Sunday, December 18, 2011

Thinking back

After 25,430 kilometers, and a few months to think about the voyage, here are some thoughts:

Library in Chinguetti. Who knows what lost treasures are here!
We had a wonderful experience, met many interesting people, and had interesting adventures. All along our road we found that people were expecting change. Not always for the better, not always happy about it. In some cases their countries were about to begin with oil exploitation, and they were worried about the implications and the corruption that would follow. In some cases they were, on the back of the Arab Spring, determined to get involved in bringing about change in their countries.

Mr Pa, conservator of the Wassu memorial, a wise man!
In some centrally controlled countries we saw the controls crumbling, and fresh, vigorous developments taking place. And in some countries we could see the establishment of a cult around new leaders.

We saw people, in most of Africa, work hard at producing food and other crops, and were convinced that, with not much in the way of mechanization, food production could be increased dramatically. In many countries we saw vast tracts of land unused, and so the talks of Africa running out of food is more a political problem.

Filling station attendants in Ghana. The one on the right was celebrating her
birthday, and wanted to share that with us.
We found the people, almost universally, friendly and welcoming. We saw surly officials in most countries, but the ordinary people, at the filling stations, the shops, villages, hotels and camping sites were all interested in our voyage, eager to talk about it, and eager to welcome us and show us their towns. In only a few places did we feel that we might be in danger of being robbed. In fact, we felt that the ordinary people were more likely to protect us from danger.

A word on begging: In most countries the only foreign word children know is "money" or "cadeau" or gift. We became very irritated at being asked for gifts by all sorts of people, and we thought about this. After all, in India a pilgrim is more likely o beg than be begged from? Should a visitor not be welcomed with a gift, instead of being begged from? And, in fact, at Mopti a young guy insisted on giving me a straw hat, so I would remember meeting him!
Friends we had met for the first time!

Kids in Cameroun asking for 'cadeau'
We clearly saw that this begging complex has been abetter by some travelers handing out gifts, so people expect this. In the end we came to the conclusion that, in many cases, what the people really wanted was some contact, some engagement with us, and once we started talking to them, and gave them our card, they were happy.

And is this not why we travel? To get to know people, to meet and talk, share ideas and experiences?

My Cruiser and our Turbo tent.
Gearheads will want to know how the vehicles held up. My old, 1988 Land Cruiser, an FJ62 petrol model, needed the most work, mostly because the preparation was not done well enough. In fact, I have just done some work that should have been done before we left. Not that I did not ask for it to be done, and paid for it! So, I have come to a few conclusions: Trust nobody, and if you are not prepared to repair something yourself, do not have it with you. On my Cruiser, we had problems with the oil seals on the front driveshafts, and had them repaired in Nouakchott, Mauritania. Here we did some work on the brakes, and the guys did half the job, I finished it back home. We had radiator problems all the way, and I have now had a new top tank constructed for the radiator. The car used about 5 000 liter of fuel, and only hesitated when we fuelled from a dirty jerrycan, despite having a filter in the car, and clogged the fuel filter. I had problems with the brakes, and only now is the problem resolved, I hope. But she is ready to do the trip again!

My BFG AT tires worked well, and we only had punctures where the labels inside teh tires rubbed against the inner tubes. I learnt to put baby powder in the tires!

Stephanus' Cruiser pickup and Alucab
Stephanus had a new Cruiser pickup with an Alucab and Hannibal awnings. He had no problems, changed oil in Mali and again in Tsumeb. He had one problem: A fuse connection was badly soldered, and so his electronically controlled diesel engine refused to run. A shade tree mechanic in Nouakchott soldered it back, and that was that, except for a bad smell in his aircon towards the end of the trip. He used Bridgestones, and also had no problems, in fact his vehicle handled the worst roads the best. He had two punctures, kilometers apart, while we were racing the dark to Ouagadougou. Both made by 6mm bolts! We joked that he had run over a bicycle, and that we will find tooth marks on the tires as well.

Hans with his Land Rover Puma
Hans had a Land Rover Puma. This heavily modified vehicle usually led the way and did very well. However, on the bad Mamfe road, breaking trail, he slid into the ditch twice, and the clutch packed up completely in Gabon, causing a major drama complete with 300 km tow, parts being ordered from all over, and then a mad dash to catch up with us before the Angolan visas expired. A rear wheel back plate cracked and took the traction control sensor with it, threatening the brake pipe. We had this brazed up in Tsumeb, and found that the other side backplate had also cracked. Clearly not up to the job. But that made me think: Did the bad road holding in the mud not have something to do with the traction control? His BFG Mud tires worked very well, and he had no punctures.

