Creating A Pong

WHEN the list of great British sporting achievements in 2019 is written, Ben Stokes will be a prominent figure for his efforts in the World Cup final and his astonishing match-winning Ashes innings.

Over the next few days and weeks, the Rugby World Cup and World Athletics Championships could well throw up some major candidate. And Lewis Hamilton will earn an awful lot of credit for having the best car.

But one sporting success is unlikely to receive much recognition in any end-of-year reviews.

Granted, beer pong is not a high-profile sport but having discovered some form of natural aptitude, am going to celebrate victory in our campsite tournament. Especially as was not even meant to be in it until wandering past at a timely moment with no good reason not to.

The tournament was one of the highlights of our stay at our campsite near Banos, at least for me as a need to stay near the facilities limited opportunities to get into the nearby town, take the perfect photo opportunity on a swing with a huge drop as its backdrop or soaking up the hot springs which give the town its name.

Or canyoning. But did anybody really have me down for that one?

Did manage to make the short walk up the road to get soaked by the Diablo waterfall and to sample the excellent empanadas at a local cafe. Twice.

But much of my time was spent back at base where the camp dogs seemed to spend as much time on bodily functions – always a key topic of conversation in overland groups – as me. They were just less fussy about exactly where.

Which added extra jeopardy as we gathered in the communal area for an Argentinian barbecue provided by our hosts – basically huge piles of meat with the odd bit of salad and bread to break it up – and the first sporting battle of the trip.

Had originally opted out, but found myself in the right (or wrong, depending on your point of view) place when somebody was trying to hand her place onto someone else. Just had to bend the rules slightly, downing mouthfuls of disgusting water with rehydration salts rather than beer.

Alongside partner Robbie, our Anglo-American team somehow became the ones to beat and charged to success, rediscovering our top form just in time to close out a final interrupted by the need to use the table to house piles of meat.

Having tackled the morning job of packing the tents back into their bags, transporting the kitchen equipment back to the truck and dodging the final obstacles left for us by the dogs, it was back on the road early for the drive to the city of Cuenca.

Arriving at the hostel was most welcome for all of us – the discovery of a happy hour for much of the group and a comfortable bed for me after a difficult day fighting off what, thankfully, seemed to be the final symptoms of whatever laid me low.

So come morning after the best night’s sleep of the trip, was considerably brighter than several others as a group of us headed out on a walking tour of Cuenca.

It is a very attractive, interesting city, littered with churches – 72 of them evidently – and pretty buildings. Which is why the picture most of us fought over was the whole pig in the central market which provided our tasty, cheap lunch.

While most of us were discovering Cuenca anew, for two of our number – my beer pong partner Robbie and wife Becky – it is familiar ground as they have an apartment there and they opened the doors to us and a load of pizzas to soak in the spectacular sunset. And a few drinks.

It was our final fling in Ecuador, until we return to complete the circle in April, as we made the run for the first border and headed into Peru.

And having bounced around at varying altitudes and temperatures, our arrival in country number two has seen the heat rise as our height dropped to sea level, which is pretty easy to gauge when the waves are breaking yards from your tent.

Our time at Walkato Beach has given us time to draw breath, relax, get sunburned (just one knee bizarrely), down the odd drink or two and spend a couple of evenings around a campfire on the beach.

We did break camp to head down the coast to the bustling resort town of Mancora – think a Spanish beach town with less neon, chrome and Brits (assorted other nationalities) on the piss. Well, apart from our day in and around a bar on the sand run by a guy styling himself as James Bond.

There was a diversion to some cook group shopping which crowded into the back of a minibus with 14 of us for the ride back to base and another night around the fire on the beach.

No doubt the fire will be lit one last time tonight. Before or after the pizzas we’ve ordered arrive. Before then, there’s a pool to be led around or a tent to be napped in.

It’s a tough life.


Blowing In The Wind

Early Risers – The boys at Dune 45 after a windy evening at Sesriem

IT had started as such a calm evening. Beers at the rather plush campsite bar and a reasonably early night ahead of a pre-sunrise alarm call to head out to the dunes of Sossusvlei.

