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....)
After arriving and crossing the border into the Ivory Coast, we thought the worst of the road conditions were behind us, how wrong we were! The Ivory Coast border guard warned us that the road ahead was going to be a bad one. We laughed and told him we have just crossed Guinea so we were used to some bad roads but he was right. The road got worse soon after we left the border post. We climbed a small rise and into some dense jungle and around the first corner I could see the road was not much more than a mud track that looked like it was a stream a lot of the time that would turn into a river during the wet season. We spent 2 hours battling the road, all the while reminding ourselves that we were following a bus so how bad could it be. Actually, it wasn’t a bus but rather a Land Cruiser Troopy with maybe 10 or more people in it and one or two hanging from the back. It’s a bus in these parts anyway and we followed it for 30 minutes or so until they allowed us to pass them. They were stopped at one of the many obstacles we came across that day. This one was a tree that had fallen across ¾ of the road. They had stopped to see if they could get past the tree and when I arrived behind them they moved aside to let me pass. Not what I wanted to do as I was comfortable knowing I could go anywhere they could but after a look at the tree I passed them and squeezed past the tree adding to the scratches from branches that are now down both sides of the car. That was to be the first of several things we had to make our way around and across. After an hour or so we came across a truck that had broken down. One of the trailer axles had broken away from the chassis and he wasn’t going anywhere for a while. Luckily for us it was to the side of the road and we could pass but just up the track we came across the obstacle that had broken the truck. It was another one of the log bridges like we had had to pass over in Guinea but this bridge was in pretty bad shape (as if they could get any worse…) and the logs were moved and broken and it looked like the truck had moved them all in its attempt to cross. I eyed it up and went for the crossing. Bang bang… and the distinctive twang of the Frontrunner extra fuel tank being punched in and coming back to its normal shape as we bounced over the last log and the bank back up to the track. I still have the spare tire mounted under the car and it is up against the tank so when its pushed, it pops the tank in and out with a sheet metal twang. My ears are finely tuned to any noise like that so I stopped to inspect the rear of the car. The spare tire had acted like a scoop and collected a load of Ivory Coast clay and it had moved 3 inches to one side but the little chain that holds the spare in place had done an incredible job and held against ‘car moving’ pressure. No damage done, we pushed on. We drove into the night that day as we could find nowhere to camp off the road. We made it to a small town where we got a hotel room and reflected on what was an incredible time on some of the worst roads (classified as actual roads, not tracks) we had seen.
We headed towards the coast and a campsite listed in iOverlander. It was to be a nice rest at a peaceful location, the last peace we had in Ivory Coast. The next day we drove to Abidjan which is the big city in Ivory Coast. It’s not the capital, but it’s the economic capital and its busy! We have seen some pretty bad driving during this trip but none of that prepared us for the Abidjan traffic. It was crazy, amazing and total chaos. Imagine a big city with millions of people and cars and then imagine (if you can) that none of the drivers follow any road rules at all.. impossible? Not in Abidjan. It’s the norm! The taxis were completely crazy. They would drive up on the footpath, into oncoming traffic, through red lights (even driving into oncoming traffic to get around cars stopped at the red lights) and worse. We summed it up in our minds as zero consideration for any other road user at all. They treat the road as if they are the only vehicle on them and therefore they do just what they want regardless of the rules or laws. We were at times completely amazed at what we saw. We are now in mid-West Africa and we can go days without seeing any other white people. We think that in the city traffic, we are given a small bit of consideration due to the novelty of our difference (when we are noticed) but in Abidjan its dog eat dog and everyone for themselves so let the fun begin. During one trip around the city, we came across some heavy traffic and we were just inching forward for what felt like ages. When we arrived at the congestion area, we were in amazement at what we witnessed. We were heading along a main road, 4 lanes, 2 each way. A smaller but still very busy road came in from the left. At some stage, someone had let a car from this side road cross our lanes and that opened the flood gates for the other cars in the side road to follow. This resulted in a classic case of grid lock as they then blocked the road for traffic going both directions. The thing that amazed us was the fact that even though no one was moving very fast, not one single driver would give up on the quest to get around the corner. If it wasn’t such a bad case of human nature, it would have been funny. It came to my turn to go and I had to play a careful game of chicken. As soon as I saw I could move only one inch, I took it. It was funny to watch the drivers follow so closely to the car in front so that no one could get into the space. Lurching forward and braking hard. It was aggression like I had never before seen on the road. In this instance, it was a real benefit to be sitting on the right side of the car. I put the window down and pointed directly to the driver of the car I wanted to get in front of and wagged my finger as if telling off a naughty child. Seeing a white face and being told off might have been enough to get me a few more inches but it was the motorbike that came up the right side of us and blocked the cars by squeezing into the gap that allowed us to eventually escape the anarchy and move on. It’s only driving, but it is so far from what we are used to that in some way it’s a highlight of the trip to see this sort of thing.
A lowlight was the constant police stops we were subject to. The police randomly stop cars and most of the bus/van vehicles for checks at many places around the city. I am sure it’s not to ensure safer roads but is to check people’s documents. We are going to get stopped at every single one of these and it starts to get annoying after the first 5 or 6. We are very careful to make sure we are legal and have all the documents required for travel through these countries but sometimes, like this time, our passports were at an embassy for a visa and we were therefore ‘undocumented’. We were stopped and pulled off to the side. I try to park really badly so they have to deal with me quickly but this officer insisted I move right off the road and I knew he was going to be difficult. We had Kevin and Steph in the car with us and Kevin can speak a small amount of French so when the officer realized this he started to talk to him…about me and my license and passport… Not the most professional way to start the interaction. So, we are white, travelling and have a newish vehicle so we must have lots of money and clearly, we are also completely stupid and ready to be taken for a ride by a much smarter policeman… This guy was determined to match us with a fine of some sort and this went on for much longer than it should have. I could hear bits of what was going on and he had a problem with my driver’s license and a big problem with the fact we didn’t have our passports with us. All the while he was talking to Kevin through the rear window. I could see this was going nowhere and he was trying everything to fine me but except for the passports we were clean. Eventually I got sick of this and with the driver’s control, I wound up the rear window and tried to get out of the car. ‘I am the driver and it’s my car, deal with me’ I said. ‘If you can’t speak English, find someone who can or let us go’. He wouldn’t let me get out of the car and insisted he continue the discussion with Kevin. He only had my vehicle documents and had not even asked for anything from the other 3 people in the car so it wasn’t much of a check was it! I then reached through my window and grabbed the bunch documents back from him and said for him to fine me or let us go. Oops, now I have made him mad.. Well at least it finally gave him the reason to give me a fine. It was for ‘disrespecting a police officer’ and cost me 20,000f which is about $45NZD which I paid on the spot. I never received a receipt so guess what… the money went directly into the pockets of the 2 officers we were dealing with. As we pulled out into the traffic again, we were once again stopped by another officer that was working the same road block but had not seen we had already been stopped… Like I said, we get stopped at every single check point…
We had met up with Kevin and Stephanie a few days earlier and together we had travelled to the Ivory Coast/Ghana border. We were all looking forward to driving through Ghana and taking advantage of one of the many cheap resorts along the coast. 4 star resorts are less than €20 a night and we have heard it’s a great country for overland travel. We arrived at the busy border on a 40-degree day and proceeded through the Ivory Coast side. The border official made sure we understood that we were on single entry visas and we could not return on the same visa… OK. Before entering Ivory Coast, we realized we had made an error when we got our visas and given the wrong dates so we had to get a new visa at great expense. These were single entry visas, whereas the visas with the wrong dates were multi entry visas. He didn’t look at those, only the correctly dated visa. Off we all went into Ghana and to the customs office. As we are not travelling with a carnet for the car, we had to get a very complicated insurance policy in place that insured us for the duty and taxes if we were to sell the car in Ghana. The premium was quite simply a small percentage of the expected tax and duty, but the documentation was complicated and it required us to deal with an agent (or fixer) that would bring all the parts together. What a joke… Once again we were seen as mobile ATM machines that could be tapped at will to spew cash in every direction. The fee for this service was going to be between 5 and $600USD plus we had to have each car fitted with a tracking device at $50USD.. This went on for a while and ended when the agent seriously asked me what I would be happy to pay for all the work. I went into a very detailed list of all the work that had to be done, with him agreeing on every point, all the while he was leaning right in towards me, head nodding with my every word. I pondered and looked towards the sky, looked him in the eye and told him I wouldn’t pay any more than €20.. I didn’t wait for his response, I just walked off as we had already agreed to drive around the country and we marched back to the cars and off to the Ivory Coast border again… OK so I had some fun, but I was still angry that one greedy fool has ruined it for all the 100s of Ghana people we could have directly and indirectly come into contact with but the new visa and all the cost of driving through Burkina Faso was still way cheaper than the cost to just get the car in to Ghana. Back at the border we were expecting trouble because of the visa we had shown before was single entry. We met the same guard and confidently presented our multi entry visas. The entry date for this visa was still 10 days away but he didn’t even look at the dates and just stamped us back in… So much for border security..
