Trans Africa – The Best and the Worst

BEST-LAID plans and organisation have a tendency to go by the wayside as soon as the real world intervenes (no matter how many  to-do lists you draw up).

The plan to write round-ups of the Trans Africa during the days following our return was overtaken by the small matter of work and, to be honest, a certain need to take a break from the blog and allow for a little bit of perspective from time.

But, finally, here’s the first of those wrap-up articles – it’s a long one, but it breaks down into bitesize chunks and could have been even longer. But we’ll get to that…

Best Moments

  1. 171Gorillas – The most expensive hour of my life, one of the muddiest and one of the best. Spending time in the presence of these magnificent creatures was a privilege. Even enjoyed the walk up and down the Rwandan mountain.
  2. Lake Bunyonyi Community – Another uphill hike that was more than worth it. An afternoon spent with the children of the orphanage, dancing, singing and playing games was exhilarating, humbling, tiring, utterly unforgettable and, when they launched into poems about losing their parents to AIDS, totally heartbreaking.
  3. Yodibikro – Totally unplanned, totally unrepeatable. When the search for a bush camp keeps taking you through rural villages in Cote D’Ivoire, eventually it leaves no option than to stop and ask to stay in one of them. The reception from the village, particularly the children, as a big yellow truck rolled up and the first white people most of them would have seen climbed out was extraordinary. Cooking spaghetti in a sweatbox with a huge crowd was not on the list of things to do, but sums up what overlanding is all about.
  4. 12144880_10153696941528872_7621071827808754893_nPuddle In The Congo – Spending a morning stood in a muddy puddle trying to free a stranded lorry full of stinking veg doesn’t sound like fun, but it was a remarkable few hours of working together, digging in and a fair amount of muddy water being thrown around.
  5. Good Shepherd Orphanage – “An experience… worth holding on to” was my blog description after the trip with Karla to revisit the orphanage outside Accra where she had volunteered three years earlier. Two offers of marriage, a great reception from the children and the delightful moment when one of the staff recognised Karla as we walked towards the kitchen. Coupled with a fair bit of frustration at how things are being run.
  6. Goats In Trees – It’s supposed to be a top five, but this had to be in there… Could easily have been a top 20, even 30 or more.

Worst Moments*

  1. Cellulitis, Pt 1 – It came on in a hurry in Lome, had me flat out as we crossed into Benin, curled up trying to sleep all afternoon by a supposedly very nice pool and spending the night on the floor of the truck. Thankfully, the sickness was gone in 24 hours – to be replaced by a swollen leg – but for a while there, on the back of our first malaria casualty, was convinced my trip was over. And never got the free rum Steve offered as a cure.
  2. Cellulitis, Pt 2 – Another border, another quick onset of sickness (and the other leg swelling), this time from DRC into Angola. More time flat on my back and my first IV line (bout three would bring my first local anaesthetic not in my mouth, first minor surgical procedure and first crutches – sort of – but that was as funny as it was painful), but worst moment was attempting not to throw up on an armed Angolan policeman who climbed on the back of the truck.
  3. PS Nige6First Night In Cameroon – Probably my closest point to losing it. Camping on a mud road in a rainstorm, last thing you want when heading for your tent is to find somebody has moved it, left the groundsheet in a puddle and the sides collapsed on themselves. Was not amused. Blame Canada.
  4. Pointe-Noire – Starting to struggle here, so let’s throw in being tossed about trying to get out of the waves at our beach hangout. Trapped in between some big breakers, just about managed to get my head above water each time before being sent back down again.
  5. Mt Cameroon – So Karla tells me. Some of us had more sense had had a lovely few days down at sea level.

Favourite Countries

No ratings in this one, just five contenders – unable to rate them. Been difficult to get them down to five in chronological order, but these were consistently the best (could have been Congo, but for the police extracting a ‘fine’ from us in Dolisie, could have been Nigeria, Cameroon, DRC, Malawi, Uganda, Egypt… any number of contenders).

  • SAM_0727Mali – A huge, very pleasant surprise that was only on the route due to having to dodge the Ebola zone. The chaos of Bamako comes very high on the list of places we stayed.
  • Namibia – At least one person would disagree, but loved both our stays there. Natural beauty, remote wilderness, civilisation (ish), (flip flop-loving) wildlife and some great food. With the added bonus of regular showers and beds, however many people were in the room.
  • South Africa – Knew more about the country than any other beforehand, but had no real idea just how beautiful it is, particularly the Western Cape. Not there long enough, putting it top of the list of places to go back to.
  • Zimbabwe – Fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. Natural riches highlighted a welcoming, proud nation completely messed up by mismanagement.
  • Rwanda – We were only there for three nights, but pretty much every moment was special. The gorillas were on another level, but seeing how a country has pulled itself up from the nightmare of genocide to a functioning, blossoming (if far from perfect) society – was compelling. The ten-pin bowling alley was typically, shambolically, charmingly African.

Least Favourite Countries

  • Mauritania – Unlucky to make the list, but it was tough to whittle it down to five. Really just drive through with not too much to see, but pleasant enough. Ali Baba’s burgers would have been nicer with a beer.
  • KW_Benin3Benin – Sure it was lovely, just saw next to none of it. Flat on my back for most of it, which is not the easiest thing on roads that bumpy.
  • Gabon – Nice scenery and a good day up front in the cab, but just didn’t quite hit the mark. Everything seemed to be more hassle than it was worth.
  • Zimbabwe – Yes, it is on the favourite list as well. But such is the state of the country under Mugabe amid the constant evidence of what it once was and could be, it is as frustrating as it is amazing.
  • Zambia – Making up the numbers a bit as we pretty much just drove through it and every other contender had more than enough highlights to lift it off this list and nearer to the top five. Could have been Morocco, partly due to the weather, but had enough high spots and we were still fresh to keep it out of the list.

Best Wildlife Experiences

If it’s been tough to find five for the list in some cases, this one has been difficult to cut down. So, here’s a top 10. My blog, my rules. No goats included.

