BootsnAll: Today we welcome Brandon Wilson, author of a new book called "Dead Men Don't Leave Tips." First, tell us how it all began.
Brandon: A few years ago my wife and I were living in
Hawai’i when life suddenly looked too predictable as we settled
into suburbia and married life. It was especially hard since we’d
spent a year circling the globe just a few years before. Once that
gets in your blood, well, it’s a sweet addiction.
BootsnAll: Why Africa?
Brandon: Like most kids of our generation, I was weaned on
Saturday morning Tarzan films, then progressed to those classic
African travel memoirs and National Geographics. We’d already done
the smorgasbord of world travel–our list of "must-sees" or
"must-dos." We picked up a round-the-world ticket valid for a year.
So we worked through our dream list: Tahitian beaches, Fiji kava
parties, shark fishing off New Zealand, the King Kong and samurai
film lots in Japan, kickboxing in Thailand, the temples of Bali, a
camel caravan in India’s Thar Desert, a climb up to the King’s
Chamber in the Great Pyramid, a score of Grecian and Turkish
archaeological sites, nude beaches, champagne tastings, and all the
Eiffel Towers, Taj Mahals, Stonehenges and museums you could
imagine. We made it a point to travel lightly ($35 a day for two),
stay and eat with locals. Still, after a year, we only brushed the
surface. We were ready for something more intense and less hurried.
So crossing Africa seemed like the solution.
BootsnAll: As confirmed independent travelers, why’d you book an
overland trip with an organized group?
Brandon: We asked ourselves that same question every day!
I guess the notion of crossing Africa on our own, even with our
experience, was a little daunting. The more research I did, the
more we discovered the complexity: the number of visas,
inoculations, languages, uncertainty of bribes, civil wars, black
market dealings and dangers. Usually, we welcomed a fair share of
these, ah, challenges. It made travel more exciting. But grouping
them together for a year or more...well, I figured that joining one
of these do-it-yourself safaris would allow you to have the best of
BootsnAll: What do you mean?
Brandon: Well, your driver and assistance would take care
of the paperwork, greasing of palms and mechanics of getting you
from here to there. They had the knowledge, so you wouldn’t have to
re-invent the wheel. You’d still have the opportunity to meet the
locals, camp across Africa for a year, collect water, cook around
the fire and experience all the great adventures. Plus, you’d be
joined by an international group of like-minded fellow
BootsnAll: Sounds reasonable.
Brandon: Yes, in theory. In practice, it had several
flaws. First, our guide/driver and assistant were far from
experienced. One had never been to Africa before and the other was
a half-blind xenophobe that had only driven the eastern
BootsnAll: And your route was far longer.
Brandon: It sure was. We left from England to Spain. After
crossing the straits, we landed in Morocco then headed east to
Algeria then south to Togo. From there we headed east through the
Central African Republic, Zaire (Dem. Republic of the Congo) to
Burundi and Kenya, then south through war-torn Mozambique to South
Africa. There were 17 countries in all, over 10,000 miles and
dozens of different cultures.
BootsnAll: And what about your fellow travelers?
Brandon: That was another surprise. There were nearly
twenty of us from England, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and three
Americans. But nationality had little to do with it. We were
shocked to discover that our companions had little travel or
camping experience. Some were even on their first trip away from
home. Others were on some finishing school-like African trip–off to
see "the continent." For us, it was inconceivable to see many of
them deep in card games with the stereo cranked up as we passed
some unforgettable wildlife, natural wonder or landed in a solemn
village during a Ramadan fast. We were on a totally different trip.
We wanted to wallow in the minutiae of African life: to talk with
Africans, share in their culture, hear about their lives and
BootsnAll: How did you cope?
Brandon: I’m not the most patient of men at times, I’m
afraid. All too soon it came to a head. We suffered a breakdown in
the middle of the Sahara. There was little water and no sanitation;
still the overlanders spent their days sunning or playing cards
until they started to drop from the 100-plus degree temperatures
and infections. Our guides were oblivious to it all, holed up at
the one local air-conditioned hotel. At this point, we decided we
were better off on our own.
We confronted our "guide" who was satisfied to wait for the part without checking on its status. He said that we could leave, but not get back our thousands of dollars. However, if we stayed with them until Nairobi, they’d refund our money for the second half of the trip. Well, eventually, he did check on the gearbox–only to discover that it was still in Heathrow Airport. It had been bumped off flights for fourteen days. We’d have two less weeks to explore Africa. Meanwhile, the overlanders were dropping like, er, flies.
BootsnAll: So, you eventually set off on your own?
Brandon: We immediately began distancing ourselves. That
helped preserve our sanity. We began setting off on our own while
the rest of the group set up for "tea." Cheryl and I would take off
into the jungle down rutted truck tracks. Once free from the
stifling cocoon of a truck, locals approached us. They wanted to
know why we were walking through the jungle. I had the real sense
that they’d never seen crazed "mzungus" like us before. They took
us into their homes, introduced their families, showed us their
prize boar head stuck on a pole in their yard or shared their
dreams of travel. I realized how similar we all are and reveled in
that experience. We couldn’t wait to set off on our own. As it was,
we stuck it out till Kenya, and then Cheryl and I traveled with
locals for several months, "polepole" to Cape
Brandon: Swahili for "slowly, slowly." It’s the equivalent
of manaña. Nothing in Africa ever moves as quickly as you’d expect.
