September 13, 1998

South Africa: British Airways Flight 058, Cape Town-London

The "what a long strange trip it's been" entry.

(And I'm not even a Grateful Dead fan.)

Sarah McLachlan on the in-flight: cool.

I feel...I don't know _what_ I feel. Other than turbulence (several kinds, he echoed). Flattened affect.

Maybe Africa forces serenity as a survival mechanism.

I have no dramatic philosophical conclusions to draw from the last six months. I'd hate to cheapen them to a few scrawled lines even if I could.

Let's just say: I'm more who I want to be than I was when I began.

Suppose I should fill in the details of the last few days. They will be sparse: a kind of cumulative literary exhaustion has set in.

And I'm tired, too.

A long, lazy nothing day in Windhoek, that was Thursday the 3rd.

Friday, off to Cape Town, a gleaming blue luxury double-decker Intercape bus through raw wild Namibia. Chilled and sleep-stupid at the border crossing. Woke to green plains and jagged escarpments of South Africa. Shane & Maggie got on at Keetmanshoop, and saw Jason & Liz at the bus station: the Fabulous Five reunited.

Checked in to the originally named Backpack Lodge and wandered town. Cape Town _is_ San Francisco: hills & highlands, chilly sea, winelands, prison island, small walkable downtown, etc. Ate, drank, farewell'd with Jason & Liz.

Sunday, further wanders - circumnavigated Signal Hill and Lion's Head - and ate, drank, farewell'd with Shane & Maggie (at _Nando's_, of all places.)

Monday, finally checked in with my Cape Town connection, the Wichts. With my usual stunning timing, I showed up on the eve of Caroline's father's birthday party. David's brother-in-law Richard drove me to the Wichts' palatial mansion: ate, drank, swapped philosophy w/David, slept in my luxurious room.

Tuesday, an epic climb up not-very-epic Signal Hill, and more films. (Major movie fix in CT: hence few activities the first few days.)

Wednesday, and grand tour off Cape Point: a seal visit, the Chapman's Peak drive, biking down the coastal road and into the nature reserve, a v.g. picnic, hike from Cape Point to the Cape of Good Hope - both of which very much feel like the End of the Earth.

Thursday, aimless roving and fab THE BIG LEBOWSKI. Minibus taxis cramped, but not like Ghana's tro-tro's.

Friday, went hiking up Table Mountain with fine fellow named Gavin. Violent Arctic winds had closed the cable car, so the mountaintop was ours nearly alone. A good hike. Descended through Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.

Saturday - yesterday - a winelands tour. Drank considerable quantities of very good wine, another picnic, and then an afternoon visit to the Cape Flats Nyanga township and a few beers in a shebeen. Followed by dinner with the same crowd - crocodile, ostrich, springbok & boerowors, coffee, drinking, all on Long St.

Today, gift-shopping, packing, and exodus.

South Africa: beautiful, prosperous, but very very uncertain. All the whites who can are thinking of leaving...

Here endeth the manuscript found in a Moroccan corner shop.


September 02, 1998

Namibia: Golden Gate Coffee Shop, Windhoek

OK, so I'm actually in the Sardinia Cafe, but was just in the GG, and it seems like a cooler byline.

Sipping Tafel beer. Good stuff. Ex-German colonies have their good points.

Beers I recall: San Miguel, Flag, Castel, Brakina, Bock Solibra, Star, Export 33, Mutzig, King, Castle, Zambezi, Bohlinger's, Windhoek, Tafel, Lion.

Much to report: >3000 km through Namibia's desert wastelands in the last week.

Last Tuesday, long ride from Vic Falls. Rode w/ Jason & Liz & 3 local hitchers. Spent all of 2 hours in Botswana: passed through Chobe National Park and saw hordes of elephants. Then through the fairly lush, river-striped Caprivi Strip, parallelling the Angola border. Trouble struck 20K out of Divundu when the combie (VW van) developed a massive oil leak. Got a tow from a 16-wheeler(!) to town, and when the problem proved unquickfixable, a further 200K to Rundu, where we ate a fantastic meal and crashed in a tent outside the roadside gas station/supermarket/takeaway/restaurant/hotel.

Wednesdey, Renier - guy who runs the company - stayed behind to fix his combie and sent us off in his other vehicle, a pickup, with his assistant Paul, an ex-police-special-forces veteran who'd fought UNITA in Angola and liked tourism much better. A great cook. Had to jumper the pickup's flat battery, but the ride went smoothly after that: after a stopover in Renier's house on Otavi, proceeded up to Etosha National Park, where we spent two days. Combie returned on Thursday.

Etosha is incredible: a huge park, bigger than Kruger or the Serengeti, surrounds a vast salt pan, absolutely flat bare white-gray, 100Kx60K. Thorny trees and tufts of brown grass dot the dust-clogged landscape, and the heat beats down like a hammer. Animals - thousands of springbok, hundreds of gemsbok & zebras & giraffes & wildebeest, scores of elephants and jackals, foxes, ostriches, eland, guinea fowl, rhino (at the amazing floodlit lunar-landscape watering hole by the second campsite), hyenas, and birds galore.

Saw a lioness, posed dramatically at the head of a crag overlooking the pan. Hadn't realized just how big & strong they are.

Left Etosha on Friday morning and drove across craggy, wild, barely- inhabited Damaraland, stopping at the impressive Petrified Forest, the not-bad Twyvelfontein rock art, the Burnt Mountain and the Organ Pipes, and camped at the charming Abu-Huab camp, with a terrific tree-trunk shower and a nice outdoor bar. Slept out, under the fire and under the countless stars. Started awake by dogs/jackals/hyenas (still not sure) crunching dinner's leftover bones some 5ft from me.

Saturday, into the appropriately-named Skeleton Coast, the bleakest landscape I've ever seen, a vast expanse of wind-carved rocks and sand the colour of bone, absolutely waterless, running straight up to the near-freezing sea, where a vicious salt-and-sand wind scours everything in its path. Picnicked in the lee of the combie on cucumber sandwiches, a truly bizarre sight, and picked mussels at the seashore. Made our way to the 60,000 seals at Cape Cross, swarming like clumsy army ants over the rocks and swimming with incredible grace through the sea, a sharp foul smell and a noise like a herd of satanic sheep riding wheezing Harley-Davidsons. Finally down to the spaced & spacious bungalows at Swakopmund's Mile 4 campsite, ate mussels & meat, joined by 5 new pax, slept in beds.

Sunday: Swakopmund & sand-boarding.

(scene change: Cafe Schneider, Post St. Mall)

Sandboarding was a bit delayed, so roved around Swakopmund's eerily clean, organised, Dick-Tracy-esque streets for half an hour, had first decent coffee for a while. Then to the dunes: 16 of us trekked up, each holding a board 4ft x 2ft x 3mm, polished on one side. Lay flat and plunged down. First couple rides were easy, next were dizzyingly fast, then standup down an easy slope and the grand finale: 80 kph down to a gravel plain that scratches hell out of the hardwood board. Shane (Sean?) gashed his elbows there.

Onwards (after lunch & beer) to Walvis Bay & wetlands, thousands of spindly white-and-pink flamingos, a salt factory with a mountain of NaCl, wide pools of multiple brilliant colours, salt clustered and crystallized into rock at the side of the road.

Lunch 2 at Dune 7, and off past hilarious "Sand" signs into the Namib-Naukluft. Glorious sunset from atop a kopje. Dinner, conversation, and sleep at quaint roadside Khauseb campsite.

Monday to Sesriem. A long ride through desert canyons and ridges. Stopoff at Solitaire, an extremely charming shop/hostel/cafe in the absolute middle of nowhere, with CNN and a day-old calf and fantastic homemade bread. To Sesriem, a campsite amid the Namib's dunes & crags. Chilled for a few hours, then to the Sesriem Canyon - phantastic Indiana Jones-esque place, caves and waterworn rock, sunlight peeping from gorge above, mostly dry with occasional dark pools and a flash-flood waterline far above our heads - and to Elam Dune, a barefoot climb to the top just in time for a magnificent sunset.

Tuesday - yesterday - woke up at 5 to catch sunrise at Sesriem. That first tiny gleam, like a gem on the horizon. Stunning desert landscape and fractally patterned cracked-clay-tile pans between the dunes. Then a long drive to Windhoek (via Solitaire again), some accommodation chaos sorted out eventually, magnificent meal (mmmgood kudu steak) and beer-drenched conversation at Joe's Beer House.

Today, administrivia: email, letters, this, money changing, etc.

Friday: Cape Town.


August 24, 1998

Zimbabwe: Hitch Haven, Victoria Falls

Zambia: been there, done that. In one day no less.

Here in the adrenaline-cum-tacky-tourism capital of Africa, I make preparations to leave.

On Wed. 19th, had dinner with George & Amalia and went thru old pictures & brief family tree in old family Bible: found both, surprisingly, fascinating. Hopped on night train and plans for an early night were torpedoed by a many-beer drinking session w/Jim the world-weary Aussie & Tom the flamboyantly-gay fellow-countryman.

Woke, somewhat hung over, to a lazy day in Bulawayo: saw a movie (US MARSHALS), wrote postcards, ate venison pie, drank real coffee, visited the railway museum. Night train to Vic Falls, where plans for an early night were torpedoed by a many-beer drinking session w/Sebastian the Brit and Mike the Dutchman.

Woke, came to Hitch Haven - here - and dropped stuff, headed out to town and promptly booked a bungee jump. A nervous hour later, was on the Zambezi Bridge, looking down spectacular Batoka Gorge, attached to a giant rubber band, about to fling myself off.

What I hadn't expected was the sheer acceleration: the gorge-sides blurred like the stars in STAR WARS when the Millennium Falcon went into hyperspace. The lightning-bolt adrenaline rush I was expecting but not prepared for. Still buzzing hours later.

Drank & played pool with Sebastian, ate pizza, eventually booked rafting with Seb & Mike & Vanessa & Joanne after repeated clusterfucks, called it an early night.

Saturday, rafting day. Minibussed across to Zambia, brief instruction & indemnity session, and to the river. Our whole crew was catapulted into the water at the very first rapid: water pulled me down, down, down, before reluctantly releasing me. Amazingly, I was relaxed during the whole thing. But I guess I'm used to water.

Waves pounding, crashing, rearing like liquid mountains in front of us; paddling like crazy to our guide Alf's commands, half-heard over the surf; hanging on two-handed as a wave casually flips the raft at rapid #7, and the current trying hard to tear me away. Switching rafts to take the grade V "Star Trek" on #8, flung off as the raft double-flips, swept away by the irresistible force of the river. Walking around the seething boiling cauldron at #9...and watching a kayaker dance through it with ease.

Tons of fun.

Yesterday, did absolutely nothing except wander thru Vic Falls national park. Decent views at the falls, and one outstanding one: looking down the gorge, spray-induced rainforest crowding around, water tumbling down on the left, a standing rainbow connecting the gorge walls halfway up.

Today, rented a bike and cycled to Zambia: poor, dirty, small town of Livingstone reminded me much of West Africa. Incredible paperwork - had to sign my name 3 times to exchange cash. Nice hostels, Gecko's and Jolly Boys. Cycled back, sat at Zambian VF park for awhile, returned.

Tomorrow, Namibia: 8-day minibus safari.


August 19, 1998

Zimbabwe: Barclays Bank, 1st Street, Harare

Waiting for the forex teller, maiming time.

