FIVE years ago, as my last major overland adventure rolled eastwards across Europe, Siberia and into Asia, one refrain became common: “When we get to Beijing…”.
The Chinese capital took on almost mythical status where we could stock up on all we had neglected to pack, had not packed enough of or were simply desperate to eat, drink or buy as we clocked up the miles across the vast, empty spaces of Russia and Mongolia.
For Beijing on this trip, substitute Namibia and Cape Town, where thoughts have been straying as we wind our way through possibly the toughest section of this entire Trans Africa* adventure.
Rough roads, long days on the truck, time spent clearing the way to continue on our route south – both literally and metaphorically, but more of that next time – and nine successive days of driving and bush camping without any facilities (especially showers, now well above wi-fi, just above ice for the eskie and, possibly, even cold beer in our list of favourite things) has had us dreaming of proper campsites and some of life’s little luxuries which lie in wait at the end of the yellow brick road (well, muddy, potholed track) in the more sophisticated tourist infrastructure of southern and eastern Africa.
If we stumble across a hot shower, our systems are likely to implode.
Not that you should be feeling too sorry for us.
And if you do, make sure you do it from a safe distance. We may smell a bit, but that’s what nine days without a shower will do (and the promise of a whole lot more ahead as we head out of Congo, through the Angolan enclave of Cabinda – once we have sorted out a few bits of visa issues – sprint across the Democratic Republic of Congo and head down through the main chunk of Angola and into the Promised Land).
We barely notice the smell, bar catching the odd whiff of ourselves, but you do wonder what people we stumble across make of us.
And it makes any stop to plunge into a river to cool down and wash off the worst of the dirt into a highlight of any drive day.
But no, do not feel sorry for us.
Bush camping, once you have got used to the lack of facilities, is fun and many of us look forward to getting out on the road and spending our evenings in whatever spot we rock up in – be it disused quarries, old roads, tracks down the side of the road or self-made clearings off paths in thick rainforest – passing the time as that night’s cook group rustles up their latest creation and sitting around the fire chatting until the call of bed becomes too great (normally not that late, certainly far earlier than the standard bedtime back home).
Especially if we have ice to keep the beer cold in the eskie.
Admittedly, it can get pretty miserable when it rains, as it has done a fair bit in Cameroon, Gabon and Congo, albeit mainly in short, sharp bursts and almost always just as we are pulling into camp. They are called rainforests for a reason.
We have got pretty good at all pitching in to get camp set up quickly, learned to trust our tents to keep us dry (barring any mishaps on our behalf) and even how to keep most of our kit out of the worst of the weather – no facilities and no time means no chance to wash clothes while bush camping, so clean, dry clothes are at a premium by the time we do pull into somewhere we can do laundry.
Or pay somebody else to do it for us (money well earned by the poor person handed the contents of this morning’s laundry bags).
No, don’t feel sorry for us.
Admittedly, many of the roads we have travelled on barely qualify as such, the potholes ensuring plenty of bucking and lurching from side to side, which makes reading nigh on impossible and provides added spice to looking out of the side of Nala at some fairly spectacular views (a bit like the Cotswolds and Lake District in places over the past week or so, just more tropical).
It is a smoother ride – just – up in the cabin alongside Steve. The seat was mine for one day through Gabon and, just as the smooth new, Chinese-laid roads through logging territory were causing me to break one of the cardinal rules of riding shotgun (no sleeping), Steve pulled off onto a dirt logging truck and dozing was rendered almost impossible.
So, no, don’t feel sorry for us.
Especially when you consider this post is being written from our base alongside the beach at Pointe-Noire in the Congo, a brasserie run by a former Toulon rugby player, strewn with memorabilia, showing live French matches on a big screen (well, white sheet hung on one wall), serving huge (if costly) paninis, pizzas and cold beer. If only the wi-fi worked properly, it would be pretty spot on.
The wi-fi was working, if pretty temperamental, when we left things chilling by the sea and pool in Limbe, Cameroon.
There was more relaxing on the beach at our next port of call in Kribi, broken up by a walk along the sand to climb and splash around in a series of waterfalls that fall directly into the sea and a reunion with Reto, returned from a brief trip back to Switzerland for family reasons.
