Ocean Rain

LET me paint you a picture.

As darkness falls over the beach in Nungwi, Zanzibar, to my right the local beach boys are playing their nightly sunset game of football (pretty skilled, very competitive, but low scoring given the small size of the goals), silhouetted against the still waters of the Indian Ocean.

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Pre Match – The sun starts to set over our beach retreat on Zanzibar

To my left is a tall, cold, almost empty Cuba Libre – about to be replaced by another one before working out exactly where tonight’s dinner is coming from – while the sounds of reggae and the whizzing of the barman’s blender are drowning out the sound of Tanzanian TV blaring out an old episode of ALF.

Sadly, the chances of getting Gloucester’s European play-off final with Bordeaux-Begles on the screen are slightly slimmer than they were for last night’s FA Cup Final but, hey, can’t have everything?

Just to balance things out, our few days away from the African mainland on the spice island of Zanzibar have seen our first major rain since the opposite coast in Angola while we were still heading south and had yet to begin our journey across the continent from west to east.

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Lopsided – How to confuse weighbridges, put all the weight over one end

But between the showers, downpours in some cases, we have had a few truly memorable days, largely from activities which never had me that bothered beforehand (and even had me jumping off the upper deck of a boat, never mind tasting particularly pungent fruit).

Thankfully, the rain waited until we were on the island and safely ensconced in rooms, rather than sleeping in tents and, for much of the early going in Tanzania, in bush camps.

Since rolling into Swakopmund halfway through our first passage through Namibia, bush camps, so common all the way through West Africa, have been few and far between.

We are a pretty well-oiled machine when we roll into a bush camp, heading off into the trees to (among other things) collect enough fire wood to cook both the evening meal and breakfast and, as darkness falls, putting up our tents, settling down for the evening meal, packing the kitchen away and either settling around the fire to chat or taking advantage of the early “bush camp bedtime” to catch up on some sleep (especially if an early start beckons the next day).

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Narrow Streets – Getting lost in Stone Town

The vast majority of us are now pretty comfortable with the lack of facilities – although one person has made it this far without resorting to the shovels – and have our own routines. Personally, it is to sneak off before breakfast when it is usually still dark enough to provide some extra cover and not everybody is up. Consider that crucial advice for any prospective overlanders.

If the rural idyll, particularly the rolling hills through the tea and banana plantations after crossing the border, gave us a gentle introduction to Tanzania (which was greeted with a little dance on the back of the truck for reaching my 50th country) and rolled towards the coast, all that was forgotten as we hit the roads heading into Dar Es Salaam.

Forewarned, as soon as we rolled to a halt in the first of a series of traffic jams – or was it one long jam? –  we were up and leaning out of the sides on the lookout for opportunist thieves trying to make off with something from off or under the truck. Or we were trying to buy peanuts and ice cream from the myriad of vendors, dependent on who was leaning out.

Our reward for crawling through the notoriously choked city streets for a couple of hours on a stifling afternoon was a return to the beach, for the first time on the clear blue waters of the Indian Ocean (well, for the first time since Cape Agulhas in South Africa, where it meets the colder waters of the Atlantic and you don’t really have quite the same urge to jump in).

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On The Waterfront – Down by the harbour in Stone Town

Not that we had too much time to get wet or sample the delights of the bar at Kipepeo Beach (gave it a good try mind) as we packed our bags, grabbed haircuts as Sam set up an impromptu salon and prepared to wave a pre-dawn farewell to Nala for a few days.

Spending quite so much time at the bar was maybe not such a good idea as we headed off along the coast road and into more traffic, first vehicles and then human as we fought our way onto the ferry across the harbour and then, rather more sedately, the boat to Zanzibar.

Met at the other end by Daniel, our guide for our opening 24 hours or so on the island, we were whisked off into the heart of the alleys which wind their way through Stone Town to our hotel for the night and then out and about to get our bearings.

Not that those bearings were any use as, having opted to leave the others as they ate lunch and strike out on my own, my usually reliable sense of direction got thoroughly scrambled and carved a haphazard route through the back streets and alleys. Much to my benefit as my explorations unveiled a town full of life and colour.

There was more life and colour as we headed out for sunset cocktails overlooking the sea and on to the night market to indulge the penchant for street food most of us nurtured on the west side, the night rounding off in Mercury’s bar where we would have coasted to victory in the pub quiz. If we had only bothered to enter.

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Beachfront Property – The walk up the beach at Nungwi

Another early start – probably too early, given the amount of faffing around getting money and fixing phones that went on before we even left town – sent us out on a tour of a spice farm, one signed up for with hesitation but turned into a real gem.

Daniel and his sidekick Moussa steered us through the range of plants on offer with a series of smells and tastes to sample, before we were treated to a wide choice of fruits, including the notorious durian fruit which did not smell as bad as feared, but also did not taste as nice as hyped.

A quick example of how to climb a coconut tree, despite the rain, was followed by a quicker example of how not to do it from Michael, before we were bussed off to a sublime lunch at Daniel’s house and charming rendition of the Tanzanian national anthem from his daughter before we headed north to Nungwi and the beach.

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Dressed To Impress – Well, one of them was

Despite the rain, we settled into a weekend on the beach which is winding down to a relaxed finale (bar Gloucester blowing a 16-point lead and losing to a last-kick drop goal – rather different than Arsenal fan Matt’s enjoyment of the cup final).

Some have headed out on dives, most of us at least wandered up the beach while the majority ventured out on a booze, sorry, sunset cruise which featured plenty of throwing ourselves off the roof of the boat into the welcoming ocean. Some more athletically than others.

And that is that for Zanzibar as we head out early to head back to the mainland and start winding our way north and back inland and next weekend in the Serengeti.

