When we arrived in the USA we were still dazed and sad about losing Luxy a few days earlier. We decided that the best place for us would be with good friends while we waited for the car, and we had booked our flights right through to Las Vegas. After 28 hours, we were at home in Vegas with Alpha, Christine’s good friend of 28 years where we happily stayed for the next 7 weeks. I won’t go into too much detail on what we did for all that time, but I sure kept myself busy being the handy man around the house, fixing what ever I could get my hands on and Christine cooked many dinners, including some Kiwi favourites which went down really well. Alpha really did make us welcome and she allowed us to befriend her two wonderful cats Marmite and Enzo (and Odie the dog of course) which really helped us to get over the sudden loss of Luxy.
After our first week in Las Vegas, we woke up to the sickening news that a mass shooting had occurred less than 10 miles from where we were. Some of Alpha’s good friends, including a very close friend, were at the event and the husband of one of her friends was a victim. We had slept through it all but in the middle of the night, Alpha, who is a nurse, was called into her hospital to help attend to the injured. All the area hospitals took injured people that night and for the next week, it was all people were talking about. The day after the shooting the streets were all but empty and it was very, very, strange. That day flights were suspended except for Federal agencies coming to investigate and every available rental car in Vegas had headed out of town. Events were cancelled and a big area all around the shooting was closed off. When you take out all the visitors, Las Vegas is actually a small place by USA standards, in fact not too much bigger than Auckland. Take out the 800,000 visitors that arrive every week and it’s like a ghost town. That was Vegas for around 3 days until everything started to open again. As for the investigation, it was news for a week or so, then when everyone started to realise this guy was just a complete nutter it went quiet. Theories exist about other gunmen and shooters from other buildings, but nothing has come from any of it. As for guns here in the USA, it’s happened. People will never give up the ability to be armed so forget even trying it at the moment. So what, if people want to have guns? So what, if they even want to carry a gun around? But assault rifles… everyone knows that is completely ridiculous. Somewhere along the line they were approved for hunting use and now some believe that it’s in fact dangerous to be hunting with anything less. “got to be able to stop that Bear before it gets you” sort of thing... I don’t think it will change any time soon. When it became clear it was just a crazy shooter who had a collection of guns people just shrugged and life moved on. Its everyone’s right to have guns and every now and then some of those people have a bad day.
When we were in Vegas and doing some shopping, we chatted to an attendant. We usually get asked about our accent and it often leads to a chat. This chap (maybe mid 20’s) asked a few questions about New Zealand and we touched on our political leaders then he came up with a real strange question along the lines of the USA being the only democracy in the world? Interesting that someone would even consider that thought, what with the internet in his pocket and all, but over the next month I got to understanding why. With news outlets constantly make statements like ‘leader of the free world’ and ‘the USA is the richest nation on earth’ and the only ‘truly free nation’ some might start to really believe it. Also has a bit to do with the fact that the current president here is new to politics. The rest of the world is constantly in shock at what he says and what he is doing. The way he has placed his family in various positions of authority, the policies that will benefit his circle and his constant lack of diplomacy on the world stage. Fact is, if he had spent a few more years as a politician he would have learned to hide and twist things much better and President Donald Trump would in fact appear like a lot of the ones before him. It’s staggering to see the level of unchallenged lies about BOTH sides of the political field that are quoted by so called experts on the TV news channels. Add this to the current epidemic of fake and misleading news that’s all over social media and you get some young North Americans not truly understanding global events at all, but would be willing to deploy to a foreign nation to fight for ‘freedom’ because their president said it was at risk… (oh and you can keep the gun when you get home).
After we travelled through Africa and were witness to and read about the corruption at every level of the public service and government, we have really had our eyes opened to this and to be honest, we have been a little fascinated by how it all works. The police officer taking 1/3rd of the posted fine as cash with no infringement written up can’t do that for long before the boss catches on and either stops it, or asks for his cut. The way we were approached for bribes quite openly many places in Africa would indicate that the boss didn’t stop it, so it must have worked its way up the chain. By the way that some travellers discuss various countries on line and in forums and the hassle with being asked for bribes, it would be easy to draw the conclusion that somewhere a politician is being paid to not address a situation that is known about all around the world. So, for corruption to flourish it needs assistance from the highest office. Both of us were taught how to spot the signs of this sort of activity when we worked in the bank and it was easy to understand the justification people give themselves when they live in a very poor country, but we didn’t expect to see as much corruption as we are seeing right here in the USA. In fact, the level of it is staggering and completely open. They call it Lobbying. Lobbyists are employed by an interest groups of any sort or corporation to discuss their clients’ needs with the law makers and politicians and to see if any agreements can be reached. Sounds harmless enough until you see the results of this. How can a politician stand up for a platform and what they believe in and were voted in on, then when it comes time for the senate or congress to vote, all of a sudden, they have changed their minds? The turnaround can be staggering and clearly, they have been ‘bought’ in some way. It’s still corruption and really no different to what we have seen in Africa just bigger numbers and more important people doing it.
We have been sort of forced to pay attention to the US political situation because 7 out of 10 people we meet in the USA want to discuss it with us and of course its all over the news all the time. Its hard to avoid it. I have started to ask people not who they voted for but just if they voted at all. Over 45% of people eligible to vote, didn’t… but 100% of people have an opinion. I don’t normally have much interest in politics as it my belief that very, very, few people enter politics to make a difference. I believe most are more interested on the power, authority and the fortune and fame it may give them. The few that really want to make a difference don’t last long and will be toeing the party line before long, or quit. I’m getting old and have seen it too many times for it to be isolated cases. I also don’t like to get into discussions about politics, but here I am, 1400 words into a political rant. I promise this will be the last you hear from me about politics.
It really did feel like another lifetime ago that we were sitting in Patrick’s lounge in Fiji listening to his stories about travelling from Tanzania to Asia and eventually New Zealand in a camper truck with his wife and 2 small children. It is the reason we were rolling into Tanzania right then and I had been thinking about Patrick for the last few weeks. He had made a life in Tanzania and talked fondly about the place. I know he had a lot of fun there and therefore so should we. I held on to that thought as we pulled up behind a truck at the border bridge and started the usual barter for local currency with several money changers that had approached us. This has been the same process since we left Morocco many months ago and we have had zero problems with any of them. In fact, some will even go in your favour to get the business (for what ever reason) We discussed rates and agreed on a figure and handed over the cash. About $50USD worth of Malawian cash. He fumbled through his pockets and then told me he was going to get change, and just walked away. It took about 60 seconds to realise what had just happened as the other people started to fade away as well and all of a sudden, we were alone. Well, a first time for everything and it had to happen in one of the places we were looking forward to visiting!
We moved to the border and waited, and waited. If we were on foot it would have been faster, maybe only an hour, but we had a car. It needed to be inspected, twice. I then had to wait for the customs people to process the temporary import permit for the Hilux, that included a notation in my passport that was supposed to have a special stamp on the way out... (I didn’t get it). I was directed to pay the $50USD import permit in local currency that we didn’t have, so I had to visit the bank. When I returned I was told I had to PAY it to the same bank I had just been to, so back I went again... Finally, we were ready to go. I head back to the car that was parked in the shade while I was running through the border circus parade only to find that we had once again been robbed by money changers! When I first went to the bank, I met a local money changer that had a shop just on the Tanzanian side of the gate. The guys with shops are usually a little more honest, albeit a little harder to get the best rate from, and we use these people from time to time when we don’t like the look of the guys that run up to the car. I had asked him to go and see Christine while I sorted the paperwork for the car, and he had performed an oldie but a goodie on Christine. We had 3 x $100US notes that we had held for quite a while. We were pretty familiar with them as every so often Christine counted the cash in the various accounts and currencies so we knew what we had… Christine handed him one note and he changed it for an OK rate, so she handed him another note and asked for some more. He made some small talk and then asked for the money. But I’ve given it to you! No, you have not… and so on and so on. He wasn’t a small guy and neither were his 7 friends crowding around the car window, so she was intimidated and not in a position to even argue. His defence was that he was a Christian and therefore honest... It was all over when I finished with Customs so we just roared off an amazing $300USD lighter after a shocking border experience so annoyed we forgot to get the insurance for the car… Welcome to Tanzania.
Other than what Patrick had told us about the place, the only other things we had heard were from other overlanders and most of that was about the traffic police. The Tanzania traffic police are the best funded in East Africa and are also considered the most corrupt. It took us 2 days to meet our first police officer and it lived up to the tales we had heard. Due to the corrupt officers taking cash, a new system had been put into place where the fine is paid by a transfer of money through mobile payment or at a bank, no cash is to be given on the road side. So, we along with 5 or 6 other vehicles were all pulled over and within a few minutes, it was just us and one other car that had Botswana plates, so another tourist. Turns out we were all speeding and somehow, we ALL missed seeing the sign with the new speed limit… I said OK, got me… and waited for the ticket. Well what a drama all that turned out to be. The fine wasn’t too much, but they just wanted it in cash… To cut a long (3 hour wait long) story short, we didn’t want to pay cash, mostly because we STILL didn’t have any due to being ripped off at the border…so after ages of trying to allow us to pay by transfer or at the bank later, we went all the way back to the last town and got cash and all the way back to the stop and I just paid them and drove off. It was a real ticket and they did give a real receipt so maybe the cash did find its way into the road sign repair fund after being counted in the treasury as income or maybe it was just lunch money for Officer Janice for the next month.
It was much later when I thought back on what had happened that day and realised the sequence of events. Of the row of vehicles pulled over, the first to move on were the 2 trucks. This is because the police know that the truck drivers know, it’s a cost of doing business and the price is set, maybe 5000s. ($2.25USD) and the sooner they can get on the way the better. Then it was the 2 locals. For the official 30,000s ($13.50USD) fine, a 10,000s bribe is the normal price for no paperwork and go. So, us and the Botswana registered car didn’t know this and if we had, would have been happy to only pay a third of the price for breaking the law, and turn a 3 hour stop into a 3-minute stop. We did of course remember this tactic and when we were eventually stopped and asked for the insurance we never ended up getting, we just slipped him 10,000s and everything was suddenly OK.
