What’s your Favourite…?

Day 23 of the blog post a day in May and we are off on our travels with a list. Two of my favourite things.

GET home from any long trip and it will not be long before somebody asks a question that starts “what was your favourite…?”.

The most common end to that question is place or country and, to be honest, no matter how many times it has been asked, not sure have ever given a proper answer.

Always had to veer off on a tangent, explaining that favourite moments on overland trips are not so much based on places but memories or moments, where they were is not necessarily the key factor in why they were so great.

Often reel off Rwanda among my favourite African countries, but was only there for about 72 hours.

Those three days included an extraordinary hour with mountain gorillas, a harrowing if hugely worthwhile trip to the Kigali Genocide Museum (both of which are real must sees) and a bizarre afternoon at an eccentric bowling alley.

It is also a beautiful country, known as the land of a thousand hills, but can that really qualify it as one of my favourite places of all my travels?

The same applies to the remaining moments picked out as my five favourites from 10 months on the road in Africa – an afternoon with the children of Lake Bunyoni in Uganda, an evening camping the heart of an isolated village in Cote d’Ivoire, digging a truck out of a waterlogged hole in the Congo and a visit to an orphanage in Ghana.

Trans Africa – The Best and the Worst

All amazing, but enough to land on my favourite places list? Probably not. Even goats on trees is not a good enough reason to lift Morocco onto that list.

Equally, having a few gripes about a place is not necessarily enough to disqualify it – Zimbabwe made it on my best and worst countries in Africa list, such are the delights and frustrations of a remarkable nation.

So have finally tried to work on a definitive list of my favourite places, defined by the city, country or region itself being what earned that ranking rather than some fleeting moment or experience.

Also need to have spent a certain amount of time there – love loads of places having spent very little time there, often just passing through – and the one guarantee of this list is that am determined to go back there. But that’s a very long list.

Diving in to this without having settled on the definitive list – suggest will want to change it pretty much immediately and fairly certain it will include a fair amount of places in the States.

Kept it to 10 or we could be here all day – can rattle on about endless number of places absolutely love – and in no particular order.

Boston
No surprise on this one, have long had a bit of a love affair with the state capital of Massachusetts (not the one in Lincolnshire).

Feel instantly comfortable and relaxed there – my overseas destination of choice to just get away from it all and feel under no pressure to go sightseeing or charge around ticking off the must-sees.

Wandering around Boston, hanging out in a bar or catching a Red Sox game is my version of a beach holiday.

Boston for First Timers

New York
Could easily live in Boston, not sure that is the case with New York but a few days always an exciting prospect, but with the similar feeling of being on familiar – if more hectic – ground.

You cannot run out of things to do, places to see and have every intention of doing and seeing a lot more there.

Watching the Red Sox win in Yankee Stadium would be near the top of the list.

New York for First Timers

Deep South
Bit of a cheat this one, lumping together such a large and varied area but it contains a huge number of places which could easily have made it in their own right.

From the antebellum charm of Charleston – which will always have a special place in my heart – and Savannah to the music capitals of Memphis and Nashville (plus Austin, Texas, which strictly doesn’t qualify) via any number of stops in smalltown America.

And for each of those memorable major centres, there are countless smaller stops, all with the requisite southern charm and fantastic scenery – if you are going to take one road trip, try the Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway twisting through the Appalachians. Or the Great River Road down the Mississippi to New Orleans.

Could go on and on.

Chilkoot Lake
Sunset over Chilkoot Lake, Haines

Alaska
The largest state of the union is one of its least accessible, but one of its most rewarding.

It is huge (it is the most northerly, westerly and easterly state, courtesy of a geographical quirk) and that size strikes you at every turn. You will travel for hours between stops and, if the weather is good in the summer, there will rarely be a poor view.

Several American national parks could have made this list – Yosemite, Yellowstone, Badlands, even the Grand Tetons which gave this blog its name – but Alaska just does it all bigger and better.

