After all the adventure we had in the Republic of Congo, we were keen to make the next few days as easy as possible, especially as Stanley was not at his best. We fixed a few things up in Dolisie, but it was a very small town and there were limited services available. James at least managed to get the brakes bled, surrounded by police, drinking at 9 o’clock in the morning, James trying his hardest to blend in and also, to fix the bonnet, so the risk of driving into someone were slightly minimized.
We had a decision to make with the impending Angolan visa. We were certainly cutting it fine with four days to make it across two countries not renowned for the greatest road networks. We could drive to Brazzaville and risk the Kinshasa crossing, reported as bribery central, with the serious chance that our DRC visa would be rejected as it was applied for in a country that we were not resident, also with the added cost of a very expensive ferry crossing, upward of two hundred dollars. Option 2, was through a small town called Lowzi, and was popular with overlanders. This option had appalling roads, reported by every overlander we had met as the worse roads in Africa. Option 3 was to sacrifice our Angolan visa to get into a part of the country called Cabinda, which was not connected to the mainland of Angola, but did have good roads and nice border crossings, however, we would need to apply, wait and pay for a second Angolan visa. As you can appreciate, none of these options jumped out at us. We knew the Lowzi route had been passed by our Italian friends a week before, but they made it very clear it was no picnic. In addition, they had a much better car than ours, newer and with much more kit so we couldn’t be sure Stanley would make it. Many discussions were had and we decided on the Lowzi route. We drove to Brazzaville, and camped at a Vietnamese restaurant known to allow overlanders to camp for free and decided that despite our tight schedule, we needed a break and some time to fix a few things on Stanley so stayed for 2 nights, eating lovely Asian and Vietnamese food. We also met another overlander, on a motorbike, who had been stuck in the Republic of Congo for 6 weeks, shipping parts and becoming very unwell with Malaria. We took the time to count our lucky stars we had only been delayed by five days!
We left Brazzaville early, as in, before 6am. We were both nervous and I had slept very little all night knowing it was going to be hard. We took a fabulous road to Kinkala, and then a slightly less fabulous, but still tarred road to Boko where we were stamped out of the Republic of Congo, still 30 miles from the official border with the DRC. The road immediately fell apart. It resembled a dried river bed, with massive ravines which split the road into several parts. We drove exceptionally slowly, with me in front of the car shouting instructions to ensure Stanley never fell down one of the massive ravines or storm drains which could easily by ten feet deep. We rounded a corner and found the road continued up an incredibly steep hill. We started up it but with seconds were rolling down. I walked the entire hill, in 35 degrees, pacing out the route he would take, and then James put Stanley in to Low gears and crept up. It was just doable. After rounding the corner, and realizing we were both sweating and had only driven 3 miles of the 25 to the border, we kept going. It didn’t get better, but the road had clearly improved from when the Italians had done it. They had had rain non-stop and had both been suffering with fevers of over 39 from Malaria. We were both on top form and the sun was out, so God knows how they managed it. We crept up and down steep hills, avoiding ravines and storm drains, with me instructing James to creep forward one meter here, and turn 10 degrees there, watching each tyre at all times, over roads which I would normally not have said were passable by a car. One wrong step and that would be the end. There would be no getting Stanley out of here. Eventually, we made it to the official border. We showed the immigration officials of ROC our stamps and they showed us through the barrier to the 5 miles of No-Mans Land which separates the two countries. We would, at that stage, have said the roads could not get worse. Of course, in the No-Mans Land, the roads were maintained by No-One, so we would have been wrong. The road had been hit by a landslide God knows when, and had not been repaired. Someone had cut another path, but this was steeper than the road we had just managed, and with more ravines then road. I walked the landslide path and it seemed, just, doable. Although, I did leg it back to James and Stanley when I found a man with a gun walking towards me, who turned out to be a helpful hunter who agreed. Just. Doable. The drops were colossal, with over 20 feet of landslide on each side, but between the two of us, we got him through it. Managing one and a half miles in over an hour. This road was so isolated there was even a sign which welcomed us to Congo Belge.
We reached a padlocked gate, which marked the entrance to the DRC. I got out, and walked into the village. It made me think of walking into a town in a Western movie. It was isolated, dusty and run down, and as I walked the 500m to the centre, there were five men, walking down the centre of the road towards me. In my mind, the theme tune of all great Western movies played out. No one said a word until the men got closer, clutching a key. I spat my tobacco on the floor and exclaimed, “Howdy, Pilgram” (No, I didn’t)….“The key! Excellent!” assuming that the key would have been lost, forgotten or taken off to the pub 20 miles away by the Chief. I immediately got questions. “You speak French?” “Yes, a little.” “You are Belgian.” “Why would you speak French if you were not Belgian.” Err…. What this resulted in was me explaining in my somehow, much better than normal French, that I learnt in Francophone Africa, and am in fact British. BRITISH. Definitely British. Grrr… Belgians etc. Of course, my passport was in the car so any sensible person would just have spoken English. Not me. I walked John Wayne and his friends to the car where I explained to James that he was going out with a moron. After searching the car and our passports we were allowed into the village, and into the immigration office, which was a tiny shack. He explained they had lots of tourists through these days, and showed us a pile of photocopies of passports. On the top of this pile was the passports of our Italian friends! They had been through two weeks earlier. We possibly have different ideas of “lots of tourists.”
We were informed by the Immigration officer that the road improved from here but we still had 30 miles til we got to the town of Lowzi. We set off and initially, it did improve. There were still massive hills with ravines up the centre, but they were clearly maintained and we were happily managing 10 miles/hour. And then came the mud. There were multiple parts in the road where it was entirely mud for 200 metres, most often leading into bridges with no sides. Stanley was spectacular, fording through the thick mud and water, with enough grip to get onto the bridges on track to cross them. Needless to say, we walked everything after our previous experiences, and I jumped my way across every bridge, to ensure they could hold my 60kg, so they would surely hold Stanleys three tonnes. We drove through more and more villages as we got closer to Lowzi, and they made me feel very uncomfortable. We have driven through every village waving and smiling and 99 percent of the time we are greeted with the same. In the DRC we were greeted with people shouting, “Give me all your money” and chasing after the car. This was such a massive difference to ROC, where people had been selling us bananas up until the last 10 miles, happy to get a good price for goods they’d grown. There were also no wells, and no evidence of any input from NGOs, just one exceptionally poor village after another. We got into Lowzi and headed straight for customs and got out carnet stamped with no problems. They asked us to go to immigration in the town and register but this was shut. As we drove away, a man stopped us – the Chief of Immigration. He needed more copies of our passports and visas. He asked us to come first thing tomorrow to register, and we agreed, despite being very keen to get the first ferry across the Congo and get out of this country as quickly as possible. We headed for the Catholic Mission in the town and were welcomed into their oasis, with bathrooms, showers and a safe compound for Stanley that we could camp in. We made dinner – homemade burgers with cheese, gherkins, onions and tomatoes, with 10 children peering over the wall, despite complete exhaustion. James insists on proper dinners every night, especially after days like that!
The next morning we were up again at the crack of dawn and head to the Immigration office to register. Amazingly, they were open early and we filled out the required forms. We were just about to leave when the lady explained the forms cost 10 dollars each. No, we won’t be paying that. At which point she produced two stamped receipts from the official book – becoming harder to say no… We head to the ferry, and were one of three cars to be loaded on, and fifty people, and sailed across the Congo. We knew the main road was 120 km away, and ploughed on through the mud. It was definitely drying out, but there were still areas under the trees that were thick, and thigh deep in water. We managed to get stuck in some tracks from a big truck, and I jumped out to direct James as he repositioned, as a snake flew out from the other side of the car, and off into the bush. We managed to get free and head off again making really good time and getting to the main road by 1pm. As we enjoyed our first real road in several hundred kilometres, we decided that we would prefer to push on, and get to Angola as soon as possible. It was only a few kilometres this side of the border, and maybe 50 on the other so manageable before sunset. We followed the roads on Maps.me, and turned off, and the road become awful again. Not that it mattered, we were so near, we just kept going and the road got narrower , and wetter, and then eventually we crossed a river on three logs and we began to question our wisdom at our route. We pulled up at the barrier, and found a much bigger road leading in. Whoops. We head to the barrier and already know what awaits us – a 50 dollar toll. We try and fight our way out of it but it’s a fee that everyone meets on this route, and the alternative is to take a different border with a very bad road. We pay. But we’re not happy. We drive on to the border and are both amazed by what greets us. We are both pretty seasoned at African borders but this was a new one. People were everywhere. It was impossible to drive, we just moved forward and bumped people out the way. There were carts filled to the brim with goods – biscuits, drinks, noodles, and they were all heading towards the DRC. The mud was up to your shins. It took us an hour to make it to customs, where we found all the carts were being stopped, most of which were being driven by people with Polio, who were very unhappy about having to go through customs. So much so, that we watched the customs police chase after the carts, and then fights would erupt right in front of us, between the customs official, and a disabled man. There was no way we were leaving Stanley in this, so James stayed with the car and I sorted the carnet and the passports. The immigration officials were even wearing Wellie boots. It was amazing. We then passed into Angola, and this took another hour, as we needed to drive through an impromptu market that seemed to have sprung up, selling all kinds of rubbish. We repeated the process and were stamped into Angola. A sigh of relief could be heard all the way back home.
We headed out of Cameroon, keen to finally add another flag to Stanley, and on to Gabon. Gabon is relatively wealthy by West African country standards and this was immediately obvious. The police were extremely officious and suspicious of our adventure but they stamped us in and we made great time on the spectacular roads that Gabon had to offer. The country is almost entirely rainforest, with one of the highest proportions of nationals parks in the world, including the famed surfing hippos and more species than you can shake a stick at. Unfortunately, they are aware of the money this can bring, and all national parks are well out of our budget, and extremely difficult to reach. We make it to south of Oyem on the first day and follow some GPS coordinates we have from our new Italian friends for an Evangelical church that will allow you to camp on their land. We pull up in a tiny village outside a house in the middle of a field, and the lady of the house agrees that of course we can stay, and it will be completely free. Better than that when the priest comes to say hello later, he brings us a huge bunch of bananas which they have grown. We walk into the village and immediately get ushered into a bar for a drink, and I am adopted by my new Gabonese mother. We set up our tent in the field, make some dinner and get to bed extremely early with lights off – the insect life seems to have intensified ten fold on entering the country.
