Dead Men Don’t Leave Tips

Overland Across Africa By Themselves

Dead Men Dont Leave Tips copy 2Dead Men Don’t Leave Tips is an edge of your seat true tale about a couple’s seven-month “dream” odyssey–overland across Africa from top-to-tip. Against their better judgment, Brandon and Cheryl, confirmed independent travelers, join a bewildering band of companions and clueless guides. After their dream of crossing Africa becomes a nightmare, they set off across the continent alone. And that makes all the difference.

Join the adventurous couple as they meet mountain gorillas face to face. Meltdown during a blistering Saharan breakdown. Hunt dik-dik with Pygmies. Climb Africa’s highest mountain. Feel the raw power of the Serengeti. Hop the “gun-run” through a civil war. Rush down thundering Class V Zambezi rapids and dive into South Africa’s cauldron of turmoil.

The book is sometimes funny, often anguished, yet always real. Nothing is held back or glossed over: from the hustle and hassle of the souk to shady dealings in black market alleys, from the frustration of border extortion to the thrill of sandmatting the Sahara eight feet at a time.

It’s written with a keen eye for detail. It takes you onto the crazed roads of Africa, as well as into the lives and hearts of it s people.

Richard Bangs, world adventurer, and author of The Lost River and Mystery of the Nile says, “Brandon Wilson jacks the vehicle of trans-African adventure for a ride so real you breathe the dust and drip the sweat while trundling down off-the-beaten tracks outstanding in the number and quality of their ruts.

If adventure drives are a genre, Wilson has created a smarter, more brazen, more sweeping subspecies. This is a masterful crossroads of characters, exotic places, history and human drama in a rig that never stalls, and allows the devil to drive his own ill-behaved backyard…”

Wilson, a member of the prestigious Explorers Club, is also author of the Lowell Thomas Gold Award-winning travel adventure, ALONG THE TEMPLAR TRAIL: Seven Million Steps for Peace, YAK BUTTER BLUES: A Tibetan Trek of Faith, and OVER THE TOP & BACK AGAIN: Hiking X the Alps

Excerpt from The Book

By Brandon Wilson

Reaching Ngorongoro Crater, we slowly inched our way up to the ridge of its outer shell, then stopped the truck and got out for a walk. Gazing two thousand feet below to Lake Magadi, we were amazed to spot a pink, fluttering swath shimmering like miles of satin wrapped across that sea of turquoise–thousands of flamingos. It’s also home to one hundred other bird species that are found nowhere else in the Serengeti.

As we returned to the truck, three Masai men and a woman approached us, apparently from nowhere. They were remarkably imposing. Standing nearly seven feet tall, the men wore large, beaded, triangular earrings with pendants, similar to ones we’d seen in Mwanza.

Brandon Wilson
Brandon Wilson

One had a white, blue and red beaded headband from which dangled a small triangle in the center of his forehead. Another’s elongated earlobes were fastened together under his chin. All were wrapped in red plaid capes covering a crimson toga-style cloth.

The statuesque woman wore a navy blue cape over a beaded, tan water-buffalo hide skirt. Poised, almost regal, she wore more elaborate halo-like beadwork on her neatly shaved head, while around her neck she wore circular hoops of probably sixteen strands of blue, orange, white, red and green beads.

What a fantastic photo they’d make. But I’ve heard how sensitive the Masai are about having their picture taken. They’ve even been known to toss seven-foot spears through cameras–and overland trucks.

We finally approached and asked if we could take their photos. They agreed, but demanded four hundred shillings from each of us, an outrageous sum. We’d never paid anything remotely close to that in the past. Truth was, in the past five months, I’d only paid for photos twice and that was the equivalent of about fifteen cents. We continued negotiations until a deal was finally struck. For one hundred-fifty shillings ($4 U.S.), all of us could take as many photos as we wanted before they walked away.

That’s fair–and involves no spears.

We weren’t surprised to learn that it was impossible to take our lumbering truck down the steep crater walls of Ngorongoro in the morning. That gravel path was just too narrow and we didn’t relish climbing out to sand mat if we became stuck in the wetlands below. So Nigel arranged to have guides with 4 four-wheel-drives meet us about 6 a.m. for the journey into that Eden.

