Jill and Bevan (and their beloved vehicle Thomas Jeffrey) are on a year long adventure exploring South Africa. We caught up with them two months into their trip to see how things are going.
It must take unique characters to dream up a trip like this, can you tell us a bit about yourselves and how you’ve found yourselves on this epic adventure?
We have always been attracted by adventure! As a tour guide in southern Africa for the better part of eight years, Bevan has quite a few stories to tell from his time working on overland trucks and leading surf tours along the length of South Africa’s coastline. I’ve also had a fair share of adventures, including swimming with sharks off Aliwal Shoal near Durban and as a marine biologist conducting research in faraway places like Madagascar and Marion Island. After getting married in 2015, we’ve spent a fair bit of 2016 exploring our home province of KwaZulu-Natal and venturing north into Mozambique too over weekends or whenever we got the chance. We just love being outdoors and discovering new places in our old 4×4 Suzuki Vitara Thomas.
Early this year we made the decision that this was going to be our year for adventure! We figured that being young and pretty free, we weren’t going to get any better opportunity to pack it all in and set off on the trip of our lives! So we resigned from our jobs and here we are – two months into a nine month road trip around our home country of South Africa!
Some of the great things about travelling for a year must be not having to remember to take the rubbish out every week or having to sit in traffic jams. However there probably are some pretty unique challenges that you’ve both experienced so far?
The only traffic we have to deal with these days is when a herd of elephant decide to walk in the road! But yes, it hasn’t all been completely easy going. We have been camping, and most of our challenges have had to do with the weather. From near-continuous rain to winds that almost flattened our tent, we’ve had our share of things to contend with. Oh, and that’s not forgetting the monkeys too. In many places, troops of vervet monkeys have learnt to hang around campsites and picnic sites looking for food. In many cases they have become acclimated and have lost their natural fear of humans, and even go so far as to break into tents during their raids. You have to have your wits about you when they are around, to make sure that one doesn’t distract you while the others are busy stealing your lunch!
Having grown up in South Africa, is there anything that has surprised you about the country or people since you’ve started the trip?
We have both grown up in KwaZulu-Natal, which is South Africa’s eastern province. As we’ve mentioned, we love exploring and would have thought we knew our province better than most. What has surprised us is just how much there is to do in KZN! When we created our initial trip itinerary, we budgeted a month which we thought would be plenty of time to complete a loop north along the coast and then back through the interior. As it turned out, we’ve taken double that time and have left each place we’ve visited feeling like there’s still more we would have liked to have done! South Africa as a whole is so incredibly diverse in its landscapes, culture and wildlife, and KwaZulu-Natal is a microcosm of that. From unspoiled scarp forests housing rare and endemic bird species, to estuary systems that are 70 km long and have the highest density of hippos and crocodiles in the country, to empty, idyllic beaches, wild game reserves and epic stories and sites of battles between the country’s early people groups, KZN has it all!
Are there any home comforts you guys are desperately missing, or is it pretty easy to pack the vehicle (Thomas, I think he’s affectionately called?) and hit the open road?
Yes, Thomas is correct, and he’s as big a personality in this adventure as either of us! There’s an interesting story about how Bevan swapped him for another car he was driving, but that’s for another time. Thomas’s full name is Thomas Jeffrey – named for Thomas the Tank Engine, the little engine who thought he could, and Jeffreys Bay, a surfing spot in the Eastern Cape province that we can’t wait to visit soon.
It was surprisingly easy to pack up the house and leave most of those home comforts behind, and maybe we were lucky because we are that type of people. I’ve managed to sneak in a few essentials though, probably the most important being the kettle. As a friend of ours used to say, a cup of tea can fix anything, so there’s no ways it was going to stay behind! Other than that, I’d have to say I’ve missed my washing machine. There’s only so much hand washing this girl can handle!
You must have clocked up quite a few kilometres in Thomas so far: apart from “I spy” and “20 questions,” what do you guys do to keep the time on the road interesting?
Apart from bicker about directions you mean? That’s just a joke. Luckily there is usually some pretty interesting scenery on display outside the windows, but yes, let’s just say that we need to find some new music before we set out again…
You are both outdoorsy, active people. What sort of activities and adventures are you aiming to see and do during the year of travelling?
We love to be outdoors and will do pretty much any activity that we can. Time spent in the sea is always the best and a significant portion of Thomas’s packing space has been taken up by snorkelling and surfing equipment! South Africa has an amazing coastline and like the rest of the country, even the coastline is diverse. We have loved exploring the warm blue waters of the northern KwaZulu-Natal coastline. There are some incredible beaches along this stretch and the best part of it is that we’ve pretty much had most of them to ourselves. The snorkelling at places like Lala Nek and Kosi Bay near the Mozambique border is absolutely phenomenal, and Bevan has also taken every opportunity to jump in for a wave whenever he could. There’ll be more great surfing spots as we head further south and up the country’s West Coast, although the water gets significantly colder in those parts!
