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Soukous

A journey back in time

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Soukous

the final installment

 

After what seemed an eternity of grindingly slow progress we reached the border with Sudan.

Once we'd crossed and left the border post behind the desert just spread out all around us.

I cannot remember a huge amount about this part of our journey. I think we were all a bit dejected by our failure to get into Zaire and Sudan held little allure for us.

Once we reached Juba we only really wanted to stay long enough to refill our fuel tanks and then move on again. By now most people were tired – our journey was already about 3 weeks behind schedule - and just wanted to reach Nairobi.

At that time fuel was a scarce commodity in south Sudan, especially as we wanted quite a lot, and we criss crossed the city on a series of wild goose chases to garages that were supposed to have stocks of diesel.

We did make a token visit to the Greek Club in Juba, but our visit was as much about trying to get a lead on where we could find fuel as it was about enjoying a cold beer. It would have been foolish to pass up the opportunity though and we didn't.

When we did eventually find fuel we were only able to get a small quantity and we hoped that it would be enough to see us as far as Lokichokio in Kenya.

Games of chicken in No Man's Land

Once we had officially left Sudan we had a lengthy drive through an area of no-man's land to reach the Kenyan border. Where the land actually ceased being Sudanese and became Kenyan was not exactly clear and the local truck drivers seemed to take great pleasure in preying on our lack of knowledge.

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The road was atrocious. It resembled a piece of corrugated iron, except that the corrugations were deeper and much more uneven. The only way to make any progress was to try and gain enough speed to ride along the top. In a tired and ailing Bedford truck this was easier said than done and we endured a shaking and rattling that shook loose everything in the vehicle in an attempt to gain warp speed.

Just when we thought we'd made it one of two things would happen: (1) we'd spot a massive pothole or other obstacle and have to slow down again or (2) a local truck would come charging towards us from the opposite direction determined to claim the least bumpy side of the road as its own.

I should have mentioned: In Sudan they drive on the right hand side of the road, in Kenya they drive on the left hand side. We had no idea which country we were in and therefore no idea which was the correct side of the road to drive on. Even if we had known I doubt it would have made any difference. In this game of chicken we were most definitely out of our league.

In the bleak, featureless landscape it was not easy to find suitable places to camp for the night that offered any kind of shelter. Often it was just a matter of driving far enough away from the road that it disappeared over the horizon.

The perpetual shaking the road was dishing out meant that we were constantly expecting some part of James to break off.

When it happened it took us a moment to realise what it was. The engine was still running but we had come to a standstill. A familiar smell told us that the clutch plate had sheared off.

We were stranded. Again!

Having seen the standard of local driving it was not very comforting for us to be broken down on the road. Every time a truck went by we were bathed in the cloud of dust and grit it sucked up in its wake.

Luckily, it was fairly early in the day. We began attempting to flag down one of the passing trucks. Waving frantically until it was clear the driver had no intention of stopping and then covering eyes, nose and mouth with something to keep out the inevitable dust cloud.

Eventually – it was probably only an hour or so – someone stopped and John hitched a lift with him to Lokichokio to go in search of a new clutch plate. We knew Lokichokio was only a small town and that he'd be unlikely to find what he needed there. In all probability he'd have to carry on to Lodwar where we knew there was at least one garage. The earliest we could reasonably expect John to return would be the day after tomorrow, if he got lucky with lifts.

With that in mind we unloaded what we'd need and set up camp a short distance from the road. This was probably the only place since we'd left the Sahara that our camp was not besieged by curious local villagers. One or two truck drivers stopped to ask if we were OK and see if they could help, but once we explained our situation they wished us luck and drove on.

It was late afternoon when we heard a truck slowing down. This one wasn't one of the freight trucks but a Kenyan army truck and no sooner had it stopped than we saw John jump down from the cab.

He told us to get everything packed up as quickly as possible because they were going to tow us to Lokichokio.

We didn't pack up really, we just threw everything into the back of James while the soldiers attached a tow bar from the back of their truck to the front of ours. There was nothing leisurely about their movements and they wanted to get going as soon as possible.

They obviously had the same approach to driving over the corrugations as we had and picked up speed quickly. In less than a minute we were travelling faster than at any time since we'd left Spain more than 4 months earlier.

Luckily, although we couldn't drive ourselves, we could still run the engine and we did so in order to keep the brakes fully charged.

It was intermittently thrilling and terrifying to be towed at such high speed. If they made a mistake or had a problem it would be our problem too, there would be no time for us to react.

Whilst I clung onto the wheel, John explained that he'd had no luck finding the parts we needed in Lokichokio and no luck either finding anyone who could give him a lift to Lodwar.

In a moment of brilliance he'd gone to the local army post and told them that a group of tourists were stranded in the desert an hour out of town.

He'd played up the fact that there were women on board and that he was worried about bandits attacking them. There had been reports of bandit activity in the region. It was one of the reasons the truck drivers were so antsy.

Anyhow, John had laid it on thick enough that the post commander had decided to send out a truck to bring us to the safety of Lokichokio. It turned out one of the reasons they were driving so fast was that they were concerned about bandits too and didn't like being out after dark either.

