Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Monday, 26 April 2010

Slide Show

Friday, 9 April 2010

South Africa

26.4.2010 – Day 97 – Springbok, South Africa

I really can’t quite believe it. I biked into South Africa today. It seems almost surreal that I have ridden all the way here on my motorbike. Africa looks like a big place on the world atlas, but riding through it makes it feel a whole lot bigger. I wondered, before I started this trip, what I would think about the places that sat between South Africa and the UK. When I was young and our family moved back to the UK, it felt like a whole world separated the two places which have most shaped my life. I wanted to see that transition during this journey, of all the people and places which connect South Africa and the UK. Now I have made the link, it doesn’t half still feel like there is a whole world between. The different landscapes, geology, geography, economics, ethnicity, religion, climate and communities that I have travelled through, has been extraordinary, There are links of course – one landscape blends into the next, if at a surprising rate. Each area of a country has cultural threads, as does each country and each area of Africa and I guess if you continue that thought, there are things which bind us all together, just as much as the things that separate us.

I am so happy to be back in South Africa, even if it is a very different country now. Freedom has had its price here, but I expect most people in South Africa would tell you it was worth it. Crime levels are appallingly high – a big factor in the exodus of the rich whites in the years since apartheid ended. Of course it’s not all areas that are dangerous and many of the people who left are heading back. It seems apt then that I should be back at this time, when gentle optimism is washing over the country and the World Cup is again giving South Africa something to be truly proud of.
27.4.2010 – Day 98 – Citrusdal, South Africa

It was cool as I set off this morning. So much so, that I had to put my map down the front of my jacket to keep the breeze off. My jacket has lost all water and windproofing as I cut out the protective lining in Togo. It was the only way to survive the heat!

The Northern Cape is barren and desolate. Clouds added to the autumnal feel to the day, which seem to reflect the part of the journey I am in. The last couple of days I have been in no rush – almost putting off the inevitable of having to finish. I can’t wait to see Tracy, but as always with these trips for me, I could turn round and head up on the other coast (if Tracy would come) rather than face the monotony of everyday life. The fact is with these trips, you just don’t know where you’ll be in the evening, or what will happen during the day when you wake up each morning. The unpredictability makes me feel like I’m living each day to the full, while the goal gives me a purpose over the longer term.

The roads again were quiet. Most of the vehicles seemed to be South Africans on holiday, heading up to Namibia in their ‘backies’ or landrovers, most of which seemed to be carrying roof tents and pulling trailers carrying enormous amounts of camping gear. The different faces, skin colour and hair in these north western parts of South Africa remind me of cheesy ‘world’ coke adverts, where every face from around the world is in one place. I know there are blacks, what we call bushmen, what apartheid called coloured, whites and Asians here, but you could be forgiven for thinking there are Maori or Polynesian faces also. Such a mix and quite surprising.

Later in the day I entered the Cedarburg mountain area – this is a wine and citrus fruit growing area, but I swear the mountains here look more like Scotland than South Africa. This is Torridon with orange trees. Perhaps then, that is why I passed through a town called Clan William. I must be losing my mind. If you find you can’t stand the midgies anymore, you might want to move here! Just swap whisky for wine, haggis for boerworst, ironbru for stoney ginger beer and deep fried mars bars for koeksusters.

28.3.2010 - Day 99 – Cape Town

A valley mist covered the camp site in Citrusdal when I left this morning. A climb over a spectacular pass temporarily lifted me out of the fog and cold into bright sunshine and views of mist-covered fields of golden wheat in the plains below and spectacular mountains in the distance. By the time I hit the coast in the West, I was shivering and too cold to ride safely. A lovely café showed itself at just the right time. I hauled up until I’d warmed up and the mist had lifted.

Heading south along the coast I passed holiday towns beside the sea, which again must just be a warmer and midge-free version of Ullapool – beautiful. Following my nose south I found roads to and through the coastal national park. Within just a few miles of leaving the towns I spotted ostrich! The first one was running in the road but soon they were to both sides of me. Somehow I didn’t expect them at all. I just see ostrich as farm food – quite bizarre and wonderful seeing them in their natural environment. I also almost ran over a huge snake. Of course, I stopped the bike, jumped off and took some photos. A local couple on a small motorbike came by and had a look. They said it was a particularly large puff adder – deadly! Hmmm – glad I used a zoom then!

I stopped for a malay curry in an old colonial building in the park. Much of the traditional South African food is influenced by immigrants and slaves from India and South East Asia. The cuisine is a reflection of the people in the Cape region I guess – a real mix with many flavours.

30-40 kms out of Cape Town I rode over a rise in the main road. In the haze, in the distance, was the unmistakable silhouette of Table Mountain.

“I bloody did it!”

I must confess, I had tears in my helmet. Suddenly, the realisation that I had achieved a dream that I have had for so many years, hit. Table Mountain, being so familiar, made the distance I have travelled, and the distance from home, feel enormous. I soon pulled over by a beach looking over Cape Town and the bay. Surfer dudes were out in force, women sunbathing and men fishing from the coast. The people of Cape Town were all out enjoying their Sunday while I just enjoyed being there.

I will head down to Cape Point/Horn at some time, but don’t feel I have to. I have reached my ‘end of Africa’ and what was our family’s ‘beginning of Africa’ when we arrived here by boat in the 1970s. I rode up to Signal Hill near Table Mountain for sunset, overlooking Cape Town and the sea. It’s so good to be here and to arrive on such a beautiful day is just the best.

So what lies between here and the UK? A whole world.

I have put a few things to rest out here in Africa and I overcame some of my fears. It hasn’t stopped me feeling the loss of my parents and I’m not even sure they’d approve of what I’ve done. But I don’t see dreams as things to think about – I like to see some of mine come true. I just love adventure – and Tracy and my next adventure might just be our biggest. What could be a more fitting way to address the shrinking of our family than to join the wheel of life and grow our family again.


19.3.2010 – Day 90 – Etosha, Namibia

Although we were stamped into Namibia, our bikes weren’t, so this morning we took it easy to do admin in this next country. Down to the border again to get the carnet stamped and pay vehicle import tax. Next, by consensus, it was off to Wimpey for a fry-up – we really are back in the developed world! An ATM visit was closely followed by a visit to the supermarket to buy washing powder and 5 packs of biltong (only 2 left by this evening). We checked up on getting vehicle insurance, but were told by the insurance broker that you can’t get 3rd party motorbike insurance in Namibia, so better drive carefully!

We set off down perfectly straight, perfectly tarmac-d and perfectly sleep-inducing roads. There are a surprising number of vehicles on the road in this part of the country – mostly 4x4 pick ups, and mostly, and unusually for Africa, not driven by NGOs. To keep drivers awake on the boring roads, the government has kindly put up fencing about 20-30 metres from the road and employed shepherds to herd cattle, pigs and goats between the 2 verges. Mixing 120km/per hour traffic and slow moving cows does liven things up somewhat. I skirted thunderstorms most of the day – remarkably never getting wet.

The junction for Etosha National Park is a huge milestone for me on this journey. We had a family holiday at Etosha in the late ‘70s, driving up from Johannesburg. This point marks the meeting of the lines across Africa. Today I connected my early childhood in South Africa with my life in Europe, with a line across continents. It was a happy-sad moment really. Things are very different here now – the road to Etosha is tarmac-d and at the moment the landscape is green and lush from all the rain. I remember travelling down this road in our regular 2 wheel-drive car in dusty, dry heat. The drinking water in the car was so hot, you could have brewed tea with it. But mostly today I thought about our family together in a car on holiday – whilst today I am travelling alone with no parents left to join me.

