The following journals were uploaded directly from Africa via satellite telephone and land line using a Gateway P3 laptop computer and the wonders of the internet. These journals were posted "live from Africa" in the spring of 2001.
Additional text entries may be added from time to time.
30, January 2001- Simsbury CT USA
EXPEDITION PREPARES TO LEAVE
Only three days remain until we depart for Spain. As Pat Macomber likes to say, “We are in the squirrelly phase of preparation.” Tensions are high and emotions are tested. The final hours of preparation are under way. At this point many of the things that I thought I would get done before departure have fallen victim to lack of time and lack of energy. The trucks have arrived in Cadiz Spain and are clearing final customs as I write this. Our passports are being sent overnight from the Ghana Embassy in Washington- thus completing all of the required visas. Bags are being assembled all over my house and last minute instructions are being left so that hopefully the lights will still be on when I return.
My toughest moment occurred this evening when I finally decided to take my first Methloquine dose for the prevention of Malaria. After staring at the pill for close to an hour I gave into the fear of getting Malaria and decided to risk the enormous side effects of the drug itself. Unfortunately, I know all too well the emotional (it makes you crazy) and the physical (big G.I. problems) that the drug Larium causes from my first encounter with it in Africa. We are all hoping that our crew doesn’t turn into 8 paranoid psychopaths. What was that? Did I see some one peeking in my window?………
4, February 2001- Madrid Spain
EXPEDITION TEAM REACHES SPAIN
We have arrived in Spain are are currently in Madrid. The flight was uneventful, but I think Air Europa has the narrowest and hardest seat cushions known to man so sleep on the plane was just about out of the question. Upon exiting the plane we got into an airport tram which was supposed to bring us from the plane to the gate, but we sat there for a while, moved about four feet and the tram ground to a halt. I think it blew its transmission judging from the stream of Spanish profanities streaming from the drivers mouth! We were transferred to another tram after a few minutes and were on our way. Hopefully this little mishap has absorbed some of the breakdown karma for the trip and we´ll have fewer problems with our trucks later on. We are currently at Monitor Group´s Madrid office catching up on some email and catching a few winks of sleep. The plan is to head out to do some sightseeing this morning and afternoon but as we have a six hour drive to Cadiz ahead of us tonight, we need to leave Madrid fairly early this afternoon. We´ll be up early tomorrow morning to venture over to the Port of Cadiz and begin the process of freeing our trucks from Spanish customs and if all goes well, we´ll have them by the end of the day tomorrow and will be in Morocco by Tuesday morning. That´s all for now. So far (knock on wood) so good!
5, February 2001- Cadiz Spain
ONE TRUCK ARRIVES IN CADIZ
Just a quick note, I am checking in from Cadiz, Spain. Weather is great- and we spent the day walking along the beach and sipping a few beers. Our departure for Morocco has been delayed a day due to a late container arrival. We have managed to customs clear one of the four trucks and hope to get the other three tomorrow. Cadiz is suprisingly interesting and an excellent beach town as well as a major port city. More later...
6 February, 2001 – Gibraltar
NEWS FLASH FROM GIBRALTAR
Just heard from the Africa Crew. They picked up their trucks this morning after easily clearing customs.
They then proceeded to drive to Gibraltar where one of the trucks broke down. It appears to be a problem with the gear box. Jim and Shane took the truck apart and are working on fixing it. They probably won’t be taking the ferry to Morocco until Friday.
The team is in excellent spirits despite their transportation issues. They are enjoying Gibraltar, especially the fact that they speak English. Tomorrow they plan on taking a hike to take in the sights.
- Karen Fonteyne
7 February, 2001
GEAR BOX SWAPPED IN ALGECEIRAS SPAIN
Only four days into our trip and already we have had quite a few adventures. I am sitting in my hotel room with a little down time and thus a chance to update the web site. We are currently located a few miles outside of the British colony of Gibraltar in a small but comfortable hotel. Wilson and Ed left this morning to do some site seeing over the border and Paul and Shane are transporting parts and equipment back and forth from Gibraltar for Al’s truck repairs. This morning saw a flurry of action at 7:00am as Al’s truck was ripped apart and the entire gearbox was hoisted out. We have secured a used transmission from a supply yard in Gibraltar and hope that will do the trick. To date we have had the following truck related issues:
Al: Blown Gear Box
Shane: Poorly adjusted throttle linkage
Mike: Full tank of Diesel fuel was mistakenly put in at a gas station- resulting in a very poorly running truck for 30 miles or so after most of the diesel was siphoned back out in Cadiz.
Jim: Blown starter solenoid
Not too good for a total of 116 KM driven!
Things fixed today: Satellite email system, Mike’s CB radio, Shane’s throttle, my laptop video link and hopefully my email uplink system.
To date we are two days behind schedule, although we expect to be at least 3 days behind schedule by the time Al’s truck is fully repaired.
The team is in very good spirits however and we are enjoying our extra time in Spain and the opportunities to sight see Gibraltar. Madrid and Cadiz were both excellent cities to visit. The drive from Cadiz to Algeceiras was marked by some unbelievable scenery and included some hairpin winding roads. We also saw thousands of windmills, sometimes as many as 100 in a row along the route here.
The weather has been very good until today, averaging around 75 degrees Fahrenheit during the daytime hours. Today is somewhat cooler and raining on and off.
We are looking forward to arriving in Africa either tomorrow or the next day. Our ferry tickets are in hand and the crossing time is just 2 hours from here. I think everyone is a bit anxious, although concerned that the trucks need to be in perfect shape before we head out.
The highlight of the day yesterday was getting to drive my truck through Spain, a somewhat surreal experience and one that probably isn’t too typical. We certainly attracted some attention because of our American license plates. The people here have been tremendously friendly and very helpful- not to mention a hotel that has allowed us to turn their parking lot into a full scale repair facility.
Well, I must go now and send this out to the web. So far that has not been a huge issue. We have found a combination of Internet Cafes, direct laptop link, satellite email and phone have worked pretty well. Hopefully that will continue. It is a pretty amazing thing that I can send this stuff up to the web and seconds later the whole world can see it. So much for isolation!
9 February, 2001
EXPEDITION ARRIVES IN FÈS, MOROCCO
After fixing the gearbox on Al's truck on Wednesday, we were able to get an early (albeit wet) start today. We made in onto the 9:30am ferry from Algeciras to Tangier and after clearing the lengthy Moroccan customs process, we officially set foot in Africa. We wanted to drive to Fès, but because of the time we ended up spending in customs (they apparently thought we were part of the Paris-Dakar rally whom they don't like at all for some reason) we only made it to a small town called Ouazanne. Our hotel was fine, but the toilets were...well...lacking. See the pictures for an idea! Right now we're in Fès, Morocco and after running a taxi off the road, almost being run off the road by a taxi and almost rolling a truck, we're all doing well. Al's new transmission seems okay and we're pressing on to near Meknes in about an hour.
11 February, 2001
EXPEDITION ARRIVES IN MARRAKESH, MOROCCO
We rolled into Marrakech yesterday evening around 5pm local time after a grueling day of driving from Fès. The journey began at 6am when we left before dawn and wound its way through the snow covered Atlas mountains. The driving temperatures ranged from the mid 30°F range to around 78°F. As we have found with most of the roads in Morocco, the driving surface is in good condition but the width of the roads are very narrow and the drivers on them are a whole other story. We made it intact and in better shape than the previous day where Paul and I nearly rolled the truck in an emergency manouver to avoid an oncoming car in our lane. In that incident we managed to slide off of the road and come to a stop beside a ditch. Other than needing four wheel drive to get out we got back under way with no damage other than our shattered nerves. We are currently experiencing a few issues with getting photos up to the web, but hope to do that later today.
13 February, 2001
TEAM PREPARES TO LEAVE MOROCCO
We are enjoying our last hours in Morocco soaking up the sun poolside at our hotel. Tomorrow morning we are planning to leave Agadir Morocco at 5am and head into the Western Sahara, an occupied territory of Morocco- but disputed with several different countries. We are not looking forward to the more than 12-hour drive through some pretty desolate landscape. It probably will be one of our most aggressive driving days and we hope to travel nearly 600KM before making camp beside the road. From there we need to meet a military convoy in Dahkla to lead us through a heavily mined area on the way to the Mauritanian border. It is unlikely that we will have any contact with the outside world until reaching Dakar Senegal on or around the 21st of February. If by chance that changes the updates will appear right here.
We are all back together after briefly separating from Al and Pat in Marrakech as their truck was once again having a gearbox issue and in need of further repair. The three other trucks arrived in Agadir Monday morning with little incident along the way except for another diesel episode with Mike’s truck. Once again diesel was inadvertently filled instead of gas. After an hour of intense arguing in French and draining the trucks fuel tank we were on our way, although it took about 100KM before it was running properly again. We have now written gasoline only on the side of all the trucks in English, French, and Arabic.