The next morning, with us all safely ensconced in Lokichokio, John travelled down to Lodwar to buy a replacement clutch plate.

Once he was back it was a relatively simple task to replace the damaged one and we were able to be on our way again.

and Again!

Not for long though. We hadn't even reached Lodwar when James threw yet another tantrum. It was something to do with the gearbox and when we drained the oil out we saw that it contained a fine metal paste. Something inside the gearbox had disintegrated.

Normally, if you are going to dismantle a gearbox you try and find somewhere clean and dust free to work. Pretty much the exact opposite of a dusty roadside in the middle of the desert. We didn't have a choice though.

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This was going to be a fairly major job of work and John knew from his recent visit that the garage in Lodwar would not have the parts we needed. There was a chance we might find the parts in Kitale, Eldoret or Nakuru but there was no certainty. So rather than wasting time searching it was decided that I would take the bus from Lodwar directly to Nairobi, where we knew we could get the spares from the esteemed E Autos.

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In addition to the problem with James we also needed to make a decision about what would be best for the group. We were in Kenya now, within a stone's throw of our final destination and although some of them wanted to stay with the truck and complete their journey to the end, it made no sense at all for them to spend 4 days sitting by the side of the road going mad with boredom when they could travel on the bus to Nairobi.

John wanted to stay and take the gearbox apart, ready for my return with the parts and, in all frankness, he would rather be by himself for that than have the responsibility of looking after others. So, apart from 2 people who opted to stay with John for the purely practical reason of security, we started making arrangements to get people lifts to Lodwar with passing truck drivers so that they could catch a bus to Nairobi.

I don't remember much about my trip down to Nairobi. I was young and naïve at the time and all I could think about as getting the parts we needed and heading straight back again. I did enjoy a night in the New Mayfair Hotel though.

I had no problem finding the parts and only needed to spend 1 night in Nairobi before returning to John & James. As I climbed down from my hitched ride I saw that there was a small crowd of tribespeople milling around the truck.

At the time I was not familiar enough with the local tribes to know if they were Toposa or Turkana.

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DIy mechanics Rule 1 - Don't repair a gearbox in a sandstorm

John had rigged up the side tarpaulin to provide us with some shade and we laid sleeping mats onto the ground to try and make the workspace a little less uncomfortable.

The first job was to make sure that the parts I had obtained were the correct ones, and then to make a note of how everything fitted together so that we could rebuild the thing.

It was all going surprisingly well until a sandstorm blew up out of nowhere. Getting sand in the gearbox would be an absolute disaster so we did the only thing we could; we unhitched the canopy and let it fall all around us, resting on our heads. One of us held a torch while the other one began assembling the gearbox.

It was like a sauna in there. Sweat was pouring of us and making shitty working conditions even less pleasant. Under there it made no difference whether it was day or night, so we just kept going until we finished.

I cannot express the feeling of relief we felt when we were finally able to emerge from our work tent. If we'd had a crate of beer I think we'd have downed the lot.

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The next morning, when we tried to start the engine nothing happened. Come on! What now? Hadn't we suffered enough already?

This wasn't anything to do with the gearbox, it was an electrical problem. We turned the key, but the starter motor didn't respond.

It didn't take long to discover what had caused our latest headache. A whole bunch of wires were missing.

It seemed that the local people who had been hanging around the truck were interested in more than just our company. They saw the various wires with their coloured insulation as being perfect for adding to their jewellery and had ripped out whatever they could reach.

Despite the situation it was funny. Luckily we had enough spare wire to replace what was needed and finally made it to Lodwar.

The steak and eggs I had in Lodwar still ranks as one of the best meals I've ever eaten.

Now that we were in Kenya, and on a main road we were able to worry a lot less about James breaking down. Not because he wouldn't but because we knew that we would be able to find whatever we might need to repair him withou too much hassle.

Emboldened by this certainty we decided that there was no rush to reach Nairobi and drove to the western shores of Lake Turkana.

I had no idea then, as I looked across the water that I would be spending so much time on the opposite shore over the coming 2 years.

With tar roads to drive on and an abundant supply of restaurants we enjoyed drive through Kenya. We stopped at Lake Bogoria, Lake Naivasha and Mt Longonot before driving through Nairobi and out to our campsite at Langata.

Lake Bogoria

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The original plan had been for us to spend some time in Nairobi and then pick up another group to make the return journey northwards. Due to our late arrival however, the northbound trip had been cancelled.

I know it is a small thing given all the troubles we had with James, but during that entire trip we never had a single puncture and never broke an axle or ball joint. Apparently these were the most common breakages on overland journeys.

John & I mooched around Nairobi for a few days and used James as our private safari vehicle to visit Nairobi National Park.

John decided to fly home; he had things to do and a girlfriend to catch up with. With no pressing commitments I decided to stay and applied to one of the local safari companies for a job.

Stories had already circulated about the state of the truck we had just brought into Nairobi and for some reason it gave us kudos that we had managed to get it there at all. The local operator thought I must be some kind of mechanical wizard and hired me immediately to drive his weary Bedford trucks on a route between Nairobi and Loiyangalani on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana.

No sooner had one adventure ended than another had begun.