So, we were back in Ivory Coast and now have to get a visa for Burkina Faso. If there is one thing that we really don’t like to do here in Africa, its dealing with officials. Be they police, border guards, customs officials or embassy staff, they are all a pain. The embassy staff can be especially difficult. They are normal people in a position of authority and power, and they really know it. As white folk, we are singled out for special treatment. We are usually the only white faces in a room full of locals. One of the big problems we have is the expectation of efficiency. We are slow learners and once again at the Burkina Faso embassy we expected to be dealt with in a normal manner in a timely fashion. We arrived early not long after they opened and seated ourselves in the waiting room. We sat around for nearly 2 hours and when we asked we were told we should have knocked on the closed locked door for service. This is after the guards had directed us to wait for the woman to come and get us… OK, so we started the process and armed with our new knowledge of the process to get attention, we knocked on the door only to be told off and told that she would come for us and not to knock again. Hmmm. This woman for some reason then made the process as difficult as she possibly could. She would wait until we had completed the forms then say we need to do 2. ‘We need a copy…’ OK, we found a copy shop and copied the form in color and returned. No, we cannot take a PHOTO copy I need an ‘original’ copy (handing us the blank forms which were not offered before) Completed, now you pay, it’s this much... Nearly TWICE the amount the embassy said on the website and we didn’t have that much cash. Then she added that at 3pm she finishes for the day and we would have to come back tomorrow which would have meant yet another day to wait before we could collect the visas. It was just after 2:30pm. Off we went to the nearest ATM. Kevin and I ran from the bank back to the embassy (I could have beat him back but let him win because he’s half my age) and we managed to submit the finished applications with 5 minutes to spare and what should have taken a few hours at the most had taken all day. This is African ‘efficiency’.
The next few days we had an uneventful drive to the north of Ivory Coast and crossed into Burkina Faso. The crossing was pretty good and we were not asked for money when we shouldn’t have been. It was good to be out of Ivory Coast though and Burkina Faso was a very nice place to visit with very friendly people and no police stops. They are much like the people we met in Mali and the weather was also much like Mali, hot! Our first night in the country we stayed at a lake that has Hippos. It’s a campsite right on the lake edge and it was one of the nicest campsites we have had on the trip. We spent some time at the lake looking for Hippos and although we didn’t see them out of the water, we did see them moving around and in the late evening we could hear the roars and grunts of the giant beasts all around the lake as they called to each other. We then spent a night in the capital city of Ouagadougou which was a busy and clean city (by West African standards) where we planned to get some more visas but when we visited the office we find out they are no longer issuing them. It’s no problem it just means we have to get them at the borders which can be time consuming and means being out of the air-conditioned car…
We headed south and crossed the border into Togo. The crossing was no problem and everything was completed quickly and with a smile on both sides. On the way back to the coast, we stopped off at a UNESCO world heritage site which is a village that has been built into a cliff face. We arranged a tour with the local guides and met them at the road end. The guides were really taken with Luxy and just loved the idea that we were travelling with a cat. The tour was great. The cliff village was first occupied in the 1600’s and was only recently abandoned for a more traditional village setting above the cliff. It was nice to see the locals doing something to preserve their heritage and the site is developing into a regular tourist stop in the region. We drove down to Lomé which is the capital and attempted to get an Airbnb with Kevin and Steph. After a couple of attempts we managed to get in touch with a very nice chap who rented us the entire bottom floor of his very nice house. We wondered why this European type house with great quality finish and with Ikea furnishings and even landscaping, had ended up in the middle of a pretty typical west African city. It turns out that it is his brother’s house and he is away a lot of the time playing football in the European league. He was the captain of the Togo international side and is very well known in the area. It was the most relaxing time we have had since we arrived in Africa. We cooked, watched movies, did our washing (after 3 washes our towels were finally clean) and generally had a good time relaxing, (that is in between getting 3 more visas) and it was sad to say goodbye and head off to the next grubby hotel or hot campsite.
The Togo to Benin border was a pleasure to cross. It was no fuss and the process was easy. Its evident that Benin is a poorer country than Togo and the people of Benin were interested in getting richer any way possible. We were seen as easy targets and we were blatantly ripped off a few times on the first day in the country. We chose to view this as an isolated case but as we only spent a few days in Benin it was hard to see the country any other way and Benin was the first place we entered and left feeling like we were happy to be gone. Leaving Benin to enter Nigeria was an experience all in itself as was the time we spent in Nigeria so I will tell you all about that in a separate blog.
We headed off from the Sleeping Camel into the Mali traffic. I think the government had made some law about 2 stroke motorbikes as the streets were clogged with thousands of near new looking 125cc KTM 4 stroke commuter type motorbikes. Not a 2 stroke in sight which was good for air quality but the large fleet of clapped out diesel taxis made up for it and I can only imagine what the city might have been like with 2 stroke smoke as well.. We made straight for the border entry into Guinea down a pretty good sealed road. After an hour or so we arrived at the Mali immigration post and completed our paperwork and moved to the Guinea border. Mali had been a breeze and the border officials were excellent and they all knew their jobs. Entering Guinea was a stark contrast.
At the Police stop I was given clearance for us and the car, but to get the stamp that would complete the task, I was going to have to pay a bribe. I discussed this best I could and decided to move to the next post and see how I went later. At the next post, I had to get the car import permit. I sat in the office of an older official who didn’t look up from the paper shuffling for what seemed like ages only to glance at my things for around 1 second and wave me out saying ‘no permit for your car.’ This was of course not an option for us at all and I attempted to find out why. This went on for some time but I couldn’t get any answer from him at all. So, I left his office, walked down to the office that also had CHIEF in the title and knocked and boldly went in. I was hauled back out by his assistant and made to wait and after a short time, I was called back in with the first officer I saw to put my case. Much was said, all of which I didn’t understand and I was told by the chief, OK. You can enter. Please follow him, waving towards the first chap I had seen. Back to the small office and the paperwork was completed and I was asked for payment. I knew the correct price and the bidding started. The first offer was 50,000 CFA! It took me quite some time but I succeeded and he agreed to take the actual amount that would show on the receipt which was 11,000 CFA. Haha I thought until I reached into my pocket and realised that I didn’t have the correct change and I had to give him more that the agreed price. It wasn’t much, around €1.50 worth but I wasn’t going to get the change that’s was for sure. I then had to go back to the police for the passport stamp and the all-important stamp on the back of the import document. This was nothing more than a good old fashion shake down. No one was exempt. I was in the queue with all the rest of the locals and we were all in line to get screwed. While I was having a pretty good argument with one officer, I suddenly heard some English being spoken. It was a cunning local looking guy saying ‘but I don’t have 2000 CFA!’ His guard shot back ‘not in English’ and the discussion went on. It was interesting as in a lot of places it’s only the obvious tourists that are targeted but here I was like everyone else but for some reason my tax was more than twice what they were asking from the guy next to me. All this really did go on for all too long and I used all the tricks I had. Sat in his chair and stopped him from doing his work, acted dumb, acted smart I even went to the car and attempted to just drive on through.… nothing worked and I had to pay the tax. OK, OK, OK… I paid and got the stamp. It was then I realised how much of a victory it was for this guy to take my money as he did the stamping and signature like he was signing a new amendment declaring him the ruler of the free world. I have no doubt it made the dinner discussion around the family table that night after he stashed his tax-free earnings under his mattress (to pay for car repairs due to the poor roads in his country...) OK, let’s get going then. Off we went only to be stopped a few hundred meters down the road in what must have looked like a real full on car chase. We had not gone back to customs and we were chased down the road by the customs officials on their motorbikes, well we think it was their motorbikes as they were all on the back as passengers and with 6 of them in all, we caused quite a fuss on the street. We turned around and headed back and parked in the compound. At this stage I was worried that I had caused such a fuss getting the car permit, they might be getting out the rubber gloves for an Africa style search of the car, and us… who knows what it was but no sooner had we arrived we were told to go and we were free in Guinea.
We had a campsite to go to that was listed on the iOverlander app but when we arrived and re-read the listing, it was really only suitable for a motorbike and we kept going. After a bit of searching, we decided to head for some TV and cell phone towers we could see at the top of a hill and followed the track to the top. After chatting to the friendly caretaker and providing some kola nuts and batteries for his flashlight we settled in for a peaceful night. It’s just as well considering what we had in store for us on the roads over the next few days.
When we had planned our route through Guinea, we decided to stay pretty much to the main roads and head all the way through the country. On our first day we managed to travel only 350kms in 10½ hours of driving. Of that, maybe 2 hours were done in 4x4 low range travelling at speeds under 25kph. Before we started this trip, the only experience I have had off-road driving was many years earlier in the West Australian mines and that was really tame compared to what we were undertaking right at that moment. The roads are truly unbelievable. No description or photo will reveal the true condition of these roads. They are absolutely, completely, totally stuffed! The roads have seen no maintenance at all from the time they were built maybe 20 or 30 years ago. Add to this the annual rainy season and the damage that can do and you have the roads in Guinea. Most of the main roads are not drivable at all in normal cars during the rains. It’s a real wonder that people drive the roads in normal cars at all, but we saw them. The pot holes would start as small cracks then develop unchecked into large craters that cover the entire road. The only way through is to inch your way down the hole and back up the other side or detour onto the shoulder and back. In some cases the shoulder was better than the road. Now it’s not just one hole every so often, its holes and craters every metre of the way, even entire sections of road washed away all together leaving only mud, clay and puddles up to 1 metre deep for many, many, kilometres at a time. This went on for a few days and we were just about getting used to it but our last day was a real day of off-road adventure without ever leaving the A6 and A8 main roads through Guinea! We have walked up better walking tracks than we drove that day and sometimes I found myself laughing thinking about what we were actually doing. The roads were so rough!! We crossed several bridges that were just a bunch of logs across a span. At one crossing, the back wheel slipped off a bigger log and the right front wheel came off the ground. We were moving just enough for the momentum to carry us forward and the car toppled onto solid ground but I had to inspect the car after that one (and the crunching sound must have been the logs not the car...) All said and done, it was a real great experience and a first for us both, but the best part was the way the car handled the roughest parts with no fuss or apparent strain at all. We even towed a policeman whose car was stuck in a stream crossing. It was what the car was built to do and it did it really well. It’s a shame we were so focused (and worried at the time) to stop and take more photos of the roads and some of the obstacles we faced. I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of roads like this on this trip..