The rest of the day in Agadir was spent relaxing, drinking a few beers and going to the beach. The weather is gorgeous. Temperature around 85 degrees F. Last nite we went to the local discothèque and retired quite late. This morning was spent largely in bed and then by the hotel pool.
Pat and Al arrived from Marrakech this morning with a fully repaired truck and are now doing some final tinkering before tomorrows drive. The other trucks are all doing fairly well. Jim’s is still having an issue with the starter and requires the occasional push- but then again so do most of the other cars here in Africa. Mike’s truck is consuming an alarming quart of oil per day, but seems to be running fine otherwise. Shane’s 101 so far has been pretty solid.
Our average speed to date has been a measly 52KM per hour. Not too fast, but considering the treacherous roads through the Atlas Mountains probably not surprising.
We will be celebrating Valentine’s Day tomorrow with a loaf of bread and some jam in the desert. Not particularly fun but oh well.
14 February 2001 – Western Sahara
FIRST PART OF THE WESTERN SAHARA CROSSING
We have traveled over 13 hours today, crossing into the Western Sahara. Some of the drive was within a few yards of Atlantic Ocean. We were delayed by several detailed but friendly security stops. We gave an aircast to an injured police officer at one stop and were repaid with a long conversation about Texas and Hollywood. We saw many dozens of wild camels. Tomorrow we head to Dahkla for the convoy signup.
16 February 2001
It is Friday nite. We have arrived in the middle of nowhere at the border of Mauritania, safely through most of the mined area. We cross over the border tomorrow. The 101 is having a new clutch cylinder put in now. The desert is really wild looking. The temperature reaches only about 80F during the day, about 50F at nite.
- Michael Ladden
17 February 2001 – Mauritania
EXPEDITION CREW MAKES HISTORY!
We have finished day two of the convoy, cleared minefields, and entered Mauritania. We are the only Americans ever to bring vehicles on this route!
18 February 2001 – Mauritania
HEADING TOWARD NOUAKCHOTT
We drove all day through the Sahara, making our own roads. We are now back along the coast. We are camping inside the national park. Tomorrow we drive along the beach toward Nouakchott.
20 February, 2001
NOW WE ARE IN AFRICA!
This is an update from Nouakchott Mauritania. The expedition will be leaving today for the Senegal border on our trip southward. We arrived here in the capitol of Mauritania yesterday afternoon. The last several days have been brutal, and unfortunately not without some damage.
After making our way from Agadir into the Western Sahara and finally down to Dahkla we joined the military convoy which would bring us to the Mauritanian border. Other than frequent military checkpoints and endless barren desert that part of the trip was fairly uneventful. The roadway was surprisingly good and paved all the way to the border. We camped in what appeared to be more of a trash dump than anything else and anxiously awaited to leave.
Morning came and we headed out to the Mauritanian border. Expecting some kind of instructions or at least a sign we found nothing except a horribly ruined Spanish road and a lot of sand. The convoy quickly separated and it was a free for all dash to the border through one of the most heavily mined areas in the world. There were areas that the going became fairly difficult and some of the less equipped cars were getting stuck. We reached the border and found that we had really crossed into real Africa now. We were greeted by Mauritanian military and filled out all of the necessary paperwork to of course “ease our passage”. This is another term to describe separating you from your money and slowly your progress down as much as possible. The checkpoints were just little stone huts and one was just an old ruined tent. We really felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. After 5 hours we had cleared the border and left losing just a few cartons of cigarettes (which we had brought for this purpose) and a couple of t shirts- and of course the “entrance fee payable in francs.
The road to Noadibou was, well- not really a road. In fact there were no signs, no people and no clear-cut way to get to the city. We followed our GPS coordinates and plotted a course with a compass.
Unfortunately we finally arrived in Noadibou- and I say unfortunately because it really isn’t a place that you need to go. It was little more than a frontier kind of town. Nothing was on the up and up. Black market money, underground alcohol bars and a very unsafe parking situation. We finally decided to take shifts guarding the trucks overnight. We all got very little sleep. At one point around 1am I wondered what the hell we were doing here. I was sitting with Pat in the back parking lot of the hotel. We had a lantern going. I had a machete in one hand and a switchblade in the other. Pat was hanging on to a shovel handle. Possibly it beat being in the hotel room, although the hotel itself was adequate the beds felt like they had rocks in the mattress.
In the end nothing happened and we all left Noadibou anxiously the next morning. I had a Birthday granola bar on the way out of town and we headed for the Sahara.
The drive from Noadibou to Nouakchott was nothing short of diabolical. We traveled more than 500KM off road and the majority of the time was spent in 4-wheel drive. It is hard to believe that this is the MAIN route between the two cities. We all got stuck on several occasions. The temperature climbed well into the 90-degree range and the dust and sand was unbelievable.
The scenery was nothing short of spectacular. Some of the sand dunes stretched for miles. We camped in the desert after driving from 8am until after 8pm. We still found ourselves behind schedule. Damage was par for the course. We had bits snap off the truck at an alarmingly fast rate. Al nearly lost is entire windscreen after the bolts unscrewed themselves from the constant pounding and vibration. I lost both limb risers to the vibration. One of my lamp guards sheered off, my roof rack un fastened itself from the windshield and I have lost all electrical power to the rear of the truck. My laptop also sustained a heavy impact- heavy enough to get a cracked screen inside of the aluminum case. Typing is a bit difficult now.
After setting out for day two in the desert we found the going even tougher. At one point we had to race the tide along the Atlantic and drive down the beach for nearly 50 miles- the only way around a large section of dunes. After getting stuck a few more times we hobbled into Nouakchott late in the afternoon. We completed over 500KM in some of the most brutal conditions I have ever seen. We ran out of water and bread and were on our last quarter tank of fuel.
Luckily we found an upscale hotel in Nouakchott and are just now recovering and assessing the damage. Later today we leave toward Dakar on our first road in several days.
We have covered more than 3200KM since Spain. Average speed now is 51KM per hour.
21 February, 2001
DELAYED AGAIN BY MAJOR TRUCK FAILURE
After a bit of rest and relaxation at our hotel in Nouakchott, which was greatly needed due to the previous days’ grueling drive, we set out for the Senegal border and Dakar. We made it about 15 minutes outside of the city when once again catastrophic truck damage occurred. This time my truck was the victim. With a screeching halt (quite literally) and narrowly missing several children on the roadside we came to a rest several feet from a small embankment, which probably would have caused a roll over if we had reached it at the speed, we were traveling. The rear differential had exploded- immediately locking the entire driveline and stopping the truck faster than seems possible with a 36-year-old Land Rover.
While 100 children crowded around to watch, Jim, Paul and Shane removed the rear drive shaft and both rear axles. We managed to limp back to the hotel in front wheel drive and assess the damage. Apparently the carrier bolts in the differential had sheared off violently in the previous days’ journey and punctured a hole in the axle housing. Most of the diff fluid then leaked out and ultimately led to meltdown in the bearings and gears.
Bottom line was we acquired the necessary parts from the supply we had on board from Rovers North and purchased an entire rear axle from a local junkyard. Shane, Jim and Paul managed to fight off lying in human feces and piles of dead rats to take the part of an old expired truck.
We are now held up in Nouakchott until tomorrow morning. Shane and Jim are swapping axles and springs on my truck and Al is in the middle of replacing springs on his truck. Unlike the gearbox incident several weeks ago, the weather is cooperating although it is over 90 degrees F.
Our misfortune has given us a chance to meet several people here in the hotel. We ran into several Americans working for the US embassy here in Nouakchott and one gentleman who works for the BBC and is filming a travel show featuring Michael Palin. They have been able to provide us with a ton of information our upcoming journey in Senegal and Mali.
24 February, 2001
EXPEDITION REACHES DAKAR
We finally got the trucks buttoned up and at least for now they are all running well. Before dawn we left Nouakchott for the Senegal border at Rosso. There we encountered one of the toughest border crossings. We were haggled to death on the Mauritanian side. Then we had to pay several “fees” to leave the country and hire a guide to get us through the Senegalese side. We then loaded onto the ferry to cross the Senegal River. It was only a 10-minute ride and we were happy to be back on land with our trucks in one piece. Amid chickens, donkeys, goats and throngs of people we were offloaded and quickly found out the hassle was even worse on this side of the river. Paul “the chief” (pronounced “chef” in French) as the locals call him, handled the customs clearance in French. The rest of us waited outside in the 103 degree F heat and were hassled to near death. Whether it was our death or their death one could only guess. Eventually, Paul appeared to ask for more money and then returned several times to deliver the fee to “ease our passage”. We were all happy to be on the road again after three hours of this.
We arrived in San Louis by late afternoon and settled in and relaxed in this very French colonial town. We enjoyed a few beers and a bit of dinner entertainment and then retired to our rooms in anticipation of our drive to Dakar the next morning.