We headed to Bagamoyo and an Airbnb we had picked out. It was a house with a fully walled compound just out of the main town, beach and market. I guess it was one of the nicest places in the area and the owner also hosted young European students that are completing studies with a 3 or 6-month internship at a local clinic, so we had some fun times with the other guests. Luxy had the run of the place but tended to stay close and usually napped in our room. It was a really nice place but a bit rough and had no air conditioning. We also had to find a shipping agent and decided we needed to be closer to the port and the business district and see some of the people face to face so we moved on to the capital of Dar es Salaam and our new ‘home’ at The Riverview Hotel.
We ended up staying at the Riverview Hotel for 5 long weeks and although we had some good times and met some really nice folk, like Rosie who was the manager and Mr Karlie who was a guest and an important local politician, it was also some of the worst times we had on the entire trip so far. Dar se Salaam is the capital of Tanzania and a large modern city. The Riverview was on the edge of the city, 30-minute drive to the port area and where the shipping agents all had offices. To stay any closer would have been double the price or more for the hotel. The entire shipping process was quite a nightmare to be honest. We were in a position to lose everything… The car cannot be replaced if it’s stolen or damaged any time between us leaving it with the agents and it arriving at the shippers’ depot. Once there, it will get the full ocean insurance. The process from start to finish, including the USA side was such a drama it is getting a blog of its own. I would have rather been faced with the stress of driving through Nigeria again than the stress of that shipping process.
Its also where we lost poor wee Luxy. She died in the Hotel the day we left the car at the port. It was sudden. 2 Days earlier she was fine and chasing her toys around the room as normal. She had a very quiet day the next day, but she was still eating. The very next morning, we took her straight to the vet who gave her something to try to lower the fever, but that night she died. Turns out she had an infection from the dental work we had done. It caused septicaemia and when it all happened there was nothing we could do. The meds the vet gave her would not have helped. It was absolutely heart wrenching. No words can describe how we felt to have had our little travel companion with us one day, and in fact all documented and ready to travel to the USA, and the next to be watching her fight for her life and die right there in front of us. Needless to say, it was very, very, tough, and still is.
We had booked several things to do once we had delivered the car but right on the spot we decided to leave to the USA and changed our flights and were gone in 3 days. So, it ended up that Tanzania, through no fault of anyone or anything in Tanzania or Tanzania itself, was absolutely terrible. We didn’t see any sights or attractions.
Luxy will always be remembered whenever we think of Africa and the most amazing, confronting, scary and rewarding things we have ever undertaken in our lives. It wasn’t just driving through Africa, it was the way we had approached and undertaken it, very unconventionally. We didn’t plan or research more than a few days ahead, it was our very first overland trip, we took only 10 days to get the car ready and we took along a stray kitten we found on our first full day on the continent. We shouldn’t have made it. But we did and one of the reasons was being able to turn around and pat our cat as she slept contentedly between the seats. Many times, we would have lengthy and frustrating police stops and drive off feeling angry only to feel it melt away after a soothing cuddle. I can remember trying to dodge potholes in Nigeria when we had 3 masked men on a motorbike right next to us and glancing back seeing her still sleeping and I actually joked with Christine that at least Luxy was relaxed. And the hours and hours of fun exploring the many campsites and countries we visited with her. She made a difference. She cemented herself forever in our memories as our real African wildcat.
So that was Africa. We hope you enjoyed it.
We entered Malawi knowing it was going to be our second to last country in Africa. The decision had been made now to leave and as with any decision like this, it was bitter sweet. Bitter that we were coming to the end of a pretty unique adventure and sweet that we would be moving on to the next adventure.
We crossed the border (the easiest and friendliest border BY FAR – nothing to even comment on!) and slowly travelled north towards Mzuzu, which was a busy city with all the facilities we needed to restock. The roads were in OK condition compared to some and the travelling was not too bad and apart for trucks, the traffic was very light with hardly any cars at all. We found an overland friendly hotel and checked in. Overland friendly means a place that will let you camp in the carpark and use the hotel facilities. In this case, we camped on the grass by the alfresco area and firepit. An amazing place in the town and interesting for Luxy as she had to share her territory with the hotel animals including 4 dogs, 3 cats and 6 Guinea pigs. The pet crazy owners loved Luxy and made several visits to say hello to her (oh, and to us if she wasn’t there!). While we were there, I started to look into the reason why the carpet in the front was always damp. I turned out to be the air conditioning condenser drain that Christine had accidentally kicked off with her feet. Although the fix was very easy, just replacing the hose and securing it with a cable tie, the carpet was another story. I ended up removing the front seats, console and everything else that was bolted down and lifting the carpet up so it could drain and dry. Well, it took 2 days to dry, even with the nice temperatures as it was much wetter than I expected. I also found a number of ‘lost’ things that fell between the seats, and lots of popcorn.
We had heard a lot about Malawi from other overlanders (and Christine’s old boss) and we were pretty keen to visit one of the lake front resort style places that the country was famous for (in overland circles) so headed to the middle (north to south) of the lake and looked for a place to stay. Using the iOverlander app, and a recommendation from some French cycle tourers, we decided to try an unusual looking place called Kachere Kastle. It was indeed a castle looking place that had been built entirely by the British expat couple owners over 7 years. It was amazing and a one-night stay turned into 4 days of relaxing and unwinding in an amazing lake front location. The decision was made easy for us by Luxy who just loved the place too. It had a big empty lot right over the fence by our campsite and when she wasn’t running around the grassed campground climbing trees, she was exploring and hunting in the empty lot. For the entire stay we were the only guests. We only left when we run out of food!
Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the southern part of Africa but you wouldn’t know that by talking and interacting with the people. They are absolutely wonderful people and we had lots of fun the entire time we were there. One thing however stood out to us and it’s what I call the charcoal economy. People living in poverty still need to eat and these people can not just go to the shop and buy ready-to-eat food. It is usually raw ingredients and will always need to be prepared and cooked. None of the small villages have power (and every second Sunday the power company cuts the power to the entire country for the day…) and very few can afford cooking gas, so the only option is charcoal, which is actually a great way to cook, unless you want to preserve the forest. This was very evident as soon as we arrived in the country. It looked like farmland but when you looked a little closer, it was just barren land due to deforestation, primarily for cooking fuel. For some people, the only income they can make is collecting wood and making charcoal. They get the wood and lay it in a trench and light it on fire. Its then covered with soil and the wood burns with low oxygen making charcoal. We could see that the authorities have attempted to limit the collection of wood by making laws that you could only carry what you could stack on the rear carrier of your bicycle. Oh wow! These guys were absolute masters in stacking wood on the carrier of their bikes. It would be propped and balanced and some we saw were over 7ft high, but always and only on the rear carrier of the bike. (Sadly, I didn’t get a good clear photo of this and had to get a photo from the internet - thanks to Pinterest for the images I used). The government in Malawi has recently struck a deal with a multi-national oil company who are drilling (right in the middle of the lake) for oil which could very well see the country have a ready supply of cooking gas for future generations and I really hope they will also benefit in other ways from this potential wealth but until then, a family relies on charcoal to survive, therefore, the charcoal economy.
Our last stop was a small and pretty run-down campground towards the top of the lake. It wasn’t very nice and the camping was on soft sand that got into everything. We were relaxing in the evening sitting by the car and noticed Luxy weaving her way towards us looking a little unusual and quite unsure of her footing and direction. I went over and scoped her up and straight away we could see she had her eyes closed and was in quite some distress. She couldn’t tell us what was going on but we figured she had something in her eyes so we put her in the tent and carefully wiped her face with a damp towel. She settled down after 20 minutes or so but we checked on her right through the night. The next morning, we spoke to the camp owner who told us they have quite a few Mozambique spitting cobras in the area and she had probably tried to make friends with one, unsuccessfully. That morning, she ate as usual and by mid-morning she was chasing bugs again all be it with squinting eyes and by the afternoon she was back to her normal self as if nothing had happened, so she was very lucky and may have seen it coming and avoided the worst of the venom. Small dogs are often hit with venom from these snakes and the results can be mixed with some not surviving and some having no bad effects at all. She fell in the middle and we were glad that this encounter would have been a good lesson for her to not play with any more snakes!
The next day, we headed to the border and our last country in Africa. We were feeling a bit sad about the trip coming to an end, until we reached the border gate to Tanzania and it all come flooding back…
We crossed into Zambia with a relatively smooth border crossing, but things were starting to become more disorganised on the Zambian side, with several booths to visit and none of them had signs and were all over the place even though you had to visit them one after the other. We ended up buying 2 ferry tickets and no carbon tax but eventually we were released into the lovely country of Zambia. We had booked a hotel because we wanted to be able to visit Victoria Falls for the day and not have to worry about Luxy at a campground and true to form the address given was nowhere near the place, but we really got to know Livingstone quite well. The next day we packed for a day walk and headed to Zimbabwe.
The Victoria Falls separate Zimbabwe and Zambia and to cross to Zim we had to first cross a forged steel bridge that was built in 1905 to get tourists to the falls. It’s still doing the same job now but it of course equipped with a bungy jump if you’re so inclined. This was the first border we had walked across and we were quite looking forward to the change. The place was however completely set up for walk across visitors and within 20 minutes we were in the town of Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. What a nice little town it was. I say that because it was setup to cater for tourists just like Christine and me. It had nice shops, fast food, clean streets and a post office. Tourist police were on every corner and they all said hello, as did most of the people we walked past in fact. All in all, it was a nice day except that the falls is not a free attraction. They did have a great gift shop and display boards that told the story of the falls but it cost us $30USD each to walk along a trail that has a dozen viewpoints to see the falls. Our fee combined was around a weeks wages for the average office worker or semi skilled worker in Zimbabwe. The equivalent of charging $450NZD each to see the Huka Falls in NZ in terms of buying power. The falls were great though. We thought they would be roaring as the rainy season has just finished in the north but the bulk of the water takes some months to seep out of the delta and flow down to the falls, so it is the middle of the dry season that the falls are actually really flowing hard. For us the really interesting part was the geology of the area and how the falls were formed in the first place. It was a nice day in Zim, but we were happy to have visited that way and glad we didn’t drive. Luxy was happy to see us but sadly for her, Zimbabwe won’t be on her list of countries visited.
