South & Central Africa

Back to Africa Fever


Posted from Pretoria, Gauteng, South Africa.

The Africa bug is hard to shake. It’s been 10 months since we completed our trip around Africa, and we’re both back on the continent. In the meantime, Jeffrey has moved to South Africa permanently to start his new business and be closer to his girlfriend, Zelmarie. Twan has gone back to studying for his Master’s in the Netherlands, but decided to take a short break and visit South Africa once more. So, tomorrow the Africa Expedition team is back in Africa!

Visas, visas, visas

Posted from Eindhoven, North Brabant, The Netherlands.

While visas on the East coast of Africa are relatively easy, the West coast can be an absolute nightmare. We have made a list of where we applied for which visa, along with a number of other details (required documents, duration, cost etc.). Download the file here. Here are four valuable tips for visa applications:

  1. Things change, so always check in advance.
  2. You normally always need copies of passports and passport photos (preferably with a white background).
  3. Many embassies refuse to help you because you are not a resident of the country you are in; try to convince them to help; get a letter from your embassy and try to speak to the ambassador if you have to.
  4. Normally, it is best to already have the visa before you enter the country before the country you want to visit – visa fees are usually higher if you don’t because your destination is close by, lots of business people travel there, and they can just charge you more as you have no choice.

The best of luck to all of you! You’re going to need it…

The mind of Africa part 3 – Developing “uncivilisation”

Posted from Eindhoven, North Brabant, The Netherlands.

White men and women go to Africa to help it and its people: to develop it, grow it and civilise it. During their stay in what they may dub “uncivilisation”, they find a freedom and a simplicity. Time is no longer perishable, productivity is determined by temperature, everyone should be included in long talks with tea and what doesn’t happen today might tomorrow, God willing. The well meaning Samaritans are put in their place and have no choice but to conform to the African way. Any attempt to resist it will only lead to frustration on their part, and it almost always does. This collision of worlds often made me wonder if progress is indeed progress. Contrary to the image portrayed in the media, it seems that everyone in Africa is always smiling; they have their place and purpose in society, they know everybody in the village personally and have plenty of time to enjoy life for the simple pleasures it provides. Moreover, the people in “uncivilisation” are often a lot more civilised than those who claim to live in civilisation, particularly with respect to hospitality and humanity. In a
developing society people are challenging their place in it; they don’t know their neighbours and simple delights are replaced by a constant urge for more, newer and more expensive. By imposing our solutions on Africa through volunteers and NGOs we assume that what works in the West will also work in Africa, and sadly we impose our values on them too. In reality, these solutions have unexpected side-effects, mixed success due to African diversity and rarely lead to the desired result. So, I must preach once more: African solutions for African problems.

The mind of Africa part 2 – The incomprehensible ant

Posted from Eindhoven, North Brabant, The Netherlands.

Africa is spread out over 71 different latitudes. Each of them, in combination with a raw geography shaped by unimaginable forces, produces a different landscape and ecosystem. It seems that every animal is perfectly adapted to the elevation, climate and terrain in which it lives. This is particularly noticeable in ants, which vary dramatically from tiny harmless black dots to huge red warriors with a vicious bite. Africa perfectly adapts its inhabitants to the harsh conditions it poses. The same goes for humans; despite our common ancestry, we evolved over millions of years into Himba, Kikuyu, Somali, Berbers, Pygmies, Europeans or Arabs. We are truly as different as the ants we find on the forest floor. Some may crawl on your leg to explore; some find a way around you but rarely bite your toes when you mean no harm to them. Accidentally step on an ant nest though and you may regret your carelessness when biting ants crawl up your legs to courageously fight a war they will never win. I once had an ant walk up my leg to my knee, but when I tried to get it to walk onto my hand it jumped like a skydiver. Relatively speaking, the distance he fell to the ground would have been equal to the distance travelled by a skydiver jumping from an aircraft, except the ant didn’t have a parachute, but just landed on his feet and walked off. That is what Africans do: they struggle and struggle to build a life for themselves with the few resources they have, but when trouble arises they leave it behind and walk away to build a new life elsewhere. Rarely do they fight to replace their corrupt leaders, and, if they do, then another power-hungry leader will soon take his place. Perhaps Africans are used to the harsh conditions they live in and are more equipped to deal with them. Perhaps we are the ants that end up losing unwinnable wars and they are the ants that just jump ship, brush off and go on with life on their terms.