We arrived in Dakar shortly after noontime and then proceeded to take nearly four hours to find a hotel with safe parking for the trucks. After incurring two traffic violations both for driving in a taxi lane we managed to bribe the cop to take us to a hotel instead of writing a ticket. The taxi fare to get him back to his watch cost us a hefty amount- but still better than having to go to the police station. We had a decent dinner in a otherwards-boring restaurant and went back to the hotel for beers, bed and phone calls to the states.
25 February, 2001
WE LEAVE THE BIG CITY AND HEAD EAST
Goodbye Dakar! Back to the desert! We got our share of the city, and actually had a little fun today haggling for t-shirts and stuff in the market area. We also used our down time in the city to complete our much-needed laundry. For this the bathtub came in very useful, as did the electric blow dryer, which Paul used for over 8 hours continuously by directing it into a closet full of wet clothes.
All and all, Dakar can be described as a very bustling metropolis. It has touches of a European city, yet its’ own African charm. It is not for the weak though. You will find plenty of touts, beggars and guides. It was a relief from the horrible air pollution in Nouakchott, not without the usual smell of diesel and sewage though.
It wasn’t an especially cheap city either and the two traffic violations that we incurred didn’t help. Check the photo section for the guys hanging out in Dakar and a few shots of our beachfront hotel. The hotel was an interesting place too. It kind of reminded us of a James Bond/ 60’s retro hotel. It was designed as a replica ocean liner- complete with cabin doors and windows.
Paul and I experienced the worst pistachio ice cream I have ever had. Horrible….. really, really bad. Al stayed at the hotel most of the weekend. Lucky for him, he missed the ice cream. He mumbled something about hating cities.
We now move into the second leg of the trip and head East toward Bamako, Mali. From there we will head North to Timbuktu. We expect that over the coming two weeks internet updates may become limited by the extremely rugged conditions we will be entering into. Our plan is to reach Timbuktu on Saturday the third of March. Of course we will be updating this site by satellite on a regular basis.
26 February, 2001
CAMPED IN EASTERN SENEGAL
We got a late start out of Dakar today when only two of the four trucks would start. It appeared that both Shane’s 101 and Mike’s truck suffered the same problem. After several hours of diagnosis and repair we were on our way with new ignition coils. Another African beaten part that probably broke from the constant vibration and heat that the entire truck and occupants must endure on a daily basis. Like so many times before, the convoy didn’t get too far. Al’s rear springs- the new ones he had installed in Nouakchott- had already succumbed to the load weight and road abuse. One of his bump stops ripped clean off and nearly took Jim’s windshield out. We stopped for nearly three more hours of roadside repair. The delay was not all bad. A group of children from the nearby village wandered up to see what was going on (as they always seem to do). We got some lessons in Wolof (the local language) and we in turn taught them a few things in English. We donated pencils, water and gum- and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide, to their cause.
The terrain was mostly flat and savannah like. Although dry (we have not seen rain since Europe) it was overcast. Lucky for us, if it had been sunny the temperature would surely have been higher than the already oppressive 97 degrees F. In fact at 10pm the temperature had only dropped to 89 degrees F.
We made camp after dark not more than 300 yards from the roadway. This is a pretty remote area so we figured we wouldn’t be bothering anyone. Since arriving we have seen numerous grasshopper like locust, several scorpions and a snake hole. A little creepy, especially since we have yet to see the area in the light of day. We had canned ham with Swiss cheese on baguettes for dinner and then retired for the night. Al and I made use of our vehicle-mounted showers too. Even without running the heat exchanger my water was pretty toasty.
26 February 2001 – Mali
EXPEDITION ARRIVES IN MALI
We are camped about 20 miles into Mali. We are headed for Kita tomorrow and Bamako by Wednesday nite. The roads are horrible. We are having more spring problems. This area is very barren. The temperature is near 100F. Pat and Wilson had mild food poisoning last nite. They are better now.
Bonne Nuit, Mike and the gang.
27 February 2001 - Mali
We are camped outside of Bafoulabe, Mali in a very remote area. The terrain is awesome but the roads are horrible, when there is even one to find. We have seen monkeys and baboons and a few small thatched roof villages - not much else here. Unfortunately we are having more serious truck problems. Jim blew his rear differential – he is driving with the front differential only. Mike has a bad steering box. Al has a dead battery. Shane lost his differential lock. We will be greatly delayed getting to Bamako. We may have to stop for greater repairs, we are in need of parts we don’t have. We should be able to limp to Bamako though. Everyone is in good spirits but we really miss home.
- Michael Ladden
27 February, 2001
WE ARRIVE IN MALI
We awoke to our last day in Senegal with the news that Pat and Wilson had food poisoning and had been up most of the night sick. Thankfully they were both well enough to hit the road and we pulled out of camp at around 7:30am. We drove for nearly two hours on a badly potholed road and then decided to stop and do much needed maintenance on the trucks- something that was overdue from the day before. Shane got busy rotating his tires while Mike and Paul changed diff fluid, added gear oil to everything else and we all lubed the drive trains. One thing we have noted is that all the vehicles are taking a beating and consuming every kind of fluid at amazing rates.
We were back underway after about an hour and a half. Thankfully the road became quite good and we made spectacular time to the Mali border. By the time we arrived at customs it was around 3pm and the temperature had soared to 104 degrees F. Once again it was a totally overcast day. If it was sunny God only knows what the temperatures could have reached.
We spent about two hours clearing the Senegal exit post and the entry into Mali. Unlike our arrival into Senegal, this crossing was relatively painless- and cheap too! Paul and Mike cleared the paperwork for Mali in a stone hut accompanied by two friendly border guards. We gave them a few sodas and were on our way.
Wow! Mali is different. Gone was the nice paved road. Gone were the nice little Senegalese huts; gone was almost every form of modern civilization. We were met by a dirt track at the border that could barely be called a road. Our first stop for gas involved the station attendant having to manually crank the pump to draw the gas from the ground. Wilson remarked, “Gee, I think they might have lost power or something.” Probably true, although we are guessing it was lost when the French gave up the colony many years ago.
We made our way out of town and camped beside the road in a dusty clearing under a few thorn trees. Less bugs this time and no sign of animals.
28 February 2001 – Mali
STILL NOT IN BAMAKO
We are camped again in a remote area of Mali near Tambaga. Currently we are still nearly 350 kilometers from Bamako and might reach there late tomorrow. We are still limping with the trucks. The roads are a bit better. This really is out there. We have had a few problems transmitting to the satellite. Al now needs an exhaust. We are all filthy and the dust on the road is unbearable.
- Michael Ladden
28 February, 2001
TROUBLE OFF-ROAD IN MALI
Today we hit the road at 7:15am hoping to make up time after we had fallen a bit behind schedule over the last couple of days. The horrible dirt track that we had been on the previous day improved marginally. We were able to maintain about 40KM per hour in between Volkswagon sized potholes. Mali began to grow on us. The sheer wilderness is unbelievable. The terrain is quite varied and we traveled along several canyon like hills and valleys. Interspersed throughout were very small villages, usually with no more than 20 small, round, clay structures. Traditional thatched roofs and a central well were also common features. Kids would run out to the road as we drove by. Many waved and acted as if they had never seen outsiders before- certainly not American ones. Some asked for gifts, which is pretty common in much of West Africa. We gave out a few pens and pencils and some drinks. Paul and I admittedly got rid of a few cake like desserts too. They were not exactly big hits with our crew; maybe the kids will like them more.
As we drove deeper into Mali wed realized two things. One: it was getting even more remote and rugged. Two: we were never going to reach Bamako in the three days we had allotted. Things took a turn for the worse, as the road we needed to turn off on quickly became a track that 4-wheel drive was necessary. Given that our very old Land Rovers have already had quite a few problems and the fact that they are extremely overloaded complicated this drive further. The road was so bad we lost our way three or four times before arriving in a small village where I quickly became helplessly stuck in a sandy riverbed. The locals came out in droves and helped us and Shane out and then told us we were going the wrong way.
One of the guys volunteered to guide us to the right track and hopped on my hood. An African guidance system sure beat all of our crummy computers! Unfortunately our hopes were short lived. The correct route was far worse than the wrong one that we had been on. There were several very tricky rock inclines. Shane discovered that he was having a problem with his diff lock and got stuck several times before making it up one hill. I began to develop a problem with my four-wheel drive back in the riverbed and now it was getting worse. We suspect I have blown out a front hub. Jim sustained the worst damage of all. He blew up his rear differential going up an unusually difficult section and that stopped us in our tracks. We quickly found out we don’t have the spare parts to fix it, so we removed the drive shaft and axles and he is now stuck with only front wheel drive.