The next day we headed off to explore Zambia. It a rugged country with lots of mountains and river valleys. More than half its GDP comes from copper exports and the roads were clogged with trucks loaded with giant ingots of copper heading in all directions. The country also has a number of parks and wildlife reserves that we could see on the maps and in the guide books but like the rest of southern Africa, they were catering to the top end of the market and we were really wondering where we would go and what we would see. We headed to a campground we found on iOverlander and settled in. It was a pretty average campground, confirmed by Luxy who was struggling to find things to do that interested her longer than a minute, when along came Roger and Jenni. They are South African and really wonderful people. From the second we met Roger, who looked at the room they had booked and when Jenni was sorting out the check-in, wandered casually over and told us ‘the room is absolute crap, as is the rest of this place’… we knew we were going to have a great evening. Seldom do we start chatting to people in the afternoon and end up talking all evening, but it was easy with these two. They were great to be around and we had loads in common to talk about. We clicked with them and shared our travel stories for hours. We talked a lot about the places they had been in Zambia and they gave us a lot of great tips for camping and off-road trails. The next morning Jenni gave me a small memento of the evening, a small curved tooth she had found at a campsite by a river they had stayed at. It was very cool and it sat perfectly on the edge of the tachometer. Roger also had a really cool gift for me, a slingshot! Well, it was for Luxy really as it scares off the monkeys. The campground monkeys all around Africa are often (usually) pinged using slingshots to stop them raiding the customers vehicles and campsites so I never needed anything to shoot from it, they run just at the sight of it! The next day we went different directions and we headed east feeling confident about the places we were going to visit on the way to Malawi.
Over the next few days we really did have a lot of fun especially on the back roads and off-road trails Roger and Jenni had told us about. The locals we met were all very nice and welcoming and not too many of the street vendors attempted to triple charge us so the trip was going very well. One of the roads they told us about runs through Luangwa National Parks. The first stop was South Luangwa NP to see some lions!
What an awesome day we had. We entered the park and headed to where the guy at the gate had indicated some lions might be. We didn’t find any lions at that time, but plenty of other animals were wandering around and the park was really nice with great tracks and plenty of space to explore. In the afternoon, we thought the best thing would be to head back to the supposed lion spot and wait till dusk when they would be starting to stroll to the water hole. We had until 6:30pm which is great as many parks want the self-drive safari like us out around 4pm so the safari tours operators can offer the best experience for higher paying visitors and encourages people like us to take the tour… When we got close, we started to see safari cars loaded with people everywhere. Well what better way to find the lions than follow the people who should know where they are! I tagged along and soon I could see a circle of cars, maybe 7 or 8 stopped ahead. We were still wondering what they were looking at when a gap appeared and we could see a male lion lounging in the last of the days sun. WOW... At first, I couldn’t believe how close the cars were getting to him, within 1 or 2 meters sometimes. The lion really didn’t care at all and just went on sleeping. We watched from a way back for around 30 minutes as the safari cars came and went, then the old boy started to wake up. Just like Luxy, he rolled around and stretched a bit, then stopped rolling when he was right on his back, just like Luxy does! Then, right at that time, it was our turn to be in the best viewing spot for this guy and we drove up to maybe 2 meters from where he was lying. Holly shit… as we pulled up to the lion, the last few metres before we stopped we could see its eyes following the car! It was looking at Luxy, who was standing on the armrest looking out the left side back window. It rolled over a bit more so it could get a better view of her and just when I was sure it was going to get up and leap at the car all teeth and snarls, it just shut its eyes again and ignored us... It could have been exciting, but we would have been busted for having Luxy in the park and had some explaining to do.
That night we stayed at a great campsite that had elephants wander through at night. It was amazing to see them walk right past us so quietly yet so close! After another great day on the 4x4 tracks, we had another great wild camp just off the road heading to North Luangwa National Park. We then drove on to what was showing as the gate on all the online information and the mapping programs we were using but were turned away saying the road was 'broken' and we had to use the pontoon to cross the river further up. In the wet season, the rivers can do untold damage to roads and bridges and it’s not uncommon for roads to be washed out and bridges down for months if not years, so to go on a pontoon didn’t sound anything out of the normal. We drove for a few hours and rounded a corner to see a sign advertising a campground and we knew we were close to the park and sure enough a few 100 meters on we rounded a corner to see a pontoon floating on the river. It was secured with wire rope between each river bank and pulleys on the pontoon allowed it to float between makeshift piers on either side of the small but deep looking river that separated us from the park. We pulled up and looked at it for a few minutes, looked around and Christine said ‘must be a serve yourself affair’ as the place was silent and deserted and it all looked simple enough and designed for anyone to use, so we headed down and drove on. It was as it looked, very simple and in a few minutes, we were on the other side and preparing to drive off when a group of 6 or so men appeared on the side we had just left, and they were not happy. I went back to the pontoon and had a lengthy discussion, most of which revolved around a scruffy looking chap with an automatic weapon telling me we owed him $65USD for crossing his river. At this stage, all the experience we had gathered from driving through some of the most dangerous countries in the world told me that this was not a park employee. We have a rule of not stopping for armed men that are not wearing a uniform (sounds ridiculous but it’s a reality for this sort of travel) so I told him that we would pay for the service at the park office when we arrived, and off we went.
So started the circus that would last most of the day and ends with us thinking things had really gone too far! We drove through most of the park before we were stopped by some men that had the park name on hats (that some of them were wearing), and after another lengthy discussion we were turned around and we went back to the pontoon to pay the PARK fee... Turns out that the sign saying ‘Bush Camp’ should have said ‘North Luangwa National Park Entry and Registration’ but it didn’t… and the guy that was simply yelling over and over at me ‘you pay $65 to cross’ you pay $65 to cross’ should have been saying, ‘Welcome strangers, the fee to enter the park is $25USD each and $15USD for your vehicle please’ but he didn’t… The other surprising thing was the scruffy looking guy with the gun, now had a nice clean tee shirt on that had 'North Luangwa National Park' in a nice emblem right over his heart, the heart he covered with his right hand to swear to his boss he was wearing the shirt when he first met us, but all that happened later.
When we got back, we paid the fee and as we were paying one of the now smaller group saw the tooth Jenni had given me on the dashboard. I was told to ‘give it’ to the ringleader and they told me that I stole it from the park! Again, it’s not uncommon for people to look into the car and just ask for things they see and the answer is always the same, no. This went on and on for altogether too long as they wouldn’t let us cross the river and eventually I tossed the tooth away in total frustration and told him it’s his to find. At this stage, I should remind you we came across on a pontoon which was now on the other side to us (and actually, we weren’t supposed to use it by ourselves we discovered). They told us to leave by going through the park, our original direction but we just wanted to leave the place now and weren’t too keen on travelling all the way through the park again but after a wait of over an hour in which they started to get the pontoon ready a few times, we took their advice and turned around and drove to the north. We didn’t get far when we were stopped by yet another machine gun wielding park employee who told us to wait and shortly later a Landcruiser roared up behind us and a very very stroppy little man jumps out and barges past me and grabs the keys from my ignition and starts to demand we turn around yet again. At this stage, we have complied with each and every request they have given us, except when a scruffy un-uniformed guy was demanding US dollars cash from us, we have been co-operative and sometimes polite but this guy was different, he really meant business. He wanted to seize our car and everything in it, on the spot, for some crime we had committed and it was about as serious as it sounds. We spoke for 5 minutes (it was difficult to understand him) on the road and this guy really did make the situation sound pretty grim for us but we were eventually given the keys and told to go back to the pontoon and wait (again) so we drove back, very slowly.
We quickly discussed our next move and we both agreed that it had reached the point of seriousness where we needed to call in a 3rd party to help us get our story across whatever that might be as at that time we had no idea what we had done, just that we were in big trouble. So, we hit the SOS button on our inReach 2-way satellite communicator and contacted the emergency services as we drove. We have never used the inReach for an emergency before and to be honest, I cannot remember reading the user manual (but let’s just say I did) on what to expect when you hit the button. Should we just stop and look up for rescue helicopters? Will they send in the SAS? Well, no. All they wanted to do was call in search and rescue as they assume we are lost or disabled but we wanted to be able to contact the police so we could understand why they wanted to imprison us. Had we known the emergency services would be also contacting our parents in the middle of the night as well, we might not have done it at all. By the time we had reached the pontoon we had disconnected from the inReach service and were on our own to deal with the problem and a large problem it was.
On the other side of the river was what looked like a platoon of soldiers, each with a big gun ready in both hands to tackle this foreign threat that was terrorising the park. After we crossed the river and were confronted, I asked for ID and of course not one single one of the entire large group had or was willing to show me who they really were so I didn’t get out of the car, instead we talked through a small gap in the window. Turns out it was all about the tooth. It was a crocodile tooth and although the animal is not endangered, the teeth are still an item that is illegal to ‘traffic’, unless you have papers to prove where you got it from. When I finally had a chance to speak in my defence, I just played the old “I’m a complete fool and it was a misunderstanding that I take full responsibility for” line, which really did stump him as I think he was looking for a long and drawn out roadside legal battle so he just let us go! His decision did cause a bit of a stir with some of the armed men and the local pontoon men, who I am sure were behind the entire witch hunt, but we got out of there as fast as we could while we could. Jenni, I loved the tooth, but it’s gone. I can still see where it was as it made a mark on the clear plastic cover of the tachometer but even if I couldn’t see that mark, I’m not forgetting that tooth anytime soon. The ordeal had left its mark on us as well and in the middle of it we decided that we have had enough of Africa and this constant drama and were leaving. We changed the navigation app that afternoon to a direct route to Tanzania’s port city of Dar es Salaam, via Malawi. Not much was said about the incident but one thing we both agreed on is we were too familiar with cable bridges, cableways and swing bridges from our hiking trips around the world and thought nothing of going over the pontoon unassisted. That was the mistake and we should have waited for the men to show us how it’s all done… Onwards to Malawi and some peace and rest!
