We Ain’t Nothing But Mammals (Emergency 72)

THE opening days in Namibia have reacquainted us to some of life’s little essentials.

Showers, draught beers, meat, pavements, people having the right change, orders arriving in less than an hour, rugby on TV, even beds.

It has given us our biggest taste yet of some of Africa’s wildlife – lions, rhinos, elephants, wildebeests, giraffes by the bucketful, hyenas, zebra and any number of varieties of antelope (not just served up on a plate).

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Civilisation – Toasting the rarity of a draught beer with Matt after arriving in Swakopmund

And we have spotted large herds of a creature in its natural habitat which has largely eluded us in the first half of the journey – the overlander.

Initially, they can be spotted milling around their own territory (trucks of various hues and designs) and sticking close to their own herd, with which they have travelled for a varying degree of time (the long-distance overlanders, like us, who spend many months migrating around the continent and the more common short-termers, who are abundant in southern and eastern Africa).

Gradually, however, the different herds will congregate at a watering hole and the allure of fresh meat sees the predators in each group closing in on their next victim. Sorry, target.

038Refreshed by a few of the local offerings, members of each group will eye each other across the hunting ground, move in for the ritual mating dance and eventually move away from their respective groups and find somewhere a little more private.

Or not, depending on their group’s sleeping arrangements, which can create a long night for other members of the herd.

IMG_4372The overlanders rolled into town in large numbers as we arrived in Swakopmund with up to four trucks parked in the courtyard of our base for three nights, with others dotted around town and descending on the same watering holes.

Differing herds can usually be told apart by their dress, length of hair (or beards) and sheer excitement at having a bed for the night and a shower – the longer they have been on the road, the longer the hair, more thrown together the clothing (from whatever it is clean) and more excited at the odd luxury (which doesn’t even have to be that luxurious) after so long in bush camps.

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I-Spy List – Some of the early stars of our busy morning in Etosha

Not that we have been starved of delights and luxuries on our way down into Namibia with some spectacular settings for our camps and the attractions of Etosha National Park, which served up a series of real treats (not least the showers, for those who were in quick enough to get hot ones).

By the time we reached the showers – via a quick trip to the campsite pool for some of us – we had already been treated to a special couple of hours after clocking in for our 24-hour pass having stayed not far from the park’s boundaries.

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Evening Visitor – A rhino comes for a drinking at the watering hole near camp in Etosha

A reserve centred around a huge, dry pan, Etosha is renowned as one of the best places to spot wildlife in Southern Africa, but we had been warned it may not be the richest of pickings with the rains dispersing the animals across the park rather than concentrating them around the watering holes.

To add to that, kneeling on the seats to watch out for the wildlife was not the prescribed treatment for my infected leg – which is supposed to be raised at every opportunity, leading to some interesting improvised footrests over the last few nights – but what happened over the next couple of hours made any discomfort more than worthwhile.

We had not even made it from the front gate to book in before the wildlife started appearing.

575A kudu started things off (surprisingly large and, later investigation would reveal, very tasty), followed by a group of giraffe grazing amid the trees by the side of the road and then a lone hyena, loitering long enough on the verge for the cameras to snap and defying warnings we would be very lucky to see them.

SAM_1567And that was just the start. Our first watering hole was flanked, on one side at least, by zebra and various antelope and impala with one lone giraffe making his way down the middle of the road, but then we cast a glance at the other side of the water.

Lying there, not taking the slightest bit of notice of us, were three lionesses with a male stretched out in the long grass a hundred yards or so behind.

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Hitting The Heights – Our spectacular bush camp in the Brandberg Mountains

Just a few minutes in and we had hit one of the big five, to be followed in quick succession by jackals, ostriches, wildebeest, loads of giraffe, zebra and antelope, even a tortoise. it was almost a relief to have a slightly more barren afternoon, wildlife wise, as we made our way through the park to our base at Hilali Camp.

Showers, swim and food out of the way, it was time for more animal spotting as we headed up the path to the seating area overlooking the camp’s floodlit watering hole.

It was not the busiest of nights down by the water and rain cut short some plans to spend the night there, but a couple of hours spent watching rhinos and an elephant popping down for a drink is a not a bad way to end the day.

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Blazing Squad – Building our bonfire at our bush camp near Henties Bay

An early start the next day had us at the camp gates pretty much as they opened at sunrise and heading towards the park exit before our 24 hours ran out, which was a bit of a push as we were joined by a hyena walking down the road and, finally, a lion trotting alongside the truck as he made his way through the bush.

It could all have been a bit of an anti-climax after that, but after a lunch stop in the town of Outjo, we headed up towards the Brandberg Mountains and a bush camp in a stunning setting among the rocks in the desert which provided a spectacular view of the sunset and, for those of us who climbed out of bed to scale the rocks, sunrise.

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Revved Up – Quad biking in the dunes near Swakopmund

With time to spare before we arrived in the relative civilisation of Swakopmund, we headed out into the desert via a beautiful, if largely untended, road which we did our best to smooth out as much as possible along the way.

After lunching in the heat of the desert plateau, we plunged down towards the coast and through the Benguela Current, which blows up from the Antarctic and saw us donning long trousers over the next few days, in many cases for the first time since Morocco.

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Hair-Raising – Karla has a run in with one of the locals

A quick paddle in the suddenly very cold Atlantic, fish and chips in Henties Bay and a bush camp in a dried-up river bed – which only saw us get stuck in the sand five or six times and had us trailing behind the truck carrying the sand mats – illuminated by a huge bonfire and we were on the road for the final few miles into Swakopmund.

As the first major settlement we hit in southern Africa – to say nothing of its reputation as a backpacker mecca and activity centre – Swakopmund has taken on near mythical status over the past few weeks.

It is, for all that, a strange place. Still showing a distinct German heritage (even though they have not run the place for a century and were only really there for about 30 years), it comes across like an old English seaside resort. If it was surrounded by sand dunes, run by Africans and organised by Germans.

And over the course of three days, we did our best to savour as many of its delights as possible – especially the liquid ones and anything which might once have been spotted on a game drive but was just as cherished on a plate, to say nothing of televised rugby which surprisingly found the people from Gloucester and New Zealand turning down a meal out to catch the end of Bulls v Crusaders. One of them rather more loudly than the other.

As well as nocturnal adventures as the different overland herds became increasingly entwined, we headed out on a variety of adventures in the desert – sandboarding, quad biking or sky diving.

My personal choice was quad biking, saving careering down dunes on a board until we return on the way back north – when, hopefully, my leg will have cleared up enough to make walking back up a more palatable proposition.

And by then, there should be a new crop of overlanders gathering around the watering holes for the predators…

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Hallelujah*

IT TOOK 137 days, 16 countries and pretty much to the halfway point of the trip, but we have found Christ.

Mind you, it was hard to miss him, looming as he did above both our windswept campsite and the southern Angolan city of Lubango in a miniature version of Brazil’s Christ the Redeemer.

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At Christ’s Feet – Early morning under the statue above Lubango

Sadly, a fatted calf limited my enjoyment of both it and pretty much all of the country as a second bout of cellulitis had my right leg swelling up, turning red and, in a fresh departure from the same affliction which hit my left leg in Togo and Benin, blistering and oozing on the back.

Which made sitting around with my leg resting on something in the truck into a sticky, messy business – at least until my pillow case (the cleanest thing in my kit after so long without laundry) was sacrificed to the greater good.

Barring a few sore looking reminders of bites which several members of the group have been sporting, there were few signs of what was to follow as we tied up the remaining loose ends in Matadi before finally crossing the border from Democratic Republic of Congo into, finally, Angola proper.

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Gathering Storm – Ale appears unconcerned by the weather building up over Lubango. And the fact we will have to cook in the rain

The legs were given a bit of a workout as we decided the best place for lunch was right at the bottom of the hill, meaning a lengthy uphill walk back to base – broken up by a bunch of local kids attempting to relieve me of my watch – to rustle up dinner, start packing up our belongings and, finally, seize the chance for a shower while it was still available.

There was more work for the legs as they scurried after Karla and Ale on a last-ditch – and increasingly fraught – attempt to restock the beer and Coke supplies ahead of notoriously expensive Angola before, grasping our freshly-stamped new visas, we rolled up the mountain, down the other side and out of town for a final bush camp short of the border.

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Pilgrimage – Our campsite in the shadow of Christ

And there was still no sign of what lay ahead as we rolled up to the border nice and early. So early, in fact, that the head honcho had yet to make it into work and we had to wait for his arrival to start the lengthy process of crossing out of the DRC (mud roads and shacks) and into Angola (sealed tarmac and freshly-painted buildings).

But as we sat and waited (and waited), something queasy began to stir.

At first, it was blamed on finishing off the slightly dodgy looking sausage sandwich Martyn had bought off a bloke outside the truck, but by the time lunch was served on the truck, one mouthful was enough to send me into retreat on the beach for a lie down.

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Doubling Up – The other truck rolled into camp just after us. Or think they did as I was crashed out on the beach all night

By the time we had stopped a couple of times on the road into Angola, the remains of the sausage sandwich, the mouthful of lunch, the breakfast banana pancakes and the morning’s intake of water had reappeared – thankfully not over the immigration officer whose appearance on the back of the truck in a fairly clueless attempt to check our passports interrupted my long afternoon sprawled along the seats.

And so, while the rest of the group and the other truck marked St Patrick’s Day at our bush camp, my evening was restricted to lying on the beach and ensuring nobody was stood under the window which was as far as my stomach allowed me to get on an emergency dash off the truck.

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Beware Landmines – Treading carefully on our last night in Angola

Thankfully, as with the previous bout in the other leg, the sickness lasted less than 24 hours before being replaced by the swollen, red calf, which is why our passage through the Angolan capital Luanda was marked by a search for a pharmacy and the evening found Steve wrapping a tourniquet round my arm and Helena (every truck should have its own nurse) inserting a line in my arm – once she had discovered the family trait of veins being impossible to find – for a three-day course of IV antibiotics.

That was the pattern for much of a series of long drive days through Angola as the miles rolled by with me flat on my back with my legs in the air as much as possible, although they did manage to carry me around a couple of supermarket stops as, amid much excitement, we stocked up on life’s little essentials (you know, crisps, chocolate, Coke, pies…) and found many of the prices were not as high as feared.

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Remnants of War – Some of the Angolan roadside furniture

And so, with my fatted calf resting on one of the eskies, we rolled into, through and out of the rather pleasant looking city of Lubango – which we had a chance to explore the next morning, only for most of us to spend much of the time in the supermarket – in search of Christ.

We found him (actually, he was not that hard to spot from several miles away), standing on top of the escarpment overlooking the town and set up camp (at the cost of feeding the security guards) at the base of the statue.

At least, that was the plan. Our arrival coincided with that of a storm which restricted our picture opportunities, delayed setting up the tents and, once the wind had finally dropped, prevented our planned meal (not that our group had planned much) and sent us scurrying into the truck stocks of tinned ravioli. Which was probably better than anything we would have rustled up.

Our final full day in Angola served up a few reminders of the civil war which ravaged the country for so long, starting with a tank abandoned on the side of the road (nicely sealed as evidence of the investment, mainly from China, flooding into the country).

And if we needed any more illustration of such a bloody recent past, it was the warning not to wander too far into the bush at our final bush camp due to the ever-present danger of landlines.

Which would make my healing leg look a little insignificant.

* That’s the Jeff Buckley version, the only one which is acceptable to play on the back of the truck.

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Our Not So Flexible Friends

THIS Trans-African adventure has always fallen neatly into two parts – the downward leg along the road less travelled through West Africa and the return north, traversing the far more traveller-friendly eastern side of the continent.

Sat in the rather pleasant town of Matadi on the banks of the mighty Congo River, we are just a couple of hours driving from the penultimate border crossing of the first leg – out of the Democratic Republic of Congo and into Angola.

Out of West Africa and into Southern Africa with the promised land of Namibia looming ever closer.