We wake up at sunrise and are keen to make some more miles, so James gets down first to make the tea – I am a pampered lady. Immediately, he starts shouting out. Well, really, if you’re stupid enough to go down the ladder with no shoes on in a rainforest, you get what you deserve. I venture down to find that we have accidently parked in an ant nest, and these ants are nasty. They must have been plotting all night, as tens of them make their way up each of our legs, despite the walking boots and socks and long, waterproof trousers. After a few minutes, we are both shouting out at each bite, and pulling our trousers down to try and find the suicidal bastards as they make there way to our nether regions. I think the priest and his family enjoyed a good show for their hospitality, as we tried to take down a tent, brush our teeth and finish making tea whilst getting bitten every few seconds, and climbing all over Stanley to try and not touch the grass.
The next stop is Lambarene, but there is one important stop off en route. The equator. This is very exciting and we eventually find the dilapidated signs and become the tourists we are, with photos and signing the sign. It feels great to have got Stanley his far and we happily drive into Lambarene, and find our accommodation for the night – a Catholic mission which is also a school. We arrive at 3pm and school is still well in swing. A French nun, who is pushing 80, invites us in and sets us up with hot showers and WiFi, and we shower happily in the middle of the school. We quickly leave to allow the kids to go home without getting distracted by white people sleeping in a tent on their car and we walk along the river in this exceptional town, made famous by Albert Schweitzer for his hospital and humanitarian work. The next day, on to Ndembe, the border town of Gabon and the Republic of Congo. On the way into Ndembe, we notice all the bush meat on the side of the road. As you’d expect there are small antelope, rodents and bush pigs for sale but what is amazing is the diversity of animals that could be your dinner – we see monkeys, crocodile and worst of all, a pangolin. A pangolin you may never of heard of, and that would be completely understandable. They are exceptionally rare, on the endangered species list and we have literally seen a menu with their name on it.
On the road to Ndembe, we are pulled over by the police. He kindly informs us the road is flooded and there’s no way to pass, and people have been sleeping on the road. We explain we have to see it for ourselves, as this is really our only route – unsurprisingly a country made of rainforest has very few roads even if they are spectacular. We pull up 40km later, just shy of the town, and the road is well and truly blocked. The floodwater has totally consumed the road and there is a line of traffic, which has been there for varying lengths of time. We hear the usual mantra of Africans – “You have 4x4? Oh, you’ll be fine.” I would say African’s trust in 4x4 is substantially more than ours, as we stare at the torrential water, which has pulled the entire road into the river. We also see something we have never seen. The road workers, working on the aforementioned spectacular roads, have left there road building and are building a bridge across the newly formed ford. With their bulldozers, Cats and trucks they are flying along and we wait a couple of hours til they have built half a bridge and dammed the river enough for us to get across (after we’ve seen a couple of other 4x4s achieve this). We arrive into Ndembe and find the Catholic church for our nights accommodation. It is, of course, free and we camp in the church ground, with use of the Priests house for a bathroom, falling asleep to the sounds of the choir practicing and waking up to morning mass.
It’s a real shame to rush through this fabulous country but we both agree this is the sort of place we would happily return to for a two week holiday – it’s just not made for overlanders on a budget and we have a deadline to get to Angola.
The next day is a big day. We are heading to the Republic of Congo and we know this is where the trip is going to get difficult. Stanley is as good as he can be, after a good servicing in Cameroon and we are keen to crack on and get through. We drive on through the rest of Gabon, a bad piste to the border and get through. After James takes the three security experts at the border through the car – No, we do not have diamonds in the Jerry cans. We have diesel. Knives and forks are not dangerous weapons, but helpful for dinner, whilst I deal with Immigration and get a job offer as the latest recruit. We finally head off on the terrible road.
We drove through the rutted, flooded road which had been massacred by huge trucks. We were doing well, but definitely needing four-wheel drive. Up ahead was an extended piece of flooded mud, broken into two parts. The first we traversed easily and the second looked short and not too deep, despite the water covering the whole road. This is when we did something beyond stupid. We drove into it. As we drove on the left hand side, the sand pulled the car across to the right, where the sand was exceptionally soft, and also two feet deep in water. Stanleys two right wheels disappeared and we were not going anywhere. James got out, took three steps towards the back tyre, and disappeared into the sand up to his waist. This was not good. We tried a few maneuvers, back, forward – no relief, we pulled the sandladders off the roof and dug, but every shovel of sand we emptied was immediately replaced by the flowing river we seemed to have ended up in. After a few hours of fruitless digging, pushing and pulling, a truck drove past and we asked them to stop and pull us out. They agreed, grudgingly, as they were on a schedule and we pulled out our 5 tonne Halfords tow rope and wrapped in around our front tow point. This was all very embarrassing but was surely going to be fixed in a few minutes, and we would be hours behind schedule and have to sleep in a village, but all manageable. The tow rope immediately snapped. The truck drivers produced their tow rope – which also snapped. We hired a bike to drive to the border town and find a tow rope, and after twenty minutes, he returned with a tow rope as thick as your arm, made of metal. Surely this would do the trick. The truck drivers explained their best tow point was at the back so they would have to drive past us and pull us backwards, and we then proceeded to watch a twenty tonne truck drive into the side of Stanley as they tried to navigate past him in the soft, flooded sand. Okay, still manageable, they seem to have taken off the plastic wing, but no damage to the wheel. We wrap the tow rope around our tow bar as we can’t reach the tow point on the back as it’s below sand and attach it to the truck. The truck pulls off, and our tow bar, and part of the chassis comes flying off. Shit. The truck drivers give up and drive off. We stand staring at Stanley, his entire right side buried in quick sand, his exhaust below water, bubbling air, with parts of him littering the ground. This is starting to look really bad. The motorbike takes our new tow rope off, as he says it’s only borrowed, and we chat with the locals. There will be another truck and that will pull us out – at maybe eight tonight. We wait the intervening few hours, trying to find a way to dam the continual flow of water and dig enough, so that when the truck comes, we will be ready. It arrives on time, and agrees to help. We try their tow rope but to no avail and we realize we need the tow rope we had earlier. I jump in the truck, the transportation for this part of Congo, and we head off to the border town where I haggle, extremely poorly, for the tow rope. I can barely lift it, but I get it into the truck and jump into the back to escort it to Stanley. We explain our back tow point is gone, so the truck drives carefully past and positions himself to pull us from the front. We connect up, and he pulls whilst the locals and myself wiggle the car from side to side. The tow rope comes loose at the truck end, and the truck drives at full pelt away, with his passengers and helpers running after him. Maybe he wasn’t so committed to helping us after all.
It is now very dark. We are in a flowing river in the middle of the Congo with no clear way to get out. On the plus side, we have beer, so we drink it all and fall asleep in a mosquito filled, flooded car. A local hunter walks past us with a rifle and reassures us there are no bandits in these parts and we are safe with them. Phew… We are up at 5 and have a plan. Obviously, things are pretty grim and the water has, if anything, got higher. Stanley is now unable to get into gear so he is clearly sustaining substantial damage from this. We have the number of the British consulate and we will call as soon as they open, and formally request emergency help. I pack our bags ready to abandon ship if it becomes necessary and we can’t quite believe it has come to this. One of the local walks past, and says, “I don’t know why you don’t just go to the white people with big machines.” WHAT!! There is a Malaysian logging camp 10km away, with bulldozers, fork lifts and trucks. Why had no one told us? We walk to the village and organize a motorbike to take me there, we both agree it will be harder to turn me away as I am currently capable of crying at request, knee deep in mud and feeling spectacularly sorry for myself.
I arrive at the camp of Asia Congo and it looks like heaven. I get invited in and am given a cold can of coke and a swiss roll – actually the only thing I have eaten for 24 hours. I explain our problem to the boss, who is Filipino and obviously speaks English, and he immediately jumps in his Landcruiser. When we arrive back at Stanley, all hell has broken loose. There is another truck and they have been trying to pull him out, using the truck tow rope. This will unfortunately not fit on our front tow point and keeps slipping off. Louis, my Filipino hero, drives back to camp and returns with a wire they use for securing the trees they fell. He attaches it to our front emergency tow point and to the lorry, and the lorry pulls. And the tow point flies off. We now have no tow points. I am near tears, and James looks completely broken. Louis appears completely unflustered and wraps the tow rope around the chassis at the front, carefully avoiding the radiator. I take my usual position, behind my hands, and the truck pulls. Stanley rises out of the mud, and I scream in celebration, jumping up and down, and burst into tears. The thirty Congolaise who have arrived to watch the spectacle, turn to watch the latest one – Me.
The next problem is clear. Although Stanley is now moving, it is certainly not under his own steam. Three of his wheels are not turning and he is being dragged through the mud by the huge truck. Stanley, who we turned off after five hours under water, is restarted past the river and a gallon of water and oil is immediately expelled from his exhaust. We try to put him into gear, but it’s not happening and Louis tows us the 10km back to camp with occasionally knocking from the rear of the car. He’s not looking healthy.
We leave Stanley in the garage and get shown to a room we can use, with a bed, air conditioning, bucket shower and a toilet - we are overjoyed. The mechanic is in the forest, so we are told to shower, get some lunch and then nap, something we are both in desperate need of having not eaten or slept in the last day. The next morning, the mechanic looks at Stanley, and after two hours finds the problem. His rear differential is completely destroyed. In our desperate attempts to free him it seems we have obliterated it. We are currently in a logging camp in the middle of the forest, with butterflies the size of your palms, elephants and gorillas near by in the deep forest and praying mantis's walking the bannisters. We have three buildings and a mechanics yard, 226km from the nearest small town on some of the hardest road the Congo has to offer, and we need a new rear axle. The day after, we organize to meet a taxi 40km up the road, the last place a taxi can make it to. He unfortunately cancels after an apocalyptic storm hits and he can’t guarantee his Toyota Corolla will make it. Louis immediately steps up to do the 500km round trip. We would love to decline as this is a stupidly generous offer but we are in no position to turn down his generosity. We head off on the rough track with our formula one driver for the next five hours. We arrive in Dolisie, and Louis calls the man in charge of procurement for his international company to find our part, which we have brought from the camp. Even he fails to find it in Dolisie and it becomes clear we need to make our way to Pointe Noire, a further 150km away. We get dropped off at the taxi station, and get a shared taxi to Pointe Noire, with James and I sharing the front seat, and our precious part in the boot. After 9 hours on hard roads, my bum is in agony and we find a dodgy hotel near the spare parts market to spend the night.