The mind of Africa part 1 – A guest of the incomprehensible

Posted from Eindhoven, North Brabant, The Netherlands.

In just over 370 days we did what many thought would be impossible: crossing Africa in our circumnavigation of the African continent. We drove through the Sahara on both sides, worked our way through the Central African jungle, saw countless kilometres of Sahel and savannah, and climbed mountains and forded rivers. We met people with worldviews more distant from ours than you can possibly imagine, but even after all that time I still don’t understand most Africans. A wise missionary who worked in Africa all his life once said he would give a lifetime of work in exchange for an hour in the mind of an African. I understand him now, for Africans are truly incomprehensible, from their political philosophy to their spiritual beliefs, and even after a year I have to admit that the mind of an African is still a mystery to me. I will hold Africa, with its endless hospitality and boundless variation, close to my heart forever. Although I will always merely be a guest on the land of the people I cannot understand, I am happy to be so.

Corruption for dummies

Posted from Cotonou, Littoral Department, Benin.

Roadblocks, otherwise known as checkpoints, are a daily occurrence on the roads in Central and West Africa. In fact they’re as common as the corruption that keeps them going, unfortunately. We will briefly try to explain the process and provide the reader with several tips on to how to negotiate them without paying a bribe.

First of all, understand that the officer at the checkpoint is there for one reason: to extort money from you. And not just you, from the local population in particular. Every taxi driver knows exactly what he has to pay to pass the checkpoint, and simply accounts for the bribe in his fare. So, you aren’t special; you’re expected to pay like everybody else, and perhaps a bit more because you are foreign (that’s code for ‘white’). Also understand that the officer isn’t doing this illegally; he is expected to bring in a certain amount of money by his boss, and the rest is extra on top of his ‘salary’ (which is often not paid regularly and is always very low). If he does not bring in the money, he gets a desk job.

Secondly, understand that by not paying immediately the officer is forced to do his job and find fault with you. Don’t worry. Even if everything is in order the officer will invent a new rule. This is all a lot of work and will make the amount you are expected to pay larger.

Thirdly, someone decided to give the officer in question a level of power and he is happy to abuse it if you don’t comply. For example, he can impound your vehicle or withhold your papers (which you were stupid enough to hand over). However, he will often not do so because it means more work for him and he will ultimately not get any money. That money is official and will go to the state, and nobody wants that!

This should give you a clear picture of the situation you are in: ‘it’s all your fault and I am keeping your papers or car until you pay me some incredibly high, but certainly negotiable, amount of money’. Apart from not getting into this situation, which I will discuss later, there is only one thing you have: time, and lots of it. Time is what sets you apart from rich expats and local taxis. So, you take out your chairs, make lunch, hang up the laundry or, if necessary, just talk endlessly until the problem goes away, and it always does in the end. If, for whatever reason, you don’t have time, you have no choice but to pay.

In order to avoid this situation, there are several strategies you can use. Firstly, when you approach the roadblock:
1. Smile and look innocent.
2. Assess the situation; your instincts will tell you how difficult this checkpoint will be – sleeveless shirts, sunglasses, cigarettes and camo pants are bad signs.
3. Slow down to a pace where it would be normal for you to drive through, but provide them with enough time to have a good look and come to the conclusion you are a tourist.
4. Wave briefly at the highest official you see – you will develop a sense for this, usually it’s the most formal uniform or hardly any uniform; in any event they are usually a bit older than the rest.

The wave and the fact that you are a tourist might get you through depending on whether other tourists have paid. Therefore, avoid paying a bribe at all costs. If they want you to stop they will give you a stop-sign, and in former French colonies they will whistle as well. At this point you assess whether to actually stop. In many cases you will have to, but I have driven through many checkpoints because they had no vehicle or means of stopping me, but this is risky. Some have mats with spikes they throw on the road; sometimes there is another checkpoint just ahead; or they can call ahead to the next check to stop you. We have been chased by police and immigration for ignoring a stop-sign but in both cases managed to talk our way out of the situation by saying we thought they had waved back. They will have guns, but in general will never fire them. If you do decide to stop, try to stop right in front of the barrier to block the road. Other motorists will sound their horn and speed up the process for you. In some cases you will piss the officer off by not stopping where he wants you to, so just apologise and move.

