John's Diary

December 2007
January 10, 2008
January 20
February 5
February 29 ______________________________________________________________________

December 2007

Herewith a pic of the Egyptian Colt on which I did the previous trips with the "gang" across Africa. I now will be doing the first leg of the trip from Douala to Cotonou with my wife Leony in the Sahara Stallion. On 4 January 2008, we will fly out and Matthew Taylor and David Ringwood will fly in. Then we will relieve them again in late January from Bamako.


Leony Wightman standing next to the Sahara Stallion before all the apurtenances were fitted


Years earlier we had traveled from Kinshasa due south to Uige, via Maquela do Zombo and then traveling east to the Zambian border. The border was a feebly manned tract in the scrubby bush with a sign “Afrique de l’ouest Portugais” with one bullet hole through it and on the south side “Congo Belga” with two bullet holes through it. Maquela do Zombo was just shot out of sight, with giant fig trees growing out of the old buildings and a shanty town made of rubbish bags and twigs was built alongside. 

Now we were travelling south of Noqui towards N’zeto through pleasant and very sparsely populated forest. The small villages would either have the flag of MPLA or UNITA fluttering outside the chief’s hut, children waving excitedly as our convoy trundled through. Most of the bridges were still down and we had some scary drifts to cross and some rickety temporary “bridges” made of tree stumps or metal sheets. I came pipe once, falling on the left, skidding down an erosion gully and bending the forks. Fifteen minutes later I fell again, this time on the right and my forks were 100% straight again! 

We camped just off the road and it was spooky, beautiful cool and dry weather, with no people to hear. We could easily believe the statistic that half of Angola’s 12 million people live in one city, Luanda. And Angola is 10% bigger than South Africa! After another enjoyable day riding, avoiding areas with little red flags, denoting areas that have not been de-mined yet, we passed N’zeto riding at stages for kilometers along the coast in the hard sandy zone just above the breakers, fiddler crabs running like mad into the surf. Then we camped in the dunes, fisher folk cooking us a sea harvest feast. 

Arriving in Luanda, we attended some functions with our sponsors and bid farewell to our Angolan mates. The landcruiser they had been using was beginning to fall apart so we had it repaired. Then we prepared for the final thrust south to the Namibian border. Angola Paul hung up his helmet and put the F650 into his garage, then pulled out his bright yellow Discovery and drove with us all the way to Lubango via the beautiful coast road and Lobito.  

The first 100kms south of Luanda to Miradouro viewsite is now perfect tar and roadworks are ongoing on the remaining bit down to Lobito. For us it was a zig zag around the potholes and a pleasure to finally hit Dombe Grande from where we would ride the dragon’s back, the fabled Lucira road to Namibe. The road has never been tarred but instead has been built by hand with rocks through the semi desert extension of the Namib Desert.  

Four rivers, four steep ascents and four steep descents awaited us, with magnificent scenery, biblical age natives walking around and the cool Benguela breeze in our nostrils. Along the plateaux the road was more even and along the valleys we had thick sandy sections which tried out everybody’s skills. The ascents and descents were like something out of a playstation game, grim switchbacks, steep runoffs and boulder gardens! Great fun! From Lucira we entered the Namib Desert with magnificent dunes reaching for ever up into the sky and towards the horizon. South of Namibe, towards the fishing town of Tombua (Porto Alexandre) the Welwitchia Mirabilis were growing like weeds alongside the roadway. We also stopped to marvel at the amazing Arco, a series of sandstone archways and caves in a small river valley. 

From Namibe we rode through stark desert to the bottom of Serra de Leba, a formidable mountain pass which took us, in just 20 kms, from hot sweltering desert fringe at 200m above sea level to 2000m above sea level at Lubango where the msasa trees grow wild and the crystal clear mountain springs taste like pink champagne. 

We stayed 2 days in the lively city, marveling at the Christo Rei, replica of the Corcovado of Rio de Janeiro, visiting the Dorstland trekker memorial and cemetery in Humpata and racing around the street race circuit, still complete with white road markings, pits etc. We also returned to the top of the pass and gazed with wonder down towards the desert and Atlantic Ocean 2 kms below us and down the winding tar road which we went down and up again just for fun. 

Then the final push to Onjiva, the Koevoet ravished town via Xangongo where the bridge is still in tatters and the baobab trees resemble contorted fighting machines and the roadside is still littered with bullet riddenT54 tanks and “viva el juventud” graffiti is still seen!
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January 10, 2008

We hit the Nigeria/Niger border with all the subtlety of a Panzer attack, bristling with confidence that we would be in Agadez by the next day. “But you have no visas!” countered the motley crew of policemen/immigration officials/soldiers/amused turbaned hangers-on. Various bad-cop good-cop routines on these chaps had no effect and when the “if Allah deems it that we should proceed from Zinder to Agadez after you give us a 48 hour laisser passer to Zinder, then we shall proceed to Agadez!” was countered with a “what part of return-to-Kano-to-our-Consulate-and-obtain-a-visa do you not understand?” we knew that we were beaten and back to the Kano Tourist camp it was, for what would turn out to be a five day game.