Not far from the border crossing into Ivory Coast, we visited an area where a population of Chimpanzees live. These chimps are famous and you might have even seen them yourselves. They are 1 of only 2 known populations of Chimps that have learned to use tools. These are the chimps that use sticks to ‘fish’ for termites. They poke the stick down a termite hole and when it’s covered in termites, they pull it out and they have a snack. They live in a small area of forest and are a small population in 2 groups. We arrived on Sunday and camped at the research institute and arranged a tour for the next day. It was expensive! It cost us 1,000,000 Guinea Franks which is around €100 but we were keen to see the chimps we had heard of before. Off we went into the forest with no fewer than 6 guides to see the chimps. Well, we wondered through the bush for hours and hours but we didn’t find the group. The guides were very disappointed as well. They have a 95% success rate finding them but no one works weekends so on Monday they have to find them all over again for the week. We also had a small problem finding Luxy when we returned from the trip. If we are staying at a camp all day, she will find a place to snooze for the morning and that days snooze spot was also a good hiding spot. We had to sit and wait for her to arrive back at the car before we could pack up and go. It meant a late arrival at the border crossing that day after another day of 4x4 fun.
The crossing into Ivory Coast was pretty normal. No one asked for money and everyone knew how to do their jobs. It was however quite a strange experience arriving at the border. The Guinea side had a small bit of concrete road that started at the gate and went about 30 meters into Guinea and stopped. The rains had washed away so much soil at the end of the road that we had to climb a very steep and short bank to just get to the road and border gate. No doubt the locals know about this and would get a good run up on the dirt road to launch themselves onto the concrete part but we weren’t in the know and I stalled the first time and was hanging half on half off and I had to select low range as a last effort to leave Guinea! I will never forget the roads there.
We are starting to see a pattern with road and living conditions vs corruption, lawlessness and poverty in the countries we pass through. Mali was a contrast to Guinea. We were faced with no corruption in Mali. We also saw that the roads were in good condition and the police were effective and trusted. In Guinea, we were asked for money by every official we dealt with. It was similar in The Gambia. The Gambia has a new President that may clear things up for them but Guinea has only ever had one normal election since independence in 1958 and in 2012 the current president postponed elections indefinitely so the poor record may well continue. It was in Guinea that we saw complete and total poverty for the first time. It was quite sad as the people that are affected are trapped in this cycle even though the country has huge resources at its disposal. All of this money is syphoned off by the government and nothing is put into infrastructure, education or health. To show control, the government employs a large army and police force but they are mostly idle and just for show. It is about as far from what we are used to as you can get. Nothing like travel to make you appreciate your home country…
We stayed in Dakar for a few days to get the visas sorted out for Ivory Coast and Mali. Dakar was a bit of a surprise for us, and of course it was not the nice surprise one gets when they discover things were nicer than expected. As I had mentioned in the last blog, we started badly in Dakar with the hotel and we were desperate to see the good side of this city I had actually heard of before we started to plan this trip. I think most people have heard of the Dakar Rally before, I sure had. I had a vision of an international style city with wide roads and busy shops and of course with rally cars everywhere. The reality was about as far from my vision as it could get. Apart from a main boulevard along the coast, the streets were like most West African streets being narrow, busy and full of rubbish and people. We had our first accident on those streets and of course it was with a taxi.
We were waiting and waiting at an uncontrolled intersection.. well it was actually a roundabout but I had never seen a roundabout operate like this one. We were inching along in the traffic wondering what the problem was as I could see the road a few hundred meters ahead was not so busy. We soon saw the problem. The main road was in front and to the left, but the road on the left was blocked and the cars were inching across the roundabout and blocking it for people (like probably only me) from going straight through. From the time we had arrived on the African continent I had employed the ‘might is right’ technique for getting through intersections meaning I have a bigger car than you so let me go first and it worked really well up to that point. I inched out into the traffic that was moving about walking pace and was promptly cut off. Hmmm, I kept going getting further and further in to the roundabout that was a normal 2 lane roundabout with cars 4 and sometimes 5 deep, plus motorbikes... Directly in front of me were 2 taxis and I wanted to get into the 6 inch gap between them, and pass through to the now clear road ahead of us. A few more inches… Christine said look out, we are getting close to this guy and I am sure I would have said something like ‘well he’s going to wait for me now..’ and kept inching forward. At this stage I have to say I expect to get this car all the way around the world by road without so much as a scratch anywhere, but I have always been a bit of a dreamer and as I got closer and closer I could see this vision coming to an end here in Dakar. A few more inches… I could now see the driver in the taxi to my left, the one that was attempting to get between me and the clear road ahead. As we have a dark window tint, he couldn’t see us. A few more inches… It was a game of chicken that this driver didn’t expect to be playing with a near new Toyota 4x4 with Euro plates and I think I should have known better too but here we were in a hot and dusty traffic jam and all he had to do was wait 3 seconds while I slipped through and he would be no worse off for his kindness. A few more inches…. ‘He’s not stopping’ Said Christine now pretty much looking down on his car. Even though we were pretty much stationary, she grabbed at the arm rest and center pocket to brace herself for the inevitable contact and sure enough, bump… he hit us and we were wedged together now causing further traffic problems…
The taxi driver was quick to open his door, but rather casually walked to the front of his absolutely shitty taxi and said with arms outstretched ‘look at my car’ as if to say the small impact we had just had was responsible for the numerous dents and scratches from bumper to bumper of his car. We now had the window open and was telling him to back up so we could carry on, or at least clear this intersection. What we had managed to achieve was to now block any further cars from coming from the left and cars behind us were now weaving past us and to freedom. All the while the driver was no doubt thinking of the new car he could get with all the money he would extract from these crazy Europeans that dared drive on his road and touch his car. He was making for the passenger side of our car and was walking around. In front, and to the right, the road was now clear… I turned the steering to the right and hey presto, we were untangled. Although I never looked at his car and any damage he might have caused himself by hitting us, he has only hit our rather thick and solid steel wheel rim and when I turned the steering to the right his car rolled backwards into the car behind him. He hadn’t pulled on the hand brake and had to run back to this car to stop it moving. Hehe.. I just drove off and disappeared into the Dakar traffic never to be seen by him again. I was relieved to see no damage at all to our car other than a smudge of Dakar taxi yellow on the wheel rim that I wear with pride. Remember, when you get out of your car, always put the handbrake on.
After spending some time in the city, we headed to Lake Rose that’s a little to the north of the city. It’s a salt lake that is 10 times salter than the sea. We stayed at a wonderful campground with Kevin, Stephanie and Pim. It was great. The campground was an addition to what was really a small resort and it had a lovely pool and a restaurant and bar. It is owned and run by a French man and his family and it was a welcome break from the road and we had a great time with our new Dutch friends and shared dinners and drinks with them for a few nights. The salt lake was really great. We had never been in a salt lake before and it was really a strange feeling. I felt like I was wearing an inflatable suit and even my legs wouldn’t sink at all. Around the lake there are several small-time salt works where the workers take small flat bottom boats out and then they get into the water and dig the salt from the bottom of the lake into the boat. Its bought back to shore and piled up to dry, then bagged and taken away. The workers spend quite some time in the water. We had to get out after only 10 minutes as our skin was stinging and the salt was working its way into parts of our bodies that we would rather not have salt in, if you know what I mean... We later heard the workers use shea butter on their skin to add back the moisture lost to the salt.
We said our goodbyes to our travelling friends and we headed off to The Gambia. Gambia is a small ‘micro state’ that’s based around The Gambia river where it widens and heads to the sea. It’s an old British colony and our first English speaking country since we actually left England. Legend has it, the British sailed up the river and fired cannon balls off to either side. They claimed the land up to where the balls landed as British Territory and The Gambia was born. This is a country that has been in the news lately after having its first presidential election for a while and it now has a new president but the old one wouldn’t initially. It was funny to see the place after seeing it on the TV. They really do know how to make a non-story into something that the world might be interested in and the reality is the entire thing was pretty low key. I had heard that troops from Senegal were converging on the place and there was no stability but as Senegal surrounds the country, there are always troops at the border and according to the many locals I spoke to, it was more media hype than anything else.
On arrival, we passed the immigration office without problems and headed to the ferry to cross the Gambia river. It was interesting to be able to chat with the locals in English and I had a very long talk with one guy who followed the car along the queue all the way to the ferry. He was at least 6ft tall and maybe in his mid-20’s. He posed an interesting question. He wanted us to adopt him! He had earlier asked if we had children and upon learning we didn’t, he said that he could be our son. He sincerely said he would be a good son for us and would be no trouble. He would work hard and be very quiet in the car for the remainder of our trip back to New Zealand. I found myself saying ‘Oh, thank you but we are OK for children right at the moment’. I guess for him it was a serious question and later I felt guilty for taking it so lightly. I guess the French talking tourists may get a lot more of this and to shake your head and say we don’t understand could actually be a benefit.
