Thursday, 14 June 2007

Into the Valley!!

Welcome to this tearful last post from the Valley. The bad news is that Naartjie’s doctors in Namibia phoned last week with a shocking diagnosis. While the damage to his carburettor is easily and quickly fixed, alas, he also has a suspected cracked piston (and he’s only got one) and damaged valve seats. The general consensus is that these injuries have been sustained by the frequent consumption of ‘village fuel’ in Congo and Angola, which is rumoured to be cut with butanol, palm wine or anything else that is vaguely runny.

The good news is that, instead of having a 1550km ride to finish the trip (my earlier 1200km calculation being wildly wrong), I got to have a 3100km drive instead as I had to drive up with a trailer and collect the stricken beast. Better still, I got to do it in a Mark 1 VW Golf (still manufactured in SA and called a ‘Citi’) towing a 600kg (empty) trailer. Oh joy of joys!!

Anyway, the drive up to Namibia from the Cape was a mini-adventure of its own. On day 1 I decided to take the ‘scenic route’ and ended up on an unpaved mountain pass in a rainstorm. That would have been fine, apart from the mudslides I kept having to tow the trailer through and the flooded fords in which the deck of the trailer kept vanishing under the water. After that, the road just went on and on(at 80kph, which is all the trailer-laden car could really do) until, at 1460km a cosy Namibian lay-by beckoned me in with it’s tempting gravel and picnic table. The next day saw a dawn raid on the KTM dealer in Windhoek, an emotional reunion with Naartjie and a suggested list of maintenance he might need (a complete engine rebuild, a carb rebuild, fork, shock and rear linkage rebuilds, brake overhaul, some new bodywork, new chain and sprockets, a new front wheel rim, a new exhaust system and some paint). Other than that, he’s fine.

Heading South, we crossed the tropic of Capricorn and took a celebratory photo, though having the bike lashed onto a trailer wasn’t quite the glorious passage that I’d hoped for at this point! The next morning, after some quick snoozes at the roadside, my adventure officially ended as we drove bloodied but unbowed ‘Into the Valley’.

So, what did we learn from all of the preceding shenanigans? Well, just what we all, I think, already know in our hearts – Most people in the world are good and mean well, but a few are scoundrels (though often through desperation rather than pure badness). Most people have a lot less than we do, but aren’t necessarily less happy. Many people have to endure, on a daily basis, things that make a lot of our own concerns look a trifle petty. Nearly everyone in Africa likes motorbikes. Me included.

There you have it folks – The End (until the next caper, naturally). All that remains, as with any such publication, is for me to write some credits. Here they are:

Thank you to everyone who read this Blog and whose comments and contributions gave much needed light-relief.

Special thanks to my father for his huge help in relocating my family while I was off having a joll and to Lauren and Alex for doing without a dad for nearly 3 months.

Most of all, very special thanks to Claire for making it all possible.

IntoTheValley2007 is dedicated to Africa and to the kindness of strangers.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Trucking in Nambia (and Interlude in the Valley)

Hey folks – sorry for the long delay in getting this update out. I’d like to report that I’ve been toiling in the face of terrible adversity but the fact is that I’ve been bigging it up at some local wine farms with Claire and the kids!

Anyway, here’s the news since I left you in Northern Namibia. Firstly, I was fortunate to meet a long distance lorry driver in the bar of a garden centre in Tsuemb (all good garden centres in Namibia have bars, it seems). He was heading up to the Angolan border with 32 tonnes of onions before picking up some cattle in Grootfontein and driving them, via Windhoek, all the way to Johannesburg in one session (that’s a 38 hour drive). Since I needed to get to Windhoek, he offered me a lift and we spent a couple of days hanging out doing Southern Africa trucking things – which mostly involved stopping at the roadside to make fires and cook meat, drinking beer (either by the fire or from the comfort of the cab!) and learning about ‘sails’ and ‘exhaust brakes’ and other truck-related things. As you can imagine, I now want to be a long distance lorry driver – any engine smaller than 14 litres is for pansies!

After spending a fascinating day at a huge cattle station watching the animals being branded and de-horned for export, I finally got to Windhoek and found Naartjie sitting outside the KTM dealer looking a bit sad and forlorn (okay, he’s only metal and plastic, but you’d understand if you’d seen him). Turns out that some of the parts in his carburettor have worn out (quelle surprise!) and they’ll need to get the bits from KTM in Austria. This left me looking at spending a week or two in hotels in Windhoek or, alternatively, taking some public transport to South Africa (my house is only 1200-ish km from Windhoek) and returning later to ride the last, fully paved, section of the journey. Having not seen the kids for 72 days by this point, the latter clearly won out.

