All posts by Jonathan

Jonathan has sailed yachts, flown paragliders and paramotors, and driven through snow, mud and sand in various places around the world. He started out by bungy jumping dressed as a pantomime horse. All this to show being vegan doesn't limit your potential?

Into the Wild North West – Namibia

Slowly crawling over and between rocks and boulders we descended Van Zyl’s Pass and saw the grassy Marienfluss Valley spread out below us between the mountains. I’ve heard people describe this moment as all sorts of special, but until you see it, you can’t feel that emotion. Photographs struggle to capture the grand scale of the scene or the feeling of remoteness. All I can say is that it was one of the most unique experiences of all my travels so far, and we took some time to breathe it all in before descending into the wide savannah with its jagged mountain backdrops.

Taking advantage of a flat bit to admire the valley...
Taking advantage of a flat bit to admire the valley…

People have told tales of abandoned vehicles and shredded tyres, of people stuck for days waiting for someone to come along and help them out of trouble. Others have said its nothing so bad, a bit rough but no problem. I have to say Van Zyl’s Pass has elements of both – getting it wrong could land you in a lot of trouble due to its remoteness.

An OK section of the track...lunch stop.
An OK section of the track…lunch stop.

It is a very rough track, with difficult elements and sharp rocks, and is extremely steep in places that have you staring straight down at the ground out of the front window, the car sliding over loose rocks the size of large watermelons.

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But with care and good equipment it is easily passable, and we made the trip from Opuwo to Marienfluss in a day, skipping the stop off at the Van Zyl’s Community Campsite. Of course, getting in is only half of the fun – the way back out again is a long and sometimes challenging route of its own through the most remote of Namibia’s landscapes.

This has been a short couple of weeks to fit in so many spectacles, and we were left a little dazed by the kaleidoscope of ever-changing vistas and magnificent scenery. I hope some of the photographs convey a little of the magic of the wild North West of Namibia.

We started at a fair pace, heading out of Windhoek towards the Brandberg Mountain – Namibia’s highest, and visible for what seemed hours of dusty driving before it loomed closer.

The distant Brandberg
The distant Brandberg

Then up the Skeleton Coast and inland again to Palmwag.

Skeleton Beach
Skeleton Beach

Around here the fences largely disappear, you enter the land of the Himba people and road signs warn of wandering elephants.

From Opuwo the trail thins out, and then turns into a collection of narrow tracks through the thorny brush heading North to the sandy turn-off for Van Zyl’s Pass.

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Van Zyl’s Camp Sign

The pass itself winds its way down from the high plains at 1000m  into the Marienfluss Valley at 280m, which together with the Hartmann Valley form vast flat plains of sandy grassland spreading North to the Kunene River.

Dropping into the Marienfluss Valley
Dropping into the Marienfluss Valley

Once through the pass, a couple of hours drive on the red sandy track through tall grass brings you to the frontier with Angola. And the beautiful Syncro campsite on the riverbank, patrolled by crocodiles.

Valley Grasslands
Valley Grasslands

Here we paused for 2 nights to soak in the scenery and wilderness, and I got another paramotor flight in early in the morning before the wind and thermals got going. Sadly, the GoPro continues to malfunction and all we have in the way of footage is some blue-hued and bleached shots of Troopy I got while taking a brief aerial view of the valley on the way back South…but I can tell you it was a lovely place to fly!

The way out of Marienfluss took in the length of the valley, heading 100km South before clambering through Red Drum Pass and making our way across the ever more desert plains to Purros.

Approaching Purros
Approaching Purros

Here we camped at a community campsite on an island in the wide, sandy riverbed – usually frequented by elephants, but for now they have gone down the river in search of water so it was a quiet night under the stars. Followed by the first cloudy morning in memory!

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Purros Community Campsite

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Heading East the next day along the riverbed we crossed our outbound track at Sesfontein – refuelling again at the tiny station which is apparently out of fuel for 5-6 months of the year…fortunately not today!

Riverbed Giraffe
Riverbed Giraffe

Then again cross-country towards the Western end of Etosha along what my map described as a ‘game-track’, through deeply rutted dry river crossings full of deep feche-feche which covered the car and blocked out the sun, passing the spot we camped in the bush on the first trip but opting for an official campsite with showers this time.