Ack. Thpbbt. I've really let this journal slip. Fortunately, it's been a fairly memorable ten days.

Fade out fade in: a Harare cybercafe, checking mail, waiting on long delays. Changed money at Manica Travel, the Amex reps, instead of Barclays.

Old Rhodesian society, as recently witnessed, is...strange. Rachael's comment about the seaweed tossed up by the highest wave is fitting. A mixture of 18th century aristocracy (estates, servants, rigid class structure), 19th century colonialism (surprise) (hunting trophies, tales of wild travel, "natives" comments) and 20th century angst (they are the last of a dying breed, their world is slipping away, and they know it).

Decorative tusks and an elephant-foot stool. Tales of Mozambican motorcycles towing bicycles and of the arms dealer next door. High rollers at the Leopard Rock Casino. A ride on a berry-towing tractor. Vast hardwood stands and lush green hills. Overgrown stairs, stage, & pool at Eagle School. Collapsed weathervane atop Mt. Binga.

Last Saturday, met the Fords, chatted with them at their near-bush estate in the lamplight (power outage), and went out for food & drink with Hallam, second-cousin/British paratrooper, n' his buddy Manuel. Excellent food - "Fishmonger's" and a pub on the outskirts of town where we met Chawa (sic?) a South African-educated Zimbabwean ex-schoolmate of Hallam's who plans to form a lobby group en route to political power.

Sunday, to a braai with Sue & David, old colonials commiserating about the good-old-days and the bad-now, unconscious racism; a few younger families, but Zim's white population is fading & graying. Not necessarily a bad thing...

Monday, a day off in Harare, doing very little.

Tuesday, helped George & Amalia move out to the ranch, then to the all-but-deserted night train to Mutare.

Wednesday, after some confusion and a long pack-carrying walk through nice-but-forgettable Mutare, hitched up to the Vumba and the Ndundu Lodge (nee Cloud Castle), and exceedingly comfortable and friendly place, where I could easily have stuck a week (but didn't). Wandered up Leopard Rock and through the pretty-and-pleasant Vumba Gardens, listened to some of Ndundu's impressive music selection.

Thursday, went on an epic - 35-40K - walk, along the Vumba road past once-Eagle School (didn't know it) and a "Drive-In Hyper-Kiosk", past Cloudlands, down Essex Valley Rd., through the Wattle Company's vast timber plantations and the terraced emerald-green farms of Essex Valley, to the Mozambican border for a couple of well-deserved Cokes, and partway back through the timber, before catching lifts back to Ndundu. Thick dark rainforests, rolling sculpted hills, high shoulders of tree-barnacled stone ridges, sparkling blue dam pools. Ate (great food) back at Ndundu and set off to the Leopard Rock Casino with other inhabitants - mainly archaeology students, strangely enough - and spent a few hours playing blackjack (broke even) and kibitzing.

Friday, travel day: ride down to Mutare, changed money, taxied to bus station, caught v. crowded bus for longer-than-necessary ride to Chimanimani and peacock-patrolled Heaven Lodge, crash and party pad, major milestone on the backpacker trail.

Saturday, off to wildly rugged and beautiful Chimanimani National Park, stiff rocky climb for 2 hrs. to mountain hut, stunning views over vast grassy plain surrounded by jagged mountains, dark clear mountain rivers burbling down the slopes and across the plain, forests of huge standing stones worn by wind and water to shapes more like coral than rock, fields & ridges of cracked jagged granite. Climbed up Mt. Binga, over fields of steep stone, drinking from clear cold mountain streams, somewhere crossing the border to Mozambique en route to the spire-laden view from the top, dark rippling layers of hills, down in all directions. Back to the hut just before dusk, met nice Dutch-Aussie couple, rolled out sleeping bag next to (too-pricey) hut, slept 'til dawn and its dew & drizzle.

Sunday - 16th - went walkabout for a few hours on the Chimanimani plateau, went up Skeleton Pass, returned, finished mountain food (rolls, tinned gunk, crackers & fresh sweet Chimanimani honey), climbed down with Thaddeus-from-Singapore, got ride back with Gary-the-local who's planning a weeklong foray to the even-less-touristy parts, sat in on guitar circle at Heaven for a couple hours (a Brixton-based guy there played amazing Robert Johnson versions), ate, drank, crashed early because...

Monday, got up at 3:30 AM to get first bus to Mutare to meet George & Amalia there at 8:30. Met, drove up to Vumba for brief tour of Eagle School, to Penhalonga and the gold mine gran-pere (once had an aka - "Pendrift" - in the WWI Navy) and gran-mere's father worked at, along scenic route to Nyanga, stopping at Mtarazi Falls, Honde View, and Pungwe View; seeing absolutely nothing because of the thing Nyanga mist, but otherwise I liked the mist, made everything seem a little magical. Stopped for night at Mare Dam, wandered 'round dam with George, ate, slept.

Tuesday - yesterday - drove up to meet Peter & Jane Storrer, exceedingly wealthy second cousins, at their exquisitely appointed farmhouse on the edge of the country. Then back to Harare via grandparents' grave in Marondera. A couple familially-historically-important buildings in Harare - 21 North and 36 Argyle - and back to Possum.

Today, administrivia: money-changing, email, gift-shopping, etc. Dinner w/George & Amalia and tonight's train for Bulawayo & Vic Falls.


August 08, 1998

Zimbabwe: Possum Lodge, Harare

Been a fairly slow ten days: I'm more-or-less kicking back and wasting time. Another couple days of sloth and then it's back to road-life again, I reckon.

L.A. Kings paraphernalia everywhere. Forests of soapstone carvings. Sunset like crimson cotton-candy sky over the boulevards of Harare. Great Zimbabwe's Great Enclosure looming out of the mist of the Hill Complex.

Great Zimbabwe quite impressive, though, as Kyra put it, not quite the Parthenon. Traipsed there through surprisingly cold wind & rain with John the Aussie & Luke the Luxembourger, after the bus dropped us 2K away.

(oh yeah: night before, met a Frenchman who'd been travelling for >8 years, working at scattered Alliances Francaise and then hitting the road to the next. Was off to Antarctica to complete his grand tour. Admirably insane.)

The Great Enclosure, layered stone twenty feet high, with a warren of narrow paths through many smaller buildings dotted with bulbous trees behind it. The Hill Complex, where the walls were built around, or met at odd angles, the towering slabs of granite. Narrow stone steps between two walls of granite. Chest-high passages and hidden nooks & crannies.

The rain, eerily, repeatedly cessated and waited for us to get out from cover before starting again.

Back to Masvingo, pause for lunch, and a bus back to Harare, BLOODSPORT on the TV followed by music even louder than the previous bus. Taxied to Possum, crashed.

Next day - Friday - ehh...did very little, in fact, nothing really worth recording, far as I can tell. Checked mail, ate Possum braai, watched movies, zoned.

Saturday, went over to George & Amalia's to watch a (v. entertaining) nature movie "Beautiful People" and were interrupted by a load of Witnesses coming from the south: Americans transferred from Mozambique to Zambia, South Africans coming to investigate construction problems in three countries. Interesting close-knit community. Always have time for people.

Sunday, helped the Watch Tower Society of Zimbabwe move office from inner-city building to outskirts ranch, loading & unloading furniture all day long. Not a bad day, actually.

Monday, fled the city - eventually, after laundry & errands - to Chinhoyi, where I stopped at the pricier-than-expected Caves Motel and refused to see the much-(?) caves (reportedly underwhelming).

Tuesdays, hopped on a bus to Kariba, not so much a town as several _widely_ spaced out clusters of buildings. Visited Kariba Dam's impressive curving span, dined & watched the sunset at the Lake View Inn.

Wednesday, went on a canoe-and-game-drive day trip; quite nice, but I was somehow expecting more. Saw, er, the usual. (Funny how blase you get, and how fast.) Fish eagles swooping o'er the waves. Back to the Lake View, where I bumped into Rich, a fellow-Canadian met at the Possum, and spent the night drinking with he and his British buddies. Entertaining.

Thurs. the 6th, walked up to pleasant Kariba Heights and back, about 20K round trip up and down hills. Nice walk, and terrific panorama of the lake from the heights. Later that night walked up to the dam observation point. A stunning elemental view: a million tons of concrete holding back 300 km of water, while a huge bushfire burned its warped elongated away across the river in Zambia and a strong wind ruffled even my hair. A full moon beaming down above. Quite a sight.

Friday, bussed back with Rich's Brits. Taxi ride on the most decrepit vehicle since Kayes back to Possum, which was full, so stayed at nice-enough-but-expensive Small World lodge up the street.

Sat - that would be today -


July 29, 1998

Zimbabwe: What's Cooking Restaurant, Masvingo

Uncertain of the time because my watch has tragically ceased to function.

Good few days. Bulawayo's a very nice little city. Train journey's about as cheap & comfortable as your average backpacker lodge - makes you wonder if it'd be smart to just spend your whole time shuttling from city to city on overnight train.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Saturday the 25th, drove off with the Possum medical students in Mike's (old Rhodesian) minivan to see granite outcroppings, Bushmen paintings, little villages and old ruins. Caves like gouges in a rock wall, with 25,000-year-old paintings still etched on the wall. Got lost trying to find ruins and came upon a lonely rondavel with solar panel & TV antenna. Returned for dinner, went downtown, saw movie - THE ASSIGNMENT - returned.

Sunday, loitered for awhile, went to the National Gallery only to find that it was closed, so walked to the pleasant Botanical Gardens and spent the afternoon there, returned to Possum, packed, ate, left. Rode to Bulawayo with Tom the sharper-than-he-seems American, a couple Brits, a couple French, the usual backpacker column, all put in the same car. Roved down to the buffet car for a round of port in plastic cups. Armour-plate windows, wood panelling, and PLEASE REFRAIN FROM EXPECTORATION signs.

Got into Bulawayo on early Monday morn, fought off the hordes of lodge touts and taxi drivers and went to the v. nice Africa Sun lodge. Scuppered plan to take day off and went straight to their Matopos tour. More Bushmen paintings, there even older, amid stunning backdrop. Cecil Rhodes' grave, at Malindzidzi or View of the World, one of the most spectacular vistas I have ever seen, valleys of otherworldly granite formations twisting towards the sky as far as the eye can see. A game drive amid white & black rhino, sable antelope, giraffe, wildebeest, and more ridiculously implausible columns and piles of balancing rocks. Returned to Africa Sun and discussed the problems of the world over many beers & cigarettes - and some lethal slivovitz - with three Dutch guys and a Slovenian couple. A very good day indeed.

Yesterday, rest & relaxation & recovery. Traipsed around Bulawayo's wide streets and very pleasant parks, spent a couple of hours in its extremely impressive Natural History Museum, read newspapers and drank coffee, changed money, nothing strenuous. Back to the lodge, played some guitar and a couple games of pool, drank & talked with the same crowd as the previous night.

Today a travel day: a few hours on the bus, trying to listen to Joan Osborne on my Walkman over the bus's extremely loud music. Tomorrow, Great Zimbabwe.