Edinburgh
You do not have to travel across the globe to find memorable cities – Edinburgh has always provided a great stop and each visit (all far too short, often far too drunk or with too much time spent working, occasionally both) leaves me wanting to go back for more.

Cornwall
Slightly surprised that a place not visited for years makes the list, but could not find a reason to take it off. My Dad always used to say ‘if the weather is right, you can’t do better’ and he’s not too far from the truth.

Cape Town/Western Province
Definitely topped the list of places to go back to in Africa, largely because it is simply stunning and Cape Town provides a wonderful centrepiece.

The Beautiful South

Bamako
The capital of Mali was not on our original itinerary and events in the north of the country have not exactly helped it as a travel destination. But the chaos, friendliness and sheer fun introduced us to what was to come in sub-Saharan African.

Beijing
There are people who have trouble with China and, yes, there is a lot to question. But it is a remarkable place, a history and a culture which is totally new to anyone from the west. And the best place for street food.

Namibia
Had to include one African country. Nearly went for the whole west coast or some of the wildlife hotspots of the east. But Namibia combines the best of both – amazing wildlife experiences, the sense of wilderness of West Africa and its own extraordinary natural sights. It is also a mecca for thrillseekers and overlanders, who come together after weeks or months on the road.

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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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Yodibikro

WHY travel?

Simple question and one asked in various forms from non-converts since the urge to head off around the world really took hold.

Providing an answer has never been simple. There’s usually some mumbling about experiencing and seeing new things, meeting people from different backgrounds and just enjoying the feeling of freedom.

In future, it can be easier to explain. Travel, at least this form of lengthy overland travel, is all about days like Sunday, December 21, 2014.

What we thought lay ahead as we headed south on our first full day in Cote d’Ivoire was another bush camp. Maybe, if we were lucky, we might actually get a campsite with showers. They might even be hot. There may even, whisper it quietly, be wi-fi.

Such are the wishes of a truck full of overlanders as we near the time to pull off the road for that night’s stop.

What we got was Yodibikro.

Way back in Gibraltar, on our first night of the trip – seven weeks, but seemingly a whole other world, ago – Steve asked the main things on my list of things to do and see as we headed around Africa.

Not sure how coherent my answer was with a mouthful of food and after a couple of beers, but think it went somewhere along the lines of trying not to have such a list in mind as past experience has proved it is generally the things you didn’t see coming, had no way of knowing about or expected very little from which turn out to be the most memorable.

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Goat in a bowl

And none of us saw the village of Yodibikro coming. Right until we were in the middle of it. Even now, doubt any of us could come close to finding it on a map – if it is even on any maps – but what followed will live with all of us and had us all walking around with fixed grins for the entire night.

As the evening progressed, little groups of us would congregate in the middle of the chaos, shaking our heads, swapping stories and repeating phrases along the lines of “this is crazy”.

All on what should have been a routine day – eat up the miles heading south through Cote d’Ivoire with the capital city of Yamassoukoro as the main target before setting up camp ahead of a final dash to the beaches around Abidjan and settling in for Christmas.

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Village people – The chief looks slightly bemused by his early-morning visitors. And their gift of biscuits

The previous couple of days had been routine since rolling away from five days of relative luxury in Bamako. Days on the truck had been subdued and even our two bush camps, either side of a pretty straightforward border crossing punctuated by the latest in a string of temperature checks in the fight against ebola, had seen us all head to our sleeping bags early.

But rather than head straight onto the truck after breakfast, we headed the couple of hundred yards to the adjacent village – as arranged with the chief when he became the latest caller to camp the night before – for a quick visit.

Initial wariness among some of the villagers was soon replaced with a warm welcome and smiles, especially with the now traditional showing of our cameras for them to see the pictures they were starring in – always guaranteed to raise a laugh.*

Having paid our respects to the chief (not sure quite what he made of the packet of biscuits), we piled back on the truck to make our way down the track to the road. Only to pile straight back off again moments later as a puncture ripped through the side of one of the tyres.