He timed his arrival perfectly for the run of bush camps which saw us cross, relatively painlessly, into Gabon and head to Lope National Park, where some of us eschewed the morning game drive to take advantage of the pool showers at the hotel, if not the extortionate fees to use the small pool ($10) and breakfast of coffee, juice and bread ($11).
That’s over the top, no matter how spectacular the view.
Bush camps apart, our journey through Gabon was highlighted by two events – crossing the equator for the first time and setting up camp in the middle of the rainforest clearing, which gave our cook group’s potato extravaganza (spuds in different guises for all three, well-received, meals) an extra frisson of excitement from the oppressive heat, constant buzzing of insects around our heads and food and a slight reluctance on the part of many to wander too deep into the bushes for fear what lurked beyond.
Another of those Trans Africa* moments which looked daunting and to be survived, but ended up as one to be cherished.
No, definitely don’t feel sorry for us.
NEXT: How to free a lorry stuck in a puddle using only our washing-up bowls and what happens when police officials cannot comprehend your visa.
* Rechristened, courtesy of half the group mishearing something Linda said, as the Trans Avocado.
IT was more than a World Cup. More than Nessun Dorma, Gazza crying or Pearce and Waddle starting the trend for English footballers failing from 12 yards.
And 25 years on, the impact of Italia ’90 is being felt in some unlikely ways.
It was the tournament which sparked my move, originally as cover for somebody who was heading out to watch it, from news to sports journalism – a switch which came after just a couple of weeks as a trainee and has only been reversed in the last couple of years.
It was the tournament that produced the best book written about football – All Played Out (now rechristened One Night In Turin) by Pete Davies – which served as an inspiration for at least one aspiring young sports writer.
It was the tournament that reminded people that football could be fun after the black days of Heysel, Hillsborough, Bradford and hooliganism and set the ball rolling for domestic football to turn into the money-obsessed, commercial behemoth it has become today, bringing with it a new breed of fan who seems to believe the game started with the creation of the Premiership (mentioning no names… but here’s a link to a review of a book by Tim Lovejoy).
And it was the tournament which introduced the world to Cameroon.
Yes, they had been at the finals eight years earlier, when there were already questions about the age of Roger Milla, and gone out on goal difference at the group stage to eventual winners Italy.
But 1990 was when the Indomitable Lions really put African football firmly on the world stage, beating Argentina in the opener and reaching the quarter-finals before losing in extra-time to England, dotting their progress with thrilling football, inimitable celebrations and an approach to defending which bordered on the ruthless – as best shown by the brutal tackle on Claudio Caniggia which got Benjamin Massing sent off in that opening victory.
And at times, Cameroon left us feeling as if we had just been kicked up in the air by a big centre half.
But, having waited six days in Calabar and 54 hours at the border, we were finally rewarded with a beautiful country which made our efforts to get in worth it. It could even rank as the most picturesque country so far, certainly the greenest.
Having waited so long to cross the border, our first incursion into Cameroon took us just a few miles, along the new road under construction and down the old one (more of a potted, mud track through the trees, which has taken days to drive down in previous trips) to set up camp for the night.
Our welcome was a torrential downpour from the moment our tents went up – in my case, for the first time under the full canvas since Senegal and without tent buddy Michael, temporarily back in France sorting out a few issues – until just before breakfast.
The torrent failed to calm some of the celebrations at crossing the border (well, we were weighed down by a good deal of beer bought to use up our final Nigerian currency*) but meant a long, thankfully mainly dry night inside the tent – despite the, possibly well-intentioned, badly-executed attempt by someone to move my tent down the track which had me searching for it in the height of the monsoon, left my groundsheet screwed up in a puddle and the sides all but collapsing in on themselves.
Our reward was a long day on the truck and another eventful evening, but most importantly a stunning introduction to Cameroon as we meandered our way through the mountains.
With hoodies, jumpers and coats retrieved from deep in lockers for the first time in weeks as the temperatures dropped – making our jokes from the heat of the border that it was 10 degrees cooler in Cameroon more into prophecies – we were treated to some spectacular scenery akin to the stereotypical view of Africa, full of lush, verdant vegetation and red dirt tracks.
Having spent all day enjoying the scenery, we finally pulled off the road after dark to set up camp, settling on the side of a school football pitch.