We stayed at another very nice campground run by a German couple for a few days and after getting some shopping and supplies we headed off. Out of the city we could see that although this was a small country, it had been run very badly by the last president who had used it as a personal money making venture for the past 22 years. The roads were bad and the infrastructure was all in a poor state. It was also a country that proved hard to leave! We spent a day driving up the river and we had planned to go back into Senegal via one of the smaller border crossings. We entered the route into the TomTom and off we went. Well, the road we were following was on the mapping software but in reality, it didn’t exist at all. We ended up doing a few large circles and ended up in a field that looked like it was a grain field during the rains. A local came out but this chap, like a lot of the out of towners didn’t speak English. We managed to get him to understand we were looking for the border or frontier as they put it and he sent us in the right direction and after 30 minutes or so of off road and dirt track travel we arrived at an old rusted sign that indicated the border. Oops, looks like we have left the country without going through a border control and we didn’t get our passports stamped out.. Never mind, we headed to the closest town in Senegal and to the police and immigration post to get things sorted out.
We ended up in a really small town that had a police station and a few shops and that was it. The police officer/immigration guy was sure surprised to see us and after he got rid of the odd chicken and some people that were sitting in his office chatting, we think he thought he could finally be a real immigration officer and look at real passports from real travelers rather than the locals who will travel between towns that just happen to be in different countries. He would just wave them on and not look at any documents or paperwork, but this wouldn’t be the case with us at all. After an hour or so and many phone calls to his boss, we were told NO, you cannot pass into Senegal as you need to obtain a visa first. I could see this coming as I listened to him talk to his boss a few times and although I could only understand bits of the French he was speaking, I got the drift of it. New Zealand has a waver for this requirement but he was not going to go against his boss, so we headed back to The Gambia.. just lucky we hadn’t been stamped out or we could have ended up in a pickle for sure. We camped the night and went in for round 2 the next morning, this time at a larger crossing that was on a sealed road. The immigration officer still had a chicken but he also had a goat so we think he was much more senior. This time we had exited The Gambia correctly, but guess what… we were again denied entry to Senegal for the same reason. I went back to the car and thought about what we could do. I decided to call his bluff and went back and explained to him that I needed to call my embassy so they could help me make the crossing. I explained that I would need to tell them exactly where I am and I would also need his name and the name of his boss so our people could help. I was very polite and not threatening in any way. He rushed back to the office, not knowing I had no cell phone coverage and the ability to even make the call and called his boss. The only word I understood from the brief chat was attaché which is what they call the ambassador. He put the phone down and with a big smile said ‘no need to make your call, I have the approval to make a discretionary visa for you and your wife’. It took 3 minutes and we were back in Senegal and heading to Mali.
Much has been said about Mali and it has had some bad press lately with some pretty bad attacks on hotels where westerners stay and there was a fresh kidnapping not too long ago. The extremists in the north have had a hostage in captivity now for 6 years! This has had a real effect on the locals in the capital city Bamako. Before all this, Bamako was a real international city and would have been the first we would have visited since we arrived in Africa but the attacks in 2015 changed all that and now the only tourists that come to the place are the odd intrepid backpacker and the overlanders, because Bamako is still the best place to get the travel visa for Nigeria. It’s not fair on the locals of the capital because it’s a long way from most of the trouble and generally the people in the south of Mali, where the capital is, are very moderate and from different ethnic groups altogether. This is a real example of the problems faced when borders are drawn on a map without thought for the people living there. The trip to the capital from the Senegal border was a breeze with some of the best roads we have seen so far. While we were waiting for our visas we stayed at a hotel/hostel called The Sleeping Camel. It’s an interesting place that was once the Moroccan embassy and it’s next to the German and Senegal embassies so there are about 30 heavily armed police and military within 20 meters of the place all day and night. We feel very safe all be it within a compound more like a prison than a campground. The yard has enough room for 3 or 4 overlanders to park and camp, but with the temperatures hitting 38 to 41 every day and a minimum of around 35 at night, we ended up taking a room with air conditioning for most of our time there. It was mainly so Luxy could sleep all day in comfort though. Most of the other guests are UN police and military, aid workers and the people who remove land mines and they are there at breakfast and dinner with the full uniform on including all their guns. The place is owned by an Australian and an American, so I have been able to watch as much rugby as I liked! It’s a lot of fun! They have had bands and parties, they have quiz nights and generally try to forget the fact that the city is under military rule and in a state of emergency. Before the attacks in 2015, the hotel was very busy being one of the most popular places for westerners to meet and stay. The remaining hostage that has been held for 6 years now was on a trip that left from The Sleeping Camel so its famous for more than one thing here.
We have started to meet some more overlanders too. As The Sleeping Camel is the only overland camping area within the city we all end up here at some stage. We have met James and Patrick who are heading to Capetown on motorbikes. They are not travelling together but were here at the same time. We also really enjoyed meeting Mike and Sue from Canada who are travelling around Africa in a converted Land Rover army ambulance. They are an inspiration as they are both in their 70’s and have already been around South America 10 years ago. But the most amazing people we met were a couple from Japan who are driving around Africa in a 660cc Mazda van that was designed and built for city postal delivery work. Think a Nissan Cube only smaller…
The third passenger is also doing very well. Luxy has started to travel much better and will now walk around the back seat and sometimes we get to have her on our laps while we drive on the smoother roads. She is however feeling the heat and is pretty much laying around for 20 hours a day preferring to wake us at 4am when the temperature is down to the mid 30’s and she feels like running around again. She was completely comfortable with her harness on until she lost it somewhere at the Sleeping Camel… She has started to follow us when we walk around at wild camps, sometimes for 100’s of meters and she will mostly come when we call her. We will next look to getting her used to walking on the leash and being carried around amongst other people. We eventually expect to be able to take her with us sightseeing in a small backpack when she is sick of walking herself. Sounds like a hard job but the training is extremely intensive as she spends nearly every waking moment with us so we really do expect to be able to achieve this.
Still a long way to go.
Mauritania.. ever heard of the place? Before we started to plan this trip, we had never heard of it either. I don’t think they have ever attended Olympic games, I’m pretty sure we have never had a delegation of Mauritanian officials visit New Zealand and I can say with certainty that I have never bought anything that has ‘MADE IN MAURITANIA’ proudly stamped on it. It’s a country of around 3.5 million people located on the west coast of Africa in the Sahara Desert belt. Its north border with Morocco is a mess and is covered in land mines left from the fighting between Morocco and the people of the disputed Western Sahara. Its eastern border is with Mali who have been in civil war for several years and it’s also not a safe place to visit. 90% of the country is arid land and offers pretty much zero to any population other than iron ore which they mine. The country is governed by a military junta that took power in one of several bloodless coups in the last decade and although they have bought some prosperity to the country they were all quick fixes that won’t offer long term wealth, like selling the costal fishing and mining rights to overseas countries.
So here we are anyway wanting to cross this country. We had read much about the border crossings and this was one of the worst we had to deal with mainly due to corruption of the officials. We had heard that arriving late at the border will be a benefit as they might choose to rush you through before it closes at 7pm but it was closed when we arrived so we had to just wait. It was a Friday which is the Islamic Sunday so it was not very busy at all with a dozen trucks and 3 or 4 cars waiting only. Typically, it was really windy and although we tried to get shelter we couldn’t find a decent place even behind trucks in the queue so we decided to get a room in the hotel at the border. I use the term ‘hotel’ loosely as from the outside (and the inside really) it looked just like a Moroccan roadside restaurant. The hotel was for the truck drivers and was pretty basic but clean enough for a Moroccan truck driver, so it will be OK for us.
When we went to the hotel we gave up our place in the queue for the border. No problem as it’s a real thing in Morocco to queue jump and I am a fast learner and after nearly 2 months in Morocco I had become quite proficient in this practice so from the very last in the queue to getting through the gate in 3rdposition was a small win for me and after some easy procedures on the Moroccan side, we were off to Mauritania. Due to wars and border disputes, this border has a no man’s land that’s about 3kms wide. We need not have worried about our position in the queue as getting across this stretch was very interesting. The border has land mines and a supposed road to follow. Well, we could not see any road that’s for sure and it was just a stretch of rocky desert dotted with armed guards, UN observers, and piles of rocks to keep inside of each side of the mined area. We had employed the services of a ‘fixer’ at the Moroccan side and he met us here to help us with the paperwork (mostly in French) on the Mauritanian side. The negotiations had been tough and we had a crowd of people around the car all touting for the job of fixer for us and although we paid €15 for the job (which was €5 too much) he was a nice chap and I got my moneies worth by chatting to him while we waited for the officials.
When we arrived on the Mauritanian side we had several places to visit in some pretty run down looking shacks compared to the Moroccan side. This included getting a biometric visa with photos, immigration stamps and a temporary import permit for the car. The last stop was police where we were fingerprinted and sent on our way. As we had a local helping us with all this, we were not asked for any money by the officials!
Our first night in Mauritania we wild camped just outside of a shanty fishing village. The village consisted of around 1sq/km of tarpaulin and old roofing iron shacks just up from the beach. We set up camp and within a few minutes we had our first visit from the locals. Around 8 or so men came over and stopped a few meters from our camp and proceeded to sit and watch us. I went over and introduced myself and chatted as best I could. One of the men could speak about as much English as I could speak French so we sat in the dirt and tried to make conversation. It didn’t take me long to work out he was trying to convert me to Islam. He put in a pretty good effort, but was unsuccessful and I am still a non-believer despite his efforts. People came and went, some just sat and watched us, some said hello and some just held out hands for money. It was well after dark that the last guy left after sitting alone for over 30 minutes. We didn’t know what he was waiting for but we did offer him food and drink which he didn’t take.