With Steve largely occupied under the truck, we felt pretty safe getting our cameras out to catalogue the moment as he and Joe carried out the necessary repairs and had us back on the road in half an hour.

And we thought that was the excitement for the day, bar unexpectedly rich pickings at a store for a quick stock-up and a cook group stop for the night ahead which sparked much confusion with the three-way translation between French, English and Japanese in the market.

One of our current cook group knows what he is doing around food. The other doesn’t. One of us speaks Japanese, but very little English and no French. One of us speaks no Japanese and, despite an A Level pass years ago, only enough confident Francais to order a beer and the simplest of items (plus useless stuff about working as a douanier at an airport and owning a cat called Miki).

Not sure we quite bought what we needed (or that either of us knew exactly what the other was intending to cook), but we did succeed in finding the best bread of the trip.

The plan was to rustle up some form of pasta dish when we pulled up for the night’s stop, which appeared imminent when we turned right off the main road to the capital and onto a dirt track which  was supposed to take us to a lakeside camp for the evening.

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Welcome party – The children of Yodibikro greet the big yellow truck

Where it did take us was down some narrow avenues between trees which saw more foliage and insects pitched into the back of the truck and through a series of small villages nestled in gaps between the lush vegetation which has sprung up as we have headed south from Mali.

Last of those was Yodibikro.

Originally, it was just to drive through the IMG_3187customary smiling, waving, if bemused, locals as the big yellow truck made its way down the road, white faces looking out and waving back at them.

But with the lake showing no signs of revealing itself (it never did), Joe and Steve took the decision to do a quick about turn and see if the village was a possible camp.

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Cook group – Jiro and I battle manfully to cook up a meal among the crowds. And other distractions…

By now, the crowds had grown – largely children running and smiling along the side of the truck who, we were told, had never seen white people before – and as Joe stumbled across the one man in the village who spoke English, he and Steve were escorted off, with Michael as translator, for an audience with the village elders.

While they considered and voted on our situation, we remained on the truck surrounded by a crowd of smiling faces, who broke into cheers every time a camera flashed.

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How many for dinner? – Waiting for the food drew an audience

Eventually, our delegation returned with the news we were camping right there in the heart of the village and we decamped into the excited throng to set up the kitchen and prepare the evening meal ringed by an audience five or six deep held back – not always successfully – by a semi-circle of plastic chairs, which appeared from nowhere, for us and various tribal elders.

Cooking really doesn’t get much tougher than producing food for the 19 of us, plus the handful of villagers considered important enough to get a seat, under the watchful, rowdy (but never threatening), cheering throng, all while sat next to a roaring fire in sweltering conditions with the whole of our group mixing a helping hand with grabbing as many pictures with our hosts as they could and generally soaking up this impromptu magic moment. One or two even had marriage proposals.

All with one or two whisky-related complications thrown in.

If our cooking and general behaviour entertained our hosts, the appearance of our tents took things to another level as we readied ourselves for bed.

My mosquito net, erected in seconds, with me settling down for a sweltering night wedged between the truck and the road drew a crowd all of its own.

But gradually, with a couple of villagers posted to stand guard around us and keep people away, the onlookers drifted away (or were ordered home by their parents) and we were left largely alone to reflect on a magical evening which could not have been planned and could not be replicated if you tried.

And that is why we travel.

* The locals are having to fight for starring roles in pictures with some of the livestock, particularly in the expanding series of pictures of goats in things. As well as the legendary goats in trees, we have had goats on a roof, goats on a bus, goats on graves, goats on a three-wheeled bike (albeit dead), goats on woodpiles and, in this particular village, a goat in a bowl. Missed goats on a pile of pottery.

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The Bong In Your Reggae Song

OFFICIAL advice from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office is against all travel to most of Mali and all but “essential travel” to the southern part of the country.

Quite what constitutes “essential travel” is not clearly defined, but when our path round the coast is blocked by the decision to avoid the countries hit hardest by ebola and the north of the country is a no-go area, heading through the capital Bamako is pretty essential for us to continue our journey around Africa.

