After completing three seasons of the travel and food series Cooked, Justin Bonello embarked on a 105-day, eight-country, 16 000km journey which resulted in the 13-part series Getaway In Africa.
“While we were in Mozambique filming Cooked I found a lot of stories that couldn’t be told in a cooking show,” says Justin.The first episode sees him return to the highlands of Lesotho, where he had visited briefly in Cooked, to ride the hardy ponies into otherwise inaccessible regions. The epic journey continued into the Drakensberg where Justin and his crew did three hikes in the space of a week, which nearly led to a mutiny. A nice stroll in the mountains is one thing, but add the heavy film equipment and multiply by three and the crew tends to get a tad irritable.
Travelling by road, rail and boats, ranging from cities to remote rural areas, Getaway In Africa shows us parts of Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Namibia that the average traveller rarely gets to see. It’s not only beautifully filmed and edited with a keen artistic eye but the stories of man’s impact on the environment add an important depth.
“If you force feed this information to people they don’t buy it,” he says. “This is story telling but with facts and figures behind it. Hopefully it will create awareness and encourage travel.”
When he visited the mountain kingdom of Lesotho while filming Cooked Justin made a promise to return, and here he makes good on that. The rocky terrain means most places are inaccessible by car, leaving no other option but to travel on foot or on horseback. The goat-like agility and surefootedness of the tough little ponies take Justin where no vehicle can, and he quickly develops a bit of a teenage crush on his mount. It is, says Justin, one of the best days of his life. He has a lot of those, and many of them will be during this series.
Justin has hiked more mountains than he cares to remember but the sheer beauty of the Drakensberg between KwaZulu Natal and Lesotho combined with the rich and ancient heritage of the Bushmen who once lived here and left a legacy of rock art, make this the hike of a lifetime. Attaining the peak of this climb, Justin says it’s as if he is literally on top of the world. “I haven’t felt this alive in years,” he enthuses.
It’s another one of Justin’s best days of his life as he returns to Mozambique and the coral reefs of Quirimbas archipelago which stretches almost up to Tanzania. A quick Scuba course is followed by a dive in the warm and exotic waters which are a riot of colour as tropical fish live off the delicate eco system that is a coral reef. The issue of dangerously and indiscriminately over-fishing the ocean to feed the hungry comes under the spotlight when Justin goes out with some locals on a fishing trip. Later, he visits the ramshackle island of Ibo, where life is languid but under threat from the demands of human needs.
Briefly back in Johannesburg, Justin rails against big cities and urbanisation, which is the way most of the world’s population chooses to live. These concrete jungles are expanding at an alarming rate, sucking the earth dry of its natural resources, using energy and generating waste. Visiting Maputo in Mozambique further illustrates this situation, but to provide contrast Justin crosses a river where only four people have been eaten by crocodiles in the past year to spend the night in a rural village, which brings its own set of challenges at dinner time.
National parks which protect wildlife have never been more important to our planet. Every extinction creates a ripple effect, and we all have the ability to make a difference. Justin and the crew get permission from a tribal chief to climb the mountain in Gorongosa National Park, hiking through the rain forests which provide water for animals and humans alike. There are early morning close encounters of the wild kind before heading to the Zambezi with its numerous hazards – sand banks, hippos, crocodiles and Zambezi sharks.
While dams are engineering marvels which harness the raw power of nature and the most valuable commodity on earth, they have negative side effects on the environment, changing the landscape forever. Justin discovers how the Zambezi has changed since the days of explorer David Livingstone, following the once mighty river which flows through Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Angola, Namibia and Mozambique. For a little light relief there’s a spot of fishing at the Cahora Bassa dam.
Lake Malawi is 365 miles long and more 60 miles wide, making it the third largest lake in Africa and the ninth largest in the world. It contains more species of freshwater fish than any lake on the planet and offers, in Justin’s opinion, the very best freshwater diving. In this episode, the team visits an uninhabited island for some snorkelling and kayaking, then takes the Ilala ferry to Likoma island to do things like lie around in hammocks, play board games and go night fishing.
Built more than 50 years ago, the Ilala ferry has travelled more than two million miles and is something of a Malawian institution. A round trip takes 24 hours (more or less, depending on whether there are delays or not) and makes about 14 port stops along the way. The noisy, uncomfortable heaving mass of humanity and livestock cargo of third class is the way north; the return trip is enjoyed on the first class deck, although this does not mean a cabin – sleeping arrangements are outside under the stars.
There are many lessons to be learned when travelling through Africa – there are border post delays, money changing hassles at same, roads can often only loosely be described as such and driving at night is too dangerous to contemplate. But then there are the pleasures of buying a piece of meat at dusty roadside butchery and having it fried right there, or the warm welcome and cold beer at a safari camp, under the watchful eye of a hippopotamus on the stoep. Yes, really. At Kafue in Zambia, Justin goes on games drives, seeing magnificent elephants, lions, zebra and antelope. After a spectacular scarlet sunset, there’s an after-dark walking safari with every sense on high alert. The message? That game parks can take up the economic slack in Zambia once its natural resources ie copper have been exhausted.
Sometimes you travel just for the love of it, and in this case it’s to the Victoria Falls – also known as the adventure center of Zimbabwe. But first, Justin decides to give public transport a bash for the trip out of Zambia. Taxis are too expensive, and buses are running (or not) to mysterious timetables, so he sticks out his thumb in time-honored traveling tradition. After some hair raising experiences, Justin and his camerawoman hook up with the rest of the crew at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge from where they will embark on a manic 24-hour adrenaline binge – the flight of angels over the falls, white water rafting and the highest natural bungee jump in the world.
The gentle giants of the bush, elephants are the true lords of Africa. Known as nature’s gardeners, they literally shape the earty. From Hwange in Zimbabwe to the banks of the Chobe river in Namibia, Justin is awed and fascinated by the similarities between elephants and humans.
In the vast, brutal and uncompromising landscape of the Namib desert, Justin explores the great dune sea which is teeming with life often unseen – insects, rodents, plants, reptiles and birds. After sunset the daylight moods of the desert are swopped for hunting the creatures of the night. A hot air balloon ride at dawn reveals the breathtaking spectacle of the region.
Appropriately ending this epic three-month journey with the way it began – with horses – Justin fulfills another promise and returns to visit the wild horses of Garub in Klein Aus. Surrounded by myths and legends, this moving and poignant episode in which he and the crew spend two days interacting with the herd, ranks as one of Justin’s all time favourite experiences. “Travel changes your life. It may be the end of this journey but it’s only just beginning,” he says.