From the moment we started to plan this trip to Africa, I started to read blogs of other travelers in Africa and it seemed that they all really liked one country more than the others. It was Botswana. I remember thinking at the time that we must plan something special for Botswana as it has so many good reviews but with the whirlwind that West Africa was, it was one of the things that was swept to the back of my mind but all of a sudden, we were here and I had to remember all the things I had read again. I have to say, that wasn’t going to happen but we had been given a real gold mine of information on the place by a German couple we had met at Urban Camp so armed with place names and notes in the all-important black book, we headed to the border.
Now, as with the info I had read on Botswana before, we often have more important things to remember no matter how important the previous thing to remember was… this was the case with the vet clearance letter we were supposed to get signed off by some guy in a big government building in Windhoek that was all together too hard to do at the time and was ‘put off’ until we had rested, or something and all we had to do was remember to do it later. Well, we both remembered to do it, but we were 200 meters from the border when we did…
All the way down West Africa we had seen and sometimes followed vehicles loaded with livestock, usually goats through borders, and the guard would sometimes glance in the back to make sure no one was hiding amongst the animals, but usually not. Like with us, sometimes they would ask us to wind down the back windows to make sure it was only us but having a cat was never a problem and they would often say ‘you have a cat?’ and laugh us off as crazy, but no one ever cared or asked if she had papers. But here was the one and only border in Africa we were supposed to actually do something to cross with the cat and we ‘forgot’ to get it signed. We thought about signing it ourselves but without the all-important stamp that seems to make everything official in Africa, we thought we would be caught out and be in more trouble, so we just hid her. By hiding her I don’t mean we stuffed her under a seat or put her in the fridge, we simply laid a towel over her and she just kept sleeping. We need not have bothered as they just stamped our passports and gave us a gate pass that we handed to the border official on the way through the gate into Botswana without so much as even a glance into the back seat. OK, so I suppose it’s not the right thing to do but she had the vet clearance done so we knew we weren’t doing any harm other than avoiding some bureaucracy.
Botswana is different to any other African country we had been in on this trip. It has quite a small population of around 2 million, is the least densely populated country in Africa and since independence in 1966 it has had democratic elections and a thriving economy. It helped that a year after independence they found the largest reserve of diamonds in the world and this accounts for over half of their GDP now. The other thing they did was form large parks and they protect their wild animals better than any other African country. As a result, they now have the largest population of elephants and rhinos in Africa and are helping other countries restock their parks hit by ivory and horn poaching. The country has only a small white community of 3% and they largely self-manage the resources and parks alone. Chances are if you have watched National Geographic, Learning Channel or Discovery Channel and seen a documentary featuring wild African animals, part or all of it will have been filmed in Botswana and usually it would be in the Okavango Delta area which was our first destination in Botswana.
The delta area is big, really big, and it’s only accessible by car to the edge of the delta and only in a few places. If you want to get further in, to the lodges in the delta, you have to take a small plane. In this area are some of the most exclusive and best places for wildlife viewing in Africa but with prices at around $1,000USD per person per day, it’s not for everyone. It used to be that Botswanan parks were some of the best for travelers on a budget but the government who manage the parks saw what overcrowding and overuse was doing to the environment and the parks, so privatised most of the camping areas, then quite simply kept increasing the prices until the supply/demand levelled out and now they have very few visitors that pay quite a lot. The lodges that developed since then are the fly in type and the delta is covered in them now. Its good as they all want to provide an amazing experience and they are all working together preserving the area and encouraging diversity and it’s all of this that has made Botswana one of the safari hotspots in Africa. We looked at a lot of options for parks and camping in the area and we worked out that the cheapest place places were Moremi Game Reserve or the community run Khwai River Conservancy. They were around $75NZD including camping each so we chose the community run place as we normally do and went in. As soon as you get through the gate, the roads disappear and are replaced by 4x4 tracks that are fine 80% of the time and are great fun in places. But there are patches of the all too common very fine dust that rises in giant clouds as you pass through. If you travel too slowly it will engulf the car and fill the inside in seconds if the windows are down. That day was an amazing day for us and it felt sort of surreal to be driving around in our car amongst these amazing and wild animals that were everywhere. But it’s times like now, in the car with maybe 20 or more elephants around you in all directions, hippos, water buffalo, zebra and a variety of antelope further away as far as we can see, that we really knew why we did the hard miles and borders to get this far. That day we had an amazing encounter with the endangered African painted dog. By chance we met Phil, a British overlander driving around the place as well. We chatted with him for a while and he pointed us in the direction of a den of these dogs. After following a small dirt road for a few kms we came around a corner to find a painted dog right in the middle of the road. Wow! The den. We had wanted to see these animals for some time and there right in front of us was an entire den of dogs complete with a litter of very young pups still with their eyes closed. For us it was a jackpot wildlife sighting. We sat and watched for quite a while but they eventually got nervous about us and we left them in peace. Luxy was very happy we went as she had been nervously keeping a keen eye on the dog closest to the car from the moment we arrived… We got to the campground in the conservancy and were buzzing after the day and we agreed that it was the best day of the trip so far, which was a big call. We heard that lions frequent the camping area so were excited to be able to complete the big 5 without actually going to a private game park, only in the wild and community land (ok, a lot like a game park but many of the private parks are more like a zoo that a park). That night we looked out for wild dogs and lions. Instead we had hippos grunting and snorting with crocodiles roaming the river banks right in front of our camp. The 2 evenings previous lions were strolling through the campgrounds to the river and back but they moved on. Could have been the threat of having to deal with Luxy who usually claims the camping area around the car as her own territory, but probably not. The lions would have to wait. We headed back and drove the park again the next day and had yet another amazing day like the first. The Khwai River Conservancy is an amazing place for self-drive visitors and we really recommend it for overlanders.
We headed east and towards the Nxal Pan National Park. Botswana has a bunch of what they call pans which are depressions that in the rainy season fill with water forming giant inland seas that completely fill up with migrating birds and animals. Some are grassed pans, some are rimmed with shrubs and some with trees. Some are salt pans that have very little vegetation and stretch to the horizon. It was cool to drive across these, especially the salt pans. On one big one, even though it was only 40 or 50kms across, I felt some trepidation before starting off. The road was wherever you wanted it to be, in other words, anywhere between point A over there to point B here. It’s a bit dangerous to stray from the tracks and could involve driving around in circles for a while as every horizon looks the same and then hitting one of the many soft spots that will suck your 4x4 up to the axles in seconds. So, we stuck to the hard track and cruised across the salt. It didn’t take long for the next hill appear just like seeing land from out at sea. The hill, called Kubu Island, was a granite rock outcrop that is largely unchanged from when this part of Africa was really a sea, and the island shows signs of habitation from as far back as the stone age. At one end is the fossilized remains of an actual beach, we couldn’t find it but…it’s there somewhere. I really wanted to see what a fossilized beach looked like too… That night we tempted fate and drove off the road and into the middle of the salt lake we were crossing, so we could camp. We have camped all over the place in forests and deserts but never a salt lake, until now. It was, as you could imagine, extremely boring mostly and Luxy thought it was the worst campsite we have ever taken her to. It was a nice place to take some photos, was very quiet, and the night sky was incredible (and we didn’t get stuck).
Our next stop was another community run park. This one specialises in Rhino and is called Khama Rhino sanctuary. We were spoilt for rhino viewing at that park and while we were driving around one of the waterholes we had to stop suddenly for a White (wide-lipped) Rhino and her baby to cross the road right in front of us. Very cool. We didn’t camp in the park as just the day drive around cost $55NZD so we moved on to another excellent wild camp off the side of one of the many deserted roads in Botswana. Over the next few days we went to Francistown and spent many hours looking at maps and the iOverlander app to see where to go next but we just couldn’t bring ourselves to pay the high price for any more of the parks. The country’s tourism is set up for short stay, high quality tourism and we had pretty much done all we could afford to do. We would love to go back to Botswana and experience one of the lodges in the delta and along with Namibia, it was a place we were really sad to leave but we had a date with a hotel in Zambia that we needed to keep.
As border crossings go, entering Namibia from Angola was an absolute breeze. We walked into a big building with ‘immigration’ above the door and right in front of us was a big sign with the step by step process for driving into the country. Great! Although border crossings don’t amount to very much time on the grand scheme of things, they do amount to most of the stress we experience so to avoid this means we are on the win before we have even seen any of the country. A week back I had noticed a problem with the car. It was the front differential, left output bearing… (if you needed to know) and although it wouldn’t have stopped us, leaving it could cause more damage in the long run so I wanted to get it fixed as soon as possible. Using our favorite app, iOverlander, we found a town near the border that had a few options for workshops and headed off.
Namibia was first colonized in the late 1800’s by Germany but was handed to the British after WW1. Many Namibians still trace their heritage to the first colonizers and it shows in the way the country runs, with a touch of German precision. For the first time after leaving Morocco we are seeing people stop at red lights, wait for pedestrians at crossings and shop staff smile and greet us. The roads are maintained and they even have signs warning about the few potholes they have! We can buy anything we need for us and the car and to be honest, I felt quite at home. We stopped first at the town of Oshakati in the north and headed for one of the many workshops. The first place I went to really started well with the owner, Ozzy, sounding like he really knew his stuff. We were promised a quote the next day and we went to a campground and waited. After a couple of days, we decided that if they cannot send a quote, I didn’t want them working on the car. We went to another workshop we found in iOverlander that was listed as Land Rover experts and met Braam. We went through the things that needed doing and nothing was a problem. He gave us a price on the spot and then insisted we stay at his very flash house complete with full time house keeper and gardener so he could start straight away! Well, it was luxury for us but Luxy wasn’t too keen on the 3 dogs he had. Braam had his guys remove the diff and upon inspection the bearing could be easily replaced but the parts have to come from a town 1 days drive away. To cut a long story short, the supplier messed up and the part wasn’t sent so not only did we have to wait an extra day, it was then the weekend so we ended up staying near on a week with Braam! It was totally awesome! Braam is an expert at braai (wood BBQ) and we had some amazing food and his housekeeper was finally able to get our towels clean. Braam rides motorbikes and has toured southern Africa and has been eyeing up New Zealand for some time. We are looking forward to hosting him.
