Westside

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Turning Point – The view from the top of Table Mountain

“DID you get Ebola?”

Reactions among those who stumble across a big yellow truck and its inhabitants at the end of our five-month journey south have found it difficult to comprehend exactly what we have done. Let alone why.

And, having reached the turning point in Cape Town and starting the four-month trek back north to Cairo, it is still pretty difficult to get our heads around exactly what has happened, what we have seen, the experiences we have shared and the people we have met – fleetingly or as travelling companions – along the way.

The plan for this entry was always for it to be a reflective one, taking advantage of our break from the road in Cape Town to look back on the southbound leg of the journey and make some sort of sense of my impressions of Africa.

Several times the laptop was opened up with the intentions of writing, but one week, another country, a lot of sand and one broken tent (of which more in the next instalment) later, it remains difficult to order exactly what my thoughts are on Africa.

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Looking Up – The view from the courtyard of our hostel in Cape Town

It is a place full of contradictions and frustrations, things that do not work and things which shouldn’t work, amazing experiences and people that can’t help but make you smile in delight or wonder, right alongside experiences and people who make you tear your hair out in annoyance.

This, after all, is Africa.

To sum it up in a few short phrases is nigh on impossible – and five months travelling through such a wide-ranging series of countries from the Arab north, sub-Saharan West Africa and the verdant, tropical chaos either side of the Equator to the relative modernity of the south is nowhere near enough to provide an authoritative view on this mystifying continent – but, hopefully, the jumble of thoughts which are fighting for priority in my head will somehow spill out onto the page in some form of coherent order over the coming weeks and months.

One thing for sure as we gear ourselves to rattle up the miles heading north – via a relaxed weekend back in Swakopmund, Namibia, which is providing possibly the last beds until Zanzibar – is that none of us have caught Ebola.

Malaria, yes. Cellulitis, yes. Any number of festering wounds, most definitely (the Manky Leg Club has been growing in numbers, although most of the problems which earned membership are clearing up after the rash of applications through the tropics). But Ebola, no.

It was the most-often raised topic before we set off and, having bypassed the infected areas (the detour producing memorable rewards in Mali and Cote D’Ivoire), we had all but forgotten about it until hitting the more common overland routes down south and running into fellow travellers heading towards the end or just starting out on their shorter trips down the more regular routes through the south and east of Africa which will form our next section.*

But more than once in the last couple of weeks, someone has asked us where we have come from, not expecting the answer Gibraltar. After checking that we hadn’t just flown from Europe to Cape Town, they almost inevitably raise the spectre of Ebola.

One group of overlanders rolled out of our accommodation this morning, but not until they had taken a few snapshots of Nala, quizzed their tour leader about whether we really were spending 40 weeks heading from London to Cape Town to Cairo (as emblazoned on her side) and whether any of us had died of Ebola.

Personally, think it would make a reality travel show. Instead of getting voted off the truck, passengers are removed one by one by illness until the last one standing (or breathing on their own) is declared the winner. Has the added advantage of losing contestants not becoming minor celebrities, albeit just for five minutes or until the next batch of wannabes fight for their 15 minutes of fame. Some things have not been missed.

But no, we have made it down south pretty much intact. One passenger was forced home by a case of cerebral malaria, while a few others have had to head home temporarily for personal reasons or off on brief trips away from the truck, rejoining us along the way, but we remain, largely, in one piece.

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African Diet – Warthog ribs in Cape Town

Personally, as someone who set out on this adventure overweight and nowhere near as fit as planned, what was always billed as the most gruelling section of the journey has not been as physically draining as feared.

Even the cumulative effects of camping and lack of home comforts has failed to have too much of a negative impact – to the extent that the return to bush camping after the relative luxuries of Cape Town was welcome with almost universal delight, even when conditions conspired against us. But again, more of that in the next instalment.

Yes, there has been the two bouts of cellulitis – one in each leg – which laid me low for a few days each and has left its marks on my right calf and slightly swollen foot, forcing a pragmatic approach to some of the more strenuous activities, and one short, sharp attack each of the gout and back problems which have long dogged me.

But we head north with my body in pretty good shape. Certainly a more slimline shape, forcing a dash around Cape Town’s gleaming malls to stock up on new clothes – much to the delight of my fellow travellers, who now don’t have to watch me constantly pulling up my trousers that are now way too big, despite the creation of two new holes in a belt.

The sudden appearance of large platefuls of meat (kudu steaks lead warthog ribs in the best game meat stakes), not to mention plentiful supplies of cold beer, in Namibia and South Africa threatens to derail the weight loss, but having got into a pair of shorts four inches smaller than the ones which left Britain with me, the Trans Africa diet should really be used by Oasis as part of their marketing campaign.

And it has not come on starvation rations.

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Perfect Timing – Ale collected a special Malcolm award in Cape Town , the victim of a practical joke all the way from Accra

There have been a few complaints about the food, but my diet has probably never been so good. Certainly it has never included so many vegetables. And at no point since my early teenage years – far too long ago – has breakfast featured on a daily basis, while my self-imposed rule about keeping snacks to a minimum and not stockpiling food on the truck has certainly helped.