The next morning we go in search of our part. It is a Sunday, and everything is shut, but a couple of calls to some numbers given to us by the Procurement chief of Asia Congo and doors open. We go to a warehouse, where they fail to find the part new and then wait whilst the boys are sent out of mopeds to search the second hand market. Seven hours, and several rejections later we have our part. I could have taken up a high-end coke addiction, but instead, we buy second hand parts for Stanley. We jump back in a taxi to Dolisie and arrive in late, but happy with our two rear differentials. The next day we hire a taxi to take us the initial 180km and are greeted by Louis, to complete the 226km. We are both exhausted from carrying around two 30kg parts for Stanley, and we collapse back in our emergency bed in Asia Congo camp. The mechanics set to the next day and before midday, the part is in. He has looked better. His brakes don’t work, his ABS has broken, his bonnet no longer shuts without a well placed cable tie, both wings are no longer attached and live in the back seats but he will now go into gear and his engine roars like he was never submerged in water for 36 hours. Neither of us can believe he is still working and are overjoyed to get back on the road. Yes, we had to stop twice on the way back to gaffer tape parts of him back on and place the odd cable tie but he made it back to Dolisie. We finally get a chance to appreciate the amazing scenery that the Congo has to offer with rolling hills, savanah and deep rain forests all in what appears to be uninhabited terrain.
We can now start thinking of what is supposed to be the most difficult part of the trip. A 200 km trip on awful roads into the DRC, cross the mighty Congo river in a barge and then make another 200km in the DRC, noted for corrupt police to boot, to reach Angola. And we need to get there by May 2nd or our 190$ USD visas expire in a country where new visas are not issued easily.Time to finish what we started.
Many thanks again to ding.com for communications support all the way! In addition, we cannot even begin to thank the Congolese villagers who worked tirelessly to help us get free, the truck drivers who pulled us out for free or the spectacular staff at Asia Congo, who offered us lodging, food, mechanical assistance and salvage out of the kindness of their hearts. This trip has shown us a lot of things, but first and foremost it has taught us that the kindness of strangers is infinite, and the perceived differences between different nationalities and races pales into insignificance when you actually need help.
We left Kribi in the morning, stocking up on food, fuel and water. We planned to drive through Parc Nationale de Campo – a national park with monkeys, gorillas and elephants which was on the way to the Gabonese border. We were really struggling to find any information about it but it was only 100km away, and it passed a place where you can view sea turtles laying their eggs, so worth a detour. The road was bad, but manageable, and certainly slow going. By the time we got to Campo, we were both fed up with fording huge puddles and mud galore. We checked in to the WWF national park centre and were greeted with the news that it was only 5000 CFA per person for park entry – great, about £8 per day. Also, 5000 CFA per car per day, and 2000 CFA per camera. Oh yes, and you needed a guide at 5000 CFA per day, and a guard, at 5000 CFA. Right. There were no campsites in the park but you can just stop anywhere and, if you don’t have space in your car, you’ll have to rent your guide and guard a motorbike … This was adding up quickly and we had no evidence it was worth the money. Also, the idea of being followed by a motorbike in a national park was very unappealing. We grumpily set off the way we came and thought we’d stop in the sea turtle village for the night to cheer ourselves up. Just as we were approaching the village, our right wheel started screeching and pulling to the right. I pulled the car over and we got the tyre off to discover our wheel bearings had once again shattered.
The car was in the middle of, an admittedly, not very busy road. We set up our triangles and bushes to highlight to people to slow down and found a mechanic in the village. The mechanic took the wheel apart, and James took the part off to the nearest town – 80km away in a shared taxi, four in the front, five in the back of a Toyota Corolla. He returned at 11 at night on the back of a motorbike to find me fast asleep in the back seats. The next morning we tried to fit the part, but after three hours of trying, the mechanic told us the part did not fit. We would have to go back to town. We negotiated with the mechanic to rent a motorbike from a neighbour and James and the mechanic headed off again. They returned (James with a very tender backside after 6 hours riding pillion on a terrible road) with a new part and worked into the dark to fit it. At about 9pm we had a result! It also didn't fit and as the mechanic and the standard crowd of about 20 villagers argued as to who was to blame and what was to be done James and I had a little sniffle. The only advantage was we now had a car with a wheel so we could push the car off the road after 28 hours taking up both lanes. The added bonus being that we could set up our tent in the village, get some sleep, and make some food, both things which we had neglected the day before. Before going off to sleep, we called the taxi driver James had used the day before, and asked him to bring us a mechanic from the town. They arrived at 7 am and within an hour or two the mechanic had disabled the front right drive shaft, meaning the car could be driven in four wheel drive, with only two of the tyres actually getting traction. We slowly limp off towards Kribi, and pull up outside the mechanics, all before 10am. They quickly get to work, and inform us that it would be best to replace both drive shafts, to ensure we have repaired any damage done by the shattering wheel bearings, however, the parts are not here. For that we have to go to Douala – the armpit of Africa… (google it)
Our previous experience with police, rubbish and general grimness has not warmed us to Douala but the mechanic is happy to drive us there and back in his ancient Mercedes. It took 3 hours to get there, and then another 3 hours to find the parts, not originals, but Chinese immitations. Not the ideal but beggars can’t be choosers. We then started the drive home. Our chauffeur, and mechanic, then starts a whole song and dance about his lights not being strong enough, and it is unsafe to drive. James and I exchange troubled looks – this is Africa, no one has lights and, to be fair, his aren’t terrible. He insists we check into a hotel. Stern words are had where James implies if the mechanic won’t drive back, we will and he can rest his tired eyes in the back. We are beginning to loose patience and there is no way we are leaving Stanley overnight. He agrees to carry on, and we realize he is in fact terrified of driving in the dark. My grandma had a similar fear and I would have told her to man up as well. We drive through the dark for a further two and half hours before we hear a soft thud. Another troubled look between James and I – a puncture. We get out and ask if he has a spare. Of course not – how do we have a mechanic who doesn’t even carry a spare. We call ahead to Kribi and get a taxi to come get us and it’s nearing midnight by the time we get back to Stanley. He is at high risk – all his tyres are off and he is at a side street mechanics. It looks like another night at his side but the mechanic, his son and three of his workers are going to stay with him all night. We later found out the owner of the mechanics did not sleep at all as he was so wary of something happening. We check into a grim hotel next door and fall instantly asleep 'til 6am when the mechanics knock on the door as they want to get started.
His drive shafts are changed, after the mechanic realizes he needs a bolt off the old ones, which are in the boot of the car with a puncture 30 minutes away. These are sent for and after 4 hours, he is on his way again. We spend a couple of days driving around Kribi, during which I get food poisoning from some dodgy prawns and I think it is safe to say we are exceptionally fed up. After gallons of water, rehydration salts and evil looks from me as James eats and drinks away merrily, we are good to go and make our way over to the Gabonese border on a road we were grossly misinformed about. 100km of what we thought was good tar road turns out to be piste, knee deep in mud. This was not what we were planning for Stanleys reintroduction but we keep plugging away. Until of course, the inevitable happens and the right tyre starts screaming. We are in a village, if possible even smaller than the one we were in before and there is something seriously wrong with his drive shafts. We decide the most important thing is to get to a town, and put him in to 4x4 and keep going on the horrid road. We make it to Ebolowa and take the wheels off – disaster, both sides are completely shattered. Again! We had pulled up outside a hotel, and we go into to discover they are horribly overpriced. With no way to move Stanley any further, we pay for the horrid hotel room and cold, undercooked food and curl up for another bitterly disappointing night. The next morning, we decide Stanley has to get to the city. We need the best we can get and we head to Toyota garage in Yaounde. If anyone can fix him, they can. We ask a local mechanic to disconnect the drive shafts so we can drive the 150 miles to Yaounde, and drive directly to our saviours. We pull up and wait for them to finish their 2 and a half hour lunch break, and are overjoyed to see the posh garage, with tens of mechanics in grey jumpsuits. The first comes out and asks the problem and we pull two disconnected drive shafts off his back seats – Ah. “I understand.” He comes back ten minutes later and explains they can’t help and it will be 62 days for a transfer box. What!? I don’t need a transfer box. He hasn’t listened at all and has written Stanley off. We speak to the next person up and the next, until eventually we get to the head mechanic. We explain for the tenth time in our dodgy French and he finally understands. He explains that because Stanley is so old they have no expertise with him and they would recommend going else where. We ask would they source the part. No. We ask if we found the part, would they fit it. No. We look around and ever car there is spotless and less than 5 years old. Stanley is up to his axles in mud, with sandladders, jerry cans and his parts scattered over his back seat. This is clearly not the place for him and we leave, with James holding me back as I F* and blind at the people who refuse the help the car that represents everything they stand for. As a parting gift, they give us the name of a mechanic in Yaounde and this turns out to be the best gift they could give.
We limp to a Presbytarian mission in the city, a cheap place to stay with camping in the beautiful garden, and we drink far too much as we drown our sorrows. There is much discussion about shipping parts and finding second hand originals, and we accept that it may take weeks for this to get sorted. Our Angolan visas, only two months long at the outset are ticking away and it seems very likely that these extremely expensive bits of paper may not be able to be used.
In the morning, we meet Norbert. He owns a garage and only deals in second hand original parts. He has the added benefit of being placed next to a great Turkish restaurant. His boys take apart the car for the umpteenth time, and he sends some of them off to scour the city for parts. Within 6 hours, they are back with 2 beautiful drive shafts, used but original. We triple check the part numbers, cross match them with 2 databases and we purchase them. By the end of the day, they are fitted and he is perfect. We spend a few days trying him out in Yaounde, being force fed Mangos by the priest of the Presbyterian church and then, it is finally time to leave Cameroon.
Cameroon has offered plenty of challenges, but overall has been one of our favourite countries. The capital is charming, the people helpful and dignified and the scenery breathtaking. It has a huge amount to offer and we are sad to leave. But we have only just started the central African countries and we have plenty still to go.