For camping, we had a Turbo tent, with an alternative arrangement to sleep in the car. For the rest we had 12 ammo boxes and a 32 liter Engel fridge, a Cobb stove and  Jiko petrol stove. The Jiko worked twice, having to be cleaned up both times half way through the cooking, so spent the rest of the trip in the crate. The Cobb worked well, but needed a lot of cleaning. I had two three-legged cast iron pots, which I sold in Mauritania, they were just too unwieldy and hard to pack. Our setup was not ideal for this sort of trip, where we often had to break camp, drive all day, set up camp and sleep, only to have to do the same tomorrow. We considered a rooftop tent, and while this would have been more convenient, I still wonder if the climbing up and down would have been worth the trouble.

Stephanus had the Alucab rigged to sleep inside, and their awning worked well. Setting up and knocking down took maybe ten minutes. They had South African gas bottles that could be refilled, although the stove was not happy with the quality of the gas.

Hans had the Landy rigged up with an 'upstairs' bedroom, and that was very comfortable. Combined with an awning they were well set up for overnight camping, and could pack up in ten minutes or so.

A lot of people had asked me what we are going to do next. Well, mentioning this to my wife makes her hair go curly! What about the silk route to Samarkand? No, in all probability we will do the Kruger or Kgalakgadi parks next year. And maybe a diving expedition to Mozambique? Who knows?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The last leg!

Welcome to the park!

Where did you come from?
We spent a few days in the Kgalagadi transfrontier park, getting to terms that our voyage is almost over. Yachtsmen on long voyages speak of 're-entry blues' and we wondered what we would encounter, once home. Would the translation work resume? Would the few business contacts we had made during the trip come to anything? Where did we hide the keys to the safe? What is the pin code for the Blackberry we had left in the safe?

This is getting boring! Enough!
The radiator did not like the last few hundred kilometers of gravel road in Namibia and the very bad corrugations in the park, so it started leaking again, but we were used to that by now. And so we listened to the hum of the big six cylinder Toyota engine feasting on South African petrol, and watched the kilometers slide by, until home.

And we thought about what the voyage had meant to us. We are certainly wiser, more experienced in driving in mud, and we have had our views of Africa and its people reconfirmed. It is a magnificent, vast continent, with magnificent people. We have seen acts of kindness and friendship, and a few, only a few less friendly attitudes. We have seen beautiful scenery, and awful destruction of the forests.

Home, sweet home.
So we come to the end of our trip, but not yet of this blog. Thanks for reading and following our adventures. Some people had difficulties in giving feedbask, so I have updated our links to give an e-mail account.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

And so to Namibia

Namibian roads

Crossing into Namibia was a pleasant experience, after so many border crossings. The officials were, with one exception, friendly, and seemed to enjoy their jobs. The lady responsible for the road tax made jokes, and asked about our trip.

Frogs, not catching mosquitos
And after a small orgy of shopping at the border shopping area we took the lovely smooth road towards Tsumeb. We had to concentrate to drive on the left side again, and we had to keep watching the speed, because now my radiator was acting up again. Another stop, some more epoxy and 3 liters of water and we were off again, to arrive at Tsumeb and a beautiful, clean and spacious camp site at sunset.

Scientists around the world: relax! The rumours about a reduction of the numbers of frogs, and specifically the African Bullfrog, are unfounded. In the pond of the Kupferquelle campsite there are many, roaring away at up to 80 decibels, all night. And they were not eating mosquitos! Oh no, they had much more important things in mind!

We also saw, along the road, signs of the great fire that had devastated Etosha recently. Hundreds of square kilometers were burnt to cinders, and the people told of herds of elephants, rhino, lions, and what not else, burnt to death or maimed beyond survival.

Our last camp together, and the ladies had to get their
 hair looked into.
It was good meeting up again with people who laugh at the same jokes as us, and have a similar view of workmanship. Hannes, a little bored on a Sunday, helped repair the brake backplate on the Landy, and soldered my radiator with great care. And he would not take money for it! We ordered him to take his lady wife to dinner. If anyone needs the services of a good boilermaker, Hannes is your man!

Hannes attending to the radiator
And we relaxed, reminisced about our voyage, and had a last dinner together at the Dros. Then each went his own way. We headed for Windhoek, in a loose formation with Stephanus and Mariana, but they decided to press on for Marienthal and points south, while we wanted to eat at Joe's, an event that had escaped us last time. And I was looking for Shell oil, the Cruiser was last serviced in Ghana, and an oil and filter change is sorely needed. But initial results would make me recommend that you sell any shares you may have in the company: no Shell along the road had Helix oil, and none would change oil in any case.

