17 April 2013
Posted from Serrekunda, Banjul, The Gambia.
We crossed the border with Guinea and drove into Senegal. To us, after roughing it in Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire for over a week, this was civilisation: the roads were suddenly excellent, sponsored by the generous people of the European Union, we started meeting other overlanders, and luxuries like internet were available once again. We then headed into the Casamance, a province that fought for independence for decades, and soon the impeccable roads turned nasty; this province obviously hadn’t earned roads with more asphalt than potholes. We tried to go north into The Gambia, but the ferry across the Casamance River was charging extortionate prices, which were in retrospect worth the money to avoid the horrible road to Ziguinchor. The road was so bad that at one point we contemplated swallowing our pride and going back to the ferry. Eventually though, we reached the capital of the South of the country and were rewarded with a wonderful campsite that is run by a friendly French woman. From here it would be an easy drive to Gambia, the tiny country enclosed by Senegal. We didn’t need a visa for either country, and there were few bureaucratic complications. In the 1980s, Senegal and Gambia even tried to form a confederation called ‘Senegambia’, which never quite got off the ground.
We made our way to Gambia, where we were invited by a German woman (Anna) to camp on her compound. She was very hospitable and immediately phoned a mechanic when she heard we needed one. We were able to wash our heaps of dirty clothes and bedding, and got a chance to thoroughly clean the car. The Gambia thus provided us with the facilities we needed to get our affairs in order before we headed up to Mauritania and the unforgiving Sahara Desert. We got our Mauritanian visa in Serrekunda: a transit visa for just three days. For the application we had to pinpoint our exact date of entry. The three-day visa saved us half the price of the regular one (€45 instead of €93), so we picked a safe date on which we would enter the country.
The last day before we left we got a chance to enjoy Gambia in the way that most people do. Gambia is a tourist paradise synonymous with male prostitution, marihuana and endless numbers of bumsters (hustlers). The tourists are mostly lower-class Europeans looking for some fun with the locals. Middle-aged women hire young black men for sex, sometimes even taking them home and marrying them. Female prostitution is less common, but for 500 Dalasi a day (less than €15) you can have your pick of the most beautiful women in West-Africa. In reality, most people are very poor and desperate, and tourists are an excellent, if not the only, source of income.
14 April 2013
Posted from Labe, Labé, Guinea.
Forgotten by the rest of the world, yet proud to be Guineans. Richly endowed with resources, yet among the poorest countries in the world. Upon independence, they said “au revoir” to France while President Ahmed Sékou Touré steered the country in a socialist direction, isolating it from the rest of the world. He ruled until 1984 when a military coupe d’etat put an end to his rule. The isolated state of the country, as well as corruption, has led to a situation where Guinea, although suffering from crippling poverty, has received very little development aid in the past. Recently though, the country has started opening up and the construction of Chinese roads now connect this country that is roughly the size of the United Kingdom. The roads themselves often do not appear on a map, and if they do their paths and surface are completely different. Almost nobody goes there on their own, so why would Michelin or any other carthographer bother? Outside the capital of Conakry, there are very few facilities other than the most basic, and off the main roads people have rarely seen a white man and speak no common language. We mainly stayed with locals on our way through the country, who were always friendly and interested. The geography in Guinea is astonishingly beautiful, with thick forests, impressive mountains and arid savannahs. We saw baboons, bushbabies, leguanas, monkeys and, just before we hit the arid part in the northwest of the country, a chimpanzee that ran across the road with two babies. We left the country puzzled as to how such a beautiful, rich and friendly place could at the same time be so poor and forgotten.
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11 April 2013
Posted from Yamoussoukro, Lacs, Côte d'Ivoire.
We crossed into Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and within hours drove into Abidjan, a Manhattan-style city that arose from poverty and reconstruction after several civil wars. We drove past it completely astonished. The road turned into a European-style two-lane freeway in almost perfect condition, which is unique in West-Africa. Côte d’Ivoire had been a model former French colony under President Houphouët-Boigny, who strongly depended on France for economic support and advice. France managed to do (except with Guinea) what the Brittish utterly failed to: maintain a healthy relationship with its former colonies. Therefore, before the civil wars ravished the country, Côte d’Ivoire was rewarded with infrastructure, a larger French community than during its colonial era and lots of foreign investment.
