Everybody Knows That You Are Insane to Eyes Wide Open

There’s the day job, the travel company I run in my spare time, the personal blog website which needs some serious work, sleeping, watching rugby and the gym (yeah right – guess which one has gone by the wayside), so who planted the idea for a new blog in my mind?

THE above message popped up in my Facebook timeline earlier this week in one of those On This Day messages.

There’s a slight amendment from the original, rules of the blog mean names are largely left out of posts so the person responsible can keep his Cornish anonymity.

It came as the blog sparked by that idea reached a landmark, so thought it would be a good idea to have a quick catch-up on how we got from there to here, what here actually is and where we go from… well, here.

That Facebook entry was written in February 2013, so how have things changed in the intervening four years?

The day job remains, in principle, the same. There has been a change of title and a move of a few yards across the office, albeit bar a lengthy detour around Africa and – even more of an adventure into unknown territory for someone from Gloucester – to Bath for a couple of months.

And the way newspapers (remember them?) are put together is a bit different as websites have moved front and centre to everything we do.

The travel company is, sadly, no more. It was (and remains) a lovely idea, based far more on a passion for travel than any entrepreneurial drive.

Still think it could work given the time and money to reach a critical point where it has momentum to roll along.

Sadly we did not have either of those and eventually something had to give, especially as that passion for travel was causing extremely itchy feet (not 100 per cent cured) and that African detour forced a decision to be made.

The time may be right to start sharing a few tales from those days and the main irritant which kept us occupied and became known as The Troll. Even now, choosing my words far more carefully than he ever did.

There is still plenty of rugby being watched (as the next post, already partially written in my head, will attest), a fair amount of sleeping and not enough time in the gym (even though it is actually visible from my flat nowadays).

Which just leaves the website…

Travel Marmot existed four years ago, courtesy of a friend who got up early and built the earliest version before presenting it over breakfast the morning after we had kicked around the idea of transplanting my travel blogs from a hosted site and expanding.

At the time, all it had on it was those posts from  an overland London to New York trip copied across from another site and a few additional articles, which was supposed to be the way it developed.

Until the idea of blogging the A-Z trip through my iPod came about.

The journey had started once before but came to grief somewhere early in the C songs, but had long meant to pick it up again or start anew – a suggestion made aloud in the office which was picked up on by a colleague who came up with the blogging idea.

It took a while to start – a quick look into the archives will tell you that while the idea was made in February 2013, the first post outlining the journey ahead and the rules was not written until March 2014 – mainly because of the time being spent on Epic Overland (the travel company).

But when the decision was made to call time on the business and plan the African adventure, Travel Marmot got a new lease of life and the A-Z journey began,

And three years on we have completed A to E, Eyes Wide Open by Radio 4 rounding off the latest letter at track number 3,222.

It has not been a direct journey – it has not taken almost three years to listen to the first five letters. There’s been a couple of long breaks along the way when travelling (and struggling to find internet access for those blog entries), the need for a rest from it and time demands of work conspired to limit the writing – the listening has never been an issue.

When it started, there was 11,235 tracks on my iPod, which has risen to 12,907 (and you can add 12 from Prisoner by Ryan Adams when it is uploaded to my iPod).

E has actually been the shortest part of the journey so far with 323 tracks (if anyone’s interested, A was 605, B was 871, C lasted 758 and D 765). F awaits – a few asterisks elevating the first track alphabetically – with 514 to come.

Shortest of those has been Ask for Janice by The Beastie Boys (11 seconds), the longest Driftin’ Back by Neil Young and Crazy Horse (27.37). Both will be beaten.

The final section of the E tracks, which kicked off with a blast of Queens of the Stone Age, brought a fair few familiar faces from this journey.

The Wedding Present have popped up as much as anybody (alongside Ryan Adams) and we had three versions of Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft, which is worryingly 30 years old this year.

Fellow regulars Radiohead (the beautiful Exit Music (For A Film) and Everything In Its Right Place twice), New Order (Everything’s Gone Green), REM (Exhuming McCarthy), Half Man Half Biscuit (Everything’s AOR and Excavating Rita) and Belle and Sebastian with Expectations, twice.

Beautiful South (Everybody’s Talkin’), Teenage Fanclub (Everything Flows, twice) and Manic Street Preachers (Everything Must Go) are less regular but welcome visitors, while Rival Schools popped up for a rarer visit with Everything Has Its Point.