  1. Gorillas – See above. Just the best day.
  2. MT Namibia5A cheetah ate my flip flop – Not every day you get up close to a big cat. Even rarer one of them starts licking your foot and chewing your flip flop. Thankfully, wasn’t the other way round.
  3. Antelope Park – Could probably have done a top five from the Zimbabwe site alone, walking with two young lions, seeing them fed, getting up close to their older brethren piling into a pile of meat, feeding an elephant and sitting having lunch as the elephants walked past (even the fruitless evening lion hunt).
  4. Ngorongoro Crater – Fulfilled a long-held ambition to visit the crater. A special place even without the animals, but the lions alone made it the highlight of our three-day Tanzanian excursion.
  5. Chobe River Cruise – A couple of hours out on the water at sunset, surrounded by wildlife highlights, to the extent that nobody was taking any notice of the elephants  just behind the hippos who stole the show
  6. First Morning at Etosha – Our first major run-in with a wide variety of big game when we hit Namibia. We had been warned the recent rain may have spread the animals out and make them difficult to see, but in the first couple of hours, we saw endless animals.
  7. IMG_4992Elephant Sands – “If you go to the loo in the middle of the night, before you get out of your tent, just shine your torch around to make sure there are no elephants between you and the toilets.” Up close – a bit closer than planned at one point – to wild elephants who wandered through our camp to the drinking hole where we whiled away the hours with a grandstand view.
  8. Lake Manyara – More elephants. Lots of them all around the vehicle and the road at the first part of our three-day safari. Not a bad way to spend my birthday.
  9. Serengeti – Probably the weakest part of our three-day excursion, but still threw up a leopard, lions and a night spent hearing them roar around camp. Not much traffic to the loo that night.
  10. First Elephants at Mole – Edging out the Cape Cross Seal Colony for 10th spot, the thrill of seeing our first elephants across a lake was unforgettable. A day that could have sucked arse, suddenly kicked ass. Cheers pal.

Most Extreme Conditions

  1. SS13Sudan (with a hint of Egypt) – Hot, dry, sandy. And you can insert the word very in front of each one. Up above 50ºC for large chunks – and not all that cooler at night. Told Luxor experienced its second hottest recorded day while we were there. Walking to Karnak Temple in the midday sun.
  2. Sesriem – All seemed so calm when we went to bed, but at some point in the night the wind started to whip up and just kept getting stronger. Anyone on their own in a tent could not get out for fear of it blowing back to South Africa, while even having two people didn’t guarantee it staying put.
  3. Morocco – Wet, very wet. We were lucky, people died in the wettest spell the country has had for decades (the flooded river drew crowds onto the bridges in Marrakesh) while the truck a few days behind us got stuck in the Atlas Mountains. We had our own dramas, riding out a night on the mountainside in a storm, digging ourselves out of the slop when Nala sunk and managing to cross some swollen rivers as the rain in.
  4. Nigeria – Hot. For day after day after day. Maybe not as hot and inescapable as Sudan, but sitting on the border for more than two days was like being in an oven, bar one brief, wonderful shower. Literally. Needed several long, cold drinks.
  5. Chimanamani – The tan, the shorts, the flip-flops suggests Africa lived up to most people’s preconceptions weather wise. But we were, for the large part, in the southern hemisphere heading into winter. For the large part – bar in the wind at the back of the truck when the hoodie was never far away – it was fine during the day, but as soon as the sun went down, it could get cold. Never more than in Zimbabwe, especially when the altitude went up. Tucked up under a sleeping bag and rug, my little nest was fine, but some retreated to the sofas by the fire in the bar – not sure Michael left his spot the entire time we were there.

Scariest Moments

There was one thing everybody seemed convinced about before we left (apart from the fact we were going to get eaten by lions) – at some point we were going to run into some serious issues, possibly involving locals with guns. But tricky moments were few and far between, to the extent that it has been very difficult to find five entries for this list. In fact, was hard to find three, let alone five.

  1. IMG_5119
    Our taxi driver

    Bulawayo – Ride home with a local as the bar we had been in for 10 hours closed and it became clear no taxi was coming (or probably knew where it was). At breakneck speed and largely on the wrong side of the road.

  2. Ouidah – Onset of cellulitis (part one). See above.
  3. Pointe-Noire – Trying to get out of the sea. See above
  4. Road to Abuja – Mildly concerning for me, probably terrifying for Linda. The first bounce at the back of the truck had us moving, the second had some of us getting serious hang time – thankfully just enough time to pick a landing spot that was not right on top of Linda.
  5. Afi Mountains – Bit of a concern more than really frightening, but when a bunch of young local “vigilantes” under the influence start making threats and trying to “trash” our tents late at night in an isolated village, it does occupy the mind. Perceived threat lessened when we realised we outnumbered them and their phone calls for reinforcements were being made with no signal. And without the phone being on.

Best Bush Camps

One of the defining characteristics of Oasis trips, spending the night completely without facilities (bar some bushes and a shovel) at some previously discovered point or wherever we could find. Approached with trepidation before the trip, became one of the highlights and came with its own bedtime.

Honourable mentions for our home in the woods outside Rabat (anywhere with soft ground earned plenty of bonus points), amid the rocks of Spitzkoppe, the dried river bed near Henties Bay, the rain forest clearing in Gabon and any number of quarries. The Nile felucca doesn’t quite fit here (or anyone else to be honest), but deserves a mention.