We were forced to turn around and try to take an easier, although longer, route toward Bamako. Not 2 miles into the new route I nearly lost complete control of the truck over some heavy ruts in the road. We found my steering box had loosened up and was nearly falling off. Another hour stop and that was fixed. We camped several miles down the road. Very much behind schedule, not much closer to Bamako and extremely worn out. Our showers felt good- although nothing gets the African dust off too good. I let Wilson give me a haircut tonite. Looks pretty good actually. It cannot be short enough. Today temperatures reached 109 degrees F in the shade!
1 March, 2001
EXPEDITION REACHES BAMAKO, MALI
After battling our way through Western Mali we finally reached the capitol, Bamako, mid-afternoon on March 1. The past several days saw more of the same kind of driving and terrain that we have grown accustomed to over the past week. The last couple of nights we found camp areas beside the roadway and ate mostly food supplies we had on board from the States. Al made an incredible white clam sauce with pasta one nite and the other nite we enjoyed Raviolis. The weather has given us a bit of a break and temperatures have only climbed to around 95 degrees F. At night clear skies have brought the temperature down into the mid 70’s. The road conditions have also improved somewhat; we were able to make excellent time coming into Bamako today. The one thing we have noted is the overall lack of traffic- complete lack of cars entirely for that matter. We probably only passed 20 cars in two days- and that was on the one and only road into Bamako from the West. So far Mali has impressed us considerably. We have had little or no issues with checkpoints or police. We have seen our fair share of monkeys, baboons, birds and lizards- and of course the cattle, goats chickens and dogs that are everywhere. Luckily, so far that camel way back in Morocco is the only beast to fall victim to the not so good stopping ability of our Land Rovers.
Paul, Wilson and I experienced a bit of African taxi culture last nite on our way back from the internet café. The dilapidated taxi we had taken seemed to be making some especially loud clunking sounds. This really isn’t all that unusual. Some of the cars you have to wonder how they even move. This was different though. I was getting poked from behind the rear seat. We finally figured out that there was some kind of large horned animal in the trunk. The driver kept turning up the radio until we could barely think. This was probably so we wouldn’t hear the animal. After several near misses with other taxis, a few trucks and pedestrians we made it safely back to our hotel.
We are staying at the Hotel De L’Amite. The best hotel in Bamako, although it looks like it was built in the early seventies and not touched since. I like to use the word “was” to describe this common scenario. It is obvious at one time this was the place to be. The key phrase here is “was”. At least we have showers and proper toilets. After arriving from our journey on Mali roads it looked a lot like I was making chocolate in the bathtub while I was taking a shower. I think it will probably take two or three showers before actually getting fully clean.
We are staying in Bamako just long enough to make all the repairs on the vehicles and then we are off toward Timbuktu and back to the Sahara.
4 March 2001 – Mali
HEADING FOR TIMBUKTU
We are currently camped about 100KM south of Mopti, Mali. It was a fairly uneventful day today, a nice change from having truck problems. We left Bamako around 8am, and had a small delay getting Jim and Mike’s trucks started. They had dead batteries due to running the fridges in such hot temperatures. Today the high was 106F. The roads were great today, they were all paved!! The sad thing today was saying bye to Pat, he is flying out of Bamako on Tuesday. Tomorrow we head for Mopti in the morning and then onward toward Timbuktu.
- Michael Ladden
5 March 2001 – Mali
STAYING WITH THE DOGONS
We have arrived in the Dogon region of Mali. We had an unbelievable day touring Djenne, the mud mosque, and Monday is market day as well. The scenery has been spectacular. We have lots of photos and text to follow when we hit a city to transmit from. We also met up with Michael Palin again in Djenne. We are changing our plans slightly, we will visit Dogon tomorrow and then head toward Timbuktu on Wednesday. We are staying with the Dogons tonite.
- Michael Ladden
5 March, 2001
EXPEDITION EXPLORES DJENNÉ
We left Bamako on Sunday morning around 8am. As usual, several problems with the trucks kept us from leaving any earlier. We said goodbye to Pat, who is flying back to the United States from Bamako on Tuesday. Probably each of us was a bit envious that he would be seeing home shortly, but we have a long way to go.
Our journey North toward Mopti was uneventful and the road was excellent as well as paved. We did get some decent footage of a dust storm- similar in nature to a small tornado. We made camp off the roadway about 100K south of Mopti around 4:30PM. It is rare that we have been able to stop that early in the day and we took advantage of the situation by relaxing and cooking a great meal. The temperatures continue to soar above 105F by 2pm and only recede back to 70F after 2am.
The next morning we hopped on a ferry over the River Niger to the city of Djenné, Mali. Djenné had been described to us as the most picturesque and interesting city in West Africa, so it was definitely a given that we needed to stop by — whoever told us that was right on, it’s a really incredible place.
We had arrived on a Monday which is market day in Djenné so finding parking for four overladen Land Rovers was rather difficult, but we finally found a decent spot and paid a local teen some dough to watch them for us. We also hired a guide to show us around since it was so confusing with that many people being there. We later learned that Djenné is a fairly small city, but its population triples on market Monday!
Djenné’s main attraction is the Grand Mosquée, known in the west as the Mud Mosque. It is the largest mud brick structure in the world and is truly amazing. The current mosque was constructed in 1905 after it was deemed that the original mosque (built in the 11th century) was beyond repair. We had the opportunity to walk around the whole building (non-Muslims are forbidden to enter) and see it from every angle. Located in the very back is the area where Muslim women pray, as they are not allowed inside the mosque either. It’s really an impressive building and even more amazing to think that the whole thing is built out of mud and wood! One interesting note is that every year after the rainy season, the Muslim citizens of the town get together and recoat the entire exterior of the mosque with fresh mud. It takes four days and keeps the structure solid and weatherproof for another 365 days.
We walked around the rest of the bustling town for a few hours stopping to look at other mud brick houses as well and seeing the city at work. Looking through doorways you could see blacksmiths, pottery being created, baskets being woven and many, many interesting things being cooked! We had the opportunity to stop by the shop of Pama Sinatoa, who is one of Djenné’s most famous artisans. She makes bogolan cloth, which are essentially cotton blankets which are then painted on with mud, which sets and acts as a dye. Some of the designs were really incredible and a few of the guys bought some fine examples to bring home.
After buying some provisions (potatoes, onions, bread, water, soda, biscuits, etc.) at local shops and the market vendors, we bid farewell to Djenné. We drove back to the ferry to cross back over the River Niger and waited while four Land Cruisers with some British folks on board got off. As we were getting on the ferry, we noticed that the British people had some expensive looking movie cameras and figured they were filming some sort of documentary or something. Mike and I hopped off the ferry to catch a pirogue across so that we could get some footage of the trucks crossing the river. As we hopped off, Ed said: “You guys say hi to Michael Palin?” The British folks were the BBC crew along with Michael Palin filming one of his travel documentaries! I got to meet him and had my picture taken with him, and he seemed genuinely interested in the fact that seven crazy Americans had shipped their 30-year old Land Rovers to Africa, were beating the crap out of them and were then going to ship them home. One of his crew said: “I have a 1978 Airportable at home and I’m not daft enough to bring it to Africa!” Thanks for the vote of confidence!
We bid farewell to Mr. Palin and Djenné and got back on the road to head towards Bandigara. We found out later that we may be in Timbuktu the same time as the BBC crew, so maybe we’ll be able to get a group shot with Mr. Gumby himself.
6 March 2001 – Mali
ENJOYING THE DOGON VALLEY
We are still exploring the Dogon Valley. We are having an awesome time. The people and scenery are incredible. Tomorrow we head to Douenza. We left the trucks today and hiked 4 miles in mountainous terrain and 105 degree heat.
- Michael Ladden
6 March, 2001
EXPEDITION HEADS TO THE DOGON REGION
Drove to Bandigara and then on to Sanga to begin our brief foray into Pays Dogon or Dogon Country. The Dogon people are one of the few indigenous peoples in the world whose life is has remained essentially unchanged by Western culture, so visiting them is like going back to 1350AD (back then, though I’ll bet all the kids didn’t shout “cadeau, cadeau!” — “gift, gift”). The Dogon are a fascinating people who live in and around the Falaise de Bandigara (essentially a canyon-like, cliffy-type thing) that stretches for 150km in central Mali. The Dogon people moved into the area around the 14th century, booting out the Tellem people who were a tribe of mysterious pygmy people that lived in the cliffs. The Dogon now use Tellem caves as burial sites, employing ropes to hoist the bodies up to the holes in the rock. The white you see below some of the holes in the pictures is the calcium that has eroded from the bones and become part of the rock.
We decided to hire a guide to show us the area, which turned out to be a good move. We stumbled across a guide named Boubacar Ouologuem who we later found out is the best English-speaking guide in the whole region and a true expert on Dogon culture. His guidance was really incredible and I’d encourage you to look him up in Bandigara if you decide to visit the region. We also have his email somewhere if anyone needs it. He led us through the entire region with stops in two villages that we used as “base camps” for two half-day hikes up into the mountains to visit remote villages which are only accessible by climbing up log ladders, jumping from rock to rock, and clinging on for dear life over 100 foot drops into gorges. How anyone decided to live up there is way beyond me! It was really incredible though.