And we have even seen the evolution of my relationship with rap.

Back when The Wedding Present were introducing their chattering guitar kitchen sink drama indie pop classics three decades ago, rap had no chance of breaching my jingly jangly ghetto.

But then De La Soul – represented here by Eye Know – arrived with their classic debut album Three Feet High And Rising and things started to change.

Slowly. Ever so slowly. The wonderful Arrested Development followed suit and over the years there has been a gradual exploration of some of the classics – much more old school than what is happening now, but at my age can say that about a lot of music.

Can’t say know much about rap, but know what I like and NWA popped up twice with Express Yourself.

And we’ll see more of them very, very soon…

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Ablaze to Drunk And On A Star

IT has become something of a tradition in the relatively short life of this blog to write a state of the nation-style post, assessing the world around me and my place in it as we enter a new year.

And it is rapidly becoming another tradition that the good intentions to have that piece written on New Year’s Day are derailed and delayed.

Two years ago was spot on, written in a candlelit bar on the Ghanaian coast on a quiet first night of the year, albeit not posted for another two weeks due to the lack of wi-fi.

But last year, it took until January 23 before what became the penultimate entry for 2016 to see the light of day, so writing this nine days into 2017 is positively punctual. And a form of rebirth.

That entry 12 months ago announced the break this blog was going on which was supposed to last a few weeks, months at the most – not, one brief return aside, a year – and an overhaul of the design of the site.

Finally that prediction has come true – the new look you have hopefully spotted, albeit with a few minor tweaks still to come, and a return to regular articles both in the A-Z Challenge and working my way through the travel pieces (this is the Travel Marmot after all) which have been on the must-write list for who knows how long.

Travel remains close to my heart, even if there is none on the horizon – something that does not sit easy and there is a real itch to do so something about it.

My bed for the night, right, on New Year’s Day 2015 in Elmina, Ghana

So how did we get to that point?

That post on 2015 was written sat in the power-free, darkened bar at a small eco beach resort with the camp pets curled up on my feet or alongside me. Away to my right, the occasional sounds of some of my fellow travellers mixed with the sound of the Atlantic with a night in my one-man tent at the side of the volleyball court awaiting me.

This post is written sat at the desk in the corner of the front room of my flat. To my right, the sound of American college football is coming out of the TV with workmen outside dismantling the ice rink which has taken over the square  at Gloucester Docks for the past few weeks.

Food will not be cooked over a fire from the (newly) well-stocked fridge and bed will be, well, a bed. A proper bed. And between now and heading under the duvet, there’s all the modern conveniences to enjoy.

Not to be underestimated or taken for granted. Especially now, probably for the first time in six years, my life is firmly settled and fully unpacked.

If this new-year post tradition was in place in 2010 – round about the time the earliest entries in this blog were written, albeit initially, on a different website – it would have recorded a similar story.

It was about 50 miles away across the border in Cardiff, but there was a steady, responsible job on a newspaper and my own house (well, mine and the mortgage company’s). Everything was pretty much sorted, running smoothly and normal.

Sunset over Elmina – almost time to start writing

Right up to the decision to jack it all in and go travelling.

And since then, my life has been in a sort of limbo, living out of bags, on the road, with large chunks of my clothes or belongings in storage and even when back to what seemed like normality and even running a small company in my spare time, there was never that feeling of being settled. Of putting down roots. Of permanence.

There was always another big trip somewhere down the line, even before it was decided on what it was going to be.

But sat here now, everything is out of storage. There aren’t even things in bags, clothes are hanging up (unironed and wrinkled, but hanging up) or folded in drawers – now the Ikea packages have finally been put together –  books are in strict order on the bookshelves, furniture from my rented-out house in Cardiff surrounds me (the new tenants did not want it) and this week marks a year back on the payroll and in the office across the Golden Valley in Cheltenham.

Life is settled. Life is, pretty much, good. Life is not in a state of limbo.

Well, sort of. And that sort of is why there is no travel planned. Bar a couple of ideas and one plan made over a few drinks at a Trans Africa reunion which are being suppressed until that state of limbo is totally over.

Many of you will know the new year brings not only a delayed Travel Marmot blog post but also a tax deadline and that is what is largely delaying any plans for the future.