One thing that we’ve made a point of doing on this trip too is going on a guided game walk in the game reserves we’ve visited. There’s nothing that can beat getting out into the bush on foot, with the chance of seeing big game like buffalo, elephant and even lion while you are out with your game ranger escort. The thing we’ve enjoyed the most about these guided walks has been learning about the ecology of the area from such knowledgeable guides. Your appreciation for what you are seeing is exponentially enhanced through this new understanding and it is always so rewarding to learn new things.
Otherwise, South Africa has such great opportunities to get outdoors! There are a few multi-day hikes that we would love to do when we are in the area, such as the Otter Trail at Storms River and a few overnight hikes to caves in the Drakensberg. We’d love to spend a few days paddling on the Orange River too, so there is a lot to look forward to.
In terms of safety have there been any uncomfortable situations, or has it been plain sailing so far?
Thanks goodness it’s been plain sailing so far! Thomas is twenty one years old and has some 400 000 km on the clock so there’s always the fear that he could break down. One more reason to take things slowly, not that we are complaining!
I guess our hairiest situation so far has been our close encounter with a Zambezi shark while we were paddling on the St Lucia estuary on two man kayaks! (https://youtu.be/w5w3VEozL5g) These sharks are one of the larger and more aggressive shark species found along our coastline, and because they can tolerate lower salinities they commonly enter estuaries to feed and breed. We spotted a fin break the surface close to the opposite bank of the fairly-wide channel, and excitedly stopped paddling to watch. The shark swam along the line of reeds before disappearing, only to have the fin resurface about six metres in front of us. It swam in a straight line directly for our kayak before making a sharp turn about two metres away! It all happened so fast but those few seconds of uncertainty about its intentions were quite enough for us! As luck would have it we managed to record this encounter and the video has been posted to our YouTube channel for those who want to check it out.
Over the course of the trip so far you’ve probably lain your head in some unique places so far: what’s been the strangest, wildest and wackiest place you’ve stayed in?
Hmm, probably camping at Ndumo Game Reserve on the Mozambique border, simply because we felt like Nature completely absorbed our tent while we were there! We set up camp underneath a tree that was flowering. Every day a small herd of Nyala would enter the camp to feed on the flowers scattered around our tent. They were wary of us but when we sat still they came incredibly close. We were also enveloped by the biggest variety of creeping, crawling and flying creatures you can imagine! Spiders as big as your palm carrying hundreds of babies on their backs, rhino beetles that get their name from the hard “horn” that extends from their exoskeletons, Cape Eagle Owls nesting in a tree close by… It was wonderful!
I’m sure we will have a few more stories about strange places when we visit towns like Nieu Bethesda and its Owl House in the Eastern Cape so for now we will just have to settle for the wild part of that question!
Your trip has started in Kwazulu-Natal and you’ve seen a fair bit of the beautiful Zulu Kingdom already. Which place has impressed you the most as a secret spot that somehow flies under the radar of most locals?
Wow, do we have to pick one?! We really loved the far north beaches of the province. There is a community-run campsite at Mabibi in the Coastal Forest section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. The campsite doesn’t have electricity or cellphone signal, but it is nestled amongst the area’s grasslands and forested dunes and has direct access to a completely unspoiled section of coastline. It is accessible only via a soft sand track that winds its way between the gentle hills along this stretch. You can spend a full day driving this road stopping in to explore any one of the numerous and largely empty beaches along the way.
We have also been fascinated by the early history of the area. Much of the country’s future was fought out between the Zulus, Boers and British in a small area of the province largely centred around a town called Dundee. We visited the Anglo-Zulu battlefields of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift while we were in the area. They are the kinds of places you visit on junior school tours and don’t really think about again, but to go back to these sites and hear told the accounts of individuals on whose shoulders the battles were won or lost was something very special. Both of these battles were in fact quite remarkable. Isandlwana was perhaps the biggest British defeat in all her colonial years, and per person, there were more Victoria Crosses handed out for the battle at Rorke’s Drift than any other in history. To visit these sites, and look out on the hills which remain unchanged exactly as they would have been on the day of battle, and take on the perspective of a horribly outnumbered British soldier as he looked up at the hills crested with thousands upon thousands of Zulu impi is an incredibly emotional experience.
Where to after KZN for the bold adventurers?
We are going to be heading north, up into the scenic provinces of Mpumalanga and Limpopo. These areas especially have been very hard hit by a drought that is currently affecting much of the country so we will sadly probably not be seeing them at their best. Nevertheless, we are looking forward to a change in scenery – swapping the verdant hills of KwaZulu-Natal for baobabs, sweeping river valleys and the world renowned Kruger National Park.
The adventure sounds epic and we’ll be hoping it goes amazingly well! How can people get involved and follow your progress?
We would love for people to follow along! As much as we enjoy discovering new places for ourselves, we love to share what we find with others too. We hope that our trip will inspire other people to travel South Africa. We have a trip blog called Stray Along The Way where we upload weekly videos of our progress and experiences. We are also on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.