Great Days (to date)

* Meknes, Volubilis, and the muddy olive grove.
* Roving the markets in Marrakesh.
* Sand mats across the Sahara, to Angela-Andrea's party.
* Carnivorous trees and the epic night in Kayes.
* Dogon country, day 2, up the escarpment.
* Ouagadougou, God Is Love, 5th Element, Cup-Winner's Cup.
* Voodoo drumming festival in Ghana.
* Navigating in the cab through Nigeria.
* Truck stuck; Land Rover to chimps & rainforest.
* The Mount Cameroon climb: 'nuff said.
* On foot in the bush in Mana Pools.
* Bulawayo train, Matopos tour, and slivovitch.
(later additions)
* Grand trek through the Vumba, blackjack at Leopard Rock.
* Trekking from Heaven Lodge through Chimanimani to Mt. Binga.
* Rafting at Victoria Falls.
* Sossusvlei, Windhoek, and Joe's Cafe.
* Stellenbosch, Cape Flats, and Mama Africa.


July 24, 1998

Zimbabwe: Scoops, Avondale Plaza

What a long strange eleven days it's been.

Zimbabwe is a different world from West Africa: orderly, organized, wide clean streets, buses not tro-tros, shopping malls not markets, teeming with backpackers and Europeans.

Spent my last couple days in Douala just wandering about, blowing the rest of my CFA on food & drink, warning (via email) of my impending Zimbabweness, writing/sending postcards, etc. Met a nice Nigerian guy with an EE degree and talked shop while the Cameroonian web cafe operator blustered outrageous demands for money. Saw CONGO and half of ADDICTED TO LOVE, in French. Stayed at a "missionaries-only" hostel run by a nice but sadly Parkinson's-ridden priest. Ate brochettes and drank real coffee.

Thurs. the 16th, taxied to low-hassle airport and waited 'til we were called, when the chaos ensued. First there was no one to exit-stamp our passports, then the guy who arrived went a little stamp-crazy. The security guards were having a keg party in the departure lounge, the X-ray machine and metal detector were broken, and the lone on-duty guard waved me through without opening my bag. Boarded plane - 737 - mentally kicking myself for having checked luggage, but it came through OK. Took off, ate crustless sandwiches, and got the surprise news that we were stopping over in DRC. Flew over the wreckage of Brazzaville, landed in Kinshasa for an hour, and proceeded to Harare. Taxied to Possum Lodge - where I now reside again, good place - and crashed.

Got up v. early and wandered around Harare, dazed by culture shock, gaping at store windows and office buildings, dining on cheap-n-good meat pies and real bacon, checking email, etc. Returned and slept for 12 hours: felt jet-lagged, badly, though I'd only crossed one time zone. (whoops: also saw MAD CITY n' CITY OF INDUSTRY. Am in the midst of attempt to catch up on my pop-culture gap, which consists of seeing as many movies as possible.)

Saturday, roved 'round downtown again and finally made contact with George & Amalia. Met, went to their new-place-in-2-weeks (nice big ranch) and their current-place (flat), went out for dinner - pizza! - talked for awhile, returned to Possum.

Sunday: a drive to Sue & David Ford (Sue nee Bullman) and pere's farm, or what was left of it.

David is working on an irrigation/farming-techniques project on a communal land/reserve/tribal trust land (same thing, but apparently names with three very different connotations) which has been renewed because it all went to pieces when the European money/skills pulled out, which is apparently usual, and the dam burst, which is a bit extreme.

David's a nice guy, taciturn, with a walrus moustache and a tough job: the locals keep damaging or destroying machinery through carelessness, theft has become rampant - very un-Shonalike - and his successes may well not outlive his departure. Sue's terrific too. Sat and had tea and listened to colonial talk; like stepping back through decades. Favourite phrase: MMBA - Miles and Miles of Bloody Africa.

Then up to Msonedi with the farm pere grew up on: not much left but field now on that side of the road. Nice country, though: rolling hills, stands of gum trees, winding rivers, granite kopjes.

Sunday night went to hear George speak at a Jehovah's Witness meeting, which is much more like a university lecture than a church service. Actually mildly interesting. Everyone contributes, if only by rote. Wider cross-section of society than expected.

Monday morning George & Amalia & I set off for Mana Pools National Park, a trailer full of camping gear hitched behind the Renault.

Long drive through hectares of commercial farms. Past the idea of a fence into National Parks. A vast black burn scar beneath the singed but surviving trees on one side of the road. Overturned trucks littering the winding road down the Zambezi Escarpment. A kudu antelope patrolling the dirt road to Mana Pools. Dead grass and dry riverbeds where baboons dig through the sand for water that still flows beneath.

Mana Pools: a huge bull elephant grazing scant metres from the campsite when we arrive. Made camp, went for a bit of a walk, ate dinner, crashed. It's a cacophony at night - rumbles of hippos, yowls of hyenas, baboons and honey badgers rushing about, a chorus of birds, and far away the low growl of a lion.

Woke, ate, went on a long game drive. Hordes of impala & baboons, lots of waterbuck & zebras & warthogs ("hippocrocopigs"), plenty of hippos & crocs in/by the water, occasional kudu & eland. Stopped to watch six elephants dine on an acacia tree.

Returned and George, a bit unwell, crashed. Walked for a couple hours, squelching across the Zambezi flood plain, blundering through forest startling antelope, examining buffalo from the safety of a sheer cliff.

Next day, got up super-early, went for a drive-then-walk. A clear blue view beneath the endless canopy of trees; Mana Pools seems to go on forever. And you can walk unescorted.

Saw a pack of wild dogs take an antelope; an unnerving experience.

Afternoon, long (4-hour) walk to an overlooking point on the Zambezi, picking my way around rivulets and over rocks, avoiding tall grass where lion might sleep, stopping to watch an elephant take a bath in a stream, exchange glares with an eland, examine a buffalo skull.

Returned and went on another drive. Came on a big buffalo herd, well over a hundred, slowly making their way through the forest. Big dangerous beasts.

Next morning, a drive-and-walk before we left; on the way back to the car we found that the buffalo herd had cut us off, and we had to end-run around them.

Afternoon's drive back to Harare and the Possum. Kicked back, saw DEEP IMPACT, chilled.

Today - now 25th - going on semi-organized tour of Harare area. Tomorrow, I think Bulawayo by overnight train; Matopos & Great Zimbabwe. We'll see.


July 13, 1998

Cameroon: Holly Wood Snack Bar, Limbe

The truck is dead, long live the truck.

A line of soldiers just filed past, on the main road: surreal.

I'm sitting with "American," self-appointed tourist agent, who unlike most s-a.t.a. seems an honest, nice, reliable guy.

In 72 hours, if all goes to plan, I'll be in Harare.

A ray of sunlight lights up a patch of Limbe's green. Equatorial Guinea, above a bank of clouds and below the streaks of a sunset, a faraway dreamscape. Mount Cameroon behind Mile Six Beach with the waves battering me as I look.

Slept four-in-a-(huge)-bed at the Mountain Hotel and set out, found a guide, changed money, bought food, went back and read and waited out the day impatiently. Up at 5 AM for the climb, surprising the assault-rifle-and-German-shepherd-armed hotel security guy, and set out while it was still dark.

The climb: gruelling work, from before dawn to after dusk, as physically arduous a day as I can remember. Chong and I never doubted we'd make it, but Ali & Andrea got there on sheer stubborn grit & determination.

Humped our own packs, which didn't make things any easier. Two hours to Hut 1, forest air thick as a sauna around us, the path steep and slippery and laced with ankle-catching roots. A sea of green behind us when we could spare a breath to look. Bananas and boiled eggs and nuts and raisins and roast coconut splinters, good climbing food, when we hit the hut.

Hut I to II was the worst stretch. Out of the forest after half an hour, than a mind-reeling expanse of very steep grassy ridges that seemed to go on forever. The "magic tree" in an otherwise bare plain. Patches and breaks in the clouds driving around us. Rocks tumbling down the mountain for minutes as we gaped.

The universe shrank to my feet, my aching legs, and where they might go next.

Lunched at Hut II, corned beef sandwiches & chocolate, drank tea from Tupperware, filled our water bottles with ice-cold rainwater, and decided to go for the summit. Dumped most of our stuff and set out.

Isaac-our-guide, he of the lazy but unwavering pace, didn't think we'd make it. I caught my second (OK, more like seventh) wind halfway to Hut III, but Ali & Andrea were running on vapor. Always one more ridge between us and the top.

From Hut III to the summit was almost easy, though the wind at the top was viciously cold and we could feel the altitude-thinned air getting to us. Clanked & drank the two beers Chong & I had brought to the top. Cursed myself for forgetting my camera on the truck.

The way down to Hut II is a long miasma of stumbling misplaced steps in my memory; too exhausted to think, the last hour with only the moon to light our way, it's a wonder none of us were hurt.

Ate a tinned & cold but much-appreciated dinner, drank tea straight from the pot, and slept, too tired (except Chong) to be bothered by the scuttling rats.

Woke & watched a cloudy dawn, stretched aching muscles, breakfasted, and went down, four hours' hard slogging. Took a wrong turn after Hut I and walked half an hour further than the others but came out in the middle of town right next to a bar as the rain began to pass. Rarely has a beer been so appreciated.

Rested the rest of the day, ate down the road, glanced into a nifty if deserted nightclub, crashed.

Next day - 10th, only three days ago - packed and set off to Limbe, easy enough journey, where we promptly met Sam/Nick/Tim/Naomi. Drank & swapped tales of the Ekok-Mamfe road.

11th, Saturday, a day off: wandered down the forest track to the east of Limbe and a ways out west as well, strolled through the (very nice - trees with trunks intertwined like vines, flanged trunks big enough to drive a car through, limbs like octopus tentacles, overgrown amphitheatre) Botanical Gardens, watched the sunset, ate and watched the World Cup 3rd place match, slept the sleep of the just.

Yesterday, slept in through a lazy rainy morning and headed out to Mile Six Beach and the truck, chatted to people, ate a final truck meal, had a final strumming session, swam. Returned to Limbe's fine street food - brochettes and maize in particular - and the sight of France stuffing Brazil 3-0 in the World Cup final. Reminisced with da boyz (Nick, Sam, Tim, Chong) for a while, called it a night.

Today, hitched a final ride (yes, "final" is cropping up a lot in this entry) in the truck to Douala, checked out the travel agents and got a pleasant price surprise, wandered a little vacillating about which day to fly, returned to see da boyz buy their tickets (they too are leaving, but for Nairobi), said my mercifully brief goodbyes, returned here with "American."

Tomorrow, Douala and ticket purchase.

The geometrical precision of palm plantations. Brian's AIDS-ridden paramour. Hot baths at the Mountain Hotel. Watching the rain approach us on the Ekok-Mamfe road. "Softly, softly," said the wise woman.


July 06, 1998

Cameroon: Mountain Hotel, Buea

In the lap of luxury, with Mount Cameroon above.

Fantastic place: cool mountain temperature, green lawns, hot bath, ornately comfortable sitting room where I write this, and a swimming pool. OK, the pool water is opaque with muck, but you can't have everything.

Buea is a very spread-out town: taxis are required.

I like Cameroon a lot. Relaxed, cafe culture, many police checks but they're generally perfunctory, green countryside, nice and so-far bilingual people.

So: hated Calabar at first, but warmed to it considerably. Paradise City Hotel is a dilapidated but charming complex: snack bar, mini-zoo, nightclub, bar, hotel, grounds, etc. Moped taxis to and from and around town. Just watched the World Cup the first night.

