Wednesday, 30 April 2008

28th April 08

Date: 25, 26, 27th and 28th April 08
Location: Yaounde, Cameroon
Weather: Grey oppressive thundery skies, humid, 36°c
Status: All feeling very tired and sore after the climb!

25th April – left the delights of the Azi Motel early in the morning to drive south to Limbe and finally the coast again. Pulled into the city after a few hour drive and wow what a place, stunningly beautiful scenery! Black volcanic sand leading into the clear ocean with little palm studded islands dotted on the horizon…oh and the large volcanic island of Equatorial Guinea in the distance too!

Visited the cash machines to fill up the wallets and went to the tourist office to find out about the climb of Mount Cameroon, the third and next challenge on my list of things to do. We’d be able to do it in 2 days as hoped as time is really starting to push on and we hope to be in the capital Yaounde by Monday as the applications for our next 3 visas will take at least 4 days so we can get them and head to the coast for some well needed R&R!

Once we’d got the details we headed to the Miramar Hotel just down the coast and used their pool and facilities to refresh after the drive. Bre and I grabbed the snorkels and we headed down to the beach and for nearly an hour pottered around the shoreline and rock pools trying to see anything, but to no avail!

Headed up to Buea, the town on the southern slopes of the mountain, to book the next couple of days activities and then found a little guest house where we could park up the vehicles and camp for the night. Really good little place and they even offered us free beds for the night to save us getting out our tents again!

26th April – up bright and early to start the climb. Somehow over the last week I’ve managed to persuade everybody to join me for the climb to the summit (its described as an easy trek!) and they all turned up at the office on time with far too much stuff, but as porters were included in the price it didn’t matter!.

So all 12 of us, plus 12 porters, plus 2 guides got taxis to the base and started the climb up the slopes of this amazing active volcano. The first part took us up through the rainforest and of course it was tipping it down just to remind us quite why this is the 3rd wettest place on the planet, and after a couple of hours walk it was clear that there were 2 different classes of walker…..the more experienced boot shodden ones, and the flip flop and lightweight shoe brigade, it should have been clear now who exactly would make it to the top!

Once we’d cleared the tree line at 2000m the terrain became trickier and the slope more intense and the group was split with one guide taking charge of each. The surface was noticeably easier to walk on than Mount Toubkal as its formed from igneous rock created during the last eruption back in 2000, rather than sedimentary rock which breaks away easily and makes walking more difficult.

We hit the first rest hut at around 1pm and then onto the most difficult part of the climb a 45° scramble which lasted for half an hour and tested even the best climbers, once we’d waited nearly an hour for the rest of the group to turn up we cleared the next ridge to find the overnight hut waiting for us. Exhausted we all grabbed a bite to eat before hitting the sack at around 8pm….we’ll there’s not much to do in the dark up a mountain, and we had to get up for 3.30am to start the final day!

27th April – awoke on time and donned the gear from yesterday before stuffing down a couple of MOD ration packs for body fuel and with head torches blazing we headed off into the morning darkness. We got almost 10 minutes into the trek and the first complaint arrived…..we can’t keep up, I’m too tired, I can’t see anything, and so very quickly 5 of the group decided they weren’t up for the challenge and headed back to the comfort, and disappointment filled delights of their sleeping bags…shame!

The weather had cleared beautifully and we could all see the towns and cities flickering below, the wind was up though and cut through our clothing as we walked the ridges which would take us to the summit, and after another hours walk we found ourselves at the 3rd and final rest hut at 3200m.

As we left the hut the sun was just starting to show its face on the horizon and with it came the cloud, huge white whispy pillow of moisture which wrapped themselves around the slopes, there one minute and gone the next. The air was thinning noticeably now and the huffing and puffing was really starting with less distance walked every time and more time to recover between attempts. Bre and I led from the front and were stuck to the guide from the start, she’s a damn fit girl to be able to do it and even equipped with just thin soled basketball boots marched along happily.

Once we’d got to within 200m of the summit the strain was really starting to show on some faces but eventually everyone made it to the top, in the windy, cold and damp conditions. Its hard to believe that only a day earlier we were basking in 36°c heat and now were shivering at zero degrees albeit at 4090m above sea level. The clouds were kind enough to clear for a few minutes whilst we were up there and we could see the coastline below and again Equatorial Guinea off in the distance, the other volcanic mountain in the area. I made a quick sat phone call to home just to let them know that Challenge Number 3 was completed and we quickly made the descent to the overnight hut again to tell all of the others of the experience.