At the game lodge in Etosha on that holiday I remember thousands of swifts or swallows (I don’t remember exactly) in the dusk, circling and gathering over the waterhole for migration. My Mum explained how these birds migrated from the UK all the way down to South Africa and back every year. When I lived back in Sheffield I would see swifts and swallows and I would think about their migration as a reflection of my desire to visit South Africa again. These migrating birds have always been a favourite – and although my trip is not over yet, today I have completed my dream of migrating myself on a journey south, through Africa.

20.3.2010 – Day 91, Etosha, Namibia

An R&R day of the best kind.

I’ve spent the day at a game lodge on the edge of Etosha National Park. This morning was spent game-viewing in the park from the back of a land cruiser – no motorbikes allowed! We visited the old German fort. Inside the fort was where we spent a night back in the 1970s. It’s a game lodge owned by Namibia’s National Parks authority. Back then the fort sat by itself in the bush, giving a remote feeling. Today much more infrastructure has been built around it, including a museum and jewellery shop, which unfortunately detracts slightly from its sense of sanctuary in the bush. Ironically, the rooms that we slept in back then are now the toilets! Very nice toilets at that.

Time moves on and I wondered whether I should travel to Johannesburg to our old house and neighbourhood, or just head south to the Cape. I feel more inclined now to discover more of South Africa, particularly with Tracy, so she can get to know this wonderful part of the world. I’m sure in time we will be back again, with our family in tow. The trip isn’t over just yet though, as I want to finish the journey at the Cape of Good Hope, South of Cape Town. This part will be very different though – the journey so far has been to see what is between here and the UK – now I just want to enjoy being back here.

My life has been sculpted by the people I have met, and the places where I have spent time over my 38 years. Southern Africa is one of those places which has left a permanent imprint on me, just like many people have over the years. Southern Africa, and in particular South Africa, will always be part of me and I hope to spend more time here in the future, than I have recently. I want to enjoy South Africa for what it is now – and with the people I care about. I guess that’s why I don’t want to visit the past in Jo’berg.

21.3.2010 – Day 92 – Omarura, Namibia

I said goodbye to the Swiss this morning, probably for the final time. The roads this morning were mostly flat and straight - with bright sunshine it is almost impossible to keep awake and alert enough to ride safely. Every few kilometres are small rest areas – usually a concrete picnic bench, 2 painted oil drums made into bins and a tree to give shelter. I stopped every half hour or so, desperately trying to wake myself up. I was riding myself into a trance, looking 5 kms ahead at the mirage on the road. I started to see people by the side of the road, when in fact they were termite hills, and with the few cars and trucks in the distance, I couldn’t tell whether they were coming or going. Bush and scrub covered the landscape as far as the eye could see, with just the occasional farmhouse set back from the road. A 50metre corridor is kept as grass to the sides of the road, with fences separating it from the bush.

My other fear of today was suicidal warthogs. It’s difficult to see them in the long grass and if they run out on you, you wouldn’t be on your bike for very long! Every 60-100km a small town appears out of the mirage. Perfectly groomed old towns that date back to the 70s. Being Sunday, the lack of traffic added to the time warp.

Everything is in these towns, but with so few people in Namibia they lack the claustrophobic oppression of mass-commercialism back home. Life is easy now – supermarkets sit next to gas stations, with Wimpeys, shops, cafes and ATMs on the side. People of all races seem relaxed and friendly – I love it!

When I used to watch American and Australian tv shows as a youth, back in the UK, I used to dream of moving to these ‘idyll’ countries, where the sun is always shining, the streets are always quiet and the sidewalks lush and green. Places where people live outdoors and if it gets too hot, you just jump in the pool. I can see now that really I was just wishing to be back in Southern Africa. Of course, the reality for many people in Namibia and South Africa is exclusion from the idyll, where most blacks live in impoverished townships and all people, particularly in the cities, fear crime. But I do love it here and I always will.
22.3.2010 – Day 93 – Swakopmund, Namibia

I set off this morning for the skeleton coast. It was dirt road all the way – over 300kms. These roads are well graded, which means some of the time it’s possible to ride at 100kms per hour, no problem. Occasionally though, there is deep gravel or sand which, with all the weight on the bike, makes it swerve violently. This, in effect, can make it reckless to go so fast. Down on the coast road though, salt is used as a road-covering. The road looks like tarmac, and as long as you don’t make any sudden movements, it’s possible to cruise as 120km per hour quite safely. There are virtually no cars or settlements on the roads, so when I came across a pick up, stopped in the middle of the road, I pulled over to see if they needed help.

6 black men were stuck, out of gas. We came across this in Southern Angola also – people travelling with too little fuel in desolate places. I left them a bottle of water and told the next garage down the road that they needed 5 litres of fuel.

The landscapes here are vast and over the first 130kms scrubland disappeared into flat, barren, featureless desert. With so much space, a sense of agoraphobia takes hold. The only reference on this straight, endless road, are the wooden telegraph poles which disappear into the mirage.

Through 360 degrees the road and landscape blend one into the other. I eventually drove into the sea mist which I first saw 50kms earlier. The coastline is barren, cool and airy in the mist. I found a fisherman’s hangout in the first small town I came across. Dozens of white Africans had their 4x4 pick ups parked outside, with fishing rods on the roofs. Inside the bar/restaurant, rugby is shown on the big screen and large men drink beer while their blond kids run around barefoot outside.

The walls were covered with trophy fishing photos. Taking all this as a sign, I chose the first thing on the menu – “fish and chips”. Unsurprisingly it was fabulous. On the way out I passed black employees cleaning out cars, gutting fish and washing the 4x4s. It’s obviously a country still socially segregated – no black customers whatsoever.

On the way into the town I’m staying in tonight, I got stopped by a policeman. He pointed out that I did not have my headlights on. I knew this, as the bulb had blown earlier. I spent the entire time in Africa being told to switch off my lights by the police and public alike. Most other police on the continent are bribe-able – which, dreadful though it is, can be useful if you have money! When this copper told me he was going to fine me, I assumed he meant ‘fine with no receipt’ (bribe) – but of course not, here in Namibia. He just meant a fine. Luckily he let me off after I appeared as pathetic as my energy would allow and promised to get it fixed tomorrow.

23.3.2010 – Day 94 – Swakopmund

Well I spent the day in and around Swakopmund - staying just one block from an authorised Yamaha dealer was just too big a pull not to take a day off and get the bike serviced. Swakopmund is a perfectly formed town by the coast, surrounded by huge dunes and frequently covered in sea mist. It’s set out on a grid with a few-too-many 4 way stops. Many of the buildings are older, but in perfect condition. All the newer buildings are built in sympathetic style – no doubt under good planning laws. The place is perfectly tidy, not a piece of litter on the ground, or flake of paint to be seen. This sleepy town is as touristy as Namibia gets. A self-styled adventure capital – it’s the Chamonix/Queenstown/Cairns/Vic Falls of Namibia – yet the place feels so gentle and relaxed.