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Zim Girl

Excellent trip report. I have really enjoyed reading this.

 

The last three Lake Bogoria pictures are wonderful.

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Treepol

@@Soukous, I really enjoyed this journey back in time. The photo of the flamingos at Lake Bogoria is fantastic.

 

I live for the day when I can be 3 weeks late back from a safari...and it doesn't matter!

 

Do you think you will have time to write something of your Lake Turkana adventures sometime?

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Soukous

Thanks @@Zim Girl, @@Treepol

 

James was bought by a local operator who said they wanted to use the truck for spare parts. Then later i heard that they were hoping to fix the various faults and sell him on as a working truck.

 

Yes, it has occurred to me to do composite TR on my Turkana Bus trips. But I think I'll wait a while before I embark on that as this one was just so time consuming. I had no idea when I began how much time it would take up. I will do it though.

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Soukous

I mentioned in the last installment how naive I was back then. Here's proof.

 

During the course of our journey I had got used to receiving a lot of attention in many of the rural villages we visited. I had longish blond hair which was a novelty for the villagers. The first time a village elder came up a stroked my arm I was quite surprised, but after a while I got used to having my arms and legs stroked by old men and women. It was the blond hairs that intrigued them.

 

Anyhow, we were driving through a village in CAR. John was driving and I was sitting on the right hand side just gazing out of the window (James was a left hand drive truck). As usual we'd wave to the kids in the villages.

I saw a young woman leaning in the doorway of her hut raise he hand to her mouth and blow me a kiss.

 

I couldn't get the moment out of my mind. And the more I thought about it the better looking she was.

 

For weeks and months afterwards that image would flash into my mind and haunt me.

 

Then suddenly, out of the blue, I understood. She wasn't blowing me a kiss, she was asking for a cigarette. :huh: A dream shattered.

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Terry

Fantastic story! Thanks for taking the time to share with us. What a study in how to lead a group that must have been! I really enjoyed the pictures of the African people and their life style.

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Soukous

Thank you @@Terry. Group leading is like a box of chocolates.

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Sangeeta

@Souskous - Can't begin to tell you how enjoyable this has been. The photos really capture that sense of a time gone by. I wonder to what extent modern overland trips resemble trips like these? Zaire notwithstanding, this was an amazing first trip into Africa. Though I think I now know more about the internal mechanics of Bedford trucks than I ever thought I would :D

 

Ouagadougou is a favorite name in our family! We have two dogs at home - one really calm and placid, while the other is a nervous wreck. We call the calm one Ouagadougou and the neurotic one Funafuti :D

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TonyQ

@@Soukous

Fantastic report with a great last chapter

The description of being in between 2 countries and not knowing which side of the road to drive (and it not making a difference!)

Really enjoyable - thank you for puting the effort in with all of the scanning. I look forward to the report on your new job.

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Soukous

yes Ouagadougou is a great name. My other favourite is Bobo Diolasso.

 

I like the new avatar @@Sangeeta but there seems to a pith mising

Edited by Soukous

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Geoff

A ripping adventure.

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Kitsafari

an awesome report. i'm not sure how i missed it for nearly 3 months, but thank goodness for the last instalment, which means i can read it all in one go. hilarious, thrilling and serious in parts, it all reads like a great book.

 

i wonder how much changes have happened to all those places you went through - i wonder how much modernity have caught up with them. have you ever thought of doing a trip now, running through those very places with James and John?

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Soukous

I got lucky.

While rooting through some boxes in search of something completely un-related, I came across 2 boxes of old slides.

Right there on the top were 2 sheets of transparencies from my trans Africa trip in 1980-1981.

I don't know how they got separated from the rest but it gave my day a great start.

 

here are a few more of the village of Sangha in the Dogon region of Mali,

 

The Bandiagara Escarpment

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Looking down on the village from the escarpment

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Formet pygmy dwellings in the cliff face, now used as burial chambers because it keeps the bodies safe from animals.

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Houses & grain stores in Sangha

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Soukous

Following on from the above, here are a few more shots of Mopti in Mali.

When I did the TR I was very disappointed that I could not find the images I wanted - I recall Mopti as being an incredibly vibrant and bustling market town and the images just didn't convey that.

 

These are better. They show just how busy the waterfront was and how much the town relies on the river with people using boats rather than buses to get to market.

 

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Kitsafari

wonderful shots that bring the scenes to life. that second pix of the boat laden with so much goods - reminds me of buses that get piled up right to the top with goods and stocks.

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graceland

Hey buddy, you got a cigarette? (Kiss, Kiss)

 

(I don't know why, but I found that hilarious.) I thought you were going to tell us you went back, found her and she is now the mother of your children. :blink:

 

 

The entire journey was like being at a movie. Just Loved It. All of it.

The images of your journey kept beautifully intact in the box to everyone's delight.

 

Most enjoyable read, with pics to boot!

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Soukous

Hey buddy, you got a cigarette? (Kiss, Kiss)

 

(I don't know why, but I found that hilarious.) I thought you were going to tell us you went back, found her and she is now the mother of your children. :blink:

 

 

Ha Ha! Now THAT would have been a story. :D

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