A slow descent to keep the group together eventually became too much for me and when one of the porters suggested racing him to the bottom I jumped at the chance to get some good training in. OK he did have a 15kg backpack on and I was only carrying 5kg, but I did give him a good run for his money, we managed to clear the downhill section of the mountain and pretty much flat out running all the way, in a little over 2hrs but it killed me and my legs felt shattered. All good training for the Comrades which happens in just over and month and a half, yikes!

Once the rest had caught up we said our thank you’s and drove back to the coast at Limbe and straight to the Hotel Miramar again to use the delights of their pool to recover. I even treated myself to a double room, so Bre joined me and we sat up watching crappy movies and TV to recover.

28th April – woke early feeling stiff from the weekends exploits, and then had to get straight out to the Colonel as the F/O/S brake had been locking on. Found the problem and we were on the road by 9am on the way to Yaounde, Cameroon’s capital and our home for the next few days to organise visas for the next few countries. The supposed 4hr drive, took nearly 7 and although the quality of the roads was excellent, the numerous roadblocks, roadworks and traffic jams meant the entire day was stop start and when we finally got to the Presbyterian mission on the outskirts of the city we were all tired again. Quick bit of food for all and off to bed.

Up early in the morning to get to the Congo Embassy for 8am to start the application process….

End of day location: Yaounde, Cameroon
Distance covered: 328kms

Friday, 25 April 2008

24th April 08

Date: 24th April 08
Location: Ayukaba, Cameroon
Weather: Rain overnight then clear most of the day until a big thunderstorm hit late on. 38°c
Status: Relieved and resting up

Packed up and left the football pitch to set out on the road of hell again. Got almost 10kms down the muddy track, slipping and sliding all the way with the Colonel again performing impeccably.

Arrived in the town of Abuka to be greeted by the locals who told us we’d have to wait about 2hrs as the road ahead was blocked by 4 large trucks all stuck up to their axles, followed by 2 cars and 4 Land Rovers!

Walked up the hill to see the carnage and couldn’t believe it, I’ve never seen anything quite like it with a 15ft deep channel just about wide enough to see the trucks in which twisted for around 100m into the distance. They trucks had been there for 2 day with the crew and the locals all digging to free them for the same amount of time.

We really did arrive at the right time as after two hours of watching and helping out the first truck managed to wriggle free, followed quickly by the others and the afer the cars had been towed through the Landies passed with no problems.

Now our turn. All three of us sailed through without so much as a wheel spin, sometimes you just arrive at exactly the right point and the days of digging made our route far too easy! The road became better as we made our way towards the main highway at Nguti and we passed through some of the most stunning mountain, rainforests, with the roads stretching off into distance but the clouds were building all of the time.

We pulled into Nguti for a bite of lunch – rice, tomato sauce and bush meat (more than likely bush rat) and eventually arrived in Kumba and made our way to the Azi Motel where the very hospitable manager allowed us to stay in the car park for free as long as we had dinner in the restaurant….and that’s exactly where I am now writing this.

Tomorrow we head south to the coast again and the town of Limbe to restock the wallets and prepare for the assault on Mount Cameroon a few days later!

End of day location: Kumbe
Distance covered: 117kms

22nd April 08

Date: 22nd April 08
Location: Drill Ranch, Calabar, Nigeria
Weather: Humid, hot and thundery…just what we don’t need for the roads ahead! 38°c
Status: excited to be on the bad roads but full of anticipation!

Yesterday, the 21st April we collected our visas from the Cameroon embassy and finally had our way out of Nigeria and permission to enter the next country on the map, and probably one of the hardest ones to get through due to the condition of the roads.

Had a very early night after a superb beef stew courtesy of Alex and slept extremely well until the alarm went off at 05.30am.

Packed, washed, fed and left the Drill Ranch at around 07.00am and finally the next step of the mission could continue with all on board including Bre and Ammon and now with three 4WD vehicles in convoy. It’s a superb sight to see all of us storming down the African roads with lights blazing although we have a urgent mission to carry out….well in theory we do, getting to South Africa in time for the Comrades!

We took the 200km return road back to Ikom as its a whole lot easier than using the forest reserve road which at this time of year can take weeks to cover the 75kms between the border and the next town on, Mamfe. Filled up with the cheap Nigerian fuel for the last time and headed down the 26km road to the border. Usual police tactics on the way and we had to stop at 3 different checkpoints to give ALL of the passenger details which took nearly an hour….and then finally we arrived at the impressive, first-ever suspension bridge in Africa, between Nigeria and Cameroon.