For the most part, Côte d’Ivoire is an uninteresting country with little to offer tourists, so we drove through it in just a few days. We did stop in Yamoussoukro, which is strangely the capital of the country despite its tiny size compared to Abidjan. President Houphouët-Boigny was born here in 1905 and reigned from 1960 until his death in 1993. He therefore pumped huge amounts of money into what used to be a small, unimportant city. In 1985, he started construction on the project that would define the megalomaniacal mental state of many of the presidents in this part of the world: his “Basilique Notre-Dame de la Paix”. The giant basilique is a copy of the St. Peter’s basilica in Vatican City, although it is slighty higher at 158 metres. The construction is estimated to have cost $300 million, which Houphouët-Boigny supposedly paid for himself. The colourful windows surround the 7000 individually airconditioned seats. In total, the church can hold 18,000 people, and is recognised as the biggest church in the world. Houphouët-Boigny set out to prove that Africans are indeed capable of constructing the same wonders as the Europeans, yet, all of the important functions in the construction went to non-Africans and most of the complex building materials (such as the stained glass windows) came from France. The fact that he could have fed and provided shelter to his entire population for years, many of whom were poor and desperate, does not seem to bother anyone. In Africa, the Big Man decides.
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Still torn apart by ethnic, political and religious divisions between North and South, the UN has created a neutral zone to seperate the two. Somewhat shaken by the impressive UN presence in the area, we drove into Duekoué where there were UN camps, heavily armed trucks and blue helmets all around. We camped in the safety of a compound of a hotel, and the next day left early to cross into Guinea.
9 April 2013
Posted from Cape Coast, Central, Ghana.
“Gold Coast.” Even the name conjures up images of unimaginable wealth right there for the taking along with palm-fringed beaches and natives who will bring it all to your feet. The reality, however, is more brutal. The Portuguese arrived in what is now Ghana in 1471 and started building forts around 1590. After that, the British, French, Dutch, Germans and Danish built or conquered forts on the shores of the Gold Coast as well, with the most important ones being in Cape Coast, Accra and Elmina. We visited one of those forts, perhaps the most famous one, in Cape Coast. Its gruesome slave dungeons reminded us of the main export of the colony: slaves meant for Europe and the Americas. Our guide showed us the immense fort and told us about the process the slaves went through, sometimes being locked up for months with hundreds of others in the dungeons before being loaded (with incredible efficiency) onto the ships. We also visited the city of Elmina where, in 1637, the Dutch conquered the impenetrable Fort São Jorge da Mina (then held by the Portuguese) by simply climbing the hill next to it and firing their cannons until they surrendered. Interestingly, because of the long stay (until 1871) of the Dutch in Elmina, many people now have a Dutch surname.
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4 April 2013
Posted from Tamale, Northern, Ghana.
About seven years ago I (Twan) raised money from friends and family to build a school in Tamale. I was 17 years old and travelled to arid, dusty, Islamic Northern Ghana to make a difference to the lives of the children who live in the Yapalsi-area of Tamale. In 12 weeks I built the Choggu Yapalsi Islamic Primary School with help of community elders, my host Steven and our contractor Hassan.
Now, seven years later, we drove into the city again. It was unrecognisable, like another world. The last time I was there I rode around on a bicycle and it felt like a friendly village. Now it’s a city with shops, cars, supermarkets, internet cafés and development organisations. Indeed, in just seven years Tamale has been transformed from a village into a full-fledged city, the biggest in North-Ghana. I suddenly realised though that these changes meant that it would be very difficult to find the people I was there to meet.
We set out in the Land Rover, first needing to find the right area. We managed to do this quite quickly because the place we were looking for is north of the University. What used to be farmland is now a residential area, and what used to be enclosed huts made of mud are now square houses with corrugated roofs. We asked someone in the street for Steven, and since everyone knows everyone else, after 10 minutes we were in his new house. We were delighted to see each other. Over the past two decades Steven has hosted more than 20 volunteers, but has recently had to stop doing so because his wife has died. A photo of the lovely lady who used to prepare my fufu hangs on the wall enshrined by Ajax-flags. Steven still looked the same, atlhough mentally it is clear that he has aged more.
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Steven provided us with directions to get to the school. We drove through the dusty streets and continued to ask for guidance from different people. A few minutes later we stopped and got out the car – it must be here somewhere. Two local youths walked with us in between houses towards the school and suddenly I saw the building: the same corrugated roof, the stone windows with holes in them and the sign “Choggu Yapalsi Islamic Primary School”. Then, all hell broke loose! Hundreds of children swarmed out of the classrooms at the sight of two white men, and completely lost control when they saw the camera. We then talked to the teachers, and one of them even still remembered my name! People were dispatched to get the local elders, and hands were shaken with men in long gowns and typical Muslim head-dress. It was chaos! After all the formalities, they indicated that they wanted to organise a formal welcome. That was obviously fine by us, so we agreed to return in a couple of days.
We walked back to the car, deafened by all the screaming and in shock at the number of people who were suddenly there. We started looking for Hassan, and found him soon enough in the new guesthouse of KidzActive, the organisation he works with. We were invited to sleep in his house, got delicious food and royally screwed up his planning for the next two days.
The next day we went with Hassan to a shop to buy school materials, filling up a box of stuff for a good price. We then went to the market to get some good souvenirs, and ate at Sparkles – which seven years ago was the place where volunteers gathered. It’s all a lot hipper and more modern now, but still the place to be for volunteers.