Other than fixing the diff, we also got a new ‘bash plate’ or under body protection for the front, we had a full service, got new tyres, a wheel alignment and a body lift for extra ground clearance, had a box made for the roof and installed a water tank with a tap at the back. Have to say the box is excellent and really solves the problem of what to do with our winter stuff and the other seasonal things we had that were clogging up the back seats. The water tank is also an excellent addition and we really now feel like we have finished the set-up of the car. Weren’t we going to do all this in South Africa, the home of 4x4 and overland vehicle setup? We were but thanks to the spat the SA and NZ governments are having right now, the SA embassy insisted we fly to New Zealand it get the visa… it was the only way, they said. We ended up hanging around the capital, Windhoek, for nearly 3 weeks trying to sort this out but we couldn’t make any headway against such staunch bureaucracy and we gave up. It was a real shame to not be able to go from the Arctic Circle to Cape Town as it’s a real destination for overland travelers and was a landmark on the entire trip but the budget did not include a round trip to New Zealand just to go to South Africa. When decided instead to explore more of Namibia than we had planned as we now have an extra month to deal with. And explore we did. We were in Namibia for almost 2 months!
After reluctantly leaving Braam’s place, we headed to the east and a place called The Caprivi Strip. As it sounds, it’s a narrow strip of land that goes to Victoria Falls. It’s an intersection of 3 countries at the falls and it gives Namibia access to the Zambezi River and reliable hydro power generation. We went to our first game park up there. It was a community park, meaning they just charge people a fee for driving onto their village lands to see animals and consisted of driving along the river front and out to a small lake or, as they are all called here ‘water holes’… even though they really are small lakes or ponds… anyway. We drove through the gate and were a few hundred meters into the drive and Christine had just finished saying about wanting to see Zebra when we rounded a corner to a herd of Zebra. It was great and we finally felt like we had arrived in Africa! That day we saw loads of animals. The village grounds are on the edge of a park and the beginning of the Okavango Delta and as is normal they are called Game Parks even though the animals are no longer there for game. We did drive past a few large properties that offer hunting but it all seems a bit lame to go into a once farm that’s been stocked with ‘wild’ animals and ‘hunt’.. The only park we visited other than community parks like the first one we found was Etosha National Park. It’s a very large park in the middle of the country that was created out of remnants of other parks and farm land. They sunk bores and created water holes, then stocked the park with animals that now live like they have always been there. The park receives some criticism for creating the habitat and some say it’s like driving through a zoo but the truth is that in all of Africa very few areas exist where people can see so many of Africa’s great and unusual animals over a short period of time. It’s very popular and most of the overlanders we have met visited Etosha. The camping areas are near the water holes and in the evening and at night the big cats and rhinos will come to drink. We couldn’t stay overnight with Luxy but we did do a drive through taking all day and enjoyed seeing loads of animals but some of our best animal sightings in Namibia were out in the wild, not behind fences.
After having so much work done to the car, we decided to do some off-road trips. Namibia has loads of tourists from South Africa and Germany and we were one of hundreds of Toyota Hilux 4x4 Utes, or Bakkie as they are called here, on the roads. We headed to the west and picked a few tracks to travel on. Most of the tracks are old roads that follow the river valleys and are a mix of sand, soft sand and rocks. As they are marked as roads on the map we had, we were looking for more than what was there so we missed our first turnoff and had to carry on for another 50ks until we could pick up the next track. It was excellent! Despite all the other tourists around we were completely alone for 98% of the time we were in the area. We later read that the area we were in is considered the last true wilderness area in the entire continent of Africa and with no light pollution the night sky was incredible too. It sure was different to what we had experienced in West Africa, which is the most densely populated part of Africa. The geology is also incredible and due to the sparse vegetation, it’s quite easy to see the land formations. Travelling the off-road tracks was actually mostly more comfortable than the back roads. Although the roads have no potholes, they sometimes have really bad corrugations that can go on for hours and hours. We decided that 6 hours of off-roading was better than 4 hours of corrugations any day. The wild camping is also amazing off the beaten track. Some nights we were the only people for many many miles in any direction. Luxy loved it too!
We had our first wildlife scare driving some of those tracks. We rounded a corner to see 4 large elephants on the left side of the road. I pulled up straight away as they were very close to the side of the road and when I stopped they would have been only meters from the car. Wooah! What’s going on?? In about 2 seconds we realized that on the right side of the car, hidden by some bushes was a small elephant! We had just come between a mother and her young, and she was not happy about that at all… Christine, who saw this all unfold seconds before me said (in her usual way) DRIVE!! and I did.. The angry elephant was on her side after all.
For most of the trip down the west coast of Africa, we had been staying in campgrounds or cheap hotels. It was nearly impossible to find a quiet place away from people to wild camp. After leaving DRC, we have hardly paid for accommodation at all and we spent zero on accommodation in Angola and Namibia was looking to be the same, with the exception being when we were staying in towns or near to some ‘attraction’ we wanted to see. When we did stay in campgrounds, they were first class. Water, BBQ and electricity at every site and some even had your own private toilet and shower. They all had hot water too, often heated by a wood fired boiler they call a Donkey. Luxury! unlimited hot water! Anyway, due to our attempt to get the SA visa, we had spent quite a bit of time in the capital of Namibia, Windhoek. As we could only talk to the SA embassy about our entry visa between 9am and 2pm on a Wednesday (yes, that is the only time even though its staffed every day, they only process visas on a Wednesday morning…) we had been coming and going seeing things around Windhoek but we always came back to the same place, a campground called Urban Camp that is right in town, quite close to the CBD and only a kilometer or so from the embassy. We stayed a total of 10 nights at the camp all up and we were able to catch up with so many of our travelling friends, it was a bit like home for a while. It was excellent to catch up with Patrick again after meeting him in Mali and catching up with him again in Togo and now here. We also caught up with Mike and Sue who we also met in Mali. The camp was really relaxing and well laid out. Apart from Luxy getting caught up in some razor wire and needing stiches to a nearly 2-inch gash on her back (she is proud of her scar and never complained...) it all went really well, until the last time we went to leave and Luxy decided that after spending so long at this place, it was home! It was the first time she didn’t want to get in the car. We always pick her up and place her in the car (she isn’t jumping in like a dog yet) but she never struggles and will always come when we call her to go.. but not this time. We had to chase her for nearly an hour. She kept going back to campsite 11 which was where we spent 7 of the 10 nights. Poor wee thing… she really liked Urban Camp (more than she liked us…?)
It was sad for us to have to say good bye to Kevin and Steph while we were in Windhoek. We had met up again and were going to travel to the south west together but Kevin discovered a problem with the Landie that needed to be fixed and they stayed on in town. I kept telling Kevin to not look under the car. Every time he did a problem would materialize that needed to be fixed straight away but he couldn’t help himself. I am convinced that the car is in far better condition now than when they left The Netherlands and I’m sure some of the problems could have been saved up and fixed at the end of the trip when they were sure the money could be spent. Discussions around money were never far off and sometimes took over, changing the vibe somewhat. In most cases people have 1 of the following two things; time or money. Very seldom do overlanders have both. For Kevin and Steph to drive from Europe to Cape Town is an amazing achievement. Many start and never get past Morocco and I think that if it wasn’t for Kevin’s ability to keep a 31-year-old car going over some of the worst roads in Africa they wouldn’t have made it past Morocco either. We are really looking forward to seeing them again in Europe or better yet, New Zealand…
We spent a long time and many evenings discussing what we would do next. Not being able to get into SA had made us rethink the entire plan we had. When I say plan, it was a lose collection of ideas that had formed a plan all by themselves really and we had just gone along! We were at the southern part of Namibia and we could see South Africa just over there but we couldn’t go any further south. We attempted to get into the Frontier Park that spans Namibia and SA but it was also too hard so that’s it with heading south. After visiting Fish River Canyon, which is an area that they have discovered rock paintings that are said to be as old as the famous French cave paintings that re-dated the rise of modern man, we headed north. It was quite sad to leave Namibia. It was the longest we had spent in any country other than Morocco and that’s because we really enjoyed it. We headed back to the north and then towards the east and Botswana. Elephant country!
Thanks to Braam, Joe, JP, Iklazo, the team at Urban Camp and the many other people we met in Namibia for making it a great stay.
We really enjoyed dealing with the polite and friendly people at the Angola border. Nothing was too much trouble and they even showed us to an airconditioned room while they completed the paperwork for us. We had expected to as usual complete several forms sometimes in duplicate and wait in a hot room that never have enough seats for us all to sit down (I usually pull the age excuse and Kevin will stand…) but here we were sitting in comfortable office type chairs waiting for someone else to do the writing. The nice times continued after we drove down the steep road to the police post to get our car permits. They were all so relaxed and eager to chat. I think it had something to do with all the police cars being out of action and in various states of repair around the yard, they couldn’t go out and do ‘police stuff’ any way.
We headed south and wild camped at what could have been a rubbish tip except it wasn’t. It sure did make a good act of looking like a tip though and in the morning after sifting through some of the rubbish to get shampoo of all things, we headed on. We had by now restocked our food and fuel and were ready for a few days off the main roads so we headed for the famous Shipwreck Coast on the north coast of Angola. After heading to a campground and having a look around, we decided to check out a spot further up the coast only accessible by 4x4. We drove along the beach in front of the rusting hulks and found the small track up a canyon to a grassy plateau. It was a great spot and we spent the afternoon taking in the view. There are dozens of broken and rusting ships, from medium sided passenger ships and freighters, to steel fishing boats and barges, as far as we could see in both directions. The beach down in front of us was also a popular picnic spot, as we were able to observe. The next day Kevin, Christine and I swum out to a ship and explored the decks above water. As we came back to shore, a rogue wave hit my back and knocked my glasses off my head into the water just as it was receding back sweeping them away in a second with zero chance of finding them in waist deep water... My only prescription sunglasses were now amongst the millions of tons of trash rotting away at Shipwreck Coast… We left not long after with me in a slightly grumpy mood and Christine seeing the trail of money getting thicker the further south we travelled.
