A Travellerspoint blog

December 2009

Learning to Fly

... but I aint got wings; coming down is the hardest thing

sunny 31 °C

Entering Namibia has been, to me, the greatest culture change encountered. After recently traveling through so many war-torn, third-world, and undeveloped countries, my first impression of Namibia was utter civilization shock. The first change was switching to the left had side of the road, a change not advertised at the border but just assumed. Once in the first small village there were ATMs, western treats in convenience stores, KFC advertisements, and fully stocked proper supermarkets. Needless to say everyone went a bit crazy stocking up on candy, chips, meat pies, and other treats with an irrational, yet habituated, thought that we’d go another five months without seeing any.
Since we took longer than expected to get through Angola there was unfortunately not enough time to travel northwest to visit a Himba tribe. Instead we made headway to Etosha National Park after entering through the border towns of Santa Clara/Oshikango. We managed to get reservations at the first (Namutoni) and third (Okaukuejo) sections of the park for a couple days of game viewing. The three camps are situated around the main watering holes set up in such a way that the animals can be observed from a short distance via spotlights in the evening. The game drives were nothing short of fabulous and I was in heaven sitting at the watering holes late into the evenings. Okaukuejo camp in particular had excellent viewings: giraffes drinking at sunset, rhinos rustling at dusk, and a family of thirty elephants roaming in at nightfall. It was comparable to a live national geographic program but infinitely better than television; words could not express my glee. During the game drives we saw heaps of giraffe, dazzles of zebras, one lion pride, one cheetah hunting, a lone elephant bathing, and impala, springbok and oryx galore!
Next up on the dossier was cheetah park (Camp Otjitotongwe near Kamanjab), a refugee for about 70 cheetahs rescued from the crosshairs of farmers agitated by their dwindling herds. Included in the stay is the opportunity to interact with the ‘house cats’, two full grown cats and a cub, the largest of which greeted me by licking my arm upon entering the compound - similar to 60 grit sandpaper. After the visit we hopped in the back of the truck with a bin full of donkey meat to feed the other undomesticated cats on the premise. Our driver urged us to support the cheetahs by drinking in the bar… for the sake of the cheetahs I obliged J
Moving onward we stopped by the petrified forest near Khorixas, pretty lame if you ask me but maybe I just wasn’t in the mood to look at 260 million year old logs. The afternoon was spent at Twyfelfontein, home to arguably the most extensive collection of petroglyphs (rock art) in all of Africa. This activity was, to me, much more enjoyable but still not overly exciting.
The following night was spent at Spitzkoppe for a spectacular view of the sunset over the valley from atop the 1728m high boulders. We arrived the next afternoon in Swakopmund, the adventure capital of Namibia, for a few days of adrenaline and European luxury. The town is said to be more German than Germany, and since I’ve never visited the motherland I can’t confirm the statement except for the obligatory schnitzel offered on most menus. I, on the other hand, opted for the fabulous game meats. Steak alone is rare in west Africa, and it had been five months since I’d had a proper medium-rare cut of meat. The springbok was superb but I wouldn’t rate the oryx (and I couldn’t bring myself to eat a zebra :S ). The first day in town I was talked into sky-diving, and considering my moderate fear of heights and small planes I surprised myself by signing up. For the first time in my life I found myself to have clammy hands and spent the day with my stomach in knots. We drove out to the airfield, geared up, and started the jumps. To add to the unease I was, of course, last to jump. The fear of jumping at least took away from any motion sickness I might have had in the small Cessna aircraft. We flew around the area for close to 20 minutes (during which time I didn’t look outside much) and when it was time to go my tandem jumper shuffled us to the door, flung me out and let go… After the initial screaming and swearing I found myself looking towards the ground in freefall, a great feeling, but since it goes by so fast I wouldn’t say it’s worth the money; but maybe I’d have to try it again without such nerves to get the full effect.
One of the most exciting amenities Swakopmund offered were proper laundromats with washing MACHINES and DRYERS!!!! This was the first time since the UK I had seen such contraptions and it was a big indulgence to not have to hand-wash all my clothes in a bucket or river. The rest of the time in town was spent walking around the beautiful, clean and friendly boardwalk, shopping, and eating in proper restaurants and forgotten fast food joints. Unfortunately my stomach lost its ability to cope with western foods; but luckily I was in the land of luxury and flushing toilets, no need to dig one here!
As we headed onwards to the Namib desert area it became clear George still wanted a few extra days of rest, but we nursed him along to Sossusvlei for a morning viewing of dune 45, the most famous and photographed sand dune in the world. The early morning climb was magnificent, albeit rather cold and more tiring than it should have been given the lack of exercise over the past months aboard the truck. Once we’d had enough of playing around in the sand a shuttle brought us to Dead Vlei, (dead valley) a salt pan housing groupings of wiry petrified trees. The landscape here is rather stark and it was an interesting area to walk around and photograph.
The temperamental George forced us to bushcamp, once again, en route to Bethanie after increasingly frequent stops to tend to his many fissures. The remaining few kilometers to South Africa were spent along the Orange river, and a visit to Fish River Canyon (supposed 3rd largest in the world… not sure what definition that holds) was made. The canyon was impressive and worth a visit.
Namibia has been a great country overall, but bittersweet in contrast to the more ‘real’ feeling countries we’ve passed through on the west. This has been the first really touristy country visited on the trip since Morocco and I personally would rather spend my time away from any sign of Europeans. However, there has been much to do and see in Namibia, and Etosha alone blew my mind. Next up, Cape Town: the end of the west and the start of the second leg; and most importantly, the chance to see my Dad and sister!

