This post is for hard-core overland travel geeks only. The following text is actually a modified version of an email I sent to my friend Luke Aldred, who followed Roger Ward and I down the west coast of Africa from Cameroon to Namibia in February 2011. We’d started in Tangier (actually, they started in London, I in Madrid) and ended in Cape Town, traveling on land — and the occasional boat — the entire way. This post contains practical tips for people attempting the same route, most of which is not covered in any published guidebook. The prices, exchange rates and travel times mentioned here were accurate at the time of travel and may, like everything, be wildly different by the time you read this.
Let’s say you’re crazy enough to want to cross overland from west or central Africa (Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon) to Namibia and South Africa. Heck, you may even wish to do it on public transport. First off, don’t be put off by the ignorant hysterics who tend to populate online travel forums saying it’s practically impossible. Thisroute isn’t for everybody, but it’s perfectly doable.
I saw a lion today. In eight months in Africa, I’d yet to see a single lion. Now I can go home.
I’m writing my final “Around Africa” column from inside a tent in Kenya’s Masai Mara Game Reserve, where I’m on a three-day safari, the sole purpose of which, from my point of view, is to see lions in the wild. I’d resolved not to leave Africa until I’d done so, and today it happened: a rather skinny lioness, mouth agape, lazily stalking a mother buffalo and her calf until she decided it was too much bother and she’d rather lie down and enjoy the sunset. Frankly, she looked a lot like they do on the Discovery Channel.
Reflecting on the past eight months, I come back to a quotation from Shunryo Suzuki, a Japanese Zen master: “As a Chinese poem says, ‘I went and I returned. It was nothing special. Rozan famous for its misty mountains; Sekko for its water.’ People think it must be wonderful to see the famous range of mountains covered by mists, and the water said to cover all the earth. But if you go there you will just see water and mountains. Nothing special.”
Make no mistake. Africa is full of wonder and amazement. Suzuki uses “nothing special” as a metaphor for a state of mind said to be achieved by daily practice of a certain type of zazen meditation, but it applies quite literally to the traveler seeking extraordinary experiences. Before you achieve it, you think it must be something amazing, but once you have it, you see that it’s nothing more than what was right in front of you the entire time.
The unnamed Chinese poet isn’t let down by what he sees, no more than I was by Africa. The mountains and lakes are as beautiful as he’s heard. But if he came seeking an inner transformation, something that changes the way he perceives and interprets the world, the poet realizes he’s been scratching at the wrong itch.
SOMETHING BIG. When I set out to travel around Africa overland in October 2010, I wanted to push myself to do something big. The overland route down the west coast of Africa isn’t a well-trod path like Cairo to Cape Town or Istanbul to Kathmandu. I’d taken long overland trips before, but never such a distance: tens of thousands of kilometers through 21 countries, traveling almost entirely by bus, train, taxi and boat, never going anywhere near an airport check-in desk from Madrid down to Cape Town and up again to Dar es Salaam. In sections of this route, the logistics of public transport are undocumented by any guidebook. Yes, I admit it: I felt special doing it.
Traveling overland yields a view of the landscape, both cultural and geographic, that I would have missed flying city to city. From Morocco, a land whose tiled courtyards, fountains and riads seem to have stepped out of a Taschen coffee-table book, the route crosses the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara, hitting the noise and color of sub-Saharan Africa at the Senegal River. The red dust of the Sahel then gives way to rainforest overgrowth in central Ghana, and from there southward, around the great bend in the African coast, the jungle grows in great patches interspersed with savannah and grasslands. The track becomes rough, and with tourists few and far between, the conversations become warmer and less geared towards trying to sell you something.
At the Congo River, the geographic progression reverses itself: baobabs make their reappearance midway through Angola, the land becoming drier, culminating in the twisting red lines of the Namib desert dunes, until finally, in the Cape’s monied winelands, you’re back again in style-book territory.