The locals, the school caretaker, the villagers who came to welcome us and even some sort of commandant were all happy for us to stay there as we set up camp and cooked up the evening meal.
But some other official was less than impressed – not sure whether he was annoyed at us being there or not coming to pay our respects to him as we arrived – and insisted we moved on.
By the time we arrived at our new home for the night in the paddock of the police station and army barracks at Baham (which meant trips to the toilet overnight carried the risk of an armed man challenging you), we had attracted an entourage of officials from the local chief downwards and my back (sore for a few days after behaving itself for the bulk of the trip) had seized up from putting up, taking down and putting up a tent in such quick succession.
A long night prompted a bit of a rethink when we arrived at the seaside town of Limbe.
After an upgrade in Accra, the plan was not to repeat the move until Nairobi (bar the sporadic hostels in the likes of Cape Town en route**), but the prospect of a bed for a couple of nights to ease my back was too tempting to ignore. Once the message had got through to the staff and the process of checking in had been completed. Only took a bit longer than two hours.
Making full use of the room, its shower, the pool, the bar and all that Limbe had to offer – a shortish walk down the coastal path into a very pleasant, chilled out little town – ruled out any prospect of me joining in the assault on Mt Cameroon.
Not that there was ever any real prospect of that happening.
At around 4,100m- about 800m below Mt Blanc – Mt Cameroon is Africa’s fourth highest peak and a tough two-day trek up and down (or three days, as it turned out for a couple of our intrepid half dozen who took up the challenge).
While those of us who remained shopped (largely for pastries and football kits), ate out, used the wi-fi and chilled by the pool, those who scaled the summit returned with a variety of responses, which ranged from “really cool” and “so glad I did it” to “never again”, “that was so hard” and something in Kiwi which is pretty much unrepeatable here.
Dora the Explorer and his friend Boots were unavailable for comment, having wandered off somewhere else.
But reunited in one group back at sea level (evidently, not so easy to ascertain, even with the waves crashing on the rocks behind you) and just 24 hours later than planned, we rolled out of Limbe to see what else Cameroon could throw at us.
Clad in our new Cameroon football shirts.
* Not sure that explains the overheard line from a neighbouring tent: “No, you are not coming in without any underwear on.”
** Talk is turning to what we are going to do in Cape Town as we make the tough trek down the west of Africa. Arriving at Easter, the end of Lent will come as a welcome relief to one inhabitant of the trek who was convinced to give up a solitary activity for 40 days. As many of us will be sharing a dorm room with him, not sure we thought it through…
THIS blog attempts to provide readers with an inside view of life on board a big yellow truck as it meanders its way around Africa.
To that end, here is the minute-by-minute account of our attempt to cross the border from Nigeria to Cameroon. Throughout the 54 hours it took us, it was unbelievably hot.
This is what we know about. Somewhere in the background, Oasis head office and unknown officials in a range of countries were lobbying on our behalf to open the gates into Cameroon.
Whoever made the fateful call or sent the e-mail that made the difference, we thank you. But in a way, think we are sort of glad we had this experience.
(Most timings, particularly before the idea to write this appeared some point around lunch on the first day, are estimated. Or taken from Ale’s watch, which is even more of a guess.)
Sunday, February 15
6am (Bush camp, somewhere between Calabar and the border): First sounds of cook group getting up and beginning the process of preparing breakfast. Spend next 20 minutes or so wrestling with the twin dilemmas of how long it is feasible to remain in bed with people walking around my mosquito net and how long before the need to visit the little boys’ bush can be delayed.
6.28am: The latter wins the battle and, having waited for somebody else to undo the lock on the back of the truck, it is a quick sprint onto the back to drop off various items from my tent and collect both toilet paper and one of the shovels.
6.30am: Head off into the undergrowth in search of a decent spot which has not already been taken – or worse, still is.
6.37am: Return to truck, wash hands and make cup of tea from boiling kettle on fire. Sit and wait for breakfast to be ready.
7am: Official start of breakfast, although most people are already milling around and waiting for the clearance to dive into pile of eggy bread.
7.01am: Dive into pile of eggy bread.
7.15am: Wash up plate, fork and mug, flapping to get dry before putting away in the correct containers.