Next up, a couple of days of wildlife watching in Etosha, which is always an exciting experience, if at times a little like a giant wildlife park with marked viewing spots and borehole waterholes. Check the photo gallery for the animals!

Etosha: Elephant hogging the waterhole.
Etosha: Elephant hogging the waterhole.

And then we landed on the tarmac again and made our way towards Livingstone  – randomly running into the Swiss couple I’d met in Lomo at a campsite in Grootfontein – they had shipped down to Gabon and driven the rest of the way. Talking to them over a beer and a campfire made me a little regretful, and a little relieved, to have bypassed the central parts of West Africa.

So via Caprivi to the Victoria Falls, and the end of Agne’s leg – though fortunately not as literally as Katana’s on the last trip! Bungy jumps done, waterfalls admired, elephants watched from the campsite and hippos shouting at each other all night, and the excursion was complete.

Right now Agne is on a plane back to London, which will I’m sure make the last couple of weeks seem even more like an unreal dream-sequence. Steve (who until yesterday reckons he’s never had a vegan meal) has arrived for his first taste of Africa and we will head off into Botswana in a bit. I think we’ll take this leg a little bit easier…

Trails Old and New – Namibia

It is 7pm and has been dark for an hour. Winter in the Namib is quite pleasant – warm and sunny during the day, and hardly any annoying flies or mosquitoes. This makes a nice change from Togo in the rainy season! We had a week of unusually hot and sunny weather due to east winds on the coast, but at night it can get chilly, especially at the the higher altitudes further inland. In Windhoek the other day I woke with a cold head to find it had dropped to 4 degrees C…tonight its set to drop to TWO!!

But we’re back on the road again and its good. After picking up Troopy from the port in Walvis Bay I spent a few nights in the Namib Naukluft Park before heading slowly to Windhoek to meet up with Agne.

The first night in the wild was just near the spot we camped last time and met the strange but friendly Rock Hyraxes. This time though I took the opportunity to do some more exploring, criss crossing my old trails and spending a night at the most remote campsite in the park. As usual I had the place to myself – camping in a sort of semi-cave of overhanging rock looking out over the Tinkas Plains.

Rock Arch Campsite
Rock Arch Campsite

I made a supper of corn and sweet potato on the braii – cooked using recycled wood and charcoal scavenged from old campfires.

The beginnings of dinner...
The beginnings of dinner…

I’m pretty confident there wasn’t another human being within 10 miles, which is a higher level of confidence than at any point on the travels so far – even back in the Mauritanian Sahara. It was strangely relaxing to be out there alone, though the sound of galloping zebra charging around in the night took a bit of getting used to. They seemed to be spooked and I don’t blame them – there were some strange noises out there!

Rock Arch Campsite
Rock Arch Campsite

If the Rock Arch campsite was basic and wild, the next night was its luxury cousin. Another overhanging rock to camp under, but this time on a ‘Guest Farm’ with running hot water for the shower – still outdoors of course, with a view across the rocky hills.

Shower With a View
Shower With a View

I have to say though that I preferred the real wilderness, rather than the fenced ‘safe’ version which didn’t seem to have much in the way of wildlife – just a pet Gemsbok and Zebra. My campfire cooking got a bit more adventurous and I came up with a couscous dish that reminded me of the daily vegetable tajine’s from the Moroccan leg.

Campfire Couscous
Campfire Couscous

There’s a lot to love about Namibia, but at the same time I’m already feeling a little uncomfortable about some things. History has left its mark in a different way down here than back up North – it is certainly a cleaner and more developed country, but you can’t help but notice the preponderance of white, German-speaking owners of the guest farms and lodges, contrasted with the poorer neighbourhoods of Walvis Bay. Then there was the sign at my campsite asking that we hand any donations of food or clothes for the ’employees’ to the owners for distribution. What Namibia does have however, which most of West Africa doesn’t, is tourists and the infrastructure to support them. It is a very easy place to travel, though not perhaps the most vegan-friendly!