Later that evening, in stillness and bone-chilling temperatures, we quickly set up camp on the crater’s edge. The sky was a sea of stars. For once, the music was silent. As I curled deep into my sleeping bag, the only sound I heard was a lion’s distant roar.

The aroma of breakfast cooking and raw anticipation had us awake well before dawn. It was still frigid, but Nigel had cooked cowboy-style baked beans, stiff oatmeal and fried potato pancakes on the grill.

Normally, that was enough to set biscuit-rationing Prudence into a tizzy, but nothing was said. Although we’d never used those rations she’d been “Saving for Zaire,” our Spartan diet continued. Now, supposedly we were preparing for the latest rumored catastrophe–Tanzania’s cholera epidemic.

Our four-wheelers rolled in at 6:30, but there was only one Land Cruiser and a dilapidated Volvo–a file cabinet on wheels. The third and fourth cars were nowhere to be seen. Why wasn’t I surprised? Since wildlife waits for no man, we drew straws and Cheryl and I ended up in the gutless Swedish wonder, along with Pooky and Bongo, Bear and Clara.

From the moment we sat down on the bare metal floor inside the cab, (there were no seats), I sensed we were in trouble. As we pulled out and headed for the road leading down the steep crater wall, my worst suspicions were soon confirmed. That truck had no brakes–or shocks. The driver couldn’t shut off the engine, since its battery wasn’t recharging. The four-wheel drive was only two at best, and both tires were bald. Plus, I suspected the gears were nearly toothless.

Cheryl Wilson
Cheryl Wilson

However, John, our strapping seven-foot driver and guide, stripped what gears were left, as he shifted directly from third-gear to low, then coasted to a stop without bothering to use his nonexistent brakes.

How will we ever get close enough to anything in this wreck?

It would have been hilarious if it hadn’t been so dangerous. That heap of moving junk rattled and shook, bouncing us off the floor, as we inched our way down the narrow side of the crater. To make matters worse, there was a blinding morning fog. We couldn’t see thirty feet in front of us.

“We’ll crash into an elephant before we see it,” Cheryl screamed over the engine roar.

Through divine intervention, somehow, we made it to the bottom of the immense crater, fourteen miles across at its widest spot, and sprang clear of the foggy veil. It was positively magnificent below. It was much warmer than the ridge had been with just enough breeze to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Verdant grass waved high across the floor until merging with tall hardwoods. Its lake stretched as far as the eye could see. And if there was a better day for game spotting, I just couldn’t imagine it.

As we jarred and jiggled across the narrow dirt path on the crater’s floor, we quickly spotted several lions lazing alongside the road. John brought our rolling disaster gliding to a stop.

There, just fifteen feet away, stretched three nonplussed females preening in the morning air. To our surprise, a young lion cub curiously poked his fuzzy head out of the safety of the camouflaging grass twenty feet behind them. Then another. And another. And one more–four in all.

We were speechless. Sure, we’d expected to see lions, but who’d have imagined we’d be that close, or find so many all at once, so soon. Those cubs were a special treat. Like the mountain gorillas, they showed no fear, totally indifferent to our presence. For awhile, we sat quietly studying them, then slowly advanced down the dirt trail.

Moving nearer the lake, there were zebras, ostrich, hartebeest and Grant’s gazelles in such abundance that we lost count. There were jackals and fox, scores of Cape buffalo, and those comical trotting wart hogs, tails waving in the breeze like oversized antennas.

The lake itself was beyond belief. One solitary hippo grazed on shore, surrounded by thousands of brilliant flamingos, a splotch of gray in a sea of pink. At the slightest sound, those awkward looking birds, perched on pogo stick legs, suddenly rose up as a group, spreading their white, red and pink feathered wings and swooped off for distant shores.

“But where are all the rhinos, elephants and wildebeest?” I wondered aloud, hooked on the adrenaline of discovery.

Not wanting to waste a precious moment, we combined lunchtime pilchards and hippos. John drove us to an immense, jade pool inhabited by ten giants. At first, just their beady eyes and flared nostrils protruded from the murky pond. Then they’d submerge, resurfacing a minute later. Snorting against the water, they’d toss back overstuffed heads with wide, toothy yawns. As we sat enjoying those legendary, tutu-ed stars of Disney’s film Fantasia, I was reminded of a story we’d heard in Zaire.