7.20am: Roll up sleeping gear and pack up tent, squeezing it into locker which, despite a tidy up in Calabar two days earlier, is packed to bursting. Change shirt and attempt to tidy hair in vain effort to look reasonably smart to cross border.
7.30am: Take up position on truck, pick up book (dug out of truck’s library yesterday to provide something to read while sat on the truck) and wait for the off.
8am: Roll out of camp.
8.30am: Arrive at town of Ikom, 37km from the border. Cook group shopping (loads of vegetables and bread for dinner, breakfast and lunch with our group on duty from the evening).
9am: Head off in search of cold drinks to spend some of my remaining Nigerian naira. Directed towards fuel station by group of locals keen to have their pictures taken with the large white man.
9.15am: Change remaining naira into Central African CFA as it is illegal to take currency out of the country.
9.45am: Both trucks pull away from Ikom and head towards the border.
9.55am: Toilet stop.
10.15am: Stop on side of road so we do not arrive at border earlier than we intended to.
10.45am: Desperate attempts to go to loo again before we head off as opportunity could be limited.
10.50am: Both trucks head for the border.
11am: Fairly swift progress through first couple of checks, once couple of guards have come on truck and shaken all of our hands.
11.20am: Head 100 yards down the road to closed gate onto bridge heading over river and into Cameroon. Go no further.
11.25am: Finish book.
12.10am: Enthusiastic and noisy church service makes its way down the road to the trucks, complete with drummers.
12.30pm: News comes through that we are missing couple of vital bits of paperwork. It is Sunday, so no chance of getting them. We are going nowhere today.
12.45pm: Church service and drummers return.
12.55pm: Fresh news: Elderly guy in crisp white suit at rear of church procession is the town’s head of immigration. Dispatches Raphael, our newly-acquired Cameroonian fixer, to town over border to contact chief of police and ease our passage.
1pm: Lunch on truck.
1.15pm: Discover have been pipped in the race for the two half-decent books in circulation.
2pm: Clearance to go for a swim in the river.
2.05pm: Guinea pigs sent down to check out river.
2.15pm: Head down track to river.
2.17pm: Jump into river.
2.18pm: Discover river not as clean as hoped.
2.55pm: News update. We are going nowhere today.
3.30pm: Much lying about, reading, sleeping. And trying to keep cool. First exodus to the village bar.
4.30pm: Beers opened out of the eskie.
5pm: Surrendering to our fate, move trucks away from border and set up camp on the side of the road, a few hundred yards down the road. Verge vegetation given a quick chop to create kitchen area.
6pm: Start cooking – spaghetti with a vegetable sauce/gloop.
7.15pm: Discover someone has used all the hot water to make drinks, so have to boil another kettle to cook spaghetti.
7.30pm: Water still not boiled.
7.45pm: Water boiled, spaghetti in, trying desperately not to overcook vegetables.
8pm: Serve dinner. Joe outlines plan for the next day.
8.18pm: Dinner finished, tents up, first people turn in for the night.
9.50pm: Final few call it quits. Put up mosquito tent alongside Nala.
11.45pm: Had enough of sliding down the slope and turn tent around.
Monday, February 16
5.15am: Local preacher begins very loud, very long sermon to wake up the village.
6.10am: Finally admit defeat and get up to make breakfast.
7am: Kitchen all set up, kettles boiled and bulk of the toast done. Breakfast is served.
7.20am: Break off from breakfast to pack away tent.
7.30am: Breakfast ends. Pack away kitchen.
8am: Everyone clambers onto other truck to head back to Ikom for internet access to e-mail relevant embassies or consulates and ask for help in getting across border.
8.55am: Arrive Ikom.
9am: Copy draft letter to British Embassy in Yaounde asking for assistance. E-mail copy to rest of British passengers for them to use.
9.31am: E-mail to embassy finally sends.
9.57am: E-mail to most of the others finally arrives.
10.31am: Kris gives up trying to compose a new e-mail on my laptop.
10.35am: Ale and Linda borrow my laptop to translate the e-mail into Spanish and Dutch to send to their embassies.
10.45am: Man lights rubbish fire next to truck.
10.46am: First person leaves the truck to avoid the smoke.