In fact, I was informed that garages do not change oil any more. So who does, then?

Joe's Beer house.
It turned out that Danie of Safari Vehicle Repairs (Danie: 081 128 8594) could. Again, our sort of work ethic: friendly, professional, thorough. After a night’s rest at the Chameleon Backpackers, and two hours at the workshop we were ready for the road.

Life is tough in the Kalahari!
And so on the way south. At Marienthal we turned into the Auob valley, and at the Auob Country Lodge, just outside Gotchas we called a halt.

A good night’s rest, and we were ready for the Trans-frontier park. It was a little nerve-wracking, checking out of Namibia, and only checking into South Africa the next day, but we were the only people who were worried.

And, even if not properly checked in, we were in South Africa!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Back together for the finish

Memories: Ambriz town center

Our first few days in Angola we spent at Tomboco and Ambriz, and then decided to take the old road down the coast instead of the 'new' road that had become a nightmare as the tar disintegrated. For the first few kilometers we followed the tracks of military vehicles that patrol the coastal cliffs, but these petered out and we ended up taking small and smaller tracks until we ended at a village where a motorcyclist offered to lead us back to the 'tarred' road.

We stopped at Barra dos Dandes, our insides shaken up once again. South African hospitality came to the fore, and some people in the oil industry offered the facilities for us to camp, shower and make them a nice dinner.

Radiator repairs
After a few days with friends in Luanda we took the road to Benguela, where the radiator seam opened again. Maestro Jose offered to solder it with his soldering iron, but once the radiator was out he doubled his quotation. Not a successful business relationship! The repairs held over the next day, but the state of the road, which had been under construction in 2008 and now had disintegrated had us resort to epoxy patching again.

Ship's graveyard outside Luanda
We spent two nights in Lubango, while the Swarts came racing down from Tomboco, putting in twelve and fourteen hour drives. They had just made it through the Dolisie road as the rains came down, and where we had to deal with powder dust, they were up to the doors in mud. A few days later and the road would have been closed.

And at last, at Onjiva, they caught up with us! We went slowly, sparing the radiator, and marveling at what could become of a main road when it is not maintained, and badly overloaded. The tracks through the bush were better than the road. Hans came zooming through, and we had dinner together like in the Sahara!

South African hospitality
And the next morning we tackled the border, a relatively quick and painless exercise.

What did we make of Angola? We were pleasantly surprised by the speed of development. Some cities, barely slums and construction sites three years ago, now have lovely roads and beautiful buildings. Some ex-patriates complained about the lack of capacity of Government and the impossibility of finding good workers. Yet we found some pleasant, efficient young people, keen to study and learn, eager to serve, and a good basis for development.
Fun on Luanda beach
Politically the country is interesting. On the main square we saw imposing provincial headquarters of the MPLA, but flags of opposition parties were to be seen in many villages. The people were pleasant and welcoming, but the officials were often surly and aggressive. We had the impression that the central control was beginning to crumble, with fuel distribution by the state run SONANGOL not keeping up with the rate of development. At the same time the private sector seems to be booming and taking over especially around the edges of the country.

Luanda sunset
Ex-patriates we spoke with confirmed this impression, and aded that they thought the Government was quite worried about the 'Arab Spring' effect among the youth, but that there was still a window of opportunity to use the oil wealth to build up a solid economy.

Let us hope that the beauty of the country, the fertility of the land and the hospitality of the people could be turned into assets.

Tundavala view

Leba falls

Palm nut vulture?

Sunset: Leba falls

The Landy rejoins! Onjiva

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The forests are burning! The road south.

Gsas installation in the Gabonese forests
We started our long run from the rain forests of Gabon down to Angola as the rains started. Our principal concern was the dates on our visas for Angola, but at the same time we knew that the rains would make our voyage just that much more difficult.

Hans and Elisme were still in Libreville, with no clear date when the Land Rover would be back on the road, and so we set off, first on a lovely tar road to Mouila, where the President of Gabon had visited just two days before, and then on a laterite road to the border, and a bad road from there into the Congo. Some Chinese were working on it, filling in bad holes, and grading, but for the rest there was thick, fine dust, heavy enough to make the car feel like it was going through deep water. What this would be like in the rains we did not want to guess.

Fire in the forest! The Crystal Mountains
are already stripped.
And all along the way, from the rain forests to the plateaus and savanna, the people were burning the trees and bushes. Maybe they think the burnt fields would sprout faster, maybe they are opening up planting space in the forests, but even where banana plants had been set into the burnt patches we could see the signs of erosion of the forest soil. It was depressing to drive, for days on end, through burnt forests, where small houses are going up and children peer through the leaves at the passing cars.