But at some point in the early hours, the best-laid plans were blown away and we became little more than ballast to prevent our tents flying off across the campsite.

Sand Castle – Dune 45

The events of our night at Sesriem are proof, if any is needed, that even this supposedly easier stretch of our Trans African adventure is capable of throwing up the unexpected challenge.

Admittedly, we have been spoiled over the past few weeks with comfortable beds, hot showers, cold beers and usable wi-fi (the complete wishlist of the jaded overlander) outnumbering campsites and even more spartan bush camps.

But my return to life in the mosquito net coincided with a run of nights when the wind whipped up and forced my Moroccan rug to be dug out from the depths of the locker to form a remarkably comfortable, warm cocoon with my unzipped sleeping bag.

Just Grand – Sesriem Canyon

Getting out was not always easy as, even with one end tethered to Michael’s tent (my bolthole in the event of rain), it was likely to lift off in a strong gust – ensuring comfort breaks were anything but, undertaken as they were with one foot kept firmly in contact with the other end.

For the first two nights, spent in the latest of a long line of old quarries and on the picturesque banks of a reservoir, cold was more of an issue than the wind, but the rug ensured a decent, relatively toasty night’s sleep – at least until back-to-back early starts, one unwittingly early on breakfast duty after none of us realised Namibian clocks had gone forward while we were in South Africa.

But on the third night, things blew to a whole new level.

Front Row – No way I’m playing loosehead

The first sign something was amiss came some time after 1am as the first gusts of wind started to blow blasts of sand across the previously serene site, but wrapping myself firmly in the blanket, it was nothing to worry about too much.

Right up until the point when the door of my tent – really just a flap – blew in as the temperamental zip finally gave up its battle with the elements, allowing the first of a constant stream of sand to start building the dune which would form across everything in the tent as the battle began to repair the zip in the escalating wind.

Cape Cheer – Out in Cape Town with Saskia and Paisley, several countries before they officially joined the truck

Finally it was forced shut, just about the time that realisation dawned it was only going to open one more time and the need to open it and use the facilities – or as far away as possible with one foot weighing it down – was rising.

Which created an uncomfortable hour or so as, pounded by wind and sand, cries for help broke out around the campsite with anyone in a single tent unable to answer them for fear their tent would be blown back to South Africa.

Eventually, with a 4.30am alarm call still some way off to head up Dune 45 at Sossusvlei for sunrise, it was time to admit defeat, pack up everything as best as possible and, with everything still inside, fold up my tent and carry it (wind assisted) to the nearest toilet block to pack it away in relative calm.

Long Night – Truck dwellers and assorted others out on Long Street

Everyone made it through the night in one piece – although one tent did have a nocturnal flight across the campsite, despite having two people inside – while others slept through the whole thing.

Our reward was a fairly spectacular sunrise as most of the group battled through the wind to the top of the dune – some of us opting for a slightly lower vantage point – and an unscheduled stop at the hugely impressive Sesriem Canyon, before heading back to camp to pick up the straggler who had opted to stay behind and sleep off his rather eventful day and night before.

A far cry from the relative calm and comfort of Cape Town, a city which won many of our hearts and has plenty of plans forming to head back and explore at more length.

Confinement – Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island

Conditions were kind to us throughout most of our stay, providing some amazing views from the top of Table Mountain – certainly much clearer than some of our heads after one or two fairly riotous nights in the bars of Long Street, which comes across as a little bit like Bourbon Street in New Orleans without the jazz, the strip clubs and the dirty streets.

Robben Island provided a fascinating – and refreshingly balanced – view of life in the prison which housed Nelson Mandela for 18 years from a former fellow inmate, while the malls and stores of Cape Town took a battering (along with our trip funds) as we took the chance to refresh our wardrobes and replace the bits and pieces we had lost or broken along the way.*

Sad Farewell – Would you trust either of these men to drive a truck around Africa? Pants not pictured

Bolstered by three new arrivals for the second half of the journey, we waved a sad farewell to Drou, Roxy, Paisley and Saskia, members of the extended truck family, and, most pertinently to Steve, who has driven us down, around, off and into the roads of West Africa.