In the village of Banani Kokoro, half the group decided to truly experience a facet of Dogon life and sleep on the roof of a Dogon home which overlooked the cow and pig pen to one side and a huge cliff to the other side. It wasn’t the greatest sleep I’ve ever had, but one of the neatest experiences of my life. We were awoken in the morning by the sounds of copulating goats, a rooster that didn’t shut up all night, crying babies, and the loudest gunshots I’ve ever heard in my life. Before you get worried, it turned out to be only “ceremonial” gunshots fired by local Muslims celebrating Tabaski / El Hadjj.
The Pays Dogon was really incredible. When we get home, I’ll try to write more about it, but for now, check out the pictures which should give you a cool idea of the stuff we saw. Pays Dogon was definitely a highlight of the trip and the team would definitely have liked to spend more time there. But for now, it’s on to Timbuktu!
7 March 2001 – Mali
HEADED FOR TIMBUKTU
We have Timbuktu on our radar screen!! We are camped about 50 miles south of Timbuktu in the desert. Tomorrow we plan to arrive in Timbuktu but we have a very difficult sandy section ahead. Everyone is well and trucks are holding up. We left Dogon today, it was definitely the high point of the trip. We should be able to update the site later in the week from Niamey, Niger.
- Michael Ladden
8 March 2001 – Mali
We left this morning after spending 4 hours fixing Shane’s fuel pump. We arrived in Timbuktu at 6pm. What more can we say? We made it!!! We plan to celebrate and then get a good shower. Tomorrow we head toward Gourma to see elephants.
- Michael Ladden
8 March, 2001
We departed Dogon country in Douentza and headed up the dusty piste to Tombouctou (or Timbuktu in English). The road there was fairly difficult, everyone got stuck at least a couple times, but it wasn’t as bad as we expected. We camped halfway there and made it to the ferry crossing (over the River Niger again!) around 1:00PM the next afternoon. After a couple hours and a fight with a French guy who decided he wanted to cut in front of us, we were on the ferry and headed to Tombouctou. We finally arrived at our hotel around 7:00PM and were surprised when about an hour later, who checked in, but the BBC crew. We chatted some more with Mr. Palin (he even bought us a round of drinks at the bar) and he was kind enough to do a brief photo session for us the next morning. Life is strange . . . who’d have thunk we’d meet Michael Palin, one of the world’s leading travel documentarians and in my opinion, one of the funniest people around, in one of the most remote and inaccessible places on the planet – Timbuktu. Weird, but way cool!
There’s not too much to say about Timbuktu. It was founded in the 12th century by Tuareg nomads looking for water. The city flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries due to the salt trade – caravans of thousands of camels loaded with salt slabs from salt mines north of Timbuktu would sell their salt in Timbuktu. It came to be known as a very inaccessible place during the 19th century after a few European explorers died trying to reach it. These days it’s a dusty desert town with not much to see except a few old mosques and lots of sand. We took a bunch of pictures in front of a “Bienvenue a Tombouctou” sign, poked around for a few hours and then headed back to the ferry to leave for Douentza.
We took the same road back which was a bit harder going the other way and arrived in Douentza the next day around noon. We gassed up out of 55-gallon drums and headed off towards Gao, the last town of any size we’d see in Mali. Camped that night way off the road, but as usual, we had a visitor. A shepherd walked up after a while and was watching us in amazement, so we invited him to eat dinner with us (which he did – but very gingerly) which was very, very cool. He didn’t speak French, so we sort of signed to each other to communicate. Judging by all our IPF lights, Coleman gear and funny language the poor guy must have thought we were from Mars!
We’re noticing a few new problems with the trucks. Mike’s brakes have decided to work only now and then and the engine does not like the bad gas we’ve been using. Al’s rear tires are still rubbing over every bump in the road and he lost the rear half of the exhaust system he had just bought in Bamako. Shane’s tires are still giving us troubles and Jim’s truck body has sagged so much that he can’t close two of his doors. Hopefully we can sort out some of these problems in Niamey. Also, today we passed the 7,500km mark which means we’re about ¾ done with the mileage on the trip. So far, it’s been a fun, but taxing trip on us and the trucks. Hopefully both the former and latter will make it the rest of the way.
9 March 2001 – Mali
HEADED TOWARD GAO
We left Timbuktu at noon today. We are camped about 50 miles north of Douentza in the desert. Tomorrow we head east toward Gao, on the way we should see elephants. We ate breakfast and got photos with Michael Palin.
- Michael Ladden
9 March 2001 – Mali
We are currently camped about 20km outside of Gao, Mali. The terrain is desert/savannah. The temperatures have been around 100 degrees. The trucks are good and everyone is fine. No elephants could be spotted today in Gossi. Tomorrow we take another ferry in Gao and then head for the Niger border.
- Michael Ladden
11 March, 2001
WE LEAVE MALI AND HEAD FOR NIAMEY, NIGER
We arrived in Gao early on Sunday morning and hopped on another ferry to cross the River Niger for the fifth time! Gao is rather unremarkable as well, except for the fact that there was very heavy fighting here during the Tuareg rebellion in the early 1990s. That has stuck in many people’s minds, so most local men carry guns around which can get rather disconcerting. We gassed up the trucks there and boogied on down the road towards the Niger border. Since it was Sunday, some of the checkpoints were open and some were closed, but for the most part you just drove through unless someone looking official was blowing a whistle at you. Turns out we ran through a few we were supposed to stop at, but oh well . . . we’re on a mission . . .
Arrived at the Malian border town to discover that we were supposed to have stopped at the Douane (Customs) office a mile back and since we stopped in the center of the road, less than five feet from the barrels blocking the road, we had committed two infractions and would have to wait until Monday morning to speak with the head guy at the border so he could “punish us.” As usual a few CFAs would “ease our passage” so we bribed them all (the police, the gendarmerie and the Douane guy) and went on our way.
We crossed into Niger with a few hassles, but without any real problems. The officials in Niger so far have been absolutely great. Conversations have ranged from crime in America to AIDS (SIDA in French) to John Wayne to what to eat in their country. Haven’t paid a single bribe yet (unless you count two Bob Marley t-shirts). The road from the border to Ayorou was horrible and reminiscent of the road outside Nouakchott, Mauritania. Without going into huge detail, here is the list of things now wrong with the trucks:
Mike: Brakes work after pumping 5-10 times. Engine will not run below 2500 RPMs and is very difficult to start. Bulkhead is cracked and rear hard top sides are cracked so that the whole roof sways front to back about two inches. Front axle is bent (probably from jumping over a foot-tall speed bump because the brakes didn’t work at all). None of the doors close right because the body has sagged so much and tend to pop open when you go around corners. Tent cover is ripped and the strap that holds it on is broken. The gas gauge broke yesterday and one of our jerry cans has a hole in it from where it rubbed against the mount for a month. Also, muffler fell off.
Shane: A couple broken valve stems. Two flat spare tires. Center differential will not lock. Problem with fuel pump that makes the truck very difficult to start. The front tires shake uncontrollably after going over bumps in the corrugated road.
Jim: Engine barely running at idle. Rear tub is collapsing and cracking so that you cannot close the rear door at all. Cracked bulkhead. Exhaust has five tin cans wrapped around it to cover cracks. The hard top has shifted back enough so that the windshield is now at a different angle and you cannot close the front doors. Starter works when it feels like it.
Al: No exhaust system from center pipe back. Tub is sagging and cracking. Roof is sagging and cracking so that neither front door closes correctly. Battery doesn’t charge correctly. Rear tires hit the top of the wheelwell after every bump of more than 2 inches in the road. Box on roof cracked open and spilled 90 weight gear oil over the entire roof and windshield.
These are the problems we’ve noticed over the last couple days. We’re sorting out the ones we can here in Niamey, Niger. The thing that has killed us has been the horribly corrugated roads. They look like corduroy pants laid out sideways. You have to drive relatively fast over them or else the truck would shudder apart from the vibration. The roads from here on in appear to be a bit better, but we still have many kilometers to go to get to Abidjan. I’m sure the trucks will get us there, but who knows what they’re going to look like when they get home . . .