Usual routine of heading to immigration first to get the passports stamped, left another complete passport sheet for the officials to have and then up the stairs to the customs for the carnet stamp…..then finally we were there, through the gates and into no-mans-land. Across the bridge, and into Cameroon and how the mood changed, the officials were almost hilarious in comparison, offering to get all of the single people on the trip, which amounted to all except 2 of us, a wife or husband as they felt sorry for us.

The warnings came thick and fast about the road ahead to the next town, Mamfe ranging from “it’ll take you a few hours” to “you’ll need 4WD all the way”. Great, but this was exactly the reason I wanted to come here in the first place – to challenge myself and the vehicle. This is the point where I have to say thank you Dad for all of the hard work you’ve put in to make this possible, the Colonel so far as performed impeccably and now is the start of the real test!

Left the border village of Ekok and immediately the road turned into shit, not a spot of tarmac in sight, rough, ungraded clay and sand mixed together which had dried into the most angular, rutted mess you could imagine…..and that was just in between the long deep puddles, sorry lakes!

Over the next 16.5kms we tested the 3 vehicles to the full with axle twisting, grinding situations which resulted in all of us ploughing for our perspective countries….but finally we got through the worst of the first section only for me to look underneath and see that the transfer box cross-member we’d installed before leaving the UK had taken a good whack and was now pretty knocked up. Add to that a slow puncture around the bead of the front tyre caused by the mud and sand getting forced in and I was having a great time leading the expedition.

Swapped the wheel and carried on our way for another few kms before pulling off into a sand pit for the night as the heavens looked as if they were about to open. Set up camp and Patrick and Sarah cooked a superb Poitjke which we had by the camp fire.

Bed at 11pm as we have another huge day ahead tomorrow. We are a third of the way down this road before the tarmac starts again at the next town and then after Mamfe we have the gruelling 200kms of similar roads to today.

This is Africa and I love it. The travelling, expedition part of the mission is truly underway and I’m so happy the Kees the Dutchman suggested we drive to Cape Town. Together me and him are gonna smile, laugh and drive these homes of ours all the way to the V&A waterfront in Cape Town….bring it on!

End of day location: Sand Pit, 18.5kms east of Mfum, Cameroon
Distance covered: 289kms

20th April 08

Date: 20th April 08
Location: Calabar, Nigeria
Weather: Blue skies with the occasional cloud but still humid as hell! 38°c
Status: Preparing for the next leg of the mission

Got up early and made a fully comprehensive breakfast whilst everyone else watched bizarrely. It’s a good group of people but some of them really do have to pull their own weight occasionally, its one thing to complain but when you do nothing about it, it becomes rather tiring!

So had a good fill and then got my Landie reading for the trip ahead, it’s this part of the planning and preparation that’s essential and which will hopefully pay dividends once we get to the mud-hell that awaits us in a few weeks time in Central Africa.

Packed up the tent, did my laundry and then headed out for a drive east towards the Calabar river to break the monotony of hanging around in the car park we’re camped in. Bre, Brandon and Alex joined me and the road we hoped was going to be a track and muddy as hell, turned out to be another perfect tarmac road. I know I shouldn’t wish for worse conditions just so I can use 4WD as it’ll probably turn round and bite me later on in the trip, but it’d be good to get on something slightly less grippy than sealed road every now and then! I think by the time I get to the border with Cameroon things will have changed significantly!

Rocked up at the river to be greeted by a group of 15, less than friendly locals who immediately asked what we were doing and told us not to take any photos at all. Not the best welcome but once I’d had a little chat with them they softened and we all walked together to the end of the jetty and discussed the area, their lives and the whole mad cap trip were on. Didn’t take any photos but had a good time with them anyhows.

Was a quick round trip so we headed back to camp and as soon as we got there decided to head out to the Metropolitan Hotel for a swim and to steal their wireless internet! It was a fantastic afternoon spent in the sunshine, relaxing in and out of the water and testing the lovely waterproof Olympus camera which they were kind enough to sponsor me! Took some superb photos and videos of me, Case and Bre mucking about in the pool which will be on the website later on….

Dinner off the street again, rice, beans and meat, not sure what type but they put enough spice on it that the taste is masked anyway!

Bed as up early for a long run….

End of day location: Calabar, Nigeria
Distance covered: 20kms

Sunday, 20 April 2008

18th April 08

Date: 19th April 08
Location: Drill Monkey Ranch, Calabar, Nigeria
Weather: Scattered blue skies and cloud, very humid, 36°c
Status: All preparing for the trip ahead

Got up late as Bre and I decided to have a lie for a change and finally descended the steps out of tent at 9am instead of the usual 6.30am. Turned into rather a lay-day as we’re sitting here waiting for Monday and the opening of the Cameroon Embassy so we can apply for and collect our visas on the same day, a service rarely available in African embassies!