  1. KW_WS6Sand Dune – The most stunning place to spend the night in the shadow of a giant dune in the Western Sahara. Would have been a stunning stop if it was a mere detour from the road, climbing the dune and watching the camels wander by, let alone the belated realisation it was our home for the night.
  2. Brandberg Mountains – Close for top spot and picturesque enough to draw a healthy contingent out of bed early to climb the rocks and watch the sun come up. Enough to drive people to song.
  3. Meroe Pyramids – Another spot that drew almost everyone up the slope above Nala to take in the glorious surroundings. Throw in the pyramids and the local camel herders touting for a few passengers and it was another example of the unheralded places which make this trip so special.
  4. 393Volubilis – An early one – way back in Morocco and the first bush camp we just stumbled across – and maybe a bit of a surprise, but probably the one that convinced any sceptics that bush camps were to be savoured. In a glorious spot among the olive trees, overlooking the valley and a wonderful sunset, it also brought a couple of locals out to chat, sell us loves, help with the fire, share our food and vote for the first winner of Malcolm the Monkey.
  5. In Western Sahara Dunes – Night before the giant sand dune she spent the night surrounded by smaller ones. Lovely spot after a long day on the road and a notable change of mood as the first totally warm, dry night as we emerged from the damp of Morocco.

Best Campsites

  1. HighlandersHighlanders – So good, we went back. Our first (and last) taste of South Africa in a stunning terraced setting overlooking a valley of vineyards. Wine tasting (with repercussions), a pool, a great bar (more repercussions), a lovely meal from the staff, good toilets and a mad dog. Wonderful place.
  2. Zebra Bar – It could have been a contender if it had just offered the most welcome cold beer after the deprivations of southern Morocco and Mauritania. Throw in a stunning location on the banks of an estuary, hot showers and a bar that allowed us to just help ourselves and you’ve got overlander heaven. With added monkey.
  3. Felix Unite – An unplanned stop before leaving Namibia and certainly very welcome. Great setting on the banks of the Orange River, fantastic pool, terrific bar, lovely soft grass and top showers, probably the most luxurious campsite of the trip. Yep, that’s why we remember it. Some people nearly got swept away with excitement.
  4. Hilali Camp – Namibia quickly assumed a mythical status as we headed down the west side, the place where we would find all the stuff we had been missing. Hilali, our base for the night on our first trip to Etosha National Park, gave us a pool, hot showers (which got everybody a bit over-excited) and an evening watching the wildlife around the watering hole.
  5. Kande Beach – Tough choice for the fifth spot, but Kande Beach edges the vote. A riotous night that may, or may not, have involved me dancing on the bar.

Best Places We Stayed

Anywhere we spent the night which doesn’t necessarily involve a campsite, but is some form of organised accommodation. Top five are not necessarily the most luxurious places we stayed, but for one reason or another, the most memorable (and welcome).

  1. Big Milly’s Backyard, Kokrobite – My first bed for 66 days, complete with a (very popular) shower. Was supposed to be just for a couple of nights, but stayed put for both of our stays. Throw in a bar, restaurant (even with a very relaxed attitude to quick service), occasional live entertainment and even a sweet shop, it became our home from home for the best part of two weeks.
  2. HV8Brasserie De La Mer, Pointe-Noire – On the back of around 10 days without a shower (and on the heels of some less than savoury treatment by the Congolese officials), we would have taken pretty much welcomed anywhere that had running water and somewhere reasonably comfortable to lay our heads. We found camping on the beach, a great bar (once you could get served) with decent food and some thunderous surf.
  3. Nile Valley Hotel, Luxor – Air conditioning in a room right next to the pool (not close enough to stop burning your feet en route, such was the heat), a bar, restaurant and staff who were determined to be as helpful as possible. All on the banks of the Nile with ready access to some of Egypt’s greatest historic sights. And donkeys.
  4. Amanpuri Lodge, Swakopmund – Not the most luxurious with most of us sharing the same dorm. But again, it came on the end of a long stretch without too many facilities and marked our real arrival in southern Africa. Also brought our first contact with fellow overlanders. Some more than others.
  5. Train from Victoria Falls to Bulawayo – Certainly not luxurious and with precious few facilities (and what there was did not work). And for Karla, not the quietest night. But certainly one of the most charming and interesting travel experiences – mixed with the usual frustrations of doing anything in Zimbabwe.

Worst Places We Stayed

  1. Palm Springs Motel, Turbo – Considering how many nights we spent in bush camps, it is perhaps strange that a night spent in a bed tops this list. But paying $5 for that cell was too much (even if Michael actually paid), it was cold, wet and my mood matched the weather. Just about my lowest point before the delights of Lake Bunyonyi and Rwanda re-energised me for the final push.
  2. KW_Cam6First Night in Cameroon – Considering the euphoria of crossing the border, the loss of sense of humour in the downpour at camp on an old, mud road was extreme and total (see Worst Moments). Mood cleared quickly with the weather and still a night to look back on and smile – events in a puddle, naked Asians and the immortal line “You are not coming in here without any clothes on”.
  3. Atlas Mountains – Our first extreme conditions. Moved by police halfway up a mountain to a hotel car park for our own safety, we found ourselves battling the storm to put up our tents and woke to find ourselves in the middle of a small pond. Again, the wet, miserable mood quickly disappeared as the hotel owners took pity with some warming drinks and heaters before we headed off on one of the most dramatic, wettest and enjoyable drive days of the trip through the mountains to Marrakesh. With non-stop Eminem.
  4. Sheraton Hotel – Would appear high on any list of best toilets and, if we’d had the money to spend in there, possibly the swishest bar of anywhere we stayed. There was even hot showers and where we camped was perfectly comfortable. But they clearly didn’t want us there and that came across right clearly, despite the efforts of one security guard to make our brief stay as memorable as possible.
  5. Cameroon – Not having a go at an entire country, it was not far off my top five list. But after that opening night, we didn’t have much luck with bush camps. The next night we rolled in after dark and pitched our tents on the side of a school football pitch, only to be moved on to the paddock outside a police station. Perfectly fine spot, but putting tents up and down in quick succession was too much for my back – had to call on Tent Whisperer Linda and Ale (who had Martha to do her tent) for help. Another night saw us trying to find a gap between the puddles and piles of rubbish to pitch our tents.