As soon as you accept that, the better you can
BootsnAll: What types of challenges did you
Brandon: The rules changed daily. At first, there were the
basics: where to camp, find food that didn’t involve monkey parts,
locate clean water, bathe out of the reach of crocs and bilharzia,
protect yourself from malaria-carrying mosquitoes and other
diseases. Then there was the challenge of changing money, many
times on the black market. We also had to deal with corrupt border
officials. There was the very real challenge of crossing the Sahara
eight feet at a time (our half-blind driver hit every soft piste
along the way). And we always wondered when some muddy pool deep in
the central African jungle would swallow our dirt
BootsnAll: Were there other, more pleasant
Brandon: Sure, lots of them. We had the chance to
photo-stalk mountain gorillas, climb Kilimanjaro, whitewater raft
down the Zambezi class V rapids, climb an active volcano, catch the
gun-run through Mozambique’s civil war, hunt dik-dik with Pygmies
and so much more.
BootsnAll: Did you ever have any trouble with the
Brandon: Usually when we crossed borders, we had to grease
palms. These officials are paid so poorly that they see overlanders
as an easy target. What option do you have? You either pay up, or
have your truck, bags or person torn apart and are delayed for
BootsnAll: How did the trip change once you set-off on your
Brandon: First, there was this sense of relief. Travel is
such a personal experience and to subject it to "group-think" means
that you’re constantly compromising your "dream." Once we left the
group, we were thrust into everyday African life. We stayed in
local falling-star "hotels," ate in local restaurants and arranged
our own means of travel. Sometimes that meant spending 36-hours on
a 12-hour bus ride. Or hiring guides and porters for your own climb
up "Kili." Yes, in some ways it was more work. But for us, it was
infinitely more satisfying. For me, part of the attraction of
travel is to know that you make it from here to there on your own
wits. You eat local food without becoming sick. You find a safe
place to sleep at a (nearly) local rate. You meet, talk and share
experiences with locals. In the end, you come away with more than
photos and souvenirs. The destination permanently becomes a part of
BootsnAll: Other than crocs, a trip like this is probably hard on
Brandon: It can be, but we were lucky. No croc attacks.
But on the first part of the trip, our companions came down with
four cases of malaria, one of hepatitis and a few mystery diseases.
Fortunately, we kept up with our meds. Other than food poisoning
and a bad cold, we came out of it unscathed.
BootsnAll: How long did the trans-African trip
Brandon: Seven months from Morocco to Cape Town. That even
seemed rushed. We could have taken years. The distance is like
crossing the U.S. from New York to Portland, Oregon four
BootsnAll: What surprised you most on an adventure like
Brandon: It blew away all those African stereotypes that
had formed from watching films, reading the news and watching
non-profit infomercials. As Westerners, we have a tendency to think
of Africa as one big place. In reality, it’s composed of hundreds
of different cultures, languages and peoples. By Western standards,
much of it is poor. But we can’t apply the same standards to
African life. The people we met had such vitality and love of life.
I’ve never been to a place where the people are so quick to smile
and welcome you. Nor have I been to a place where the kids are so
eager to learn. We were constantly approached and asked for pens or
paper. At first, we thought it was all a scam. Then we learned that
kids throughout Africa often can’t attend school without bringing a
By controlling education and censoring media, many Africans are kept in the dark about how the rest of the world lives. I left Africa with the firm belief that Africans are motivated and want to create better lives for their families. Only their governments keep them down.
BootsnAll: Would you make the same trip today?
Brandon: In a heartbeat. Only this time, I’d try another
African region on for size.
BootsnAll: By the way, where'd you get that name?
Brandon: It’s funny. I thought for months about a suitable
title, something that might encapsulate the experience. I toyed
with "Polepole," but how many people speak Swahili?! Finally, I
remembered a phrase that Pascal, a friend of mine, had yelled at an
Indian taxi driver and that I screamed at our driver as we began to
careen over the walls of Ngorongoro Crater. "Dead Men Don’t Leave
Tips!" seemed to encompass so much of the
BootsnAll: Why'd you write "Dead Men Don’t Leave
Brandon: The book is a series of great adventures in that
classical African travel genre. However, I wanted to make this more
real and not some concocted fiction that was written in the wide
brush of the typical travel writer. I wanted to give readers a real
sense of what it’s like to cross the continent, the highs and the
lows, the triumphs and defeats, just as I did in "Yak Butter
Blues," my book about trekking across Tibet. Nothing is
glossed-over. It’s all there.
Also, much like my Tibet book, we spent a lot of time with local people, so I hope this book helps to add a human face to Africa. If we can better understand their immense challenges, inequities, exploitation and tribal racism, the world can go a long way toward solving Africa’s problems on a global level, beginning with debt relief.
BootsnAll: What did you learn from this adventure?
Brandon: Follow your dreams. There are plenty of naysayers
and lots of excuses not to push the limits. But half the battle is
your commitment–10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, as they say.
It’s amazing what can be accomplished once we focus and take that
(BootsnAll.com is the ultimate resource for the independent traveller.)