So helped Case to service his truck and grease it all ready for the mission ahead, got his winch working again, and fixed the fridge so pretty productive really.

My newly acquired personal trainer Bre then put me through my paces as a gymnast with a series of stretches and work out exercises to differ slightly from the usual running and jogging. Think I’ll be sore in the morning though.

Headed out for dinner at a restaurant called Mr Majik’s and wish it had lived up to its name as the food took almost 2 hours to arrive, granted when it did it was really good, but I suppose this is African time again.

If you want fast food go to McDonalds….something I would hate to do but there!

Bed early….

End of day location: Calabar, Nigeria
Distance covered: 0kms

17th April 08

Date: 15, 16 and 17th April 08
Location: Calabar, Nigeria
Weather: Scattered clouds, very humid and potentially stormy. 35°c
Status: Everyone’s having a really good time, vehicles all good too.

A summary of the last three days as it’s been a whole load of driving, sleeping and not much else!

Over the last few days we’ve made our way from the west of Nigeria to the capital Abuja and tonight I’m writing the dairy report from Calabar in the west of the country, it’s a huge one but we’ve managed to get through it with little difficulty, effort and most of all no problems…yet!

We left the ridiculously expensive First Molac Hotel in Owo and started what we thought would be a simple four hour drive to the capital….it took eight and when we finally arrived in Abuja everyone was ready to eat and sleep.

Tris Bartlett, the uncle of my lovely friend Tabs in England, has been waiting for me to arrive for the last two weeks, with all the changes of my schedule and plans I think he thought I would never arrive. Tris works for the British Council and has the luxury of living on site at the rather palatial HQ, and it was a welcome relief to spend the night here after a filling fish dinner! I slept outside on the roof and loved the views over probably the most developed and advanced city I’ve visited in Africa. In the morning I had a good 2hr run round a route which Tris recommended and ended up getting totally lost so felt shattered when I got back to the others.

Later that morning I collected my birthday parcels from the offices of Julius Berger where another patient star, Poul Nielsen, had been looking after them for the last 4 weeks; taking up important space in his office. He generously donated a really good map of Nigeria and we headed out of the city, via the Sheridan Hotel where we met up with another group of overlanders, Patrick, Sarah and James.

We met them at Big Milly’s and left them a week ago, but with their speed as a single 4x4 and our lack of, with a Landie and truck, they caught us up in Abuja. Their destination is also SA so they’ve decided for safety and the ability to get pulled out of trouble by us, that they’ll join us for the trip down.

And then suddenly we were 3 vehicles, 10 people and 3000kms to travel!

So the 16th and another long drive, this time south to Muktadi which is on the banks of the Benue River, a tributary of the enormous Niger, where we found the run down damn expensive shit hole of a hotel where we spent the night. A good Chinese restaurant on site where we had dinner….eventually after waiting for nearly an hour! But it was good.

So this morning set off early as we had the greatest distance to cover and the least confidence in the roads yet, but again Nigeria surprised us and perfectly tarmaced surfaces, albeit with a few humugous potholes along the way! Again the usual number of police/military checks to contend with and the most frustrating/amusing of the lot was as we were heading into a town and were told that right hand drive cars are illegal in Nigeria!!! After half an hour explaining what the charity expedition was about we were getting nowhere, they wanted us to go to the police station with them, we had all of the correct documents and refused to budge and so we reached stalemate! Then Case suggested to the lead policeman that as we’re engineers we would change over the steering wheel at the side at the road for them! This was enough for them and they wished us well and let us go on our way!

We entered the outskirts of Calabar on time, and made our way with the help of a guide, to the Drill Monkey Sanctuary situated right in the centre of the city. A small grassy compound outside the gates was the location for the night, so the tents were pitched, dinner was bought from the side of the road; spicy rice and meat, and the movie started.

Another good day in Nigeria, this is becoming a habit! Tomorrow we visit the Cameroon Embassy to start the application process for the next visa…..

End of day location: Calabar, Nigeria
Distance covered: 280kms, 420kms, 550kms

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

14th April 08

Date: 14th April 08
Location: Abeokuta, Nigeria
Weather: Hazy blue skies, sunshine intermittently, and really humid. 38°c
Status: All motoring along really well, good progress made in a dangerous place.

Early start again before all the rest of the crew, went for sort run to the end of the golf course and back as I was advised by the Major not to go outside the limits of the complex…fair enough all taken on board!