And after a week in the country, it has proved a fairly essential part of the trip.

Clear reminder - Why we were diverted through Mali in the first first place
Clear reminder – Why we were diverted through Mali in the first first place

It helps that our Bamako base for the last five nights has been stocking up its fridge with beer deliveries and can provide a decent range of meals and cocktails – the latter reserved, largely, for the nightly happy hour.

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What road? – One of the smoother parts which greeted us on the journey through Mali

Spending too much time in the bar has not always been the best idea for those in mosquito tents who had to scale a rickety wooden ladder (made even more precarious by me breaking one of the rungs, leading to a welcome banishment to the main garden) to sleep on a roof overlooking the adjoining German Embassy.

But after such creature comforts and death-defying journeys to bed, we are relaxed, well rested, clean, clutching Nigerian visas in our passports and itching to get back on the road as we turn south again to head to our Christmas rendezvous with a beach.

Mali had already made an impact before we pulled up into the capital as the word road took on a whole new definition.

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Watching on – Oasis recommend you wear your seatbelt at all times. Yeah, right

It was pretty smooth sailing as we headed over the Senegal border fairly easily – fortified by a woman selling very welcome baguettes full of cooked meat outside the police station as we waited for our passports – and into Mali on reasonable roads.

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Waiting for the ferry – Karla meets the locals as we prepare to cross the Senegal River

The surface held up to our shopping stop in the main western town of Kayse (where we discovered that while choice may not be wide, it is very affordable, and that Malians seem to enjoy little more than parading in great moped convoys) and beyond to our overnight bush camp.

So being thrown around could not really be blamed for the upset stomach which created a long, dark night under the stars and ensured there was little chance of me joining in as the first dents were made in our well-stocked beer eskie almost straight after breakfast.

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Cooling off – Making up for the lack of a shower in the Senegal River

The roads continued to be fine until we hit the Senegal River ferry crossing, the wait for which was enlivened by the reaction of crowds of children to their pictures appearing on our cameras.

It was smiles all round as we rolled onto the ferry, but one or two of them may have disappeared as we rolled off.

The road had certainly vanished.

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Cheers – Martyn, left, and I toast our arrival in Mali. Yep, let’s say that’s what we were doing

Steve had warned us that his previous journey along this route had been slow and arduous – and he insists it is much better now – so we should have been prepared.

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Tough job – Steve, above, and Joe, below, have another taxing day on the River Niger

At times, we followed the old railway track, while at others we picked out the only narrow gap available through the trees, ensuring we had to be alert in the back to dodge the protruding branches and leaves – not always with a great deal of success – while crossing a series of dried-up streams and rivers ensured for a bumpy afternoon (when remarkably little beer was spilled).

At least once, the road disappeared completely, forcing a quick about turn and detour through some bush to rejoin the former railway line.

No sooner had we actually found a stretch of road than Steve pulled off onto another SAM_0727track, but this time with a purpose, a stop allowing us to cool off (and make up for a few days without showers) with a swim in the Senegal River.

A pretty idyllic way to spend the afternoon and we could have stayed there a lot longer, but for the need to press on towards Bamako.

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Local transport – Up close and personal after a few beers in Bamako

A sore back – not helped by a tumble down a bank as we hopped off the bus for a comfort stop – cook group duties (an ambitious pasta bake which pretty much paid off) and the lingering effects of the upset stomach ensured my first night at The Sleeping Camel on the banks of the Niger River was rather more subdued than those who headed out to a local nightspot.

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Local landmark – The footballing hippo near the hostel. Nope, no idea either…

While those of us who remained set about building a solid base for our bar bills and settling in to our new surroundings, those who ventured out came back with tales to tell of a fairly riotous evening. Well, those who returned before breakfast did.