That end of January deadline is pretty much taken care of, all the relevant paperwork shipped off to the accountants. It is another tax issue which has everything on hold and explains me actually having an accountant.

That decision in 2010 to leave Cardiff was not meant to last this long. Always thought my future involved me returning there and moving back into my house.

But no, bar a couple of months between tenants, that house has been rented and there is outstanding tax to be paid. No attempt to dodge tax, just a breakdown in communication and, in my case, organisation.

So while the wait goes on for the final amount payable, there is no spending and until there is a clear idea of the budget, travel plans are on hold.

The moment the payment is made, the planning starts ( and if my boss reads this, don’t worry. That’s travelling little and often, not another lengthy, quit-my-job option. Probably).

So that’s me, what about the A-Z Challenge which forms the centrepiece of this blog at the moment.

That last, solitary post which popped up a few months ago wrapped up the end of the Ds, so to set things up neatly for the new year and the regular return of this blog, it has been a case of mopping up the A-Ds which arrived on my iPod over the last 12 months.

It was a fairly lengthy list from Ablaze by School of Seven Bells to Drunk And On A Star by Kevin Morby from 2016 albums, a few older ones missed while on the road  and any others picked up over the year (a flurry of catching up on Teenage Fanclub’s back catalogue for starters).

The normal, slightly longer than normal, playlist which accompanies each A-Z entry is below but what were my picks for 2016’s best albums?

Was going to do a proper top 10, but opted against that. Plenty of good albums last year, just not much verging on the great as most struggled to keep the quality throughout (sorry guys,  Bowie’s Blackstar is good, but would people really be raving about it the way they do if it wasn’t for the circumstances?).

So, in no particular order, my pick for 2016 are:

  • Skeleton Tree – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (not an easy listen, especially in light of his son’s death, but worth investing time in)
  • American Band – Drive-By Truckers (my current obsession and next band on the gig list)
  • A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead (who had the great idea of a track listing running from A-Z)
  • Going, Going… – The Wedding Present (surprisingly good from a band largely overlooked in recent years)
  • Teens of Denial – Car Seat Headrest (the type of band this A-Z Challenge was designed for as could well have slipped through the net, but kept popping up and catching my attention)
  • Schmilco – Wilco (not all Wilco fans liked it, but fine by me)

And bubbling under or worth more of my time in the weeks to come are:

  • Blackstar – David Bowie
  • 22, A Million – Bon Iver (Really need to spend more time on it)
  • Here – Teenage Fanclub (What prompted that re-examination)
  • case/lang/veirs – case/lang/veirs (Bit hit and miss, but the good bits are well worth it)
  • Chaleur Humaine – Christine And The Queens (Surprised my self with this one. Tilted one of the songs of the years)
  • A Sailor’s Guide To Earth – Sturgill Simpson (A bit more time with this one and could well be bumped into the top list)
  • Head Carrier – Pixies (Jury still out, last addition to the iPod. Could go either way)
  • Meet The Humans – Steve Mason (Slipped by me a bit, another that needs further examination)
  • Babes Never Die – Honeyblood (Some great songs but does tail away)
  • I, Gemini – Let’s Eat Grandma (We hit the Es next time – we’ll see more of them then)
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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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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.

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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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Contact On The World Love Jam to The Crane Wife 3

In the kingdom of the blind
It’s said the one-eyed man is king
And in the kingdom of the bland
It’s nine o’clock on ITV
Corgi Registered Friends – Half Man Half Biscuit

TRAVELLING souvenirs come in all shapes, sizes and degrees of tackiness.

Barring the odd bottle of ouzo or Metaxa brought back from Mediterranean beach holidays – which never taste quite the same after spending months or years in a suburban sideboard – not many of them have resurfaced at the back of a cupboard during a clean-out before moving out of a flat.

But one of the more memorable keepsakes of my London to New York overland trip popped up in just those circumstances (the others being a surprisingly large collection of shot glasses from a cruise liner and a selection of T-shirts providing a guide to our progress across the USA – and where we were running low on clean laundry).

Three-plus years past its sell-by date may be, but it was still tempting to use it while cooking, such were the memories it brought back and the impact it had on a succession of meals.

Certainly far more than we thought likely when it was thrown, almost as an afterthought, into a Latvian supermarket trolley.

