about it and read a lot written by locals in the newspapers. They say it is disruptive to their economy because of the dependency it causes. You have western people who are injecting money and purchasing power into these economies and it causes a lot of growing pains and problems. When there is western outside financial help but an organization run by empowered locals who know what their community needs – that was exciting to see.
Did you see any signs of Charity Water?
Kelly: I have heard of it, but I did not see it. But, that is what we also realized. A lot of the really good charity cases you do not see.
Where would you recommend others look for information about traveling in Africa?
Mike: While maddeningly inconsistent, the Lonely Planet books are still the best resource of their kind. When coupled with the Internet, Thorn Tree forums, etc you can get about everything you need to know.
Kelly: We also enjoyed reading the local papers to get insight as we traveled on current issues.
How do you think this trip changed you?
Mike: It definitely expanded our world view. More than anywhere else we’ve been. It instilled a greater appreciation for our standard of living and the things we take for granted every single day.
Kelly: I agree with Mike. It also changed our relationship. Four months in a tent together in Africa can do that. Now we know how to argue and fight with each other and how to plan together. We looked after each other, like when giardia caused me to crap my pants in the middle of the Serengeti and caused hallucinations and fevers for Mike on Kilimanjaro. But more importantly, our perspective on the world is shared now.
Is there anything I didn’t ask?
Kelly: We met a lot of people taking a one year sabbatical. We met people who rode their motorcycles down from London. A trip to Africa for that length of time is a once in a lifetime thing. You can see in their eyes that it is something they will never ever forget. You can also tell by looking at them that they would not hesitate to quit work, without looking back, just to do it again.
To see more photographs from Mike, this trip and other adventures, please visit: www.michaelvaligorephotography.com.
To check out Kelly’s blog go to: http://budgettravelwithme.wordpress.com
To learn more about Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo www.gorillacd.org or www.visitvirunga.org. As per Kelly and Mike re: www.gorillacd.org — “The website launched early this year, through EU funding, and I think it will do wonders for DRC Virunga tourism. This is one of those few places, where we don’t mind encouraging tourism. The DRC deserves it, and the people and the gorillas need it.”
To learn more about the aftermath of the massacre Kelly and Mike witnessed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, please see: