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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