Ocean Rain

LET me paint you a picture.

As darkness falls over the beach in Nungwi, Zanzibar, to my right the local beach boys are playing their nightly sunset game of football (pretty skilled, very competitive, but low scoring given the small size of the goals), silhouetted against the still waters of the Indian Ocean.

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Pre Match – The sun starts to set over our beach retreat on Zanzibar

To my left is a tall, cold, almost empty Cuba Libre – about to be replaced by another one before working out exactly where tonight’s dinner is coming from – while the sounds of reggae and the whizzing of the barman’s blender are drowning out the sound of Tanzanian TV blaring out an old episode of ALF.

Sadly, the chances of getting Gloucester’s European play-off final with Bordeaux-Begles on the screen are slightly slimmer than they were for last night’s FA Cup Final but, hey, can’t have everything?

Just to balance things out, our few days away from the African mainland on the spice island of Zanzibar have seen our first major rain since the opposite coast in Angola while we were still heading south and had yet to begin our journey across the continent from west to east.

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Lopsided – How to confuse weighbridges, put all the weight over one end

But between the showers, downpours in some cases, we have had a few truly memorable days, largely from activities which never had me that bothered beforehand (and even had me jumping off the upper deck of a boat, never mind tasting particularly pungent fruit).

Thankfully, the rain waited until we were on the island and safely ensconced in rooms, rather than sleeping in tents and, for much of the early going in Tanzania, in bush camps.

Since rolling into Swakopmund halfway through our first passage through Namibia, bush camps, so common all the way through West Africa, have been few and far between.

We are a pretty well-oiled machine when we roll into a bush camp, heading off into the trees to (among other things) collect enough fire wood to cook both the evening meal and breakfast and, as darkness falls, putting up our tents, settling down for the evening meal, packing the kitchen away and either settling around the fire to chat or taking advantage of the early “bush camp bedtime” to catch up on some sleep (especially if an early start beckons the next day).

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Narrow Streets – Getting lost in Stone Town

The vast majority of us are now pretty comfortable with the lack of facilities – although one person has made it this far without resorting to the shovels – and have our own routines. Personally, it is to sneak off before breakfast when it is usually still dark enough to provide some extra cover and not everybody is up. Consider that crucial advice for any prospective overlanders.

If the rural idyll, particularly the rolling hills through the tea and banana plantations after crossing the border, gave us a gentle introduction to Tanzania (which was greeted with a little dance on the back of the truck for reaching my 50th country) and rolled towards the coast, all that was forgotten as we hit the roads heading into Dar Es Salaam.

Forewarned, as soon as we rolled to a halt in the first of a series of traffic jams – or was it one long jam? –  we were up and leaning out of the sides on the lookout for opportunist thieves trying to make off with something from off or under the truck. Or we were trying to buy peanuts and ice cream from the myriad of vendors, dependent on who was leaning out.

Our reward for crawling through the notoriously choked city streets for a couple of hours on a stifling afternoon was a return to the beach, for the first time on the clear blue waters of the Indian Ocean (well, for the first time since Cape Agulhas in South Africa, where it meets the colder waters of the Atlantic and you don’t really have quite the same urge to jump in).

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On The Waterfront – Down by the harbour in Stone Town

Not that we had too much time to get wet or sample the delights of the bar at Kipepeo Beach (gave it a good try mind) as we packed our bags, grabbed haircuts as Sam set up an impromptu salon and prepared to wave a pre-dawn farewell to Nala for a few days.

Spending quite so much time at the bar was maybe not such a good idea as we headed off along the coast road and into more traffic, first vehicles and then human as we fought our way onto the ferry across the harbour and then, rather more sedately, the boat to Zanzibar.

Met at the other end by Daniel, our guide for our opening 24 hours or so on the island, we were whisked off into the heart of the alleys which wind their way through Stone Town to our hotel for the night and then out and about to get our bearings.

Not that those bearings were any use as, having opted to leave the others as they ate lunch and strike out on my own, my usually reliable sense of direction got thoroughly scrambled and carved a haphazard route through the back streets and alleys. Much to my benefit as my explorations unveiled a town full of life and colour.

There was more life and colour as we headed out for sunset cocktails overlooking the sea and on to the night market to indulge the penchant for street food most of us nurtured on the west side, the night rounding off in Mercury’s bar where we would have coasted to victory in the pub quiz. If we had only bothered to enter.