13 March, 2001— Niamey, Niger
ON TO NIAMEY
It was Sunday night. Niamey and the prospect of an air-conditioned hotel room lay approximately six hours ahead. In the end, this prospect was far too tempting for our overheated, dirty, tired bodies and we made the decision to drive straight through that night. This meant we had to buckle down for a few hours of some extremely dangerous African night driving. I wouldn’t recommend night driving in Africa to anyone. Sure, there are many things that cause issues when driving at night in Africa: unmarked speed bumps, cars driving with no lights on, enormous potholes in the middle of the road, etc. However, there are two variables that contribute the most to the take-your-life-in-your-hands aspect of the adventure:
First, Africans are terrible drivers. (Yes, I am completely generalizing here — but I’m right.) To me, driving an early 80s Citroen with no doors and a goat tied to the roof at 90MPH on terrible roads isn’t a terrific idea, but to a large number of Africans, it’s just fact of life. Want to pass an overloaded lorry but there’s a car coming at you in the other lane? No worries! He’ll drive on the shoulder when you honk and flash your one working headlight at him. Are you a bush taxi driver in a hurry? No problem! Just pass around people and then slam your brakes when you see your fare standing by the road. It’s really uncanny. I’m pretty sure I know what causes it, too . . . the fact that traffic laws were only introduced to bilk money from tourists when they "break" them. "Officer, help me understand this. I’m getting an infraction because I stopped when the Peugeot 505 almost hit me as he was backing around the rotary? I see. How much, then?"
Second, there are animals and carts everywhere. For some odd reason, every time we drove at night seemed to be just after a market day in the town we were passing. The issue is that market day means thousands of donkey and horse carts on the roads, returning home loaded to the brim with hay, gourds, wool, or poop. (Yes, poop.) I’m actually unclear as to whether animals are suicidal and want to be killed by cars (pony Prozac, perhaps would help?) or they’re simply playing some crazy farmyard version of "Chicken." So many times, you’d drive up near a cart, pass it and then the animal pulling it would freak out and run right towards you and their imminent death. Al actually had the scariest situation. He was lagging behind a bit (as usual — probably distracted by his own singing) and came upon the 1051st donkey cart of the evening. This time, though, the beast decided to cut into the middle of the road, directly in front of Al’s truck. Al had to swerve hard to avoid killing the donkey, the driver and his six family members riding in the cart. When all was said and done, Al skidded sideways off the road and stopped about two inches from a tree that would have done some serious damage to his truck, not to mention him.
Frazzled, we arrived at the Hotel Gaweye in Niamey right around midnight. We must have been a real sight for the front desk people, showing up at the best hotel in town covered in dirt and dust dragging Rubbermaid bins into the lobby. We checked in and went right to bed, knowing that the next day would bring lots of work on the trucks.
The next day did bring lots of work on the trucks. Shane and Jim sorted out Mike’s brake problem. Somehow, the adjuster had been rounded off and was not holding the shoe proper position to make contact with the drum. A few spots of weld and some grinding rectified the problem. In addition, Jim figured out that Mike’s carb was gummed up beyond reasonable cleaning, so we swapped it out with a new Weber unit from our Rovers North parts. After a complete fluid check on all the trucks and a few more hours fixing miscellaneous other problems, the day was done and we spent the evening at a Chinese restaurant called Dragon d’Or. They had some entertainment in the form of a guy from Niger who had learned English from his Chinese employers singing and playing the piano. Never in my life had I heard a better version of "I Can’t Hewrp Fawrring in Rove rith You." It was truly breathtaking.
The next morning we finally had some time to explore the city and wander aimlessly around until we got lost enough to require a taxi. Niamey was built up and "modernized" in the 70s during the uranium boom, which saw the price of the mineral skyrocket artificially and create a huge amount of wealth for the country. The government spent the money on huge building projects in cities like Niamey where they added such modernities like traffic signals and lavish government buildings. Businesses followed suit and built large, luxury hotels like the Hotel Sofitel Gaweye and the Bank of Africa building. The problem was that once the uranium boom bust, there were no longer any businesspeople to stay in the hotels and no government money to pay for light bulbs in the streetlights. All the buildings are in a constant state of disrepair and those that are kept up (like the Sofitel) are in a time freeze. It’s kind of strange — you feel like you’re stuck in 1974 down to the carpet in the hotel room (wide green, blue and orange stripes) but a freaky 1974 with open sewers, non-working traffic signals and the worst drivers in the universe driving the worst 1970s vehicles on the planet . . . French ones.
I’m being quite unkind. Niamey is actually a pretty cool city with plenty to do and some of the nicest, most friendly, helpful people around. In one instance, we were searching high and low for an Internet café that was open during the normal rest hours in the afternoon. A guy noticed us talking, came over and offered his assistance. We expected to be taken over the coals again and have to deal with him asking for some exorbitant amount of money, but after riding with us in a taxi all the way across town merely asked for taxi fare home. When I gave him 1000CFA (about $1.30) he said, "No, no, that’s far too much. A taxi to my house will only cost 150CFA (20¢)." It was really a welcome change from some of the other places we’d been. The police on the other hand were another story . . .
There was a rotary (roundabout) right outside our hotel that we had to negotiate every time we drove somewhere. Now, the French system of using a roundabout differs from the English / American system. In America and England, the people in the rotary have the right-of-way. In other words, when entering a rotary you stop and wait until there’s time to go. In the French system, the people entering the rotary have the right-of-way, so as you’re going round, you have to stop and let people in. We had pretty much mastered the French system by Niamey so were fairly surprised to see that in Niamey they really had no system. You just kinda went when there was space. Needless to say, the traffic cop standing in the rotary was diligently doing his job by giving the tourists tickets for doing it wrong. The first time, we were supposed to have stopped when entering and the second time were supposed to have stopped while in the rotary. Maybe the rules change depending on the time of day. Nothing can compare, though, to Mike stopping in the middle of the rotary to avoid a Peugeot 505 that was backing up around the rotary after he missed his turn. I’ll give you one guess who got the ticket. This time it took some help from a local and close to $20 to get Mike’s driving permit and laissez-passer back. I swear, we funded many a police officer’s pocket money fund while in Niamey . . . and all of West Africa, really.
I have some advice for Africans, take it for what it’s worth. Tourism will help your economy greatly, but the way to attract tourists is not to have your officials hassle us to the point where we don’t want to come back . . . just because you think we’re rich doesn’t mean you should extort us.
16 March 2001
TOWARD BENIN AND THE COAST
We left Niamey and took a somewhat leisurely drive through southwest Niger headed south towards Malanville, Benin. Our imaginations spurred by signs saying “Giraffe Crossing,” we kept our eyes peeled, looking over the tops of the brush for a member of the world’s only free-range giraffe herd. Sadly, we never saw any. It was the same story for the elephants, hippos and baboons — we kept seeing the signs, but never got to see the real thing. Our animal-spotting attempts kept us busy for most of the morning, though and the next thing we knew, we were at the bridge in Dosso that crosses over the Niger into Benin. (For anyone keeping score, this is the seventh and final crossing of the Niger River for the group!)
This border crossing was the first really official-looking one in quite some time. They had an actual building on the Niger side with a window for customs, one for immigration, one for the gendarmerie and one for the local police. Formalities took about an hour and then upon clearance, we drove across the bridge and parked at the Beninese border facility which was much like its counterpart in Niger. After a few t-shirts and cigarettes exchanged hands, we were on our way. We headed off towards the coast, mere days away from our final destination, Abidjan.
Benin is one of the greenest places you’ll ever see. The combination of lots of rain, heat and rich soil have made it one of the most-farmed places in West Africa. All the way to the coast, the road cut through flourishing cotton and tobacco fields as well as really nice little villages where the people were happy and friendly and never asked for a thing. Allow me to digress for a moment . . . here lies the paradox of Africa for me: For the most part, except during droughts, people in rural villages are well-fed, surrounded by a family and village network, generally happy and enjoying a fine quality-of-life. In cities is where you find the Sally Struthers poverty, homelessness, filthiness and rotten quality-of-life. The strange thing though is that people move from rural villages to cities in droves, hoping to find their fortunes and a more Western way-of-life (read: TVs and Nikes) but only finding poverty. I wish there was a way to convince people to stay in their villages and away from the cities (now there’s a job for the Peace Corps) in the long run, they’ll be so much better off. If there’s one thing that really sucks about what the West has done to Africa it’s that we’ve forced them to want to be like us and that’s a real shame.
After searching for quite a while for a good place to camp, we finally stopped early in the evening and found a secluded grove of trees at the far end of a cotton field near the town of Parakou, Benin. The desert for the past few weeks really spoiled us with two things: dry heat and no bugs. Here in Benin, the story was much different. The bugs were fierce and large and the heat was muggy and almost unbearable. Nature made up for our six-week lack of bug bites in a single evening. In addition, it didn’t get below 90 until 7:00AM but within another hour, the temperature was rising again. All that said, we actually had a really good night. Getting into camp early provided us the opportunity to have some time for relaxing and talking around the campfire. That night it truly dawned on me for the first time, looking at the six other guys I had just spent the last six weeks with, that our adventure really was going to end. Eight weeks seems like forever, especially slogging through the hot desert, but to quote the band Modest Mouse: “The years go fast, but the days go so slow.” The end was near and approaching faster that I wanted to admit.
