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Soukous

A journey back in time

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Soukous

The wonderful retrospective reports @@davidedric inspired me to dig through my own collection of memories and slides from the long distant past to see what I could find.

 

I was actually pleasantly surprised by what I unearthed and thought it might be of interest. So here goes.

 

I'll admit right from the start that I do not have total recall everything that happened and that some places are little more than a blur whilst others I do recall in a lot more detail.

So the travelogue will necessarily relate to the photos I've been able to unearth and there will be HUGE gaps corresponding to the gaps in my recollections, so trying to follow this on a map will drive you insane.

I'll also admit that looking at the slides some 30 years later I am not absolutely certain exactly where some of them were taken. As long as they are put forward gently, any corrections will be gratefully accepted.

 

….

 

The story begins in the previous century where we encounter a young man overcome by an irresistible desire to travel to Africa and take photographs.

His friends thought that this was a fine idea until he told them that he wanted to make the trip by bike.

Amazingly though, the young man did find one friend who said he would accompany him on his adventure and the two of them began planning in earnest.

 

Then the young man's friend asked a question that was completely unexpected. He asked how they would carry sufficient petrol on their bikes to ensure that they did not get stranded in the middle of nowhere.

 

“Petrol?” the young man responded. “Why do we need petrol?”

“For our bikes” said his friend; and the rather fundamental misunderstanding dawned on them both; for the young man did actually own a motorbike and whilst his friend had seen him ride it on many occasions he had never seen him ride a bicycle.

 

Alas this was to be an irreconcilable point of difference between them and eventually, reluctantly, the young man realised that he was once again without a travelling companion.

 

Around that time, quite by chance, the young man spotted an advertisement in a magazine for a company that was seeking drivers to take groups of travellers overland by truck through Africa.

Not letting his complete lack of any previous experience hold him back, the young man applied immediately.

 

 

A week later the young man arrived in Ramsbury, Wiltshire to meet Ben and Carole and James and John.

 

Ben and Carole were the couple who owned and ran the overland company, John was the expedition leader who the young man would be working with and James was an ex army M Type Bedford truck.

 

The young man would come to know James and John very well in the months ahead but before that he decided that a period of study leave might be a good idea.

A very good idea. The young man had never met James or any of his relatives before and had a lot to learn before he was due back in Ramsbury a month later because when he did return he would have to give James a thorough servicing the make sure he was in top condition for the trip that lay ahead.

 

Ah yes, the trip. Well the trip was to be a journey from London to Nairobi, by way of West Africa and Zaire. The scheduled duration of this journey was 20 weeks, but the actual arrival date in Nairobi was not cast in stone and the trip in fact took quite a while longer.

 

So, with a newly purchased copy of the detailed workshop manuals for the Bedford M Type truck strapped firmly to the back of his bicycle the young man cycled to Newhaven where he planned to catch the ferry to Dieppe and then board a train to Avignon. From there he would cycle to the Mediterranean coast and immerse himself in the intimate workings of a Bedford M Type.

 

That bit of the trip went pretty much to plan. The young man got tanned, got fit, nearly got shot by a French farmer for sleeping in his field and managed to learn enough about diesel engines not to look a complete idiot.

 

Back in England the time in Ramsbury flew by; days in the workshop and nights at Ben & Carole's house. Then, all of a sudden, it was time to depart.

 

 

For some reason, although the insurance policy covered us to carry passengers all the way across Europe and Africa, it did not allow us to carry passengers within the UK. And so we had to drive to the ferry port on the south coast and meet our clients there; there we loaded their luggage on board and then they boarded the ferry on foot.

Apparently all the overland companies went through this rigmarole.

 

Europe is a bit of a blur I'm afraid. Apart from a memory of us sunning ourselves in the late October sun by the banks of the Seine I can remember almost nothing of the days we spent traversing France and Spain to reach the port of Algeciras. It looks as though I didn't take any photos during those days either. For me Europe was just a necessary preamble and the journey would not really begin until we reached Africa.

 

In Algeciras we boarded a ferry to Algiers. When we reached Algiers the following morning it was not at all what we were expecting.

There had been a serious earthquake the day before centred on a town called Al Asnam a few miles to the west and the whole port of Algiers was in turmoil.

Getting out of the port and clear of the city became quite a task as the authorities wanted to commandeer our vehicle to use in the relief work.

The task was not made any easier by a female passenger from New Zealand who thought it would be cool to take photographs of the naval port. Photographing military installations – and many other key facilities – in Africa is a no no, and she looked very sheepish when she hurried back to the truck with 2 security guards in tow. Luckily we were able to persuade them that she was a bit simple, an argument greatly helped by her own appearance and behaviour, and they let her off with a warning. Strangely prescient of us as she turned out to be a total nut job.

 

This from Wikipedia:

The 1980 El Asnam earthquake occurred in the Algerian town of Al Asnam (now known as Chlef) within the central part of the Chelif valley. Measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale, it was the largest earthquake in Algeria, and was followed 3 hours later by a magnitude 6.3 aftershock. Both quakes caused considerable damage and a high death toll.

The initial earthquake occurred at 12.24 GMT. Reports initially put the death at around 20,000. The final death toll, however, ended up being around 3,500. The town's main hospital, a big department store, the central mosque, a girls' school and two housing complexes were destroyed. Around 300,000 people were left homeless. The earthquake was the largest in the Atlas range since 1790.

...

It was a great relief to all of us when we finally got clear of the Maghreb and turned south towards the Sahara. For me, this was where the trip really started.

 

Even now I feel relief at reaching the Sahara as it means I can write less and post more photos.

 

As is the nature of trips like these, it is all too easy to drive past many places that may well have been interesting in order to reach the places that the itinerary has promised.

 

And so it was for us. We passed through Northern Algeria much too quickly in our desire to get off the tarmac and into the Sahara with its magnificent emptiness and bone jangling tracks.

 

One of the few towns we did stop to look around was El Oued on the southern side of the Atlas mountains.

 

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From there we drove south west through Ouargla and Hassi Messaoud to the 'grand erg orientale', a massive sea of sand to you and me.

 

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From there we headed south and there wasn't much to see other than sand. It was OK though, I love deserts.

 

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Apart from the thrill of driving through one of the world's most iconic wildernesses our immediate destination was the town of Djanet in the Tassili N'Ajjer mountain range. Djanet itself was nothing to shout about but the surrounding area was renowned for ancient rock carvings and paintings dating back to between 10,000-6,000BC.

 

Our stay in Djanet turned out to be longer and less enjoyable than we'd hoped as instead of just issuing us with permits to go and visit the rock art sites the local police were clearly in an arsey frame of mind.

First they decided to keep us waiting several hours before they would even let us into the police post to talk to them and then they took exception to us doing our washing and hanging it out to dry while we waited.

 

Eventually they issued us the permits and let us go but insisted that we return and report to them after visiting the site before we continued our journey – for our own safety of course.