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Beachfront Property – The walk up the beach at Nungwi

Another early start – probably too early, given the amount of faffing around getting money and fixing phones that went on before we even left town – sent us out on a tour of a spice farm, one signed up for with hesitation but turned into a real gem.

Daniel and his sidekick Moussa steered us through the range of plants on offer with a series of smells and tastes to sample, before we were treated to a wide choice of fruits, including the notorious durian fruit which did not smell as bad as feared, but also did not taste as nice as hyped.

A quick example of how to climb a coconut tree, despite the rain, was followed by a quicker example of how not to do it from Michael, before we were bussed off to a sublime lunch at Daniel’s house and charming rendition of the Tanzanian national anthem from his daughter before we headed north to Nungwi and the beach.

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Dressed To Impress – Well, one of them was

Despite the rain, we settled into a weekend on the beach which is winding down to a relaxed finale (bar Gloucester blowing a 16-point lead and losing to a last-kick drop goal – rather different than Arsenal fan Matt’s enjoyment of the cup final).

Some have headed out on dives, most of us at least wandered up the beach while the majority ventured out on a booze, sorry, sunset cruise which featured plenty of throwing ourselves off the roof of the boat into the welcoming ocean. Some more athletically than others.

And that is that for Zanzibar as we head out early to head back to the mainland and start winding our way north and back inland and next weekend in the Serengeti.

So, another quiet week ahead then.

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Westside

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Turning Point – The view from the top of Table Mountain

“DID you get Ebola?”

Reactions among those who stumble across a big yellow truck and its inhabitants at the end of our five-month journey south have found it difficult to comprehend exactly what we have done. Let alone why.

And, having reached the turning point in Cape Town and starting the four-month trek back north to Cairo, it is still pretty difficult to get our heads around exactly what has happened, what we have seen, the experiences we have shared and the people we have met – fleetingly or as travelling companions – along the way.

The plan for this entry was always for it to be a reflective one, taking advantage of our break from the road in Cape Town to look back on the southbound leg of the journey and make some sort of sense of my impressions of Africa.

Several times the laptop was opened up with the intentions of writing, but one week, another country, a lot of sand and one broken tent (of which more in the next instalment) later, it remains difficult to order exactly what my thoughts are on Africa.

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Looking Up – The view from the courtyard of our hostel in Cape Town

It is a place full of contradictions and frustrations, things that do not work and things which shouldn’t work, amazing experiences and people that can’t help but make you smile in delight or wonder, right alongside experiences and people who make you tear your hair out in annoyance.

This, after all, is Africa.

To sum it up in a few short phrases is nigh on impossible – and five months travelling through such a wide-ranging series of countries from the Arab north, sub-Saharan West Africa and the verdant, tropical chaos either side of the Equator to the relative modernity of the south is nowhere near enough to provide an authoritative view on this mystifying continent – but, hopefully, the jumble of thoughts which are fighting for priority in my head will somehow spill out onto the page in some form of coherent order over the coming weeks and months.

One thing for sure as we gear ourselves to rattle up the miles heading north – via a relaxed weekend back in Swakopmund, Namibia, which is providing possibly the last beds until Zanzibar – is that none of us have caught Ebola.

Malaria, yes. Cellulitis, yes. Any number of festering wounds, most definitely (the Manky Leg Club has been growing in numbers, although most of the problems which earned membership are clearing up after the rash of applications through the tropics). But Ebola, no.

It was the most-often raised topic before we set off and, having bypassed the infected areas (the detour producing memorable rewards in Mali and Cote D’Ivoire), we had all but forgotten about it until hitting the more common overland routes down south and running into fellow travellers heading towards the end or just starting out on their shorter trips down the more regular routes through the south and east of Africa which will form our next section.*

But more than once in the last couple of weeks, someone has asked us where we have come from, not expecting the answer Gibraltar. After checking that we hadn’t just flown from Europe to Cape Town, they almost inevitably raise the spectre of Ebola.

One group of overlanders rolled out of our accommodation this morning, but not until they had taken a few snapshots of Nala, quizzed their tour leader about whether we really were spending 40 weeks heading from London to Cape Town to Cairo (as emblazoned on her side) and whether any of us had died of Ebola.