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Creature Comfort – Making the most of our beach bar at Pointe-Noire. Not drinking Um Bongo

Thoughts have been turning to what we are all planning to do, buy or eat in Namibia (they had better be well stocked in the meat department) for some time, but given our experiences with visas and borders over the previous four months, nobody is getting too excited – yet.

Once we cross into Namibia, not only will the facilities become far more widespread (there’s even rumours of hot showers), the options on how to spend our time (and money) grow and the ability to tuck into vast quantities of wild animals be dangled in front of us (threatening the weight loss some of us have managed heading south), but visas (should) become far more straightforward.

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Smooth Sailing – Progress was not always that quick

Yes, our passports need sending home to acquire one visa, but through the stretch from Namibia to Kenya, the availability of most visas at the borders means the time spent sat waiting outside embassies and consulates should be almost wiped out.

Our very presence in Matadi over the weekend is courtesy of an ongoing issue with our Angolan visas, which was complicated by our route through the enclave of Cabinda, sandwiched between the two Congos.

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Prime Spot – Linda takes avoiding the hardships of the three-second rule a bit far

It took less time to cross than it took to get in and out of, but the presence of Cabinda on our route – and heading straight through it is far more straightforward than the circuitous diversion on the notoriously difficult roads to Brazzaville and Kinshasa – has meant a series of delays.

Because we headed through Cabinda, we needed double entry visas for Angola.

Unable to get them before we headed off as they would have expired by the time we arrived, we headed to the Angolan Embassy in Accra (via a stop at a photo shop to get new passport pictures taken with the required white backgrounds).

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Filling Up – Taking the chance to fill the jerry cans as we passed through a village…

A lengthy spell sat outside – something we have got more than used to, sweltering in our neat(ish) embassy clothes on the truck, sleeping, reading, playing cards or whatever method of passing the time each person chooses – ended with us going in two by two to hand over the necessary forms and have our fingerprints taken.

The Angolans added another hurdle by asking for the cost of the visas to be deposited in cash at a specific bank, meaning a trip across town for Joe and his hired muscle for the day (Kris and me), who promptly fell asleep on the bank’s sofas as the guy at the front of the queue counted out a ridiculous amount of local currency.

But did all that get us our required visas? No. This is Africa, nothing is that simple.

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…and took the chance to meet the locals

The new computer system in the Accra embassy did not allow them to issue double entry visas, meaning our newly-issued single entry ones were only going to get us across the border into Cabinda, not into Angola itself.

Which is why, when you last left us, we were sat at the beach in Pointe-Noire in Congo, not that far north of the Cabinda border.

Well, there were other attractions on and around the beach as we soaked up the sun, headed into town to stock up ahead of heading into the DRC and notoriously expensive Angola (and more trips into Matadi will be needed for that very reason before we head off, hopefully, tomorrow), boosting the bar’s profits (once they had got the hang of actually serving us, taking our money and giving us the correct change, which seems particularly difficult in Africa), using the laundry service (all of which came back in one huge pile) and a few dips in the surf, which was not without its perils if you got trapped in the wrong spot as a set of waves crashed in. Not to be advised. It hurts.

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Only One – The spectacular sunsets in the Congo were worth watching. If they were actually sunsets

But Pointe-Noire also saw much chatter with the Angolan consulate – once they had reopened after a long weekend for International Woman’s Day – and finally we emerged with a letter explaining our situation to their counterparts in Matadi and all the information we needed to sanction our entry into Angola proper. Probably.

Getting into Cabinda was not a problem. Despite all we had been told from the odd ex-pat oil worker who frequented our beachfront hideout about the inhospitable nature of DRC and Angola, our experience has been completely to the contrary and, once we had got past the traditional African insistence of writing down all our passport information in a big ledger rather than accept the printed lists containing it all, it contained pretty much the most helpful border staff to date.

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Helping Out – The other truck gives a tow to another stuck lorry

We soon had more to compare them with as, within a few hours, we were across Cabinda and heading through the second border of the day into the big, bad DRC.

At least, that’s what you are led to believe.

Certainly, further north and inland, the country remains a bit of a mess as it struggles to emerge from years of mistreatment, mismanagement and internal conflict.