So, you decided to stop and the officer approaches. Make sure you always greet him first in his own language with appropriate formalities. Sometimes they will even want to shake hands all round. He should feel important and powerful. Despite what you might expect, it always works in your favour. Getting annoyed will get you nowhere – he will get annoyed too, he won’t feel in control and things will take a lot longer. Usually the officer will ask for the purpose of the visit (“tourist” does the trick) and where you are going (just say something touristy or the nearest town). Often tourists are not expected to pay by order from higher up, and often should not be bothered at all. They might ask for your papers, which is tricky because giving them up means he has leverage. We carried a huge amount of fakes and copies, often more official-looking than the originals, which always worked fine. Anything laminated must be official it seems. Generally, handing over a foreign document catches them off guard, and since they have no idea what they want to see or what they are looking at, you will get it back soon enough. In any case, handle it in a confident way and take it from an official looking folder – as if to say, “this is what you need, sir.” It is common to be asked for documents you don’t have. If you don’t have it, don’t hesitate and say confidently you don’t have it and you don’t need it. If necessary, make up some story about another government institution (customs, immigration, embassies, fire brigade etc.) that gave you this information, so you checked it and that is how it is.

So, it has come to this, they ask you for a bribe, with or without leverage. The simplest strategy is the most effective: just confidently say “no”. It catches them off guard and usually they will let you through. If they ask for stuff, like water or a “present”, just tell them “next time” – it works surprisingly well.

Flies in the jungle

The road to Gabon from Congo is very rough. A road is being contructed to connect the two countries, and the huge trucks used in the work are leaving deep trenches in the sand. These trenches were deep enough to mean that the Land Rover’s differential was digging a middle-lane between the tracks, regularly causing us to get stuck because the wheels were barely touching the ground. From the border we drove to Franceville, where we agreed to meet Flavie, who lives and works on a sugar cane plantation about 45 kilometres away as a researcher developing new, improved types of sugar cane. We got a tour around the plantation to look at: the seemingly unending fields of crops, the heavy machinery used to harvest the cane, the aircraft used to spread chemicals and the small city that houses the plantation’s workers. The next day we were invited to go fishing with a few friends. It was a fun day, and we even managed to catch some fish using flies. At least those flies are good for something!

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A day later we left Franceville and the plantation and made our way through the dense jungle in the interior of the country. On a gravel road near Lopé, the plug of the rear differential fell into the differential, completely blocking the former and causing us to make a violent and somewhat dangerous stop. With the odd truck rushing past, after hopefully seeing our warning triangle, we got to work removing the protective cover and scooping out the remnants of the mashed up plug. Doing so in the heat of the day meant that millions of flies swarmed round our faces, legs and any uncovered part of our bodies to feast on the sweat. They even seem to drive the locals mad. After putting the differential back together we hit the road again, before eventually getting a permanent fix in the small town of Lopé. Via Oyem we then proceded to drive to Cameroon.

The Brazza life

Posted from Brazzaville, Brazzaville, Congo.

Life in Brazzaville moves at a slow pace. Everyone just goes about their business during the day, but at night things comes alive in a mix of eating, talking, singing, dancing and drinking. We were staying with Chantal and Florence, two teachers at the Lycée Français (French school), who we found through CouchSurfing. During the day, we were busy repairing the Land Rover and getting visas for Nigeria, Gabon, Cameroon and Ghana, and at night we went with them to restaurants and clubs where we drank Primus beer, ate food that took two hours to arrive and enjoyed great music and good company.

Every overlander who passes through Brazzaville stops at Hotel Hippocampe. Olivier runs this fancy hotel and restaurant in the heart of Brazza, and gracefully offers a room to overlanders passing through. His guestbook is worth its weight in gold because it contains a lot of valuable information. Needless to say, we were not that surprised to meet Jos, a Dutch guy who was driving down the west coast of Africa in his Volkswagen Beetle. There aren’t many overlanders in West Africa, unlike the East side, which is teeming with flocks of Toyotas, Land Rovers and motorcycles bearing adventurous Europeans. After a few days, we had sorted everything out and headed for Gabon.