Most Memorable Borders

  1. MfumNigeria-Cameroon – More time than the rest of the borders put together. Probably. After six days holed up in Calabar looking for ways through a closed border, we chanced our arm and just turned up. After 56 hours of camping on the roadside, showering in the rain, being served drinks by a schoolboy and befriending the locals, somebody finally took pity on us and let us through. Sounds an ordeal, but was great fun.
  2. Mauritania-Senegal – The border itself was quick, they wanted to pack up and go home as much as we wanted to get through and reach our first beers for the best part of two weeks. Getting there was the fun part as Steve managed to get us stuck off the side of the road and in need of a tow as the clock ticked to the border closing and those beers looked increasingly far away.
  3. Sudan-Egypt – It was hot, it was sandy, it was unpleasant, right up to the point where they ushered us to the front of the queue and into an air-conditioned waiting room and on again to a cafe to wait for the truck to pass immigration. Even more notable for being the first Trans Africa to cross via the new land border, rather than a lengthy boat trip with no guarantee us and Nala would arrive anything like together.
  4. Cabinda (Angola)-DRC – Relatively, surprisingly, smooth. Notable for the sudden, dramatic change as the tarmac roads from the prosperous Cabinda ended at a rope strung across the road, to be replaced immediately by a mud track in the rather less wealthy DRC. Second border in a day after…
  5. Congo-Cabinda – We were only in the Angolan exclave of Cabinda  for a few hours, but it caused any number of problems and delays as it meant a double entry visa nobody seemed able to give us. When we got there, we were welcomed into the modern office by a friendly border official and allowed to use their toilets – once all our details had been copied out into a traditional ledger.

Favourite Food

There were complaints about the food (one person in particular writing about his displeasure with anyone’s cooking bar his own haute cuisine that nobody else can actually remember), but on the whole it was not bad. It could get a bit repetitive, but that’s overlandning. My diet was probably the best it has been for years and led to four inches off the waistline.

Honourable mention to any number of street stalls which have been forgotten and the pancakes and Morrocan tea in Casablanca (more memorable than the place itself).

  1. Kudu steaks – Any guilt which may have been felt by digging in to one of the game we had been spotting was soon swept away by the fact it was just terrific. Went back to the same place for the same thing.
  2. IMG_0332Warthog ribs – They had received a big build-up which could have set us up for disappointment. No worries there, absolutely gorgeous.
  3. Meat on a stick – Still reckon there is a market for lumps of meat served up on a stick for a few pennies back home. The ultimate in fast food – just don’t take too much attention to the conditions they are being cooked in.
  4. Pies – There were times we should have been sightseeing. Or at the very least shopping for something more practical. But when you’ve had a few days of nothing but veg and eggs, you can be excused for making a beeline for the pies every time we rolled into a supermarket.
  5. Anything not involving eggs – Yes, they are easy to buy on a limited budget and allow you to do a variety of things. But when every cook group has come to the same conclusion – culminating in one group spending their entire budget on 159 eggs – enough is enough.

Best Purchases

  1. SAM_0635Rug – Potentially fell into a total tourist trap in the Fes Medina, but was undoubtedly a great buy. On top of my mattress, helped create a comfy bed; when it got cold, went over opened-up sleeping bag to build a snuggly nest; when it got hot in Sudan, kept the worst of the heat from the floor out (as well as cutting down the impact of a deflating bed). And will come in useful when finally have somewhere more permanent to live.
  2. Flip Flops – Took a while to be converted, but once my sandals gave way in Namibia, it did not take long for them to become de rigeur (after a while trying to find a pair big enough). Not that the first pair stayed in one piece for a while, courtesy of a cheetah. Thanks to Kris for keeping the replacements coming.
  3. Shorts – Part of the revamped wardrobe in Cape Town. Much relief to me and everybody else to find a pair of trousers which did not keep falling down constantly (although even these were by the end).
  4. Canvas Bag – From a market in, if memory serves me right, Tanzania. Should have done it much earlier. Sounds simple, but just having something to carry and store my bedding in made life much easier (after a string of torn plastic bags). Still crammed full of stuff.
  5. Gloves – Only used once and a bit of a cheat as bought before departure – the last thing purchased. But the advice to get some gardening gloves for the trek to see the gorillas (cheers Stephen) was spot on. Cut down on the stings from the nettles, even if they got so caked in mud they were immediately consigned to the bin.

Did consider a worst purchase list, but was lucky it would have been tricky to get up to five (was not my camera’s fault that it slid off the bar and broke the night before we went into the Serengeti, having only bought it in Cape Town).

Undoubted winner, the cheap tray of Celtia beer which was just about drinkable if you downed it in one while ice cold, before it warmed up slightly. Remains ended in a bin at a truck clean in South Africa, along with my pillow, bought in Morocco but started to look a bit of a health risk.

  • Tough one as, illness apart, there were not that many. Low points were usually down to tiredness or a need to just get away for a short while, so this took some thinking about.
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The Crapsons to Cygnus Vismund Cygnus

COMPARED with a lot of what has gone before over the past year, sleeping on a sofa with ready access to hot water, clean, flushing toilets, electricity and hot food without building a fire is a major luxury.

Even if going to bed each night generally starts by fighting with a large black Labrador over the prime spot (generally in a losing cause) – still far easier than blowing up an airbed which, by the end of our African adventure, needed topping up throughout the night.

IMG_0046
My roomie

Heading back to the real world has not been a complete culture shock – we were sort of eased back in by increasingly frequent beds over the closing weeks when even the electricity, if not the wi-fi, became (sort of) reliable – but it has taken some readjusting back to life at home.

Not helped by living in a state of limbo (a word which has appeared in my vocabulary over the last couple of months, along with, for some reason, mate. Where did that come from?) and still out of a bag until my future becomes a bit clearer.

Homeless, jobless and largely rootless on my return from Africa, it was time to throw myself on the kindness of others – my sister and her family homing and feeding me for the last two months, my old firm taking me back on a freelance basis, originally for the odd day, then supposedly for three days a week which very rapidly became five or six days.

My bank manager is eternally grateful.