Leo Enjoying the Gamsberg Pass
Leo Enjoying the Gamsberg Pass

So onwards to Windhoek and meeting up with Kevin and Heike again. Troopy had a trip to a garage to get a new front axle oil seal fitted – I’d have done it myself but looked at the Haynes manual and decided it would be a long, messy job that someone with all the tools and parts could do in half the time. I’m using the ‘iOverlander’ app on this trip for finding campsites and it also has other useful places like embassies and garages listed, with reviews, so I was able to pick a good mechanic who sorted it with no problem. Lets see how that works out later…

Tomorrow Agne arrives for the leg up to Victoria Falls, so we’ll have more to talk about soon. If I don’t freeze tonight, of course!

 

The End of West Africa – Togo and Benin

Back in Mali at the Sleeping Camel in Bamako I met Kevin and Heike, who have been on the road for ages, and they came up with an idea. That idea was to avoid a lot of corruption, hassle and tedious waits in cities we didn’t want to go to, just to get visas for places we would then spend less time driving through than it took to get permission to enter in the first place. Why not ship the cars direct to Namibia?

Some people see this as cheating, but we aren’t the sort of people to be interested in doing things just to say we’ve done them and it seemed like a good idea to me. So I set about finding out how this might work and the end result is that Troopy is now in a container with their car, about to be loaded aboard a ship in Lomé, Togo and we are all taking a time out before meeting up again in Namibia in a few weeks time. I’m quite happy about this after my latest experiences with corrupt police and officials, especially given that Nigeria was next on the overland route and it has one of the worst reputations in Africa.

It all started so well at the Togo border with Ghana – a beautiful forested mountain route leading from slightly potholed Ghanaian tarmac across a bridge onto a Togolese sandy track winding through the forest along the contours of a steep valley.

Friendly Togo Border Guard
Friendly Togo Border Guard

All the border officials on both sides were just really friendly – especially the police officer on the Togo side, who had to break off the border formalities to chase off a snake that appeared hanging in the bushes by the barrier. Having left Roots Yard I was well fed and had an enjoyable day driving through Togo, stopping in occasional villages for a snack of barbecued corn or beignets (spicy bean fritters a little like falafel). I had the vague aim of meeting Kevin and Heike somewhere further North as they made their way down from Burkina Faso, and had picked a place to stay in Atakpamé – the Hotel California. This place, attached to a Total garage, turned out to be a bit strange. The kitchen was no longer in operation, so I found food on the streets, and the next morning it turned out I could leave whenever I liked, though checking out proved a challenge. I don’t think they have many guests, and in order to pay I had to drag ‘le patron’ from his bed and push notes into his hand through his bedroom door.

The shipping saga took a turn for the worse about this time, since I’d got a bit accustomed to Ghanaian mobile internet and slack with communicating, and internet of any kind was suddenly non-existent here. In a couple of days of communication blackout, Kevin and Heike concluded they weren’t going to make it to Cotonou on time and that I’d gone off on my own, so slowed down and diverted into Togo. I was not aware of this – and not being able to contact them decided to just head on towards Benin to be ready when they arrived. My second day in Togo was therefore going to be my last, and I headed off down dirt roads towards the border via the Nangbeto dam. The police guarding the dam were also really friendly, spoke English, and offered to give me a tour of the Hydro Electric plant at the dam.

Nangbeto Dam.
Nangbeto Dam.

After that, there was a long and slow, but pleasant drive on rolling dirt tracks with big, deep puddles Southwards through fields and villages along the border with Benin.

Passing a Termite Cathedral
Passing a Termite Cathedral

A pleasant day then turned a little ugly at the border, where the Togolese police officer decided he needed 20,000CFA (£25) to allow me to pass. A 2 hour standoff ensued in which we both played the ‘I’ve got all day’ card, but in the end I crossed into Benin without paying anything.

Togo Border Guards Collecting Personal Fees
Togo Border Guards Collecting Personal Fees

The fact that the Benin customs then overcharged me for the Laissez Passer (with a grin) by 2,000CFA didn’t seem to matter. I rolled into the sandy beach resort of Grand Popo feeling the day had been a success and set up camp under the pines and palms of my own field at the Auberge de Grand Popo…where the WiFi was out or order, but might be fixed tomorrow.