Next day, moped'd to town to change money, an epic journey: walked an hour through Calabar's winding streets, to a bureau de change that no longer exists, asked at a plush restaurant and wound up following a 300-pound woman around town on moped to a black marketeer. Came back to her restaurant, ate & watched African MTV, shopped, returned, made (last) dinner. Then went down to Freedy's, where we met Ricky - Scottish expat welder/helicopter pilot for Mobil - and watched England lose a nail-biting World Cup match to Argentina (or, more accurately, watched the referee steal it.) A dejected crowd returned.

Next morning, to the drill-monkey sanctuary up the road, an impressive place, founded & staffed by people who came to Nigeria for 10 days and stayed for years, plus an army of knowledgeable locals. Drills frolicked and played in their cages, but the real stars were the chimps, who strutted, fretted, flung wood chips at Wendy & Patsy, shook hands (and feet), posed for the cameras, ooked and howled, all very human.

Left to have an (excellent) jam donut at the bakery down the road and bumped into Tim & Naomi: after letting Ricky buy us a drink, we went on the brief (hollow laugh) boat trip to Creek Town.

After whiling away the wait for the boatman by sampling kola nut (bleah), we set off on a pirogue past naval warships, docked oil rigs, and ship's graveyards, followed by thicker and thicker mangrove swamps, sun beating on us, mangrove branches dangling above. Fish thrashing on lines hung from the branches. The ominous B-movie buzz when paddling ceased. took 2.5 hours to reach Creek Town, a very peaceful town - especially for Nigeria - with a beautiful riverfront, statue-laden cemetery, cheap palm wine. But hard to judge as we were only there for 25 minutes, because there was one more bus and no more boats back.

Hurtled pell-mell deep into nowhere, on roads so bad the axle ground against pothole edges, the whole vehicle shaking and quivering, passengers screaming threats at the driver. We stopped in the middle of nowhere, the driver muttered something about bad directions and loaded fifty litres of diesel into the bus, and we went back to the main road and Calabar and Paradise City.

Next day, up to the Mount Afi drill monkey sanctuary, stopping to look for diesel on the way. Halted off the paved road by a ford and bush-camped. In the morning we tried to cross the ford. Heh. The creek was exactly wide enough for the truck to bog down. Three hours of digging interspersed with good-natured mud fights, got us back exactly where we stared, with a punctured tire and a curious sense of accomplishment. Fortunately, the sanctuary's Land Rover pulled up, we piled our gear and half of us onto it, put the other half on "machines" - motorbike taxis - and headed up to the sanctuary.

Stunning Land Rover ride through rain forest and villages, green ripple of hills around us, to the monkey sanctuary. Liza-the-founder put on a Nigerian accent & dialect to speak to the locals - interesting to see. Watched chimps in their big fenced enclosure - or were they watching us in ours?

Camped - after a futile but entertaining torch-building collaboration with Mike - and chatted around the campfire.

Went for a 3-hour solo wander through rainforest the next morning, which was outstanding. Enormous trees, 80' tall and as little as 6" wide, raising up a canopy to block out all direct sunlight. Narrow trails, barely the idea of a path, through thick brush and vine-wound trees. Bush noises - crickets, birds, things scuttling and crying out in the distances, bushes shaking as they passed. Swarms of butterflies and showers of yellow petals. Huge flanged tree trunks. Perched on a log above a babbling brook, watching leaves bob boy.

Back to the campsite, where we got a taxi to carry our gear back but were on our own. Mike and Tony and I wound up walking the whole way, through rain and blazing sun, 15K over rough and rolling ground, to three much-deserved beers.

Abandoned the truck the next day, w/Ali & Andrea & Chong, off to jump ahead to Mount Cameroon. Caught a lucky taxi ride straight for the border and its 7 desks we had to stand in front of. Dash showdown with an immigration officer: Ali & I were reaching for our wallets, when Chong & Andrea made a stand on principle and - amazingly - not just talked him out of it but had him telling us not to let anyone try and get a bribe from us and not to dash anyone.

Across a picturesque bridge to Cameroon, quick immigration, lunch & a celebratory beer, and then the road from Ekok to Mamfe, a sea of mud with puddles deep enough to swallow our car and improvised detours around the impassable parts. God knows how long the truck will take to get through. [ed. note: three days. To go 25 miles.]

Eight of us crammed into a tiny Corolla, but we had a fantastic driver who gunned the engine through some amazingly tricky situations; only had to get out and push a couple times. Hit Mamfe, got (nice) hotel and arranged transport to Buea, then found a bar, drank several beers, had a spur-of-the-moment street-food dinner, slept happily.

Today, hurry-up-and-wait taxi finally left at 11. We were stopped at a police stop because the driver had the wrong pass; tried again and failed; moved our luggage to a different car, failed to negotiate terms, moved it back, tried a third time, looked as pathetic as we could as the driver explained, and amazingly got through. Made it here with daylight left, had good if expensive steak & chips.

Tomorrow, guide & admin & shopping: Wednesday, Mount Cameroon.


June 28, 1998

Nigeria: Derelict palm-oil factory outside of Calabar

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the trip.

Real feel of wind-down lately, and that's not just because I expect to be leaving in 7-10 days: many others are making noises about leaving the trip and/or flying rather than driving to East Africa. I plan to jump ship in Douala and spend a couple weeks in southern Cameroon before flying to Harare.

Nigerian cities are loathsome, but the rest of the country isn't bad - in part, I think, because the roadblock police have been instructed to be nice to tourists, in part because of the World Cup, and in part because we're here at a time of transition what with Abacha's death and its repercussions.

Spent the first night camped on a leafy side road surrounded by the usual crowd of villagers while Gavin went for a walk and became a temporary Nigerian immigration official. The next day, we had the fourth - and first heavy-duty - search & inspection, filing into the truck one by one to show off our prize possessions, then waiting under leaky thatched huts amid the drizzle outside. Eventually (3 hours) made our way to a small town, where we turned down the chance to haggle a crap exchange rate and bought two Cokes with 1000 CFA instead (got _some_ change). Went through Ibadan, a big spread-out apartment-block sprawl of a city, changed money and went on a fruitless quest for a burger. Left town the hard way, through the markets, with two thousand raucous Nigerians screaming exuberant welcomes at us. Parked in an old quarry by the side of the road.

Next day - 23d? - with PK & Shirray sick, Tim & I took over the cab and rode along with Mick. Bombing down a four-lane highway carved from rainforest, listening to Kenny Rogers, like it was the most natural thing in the world. Cops taking money from local traffic (who don't even stop, just slow down long enough to hand over the dash) and welcoming & waving us on. A fruitless quest for diesel in one of the world's major oil-producing countries. Navigating with nothing more than Rough Guide maps and Michelin #953 - and stops to ask for directions.

Stopped in Ondo to fill up on water and were given seriously hard time by local tinpot dictator who claimed to be an immigration inspector but was apparently just a prison officer. PK handled it well. Drove on through thick green walls of jungle. The road went from sealed tarmac to dirt track for 1K, then back, for no apparent reason other than to remind us we were in AFrica. Stopped for lunch at a roadside clearing with a butterfly-stren path that led to a tiny forest village.

Found a super-cool campsite, another disused quarry, huge, with pools out back, the skeletal remnants of buildings, and a natural freshwater spring that the locals showed us, which filters through rock and cascades into a small cave.

Into Benin City on the 24th, a hot noisy dusty polluted hellhole where we couldn't even find a decent lunch spot but did have two saving graces: a donut stall and the Benin City Plaza Motel, an oasis of comfort with a good bar, good restaurant, plush leather chairs, CNN, laundry service, and a swimming pool, all at a decent price.

Spent two night there, lazing around chatting, swimming, reading, playing poker for several hours, watching the World Cup, making the occasional foray into town. Celebrated Naomi's birthday the second night with a group meal and booze-up.

Day before yesterday, off to Port Harcourt for reasons which escape me, all day in the back of the truck, parked in a low-tech rubber plantation (spirals carved into trunk, feeding old lidless beer cans, attached by wire to the tree) where the locals cleared out tent space for us with machetes. Sat on top of the truck listening for World Cup results on the BBC World Service shortwave; cries of jubilation when we learned England was through to the second round.

Yesterday, another driving day, sat around for hours getting enough diesel to make Calabar, got into Port Harcourt and learned that the hotels were superexpensive and we had engine trouble, promptly left and free-camped at the side of a side road. Late bubble & squeak & baked-bean dinner. Slept on the truck, first time in ages, which takes us to today, _another_ driving day, but a fairly cool campsite amid the rusting girders and tanks of the old factory.

Massive girder just struck massive tank six times: it's 6 PM, and the day shift watchmen are signalling the night shift to come in, incidentally driving me near-deaf.

Tomorrow, Calabar: this week, Mount Cameroon: next week, independence again.


June 21, 1998

Nigerian border post

It's quiet. Too quiet.

This is the nicest border post we've been to so far. Quiet, relaxed, green, no hassle or hawkers, just roosters and sheep picking their way among the customs & police buildings.

People seem pleasant too: guy - official? - just chatted with me about his friends, refugees in Canada.

Customs just checked the truck, a barely-more-than-cursory search.

Nigeria, so far, does not live down to its fearsome reputation.

Went through two countries in the last week, but it feels uneventful.

Headed from the Togo border to the hospital, where it turned out that Angela and Gavin - poster children for homeopathic malaria medication - had malaria. Went off to Robinson's Plage, nice seaside campsite with a horrible zoo and beach being eaten away by the ocean. But otherwise, honest, very nice.

Back at the bar and slept in the sea breeze. Next day into Lome, where we

(addendum: past the border, 10 mins drive, another police search followed by _another_ customs post)

parked at a supermarket, shopped, ate street food and grande cocas, wandered for a while.

(addendum II: wasn't customs, but State Security and Drug Enforcement, who did a thorough 40-minute search while we waited, hot & stuck & bored, outside).

Lome's not a bad town - lots of hassle, but I'm getting inured to that. Colourful, busy, lots of cold Coke.

(addendum III: stood outside half an hour for a passport check)

Went to the ritzy Palm Beach Hotel to watch the World Cup, England defeating somebody or other. Then back to Robinson's for the night. Next morning, a medical crisis, Angela gravely worse. We got her to a (surprisingly clean and organized, nun-staffed) clinic in town and arranged a flight out. Also got Sam's Nigerian visa, lucky for him.

To Benin, a thoroughly unremarkable border post, and a nice campsite in Gran-Popo: large, grassy, misty, on the beach, with a decent bar. Next morning as I stood on the beach a huge storm blew up, a black wall, looming every closer to the beach, gusts of wind blowing fretfully around, and then a wall of rain slamming down on us.

Off to Ouidah, birthplace of voodoo, muddy streets in a constant drizzle, spaced out forever, decaying colonial buildings. Chong & I went off for lunch and were promptly abandoned by the truck. Wandered about, were serenaded by a brass band. Ouidah has a very strange feel, like there's no connection between the buildings and the people on the streets, like they reject the notion of "town." Eventually chased the truck to the Voodoo Museum, OK paintings & pictures and very good if disturbing sculptures, made of bicycle bits & spare engine parts. Camped in a soulless patch of dirt on the outskirts of Cotonou, watched more World Cup.