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Told You – And Ale was pretty good at capturing them

But along the stretch we have travelled, the welcome has once again been largely smiling and friendly – with the possible exception of the taxi driver who wanted more money than Reto and Martyn were willing to pay after he took them on a lengthy detour on a journey which should only have been a few hundred yards – and typified by the welcome in a small village where we stopped to fill up our water supplied from the village pump (a good workout for the back and shoulders, believe me).

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The Legend – The one and only Steve Newsway before we crossed the Congo River into Matadi

Admittedly the roads, for the large part, are not exactly up to scratch, but we made it through in one piece – both trucks heading through borders and visiting officials together until we cross into Angola and follow our own itineraries once more – and there was plenty of wonderful scenery to sit and gaze at as we travelled down the coast and then inland, largely along the Congo River itself before we swept across the bridge (no photographs) and into Matadi.

Our base here is in the grounds of a Catholic Mission, although our first day was spent sweltering outside the Angolan consulate (and in the bars, shops and restaurants around it) as they came up with an ever-expanding list of things which needed photocopying to go with each of our individual applications.

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Tales From The Riverbank – The town of Matadi sits on the far bank of the Congo River

But eventually, word came out that everything was in order, our visas would be ready for collection after the weekend and we were free to spend a couple of days exploring the delights of Matadi (as long as we don’t get too close to the bridge or the river, which they are very sensitive about, security-wise), which come with an interesting undercurrent.

And so we have all headed off, in small groups, up and down the stall-lined streets of Matadi, yet somehow some of us always seemed to run into each other sat outside the same bar.

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Explosive Stuff – One of the evening storms which livened up our stay in Matadi

Well, maybe bar isn’t the word. It’s a bit of empty concrete set back from the street outside a couple of small shops where a woman serves beer from a small outhouse or signals across the road for cold Cokes from a shop.

It had us smiling – even if she never did – and after the saga of the Angolan visas, that can’t be a bad thing.

NB This was always going to be the most arduous stretch of the journey and, despite several of us discussing how it had not been too bad a few nights ago, it does seem to have taken its toll in the last few days.

Infected bites have been a long-term problem which flared up across the group in the last few days, with a second bout of cellulitis in the group, while several people have been feeling a bit run down (the truck, when parked up, usually has two or three people stretched out over the seats), although a lot of that may be self-inflicted – be it through lack of sleep, over-indulgence or, my theory of sugar highs and crashes as we guzzle fizzy drinks in the sweltering heat (thankfully, slightly diminished today after last night’s spectacular storm).

But we have had more serious issues in the last couple of days with a second case of malaria on board (thankfully, not as bad as the first), hot on the heels of a suspected case which was cleared by a hospital test, while we are sadly losing one of the inhabitants of the other truck due to a trip-ending eye issue.

Personally, my toes have been the main cause for concern. Plasters adorn each foot, one wrapped round a blister and the other covering the gap left in my nail and end of the toe where the truck bin landed on it after we hit a pothole.

But bar that, all is pretty much OK.

Or is that tempting fate…

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Up To Our Waists In Um Bongo

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Muddy Hell – All smiles in the puddle after a few hours attempting to free that lorry

THERE are many pitfalls which can throw overland itineraries into chaos and mean all information about where and when we will be heading somewhere along our Trans African route comes with a large question mark hanging over it.

Weather, visa formalities, mechanical issues, the state of the roads and any number of meddling officials not quite sure how to deal with a big yellow truck full of tourists landing on their doorstep can (and have) all conspire to throw a spanner in the works.

Getting stuck at the border between Nigeria and Cameroon for 54 hours is one of the more extreme examples – especially when you throw in the six days spent in Calabar before that attempting to ease our passage – while spending six hours on a cold, dark Moroccan hillside digging Nala out of the ooze gave us a crash course in just what we had let ourselves in for.

Both experiences have entered the folklore of this trip and feature highly whenever we reflect on the past four months. The type of tales which will be retold whenever we chat in the future and which anyone who asks about our adventure will hear in graphic detail.