The next morning, we headed to the capital city, Nouakchott and had a look around. It’s different… and the country’s poverty is evident as the city is far less developed than anything we had seen further north and trash is a much more visible problem, especially plastic bags and water bottles which are everywhere. That night we stayed at a campground out of the city run by a local that had been educated in the USA so we were able to chat with him about the things to see and do locally. He was a great help with finding the best supermarket for a resupply of some much-needed items. We did explore the area a small bit but the roads were pretty bad and the landscape was just desert so we decided that we wanted to push on south to Senegal. We stayed a night close to the Diama border crossing which is a less popular crossing and supposed to be less corrupt than the Rosso crossing. It was a great wild camp just off the dirt road that leads to the border with an incredible night sky and we had a peaceful sleep and Luxy was able to play in the sand, stick her paw down lizard holes and climb trees until she was exhausted.
The next morning, we headed to the border. We had 3 buildings to visit on the Mauritian side. The first was a police check where they asked for €10 to complete the paperwork. I said NO in French (non) and in English I told him to please complete the job so we could move on. After some hesitation, he did his bit and we moved on to building 2 where I produced my passports and vehicle documents and the temporary import permit for the car was stamped for exit. Same thing here, €10 was demanded and again I refused to pay anything and they let me go on. Next, we were stopped by an un-uniformed bloke in the street wearing a high vis vest who asked for a 500MRO Vehicle tax (500MRO = $2.03NZD) which we paid as we knew this was a legitimate charge and moved on and parked outside the last building marked POLICE. This is where we completed the last immigration process and after some more fun and games and demands for cash, they stamped our passports. The official indicated that he had not completed the process and would do so once we paid. I went back to the car and we looked at what he had done… it looked OK to us, but we were still a little worried, so I got out of the car and started to walk back to the last office then thought about it again and decided the best thing was to just exit. Christine got out and lifted the last and only gate and we casually drove through (while looking in the rear view mirror for raised guns and running guards) they never even lifted their heads from looking down at their smartphones. We were at the Senegal border.
A dam at the mouth of the Senegal River is where we cross and they really have you here as this is the only crossing other than the Rosso crossing where you have to take a ferry across the river. We had heard the price can be very high for the ferry depending on how much money they think they can extract from you where as the dam crossing has a fixed price of 4000CFA ($9.20NZD).
The process here was not too different to the last border crossing other than they were wearing different uniforms. The first stop we paid the tax for crossing the river and were given an official receipt! Great… We proceeded to the next building that was the immigration office. We produced our passports to the policeman who then asked for our vehicle registration as well. Not unexpected as we have to pay a known fee for the temporary import of the car. We knew the fee was 5000CFA and we had 3 x 2000CFA notes which we handed over expecting the TIP in return. The policeman then started asking for euros not CFA which we thought was a little strange, but what did we know and this was an official border police guard. I said no to the euros and after some light discussion I gave him the 6000CFA. It’s not unusual when buying something for the seller to signal with waved arms that that’s the end of the transaction, eg no further negotiations and no change... that’s it. We received this signal and didn’t think too much of it and moved on. Hang on, the next building is the TIP building, not the one we have just been in… I realised we had been tricked into thinking we were getting the import permit but we had just paid a bribe and not the fee as we thought. I walked back to the office and smiled to the same guy and motioned that I could get euros after all. He said a lot in French that I of course couldn’t understand but didn’t reach for his pocket. I pointed to the door and said ‘they are leaving-they are leaving, they have euros’ and still smiling nicely held my hand out and said ‘I will change’. He eventually gave me the money back which I grabbed, stuffed in my pocket, said thank you very much in English, and left. I now had the upper hand as he had done his job and had nothing to bargain with, and I had the money. We did of course have to pay the 5000CFA to the man that completed the TIP and true to form, I didn’t receive the change for the 6000CFA I gave him, but we had completed the crossing anyway for very little more than expected. Welcome to Senegal.
We spent our first 2 nights in Senegal at a popular overlanders stop called The Zebrabar. Its owned by a Swiss couple and although it was quite expensive for a campground, it was the first place we had camped in that provided toilet paper… They have a restaurant and bar and the first night we had dinner at the restaurant. Now, I am not saying it was their food, but then next evening we were both quite sick with diarrhoea and vomiting… still a nice place regardless and it was cool to see the amazing birds and the big red monkeys that kept stealing Luxy’s food from under the car. She was understandably terrified by them at first, but just like the amazing cat she is, soon got used to them and decided they were not too much of a threat and would watch them from a distance without freaking out and hiding. We also met Maria and her partner Aritz. Maria is French and had been working in Dakar for the last 6 months and was taking a break with Aritz before heading back to France and the real world as she put it. After dinner with them Maria very kindly offered to give us here unused malaria medication. We don’t really know if we have enough of this medication as its going to depend on how long we take to get ‘there and back’ so the offer was accepted and we arranged to collect it from her hotel in Dakar when we arrived. Thank you very much Maria. It was an amazing offer and very generous considering the cost of the medication.
We then headed into Dakar and to what would be the worst experience of the trip so far. We booked a place to stay in the city close to the embassy’s we need to visit for travel visas. We always book low priced places for obvious reasons, but we just couldn’t find this place at all. We had booked through bookings.comwebsite and with this booking we didn’t pay up front which was lucky. After trying to call and text we gave up and booked a much more expensive place for 1 night. It was getting dark and we just wanted to get somewhere. It was a really nice place and cost us the princely sum of $72USD, about 3 times what we would normally pay! This booking was paid in advance when we booked and our card was debited. We checked in, showing them the booking email and we got our room. The next morning when we went to leave things got ugly, very ugly. They demanded money saying we had not paid and no matter what we said, they would not take no for an answer. Christine showed the email again and again which very clearly in bold right at the top said ‘Dear Christine, your booking is guaranteed and all paid for’, plus the debit to her credit card. The owner would read only to where it said guaranteed and then just stop and yell at me ‘it is only to guarantee, it’s not payment’ I kept saying again and again ‘read the rest’ but he wouldn’t do it. I said I was leaving and then it got pretty bad. People started to turn up from all over, the owner was on his phone calling all his neighbours and he and his rather large employee were blocking us from getting in the car. Christine became understandably distressed so I did the only thing I could think of at the time and that was to tackle them both and push them away from the door so she could close it and have at least some security in our vehicle. Before I could get in and drive off his neighbour blocked us in with a car… oh shit. All this time we were requesting the police. We knew we had paid having stayed more than 80 nights in hotels booked through this site but we just couldn’t get him to confirm it, he wouldn’t. Towards the end a French guest that could speak good English came and we spoke through the car window. We were not leaving the car as they wanted us inside the hotel. I asked to see the booking email that shows we have not paid. Come in and I will show it… NO, print it. He then bought out the lady that looks after the booking and said ‘here, she has no booking for you..’ WHAT!! BRING ME THE EMAIL what good is she to this’ So, it went quiet for a few minutes and the owner reappeared holding his head with both hands looking down and the car in front was suddenly gone… What a mess he had made of this.. We of course had paid as we had said, his useless staff had been wrong all along. He started to apologise but the damage was done and no amount of apology would make up for what had happened. Looking back, although I am sure the situation couldn’t have gotten much worse, it might have and I am still amazed I was able to overpower the 2 men to get the car door closed. We were shaken but OK and it reminded me that this sort of travel is not for everyone. We will now always ensure the booking is fully understood by the hotel staff when we arrive…
We will be in Dakar for the next week as it’s a good place to get travel visas for the next bunch of countries we will be crossing. We have met some people!! They are Dutch and are travelling to Capetown the same way as we are. Pim is on a motorbike sleeping in a tent and Kevin and Stephine are travelling in a Land Rover 90 with a roof tent. We first met them in Mauritania and they also stayed at The Zebrabar. We are going to stay with them this weekend and we hope to travel ‘near’ them for a while, especially through a couple of the less fun countries. We think we will end up going different directions but it could also be the start of a loose travel group of people and vehicles heading the same direction. They are on Facebook as ‘Roving Africa’ so follow along with them also for twice the fun!
We finally left Agadir and headed towards Dakhla. Within a few hours, we had left behind any resemblance of greenery and we were now in the dry and sandy part of Southern Morocco. It took a day of driving and we were in the Western Sahara area. I have been in a few deserts and dry environments in other parts the world and this is not too different except for one thing. Trash, garbage, rubbish, litter, call it whatever you want, this place has little of anything other. We drove for 100kms or so out of Agadir and for a while, we enjoyed the scenery of the desert and it sparse beauty until it was once again blotted with trash as we came closer to the next town. We soon realised that the prevailing wind is southerly so as we headed south out of towns we were accompanied by a field of trash that was proportionate in size of the town we had just left. It’s a bit sad as it would be almost impossible to clean it up from the sand and stones, and I think it would take a few generations for any change in attitude to litter to be normalized. I have to say we also found Portugal and Spain to be much the same, except with an organized collection. It is normal to just discard litter in the street. I remember the ‘be a tidy kiwi’ campaign in the 70s and I am happy that people police others socially regarding litter in New Zealand. It’s everyone’s problem really, and I wondered if the litter problem I see here is just too big to even feel like you’re making a difference by putting your trash in the bin, so why bother?