 

The rock art was very impressive and my photos in no way do it justice. Unfortunately for me, in addition to being co-driver, I was also the mechanic and so whenever we stopped I had a long list of checks to carry out on the truck which seriously inhibited my photo taking time.

 

The rock formation within which the rock art was carved

 

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ancient rock art

 

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That wasn't the only thing that impacted on my photography, but it would be a couple of weeks before the other one became apparent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sangeeta

Oh wow, oh wow! This promises to be such a wonderful treat, Soukous. Another epic in the making, James and all - what a lovely name for the truck :D

 

My first step on the continent was also in Algiers, but in early 1984. For some reason, I always think that my connection with Africa began when I went on my first safari in 2004, but aha, I think I can safely call me an old Africa hand too!

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Atravelynn

Great report before you even get to Africa. This is shaping up to be quite the odyssey. Beautiful rock art.

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Zim Girl

Looking forward to reading more of this.

The rock art is fabulous.

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TonyQ

@@Soukous

Fascinating read - the rock art is stunning

Looking forward to the next steps!

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Soukous

Oh crap! After the initial excitement of looking through old slides and trying to recall where I took them and what was happening, it has just hit home how much time this TR is going to take me. I'm going to have to start working nights.

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madaboutcheetah

Haha - Great start! and look forward to the rest.......

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Soukous

It has taken me 30 years, but I just realised that if I had actually read this sign whilst I was photographing it, the police in Djanet might not have given us such a hard time.



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We passed through In Amenas, which is right on the border with the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahirya, on our way south to Djanet which is also pretty close to the border with the aforementioned Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahirya.



Oh well, too late to do anything about it now.



We left Djanet heading west through the foothills of the Hoggar mountains towards the town of Tamanrasset. (My original map - Michelin 153 - calls it Tamanrasset, but a newer map I bought – Michelin 741 – calls it Tamanghasset. Both maps are the same scale and cover the same area, North & West Africa. (French – understand the language but not the mentality :rolleyes: ))



Tamanrasset was something of a legend in the old overlanding days, being the place where the road (if you could call it that) ended and travellers headed south into the mountains.



The scenery had changed dramatically from sand to rock and towering rock peaks rose in the near distance.



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Before reaching Tamanrasset, we took a detour and followed a hard bumpy road up to the Atakor plateau to visit Assekrem. Assekrem was where a French catholic priest named Charles de Foucauld who spent time living among the Tuareg built his hermitage.


Assekrem apparently means 'end of the world' in the Tuareg language. (Google translate doesn't list Tuareg among its languages so I wasn't able to check whether this is correct.) Whether it is or not, the views from the top of this plateau are awesome.



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We spent a night on the plateau, just so we could enjoy sunset and sunrise over the mountains.



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And, although it was several days before I noticed, it was here that my camera troubles began.


Despite being in a padded bag behind my seat in the cab, the constant jarring had caused the electro-magnet that controlled the shutter to fail.


As was the norm on most SLR cameras of the time, when the electronic shutter failed the camera reverted to a single manual shutter speed of 1/90th.


If only I had had an LCD screen on the back of my camera I would have noticed straight away, but it was only when I realised that no matter what shutter speed I set the sound remained the same that the penny dropped.


So, the sunset photo posted here is not what it was meant to be.



Once I had become aware of the problem I was able to – to some extent – continue shooting with a constant shutter speed of 1/90th, but even being forewarned could not lessen the disappointment at seeing so many under-exposed images when I got my slides back 5 months later.



On the way back down



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Despite being a VERY dry and arid place, it is after all a desert, we were amazed to find that there was actually quite a lot of water around.


In amongst the rocks we found freshwater pools called gueltas, where rainwater collected. Because the rock is so hard and the steep sides shelter the water from the sun for most of the day the water evaporates very slowly and remains cool.



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to give you an idea of the size of this guelta you'll see a person walking about 2/3 of the way up the image



some of the gueltas were like a mini oasis



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Tamanrasset was the last place we could buy any supplies or fuel until we had crossed the desert and the border into Niger.



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We drove up and down for ages but could not find the Asda.





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Zim Girl

Despite the camera problem the first sunrise/sunset? picture with the mountains is beautiful.

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davidedric

Great story @Soukous - enjoying every minute. Wish I had had the time / nerve / money to take one of those early proper overland trips!

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Soukous

As I work though this journey I am realising just how much I have forgotten. Kudos to you @@davidedric for managing so much detail in your retrospective.

 

The coming weekend will be a write off for me ST wise as my mother is celebrating her 90th birthday and she is having a party.

So here's the latest installment to keep you going over the weekend.

 

After stocking up on supplies in Tamanrasset - actually there was practically nothing to buy. We managed to get a few fresh eggs and some bread, but no-one wanted to sell us their chickens. It looked like we'd be living on the supplies we'd brought from the UK until Agadez. Lots of tins and packets. Oh yum. - our route was due south to the border post at In Guezzam, then we entered Niger at Assamakka.

 

It sounds simple, but it wasn't.

When you're driving in the desert one sand dune can look pretty much like the next and it is very easy to get lost. (Either my Tom Tom could not find the satellites or I had forgotten to download the Sahara map.) No mobile phones either. How did we survive in those days?

 

The plan was to try and follow the Berliet balises. In 1959 and 1960 The French vehicle manufacturer had sponsored 2 expeditions into the Sahara to demonstrate the ability of their trucks in extreme desert conditions. As well as conducting research they also left a long chain of marker posts (balises) in the desert and these have proved very useful to people like us crossing the desert.

The only problem was that the desert is not a static thing and many of the balises have long been buried under drifting sand. It is very easy to set off thinking you are on the right track and finding out that you are not. Once geographically misplaced it is no easy task to unmisplace yourself. Trust me on this.

 

One particular occasion comes to mind. We'd pulled off the track behind a rock formation for the night. (Whilst we were rough, tough and courageous we did try to take sensible precautions; like not going sleep out in the open where bandits could find us. Bandits! You never said anything about bandits. True. That's because we didn't know if there were any bandits but every policeman we met seemed concerned for our safety so it seemed sensible that we should be too.)

 

In the morning we emerged from our haven and rejoined the track. After a couple of hours driving it was clear that we had somehow got ourselves lost. Of course everyone had an opinion.

Anyhow we eventually found some tracks and we deduced from the tyre impressions that the tracks had been made by a Bedford truck similar to ours. (At that time the Bedford M Type was the most commonly used vehicle by overland companies.) Yippee! If it was an overland truck it must be going the same way as us. So we followed the tracks.

 

After following these tracks for a while we noticed that they were joined by another set of similar tyre tracks. We must be going the right way now, with 2 sets of tracks to follow.

 

It took another hour of this before we started to recognise the rock formations; recognise them as in – we'd seen them before. And those tyre tracks looked familiar too. The gifted among you will already have guessed it. The tyre tracks looked familiar because they were ours. We'd been following our own tracks in circles for almost a whole morning.

