Mali And Me

ONE thing about elephants that’s hard to forget. They are pretty big.

That, hopefully, will come in handy when trying to frame them in focus somewhere in the middle of a photo at some point in the next nine months, but when they are lingering in the corner of the room, it makes them pretty difficult to ignore (which also holds true about the pile of kit which has been growing in the corner of my flat).

As mentioned in a previous post, the elephant in the room for our Trans Africa overland adventure over the past few months has been Ebola.

And no longer can it – or the fairly constant questions about it – be ignored.

In the end, it was not any threat of the disease which forced a bit of a diversion around the affected countries in West Africa, but practicalities stemming from steps being taken to contain it.

Nala
Nala

Oasis Overland have been tracking the elephant over the last few months and after consulting, among others, the World Health Organisation, African Travel and Tourism Association and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, they have taken the decision to turn east from Senegal rather than continuing south around the coast.

Instead of heading straight through Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone – the worst affected countries – the new route takes us through southern Mali (and possibly a bit of Burkina Faso) before heading back towards the coast and the original route in Cote d’Ivoire.

Overland trips have to adapt and it is all part of the adventure, but it is nothing new for Oasis. They can explain.

“Ebola is bringing many challenges, and as a group we need to be prepared that elements of the trip may need to change or be amended,” read our e-mail from Natalie at Oasis HQ, who has been keeping us informed, steering us in the right direction and answering any number of questions over the past few months. “It is still two months until we get close to the areas that have been affected and we will continue to monitor the situation.

“Mali is a country we know well from past trips, your drivers have been to before and visas are easy to obtain on route.  I should stress that the decision to travel via Mali is based primarily on us needing to avoid border closures rather than the chance of contracting Ebola.

Our tour leader Joe checking out tents and, below, stocking up the truck
Our tour leader Joe checking out our tents and, below, stocking up the truck

Created with Nokia Smart Cam“It is a hard disease to catch. However, we will be putting extra steps in place to ensure good hygiene standards on board the truck.

 “The route through Mali is not a new one for us.  We travelled this way for many years up until two years ago and in the past our groups have really enjoyed Mali.  As with our past expeditions, this is all part of the nature of a Trans Africa trip.”

The debate about how to deal with Ebola has not been the only thing keeping Oasis busy over the past few weeks.

On my visit to their base to drop off bulkier bits of kit a few weeks ago, our truck Nala – evidently the name of the animated love interest in The Lion King, but also the name of one of my sister’s Labrador’s mates – was undergoing a touch of paint and bit of TLC.

It has been stocked up, our tents tended and checked and our tour leader Joe has been wading through a pile of paperwork and the plans for the next nine months, taking a quick break to write about his preparations, before Nala and crew headed off to Gibraltar tonight. We fly out to meet it on the rock next Tuesday.

Preparations here have stepped up a few gears since the countdown to leaving work reached zero and there was finally time to crack on with the jobs which had been multiplying for months.

And, with one or two minor exceptions, the to-do lists for the trip itself are pretty much done – dutifully maintained, drawn up and written up each night, only to be immediately altered early the next day to accommodate my failure to get up as early as planned.

Visas are sorted (Ghana in the passport with pre-approval registration for Senegal), all jabs complete, malaria tablets collected, rucksack repaired, farewells said (and toasted) and piles of kit and clothes bought (some of it planned), dug out from storage and currently filling up the sofa and its surrounds in the front room of my flat.

The one major job for the trip left – before packing up my flat, bidding farewell to my car after 12 years and finding time to say a few more goodbyes, write a few more posts and learn how some of the new bits of tech work together – is to pack and one glance at those piles suggests my reputation for over packing is well deserved.

All (well, most) of this has to fit in one rucksack and a shoulder bag. Meanwhile, there's only the chair by desk to sit on...
All (well, most) of this has to fit in one rucksack and a shoulder bag. Meanwhile, there’s only the chair by my desk to sit on…

But it isn’t all going into those bags, those piles are everything that could go, not everything that will go.

There’s decisions to be made – old shorts, new shorts or both?; an old fleece which can be discarded after some cold early nights or the one which zips inside my waterproof and is more convenient, but not as warm?; iPad as well as MacBook Air? Whatever the answers (and the iPad decision is becoming easier due to the negative impact the latest update has had on it), it’s going to be a complicated process.

Suggest getting up on time to allow all of the morning allowed for packing on the to-do list.

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A Charm, A Blade to Clint Eastwood

“You mean you forgot cranberry too?”

AND, with the words of The Waitresses’ Christmas Wrapping, the A-Z iPod blog returns from its Christmas break.

Yes, it is only October, but with alphabetical needs overtaking the constrains of the Gregorian calendar on this journey, Christmas popped up heading down some country lanes through Somerset on a glorious early autumn day.