11am: Get laptop back. Hope Joe won’t notice the wi-fi hot spot from his phone being used to check Facebook.
11.20am: Joe turns off the wi-fi hot spot on his phone.
11.50am: Kris appears with tray of unidentified meat and rice. Large chunks of it left uneaten, despite being passed around the truck.
1.30pm: Final few people return from internet cafe up the road and we begin the journey back to Mfum.
2pm: Back at base, sort out lunch.
2.30pm: Having sat down on one truck all morning, settle down for a quiet spell led on the other – anything to escape the heat outside for a while.
3.30pm: Decide it is time to check out the bar.
3.40pm: Hit head on roof of low doorway into the bar. Served large, cold beer by Ben, who claims to be 15 but looks younger. Bar has been renamed Ben’s Place.
6pm: Wander back to the truck ahead of dinner after a few, very welcome beers. Slightly the worse for wear.
7.30pm: Excellent meal of fried rice, supplemented (to much excitement from some corners) by the first of the truck supply of Spam.
8.05pm: Just finishing off tidying up when the storm, which has been threatening for a while, starts to become a reality. Wind whips up as we race to get everything cleared up before it really hits.
8.15pm: The lightning which flashed in the distance for much of the previous night moves in and is joined by the odd clap of thunder.
8.20pm: First drops of rain begin to fall.
8.22pm: Suggestion that we take this opportunity to have a shower out in the rain.
8.25pm: First items of clothing removed.
8.27pm: Much to the surprise of any passing locals, a group of white folks in their swimsuits and underwear are standing alongside a big yellow truck in the middle of the road to the border. During a thunderstorm.
8.28pm: Not actually raining hard enough to have a shower.
8.29pm: Water lockers are opened, buckets filled and we are lined up in the middle of the road. First sign of cameras as inhabitants of other truck have wandered down to find out exactly what is going on.
8.30pm: Buckets of water are thrown over us. Possibly the most refreshing – certainly the most bizarre – shower of the trip.
8.40pm: Bucket showers over and pictures taken, it starts raining more than hard enough to have a proper shower.
8.42pm: Scramble back onto truck and all try to get dry and changed while remaining decent. Some better at it than others.
9pm: Stops raining.
9.05pm: Group heads back to the bar. Decide it is too wet – and threat of rain too high – to sleep in mosquito tent, so set up full tent for first time since Senegal.
9.07pm: Discover batteries in both my torches are flat. Collar Martyn to help.
9.09pm: Martyn’s phone, which had been providing light, goes flat.
9.11pm: Matt, Martyn and myself – all of whom have had a few beers – set about setting up tent on the side of the road without a light.
9.20pm: Somehow, tent is up properly. Matt and Martyn head down to bar, but opt to sort out bedding first.
9.35pm: Decide against heading down to bar and opt for early night. Plug myself into iPod, lie down on airbed and discover big stone right under the middle of the tent. Move over to the side.
9.37pm: First set of headlights glares through tent from the road. Debate getting up and putting rain cover over tent to block out some of the light. Decide far too much trouble.
Tuesday, February 17
7.45am: Relative lie-in. Emerge from tent with sore back.
8am: Official start of breakfast.
8.20am: Breakfast is served. Fried spam met with rapturous response – or total disgust.
9am: Quick truck clean.
9.10am: Take down tent.
9.25am: Finally succeed in getting tent into its bag.
9.30am: As most people head back to Ikom for a change of scenery, head back to truck to lie flat on sore back and crash out.
11.30am: Matt, Steve and myself opt to mark 48 hours at the border by walking down to bar for a Coke. Slow walk down as all the locals and the police/military at the checkpoints want to say hello, ask how we are and when we are leaving. Discover bar has no cold Cokes, so have a couple beers instead.
1pm: Wander back up to truck to find the others are back. Have lunch.
1.30pm: Settle down for a quiet few moments on the truck – there’s at least a bit of shade provided by the seats. Some others head down to bar.
2.15pm: Kris loses all hope and declares we will never be allowed into Cameroon. Despite early confidence from most of us, there’s not too much disagreement from those on the truck.
2.40pm: Walk back down to bar with one of the locals.