Before leaving Nigeria, after receiving our Cameroonian visas at the extremely efficient Calabar consulate, there was one place we had heard of that we wanted to visit - the Drill Sanctuary. Drills are one of the most endangered primates in Africa, and neither James nor I had ever seen one (James had never heard about them at all). It was a seven hour drive, vaguely in the direction of the Cameroon border so we made the slight detour. The ranch is located up in the Afi mountains, in pristine rainforest. 95% of Nigeria's rainforest has disappeared and this national park and the monkey sanctuary is trying to hold on to what is left. The way to tell you're getting close to the sanctuary, as you are driving over dubious bridges and through small rivers, is you start noticing the high levels of banana traffic. The sanctuary has promised to buy all bananas or avocados grown by the surrounding villages, and this has encouraged a huge banana trade, with every truck or okada you pass holding great piles of fruit. When you get to the sanctuary, the staff, after many incidents where a lot of good bananas were lost, keep the fruit locked in a giant electrified cage.
We spent a day with one of the managers of the sanctuary, Innocent, who spent hours telling us about the different monkeys, their personalities and stories, whilst we watched them play and fight. They also have a large chimp population and there we met Bella. She was bought by a couple by the roadside in Nigeria when she was a baby, and grew up with the family. With the outbreak of Ebola, and the hysteria that went with it, the neighbors of this family threatened to shoot Bella if they didn’t get rid of her, and that is how she made her way to the sanctuary. She is a strange chimp. She refuses to sleep on anything other than a bed, she only wants humans to groom her and requires shampoo when she washes. As you can imagine the other chimps are not loving this, and she is now in the process of being trained how to be a chimp.
nThe American couple who set up this sanctuary now have over a thousand Drills, and have even released over two hundred back into the wild, up in the mountains away from human settlements. Unfortunately, the majority of the Drills returned due to too little food and water now available for them in the wild. It was a beautiful and extremely interesting place and we happily spent a few days there, watching the monkeys and walking through the rainforest, making our dinner illuminated by fire flies and falling asleep to the sounds of the monkeys and the forest. One of the nights, we were woken by the sound of a old musket blast, and discussed it the next day with Innocent. He explained hunting is still a big problem for them and this was most likely someone hunting porcupine.
From the sanctuary, we headed on to Cameroon. Immediately, you see the difference in population size compared with Nigeria, and you drive through huge areas of rainforest on the way into the towns. This portion of Cameroon is English speaking, and we drive into an adorable town, Mumfe, on Easter Sunday. We find a small hotel run by Madeleine and spend the afternoon being looked after. She is quite a women, running her own hotel as well as making and selling her own spices and oils through the women's cooperative, and we stock up on African spices before heading to Limbe the next day.
Limbe is a town on the sea, overlooked by Mount Cameroon and it is charming. We find a hotel (to camp in) behind the botanical gardens, overlooking the oil rigs out to sea and spend a few days visiting the fish markets and eating piles of fresh fish and shellfish, and relaxing on the black volcanic beach. After a few days, it’s time to address the real reason we are there – the mountain. Mount Cameroon is the 8th highest mountain in Africa, and the highest in West Africa. It stands about three times higher than Ben Nevis at 4,100 metres and is renowned for its gradient. There is a yearly Guinness race, where people race up and down the mountain, with the record currently being four hours and twenty nine minutes. This is not the time span that we are looking at achieving, and we book in for a two day hike to the summit and back, accompanied by a guide and two porters to carry our tent, sleeping bags and food.
The first day we walked for seven hours, starting walking through gardens and farms, and then up into the rainforest. There are several huts that you aim to make it to, and we made it through Hut 1, Intermediate Hut and eventually up to Hut 2, at 3000m, by four o’clock, and this is where we set up camp for the night. Mount Cameroon is a national park, sponsored by the WWF, and it certainly seemed very organized on the ground in the tourist office where the lovely Gwendoline had talked us through what we needed to bring. But as we went further up the mountain, the huts became increasingly dilapidated and dirty, with rubbish and graffiti all over the place. Hut 2 is in the process of being renovated so we set up our tent on a grassy verge and try to get to sleep, ready for the 4am start to get to the summit.
We start the assent in the dark, with head torches strapped on, and within minutes start to notice the effect of the altitude. Every step I take becomes a huge effort, and I’m breathing like I’ve been sprinting up the hill. The going's slow, and we’re both suffering. By 9am, we have made it to Hut 3, at 3850m, and after a pep talk from James and our guide, and more biscuits then I thought possible to consume in one sitting, we go for it. We reach the summit within the next hour and spend a few minutes being barraged by the winds, as we are lucky enough for the clouds to clear and we are rewarded with a spectacular view. However. the plan is to get down today, so we need to start going. It is such a relief, with every step our breathing gets easier and I feel like I could run down the mountain. This feeling does not last and after a few hours of going downhill, with different muscles being pushed to their limits, and many a tumble, we’re starting to flag. After hours of walking we arrive back at Intermediate Hut, and we are shown how incompetent we are as two girls, aged 8, hike up to Hut 2, skipping along and our porters run past us with their huge backpacks. We just continued to get slower and slower, and fall more and more. By the time we were on the home stretch, our legs were struggling to remember which direction they’re meant to bend, and our guide struggles to know how to manage the sobbing, limping mess in front of him. He offers to carry me. I don’t think he’ll ever offer that again after my sharp response, as James tries to explain I’m slightly too stubborn to allow such a thing. By seven, we have been hiking for 15 hours, and the guide says we still have an hour to go “at our pace.” We call down to Gwendoline and she arranges for a taxi to meet us at one of the highest farms, and despite it being a Saturday night, she comes to meet us. She asks why I didn’t call her and tell her to carry me, and I have never been so glad to see anyone. We all fall into the taxi, and this car, with broken suspension on terrible farm tracks, with four people in the back and three in the front, is the most comfortable ride of my life. Two days later, we are still broken. Mount Cameroon is a formidable opponent, and we are both extremely proud we managed it, although I wouldn’t say we did it in style… and neither would you if you saw my method of getting in and out of the tent over the last few days.
We drove on, when we were capable of clutch control, to Kribi, through Douala. Douala is known as the armpit, of Africa, and it certainly lived up to this name, although we did spend a lovely few hours in a Spar buying meats and cheeses. Cameroon has a reputation of being one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and we had up til now not seen any of this – except for a rather bizarre request for our toilet roll in exchange for letting us keep driving our right hand drive car (we kept the loo roll). Crossing the river in Douala, there are police pulling over every car and you can see the locals in fierce discussions with the gendamerie, before cash changes hand. Armed with the knowledge there is nothing wrong with our car, we clash horns with them and after showing them our fire extinguisger, driving licience, carnet and triangles, they ask us to show them our cal metallique… What? Sure we’re right that this is not a real requirement, we sit it out. They say the fine is 75000 CFA, around £90 and we tell them we have no money. They need to give us a ticket and we will go pay at the police station. We repeat this over and over and no ticket is produced. They say if we don’t have 75000 CFA why don’t we write down what we do have. Yeh right! I produce 2000 CFA in the wrong currency and say this is all we have - £3. After 40 minutes, they take the £3, which they can never use and let us go. As we drive through Douala we see countless shops selling triangles, fire extinguishes and cal metalliques. It seems the law has changed and it is now essential to have two of these contraptions– a metal choc for the car. We buy two quickly. How we got away with that I will never know.
We set up camp in Kribi, a beautiful seaside town, which seems to be entirely populated with curio sellers and start the planning. Next up is Gabon and the Congos, which we think will be the most challenging yet. Hopefully my legs will work by then.
Many thanks to Ding.com for their continuing support with communication, most of the thanks coming from my Mum.
We circled around and finished our loop of Togo and Benin with a few days in Lome and a few in Cotonou, whilst camping on the beach. One night, we drove off to a nice restaurant we’d heard of, and I jumped into the back. It was dark but I noticed something move across the ceiling, just over dad’s head. I got out my torch and, pointing it at the ceiling, I saw a two-inch scorpion making its way slowly from the open window. “We have a serious problem, James -stop the car, Dad – get out of the car.” Whilst dad and James were faffing around, I grabbed my Lonely Planet Africa, and swiped him out of the car. Or this is at least how I tell the story, it might be different if you hear it from them, but that’s the writer’s prerogative. Of course, no one actually saw it land on the floor, so what ensued, in the middle of the road, was all of us dismantling the inside of the car. Someone spotted it, and a passer-by stamped on it. A sad end for our little adventurer.
We’ve spent six weeks in the francophone West African countries and it’s been a real joy seeing the differences between these small countries. They have a lot of similarities and, give or take, have got the same lot in life. They are all near the top of the list of the world’s poorest countries, and the majority of the population live on less than a dollar a day, but their neighbour is cut from a different cloth. Nigeria has the largest population in Africa and the fastest growing economy, secondary to a massive injection of oil money. It’s GDP per capita stands at eighteen times that of its neighbours, so this was surely going to be one hell of a change. Burkina Faso in local languages means “The Land of the Incorruptible.” Based on this I assume Nigeria means “The Land of Mindless Bureaucracy, Gifts and checkpoints” given our first day’s experience there.
We had decided to cross from Benin to Nigeria further north than Cotonou, with the logic that any border crossing near Lagos was likely to be a disaster. However, what we lacked in our communication was a firm confirmation of which border – like a name for example. Needless to say, I navigated us to a completely different border to the one that James had planned. Once at the border, and aware of our mistake, we thought why not just give it a go? We pulled up at the barrier with all the people in the market, (which lines every border), screaming, shouting and pointing at us. Intimidating to say the least. We gingerly got out and went to the guard manning the gate. We would need to pay 5000 CFA to pass the gate – about 8 pounds, and then would have to pay a further 1000 CFA once we get through. We explained that would be fine, if they could produce an official receipt, and of course they could not. They sent us back to get our carnet stamped at a different, out of the way, office and we both decided this had disaster written all over it and drove on to the next border further north. This was much quieter, so quiet in fact that it did not have a custom’s official there, so there was no way to stamp our carnet without driving back 12 km to the last town, to the customs official who refused to take his bare feet off the desk for the entire proceedings. We hadn’t even got to Nigeria and our patience was already wearing thin. We crossed over and had our papers rigorously reviewed by the Nigerian officials, and they do not miss a trick. We left after an hour, with all our documents in order, amazed we had got through so quickly. We smugly drove off down a quiet country road to the next town – only 33km away and where our bed for the night was already calling.
