THERE are many pitfalls which can throw overland itineraries into chaos and mean all information about where and when we will be heading somewhere along our Trans African route comes with a large question mark hanging over it.
Weather, visa formalities, mechanical issues, the state of the roads and any number of meddling officials not quite sure how to deal with a big yellow truck full of tourists landing on their doorstep can (and have) all conspire to throw a spanner in the works.
Getting stuck at the border between Nigeria and Cameroon for 54 hours is one of the more extreme examples – especially when you throw in the six days spent in Calabar before that attempting to ease our passage – while spending six hours on a cold, dark Moroccan hillside digging Nala out of the ooze gave us a crash course in just what we had let ourselves in for.
Both experiences have entered the folklore of this trip and feature highly whenever we reflect on the past four months. The type of tales which will be retold whenever we chat in the future and which anyone who asks about our adventure will hear in graphic detail.
To those, we can add the events of our first three days in Congo. Three days which saw us head a fairly short distance (one you would think nothing of doing in a few hours at home), but which came littered with incident, frustration, plenty of waiting around, a lot of toil, loads of mud and a considerable amount of time spent standing in a large puddle.
Congo took no time at all to make its mark as the smooth roads which ushered our progress out of Gabon ended abruptly just before the border, to be replaced with tracks which started off bumpy, changed to rough and ended up somewhere between rollercoaster and log flume as Steve pointed Nala through her personal African theme park.
In typically African fashion, crossing the border managed to be both fairly straightforward and remarkably drawn out. No great long waits to cross an arbitrary line, rather a series of stops at police posts, immigration and customs as we made our way into country number 13.
Why stick a load of officials in one handy position at the border when you can spread them out through a series of small towns and checkpoints, ensuring anyone travelling along the road has to keep stopping and answering the same questions over and over again?
But we had cleared all the bureaucracy – or so we thought – and were busy hanging on to anything we could and leaning out of the windows, trying to watch the road and what it was about to throw at us, the passing scenery and the approaching storm as Steve picked his way through the ruts, puddles and potholes en route to the night’s bush camp.
Right up to the point where our path was blocked by a lorry coming in the other direction.
Well, it had been coming. By the time we arrived (pretty much at the same time as the rain), the bulk of its back wheels were submerged in a deep, water-filled pothole.
Our attempt – well, Nala’s really, we were watching from our grandstand seats on the back – to pull the truck out only succeeded in nearly sending us into the verge and, as the storm set in, there was little option than to retreat to the little collection of houses a few hundred yards back down the road and set up camp on the flat ground outside before it turned into a lake.
Thankfully, the locals were clearly quite used to putting up stranded travellers and the rain eased off before making matters any noticeably worse.
What followed, come daylight, will rank as one of the toughest, but most memorable and rewarding mornings of the trip.
Many years ago, an ex-girlfriend dragged me out of bed on a Sunday morning to a team-building exercise for her office which involved people hanging from a harness and standing on piles of empty beer crates which grew as more and more were passed up to the suspended victim, sorry, team member.
Judging by the reaction of those involved, it seemed a colossal waste of time (how was my involvement going to help build their team when many of the staff did not show up?) and any team building would have been far more successful if they had just been given the initial contents of the crates and sent off to have a good time.
Or they could have got a lorry out of a Congolese puddle and left the road in a suitable condition for two overland trucks to pass through safely.
Over the course of five hours, our entire truck threw themselves – literally in some cases – into the task in hand, supplemented by the drivers of the various lorries held up by the blockage, a few locals and some of the more intrepid travellers from the other truck, which arrived as we were attempting to lower the level of the puddle by baling the water using every bowl and bucket we could lay our hands on.
Anyone who stood around watching was dealt with rapidly, either by a strategically thrown bucket of muddy water or the less subtle approach of tackling them into the puddle.
And the locals, initially wary of cameras and not quite sure what we were doing larking around in the mud, soon got the drift, eventually throwing themselves into the water to get into the inevitable soggy team shots.
Our efforts, married to the drainage ditch dug in the side of the road – which then became the focus of our new-found baling skills – lowered the levels enough for a tow chain to be fitted to the rear of the stranded lorry which was hauled out backwards by one of those stuck behind.
An impromptu ramp, fashioned under the remaining water using rocks collected by another of the trucks, finally provided a route out and gave us a means of escape in the opposite direction.
The rest of the day’s journey passed largely without incident – at least on the roads. On the back of the truck, a few early beers from the eskie to toast our endeavours ensured a fairly riotous afternoon (and one person being steered off for an early night on arrival at bush camp), while we finally got to wash off at least some of the mud with a dip in a river.
But any hopes of a totally smooth passage through the rest of Congo proved premature.
We should have seen it coming, given the way we were passed from police checkpoint to police checkpoint along the way, each one seemingly bemused by our presence and what to do with us, even though they all seemed to be forewarned we were on our way.
And, finally, the routine questions just weren’t enough. We were informed at yet another checkpoint that our presence was required at an appointment with officials in Dolisie (our next intended destination) and the local police chief made sure we kept it by riding along with us.
So as we whiled away the afternoon reading, sleeping and popping across to the corner shop opposite (for snacks, drinks and to use the toilet in their flat out the back), Joe and Steve were asked a series of questions driven by their complete inability to understand what tourists would be doing there and why we would be doing a trip like this, never mind why we would visit their country to do it.
All while parked outside the Ministry of Tourism offices.
At one point, Joe had to take his laptop in with him to show them pictures of animals from his previous trips.
But eventually, they were satisfied everything was in order and the officials lined up for a quick look around Nala and to have their pictures taken and we rolled off to the market for food shopping, just as the other truck rolled into town to go through the same interrogation.
Any hopes of a quiet night, however, were dashed as we were moved on from our chosen bush camp as it was, apparently, in a military zone.
Decamped further out of town to a track just off the main toll road to Pointe-Noire, we set up our tents for a second time and crawled into bed around 10pm, meaning most of us were asleep or plugged into headphones when we had another visit from the police about an hour later.
Closer investigation of the other truck’s Congolese visas had shown a discrepancy and we were once requested back into town for an early-morning reunion with some of the officials.
This time, it was not so much questions as statements. Our 30-day visas clearly stated they expired on March 23 – 16 days later, when we would be long gone – but they had decided they were only valid for 30 days from when they were issued back in Togo and were, therefore, expired.
The result? A €400 fine per person which, not surprisingly, Joe and the two Steves, flatly refused to pay.
That prompted a rethink. Now we were getting sent back to Gabon – at least until it was pointed out our Gabon visas had genuinely expired and they would not let us back in.
Finally, the fine was dropped to €80 per person and, faced with wasting precious time and throwing the schedule further out of kilter, the decision was made to pay up and get on our way.
So, relieved of some much-needed cash, we got out of town in a hurry – helped, thankfully, by the return of a sealed road all the way to Pointe-Noire – having wasted the best part of 24 hours being messed around by officials.
Sadly, this is Africa. While the welcome we have received has been overwhelmingly friendly, welcoming and wreathed in smiles, every so often somebody takes the opportunity to tarnish that view of our hosts.
Hopefully, the smiling, friendly faces of the people with whom we shared a morning in a puddle will leave a more lasting impression.