In and Out of Africa

Narrow Escapes

The night passed in fitful sleep. The slightest noise and one of us would awake and peer out of the tent entrance. We usually slept with the front flap open and the mosquito net across. This night, despite the dense tropical heat, the flap was zipped shut. Morning came and we were still alive. Tired perhaps, but in one piece. We were packed up and ready to go in record time. We really didn't want to hang around here for a moment longer than necessary. Getting six people ready to go to town seemed to take much more than three times longer than two. The tension in the air made the waiting unbearable. Eventually we were all ready to go into town. We parked the vehicles outside the American Embassy. Cyn had to go in there anyway and we assumed that no self respecting rioter would go near an embassy guarded by unsmiling marines with shaved heads and gleaming, well oiled, M16 assault rifles.

The others already knew the way to the bank, which was open by presidential decree. Getting money was easier than we expected and probably a little safer from pickpockets/muggers than normal. There were as many police as civilians in town today and many fingers were poised on triggers and auto select buttons. Getting the Zaire Visas was thankfully the smoothest and fastest visa acquisition of them all. While you wait (for about an hour) service. The road most of the embassies were on was very heavily populated by soldiers. They were all laughing and joking. They were probably the only smiling people in Bangui today, except perhaps the police. The people who had been 'arrested' the night before weren't smiling. They were in the back of the police compound stripped to the waist and being brutally beaten.

Chameleon on Derek's arm
We had to wait until 16:00 until Cyn could collect her passport. There was a French run hospital in the town. With luck we could persuade them to stamp our vaccination certificates for meningitis. The French nurses couldn't believe that people were being 'fined' for not having an unnecessary vaccination. The nurses couldn't be persuaded to give us a stamp only although they would gladly give us the injection. We had no desire to have any injections in Africa for fear of used needles and AIDS. We offended them by suggesting they use our needles. They showed us their needles in fresh sealed packets and pointed out the notices declaring that all the equipment was sterilised and safe from HIV. We left more than adequately protected against meningitis and the vaccines cost more than the fine we had paid at the border. There was a principle at stake here. We were going to line as few corrupt pockets as possible.

Eventually Cyn's passport was ready and we drove up to the C.A.R. immigration building to retrieve it. From here we could see over the river to Zaire. It was so tempting to drive to the nearest ferry and cross. Th ferry was loaded by crane and the operators had been known to change the price with your vehicle in mid-air over the river. If you refuse your vehicle would 'accidentally' fall from the hoist. This happened to at least one tour truck company and they have photos to prove it. They show these to prospective customers with pride to show how 'exciting' African travel could be. This was more adventure than we could handle right at the moment, so we chose the longer route which also has a better road on the Zaire side and a cheaper, drive on drive off, ferry.

We drove out of Bangui and stopped to fill up with fuel on the outskirts of town. Although still tense the relief at being on the road again partially lifted our usual barrier of suspicion. Fiona went to the office to pay while I continued to put away the Jerry cans, locking each door as I go. The first rule of African (or indeed Spanish) travel is never leave your vehicle unlocked and unattended for a second. Shouting started coming from the office, Fiona's voice registering anger. She is good at shouting and can look after herself, so I continued to put the Jerry cans away. Before I had finished locking the doors one of the attendants tapped me on the shoulder and said "There is big trouble you must go quickly". Fiona was shouting loudly by this time and a different set of instincts took over. I ran over to the office. There was a 'dispute' over the reading on the pump, the pump read one value but they were charging another. Jurgen was also in the office, in fact he had run in first, so I left again straight away realising there wasn't any real danger and that the truck was unlocked. I got back to the truck and Ajah was standing by the unlocked driver door. Meanwhile the 'dispute' was settled and the manager was taking his time writing out a detailed receipt.

Ajah had realised what was going on. While we were all in the office the people on the forecourt would have made off with whatever they could lay their hands on from our unlocked vehicle.