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Crossing the Congo

Posted from Luozi, Bas Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

We found an alternative to the expensive ferry from Kinshasa to Brazzaville: about 150 kilometres before Kinshasa, and about ten kilometres before Kimpese, there is a road that turns north towards the town of Luozi. The road starts as a gravel track that leads to the ferry across the legendary Congo River. This ferry, unlike the $600-800 alternative in Kinshasa, only cost us $15 with no hassle whatsoever. While waiting, we filled the car with diesel from the jerrycans we brought from Angola, until we discovered the fuel tank was leaking badly. The village children quickly grabbed any container they could find and caught the diesel. Cleverly, after they had filled a few half litre bottles they tried to sell it back to us. It was too contaminated for our engine, but any local truck would gladly take it off their hands. We took the last ferry of the day, so we arrived on the other side of the river, in Luozi, quite late. There, we found a Catholic mission where we spent the night. The next day, we discovered that the road becomes a serious offroad track that should not be attempted after rainfall. We also had to deal with border formalities in Luozi, Boko and several other places. Apart from the odd request for a bribe, it was fairly straightforward. Perhaps the most challenging part was convincing the drunk border officials to leave the casino and open the gate for us. On the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo-Kinshasa) and the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville) there is a concrete sign that marks the border between the former Belgian and French colonies. We spent the night at a small auberge in Boko and the next day continued our journey to Brazzaville.

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Bonjour Congo Democratique


Posted from Kinshasa, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

We were advised to cross the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (or: DRC, Congo-Kinshasa or Congo Democratique) at the small Luvo border crossing, rather than Matadi, because it is friendlier and less corrupt. And, indeed, the border crossing was very easy. The Angolan side took a while with quite a few checkpoints by army, police, military police, immigration, customs and just random bored soldiers. They wanted to know everything from our weight to the names of our parents, and meticulously noted everything down in the register. The number of registration books with our names in them in Africa is already too much to count, and we often wonder what happens to them. I suppose in Europe my name will show up in a few thousand computer systems, but at least you can then recover the data. This mess of incorrectly written European names in illegible handwriting seems a pointless exercise though.

At the DRC side of the border we were happily greeted by a group of officials under a tree, all of them wearing a different uniform, and we got our first taste of French. After telling officials in Angola “não falo Portuguese” (I don’t speak Portuguese) for a few weeks, we could now at least communicate a little bit. In a small office we got our passports stamped by a cheerful guy, and customs was dealt with just as quickly and pleasantly. As soon as you enter the DRC the paved road stops and turns into a muddy track. A while later you reach the only main road in the country, which runs between Matadi and Kinshasa.

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There are two ways to get across the Congo river to the Republic of Congo (or Congo-Brazzaville): take the ferry from Kinshasa to Brazzaville for an extortionate price, or drive the remote but beautiful Luozi-route. The latter is not accessible when it rains, and we were there at the start of the rainy season. We still opted for the latter, though, hoping to save the ridiculous $600-1000 they charge for the ferry in Kinshasa. However, one of the bushes that connects the suspension to the chassis was worn out, so we had to replace it before we started on the most gruelling offroad track since Lake Turkana (or perhaps Luanda). Perhaps we had to go into Kinshasa afterall…?

We drove into Kimpese, a small typical African city. I spotted a Land Rover, waved him down and stopped to have a chat. I asked him in my best French if he knew where to get Land Rover parts here. He told me he knew a mechanic who could help. We drove to the Catholic Mission where there was a mechanic who quickly identified the problem, along with several others, and told us he could fix things. The rest of the day was spent getting parts and fitting them, while we had a much needed shower and chatted with the locals. That night we slept in the tent in the garage and wondered why we had been so worried about this country to begin with.

The next morning we stopped by a welder’s and got supplies for the Luozi route. If it rained while we were on the route, we might get stuck until things dried up, so we filled up our water tank and stocked up on food. We then got some bits of valuable local information and hit the road again.