We drove through a tiny village and were greeted with villagers running at the car with sticks and shouting for us to stop. As a rule, we rarely stop for anyone who runs at the car aggressively so we carried on, until one of them produced a large wooden plank covered in nails and placed in on the road ahead of us. This did not look good. We stopped, and wound down the window with trepidation. “We are the police – Why did you not stop?” No one was in uniform, there was no signs or flags and we were not convinced. We explained we thought they had been waving, and were very sorry, but saw no other option then to get out and play ball. Ultimately, in the following hour and a half we were at this checkpoint, we eventually realised they were police. They explained it was too dusty to wear their uniforms, and anyway the FBI didn’t have to wear uniforms. We had to work our way through the four separate officials – immigration, customs, police and, my favourite, public health. This chap decided it was his job to ensure we were healthy, including checking all our medications, yellow fever status and that our crackers were not out of date. All of them. We have a lot of crackers. So many in fact that he appropriated two packs of them for himself.
Armed with knowledge that police don’t wear uniform if it’s dusty, we head off, hopeful we’d got through the worst of it. We had not. 100 metres down the road, there was a second customs point, and 100 metres more, there was a second immigration etc etc. This went on for hours. All alerted us to their presence by angrily waving sticks, most not in uniform and all asked for gifts. Most did not get a gift. One was offered our gin, bought for 600 CFA but declined our kind offer. It seems our gin is too rough to even be a bribe. I finally noticed that, although most did not wear uniform, some wore bobble hats with “Immigration” or “Customs” written on them. From then on we mostly stopped for bobble hats. Oh yes, and guns. We stop for guns and bobble hats.
It took us two and a half hours to cover 11 km. We head into the town, with the dark road leading in resembling a river bed, with cars stranded at the bottom of a dip, with streams of traffic shouting and beeping at anyone unlucky enough to not have the power to get back up the dip. It was chaos and somehow, with the help of some locals, we found our hotel. We were so relieved to get there – what would surely be an oasis of calm. It advertises itself as a 5 * hotel with parking and a pool, the only option for us as camping is almost impossible in Nigeria. We parked up after fighting our way into the car park, and head to reception – a small hatch being manned by a fantastically efficient woman surrounded by eight Nigerians, all jostling for attention. I collapse in the corner, totally incapable of bringing anything useful to the party, totally ignoring the two men in the foyer in dirty clothes, holding Kalashnikovs, presumably guests, but James joins the jostling, Eventually, she sorts us out a room – standard double, we declined the cinema suite or the hot tub room, but, of course, we must pay in advance. Needless to say we haven’t been to an ATM, as we’ve spent our entire 4 hours in the country in the presence of the police and, after both cards are declined, and they are unable to change dollars, I am seconds from a meltdown. I will always appreciate James organising for me to be let into the room, whilst he walks the dark streets (obviously no city power) to find an ATM.
The next day, we plan to head to Benin City. It’s 185 miles and if the day before is anything to go by, this is grossly optimistic. We set off and make exceptional time, travelling 150 miles in 4 hours with only one checkpoint, so different from the day before. It’s all going so well… We hit a huge traffic jam, which occupies us for nearly three hours and once again, leaves us entering a city in the dark and the traffic, totally exhausted. It’s difficult to say why there was a traffic jam, but there was over 1 mile, in no particular order, a burnt out petrol tanker, two jackknifed lorries and three broken down trucks. We also discovered Nigerians’ total acceptance to driving on the wrong side of the road. The first time being when we were driving at 60 miles/hour on a dual carriageway with a central reservation, overtaking a lorry, when we found a truck driving head on towards us.
Day three in Nigeria, things have got to get better. After 22 km we are flying along with limited police checks - but no, our Nigerian’ gremlins have not finished with us. A bike driving the wrong way down the dual carriageway signals at us that something’s wrong. We pull off where a man on the side of the road tells us our right front wheel was wobbling like mad, and, when we look at it, oil and grease are flooding out. As luck would have it, despite this being a dual carriageway in between two cities with no buildings or settlements, there is a garage on the other side of the road. By this I don’t mean a building, or even a ramp, but two men sitting at the side of the road surrounded by hubcaps. They have no tools, but, once we supply them with the essentials, they pull off the tyre at breakneck speed. The tyre comes off, as does some small balls of metal – our wheel bearings - which have exploded. The men, who don’t speak more than 10 words of English between them, explain it is “Kaput.” I would certainly agree with that. We ask if they know where we can get another – “of course” and they put in a call. A man arrives in less than 5 minutes with a replacement – where he came from no one knows, and where this part came from is anyone’s guess. But it is the part, and after some rather useless bargaining, we settle on paying him “an arm and a leg.” The men put it on and replace the wheel. They explain we need to make sure there is grease on both sides and apply it to our new wheel bearing, and then take off the other front tyre. At which stage, some more wheel bearings fall out… This is all seeming extremely convenient but at this stage we are over the metaphorical barrel, so we repeat the process and get new ones fitted. Whether this was all legit or a complete farce I am not sure. I know we drove in there leaking oil out of a wheel that looked like it could not limp another metre and we were both watching as the wheel bearing casing cracked as soon as the wheel was off. After the event, we looked up how much it would have cost at home, and it seems that it would have been an arm and at least half a leg, so maybe this was not too bad. At the end of the day, Stanley drove out of there.
The day continued in a similar vein. The roads we were driving through were becoming increasingly built up and with that came more police, worse roads and horrendous traffic. The police gave up asking for presents and started asking for cash outright, finding problems with the car. Amazingly our patience outlasted theirs and we got away with only our good will, happiness and the odd email address as bribes. On exiting one of the small towns (large cities to you and me), the road disintegrated into a river. There were holes in the road filled with water so deep they would drown a normal car, which we skirted with the motorbikes and tuk-tuks, until we reached one there was no space to skirt. We were 20 km from our beds but this road was completely impassable. We found a motorbike driver to show us the way round, through tiny villages all setting up for another night without power.
Eventually, we get back on the main road, but as night descends the police checkpoints come thick and fast, sometimes only 500 metres apart, lighting kerosene lamps on the checkpoints next to the soldiers, wearing camouflage, crouched over their AK47s. There are no hotels with safe parking and we have no choice but to keep going til we find one. We arrive in the town we had planned to stop, and think we are hallucinating. There is a Sheraton, which, fitting our luck in Nigeria, is shut. We explain our predicament to the security guard, and he recharges his phone with credit to call his sister, who works at a hotel, then instructs a passing motorbike to show us the way, bargaining him down to a normal price for us.
We head off the next morning, into what can only be described as an apocalyptic storm. There is not another car on the road, and we make hay whilst the locals avoid the downpour. We join the back of a queue, needless to say, on the way into Calabar but even we are surprised by what we find. Ten men have blocked the road with tree trunks and won’t lift them til we pay them money or cigarettes. We are not being singled out, every truck driver, taxi and private car is facing the same thing. We sit tight in the car, until they get bored at shouting and banging through the windscreen and circling the car. We limp into Calabar, where we are greeted with queues for petrol which line the entire road. We draw the line at joining them, and pay three times the price for diesel, still cheap by UK standards. Nigeria – I think you have beaten us.
Although this country has been, and I struggle to find a polite word, a challenge, I can’t say it has been all negative. Every person, including most policemen we have met, have been kind and extremely helpful. On nights when we could stand no more, they have escorted us to hotels, helped with directions around their crazy roads and made us smile in massive traffic jams with their conversation and antics. How these lovely people put up with this completely dysfunctional road system, open faced corruption and constant petrol shortages I don’t know.
Many thanks to Ding.com for their continued support making communication easy in Africa
With a heavy heart we left the elephants of Mole and headed off after a morning walking safari. It was a long drive to Accra but we wanted to get there to apply for our Angolan visa. It takes at least five days for an Angolan visa and they only accept applications on a Monday so we were very keen to get there. So we drove, and we drove. Normally a stickler for no air con, even I broke in 45 degree heat but we were making good ground. After 3 hours, James looked down at the temperature gauge whilst driving and noticed it was through the roof so we pulled off and did the obligitary “look blankly under the bonnet.” No obvious problems came to light after we’d checked a few bits and bobs and after half an hour, Stanley seemed to have cooled down. After calling my Dad back in England and checking we weren’t doing anything that would harm him, a call every parent likes to get , we decided we should carry on. On two conditions – no air con and speeds under 100 km/h. We cautiously continued, and despite a few moments where he got a bit hotter he stayed safely out of the red for the rest of the journey. Of course, with no air con, we were well into our red zone. It took several more hours than we planned and despite our best efforts, we drove into Accra at 9pm, completely exhausted.
We had planned to spend a night or two in a popular overlanding spot called Big Milly’s Backyard – run by an englishwoman who discovered the area when backpacking. What we had failed to realise is Saturday night at Milly’s is reggae night. We pulled up, and this place was clearly the place to be for the night, although maybe not for two overlanders who had been driving for 12 hours, after getting up at 6 to see elephants. To get through the gate, you needed a wristband – always the sign of a good place to sleep, but when we explained we were overlanders they bent over backwards to help us. One problem was that the camping area was at the back, and to get there you had to drive through the dance floor. They cleared it for us, and if nothing else we made one hell of an entrance. With a Malian band taking the stage, there was only one thought on our mind – if you can’t beat them, join them. Somehow, the night finished at 5 am when we crawled into our tent, not what we would have thought at 6 that morning.
We spent a couple of days with the lovely Milly and met lots of volunteers, tourists and even the odd ex-overlander. It made a lovely change from the empty campsites we’ve been staying in for 2 months. We applied for our Angolan visa and set in for the long wait – but my God, did we land on our feet. One of James friends, Sonja was working in Accra and gave us the exceptionally generous offer of staying with them whilst we waited. Not only did we get a room with air-con, it also gave us a chance to get Stanley serviced and checked for the reason for his overheating. After 6 hours at the Toyota dealership, James returned to tell me the reason he had overheated was it was hot… The servicemen seemed to think if we were mad enough to take him to Northern Ghana, where it’s proper hot, we could hardly be surprised if he gets a bit toasty. Our hosts also introduced us to possibly the best place in the world – Accra mall. We were like kids in a candy store. They had a burger king, a spectacular supermarket and even a cinema. We went every day – sometimes even twice, eating in the food hall and shopping in the stores for things we haven’t been able to get since Europe and won’t see again til South Africa – you know, the essentials - ice cream and a volleyball.