AFRICA ON THE MOVE. But if the journey itself was extraordinary, most of what I found along the way was more striking for being so commonplace. You already know the visual clichés: cackling child soldiers, baring white teeth and waving AK47s, shaking you down for bribes; the Congo described as a “river of blood,” a wound that never stops bleeding. Some people come looking for the opposite, like a dimpled orphan that opens their eyes to the precious beauty of all humanity. But in the end, it’s just you. Plain old you again, the same nervous ticks you had before, the same songs stuck in your head.
Granted, there were a lot of cute children. None of them had guns. No blood, save for a few scrapes of my own. Almost no bribes. I did, however, find a continent on the move. Most Africans hardly think twice about sitting 10 hours crammed into a bush taxi to visit relatives. I rode countless vehicles packed with housewives carrying sacks of onions and bundles of plantains from town to town, small-scale merchants commuting to sell electronic goods, and some who spend a entire day getting to a nearby village only to attend a work colleague’s mother’s funeral. Through a sustained experience of the unglamorous, it’s easier to go beneath the surface strangeness, to see that even in the most seemingly alien parts of the world, people have the same basic needs, loves and foibles as anywhere.
There’s your Chinese poet’s epiphany. Somewhere along the way the strange became approachable. In Africa, as anywhere, bread gets moldy and milk goes bad, mothers die and babies giggle and hearts are shattered into a million pieces and, yes, some wounds heal and some don’t, and it’s wonderful, it’s horrible — but most of all, it’s nothing special.
This is the 31st and final installment of “Around Africa,” a weekly column in The National of Abu Dhabi.
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The pig flails as its owners, pulling it up by its legs and snout, struggle to load it into the back of the pickup truck. There are few sounds in nature more unsettling to me than the squeals and suspirations of a suffering pig, and this particular porcine complaint marks the low point of the worst day of travel so far during six months in Africa.
We’re on the road from Lubango, southern Angola, to the border of Namibia, racing against time to reach the frontier post before it closes at 6pm on the last of our allotted five days in Angola. Roger and I have no idea what hassles we might face showing up a day after our transit visa expires, and neither of us are keen to learn.
“No stopping!” I’ve been shouting this at the driver, in English and – I think – in Portuguese. I’m half joking at first, due to faith in vague assurances that he’ll get us to the border on time.
In a bizarre and foreboding twist, I’ve had my wallet snatched from under my nose – right from my lap, in the middle seat of the cab of the pick-up, perhaps by the driver himself or one of his cohorts – but such is our urgency that we push on without going to the police.
NEW ARRIVALS. Urgency, as always, is in short supply in Africa. Bizarre that we haven’t both learned that lesson by now. So the driver stops often, either to pick up extra passengers – wait, aren’t we supposed to have hired the entire car? – or for his friends in the back to buy booze. There’s nothing we can do about it. Except shout.
“This was a mistake,” I finally tell Roger. “We should have just gone to the police station this morning in Lubango and asked for an extension on our visa. We’re not going to make it to the border in time.”
By the time the pig starts urinating and defecating on our already soaked luggage, regret is as palpable as the torrential rain. I sink into resignation.
The driver runs out of petrol a few miles from the border. We almost come to blows over our luggage when he and his friends demand even more money than we’d already agreed upon. Roger runs out into the street, waving down a passing car going the opposite direction. Through the language barrier, they miraculously figure out what’s going on and argue the case on our behalf while we flag down a taxi for the final stretch to the Santa Clara frontier post.
The border closes at 6pm. We’re stamped out of Angola at 5.59pm.
It’s a shame to leave Angola on such a negative note. Up to the good Samaritans at the end, most strangers here have gone out of their way to help. But that note echoes with me for days.
DIFFERENT WORLD. It’s been roughly 2,500 kilometers since Ndende, Gabon, the last sustained stretch of road that rose to a level above a tractor path. Entering Oshikango, Namibia, is like passing through a looking glass into a paved land of shopping malls and big box stores. It’s English-speaking, to boot, but I’m too drained to feel the relief properly.