Once I got the bike back, I thought I’d better explore a little. 30km down the road is a port version of Swakopmund called Wavis Bay. Huge dunes flank the left of the road to Wavis Bay whilst wild beaches and lifestyle housing is on the right. I had a drive through the township of Wavis Bay. All the main routes between towns link up the affluent and previously white town centres in Southern Africa. On the edge of town and away from the main road are the townships. I was both surprised and pleased to see this township had better living standards that I have seen for a long time on my trip, for black Africans. Although dramatically poorer than the predominantly white areas, the township was full of well-kept, painted, single storey housing; decorated doors, walls, gardens, modern roofing and windows. A pleasant shopping arcade sat on the tarmac streets which had seen the hand of landscape architects. I saw new children’s play areas and plenty of smartly dressed kids in school uniforms.

Although there is a black/white wealth difference in Namibia, I am told the government is one of the least corrupt in Africa - so more of the mining revenue goes to its people. I heard today that if the oil revenue of Equatorial Guinea was dispersed amongst its citizens, rather than being embezzled by its government, all citizens would receive something like 37,000 pounds a year income, rather than the present average of around 200 pounds.

24.3.2010 – Day 95 – Windhoek, Namibia

What wonderful days. I set off east toward Windhoek on more straight roads. This part of Namibia is turning out to be cappuccino and chocolate cake travel. Out of the wilderness, every 150km or so, small towns provide everything a weary traveller could possibly need. 2 coffees, a slice of chocolate cake and a packet of biltong later, I arrived in Windhoek.

Namibia is full of rules: No stopping. Wear your seatbelt. No motorbikes etc etc. And the rules are enforced. After such a long time in African countries with a flexible approach to policing and law and order, it comes as quite a shock. At least this will acclimatise me back to European levels of governmental control. So hopefully I won’t try to bribe the first policeman who stops me back in the UK.

I bumped into the Swiss couple for one last night. I also met a friend of Rolph’s, from Maun, Botswana, who is travelling on a BMW GS around Southern Africa.
25.3.2010 – Day 96 – Keetmanskluff, Namibia

Today I set off from Windhoek south again. First through rolling scrub, then later on progressively flatter, more barren, hotter country. Occasionally I’d pull off this very quite main road south, into little towns, which seemed to service local farming communities. Again, this feels like the 1960s or 70s – so bizarre – quiet roads, old buildings and old fashioned shops.

There are so many different types of people here. I’m not sure what the P.C. terms are, but there are blacks, whites, browns, bushmen and all things in between. I pulled off the main road by mid afternoon and headed 14 kms down a dirt track in search of a famous quiver tree forest and lodgings. The quiver trees are iconic symbols of Namibia. These ancient trees, some 300 years old, are only found in desert areas around here. The wood is used for the quivers of bushmen’s arrows – hence the name. The lodging here is wonderful – self contained domes are scattered around, as are the braai areas near a pool. The owner has several dogs and 3 pet warthogs that loved to be stroked (the fur is not that soft!) and played with.

3 cheetahs live in the area which they feed daily at 5pm. Only 1 turned up today. I stood just 4 metres away watching it chew on a piece of gristley meat – amazing. It is quite poignant for me – as a youngster we went to a cheetah sanctuary near Jo’berg where I sat and stroked a cheetah. A photo of that moment is framed on our wall at home. These elegant, graceful animals will always be a favourite of mine.

I met up with a Brit and Cape Townian couple at the camp, who kindly invited me to a braai this evening. Braais are a way of life here and despite the fact that it is always the man who cooks the braai – she trumped him by being South Africa and took over the tongs! It was amazing – sat outside eating wonderful food under incredible stars in the bush with the Southern Cross pointing the way for tomorrow.

PS – did you know the Southern Hemisphere moon has a rabbit? You do now.

Friday, 26 March 2010


13.3.2010 – Day 84 – Sonongolo, DRC

The 5 of us left Kinshasa this morning at 6.30 to beat the rush hour. The drive out was quiet and easy. I’ve been here a few days, but Kinshasa I’ve seen doesn’t equate to the 14 million mega-city I’d expected. We headed down a good road through grassy rolling hills toward the Angolan border. After a couple of hours we pulled over by the3 side of the road for a stretch, water and toilet stops. As we were getting ready for off again, I put the key into the ignition of the bike, turned the key, pressed the starting switch. Immediately a small puff of black smoke blew from under the ignition and the bike wouldn’t start. There was a clear smell of an electric burn. In an instant my mind flicked through the probable future – burnt out electrics, say goodbye to the others, find a truck to Kinshasa for the bike, go to Yamaha garage, get diagnosis, fly out parts, deal with customs, get bike fixed then start out for Angola again in a couple of weeks time. Nightmare!

I pushed my bike under a tree and talked about it to Rouven (mechanic) and Daniel (an electrical engineer). They told me to try and start the engine again. Miraculously it started once, started twice and didn’t smoke. Unbelievable! It must have been all the rain affecting the ignition causing a one-off spark. What a relief!

This part of the DRC has much more in common with the rest of Africa than Kinshasa 0 bustling little market towns: friendly, colourful and loud. Tonight we are staying in the small Catholic Mission. We spend the afternoon sleeping under a tin roof shelter, shading ourselves from the sun. The village is small and spread out with a network of muddy dirt roads connecting all corners. We found the bar later in the day which a lad opened for us to get warm cokes. We couldn’t find shops apart from the tiny mobile phone credit shop in a 2m x 2m reed shack. Everything in Africa is micro-distributed – coke is delivered to slums by hand cart, water is sold by the bag from the side of the road, fuel is sold by the bottle, electricity comes from generators, photocopying is done from a photocopy machine ON the street, a public phone is a mobile phone on a table under a parasol, a taxi is just a shared car, laughing cow cheese can be bought by the slice and hotels can be rented by the hour.

14.3.2010 – Day 85 – Tomboko, Angola
We’re staying in another Catholic Mission tonight, but in a new country! At a time when the Catholic Church is getting such bad press, coming to these missions shows Christianity at its best. Most are simple places, often in a compound which sometimes have rooms. Last night and tonight we’re not charged to use the bedrooms, although we like to give a donation. Some of the missions are in pretty remote settings and being welcomed in by a smiling priest feels like coming home. I particularly like the priests’ shirts here. The cut and print of the shirts are in traditional African style but the prints depict Christian themes – perhaps the local diocese with photo prints of the bishop integrated into the design.

The roads today have been mostly dirt. The first 80km or so was single track and a little rough. After a short section of Chinese built tarmac road (they do get everywhere!) it was first graded gravel road. Unfortunately, later in the day there was a huge thunder storm with the loudest bang of thunder I’ve ever heard. The rain in itself is fine but it makes the dirt roads very difficult at times. It’s still raining tonight. I really hope tomorrow’s roads are going to be OK.

The border crossing into Angola was easy but very slow. We were told the border would open at 7.30am but although most of the officials were on time, the important dudes rolled up at 9.30 in a merc with all the stamps and paperwork. It’s a bit of a problem really, as we only have a 5 day transit visa for Angola and with the late border opening and rain this afternoon we are already behind schedule.
Angola is a very friendly place. In the scattered villages amongst the rolling green grassy hills, most people wave and smile – amazing really for a country that has had a 40 year civil war which only finished just 8 years ago. Most of the older buildings seem to be derelict, covered in bullet holes or both. There is very little here but all the buildings of any size are new (garages, schools, offices, etc). The war must have taken a terrible toll on the country. I spotted my first shot down Russian helicopter today – but I couldn’t get a close look as we’re back in landmine country. Better get used to peeing on the road again then!