The realisation that we were not nearly as clever as we'd thought was a bit of a downer, to put it mildly. It seemed like a good time to stop for lunch. Keep everybody occupied while John & I came up with a plan.

 

We knew we were supposed to be heading south. We even knew from our map (Trusty Michelin 153) that the border post was pretty much due south from Tamanrasset. We had a compass too. However, as any sailor will tell you; in order to plot a course you need to know your start point.

Luckily for us, none of the passengers were sailors and so they seemed happy with our plan; which was to keep heading due south until we reached the border.

 

The amazing thing about all of this is that I do not recall anyone feeling scared or worried for their safety. It was as if they had all signed up for an adventure and this was just part of it.

This was something that came up more than once when I was working in Kenya. People liked things to go wrong because it made it feel more like an adventure. The proviso being that things did not go wrong for too long and that you were able to put them right again.

 

Though they were the vehicle of choice for many overland companies Bedford trucks were notoriously under powered and made very hard work of driving through soft sand. We found ourselves constantly having to break out the sand mats and work in relays: dropping them under the front wheels, waiting for them to emerge behind the back wheels and then picking them up and racing to the front of the truck to drop them down again. And you thought we just sat on our arses all day.

 

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As our journey took us south we crossed an invisible line from the Sahara to the Sahel.

We also found the 'main road' and In Guezzam. Checked out of Algeria and drove the short distance across no man's land to enter Niger.

 

We were staring to see more people now. Not a lot, but the occasional Tuareg on a camel

 

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and Wodaabe cattle herders.

 

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Seeing them walk across the desert with their herds of long horn Zebu cattle was quite a sight.

 

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You'd think that after our temporary geographical misplacement we'd be keen to stick to the main route from now on. Not a bit of it.

One of the great things about our route, and the duration of our trip, was that it was flexible. Although we had to pass through certain key towns and cities, we had a good amount of freedom about the route we took between them.

On this occasion we wanted to visit a place called Tegguida n Tessoum. To do this we had to forgo the main route to Agadez and continue due south. Teguidda n Tessoum wasn't even really a town, very few people live there; it was more just a place on the map, but it was renowned for its historic salt pans. Workers came from the nearby villages to work in these ancient pans to make salt.

 

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It was certainly quite a sight and well worth the diversion. It remains to this day one of the most memorable things I've seen in Africa.

 

With a semi permanent water supply, it was also a chance for us to have a decent wash.

 

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During our time in the desert we'd been rationed to one enamel mug of water each per day for washing. It is amazing how adept you can become at conserving water if you have to. I would stand in a washing up bowl and start by pouring the water over my head. Repeating the process with ever dirtier water as I moved down my body.

 

Because there was – for the moment at least – plenty of water in the area, we saw shepherds with vast flocks of goats and fat tail sheep too.

 

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The sight of all these sheep proved too much for our lone Welshman who made the suggestion that we should buy a sheep from one of the herders and slaughter it and roast the meat over our evening fire.

The food for the trip was purchased using a kitty into which everyone contributed. The group members, working in pairs, were also responsible for buying food and preparing meals. As it was the Welshman's turn to prepare dinner, he argued that he should be allowed to buy and cook whatever he wished.

 

This immediately kicked off a furious debate between those who thought it was a great idea and those who were sickened by it.

In parallel to this debate was another, more practical, discussion about exactly who would do the slaughtering and how they would do it.

 

In the end our Welshman (notice I'm careful not to mention any names here) said that he would do the deed and it was grudgingly agreed that they would use some of the food kitty money to purchase a sheep. We would then make camp early that night so that the sheep could be slaughtered in daylight. A delegation from the group then located a shepherd and used basic sign language to ask him if they could purchase one of his sheep.

Despite the fact that he had well over a hundred of the beasts he made a show of being reluctant to part with one. Eventually a deal was struck and the delegation returned looking very pleased with themselves, accompanied by a lame sheep.

 

Far from being reluctant to part with it, I was sure that the shepherd had thanked the gods that he didn't have to cajole it all the way to the nearest market.

 

We set off again with our newest passenger lying on the floor of the truck gazing sorrowfully at anyone who looked her way.

By the time we found a suitable place to stop for the night the mood amongst the passengers had changed. The sheep was now one of them and any thought of killing it was out of the question. Although he made a token protest I am sure the Welshman was happy to be let off the hook. He'd never slaughtered an animal before and said he would do it in a macho moment. This reprieve saved him from losing serious face.

 

Dinner that night was nothing special – I have no idea what we ate but it certainly wasn't sheep. When everyone turned in for the night they made sure that our newest member was safely tethered.

 

Of course there was no way we could keep the sheep so our first task in the morning was to find somewhere to offload her.

If the image of a group of travellers trying to buy a sheep is amusing, then conjure up the image of a group of travellers trying to sell a sheep – a lame sheep at that - to a local shepherd.

Eventually they did manage to find someone who would take it. So, to recap, we had bought a sheep, transported in for 18 hours, fed it and then sold it again at a considerable loss.

 

Ho hum. Next stop Agadez.

 

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Zim Girl

Great storytelling!!

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Sangeeta

You really need to put this together in book form when you're done with the report. This has all the makings of an amazing travelogue!

 

The sheep anecdote is priceless. I think I read an article on these same salt pans in a Nat Geo magazine a long time ago. Happy 90th to your mum - perhaps you can show her some of what you wrote? Looking forward to the next installment.

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Soukous

Our imminent arrival in Agadez was eagerly anticipated.

It marked our successful crossing of the Sahara; the chance to eat a meal not assembled from cans and packets and, if we were lucky, the chance to get a beer.

 

Under the weight of so much expectation it was hardly surprising that Agadez proved to be a bit of a disappointment. It was not Agadez's fault, it is just a ramshackle frontier town.

 

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Because we were staying in town for the night there was not really anywhere to set up camp, so everyone checked into one of the local 'hotels'.

I can't promise that this was the actual hotel they stayed in but it wasn't dissimilar.

 

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I would be sleeping on the truck as we had too much gear on board to leave it unattended.

 

We found a place to eat and 'feasted' on some kind of greasy mutton or goat stew. Generally speaking I have a cast iron stomach but in the middle of the night I was violently ill.

I was the only one affected so I can't really blame the meal – although of course I do.

 

From Agadez we headed south west towards Niamey, the capital of Niger.

Niamey was also somewhere that we were all eager to reach as it would be the first place we could expect to receive mail.

 

One of the absolutely wonderful things about travelling overland across Africa in those days was that you could tell your friends and family the major towns you would passing though and approximately when, and they could send you letters or parcels using the Poste Restante service.

Basically they sent the mail to a major post office marked with your name and the words 'Poste Restante' where it would be held until you arrived to collect it. At a time well before the Internet and email; when PCs were nothing more than a twinkle in Bill Gates' eye; the Poste Restante service was simply brilliant and our first port of call in every major city was the central post office.