It was great to get on the road for even a few days in a row. We have enjoyed every second in Morocco but we sure are itching to get underway and gone. The package we are waiting on now is a road atlas for all of Africa and a battery charger. Both of which we could have found locally I agree but.. the road atlas would have been in French or Portuguese and I can say there’s nothing quite like actually reading things.. and I just had an itching for just the right battery charger for the 100ah/hr battery that keeps the drinks cool. We are needing it when we sit in one place for more than 2 days and I couldn’t find it anywhere after looking for a couple of weeks. So thanks to Amazon, it’s not only the postage we pay it’s the hotels while we wait. None of that really matters because we have our very own kitty to keep us entertained!
So, yup. We are in another hotel. Fine way to be spending a car tent camping trip..? Well, we were intending to camp for a few days then a few days in the hotel that’s receiving our package but there’s a good reason we are in the hotel early. It’s windy. No, I mean IT’S WINDY… We spent 2 nights camping at roadside campgrounds as we headed to Dakhla and we were able to have camp right up close to a wall and were sheltered from the wind but at the campground in Dakhla we had nowhere to escape the wind and didn’t want to sit for 2 days in the dust and salt spray. The decision was made easier by the fact it was the only campground in town and it was a complete and total utter shit hole. So we moved to a much better shit hole.
As I mentioned in my last post, this is an occupied territory and while the groups are at a cease fire, they still don’t agree with each other. Morocco has forged ahead with the occupation and built towns with grand infrastructure all the way down the coast. We drive hours through nothing then arrive at grand gates and a 6 lane highway that’s empty. Streets all laid out with lighting and power, but no houses. A lone completed house in acres of half constructed houses and empty lots. It looks bleak, its dusty, hot and windy. In Dakhla which is the largest city in the territory, we see no international companies advertising. No name brand or international hotels operate here. No internationally recognized oil companies sell fuel here. The reason is that the UN do not recognize Morocco’s claim over this area, in fact no one does. I guess international originations don’t do business in these areas? What I think is that if they weren’t fighting over the place, no one would live here at all. The kite surfers would have it to themselves and it would go back to being a small wind blown fishing village. I’m sure half the population is police or army/navy anyway and they are sort of being paid to be here but otherwise…
The car is going along well and problem free. When we were at Atlantic Parc campground I removed the tow bar. It was a heavy duty high rated Toyota supplied Thule tow bar and it would have cost £1500 at least. I thought long and hard about it but it limited our ground clearance to pretty much the same as a road car and we plan on heading into the desert as soon as we cross into Mauritania and it weighed around 75kg too so for overall fuel consumption for the entire trip, we are better off without it. The tow bar also made up the bumper mounts and I still needed a towing point at the back so I had to get the local mechanic to turn up with his grinder and we cut it up right there in the campground, in our spot, in the middle of the day. Sure was interesting to have a grinder screaming away and sparks showering everywhere (no safety equipment…). Fortunately, the sparks weren’t landing on our car and it was all over pretty fast. Now I have no tow bar and 2 excellent rear tow points either side bolted to the chassis and the sort of clearance Toyota intended from the start. We don’t even carry 75kg of food and water so shedding that much weight in one go was great and the rear now sits around 5mm higher. They have an upholstery shop at the same place and we got a shade for the windscreen and some pockets made for the back seat to help with storage. Here in Dakhla we have had the windows tinted to help the air conditioner keep up and a new bracket for the big battery so it is now secure. We are not getting the fuel consumption we were hoping for but we are pushing a lot of air with the tent and the front roof rack is now loaded with winter things and the tramping gear, so maybe to be expected. The next major service will be in South Africa so I will take it to a Toyota dealer and they can check the injectors and replace them under warranty if needed… haha we will see!
Morocco has been a great place to dip our toes into Africa as we had quite a few things to do (as we discovered) and this has been a good place to do what we need to. We really do feel we are ready for the rest of Africa now. It’s been both good and bad to have to do all the prep work on the other side of the world and I envy the people who can start a trip like the one we are on from their front door. The good bit is we really do only have what we need and no more. I think we could have taken a load more ‘things’ and justified each one but I am glad we don’t have them. Chances are we will collect stuff along the way and we might have to have a purge every now and then but I wouldn’t change a thing so far.
Ok, so this is the bit where I update you all on the new addition to the team. I trust you have all gone to the new page on ourepictrip.com to see the team and read Luxy’s bio. She is doing fine and seems to be getting used to the travel very well. She is still trying to work out why the world is moving so fast when we are driving and prefers to just lay in her basket but she doesn’t really sleep we think. She is still no problem when it comes time to get in the car and will settle down within a minute or two while we are packing up the tent. She absolutely loves the outdoors and gets quite distressed when she has to be inside at hotel stays.
Although she used to live at a campground by the beach, we are pretty sure she had never been in the sand before. We stayed at a campground, pretty much in the middle of nowhere, that was slowly being eaten alive by sand. It was everywhere and they weren’t making moves to get rid of it, losing battle maybe? Luxy loved every second of being at that place and went totally crazy rolling around and digging in the sand. She would run and dive on piles of it. Great fun and although I tried to get some good video of her, I didn’t… When we arrive at a normal looking campground, she is in her element and will be off exploring straight away. When we are at a deserted campground or are wild camping, she will stay very close to the car and tent. As long as she is between us and the car, she is comfortable. Fights, she has had a few. No worse for wear. She has stepped on something (litter grrr) and maybe still has something in her foot but we are monitoring it and treating it as needed. She is very much our cat now and will follow us around the campground when it’s dark and she usually gains a following with campers soon after we arrive anywhere. We can leave her alone at the campsite all day and she will stay close and snooze in the tent (we think...) and she has no problem laying in the car while we have lunch and buy food.
So it’s looking good so far but time will tell. You cannot convince a cat to do anything...
Gidday mate..It seems like a long time since I’ve said that. These days its bonjour or a nod of your head as you walk past. When I do say my usual greeting, I get a blank stare as if I have spoken some strange dialect or a long lost foreign language. Thing is, this part of the world used to belong to either the French or the Portuguese and along with Arabic they are the languages spoken by pretty much everyone. The further south we go in Morocco the more French people we see and fewer of them seem to speak English. Sometimes it actually quite funny. We often meet French people who don’t (or won’t) speak English. Sometimes they will just carry on talking and talking even though we are indicating we don’t understand at all. It usually works out for them and they often walk away looking satisfied with themselves having had a good chat with the Englishman. Yes, the Englishman and his English wife…
We have been campsite hopping, moving from place to place staying at campgrounds. We have just left a mega campsite with 100’s of campers. It was 90% full even though it’s the off season and 90% of the campers are French and 99% are in RVs. We were the 1% outside under canvas. Just like clockwork every night at 6:30pm the RV dwellers all head indoors and the entire place falls silent. All that is left is the glow of the flat screen TVs tuned into the array of satellite dishes that are on every roof. We on the other hand remained outside and have the place to ourselves. Luxy starts to play on the roadway and between the campers and we are able to chat to the security guards. It’s not like any campground I have stayed in. It felt like we were living in a French retirement village. We did however meet some nice people at the mega site and thanks to Stuart and Boo for a wonderful afternoon tea. We also spent some more time with our friends from Estonia, Ivar and Kairi. We are looking forward to seeing more of them and their lovley dog on the way back! A storm meant we had to move but (the silly thing is) for 5 Euros more a night, we have a lovely apartment in a resort up behind the campground.
The reason for the long stay in Morocco is because we are waiting for some credit cards to come from New Zealand, Germany and the USA. It’s actually been harder than we ever imagined to bring them all together and to us. Having an address and being able to wait there or sending things in advance to a hotel and hope it will still be there when we arrive. With the credit cards, we didn’t want to take any chances so we are getting them sent by DHL. But other items are being sent in advance of us arriving. It has meant an extra 2 + weeks here before we can head south. We sure didn’t want to risk having something this important to the trip getting lost again and Morocco is a much better place to ‘hang around’ in. It has meant that we have spent a lot of idle days though. When you travel by car and set up camp using the car, to move sites in the camp or use the car means an entire pack up. The weather has been nice for the last few weeks and lazing in the sun doing lots of nothing has been a nice break. A massive thanks to Nicola and David for allowing us to use their address for this job and to Nicola for the running around to make it all happen.
So, I have looked through both our cameras and phones for photos to remind me of what we have been up to so I can write some more in this edition and guess what? They are just photos of Luxy and campgrounds so rather than drone on about nothing much or fill a couple more pages with cat news, I will leave it here so I can get this finished. Today we leave Agadir and the resort accommodation we have been in for the last 4 nights and head for The Western Sahara. Our next town stop will be Dakhla. We will follow the coast all the way and we expect it will take us 4 days, about 400kms a day. When we reach Dakhla we will have to wait for the last package before we cross into Mauritania. The next few days will be more interesting driving as we cross the disputed territory. The Moroccans are technically still at war with the Polisario people and a cease fire has been in effect since 1991. The Moroccans occupied the territory after the Spanish left in 1975 starting the war and although there has been no fighting for decades, still our first war zone!! We expect that in the next 1600 kms we will be stopped up to 50 times at police and military check points so maybe I will have a bit more to talk about next time.
Thanks for following!
You only have to hint to google you are in Morocco and start typing Moroccan C… and it will of course auto fill the CATS bit for you. Everyone we know that has been here has told us about the street cats. Behind every shop, house, building or parking lot you will see cats. Oh, plenty of dogs too but this is all about the cats of Morocco.