Got back and still no one up so decided to cook myself some soft boiled eggs and prepare the hard boiled eggs for everyone for the drive ahead. Made a superb brew of fresh coffee and finally the first head appeared from the tents around me! Only an hour later than planned. Finally everyone was ready around 7.30am and then I remembered that we had to print out a whole load of passenger manifests ready for the police/military checks ahead, so I headed off into town to find an internet café to print them out successfully returning to the rest of the gang an hour later.

Hit the road and again were surprised by the quality of the roads we had compared with what we’d expected according to the itinerary we had! The landscape changed from fairly flat and grassy to hilly, rocky but lush and very jungle like. The tropics really felt like they we’re all around and we drove for a few hours until we came to the next town and obviously the next police check. Of course now we’d printed out the manifests and so no one asked for them!

Pulled into a small town called Owo and went straight to the police station to ask where the best place to camp would be and were told the First Molac Hotel on the edge of town. Made our way there and they wanted $50 a night for a room!!! So after some comms with the locals I managed to barter free accommodation for the camping on the car park and we decided to treat Maggie and Brandon to a luxury night in the hotel and we’d all split the costs.

Made our way to the internet café to find it closed so went upstairs to the restaurant and left as they had no food available!

End of day location: Owo, Nigeria
Distance covered: 354kms

13th April 08

Date: 13th April 08
Location: Abomey, Benin
Weather: Hazy blue skies and sunshine, light rain storm in the evening. 36°c
Status: Moving along very well

Up very early to get a good headstart on the roads as our notes for the day reported that we’d spend nearly 12hrs covering the 220kms, so prepared for the worst.

Arrived at the Ketou customs post after just an hour and a half as the road was tarmac the entire way, very different to the twisting gravel track we’d been promised. Only problem was the main street through Ketou was being resurfaced so we had to find a detour around the town which took the best part of 20mins until we hired another motor cycle outrider to take us directly to the correct building.

Once there I had to show the official exactly how to fill in the carnet, thanked him and departed Illava to have the passports and the immigration paperwork completed. Again a really friendly bunch who even allowed us to show them exactly where we’d like to have out passports stamped so as not to use up too may pages; an essential thing when travelling through so many countries at once!

So out of Benin and across into the dreaded country that is Nigeria…..found the customs and immigration no problems and even found some, well un-corrupt officials to deal with. It was a Sunday so most of the officials must have had the day off.

The quickest carnet stamping yet which was all over and done in less than 5 minutes and the lady even organised a money changer to come along and help us as change the last of our CFA’s across to Naira, the currency of Nigeria, as we’d be ripped off by
virtually every one else in town!

Found the road out of town and back onto the tarmac which again was in really good condition, surprisingly and we covered the 6hr journey in a little under 2 and found ourselves on the outskirts of Abeokuta before we knew it. Followed the instructions straight to the central market and Kerry and I went on the first shopping mission in Nigeria, and what a laugh it was – had a real giggle with the girls selling fruit and veg as they tried twice to charge the white man more than they should have! Not falling for it we stayed and insisted on the right money and finally they paid up!

Headed out of town to find the accommodation for the night, a golf course on the outskirts of town. Finally tracked it down and made our way to the reception, as the only people in sight and Emmanuelle greeted us. We could stay on the practice green at a cost of $5 per person, so we pitched tents just in time as the heavens opened and made our way to the veranda for an evening beer. The Major made his first appearance of the night; an ex-army major who runs the business side of the golf club and gave us a tour of the lake, and newly formed construction site where in two years time a water park will stand…..if all goes according to plan. Shame really as it’s the most stunning palm tree lines location nestled in the hills around the town.

Alex made dinner, soya mince spaghetti bolognese and then we sat chatting for a while before the Major took me aside as the team leader (!) and, with the chairman of the club on the phone, showed me the safest and fastest route through Nigeria to the capital Abuja. A journey which should take between 8 and 10hrs tomorrow, so early start and early bed, again.

End of day location: Abeokuta, Nigeria
Distance covered: 220kms

12th April 08

Date: 12th April 08
Location: Grand Popo, Benin
Weather: Hazy grey/blue skies and scattered sunshine, 38°c
Status: All good, moving along very well and extremely happy

Set the alarm for 6am, got up and went for an hour’s run along the very soft sanded beach which made it really hard work and sweated buckets but loved it. Passed from the beach into the lagoon area and ran in between the fishing villages which dot the shoreline, through the men fixing their nets, past the boats being worked on and finally to the lagoon mouth where it joins the ocean.

Got back to the camp an hour later and jumped straight into the pool to cool off, where I spent the next half hour relaxing and watched the sun slowly climb through the palm trees. Still no-one up when I got back so made myself a coffee and some porridge and sat on the beach to eat it….awesome.