 

Once we'd collected our mail we didn't stay long in Niamey, however we did come across this bizarre sight. A scrapyard full of old Bedford trucks. We guessed that they had been discarded after some aid initiative when they broke down and spare parts were too hard to obtain.

 

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I do not recall that we spent a lot of time in Niger; we were keen to get to Mali. My memory of our time in Niger is mostly of the transition from the quiet reserved peoples of the Sahara to the much more colourful and vibrant tribes of West Africa.

 

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With the river Niger as a permanent water source, agriculture was much easier and the markets were beginning to show a much greater quantity and variety of produce.

 

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Travelling west from Niamey we made our first entry into Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso). We'd be re-entering Upper Volta after visiting Mali so on this occasion we traversed pretty much straight across the top of the country towards the border with Mali and the Bandiagara escarpment.

 

When we reached the border with Mali our a soldier rushed out to greet us, waving his arms frantically and directing us away from the buildings. Once we'd come to a halt he came over and began shouting at us, pointing to where a steady plume of smoke was rising from the side of the truck. With firewood being so scarce in the desert we'd got into the habit of collecting wherever we found it and tying it to the side of the truck. When we cleared up our campsites we'd bury the extinguished fire pit and then collect any wood that we could use again. The smoking log tied to the truck suggested that we had not been as efficient at dousing all the embers and one of our bits of firewood was still smouldering.

 

Once that little drama had been attended to we were directed to park at the side of the road. We were kept waiting for far longer than we expected, considering there was no other traffic and as we waited we couldn't help hearing that there was a lot of martial music blaring from the army buildings.

 

When we were eventually invited into the customs building to get our passports stamped there were a lot more soldiers around that we would have expected and one of them explained to us that there had just been a coup. He told us not to worry because his commander would give us a 'laissez passer' which would ensure that no-one hassled us.

 

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We continued our journey to Bandiagara where we planned to meet up with a local guide and make arrangements to visit the Dogon villages that the region is famous for.

We noticed that there were a lot more soldiers on the streets here than we'd seen previously and it was not long before we were stopped and directed to an army post.

John and I told everyone to sit tight while we went inside; nothing to worry about, we've got our 'Laissez passer'.

 

Once inside an officer began asking us questions. He showed a great deal of interest in our arrival because we had come from the east; most visitors to the Dogon came up from Bamako or Mopti.

We showed him our 'Laissez Passer' which he took and studied with great care. He then stood up and told us to wait. He also gave instructions to the two soldiers in the room to make sure we did not leave. Hmm, wonder what's going on?

 

The officer came back a short while later. He held out the 'Laissez Passer' and asked “Who gave you this?”

We explained that we had been given it by the army until commander at the border post because there had been a coup.

 

Without cracking a smile the officer then told us that the 'Laissez Passer' would not help us because the people who had given it to us were supporters of the attempted coup, which had now been dealt with.

He then told us to 'come with me' and walked outside to where the truck was parked. We noticed that the two soldiers who had been with us in the office were only a couple of paces behind us.

He climbed up into the back of the truck and looked at the group members. It didn't take him long to decide that we were not an undercover unit in cahoots with the rebels. Finally he smiled and told us we could go.

 

We had lots to talk about that evening around the camp fire.

 

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The Dogon villages, with their distinctive architecture are located along the base of the Bandiagara escarpment, a large cliff, and are one of the most instantly recognisable and iconic sights of West Africa.

It is an absolutely fascinating region where you can see not just the Dogon villages but traces of the ancient Tellem people who inhabited the region before the Dogon. Whereas the Dogon tend to build their villages at the base of the cliff or on the top of it, the Tellem would carve into the cliff face itself as being high up offered protection against marauding tribes.

The Dogon prefer the flatter areas because it makes cultivation easier.

 

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As well as their architecture the Dogon are also renowned for the colourful religious ceremonies and elaborate masks. We only spent a very short time there but I did go back years later and enjoyed a much more in depth visit.

 

I took dozens of slides of the Dogon region but after days of searching I cannot find them so I can only post a couple of images here. (I was on the point of including a couple of photos from a later visit but decided it would go against the historic/retrospective nature of this TR.)

 

The Bandiagara Escarpment was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989.

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Soukous

From the Dogon region we travelled west to Mopti on the confluence of the Niger and Bani rivers.

 

Mopti - a bustling riverside city

Mopti was by far the liveliest place we had visited on our journey so far. There seemed to be markets everywhere and everyone was dressed in bright colours.

 

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Wooden pirogues lined the river banks; some laden with produce, others waiting to ferry passengers across.

 

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After the dry desert climate, Mopti felt incredibly humid and we were very happy to find a bar that overlooked the riverside markets so we could sit in the shade and take it all in.

 

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(As with the Dogon, my stock of Mopti photographs has been mysteriously depleted. In addition to the slides I found some curled up black and white prints of riverside scenes but I cannot find the negatives so I can't share them here.)

 

From Mopti we pretty much followed the Bani river south to Djenne. I should say here that several of us would have liked to go north instead, to the legendary city of Timbuktu, but even then we had been warned about marauding bandits and our employers had put a veto on that excursion.

 

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Djenne is renowned for the intricacy of its adobe mud buildings, especially the Great Mosque, built in 1907. Photos of the Great Mosque at Djenne can easily be found online (click here).

 

In its heyday – 15th – 17th Centuries - Djenne was an important trading city on the route between Timbuktu and the coast with salt and slaves being 2 of the most important commodities.

Djenne and Djenne Jeno (the nearby site of one of the oldest towns in sub-saharan Africa) were designated UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1988.

 

Those of you that have your gardens regularly terrorised by moles should give thanks that you don't live near the river around Djenne. Almost every field we passed had an eruption of termite mounds.

 

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Thankfully we were not there during the season when they emerge in their millions but even so we found that those that did come out had quite an appetite for tent and sleeping bag material. Mostly though we just had to contend with swarms of mosquitoes.

 

Apparently, in some villages in the region, there was a superstition that if a young woman put her hand on top of a particular mound and kept it there as she walked around it 3 times it was believed to aid fertility. I have to say that we did see termite mounds in some villages with very smooth tops.

 

From Djenne we crossed the Bani river and re-entered Upper Volta (Burkina Faso)

 

James had been misbehaving a bit recently, using far too much oil, and John suggested that we should find a place where we could give him a service. So we made our way to Ouagadougou (isn't that a great name) to stock up on supplies before we secluded ourselves for a few days.

 

The place we found was absolute magic. Some local villagers told us of a place where a spring came out of the ground and flowed into a stream.

When we found it we couldn't believe our luck. Fresh water gushed from the rocks and formed pools of clear water which then flowed off through the trees to join one of the Volta rivers.

Everyone was happy to spend a few days there. People could bathe and swim whenever they felt like it and at the end of the day John & I could clean up after a day tinkering with James insides. Most amazing of all was that we had the place entirely to ourselves for 2 whole days. In almost any other country a spot like that would be swarming with people.

 

Our main task was to strip the engine and change the piston rings which we accomplished without too many mishaps.