Posted by binderblog 07:05 Archived in Namibia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Fixing A Hole

I'm filling the cracks that ran through the door

sunny 29 °C
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On the 16th of July we entered Angola via Lufu and eventually made it to M’Banza for a lunch stop. The Angolan people were noticeably distinctive and attractive, with clear evidence of Portuguese influence in their striking kohl-black almond eyes and pronounced features. It was also obvious that few travelers have ventured through at least the northern portion of this vast country; the locals in the winding market were very surprised to have us wandering through, and eager to host Lene, Tamara, and I for lunch. Because we had such a constrained visa we really needed to make headway to Luanda to complete the 2000km + journey to Namibia in the allotted 5 days. In doing so, it was a few short hours before we ran into trouble. Upon driving the poorly maintained, bone-rattling, corrugated road (showing small evidence of once being tarmac), George took a fatal hit from a rut forcing him to ram into the fan thereby bending the blades and slicing a new hole in the seam. We managed to limp into the small town of N’Xeto but Chris knew we wouldn’t make it any farther without fixing the wounds. To add insult to injury the windscreen donned a new palm tree inspired crack when lifting the cab forward to assess the damage. Luckily the truck was equipped with a spare fan, but the radiator needed serious work. While wandering about we happened to meet expatriate engineers working on a bridge in town who appointed us a mechanic and a compound to stay in while the truck was receiving repairs. The town is quite desolate and we ended up having to stay 3 days; however Kira and I were entertained and spoiled by the young Portuguese and Lebanese engineers and enjoyed hot showers (after 9 days without), imported Brazilian steak, bottled (not boxed) wine, air-conditioning, and MTV for the majority of our stay.
With the rad mended we said goodbye to the friends made and journeyed onward through the 2000km we still had to do in the remaining 2 days. Knowing it would be impossible to complete the transit in such a short time, and having heard rumours of $100 charged per extra day spent without a visa, we opted to try and extend the transit visas in the town of Caxito. With a letter from the chief of N’Xeto, 2020 Kwanza (25 USD) each, and an extra days stay outside of town we received a 5 day extension after hours of negotiation and numerous arguments. An interesting facet to the immigration office in town was the abandoned tank next to the building which someone had laundry lines running from. In fact numerous remnants of the countries recent civil war were seen while driving through; Russian helicopters (used as toilets by police officers, which Chris was unfortunate enough to step in), tanks, and bullet-ridden buildings were all very common sights. The countryside of Angola is also ridden with landmines, a fact we needed to be well aware of when at toilet stops and bush camps.
We made it to Luanda, the capital, the next afternoon and camped in what appeared to be a garbage dump/homeless refugee camp. However we didn’t encounter any real problems other than noisy police officers waking us up and demanding to know what we were up to at 3am. We left the capital the next morning of the 22nd and made off on the first of five long and grueling drive days. Fortunately, Angola was a surprisingly stunning country and the geography encountered included beautiful winding hills, desolate tracts exuding with Baobab trees, and rocky moon-like barren gorges just off the Atlantic ocean’s edge.
Passing through Sumbe, Lobito, and Cacula, we made it into Lubango on the 24th. The city is home to the Christo Rei Statue (one of the three giant statues of Christ, the largest being in Rio) which I would have liked to have visited; unfortunately I fell very ill during the last days in Angola and spent most time prone in the back of the sweltering truck. Somewhat luckily, most people fell ill rescinding any fears of malaria. We saw another old tank driving out of town, and the night’s bush camp was an astonomers delight… the bright milky way of which I saw a lot of that evening running to and from my tent in consequence of the nasty truck plague. Making it to the border the next morning we were home free and within the constraints of our extended visa. Angola is a country worth visiting if you can get a proper visa. Considering they are co-hosting the 2010 World Cup, and countless tourism adds are displayed on television along the west coast, it’s surprising to me it is such a hard country to get into!