Very touristy expedition to stilt villages the next day, 13 of us in 2 boats powered alternately by pole & paddle & sail, to houses on stilts with a chorus of "cadeau" echoing across the water. Stilt Coca-Cola cafes and Nescafe billboards. Public phone and everything. Long boat ride back and a return to the campsite.

Yesterday, morning in Cotonou, a hot noisy dusty polluted crowded city with a couple of nice cafes and supermarkets. Drove north in the afternoon to avoid the Lagos border post. Bush camped.

Today, the Nigerian border crossing: we're still sitting here, waiting for something to happen. An all-day transition.


June 14, 1998

Ghana-Togo border

Red tape, wafting in the sea breeze.

I'm paying 10 pounds a day for the privilege of being in Togo: hope I enjoy it.

Strange to be back, on the move, with the truck. Can't help thinking - especially at moments like this - that it would actually be less hassle to be on my own. Well, maybe not in Nigeria.

Reunited with the truck at the Accra post office and was lured out for a night of drinking at expat establishments ( a genuine Irish pub in the heart of West Africa) and the Novotel - very expensive. Sam showed up the next day, making us a full complement for the first time in ages. Back with the truck to Big Milly's, lounged around for a day, watched the World Cup on their battery-powered TV.

Went off the next morning to a fetish-drumming festival with Kokrobite refugees Ron & John & Simon & Jennifer, plus Afro our drum teacher and this guy Adu. Stocked up on supplies and schnapps (a gift to the chief) in Accra and tro-tro'd/taxied to the village. 1PM sharp opening time was delayed in true African style to 4 PM.

Fascinating festival - waves of drums washing over the crowd, topless fetish dancers hyperventilating and trying to call down the spirits, chiefs and the elderly in kente robes watching the drumming sternly, libations of gin and schnapps and palm wine poured on the ground, gourds of palm wine passed around.

After the festival we ate - very well - wandered up the village and tranced out at a hypnotic drumming-and-dancing circle which went on for hours (with a rude brief interruption when a snake was sighted.) Went back to our room and drummed panlogo, danced, watched Ron do kung-fu lessons, listend to Adu's astonishing drum solos...good time. First time I've been in an African village without feeling like an outsider.

Mozzies were bad inland, loud enough to keep me awake as they massed on the net. Tried to leave early the next morning, which meant of course that we got stuck in Accra rush hour. Had real ice cream at Frankie's, wandered 'round town for a couple hours, and tro-tro'd to Kokrobite for (sob) the last night at Big Milly's.

Headed out on the truck yesterday, another afternoon in Accra, and free-camping in the middle of nowhere, a nostalgic moment. Sunset causing a cloud to glow supernaturally. Today to the border.

Fingersnap handshakes. Pee Cola. Smoke rising from roadside burns. The diesel stench of palm wine. Knees rubbed raw by tro-tro streets. Fan Men and their skyrocketing stock. Georgie the paranoid-schizophrenic rasta who had to pour a libation to save Chong from man-eating rocks at Accra's cliff-front bar. Tales of Ghanaians hitting each other and children without provocation. Forty Africans in a remote village watching the World Cup on a fuzzy B&W TV alligator-clipped to a car battery. John going camera-crazy at the festival, but less noticeable with every picture he snapped.


June 08, 1998

Ghana: Hotel de California, Accra

We can check out any time we like, but we can never leave.

A good week: the beaches and coastal castles of Ghana. Are due to rendezvous with the truck in four hours. Have met up with the long- elusive Chong, who's been bouncing from country to country doing visa & money paperwork: Sam's whereabouts are still a mystery.

Although we're theoretically deep in rainy season, there's precious little rain to show for it.

The Cape Coast/Elmina day trip was fun. Especially the transport. Ghanaian taxi and tro-tro junctions have to be seen to be believed: a field of dirt hacked out of the bush at a crossroads, attendants raising and lowering chains to make sure that no vehicle escapes without paying the fee, a massive congestion of taxis and Jeeps and tro-tro vans and pickup trucks, held together by spit and baling wire, all horns blaring at all times, with sacks of food and boxes of toothpaste and trays of smoked fish lashed to every conceivable vehicular extremity, women walking around with bowls and boxes and barrels and baskets full of food and icewater on their head, a whole eye-level food court, hawking their wares over the horns and the dozen shouted driver-passenger arguments going on at any moment, while goats and sheep and chickens pick their way unconcernedly through the chaos. People dress in polyester business suits or shorts and American T-shirts or traditional African robes & dresses, riots of orange or indigo or grey or green carved into complex geometrical patterns by neat black lines.

Cape Coast was a bit of a dump, but Elmina was nice - excellent beach, fun people, and an extraordinary if disturbing old castle, the first European settlement in sub-Saharan Africa, complete with shiver-inducing slave dungeons.

Off to Kokrobite for a few days, a backpacker's paradise, a small fishing village with "Big Milly's" elysial enclave in the middle with the African Academy of Music & Arts Ltd. just a klick away. Met a host of Peace Corps workers, Finnish overlanders, Dutch backpackers, New Age Californians and ron, an ex-military brat ex-civil rights activist ex-coke dealer ex-UA emergency procedures designer who is there studying drumming for a few months. Took drumming lessons - illicit and black-market, because drumming is taboo until this Thursday - from Afro, a virtuoso master drummer who's played the Royal Albert Hall. Took long walks amid the rolling hills and stunning coconut-laden beaches. A good time.

Came to Accra yesterday and promptly bumped into Chong. Drank at a clifftop cafe and splurged at a hilarious expensive dinner. Too many menu choices, but no beef. Delicious hummus, bleah main course. Gleaming Bavarian coffee china set out...followed by Nescafe packets. Of course they take Visa...but not today.

Today, sorted out last night's bill, ate pineapple, checked Chong's e-mail, and now we'll head back for the cliff-front cafe for a while before the rendezvous with Big Bertha.


June 02, 1998

Ghana: Happy Days Spot, Winneba

Eating: Fufu or rice balls, with pepper sauce and (surprisingly good, if suspicious-looking) fish bits. Coconuts. Pineapples. Avocados. Bananas & plantains. Green oranges.

Sleeping: Massive amounts, generally 9PM-8AM, believe it or not. On foam beds that might be uncomfortable if I wasn't exhausted. Tonight's bed has Coventry City Football Club sheets and pillowcases, for that extra dollop of surrealism.

Listening: To African music, which has some cool rhythm & bass going on under the sickly-sweet. Hymns sung on the street, and in one of the countless churches (still not sure if Christianity absorbed animism or the other way around, but on the surface, at least, it's a curious melange - Jesus-as-talisman). World Cup fever building on the radio.

Walking: Everywhere. Klicks, maybe 10 a day, just roving around Accra's urban sprawl. My 10-pound sandals would still be a great deal if - God forfend - they fell apart tomorrow.

LP describes Winneba as "pleasant," and they got it in one: not "superb," maybe, but a good place to chill.

Come to think of it, you could describe all of Ghana that way: on the other hand, I've been seeking low-strain activity. Spent a couple of days roving around Kumasi, eating cheap Fan Milk ice cream and running into the same Dutch couple (nice people) wherever I went. Status as cultural capital is overstated, but a nice town.

Took train from Kumasi to Accra, which was cheap but tedious, as it stopped at every little village - and sometimes for no apparent reason at all - and took 18 hours to get there. Evangelists and snake-oil salesmen roved up and down the train, and the usual assortment of cargo, dead and alive, was carried on and off. Splurged at the Novotel - a 9-pound meal, a price which seemed absolutely appalling, but I credit-carded it so it doesn't count.

Spent a few nights at the nice-and-cheap YMCA (seemed even nicer when I went over to the Bellevue hotel for an excellent draft beer and a German man told me how his luggage was stolen) in a dorm room with John Akefesone, a nice guy who was theoretically doing his national service but who pleaded malaria with his boss every morning and spent the day shooting the shit with his friend.

Shopping in Shell stations for luxuries. Power cuts every night, and the hum of generates rises above the city. The Ghanaians like their music LOUD.

Caught up on my e-mail, looked for CAR updates - little news, none of it good - wrote & sent postcards, wandered & lazed, chatted with fellow-travellers, dodged scam-artists ("I'm from Vancouver! Come change money on the black market!"). We're supposed to be in rainy season, but only one downpour, a week ago in Kumasi. Lake Volta is at record lows, hence the energy crisis and power cuts.

Tomorrow, day-trip to Cape Coast & Elmina. Next day to Kokrobite, and I expect the truck will catch up with me there.


May 25, 1998

Ghana: Vekima Restaurant, Kumasi

The missionaries did well in Ghana, or thought they did: I'm sitting under "Ignoring JESUS is choosing HELL!" and "Are you living like there was no JUDGEMENT DAY?" signs along with the local beer posters and omnipresent Coke/Fanta/Sprite signs.

Have moved from the land of no-small-money to the land of no-big-money: Ghana's largest bill is the c5000, approx. US $2.20 and falling, so US$50 means el-wad-o-cash.

Just hopped off the Takoradi-Kumasi overnight sleeper: 4 hours late, but, since that meant 4 hours extra sleep, most welcome. Takoradi is a shithole, but Ghana very pleasant. Weird travelling through a place where they speak English, albeit broken and heavily-accented. Feel more a part of what's going on.

Everyone here wants to exchange addresses. I wonder if they'll ever use them.

Flag tablecloths. Everyone calls you "Chef" in Cote d'Ivoire. Tar pits (well, smears) on the beach at the Coppa-Cabana. Wielding a machete in the Ghanaian bush.

Chronology: reunited with the truck, with everyone in fact except Sam & Chong, due to catastrophe - Sam's passport and money belt were stolen by a moped thief in Bobo-Diolassou and he needs a new passport and visas, and some of the latter could be tricky. Least he has Chong, reliable & indestructible, with him.

Headed out from Abidjan to a campsite in the depressing shantytown which stretches for tens of K's along the coast. Quite a nice campsite, though, and a nice if dirty beach, though waves too high and close to the coast for swimming: couple years and the whole beach will be eaten away. Farewell party for Mathias/Jorge & Jo, going home and on-their-own respectively. Did little but read & sit on beach the next day. Dropped the three of 'em off at the airport and headed back, went out for a meal that was OK as a cultural experience but not much in the way of good food.

Next day, off to Grand-Bassam, a decaying old colonial town, huge crumbling buildings and deserted streets, reminding me curiously of New Orlean's French Quarter. Statuary and coconut trees. It's situated between a peaceful lagoon and a violent (but swimmable - great bodysurfing) oceanfront.

Cooked, first time in ages, and headed off for a beer, a real horror-movie walk: a misty night, past a huge cemetery with open graves, occasional skeletons of decaying houses rearing up in the mist, power lines crackling overhead, in the Gulf of Guinea where voodoo was born...

Another, extremely peaceful and uneventful, day in Grand-Bassam followed. Stayed at same campsite, by truck, near Nick-the-perpetually-ill.

Next day - 24th, three days ago - had a final morning in Grand-Bassam, shopped at a craft market in the afternoon, camped at a different beach campsite, had an unnerving encounter with a coconut, took fire duty for dinner.

25th: to Abidjan to get news on Sam & Chong (why we had to go to Abidjan to do this still escapes me). Parked & ate at usual spots, stole a swim at the Novotel, headed to the border with a pause at Grand-Bassam for Brian to get his things and say goodbye to (pay off?) his new woman.