That state of limbo (see, keeps popping up) is nothing new. It has sort of existed, in some form or other, for more than five years.

Since first quitting work in Cardiff to go travelling early in 2010, there’s never been a sense of permanence in my life. It took a bit longer than originally planned, but there was always another lengthy trip looming on the horizon.

It was supposed to be London to Sydney in 2012, but that one fell through (unused Indian and Nepalese passports sit in my old passport) and something similar always looked favourite before the Trans Africa grabbed my attention. And never let go.

SAM_0299
About to pop something in the oven

But at some point heading down West Africa – there was a lot of time to sit and think on the back of the truck – the decision was made that after reaching Cairo, it was time to head home and stay put for a while. Put down some roots somewhere familiar and get back to the career which was put on hold in Cardiff, working with some form of thought to future progression, rather than to future travel plans.

Not that travel is off the cards. Doubt there will be another trip of anything approaching this length, but the spotlight will switch to more shorter journeys – allied with a determination that at least one weekend a month will be dedicated to doing something, going somewhere, even if it is just following Gloucester to an away match. If nothing else, need to fit them all into annual holidays and as many lieu days as can be racked up (once the freelance gig is switched to something more permanent..

There’s plenty more American trips on the list, the remaining 11 states to tick off, Route 66 to drive and more soaking up of the familiar in Boston, New York and elsewhere. Further afield, there’s a few more sofas to be slept on in Australia and New Zealand (although that one will have to wait at least a couple of years), while Cape Town and more time in the rest of South Africa head the list of spots for an African return.

And Europe is, relatively speaking, on the doorstep.

For now though, the focus remains on life back home – settling on something more secure for work, somewhere to live and taking control of my life, rather than relying on the kindness of others.

And, of course, making the most of those little things we take for granted but which became more of a luxury the longer we were away from home.

SAM_0532
Handy for digging, not that good for cover

Not that we minded being without – bush camps with a total lack of facilities, other than a shovel, were one of the mainstays of the trip and one most us relished, at least in the dry – but it is nice to have constant electricity you can rely on not to cut out constantly (one poor musician in Calabar, Nigeria, never made it through a single song without it cutting out on him), wi-fi that doesn’t take an age to load each page and showers. Hot or cold, we really didn’t mind after a while.

Cold beer and hot pies have to appear on that list as well, but top of the list has to be proper toilet facilities.

Some of the toilets we encountered – when there were any at all – were the stuff of nightmares, but when you’ve got to go…

And while the current night-time trip to the loo may involve trying to let sleeping dogs lie and not let cats through the door to start chaotic pet wars, that pales into insignificance to rooting around for a head torch and picking your way to a suitable spot.

At bush camps, that suitable spot (for the boys at least) was often just round the back of the tent. At campsites, whether you risked that or made the trip to the toilet block generally came down to whether there was a security guard with a gun in the vicinity.

But back to the familiar it is and, for me, that means back to the A-Z trawl through the contents of my iPad.

Picking up where it left off 12 months ago, the first job was to complete the final furlong through those starting with C, which took us from Pulled Apart By Horses to The Mars Volta and through the 2,000 mark (Cry Baby Cry by The Beatles).

Fittingly, it was back to a lot of hugely familiar songs and artists – Crash by The Primitives, Creep by Radiohead, Creme Brulee by Sonic Youth, Crocodiles, Crystal Days and four versions of the The Cutter by Echo and the Bunnymen, Cruisers Creek by The Fall, The Crystal Lake by Grandaddy, Cut Your Hair by Pavement and Cuyahoga by REM.

And that’s another long journey which can continue as normality returns…

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Long Way Home

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QUITE late into the 278th night in Africa, the bags were packed, the last goodbyes had been said, the last hugs released, the last promises to keep in touch made and the door of my Cairo hotel room was shut.

Kept open for the last bit of packing (or, to be more accurate, shoving in my bags) and to allow those not leaving ridiculously early the next morning to wander in and bid farewell – to say nothing of allowing some form of breeze in a room with faulty air-con in blistering heat, even this far after dark – the door finally shut.

IMG_1356
Splashing Time – Chilling out by the pool at Masar Alam

Not just on the occasional welcome waft of breeze from the nearby lift shaft; not just on those returning from a trip to the night market across town; not just on any temptation to delay sleep any longer and pop down the road for one last late-night shawarma and cold drink.

No, this door shut on what my life had become over the previous 40 weeks and 45,000km, the grand African adventure which – by dint of its sheer scale – became a way of living as much as a way of travel.

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Quart Into A Pint Pot – Ale attempts to pack all her shopping. Karla catalogues (I hinder)

Spending all day sat bouncing around in the back of a big yellow truck, cooking on a fire for up to 20-plus people, sleeping under canvas or the stars in fields, quarries or wherever else we could find – on an airbed making it through a dwindling amount of time before needing more air – and rising with the sun (something which would astonish anyone who knows my normal morning self ) was my, our, life for all those weeks, all those miles, all those countries.

To say nothing of the remarkable list of places, experiences, sights, animals, moments and people we had seen, met and shared – some of them easy to share, recall and explain to those back home, many of them hard to comprehend outside the collection of individuals who came together into one, mostly harmonious, group. You weren’t there, man….

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Morning after the final night before

When that door shut again, far too early and after far too little sleep – not helped by that malfunctioning air conditioning – it shut behind me on the first steps to the airport and back to normality (whatever, or wherever, that is). Back to the real world. Once it had opened briefly again  for the traditional last-minute panic that something had been left in there, other than the stuff which had been left deliberately because it simply wouldn’t fit in my bags.

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No Cliche – Yes, we all think we know them, but the Pyramids are still jaw-dropping

And, two months on, the journey back to normality has, almost, been completed.

Not totally. The airbed, for now, has been replaced with a sofa and most of my clothes – bar some rescued from storage in my sister’s garage – are largely still out of the same bag that was my personal HQ for the previous 10 months.