15.3.2010 – Day 86 – Luanda, Angola

Every muscle in my body aches. I’m tired and exhausted but happy. We set off this morning in the North of Angola at 6am. We arrived at an extremely expensive hotel in Luanda at 8pm: a 14 hour day. It seemed like all day thunder clouds surrounded us, but miraculously we never really got wet. Today I’ve motorbiked virtually ever possibly surface – let’s see: sand, deep sand, wet sand, graded gravel, ungraded gravel, compacted mud, wet mud, puddles, tarmac, broken tarmac, pot-holed tarmac, oh yes, and deep mud, corrugations and no road at all!
The countryside here is rather empty, I’m guessing partly due to the war emptying out the people into the safer cities. There is some wildlife though: snakes, monkeys, a multitude of birds and butterflies and some rodent-type things that I’ve got no clue what they are!? Most of the big wildlife was killed off during the war and today I saw a guy with a gun trying to kill off the rest of the animals – he had 3 monkey-type things (dead of course) around his neck. The few towns we passed through were desperate-looking places – again all old buildings were either riddled with bullet holes or burnt out and destroyed. We stopped at a small market for bread and avocado in one of these towns. A young pregnant lady came to talk to us. 2 guys with sticks and wearing the emblems of the Angolan Government started shouting and threatening her. Andrea put herself between them to try and calm things down. Next, when we were topping up our tanks with wine bottles of petrol from a house by the road, another guy came over acting like Jaja Binks, speaking a mixture of Portugese and English – he wasn’t right in the head at all. Both sets of men seemed unpredictable and volatile. The first 2 were how I’d imagine Mugabe’s ex rebel fighters – new heavies for the Government – maybe these guys were similar? What does 40 years of civil war do to a nation?

There is a lot of infrastructure going in at the moment in Angola – but Angola is starting really from year zero – there must have been absolutely nothing left after the war in this part of Angola. These men to me seemed like they had traumatic stress disorder – and I’m not surprised. One guy I met today told me he was glad I was visiting Angola. He wanted me to tell people at home how people suffer here. From what I’ve seen, I’d say he’s spot on. The houses in this bit of Angola are the most simple affairs – either sticks made into a frame then in-filled with mud or just made out of grass. There is rustic and beautiful, then there is the downright desperate. It seems in many of these African countries it doesn’t seem to be a problem for the police to drink on the job – it sure makes them chatty anyway!
16.3.2010 – Day 87 – Huambo, Angola

For the first time on this trip I’ve allowed myself the excitement to think I’ll actually finish my dream of crossing Africa. Southern Africa is feeling very close now and it feels like we’re leaving the lush green and steamy equatorial regions. I’m painfully aware though that ever day brings its dangers and one wrong move and the trip would be over. The traffic is the biggest hazard. This morning being particularly frightening while leaving Luanda – some drivers are absolute lunatics: idiots. The road sides and roads themselves are littered with old and new wreckage from horrific high speed accidents, despite the roads today being very quiet and in superb condition. We did another big push today, trying to get to the border before our 5 day transit visa expires. By mid morning we had climbed up onto the central plateau – a fantastically beautiful green landscape peppered with rock towers and hillocks.

The new tarmac road sweeps between the huge vistas – just stunning riding. Thunder storms were never far away today, sometimes in the distance, once catching the edge of a big downpour, and once we got a full soaking in the eye of the storm. Angola is difficult to understand – especially on such a fleeting visit. Today we passed more poor villages and passed towns with buildings covered with bullet holes or simply blown up during the war, but things here in the centre of the country are much better. So much infrastructure has been built since the cease-fire in 2002. 5 star hotels sit side by side with demolished war torn buildings. Highways have been built, banks opened, restaurants sell Moet and bridges are being repaired. I wonder if it is any coincidence that the Northern rebels lost the war and now live in an area with virtually nothing, while the centre and south are getting huge investment and help?

I’m enjoying Angola and its people – even if I don’t really understand what’s going on: it’s just a shame you can’t go wandering due to all the land mines. Oh – today we found the first fuel station in Angola (mostly filling up with black market petrol from bottles until now). It’s a bit confusing – diesel is called gaseleo and petrol is gasoelin! Diesel has a green pump handle and sticker and petrol has orange. Very confusing when you only speak Portugese sign language!

17.3.2010 – Day 88 – Lubango, Angola

I’m so tired tonight, I can hardly bring myself to write the diary. Another 12 hard hours of biking. Most of the miles were on fantastic new roads but mush of the time was spent bumping down dirt roads and half prepared new roads. Again, the landscapes are just fabulous. Huge rock towers push out of the ground. I really am struggling – so I’ll keep it brief. This part of Angola makes me feel like we are already in Namibia – or is it Portugal? So much infrastructure going in. OK – must sleep – last big push toward the border tomorrow on the last day of the visa! Nighty night.

PS – broke the video camera today – both cameras now damaged!

18.3.2010 – Day 89 – Oshikango, Namibia

Well, we got out of Angola just in time not to over-run our 5 day visa and into Namibia just before the border closed for the day. It’s been 5 long hard days, but Angola continued to surprise us. It really is a country on the move. Most people live in desperate poverty, but infrastructure is being put in at a hell of a rate. The north of the country seemed like a pretty desperate place, but the rest of the country looks like it’s on the up. The people are amazingly up beat, friendly and proud of their country. The Portuguese are back in force, regaining the position they had before the war. The Chinese are here also – like in much of Africa – I get the feeling that Angola will be a place of great change in the next 20 years.

We travelled 2000km down the entire length of the country – in the North rain forest and tropical grass lands and the central plateau (so beautiful) and the more arid south. Angola surprised us every day – such a place of contrasts – the cheapest fuel in Africa (but none at the pumps) and the most expensive hotels. We travelled on fabulous new tarmac roads and spent hours toiling on dreadful dirt roads with the Portuguese influence. Some towns remind me of spaghetti westerns or lovely red tile-roofed villages from the Portuguese countryside. Things are changing so fast.

I spoke to a Portuguese man who arrived back in Huambo in 2002 after the civil war had finished. He told me that there were only 3 cars in town at the time. Now there are literally thousands ploughing the streets. It’s a shame I only had 5 days for Angola, but at the same time I’m glad to be in Namibia and out of the bureaucratic web that surrounds travel through most of Africa.

I’ve arrived in the part of Africa that I remember and love and I’m looking forward to spending time here as well as showing Tracy around when I meet her down in Cape Town in 10 to 12 days times. So, first thing tomorrow? Buy some biltong! Yum!

Congo into Democratic Republic of Congo

I've been editing most diary entries but this one is coming to you untampered-with - partly because I don't have much time or energy, but mostly because each entry is so fascinating (well, I think so!).  So take your time - maybe you won't read it all in a one-er (it's rather long) - and enjoy it.

Angola will follow in hot pursuit and I can confirm that Andrew has already passed through Namibia into South Africa today having hand-fed a wart hog last night and been within 4 metres of a cheetah - he said he's "in heaven'!  He is less than a week from Cape Town and the finish at the Cape itself.  I'm flying out to meet him next week (!!) and so the final diary entries will probably be posted from out there...but the story's not over yet!  So stay with us and enjoy the last few countries of his epic journey! - editor.

7.3.2010 – Day 78 – Brazzaville
It was an easy 70km into Brazzaville this morning on good tarmac (thank you European Union and French for building it). The locals don’t see to like the French ex-colonial power – but they have just built them the best road in the country. Brazzaville represents the start of the last major hurdle in bureaucracy between us and Cape Town. OK – so we are in Congo, we have a DRC visa (next country – just across the river), we have no Angolan Visa. We don’t need a Namibian or South African visa. Brazzaville’s Angola Embassy doesn’t issue Angolan visas. They tell you to get a transit visa in DRC. DRC won’t let you in unless you have an Angolan visa! Catch 22.