The morning was clear and still, so a paramotor flight was definitely in order and I figured it was about time to use the follow-cam I made back in Chippenham. I had a chat with the guard at the Benin Navy base next door, a little radar station and a compound on the beach, to make sure I wasn’t going to get in trouble or shot at, but they were again really nice and relaxed about things.

Ready to Fly at Grand Popo
Ready to Fly at Grand Popo

Take 1: Attempted take-off towards the sea after setting up in zero-wind. Just for a light zephyr from the right to pick up as I ran onto the soft sand. Aborted take-off and face-planted just short of the bit where the beach sloped steeply towards the wet stuff.

Fail 1
Fail 1

Take 2: Take off towards the Naval Base after re-setting wing and fending off enthusiastic local guy. Distraction made me miss that I’d got my left brake line looped through the other risers, locking on a fair amount of brake, which led to a permanent left turn tendency towards the sea. Gained some altitude whilst looping round for a landing and untangling the brakes…decided better to do that on the ground. Big mental note to do my checks properly.

Take 3: Much better – took off cruised along the beach above the surf and took a look at the lagoon. Low flying along beaches has to be one of my favourite things. Very nice flight.

3rd Time Lucky
3rd Time Lucky

Back at the Auberge, the WiFi was not looking like working any time soon so I had to move on down the coast. The next place on iOverlander that was supposed to have WiFi was a little way along near Ouidah.

Entering Ouidah, the skies darkened and we went into a full rainy-season flush cycle just as I caught up with a slow moving police pickup. The short version of this episode is that I was pulled over for something or other he deemed excuse-worthy and told to give him 60,000CFA or he’d impound the car because I couldn’t find my International Drivers Permit. Obviously no receipt, and I didn’t have that much cash so he grumpily took all my remaining money [CFA, plus some US Dollars and £10], helpfully directed me to the cash machine and drove off. I needed cash so went to the bank, and then headed for the beach where I intended to camp. This involved driving through water up to 2ft deep, and when I got there I couldn’t find the place I was looking for. Then I spotted the nice police chap heading my way again, to where I’d foolishly told him I was going to stay. He didn’t see me and went back to the other side of the flood and parked up to wait. At this point I was feeling a little trapped with my newly filled wallet on what seemed to be an island with one 1 way out. Well, I thought I might as well drive along the beach and see how far towards Cotonou it would take me.

Did I mention its the rainy season?
Did I mention its the rainy season?

Actually it was a really nice drive on a sandy beach track under coconut palms for 30km, and I arrived at Chez Rada in time for dinner. Its a beautiful place with a huge seawater pool, run by a lovely Bosnian/German lady for the past few decades. I was able to get connected to the internet (Benin actually has decent 3G), and discovered what Kevin and Heike were up to, which included having their suspension welded back together. I waited for them to get their Benin visa passing the time swimming in the pool, eating nice (though not very African) food and hanging out with the resident and visiting artists for a few more days. In the end it became clear they weren’t going to make it to Benin and I would have to run the gauntlet of the Ouidah police again and head back to Togo. So we switched the shipping from Cotonou to Lome. The trip to Lome was mostly uneventful, apart from a few small ‘extras’ paid on the border, and the heavy rain and wading through dirty water up to Troopy’s eyeballs.

Still a bit wet...
Still a bit wet…

I met up with Kevin and Heike at Chez Alice (another overlander favourite), and spent our last few days in West Africa there before we loaded the cars into a container. Shipping has been the subject of many a horror story, but we had a really nice experience with the agent in Lome, and it all seems to be going smoothly and without surprises of the nasty or expensive kind!

IMG_20160613_093641Thank you for following the adventures so far – after a brief intermission we will be back for more in Namibia!

 

 

Ghana – Here Be Vegans

I was not expecting this – there are a lot of vegans in West Africa. I started looking in Burkina Faso, and discovered a busy restaurant serving all-vegan versions of West African dishes. This is no specialist upmarket outlet catering to foreigners or tourists – just good healthy food for local people in Ouagadougou.