After we’d visited the internet café to email the essentials to Bre and Ammon for their visa applications we cooled off in the pool before finally packing up camp and hitting the paved road just after midday.

Destination for the day, Abomey, one of the nearest towns to the border with Nigeria where we’d rest up for the night before starting early the next day to attack the Nigerian roads.

An interesting day of roads in good condition and crowded streets as we passed through the coastal towns of Ouidah and Cotonou, then we turned north and covered the 125kms in just over 4 hours. Case and I hit the pedals to the metal and gunned it through the traffic with lights blazing, avoiding potholes as we went and cruising past the painfully slow scooters and trucks.

Arrived in Abomey around 5pm and using our guide notes found Chez Monique easily, setup camp and looked around the yard which is full to capacity of wooden carvings of crocs, people, hippos and anything else you can imagine! A good dinner of chicken and chips and to bed early ready for the big push tomorrow morning when we intend leaving by 7am.

End of day location: Chez Monique’s, Abomey, Benin
Distance covered: 235kms

11th April 08

Date: 11th April 2008
Location: Grand Popo, Benin
Weather: Hazy sunshine, onshore wind but humid, 34°c
Status: All good, happy to be moving again, finally

Left Big Milly’s around the middle of the day on the 10th with a big departure party gathered for the big off after nearly 6 weeks of resting up easy and relaxing. Had the vehicle signed by all the staff and friends and got ready for the off.

The group’s been split up here as Bre (the hot Canadian girl) hasn’t had her new passport back from the Canadian Embassy yet, so couldn’t get her Nigerian visa and therefore couldn’t leave with us, so her and her brother Ammon have had to stay in Ghana until it finally arrives at the beginning of next week. They’ll then catch a bus from Accra to Lagos and another through to Calabar, in the east of Nigeria, to finally meet up with us and start their part of the overland mission for real.

It was difficult leaving as Bre and I have been getting on awesomely and I’ll totally miss the fun she creates and the laughs we have, but its only another week to ten days and she be back with us. Add to that the fact that Silvia was back in the camp with her, now, ex-boyfriend which made for some interesting politics for sure!

After we’d filled the vehicles to the top with fuel, visited the Shoprite to stock the cars with food for the less easy countries and repacked for what seemed like the tenth time, we finally headed east towards the border of Ghana and Togo some 200kms away.

As we drove the smell, heat and pollution of the city finally faded away and opened up to greener, more fertile lands on the edges of the coastal lagoons, of which there are loads on this part of the coast. The ocean became greener, the road conditions became more rural and the kms rolled. We passed by the edge of 2 enormous thunderstorms which just about hit the windscreen, but as we turned south east t skirt around one of the lagoons we headed directly into a wall of water which instantly turned the dirt road into a shitfest with brown spray, huge puddles and with Landrover wipers….a joy to navigate!

Case’s truck has 22” wheels, the Colonel has 16” ones, which means I have to go round potholes and he can go straight over them. Finally as the sun started to set we arrived at the Arola border post, and what an experience! The most disjointed post yet with hundreds of metres between offices, guides trying to buy our custom the entire time and stupid amounts of money needed just to get our vehicles through to the other side! We did take advantage of the offer from one of the guides who said he could take us directly to Chez Alice camping and we could follow him on his motorbike as it was some 15kms away which at the time we thought was a great idea…but it was one road, totally straight and signposted all the way. Still you live and learn!

It was almost 2 months ago that Charlie the German ex-special forces guy recommended we stay at Chez Alice and a couple of other people along the way also said the same, but I was really disappointed with the place. Yes it was a good setup, apart from the rooms being 300m away from the bar and social area, and the buildings were really nicely setup, the beer was cold and the food good and quickly served; but the place lacked atmosphere, soul and Alice (at least I think it was Alice) didn’t speak to us once, only to her table of German friends. A very different welcome from the warm, friendly approach we had from Wendy when we arrived at Big Millys!

So next morning we packed up and headed out the door before midday as our travel notes told us it was a good 5hr drive to the next destination, Auberge Grand Popo, only 95kms away but obviously on pretty crap roads. We covered the next 30kms no problem and arrived at the Togo/Benin border and how different it was to the last one!

Signed out of Togo in less than 20mins and headed through no-mans-land stopping to buy some fresh fruit and water on the way. The Benin side was a little more difficult but still we got through in around an hour and prepared for the ‘bad’ road we thought was ahead. Except that it never materialised, and within 40mins we’d covered the remaining 65kms and pulled into the driveway of Auberge Grand Popo as the only guests there!