We got on the road good and early the next morning, intent on making it to the coast with enough time to enjoy the beach for a while. Following advice in the Lonely Planet, we decided to check out a place on the beach called Grand Popo. After a few wrong turns, we came upon the most gorgeous stretch of non-touristy beach you’ll find anywhere. Coming from the eastern U.S. this was pretty incredible for me. Here, beaches are overcrowded, billboard-ridden wastelands that you visit only to find that the water’s too cold to swim in, all the good places have been taken and “why didn’t we just stay home and swim in the pool.” Grand Popo was the polar opposite for me. It had gorgeous warm blue water, clean fine sand and maybe five people as far as the eye could see. Now this kind of afternoon at the beach I could get used to!
To add to the attractiveness of Grand Popo is a fantastic place called (appropriately enough) Auberge de Grand Popo (Grand Popo Inn). The Auberge is owned by a likeable and interesting Frenchman by the name of Guy. He bought what was a deserted girls school in 1980 and turned it into a real undiscovered gem of a hotel. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s very basic. No TVs or jet skis here, but if you don’t mind paying $15 a night to stay in a comfortable room 50 feet from the ocean listening to waves crashing on the beach and drinking a cold Castel beer, then this is the place for you. Uncluttered and unencumbered by the back-breaking throngs of package-tourists, Grand Popo is a truly incredible place.
One rather strange occurrence upon arriving in Grand Popo was all the Ving Rhames-looking guys carrying guns. They were sort of sneaking around and looking at us with some interest. It was rather disconcerting until we found out who they were — the president’s personal body guards. Apparently, President Kerekou is from Grand Popo and was holding a campaign rally in his former hometown during the run-up to the Beninese national election. From our hotel we could hear the chants and shouting coming from the soccer field where the rally was being held. It was a bit troubling at first, but it soon became kind of a novelty for us. A few of us got a glimpse of the president as he was about to be whisked back to Porto Novo in his big car and we wondered if he really appreciated what a great country and people he leads.
Benin is one of those places that no one knows about. When we mention to people that we visited Benin, the usual reply is: “Oh yeah, that’s in Asia, right?” I hope it’s obscurity remains that way and tourists are directed to Ibiza and Tunisia. For, contrary to what I said about tourism in the last article, I hope no one ever visits Benin again . . . I want to keep it all for myself.
For any package-holiday planners, hotel developers or tourists thinking about going to Benin on holiday. Don’t go. It’s a terrible place and you’ll hate it. Take my word for it.
20, March 2001
UNREST AT THE TOGO BORDER
Closer and Closer to HomeIt would be sad to leave the beaches and beauty of Grand Popo, but our trucks had a boat to catch and frankly, we were all getting a bit weary and cranky. In addition, Mike has been sick for a few days and really needs to see a doctor, if only to reassure him that he doesn’t have malaria. The next big city on our route was Lomé, Togo so we decided to stop there for a day or two to take care of personal stuff like banking, getting Mike to the doctor, updating the website, checking email, etc. Luckily the drive was very short, so we’d be in Lomé by early afternoon. In addition, we had heard that the situation in Cote d’Ivoire was shaky and that in no uncertain terms, we should not ship our trucks from there. We were told to ship them from Ghana. This would mean we’d have to pull this together in two days, so we had to get moving!
We got up and decided to have breakfast at the auberge before leaving. We all gathered on the porch overlooking the ocean and enjoyed a meal of scrambled eggs, ham, toast, fresh fruit, fresh juice and a really tasty drink made of what was explained to me to be crushed flowers (they looked like orchids), sugar, vanilla and water. Man, was it good. Tummies full, we hopped on the intercontinental superhighway that links Benin and neighboring Togo. For a change, the road was extremely good and was our first dual carriageway in many miles. The drive to Lomé went quickly and after a stop at a very nice (and quick) Internet café we arrived at a nice campsite on the ocean called Robinson’s Plage.
Robinson’s Plage was a reasonable place, but their facilities for camping were fairly limited — basically you parked and camped in an unused section of the parking lot. No one was complaining, though, they had cheap beer, cute girls and a killer view of the ocean. The only problem was that it was incredibly hot and humid. This didn’t sit very well with Mike who seemed to be feeling worse and worse as the afternoon wore on. It was decided that we needed to find him a doctor, so Mike and I drove into downtown Lomé to find one. No luck. It was too late in the day and a Friday to boot. By now it was late and getting dark, so rather than head back to the campsite, we decided to grab an air-conditioned hotel room in the city. We were really glad we did; within twenty minutes of checking in, the storm clouds rolled in and nasty downpours of tropical rain came in sheets that soaked everything in sight. Lightning lit up the sky and some of the loudest thunder I’ve ever heard made us super happy that we had chosen a hotel room over camping on the beach! Concerned about the rest of the group, we were able to ring Robinson’s Plage to check on them, but they seemed none worse for the wear. What troopers!
The Hotel Sarakawa where we chose to stay was as close to Disney World as I’ll ever get. The rooms were beautiful and the grounds were just amazing with two or three pools and several really nice restaurants. It did start to dawn on us that we weren’t really experiencing the "real" Africa by staying here, but you know what? For a few nights out of two months we had stayed in nice hotels (okay, really nice hotels by African standards) but every now and then I (and most of the guys) like some comfort. Maybe we’re wussies, but a nice hot shower, a comfortable bed and lounge chairs by the pool are sometimes far too tempting. In addition, the hotel had real phones and we had to work out shipping arrangements for the trucks, too. Luckily, the day before we had gotten a message to our shipping agents at home. They had miraculously received it and even more miraculously they had taken care of all the arrangements. Our trucks were to be loaded on to a boat in Tema, Ghana and leave on Wednesday — three days away!
That night, Mike was feeling marginally better, so we decided to grab some dinner at a recommended Italian spot. Maybe it’s because so much Spam had tainted my system, but this was one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten! The owner, an Italian who reminded us of Roberto Begnini (of Life is Beautiful fame) literally ran around the restaurant to ensure everyone was happy. Believe you me, after eating a great pizza, some wonderful antipasti, delicious bread, a huge dessert and drinking a few too many beers and the complimentary amaretto after the meal we were very happy! If you’re ever in Lomé, Togo head straight for the Ristorante da Claudio — you won’t be disappointed!
Togo was really shaping up to be a great place for Westerners. Sadly, we found out why. The U.S. and some European governments backed the government here for years because President Eyadema was quite friendly to capitalism and Western ideology unlike neighboring Benin and Ghana (at least in the 70s). They felt that Togo was a jewel in West Africa and a haven of freedom in a rapidly "Red-shifting" area. In actuality, contrary to popular belief in the U.S., President Eyadema was anything but democratic and Togo was and is a police state, almost completely ruled by the military. There was a reason that the Togolese people seemed to be happy . . . if they complained too loudly, the government would very likely just make them disappear. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that the U.S. started to notice that something was amiss when opponents of the Eyadema’s government secretly dug up the bodies of several people murdered by the national police force and left them on the steps of the U.S. Embassy. The U.S. threatened to pull investment from Togo and the government let up just a bit — they even let people protest without shooting all the participants. Even so, security is still very, very tight and there are several police checkpoints in the city of Lomé after dark. It was actually really eerie.
All this said, you can imagine we were a bit concerned when we heard that there was to be a large protest the following day. To add further complications, Togo generally closes its border with Ghana during protests in order to prevent Ghanaians from coming over and "stirring up trouble" as well as preventing any Togolese from escaping should the police be looking for them. Turns out, this was the case and the border with Ghana was closed "indefinitely" and we had no option but to wait it out. We made a contact at the U.S. Embassy who was kind enough to pass along his mobile number so we could check with him for updates. So, that night we went to bed not knowing whether we’d be able to leave Togo in the morning. Sleep didn’t come all that easily.
The guys who had stayed at Robinson’s Plage met us at our hotel in the morning and we filled them in on the news. They were dismayed, but all in all, Togo wasn’t that bad a place to be stuck (at least during the day — no trigger-happy police with submachine guns!). We did some souvenir shopping and checked in with our embassy friend at various points through mid-day. Finally, around 2PM, he said he had heard a rumor that they were letting people through so we decided to go for it. As we made our way towards the frontier, it was obvious that something was up. Trucks were parked along the highway for about five miles into the downtown area — obviously waiting to be let through into Ghana. It appeared that we had quite a wait on our hands as the border was seemingly still closed.
Funk dat. We decided to do like Africans and just cut and jump the queue. We drove up a few side streets, down a few dead-ends and finally came upon what appeared to be the frontier. Some French guy was yelling at me, telling me the border was closed and I was an idiot for trying to go through (gotta love French people), but hey — why not give it a try? Money talks here, ya know. After some sweet talk, a hefty bribe to the customs "official" and a smaller one to Togolese immigration, we were through! Now all we had to do was get through the Ghanaian side and we were home free. As I’m sure you guessed, though . . . nothing is ever that easy . . .