So, another quiet week ahead then.

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Pet Sounds

AFTER so long travelling together, there is a bit of a danger of a truck uniform developing.

We all have items of clothing which get worn a lot more than the rest, but chances are a quick glance around the truck will spot a selection of hoodies (almost exclusively blue, worn when the wind is whipping in the side of the truck), shorts, quite possibly khaki, (Kris and myself managed to buy the identical pair from the same shop in a giant Cape Town mall) or tracksuit bottoms, flip-flops (almost all Havaianas) and T-shirts (which people have differing ideas about how long they can be worn without changing).

Throw in growing collections of bracelets, the odd baseball cap and sunglasses and that’s pretty much the Trans Africa uniform – although the girls have a tendency to thrown in the odd dress and skirt, just to mix things up. If they were relatively clean and comfortable on the truck, sure some of the boys would go for that as well.

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Still Clothed – Late enough at Kande Beach to be dancing on the bar (complete with bandage), early enough to still be wrapped in sleeping bag and rug

That all changed at Kande Beach, Malawi, when clothes were dispensed off altogether (increasingly so as the evening wore on), but more of that later.

Since Victoria Falls, we have gone a step further with matching tour T-shirts in a range of colours (although a quick look around camp suggests most of them are actually with the laundry women or, for those who opt to do their own washing, hanging from a line).

Trouble is, the design (which somehow fell to me) is already out of date.

The back of the T-shirts features the map of Africa with each country’s name spelled out to form its boundaries, with the ones we visit then picked out in yellow to mark the route.

But having donned our new (clean) clothing marking out Mozambique, we headed north out of Zimbabwe instead and took a detour through Zambia before rejoining the original route in Malawi.

As well as saving us money – a combined Zimbabwe-Zambia visa is considerably cheaper than one needed to pretty much drive through Mozambique – it also provided the chance to break new ground for the Trans trip.

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No Clothes – Gareth takes the rules to the extreme

Not that we were in Zambia that long, making our way across the country to the Malawian border in just a couple of days.

But that was long enough for the contrast between Zambia – not a rich country, but one starting to show the signs of growth – and Zimbabwe as we drove past any number of building works and developments along the roadside (the capital Lusaka is shaping up to look like the type of city Harare could be).

Which, together with the number of people and villages which dotted either side of the road regardless of how far we got into the countryside, made the hunt for a place to bush camp a lengthy one.

Many of us were looking forward to getting back to bush camping, which provided a staple of our time journeying through West Africa, but which are few and far between on the more developed east.

And by the time darkness was falling over Zambia and a few extra layers had been wrapped over the standard truck clothing, we were really looking forward to a bush camp.

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Sandy Beach – Chitimba

Only trouble is, every time we spotted a likely path off the side of the road, it turned out there was a village at the end and we headed off to try again.

Eventually, we pulled off onto a track not much wider than Nala, squeezed a fire alongside to cook the evening meal and stretched our tents out in single file in front of the truck.

And then the local farmer arrived on his bike.

Pretty sure the vast majority of farmers back home finding a big yellow truck and its inhabitants setting up camp alongside his crops are far more likely to greet them with a “get off my land” than a smile, a handshake and a warm welcome – and goodbye early the next morning, even as Nala reversed over some of his crops to get back out on the main road.

The return to bush camping was brief as we returned to campsites either side of the border, the first reuniting us with more overlanders and the second, in the Malawian capital Lilongwe, with (rapidly used-up) wi-fi as we made our rapid way to a rendezvous with the beach.

Two beaches to be exact as we wound our way north through this sliver of a country along the banks of the lake which shares its name and covers a huge part of its surface.

First up was Kande Beach, a bit of a mecca for overland groups since it was opened by a former tour leader who used to bush camp on the spot he eventually bought and turned into a restful base for a couple of nights.

Maybe restful is not the right word.

Tradition demands each truck marks its stay at Kande with bit of a party, a tradition we had no intention of ignoring (even if it did provoke a couple of late-night requests for quiet from one of the other groups in camp).

Having spent the afternoon fighting for the truck title in Beersbee* – a beach game involving throwing a frisbee at a beer bottle balanced on a pole, all the while holding (and supposedly drinking from) a different beer bottle – events moved to round the food eskie which, thoroughly cleansed, was used for a rather potent punch which rather stole the show from the goat the staff had been cooking over the fire all afternoon.

And, challenged to come dressed in anything bar clothes, the group rose to the occasion – donning sleeping bags, rugs, potato sacks, bin bags, toilet paper and, best of all, some egg trays – before heading to continue the party in, around and, if memory serves me right, on the bar as we toasted the arrival of our 200th day on the road.

Not surprisingly, our second day at the beach was rather quiet before we upped sticks and moved up the shoreline – via a craft market which filled any remaining space in our heaving lockers – for another two nights at Chitimba, where we took the chance to kick back, relax and chat with one of the other trucks we had already bumped into and another Oasis group (bolstered by Katie from the office) heading in the opposite direction.

Some people found enough energy to head out and tour the local village and (another) craft market – which did require plenty of energy – but for most of us, it was a pretty chilled time until the lure of the beach volleyball court drew members of both Oasis trucks out onto the sand.

Being kind, the sports journalist in me would describe some of the play on show as mixed, topped by Kris who, with the added advantage of height, was evidently pretty good at this sort of thing in his younger years.

He certainly hits the ball pretty hard. Especially if it happens to be your face in the way as you attempt a block up close to the net.

Still, forgot about my foot for a bit.

* Reto and myself were edged out in the semi-finals, having seen off the self-proclaimed champions from our last game, with the title eventually going to the one pair who were not drinking from the bottles (or flip-flops) they were required to hold. These facts may be linked.

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