Armed with our visas, we tootled up to the Volta region, a mountainous, lush area to the east of Ghana, bordered by the second biggest artificial lake in the world. We spent a night up in the mountains and then headed on to Wli waterfall, Ghanas tallest. On route, we managed to drive through what seemed to be a continuous party. Each town was covered in black and red ribbons, and people seemed to have come for miles around, booking out all the hotels to stay in the region. We enquired as to what would cause such a big party, and found out to our cost later that day. This seemed to be a funeral, which spanned for over 100km. Somehow, whilst James was navigating – yes I still hold it against him, we managed to take a wrong turn and end up down a dirt track, only to drive directly into the cemetery this exceptionally popular man was about to populate. I drove past, with most of myself hidden beneath the dashboard, except for my bright red face and drove, exceptionally fast, away.
Wli was beautiful, and it took some getting to. We spent three hours hiking to the top of it, and by the time we made it were greeted by some other hikers, who I hope understood our poor manners as we undressed whilst running towards the water, shouting hello before diving in. John, our guide, after having hiked the same distance in flip flops and a white ironed shirt and black trousers in 40 degrees, declined our offer to swim with us because the water was too cold. We wallowed for a while, before starting the descent and the short hike to the much easier to access lower falls. These were colonized with bats and the entire wall of the waterfall was moving and squarking and we repeated the above exercise.
We crossed over to Togo on Ghana’s Independence Day, with the imminent threat of my Dad arriving in 2 days and us being 2 countries away. We passed through a charming border crossing, where we had to wait for the customs official to stop serving in his shop across the road before stamping us out. We spent two nights in Lome, on multiple visa runs and were due to head off early to get to Benin to meet my Dad when an apocalyptic storm hit. Yes, I might have been gossiping with another overlander before I realised James was battling to bring down the tent in gale force winds whilst protecting our omelettes from sand, and trying to boil some water. But I returned just in time to eat the omelette and drink the tea from the safety of the car whilst we watched coconut after coconut fall perilously close to people braving the storm to steal palm fronds.
We set up camp at a Yugoslavian-run hotel on the Route des Peches. James has a lovely habit of when speaking French to accidentally saying Serbian words, to eventually stare at me whilst saying the word before I say I think that’s Serbian – it’s certainly not French or English. I hugely enjoyed watching the opposite, as he started to speak Serbian to end up accidentally talking in French. She was certainly exceptionally bemused at speaking Serbian in Benin.
Dad arrived, bringing me a rescue parcel and a solar panel. The next morning I had the joy of opening my rescue parcel from my Mum, and Dad had the joy of standing in the heat, setting up my solar panel whilst I used his bathroom. Who wouldn’t have children? We pottered along the beautiful, if lethal coast line and even got in a quick game of volleyball in the salt pool at the hotel. After allowing him a whole half an hour to acclimatise we started our trip north with a view to spending a few days at the Parc National de Pendjari. It’s a hell of a distance, approximately 600km, but is reported to be the best national park in West Africa, so we broke up the journey with a stop in Abomey. They are said to have historical palaces and after viewing them I’m not entirely sure where this description has come from. We drove around looking at mud huts for several hours, thanking our lucky stars the museum had already closed for that day. On the plus side, the guest house had a mini golf course which is a first for us, and there was a charming restaurant down the road which did local food under a sky full of fruit bats.
The next day we drove the last 400km, pulling up after a couple of hours to eat a quick cheese sandwich. We found a quiet turning off the road but after ten minutes were joined by four policemen with guns who told us to move on and eat our sandwiches elsewhere. We could be attacked by bandits! How likely it is that bandits lie in wait of white people eating a cheese sandwich I’m not sure but they were quite persuasive with their guns so we popped off. Welcome to Africa, Dad!
We had a couple of ideas of places to stay in the national park but none were particularly concrete. We pulled up at the first but were still 40km from the entrance and decided, as it was still light, we should try and get a bit closer. Normally, wherever we go, we can always camp so its not so much of an issue but now, with our latest visitor there was the added pressure that wherever we end up has to have a serviceable room. However, we heard tell of a place right on the edge of the park with nice rooms. We drove the 40km of piste to get there, following our GPS coordinates and things were looking bleak. It was leading us into exceptional poor villages, which seemed very unlikely to have accommodation, but we persevered. We ended up 400m from the place, and still no sign of a guesthouse. We asked in the village, “Chez Numi?” and were directed down a smaller dirt track. After 300m we arrived at what looked like an abandoned garage. About to give up and drive back up the piste we tried the even smaller track over a bridge to find a German man wandering around what looked like pure forest. He had the look of Robinson Crusoe, with a large beard and clothes covered in oil. He then proceeded to show is round his guest house – with its pool constantly filled with running mountain spring water, his bungalows with possible the best bathrooms I have ever seen in Africa and his own potable water filtered directly from the mountain. We explained we had found it very difficult to find him even with GPS coordinates and maybe a sign of two might have helped. He explained he used to have signs, but they fell down and someone had used them as firewood. He had asked for a new one but they hadn’t got round to it. After 35 years in Africa, he had certainly become African.
We spent a couple of days in and about the park and I had the privilege of showing my Dad his first elephant, hippo and most importantly, impala. On our last night, we camped within the park and were set for another inevitable night on our own when a group of nuns arrived. To say this was a surprise is an understatement. We never really got to the bottom of why they were there but they did certainly provide entertainment for the evening, even accepting a beer or two when offered.
They next day we left, with a quick stop at a waterfall on the way out. We were shown to the waterfall by the obligatory 4 guides whilst another 6 or 7 people organized a coffee for us, advertised their merchandize and offered to dive off the waterfall. Whilst we were away at the waterfall someone even washed our car. I think they don’t get tourists very often… but with the knowledge of 23kg of luggage going back to the UK I used the opportunity to finally buy some souvenirs of our trip. Swimming in the pool beneath the waterfall was very refreshing and we left in a clean car, with a boot full of merchandize and the promise of Wifi in the next town – apparently 3 days off the grid was too much for my Dad. I think we may have become habituated.
Whilst in the national park we came across the sad news of the attacks in Cote D’Ivoire. We had been 400m from the hotels just two weeks before and it seems extremely sad. Not only for the people attacked and their families but also for all these countries we have had the privilege of visiting. All along we have been hearing how the attacks in Bamako and Ouagadougou have had a devastating affect on the tourist industries of tens of countries, often thousands of miles away from the initial targets. In the last year, the very park we were in had had a reduction in numbers by a third, and the owner of Chez Numi reports in days gone by having 4 overlanding cars at any one time. I suppose the only positive is that we have been lucky enough to do this now, as I seriously doubt it will be possible for much longer.
We spent a couple of days on different beaches along the Atlantic coast, including Assinie, Jacqueville & Grand Bassam. The sea is ferocious, to the extent that one night I woke a dozen times thinking the car was being broken into as the crashes were just so loud. The days were spent lying on the beach, drinking far too much and relaxing after our epic drive from the north of Ivory Coast. One day, the entire village came out to help bring in the fishing nets, and lying on the beach watching women with babies on their backs and old ladies pull in the nets for hours was just too difficult for James. I managed it fine, especially when he was out there in the midday sun for well over an hour to bring in the impressive catch. I helped too - I brought him his hat as I watched him change from ivory white to lobster pink in under an hour.
Our main aim in Ivory Coast was to get a Ghanaian visa, and the lady at the embassy was spectacularly unhelpful. We managed to get a transit visa for 48 hours, which was a problem as we were very keen to see a bit of Ghana and speak English for a week or two before the next onslaught of Francophone countries. Also, we were planning to pick up our Angolan visas in Ghana, the only place that gives them. After picking up our transit visas, we headed straight for the border. Little did we know what we had in store. This was our most painful border yet. Firstly, it was busy – very busy. Massive trucks lined the route and we headed straight to immigration where we promptly got shouted out repeatedly by a variety of policeman. They seemed to want us to do everything at once, but refused to tell us where to go. They screamed for our passports and car documents and then walked in different directions. After an ominous glance at each other we split up, each following one of our precious documents. I got us stamped out of country with a lady that not only refused to look at me, but had never ever had a chance to see James. James got us registered and we rejoined to head to customs. One stamp and we were out of this hellhole. But the Chief is on lunch. No one else is capable of doing this very simple stamp. This screams of corruption and we try every office but no one will do it. They explain he is eating and he will come back. When? When did he leave? I don’t know. He’s the Chief. We wait two hours and again split up to ensure one of us is in his office and the other is following him, as he waddles, down the corridor to make sure we are first. Maybe we are getting more African. He throws everyone else out, except for a second hand shoe salesman, and looks at our carnet as if he’s never seen one before. We explain the concept and he stamps it. He doesn’t know the date and I explain it’s the 23rd February – my Mum’s birthday. “Oh! We must celebrate” He brings out sweets from his drawer and passes them round as he tells us about his mother. We toast her birthday over some cherry drop travel sweets. The shoe sales man asks for a sweet, but is rejected because it isn’t his mother’s birthday. Bizarre.
Great. On to Ghana. We are greeted with smiles at the Ghana border and the information that our car, a right hand drive, is illegal and there is no way they will allow it in. In fact, we will need an escort, which we will need to pay for, to get to the customs headquarters in Accra. This is news to us. This can only go well with a 48hr visa for a country. We get through our Ebola check (why?) and head to immigration. We chance our arm and say we want to extend as we would love to spend time here. The Head of immigration, a really lovely man, grants us our 30 day visas there and then, explaining we MUST see Ghana. We then explain the problems with the car, and he offers to hold the passports and as long as the car gets in, he will grant our visa. In the Customs Office, we hide from the original customs officer, and the man we find stamps us in after a cursory glance at the car. Maybe he doesn’t realize its right hand drive or maybe the carnet is sufficient. Whatever the answer, we run back, get our visas and get the hell out of there. Every police check from there on out, and there have been many, up to ten a day, has started with, “This car is illegal,” and a long winded explanation. Our method of dealing with this is at every police check point is the passenger pretends to drive and the driver holds the steering wheel at the bottom. I don’t know if this is working but we only got stopped twice yesterday so maybe we’ve cracked it. Ghana is called “Africa for Beginners”. I’m not sure we’re beginners anymore and this is bloody hard work!