The last few days have been strange – adjusting back to family life and starting to look around for some work. However, I’ve still got a section of ‘Into the Valley 2007’ to ride – and, anyway, it’s nice being home for a bit :-) Atb - Andy

PS. I’ve been to get a new camera, so come back in a couple of weeks for some Fish River Canyon photo action (hopefully!).

PPS. The first photo on this post is the last one I took in Congo before the camera died. The road is advertised on the map as a 'Primary Trunk Road', whatever that is, and there is no trick of perspective - the rut is 5 feet deep! The other photo is from Gabon and shows my GPS as we crossed the equator. Just thought I'd better prove that I haven't been making all this up!!

Friday, 11 May 2007

DRC / Angola

Well, stone me if it didn't just get all difficult! This somewhat delayed report comes direct from the lovely town of Tsuemb in northern Namibia! Naartjie is dead - or at least nearly dead. As I write this, he's being loaded onto a lorry to travel 400km south to Windhoek, where maybe the surgeons will be able to save him. I'll need to get the bus. However, I'm delighted that he broke down here in civlisation as the last 10 days in Angola and DRC would not have been good ones for a vehicular mishap.

Anyway, what's been going on since Brazzaville? Well, the ferry over the Congo to Kinshasa was a tale all of its own. As the inbound boat docked, a huge flood of filthy and ragged humanity ran off it, straight into the clutches of the waiting riot police who spent the next half hour fighting them with rubber batons. Waiting to go to the place where these people had just arrived from, I felt like a Red Army private about to cross the river to reinforce Stalingrad - well maybe not, but I was a bit scared. The boat itself took 4 hours to load and go and I sat there in my bike gear in the 37C heat getting a bit dizzy. Embarrassingly, on arrival in Kinshasa, I collapsed from dehydration and exhaustion (it having been a tough few days) and had to endure the shame of the Red Cross pulling my clothes off in public and the DRC Police tipping cold water over my head. Once I'd got my act toghether, I headed out of Kinshasa, as I still wasn't feeling tip-top and it's a big and hectic place.

The Bas-Congo region of DRC looks a lot like the UK, which is weird. It was all a bit rufty tufty, and the local ale - Turbo King - is vile and has advertising that is just a bit too macho. On the upside, I got a 5 day transit visa for Angola at Matadi, along with a decent Indian curry - wahey!

Angola was a whole new world of pain - the roads or lack of them were at least as bad as Rep. Congo - the first 70km took me a whole day and, during that time, I snapped my rear subframe, destroyed one pannier completely, broke my luggage rack, bent my shoulder and generally got into a right mess. Also, Naartjie got dragged 300m by a lorry that was supposed to be towing him - except I'd fallen off, and some local villagers were demanding USD100 to help pull him out of a mud pit until the local rozzers turned up with a Landcruiser fitted with a winch.

After that, I had some hassles in a refugee camp, saw numerous destroyed buldings, deserted villages and burned out tanks, failed totally to find an internet place and generally roughed it in a pretty squalid way. Angola is huge and when I got my 5 day visa they laughed and said I'd never make it in 5 days. Well, I rode 13 hours a day and did it in 5 1/2. The immgration officer at the Namibia border was so impressed he didn't even fine me for overstaying!! Needless to say, I've an endless supply of pub stories with which to bore you when I return.

The last day in Namibia has been a proper return to civilisation - there is water and electricity and proper food and roads. Just a pity that my buddy Naartjie has thrown the towel in...

I'll write again from Windhoek and tell you if the patient has recovered :-)

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Bonjour from Brazzaville!

Well kittens, this is a hot one from the Congo and you won't believe what a task it's been to get here. Sorry there are no photos, but the camera got trashed yesterday, as did my panniers, luggage rack, various bits of the bike and my mobile phone - mostly as a result of diving repeatedly into 4 foot deep mud pits (honestly - the bike actually vanished in one of them!). Note to self - never again ride across Congo in rainy season...

So, what's been going on? Well I settled into what I thought would be an 8 day wait in Yaounde for my 3 visas. Anyway, amazingly for Africa, DRC of all places has an express visa service where you can pay an extra tenner and get it in 3 hours rather than 3-4 days - result! The visas were eye-wateringly expensive, the worst being Congo at 70 quid! It made the USD100 visa for Nigeria look like a bargain. I mean 70 quid to visit a place with no roads - and I didn't even get a free t-shirt.

Anyway, banking my time-saving (as I'm missing the family, having been at this malarky for 57 days on the trot) I sped off at warp speed to Gabon, crossing the Equator and doing 650km on perfect roads through the most lovely rainforest in one day. I have the pics to prove it, if the memory card in the camera isn't trashed too. Sadly, there is a North-South divide in Gabon as was proven when the perfect road just ended the next day. Honestly, I thought I'd taken a wrong turn. One minute Alpine-quality road, the next minute the barest of dirt tracks.

