[FIRST PUBLISHED 24.07.2016]

A grand total of more than 21,000km travelled on public transport across an entire continent was always going to generate individual journeys that were more momentous than their eventual destination. Here are six of the best, and worst of this African Odyssey…

1: It can’t be done, they said. Meh, I said. Hitchhiking 800km in one day from Windhoek to the Okavango Delta through one land border, two deserts and three national parks felt like the ultimate backpacker accomplishment, not least because of the 40c heat and near total absence of traffic. The absolute highlight and a ride committed to transport Valhalla involved crossing the legendary Kalahari Desert in the back of a Ford pick-up truck with three local Batswana bushmen, listening to music from tinny speakers and revelling in the rush of the wind as we sped towards our destination. Blue skies, endless desert and high speeds on an arrow-straight road: here I was, living my Kerouac moment. Possibly the single best day’s travelling I have ever experienced.

The only way to travel

2: The behaviour of local people towards the standard of driving is usually a good indicator of the safety of the journey, so the white knuckles, saucer-sized eyes and silent screams of our three co-passengers confirmed that death was indeed imminent. As our shared taxi driver negotiated the treacherously winding mountain roads from Kisoro to Lake Bunyonyi at speeds generally associated with racing car test tracks and with an equal appreciation of both lanes, my travel buddy Alex and I actually considered taking a smiling selfie together so that our friends and family would be left with a positive lasting memory of our lives rather than the charred and mangled remains at the bottom of a Ugandan ravine.

3: What started out as a shared taxi of convenience between five strangers needing to get from Lalibela to Mekele turned into an epic road trip culminating in a traditional Ethiopian dinner at the driver’s house. A bright student, two lunatic local women and a jovial chauffeur with a permanent smile were my companions in the unusual luxury of a Toyota Landcruiser. For once the majestic scenery took second stage as eight hours were spent singing to Ethiopian music, swigging honey wine from plastic canisters, an injera food fight, countless roadside coffee stops and trying to prank each other out when sleeping. Saying heartfelt goodbyes as we reached our destination felt like an African travel version of the final scene in The Breakfast Club. A perfect example of Ethiopian hospitality – I paid for nothing other than the ride – and how much fun travelling with strangers can be.

Team Awesome

4: Equating the one hour departure delay in Addis Ababa bus station to an eight position Formula 1 grid penalty, our coach driver to Bahir Dar channelled his inner Lewis Hamilton and proceeded to horn blast goats, pedestrians and all motorized vehicles off the road in a nine hour weaving frenzy to make a Bangladeshi sweat shop worker envious. With each new pothole hit at 80km/h threatening to add us to the International Space Station’s dinner guest list, my Ethiopian neighbour’s certainty that I was a devout Christian with Tourette’s deepened. We arrived on time, but with my nerves as shredded as the front two tyres of the bus and a new personal resolve to never sit in the front row of an African coach again.

5: Driving in six inches of water across a vast salt lake with the pale early morning sun reflecting spectacularly off the crystalline whiteness would generally be enough for a journey to attain travel greatness, but doing so on the roof of a 4×4 singing French 80s rock songs with two backpacking companions ensured transport immortality. For a little over two hours, we enjoyed the otherworldly scenery of Lake Asale in the Danakil Depression from a vantage point so unique that our cheeks threatened to split from our uncontainable delight: when we talked, we smiled; when we sang, we smiled; when we said nothing, we smiled. A rare but winning combination of sleep deprivation and spontaneous decision-making.

6: Whilst all previous boda-boda adventures had been exhilarating affairs, none had been in the chaotic evening rush hour traffic of the Ugandan capital, Kampala. Following two near collisions and an actual bump with a car trying to fit into a gap no wider than a broken windshield wiper, the moment came when only a lightning reaction to lift my left leg prevented a premature end to my nascent running career, and its transformation into corned beef. My relief at getting off the motorcycle in one piece was only short-lived as I replaced near-amputation with self-immolation by incinerating my right calf on the the exhaust pipe. I walked everywhere in Kampala after the incident.

Another ride survived…

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