To the border, where two very surreal things happened: first, on the Cote d'Ivoire side, the whole world stopped between whistleblows as a soldier lowered the flag: second, on the Ghana side, official goes from "I hate all British people, your truck must stay here," to "I'm your best friend!" in 2.2 seconds (and no, no money exchanged hands.)

Camped in the bush - hacked the campsite out of a path leading to a farmer's pigpen, actually. Ants & flies & mozzies all over the place, so tented up for first time in ages.

Yesterday, stopped at Axim to look at OK castle and stunning coast, headed to Takoradi to change money, and I abandoned the BYT there. Got train ticket, ate Chinese, had a beer & talked with Mike the Sierra Leonian and Emmanuel the Ghanaian (their advice on Nigeria: "don't trust _anyone_ there"), read by the coastline for a while, ate at a second street stall (first was out of food, but a man offered me his food(!)) for c400, ditched a sob-story artist, caught train. And here I am. Plan to find a hotel, shower, get laundry done, and take a couple days in Kumasi.


May 20, 1998

Cote d'Ivoire: Hamburger House, Abidjan

I have happily flung cultural authenticity to the wind and devoured a top-notch burger/fries/Coke. Am now the picture of contentment.

Abidjan, "the New York City of West Africa," is a fun if schizophrenic city - the Treichville near-shantytown slums and the am-I-in-Paris? Plateau downtown. Supermarkets and Citibank and skyscrapers, with rivers of sewage (from this morning's colossal downpour) and afterthought electrical wires hanging over tin roofs across the river.

Took the train from Ouaga five days ago, country getting greener and greener, some nice ridge-and-rolling-hills landscape as we approached the border, "Yield" and a lunchtime chicken passed through the window. A horse's head plopped in a bowl just outside the train's toilets. A no-hassle hour at the border drinking beers with two French guys, until... Disembarked at Ferkessedougou, no Mathias, slept at super- cheap-and-with-reason Hotel La Pailotte, ate at a maquis and drank with a Peace Corps chick 'til midnight.

Next day, hunted for transport to Abidjan, surprisingly difficult. Ate at a black-tie maquis, fear of a huge bill misplaced. At 2PM saw Andrea & Ali walking towards us - not truck, just a many-person expedition off it. Ten of us in a share-taxi to Yamoussoukro.

Which is a truly bizarre thing, a European town and national capital plopped down in the middle of the bush like it was dropped there accidentally. Hotel with air-con and American-diner restaurant. Pool of sacred crocodiles - like statues, especially after eating, but unnerving nonetheless. Wide empty boulevards going nowhere. Gleaming presidential and Congress palaces, deserted but for the gardeners. And the Grand Basilica, an oh-my-God edifice of gleaming marble and stained glass, a mindfuck anywhere but especially here. "The Pope's house" behind. Bock Solibra, drunk by the artificial lake.

Yesterday to Abidjan, a city nowhere near as appalling as its gare routiere suggests. Treichville used to be dangerous, I think - grilles and locks everywhere - but feels perfectly safe now, vibrant, colourful, comes alive after dark. Decent hotel (Le Prince) too. Ang was sick, so Ali & I wandered up to the lagoon, watched boats for a while, checked on the patient, ate & drank with Jo & Jorge & Gavin. Pleasant day, especially considering it started off looking like a disaster.

Today, roved around Plateau, took Beijing-esque bus back to Treichville for stuff, came back here with taxi driver who accusingly pointed out that les blancs own everything in this African city and c'est pas bon. Washed the guilt down with the burger. Now off to meet the truck again.


May 15, 1998

Burkina Faso: Hotel Central, Ouagadougou

Not actually staying here, natch, but they have a dark room and a fan, and it's still pretty-damn-warm outside, though better'n Mali.

Have hopped off the truck again, off down to Abidjan with Tim, and expect to take a solo week in Ghana as well. The novelty of the truck lifestyle is by now well-worn.

Had eventful day in Mopti. After an hour's truck guarding, bought a frozen-solid bottle of water (mmm...) and went on a pirogue tour of the river up to the Niger with a stopover in a Bozo village, very traditional, facial tattoos and hand-pounded millet and cow-dung kindling. Blessed peace after Mopti's hassle.

Return to truck to find that Angela & Naomi were very ill, combination of dehydration, exhaustion, and food poisoning. (From the chicken & chips in Djenne - which Tim and I had also ordered, but we got guinea fowl). Bush-camped in dark scrub. Next day, rough roads into Bankass, where we put the patients in a hotel and sat around the compound drinking lukewarm Cokes. Walked into the low, dusty, very spread-out town - almost Wild West - and felt parched & boiled within 15 min. Had a beer at the other end of town, driven away by hideous music, slept on the roof.

Off next day on quite-cool Dogon trek. 12K walk paced by horsecarts across the dust - felt like near-desert, but is end of dry season - and slumped in shade, ate couscous, tried to convince ourselves it wasn't that hot out, drank lots of tea. Went to Ende market, charming, colourful, too fucking hot to think.

Went up to the Ende Halls of Justice - where the roof is so low you have to crawl, making fights all but impossible - and then higher still to their Ogon, or spiritual-leader/shaman/witch-doctor/ medicine-man/high-priest. Chosen at an old age, he comes down to the village only once a year and spends the rest of his time dispensing advice (to pilgrims from as far away as Bamako), helping the sick, sacrificing animals on a lightning-struck rock to bring the rain or call back city-dwelling Dogon sons.

Chilled in the Halls of Justice 'til the worst of the midday heat ended, then walked 4K to our rooftop crash pad in Tele. Sent a smallboy with a limp to get me mangoes, but he didn't pan out. Ate rice - no appetite in this heat, though, had to force myself - drank millet beer and warm Coke, slept.

Woke early to village & animal noises. Quick 5K morning walk to our guide Gabriel's home village, sat in the shade during the midday heat crunch, then up the Escarpment, rocky ground like the Canadian Shield. 2 of our members went back to Bankass due to illness. (Starting to feel like the Typhoid Truck - only 5 of us have yet to get sick.) Porters carrying 20L jerry-cans and our box-of-plates, on their heads, up steep uneven rocks. Made it up to Djigiboomboom - what a name - circumnavigated the village with Andrea, ate, chatted, crashed.

Heidi: "Is the lower infant mortality due to the vaccinations or the good spiritual feeling?"

Up at 6 for a long but invigorating walk down the Escarpment, up and down ravines, to the cliff face overlooking Ende. Met up with a few horsecarts on the ground and rode back to Bankass, where of course PK insisted we leave immediately. (Wisely stopped for ice-cold Fanta before we returned to the truck.) Crossed into Burkina Faso - first sign still says "Haute Volta" - with a minimum of fuss, free-camped, and Tim & I decided to leave the truck again.

Truck stopped in Ouahigouya next morning, and we left them there, did a brief cafe tour of the town and hopped on a bus to Ouagadougou which a) left right on time and b) took less time than we expected. Grabbed a cab to the pleasant, cheap Hotel Kilimandjaro and wandered into town, picked up an IHT, ate a 100-CFA meat sandwich (now a staple along with 150-CFA yogurts and 200-CFA Cokes), splurged on ice cream, got a couple of beers, headed back just in time to see Chelsea win the Cup-Winner's Cup on Kilimandjaro's fuzzy, often-B&W TV.

Yesterday, sent Al's letter, bought train tickets for tomorrow, saw the 5th Element (crowd smaller & less rowdy than expected) and ate at the Cafe "God Is Love" pondering its thought for the day: "The Eternal Is My Burger."

Princess Di postage stamps, as weird as Mali's Star Wars ones.

I like Burkina Faso a lot - much more relaxed than Mali, less hassle, less heat, a city it's fun to walk around in, cafe and cinema culture, and real cheap.


May 08, 1998

Mali: Dogon Patisserie, Mopti

Nice little place - good snacks and decent coffee.

I fear this journal isn't all it could be, but I'm not really devoting enough time for more than a dry factual report.

Nice few days in Bamako - day wandering around on my own, wading in the Niger, walking way east to air-con expat bar w/black leather & tuxedoed waiters, Peace Corps base with military entrance and barbed wire. Returned and nursed my sunburn. Next day, Nick was sick with heat rash, so Tim & I hung out at "Bar Bat," a tin shack under bat- barnacled trees by the river, and sipped Coke & beers for the afternoon. Went to the jazz club at night after a few beers with Mohammed, heard a kick-ass version of "Little Wing," ate a kebab, went home.

Next, found THE ENGLISHMAN'S BOY in the mission library, played cards and read until Brian(!) showed up, engaged to a different Mauritanian woman than the one he'd left for. Following day, out of money, about to get a Visa advance, when word of the truck's arrival reached me through our now well-developed Bamako grapevine. The Filthy Dozen showed up, and we three reacted with deserved smugness. Off to a nice hotel with a swimming pool, where I pretty much swam, tanned and drank for two days, until we headed out to the road again.

Camped outside San night before last, and it was a pleasant night before we noticed a few flickers on the horizon. Eventually those developed into the most oh-my-God, pull-out-all-the-stops, Steven-Spielberg-eat-your-heart-out storm I have ever witnessed: two or three lightning flashes a second dancing around us for almost two hours, raindrops hurled so hard they bruised, wind that blew our tents down like tumbleweeds. We huddled in the truck (and occasionally went out to revel in it) until it passed.

Yesterday, off to Djenne. Bold plans to take a riverboat to Mopti fell apart after a 5K walk through the sun revealed a completely dry riverbed. Djenne feels like it just stepped out of the 16th century: mud-brick buildings, narrow alleys and archways, open sewers, wide dirt market spaces, and the towering mud mosque above it all. Saw an albino girl with milk-white eyes (sighted) and very pale blonde-green hair, a freaky sight anywhere but especially in Djenne. Wandered the town for an hour, did the cafe thing w/Tim-Naomi-Ali-Ang-Heidi-Andrea, made our way home under moonlight - only half full, too - so brilliant I could read Lonely Planet by it. Trees rearing against the sky like H.R. Giger nightmares.

Termite mounds, two-toned goats, and twenty bird's nests to a tree. Staple shopping with Wendy & Mike. Fanta Citron, a marvellous invention. Wrestling with mosquito nets. Blast of heat outside Nouakchott.

Tomorrow, Bankass: next day, Dogon country.


May 02, 1998

Mali: Cafe Sport, Bamako

The omnipresent Bob Marley in the background, in a cool little cafe festooned with African art + sculpture. Run by a Senegalese guy who travels a lot and can get by in six languages.

Bamako: not much to see, lots of hassle from would-be guides, but a nice laid-back change of pace from the social petri dish of le camion.

The hyperintensity of travelling on your own still appeals to me, but I think I headed out with Nick + Tim for the last few days just to get a break from the truck. It's fascinating to watch heat, isolation, hard roads, lack of privacy, and sheer dirty making tempers fray and shrinking our world to a 100' radius from the truck.

Spent our last day in Mauritania and our first in Mali being ambushed by trees, very Wizard-of-Oz. Drove on a tiny dirt track sandwiched tightly between trees so thorny you could have sold them to Vlad the Impaler. Branches reached their long arms into the side and clawed at us as we huddled in the middle.

To the last town in Mauritania, hot as blazes, where we embarked on a futile and highly comical quest for a cold drink while Gavin did his act outside the truck to distract the kids. Spent the rest of our ougouya on cobwebbed Fanta, there being nothing else we wanted.