Posted by binderblog 10:30 Archived in Angola Tagged automotive Comments (0)

Civil War

Look at the hate we're breeding Look at the fear we're feeding

semi-overcast 24 °C
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Late in the afternoon of the 10th we finally made it to Kinshasa, the countries capital, and a city considered to be one of the most dangerous in the world. This fact was evident by the enormous amount of razor wire spun around compounds in town; the UN building alone had 5 horizontal rows 2 rolls deep! In fact, DRC has the largest concentration of UN workers in any one country, approximately 11000; however the problem areas lie in the east and we made a quick transit down the coast to avoid such problems. We tried to source out a stay at Chutes de Lukia but couldn’t find any roadsigns leading us to it, so we bush camped in a quarry roadside instead. Our second night in the country was spent at ‘chutes du Congo’, a spot which seemed to be popular with the UN workers from the capital and after meeting some it was upsetting to hear the perspective of the ‘humanitarians‘. It’s no wonder the locals seem so horribly miserable; they clearly see the wealth of the united nations but no discernible share of it.
After our 12th tyre puncture, another bush camp, and passing through the small town of Mbanza-Ngungu we finally made it through the windy road to Matadi. We spent three days at the catholic mission compound in the seemingly pleasant town that prevented the previous trans-Africa trip entry into the country (fighting broke out a year earlier and several hundred people were killed). Chris tried to source out a new radiator to no avail, so we’ve all crossed our fingers hoping George will get us through Angola (which we only have 5 day transit visas for).

Posted by binderblog 02:18 Archived in Democratic Republic of Congo Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