Steve has been more than a driver, taking on the role of Mr Fix-It, oracle (if you mistakenly chose to believe anything he said), confidante and, most of all, good friend. He will be missed by us all – especially as we shared a slightly warped sense of humour and had the ability to set each other up to deliver punchlines pretty much from day one – after calling time on his overland days and heading back to a simpler (really!?) life Down Under.

His replacement Gareth took no time in becoming part of the group, delivering a masterclass on Namibian diamonds to a bemused bush camp audience which really was not suitable for a family audience.

Lounging Around – Just a fraction of the seals at the Cape Cross Colony

He has also been busy at the day job, driving us north out of South Africa (via a second stop at the blissful Highlanders, complete with Springbok shots and accompanying dance) and into the vast expanse of Namibian desert and extraordinary natural wonders – such as the vast Fish River Canyon – which mark this country out as something special.

He even dragged a few of us away from the bar (which sort of came with us) and the wi-fi in our weekend base at Swakopmund to experience the sight, noise and, above all, smell of the Cape Cross Seal Colony.

Seal Selfie – Making the most of having the truck to ourselves by all crowding into one shot

With up to 100,000 seals sprawled along the shore – and around, under and even on the visitor walkway – it is an assault on all of the senses, but well worth the trek half a dozen of us made up the coast.

And it marks just the start of a stretch of the journey crammed with wildlife.

Not just on the truck.

* The last post mentioned me getting into a pair of shorts four inches smaller than my previous ones after my weight loss over the past five months. Getting in was one thing, actually moving in them was another – still a way to go.



The Beautiful South

FIVE months ago, just setting foot on the northern shores of Africa was one small step for man, one giant leap for overlanders with days, weeks, months, miles and countries stretched out before us on our journey around the continent.

Cape Town – never mind the final destination of Cairo – seemed another world away as we got our feet wet (literally) in Morocco.

Stunning Coastline – One of many such views down the Western Cape

But after 22 weeks, 155 days and three days later than scheduled (courtesy of certain borders and visas halting our progress for longer than hoped), we have reached the Mother City and after all that time heading south, we are preparing to turn round and begin the second leg of our adventure north.

Not that we are in any rush.

If Namibia brought a complete change in conditions, surroundings, scenery and facilities, South Africa has stepped things up to a different level.

Long Way Down – Sat on the top of the Cape of Good Hope

It is stunning.

We have been spoiled over the past week or so, not just with the facilities at places we have stayed, but also with mile after mile of wonderful scenery. Every time we go round another corner or over the top of a crest, another magnificent view stretches out in front of us.

Not a good time for your camera to give in (following the early demise of my Go Pro, which is heading off to a camera repair shop in Cape Town, it has meant a lot of work for my iPhone).

And not a good time for more than one person on the truck to need a bit of a catch-up on their sleep after a series of big nights out – and the odd day, to be honest. Close your eyes around here at your peril. You’ll miss something.

Wet And Wild – Our unexpected stop on the banks of the Orange River

One or two people were in need of catching up on some sleep after our hectic few days in Swakopmund, ensuring our couple of nights in the Namibian capital Windhoek were fairly relaxed.

Well, they were for most of us as we spent our time catching up on our shopping at the mall down the road and heading out for a group meal, which saw zebra slip in behind kudu in the favourite game steak ratings.

For those of us who actually got served.

Rude Not To – Making the most of our surprise final night in Namibia

Rolling out of Windhoek, our final two nights in Namibia provided a huge contrast in facilities and surroundings as, once again, we veered from the very basic to comparative luxury. Both were very welcome.

The first came at the end of a lengthy drive day, which saw us pull off the main road late in the afternoon and start heading towards a distant mountain rising out of the plains.

Friendly Fire – Ben the occasionally over-eager Rhodesian Ridgeback at Highlanders

Most of us assumed pretty early that it was our destination for the night, but doubt any of us were expecting Steve to guide Nala up a narrow, rutted, sloping path to an abandoned campsite towards the top of the mountain – just down the track from a volcano crater – as the storm circled the peaks around us.