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Main Road – The route from the border to the heart of Congo

To those, we can add the events of our first three days in Congo. Three days which saw us head a fairly short distance (one you would think nothing of doing in a few hours at home), but which came littered with incident, frustration, plenty of waiting around, a lot of toil, loads of mud and a considerable amount of time spent standing in a large puddle.

Congo took no time at all to make its mark as the smooth roads which ushered our progress out of Gabon ended abruptly just before the border, to be replaced with tracks which started off bumpy, changed to rough and ended up somewhere between rollercoaster and log flume as Steve pointed Nala through her personal African theme park.

In typically African fashion, crossing the border managed to be both fairly straightforward and remarkably drawn out. No great long waits to cross an arbitrary line, rather a series of stops at police posts, immigration and customs as we made our way into country number 13.

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Local Services – The guys had it easy…

Why stick a load of officials in one handy position at the border when you can spread them out through a series of small towns and checkpoints, ensuring anyone travelling along the road has to keep stopping and answering the same questions over and over again?

But we had cleared all the bureaucracy – or so we thought – and were busy hanging on to anything we could and leaning out of the windows, trying to watch the road and what it was about to throw at us, the passing scenery and the approaching storm as Steve picked his way through the ruts, puddles and potholes en route to the night’s bush camp.

Right up to the point where our path was blocked by a lorry coming in the other direction.

Well, it had been coming. By the time we arrived (pretty much at the same time as the rain), the bulk of its back wheels were submerged in a deep, water-filled pothole.

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No Way Through – Our path is blocked by the lorry in the puddle. We eventually got through the following day, below

Our attempt – well, Nala’s really, we were watching from our grandstand seats on the back – to pull the truck out only succeeded in nearly sending us into the verge and, as the storm set in, there was little option than to retreat to the little collection of houses a few hundred yards back down the road and set up camp on the flat ground outside before it turned into a lake.

Thankfully, the locals were clearly quite used to putting up stranded travellers and the rain eased off before making matters any noticeably worse.

What followed, come daylight, will rank as one of the toughest, but most memorable and rewarding mornings of the trip.

Many years ago, an ex-girlfriend dragged me out of bed on a Sunday morning to a team-building exercise for her office which involved people hanging from a harness and standing on piles of empty beer crates which grew as more and more were passed up to the suspended victim, sorry, team member.

Judging by the reaction of those involved, it seemed a colossal waste of time (how was my involvement going to help build their team when many of the staff did not show up?) and any team building would have been far more successful if they had just been given the initial contents of the crates and sent off to have a good time.

Or they could have got a lorry out of a Congolese puddle and left the road in a suitable condition for two overland trucks to pass through safely.

Over the course of five hours, our entire truck threw themselves – literally in some cases – into the task in hand, supplemented by the drivers of the various lorries held up by the blockage, a few locals and some of the more intrepid travellers from the other truck, which arrived as we were attempting to lower the level of the puddle by baling the water using every bowl and bucket we could lay our hands on.

Anyone who stood around watching was dealt with rapidly, either by a strategically thrown bucket of muddy water or the less subtle approach of tackling them into the puddle.

And the locals, initially wary of cameras and not quite sure what we were doing larking around in the mud, soon got the drift, eventually throwing themselves into the water to get into the inevitable soggy team shots.

Our efforts, married to the drainage ditch dug in the side of the road – which then became the focus of our new-found baling skills – lowered the levels enough for a tow chain to be fitted to the rear of the stranded lorry which was hauled out backwards by one of those stuck behind.

An impromptu ramp, fashioned under the remaining water using rocks collected by another of the trucks, finally provided a route out and gave us a means of escape in the opposite direction.

The rest of the day’s journey passed largely without incident – at least on the roads. On the back of the truck, a few early beers from the eskie to toast our endeavours ensured a fairly riotous afternoon (and one person being steered off for an early night on arrival at bush camp), while we finally got to wash off at least some of the mud with a dip in a river.

But any hopes of a totally smooth passage through the rest of Congo proved premature.

We should have seen it coming, given the way we were passed from police checkpoint to police checkpoint along the way, each one seemingly bemused by our presence and what to do with us, even though they all seemed to be forewarned we were on our way.