It then reached 10 o’clock and time for us to go to the school. We have clearly turned into real Africans so were slightly late. We drove onto school property with the Land Rover and again hordes of children surrounded us. They wanted pens and balloons, but most of all to have their picture taken with their Koran. The parents, teachers, elders and other important guests waited patiently under a shelter. After shaking hands all round, the speeches started, with Hassan translating. The Imam, headmaster and other important guests spoke in Dagbani while Hassan carefully translated their words. Jeffrey kept a low-profile so he could walk around and take photos, sometimes to the annoyance of the parents. After the first round of speeches, Hassan and I got the box from the car and put it on the table. Everything that emerged from the box was called out loud by a stern lady: pens, pencils, chalk, notebooks, erasers etc. Eventually the table was full and applause followed. The children sang a nice song led by their teacher. As a small gift the children got some balls sponsored by De Koning Adviesgroep and some balloons. What we expected almost immediately happened: fights broke out over who would get the balls, and even the teacher completely lost control of her students. Eventually the children settled down, we thanked everybody again, took some more photos and drove off. A very tiring and interesting day, and it wasn’t even noon!
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2 April 2013
Posted from Natitingou, Atakora, Benin.
We entered Benin through a minor border crossing, because the main border with Nigeria (Seme) was meant to be a nightmare. We then drove from Lagos to Cotonou in one day and spent two nights with Sander, a Dutch guy living with his family in the city. The next day we took the “route de pèche” (fish road) that runs alongside beautiful palm-fringed beaches with small villages working together to bring in the nets with the catch of the day. At the end of the road was Ouidah, which is famous for its role in slavery. The ‘Point of no Return’ marks the place where slaves lost all connection with their families, culture and traditions, and were loaded onto ships. The village has several interesting places, among them the sacred voodoo forest and a 600-year old python temple.
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The Dutch guy we were staying with suggested travelling north in Benin, instead of going to Togo. So, we took his advice and visited Abomey, the capital of the Dahomey Kingdom where we visited the Royal Palace, saw “le roi” (the king) step out of his Toyota surrounded by priests in colourful robes and got a guided tour of the museum. Abomey is also the capital of voodoo, so we visited a voodoo priest to have the remainder of our journey blessed (by drinking palm wine from a horn) and a fetish market that had everything from stacks of monkey skulls to snakes and alligator heads. All were dead, of course, and were to be used in voodoo rituals. The way they portray voodoo in Hollywood movies, with weird rituals, dolls with pins, dead animals and scary priests… yes, it’s just like that!
Caution! Some photos from page 2 (of the photo gallery) are not suitable for people with a weak stomach or a love of live animals. The photos are certainly not suitable for younger visitors.
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We drove further north to Dassa and then headed west because the east of the country was now “code orange” because of terrorist threats. We went as far north as Natitingou, which is home to the ‘tata somba’ houses, which are peculiar structures built like fortresses by the insular Somba people.
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We crossed the border into Togo thinking we could buy a 7-day transit visa there for 10,000 CFA, but we couldn’t. In fact there was nothing there, so we decided to drive to the border east of Kara (through Togo) to get the visa. But they didn’t have one either and just stamped us in. We then drove to the border west of Kara in this tiny country, where they just stamped us out. As a consequence, we had just crossed Togo illegally without a visa.
28 March 2013
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.
26 March 2013
Posted from Lagos, Lagos, Nigeria.
“Nigeria is a very dangerous country”, or so we had been told by many people throughout Africa. Indeed, if we can trust the free press, it certainly is. Countless kidnappings of expats in the south of the country, especially around Port Harcourt, had resulted in extreme safety measures on the part of the party who had to pay the ransoms: the oil corporations. Moreover, in the north of the country, Islamists kidnap or simply murder Westerners for religious motives. But there was no way around it, so we decided to gun it through the country and head for Lagos.
The border wasn’t too bad, but the first night was horrible. We didn’t keep an eye on the time left until sundown, and so accidentally drove through the place we should have been sleeping, forcing us to find another hotel in the dark in the next city. “Whatever you do, don’t drive in the dark in Nigeria”; the words of an experienced oil expat we met in Luanda echoed in my head. But apart from a bit of stress, things turned out fine.
The next daywe accidentally drove through the heart of Benin City due to a few wrong turns, which led to utter chaos and disbelief on the faces of Nigerians. We also got stopped by police of various kinds close to 100 times. Every time a bribe was sought without even checking our papers or the vehicle. Sometimes, when we refused, an officer would shout something like “your steering-wheel is on the wrong side” or “you have too many lights”. They even threatened to impound our car at one point, but some threats from our side (“I will have to call my embassy if you do that”) made our mistakes vanish as rapidly as they had appeared. Eventually, after two long days of driving, we arrived in Lagos – the city people in Africa avoid like ebola and Somalia.