Stopped in a little town for well water and had to sand-mat out, something we're becoming quite expert at. Finally made it to Mali border and chatted with a curious lot: policeman who wouldn't stop shaking hands, a used-car import-exporter (who told us Congo- Brazzaville was open and stable.)

Oh, yeah, night before, had to tent up because there were beaucoup de scorpions around the campsite.

Anyhow, made our way to Kayes - this would, I guess, have been the 26th - and there was mass exodus, as Jo + Jorge went off to Timbuktu and the rest of us left for a couple of cold beers and a night in a hotel. Utter chaos ensued, of course. After the (mmmgood) first couple rounds of beers, we were led by a self-appointed guide named Bruno to a night karate class, a concrete terrace, and then out into nowhere, when all we wanted was a hotel. We gave up and taxied to a hotel - which had rooms, but no keys to the rooms, and no way of finding the man with the keys. We gave up and went off to eat chicken-flavoured rice around the corner. It took a half-hour's heated argument to discover that both sides actually agreed on the price.

Back to the hotel-with-no-keys, where Mathias set out with a fellow Frenchman to find the keys, and promptly lost his passport. Regained it eventually. The girls showered as Chong + I waited for Nick + Tim, who had gone off with the leechlike Bruno to buy drinks. Mike + Matt + the girls taxied back to the expensive Hotel du Rail, where we'd begun the evening. Nick + Tim arrived with beers, and we ditched Bruno with difficulty and took a barely-stumbling cab to Hotel du Rail, where we'd begun the evening, irritated only by Pebbles'n'Sam's drunken shrieks and the appearance of the ever-present Bruno, demanding beer bottles.

A fairly restful sleep and supercooled water/ cafe-au-lait later, we waited for the truck. And waited. At length we learned that it wouldn't be back 'til midafternoon because the suspension needed fixing. Bored, and stupid, we sent for a long walk under the blazing midday sun of the hottest city in Africa, walking zombielike a very long way before finally arriving at a market with food & cold drinks.

Back to HQ, where the truck turned up, and had to wait for another insurance tax. Half an hour to a campsite by an old power station where nearly everyone went swimming in allegedly bilharzia-laden water: I, on cook duty, didn't have the option. Decided to head off w/ Nick + Tim and meet up in Bamako.

Next day, back to Kayes: train left at 8 PM, so we drank & played cards all afternoon before embarking. 16-hour overnight journey from Kayes to Bamako. Thank God, in this heat, we didn't go by day. Got a surprising amount of sleep in the jostling seats. At every stop, even 3 AM, the platform outside was a seething crowd of passengers and mango vendors and the just curious. In the morning, incredible numbers of people started wedging themselves into the little space between the seats, carrying sacks of rice + flour, live chickens, baskets of produce, vats of oil, babies slung in backpacks, you name it.

Finally got to Bamako and ate, famished, at the Ali Baba Cafe, before traipsing to the Hammer House Of Horrors Hotel Lac Debo. Actually not a bad place, but with its 20' ceilings, shadowy interior, and odd nooks & crannies, a very "The Shining"esque hotel. Nick crashed and Tim & I gatecrashed the 4-star Hotel de l'Amitie, sipping G+T's by the poolside and gloating about it. Out for a few beers and then to sleep.

Next day - 30th, day before yesterday - met Jo & Jorge, not yet out for Timbuktu, changed money, ordered but couldn't eat colossal burger at La Phoenicia, had some Cokes at Ali Baba, early night. Got laundry done too.

Yesterday, had to leave Hotel Lac Debo because money was getting tight. Tried to head for Mission Libonais, but they jacked the price up at the last minute, so spent the day at Phoenicia & Ali Baba, surrounded by a hostile gaggle of "guides" who claimed we owed them money because they had followed us. Played cards, read (finished LONG WALK TO FREEDOM).

Eventually made our way to the pleasant Catholic mission here, which feels a bit like a sanctuary, and has dorm rooms. Spent last night there and here (Cafe Sport, across the road.) Slept OK, though in this heat you just ooze sweat. Planning to wander down to the river now, post office at 2 for rendezvous, US Embassy reading room, vantage point.

Attempts to fix fridge & light. Sleeping under the stars and waking naturally at dawn (!). Jorge forget to pay, and we have to deal with it. The search for Marlboro Lights. "No small money?" Random power outages. Rows of empty water bottles. "Bohemian Rhapsody" as we charge into Mali.


April 24, 1998

Mauritania: 20K south of Keffi

God, it's hot. Still well above 30 even at this hour. At lunch today it was pushing 50 in the shade and the sun was like an anvil. We're heading towards Kayes, "the hottest town in Africa."

At least it's a dry heat.

Eastern Mauritania is a desolate, squalid wasteland, where shrivelled trees and mangy goats and crowds of dangerously skinny people try to eke out an existence in an environment too harsh for grass. The kids in town demand presents while we're there and fling stones at us when we drive off, and it's hard to feel outraged.

The sight of a fridge is a cause for celebration.

Brian has gone: he claims he'll return, but we have our doubts. He left us yesterday, returning to Nouakchott to marry a woman he'd met the day before. I will refrain from editorial comment.

"Do you have a cadeau for me? Something small, like a wristwatch?" - a cop one of the countless roadside spot checks.

A hard day of sand-matting under the baking sun took us to the coast, where we paused for a well-deserved swim and birthday cake. Would have eaten dinner too, but we had to dash off at low tide and ride the beach for half an hour to get to the Nouakchott trail. Stopped for a sodden B-day party for Angela + Andrea, and finally crashed around midnight.

Next, drove into the wide, low, relatively thriving metropolis of Nouakchott, with wide boulevards, large Mediterraneanesque buildings sporting satellite dishes, and at least one good cafe. No newspapers or magazines younger than 2.5 years tho. Stopped at the French embassy for a visa, shopped, and free-camped by a sand dune, which seemed like a good idea until we discovered - at 4 AM - that it was a sand quarry, open 24 hours. Moment of blind panic as I wake to lights and truck noises...while sleeping under the truck.

Back in for a day in the city, another good meal followed by a long walk, and a brief stop at the fishing port; stacks of 4'-5' fish. New free camp because the campsite arbitrarily tripled its price at the last minute. Swim and beach volleyball, then a disastrous meal - remind me not to change cook groups again - overshadowed by Shirray's fainting spell.

Final morning in Nouakchott, long afternoon waiting for diesel at a service station, and then we got stuck looking for a campsite and had to dig and sand-mat out, what fun. Slept out-out, because it's too dry for skeeters or rain, too hot for tents, and not windy enough to be impossible; much better than a tent. Must buy a mosquito net, aka moustiquerie.

Yesterday and today, deeper and deeper into nowhere. We must be in the middle by now. One-camel towns with no name, and mile after mile of shrub-spotted desert. No terrain until some New Mexico-esque ridges today; this afternoon wasn't quite as unbearably stark as the previous few hundred K.

Last night, volleyball, a route analysis & explanation, and sleep under the stars again; not bad. Today we ran out of primary-tank diesel while stopped in Keffi for water, and had to transfer-pump in front of a crowd, what fun.

Free-camped again tonight. Tomorrow night is our last in Mauritania, and I've written less inspiring sentences.

Two meals at once at the Nouakchott restaurant, after a forced-march seek-and-devour mission with Mike + Chong. Heidi's "I love sand-matting" bizarrerie. The four-star Novotel out of town, another world entirely. Clothes + trinkets in the Grand Marche. Abandoned at the Prince Cafe. The raging coastal currents, keeping me at a standstill (swimstill?) even while doing a full crawl. Huddled under a Tuareg prayer-tent for shade.


April 18, 1998

Mauritania: Somewhere in the Sahara

I tried so hard to work up enthusiasm for the scrub and near-desert we passed through, but it's been completely overshadowed by the real thing in all its windswept majesty.

We finally received our passports and entered Mauritania after a long 24 hours in the convoy. We broke down in the middle of an alleged minefield and I wandered up the road w/ Heidi + Chong + Angela + Andrea + Gav. We irritated the soldier in charge: worth it for the chocolate cookies and Spanish water, because the desalinated water we picked up in Dakhla is ghastly. Then two hurry-up-and-waits, interspersed by a frenzied dinnerless bush camp. Long wait in the morning, time maimed by frisbee and football with the French and Germans and Hamid, briefly our guide, a fellow EE who moonlights as a trilingual guide.

Into Nouadhibou, meaning "Jackal's Well," a long low colourless squalid sprawling city, oppressively hot, where it's hard to tell the endless goat-and-poverty-strewn shantytown from the centreville. Good bread though.

Hours of formalities - no search, no currency declaration, but an "insurance" tax - and eventually a campsite six African kilometres out of town, past camel herds and saltwater pools. Another marathon cook session for us. Up, collect three large freshly caught fish, and out into the Sahara after a brief shopping trip in Nouadhibou.

Endless rocky plains - driving's much more fun with a side up - with only one sand-mat stop. Park in the curve of a sand dune which we rushed up and tobogganed or plummeted down. When we grew tired we discovered that solid rock lurked a few inches below the ground. Only the Belgian girls - more later - got their tent up, and the rest of us prepared to huddle under the truck.

We picked up the Belgian girls - Ingrid and Nicole - at the border, which they couldn't cross because they're on bicycles, because they're spending four years cycling across the world, have written a (Belgian, Flemish) bestseller on it, and have pretty much turned travel into a cottage industry.

Then the excitement: Sam didn't show up for dinner and nobody knew where he went. I scaled the sand dune to look for him and, after being briefly dazzled by more stars than I ever knew existed, was stunned by two sets of headlights, coming at us. In the middle of the Sahara.

Turned out he'd wandered off just before sunset, lost his bearings when the dark hit, and (fucking idiot) wandered off to look for us. Eventually he saw some lights, ran at them, and flagged down two Tuareg Land Rovers about 10K from where we were camped. They managed to find us and delivered him. Then they invited us over for freshly slaughtered lamb - mmm, red meat - with mint tea and a multi-cultural array of songs.

Slept under the truck, after repeatedly bruising my head on the drive shaft. Up and across the wide ocean of sand, dunes and plains and ridges and solitary twisted trees, and repeated sand matting. The heat at lunch was like an anvil, but it didn't affect the hovering lime-green wasp-like bug.

Wonderbat and the Red Spot Brigade. The abandoned and miraculously recovered cookpot. The Case of the Disappearing Lighters. Trowels & TP dangling, we stride into the desert. Sardine sandwiches and oranges when times get desperate on the truck. "Lola" as we cross a white sea of sand.


April 15, 1998

No-man's-land, Morocco-Mauritania border

In sight of the shattered remnants of a Land Rover that must have strayed onto a mine. Not surprisingly, no one is exploring the area. About 10K up a winding desert trail with more bumps and surprises than a roller coaster, but we're on a sort of pavement - well, hardpack - now. The convoy is being inspected by the Mauritanian military.

Woke up last night to patter-patter on the tent fly and assumed it was a Lariam dream. Rain in the Sahara, who'd'a thunk it? Stopped now, but the sky is still a bright poisonous gray.

Dakhla is a hideous military anthill of a town, but I like desert more and more, in its many faces - windswept dunes, straggling chains of rock, endless plains pounded absolutely flat by sun and wind. More life than I expected - tufts of thorn and cactus are speckled everywhere.