Yasmine and her NASA Crew
Yasmine and her NASA Crew

I missed out on visiting a vegan place that is listed in Kumasi on HappyCow.net due to the horrendous traffic and poor road conditions approaching the city. Then in Accra, staying at a vegetarian hotel/restaurant we found 2 vegetarian restaurants and a vegan restaurant, and Amanda found 20 vegans to interview in just 1 day. And then a fellow traveller happened to mention a Vegan Lodge,  and I was able to visit Roots Yard Lodge on my way towards Togo.

Fufu and Groundnut Soup - Assase Pa, Accra
Fufu and Groundnut Soup – Assase Pa, Accra

I hope that answers some of those silly questions back home about it being difficult or a luxury to be vegan in Africa? There’s lots of vegans here, and they aren’t just the relatively well-off, but a mixture of all sorts of people. The food is good value, nutritious and tasty, not to mention in large portions…a little too large for some of us! Sometimes even us vegans fall for the stereotypes and propaganda we are faced with at home – but the truth is that even here there’s no excuse  for not making choices that are better for animals, health and for the environment. Actually there are lots of excuses and we’ve heard them all – from evolution to religion, from flavour to nutrition – but excuses and habits are what they are, not real reasons.

Anyway I suppose a catchup is in order since I’ve let Ady and Amanda provide the input lately. So, where was I?  Oh yes – back on the Ghana visa trail on my way to Ouagadougou, which turned out to be an interesting experience – mostly due to finding NASA and chatting to Yasmine, the owner about how healthy, tasty, vegan food is very popular. The ginger juice was a great find as well – just what was needed to combat the raging thirst brought on by wandering around the baking streets.

I also gave Troopy an oil change – by a professional at a garage this time, a guy with a great sense of humour who was recommended by Guillaume, the owner of Pavillon Vert where I was staying. This did however entail riding on the back of a moped through the streets of Ouagadougou holding on to a couple of 5 litre bottles of oil…wearing flip-flops and shorts. I think I have officially gone local.

Snow Chain Demos at a garage in Burkina Faso...?
Snow Chain Demos at a garage in Burkina Faso…?

After picking up my Ghana visa it was time to head South for the border, though not before having 10,000CFA extracted from me by a police checkpoint for the avoidance of serious consequences and delays should I not cooperate with their alternative unreceipted cash option. This sort of thing got worse through Ghana, and much worse in Togo and Benin. Corruption is one thing that is really putting me off coming back to West Africa. Appalling road conditions, clouds of diesel smoke that make overtaking impossible through lack of visibility, suicidal driving, and the general mess that people seem to make to live in once anywhere gets bigger than a hamlet…those are some others.

Mole National Park
Mole National Park

The day I drove from the beautiful wilderness of Mole National Park, through gradually thinning forest, then no forest and sprawling settlements along the road, and into the stinking, dirty, insane world of the Kumasi rush hour – that day was nearly enough to make me pack up and go home. But then I found Lake Bosumtwe, and Cocoa Village, and spirits were restored. I camped in the lane outside the guesthouse and enjoyed the food they made, and in the morning woke to the sounds of the Slovenian guy who is managing the place busy coaching some local kids at volleyball.

Early Morning Volleyball Training, Cocoa Village, Lake Bosumtwe
Early Morning Volleyball Training, Cocoa Village, Lake Bosumtwe

There are definitely 2 sides to humanity – the majority of negative impact through greed or laziness, and then the few dedicated people trying to undo the damage and change things for the better…but the ‘glass half-full’ outlook is under a lot of pressure here!

In Accra I made the rendezvous with Amanda, and met Ady, and we had a cool time seeing Vegan Africa and taking a couple of trips – but you’ve seen the video and read the post already? The main reason for there being quite so many vegans in this part of Africa is the high number of Rastafarians – though that is by no means the only sort of vegan here! I’m looking forward to seeing Amanda’s 365 Vegans interviews to hear the stories of a few of them.

So after that it was time to move on – and by chance I’d been told about Roots Yard Lodge which was towards the border with Togo. What can I say about this place to do it justice? Run by Bob and Jaqueline in Bob’s home village near Lake Volta, it is a Vegetarian/Vegan Restaurant and Lodge – using local produce to make fantastic meals, including making their own tofu.