We spent so much time hanging around in Kano, a city piled up with mountains of garbage, storeys high, with goats nonchalantly eating plastic bags atop them, traffic backed up like sewage through hawker-choked streets under a rug of fumes, that we started to actually adapt and see some of the logic behind what these folk do.

We started to not be startled at the sight of a scooter with the driver carrying a hindquarter of a heifer on his lap and a passenger with a truck rear bell housing balanced on his head. The money changer had the exact change, in Nairas, under his Gelabaya for a Benjamin Franklin each evening and the clothes washers, camp cleaners and admin staff almost started crossing themselves the Catholic way, in addition to searching for their contact lenses 5 times a day. Erna had taught the Muezzin to Yodel (and we suspect that Pam’s dead Landcruiser battery was sold to power up his loudspeaker because the tone dropped an octave the morning after the battery was replaced)

. The excuses given by the Niger Consulate for taking 5 days to issue visas ranged from:

   1. The Consul General is praying right now
  2. It’s Eid
  3. It’s our New Year and the day preceding it is a half day
  4. We have to get approval from the Foreign Minister, in Niamey and he’s at Mosque at present
  5. The fax machine in Niamey is out of order
  6. There’s no power here today (true because the one day we swept into the Consulate grounds, our aerials snagged on the overhead powerlines, with the associated snap crackle pop)
   7. The dog ate one of your application forms
   8. If it is the will of Allah that you proceed to Niamey, you will, and if it is the will of Allah that you stay here, it is here that you will stay.

At one point during our week long sit-in at the Consulate, the Secretary mentioned to us that there is current political tension at home and maybe we should approach the Honorary Consul of Benin, who was just around the corner. By having Benin visas, we could solve the “what does Allah have lined up for us in Niger?” and by driving back through the heart of Nigeria we could cross directly into Benin but what would we do with our stamps out of Nigeria, without the corresponding stamp back in? A trip to Nigerian Home Affairs would be necessary, a possibility we dreaded even thinking about.

The honorary consul was delighted to entertain the thought of issuing us with Benin visas at 16 000 Nairas each (an eyewatering $140) but we later discovered that South Africans don’t actually need, and the three non South Africans got REAL visas, a week later, in Niamey for a fraction of the price, when our Niger visas eventually came through. Leaving Nigeria was a sweet and sour affair for us as we felt a genuine sadness at leaving. Despite all we were told of horrific happenings in that country, we went from east to west without paying a single bribe NOR did we pay one cent for any paperwork. The quality of driving was about the worst I have ever seen anywhere (including India) and the beggars were sometimes rather much but on the whole we were received with warmth and smiles everywhere we went. The whole time we spent there the temperature was just PERFECT, during the coolest month of the year, January, the Harmattan wind is supposed to blow, but we didn’t even get much of that either! For the rest of the year all of N. Nigeria is searing hot, with a brief rainy season which washes some of the rubbish towards Lake Chad, but the bulk of it lies and rots in the “sweet water canals”, the breeding ground for MILLIONS of mosquitoes.

group  exercise  bushcamp
Group at Palace................................Exercising in bush..................Ditto at daybreak bushcamp

goats  cattle  xmas
Goats climbing out of pot hole.......Cattle in N Cameroun...........Christmas in Bamenda......

mission  palace  sultan
Presby mission camp Bamenda.    John and Leony outside Palace........       The Sultan..........    

ring rd  ring rd  ring rd
Obstacle on Ring Road............................................................Descending Ring Road

ford  river  timbuktu
...........Fording Ring Road ......................Bridge........................Timbuktu with Max coming behind

jurassicjet  singers
.............Jurassic Jet on bridge..................Singers.................
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January 20

Sitting on the balcony of the Hotel du Sahel with a whisky clutched in our hands, the sun dissolving slowly in the majestic Niger River, third in Africa in length after the Nile and the Congo, we reflected on the 4500kms traveled so far. The girls ordered brochettes (tasty kebabs) from the hotel staff and a crafts salesman pushed his wares onto us after a day of exploring the upstream banks of the mighty river. It is easy to draw a parallel with that other great stream of Africa, the Zambezi, whose source we visited at the end of the Gabon trip, the ideal place to baptize a baby, but I digress…………. 