We thought that the many logging trucks carried smaller logs now than they did five years ago when we were here last. Still, majestic, tall slender trunks can be seen, but the slopes of the Crystal Mountains in the Congo ar covered by grass, pitted and scarred, where people told of dark, deep rain forests.

Magnificent road through the Crystal Mountains.
The main road from Dolisie to Pointe Noire, impassable five years ago, now has an impressive new surface, now bridges and complicated drainage works, but we wondered in the Chinese engineers had really anticipated the volume of water that would be coming down in the next few month. To us the channels looked inadequate, and the bare slopes seemed ready to dissolve into mud, to clog the drains and cause wash-outs.

A shack, a patch of bananas where the forest used to be, what
more can you wish for? 
Reliance on technology has its drawbacks, and for another time the GPS led us through Pointe Noire's central market, where a patient police officer walked before us, parting the crowds like a Moses. And then the Cabinda border.

It was of great importance that the Angolan visa had an exit stamp from the Republic of Congo next to it, but since the Congo visa was in the other passports, the Congolese officials insisted that the stamps should go there. It took the Angolan Chief of Immigration to walk us back to his Congolese colleagues, who then found that there was no problem.

Cabinda was clean and orderly, with military well visible. It smelled of oil, and flashy cars were everywhere. We were going to camp with the Catholic Mission, but the Priest was nowhere to be seen, we could not check on the state of the toilets, and so we backtracked to a $ 200 per night hotel. The next day, after a tour of the Immigration offices, we went off looking for other, more reasonable hotels, but found ourselves at the border, where the Angolans checked us out quite quickly.

Meeting other overlanders in the Congo
However, the DRC side was chaos. The road was dirty, the people unmanageable, and the immigration officials, although helpful at first, were reminded that tourists have to get their visas in their country of origin, and ours were issued in Gabon. Five hours later, after numerous calls to the Embassy, where eventually we found someone that answered, thanks to the help of an immigration officer. The Embassy called the DG of Immigration, who called someone else, who.... and as they were locking the gates for the day we were rushed through, passports were stamped, carnets processed, and we were in. But not before we had to tell the story of our voyage to curious officials, and had them poke in wonderment at our solar panel, our stoves, tool boxes, and bedding.

After a night at yet another Catholic mission and another at a roadside place in Songololo, we were back at the border. The DRC immigration officer had no problem to stamp both passports, for a small administrative fee of say five dollars, make that fifteen, no twenty. Ten dollars and a packet of cigarettes, and we were at the Angolan immigration.

Here we stressed, since we had single entry visas, and were entering for the second time. Opinions differed, since we had only transited from one Angolan province to the other, and they did not make it easier, joking, asking about our itinerary, and attending to many other official duties, but in the end the stamps were in the passports, and we were in!

Now we could afford to slow down, and take it in easy stages, waiting for news from Libreville, and enjoying the country and the people. We were a little annoyed at having to register with the police at check points and towns, but they were mostly nice people, and were clearly not quite sure what to do and why they had to do it. At least they helped us find fuel and bread.

the road goes on and on... but what if the rains come down?
The stretch from N'zeto to Luanda is bad.
Towns that were small and quiet five years ago now sport imposing office buildings, schools run three sessions per day, and new housing projects spring up. Yet the development seems to be imposed, and not home grown. The main road from Mbanza Kongo to Nzeto is a now lovely tar road, but the road from there to Luanda seems not to have been maintained since, and was in a bad state. The coming rains will make it very difficult to pass. Fuel, once plentiful and cheap, is now sold in bottles along the road while the few filling stations are closed.

And all the new settlers on the land seem to burn their patch of bush to open it up, and fertilise it with ash before the rains come.

Our worries for the third couple in our team grows. They have finally received the last part, and will be able to get back on the road, a week and a half behind us. But the rains are setting in. Brazzaville had had a week of constant rain, and we have no reports of the road. 

Friday, October 7, 2011

Gabon 2

Sick Landy

The Land Rover is in surgery: the parts have to come from London and South Africa, and it will take a week to be repaired. So the van Wyks and the Malherbes will carry on and blaze the way, while the Swarts will follow as soon as they can. The problem is the Angola visa: it is only valid till 24 October, and that seems to mean we have to be out of Angola by then. The Swarts will have to see when they get on the road, and we will try to smooth the way for them.