At the time of our visit Upper Volta was ranked as one of the poorest countries in Africa (and the World), yet of all the countries we passed through it was the place where we found people to be the most consistently friendly.

 

From Upper Volta we crossed into Benin and immediately noticed a change in attitude from the officials we met.

 

Hostile officials in a Marxist state

 

At the border post we sensed a hostility that we had not experienced anywhere else, even in Mali when were in the middle of an attempted coup.

As we travelled through the country there were a lot more military checkpoints and at one of them we arrived to find that the personnel manning the checkpoint were drunk and in a confrontational mood.

These guys then started haranguing us; demanding to know why we white people were coming to their country; didn't we know that they were no longer a colony?

At another time it might have been laughable but let me tell you now, there are very few things as intimidating as a drunk African pointing a semi automatic weapon at you.

 

Once we had extricated ourselves from that situation we tried to understand why they should feel that way towards us.

 

At the time Benin was ruled by President Kerekou, a former army officer who had overthrown the ruling Presidential Council in 1972. He announced that the country was officially Marxist with a Military Council of the Revolution and renamed it the People's Republic of Benin.

The year before we arrived (1979) Kerekou had dissolved the Council and staged pseudo elections – pseudo because he was the only candidate allowed to stand. He established relations with China, North Korea and Libya and put nearly all businesses under state control causing most foreign investment to dry up.

 

Kerekou was clearly a bit erratic as earlier in the year (1980) he had converted to Islam and changed his first name to Ahmed; whilst still maintaining that Benin was a Marxist republic.

 

We attributed the belligerent attitude of the various military personnel we met towards white people to be a manifestation of the uncertainty and tension that pervaded the whole country as a result of the President's method of government. Although we had not been there long enough to have witnessed it for ourselves we felt that with so many western nations turning their backs on Benin once Kerekou cosied up to China, North Korea and Libya, he must have reacted by using the state propaganda machine to denounce them.

 

Heavy stuff when you are sitting around a campfire in the jungle.

 

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From an inauspicious start, our stay in Benin took a turn for the worse when frantic shouts from the passengers in the back alerted us to the fact that James was on fire.

 

Disaster strikes

 

We carried a bottle jack (a small hydraulic jack) strapped on a small shelf behind the cab and somehow the constant vibrations from the rough road had caused the jack to rub against one of the wires at the back of the cab; wearing through the insulation and shorting out the entire wiring loom on the truck.

By the time we had stopped and gone to see where the smoke was coming from every wire in the truck's electrical circuit had been frazzled.

Everything on the truck that needed an electrical current to function was now not working.

 

But the damage did not end there. At some point the wires had come into contact with the air hoses that carried the air for the brakes and they too had been melted.

 

One small crumb of consolation was that this disaster had hit just as we were entering a village. We went to seek the village headman to explain our predicament and ask if it would be OK for us to stay the night. He was very understanding and directed us to a clearing where we could erect our tents and have our fire. We pushed James over there and began setting up camp.

 

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With darkness descending rapidly there was not much we could do that night except to plan for the next day so we tried to list the jobs that were essential to getting us mobile again.

 

At the most basic level we would need to get fuel to the engine and we would need brakes. There were lots of other things we'd need too but these were the 2 most important.

 

We were fortunate that James ran on diesel - that meant that the truck's reliance on electrics was far less than it would have been for a petrol engine – and we knew that we could get fuel to the engine without a pump simply by using gravity.

Whilst crossing the Sahara we'd met an African driving a Toyota truck with a small boy sitting on the roof clutching a plastic barrel. The driver explained that his fuel pump had broken and that the barrel contained fuel which was running to his engine by gravity.

If he could do it then so could we.

 

After a reasonable night's sleep we woke early to get started.

 

We removed one of the auxiliary fuel tanks from underneath the truck and found a place for it at the front of the passenger compartment. Then we used a piece of hosepipe to run fuel from the tank to the engine.

We ran a wire directly from the battery to the starter motor and turned the key. The motor turned but would not start. We finally worked out that there was air in the system which we needed to bleed out and sure enough this time the engine started.

 

Now for the brakes. James' brakes worked using compressed air. Once the engine was running it would power the compressor which would compress air and direct it to the wheels. (oversimplification I know, but I already feel that this is getting a bit too technical)

 

We spent most of the afternoon rigging up lengths of garden hose from the compressor to the brakes. (I have no idea where the hose came from, whether we had it with us or whether it was donated by a villager)

Finishing late in the afternoon we started the engine and made our way to the local stream to clean up. We had only been gone for 5 minutes when we heard a loud bang. Rushing back to the truck we saw bits of hosepipe lying on the ground. One of the passengers told us that the hose had inflated like a balloon and then exploded.

Of course it had. Brake hose is reinforced rubber. We were using a piece of plastic hose pipe.

 

Feeling very deflated we decided that our only option was to somehow hitch a ride into Cotonou – Benin's biggest city - and try to buy proper brake hose.

 

That evening we had long discussions with the group about our plan for the next few days. We then spoke with the village headman to make sure he was OK with us leaving the truck and our group in his village for a couple more days – we'd almost certainly have to spend a night in Cotonou.

We checked and double checked that everyone was happy with our plan. It was highly irregular for both leaders to leave a group but they insisted that they would be fine and were actually looking forward to spending time in a local village rather than just driving past them.

 

Luckily it only took us about three hours in the back of a local truck to reach Cotonou.

Cotonou was hot and dusty. We traipsed around the industrial area visiting distributors and garages, in search of the parts we needed.

A small consolation (a very big one actually) was that although Benin was a Marxist republic they had retained a taste for French patisserie. It was quite surreal to find air-conditioned patisseries in amongst the local shops. I did feel a teeny bit of guilt as we sat drinking coffee and eating croissants but it tasted fantastic.

 

In the end the only hose we managed to find that might be suitable for our needs was hydraulic hose from a Caterpillar dealer. It wasn't perfect but at least it would be strong enough and we couldn't stay in Cotonou any longer.

 

We hired a taxi to get back, rather than hang around trying to hitch a lift. The driver didn't know the village but was quite content to keep driving along the road until we found it. He seemed very excited actually.

 

We got back with enough daylight left to carry out our repairs. This time the hoses did not explode.

 

our handiwork

 

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At least now we could get moving again. There were still many jobs that needed doing but we could get the engine running and we could stop when necessary. We'd work on fixing the other stuff as we went along.

Edited by Soukous

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TonyQ

@@Soukous

Fantastic story telling and great pictures to support it. Despite what you say, you appear to remember a lot of detail - I suppose it comes back to you as you start going through pictures and begin writing?

As someone who can just about top up oil and check tyre pressure I love the way you casually describe stripping the engine, and then how you deal with the elctrics problem.

 

I travelled in Bedford trucks on a couple of Guerba trips, and one of those broke down a few times! Good fun though.

Your's sounds like an amazing trip and I am looking forward to the next stages.