We headed straight to Luanda the capital of Angola. What an awesome city and it was the first city we had seen on the West Coast that had a big marina full of pleasure boats, just like at home! How do I know? Because we stayed at the marina right in the middle of the city. For some reason, the marina let overland travellers stay in the car park for free. We can use the toilets and showers, take water and sometimes they even have free wifi. We were still phone shopping and hit the town to see what we could find. We headed off with Kevin and Steph to a big new mall on the other side of the city. We nearly bought 2 phones but after some thought we came up with the idea of getting my optometrist to send some new glasses and he can put the phones in the box and we have 2 problems solved at once! That was it. We ended up just buying KFC at the mall and then decided on how we could all get back to the yacht club. We cramming into an already very full minivan bus and we were off! At that stage and for most of the trip we didn’t actually know where were going but it was in the right general direction. Kevin monitored progress on a mapping app and we managed to get back to the cars OK. That night I made contact with my optometrist and got things underway. Everything is going to be sent by DHL to the capital of Namibia, the next country for us and now we had a deadline to meet the package.
We headed to the south of the country via the coast and made a few stops along the way. A side road took us to a cave system that was massive! We walked down a path about 1 kilometer to the valley floor with a small stream. To our right and into the side of the valley we had just walked down was the entrance to the cave. It was 40 or 50 meters high and inside the first 300 meters of the cave the ceiling got higher still and was lined with thousands of bats. It stunk! We walked right through and back and in the hottest part of the day, back up the valley to the cars at the top. Luxy just hung out by the cars when we were gone and was sleeping in the shade when we all got back...such a good cat!
On the way south we stayed at 2 wonderful places for free right on the beach. The first was a resort where the owner has a soft spot for 'real' overlanders and we can camp in the carpark and although the pool was green with little beetles swimming in it, the place was really nice, 5 star. The second was a restaurant on the beach in Lobito. They had an area to one side out of the way of the diners and we set up camp right there. Luxy had fun on the sand and managed to avoiding the beach dogs that slept right under our car all night. The next day we agreed on a destination and headed off. Earlier while checking over the car I had noticed a problem with the four-wheel drive and when Kevin texted to say the road to the campsite we were heading to was very bad we decided to take another way and meet up later in the week. We camped just off the road on the way to a really interesting area that has some amazing canyons and in one place, some arches that have been formed with erosion from the wind and rain. Although the arches weren’t too interesting, the road to and from them was incredible. We dropped of a plateau down a road with countless switchbacks and amazing views around every corner. It was great that we had to do it twice as the arches were quite a way off the main road. Needing to keep our schedule to collect the package, we continued south to the border stopping only to look at the war relics and discarded tanks that lined parts of the road to the southern border. In no time, we were at the border ready for Angola crossing number 4 into Namibia and for the first time in 11 border crossings, we didn't have Kevin and Steph with us in their Landie.
We left Congo with mixed feelings. Angry and sad we had been robbed of our phones and relaxed attitude but happy to be back on the road with Luxy, Kevin and Steph. We had also gotten the last visa we would need for a while, which really was a good thought as we were sick of dealing with grumpy embassy staff and the fat lady in the Angola embassy had used the last of what patience we had left.
Before we could drive into the DRC, we first had to travel through an exclave of Angola called Cabinda. It’s another little area that’s an island amongst other countries and a reminder that the borders around this part of the continent have been redrawn through war after war. A little heard of civil war is still going on in the DRC even now. We left Pointe Noire and drove the short distance to the border and the first of 4 border crossings to and from Angola. Not one of the crossings were a problem and although the process was slow, and at times painfully slow, we managed to pass through with our cars and cat safely.
We headed to the main city. It was a typical west African city and in a lot of ways it was not unlike tens of others we had been through with the exception that Cabinda had a selection of large, modern and well stocked supermarkets. Although we have been able to visit good supermarkets in most countries, seeing a brand name from a European chain is a very welcome sight and means we can restock on some things we often have trouble finding like crackers, sauce sachets, spreads and sometimes if we are really lucky, Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, like on this occasion, which for Christine was a real cause for celebration! We stayed that night in a catholic church around the back of the accommodation building in a yard attached to the church. We met up with a traveller from Spain who was solo on a bike he bought in Kenya going the opposite was to us. He said being on a local made bike helps as they mostly wave him through the checkpoints. I often wonder how he got on further north. The next day with my fuel gauge reading dangerously low but with none of the gas stations having diesel stocks, we headed to the border with DRC.
The crossing from Angola stage 2 was as before, simple and straightforward. Into the DRC and although straight forward, there appeared to now be 3 or as many as 5 people all trying to do each job and all over the top of each other. It was interesting and fun mainly because they were all very friendly and could speak quite good English. The part of DRC we had crossed into is a narrow strip between the exclave of Angola at the north coast, Congo inland also to the north and Angola at the south. It’s quite peaceful and hasn’t really seen any of the conflict that is going on the country. The fighting is right to the north east near the border with The Central African Republic and the folks in this little strip don’t bother themselves at all with what’s going on up there. No sooner had we settled into the wonderful scenery of amazingly tall grasses towering 5 or 6 feet over the top of the car on either side than we were halted by a road tax gate. They were asking for 25,000 f each as a foreign registered pickup type vehicle. NO. we knew a way around so we took a detour (of 1 hour) and popped out 200 meters down the road from the toll gate. Now it took a while but 25,000 f is around 25 kiwi dollars so we might have been ahead around 10 after the drive around. We didn’t have any way around the next tax gate. Kevin was pretty annoyed at paying anything and with good reason. They are basically just makeshift road boom gate put up by the local village mayor or police chief for collecting cash from mostly foreigners and truck and bus drivers. Are they legal? In this town they are that’s for sure and we can argue until we are blue in the face but we were going nowhere and time was pushing on. We eventually paid and headed to Matadi which is a border town as well as a picturesque hillside city on the Congo River. We drove into the dusk and popped over the last hillside and there it was, Matadi, all lit up. We stayed in a hotel that was high up on a hill overlooking the entire city and it was a really nice view that we all enjoyed at sometime during the stay. Luxy didn’t see the view but still loved it there as well and spent her stay pulling random gross things from under the bathtub through a tile sized hole, no doubt made to fix a leak long ago, and out to the mat beside the bed for us to inspect... The next morning we all got ready and headed to our 3rd Angola border crossing but not before our last and most exciting road tax gate.
In a short time we were through the city and nearing the border. It was near the top of a hill and just as the road started to head up we came to a barrier across the road. Another tax gate. We were expecting some but as we were so close to the border we thought that we had somehow missed it but to make sure they catch everyone heading this way, this gate was on the final approach to the border post. At this stage, we didn’t realise how close the border was. We pulled up side by side blocking two thirds of the road and waited in the cars for the tax man to approach us. We both showed our receipts from the last one that we had paid. They showed we were paid up until we left town. Kevin was doing most of the talking at this stage and Steph, Christine and me were still sitting in the cars, we had the engine running and the A/C on so things at this stage were comfortable. It was fun to watch Kevin chasing the growing number of officials around the booth and the road waving paper and his arms every chance he has. Things were getting heated and he marches back to us and says they are saying we were under-charged at the last gate! Because in DRC, our cars can be used as taxis and they can fit 10 or more people so we are to pay the rate for the small bus foreign registered. We must top up the payment by another 100,000 f each!! OK, he had my attention now. Previously, Christine and I had got out our chairs and I had started to make a coffee and had the stove all set up and lit. It was after all, our days entertainment and so far we had been enjoying the show. The guy with the gun was now wandering around and kept asking me to move the car. Move the car?? He probably wondered how I manage to put one foot in front of the other I was so dumb.. I couldn’t understand his simple request no matter how he put it and how long he tried. Then we had a break.. an official or VIP turned up and stopped right up behind Kevin’s car. He HAD to move and it had to be now… He got in and started the car the barrier was raised for the VIP but Kevin also drove forward, not back as they were expecting, and through the barrier. The guards were about to all rush forward but then he pulled over and stopped just beyond the barrier. Everyone relaxed, except Christine… She had had enough. She sternly marched up the barrier, swung the concrete counter weight down with such force it wedged into the road surface and started to yell at me to ‘get the fuck through!’ I had to throw the chairs in the back and manoeuvre the car through the barrier. Christine jumped in the car as I was still coming to a stop and still yelling said ‘DRIVE..NOW’ and we were off with Kevin and Steph behind. Christine was absolutely pumped with adrenalin and admitted after that it sure was scary but exciting. The fact that a woman did it sort of had them by surprise and they just all froze and looked as we headed off. Our expressions would have changed for sure when we realised that just 200 meters up the hill, we had to stop at another gate… this time we couldn’t just lift it and make a dash for it. This was the border! After a few minutes we were sure they weren’t coming up the hill looking for the so-called tax, we started to relax and laugh about what had just happened. Then started the almost 3 hour crossing and we entered Angola hungry and ready for more adventures.
We spent such a short time crossing DRC we didn't get many photos...
