In 2012, travel writer Anton Crone and filmmaker Brett Wild traveled from Cape Town, South Africa, to Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater and back. Their vessel? A Smart Car.
For six weeks, the pair lived out of the tiny automobile, traversing seven countries (South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe) and over 5,000 miles across a variety of landscapes. We caught up with Anton to talk about the journey, the challenges they faced, and the people they met along the way.
Where did you first get the idea for this trip?
Adventure. Purely adventure. Plus we wanted to prove a point: that you could take a very small, everyday, urban vehicle anywhere in Africa within reason. We just wanted to prove that you could do it. Of course we failed dismally.
We made the mistake of going down a lot of dirt roads because it just seemed like a fun idea, and the car literally broke down on the second day. We tried to get onto an area called the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans in Botswana, which is just a day’s drive from Johannesburg. We got across 26 km of what is virtually deep beach sand. When we finally got on the flat plains, Brett was going at such a pace just to stay on top of the sand, so when we stopped, the whole vehicle sunk. When we started the engine again, all of that sand was caught up in the belt. So we had to tow it out and spend a week in Francistown, just waiting to get it all sorted out.
Brett took another car and drove to Johannesburg to get the spare parts, so I was stuck there. But the beauty of it was that I got to know Francistown. That was one of the best things about our trip — every time we broke down we discovered these wonderful places and wonderful people because we were forced to spend time in a single place.
When you first started out, was the motivation really just to see if you could do it, or were you hoping from the start to learn more about these places and people?
Our intention really wasn’t to connect with cultures or anything like that. We just wanted to go from A to B. But the beauty of breaking down was learning more about the places. That’s one of the things that compels me to slow down whenever I travel, and I know Brett would say the same thing. He’s also involved in filmmaking, and on our trip he was putting a documentary together. One of the remarkable things about this is that it really became a film about the people we met along the way as well.
I learned to appreciate people more on our journeys. People are much closer in African communities — they literally live closer to other people. They don’t have the barriers, whether those be physical or social. That was another thing we learned about taking this really stupid car, that no one had ever seen a car like this before, and that was a conversation starter. It was magic. People would stop us just to talk to us and see what the heck we were doing.
Can you talk a little more specifically about some of the instances in which you received help from the local people?
We were in Malawi, relying on the GPS, and some of the roads were really obscure. We were aiming for a very small lodge on the side of the lake. We were driving along, and the GPS said, in that classic GPS voice, “Turn left in 100 meters.” We saw a little dirt track, so we turned left and followed it, and within about 30 or 40 feet, we’d hit a rock. We’d broken the car, and oil was gushing out of the thing — it was wrecked. We found a lodge and commiserated with the owner of the place, and we complained about his really bad road, and he said, “What are you talking about? Nobody’s ever complained about my road. My road’s fantastic.” I said, “You’re kidding me. It’s a nightmare.” He said, “Well show me what road you were on.” We went up there, and he laughed. He said, “That’s not a road. That’s a path. This isn’t my road.” And he took us to the actual road, which was another 100 meters further up. So the GPS was off. His road was fabulous.
So at first we were kicking ourselves, but then we spent a while with this guy. He looked after us while we hunted for a mechanic. We found one who worked on it in a tiny little village, and the car became the center of things. At any one time, there would be 50 or so people surrounding this car while the guy was working. But it was impossible to fix there. He towed us all the way to Mzuzu, which is a little town about 100 km further from there.
Can you talk a little more about the driving itself? What were the conditions like inside the Smart Car?
It was tight. We were literally on top of one another. I really got to know Brett. I’d worked with him before, and when you stick two guys in a car together for such a long time and with so many breakdowns, they start opening up to one another and talking about life. I’d always seen Brett as a hardcore, “wild” guy — his name says it all. But, at the same time, if there’s any music he was playing, it was Chopin, and he would download these documentary series from BBC radio, and we’d be listening to those half the time. So it was also quite a fascinating trip to get to know Brett, and probably vice versa. I really got to love and respect the guy.
What were some of the most memorable moments from the journey?
Definitely the first breakdown on Makgadikgadi Pans because we were aiming for a place called Kubu Island, which is an island of higher ground in the Salt Pans. It has beautiful rocks and incredible baobab trees. It’s stunning. After the break down Brett’s brother towed us there in a Land Rover. We were quite down when we got in because it was literally the second day and we had already broken down. We thought, “this trip’s gonna be a failure.”
That night — we obviously had quite a bit of booze with us, as one does — we had the biggest party we’ve ever had, out on the plain all by ourselves under this baobab tree. It’s a very special place because you really do feel like the stars are bright as suns out there, and you can see every single one of them, and if you just step away from these trees you’ve only got the salt pan. There’s nothing to break the horizon from one end to the next, 180 degrees. That was just tremendous. You really feel like you’re in the wild. It’s a very soulful place.
The other memorable spot is Ngorongoro Crater, in northern Tanzania. It’s an amazing sight because it’s a huge volcanic crater. If you were to look into it, it’s like having another Serengeti just surrounded by this huge caldera. And it’s full of wildlife. It’s absolutely stunning.
How would you say your thoughts and perspectives regarding Africa and its people developed throughout the trip?
I appreciated people more. I realized that, no matter what kind of trouble you’re in, there’s going to be someone to help you. If you don’t go looking for trouble in Africa, you’re not going to find it. If you go looking for it, you will. But if you are careful and aware of your surroundings, you’ll be fine.
Every time I go and travel anywhere else on the continent, I always come back with the feeling that I don’t actually want to travel anywhere else. It’s not for the wildlife or the landscape; it’s for the people. It’s absolutely for the people. I’m a photographer at heart, so a lot of the photographs I like taking are portraits. If there’s anything I would encourage any traveler to do, it’s to use your camera as a way to meet people. People are so afraid of taking pictures of other people. Some people do get upset, but just ask them. That’s a good excuse to meet someone. It’ll enhance your journey so much more, if you just go out there and meet strangers, and that’s what that car did for us.
What were the final moments of the journey like? How did you feel when you reached your destination?
Tired. Relieved. But also, you just want to turn around and go back. It was horrible realizing that you’d left those people and those experiences behind, that you’re just going back to the grind. That wasn’t a great feeling. And that’s certainly what keeps me and Brett traveling. These days, Brett is a paraglider doing amazing expeditions and adventures. I’m a travel journalist, but I’m stuck behind a desk more often than he is. Trips like this one inspire you to do more and travel in different ways.
When other people hear about this journey, what do you hope they learn from it?
Brett and I didn’t plan very much; we just knew where we wanted to go. We didn’t actually plan anything else really. We didn’t plan where we were going to stay. We didn’t plan what equipment we took.
What I’m trying to say is, we just went. I think that’s what I’d say to everybody — just go. If you plan too much, you’re going to become quite disappointed because your plans never work out. They will always veer off to another path or direction. Something will go wrong. That’s the beauty of not planning — you don’t get disappointed. You actually have more of an adventure because you don’t know or expect what’s around the corner.
Interview conducted by Devon Shuman