“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.
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.
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.
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.