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Soukous

Too kind @@TonyQ

I sometimes it here staring at slides and wondering which country I am looking at. They were all so jumbled up that I had to go through them and match them up by matching the ink and angle of the date stamps on the slide mounts.

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Geoff

quite an adventure. looking forward to more of this TR.

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Soukous

Apologies for the interruption of service. My scanner has ceased functioning and I am waiting for the whiz kids at Lasersoft Imaging to chase down the gremlin.

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FlyTraveler

Absolutely amazing TR @@Soukous! What an adventure, feels like reading a novel. Getting lost in Sahara desert and following your own tracks, using your camera with 1/90 of a second shutter speed only, using a plastic garden hose for the breaks and gravity for getting the fuel to the engine - this is incredible. Looking forward to the next installment and I hope you overcome the scanner issue. Thanks for sharing with us your fabulous writing!

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Soukous

Last days in Benin, Ganvie

 

Just about the only other thing I can remember from Benin is a quick visit to Ganvie, a village built on stilts in the middle of Lake Nokoue, very close to Cotonou.

At the time I was told that they built there because it was a way of avoiding tax, but the real reason was safety.

Ganvie was established in the 16th or 17th Century by the Tofinu people to escape being taken into slavery by the Fon warriors. Apparently their religion forbade the Fon from entering water.

 

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From Cotonou and Ganvie we drove north, using just about all our spare time to try and make a dent in the huge list of repairs needed by James.

 

We got the windscreen wipers going, and managed to reconnect the fuel pump.

We were not so lucky with the alternator though and our battery eventually ran down, meaning that we had to always ensure we parked on flat ground so we could push start the truck.

One other problem that manifested itself was that although we had managed to repair the braking system so that the compressor charged the brakes we could not – despite repeated efforts – prevent the air pressure from escaping as soon as the engine was stopped.

So, although it would have been ideal if we could have parked on a hill and simply rolled downhill to start the truck, we could not risk the truck running off down a hill with no brakes.

There were some occasions where we did take the risk and ended up steering into small trees to stop the truck before it gathered too much speed.

 

All of this meant that the time I spent in Benin is not remembered with too much fondness.

 

From Benin we crossed into Nigeria. Nigeria is, so far at least, the only country in Africa I have visited that I did not like.

 

Into Nigeria

 

We entered Nigeria at Badagry near the coast and made our way towards Lagos.

 

The beaches, lined with palm trees looked very inviting but one night camping amongst the palm trees on the coast was enough. The mosquitoes were incredible. I recall sitting around the fire in a canvas chair and feeling a pricking sensation in my backside. I didn't believe it could be mosquitoes because they would have to bite through the canvas chair and my trousers. But that is exactly what they were doing. They were fierce!

 

Lagos was not a place I enjoyed. Even passing through was an ordeal and the local radio station did little to cheer us up broadcasting repeated appeals for someone to come and claim a body that was lying on one of the city's streets.

 

While we were in Nigeria there were religious disturbances going on around the northern city of Kano. During the day we would see truckloads of armed soldiers being ferried to wherever the latest disturbance was occurring and in the evening I remember sitting in a bar full of Nigerians and watching them cheer as the TV showed images of the police and soldiers rounding up the religious extremists and beating the crap out of them.

 

One good thing did come from my time in Nigeria though. It was there, whilst wandering through a street market in Kano, that my love of African music took root. There was one stall that had an old record player and a pile of vinyl LPs.

I found myself walking in circles around the market just so I could return to that stall and hear what was playing.

The last thing I wanted to do was buy records and carry them with me for the remainder of the trip but I did note down the names of the artists I was hearing. One in particular stuck in my mind, William Onyeabor, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k51cnVcbUAo&list=PLZN-Qk4Q9ORDZRDqr1XM9Ley3k5MzOBcy and for years afterwards I searched in vain for any of his music. Then last year, out of the blue, I got an email from Sterns music (THE place for African music) telling me that a William Onyeabor CD was about to be released. Of course I bought it straight away – and immediately wondered why I had found it so appealing in 1980.

 

Unlike its neighbours, Nigeria had a lot of tarmac roads. Whilst this made travelling much easier it also encouraged the local drivers to drive much too fast. It seemed as though every bend in the highway was marked by the wreck of a truck (often several trucks) where the driver had failed to make the turn and run off the road.

It was a common sight to see trucks on their side, their goods scattered all over the road. Whenever this happened it didn't take long for people to arrive and start grabbing as much as they could.

The highways department had a novel way of dealing with the accidents too. A bulldozer would be sent to simply push the wrecked vehicle off the road so the other trucks could continue racing.

 

I think the thing that disturbed me most about Nigeria was the apparent disregard for human life. Tempers seemed to flare very easily and arguments became fights. It was probably the only country where I did not feel safe.

 

We spent Christmas camped on the Jos Plateau. By Nigerian standards it was wonderfully peaceful and cool.

 

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After Jos we headed towards the border with Cameroon, stopping en route to visit the Yankari Game Reserve. The only animals I recall seeing in Yankari were one small elephant and lots of baboons, which marauded through the camping area overturning trash cans and stealing anything that was left unguarded.

 

We left Nigeria at Yola and entered Cameroon.

 

Cameroon

 

No-one seemed that excited about being in Cameroon. It was just another West African country we had to pass through on our way to Zaire which was undoubtedly one of the most anticipated countries of our trip.

 

Personally I liked Cameroon. It felt good to get away from the garish modernity and the latent violence of Nigeria and immerse myself in the jungle again.

 

On one occasion we stopped to look at what appeared to be a whole village picking cotton.

 

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Whenever we stopped to use a village well ro replensih our water supplies and bathe it always attracted a crowd.

 

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We passed endless fields of sorghum and millet interspersed with simple villages that showed little sign of outside influence.

 

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On one day we drove through a small bush fire. I have no idea whether the fire was started accidentally or whether a farmer was burning off, but fields beside the road and a small section of the forest were ablaze.

The most fascinating thing about it though was the number of kites and buzzards that were circling above the edges of the fire, waiting for small animals and snakes to escape onto the road where they could swoop down on them.

Despite the troubles we'd been having with the truck, everyone was in good spirits and were getting along amazingly well considering they had never clapped eyes on each other until three months ago.

 

It was in Cameroon that we came across an incident that put our own truck troubles into perspective.

During our stay in Nigeria we had found ourselves staying in the same campsite as a group travelling with another overland company. Although we were both heading for Nairobi, our routes were different and we did not really expect to bump into them again.

Yet, one morning, as we were on our way through Cameroon, we were very surprised to see two young white people walking along the side of the road. As we got closer we recognised them as being members of the group we'd met in Nigeria.

Of course we stopped to chat and they told us that they had had an accident – their truck had rolled over. They climbed on board and we drove a short distance down the road until we found the rest of their group.

 

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It was quite a sobering sight. Apparently the driver had misjudged a slope at the side of the road and the truck had tipped onto its side.

It was amazing good fortune that no-one was seriously injured.