And so began a relaxed few days as we extended our stop to sort out more visas, a stream of trips to the bar for more cokes, beers, cocktails and food mixed in with film and trivia nights at the hostel, plus a variety of excursions ito check out what downtown Bamako has to offer.

On first sight, not a lot. But it is a bustling, noisy, dusty – typical African – city which rewards those who take the time to look around.

One journey into the markets even produced our own spirit guide who went by the unlikely name of Bob Marley, the rasta from Mali, who may not be too good a judge of how far a couple of hundred metres is, but was certainly true to his word in pointing out a good place to have lunch – although quite what he had during the lunch break we can only guess at, judging by the state of him when we bumped into him again later.

His recommendation – the same one given to a group for their meal that evening – was rather more successful than the one given to a party of us the next night.

There was nothing wrong with the look of the place the taxis dropped us outside, nor what was on the menu nor the prices. They just didn’t serve alcohol.

So instead of dining at one of Bamako’s top restaurants, we stopped for a beer in a dark shack over the road and ate outside a cafe with a mixture of their own food and bags of meat (goat, we think) picked up from a street vendor down the road.

But our final stop was the highlight of the evening. Titi Marmite’s barely qualified as a bar, more a small store next to a general shop selling cans of beer on what basically constituted a traffic island, complete with a few plastic chairs outside and locals on mopeds zooming on and off the road on either side.

It was basic, cheap, great fun and was once more met with smiles and a friendly welcome from the locals.

Which was more than can be said for the taxi rides home, which headed out of town before we finally convinced them they were going the wrong way and a lengthy debate ensued about exactly where we wanted to go.

Reto’s fairly polished French and my scratchy interventions discovered that our driver not only had no idea where The Sleeping Camel was, but seemingly denied all knowledge of the German Embassy, the nearby Pont des Martyrs and even the Niger River. None of us attempted a translation of “turn left at the footballing hippo”.

Our group trip the next night, to mark Linda’s birthday, was rather more successful in finding our way around – starting with a relaxing, sunset boat trip down the Niger with eskies full of cold beers helping to get things off to a flying start.

A blissful way to spend an early evening, but reminders of just why we are not really meant to be there lurk as jarring pillars of reality – the impressive building courtesy of cash from Gaddafi’s Libya next to the home of a former president sentenced to death three times, standing side by side on the river with the rubbish-strewn banks among which many of the locals live, wash and do their best to exist.

A few more beers followed over a couple of other stops as we were ferried around town in one of the ubiquitous green vans that carry the locals around, invariably with at least one of two people hanging from the open doors.

Our evening came to an end, at various different times, with some live music that bid us a tuneful farewell to an unexpectedly vibrant, essential stop.

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Twisting Your Melons Man

IT is a mark of how far we have come in the course of five weeks that a local riding out of the dark into our bush camp on a big red motorbike wanting to take our picture was barely enough for us to bat an eyelid.

To say nothing of a return to bush camping after almost a week of relative luxuries being met with a certain relief and sense of moving on again.

Who needs the nice things in life? We were back on the road and reunited as a group after being scattered around the attractions of our campsites in St Louis and Dakar.*

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New home – My one-man mosquito tent, complete with blanket

Back on the road we have been, clocking up the miles across Senegal and, courtesy of some roads which hardly qualify for that description, rather slower through Mali.

And with it came the return of bush camping.

Any qualms any of us may have had about sticking our tents up in the middle of nowhere – basically, anywhere off the road that allows us to set up our temporary home, light a fire and get out again the next morning without anybody noticing or being put out by our presence – have long since vanished and they have become something we are all pretty well drilled in.

Particularly now the weather has picked up after the rains and fluctuating temperatures of Morocco.

Much of the last week can be classified as hot to very hot, sparking a widespread decision to turn to the one-man mosquito tents which spent the first few weeks clogging up our lockers.

And having settled in to our new homes, those of us who can spend the nights looking through the mesh at the stars are only likely to head back into the sturdier two-man tents when the rain returns, especially as they take seconds to put up.