So tomorrow we start the battle to get from here, across the Congo River into DRC, get an Angolan visa, transit Angola (quickly) to get to Namibia, South Africa and the Cape. The big problem really is that the Angolan visa is the hardest to get in Africa.

On the way into town we scoped out the Angolan Embassy ready for Monday morning. Just as we were pulling over a landrover pulled up beside us. It was a French couple, Luke and Miriam, who are living in Brazzabille. Luke is in Congo training the Congolese Police force. At home in France they are keen motorcyclists and within minutes of meeting they had invited us to stay at their home for the night. They were both heading out for the afternoon, but first they escorted us into centre ville. The town (capital) was almost devoid of people and traffic – it was Sunday and shops were closed, but the whole place seemed weirdly devoid of life. The French left us at the boat club on the banks of the Congo River. It’s an enormous river – perhaps 3 mils across. On the way into town we passed some rapids, which with this amount of water flowing, looked truly intimidating.

The Boat Club is an ex-pat playground – there’s a restaurant with tables overlooking the river, a constant stream of new 4x4s training in and out and bunches of mainly-Europeans, Arabs and North Africans playing about in power boats and on jet bikes. There are a few people in Congo with masses of cash and millions of people with nothing.

We spent all afternoon at a table in the shade watching the comings and goings of this little oasis of wealth. Just next to the landing ramp, outside the Boat House land, local men hung around in the shade of trees, dug out fishing boats came and went with perhaps 3 people paddling, standing up with long pointed wooden paddles. The difference between the poverty of the locals and the wealth and decadence of the Boat House customers was extreme – it was about the biggest contrast and contradiction I think I’ve ever seen.

This evening at Luke and Miriam’s house Luke was telling us more about Congo. He said that during the civil war there was no food, electricity, transport, roads – nothing – except … beer! A strategic decision was made to distribute beer throughout the country to keep a constant supply to the people. The thought was that if people couldn’t buy beer, they’d defect to the rebels! Since the official end of the war there has been an arms amnesty. For each AK47 handed in, 150,000 francs was rewarded to the giver. The problem is, people started buying AK47s from the DRC at a cheaper rate than the amnesty pay out – so a mini arms trade developed! Luke also spoke about the roads. West of the capital is a fantastic stretch of new road for 75km, heading toward the ex Ninja Rebels’ strong hold (the route we came). The road stops just 5 miles from the capital and deteriorates into a dusty dirt pot-holed mess. The thought is that if the Ninjas attack Brazzaville, the bad road should slow the rebels down enough for the Congolese army to react (read – wake up and sober up).

8.3.2010 – Day 79 – Brazzaville

We headed out to the Angolan Embassy first thing to be told we couldn’t get an Angolan visa in Congo. We next headed to Congo immigration to see if we could get a Congo visa, so that we can show the DRC immigration our intent to exit their country, to avoid being turned back at the border. We were told we couldn’t get another visa, but the chief of immigration gave us his mobile number and told us to call him if we had trouble entering DRC and he would explain to them. We went down to the port to buy tickets for this afternoon’s crossing by ferry over the Congo River to DRC. It turns out that it’s ‘International Womens’ Day’ and the ferry won’t be running! So we try again tomorrow.

This afternoon was spent buying food, drinking coffee and trying to find decent internet, which he did find in the end in the ‘Centre Cultural Frances’. Two observations about the people in Congo … as well as the women wearing beautiful printed dresses in bright vibrant colours, many women also wear wigs. I knew that hair is a big thing in Africa, with plaiting, braiding, combing, dyeing and extensions all being popular - but I didn’t realise how popular wigs are. At first you don’t really notice, but when you get your eye in you start seeing them everywhere and in all sorts of styles. The wigs are really quite convincing. The men are also well dressed, with some of the richer men looking particularly dapper. Some of the outfits look like they come straight out of the 1970s and 80s American gangster movies. Some of the clothes worn include: pastel coloured slacks and jackets, flat caps, big sunglasses, cold jewellery, black and white shoes (spats), white suits, sequined hats (trilby and wide brimmed). It may look quite odd to our European style of dress, but I think they look particularly cool.

So, the 3 things that could create a Congo cliché are: good beer, good music and good clothes. By the way, there is a common belief here that most of the world’s music originates from the slaves that came from Congo. This includes Blues, Jazz, Rhumba and Rock and Roll.

This evening we had a recommendation for a restaurant in Brazzaville “Madam Momos”. The taxi couldn’t find it, which isn’t surprising as Madam Momos is just Madam Momo’s house, down a dark dirt residential street. She has no signage outside. Her garden is full of trees from which much of the food you eat comes from. Candlelit tables are beneath the trees on the compacted earth. Madam Momo welcomes you with a kiss on each cheek, then proceeds to fill your table with endless dishes of traditional Congolese food. Absolutely delicious. We had salad, peanut chicken, fish (Capitan) with sauce, fried rice, fried banana, bread and fruit that was similar to lychee but larger. She then comes and sits with you to make sure you’ve eaten enough like any good Italian mother would do – what a treat! After the meal she walked us down to the main road and hailed a taxi home for us – what a wonderful lady.

9.3.2010 – Day 80 – Kinshasa, DRC

Well, I’m in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The ferry across the river to Kinshasa is supposed to leave at 12 noon from Brazzaville, but crossing and the bureaucracy at each side is said to be an all-day affair, even though the crossing only takes 30 minutes. We set off from Luke and Miriams house at 8.30 for the port. There, we met the “Oasis Overland” truck on their journey through Africa on the Western route. There’s now only 2 companies who do the full Africa trup – Oasis and the Company I met in the Presbyterian mission in Yaounde, Cameroon.

We got out passport stamped by immigration, carnet stamped at customs and had a police check with more stamps. We couldn’t buy tickets until the ferry arrived from Kinshasa so we just hung around undercover, watching the rain get heavier – it never stopped all day. The ferry is a small roll on, roll off flat bed affair, which unsurprisingly looks worse for wear. As soon as the ferry docked, hundreds of people came running off onto the portside in what can only be called a stampede – totally frenzied with screams of delight and running, jumping people. It seemed like almost 1/3 of the passengers were blind, being led by a helper. Were they travelling looking for miracles and medicine? Or was it a scam – disabled people travel for free?

Many of the people transporting goods were polio victims with large handcycled wheelchairs full of sacks of materials being pushed by able bodied porters. There are virtually no vehicles on the ferry – all the goods are ‘run’ on and off the boat by a fleet of porters, who I swear must have been on drugs. Boarding, like everything else today was predictably chaotic and for a long time after, goods were still being run off the ferry. When it was time to leave, a line of police lined the gangway to the ferry. They had battons at the ready. As porters continued to try to take goods off, they would give them a beating with the battons.

The intensity of the experience is hard to convey – we even thought it was manic after months in west and central Africa. Unfortunately you can’t take any pictures as the officials would be more than happy to confiscate your camera. On board was money changing, gambling, arguments, dancing and selling, but mostly shouting. We had already decided between us what ‘our story’ was going to be for the immigration in DRC. We have heard of people being turned back to Congo because they haven’t got an Angolan visa (like us). We had arranged simply to say we were “going back to Congo!” after a weeks stay in Kinshasa.

