Overlanding in Africa can be challenging at the best of times, but when you’re wheelchair-bound, it’s a whole new ball game. Seasoned traveller Louis Broodryk shares the clever ways he gets around on a continent where wheelchair access is limited and sometimes non-existent.
By Louis Broodryk
Photos by Louis and Kareen Broodryk
If there’s one person who deserves to be called fearless, it’s Louis Broodryk. Nearly three decades ago, his life took an unimaginable turn when a tragic accident landed him in a wheelchair. Despite a new set of challenges, he did not let his disability stop him from living life to the full and pursuing his travel dreams. For the past 15 years, he and his wife, Kareen, have backpacked around the world, capturing the experiences on their blog Fearless on Four Wheels. Now, they have quit the rat race to pursue travel full-time for a year and a half.
Louis shares their story:
A new adventure
When we told our friends and family that we would be resigning our jobs to travel Africa, the most common response was: “You are going to do WHAT?!” It is now nine months later and what an adventure we are having.
I broke my back 26 years ago. ‘Luckily’, I regained some use of my upper legs, which makes mobility easier as I can crawl and stand with support. My accident did not stop my passion for travelling and exploring, especially in Africa. That is why Kareen and I decided to embark on an epic trip across Africa.
We left Cape Town in July 2018 and have travelled through Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania, including Zanzibar. Currently, we are exploring Kenya and plan to travel farther north thereafter.
Realities of wheelchair travel
Our mode of transport is a 2010 Toyota Hilux D4D called Ufudu, which means tortoise in Zulu. To make the bakkie wheelchair friendly, we installed a hand control driving system, extra handles around the vehicle and a carrier on the driver-side to store my wheelchair in.
Being in a wheelchair, you have to consider the types of surfaces you will encounter. For example, we discovered that I can handle a maximum of three days in very thick sand, like that found in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Khwai River in Botswana or on a beach.
In these conditions, moving so much as a metre is very difficult and slow, and after three days, we have to find an environment with harder terrain. I am very independent and try not to ask my wife for help, but in thick sand, I have to ask constantly.
The same goes for campsites. Searching for campsites with some grass and working out the distance to the various facilities have become specialised skills for us. Ablution blocks are seldom wheelchair friendly – sometimes, the wheelchair cannot even fit through the doorframe. Using a plastic chair in the shower can make washing easier, and I also carry a rubber mat with me to sit on. Sometimes, I have to find a fork in a tree trunk to use as a toilet, but it works well and has the best view!
On our trip so far, we have come across only two wheelchair accessible toilets, and both were in shopping malls in Lusaka, Zambia. Thankfully, navigation apps such as Tracks4Africa have made our lives a lot easier by helping us find pictures of campsites.
A big challenge for me is the maintenance of the wheelchair. On one occasion, we hit a tree with the side of our Hilux on a very narrow, sandy road leaving Angola. Luckily, a taxi stopped and helped us get all the pieces of our canopy and wheelchair packed in the car.
Unfortunately, my wheelchair had broken in two places and I was not able to use it at all. In Mongu, Western Zambia, I had the wheelchair welded back together the next morning. The canopy was then repaired over the next few days. This was all done with the help of another taxi driver, Mr Brighton, to whom we could not be more grateful.
On our adventure, we have encountered the best kinds of people: friendly, hospitable and always willing to help. Sometimes, they can be too helpful, which becomes especially problematic when there is a big language barrier.
This was most challenging in Angola. We spent a wonderful month there, but it was difficult to communicate as our Portuguese is very limited, and strangers always wanted to assist by pushing me. Nevertheless, we were astounded by the beauty of the country. The lack of infrastructure and the impact of war is still very visible, but I would definitely recommend a visit to this picturesque country.
Travel with purpose
We believe in having a positive impact on the places we visit. Therefore, before leaving South Africa, we raised funds to distribute reusable sanitary pads at schools in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. It was heart-warming to see the schoolgirls’ reactions when they heard the pads can be washed and reused for up to four years. We have already received feedback from one school that told us there has been an improvement in girls’ attendance since they received the pads.
Our adventures have taught us to work together as a team, especially when things go wrong. We have learnt to simplify our lives and live every day with very few luxuries. Our travels have taught us the value of a smile and to appreciate real connections with people.
If you would like to help Louis and Kareen improve the lives of schoolgirls across Africa, you can donate to their sanitary pad project.