Niamey is the most civilized place we’ve been to since we arrived in Central/West Africa. Even the traffic is quite orderly and our cars are serviced in top rate garages where the mechanics place plastic bags over the seats and work with gloves replacing filters and changing oils. On our way back to the hotel earlier in the day, our guide had told us that one always give way to traffic coming from the right, even on a traffic circle which is the opposite of what happens in Nigeria. There, even though they have gone with the flow, and drive on the right hand side, they give way to traffic coming from the left. I asked Juno how he coped with the confusion and replied that he gave way to no-one and just drove……. 

We had developed a great rhythm by camping out for a few days and then splurging in a nice hotel to get back the city cleanness some of us cherish so much. We had also developed a good knack of starting moving at 6 am, just as the pink glow brightened on the horizon, and then the next two hours would be spent making coffee, breakfast and packing up the whole camp for a 8 am sharp team departure. In the evenings we stopped at 5pm, which gave us an hour of light to set up camp, pour a stiff whisky, and loll in our camp chairs while someone cooked the dinner on gas (OK, I’m in charge of the GPS and folding the camp beds!). All the vehicles are fitted with deep cycle auxiliary batteries which discharge partly overnight, keeping fridges running and strip lights lit etc. They then recharge during the day after the main battery is fully charged. 

We also developed a comfortable way of traveling, whereby about a three minute gap would be observed between vehicles so that we would not suck up too much of the vehicle ahead’s dust. By keeping constant radio communication we were able to advise each other of oncoming dangers, things of interest, direction changes and oncoming traffic (particularly useful for solo drivers in our RHD vehicles). One particularly interesting happening highlighted to me the dynamic nature of things, even on the back plots, and why so many murders go unsolved. We were leading and I commented to the group “A rather stricken looking goat on the right, definitely something wrong there” Juno then said “It’s given birth to a pitch white baby and is licking it now” Then Garth said “Hey amazing, its tottering around the mother now and drying off” Then Pam came in excitedly “Yikes where are you guys? I see a black kid here! Oh my God, you’re right there’s a white one too running around the back of the mother!” 

But now our 5 weeks are up and Leony and I are destined not to see Cotonou as we had hoped. Its time for the twins to take over our warm car seats (not to be mistaken with the terrible twins, Shaun and Wayne, fellow travellers from years of yore) and take the Stallion through Benin, Togo, Ghana and Burkina Faso to the breathtaking Sahel of Mali, fabled land of Timbucktou, Djenne and Dogon villages. 

Juno took Moon, Leony and I to Niamey airport from where we would fly to Dakar and then JNB. Dave and Matt passed through the arrivals lounge as we boarded the plane having spent the day sight seeing in Dakar. The next day they collected their Mali visas and the group headed for Benin, passing the legendary Abomey Palace, thick with voodoo culture and finally camping out in Grand Popo, outside of the bustle of Cotonou. The last contact I have had from the twins was when they waded 400m across a putrifying marsh to get to 6N ,1E, just inside Ghana (and where 3 schmucks visited in 2003 already, Hee hee), so they are moving!

  sunset lunch stop
Pont Kennedy Niamey...............Sunset on Niger River...............Typical lunch stop
pam car Stallion mosque
Pam's house............... the one and only Stallion ..............Mosque Dosso
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February 5

Charles Kuhn and myself are preparing to re-enter the fray from 18 February in Dakar! The twins will conclude their odyssey and we will commandeer the indominatable stallion from DKR and push through the mystical western desert region of Mauritania to the hotly contested N. Atlantic coast region south of Morocco. 

Then we push on to the frenetic hugger mugger of Morocco, land of bustling bazaars and white topped mountains, just coming out of the depth of winter. There, I am sure we will be looking at the opportunities of laying up for the winter recess and some, I’m sure will be looking at shipping their vehicles back to the choppy shores of South Africa. 

The group is currently in Timbucktou (some would say the 0 degrees line of longitude should pass through here!) after visiting the fabulous mosque of Djenne and should be proceeding to Gao before turning around and heading west to Bamako and then scuttling across to Senegal like lemmings on steroids. 

A martini sipping session on the Ile de Goree no doubt awaits us as we contemplate the home stretch to Morocco. A side trip to the Gambia still remains a possibility, time permitting before heading north but it seems that all activities to the south of the troubled Casamance region of Senegal may be cancelled. Pity.  

On another note, we were well west of Ndjamena before the City was surrounded by rebels. What a shame…..What a story that would have been…. sending cryptic messages via satellite from the besieged city. And I think they had just plugged all the holes from the last skirmish a few years ago (the so-called quatrieme guerre Tchadienne)  

Click here for photos of the group at the confluence..... zero latitude and zero longitude!