After leaving Nigeria we headed to Cameroon and the beach. It was nice to be in Cameroon and the landscape is now changing to equatorial rain forest and for the first few hours in the country, we were driving through some beautiful lush forest. The forest gave way to plantation and after some oil palms we started to drive through banana plantation, mile after mile of them and as far as we could see in either direction, right up to where Mt Cameroon rose up in the distance. It was a really nice drive to our camp that was on the other side of Mt Cameroon at the edge of the ocean on one side and the forest on the other. It was one of the resorts that let overlanders stay in the carpark but still use all the facilities, including the pool.. and we started to unwind after a stressful week. We are still traveling with Kevin and Steph, and after the night at the resort we ended up staying in the small town of Limbe as their car needed some attention and we all had a lot of laundry to do. Cameroon had a different feel to it with everyone supporting their world beating soccer team. We think the fact that they have such a great team unites the entire country in support and pride sort of how the All Blacks do that with the New Zealand public. It was the first place we had been to in a long time where the streets weren’t lined with trash. It was noticeable! I am sure that it makes people happier to not be living in a rubbish dump! We spent two nights in the economic capital of Douala at a very nice apartment like hotel where we were all able to all stay together. We even managed some work on the cars. Heading to Gabon I managed to get a load of water in my fuel tank from a fill up so we had to stop often (every 20 or 30kms) to drain the fuel filter of water until it all passed through. It wasn’t too bad to have to pull off to the side and have a look at the view every now and then! Luckily it wasn’t a whole tank as the gas station we stopped at had a big Visa/Mastercard sign outside but upon asking inside, they only took cash. Chris had to run outside and get me to stop the pump! The crossing from Cameroon to Gabon was a really straight forward crossing. We drove to the border on an excellent road and after the border into Gabon the road only got better! This was a first for us as the roads to and from the borders are normally unmaintained and often not more than a dirt or mud track.
Gabon is one of the least populated countries in Africa. It’s also one of the most beautiful places we have been to on the trip so far. The land area of Gabon is almost exactly the same as New Zealand. It’s only a 1000sq/km or so different but they only have a population of 1,600,000. We really noticed the difference driving through the villages. They seemed deserted compared to other places we had been through. The forest was spectacular and we drove through mountains and gorges that came right down to the road on either side. With such a small population and such large forests, Gabon can still support hunting for ‘bush meat’. We passed through villages where the shacks had a table and hooks where the hunters would hang their catch out for sale. We didn’t want to stop as we would have looked like customers and the people would have all run out expecting a sale. We did stop a hunter on the road and get a photo of him with his 2 monkeys and a pheasant looking bird that had bright blue feathers (after paying him for the privilege of the photo, of course). We think it would have looked a lot better in a tree or flying away but I guess it would also make a great ‘bird stew’ of some sort too. We are not too sure if it was all for him and his family or if one of them would end up on the hook in front of his house...
The roads through the country were excellent compared to what we had been over for most of the trip so far and it did make the trip across the country really all too fast. We crossed the equator in Gabon which was a landmark for us and another ‘stage’ on the trip completed. It’s not the half way mark even though its half way around the world. Sadly, it was in the middle of the forest so we didn’t have a sink or toilet to test the way that water drains at the equator. They say it will not spin one way or another as it drains, just going straight down with no spinning! Having those sort of unanswered questions is why we do crazy trips like this one…
We spent our last night in Gabon at the Albert Schweitzer museum. It was a really nice night, even though we just camped in the carpark. We had hot showers for I think the first time since we left Europe. Kevin and I did work on the cars. I changed my front brake pads and moved the spare wheel from under the car to the roof and Kevin changed the hub seal to attempt to stop the flow of diff oil running down his rear wheels. We also found the largest snails I have ever seen. The largest was the size of my fist and it left a ‘snail trail’ 40mm wide! All they wanted was Luxy’s food…
We decided to take one of the smaller border crossings to Congo. Smaller because the road to the border post was little more than a mud road for most of the way. We arrived and completed the paperwork with little fuss. The immigration official let us look back in ‘the book’ to see the travelers that had come this way before. They have one book for foreigners and another for locals. They seem to go back for years and it was pretty interesting to see who had come along this way before. They only get a few people a month and the guy let me look all the way back to the last New Zealander that passed the post. It was in early 2016 for the Kiwi on a motorbike but quite a few Aussies had traveled the route. Even though the road was unsealed and mostly mud, there were villages every 10kms or so and this was the first time we had seen the children so excited so see us they would just stop and scream! Others would run along next to the car waving. They really were excited to see us. They never asked for anything, they just wanted to have fun. The road from the border didn’t get much better and around dusk we stopped at a small town to find a place to stay. After discussions with a local we chose the more expensive hotel and he led us to it running in front of the car. The driveway down to the hotel was little more than a mud track and we had to use low range 4x4 to make it down without sliding off it into the bush. We were shown the rooms (in semi-dark because they didn’t fire up the generator until 6pm) and we decided to take the best room with a ceiling fan and ensuite bathroom.. It was really bad once the lights went on. (I took video of this place but it was on the stolen phone..) Not long after we arrived it started to rain. Not your Auckland drizzle, we are talking rain drops that were as big as a 50c coin. What an interesting hotel it was… No running water and no power until the generator went on (and then the power, including the fan, went off 3 hours later!). This was the first hotel where we let Luxy out to explore the place. She really did have fun chasing the bats that were flying out of the ceiling and around the room at dusk…. We think it was unusual for foreign guests to stay and the locals, some of which we think were long term guests, found us amazing and we were able to entertain them by doing things like, cooking dinner in the lounge and sitting around… Christine made a friend who pretty much didn’t leave her sight from the moment we arrived. He was (what we thought) a young man and we ended up feeding him and attempting to have conversations with him but he only spoke French so it was difficult. Christine got out the rum and he was pretty interested in that so she offered him a drink which he accepted. The next day, after a really bad night’s sleep as the thunder and rain went on and on and it was really hot without a fan, we cooked breakfast; eggs from me and the young man, Weetabix for Christine and we got ready to leave. 3 or 4 people including Christine’s friend were standing around with bags packed and we thought they were wanting a ride to the city, but no.. They were waiting for the canoe to go to school… Christine had plied a school boy with hard liquor the night before! We did have a laugh when we realized and we think he might have done a ‘morning talk’ at school on the experience.
We headed out onto the mud road again for what would be a total of 10 hours driving over the 2 days covering only around 250kms. It was a lot of fun, although pretty hard on the car. I was glad I had moved the spare wheel to the roof rack as the mud was deep in places and with the odd hidden hole in the middle, I was scraping along more like a plough than a car. After an especially deep mud crossing after which I had to stop and reattach the front bumper and noticed I had bent the rear bumper after it caught when I was climbing out of a mud hole. If the spare tyre had been under the car I think it would have either dented and or split the fuel tank, which it is secured against, or been ripped off (also damaging the fuel tank) so I was really glad I had moved it. It was an off-roaders dream road with long soft clay sections where we were more sideways than straight ahead, long puddles of water some close to a metre deep and we ploughed through mud up to the axles. Both cars made it to the sealed road without getting stuck although I did come close a few times, and we headed to Dolisie for the night.
Without doubt, the people of Congo really are nice. We had to stay in Pointe Noire for more than one week while we waited for the Angola visa and although it was a drag to have to stay in a city, it wasn’t too bad either. We stayed at a nice hotel that was pet friendly, ate pizza, swam in their pool and watched movies every day! It was nice to relax for a while and Luxy was able to have the run of the entire property which she really enjoyed. The people we met in the city were great and mostly spoke some English so life just got easier for us and we were able to visit a great supermarket for supplies. All we had to do was collect our visa from the Angola Embassy and we would round out a pleasant experience in The Republic of Congo.
We had packed up and left the hotel and I was in the embassy getting the passports when it all turned sour and Christine was robbed in the carpark. One came to her door and distracted her (trying to pull her out by the arm) while the other went to the drivers door and snuck in and took our phones! Oh No.. Oh well, it was only phones and they can be replaced under insurance. Well, we hope they can… We did go to the police and report the theft and they took it seriously and visited the embassy and spoke to the ambassador, but… we had to pay them to start the process and in this country, they do not produce police reports. It is all recorded in a number of big books at various places around the police station we went to, but we walk out with nothing. That’s normal. I went back and pleaded with them for a report so I can claim insurance and I got something from them but whether it will be enough for the insurance company is still unknown. It was a shame that it happened after such a good time in Congo, but it’s the sort of crime that is common in any city around the world.
Off to the Cabinda and DRC…
We left our hotel in Benin and headed to the border with Kevin and Steph. The border was only an hour drive from where we were staying and it was a nice highway all the way, until it just stopped very suddenly at the border and the road was blocked by large concrete barriers. We checked our information and realized we had to take a side road that led to the ‘service area’ for the border guards and officials for both sides. The road to this area was appalling and was just dirt with large puddles and sections of mud you would expect to find on a 4x4 track rather than an international border but it was still lined with shops and business that operated in the filth, dirt, dust and people that the road bought. After numerous stops by random un-uniformed people we made it to the first actual border official, the Benin exit stamp chap. He collected our 4 passports and announced that the stamp will cost us 1000CFA each. We had a discussion (argument) with him with both Kevin and me telling him in not so many words that the best thing would be to just stamp us out without fee. We said he can collect all the money he wanted from his own people but we were not paying anything and if we were not allowed to pass, we would call our consulate. We also blocked his window so nobody else could get to him. Sadly this guy was the first and only border guard that would eventually do his job without demanding a bribe of some sort that day!
It took us more than 4 hours to pass through to Nigeria, that is to move around 500 meters through the maze of gates and checks. We had to show our details to more than 7 or 8 officials from the time we passed the Benin exit stamp guy, and each one wanted to try to extract as much money as they could from us. The first of these was the Benin armed forces who wanted 500CFA each for recording our name and passport number in a large book. We then moved on to the Benin Police who wanted 1000N (Nigerian currency) to do exactly the same thing. Then to the Nigerian side, first police and immigration, then to the customs people who wanted money which was split between the guards that did all the paperwork. At each station we of course complained and attempted to get out of paying but a steady stream of local people passed through each one paying the guards for the paperwork to be done. Each time we moved the car even a few meters, we had a police or army or special forces or anti robbery squad or quick response squad officer want to look at our documents. It was insane. I cannot believe that any country can operate like this, but here we are in Nigeria.