But a new way of life, a new routine, has been established. Work – freelance for now, but watch this space… – life on the sofa with my ever-accommodating sister and her family (complete with labrador, my new roomie over on the other sofa or, at this 150moment, stretched out snoring alongside me on this one) and plenty of rugby, although less said about anything not Gloucester-related the better.

The flip flops have been replaced by shoes – even socks – the shorts by long trousers (usually a pair of jeans, four inches shorter than the ones which left England with me, but are tightening enough to act as a reminder that the African weight loss cannot be taken for granted), the T-shirts, more often than not, by shirts and the ubiquitous hoodie by, well… another, cleaner hoodie. There was, very briefly, even the sighting of a suit.

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The Last Photo Op

The bangles and bracelets on my right wrist, already thinned down by the end of the trip, are down to just one (bought from a rasta on a beach in Cameroon and which can’t really be taken off without cutting the string for good) and even the beard was finally scraped off, leaving me clean shaven(ish) for the first time since Ghana, way back in January.

Getting used to having a shower every day, even if it does reveal that the tan is fading.

158Even finished organising, collating and, let’s be honest, nicking from other people’s Facebook pages a collection of almost 8,000 pictures from those all those times on the road around Africa.

And, finally, my mind is unscrambled enough to sit down and write this.

Lost count of how many times it has appeared at the top of the still ever-present to-do list but has been pushed back, partly
due to being out of the writing routine (and 161staring at a screen all day at work), partly due to a need for a break from it and, largely, just because my thoughts on what had gone before needed processing a bit.

More will follow over the coming weeks, more final thoughts which are becoming clearer with time and distance, a few lists and best/worst ofs to answer the most oft-asked questions (“What was your favourite…”), spotlights on specific places and aspects of the trip and a few articles offering advice for anyone thinking of following in our footsteps or anyone preparing to do just that.

166Not surprisingly, there’s a list for all that.

But belatedly – told you my mind was all a bit scrambled – let’s wrap this piece up in traditional fashion and head back to where the last entry left me, sat by a swimming pool in Luxor, nursing a purple toe and doing everything we could to keep cool.

What followed over the final week was a continuation of what was, in comparison with most of what had gone before, a two-week holiday through Egypt, mainly in relative comfort and bidding farewell, for a while, to the Nile and making our way up the Red Sea coast.

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The Sphinx

It was a week of relaxing, farewells, packing – easier for those of us who opted to upgrade and dump all of our gear in our rooms or had not bought too many souvenirs – and last times…

The last night out in Hurghada (which started just after lunch), the last ice and beer run, the last full drive day, marked with a few beers, regardless of how rough some people felt post Hurghada (very in some cases), which culminated in the last bush camp, something pretty much all of us relished and sought to make the most of (even the long-awaited emergency tinned burgers), even the last use of the shovel… before that last drive to journey’s end in Cairo and the last unloading of Nala before she headed off to catch the ferry home from Alexandria and, finally, the last group meal (complete wth the last attempt to tally the bill).

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The Last Group Shot

There was one more event on the itinerary, the closing trip out to see the Pyramids – magnificent, however much of a travel cliche they may be, however hot it was and however we were distracted by the last group shots, the last selfies, the last pictures of Ale and Karla in front of something – the Sphinx and the Egyptian Museum, worth the trip if only to see the truly spectacular golden mask of Tutankhamun.

But when we wandered off the bus back to our hotel, that was it. End of the road. Joe was finally off duty and we were, if not on our own, left to our own devices, first among the shops, restaurants and shawarma stalls of Cairo and, gradually over the next few days, back to our normal lives with a few tales to tell.

Until the door opens on another adventure…

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The Last Few Miles – Our last day on Nala on the road into Cairo
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Punctured Truck Tyre, Desert Desolate

THE armed guard travelling as part of the, suddenly missing, convoy across the Egyptian desert is there to protect travellers from many things.

Almost certainly not somebody swinging a sledgehammer in your direction as you hold on to a crowbar as tight as possible.

Hot Work - Trying to reshape the metal to replace the tyre. In the desert. In the middle of the day
Hot Work – Trying to reshape the metal to replace the tyre. In the desert. In the middle of the day

But then, even on what is essentially a relaxing last couple of weeks on the road, that’s life on the Trans Africa.

To say nothing of near record temperatures, the slowest travelling we have done on the entire journey, getting firmly on the tourist trail and another possible medical first in my bid to limp around the continent and the penultimate week of the trip has had plenty going on.

Even if we have done our best to spend as much time as possible doing as little as we can.

Throughout all that, it has continued to be extremely hot as we have meandered our way up the River Nile.

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Back In Time – Early morning at Abu Simbel. Not sure what Reto is doing

Any hopes of any respite after leaving Sudan have long since vanished (although the wonders of air conditioning have at least provided some valuable relief) with Luxor allegedly clocking up the second hottest recorded day in its history as the thermometer reached 56 degrees Centigrade.

On the day we opted to walk across town to visit the Karnak Temple.

But let’s rewind to our first Egyptian port of call where it was – albeit by just a few degrees – a bit cooler at Abu Simbel on the banks of Lake Nasser.

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Clear View – Abu Simbel without us in the way

An early morning start saw us beat the tourist crowds (bussed down from Aswan), head back to the hotel for breakfast, raid the shops for as many cold drinks as we could lay our hands on and return to the temple to rejoin the convoy of coaches for the journey back across the desert to Aswan.

Which is where the plan went a little bit awry.

Overland trucks are built for many things – doubt too many of our travelling companions would have made it across the Sudanese desert in one piece – but speed is not one of them, so we were soon left behind as the day trippers were whisked back to their hotels in air-conditioned comfort.

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Assessing The Damage – Ripped tyre to the right, twisted metal to the left

One back marker did come past us, offloading their armed soldier to ride shotgun in the front of Nala as we brought up the distant rear.

And he, like the rest of us, was dozing off in the heat of the desert when we were all rudely awoken by a very loud bang, the smell of burning rubber and the sound of running water.