There was no problem with the pump reading, it was just an excuse to get us distracted and away from the truck. If the guy hadn't told me to "go quick" I would have locked the truck before leaving for the office. Chalk that one up to experience with, luckily, no loss. Most of the people we met (both African and European) were honest and in many cases both generous and hospitable. The few who weren't left us with some very bad feelings and the constant vigilance was emotionally draining .

Street Theatre
Street Theatre
A few kilometres down the road the village life was going on as usual, oblivious to the riots nearby. So close to such fierce rioting and they probably didn't even know it had happened. In preparing for the trip we had heard of many people who had turned back at the last minute, sometimes having driven part of the way, after hearing of riots and civil disorder on the BBC world service. We avoided Morocco and Algiers for the same reason. Thanks to the Spanish robbers we were oblivious to this all and carried on through regardless. If we had been fully informed we would never have entered Nigeria, let alone got this far. Bangui was perhaps a little too close for comfort though. If we had known what was going on however we could have simply waited safely 10 km outside until the trouble blew over.

In one village the young men had painted white beards and hair on their heads and were pretending to be old men. Home entertainment in the absence of television. A young child saw us taking photographs. He smiled a toothy smile, picked up a broken camera from the floor and pretended to take our picture as we photographed him back. This touching moment ended when one of the older boys, jealous of the attention, slapped his face, grabbed the camera and ran off.

Truck and Rastashop
Small Convoy
We now had a compact little convoy of two vehicles and 6 people. Travelling with other people certainly made travelling more enjoyable. The feeling of isolation and complete self reliance was alleviated. Another advantage was that, seeing as the Unimog was bright orange and much larger than a Landrover, all the young children, hawkers etc. crowded around them, leaving us relatively untouched.

Our first campsite for the night appeared to be a barren field. We realised that this assumption was incorrect when a crowd of angry people appeared from nowhere and chased us off. So we ended up camped on the edge of the road. The morning greeted us with a beautiful sunrise. A large strange shaped insect was whirring at the entrance to the tent. After batting it away with my hand I realised it was in fact the smallest hummingbird I had ever seen.

The tension of Bangui and the problems in Cameroun were fading and things seemed to be improving. Once again we were driving in convoy, far enough apart to avoid eating each others dust and close enough to see if the other vehicle got into trouble.

In the middle of the afternoon the Unimog got into trouble. Ajah bounced his vehicle through a couple of very large holes and nearly overturned. He did some damage to the front of the vehicle and power steering fluid was leaking. Fortunately the leak was easily fixed and I had some spare fluid. Although it was still early we pulled over to camp and assess the damage. The road scrape we found was next to a village and one of the villagers welcomed us with a gift of firewood. The front of the Unimog was badly bent. A little brute force, ignorance and reinforcing wire and several hours later and we had it pretty well straight.

The next morning I spent some time checking over our vehicle greasing and oiling where necessary while Fiona made breakfast. Not long after we started travelling again Ajah stopped once more. This time his brakes had failed. It was easy to see why. One look underneath revealed copious amounts of brake fluid leaking from a severed pipe.

Next to us was a mango grove full of small children. Their faces covered in mango pulp and yellow drool oozed from their mouths as they smiled. Our first mango in Niger had a delectable flavour without compare. The next mangoes we ate in Cameroun were merely nice. We ate so many mangoes during our stay in this grove that the appeal of this exotic fruit disappeared completely. In the entire trip we only saw one person with their hand out begging for food. He was standing in a mango grove surrounded by tropical fruit. He just wanted a change of diet - and I must say I know how he felt. I wonder if I will ever be able to face a mango again without the imagining mango eating children with yellow pulp smeared faces.

We spent several hours trying to repair the brakes. Ajah seemed to lose interest after a while and asked a local for a 'cigarette Afrikaan'. The local rushed off to the nearest village and came back promptly with this enormous marijuana cigarette. I was a little annoyed that I was trying to fix this guys brakes while he was laughing and getting stoned. Perhaps it would have been nice if he had offered me some, even though I would have refused. With Bangui still less than two hundred kilometres behind us, if the troubles took a serious turn for the worse our life expectancy may have a direct relationship to our mobility. I personally didn't think it appropriate to get stoned while one of our vehicles was still out of action.