The cats we know around the world today as domesticated pets have all come from around this part of the world. The first pet cats can be traced back over 9500 years based on archaeological evidence found in Cyprus. In fact, many archaeologists say once the formerly wild cats became domesticated, they appear to have accompanied human tribes as they gradually migrated and spread throughout the ancient world. Some of the Moroccan street cats are very closely related to, and are recognised as a sub species of the African Wildcat which split from the European Wildcat nearly 175,000 years ago! To the casual observer, a cat is a cat and few would be able to pick an African Wildcat from a European Wildcat or from pretty much any other cat on the street over here. We did wonder about these cats and how they look after themselves and live and prosper in such a tough environment. Turns out they get some help.
In Morocco, the street cats live parallel to the humans and are found everywhere, but are not common as pets. I guess people may have a favourite street cat that they throw scraps to but they come and go. It’s more like the cats have specific humans they might go back to rather than the other way around. Saying that, it’s obvious the Moroccans are very proud of the cats and don’t seem to discourage them at all. In this part of the world, a cat is to be loved and cared for by people. Mistreating a cat is considered to be a sin in Islam. We have seen cats in some pretty unusual places. When I was at the hospital having my thumb looked at (more on that later) cats were just wondering around the wards coming and going as they pleased. They wander in and out of restaurants and it’s totally normal to have a cat rubbing against your leg under the table looking for its next feed while you’re eating. I guess I am referring to the cheaper places to eat rather than any fine dining place (like we would be there anyway…) but its cats, cats, cats everywhere!
As you might be thinking, this is just fine for us two seeing as we are ‘cat people’. We are the restrained type of cat people these days choosing to have them one at a time now but we like having cats around. We had made cat friends in just about every place we have been to since we had left New Zealand. Natasha had 3 for us in Perth, Dave and Sarah in the USA have a lovely cat, as do Alistair and Doreen’s neighbour.. (hehe) and we loved David and Nicola’s Blackie too. So, after arriving here in Morocco, we headed to a campground and settled in for a few days to get into ‘Africa Time’ and relax. We chose a spot to set up and I was busy with the roof tent and I hear Christine say ‘ohhh, they have cats here’ Before I could finish what I was doing and have a look at the cat she has seen, I hear ‘oh look quick! I have one in my arms….’ We had been at the camp site no longer than 5 minutes and we had made a cat friend. I need not hurry to see this latest friend as she just stayed in Christine’s arms and started to purr. Hmmm.. OK. Friendly cat indeed! This cat was still small and less than 6 months old but it had completely worked out the ‘human = food’ concept and was also doing very well at the ‘being cute = getting way more food’ bit too. This wasn’t the only cat around the campsite. We counted at least 10 more, most looked older but none would come close to us at all except this little cat. It hung around all afternoon and of course at dinner time. We didn’t feed it at all and it looked like that wasn’t a problem for it as it had other friends too. A French couple who were camping (in a very luxury campervan) across the way from us were also seemingly attractive to this little kitty and we think they might have been feeding her. So anyway, evening came around and low and behold the little kitten decided that she wanted to be on our laps. It was around this time I could hear the drip, drip, drip of our hearts melting… bugger… looks like we have a cat. We didn’t admit it to each other for a few days but after it slept with us in the roof tent that first night, I would have said it was a done deal no matter what.
Over the next 4 days and nights we got to know kitty very well and she really ever left our sight and slept in the tent with us each night. People say that cats choose their owners and not the other way around. This really was the case here. We didn’t feed the cat until day 3 at which time we knew it was ‘over’ and we had a pet. We sat down and discussed the trip with a cat. Many, many, people travel with dogs but few with cats. We looked at the requirements for getting a cat across borders and around the world with us. As long as we have a ‘rabies passport’ for her, she will be fine. We may have to use the services of a pet relocation company once or twice and send her on ahead a week or 2 for quarantine when we are closer to home but otherwise she can go with us everywhere we are going. OK, so us 2 are now us 3. We are going to have to make room in the car and we have to find space for all the cat stuff. Then we have all the shots to do and we don’t want kittens (or do we?… NO) but we decided that before we did all that expensive stuff we would do a test trip for a few days and see how she went. To be honest, this is where things got weird. We packed up and the cat stayed. We put the cat in the car and it just got comfortable and went to sleep. We drove all day to the new campground where the cat wanted to play around the car and with us… had we in fact found the perfect cat?? We bought a harness for it to wear and it didn’t mind. Nothing was a problem for this cat. It even came when it was called!! All this and we had only had it for a week. We went to Fes looking for a suitable vet but decided the best English speaking vet was back in Casablanca so we headed back there. Until this time the cat really had been perfect but a trip to the vet is going to bring out the worst in any animal I’m sure. We talked to the vet and I went to bring her in for her first check-up.
The vet is under another shop and there are 6 steps down to the landing and front door of the vet clinic, I got the cat from the car with only her harness on, we had no cage at that stage. All good until I got to the second step of 6 and the cat started to smell the distress pheromones no doubt sent out by the 100s of cats here before her.
Step 3. Struggle…. She twists her head in an almost impossible direction and finds my left hand and latches on to my middle finger.
I get to step 4. She lets go from my left hand and whips around to find my right hand and specifically, my thumb…crunch, as she bites down hard. I try to get my left hand to her scruff but I miss…
Step 5. She lets go of my thumb, but only to get a better grip. What was already feeling like slow motion got real slow as I could see, feel and anticipate exactly what was going to happen next.
Between step 5 and 6 I had to make a decision. I could do what she wanted me to do and let her go before the next crunch, but that might mean we will never see her again or I could let her do her worst and we would still have a cat. I chose the latter and had to bear the consequences. She had my thumb right at the back of her mouth on the right side and she didn’t hold back. Wham! I felt the teeth sink right into my thumb pad and my thumb nail cracked where the teeth went right through. She gave it a couple of squeezes to make sure I felt it.
Step 6.. she let go as I finally had her by the scruff and we calmly walked into the vet as if nothing had happened. At that stage I didn’t realise I was trailing blood everywhere which really did give away the fact we had had some issues arriving to this point.
The vet and his staff loved her saying she was very well behaved. The vet said she is typical of a Moroccan street cat. Compact, hardy and friendly. She is likely to be from the African Wildcat breed due to her markings, colouring and build. Wherever she is from, she is now free of rabies, worms, cat flu and reproductive organs, and has a new microchip, all ready to see the world. I, on the other hand still have some healing to do.. The bite sure was a goodie. Her teeth are still very sharp and she crunched me with her molar that she would normally use to break the bones of the little animals she would snack on. I watched the redness move from my thumb to my hand and then it started to move up my arm. The first antibiotics didn’t work so I went to another clinic who took a look and ordered me to hospital. I saw 3 doctors in 2 hospitals in all and the last one decided to cut me open so it could drain and did it pretty much on the spot in the consultation room. Yes, it hurt. The worst is that it needs to be left open to heal from the inside out and the opening is right on the side and front of my main thumb.
So, we have been in hotels, campgrounds and Airbnb’s around Morocco for 3 weeks, now always with the cat. She appears to quite like it. All of it, which is a relief. We do still have a feeling we may have added a factor of difficulty to the trip, and it looks like we won’t be backpacking through India, but we’re pretty sure we have added a load of happiness by having this passenger along for the ride. We now have another 10 days to wait for her final rabies shot and we will be on our way south down the west coast of Africa. She is set to become a very well-travelled cat! She rides in a basket that sits on the driveshaft hump between the front and back seats. She sleeps most of the time but also looks out of the window a lot. We got her a litter tray for a hotel stay but discovered she really like to use it even when we are camping. That way she doesn’t need to worry about other cats and possible violation of a territory. It made her a lot more comfortable at a new stop and she now settles down in a few minutes. She loves the roof tent! She lays or sits by the opening at the top of the ladder looking out and will often lure us up so she can play! It took her a few days to get the hang of climbing up into the tent. Getting down was of course no problem. The tent and around the car are her safe places and she has a hiding spot up on the fuel tank. We have some security grills we can put on the back windows for ventilation for when she guards the car, or she can come along on the harness. She is OK with that but still not keen on sitting in a backpack or bag, yet…
We’re looking forward to answering any questions you might have on travelling with a cat, we couldn’t find much on it at all and maybe with good reason, it might be impossibly hard, but we’re up for it.
Anyhow, meet Luxy.
She would like to connect with you on her Instagram account luxy_the_travelling_cat. Make sure you follow her so you can keep up with her adventures across the globe. She plans on being the most well-travelled cat on Instagram! Do you think she can do it?
Africa. Crossing to Morocco.
We arrived at the city of Algeciras in southern Spain. It’s a port town and pretty industrial looking as the port facility has been extended right across the front of the city center, (sort of what they want to do to Auckland. It’s ugly) It is a busy port though as it’s the closest port to Africa and with the stability of Morocco, which is really more part of Europe than Africa, many people choose to enter Africa via this port than anywhere else. The area is surrounded by steep hills on both sides. On the east is the British Territory of Gibraltar, commonly referred to as ‘The Rock’ as the entire territory is perched on a very steep (and quite small at under 7km2) hard rock outcrop. What a strategic spot it is! Right at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea and where its only around 8 miles across to Africa. It has a lot of history as you can imagine, a lot of it not so good. It was ‘captured’ from the Spanish in the early 1700’s by an Anglo-Dutch alliance on behalf of Archduke Charles of Austria who was attempting to take over Spain at the time. The attempt failed but in the process, the British got the Rock as long as they stopped fighting the Spanish. So, they won it fair and square, but it’s been a bit of a thorn in the side of the Spanish ever since who would really like it back. So much so that between 1969 and 1985 the border was completely closed by Spain. It came up again just recently with the Brexit vote with the Spanish Foreign Minister suggesting it could be ‘a good time to see a Spanish flag on the rock again’. In the last 500 years, Gibraltar has been attacked 14 times but has never given an inch of territory. This is where the term ‘as solid as the rock of Gibraltar’ comes from. It was a nice place to visit, but it was expensive and we couldn’t get a good carpark (again…) so I sat in the car while Christine went shopping for maps.