Having gone nine months with just one puncture, a second tyre had given way in the space of a few days, only this time in spectacular style – shredding in the heat to such an extent it took the mudguard and adjoining metal shelf (mainly used for storing firewood) with it, along with the tap off the adjacent water container.

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Everning Cruise – On the Nile at Aswan

So before we could change the tyre, we had to reshape the twisted metal to make room. Think the sun must be behind my decision to attempt to bend it back into shape with a crowbar while Joe smashed it with a sledgehammer – something we did not try again.

But, finally, with the armed guard watching on, smoking cigarettes and listening to his iPod in the middle of the road, we finally got the new tyre on and headed up the final stretch to Aswan, rolling over the low dam to our hotel on the banks of the Nile.

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Sunset On The Water – Out on the feluccas on the Nile

After certain members of the group failed to control their excitement at spotting both a McDonald’s and KFC – and when push comes to shove, the golden arches can be a welcoming sight, whatever your age – we headed out on a boat to our dinner destination for the night, a family home on the opposite bank just below the lower, older dam. Right after we had plunged into the river (just upstream from some swimming cows) to cool off.

There was little chance to cool off the next morning as a group of us headed out for a guided tour of the local attractions, most notably the newer High Dam and the Philae Temple, which had to be relocated to an island to avoid the rising waters of Lake Nasser created by the dam.

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Early Graffiti – A craftsman gets his message across at Philae Temple

A fascinating visit, highlighted by the last known use of hieroglyphics (basically, a craftsman bemoaning the death of his art by declaring he was the last person actually able to read it), before we headed back to the inevitable stop under the golden arches and, in my case, a race back to wallow in the small but welcoming hotel pool.

There was plenty more wallowing in water over the next couple of days as the pace of the trip slowed to a crawl – roughly 30km in the space of 48 hours – on board our two feluccas, small, local sailing craft which once crowded these waters.

Before the Arab Spring and the Egyptian Revolution, which has left a marked impact on the country’s tourist trade, our captain estimated they made around six or seven trips like ours each month. Now it is about three a year.

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Sand People – Egyptian fancy dress night mixed with an attempt to sand board on the lid of the eskie at our base for the night on the Nile

The upside is that we were virtually alone on the river for much of the time, either lazing around on the mattresses which provided our dining room, living room and beds for our two nights as we tied up to shore, or cooling off in the thankfully crocodile-free waters of the Nile.

With a selection of well-stocked eskies on board to keep us refreshed, it was a relaxing couple of days which came to an end far too quickly as Gareth and Nala collected us and swept us through the red hot wind along the banks of the river to Luxor, centre of the ancient Egyptian world for so long and site of many of the great attractions from that period.

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Cheers – Toasting our time on the felucca

Not that we were that bothered on arrival, once we realised the Nile Valley Hotel comes complete with just about the best equipped rooms of the trip, as well as a very welcome (if warm) swimming pool. Which is beckoning off to my right at this very moment.

With a virtual free day on our hands, a group of us opted to spend the next morning exploring Karnak Temple. And well worth the exploration it is too, particularly the mightily impressive Hipostyle Hall with its 134 giant columns providing some much-needed shade as the heat reached new levels.

It was also where it dawned on me that my little toe was turning purple.

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Ouch – My toe loses a coming together with a safety barrier in Luxor

The blood on the end was no surprise, after all that had been pretty instant the moment it had made contact with the base of the safety barrier. But the livid purple bruise came as a bit of a surprise, prompting a rapid diagnosis from a passing nurse – of which this trip has been liberally sprinkled – of a break.

My first. Plenty of dislocations. Loads of injuries (back, shoulder, knees, take your pick). But never a broken bone. Until now. Maybe.

It is still purple and it still hurts, but there’s been plenty of ground to cover in the last couple of days, starting with another morning on the tourist trail, playing Rameses bingo in the Valley of the Kings as we explored the tombs of three pharaohs of that name before moving on to Queen Hatshepshut’s Temple and Habu Temple (built by one of those Rameses).

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Up And Away – Sunrise over Luxor with the Valley of the Kings off to our left

Thankfully, this morning’s activity was less stressful on the foot, a hot air balloon taking the strain as we flew across the air we had explored the morning before as the sun rose around us.

Not a bad way to start the day.

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Blister In The Sun*

WAY back in Morocco, it became something of an unwritten rule that at no point in the months ahead would we moan about being hot.

As we were buffeted by record rainfall which left us cold, wet and if not miserable, at least a little fed up right into the Western Sahara, sun seemed like a distant dream and think the only words Ale muttered to me in the opening few weeks were “I’m cold”**.

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Sand Trap – The Pyramids of Meroe

The mention of the word Chefchaouen conjures up not images of the town’s lovely mountain setting, labyrinthine old streets, lovely tajines we found in a tiny backstreet restaurant and blue-painted houses, but of the downpour which accompanied pretty much all of our one full day there.

Quite who decided it would be a good idea to ignore the taxis touting for business and walk up the long hill to the campsite amid the torrent is up for debate (it wasn’t me), but not sure my long black trousers have recovered.

Not that the state of long trousers matters much now, tucked (stuffed) away as they are at the bottom of my rucksack with no chance of seeing the light of day as the thermometer has been cranked up for the final leg of the trip.

All a far cry from those opening few weeks and enough for us to forget any pacts not to moan about the heat.

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Price You Pay – Ale finally catches me taking advantage of her handing me her camera

It is – and has been for the past week since we left Ethiopia – very hot. Very, very hot.

Our hotel room for our first night in Egypt (which seemed so far away on those soggy opening days and marks the start of the final two week run-in to Cairo) is pretty basic and has three blokes sharing, but it has air conditioning and a working (very full) fridge.

And at the moment, you cannot ask for much more.

There is some debate as to whether the past few days in Sudan have been the hottest of the trip or whether the airless oppressive heat as we sat and waited to cross the Nigeria-Cameroon border edges that title.