The brake line was severed but Ajah had some high pressure hose. He used this to patch the line but stripped the thread on the connector. I tried using araldite which was my most versatile and widely used emergency tool, never leave home without it. The only drawback is that it takes 12 hours to set really hard. We spent the night in the mango grove surrounded by the slightly sweet smell of rotting fruit.

I had not cleaned the connection well enough and the Araldite hadn't set. It was only good enough to get to the next town where we could get some food (that wasn't mango) and some welding done on the front of the Unimog.

While we were waiting I saw a child bend over by the front wheel. He was only out of sight for a second so I assumed he hadn't had time to do any harm. We reversed out and nothing happened. We stopped again and this time I didn't notice any children by the wheels. One of the locals who was walking past started pointing at one of our tyres. There was a large nail carefully placed in front of it so that when we drove off, and we would have driven forwards this time, it would embed itself in the tyre leaving us with a nasty puncture. I was beginning to dislike the Central African Republic and this town in particular. This was also the only place in the whole of Africa where we were charged for water. The water was pumped from a well marked "donated by the United Nations"!

I was desperate to move forwards and leave Bangui, riots and children with nails far behind. Ahead of us lay Zaire and the threat of 'the rains'. No one could say when the rains would be, just that they were soon and that it would be bad to be in Zaire once they started.

That night we pulled into a quarry next to a tiny village. On the left side of the road there was only one hut, which was empty. The area around it was nicely flattened and the villagers insisted we camp there. We made some tea for them and let them keep the plastic cups, which they greatly appreciated. In the road stone quarry was the inevitable stripped hulk of an old truck. Normally every last part has been removed long ago. Yet this truck held a miracle. The only part left on the chassis was one brake pipe connector of exactly the right size and type! It was hard to remove, which explained why it was still there. After a squirt of releasing oil and some brute force and ignorance it came free. I handed it triumphantly to Ajah to fit and went for a well deserved rest (where was the beer this time?). Ten minutes later and he had stripped this one too. The only thing left was to attempt Araldite once more. This time I didn't try to cut corners. I cleaned the pipes and drained the precious remaining fluid from the pipes. This time the repair held. However the frustration was beginning to take its toll on everyone and the dynamics of our little group were starting to turn sour.

Our attitude to this trip was radically different to that of Ajah and Joyce. They were so very laid back and easy going whereas we seemed continually driven by an irresistible force. It would have been nice to be a little more relaxed. Perhaps not quite as relaxed as they were though. This difference in attitudes could only be a strain on our small convoy. Something which none of us needed. On the other hand we were getting on very well with Cyn and Jurgen, the two hitchhikers in the Unimog, and we didn't want to leave them behind.

Now, with working brakes and no more problems, things should begin to improve. Instead the dynamics got steadily worse and Ajah still hadn't given me an opportunity to refuse his marijuana. Finally a couple of days later we were still less than 300 km away from Bangui. Zaire was still in the distance and 'the rains' were looming. Our frustration was increasing and we couldn't tolerate this situation much longer. One morning, after waiting for several hours for them to get ready, Ajah said that they were staying put for the day as Joyce was tired. If another day passed without moving forward our frustration, and that of Cyn and Jurgen, who felt even more helpless, would probably turn to anger.

We had spent most of the last couple of days with Cyn and Jurgen and they were feeling as frustrated and trapped as we were. Even though it meant overloading the Landrover we asked them to come with us.