Personally, think it would make a reality travel show. Instead of getting voted off the truck, passengers are removed one by one by illness until the last one standing (or breathing on their own) is declared the winner. Has the added advantage of losing contestants not becoming minor celebrities, albeit just for five minutes or until the next batch of wannabes fight for their 15 minutes of fame. Some things have not been missed.

But no, we have made it down south pretty much intact. One passenger was forced home by a case of cerebral malaria, while a few others have had to head home temporarily for personal reasons or off on brief trips away from the truck, rejoining us along the way, but we remain, largely, in one piece.

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African Diet – Warthog ribs in Cape Town

Personally, as someone who set out on this adventure overweight and nowhere near as fit as planned, what was always billed as the most gruelling section of the journey has not been as physically draining as feared.

Even the cumulative effects of camping and lack of home comforts has failed to have too much of a negative impact – to the extent that the return to bush camping after the relative luxuries of Cape Town was welcome with almost universal delight, even when conditions conspired against us. But again, more of that in the next instalment.

Yes, there has been the two bouts of cellulitis – one in each leg – which laid me low for a few days each and has left its marks on my right calf and slightly swollen foot, forcing a pragmatic approach to some of the more strenuous activities, and one short, sharp attack each of the gout and back problems which have long dogged me.

But we head north with my body in pretty good shape. Certainly a more slimline shape, forcing a dash around Cape Town’s gleaming malls to stock up on new clothes – much to the delight of my fellow travellers, who now don’t have to watch me constantly pulling up my trousers that are now way too big, despite the creation of two new holes in a belt.

The sudden appearance of large platefuls of meat (kudu steaks lead warthog ribs in the best game meat stakes), not to mention plentiful supplies of cold beer, in Namibia and South Africa threatens to derail the weight loss, but having got into a pair of shorts four inches smaller than the ones which left Britain with me, the Trans Africa diet should really be used by Oasis as part of their marketing campaign.

And it has not come on starvation rations.

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Perfect Timing – Ale collected a special Malcolm award in Cape Town , the victim of a practical joke all the way from Accra

There have been a few complaints about the food, but my diet has probably never been so good. Certainly it has never included so many vegetables. And at no point since my early teenage years – far too long ago – has breakfast featured on a daily basis, while my self-imposed rule about keeping snacks to a minimum and not stockpiling food on the truck has certainly helped.

Any criticism of the food is squarely down to our shortcomings as cooks rather than the amount or what we have been eating.

Admittedly, we do keep falling back on the same few recipes (my cook teams have a tendency to specialise in anything to do with potatoes, occasionally for all three meals), but there has barely been a really bad meal, unless you are a particularly fussy eater.

And considering we have largely been shopping in West African markets for meals cooked on a camp fire, you cannot be that fussy.

Certainly the two rules – make sure it is edible and make sure there is enough – have been followed throughout and there is usually a pretty rapid queue formed for seconds.

But there is no getting away from the fact, this trip is not always easy. It is a long time to be away from friends, family and home comforts. It is a long time to spend with the same group of people – strangers when we climbed on board the truck, be it in Gibraltar, Accra or, for the newbies, Cape Town.

And there are long periods on the  truck to sit, think and stew on any irritations (and as one of the group’s snorers, that brings a whole set of irritations when it comes to sleeping arrangements).

In a group of people this size – we were at 13 at our lowest, now up to a trip high of 20 – there are always going to be disagreements and the odd personality clash. There are times, at the end of a long drive day, when you climb off the back of the truck and want nothing to do with one or more of your fellow passengers.

But that is inevitable. How many people at work have rubbed you up the wrong way over the past five months? And that’s with the advantage of being able to go home at the end of the day.

We have been lucky with the mix of people we have, avoiding cliques or self-contained units and, after more than five months on the road, the overwhelming majority of us are still happy to share each other’s company and wander off in any number of combinations for an activity, drink or a meal.

These people are as big a part of this trip as Africa itself and the fact that we still go out in large numbers for meals shows how well we get along.

Right up to the point when it comes to sorting out the bill…

* At no point have we turned into travel snobs and referred to our fellow overlanders as amateurs, lightweights or bus wankers (remember, we are on a truck, most definitely not a bus). Well, not all that often.

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