 

In mechanical terms their drivers were confident that although it would take time they could repair the damage. The bodywork was a bit bent out of shape but the main problem was a flooded engine which had to be taken apart, cleaned and re-assembled.

 

It sounds a bit callous, but there was actually very little we could do.

Their drivers were far more capable mechanics that either John or I (certainly more capable than me)and just wanted to get on with their repairs.

We offered to give a lift to anyone who wanted to go to the next town and the young couple we had met on the road took us up on the offer – they had been looking for a lift to get to town when we met them. They just wanted to see what, if anything they could find that might be useful. Everyone else chose to stay together with the truck.

 

(In one of those bizarre coincidences that seem to occur when you are involved in travel, one of the drivers actually applied for a job when I was running a tour operation in Egypt 3 years later. It was quite a surprise for both us when he walked in the door. A super bloke; he worked with me for a couple of years and he ended up marrying one of my clients.)

 

After we'd dropped off our two hitchhikers, the accident was the main topic of discussion for a while.

But not for too long. There was a far more pressing issue on most people's minds and our campfire talk was not of Cameroon but of Zaire and whether or not we would be able to get in.

 

An essential part of planning an overland trip across Africa is the need to get the visas issued at the right time. Two things made this more complicated than it might otherwise have been.

(1) Most countries insisted that visas were issued in your home country, yet many of the countries we were visiting did not have embassies in the UK or Australia.

(2) Once the visas were issued they had a maximum validity of 3 months. That meant we had to enter the country within 3 months of the visa being issued.

 

There were one or two countries that were not quite so strict and for those we planned to pick up our visas (visae?) en-route.

The big problem though was that at the time we left the UK, Zaire was refusing to issue visas to any British passport holders. Apparently a few months earlier there had been an incident where alleged mercenaries had been stopped, trying to gain entry to the country in the guise of overland travellers. Following this, the government of Zaire had stopped issuing any visas to Brits.

 

After Cameroon we would be entering the Central African Republic, another former French colony with a history of turmoil. The capital city, Bangui – located across the Ubangi river from Zaire - would be our last hope of getting visas for Zaire.

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Edited by Soukous

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Zim Girl

Great stuff - looking forward to CAR

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Soukous

I know it has taken an inordinate amount of time to get here but finally we have reached CAR

 

Central African Republic. (Centrafrique)

 

Political history in brief. (and before anyone thinks that I have an amazing memory, I'll own up and admit that I had to dip into Wikipedia to get the dates and details correct.)

 

The former French colony of Centrafrique has had a turbulent post colonial history and was the seat of one of Africa's most reviled dictators, Jean-Bedel Bokassa. During the 1960's, 1970's and the early 1980's the 2 key political players in the country were Bokassa and David Dacko.

 

Dacko's first term as president ran from 1960 to 31 Dec 1965, when he was overthrown by General Jean-Bedel Bokassa. Showing an amazing ability to survive, Dacko spent just over 3 years in prison before he was released, eventually becoming a personal counselor to Bokassa in 1976.

No sooner had he taken the presidency than Bokassa began a reign of terror, taking all important government posts for himself. He personally supervised judicial beatings and introduced a rule that thieves would have an ear cut off for the first two offenses and a hand for the third. He declared himself president for life in 1972 then in 1977, emulating his hero Napoleon, he crowned himself emperor of the Central African Empire in a ceremony costing $20 million, practically bankrupting the country. His diamond-encrusted crown alone cost $5 million. In 1979 he had hundreds of schoolchildren arrested for refusing to wear uniforms made in a factory he owned, and was reported to have personally supervised the massacre of 100 of the schoolchildren by his Imperial Guard.

 

With Bokassa's excesses drawing increasing criticism from around the world and embarrassment for France the French invited Dacko to Paris where they convinced him to cooperate in a coup to remove Bokassa from power and restore him to the presidency.

In September 1979, while Bokassa was on a state visit to Libya French paratroopers carried out what has been referred to as 'France's last colonial expedition', Operation Barracuda. The French commandos brought with them David Dacko and restored Dacko to the presidency, declaring an end to Bokassa's Central African Empire and the restoration of the Central African Republic.

Although Dacko was elected President of the Republic once again in elections in April 1981, he only lasted until September of the same year when he was overthrown in in a bloodless coup carried out by army chief of staff General André Kolingba who may have had support from certain French factions.

 

This may all seem a bit irrelevant to a group on an overland trip but it the political upheavals contributed to a general atmosphere of tension and uncertainty that was particularly acute in the capital, Bangui.

 

We entered the country near Bouar, and first impressions of CAR (It probably makes sense to use the abbreviation; it certainly saves me a lot of typing.) were that the country was crushingly poor. Outside of Bangui there were no tarred roads and villages lived a subsistence lifestyle, dependent on cassava as their staple diet.

Without preparation, Cassava is bitter and toxic (it contains cyanide), so after harvesting it has to be soaked, and then cooked.

 

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We stopped at Boali Falls, situated right beside the main highway, about 100 km from Bangui. Boali Falls are 250 metres wide and 50 metres high and of particular importance because of the nearby hydroelectric works.

 

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We knew we were close to Bangui because suddenly we found ourselves on a tar road.

 

In Bangui

As we entered the city it became evident just how much influence the French still retained with French paratroopers in evidence all over the place. At times it looked like a garrison town.

 

We made our way to the city's main campsite and joined a couple of other overland groups who were also hoping to cross into Zaire.

 

First order of business was to visit the Zaire embassy in Bangui. We'd only just stepped into the lobby area when we saw a sheet of A4 paper pinned to the wall stating that visas were not to be issued to British passport holders as they were all mercenaries.

When we finally spoke to someone he told us that he could not issue any visas here and that we should have obtained them in our country of residence.

We explained that we had been unable to do this for 2 reasons (i) Even if we had got the visas in London they would have expired before we reached the Zaire border (ii) At the time of our departure no visas were being issued.

Our pleas fell on deaf ears.

 

Next we visited the British consul in Bangui, who was actually a South African diamond merchant. Britain had no embassy or diplomatic staff of its own in CAR so the diamond merchant was honorary consul.

He too could give us no good news.

 

We returned to camp to discuss what we'd learned with the others.

 

Some suggested that we should send our passports back to the UK and make new visa applications there. But based on what we'd just been told this seemed unlikely to succeed.

 

With the campsite turning into a gathering place for overlanders trying to cross into Zaire there were plenty of people to discuss situation with and we probably spoke to all of them. We were not cheered by the fact that one group had been there over a week already.

 

After the tranquility of our bush camps the Bangui campsite was not a place any of us wanted to be.

It was pretty central and we'd be warned that we must keep a constant watch on our belongings and never leave the truck unattended. It felt like we were under siege, with people lurking in the bushes around the camp just waiting to dash in and steal things.

Even when we went into the markets to buy supplies we had to have at least 2 people remaining with the vehicle to prevent thefts.