Camped outside of Dakhla by the ocean for two nights. First was by the beach, a much-appreciated swim. Watched the sunset from the edge of a laser-beam-level stone plateau perched on a sand dune like a graduation cap. Had to dig the truck out to get there, but sand is much easier to dig than previous olive-grove muck.

Then to Dakhla: stocked up on drugs, food, dry goods, trinkets, anything to spend our last dirhams. Camped next to a fisherman's cemetery in a small green enclave cut into the desert by the ocean.

Hurry-up-and-wait yesterday morning, sewing off the ends of our newly purchased plastic mats as the convoy slowly assembled. A couple of checkpoints en route, but fewer than the police stops the previous couple of days.

Just interrupted by passport check: two serious men in khaki, in a building made of piled stones, flipping through passports.

Night in high wind at a cheerless border compound, miserable rainstrewn desert morning, and here we are, spirits much improved. Noudahibou by nightfall.


April 11, 1998

Morocco: Past Laayoune, Western Sahara

Our lives revolve around food. We wake early in the mornings, just past the crack of dawn, and have our tents down before breakfast. Drive for a couple of hours and stop for today's and/or tomorrow's cooks to shop, while the remainder have cafes au lait and watch the baked streets and houses or guard the truck from endlessly enthusiastic hustlers selling fossils or racks of semi-precious stones. Drive on, playing cards, listening to music, staring out the window, until we stop for the night. Pitch tents, wander for half an hour, and mark time until dinner. After dinner we crash almost immediately.

Spent more days in Marrakesh than expected, due to mech problems. Cafe au laits and a long sonorous night next to Tim + Nick + Mattias, the Place Djemaa el-Fna, usually a riot of people and noise and food stalls and orange juice stands and trinket vendors, cigarette eaters, snake charmers, acrobats, henna tattooists, hasslers, hustlers, and a seething mass of tourists and Moroccans. Hitching in with a fellow EE and walking the 13K back to the campsite. Leonard Cohen drifting over the IHT.

A few long trucking days since. Agadir, closed for the day, so we bush-camped on the beach, played rugby for a bit and huddled out of the wind. Two days through the Western Sahara, police checkpoints spaced sometimes by minutes and sometimes hours, landscape shifting from scraggly trees that look unnaturally placed atop mounds of sand to long flat cactus-strewn scrub to ragged plains of rock and gravel to occasional folded dunes of Hollywood desert. "Objects in the desert may be much further away than they appear." And the wind, varying direction but constant force, lashing the tents and truck, catching clothes and caps, scattering a thin layer of sand on our food and dishes. The shoreline we drive past is dotted with shipwrecks and the surf sounds like thunder.

Stop in the middle of nowhere, and half the time a few old men appear from thin air and crouch near us, shaking hands or smoking silently.

Last night - the 10th - by a wide salt plain like a lunar crater, six inches of salt and earth crust above six inches of muddy water, moonrise ahead and sunset behind peeking over the rims of the crater, bands of purple in the sky and the salt plains glistening in the mingled lights, a dessicated goat's skeleton slumped in a depression in the middle, the omnipresent dry wind hanging over the tableau.

400K to Dakhla and the military convoy bound for Mauritania.

14 April money:
cash francs 5,000
cash pounds 100
cash dollars 250
TC pounds 250
TC dollars 700


April 04, 1998

Morocco: Cafe Shawarma, Marrakesh

It's amazing how much perspective shift you get from 24h away from the truck; we're so much our own insular society when on the move that it's a reassessing shock to be independent again, with all the other truckers now irrelevant figures Somewhere Else.

I understand cults a little better now.

Chrono: A full day in the Todra Gorges, spent doing some aimless drifting. Walked a few K up the gorge with an unwell Heidi, then abandoned her to a herd of goats and walked up a little way, perched on a crag at the side of the gorge and listened to music and stared for a while.

Hundred-metre walls of red rock scored into layers, like rake marks on sand, ten or twenty feet deep, the lines dipping and swaying in every direction. Dry gravelbed occasionally marked by a pool of water after the creek had run dry, and a road/trail weaving drunkenly from one side of the creek to the other. An old man with leather skin and black teeth leading a dozen camels down into the gorge from the Sahara. Buses splashing through a few inches of water where the stream crossed the road to the hotel.

Returned, wandered to the village in the other direction, a wedge of shocking green beneath hills and cliffs of swept-bare rock. Walked through fields trailing eight-year-olds. No dirhams, no bonbons: bought 'em off with a taste of Portishead. Returned, picked up laundry, ate, chattered, "washed hands" w/oil, talked with solo Canadian traveller Sue, crashed.

Next day, trucked away for a long walk up the Dadoes Gorges, steep switchbacks and a winding road that curled down between two cliffs and next to a waterway, a dark few hundred feet. Hotels scattered apparently randomly. Pitched tents in a gravel tent, more or less, but fortunately we were on truck-guard duty.

Next day - Saturday, day before yesterday - on cook duty. Stopped in Ouarzazate and picked up "jefes" (?) - headscarves - and some food, some beer. Lunched in the desert, where the mud tracks from the last rain had dried and curled up in the sun, crunching like dry leaves when I walked on them. Afternoon stop by a village where parts of Lawrence of Arabia were shot, an unfinished village, sandbag stepping-stones, a crumbling ruin atop a hill with a glorious view - green valley beneath harsh brown scrub beneath a shimmering curtain of snow-capped mountains in the distance. "Gorge walkers can't handle slopes." Reluctantly rescued Heidi's speed-garage tape. Onwards to a campsite above a riverbed. Played drudge in Angela's epic 3.5-hour dinner production: chicken bake with bread-n-butter pudding. Great, but, never again.

Yesterday, zoned next to an apparently on-speed Tim as the truck wound its way up, through, and around the mountains en route to Marrakesh. The bare brown folds, furrows and ridges of a desert mountaintop. A red mountain lurking behind a screen of green ones. To a campsite outside Marrakesh. Showered & headed into town, hitching a bus ride with Heidi + Amanda. Heidi's loud "Evil Moslem" comment on the bus - my God. Long walk through medina, over ram's horns and Heidi's objections, to a halfway decent hotel and the wow-wow-wow grand square of the medina, countless stalls of oranges and food, henna tattooists and cobra charmers, hemmed in by anarchic traffic on three sides and an endless covered market on the other.

Went to new area of town - main strip, as with all Moroccan towns, is Blvd Mohammed V - but didn't meet our would-be rendez-vous'ers. Had damn fine cafe au lait and walked back to medina, where we ate at a stall and chilled on a terrace above the seething crowd. Heidi claimed the single bed, so battled with Amanda for the covers, and dropped into surreal Lariam dreams.

Woke, breakfasted on bread and orange juice - now that's Moroccan - split with the shoppers and had a cafe and IHT before going gift shopping (was given responsibility for PK's gift.) Found some nice sandals, but 50 Dh too much: we'll see. Roved down Mohammed V, bought soap + pens + paper, stopped here for a pizza. Plan is to check out the new area of town, meet H+A at 5, buy sandals, and head out for the night. Might change my $20 USD - last big town for a while.


April 01, 1998

Morocco: Restaurant Cafe Hotel des Roches, Todra Gorge

Sipping a Coke in the reception/alcohol-free bar room, which, like other rooms here, converts to a bedroom after hours. A grand old dilapidated place, all faded tile and crumbling paint, but with comfy patterned benches/beds and a truly breathtaking backdrop - the Todra Gorge looming above, a crescent moon hanging off the shoulder of a colossal mass of rock.

We've seen so many staggering landscapes in the last couple of days that I'm afraid I'm already starting to get jaded. An endless green lawn of grass and moss beneath a canopy of cedars, their monkey-highway trunks ("monsieur! monsieur! le sage dans l'arbre!") impossibly straight and slender, with a creek weaving slowly between the trees. Endless mountain slops strewn with rocks like God's own gravel, grass spilling out beneath the boulders, dotted by conical pits half-filled by water and sinuous glacier-carved lakes. An interminable plain of stones and dirt overseen by a snow-caped range of mountains. Raw jagged scrubland where only the hardiest and thorniest bushes and weeds survive the baking sun and the flash floods. Ribbed cliffs and sudden outgrowths of stone above a red near-desert pockmarked by tufts of grass, an almost Martian landscape.

Chronological: Second day at Diamant Vert was uneventful save for the fact that we cooked (acquitted ourselves OK) and the discovery of the disused amusement park - rides, slides, huge cafe - at other end.

Up into the mountains. Stopped to see a cedar so old it's allegedly biblical and continued up just a little to a pleasant forest campsite. Smoked up, wandered a little, ate, and was taken by surprise at the cold's rapid advance. Heat entirely dependent on sun at this height + latitude. OK night - 1st real test for sleeping bag - and up further and further, past mountainside farmland and picturesque valleys, to a somewhat jarring stop - not physically, but a big wide field in a high wind is not my idea of a great campsite. It worked out OK. Tents huddled close together like sheep. Heidi + I went for a walk to a hilltop while the others played football with the (intensely curious) locals and Angela nearly crippled a couple children. Dinners, some stoned stargazing, and to bed.

Today: a slow start and a long drive, with the usual hour's stop in a town and half-hour stop for lunch - it's amazing how quickly this all falls into routine. Wound through miles and miles of previously described mountains and foothills, the edge of the Sahara, with a brief pause when the main diesel tank ran dry (no, really). Missed the climactic entrance into the Gorge because of a nail-biting yet triumphant game of 500. OK, that's a little pathetic.

Hawkers and hustlers selling fossils and semi-precious stones and lacquered scorpions and their services as guides. And headscarves, which PK says we're going to need - cool. Baked mud and brick rough- carved into squat rectangular buildings in the mountain villages. Heat and dust, white stone and brown dirt, in town streets. Dark cafes and the moustached men who populate them. Pools in roadside pits like inverted grain silos. Brown sheep and black goats, flocking over the land. Hills of crumbling dirt that ripple out to the real Sahara.

I'm enjoying the journey more with every passing day.


March 30, 1998

The Big Yellow Truck

The BYT warrants a description of its own.

20 tons, 1500L of fuel, 500L of water in jerry cans, two winches, tools and sand mats, wood compartment, three axles (two drive), four spare tires. PK, Shirray, and Mick drive up in the cab: we sit in the back. Communication via buzzer and intercom.

Seating's divided into three pairs of bus seats at the front and two long benches at the back, two steps between levels. Two big bins at the back hold safes and sleeping gear. Storage space behind webbing at the top, under the seats, and under front floorboards. Food & dry goods stored below rear floorboards. There's enough space to stand comfortably at the back.

Batteries (seperate from starter) power tape deck and lights for hours. Fridge runs only when engine does. Couple of other nooks and crannies for common storage. Garbage bin doubles as card table.

Dramatis Personae

* PK, New Zealand
* Shirray, Australia
* Mick, Australia
* Heidi, England
* Tony, England
* Sam, England
* Tim, England
* Amanda, Australia
* Andrea, Namibia/Germany
* Angela, Ireland
* Nick, England
* Gavin, England
* Brian, England
* Jo, New Zealand
* Pat, England
* Caz, England/Kenya/Morocco
* Naomi, England
* Mike, New Zealand
* Chong, England
* Wendy, England
* Jorge, Mexico
* Mattias, France
* (later) Alison, Scotland