There, we were invited by Jaco, a South African working for a large accounting firm, to stay with him. He claimed to enjoy the challenges the city poses: continuous power-outages, no water, incredibly high prices, shortages of other kinds, and some of the most congested and chaotic traffic in the world. We stayed in his house, each with our own en-suite room, with the fasted internet on the west coast and a cook (Robert) who turned every meal into a feast. Jaco showed us Nigeria’s economic powerhouse with all its riches and its crippling poverty. We also visited the “jungle” Chevron had created on the edge of the city.
Jaco also invited us to the largest expat party of the year in Lagos, which probably makes it the biggest in Nigeria, and thus the biggest in Africa. About 30 countries had a tent with unlimited food and drink and each did a brief performance on a stage. Needless to say, after two hours, we were both stuffed with French cheese, German sausages, Dutch cheese, Greek baklava and South African boereworst. We hardly watched any of the performances and got very drunk on Heineken beer from the Dutch tent, rum-coke from the Latin community and French wine. Twan, after months of only pouring only his own drink, finally got a chance to play bartender in the Dutch tent. We then staggered home and spent the next few days getting visas and organising for what was to come.
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16 March 2013
Posted from Buea, Southwest, Cameroon.
We quickly made our way north in Cameroon to Yaoundé, perhaps one of the most chaotic cities in Africa. The traffic is absolutely crazy and the people very loud. Cameroon is also the most corrupt country we visited, meaning that we often got stopped by the police asking for bribes, although we usually just waved them away and drove through the checkpoints. In Yaoundé we stayed with Armel and Regina and their newborn son for a few days. We tried to get the visa for Benin there, but were unable to find the embassy, which turned out to be in Douala. We therefore decided to get it in Nigeria instead and drove through Douala to the city of Buea at the foot of Mount Cameroon. In Buea we met Mieke and Hannah, two young Dutch women working for the NGO Livebuild. We had a great time with them in their huge house with Dutch food, fun activities and lots of friends, most of whom were American Peacecorps volunteers.
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We had arranged to climb Mount Cameroon in two days, although the advice was to do it in three. We showed up early in the morning with sleeping materials, clothes and several other items at the rendezvous site where we met our three porters and guide, Henry. We soon started our climb with an easy leg through the jungle to Hut 1, which took us a few hours. Then, we left the jungle for the savannah, where we walked to the intermediary hut. From there the climb turned nasty over steep, rocky terrain. The rocks keep tumbling under your feet, so the trick is to only step on the grass. Meanwhile, you are high above the clouds and mist and occasionally have a beautiful view of the mountain, although the summit is not yet visible. After climbing for what seemed like hours, we reached ‘the magic tree'; here the terrain becomes less hostile and it’s a short walk to Hut 2, which was our base camp for the day. Base camp consists of three rooms with a platform raised above the ground where you can sleep. We had a good meal, a rest and then met a Norwegian climber, Lars. Lars is a seasoned mountaineer and has climbed 63 mountains, each one of which is the highest in the countries he visits. Mount Cameroon was not the highest mountain he had climbed by some distance, although he had promised his wife not to go above 8000 metres, so no Everest and no K2 for Lars. He did, however, visit the highest point of Vatican City, which is a small hill in the garden that his guide had allowed him to step on.
The next day we got up just after sunrise to start our ascent to Hut 3, and then the final stretch to the summit. After leaving base camp we could soon feel that the air contained less oxygen and we had to adjust our pace to ‘slow & steady’. After a rest at Hut 3, we walked over a moon-like landscape to the summit at 4095 metres, which we reached around noon. At the summit it was freezing cold and incredibly windy, so we quickly put on all the clothes we had. Then we drank a whiskey with Lars to celebrate our first, and his 64th mountain. With almost clear weather, the views on the summit were absolutely breathtaking.
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After the celebrations were over we realised that we had to climb all the way down the mountain in just one afternoon; afterall we had taken the 2-day instead of the 3-day tour. So we started our climb down to Hut 3, had a rest, then went to base camp for a big lunch and to look after our blister-covered feet. We then climbed to ‘the magic tree’, except this time we weren’t so pleased to see it, because it meant we had to go down the steepest bit of the descent. After you get into the rhythm things get better, but we were happy to see the intermediary hut and get back into the jungle. After walking through the jungle for a few hours, with a rest at Hut 1 of course, we reached the place where we started our climb one day earlier just before sunset. We thanked our guides and porters, got into a taxi and drove back for a well-deserved rest. It was also a forced rest, because we could barely walk for two days.
If you want to climb Mount Cameroon contact HADY Guiding Services at (+237) 77 43 03 01 or (+237) 93 85 03 49. Most of the guides and porters are students doing the work to support their education.
13 March 2013
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.