Just before the last immigration stop and 20 meters from some previous police stops, I was waved at by a man with a machine gun. He had no uniform and wanted me to stop and pull right off the road and park. As we had just seen the police and gone through a very non police process of paying them I was not at all in the mood for more stops that were going to cost money so I just said no and kept going. Problem was he was now standing in front of the car and each time I tooted the horn and moved forward, he would lift his gun and wave it in my direction. This went on for a few minutes with both of us yelling at him to get out of the way and him quietly telling me to park. He was asking for my vehicle papers that were with a fixer up the road. We had only just received these papers and if he had been looking he would have been able to actually see them being handed to us by the officials not more than 20 meters away. At no stage did he ask for my passport or to look at the entry visa so I am not too sure what he was wanting to check but eventually the border helper (fixer) came back and told us that he was Nigerian police and we should listen to him. He took the paperwork and my license and had a very quick look then came to the driver’s side window and started to ask us about New Zealand and if this is how we talk to police in New Zealand. We were both pretty quick to tell him that police in New Zealand don’t act the way he was acting and I then (still quite mad) asked him what this had to do with New Zealand and to just give me back my things so we can get on with our business. After getting back our things we drove off to yet another checkpoint. It was then that Christine wondered out loud if we now have to stop for any un-uniformed person standing in the middle of the road holding a gun? Not a nice thought, especially in Nigeria.
We exited the border area and onto the main road into Lagos, the main city in Nigeria. We had planned to drive through the city to a hotel that was around 2 hours drive from the border but the immigration circus had taken hours longer than we expected and we were strongly advised to not travel at night but it was onlyaround 4pm so we still had the time to make it, we thought… The next 10kms took us more than 1 hour to drive. Not because of the road conditions, but because of the road blocks. In the 10km stretch from the border, we passed through 19 road blocks and at each and every one we had to show all of our documents and passports. We had federal police, state police, immigration officials, anti-robbery patrol, smuggling patrol, army, special forces.. and the list goes on and on. These people didn’t ask for money, rather they would always say ‘and what do you have for me?’ Sometimes we would give them water if they had been nice but usually we would answer the question by saying we had ‘a smile and friendship’ We would get a dry smile in return and be sent on our way to the next stop. I have to say at this stage, we were only asked for actual money at one checkpoint after leaving the border (and we didn’t pay.) We soon realized we were never going to make it to the hotel we had planned to stay at so Kevin found The Seaview Hotel off the main road and we stopped for the night. Turned out that this hotel was where quite a few of the border police and immigration officials stay and other than them, we were the only other guests. It was of course a complete shit hole but it did a good job of setting the standards for the rest of the places we stayed at in Nigeria.
We were never going to be tourists in Nigeria as it’s not such a safe country but driving through the place we still got a good feel for how life is for the residents. Nigeria has major oil reserves off the coast in the delta region and selling the oil via the OPEC cartel brings in an astonishing amount of cash and wealth, but it seems only to a very select few. To say I was surprised at the poverty I saw is an understatement. As an oil producing nation, I was expecting to see shining buildings and good infrastructure. It is in fact totally disgusting that a country with such massive revenue from natural resources is in such a state. We do see, of course, a lot of roads in our travels and the roads in this country are in very poor condition overall. We also noticed that most of the buildings are in a poor state of repair and apart from a few places out of the cities, people generally live in very poor conditions with no reliable power or clean water. This is a country that can pipe oil for miles and miles but cannot pipe water down the road to its people. In fact, this country is well placed to provide things like unlimited clean drinking water and electricity, universal health care, free education, build universities for free advanced education, in fact it could do all of these things and still have billions of dollars left but before any of this is even considered the elites have to gorge themselves with cash and luxury goods, ivy league education for their children and homes in London and New York while the rest of the population lives in squalor and poverty. They are in effect committing a crime against humanity and no one is even looking. Well, not at least while they have cheap oil to sell us…
We moved through the country and stayed a night in a cheap hotel in Calabar which is a port city that services the oil industry in the (still very beautiful) delta region. We followed Kevin and Steph out of town and towards the mountains. We were going to our only indulgence in Nigeria, the Afi Mountain Sanctuary for the endangered Mandrill primates called the Drill Ranch. The Mandrills are only found in a small part of Nigeria and Cameroon and with 90% of their habitat lost to logging and farming, this is their last stronghold. The ‘Ranch’ is on the edge of one on the 2 national parks in Nigeria and a little off the main roads and highways. We had been travelling together for a while and when they stopped to do a small job at the side of the road, we said we would go on for a while and stop for lunch. We went on for further than we expected and when we pulled over for lunch we were not seen by them and they passed us and kept going towards the Ranch. We waited for more than 30 minutes and then guessing they had passed, we carried on. We were stopped by the police at a check point just outside of Four Corners township and Sargent Sampson, the officer on duty confirmed that they were ahead of us. OK we thought, if they have any problems, we will see them on the road. The roads were in pretty bad condition so I decided to slow down and enjoy the forest scenery we were travelling into and we continued on at a more relaxed pace. We had become a little complacent with this country and were not travelling together as we had planned to all along! It didn’t take long for us to be reminded how dangerous Nigeria can be. About 10kms outside of Four Corners we had 3 men on a motorbike overtake us and motion us to pull over. After months in Africa and countless stops, we automatically slowed and were going to stop, but seeing they were not in uniform I didn’t want to stop and we swerved around the bike, now parked in the middle of the road and carried on, still at a rather leisurely pace on the rough roads but now a bit faster. I didn’t like what had just happened and then seeing that they had got back on the bike and were coming after us, at pace, we started to wonder what was going on. Maybe we had something wrong with the car they had spotted or they really wanted to warn us about road conditions. The road in this section is very bad with car sized pot holes every few hundred meters and I of course had to slow down to pass through them and in no time they were back again and I couldn’t stop them passing us and blocking our path. It was then we saw they had masks covering their faces and they were all waving knives and machetes. At this stage, we were stopped in the middle of the road. A car coming the other way was making its way through a large pothole and with the car and the bike in the way, right then I had nowhere to go. They jumped off the bike and two of them made their way to the left side of the car with the driver of the bike running to the front. I managed to swerve past the motorbike again but now I had a masked man with a knife standing in front of the car. Everything slowed down! I went to drive forward and pretty much right over him but stopped just short of doing that for reasons I cannot explain. Instinct to not harm someone? I might have just touched him though and he slammed his hands down hard on the bonnet and one of them was wrapped around a large double edged dagger. This was no tool, it was clearly a weapon and we realized their intent very clearly. I gunned the engine and dropped the clutch. How he made it out of the way I don’t know but he did and in the rearview mirror I could see they were back on the bike and we had a race on our hands. The roads are tough going for a car but a motorbike can easily weave between the potholes at good speed but this time they had no chance of catching us and I put the Hilux and everything inside to the ultimate test by driving at very high speed over the appalling roads until we reached our destination and relative safety. Right at that moment, I was concerned only with our safety and if the car was destroyed in the process, it would have been OK if we stayed safe. At times, we were driving over 140kph, slowing only for the worst of the potholes. We don’t know if they wanted us, the car or just money but kidnapping for ransom is a daily occurrence all over Nigeria, even in the ‘safe’ zones and for criminals with very low IQ it’s a good way of making money without having a brain. When we could collect our thoughts a bit we looked at the dashcam thinking we had it all on film only to see the stupid thing displaying a message ‘card read error’ and the last footage we had was when we were having lunch at the side of the road.. We didn’t report this to the police as we were told that they wouldn’t normally investigate without first having a payment and as ‘nothing happened’ and we didn’t have the evidence we thought our chances of any action from them were pretty low. The staff at the ranch were keen to play it down as the only extra income they have is from the tourists that use the road and they don’t want to discourage people visiting. The director said that in 20 years this was the first time anything like this has happened but I have a nagging suspicion that’s not the case as Kevin and Steph were also stopped by some locals wanting payments for keeping the road clear and wouldn’t move a fallen tree until they were paid. They managed to get through without paying but only after 15 minutes of waiting around and discussions. The staff at the ranch admitted that this sort of attempted extortion is not uncommon.
However, we did have a lot of fun at the Drill Ranch and the animals were interesting to see and the people are doing a great job of preserving the remaining Mandrills in the area. It’s a shame that it took an American that was overlanding to see the plight of these animals and save them from certain extinction. The ranch receives only a small amount of funding from the local government and at some stage the Nigerian people will have to pick up where the current directors will leave off. But the way Nigeria is cutting down the forest and modifying the environment I don’t think this will be a high priority for them. After 2 nights at the ranch, we headed back down the same road we came in on and towards the Cameroon border. Yes, we were nervous about the trip but this time we never let Kevin and Steph out of our sight and the trip was thankfully uneventful.
So, Nigeria lived up to the hype of being a wild, rugged and lawless place and we experienced all it had to offer even though we could have done without some of the excitement. To me and clearly just my opinion, I think the police, military and other numerous government departments that we encountered are quite simply the government getting support by employing people who in turn enforce control and stop any potential uprising of the population against them. It’s not just Nigeria we have seen this. It’s been the same all the way down West Africa. Even the countries where the government is elected by normal ballot, we often see a powerful military (or royal family in Morocco) with a long serving head that is the puppet-master overall. Some places are close to breaking this cycle and even though Nigeria has attempted to crack down on some areas especially where corruption controlled the way of life, they still have a long way to becoming a normal society. We never did encounter the many police doing what we would call normal policing.
We are all the wiser for having been here but it was a relief to leave and I have to admit to taking out my frustration on some of the senior border officials when we were leaving by asking all the non-uniform people to produce ID. Not something they liked to do as this made them look weak in front of their staff. Sure was fun though and especially funny when we encountered a guy who said he was ‘secret’ police and therefore didn’t carry ID. We walked away from him without completing the ‘required’ paperwork and he just went back to sleeping at his desk…
Just 1 photo of our great Toyota Hilux that did the wonderful job of getting us away from the bad people under amazingly tough conditions loaded to its maximum weight limit. Sometimes when overlanding, you really need to be able to be able to make your ride preform. Consider this fact when choosing your vehicle.
(Photo NOT taken in Nigeria....)
it's Our Epic Trip...
David & Christine are from New Zealand and are embarking on a trip around the world the slow way, on foot and by personal vehicle. This could get interesting!