And, finally, the routine questions just weren’t enough. We were informed at yet another checkpoint that our presence was required at an appointment with officials in Dolisie (our next intended destination) and the local police chief made sure we kept it by riding along with us.

So as we whiled away the afternoon reading, sleeping and popping across to the corner shop opposite (for snacks, drinks and to use the toilet in their flat out the back), Joe and Steve were asked a series of questions driven by their complete inability to understand what tourists would be doing there and why we would be doing a trip like this, never mind why we would visit their country to do it.

All while parked outside the Ministry of Tourism offices.

At one point, Joe had to take his laptop in with him to show them pictures of animals from his previous trips.

But eventually, they were satisfied everything was in order and the officials lined up for a quick look around Nala and to have their pictures taken and we rolled off to the market for food shopping, just as the other truck rolled into town to go through the same interrogation.

Any hopes of a quiet night, however, were dashed as we were moved on from our chosen bush camp as it was, apparently, in a military zone.

Decamped further out of town to a track just off the main toll road to Pointe-Noire, we set up our tents for a second time and crawled into bed around 10pm, meaning most of us were asleep or plugged into headphones when we had another visit from the police about an hour later.

Closer investigation of the other truck’s Congolese visas had shown a discrepancy and we were once requested back into town for an early-morning reunion with some of the officials.

This time, it was not so much questions as statements. Our 30-day visas clearly stated they expired on March 23 – 16 days later, when we would be long gone – but they had decided they were only valid for 30 days from when they were issued back in Togo and were, therefore, expired.

The result? A €400 fine per person which, not surprisingly, Joe and the two Steves, flatly refused to pay.

That prompted a rethink. Now we were getting sent back to Gabon – at least until it was pointed out our Gabon visas had genuinely expired and they would not let us back in.

Finally, the fine was dropped to €80 per person and, faced with wasting precious time and throwing the schedule further out of kilter, the decision was made to pay up and get on our way.

So, relieved of some much-needed cash, we got out of town in a hurry – helped, thankfully, by the return of a sealed road all the way to Pointe-Noire – having wasted the best part of 24 hours being messed around by officials.

Sadly, this is Africa. While the welcome we have received has been overwhelmingly friendly, welcoming and wreathed in smiles, every so often somebody takes the opportunity to tarnish that view of our hosts.

Hopefully, the smiling, friendly faces of the people with whom we shared a morning in a puddle will leave a more lasting impression.

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On The Road In West Africa

FIVE years ago, as my last major overland adventure rolled eastwards across Europe, Siberia and into Asia, one refrain became common: “When we get to Beijing…”.

The Chinese capital took on almost mythical status where we could stock up on all we had neglected to pack, had not packed enough of or were simply desperate to eat, drink or buy as we clocked up the miles across the vast, empty spaces of Russia and Mongolia.

For Beijing on this trip, substitute Namibia and Cape Town, where thoughts have been straying as we wind our way through possibly the toughest section of this entire Trans Africa* adventure.

Rough roads, long days on the truck, time spent clearing the way to continue on our route south – both literally and metaphorically, but more of that next time – and nine successive days of driving and bush camping without any facilities (especially showers, now well above wi-fi, just above ice for the eskie and, possibly, even cold beer in our list of favourite things) has had us dreaming of proper campsites and some of life’s little luxuries which lie in wait at the end of the yellow brick road (well, muddy, potholed track) in the more sophisticated tourist infrastructure of southern and eastern Africa.

If we stumble across a hot shower, our systems are likely to implode.

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Grandstand View – My day up in the cab provided a clear view of some interesting roads in Gabon, above, and how Steve dealt with them, below

Not that you should be feeling too sorry for us.

And if you do, make sure you do it from a safe distance. We may smell a bit, but that’s what nine days without a shower will do (and the promise of a whole lot more ahead as we head out of Congo, through the Angolan enclave of Cabinda – once we have sorted out a few bits of visa issues – sprint across the Democratic Republic of Congo and head down through the main chunk of Angola and into the Promised Land).

SAM_1236We barely notice the smell, bar catching the odd whiff of ourselves, but you do wonder what people we stumble across make of us.