Local produce, Tasty Food - Roots Yard Lodge
Local produce, Tasty Food – Roots Yard Lodge

But thats just the start. They are working on local projects – organising Re-Forestation, building and managing a skate park for the kids (Roots Rebel Sk8 Park), and this summer they are going to be biking across the UK from coast to coast to raise money to have proper toilets built for the local school. It strikes me that this is the level of Western/African cooperation that actually works – what you find here is absolutely the best of both worlds, because its personal and they care.

So in the end I went out of Ghana on a high, though I wish I had stayed longer, but after a lovely couple of days, many excellent meals and a little paramotor flight, I headed for the Togo border.

Not a lot of wildlife, no dragons, but indeed…here be vegans.

 

 

 

Mali and the Pitfalls of Mangoes

This episode starts in one hot, dusty hotel car park about to cross a border, and ends in another hot hotel car park having just crossed a border. On both occasions, the option of sleeping in Troopy in the car park lost out to an air-conditioned room!

At the Oasis hotel in Tambacounda, back in Senegal, they take advantage of the lack of local camping spots to charge a pretty hefty price to let you camp out in their large, dusty car park. Others have been given the option of paying even more to use the small swimming pool, but today that wasn’t even allowed without booking a room. In comparison, a nice traditional style round hut room with aircon and no mosquitoes was a bargain. I can’t say the same for the food…which took a lot of explaining for an unexciting result…the curse of the pretentious hotel struck again and I was left with a basic salad. Breakfast was worse…instant coffee and bread. We cater much more imaginatively and with quality ingredients in Troopy!

Anyway, I started early and was driving through the already busy streets of Tamba towards the Niokolo-Koba National Park just after dawn. I stopped at the first checkpoint…and ended up giving a young fireman from St Louis a lift to work – 290km down the road in Kedougou. We had a good chat, learned a lot, and exchanged contact details when I dropped him off, though I don’t think he was at all impressed by my being vegan and having these crazy ideas that are not included in his religious code. His uniform and beret seemed to have the extra benefit of a free pass through any tolls and checkpoints!

The Good Road to the Mali Border
The Good Road to the Mali Border

After that, the border was a relatively short drive on a good road, though approaching it I passed through a sprawling conurbation of straw, stick and plastic which seemed out of place and scale, until I spotted the Arcelor Mittal Exploration checkpoint at one end of it. This is Gold Rush territory.

The border itself was probably the quickest and easiest I’ve done and 15 minutes after rolling up I was in Mali. Part 1 of and epic day was completed, and I only had about 120km to go to get to Cool Camp – a place I had heard of through ‘the Hubb’ whilst reading up about border crossings into Mali. One problem I had had was working out which of the rather entertaining routes was which, since my collection of maps couldn’t agree whether or where the roads or tracks went. But I had half a day left, so when my chosen route began to turn into a rough track I just went with the flow. Then it turned into several very rough tracks going in all directions, and shortly afterwards into single-track motorbike trails through the forest. This was fun. Then it turned into a very rocky, narrow track climbing the escarpment to my right and I knew exactly which of the possible routes I was on.

The Road Less Travelled
The Road Less Travelled

This is the old Route Nationale 24…not the nice new tarmac which seems to share its name. It hadn’t been clear from my brief research whether this route was still passable on 4 wheels, and it was soon very clear that large sections of it are used solely by locals on motorbikes. The route meanders through the forest between and through villages, and I was relying on Open Street Map to guide me…figuring that someone must have been this way to record the track? No?

A more open section allowed for photo taking!
A more open section allowed for photo taking!

Sections of what was once a track have been washed out by successive rainy seasons, and the bikes have not seen fit to make the random detours wide enough for a car. Some places are just rock steps and even the bikes unload goods and passengers to climb or descend. I wasn’t half way before I was thinking that I’d had quite enough of this sort of fun, and just wanted to jump in the promised cool, clear water of the Bafing River.

When I finally got there, the experience did not disappoint. It was definitely worth the hours of slow, hot forest, and I just jumped straight in before even setting up camp or changing.