As we drove off leaving Ajah and Joyce behind it was as though an immense weight had been lifted from all our shoulders and we started talking and laughing with wild abandon. The nervous laughter was fuelled by feelings of guilt. Joyce was seven and a half months pregnant and we knew Ajah intended to drive straight down through Zaire. At the pace they were moving it would easily take them a couple of months to reach their destination in Zambia. Joyce was incredibly thin the roads very bouncy, so it seemed unlikely that she would carry to term. The baby would almost certainly be born somewhere along the road, probably far from the nearest hospital of doctor. With luck Ajah wouldn't be stoned when it happened. Even though this was not our problem we felt like we were running away from our responsibilities. Fiona had at least been present at a birth and we had read the relevant section in our SAS survival handbook (although why the SAS need to know this is beyond me). We will never know what became of Ajah and Joyce; with luck they reached Zambia and the baby was born without problems.

Within three hours we were at another border. On the other side of the Ferry was Zaire. So much has been said about this country. The roads with potholes from hell, large enough to swallow a whole truck with room to spare, dense jungle, corruption run rampant, tinpot dictator, bizarre river boat communities, food shortages, the 'rains' and don't forget the toilets... This, we were led to believe, was the real Africa. We were not disappointed.

After the tension and frustration of the week since Bangui we were glad to be leaving C.A.R. Jurgen was so glad he didn't notice that his visa required that he enter Zaire 3 days ago. Fiona and I got through the normal border formalities with out too much hassle. Cyn and Jurgen were having problems though. The guard came over and said, "Come and help your friend". Jurgen was deep in discussion.
"... a very good visa I paid much money for it in Germany".
"This is a big problem", replied the official. "You must go back to Bangui".
"This is a small small problem", replied Jurgen, "just put a 1 in front of the 9 and it is solved".
"I cannot do this", replied the man unmoving.
"Can we not solve this small problem with a little money", inquired Jurgen.
The official was horrified. "What makes you think you come here and solve these things with money. We are not corrupt here, this is not C.A.R. This is big problem. Big problem.".
I was taken aback. Everything I had heard of Zaire implied this was the most corrupt place in Africa, money could solve any problem here. Yet the guard was unmoving. He turned to me. "You must take your friend to Bangui". I was starting to understand this game.
"We only gave them a lift for a few miles, they are nothing to us".

I had to distance us from Jurgen for all our sakes. Either the man was incorruptible or he was building up to a major bribe. I was the one with the truck and unimaginable wealth. They would expect to get more money from me than a backpacker. Anyway the thought of going back past Ajah to Bangui and riots held no appeal whatsoever.

"None of us can go back, our visas only allow one entry.", I said.
"You must help your friend, this big problem, you must take him back".
"I cannot help him, I cannot go back there", I said and walked away, mentally preparing myself for the long drive back to Bangui.
Jurgen continued with his discussions. He came out.
"I think we can sort this out. I have to give the two officials 10,000 CFA each".

This was 10,000 CFA they could ill afford. They had been robbed in Morocco and were on an even tighter budget than we were. I reached into one of the Landrovers hidden compartments.

"Give them this and don't say it's from us". I handed him our ultimate emergency bribe. It was a small, bright red, fully functioning and rather impressive looking 135mm camera.

It had come free with 4 litres of oil in England.

"I cannot take this", he said.
"Take it, it cost us nothing. It might save you some money".
He walked back to the official. Even though he had never seen the camera before he was demonstrating how to shoot and wind on the film...
"Why do you want to give this away", asked the official suspiciously.
"We have no more film, it is no good to us", said Jurgen.

This was a very good thing to say as otherwise we would have ended up parting with some film. The guard was well pleased with the camera "Don't tell him" he said in the direction of the other officials hut. The other official had seniority and would want the camera if he knew about it. Jurgen still needed to give him 10,000 CFA. If only we had brought another of the cameras with us (we had originally had three - we needed lots of oil).

The other official, the one who could not be bribed, took the money. He then used Jurgen's black pen to insert a 1 to make the 'enter by' date 19 instead of 9. If Jurgen had noticed even on the ferry he could have done it then. Nevertheless we had done it, we had bribed our way into Zaire.