The Times, They Are A-Changing

Keep your eyes wide, the chance won't come again

semi-overcast 25 °C
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Leaving Gabon for the Congo border post the tar seal road abruptly changed to deep sand outside of town and the drive to Congo immigration involved hours of sand matting. The first bout was uphill for over an hour until locals informed us we were on the wrong road… The actual road wasn’t much better and our arms had a few more workouts through the day. We made it through one police check but got bogged close to nightfall and so we camped in no-mans land for the night before reaching customs. The border officials were very curious to have our truck roll through in the morning and insisted we all come in for interviews (to check out all the girls according to Chris). We found the locals to be cheerful, and after getting through customs we found ourselves bogged once again. We reached tarmac, found a river to wash up in - only to nullify our cleanliness 20 minutes later when the road turned to sand once again. Getting stuck isn’t always all bad, however, and we managed to meet some affable Congolese and play with the curious smiling kids. We made it to Okoyo for lunch where we found warm coca cola and a few bread rolls. Filling up the jerry cans we found ourselves stuck one last time before getting out of town and on the road. Along the way to Boundji we made witness to the extensive road construction currently being done by the Chinese (in exchange for mining rights of some kind). The diversion roads alone were better than most tracks we’ve come across, and the road being built is of very high standards (as opposed to most tarred roads broken up on the shoulders and ridden with pot holes). Along the vast stretch through the country the Chinese engineers are hard at work surveying, preparing, and laying down the road and I’m sure the length of the country will be sealed in less than a years time. Stopped for a cold beer in Boundji; had the first Primus of the trip (best beer in Africa according to our crew - good beer, but has made my guts feel more crooked than any tap or well water I’ve encountered yet). The next day we drove through Oyo, lunched in Gamboma, and hit asphalt so we could thankfully stow the sand mats away rather than have them rattling on the floor of the truck.
We searched for Lefini reserve, which turned out to be a small, vague, gorilla sanctuary that did not have trucks available to bring us up the 4x4 only road to the reserve (or enclosure… no ones French was good enough to decipher exactly what the reserve entailed). We gave up on the escapade and drove onwards to Brazzaville, the countries capital (while en route to Brazzaville we happened to overtake a man on a bicycle selling ice cream from paint pails… very random). The city is quite modern and masks recent turmoil well. The Congo river can be seen whilst driving through town, across which lies Kinshasa, capital of Democratic Republic of Congo, and is the shortest distance between any two capital cities, the two of which have had no shortage of fighting.
We set up camp at the Catholic mission run by sister Esmeralda whom received all the food stocks off the truck last year when the truck was refused entry into the DRC. We weren’t able to stay as long as we would have liked due to the presidential election in two days time. A countries capital is never a stable place to be during an election, particularly in central Africa. In years past missiles were fired overhead while overlanders were forced to take refuge at the UK embassy until the situation was alleviated. We decided not to take the risk and leave Friday before the Sunday election after hearing rumours of authorities closing down the frontier. Most of us girls decided to have a night of fun on our last night in town, and Brazzaville soon became home of the infamous girls night out. Kira had earlier met the Lebanese restaurant owner’s sons, who organized bottle service and champagne at three of the local posh clubs in town. I was later approached by the current (and remaining) president Denis Sassou-Ngesso’s son who was quite taken by me. Had fun with Denis Jr. but no confessional was needed at the mission the next day. Reluctantly, we left for the ferry/border crossing to Kinshasa, and after hours of waiting to load we finally boarded. The ferry between the two capitals is known to be sketchy in terms of fighting and police brutality; it is not uncommon for unruly passengers to be violently beat with batons, chains and such by tough security guards on board. Luckily our trip wasn’t overly eventful and most passengers I encountered were nice enough.
The scenery in Congo surprised me. At first the landscape gradually changed from stark desert to rolling hills and savannah, a vast contrast to the Gabon rain forest. Upon reaching Brazzaville I encountered pine trees for the first time in Africa, all in all a very unexpected topography. Overall, this area of the continent is facing enormous changes. In just the last year so much road construction and infrastructure has been completed that the trans is vastly different and less challenging than in the past. If you want to see the 'real' west Africa I'd suggest doing it soon as I believe the adventure aspect will be lost in a few short years. It is also worth noting that while in Congo we couldn’t go anywhere without election talk and paraphernalia. There were 12 candidates in the running however we only ever took notice of two or three contenders. Denis seemed favored to win, and not surprisingly we learned days later that he indeed won by a landslide… although with only 15% voter turnout, much of which is argued to have been bought.

Posted by binderblog 01:42 Archived in Republic of Congo Tagged luxury_travel Comments (0)

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