25, March 2001
GOOD BYE AFRICA, FOR NOW…
We had just arrived in Aflao, Ghana from the hustle, bustle and downright zaniness of the Togolese border crossing in Lomé. In Togo, there were people looking to "help" you across the border, people looking to sell you water, government officials ripping you off, the "old blind guy with the boy" begging, etc. On the Ghanaian side, the story was much different. Things were orderly, the government officials had proper uniforms, there were actual forms to fill out (as opposed to signing in an old spiral-bound notebook), etc. Everything was so . . . well . . . British. It was quite refreshing and quite surprising, to be honest. The very best thing about Ghana, though is that people here speak English! (I have to admit that it was a nice break for me personally, being the only Francophone in the group.) The problem lies in the fact that with civility and British-ness comes true law. True law equates to real, enforceable rules and regulations that no bribe would get you around. The ability to grease palms had worked in every other country we had visited, but Ghana was different; here is where we ran into our problem.
You see, from the moment we unloaded our cars in Spain, we never possessed the exact, correct paperwork to drive them in Africa. This was partly due to the fact that no one could tell us exactly what we needed and partly due to the fact that you could generally give any customs official a pack of cigarettes and you were on your way without a hitch. Well, Ghana’s laws state that any foreign vehicle must carry a carnet de passage (basically a bond-protected paper that says you won’t sell your vehicle in their country). You’ve likely figured out that we didn’t have carnet de passages for any of the trucks. The officials wouldn’t accept bribes, the paperwork could not be fudged and for all intents and purposes, we were hosed — unable to turn back to Togo (due to our single-entry visa) and unable to proceed into Ghana. What the heck are we going to do?
Seeing our plight, a "helpful" customs broker suggested that he might be able to help us. He explained our two options; the first was to pay for a customs official to follow us to the port in Tema in a government vehicle. In addition to the fee, we’d have to pay for his lodging, gas and food since he’d have to accompany us for two days. This didn’t seem like a great option, so we inquired about the second one. The second option had some potential; this customs broker could bond our vehicles for their full value and give us three days to get from Aflao (the border town) to Tema. This would be perfect! It would give us enough time to go to Accra for a day and then head back towards Tema to get our trucks into their containers and on the boat. Perfection! We told him to go ahead and prepare the paperwork. To think, we had gotten all worried!
About an hour later, our new friend came back with all the paperwork ready to go. We were a bit concerned when he told us what value he had assigned trucks . . . 150,000,000 Cedis (yes, that one hundred and fifty million) or about US$20,000 each. Wouldn’t that make the cost of the bond very expensive? We were assured that it wouldn’t. The words "no problem" are very well-used here in Ghana, so after signing all the paperwork and bond notes we were presented with our tidy little bill of 9,000,000 Cedis. He was kind enough to point out that he would take American dollars, too . . . 1,200 of them.
The simple fact was that we did not have US$1,200 on our persons and frankly, there was no way in heck we were going to pay that. I would have camped out at the border for weeks rather than pay that much money to a crooked customs broker. After several hours of arguing, moving up the food chain at Southeastern Ghana Regional Customs and nearly getting into a fist fight with our broker friend, a very nice and helpful customs official who I had met earlier suggested he might be able to help. He recommended that we meet with the head customs official at Aflao. Since this is the main customs post for all of southeastern Ghana, he carried some weight and may very well be able to help us. We went to this guy’s office and waited for him to arrive. Here we are in a border town in Nowhere, West Africa. It’s hot and dusty outside, not to mention noisy with people coming in and out of the customs station just behind the windows. In contrast to what was going on outdoors, we were very comfortable; Mike and I were sitting in leather furniture, basking in air-conditioned coolness and watching CNN on satellite television. You could tell by this office and the things in it, by the way people saluted him and addressed him and by the way he was dressed, that the man who we were about to plead our case to was a very powerful man, indeed.
This man reminded Mike and me of Laurent Kabila. About 5’10" tall, around 50 years of age and pushing 275 pounds, this guy looked like a dictator. He yelled at people if they didn’t salute him just right, he mopped his forehead with a handkerchief and he drank scotch neat. This guy was going to help seven "rich" Americans? We had our doubts. "Ahh, my American friends! How are you? My colleague here tells me you are having some trouble. Let me see what I can do for you." We told him our story and literally pleaded with him that we just wanted to drive our trucks to Tema and then go home, that’s all. We promised that we wouldn’t sell them. We promised that we’d drive carefully. We promised to go to a hotel in Accra and then straight to Tema on Monday. He pondered for a while, took a few sips of his scotch, looked at the TV and then turned to our customs broker friend who had been in the meeting along with us and said, "I think it is in your best interest to help these fellows." With that and another hour of paperwork . . . we were on our way.
After spending close to six hours arguing, pleading, sometimes lying and trying to figure out what the heck we were going to do, all is took was a few words from one of the five most powerful customs officials in all of Ghana to get us on our way. As we headed towards Accra on the mediocre road along the coast Mike and I pondered and laughed about what had just happened. We had just gotten out of paying $1,200! Why in the world did this guy help us? I mean, he didn’t even ask for a bribe. Maybe he just didn’t like that particular customs broker or something. Whatever the reason, we were now a couple days from the end of our trip and very anxious to get our trucks loaded onto a boat and get ourselves onto a plane.
The drive to Accra went smoothly (apart for the potholes) and we arrived at a pretty nice hotel that was located just by the airport (and just down the road from the largest rotary / roundabout in the world — with a circumference of almost 4 km, I’ll tell ya, it was quite a sight). It was late on Saturday night by now, so that gave us all day Sunday to relax and sightsee, then on Monday we had an appointment in Tema with our shipper to load up the trucks. So after rising fairly late on Sunday morning, we went to the largest arts and crafts market in Accra and spent the afternoon fighting off extremely aggressive hustlers and merchants while buying what we wanted. Everyone bought some great stuff ranging from little carved elephants to Mike’s purchase of a large hand-carved bar ("If we have the room, why not?" became the mantra for the day). The afternoon passed quickly and that night we ate dinner at a very nice Chinese restaurant adjacent to the hotel. We went to bed fairly early, knowing that we wanted to be at the shipping agent’s office as soon as they opened in the morning. Our journey was now less than 24 hours from its end.
We headed to Tema not really having any clue of where the heck we were going. After receiving some help from a very nice and generous Dutch guy, we located the shipper’s office and started the paperwork to get the trucks loaded. It took much of the day, but was for the most part, pain-free. (An interesting note: loading the trucks into the containers in the United States took the better part of a week accounting for issues with the teamsters, the wrong size containers and nonsense with the trucking company — here in "backwards" Africa, it took about 5 hours.) For the remainder of the afternoon, half the group took a taxi to the airport to try and arrange a flight to Abidjan from Accra as the group’s tickets to New York were from Cote d’Ivoire and not Ghana. Computers were down, offices were closed, lines were long, but it looked like Air Ghana flew to Abidjan every day. The guys who were going home might even be able to leave tonight. This proved a bit too optimistic given time constraints, so tickets were purchased for the flight that left the following morning.
Truck-less, with plane tickets to New York in hand and possessions stuffed in backpacks, the group said its farewells early on Tuesday morning and parted ways. Mike, Al, Shane, Ed and Jim were all headed to Abidjan, then to Dakar, then on to New York and home. Their adventure was just about over. Paul and Wilson were staying in Ghana for a couple weeks, then heading on to the UK to squeeze every last drop out of time away from work as possible. When the five guys who were headed home left the hotel for the airport, the 2001 Vintage Rovers Across Africa Trans-African Expedition was officially over.
We didn’t always get along, we had some very trying times, we sometimes stayed in crummy places and ate crummy food; but we saw incredible things, met incredible people and went to places that many only dream of going. Everything that happened on the expedition, good or bad, was an experience that we will be hard-pressed to forget; from the zaniness of guarding our trucks with machetes and axe handles in Nouadhibou, Mauritania to lounging lazily by the ocean in Grand Popo, Benin drinking 25¢ beer, we have millions of dollars worth of memories that we’ll carry with us for the rest of our lives. That’s what an adventure like this is all about.
30 March, 2001
EXPEDITION RETURNS TO AMERICA
Shane, Mike, Al, Ed and Jim flew home from Cote D Ivoire on Wednesday, March 21st. They join Pat who returned home on the 7th of March. Wilson and Paul remain in Africa and will be on their way to England shortly. In the next several days we will be updating the website with information and photos from our final weeks in Benin, Togo, Ghana and Cote D Ivoire. Everyone is healthy and the trucks have been loaded aboard their containers and are expected to arrive in New York in late April.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank our sponsors, our families and friends and all of you who have visited this site over the past two months. It was a great adventure, but it is also a great feeling to be back at home in America.
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