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February 29

John’s Diary update 29 February 2008 

Charles and I arrived in Dakar before dawn on 18 Feb and trawled around the sleeping town till the sun came up and we reunited with the group at the pleasant guesthouse in NGOR near the western tip of Africa. This is the playground area of Dakar and there are many well heeled tourists around swimming in the sea and enjoying the warm weather. We topped up the food reserves, charged the batteries fully by driving for a long time then relaxed till we had the temporary passports for the South Africans in the group ready. South Africa is one of those countries that takes exception to Morocco’s occupation of the territory of Western Sahara, hence relations are cool between those two countries. 

We stocked up with water and fresh food and headed off for Lac Rose, 30 kms east of Dakar where the PD rallyists finish the rally off with a flourish and a boast through the dunes. The pinkness in the water is similar to the red tide we experience on the south west coast of SA. In the mangrove swamps behind the first row of dunes from the sea salt is also collected and bagged by the Senegalese. Then we proceeded northwards along an excellent sealed road towards the 15th century town of St Louis, a marvellous old town with a decaying museum and paraplegics that can outride a 4X4 in town traffic on their special adapted bicycles. The Zebrabar campsite proved to be a win. Charles and I paddled across a thin sliver of sea to get to a long peninsula of sand (like Musoma across from Luanda) and we walked to the breakers beyond.  

A rest day was taken whilst we established the status of the Moroccan visas for the Saffers. We relaxed in camp, feeding Piano, the resident donkey, three or four cats and a couple of dogs. Also we made significant roads into our bottles of hardtack, determined that narrow minded Mauritanian officials would not have anything to confiscate. Then, all there was to do was to burn off the rest of our CFA and convert to Ouguiyas (or squigglies as referred to by us). 

............Dakar East......... Dakar South west
guesthouse lac rose bridge
Dakar guesthouse................ beside Lac Rose................ 1897 Danube Bridge

John’s Diary 3 March 2008 

Our first 100 kms in Mauritania were in a bird sanctuary wedged between the Senegal River and the spit of sand generated from all the washed down sand. Pelicans, cormorants and waders were everywhere to be seen as well as a few mammals. Then we proceeded to Nouakchott and thence to Atar where we stayed in a camp full of Sahara memorabilia like 2CV Citroens and Yamaha Lisbon-Dakar bikes. The amazing thing to see was the contrast as we crossed the Senegal River. Chalk and cheese as the Sahel yields suddenly to the stark Sahara.  

Nouakshott is as surreal as it is filthy, a riot of rubbish, dead goats and sand drifts chequer the Martian like landscape, harmattan haze omnipresent. The Moorish males walk proudly in white gelebayas with wide gold borders and big slits so that they can reach easily to their cell phones, cigarettes and low denomination banknotes (one thousand oogs or squigglies). The Moorish females cover their heads but the black ones don’t. Slavery was only abolished in 1980 here but racial tension was not visible, even to my trained eye. Then we visited the ancient city of Chinguetti the 7th holiest town in Islam and home to an ancient library, mosque and 4 oases, all which we visited. Then it was on to Choum and the 400 kilometre leap of faith across the dreaded 3 off 200 km long, +/- 15 km wide dunes stretching down from the Western Sahara border. 

Long periods of time in each other’s pockets had us referring to each other in derogatory terms. Charles and I referred to each other as Raghead and Beany (after the respective headgears we preferred wearing). Karl was called the Tank Commander for the pomp and verve shown when aggressively hitting the difficult dunes and Juno became Dune-Oh after beaching out on a particularly soft dune and spending several hours stuck. Gail became known as the rain queen for being able to use a hectolitre of water just to make one cup of tea and one hair washing. Pam became the Pennsylvania Pixie after being able to drive through Choum, between a E-W railway line and a row of mountains and arriving on the other side without even knowing she had hit town! 

In 2 long days, fighting the thick sand, relying on GPS and sheer nerve, we made it through to Nouadihbou, a surreal Atlantic town, a bit like Luderitz but with mosques and rubbish. The middle dune, the respected Azafal dune was pure apricot in colour, yielding slowly to a whiter, more calcrete sand type closer to the coast. Clinging to the fabled iron ore railway line we saw several 2 km long trains passing by, and on one night passage, a naughty truck mounted the rails and crawled along the hard rocks to avoid the thick sand we endured. Then I had to catch a bus down to Nouackchott because the airport is down due to runway repairs.  I travelled down a great sealed road all the way back, arriving NKT at midnight where I collapsed in the hotel Atlantic to catch a plane to DKR the next day. The group then crossed over to Sahara Occidental and by now should be headed for Morocco. Watch this space!
Camels pray to Mecca....................Camp Noua.............................. Old Chinguetti
South African habits die hard.............Chinguetti library.................Pennsylvania Pixie
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