Without access to regular temperature checks, we will never know, but for a sheer sustained blast of heat with little or no recourse to any form of shade, the past week wins hands down.

We were advised early in the trip – just as we left the opening deluges behind and headed into warmer climes – that drinking four litres of water per day was essential for our physical and mental well-being (not downing enough, evidently, leading to attacks of grumpiness, making “Drink more water” the standard response to anyone showing signs of being miserable).

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Sunset – The sun goes down behind the pyramids. Didn’t get any cooler

My water intake yesterday came in at somewhere around eight litres. Some of it plain water, some of it flavoured with orange powder and some of it with one Berocca tablet too many. Not enough of it cold as unless you down it all in one go, it is hard to finish even a small bottle direct from an eskie packed with ice before it starts to warm up.

Throw in more than the occasional Coke and 7Up from amid crowded eskies (and the Sudanese helped keep them packed with drinks and ice, no matter how far we wandered off the beaten track, although the colour of some of the water looked like it had come straight off the beaten track) and you would think that would be enough.

Apparently not, given the distinct lack of need to go to the loo as it sweats and evaporates away, although my feeling rough as we crossed the Nubian Desert may have had as much to do with the sugar highs and crashes from all those soft drinks as any signs of dehydration.

It has certainly not been easy. At times it has been a struggle, especially with thoughts turning increasingly to home with the 31st and final African border crossing behind us.

But Sudan, like so much of this continent before it, has done enough to charm and beguile us. Amid all the sand and heat that is.

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Middle of Nowhere – Another pyramid. Not our last

All a far cry from our parting shots in Ethiopia, the prospect of a week without alcohol sending most of the guys scurrying to one of our hotel rooms for a movie night designed to work our way through as much of the remaining booze on the truck as possible.

We made a fair indent, but have to admit the prospect of finishing off my bottle of Jack Daniels after our meal the next night – a lovely buffet accompanied by a side order of traditional dancing – was not an appetising one. And besides, talk to the right local and even in Sudan, you can get a drink. Although date vodka is not something to be tried too often.

Our final exit from Ethiopia took us away from Gondar and through some spectacular mountain scenery, before dropping down towards the border and stepping into the furnace from almost the moment we stepped across onto Sudanese soil.

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Aerial View – The group settles down to enjoy the view at Meroe

The first night (spent at a desert bush camp populated largely by endless armies of grasshoppers) was not too bad, courtesy of a refreshing breeze, but by the time we rolled into the Blue Nile Sailing Club in the capital Khartoum the next day, the first concerns were not the customary (“Is there wi-fi?”) but the practical – “Where’s the shade? (limited) and “Where’s the cold drinks?” (cheap, copious and just over the car park).

While there was not that much sign of sailing at the club and the adjoining river is more a muddy brown than blue, it was a pleasant enough base to explore the capital. At least it was once we had discovered the pool next door (women only allowed in the morning) and we convinced them to open up the new shower block and toilets (albeit with irregular water supply) rather than rely on the fairly agricultural old ones – described as the worst in Africa, although we could draw up a substantial list of competitors.

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New Neighbours – The local camels (and their owners) ply for trade in camp

The searing heat was not enough to deter us from heading out to explore Khartoum the next morning, our little raiding party walking the 90 minutes or so (complete with diversion around the Presidential Palace, where walking across the view of the Nile is banned) to the confluence of the Blue and White Niles.

Or the brown and slightly different brown Niles if you prefer.

No pictures of that – and there’s a man with a big, if ageing machine gun by the bridge, just in case you forget – but plenty of our port of call for the next night, the ancient Royal Cemeteries of Meroe.

Not the final pyramids of the trip and certainly not the biggest, but very cool they were too amid the sand dunes where we camped by the cemetery gates and prepared dinner watched by the local camel herders, keen for us to ride their lugubrious steeds. So keen they returned for breakfast to transport some willing volunteers.

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Rare Interruption – One of the old stations which occasionally break up the endless sand in the Nubian Desert crossing

That was hot, but merely a warm-up for what lay ahead over the next two days as we crossed the Nubian Desert.

With the temperatures cranked up and any breeze that blew through the back of the truck (complete with sand) merely turning up the heat even further, little wonder the main activity was reaching for a cold drink from the eskie.

For the second day, we did not even have the luxury of a road. That runs out at Abu Hamed, to be replaced by desert tracks along the old railway line or, in an attempt to miss the worst of the sand dunes, a rather more direct – and bumpy – route through the wilderness.

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Tempting – One of the least agreeable batches of truck water

Thankfully we made it in almost one piece (one tyre shredding under the strain, although it did get us to our destination at Wadi Halfa – another of those places which sticks in my mind from Michael Palin’s TV travels) and got some relief today in the most unusual of surroundings.

Border crossings are not normally things you want to drag on, but not too many of us were in a rush to move on from the air conditioned waiting rooms on the Sudanese side. Even less so from the cafe serving cold drinks as we waited for the truck to clear Egyptian protocol.

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Cooling Down – While most of us raided the only shop in the Nubian Desert with cold drinks, Reto got the locals to tackle his sand issue

But finally, after a little more than five hours, we rolled through the gates of our final border and broke new ground for Oasis, entering Egypt by a land border via a new road, rather than taking the ferry from Wadi Halfa to Aswan (not always accompanied by the truck).

And with the air conditioning on full in our Abu Simbel hotel room – reached via a much shorter ferry ride across Lake Nasser – we are more than happy to be ground breakers.

* That will teach me. Taking not much of a flier on it being hot in Sudan, the title for this blog post was worked out before even entering the country, once the Violent Femmes’ indie classic popped up on my iPod (and for anyone wondering, most of the more obscure post titles are song titles or lyrics). The sun bit was a given. Could have done without the blisters which came with it on the lengthy walk to the confluence of the two Niles.
** She has said plenty more since.

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Not A Mirage – Our first sight of Lake Nasser (and any water for a few days) at Wadi Halfa
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