The Kinshasa port was hectic until we got into the immigration office where we had the first hour’s wait. The office was 7 feet x 7 feet with 2 desks and 10 people inside. The guy in charge was wearing a pinstriped suit, blue shirt, pink tie and loads of gold jewellery – I wonder why? Young women occasionally walked in and the official handed them money, or an envelope from his desk – perhaps they were a mixture of family, friends and mistresses. We had the full question and answer thing, with all details written down by the admin guys on pieces of A4 paper. The passports were taken away, our thankfully came back eventually, with stamps, but the oasis team leader, with 23 passports was told their DRC visas they bought in Yaounde were invalid because the Embassy used the wrong visa number sequence! That visa cost them 100 Euros each. The obviously corrupt official told them that they would have to buy new visas as $60 each or be deported. Asked if they could phone the Embassy in Yaounde, he obviously said no!

After a carnet stamp and a yellow fever check we were told we had to pay ₤20 to get our bikes disinfected before we could leave. Somehow I don’t think the locals pay this fee! We’re now in the Catholic mission in Kinshasa. The room looks like it is from an old sanatorium. In fact, tonight I’m sleeping on a hospital bed. So – now only an Angolan transit visa separates us from the Cape.

PS – well I headed out this evening 100m down the road to a supermarket for a meal in the café there. Even going this far at night has a risk of mugging, so we emptied our pockets prior to leaving. We left the mission with its 12 foot perimeter wall decorated with razor wire to an unlit mud road. Only 2 teenagers approached us, and when we ignored them they told us to ‘F*!k o*!’.

The supermarket is such a huge culture shock from the port and mud streets and poverty. Some of the Kinshasan elite were there buying premier cru classe Bordeaux, $50 boxes of chocolates and $12 boxes of Kellogs Special K. You could buy an iPhone or a home cinema centre, but it would cost the earth. This is the crazy thing about Africa – most people have no money and go hungry while the elite have more money than sense. I’ve only just arrived in Kinshasa with its 14 million people, but at first appearances it looks like a possible future image of Africa. A huge city with a growing population, it has great wealth but more poverty, where the people with nothing are excluded and the only way to aspire is through crime. The rich live in luxury prisons, paying huge prices for the privilege and the poor live a disenfranchised life in the streets and slums. The have nots are the locals, whereas the elites are the black politicians, North Africans, Middle easterners and Europeans.

For your interest, this is what the Lonely Planet says about the DRC and Kinshasa:

“More of a geographic concept than a fully fledged nation. The nation’s history reads like something out of Dante’s Inferno – from the brazen political folly of King Leopold in Belgium, to the hideously corrupt kleptocracy of maverick meglomanic Mobutu and the blood stained battle grounds of Africa’s first world war … (Kinshasa) built upon the banks of the Congo River and infested with shabby shanty towns and myriad opportunist con merchants masquerading as street salesmen, this polluted megalopolis couldn’t be called pretty by anyone. Kinshasa could be worth a brief if tentative visit by the brave and well-travelled explorer armed with a close eye on security and a true sense of adventure”. Sound nice? Let’s see what tomorrow brings!

10.3.2010 – Day 81 – Kinshasa, DRC

Well, one more day in Kinshasa and I haven’t been mugged yet. I’m starting to treat this city like any other African city now, with a few changes – notably not carrying anything but cash on me into the streets. NGO scare stories are always too full of fear it seems. The one thing you can’t do very easily here though is take photos – as soon as a camera comes our people start shouting and police will come running, so I’m afraid no photos of Kinshasa either.

This morning’s job was to collect letters of recommendation from the Swiss and German embassies for Rouven, Christine, Daniel and Andrea. I was outside the German embassy waiting for Rouven and Christine in the leafy tree-lined street. It was relatively quiet bar a few land cruisers and the odd pedestrian. 3 ladies dressed well, one with a child on her back walked by carrying bags in their hands. A young lad of about 10 was walking next to them, intent on stealing. One of the women swung her handbag and hit him. The next thing I saw was a young man walk up and punch the boy twice straight in the face. I don’t know whether the young man was helping out hoping for money, or just helping out, but it was vicious. No one even batted an eyelid. Violence in Africa seems so close to the surface, just waiting to bubble over. In the UK that young man would have been arrested. Here, the incident was hardly noticed and certainly no one cared. I’ve seen more aggression and violence on this trip than I ever have before; I don’t know what to make of it. I can’t help but think about the 3.8 million people that were killed in the recent civil war here. Maybe one of the reasons many people enjoy travelling through Africa is that they just don’t understand it. I certainly don’t understand the inequality, violence and the apparent disregard the elite and authorities have over the rest of the people. It seems people just need to fight to survive – I don’t know really.

Well, we’ve eventually submitted our Angolan visa applications at the Angolan embassy after being told that we could have to wait 6 more days before we could submit. Christine used her French language and charm to convince the Angolan official to let us submit today – thank god! So we were told to come and collect our passports tomorrow at 12 – let’s hope they have the visas in them!

So Kinshasa isn’t as dark and scary as it first sounded – and this part of town is surprisingly pleasant. But you still have to have your wits about you to avoid being got by the muggers or the police (sometimes one and the same). That said though, this corrupt system can work both ways. I met a biker in town who is stuck here for a couple of weeks while his bike is fixed. He told me he got stopped by the police on his bike in town. The office charged him ₤100. After ½ an hour of chatting and negotiation he got the fine down to 2 cold beers, which the police man drank whilst on duty, by the side of the road. Could be an alternative to 3 points and a ₤60 fine back at home?

12.3.2010 – Day 83 – Kinshasa, DRC

Today was dominated by trying to get /collect the Angola visa. We were told to arrive at the Embassy at 12 noon – so of course arrives early at 11.30. We were almost immediately told that we should come back at 1.30. So we sat around in the shade by a few shops picking up bits of street food for lunch. We were joined by the other 2 tourists in town trying to pick up Angolan visas – 2 cyclists – Hans from Switzerland and Rob from the UK. Hans has been cycling for a number of years and has already cycled Asia and the Americas and now wants to cycle all the African countries. He’s a funny guy who’s a bit dower – not helped by him suffering from malaria, but this doesn’t stop the swearing.

Rob is a Ben Fogle/Mark Beaumont cross. He sports a terrific 5 month beard which has has grown during his extreme triathlon through Africa. He cycled from Cirencester to Gibraltar, swam (6 ½ hours) to Morocco, he’s now cycling Africa and will finish with the famous Comrades Ultra Marathon in Durban, South Africa.

Street food is sold from the heads of the vendors. Each type of ‘head shop’ is advertised by a sound. The baguette sandwich man taps his knife against his plastic bowl on this head. The grocery store on head man twangs an elastic band. Even the shoe shine boy clicks 2 pieces of wood together to let you know he’s coming by. We just sat and waited for the right food and drink shops to arrive. At 1.30, we sat outside the embassy again and we were soon ushered out of the mid day heat to the VIP reception room. White skin, for better or worse, still sets you apart, giving you privileges in this case. We sat on the white leather sofas watching French news on TV in the comfort of AC for the next tense 2.5 hours. Eventually we were called into an office and to our enormous relief got given our passports back with 5 day transit visas for Angola. If we couldn’t get these the trip would have been over!

The cyclists will struggle though to cover 1900km in 5 days!!