While the tent has largely done its job and kept the mosquitoes out, my reputation as a magnet for annoying buzzy, biting things has proved well deserved and the backs of my legs are covered in scabs and bites.

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Camp visitors – A few of the locals wander into our Lac Rose camp

After a few days of relief, a new batch of itching does not bode well for the next few days.

But let’s rewind to when they really started to make their presence known on our first stop in Senegal at Zebra Bar, near St Louis.

Having settled our bar tabs, we headed off with the words of Steve and Joe ringing in our ears that this would be the last time we would have such a well-equipped campsite for weeks to come (Namibia seems to be the place we have to wait until we come across any further creature comforts).

In the end, we had to wait all of a few hours.

It wasn’t planned, but then neither was finding our intended campsite in Dakar had gone upmarket and couldn’t put us up, eventually pointing us in the direction of another site half an hour or so out of town at Lac Rose.

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In-depth exploration – Our day out in Dakar uncovers some hidden sights

Initial disappointment at waving farewell to the diners, restaurants and bars which surrounded our intended stop was washed away as we found our new home came complete with showers, wi-fi, a restaurant (well, they did pizzas and omelettes), a bar, a TV showing football and not one, but two pools.

And over the course of the next couple of days we explored pretty much all it had to offer, celebrated Terry’s birthday with a party which ended in and around a pool in the early hours and made it off site to explore the adjacent lake – high in salt, it allows you to float and also appears pink in the right light – and Dakar itself.

It’s not the prettiest city, but like most places, the welcome was pretty much universally friendly and the stocks of bracelets, clothes and, possibly most importantly, beers were all replenished.

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Hitching a ride – Goats on a van

But there’s only so much luxury one can take and we headed east from the most westerly point of the entire journey.

And as we headed east towards the Malian border, the roads began to become more of an adventure with Ale’s excellent English vocabulary being supplemented by the word pothole as Steve did his best to avoid the worst of them and the numerous lorries that had fallen victim to the worsening surface.

Home for the night was amid some tall grass off a narrow track and, having had one local sit and watch from a safe distance behind the truck for much of the evening, a group of us settled in with a few beers around the campfire.

And then our new friend arrived on his big red motorbike, laden down by kit and speaking French which we strained to make some sort of sense of, native French speaker Michael seemingly struck dumb by the effects of a near 48-hour Pokemon marathon.

Eventually it became clear – he wanted a picture. Of him, of us, of the truck and all combinations of the above. We sent him on the way with a couple of Oasis stickers, he left us a water melon and an invitation to come for coffee in his village in the morning.

Strangely, can’t see the same happening if a truck full of foreigners set up home in a field back home.

Sadly, we were unable to make it across the nearby railway line to honour the invite, but what could have been a lengthy, uneventful day on the truck was broken up by a series of incidents to keep us entertained among the bumps.

(A couple of intrepid explorers did attempt to find the village the night before, fuelled by a few beers and the sound of distant drums, only to take a slight detour off the track for a comfort stop and not find their way back to camp until after three hours wandering in the bush. They were finally lured home by the sound of snoring.)

SAM_0617Steve was responsible for two, running back down the road for the first to retrieve a green chameleon from the middle of the road for a few photos on the back of the truck and later heading off behind a tree.

Anxious to see what he would return with this time, we had resigned ourselves to the fact he was just answering a call of nature when he reappeared up the tree in pursuit of the baobob nuts he had seen hanging from it.

But possibly his starring role of the day came in our brief stop in the town of Tambacounda.

For reasons of cost and practicality (with five vegetarians in the party and ice not always available), meat has been in pretty short supply in our evening meals.

So when Steve unearthed a great slab of steak and offered it to anyone willing to stump up 500CFA (about 70p), he nearly got flattened in the rush by the carnivores.

And money well spent it was too.

* Easy to make remarks like that about luxuries when that paragraph was written either side of strolling the few yards to the bar of our base in Malian capital Bamako to add another ice cold Coke to my bar tab. And happy hour is approaching…

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