We catch a bus to Windhoek, Namibia’s sleepy capital, where I rest by a swimming pool for days on end, waiting for the others to arrive: Luke, our companion through Nigeria and Cameroon, now two weeks behind us; and Rob, the overland biker from Brixton who’s riding on a fractured ankle.
I revel here doing nothing and going nowhere. I don’t think Roger can bear the torpor. He signs up for a skydiving course in coastal Swakopmund, a center for extreme sports. When the others join up, we rent our own car for a camping tour, with a Finnish couple and a pair of Israeli girls added to the mix. It’s not that we’ve had it with drivers; Namibia’s best sites are just too hard to reach by public transportation.
The self-drive loop takes us through most of the country’s natural highlights: Fish River Canyon, one of the world’s deepest, to the ghost town of Kolmanskop, a former diamond mining center, both in the south; then north again to the desert lake of Sossuvlei, with its deep ochre sand dunes, and up the Skeleton Coast, shrouded with fog and littered with shipwrecks.
Sadly, this marks the end of the journey for Roger. Jumping out of all those airplanes, he’d damaged some vital cartilage in his knee. The tissue finally snaps while he’s attempting to put up our tents – I was the camp chef, he the tent-putter-upper – in risibly windy conditions on a rocky point in Luderitz. He falls over in searing pain, gets medevacked back to Windhoek, and flies home to the UK for surgery days later.
HOME ALONE. I feel like I’ve lost my foil. Roger has been an invaluable travel companion – and, up till now, a main character in this column. I first met him in Timbuktu, and we’ve traveled southward together all the way from Ghana, in buses, trucks, hired pick-ups, crammed into bush taxis and on the backs of motorbikes.
It feels strange to do the final leg of the journey without him. I think back to a remark he made months ago, in West Africa, about preserving our nine lives. I think, also, about screeching to a halt next to the “Tropic of Capricorn” road sign south of Windhoek. The result is a corny photo of Luke, Rob, Roger and I, looking like something that comes on during the credits of a bad road movie. Strangers when we set out, we came together on the road to Cape Town and stuck together through illness, injury, flared tempers, ice-cold waterfalls, Vodun rites, countless African fist-bumps, comically bad food, succulent mangoes and a couple hectoliters of beer. It might end up being one of my favorite shots from the trip.
Here’s the thing. Of the four, I’m the only one who hasn’t suffered a personal calamity. Rob fractured his ankle in two places in northern Cameroon, only to stuff it into his boot and continue riding through Gabon, the Congos and Angola; Luke’s journey was interrupted by a death in the family, which took him back in the UK. Now Roger’s knee. I can’t help but wonder if I’m tempting fate when I board the bus to Cape Town.
This is the 25th installment of “Around Africa,” a weekly column in The National of Abu Dhabi.
I wish I could say I was making the most of my month-long stay in Cape Town, but the honest truth is that there’s been a lot of sitting by the pool, watching VH1, surfing the web and repeating the same jokes to one another – which in its own way, I suppose, is making the most of my stay in Cape Town. I’ve also been recovering from a hard drive near-failure, in defense of sparse posting. Anyway, there are more inspiring tales to be found here from such disparate and scattered places as Nepal and Angola.
When Bob Marley sings about a government yard in Trenchtown, I’ve always imagined something like the scene greeting us at the bus depot in Luanda, the capital of Angola. Arriving after midnight, we join the passengers huddled in the walled compound, straw mats spread out on the damp ground, sleeping bodies lined up in rows, with travellers from across the country mingling under the lamps. Somebody is selling beverages from a cooler outside the gate. I’m only missing cornmeal porridge cooked over a campfire.
“This is pretty scary,” says Roger, inserting an expletive for emphasis. “To think that people spend the night here because it’s too dangerous to go elsewhere.” The locals have warned us not to venture outside the compound this late at night. The bus from the north left the city of Soyo, at the mouth of the Congo River across from the Democratic Republic of Congo, early in the morning, taking us 18 hours over some of the worst roads of our entire trans-Africa trip. We’ll have no time to see the capital, for the next long-haul bus for Lubango, the largest city in the south, leaves at 4am. There’s no point in getting a hotel.