The next day was a big day for us. It’s really like the start of Our Epic Trip. We headed out from the hotel early as we had two really important things to do. Number 1 on the list was to make sure we completed the export documents for the car and the VAT refund for all the things we bought for it in the UK. The refund is over 1500 GBP which amounts to over 2 months’ travel expense in Africa! This is when the fun all started. It was early on the 1st of Jan and the customs officers had a late start. I’m not sure if it was because they had been out partying all night or what but we were not the first ship to sail that day so I can only assume that they had completed a pre-screening and decided that we were all a low risk. We made a call to miss the boat as the refund was worth more than the ticket (which cost 110 Euro all up!) We needed to park up and wait for the people to arrive and the only parking we could see was height restricted. 2.10 meters clearance. That’s fine, we have parked in 2.10 before. All good going in, but on the exit after we had completed the customs refund, BANG as the back of the car lifted ever so slightly as we went down the ramp. Oh shit… If the roof tent had caught on the front edge, it would have been all over for it as that is the hinge edge and I am sure it would never have been the same again. Lucky for us it hit right in the middle on the ladder. The road cover had a large rip from edge to edge and some of the fastenings and part of the tent fly was damaged also but that was all. PHEW! A few minutes with some duct tape and we were road ready again, lesson learned. (it cost 12 Euros to repair later on in Morocco).
Oh, what about number 2 on the list of important things to do before you leave Europe?? What was that? I hear you ask. Nothing too important, just getting some cash money so we can actually do this trip… I blame it on the efficient EFTPOS system we have in New Zealand and the fact that all of Europe is just like 1 big country so getting money was not too difficult. OK so we have landed in Africa with NO cash. And we both worked in Banking and should have known only too well the issues with getting large sums of cash in northern Africa..
Having access to a bank account when you are away overseas is pretty much the norm now. It’s OK when you are heading to Sydney or the Pacific Islands for a weekend or a week. We suck up the expensive bank charges as a holiday expense. It’s less practical when you are away for a year or 3 and we have made a lot of effort to streamline the process of access to cash and we have bank accounts in Australia, the USA and Germany even though we are not citizens (please don’t ask, its complex). One thing we didn’t realise is how fragmented the banking systems are in other parts of the world. In New Zealand and Australia, all the banks are connected and if you want cash (and don’t mind paying the small fee to access someone else’s ATM) you can get it. We discovered that in Europe this is generally not the case. We have to go to an ATM that has an agreement with our bank. Our German bank, N26 has been in business for only a few months… You might start to see our issue. It all stems from our trip to the USA in 2000. That year we left all our savings in our New Zealand account and just stuck our card in an ATM to get money when we needed it. That was great until the NZD crashed against the USD to a 45 year low. We lost heaps of value in our $ and watched around 20% of our savings vanish. Well, it was still there, it just bought a lot less than before. Fast forward to 2016 and we are smarter this time. We transferred all the NZD for the trip into USD and EURO first up… smart eh… until the darn Brits decided to quit the EU and the EURO has dropped in value heaps. If we changed the money to Euros right now we would have another E10,000… Yes, it makes us feel a little sick in the stomach to think about it but that’s travel and international finance. For every winner, there has to be a loser… I hope they are spending our money wisely! Anyway, we managed to find an ATM to dispense some Moroccan dirhams so we are OK for now.
We were the first in the line for the next boat to depart. We went to the ticket office to buy new tickets and good news, we had an open ticket so we didn’t burn the 110 Euros like we thought we had. Great! The trip was not unlike a trip across the Cook Straight between Wellington and Picton back home. It only took 70 minutes and we were in Africa. Being the first car off the ship in Tanager, we had to find our way to the exit and the customs and immigration check. We thought we had our first Africa border crossing aced! We did the vehicle import permit and waited for the customs guys to check the vehicle. ‘Speak French?’ We were asked. No… It didn’t matter to them. They just kept talking and talking…pointing and yelling ‘Scania Scania, you go Scania’. I ask around and find out it might be ‘scanner’.. Oh, must be the licence plate recognition scanner, so I have to drive back the wrong way on the one-way road so they can ‘scan’ us. Off we go. At the gate we are promptly turned around to go back. We arrive and get to the back of the queue and wait. Oh, same thing AGAIN… this time they made me leave Christine behind and put a customs guy in the car to show me where to go. It WAS a Scania.. a vehicle x-ray machine mounted on the back of a Scania truck… who knows, but we got scanned and were able to head back to the new end of the queue and wait some more. Finally, as the sun was setting on our first day in Africa, we headed out of customs to the main road and freedom in Morocco.
We drove for 40 minutes or so until the first gas station rest area. It was well dark by then and we were breaking the golden rule of not driving at night within the first few hours of being here. We found a good car park and set up camp, a bit worried that we might be moved on as we were the only ones camping there. We had picked up a SIM card from a guy on the side of the road when we exited the customs area. It cost 5 Euro but we couldn’t work out how to top it up from the French instructions. The gas station attendant was a great help. Not only were we able to buy food and drink but he sorted us out with a new SIM for 5 Euros and topped it up with 5GB of data for 5 Euros. We need not have worried about staying in the car park as when we woke up the next morning, the place was full of people sleeping in cars and camper vans. We headed down the coast to a town south of the capital called Mohammedia where we found a campground by the beach. If this is how Morocco is, we might not leave! The locals really are friendly and welcoming. Nothing is too much trouble, and they love cats! Within 5 minutes of arriving at the campground Christine had a cat in her arms. Other than cats, we have also met a lot of great travellers. Lawrence and Laura from Austria camped next to us for a few days and we had a great night around the campfire with a few drinks. They decided to come to Morocco at the last minute in the van Lawrence built into a camper. They have a heater… We also met Bernard and Nicol from France. We hope to meet them again further south for a fishing excursion.
We stayed a few days at the first campground getting used to Africa time. Things are moving slower here that’s for sure. Unlike Europe, we are meeting a lot of travellers and being able to compare stories and experiences is excellent. After hearing more about Morocco from other travellers, we decided to head back north to a small city in the mountains called Chefchaouen.
If you have ever seen photos of Morocco showing the blue buildings, this is the place. It’s well off the beaten track, but is still full of tourists. Other than the beautiful blue buildings and the totally amazing scenery, this area is also famous for its hashish and kif as the locals call it. Unlike Californian, it’s still illegal here but every second person on the street will offer you ‘the best’ Morocco has to offer in any volume you could imagine. I was talking to a local at a scenic lookout who told me about how it used to be in the city 20 years ago. He said they called the river that runs through town ‘hippy river’ as the hippies would come and camp for free by the river for weeks and weeks pooping all over the place and walking around nude, generally having a ball. They cleaned it up and hippy river is no more. He told me “it’s all changed now but the hippies they still come only now they are old and drive expensive campervans” I laughed so hard! He told me most farmers can produce around 1 ton of crops each year and they have been doing this for generations. It is unofficially the most valuable resource for the mountain area people and just like Colorado and Washington states in the USA, it’s a major drawcard for western tourists who arrive in big numbers, with cash… Anyway, I asked all the right questions and after a while I was offered a tour of the village where they produce the hash and to see it made first hand. It was arranged for the next day and we met and we went into the hills via taxi. We travelled over what was the roughest road I have ever seen to a village that was spread across a small valley. We arrived at the house and went to a room that was set up just for this job. Sacks of kif lined the walls 3 and 4 high and in the middle, was a large plastic basin. The basin had a stocking type material stretched over it onto which the kif is placed. A sugar sack is then used to cover it all and a bungee is used to keep it all in. The sugar sack is then beaten with sticks (like playing a drum). This process loosens the pollen from the plant flowers and leaf’s which falls between the very small gaps in the stocking mesh and collects in the basin. To get the brown looking stuff you see on the TV drug bust shows, the pollen is rolled and kneaded together and made into bricks or bullets. The heat from the hands is enough to blend it all together. I wanted to take some photos but when I got out my camera… I was told no photo, no internet!! Here’s hoping they don’t mind blogging. It was very interesting and I can say for sure that it was off the normal tourist path.
We headed to Fes which is the de-facto capital of Morocco. It’s a big city and really the first place where I have been wowed with the Islamic architecture. The buildings are not big sky scrapers but more like a sprawling carpet of dwellings and shops all around 4 of 5 stories high and if not connected at the side terrace like, they have been built for it with windowless side walls. To me, it looks like a modern take on classic art deco style. The look is very modern but with curves and lines from the deco style. I could have driven around all day looking at the buildings but the traffic lights kept distracting me. Check out the photo, they are amazing! We have visited the medina in old Fes but we plan to head back for another look after finding out we went to the new part of the medina (still 100’s of years old) This time we will get a guide. It will mean we will not get constantly hounded by want to be guides. We made the mistake of chatting to someone who said ‘go that way’ and then followed us asking for guide money. One guy I just gave him the change in my pocket just to get rid of him. It wasn’t a nice experience. I think a photo of the chap first off with a warning I will give it to the police if I get asked for money might have been an answer...
Right now, we are in Casablanca in a hotel as we both have colds and I am nursing a wound on my right hand that might yet need some treatment. I will explain more about that in the next blog. (we have been VERY busy with…something…)
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!