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Multi-Purpose – The pepper which made any number of train meals palatable

And while most of what we brought that day has been forgotten – not all, some of it evokes some less than tasty memories – that magical bottle of pepper has gone down as one of the stars of the trip.

The magic pepper bottle fell into our hands in a scamper around a Riga supermarket on the lookout for food during our upcoming stint on the Trans-Siberian Express.

And… nope, absolutely no idea where this was going.

Written more than 10 months ago, those first few paragraphs were supposed to start the final entry in the A-Z Challenge before heading off on my travels around Africa but time sort of got away from me.

As tempting as it was, listening to loads of music and writing an article about it could never really take precedence over packing, jabs, the chance to buy shiny new things (which, in one case, had broken in the first couple of months) and the need to move out of my flat, unearthing the magical Latvian pepper in the process.

Think the intention, given the opening Half Man Half Biscuit quote and the mere fact a picture of the pepper was taken on my phone, was to recite a few tales of the meals we rustled up on the Trans-Siberian – essentially, anything we could make by just adding hot water to (lots of Smash, noodles and soup, often combined) and spray pepper all over.

It sort of worked, especially when washed down by a fair amount of vodka.

Thankfully, the food our revolving cook groups created during the past 10 months on the road was, mainly, better. Surprisingly so, given the limited budget to feed up to 22 people with three meals a day over an open fire in whatever the elements could throw at us at whichever remote bush camp we had pitched up in.

A lot of eggs, a lot of veg (leaving meat out altogether can be easier and cheaper when you have to do a veggie alternative anyway), a lot of potatoes (especially from our cook group, even for breakfast), a lot of stir fries (anything thrown in a wok and stirred about a bit), a lot of stews (anything thrown in a pot and stirred about a bit) and a fair amount of curries (anything thrown in a wok or a pot with some spices and stirred about a bit).

There was only one truly inedible meal – and that merely down to too much (way too much) spice – and a few that failed to deliver, mainly down to personal taste (one which had peanut sauce sticking my tongue to the roof of my mouth for much of the night).

Everything Everything
Everything Everything

But any complaints about to the food were mainly down to our shortcomings as cooks and, on the whole, my diet was much better than back home (even without the magic pepper) as it finally featured breakfast on a daily basis, regular ingestion of green, healthy stuff and much less snacking – courtesy of a self-imposed rule not to stockpile food on the truck.

Admittedly, my consumption of fizzy drinks crammed full of sugar rose – some achievement given how high it already was – but the outcome of all this is the need for a new wardrobe, particularly trousers, as all my clothes are now too big.

The jeans bought this week are four inches smaller than the ones which went round Africa and needed holding up well before the end and that flat clearout just before the off included throwing out any clothes which were deemed too small and never likely to be much use again.

D’oh!

One thing which has not shrunk – nor, until a mass catch-up of stuff missed over the last few months, grown – has been my iPod collection, which remains at 11,638 tracks.

And until today, the trek through those tracks from A-Z had not progressed any further after the decision to put it on hold while away, given the difficulties in keeping up with one blog while away, let alone a second subject.

Before the off, Public Enemy kicked off this latest section which also rattled through Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road, a couple from Half Man Half Biscuit (Corgi Registered Friends and The Coroner’s Footnote) and rounded off with Cough Cough by Everything Everything – owners of possibly the poshest and most-inept moshpit in history.

The Decemberists, Cambridge. 03/10/07
The Decemberists

In the unrealistic hope of actually finishing the C tracks before departure, there was a catch-up on the then newly-installed ABC tracks which had joined the collection, mainly from Johnny Marr, more HMHB, Weezer and some Gaslight Anthem.

And then it stopped… until a couple of bus rides (still to replace the car scrapped before departing) got things up and running again through the 1900 mark with Cousins by Vampire Weekend, followed by the excellent Jason Isbell – whose latest is high on the list of catch-up albums – with Cover Me Up.

The Decemberists then took over. Totally. Their three-part The Crane Wife opus – based on an old Japanese folk tale and forming the backbone of the album of the same name – goes on for a fair amount of time in its own right.

Throw in the live version of all three parts and it will take you all the way from Cheltenham to Gloucester and beyond.

But after 40 weeks around Africa and with close to 10,000 tracks still to go, that’s not really very long.

And at least there will be no trying to remember what I was going on about.

photos by: &
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