And it makes any stop to plunge into a river to cool down and wash off the worst of the dirt into a highlight of any drive day.

But no, do not feel sorry for us.

Bush camping, once you have got used to the lack of facilities, is fun and many of us look forward to getting out on the road and spending our evenings in whatever spot we rock up in – be it disused quarries, old roads, tracks down the side of the road or self-made clearings off paths in thick rainforest – passing the time as that night’s cook group rustles up their latest creation and sitting around the fire chatting until the call of bed becomes too great (normally not that late, certainly far earlier than the standard bedtime back home).

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View From On High – Martyn, Joe and Matt keep an eye on the road from the beach

Especially if we have ice to keep the beer cold in the eskie.

Admittedly, it can get pretty miserable when it rains, as it has done a fair bit in Cameroon, Gabon and Congo, albeit mainly in short, sharp bursts and almost always just as we are pulling into camp. They are called rainforests for a reason.

We have got pretty good at all pitching in to get camp set up quickly, learned to trust our tents to keep us dry (barring any mishaps on our behalf) and even how to keep most of our kit out of the worst of the weather – no facilities and no time means no chance to wash clothes while bush camping, so clean, dry clothes are at a premium by the time we do pull into somewhere we can do laundry.

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Halfway Down – Crossing the equator for the first time. Or the first time on a road that had a sign. Warning: Don’t lean on the sign

Or pay somebody else to do it for us (money well earned by the poor person handed the contents of this morning’s laundry bags).

No, don’t feel sorry for us.

Admittedly, many of the roads we have travelled on barely qualify as such, the potholes ensuring plenty of bucking and lurching from side to side, which makes reading nigh on impossible and provides added spice to looking out of the side of Nala at some fairly spectacular views (a bit like the Cotswolds and Lake District in places over the past week or so, just more tropical).

It is a smoother ride – just – up in the cabin alongside Steve. The seat was mine for one day through Gabon and, just as the smooth new, Chinese-laid roads through logging territory were causing me to break one of the cardinal rules of riding shotgun (no sleeping), Steve pulled off onto a dirt logging truck and dozing was rendered almost impossible.

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Tight Confines – Our camp in the rainforest in Gabon. After we had chopped away a load of vegetation

So, no, don’t feel sorry for us.

Especially when you consider this post is being written from our base alongside the beach at Pointe-Noire in the Congo, a brasserie run by a former Toulon rugby player, strewn with memorabilia, showing live French matches on a big screen (well, white sheet hung on one wall), serving huge (if costly) paninis, pizzas and cold beer. If only the wi-fi worked properly, it would be pretty spot on.

The wi-fi was working, if pretty temperamental, when we left things chilling by the sea and pool in Limbe, Cameroon.

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Splashdown – A river meets the sea at Kribi. Better than a shower

There was more relaxing on the beach at our next port of call in Kribi, broken up by a walk along the sand to climb and splash around in a series of waterfalls that fall directly into the sea and a reunion with Reto, returned from a brief trip back to Switzerland for family reasons.

He timed his arrival perfectly for the run of bush camps which saw us cross, relatively painlessly, into Gabon and head to Lope National Park, where some of us eschewed the morning game drive to take advantage of IMG_4029the pool showers at the hotel, if not the extortionate fees to use the small pool ($10) and breakfast of coffee, juice and bread ($11).

That’s over the top, no matter how spectacular the view.

Bush camps apart, our journey through Gabon was highlighted by two events – crossing the equator for the first time and setting up camp in the middle of the rainforest clearing, which gave our cook group’s potato extravaganza (spuds in different guises for all three, well-received, meals) an extra frisson of excitement from the oppressive heat, constant buzzing of insects around our heads and food and a slight reluctance on the part of many to wander too deep into the bushes for fear what lurked beyond.

Another of those Trans Africa* moments which looked daunting and to be survived, but ended up as one to be cherished.

No, definitely don’t feel sorry for us.

NEXT: How to free a lorry stuck in a puddle using only our washing-up bowls and what happens when police officials cannot comprehend your visa.

* Rechristened, courtesy of half the group mishearing something Linda said, as the Trans Avocado.

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