Crossing the equator, going south
While waiting we went to the lagoon area, and visited Omboué, on the coast. To get there we had to travel through 300 km of forest, including a forestry reserve and an oil concession where Shell seems to be pumping gas. The roads were in reasonable state, at least intide the concessions, but after that it was a little rough. To complicate matters I was not able to fill at the last town, and so we had to stop in the forest, get eaten by unseen bugs, while siphoning fuel from a jerrycan.
Lambarene: Albert Schweizer's hospital

Slash and burn cultivation
Untouched beach
Rain forest ride
Olako hotel, Omboue
River crocodile
Fisher.  Anyone knows its name?
Once arrived we visited one of the rivers into the rain forest, and were lucky to see a number of the rare river crocodiles, as well as a number of fish-catching birds. The next day we went to the beach, an untouched piece of coastline, except for numerous plastic bottles and bags. But we found the tracks of a leatherback turtle that had come ashore to lay eggs, and even the patch where she buried them. Let’s hope nobody finds it!


Road works

Entering Gabon was a little complicated: first we were interrogated by a policeman, who gave us permission to proceed to the Gendarmerie. Then we were free to go on to the town, Bitam, 32 kilometers on, where we had to do the immigration and also the customs procedures. At Customs there was nobody, and the Immigration officer, a very important man, deigned to tell us that we could also do the Customs procedures in Oyem, but fortunately after taking almost an hour at getting the passports stamped the someone had returned, and our carnets processed.

Into Gabon
Then we took a beautiful road down to the south. We thought we would try to sleep in Mitzig, but we were there just after one, and could not see any hotels, so decided to press on to Njole, two hundred kilometers on. And guess what? The road fell apart, and we had to duck and dive, earning our Gabonese PHD (Pot Hole Dodging) degrees before getting into this bustling cross-roads town. The recommended Auberge St Jean was silent, only a watch-lady could be found, doing her washing in her underwear, so we looked for alternatives, and found the Hotel Papaya.

Logging trucks
They did not have a generator, as their neighbouring competitor had, but at least they had a rather large courtyard, where the 'camping cars' could park.

Recrossing the equator, going north
The guys sleeping in the cars were entertained by disco music from two sides till early morning, we slept in a room and heard nothing. The next day we crossed the equator, dipping into the southern hemisphere before going north again, towards Libreville.

Not so good road, approaching the capital
The road, good again, deteriorated as we approached the capital, and now we began to encounter blockades from the Road Security, from traffic policemen, and other people, all wanting to inspect the papers, needing to ascertain that the South African insurance is paid up, and that we carry the security equipment. They did also stop mini-buses, making the passengers alight in the rain, to ensure that they were not overloaded!

Then we met someone who led us into the chaos of the Capital, where good roads, bad ones, new double highways and road works combined to give us a special experience. With police in between, pulling us over to check the papers once again.

Accra spring modofocation
We spent the next few days squatting with friends, while trying to, and succeeding against the odds, to obtain our visas for the two Congo's, one being the most expensive yet, and this for a two day transit. And we also had several visits to the Angolan Embassy to try to get in writing that our single entry visas would be good for entry both into Cabinda and Angola proper. All we got was solemn assurances, so we have to go and see.

Scored brake shoes and drums
I also obtained brake shoes for the rear brakes which had to be replaced, and when I took the old ones off I could see why they were so badly eroded by the sand that got into the drums. The rubber covers for the inspection holes were not there. The fact that the circlips were also clearly the old ones make me think that the experts that had installed the brake shoes screwed up this job also. The problem with the automatic tension adjustment was clear: a spring was loose.

Do these parts look new?
New shoes in, with the old circlips, and the automatic adjustment seems to work, although it did not take up the slack as fast as I thought it should. The brakes work ok, but I guess it would need some seating too, as the drums are also rather scored.

At the same time we started planning to visit the parks and lagoons in the south, a rather complicated affair as we have to pass through one of the oil fields. Permits we have, but we must advise in advance what times we expect to come in and out, and to find someone that understands is not easy.

Brake works: note missing plugs
Then we took the road to Lambarene, and whizzed over the equator for what we thought would be the last time. At Lambarene we had made up our minds not to stop but to push on for Mouila, from where we hoped to take the piste through the oilfields the next day. But that was not to be.

We stopped at a natural spring, and the Land Rover would not get into gear. There was something wrong with the clutch, and the only solution was to tow it back to Lambarene, and seek advice. There we fell in with the French Army on maneuvers, and since they have Land Rovers some of their mechanics took a look.

But in the end they all agreed that the only thing to do was to get it back to Libreville, since any work would entail that the gearboxes come out, which requires special handling equipment. In any case the parts would have to be ordered, it was unlikely that they would be available in Lambarene or even Libreville.