Next we searched for motor insurance – we ended up at the HQ of DRC’s only insurance company (I’m told). We got shifted between people – 6 in all, going up the ranks until we were sat round the board room table (big enough for 20 people) with the head of international insurance, the vice president and the president of the company. Each told us in turn during our visit that they couldn’t help us, but again, just the skin colour gave us IP treatment. Not quite sure what to make of it when some people in the street shout “Imperialist!” at you, whilst others treat you like VIPs – odd really.

13.3.2010 – Day 84 – Sonongolo, DRC

The 5 of us left Kinshasa this morning at 6.30 to beat the rush hour. The drive out was quiet and easy. I’ve been here a few days, but Kinshasa I’ve seen doesn’t equate to the 14 million mega-city I’d expected. We headed down a good road through grassy rolling hills toward the Angolan border. After a couple of hours we pulled over by the3 side of the road for a stretch, water and toilet stops. As we were getting ready for off again, I put the key into the ignition of the bike, turned the key, pressed the starting switch. Immediately a small puff of black smoke blew from under the ignition and the bike wouldn’t start. There was a clear smell of an electric burn. In an instant my mind flicked through the probable future – burnt out electrics, say goodbye to the others, find a truck to Kinshasa for the bike, go to Yamaha garage, get diagnosis, fly out parts, deal with customs, get bike fixed then start out for Angola again in a couple of weeks time. Nightmare!

I pushed my bike under a tree and talked about it to Rouven (mechanic) and Daniel (an electrical engineer). They told me to try and start the engine again. Miraculously it started once, started twice and didn’t smoke. Unbelievable! It must have been all the rain affecting the ignition causing a one-off spark. What a relief!

This part of the DRC has much more in common with the rest of Africa than Kinshasa - bustling little market towns: friendly, colourful and loud. Tonight we are staying in the small Catholic Mission. We spend the afternoon sleeping under a tin roof shelter, shading ourselves from the sun. The village is small and spread out with a network of muddy dirt roads connecting all corners. We found the bar later in the day which a lad opened for us to get warm cokes. We couldn’t find shops apart from the tiny mobile phone credit shop in a 2m x 2m reed shack. Everything in Africa is micro-distributed – coke is delivered to slums by hand cart, water is sold by the bag from the side of the road, fuel is sold by the bottle, electricity comes from generators, photocopying is done from a photocopy machine ON the street, a public phone is a mobile phone on a table under a parasol, a taxi is just a shared car, laughing cow cheese can be bought by the slice and hotels can be rented by the hour.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Gabon and Congo

28.2.2010 – Day 71 – Lambarene, Gabon

What a day! Most of it was spent on roads that surely must have been designed for motorbiking. If Top Gear thinks it’s found the best riding road in the world – think again. Today I’ve ridden 450km of back-to-back perfect turns on perfect tarmac. Rolling hills with no traffic, stunning jungle scenery, bubbling rivers and cool, for the tropics, weather. Having this much fun when locals are smiling and waving just doesn’t seem right. My first impressions of Gabon are pretty good. The rain forests are truly beautiful and although logging trucks are around, the forest I saw was in good condition. People are tremendously helpful and friendly with plenty of waving and open smiles. The villages are similar to Southern Cameroon – mainly tin roofed timber houses. There is no rubbish as it is all burnet and the clearings are often covered with grass, flowers and orchids.
I must mention that from arriving in Cameroon until now I haven’t been asked for anything – no bribes, presents or begging – what a relief! So far Central Africa is being quite the charmer.

I crossed the equator today, which incidentally is where, on the boat our family migrated on to South Africa in the 70s, is where I have my first memories. Neptune came on board and to a 2 ½ year old he was pretty scary! So all my memories before returning to the UK were of the Southern Hemisphere or Africa. Maybe this is why returning to the UK was so hard for me. My brother David thinks I’m daft, I’m sure, for thinking this – but we’re all different aren’t we?

I set off early this morning for the Gabon border – so early in fact that the Cameroon customs man was still at his football training and the Gabon customs guy had to be woken from his bed.

By mid afternoon the good road had turned decidedly worse, not helped by the storm from the night before (I hope all the dirt roads further south will be ok!). After an hour of these roads I arrived in Ndjole. After checking out the ropey accommodation choices I decided to fill up on fuel ready for the next day. The petrol attendant said a couple on a motorbike were staying just up the hill in a hotel. Had I caught up with the Swiss? I rode up the hill but couldn’t find a hotel. On the edge of town I asked after this elusive hotel, to be told by a friendly young man that the motorcycling pair had passed by ½ an hour ago. Maybe, I thought, the hotel was out of town. I headed out 5km – no hotel. Now should I carry on or go back into town. It was a bit late in the day but the map showed a town 50km away big enough for a hotel. Even if the Swiss weren’t there I should find accommodation.

I arrived in Bifoum to find no hotel but I did get a text from the Swiss saying they were headed to a town another 70km down the road! By now the sun was almost down and one thing you don’t do in Africa is ride at night! I decided to go for the 70km dash to Lambargue – another brilliant ride on amazing roads.

The sun had just dropped as I arrived in town to find the Swiss asking for directions to the Catholic Mission – result! Even more amazing is that the Germans arrived here today also. So what a massive day – 12 hours in the saddle. An absolutely classic motorcycling day. Gabon rocks!

1.3.2010 – Day 72 – Mouila, Gabon
Well so far I must confess that Gabon is turning out to be my favourite country so far. It would be top of my list of places worthy of more than a fleeting visit. I’m riding again with the Swiss South toward the Congo border. 90% of Gabon is tropical rain forest, so unsurprisingly most of the day was spent riding through the jungle, at first on newly built Chinese roads, then after the first 100km it was graded dirt roads being built by the Chinese. If the Chinese carry on at the rate they are you’ll be able to cross the African continent in a ferarri in a few years’ time!

The people I’ve met so far in Gabon are without a doubt the most genuinely friendly and hospitable people of all the 11 African countries I’ve passed through so far. Although Gabon is a beautiful country of jungle, incredible beaches, stunning wildlife and a cosmopolitan capital and clean and tidy villages (with no power cuts) – it’s the people that really make it stand out. I stopped to wait for the others in a tiny village by the road – in no time I was sat down in the shade being given fresh nuts and a warm welcome. I was introduced to the Chief, who like all village chiefs has a flag and a flag pole outside his house. I sat laughing and chatting. I offered some of my pop corn, which was appreciated, and sat contented until Daniel and Andrea arrived.

The guy that did most of the chatting explained that in Gabon people are comfortable – everyone has a roof over their heads, clothes to wear and food in their bellies. There is a gentle pride in the small country of only one and a half million people – and it shows. The dirt roads continued but were smooth and fast. There’s very little traffic, but when an empty logging truck comes past at 100km per hour, a plume of dust is kicked up that is so big that vision is lost completely, the only course of action is to slow down or pull over. The big days riding have taken their toll – I’m really quite knackered. Motorcycling really is physically and mentally exhausting.

3.3.2010 – Day 74 – Dolice, Congo

What a classic day. At the moment it really feels like we’re living the ‘Africa Overland’ adventure that I dreamed of. All day was spent trundling down a small dirt road through small villages. There is virtually no traffic here. In a whole morning we only saw 2 mopeds – that’s it! By the afternoon there was the occasional logging truck with a steel frame on the back, with people piled inside and on the roof. Only one town was shown on our map for today’s route which, as it turned out, was only a small village with a bar and shop all rolled into one.