A traveler found a lake deep in the steamy jungle. It was a warm day and he was dusty and tired from his travels. So, he decided to take a dip. What he didn’t realize was that hippos also inhabited that lake. He soon discovered his mistake after he was chomped on the backside.

The bite was so severe that he had to be airlifted to the nearest hospital that could handle such a catastrophe–and that was in Uganda. Of course, there was a lot of red tape to get clearance to land because of their civil war. All in all, he was lucky to make it out alive, as they’ve been known to bite a human in half.

Sometimes remaining dirty means remaining alive.

That afternoon was even more remarkable. After leaving the hippo pool, we discovered a herd of nearly eighty wildebeest by the lakeshore. As we stood on the banks, completely entranced by their rutting ritual, each male defended his harem of at least ten females. They trotted around in circles, kicking with wild abandon, locking horns, leaping into the air and performing a helter-skelter dance.

Rolling farther down the road, we practically ran over yet another pride of lions. By the time the Volvo slid to a stop, we were just fifteen feet from ten full-grown adults: five males with great, shaggy manes and five golden females. They growled as we approached, but didn’t attempt to move or attack.

The three males kept gnawing the bloody remains of an antelope that lay pinned beneath paws the size of baseball mitts. With crimson-stained muzzles, they took turns ripping and tearing the flesh from its soft belly. Their companions, however, never took their eyes off us.

We cautiously drove past, trusting our car wouldn’t pick that exact moment to get mired in the wet grass. Then, circling back around the lake, we spotted two shadows off on our right, nearly hidden from view.

“John, take us nearer! Over there, quick.”

He shook his head and refused. “I would be fined if the ranger sees me.”

“But what about the other car over there?” The rest of our group was already looking at something.

Reluctantly, John inched us a little closer, either afraid of getting ticketed or stuck in the spongy lakefront. Soon, those shadows ninety feet to our right developed into a pair of the most magnificent creatures we’d ever seen–black rhinos. There were less than seven hundred remaining in the world, due to man’s reckless poaching.

These are so close that with binoculars I can look right into their heavy eyes.

Understandably, hearing our cacophonous car with the fumes flaming out the back, they became nervous. So, we only had a brief moment before they stormed off.

“Come on John, let’s follow ’em,” Bear urged.

Hesitant, we set-off along the far edge of the lake toward their watering hole. Fording a small trickle of a stream that we could easily have walked across, our car hit a hole. Bald tires spun and we jarred to a stop.

“Oh, no,” we sighed in unison. We’d thought we’d left that routine behind.

John rocked the car back and tried again to make it past the hole and up the three-foot embankment on the other side. Our wheels spun and black smoke poured into the mud, as we only dug deeper. We were stuck fast. A constant stream of water began seeping in through our doors. Then, to make matters worse, our engine cut off. It wouldn’t restart. Defeated, we hopped out and suspiciously eyed the thick surrounding brush. Our other car had disappeared long ago. Of course, cell phones were an unheard of luxury.

And here we are, deep in lion country.

Within ten nervous minutes, we were joined by a quartet of other four-wheelers whose drivers hopped out of their cabs and then stood around eating, as though this was all a regular occurrence, their afternoon tea break.

Is anyone going to do anything to get us out?

Eventually, John borrowed a battery from one of the other cars, and with endless cranking restarted his beast. After a whole lot of concerted rocking and rolling, pushing and teeth gnashing, Bear, Clara, Cheryl and I rolled the car free. It had taken almost an hour.

We immediately started our ascent back up the crater wall to arrive in camp before sunset, because there were no headlights on the heap either. As we shimmied and shook our way up the trail, there were real doubts whether we’d make it out of the crater at all.

It was touch and go, as we wheezed between first and third, and third and first gear for miles, all the way to the top. That heap slid from side to side, skidding perilously near the edge and deep ravine far below.

Ready to slide over the edge, I flashed back on the wise threat that my friend Pascal had yelled to an incredibly bad taxi driver in India years before, and I screamed at John, “Dead men don’t leave tips!” above the engine’s roar.

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