After passing the border, we drove for a further 3 hours and I chose a campsite, which sounded nice, called “The Hideaway.” We now have a rule, we don’t go to anywhere that is called the hideaway or something similar. After getting our visa at the embassy in Abidjan, crossing the border and driving for another 3 hours, we off roaded for a further hour to get to “The Hideaway.” Which would have been fine, apart from the apocalyptic storm which hit just before we headed down the dirt track. But it was beautiful and incredibly peaceful when we eventually got there in time to make a chicken satay and drink a couple of their cold Club beer.
We drove up north and stayed overnight on the edge of a lake, and for the first time there were other tourists. We spend the evening chatting to a lovely German family and headed up to Mole the next day. This is Ghana’s gem – a national park up near the border of Burkina and it is fabulous. We camp at their slightly rundown campsite and head out first thing on a safari. We take Stanley and put one of the guides with a shotgun in the car, and within minutes are rewarded with a herd of elephants crossing the road in front of us. Stanley is from Surrey and has never seen an elephant and it suddenly strikes us we’ve driven so far from England we can now run into a herd of wild elephants. Also, much more importantly, we see our first Impala. She is sneaking around our campsite and mostly evades our cameras but it’s a real mood lifter.
We were expecting Ghana to be quite different from its Francophone, and significantly poorer neighbours, and in some ways it’s delivered. The villages have wells and sanitation, most of the population seem to speak English, and there’s significantly more in the markets. On the other hand, the second you get off the main road, the roads disintegrate, every mile you pass a lady with a bundle of firewood on her head and you can spend three days trying to upload your blog post (!). However, this is up north. Tomorrow we head south for Accra and a few days in the capital for a treat and a visa, and I suspect it will be very developed. Maybe we'll even get to go to the cinema!
After several days, possible one too many on my part, and success all round in the rugby, we headed out of Bamako. James was not feeling too great, so we decided a short jaunt to a waterfall was a better activity for the day then the mission of getting out of Mali and crossing the border. Excellent idea. Except the waterfall took the best part of three hours to get to, with two hours of offroading - what every fragile tummy needs. As I drove on and on, over increasingly difficult terrain, stopping repeatedly to allow James time to throw up out the window, I realized we might have made an error. Anyway, after a certain amount of offroading, you just have to continue, so we did and were rewarded with a waterfall, which we appreciated for about 10 minutes before we heading back to the town to try and find somewhere slightly kinder on tummies to stay. We got back to the town, and after having no one smile at us for a full hour, we decided this is not the place to wild camp, and eventually headed back to Bamako – with occasional stops – and checked into a nice hotel. Ultimately, after a day of driving through the bush in 35 degrees we had successfully managed to get back to where we had started. We might not have got the hang of this overlanding.
We headed out of Mali the next day, glad to be getting away, to Burkina Faso. And this was the start of our love affair with BF. It is a charming country. The people are endlessly honest, never trying to bribe or con us, to the extent that when buying vegetables in the market, we got chased down as we had not taken our full quota of aubergines. We spent the best part of a week pottering from waterfalls, to geological formations, to beautiful forests, camping in small campsites and villages, and feeling extremely welcome and safe. A real treat was a night camped next to a lake near Banfora. We had sundowners on the lake, with hippos just next to us in the water, and then woke to a pirogue trip at sunrise where we managed to get right next to one. The Sindou Peaks were another treasure, a geological formation just on the border of Mali, which we wandered around in the blistering heat.
On the way to Ouagadougou, the most excellently named capital in the world, we stopped at a town famed for elephants, and had heard rumours of a hotel which allowed camping located on the river where they came to drink. We followed some massively outdated GPS coordinates, and after offroading for 30 minutes, scratching the hell out of Stanley (he’ll do a lot for elephants), we arrived at a dilapidated hotel with ten workmen standing around, quite surprised at the arrival of two white people. It seems the hotel had been flooded in the previous rainy season, and I mean flooded, the marks on the terrace go up to the roof. They planned to open again next year but were happy for us to set up camp there for the evening. We cooked up a spaghetti bolognaise, showered in one of the beautifully refurbished rooms and watched the stars only disturbed by the two night watch men calling their girlfriends for several hours. Sadly, their phones ran out of battery at 10pm and we just didn’t have the same charger. Shame. Unfortunately no elephants blessed us with their company but it was hardly a surprise with the huge amount of goats, cattle and donkey, and the inability of the national park to function after the flood. We woke on Valentine’s Day, aware that our day might differ from others back home! We had bought strawberries in the previous town, and had them as a treat, soaked in bicarbonate of soda, of course. After having a spectacular fry up we heading to Ouaga where we had a nice dinner in a restaurant, although you needed to go through a metal detector to visit it. It was packed with African ladies dressed to the nines as well as internationals out for dinner. Quite extraordinary to find somewhere so busy after a week on our own.
The biggest problem, if you ask James, about travelling through Western Africa, is they just don’t understand the importance of rugby. We were in the above small town for the Ireland vs France match. All hotels seemed to be shut and there seemed no obvious place to bribe our way into a Rugby match. Til Café des Amis. They had a TV, canal plus (satellite channel) and electricity and seemed happy to show the match in exchange for a couple of Fantas. Things started to get a bit more heated when Real Madrid started a match on the other side but James managed to hold his own, refusing to release the remote for love nor money. As the chickens wandered around our feet, I mostly enjoyed the Burkinabes reaction to rugby – grimacing at every blow.
As always in this area, we are on own. Mali, needless to say, had no tourists and BF is no different, although it seems to have a large international population of miners, NGOs and UN who get a chance to see the country. The locals report their tourists are hugely reduced from last year, after the attacks in Ouagadougou. It seems shocking that we can camp next to hippos or visit geological masterpieces and be totally alone, when in other parts of the world people fall over each other for such an opportunity.
From Burkina, we headed to Cote D’Ivoire, a country recently recovered from its second civil war this century. And my God, do the roads show it! From the border, we drove 250km of pothole ridden asphalt, that if caught at speed, could happily destroy your axle, some 2ft deep. Every now and then the road would get better, and you would be immediately diverted off, as these were the small areas they were trying to fix. A few moments of relief as you think things can’t get worse, and then the realisation that the piste, although not bad in itself, when mixed with buses and lorries, was impossible to see through. The sand gets everywhere, and when passed by said bus, you cannot drive, only hide in the corner til the dust settles hoping that for once, Africans are keeping to their side of the road.
And then, there’s Yamasoukra. This is the capital of Ivory Coast, formed on the birthplace of the previous President. It also hosts the largest Basilica on earth, even larger than St Peters in The Vatican, as well as six lane highways. After two days of driving on horrendous roads, trying to protect Stanley as best we can, this is quite a bitter pill to swallow. Especially as for the majority of the drive, we had been trying to buy some vegetables, nothing fancy, maybe an onion or a tomato and had seen nothing in any of the villages. Only Yams. Well at least they have religion. It remains an interesting place to visit and from there we head on to Abidjan, and the beaches thereafter. Other than a nasty encounter with the police in Abidjan, requiring a £20 fine / bribe for driving in a bus lane (this is Africa, there aren’t bus lanes), the uneventful drive of deep orange sands and palm trees ended in a beautiful beach resort two hours out of the city. From here we set up camp and write the blog, camping for free in the grounds of a nice hotel overlooking the Atlantic coast. Don’t worry, we’re utilizing their bar enough to make it worth their while. As their only tourists, it’s a responsibility.
We would like to thank Ding.com for their support with communication, phone credit and internet to allow us to update the blog.
We drove into Guinea-Bissau, a small archipelago of a country with a Portuguese heritage and a population of 1.7million – approximately a third of the Republic of Ireland. One of the poorest countries in the world, with a GDP per capita of $600, we were quick to fall in love with it. It’s had repeated trouble with coups, and has famously not managed to keep a president for a full term in decades. As we drove on pretty good asphalt road, we were one of a handful of personal cars, with most transport being buses or old blue Mercedes, acting as taxis. We drove to Bissau, the capital city, and set up camp in the car park of a hotel/restaurant. The hotel was well populated with UN staff and NGO staff, the only other westerners here, and got a bus into the city. By bus I mean a Mercedes van which has been emptied out of seats and then has benches put in in order to accommodate as many people as possible, with a driver and a boy who hangs off the back collecting passengers and payment. As bus stops don’t really exist we experimented with a few locations until eventually one stopped. We got on and went in the direction of town, much to surprise of the already very full bus. Being that the official language of Guinea Bissau is Portugese, and only 14 % of the population speak that, the chances of us communicating with the bus boy were very low. We gave him some money, 1000CFA, approximately 1.50 Euro, and he gave us our change – 800 CFA. This was checked by all the passengers on the bus and they seemed happy we hadn’t been shortchanged. The bus boy told us to get off when he thought we’d got somewhere white people would like – a shopping centre, and we obliged as we weren’t particularly sure where we were going. After checking Maps.me, we realized we were still a mile and a half off the city centre and flagged down the next bus.
Bissau is sleepy. That is an understatement but the best I can do. The Lonely Planet sings its praises, as in fact do I, but it certainly oversold the night life and party atmosphere within the capital. We went to the main restaurant and had a few beers and a nice dinner, and there were a few internationals but most people went home long before us. We tried to find the “night clubs which got started at 1 and kept going to dawn” but the best we managed was an empty, seedy bar where Total Eclipse of the Heart seemed to be on repeat. We walked around the main roundabout, and found a few other internationals doing the same – it’s possible that this is all there is to do in Bissau. But we were still quite charmed. The roads in the centre, outside the President’s Palace, and the political Ministries , resemble a choppy sea more than the smooth roads you would expect in the political centre of a capital. The police have a much quirkier method of asking for bribes. One asked if he could have my sunglasses after I got him to apply our Guinea Bissau flag to the car, another mentioned he needed more credit for his phone. When we pretended to not understand, he acted this out for us. We explained we had no money and we needed to go to Bissau to get some, he accepted this understandably. To be fair, there are only ATMs in the capital city.