It was not that rough a night – and we even had the old brick outhouses from the campsite to prevent any digging – and it only rained heavily for around 15 minutes. Unfortunately, that 15 minutes coincided with the time we had decided to put up our tents.

Tough Going – Relaxing at Highlanders

By the time our tent was up, rain cover on and we were able to step inside and weigh it down before it was fully pegged out, there was a couple of unsettling puddles which seemed to herald a damp, uncomfortable night.

Thankfully, once we had finished sheltering on the truck for as long as possible, the rain had stopped and the wind had dried out the worst of the water – at least on my side of the tent, Michael opting to sleep outside to avoid any remaining moisture, until more rain forced him inside and he attempted to sleep on my drier side of the tent as well.

Harvest – Karla amid the foliage at the hostel in Stellenbosch

Any moisture in tents the following night was much more isolated as we wrapped up our time in Namibia in the luxurious surroundings of a campsite just before the border – which we had been due to cross, only for a last-minute change of plan to marry our arrival in South Africa with dates on Nala’s paperwork.

Wine List – Our selection, complete with accompanying cheeses, at the second of our four stops on the wine tour…

We had been expecting a bush camp after crossing the border late in the day. What we got was a campsite in pristine condition, lovely soft grass to pitch our tents on, hot, clean showers, the best pool of the trip – sandwiched between a well-stocked bar and the picturesque Orange River – and, most pointedly for the night’s events, the same herd of Oasis overlanders we had tracked across Swakopmund.

So while they celebrated the last night of their trip from Nairobi, we offered a helping hand to ensure they were nice and fresh for their pre-dawn departure for the all-day drive to Cape Town and dived into a night of… well, that all depends on which stories you choose to believe (at least those who were not fighting the truck’s pet cold did).

… and rather later in the afternoon

After mopping up the aftermath in the morning, it was off to the final border of the southern leg and the quickest, our crossing into South Africa taking roughly an hour from start to finish.

And our latest country did not disappoint with beautiful scenery from the off, not least around our base for our first two nights at the Highlander camp.

No Picking Up – One of the penguins at Betty’s Bay

Perched on the tiered side of a valley overlooking farms and vineyards and run by a former overland driver, it took no time to register near the top of our favourite campsite charts, particularly for those of us who dived straight into a session of tasting the local wines. For tasting, in some cases, read downing.

It made for a very convivial evening, if an uncomfortable morning for some as we embarked on a major truck clean and, in my case, total revamp of my locker and kit. After a couple of hours lying around the pool and once Ben, the camp’s young Rhodesian Ridgeback, had been persuaded not to hump or chew everything he could get his paws on.

Marker Point – At Cape Agulhas with two Australians and a stuffed kangaroo

There was more wine flowing in, possibly, even more beautiful scenery on a day’s tour around the wine cellars of Stellenbosch. It all started in refined fashion. But that’s a lot of wine in a relatively short period of time.

Stellenbosch was also our base for our trip to the most southerly point of Africa, prompting plenty of picture opportunities at Cape Agulhas, where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet.

It was all given a slightly surreal edge by the monument at the Cape having been unveiled by South African apartheid-era president PW Botha, one of the great political villains of my youth.

The system of inequality he oversaw for so long may have been swept away by the emergence of the Rainbow Nation, but it is still possible to see the divide between the haves and have nots in this country.

Windswept – Look carefully and that’s me trying to hold Karla’s hair down at Cape Point

Some of the towns we headed through on a breathtaking trip back up the Atlantic coast almost had tracks running through the middle with signs indicating the right and wrong side – not that you needed signs, given the clear colour and prosperity divide.

But while there remains vestiges of the past, on the whole South Africa gives the impression of a modern country moving forward to a brighter future.

Bottoming Out – Nala in the shadow of the Cape of Good Hope

It certainly has the natural resources that have created those haves and which, hopefully, will eventually filter down to more of the have nots.

Natural resources were certainly on view at our final stop before heading back to Stellenbosch – the enchanting penguin colony at Betty’s Bay – and the next day’s stop at the Cape of Good Hope, our final port of call before rolling into Cape Town.

And that’s a whole other story…