Another oasis for us to enjoy and this time with a cold water swimming pool!!! Oh what bliss. Into the ocean and then into the pool to relax all afternoon, we headed to the restaurant for dinner where the selection was virtually all seafood, so we had a selection from the menu and loved it!

Watched ‘The Last Indian’ in Case’s truck on the laptop before heading to bed.

End of day location: Grand Popo, Benin
Distance covered: 320kms over two days

9th April 08

Date: 9th April 2008
Location: Big Milly’s Ghana
Weather: scattered clouds, thunder storms and strong blue skies, 35°c
Status: All – raring to go, finally!

Its been a long haul, its taken numerous visits in the thick rush hour traffic of Accra which seems to last all day, embassies, meetings, photocopying beyond belief….but we’re there, finally!

Tomorrow the wheels of the project start turning again in earnest, maybe not as the original plan was, or as the changed-to-shipping plan was but the new vastly improved final draft of how I get to South Africa in time for the Comrades Race on the weekend of June 13th.

Case has spent the afternoon having his truck serviced, I’ve been trying to compress the crap I have on board into less and less boxes to fit on the two new recruits and now even have some of the load on the roof to save on space inside the Colonel to create a decent living environment. The tanks are full, the filters changed, the axles and all nipples stuffed full of grease and the spirits of all involved are maxing out.

Its going to be really difficult to leave this place, somewhere I’ve called home for the last 6 weeks which has the friendliest staff, the most awesome locals, a beach and shore break to die for and cheap beer and good food. One day very soon I’ll walk back through the big blue gates of Big Milly’s and nothing will have changed….and so it should be. Places like this are few and far between and make me realise quite how perfect a life some parts of Africa offer, Port Edward in SA being one and this being just another. Not too long and I’ll be back.

Tonight is the farewell dinner for 7 of the 9 with 25 people heading to the local Italian for Caprinis and pizza then back to the bar for a few ‘quiet’ ones before heading off to the delights of the next country sometime around 10am.

Farewell’s are always hard but this will be three times as bad, Silvia has just arrived back in camp for her last weekend before heading back to Germany so tonight will certainly be interesting, its awesome to see her again but its also reminded me how I have to move on and complete the project I set myself so many years ago.

A rolling stone gathers no moss……


End of day location: Final day at Big Millys, Kokrobite, Ghana
Distance covered: 35kms

Friday, 4 April 2008

3rd April 08

Date: 3rd April 08
Location: Big Millys, Ghana
Weather: Mental tropical storm here last night, huge rains, sunshine today though 35°c
Status: All raring to go

Visited the embassies yesterday to collect our letter from the Angolan Ambassador which he’d very kindly had translated into both French and Portuguese so it can be read by the officials on the border of DRC before we get to the Angolan Embassy thee to claim our visas.

Then onto the Nigerian Embassy to collect the visas which was a simple collection, thank you and leave system!

Tried to renew my brown card insurance for the Colonel as the current document which I bought way back in Senegal has a week to left and I’ll still need it until the end of Nigeria. Struggled to find the building in central Accra, got there to find it had moved so hired a guy to run in front of the car on the usual heavy traffic and found the new offices. Climbed the stairs to be told it was handled by another department on the other side of town, drove there and were THEN told it wasn’t the SIC (State Insurance Dept.) who handle renewals but instead the NIC (National Insurance Commission)!!!!!!!!!!!! ARGGGGHHHHHHHHH AFRICAN SYSTEMS!!

Made the trip back to the camp and got the vehicle repacked just in time before the heavens well and truly opened for nearly 4 hours together with wicked thunder and lightening. Flooded camp which cleared quickly as its all sand.

Fraser had a friend from Liberia staying with him for her birthday so he bought us all dinner and it was the best yet at Big Milly’s consisting of 10 lobster, porterhouse steak, barracuda, chipped new potatoes, Mediterranean veggies, salads all washed down with 2 bottles of Champagne! Lovely


End of day location: Big Millys
Distance covered: 40kms

1st April 08

Date: 1st March 2008
Location: Big Milly’s, Ghana
Weather: African thunderstorms and scattered clouds, 32°c
Status: Ben – The happiest I’ve been in 3 weeks! Colonel – all ready to go!

The absolute total transformation of the trip continues to amaze me every day and the last few have been no different at all.

Monday morning first thing arrived at the Angolan embassy suited and booted with a file packed with charity-expedition based literature and a determined head like never before, oh and of course with Case and Kerry in tow as the official “support crew” for the mission with Owen’s no show now meaning very little.

As we found the reception area a lovely lady greeted us and asked why exactly we were there, for an overland visa of course….and how her persona changed, “we don’t issue them from here as they only last for 30 days from the day of issue and that would be today and you’ll never make it in that time….so you can fly in but no chance of driving there!” That put the brakes our plans big time.