One of the locals asked Casper why I was holding my nose...is too big, he said.
One of the locals asked Casper why I was holding my nose…is too big, he said.

I had also instantly decided to stay another night rather than pushing on for Bamako on my visa hunt. Casper, who runs what is now my favourite overlanders-oasis in Africa, is a fantastic host and does a lot of work to help improve the lives of people in the area as well. Anyone finding themselves within a hundred miles should take a couple of days to relax and share tales here, though you might feel like staying a lot longer as he did! The establishment survives mostly on growing bananas these days as tourists have been scared off from Mali in general and this beautifully wild corner of the country sees little passing traffic. That just adds to its real charm. Oh yes, and he only charges a quarter of the price per night they asked me to park in that car park in Tamba a day’s drive away.

5 mangoes a day..?
5 mangoes a day..?

I camped in the shade of (though not under) the mango trees – “eat as many as you like” – and watched clear waters of the river glide past. In the end, though, I still had a mission to get a visa so had to leave and head to Bamako.

The forest thins out; the roads get busier and busier with black-smoke belching trucks and the dust and heat take over. The  dirty, potholed urban sprawl of the approach does however suddenly give way to a wooded hillside descent into the city, tree-lined streets and a crossing of the Niger on a long bridge, surrounded by swarms of motorbikes. And so to The Sleeping Camel…base for the latest visa-acquisition expeditions. The Camel is a hidden oasis, and Troopy was the 3rd British overland vehicle in the compound when I arrived – that makes the other 2 the first 2 I’ve seen on this whole expedition so far! Various other visitors to Mali make the Camel a home from home in their time here, and are made to feel very safe and welcome by their hosts.

However, the mango trees are pretty huge here, and you really have to camp under them. Mangoes themselves seem to choose the middle of the night to conclude their business with the tree and make the swift transition to the ground, or intervening rooftent/windscreen/head, which can be alarming at best. Since mangoes in these parts can be the size of melons, it did make me wonder whether the history of physics would have been different were  Mr Newton to have been sitting under a mango tree…even though the pits are wrapped in a tasty (usually)soft layer of fruit.

Outside the camp, if one manages to disconnect from the glaring tumour of the growing, poisonous city destroying the surroundings and sucking in resources down the tendril roads and their metastasised towns, it has a certain charm. The air is so hot it burns your face as you travel around in a broken Mercedes, stinging your eyes and filling your lungs with sand-blast-force. Everything is broken, and yet held together and functioning by what seems the pure character of the Malian people.  In fact, nothing is wasted. We were on a Troopy-mirror-hunt when we detoured to visit an area on the hills to the North of the city…at the base of the old river cliff the streets are a mass of old, broken cars being disassembled and the parts cleaned and traded. The carcasses are broken up and the sheet metal reworked into packing cases on the lower slopes. Further up, all sorts of metal utensils are created, and on the upper slopes the remaining scrap is melted and moulded in tiny foundries dug into the sandy rock.

Recycling Bamako Style
Recycling Bamako Style

The heat and smell and sound is some crazy sort of music. If you disconnect from the natural world, it has a kind of beauty of its own.

Of course, I still failed to get a visa for Ghana, though had more luck after waiting in an empty Nigerian embassy for a few hours (they are moving to a new building somewhere else it seems…that will be fun for someone else soon…they won’t tell anoyone!). It was hard to leave the Camel, to leave friends, but the visa quest continues. I stayed in a very basic hotel in Sikasso, where the cook was only too happy to make me a nice salad and a tasty fresh vegetable soup whilst I watched the football. The journey through the forest continued at dawn, crossing another border while the border guards washed with water heated over a wood fire. Then on to Ouagadougou…I wonder if the place will live up to its most excellent name?

I was led to believe that the Pavillon Vert would allow camping in the grounds with use of a room for facilities. But it is very hot, and the hotel is empty so there was not much bargaining on this point from either side and I settled in to a reasonably priced airconditioned room with no mosquitoes. Sadly due to water shortages in Burkina Faso, there is also no water for most of the day. Time though for a cold beer and to watch mangoes fall on the cat…