 

On one occasion one of the other groups on camp reported a theft to the police. A short while later the police came to the camp and asked the person who'd made the report to come with them to the police station. They were told that the police had arrested a suspect and wanted positive identification.

The person (accompanied by his group leader) was taken to a cell where police were holding a man down on a table while others beat the soles of his feet with a rubber hose. They were trying to get him to confess.

The victim of the theft honestly had no idea if this was the real thief; it had been dark and the guy had run off into the bushes before he could get a good look at him. When he told the police that he could not identify the man they said not to worry, they would make him confess. He asked them to stop; he said he didn't think it was the person who had stolen from him. The police apparently looked very disappointed and escorted him out of the police station.

 

A digression

Those of you that have been following this journey from the start will remember I mentioned a certain nut job (let's refer to her as NJ)from New Zealand who nearly got us all arrested in Algiers.

Well, throughout the trip her social skills were constantly reaching new depths. The stories are too many to mention and some of them are quite disgusting but there are a couple spring to mind here.

This woman, was probably the stingiest person I have ever encountered. Throughout the trip, after meals we would clean up our camp to leave as little trace of our presence as possible. We would burn what we could on the campfire then bury any other rubbish with the embers.

We kept large re-sealable tins to give to local villagers as they had multiple uses for them.

 

One day, when the cooks were rooting through the lockers for a fresh tin of powdered soup (yes we dined well) they were perturbed to open a tin and find it full of stale bread. On investigation they discovered that our dear NJ had been collecting bits of bread that were about to be thrown out and storing them in the empty tins. She would then dip them in water and eat them as a snack. It saved her having to buy biscuits or other snacks.

 

In Bangui, just when we thought that she couldn't surprise us any more she managed it.

We were stuck in Bangui for almost 2 weeks so everyone had a turn a cooking and market shopping. Usually these tasks were done in teams of 2.

On her day to shop our dear woman went into town with her team mate. The team mate returned alone and we naturally asked where NJ was. She said that NJ was still in the market but that she couldn't take any more and had left her to it. Apparently in order to make the food budget stretch further, she was bargaining for the over-ripe fruit and vegetables that the vendors were going to throw out. A short while later NJ returned with a very satisfied smile on her face. The smell emanating from her shopping bags was powerful. I don't know how many of you are familiar with the smell of over-ripe guavas, but it is not one you can ignore.

 

When everyone else expressed their disgust at what she expected them to eat, she simply said 'fine, I'll eat them myself.'

 

A few days later we discovered that she had secreted here hoard of over-ripe guavas in the tins. She opened one of the tins to find that over-ripe had now become rotting and even more unpleasantly smelly.

It was then that a fellow passenger took it into their own hands to throw out the vile mush and crush the tins so they could not be used again.

I have never eaten a guava since. Even the faintest smell of them makes me feel ill.

 

Back to the story.

 

Being confined to Bangui was not bringing out the best in us. One of the big thrills of overland travel is that every day is different. New landscapes, new cultures.

There was little to like about Bangui, our enforced stay there represented our failure to get where we wanted to be and the group members who were not travelling on British passports were beginning to resent the fact that they were being held up. Even the appeal of occasional forays into one of the air conditioned patisseries began to pall.

 

Our days were frustrating. Some of us found a rocky spot on the river shore where we could go swimming, choosing to risk whatever parasites the water might be harbouring so we could escape the heat and humidity. The water flowed rapidly through rocks and we could see no vegetation or still pools where parasites might lie in wait.

It was not long before we had a regular swimming club.

 

One night we were woken by the most amazing thunderstorm. The rain fell in torrents and began pooling on the ground. Our tents were arranged in a circle and a bolt of lightning hit the ground right in the middle of the circle. I remember the blinding flash and the noise of it sizzling its way through the rain. Our tents began floating and we all retreated to the back of the truck until morning.

 

All of this against the simmering backdrop of imminent elections and the unease that they always seem to engender in African countries.

 

As it became evident that we would not be crossing the river into Zaire we began to talk of alternate routes. In theory we had 2 choices: to head north east around CAR and then drop into Uganda or to continue eastwards into Southern Sudan. In the end, the choice was made for us. There were tribal disputes and conflicts in the Karamoja region of Uganda and we were advised not to travel through there. So that left Southern Sudan as our only option.

 

John & I made it clear to everyone that although James would not be going into Zaire, if any of them wished to make their own arrangements they were free to do so.

A Swiss couple and an Australian couple were very keen to see Zaire but were anxious about leaving the security of the group.

We suggested that they might approach one of the non-British groups at the campsite to see if they could hitch a lift.

 

Goodbye Bangui

Eventually, having exhausted every possible way of obtaining visas for Zaire and our own patience.

Even though our itinerary had a certain amount of flexibility built in, we were far behind schedule and everyone wanted to get moving again.

 

With the decision made we packed up camp and left Bangui, heading first north and then east towards the border with Sudan.

Even though we were not going where we had hoped, spirits were lifted simply because we had left Bangui and when the tarmac ran out and we found ourselves in the bush again it was a happy moment for of us.

 

A couple of days later we reached Kembe Falls on the Kotto River.

 

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From Kembe we passed through Bangassou, frustratingly a stone's throw across the river from Zaire.

 

With so many tributaries flowing into the Ubangui River, crossings were numerous and often proved to be a gathering point as vehicles waited to cross. Those in smaller vehicles waited until there was someone else there who could assist them if they got stuck.

 

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Some used rope drawn ferries,

 

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at others the original bridge had been washed away long ago, to be replaced with a makeshift (now permanent) pontoon.

 

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Usually there were locals in attendance, ready to earn some 'cadeaux' for helping us transfer the ramps from one side to the other.

 

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At times it was hard to believe that we were still in the same country as Bangui. There seemed to be little real contact between these rural villages and Bangui and it was clear from the roadside shrines we saw that many of the villages still subscribed to tribal fetish beliefs.

 

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The scenery kept changing from open plains to dense forest.

On one occasion we were driving through a forest when we spotted a man in amongst the trees.

 

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He was gardening, using the rich soil of the forest floor and the shade to grow things he could not grow out in the sunshine. There was no village nearby. So we had no idea how far he travelled each day to tend his garden.

 

We'd travelled on some pretty remote roads in the course of our journey, but the road from Bangassou to the Sudanese border was one of the worst maintained of the lot. At times it was as the truck was climbing a rock face. On one particular day we drove for almost 8 hours and covered less than 100 kilometres. And all the time, less than 50km to the south of us was Zaire.

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TonyQ

@@Soukous

So glad you are continuing this report. I'm glad you fixed the scanner (a bit of string and garden hose?)

This is a fascinating story - what a trip. Excellent writing and great to see the pictures.

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Soukous

Garden hose didn't work on the scanner @@TonyQ

Re-installing the drivers 4 times did the trick.

 

I was just thinking how simple life was in Africa in 1980 - no PCs, no mobile phones, no sat nav, no satellite TV aerials bolted onto every house in every village. Just a devotion to Bob Marley and Coca Cola.

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