2.47pm: Joe heads in opposite direction from border on back of motorbike, but denies anything has happened.
2.50pm: Settle into bar with a beer and dealt into the ongoing game of cards.
3.30pm: Steve sticks head through door, tells us to drink up and be back on the trucks in five minutes.
3.31pm: Give up attempting to down remains of bottle of gassy beer in one and leave on the table.
3.33pm: Matt and myself are stopped at police checkpoint. One very vocal guy not in uniform insists we sit down and, we think, demands we buy him a drink. Explain to the guys we had spoken to earlier – the ones with guns – that we think we are about to go and they usher us up the road and quieten the other guy.
3.37pm: Arrive back at truck and break news of Steve’s announcement to those lounging on the seats. Several goes needed to convince them. Frantic attempts to sort everything out and tidy up camp.
3.40pm: Rest of the bar dwellers return, some on back of military motorbikes clutching beers bought at the bar to use up our remaining naira.
3.50pm: Trucks head the few hundred yards back down the border, followed by Joe, still on back of motorbike which had taken him to Ikom after he got a call to check his e-mails, only to be summoned back.
3.52pm: Karla and myself called off truck. May need to head over on the other truck as the only ones not already stamped out of Nigeria.
3.54pm: Everyone called off truck. Final assault on bar to use up naira. Beer and assorted drinks loaded into locker which had been emptied in case we all had to share one truck.
4pm: Steve drives Nala across border, followed minutes later by the other Steve in the other truck. We sit and wait at bar, taking pictures with the locals.
5.10pm: Passports returned, fully stamped out of Nigeria and into Cameroon.
5.13pm: Finally exit Nigeria and walk across the bridge between the two countries.
5.15pm: Cross into Cameroon.
5.17pm: Tread in dog muck (at least, hope it was dog) on the side of road under construction which welcomes us into Cameroon. Not alone.
5.28pm: Board Nala.
5.30pm: Everything stops for flag-lowering ceremony to close the working day.
5.31pm: Leave Cameroon border
5.33pm: Hit first major bump in Cameroon.
5.45pm: Clear Cameroon Immigration and finally head into country number 11.
NB: Just as the finishing touches were being put to this post, a couple pulled into our base in Limbe, Cameroon. They successfully crossed the same border in just four hours. But did they have as much fun? We would like to think we paved the way for their rapid crossing.
DAY 101 on the big yellow truck and it is starting to feel as if we have spent most of the proceeding 100 days sat waiting to get across the border from Nigeria into Cameroon.
That growing feeling our smooth border crossings to date were merely storing up problems further down the line has been met with reality – and we have not even made it to the border yet.
Quite why Cameroon insists on keeping the land border closed remains a mystery.
We obtained our visas easily enough (the last ones we need ahead of time until well into the northbound leg), paid for and collected in the southern Nigerian city of Calabar, which has become our home for longer than we had hoped.
We can fly in, but that poses all sorts of logistical issues surrounding the trucks and all our kit and supplies crammed on board, or even take a ferry (again, plenty of truck-related headaches) while the locals can cross freely.
It is just foreigners who cannot cross a border closed as the Ebola crisis took hold last year and never fully reopened on the Cameroon side, despite Nigeria being declared free of the virus months ago (and never seriously affected).
So instead of turning the corner into the final stretches of West Africa and pressing on south, we are sat sweltering in the heat waiting for a solution or the all clear to head for the border as discussions continue both here and back in the UK.
The good news amid all this uncertainty is the cellulitis which affected my left leg has pretty much cleared up.
Continued instructions to stay off it and keep it raised as often as possible are pretty simple to follow in this heat and a second course of antibiotics was finished just in time to toast our 100th day on the road with (almost) the first beers for the best part of two weeks.
It has limited my options a bit, but has not stopped Nigeria providing a few memorable moments, even as we rattled up the miles to get to the border before our visas (now newly extended) ran out.
Our first major destination was the capital Abuja to pick up a visa for Ale. A bustling, modern capital well stocked with facilities, but not so much with sights (although the mosque and church which provided the backdrop to our first night in the city were fairly spectacular) we flirted with a touch of luxury.
Sadly, flirt was all we did as it soon became apparent that the Sheraton Hotel did not want us there, even tucked away behind some disused buildings next to the football pitch, on a patch of grass being used to drain the water from the swimming pool.