I got to Ndende, the last town in Gabon on Saturday afternoon and foolishly though that would be a good time to cross the border. The Gabon police were very nice - the Chief drove around the town picking up his colleagues so they could open the station and do my paperwork! The last 40km to the border itself was down what can only be described as a dirt path! Anyway, once I got to the red, yellow and green metal pole indicating that it was Congo (Republic of) and filled in the same details in 4 different books it was getting a bit dusky. My map said that the next town was 50km, but the Gendarmes told me that it would take 4 hours. Luckily, I didn't scoff at the idea and instead took them up on their kind offer of camping at the border post and having a bucket shower in the head-Gendarme's house.

Sunday and Monday were the hardest days of off-road riding I've ever done. It poured down in that tropical way all Saturday night and I spent the next day slithering all over slimy clay, getting stuck in huge truck ruts and generally falling off as my road tyres were giving no grip at all. Yesterday (Monday) was, if anthing even worse. The ground has softened to deep deep mud and I drowned the bike once and got deeply mired more than I can remember (with luggage and fuel Naartjie weighs about 250kg, which is a lot to pull out of a muddy hole by yourself when you are waist deep in water and wearing leather trousers).

The upshot of all of this was that, last night, some 40km short of the nearest town, it was getting dark and I rode right into another deceptive mud pit just outside a village. I kid you not, it took the whole village to get the bike out - but the people were fabulous. They insisted I stay the night, which was just as well as I could barely stand and took me off to see the Cheif. He was great and told one of the Elders to take me to the washing place as I was filthy. There then followed a 20 minute walk with a kerosene lamp into the jungle (seriously!) to a place where the stream had been barricaded. The 'washing place' had a zinc board (to stand on, I think - well that's what I did with it!), a big round stone, a big pointy stone (no idea wht these were for) and 2 buckets. I can honsetly say it was the strangest shower of my life, as the Elder slipped modestly in the bushes to wait and I stood there in the buff with my Neutrogena and 2 oddly shaped stones!

After camping in my manky, waterlogged tent, I set off at dawn, having given the villagers a couple of little presents from my meagre surviving gear, getting the last 100km to Brazza by last morning.Gosh, what a surprise. It's really quite a nice place, despite recently being voted the second worse place in the world to live, I hear (after Baghdad). The rest of the day has been spent eating omelette (20 minutes) and doing repairs to Naartjie (six hours on a petrol station forecourt!!!). Until you've adjusted the valve clearances of a KTM 640 Adventure surrounded by a group of Congolese taxi drivers, you've never lived :-)

Remember folks, I'm doing this so that you don't have to! Tomorrow, I'm hoping to cross over to Kinshasa, capital of DRC (which from this side of the river looks also nicer than it's reputed to be) and from there head for the Angolan border where I hear I might get a 5 day transit visa - if I'm lucky...

Once final thing - Congo has the best-named beer in the world - 'Ngok' - which means Crocodile if the picture on the bottle is anything to go by! It's really very nice.

Saturday, 21 April 2007

Cameroon, the muddy way

Hey folks - well, I survived the first round of the Nigerian general election and escaped over the border to Cameroon in time for the second vote, which is today. The bad news is that the Angolan embassy wouldn't give me a visa - some new rule, which I'm sure they made up on the spot! Instead, I was told to apply in Congo. Lucky white heather.

My ride South from Abuja was mildly interrupted by the aftermath of a riot in Lafia, with the streets still strewn with burning tyres and loads of unhappy looking people standing about. I picked up a couple of slow punctures in my front tyre from the debris, but didn't hang around to change the tube!

The next day, I was waved down by a plain clothes 'Security Officer' with no ID who demanded to see 'all my valid papers'. Needless to say I rode off at speed but was surprised and alarmed to find him following me in his car. The only course of action was to race to the nearest police checkpoint and dob him in, but amazingly he'd had the same idea and, between us, we nearly ran the duty officer over. Luckily, none of the police knew the 'Security Officer' and were, I think a little sceptical of his authenticity, so 1-0 to me. However, my adversary got a late equaliser when I introduced myself as 'Andy' and handed the police my passport, which says 'Andrew'. Apparently it's a Federal offence in Nigeria to give a false name to a police officer. I think I must have turned quite pale when they told me this, as they then just laughed and waved me on. The rest of the ride to Calabar was scenic and mercifully uneventful as my nerves were a bit shot by then!! To be fair though, everyone else I met in Nigeria has been pretty sound.