A WORLD APART. Angola is easily the most difficult country on our route down the west coast of Africa. Neither of us speaks a word of Portuguese, for a start. Visa-wise, the best we could do was a five-day transit visa, requiring a breakneck pace to traverse the country overland. Officials here tend to have an eye out for opportunities to extract bribes. And we’re now sleeping in a bus depot on a ground that, I’m sorry to say, smells of human waste.
Apart from all that, Angola is just a bit, well, different. Rarely has it enjoyed any measure of peace. Cold War sympathies and factional claims to oil and diamond wealth fuelled a civil war that lasted 27 years, with only the briefest of ceasefire intervals, ending in 2003 with a half a million dead. It has been blessed with oil, but only in the past decade has Angola begun reaping its benefits, and today it’s in the throes of transformation.
The oil boom of the past eight years has led to haphazard development along with prices that are exorbitant by African standards, even while much of the population still lives in hovels. The port city of Lobito is an arresting site, for instance: gleaming petrol stations and supermarkets spring up in the midst of the rudimentary dwellings that cover the rocky hillsides. Were it not for these anachronistic splashes of modernity, Lobito could easily stand in for biblical Jerusalem.
OPEN WINDOW. Yet at no point during our journey — save for the last day, which is a tale for another time — did we suffer a moment when locals weren’t looking out for us in one way or another. In Soyo, it was José, an English teacher who, over dinner, opened our first window onto Angolan life. Half Angolan and half Congolese, José doesn’t identify completely with either of the two peoples astride the Congo’s mouth.
The Congolese see themselves as savvy and sophisticated with a strong work ethic, he says; the way he describes it, they may well be the Lebanese of Africa, were that slot not already filled by the Lebanese themselves.
“They think they’re the best at everything,” José says of the Congolese. “This is not an opinion I happen to share, and sometimes this creates clashes.”
Too many Angolans, on the other hand, are simple people who have known nothing but warfare: “They know how to load a gun and not much else.” José helps us buy our bus tickets, finds us the cheapest hotel in town and lets us use the hot showers at his workplace, a blessing during the roughest part of our journey.
STRANGERS ON THE ROAD. On the 18-hour ride from Soyo, we’re consistently checked in upon by a young English-speaker named Danny. At the depot, the driver stops to shake my hand and asks a question using Danny as a translator. “He wants to know if you enjoyed the trip,” Danny says.
I have to answer honestly. “The trip was horrible,” I say. “But the driver was great.” I venture back to our little encampment, bringing Roger a drink. We’ve stood our rucksacks on end to use as a makeshift frame for a mosquito net, for the biggest danger actually facing us isn’t from fellow humans: it’s contracting malaria.
“It’s not so bad here, once you get used to it,” I tell Roger. “It’s a good scene.” Everyone here is in the same predicament, I realize: we’re all strangers in a strange place, on the road and far from home.
This is the 24th installment of “Around Africa,” a weekly column in The National of Abu Dhabi.
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Wandering Savage went the overland route down the west coast of Africa from October 2010 to March 2011, entirely on public transport. Follow the route. Continue reading Around Africa overland in 31 weeks
Looking through potential photos to illustrate this new feature, I came across a shot of a native Angolan food product called Bom Dia (“good day”), which has no relation whatsoever to that old travelers’ staple, Laughing Cow (or La Vache Qui Rit) processed cheese food, despite it having an eerily similar laughing cow on eerily similar triangle-shaped foil-wrapped wedges filled with something that definitely isn’t cheese.
We land in Angola in mud thick enough to swallow your flip-flops whole. Continue reading A soft, sticky landing in Angola
“We’ve got a prima donna on board,” Roger says, referring to a big African lady flaunting a manicure that features a rhinestone-encircled fake pearl affixed to each of her 10 fingernails. Continue reading Across the mouth of the Congo