An astronomical price hike on previous years – when it has become an established stop-off for overlanders – kept our stay down to one night and was just enough to earn us use of the showers, tucked well away from any more well-heeled guests down the back of the squash courts.
With the much-needed visa and shopping safely on board, we upped sticks and moved all of a few miles down the road for a couple of nights to the City Park, found for us by a former Oasis passenger who now lives in Abuja.
It is far less salubrious than the Sheraton, but far more welcoming (the manager personally bussing a group of us around town in search of affordable, useable wi-fi, finally depositing us at an Indian restaurant round the corner) and giving us the free run of the bars, restaurants (where we marked Jiro’s birthday), 7-D cinema and sporting facilities which dotted the park.
Having kicked back and relaxed – as much as possible in the soaring temperatures – we climbed back on board Nala for the longest day on the truck.
Climbing on board at 7.30am in a bid to beat the worst of the Abuja traffic, we finally climbed off in the rather quieter surroundings of Afi Mountain at 11.30pm. When the day’s excitement began.
It was not the plan. We were supposed to set up bush camp much earlier. But having passed through endless miles of empty countryside heading to Abuja, we discovered the continent’s largest population (every fifth African is Nigerian) appears to be stretched entirely along the roads where we were looking for an empty spot to camp.
Eventually, the decision was made to press on to the next morning’s destination up the mountain, in the village close to a drill and primate sanctuary.
Heading up a mountain road is nothing new to us. Nor are branches, leaves, insects and assorted other wildlife being thrown into the back of the truck. Doing it in the dark is.
It all made for a fairly eventful ride until we finally rounded a corner and spotted the other truck, last seen back in Lome, parked up for the night outside one of the two houses which dotted the clearing.
Pulling up outside the other, we set about setting up camp and rustling up a quick meal before bedtime – which is when the fun started.
The two guys who arrived on a motorbike – parking it right in the middle of our temporary kitchen – seemed friendly enough at first, welcoming us to the community and promising to take us out to the drill ranch the next day.
Then, somehow, the mood changed and we had a small group of youngish locals (clearly the worse for wear) demanding we leave and threatening to “scatter” our belongings with the leader clearly very proud of his role as the local “vigilante”. He even had an ID card to prove it.
Their attempts to shift us or, more pertinently, get some cash out of us were eventually foiled by the owner of the house’s belated intervention, insisting he was more than happy for us to stay.
A truce was finally called with an agreement for them to come back in the morning to talk things through (they never showed) and we finally headed to bed.
Our reward was one of those days which appear from nowhere and make this trip what it is.
While the bulk of both trucks headed up the road to meet the chimps and drills at the wildlife ranch, those of us nursing a few injuries or waiting for the return of the “vigilantes” and assorted others settled into a morning around the truck.
And as word got out about the visitors, more and more children started to show. Inevitably, a football was produced and sparked off a wonderful day as the universal language of the round ball and laughing washed away any bad feelings from the night before.
Watching Jiro as a ringleader for a pack of children and seeing Joe’s attempt at a cartwheel trumped by pretty much the entire collection of youngsters had us reduced to hysterics.
Even when we had to resort to a water pistol to keep them off the back of the truck, it just prompted more laughter.
Another wonderful, truly unexpected moment which was rounded off with a swim – and, more important, wash – in the river we had barely noticed as we crossed it on the way up.
From all that, it was back to the reality of visas and borders, although the journey down to Calabar was enlivened by the biggest bump of the trip to date.
Those of us who sit at the back know we suffer the most when the truck hits a bump, but none of us were expecting to take off in such a fashion.
The first bounce had everybody off their seats, while the bin and the eskies also took off. The second one threw Terry and Chris into the roof, while my not inconsiderable frame was thrown over the bin and two seats forward.
Remember it all going into slow motion and as my trajectory started going downwards again, the only thought was to try not to land squarely on Linda and forced a mid-air turn to squeeze into the gap she had just been thrown out of while attempting to stop her being thrown even further by my arrival.
Not sure how successful that whole manoeuvre was, but we all walked off to tell the tale.
And to wait…
NEXT TIME: Life at the border – as it happened
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