So I thought I’d try the charity card just in case (before trying the big bribe card of course!) and presented my case of how I’m raising money for African based charities, have been planning this for 5 years and desperately need to get through your country to complete the expedition. “wait here and I will speak to someone” was the rather abrupt answer.

10 minutes later she returned took my phone number and said the ambassador will call you when he has decided if anything can be done. We left feeling dejected and beaten.

Sitting on the wall outside the embassy waiting for Matt to return and a car pulls in, we nod, he nods and the gate closes. 5 minutes later the guard asks us to re-enter and make our way to the reception, the Chancellor is there with the Afritrex business plan in hand which he’s just read…..after much discussion and to cut a long story short, he tells us that he will arrange for the two embassies on the border of Angola to be informed of our arrival and that both vehicles and all passengers can collect our visas from whichever embassy we decide and that we can have safe passage through his country!! How we celebrated inside, he must of known he’d just made the trip south possible for the first Overlanders in nearly 2 years as we smiled from ear to ear, and so we should!

Well done Afritrex. “Return tomorrow morning with a copy of the application form, a letter describing what we require and 2 passport photos and I will make it happen for you!” he said….this would be easy!

Off we trotted doing cartwheels up the street with the Nigerian Embassy as our next destination but this time armed with completed forms, letter of invitation, copied vehicle docs and the $100 required for the visa….this one should be easy in comparison. Signed in, sat down and met the interviewer who went through everything and confirmed that we’d done as expected and to return on Wednesday at 3pm to collect them.
So from the bottom of the world to the top in just under 10 week…..Malaria, Silvi leaving, nearly putting the Colonel in a container as the route was impassable to having the opportunity to get the next leg of the trip completed as I’d always planned it in my head!

And now the passenger list, again previously it was going to be just me and Case each in our own vehicles heading down the coast but still dangerous and costly, but in the last 2 days that’s all changed again and now we have 2 full vehicles; me with 3 on board and Case with a full truck with 6 people! Lets explain….

Kerry the guy from Hong Kong who I met in Bamako arrived in camp on Saturday night and wants to come, Alex (Matt’s Aussie cousin) is flying back from Rabat on Thursday and visa pending is coming all the way to CT and now the revelation from last night….the wicked travelling Canadian family of 5, reduced from 6 as Sky is off home, have asked if we can fit them in!! These guys have travelled 55 countries over the last 3 years and are wicked fun too, so the more the merrier and on Mon/Tues we set off with 2 full vehicles, bag loads of experience, some trepidation of the roads and conditions ahead as the rains are starting almost as I type this in the central belt of Africa….but with a massively sprung step throughout!

Bring it on……

End of day location: Big Milly’s – not for long
Distance covered: 42kms of admin

28th March 08

Date: 28th March 08
Location: Big Milly’s, Ghana
Weather: Scattered clouds and blue skies, damn humid and hot, 37°c
Status: All – preparing for the mission ahead

Next step then…..visas and the huge hassles which there are trying to obtain them. Case, Matt and I headed into Accra to find the new location of the Nigerian embassy but after a hour of doing so with no luck we hired a taxi to drive us there while we followed behind…but shouldn’t have bothered as he didn’t have a clue either as we found out after 20mins of doing circles!

Asked around and after another 10 people’s opinions of where they thought it was including the usual African style directions of “just round the corner”, “at the end of the road” etc we finally found it!

Made our way into the smart air-conditioned reception area and were greeted by one of the embassy staff who sat us down and made us explain in full exactly what our intentions are, the places we’ll stay, how long we’ll be there, all about our vehicles, whether we have a letter of invitation, and of course the Nigerian driving licence – I’m now very pleased that I spent the £4 in the UK buying one! All appeared to go well and he asked us to take 2 forms each, complete them in full, photocopy virtually every document I have for both me and the car and bring them back in on Monday…..simple then!

As we left Matt asked if there was an Angolan embassy in Accra as we didn’t think there was but there is so we can finally try and organise THE most difficult visa needed to get to Cape Town! Drove straight to it and again another plush place but interviews for visas are only on Mondays and Tuesdays so back we come at the start of next week.

It could be a real sticking point for us the Angolan visa as very few are issued to overlanders, you can fly in no problem but taking the Colonel as hand luggage won’t work! So early night on Sunday, dress up as smart as I can and get the Afritrex story ready to throw at the official and play the charity card as much as possible…..and hope as much as possible between now and then.

Important times ahead.

End of day location: Big Milly’s, Ghana
Distance covered: 60kms