In the shop was shelving with sardines and blocks of washing soap. Two fridges contained a good supply of primus beer. Most of the residents seemed to be in and around the shaded seating area outside, with those with any money drinking beer. There was also a small garage which luckily had ‘super’ – so Daniel and I filled up. In the towns and villages many people proudly wear a t.shirt with a photo of Congo’s president. Apparently the civic war here really calmed down after the President was persuaded by U.N. to hold free elections – the President kept his position with 90% of the population voting for him! Popular guy!

By the afternoon the ruts in the road were getting bad and the bikes were getting a hammering. Daniel got his first puncture of his trip. By the afternoon here it’s baking hot and spending too long under it is disastrous. Luckily there were a couple of houses by the road with a couple of trees infront. We asked the locals who were sat in the shade if we could fix the bike there. They kindly waved us in. By working together, taking our time and drinking lots of water we got the puncture fixed and the bike up and running. It was good for me to be able to help Daniel and Andrea, who had done so much for me when my bike broke back in Benin.

4.3.2010 – Day 75 - not sure where - Ed

Today we headed east towards Brazzaville – the capital of Congo. From there we hope to cross the Congo River to the Democratic Republic of Congo and the mega city of Kinshasa. The road connects the main port on the coast with Brazzaville. It goes into the ‘Pool’ region which has had problems with armed militia until relatively recently. Last night we met up with Rouven and Christine (the Germans) and decided to go in convoy for extra security.

The route is National Highway One – extremely quiet with just the occasional vehicle passing by. Today we were on the road for 10 hours and managed just 75 miles. The dirt road is in terrible condition – some sections are badly rutted with deep muddy puddles – others rocky with a deep fine layer of silt on top. Just 10km out of Dolcie we came to a particularly bad section of road with 6 guys digging it up. They had placed 2 big boulders across the narrow road. They said they were repairing the road and demanded money – more like they were destroying the road and extorting money! I told them I only pay for good roads, not bad roads, then just rode on through past the rocks. By the afternoon the temperature was nearing 40 degrees c. At just 10mph, wearing all the motorcycle gear, Daniel, Andrea and I were really suffering. We had to stop in the shade of trees and cool down every 10km to avoid overheating. The riding was exhausting – our whole bodies being battered and minds concentrating continuously.

We started to make errors in judgement being almost drunk with exhaustion and the heat. Must of the last 5km Andrea had to walk, so I headed into town to find accommodation in which I immediately fell asleep on the bed. What a brilliant day – hard work but a great adventure.

5.3.2010 – Day 76 – Mindouli

We in 8 hours out on the road today we made 75 miles. We are still one day from Brazzaville but should arrive there tomorrow. The road is again bad – a single track dirt road that snakes through the grassy hills. Luckily for us it is dry which makes the road slow but passable. Very occasionally a truck will pass, throwing up such a huge plume of dust that it’s difficult to breath and visibility becomes just a few metres.

There is bird life everywhere – beautiful tropical birds with the most vivid of colours – Linda and Philip would just love it. In most parts of Africa it’s been the birds of prey that have caught my eye, but here it is the smaller birds, some with long flowing tails and others are almost illuminated with the vibrant colours.
I passed a young lady today by the track (sorry, Route National 1) carrying an aluminium bowl on her head, full of cleaning fishes which she was bringing back from the river. She had the most incredible tribal face decoration. Many people in Africa have scars on their cheeks as decoration, but this looked like it was straight out of National Geographic. Her face was painted with a collection of geometric light coloured thin lines. Absolutely stunning. I thought about stopping and asking if I could take her picture, but I think I would have scared the living daylights out of her skidding to a stop. We did make routine stops though to keep Daniel’s bike from overheating. He has an air cooled engine which really struggles to keep cool in these temperatures and at such slow speeds – quite similar to us riders I guess.

At about midday we came across a road block constructed with logs. Daniel and Andrea on their motorbike went straight through. I thought I’d better wait for the Germans in their 4x4. As I waited about 10 men came running down to me asking for money and cigarettes. I played dumb Brit who can’t speak French until the Germans were behind me, I then rolled one of the logs out of the way with my boot, making enough space for the car, and hit the gas! The Germans followed right on my tail before the guys could block their way.

This was only my second unofficial road block in Africa. We knew when we decided to do this route that there was a lot of trouble here with armed rebels during the civil war and beyond, but that the army had cleared the area 6 months ago. When we arrived in town tonight I met a French engineers who told us that the ‘Ninja Rebels’ were back. From this town onwards unoffocial road blocks bar our way.

To try to make things a little safer we are going to join a small convoy from a power company that are heading our way. One of the employees heard about our problem and has decided to help. As things have calmed down here very recently, not many tourists have have really travelled down here for years, if not decades. I guess this is why people are being so helpful and concerned. I don’t think we’ll have any real problems though – I think that the rebels are just trying to make some money and I doubt we’ll see any guns.

6.3.2010 – Day 77 – Kinkar (just outside Brazzaville)
Well where do I start? Last night and this morning we heard so many conflicting stories about our route East. Some people told us we would not have a problem at all. Others told us about an engineer who got stabbed in the leg – he’s still in hospital – but he got aggressive or rude: at all times patience, courtesy and smiles get you a lot further. 2 days ago some white man had a huge amount of money stolen from him by armed bandits. There are obviously road blocks at which you have to pay, but the armed robberies as far as we could gather are opportunists - perhaps rebel officers who aren’t yet ready to put down their arms. We realised that we were not in any physical danger – but our belongings were.

We had arranged to meet our contact for the convoy at 8am. He turned up, disappeared and never re-appeared! By 10.30 it was getting hot and we really should have been on our way – only 60km of terrible road separated us from a tarmac road to the capital. An elderly Italian contractor came to the hotel bar at around 10.30 for a couple of morning whisky and cokes. He has been here for many years and thought we wouldn’t come to any harm but thought we’d benefit from an escort. He want to see the “commissioner” of the district who came to see us with a couple of local lads on a moped in tow. He thought the first 17km was the most dangerous as it is so remote. So the lads would come that far with us.

By 12.30 we’d said goodbye to our escorts and given them cigarettes and a small bottle of wine from our bribe kitty. We’d packed away cameras, excess cash, cards etc and only carried small change and gifts for the road blocks. The road is in a terrible state. Sections of deep sand, sections washed away, huge ruts, mud and rubble and wooden bridges. It’s incredibly trucks actually get down here at all. The Italian man told us it can take 2 weeks to do the 60km section in the wet season - thank God it’s dry (it IS the wet season!).

Next we entered the region which is effectively out of control of the authorities – the first road block had poles across the road and about 15 guys hiding out of the sun under a hut. Amazingly they just let us through. One guy who was off his face on booze or drugs came over shouting at us – I think for money – we just drove on quickly before the situation changed. The next couple of blocks involved straight forward extortion. When we paid, they were very polite and let us through with no further hassle. We’d been advised by everyone we’d met that you ‘have’ to pay at the blocks so we didn’t even try to get out of paying. The small settlements of just 1 or 2 huts had people still waving, smiling and chatting to us as normal. The small villages on the other hand had groups of young men shouting at us – and very drunk – we just kept moving through. In 5 ½ hours we had covered the 60km and had hit the tarmac and safety of relative civilization and government control. I’m absolutely exhausted after 6 hard, long and hot days away from tarmac. I have never smelt so bad and my clothes could not be any filthier. I’ve just had a shower and washed some clothes – what a relief! This section of the trip has been every bit the adventure I’d imagined or hoped it could be.