We thought another day in Bissau might kill us, so we headed to Quinhammel. Other than a tiny town, this is a hotel run by two Italians. Apparently, they sailed here in their catamaran seven years ago on the way to Brazil, and have never quite managed to leave. And you can understand why. It was stunningly beautiful and peaceful, and we had a lunch of grilled oysters and white wine. They did however have to teach me how to get in to them, as my current experience with oysters did not stretch to the 30 that sat before me. Just as we were getting used to another night on our own, camped out in their car park, a boat arrived carrying 10 Polish fishermen. What followed was the most panicked shopping I have ever witnessed, as they all realized they had bought their wives and children nothing and were heading home tomorrow. “How much is this wooden fish?” in Polish then English, then Italian, then Crioulo– one of the many local dialects. We went over and had some drinks with them and found they had been fishing in one of the tiny islands off the coast for 10 days, hooking fish weighing up to 88kg. It’s amazing what conversations you’ll have when you’ve been on your own for weeks…
We drove the whole length of Guinea Bissau and then back up into Senegal. The roads remained pretty good until we got to a small town just before the border. We had been told by the Italians that this route was passable and quicker then heading back on ourselves, but it was on no map we had. We got to the town and the roads fell apart, almost requiring us to go into low gear to get down the high street. A man on a bike directed us through to the piste that would lead to the border and we headed on to Tambaconda in Senegal. We spent a few days and nights, just driving and camping in hotel car parks. We pulled into the last one in Kedougou, western Senegal and walked into paradise. A beautiful lodge overlooking the Gambian river, exquisite internet and cool beer. This was not what we had been expecting so far off the tourist trail. Of course there was a catch – after swimming in the pool, having lunch and downing a few cold beers we realized we had decided to spend the night in a hunting lodge. It did seem odd that everyone other than us thought military fatigues and guns were the height of fashion. It was the blackboard depicted the price of every animal that finally made it click, and the room full of trophies. With a national park, classed by the Unesco as “in trouble”, down the road I’m sure this is helping. Well if nothing else, I destroyed their download limit.
We got up crazy early to make our way to Mali. We had no intention of driving late at night in this notorious country and had broken camp and were on our way by 7. The border was charming, with extremely polite and friendly border officials on both side. We arrived at the Senegalese border at breakfast time and all the police were having breakfast. We told them not to worry and finish their breakfast and were invited to join them. The Malians were no different, in full uniform, extremely professional and polite. We battled through with our dodgy French and just as we were leaving customs, the captain asked James, in perfect English, where he was from in Ireland. When he replied Dublin he responded, “Ah that’s where I lived for many years and my family still are.” There can’t be that many Malians than have done a stint in the Emerald Isle.
We drove along the newly constructed road until we got to a turn off up to Cool Camp – a well-known overlander spot. After 100km on rough piste, which took three hours, we arrived at the most beautiful camp. Set just below a dam, with crystal clear water and hippos and a crocodile, allegedly, living in the river this was where we met Casper. Casper bought this land and set up a campsite here 3 and a half years ago, two weeks before the troubles started. Needless to say it’s not been plain sailing for him, and he has had to diversify into banana farming, along with many other vegetables. He was an extremely interesting man and prided himself in doing so much for the local villages. Thirty years ago, the World Bank had given over 200 villages a water pump, and maintained it for 5 years. For whatever reason, the locals had been unable to maintain them since then, either not knowing how, or forgetting, or unable to get the parts. So for decades, the villages had no clean water. He had made it is his mission to repair every one. Originally, he explained he used adult labour and encouraged the boys to go to school. After finding boys who had been in Madrassa schools for five years and were unable to speak French, read or write he stopped encouraging them to go to school and asked them to work for him so he could teach them the basics of farming. I liked him a lot and had a lot of respect for him, but as we were the first campers he had had in a month, I know for a fact I could never do what he does. We stayed there happily in complete isolation, with fresh papaya and bread delivered daily to the bonnet of our car, camped on the banks of the river, and swimming daily in the heat of the day, listening out for hippos. One night we were convinced we could hear a pod, however, in retrospect I’m sure it was a donkey. We even had one of his truly free range chickens for dinner, which one of the boys took pleasure in delivering to us ready to barbeque.
I write the blog this week from The Sleeping Camel in Bamako. It’s a bit of a culture shock as we watch the Six Nations in a bar surrounded by UN police and military, with Malian artists DJing for the evening. Bamako was a joy to drive into, driving over the river Niger with sweeping tree lined boulevards, a beautiful cathedral and a national museum that marvels those in European capitals. It’s difficult to know what else Bamako offers as it’s so far off the tourist trail, especially of recent years. The south of the country feels very safe and comfortable although I would be lying if I said we hadn’t checked the hotel out from a security point of view on arrival. I feel truly sorry for Mali, as it seems to have so much to offer but has been destroyed by Islamic fundamentalism. We struggle to see how it will improve. There are things in Mali we would love to see from Timbuktu to the Dogon region, and we keep saying next time. Sadly, I’m just not sure there will be a time when it is safe in our lifetime.
On leaving Mauritania and entering Senegal there is one big decision to make. Rosso Or Diamma? Rosso is the main border crossing, crossing the Senegalese river on a four times daily ferry, connected with good roads and highly dubious border officials. We had heard rumours of hundreds of euros changing hands before being allowed into Senegal – when the crossing should be entirely free, as there are no visas for Senegal. Diamma is a sleepy little border crossing that you enter through a national park with roads requiring 4 wheel drive, however the border officials are much less corrupt. Notice the term, much less… It was an obvious choice and as Stanley had proved himself so far, we drove off to Diamma. It was remarkably straightforward, with only a few bribes required, one for stamping the passports, one for the vehicle check. We knew there would be some required, however, we hadn’t quite enough money, so we told the border official and he let us off with paying £2 instead of £4. Very kind. The Senegalese side was much more official and easy, except for refusing to stamp the carnet – this is the only border post that refuses to stamp the carnet and they say it is only possible in Dakar within 48 hours of entry. It’s a real shame for Senegal as it completely restricts the movements of their tourists and meant we were unable to stay in the north.
We headed off for a chill out at Zebrabar – a well known overlander spot in Saint Louis, housed within a beautiful bird national park. We met a couple of other overlanders, and would have loved to stay a few more days. Saint Louis is the old colonial capital of Senegal and a real treat of a town, with a large bridge constructed by Eiffel, of the tower fame, crossing the mouth of the river, connecting the small islands.
We headed off to Dakar, to sort out our Carnet de Passage – it still needed its custom stamp so Stanley could be officially brought into Senegal. We gave ourselves twice as much as time as was required to get there and find the port (I have a similar opinion to African ports as I do to African boats) but were somewhat delayed. The first by a very officious policeman who wanted to see all the paperwork and was overjoyed to discover our left brake light had come loose. Bugger. He had my driving licence and wouldn’t return it until we drove the 9km to the police station and paid 10000 CFA – approx 15 euro. We set off but on arriving at the police station, they had run out of tickets… We had to go back the same direction to the next police station 20km down the road. We headed off and when we saw our police officer we told him they’d told us they couldn’t give us a ticket and he had to give us the license back. He took 10,000 CFA for his trouble – no paperwork. It’s a good job being a Senegalese policeman. We drove on and just as we hit the outskirts of Dakar another car pointed out we had a slow puncture. We pulled off and set about fixing it, fighting lots of well meaning help from the locals (how could a white man know how to change a tyre?), but someone still took the opportunity to try to sell me some necklaces. Covered in oil and dust, it possibly wasn’t the best time. With time getting a bit tight and still the centre of Dakar to traverse, police blocks looking for an easy buck or two to dodge and two hours until our 48 hours ran out, we got stuck in traffic. And then we saw it. The most wonderful sign of all- route de payage. Pay 1 euro and the most beautiful road in the world is all yours! Sold! We found the port and the customs, and after being told repeatedly we were in the wrong place, we were eventually introduced to the custom officer – stamped in minutes for free.
We stayed in Kayar and Dakar a couple of nights, and went for some posh meals, and stayed in luxury – studio flat with a bathroom with hot water, if you went down and asked them to turn the water on. We also took the opportunity to pick up our Malian visas (don’t tell my Mum). On Les Mamelles (the breasts or hills) of Dakar, stands a lighthouse and on the other is a statue, the African Renaissance Monument, designed by a North Korean artist of a very soviet appearing family, which reportedly cost 50 million dollars... this was definitely worth a look so we popped along. Next on the list was Lac Rose – a lake with such a high salt content it looks pink in the right light. Maybe, with the eye of faith. Even if you can convince yourself it is pink, I wonder how long it will remain that way with the amount of salt being pulled out of it. On the plus side, the pink lake did have a huge flock of flamingos – obviously attracted to the pink. Quite beautiful. We headed off, very salty, to the Sine Saloum Delta, a truly gorgeous stretch of coastline where we stayed, the only guests in a campsite in Palmarin, with the beach to ourselves as well as visiting a small island village made entirely of shells, including the graveyard.
Whilst in Senegal, there had been much talk as to whether or not it was worth going to the Gambia. Other overlanders had been telling us horror stories regarding the police there – constantly looking for problems and bribes. After much umming and ahhing we decided, we’re only here once and went for it. After hours on the roads in Senegal, which will one day be excellent but currently jarred the hell out of both us and Stanley, we went through the easiest border crossing so far. For a start they speak English – something I for one was really struggling to grasp. One police man even said “We speak English here. Where are you from?”… England… Pardon Monsieur. Also, the roads are perfect and the police were extremely polite and helpful. We crossed over the Gambia river on a ferry (so my no boats rule lasted less than an hour in the Gambia) and drove to Banjul, the capital. The problem with the Gambia is the check points. It’s not that they’re hard or they are looking for bribes. There are just a lot of them. Probably twenty-five on the 100km road to Banjul. We arrived exhausted and stayed in the Gambia for a couple of nights in a lovely German run campsite.
The Gambia is an odd fish. It is very West African, the people friendly and helpful but it has the strange mix of budget travel. Sitting on beaches which 60km up the coast we had been the only people sitting on for days, here in Gambia were packed with tattoo ridden Brits, flip flop sellers, horse rides, massages and people selling a lot more than that. A very odd experience.
We returned to Senegal and at the first town got James driving licence taken off him for having luggage on the back seats… Well, they’d already checked the fire extinguisher was in date so what else did they have to fine us for. The bloke was quite hard so we paid a small cut of what he wanted and got the license back. We are starting to sour to Senegal.
Tomorrow, we shall head for Guinea Bissau an extremely poor country just south of Senegal, which is basically an Archipelago, full of tiny islands and estuaries. What better place for a Landcruiser?
Liz Jarman & James Nunan
Our trip from Essex to Cape Town & back again
Km travelled : 50818km
Countries visited: 30