After enduring a day of beaurocracy getting my Cameroon visa, I headed for the border on the 'less used' Ekang route. Man, it was beautiful - rolling rainforest all the way. Sadly, the road got a bit erm, rutted toward the frontier - see bottom pic. The border crossing, which consisted of two houses divided by a rickety bridge with 2 gates on it was a scoosh and I rode off into the jungle on a narrow dirt road in a cloud of butterflies - cool.
The scenery in Western Cameroon was even better, with tea plantations, rainforests and teeny villages all at 1500m-plus above sea level. Cor blimey - awesome. I've put up a pic, but it doesn't do it justice. The only downside seems to be some of the local food, as Bushmeat rules in Cameroon. So, far I've resisted the temptation, but my resolve is weakening. 'Mine's a tortoise and frites, hold the shell...'
Today, we've reached the coastal village of Kribi. There is apparently a nice waterfall that flows into the sea nearby, so I'm off to get my Timotei in a minute. The coming week is set to be a visa-fest in Yaounde as I need to get visas for Gabon, Congo and DRC there. Then it's South baby - hopefully!
Thanks as ever for the comments :-)

Sunday, 15 April 2007

Election time

Hey folks - well, I've got to Nigeria, one of the bits of the trip I was most worried about (along with DRC and Angola) and I've only gone and barged into the middle of their general elections! There were 65 people (at least) killed in rioting last night as the usual evidence of election rigging became apparent, so I'm consulting anyone who'll listen to get the best route options from Abuja, where I presently am to Calabar on the Cameroon border.

One the upside, with the possible exception of Lagos, which still has it's old Mad Max charm, I'm finding the country and people surprisingly pleasant. So far, I've been waved through every AK47-fest of a police checkpoint with a smile, entertained at the house of a government vet (pic above) and escorted through the (beautiful) hinterlands of the country by a federal official on his way home for the election hols.

On the downside, I'm now stuck in Abuja waiting for things to reopen so I can apply for an Angola visa (a hard thing for us UK peeps to get, and only really an option from Nigeria). Having said that, the beer is cold and the taxi drivers are amusing. Nobody believes that I rode Naartjie down from the UK, so that's fun too.

Since the last post, Naartjie has had a good seeing-to (and a new tyre) at Toni-Togo, a KTM dealer in, erm, Togo (pic of Naartjie in the buff above) and I've caught fleas in some vile hotel in Benin. However, it's all good 'cos there is (strangely) an empty and working fridge/freezer in my hotel room, and I read somewhere that fleas are best frozen to death. As such, I've been putting all my clothes and my helmet in the freezer and nothing itches any more!

On a personal note, I'm both delighted and sad that it's my daughter Lauren's birthday tomorrow (16th). She'll be 3 and I'm sad that I won't be there. So, Happy Birthday Pop! Daddy Loves You.

As for the rest of you, well I at least like you. Next stage is hopefully Cameroon and then Gabon. After that, time for some Congo action - but there are many miles between here and there.

All the best - A

Sunday, 8 April 2007

Oh Crikey, it's Togo!

Well groovers, this update comes hot and direct from the improbably narrow land of Togo. I actually had to turn sideways to get through the border and Naartjie has had to stay in Ghana as he won't fit. The days since the last update have been filled with tropical-weather action, mostly involving constant reminders of how bad a choice it was to use leather riding pants every time it rains.

After a few days in charming Burkina Faso, I headed for the Ghanain border with other Brit-In-Africa rider Paul Hurcomb who I'd met again in Ouagadougou, or 'Waga' as everyone seems to call it. Alas, he didn't have a visa, so they sent him avay with a mosquito in his ear to go and get one. Meanwhile, I (bravely and manfully, I might add) soldiered on into the amazingly undeveloped hinterlands of Northern Ghana where roads haven't yet been invented. The ride south to Accra saw things getting greener and lusher and more and more developed until, by the time I got there, I thought I'd got lost and ended up in Penrith. Accra really is a proper metropolis - with unleaded petrol and everything!! The only slightly alarming event en route was when I accidentally spent the night in a brothel, as it was the only roadside hotel about. I thought it was a bit odd when the lady asked how many hours I wanted the room for.

Anyway, next job was securing the dreaded Nigerian visa. This is the subject of many travel-forum horror stories but turned out to be quite easy, if a bit expensive at USD100 for a single entry 14 day visa. Spurning the Rastas and musicians of the Ghanain coastal resorts (not my cup of Oolong, old chap) I headed East and squeezed into Togo.

The capital, Lome is unique in West Africa having a KTM dealership, which apparently opens on Monday. As such, I'm hatching plans of buying a new back tyre and getting Naartjie serviced. As with all things in Africa though, you can't count your chickens.

Next plans are to blast through Benin, and head for Nigeria. Have to admit, I'm a wee bit nervous about the next bit of the adventure but as Claire and the kids are South, it's South I must go. Meanwhile, here is a pic of Africa made out of shells. Its was proudly shown to me by a Togolese shingle farmer yesterday, who insisted I share it with the world.

Best wishes to you all. Thanks for the comments and Haikus. Keep 'em coming :-)