It wasn’t quite Christmas In July (Sufjan Stevens’ offering to the festive selection box) and a lot of it was not even that festive – especially Christmas In Nevada from Willard Grant Conspiracy, which popped up twice and is welcome any time of the year – before The Waitresses wrapped it up with the first real jingle of bells.

That musical detour was excusable. After all, it is just following the rules laid down for the journey.

Far less excusable are the Christmas decorations which have already been hanging from our office ceiling for more than a week.

The view from my desk. In October
The view from my desk. In October

The reason, so we are told, is to inspire the advertising department as they start turning their minds towards sales for the festive period (even though most of them spend very little time in our office any more), but generally only serves to confirm the reputation of editorial as rather less full of Christmas cheer – at least until the seasonal drinks are broken open a lot nearer the actual date.

The decorations’ arrival prompted two responses from our section of the office – either tweeting pictures with exclamations of horror at the early onset of tinsel or digging around desk drawers for the lights and tinsel which were tucked away on Twelfth Night, if only to wrap around the screens of less enamoured colleagues the moment they stepped away.

It also prompted a revival of a long-standing argument with a colleague over the merits of The Waitresses’ festive evergreen – he hates it, while its mix of a good tune, Christmas cheer and healthy dose of cynicism puts it high on my (admittedly short) list of Yuletide favourites (alongside, rather obviously, Fairytale of New York, the more wilfully obscure I Want An Alien For Christmas by Fountains of Wayne and the more recent double entry from Smith And Burrows, When The Thames Froze and, particularly, This Ain’t New Jersey).

In years gone by, such an early onset of decorations, the seasonal aisles which have started to pop up in supermarkets, the first hints of Christmas adverts in the paper and, particularly heinous, the start of the X Factor, would have had me moaning as loud and long as anybody (it was more loud and brief this time round), but this year is not going to be a normal festive break.

For the first time in many years, my Christmas plans remain a mystery.

It will be somewhere in Africa. West Africa to be more precise. And the current provisional itinerary has us crossing from Sierra Leone to Cote d’Ivoire on Boxing Day, so a repeat of the last Oasis Overland Trans-Africa trip’s Christmas Day on the beach in Sierra Leone – complete with pig on a spit – is a possibility,

But anything involving that part of the world is subject to change at the moment.

Wherever we end up, it will be only my second Christmas spent away from the family – first at my parents and, for as long as memory serves now, at my sister’s with the brother-in-law on cooking duties.

The last one was, probably, 1987 when Christmas lunch was eaten in an Austrian mountain restaurant on a school ski trip.

Schruns, Austria. Not that we could see that far.
Schruns, Austria. Not that we could see that far.

December 25 was the only day on the entire trip when the sun came out and we could actually see where we were going – the reduced vision at one point leading to a group of us taking a wrong turn, heading off piste and facing a bit of a drop off the garage roof we were somehow standing on.

Visibility was bad, but not bad enough to mask how big a drop it was.

Skiing trips followed the Christmas breaks for many years – mainly because the first week of the new year is genuinely cheaper – which meant two festive traditions.

Firstly, Boxing Day meant a swift return to work to compile the day’s sporting news and results and free up time off over new year, while, less welcome, the big day provided a signal for my back to go into spasm.

Twice it went while sat at the table for Christmas dinner and left me barely able to get up. It was not, as my sister would probably claim, a way of avoiding the washing up. It bloody hurt and, despite being much better at handling the warning signs, still does when it goes again.

So regular was the Christmas backache and the ensuing rush to get me back on my feet for skiing, my osteopath rang in advance one year to suggest booking an appointment for the day they returned to work. It was needed.

The other annual preparation for a skiing trip was the compilation of some C90 mix tapes, which almost certainly included some of the tracks in the lengthy latest section which carried us from Phosphorescent to Gorillaz.

The Clash London Calling Tower Theater Show 3/6/1980Leading the way in this latest batch of songs were The Clash, who popped up with four different tracks – Cheat, City of the Dead, Clampdown (twice) and Clash City Rockers – while Sufjan Stevens appeared again with the classic Chicago and The Hold Steady (next on the live gig list later this month) surfaced with two versions of Chips Ahoy!

There was two outings as well for Christine by House of Love, a band which never really won me over totally, despite what my companion on many of those skiing trips thought of them. The same can be said about The Smashing Pumpkins and several friends. They contributed Cherub Rock (the Smashing Pumpkins, not my friends).

And there were returns from frequent visitors The Wedding Present (Cherez Richku Cherez Hai), Billy Bragg (Cindy of a Thousand Lives, among others), Arcade Fire (City With No Children) and Echo and the Bunnymen with the epic Clay.

Seasick Steve gave us Chiggers, a cautionary tale of dealing with little bitey creatures.

Let’s hope that’s not one that comes to mind too often come Christmas…

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