Any criticism of the food is squarely down to our shortcomings as cooks rather than the amount or what we have been eating.

Admittedly, we do keep falling back on the same few recipes (my cook teams have a tendency to specialise in anything to do with potatoes, occasionally for all three meals), but there has barely been a really bad meal, unless you are a particularly fussy eater.

And considering we have largely been shopping in West African markets for meals cooked on a camp fire, you cannot be that fussy.

Certainly the two rules – make sure it is edible and make sure there is enough – have been followed throughout and there is usually a pretty rapid queue formed for seconds.

But there is no getting away from the fact, this trip is not always easy. It is a long time to be away from friends, family and home comforts. It is a long time to spend with the same group of people – strangers when we climbed on board the truck, be it in Gibraltar, Accra or, for the newbies, Cape Town.

And there are long periods on the  truck to sit, think and stew on any irritations (and as one of the group’s snorers, that brings a whole set of irritations when it comes to sleeping arrangements).

In a group of people this size – we were at 13 at our lowest, now up to a trip high of 20 – there are always going to be disagreements and the odd personality clash. There are times, at the end of a long drive day, when you climb off the back of the truck and want nothing to do with one or more of your fellow passengers.

But that is inevitable. How many people at work have rubbed you up the wrong way over the past five months? And that’s with the advantage of being able to go home at the end of the day.

We have been lucky with the mix of people we have, avoiding cliques or self-contained units and, after more than five months on the road, the overwhelming majority of us are still happy to share each other’s company and wander off in any number of combinations for an activity, drink or a meal.

These people are as big a part of this trip as Africa itself and the fact that we still go out in large numbers for meals shows how well we get along.

Right up to the point when it comes to sorting out the bill…

* At no point have we turned into travel snobs and referred to our fellow overlanders as amateurs, lightweights or bus wankers (remember, we are on a truck, most definitely not a bus). Well, not all that often.

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Mali And Me

ONE thing about elephants that’s hard to forget. They are pretty big.

That, hopefully, will come in handy when trying to frame them in focus somewhere in the middle of a photo at some point in the next nine months, but when they are lingering in the corner of the room, it makes them pretty difficult to ignore (which also holds true about the pile of kit which has been growing in the corner of my flat).

As mentioned in a previous post, the elephant in the room for our Trans Africa overland adventure over the past few months has been Ebola.

And no longer can it – or the fairly constant questions about it – be ignored.

In the end, it was not any threat of the disease which forced a bit of a diversion around the affected countries in West Africa, but practicalities stemming from steps being taken to contain it.

Nala
Nala

Oasis Overland have been tracking the elephant over the last few months and after consulting, among others, the World Health Organisation, African Travel and Tourism Association and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, they have taken the decision to turn east from Senegal rather than continuing south around the coast.

Instead of heading straight through Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone – the worst affected countries – the new route takes us through southern Mali (and possibly a bit of Burkina Faso) before heading back towards the coast and the original route in Cote d’Ivoire.

Overland trips have to adapt and it is all part of the adventure, but it is nothing new for Oasis. They can explain.

“Ebola is bringing many challenges, and as a group we need to be prepared that elements of the trip may need to change or be amended,” read our e-mail from Natalie at Oasis HQ, who has been keeping us informed, steering us in the right direction and answering any number of questions over the past few months. “It is still two months until we get close to the areas that have been affected and we will continue to monitor the situation.

“Mali is a country we know well from past trips, your drivers have been to before and visas are easy to obtain on route.  I should stress that the decision to travel via Mali is based primarily on us needing to avoid border closures rather than the chance of contracting Ebola.

Our tour leader Joe checking out tents and, below, stocking up the truck
Our tour leader Joe checking out our tents and, below, stocking up the truck

Created with Nokia Smart Cam“It is a hard disease to catch. However, we will be putting extra steps in place to ensure good hygiene standards on board the truck.

 “The route through Mali is not a new one for us.  We travelled this way for many years up until two years ago and in the past our groups have really enjoyed Mali.  As with our past expeditions, this is all part of the nature of a Trans Africa trip.”

The debate about how to deal with Ebola has not been the only thing keeping Oasis busy over the past few weeks.

On my visit to their base to drop off bulkier bits of kit a few weeks ago, our truck Nala – evidently the name of the animated love interest in The Lion King, but also the name of one of my sister’s Labrador’s mates – was undergoing a touch of paint and bit of TLC.

It has been stocked up, our tents tended and checked and our tour leader Joe has been wading through a pile of paperwork and the plans for the next nine months, taking a quick break to write about his preparations, before Nala and crew headed off to Gibraltar tonight. We fly out to meet it on the rock next Tuesday.

Preparations here have stepped up a few gears since the countdown to leaving work reached zero and there was finally time to crack on with the jobs which had been multiplying for months.

And, with one or two minor exceptions, the to-do lists for the trip itself are pretty much done – dutifully maintained, drawn up and written up each night, only to be immediately altered early the next day to accommodate my failure to get up as early as planned.

Visas are sorted (Ghana in the passport with pre-approval registration for Senegal), all jabs complete, malaria tablets collected, rucksack repaired, farewells said (and toasted) and piles of kit and clothes bought (some of it planned), dug out from storage and currently filling up the sofa and its surrounds in the front room of my flat.

The one major job for the trip left – before packing up my flat, bidding farewell to my car after 12 years and finding time to say a few more goodbyes, write a few more posts and learn how some of the new bits of tech work together – is to pack and one glance at those piles suggests my reputation for over packing is well deserved.

All (well, most) of this has to fit in one rucksack and a shoulder bag. Meanwhile, there's only the chair by desk to sit on...
All (well, most) of this has to fit in one rucksack and a shoulder bag. Meanwhile, there’s only the chair by my desk to sit on…

But it isn’t all going into those bags, those piles are everything that could go, not everything that will go.

There’s decisions to be made – old shorts, new shorts or both?; an old fleece which can be discarded after some cold early nights or the one which zips inside my waterproof and is more convenient, but not as warm?; iPad as well as MacBook Air? Whatever the answers (and the iPad decision is becoming easier due to the negative impact the latest update has had on it), it’s going to be a complicated process.

Suggest getting up on time to allow all of the morning allowed for packing on the to-do list.

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Elephant In The Room

THE countdown to departure has reached single figures in terms of weeks and the American trip which acted as a buffer between “some way off” and “God, I’m nowhere near ready” has come and gone.

It is time to stop writing the to-do lists and actually start chalking off the items.

And it is time to address the elephant in the room. Not the ones which, barring something very wrong with the world, will cross our path at some points during the upcoming 10-month trip around Africa.

No, the elephant in the room which has been lurking in every conversation about the trip over the past few weeks – Ebola.

Lurking in the corners
Lurking in the corners

Reactions have varied from the mickey takers, through the genuinely concerned, the geographically confused (Papua New Guinea is neither affected nor on our route) and the fatalist.

“You won’t be going to any of these countries,” said the nurse, scanning to the list of places we were heading as we worked out the exact schedule for vaccinations.

My reply was something along the lines of “we’ll see… long time away yet”, a lack of any genuine debate or disagreement perhaps attributed to the fact she and her colleague were about to simultaneously stick a needle into each of my arms.

Discretion – and cowardice – is the better part of valour (have no real problems with needles as long as not looking at them, so having one from each side made looking away a bit difficult without shutting my eyes and, with a few more jabs still to come, that may not have created the intended impression).

But “we’ll see… long time away yet” has become a sort of standard reply, after explaining that yes, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria, Liberia and pretty much all the countries hit by the current outbreak are on our route.

Partly to avoid too long an explanation and, largely, because it is just impossible to give a more accurate answer. It is a way off yet and who knows what will happen between now and our arrival in the affected region.

While not one to fret unduly about these things – if we have to change route, then hey, we are still seeing Africa, just a few different bits – and have shrugged off most questions, but that elephant has been lurking and can’t be ignored any longer. The time has come to start asking a few questions.

One of my fellow travellers gave in to the lurking pachyderm first and got in touch with Oasis Overland, the tour organisers, and got back the latest info which was then shared in the first of a series of e-mails which will guide us through the next few weeks (once all the information has been distilled onto those to-do lists, of course).

And while there is obvious reason for concern and a close eye on developments, with alternative routes kept on the back burner, the expert view is that there is no reason for us not to head through the affected region.

Dr Richard Dawood, medical advisor of the African Travel and Tourism Association, is clear about the impact of the disease on the area, but confident it will have minimal impact on our trip

“Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia have a very inadequate public health infrastructure that has so far been unable to control the present outbreak,” he said. “Until sufficient external help is provided, the number of cases there will grow and cases will undoubtedly spread to other countries via travel – though in most other countries further spread will be extremely unlikely since very close/body fluid contact is needed for further spread.

“At this stage, I cannot see any situation where clients would actually be at risk, though obviously the situation needs to be taken seriously and monitored closely.”

That view is backed up by the World Health Organisation (WHO), who have taken the step of escalating the status of the outbreak, which should open the doors to additional help in fighting the problem.

Their advice reads: “The risk of a tourist or businessman/woman becoming infected with Ebola virus during a visit to the affected areas and developing disease after returning is extremely low, even if the visit included travel to the local areas from which primary cases have been reported.

“Transmission requires direct contact with blood, secretions, organs or other body fluids of infected living or dead persons or animal, all unlikely exposures for the average traveller. Tourists are in any event advised to avoid all such contacts.”

And that, for the moment, is that. Still not that far past “we’ll see… long time away yet”, but at least the elephant can wander out of the room and back into its natural habitat to prepare for a few photo opportunities when we get there.

 

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