Register | Log in

The Return Dash


Words and pictures by Patrick Cruywagen

It was a dream drive and an adventure of epic proportions: a hell-for-leather dash in one of Kingsley Holgate’s Defender 130s, journeying from the Congo Basin’s heart of darkness to the fringes of the massive Sahara Desert, and on to the Gulf of Guinea.

It’s proving much more difficult to get out of the Central African Republic (CAR) than it’d been to get in. Roadblock after roadblock, some barely a kilometre apart, manned by soldiers arrogant in the knowledge that our Defender isn’t packing the armaments which are customary to just about every other vehicle in this region.
We’d just completed the second of our two ferry crossings for the day when we came upon a large military post, somewhere in CAR’s deep south. We send Oumar Camara, our guide and French speaker, towards the old buildings, armed only with our documentation and passports. After about half an hour he hasn’t returned, so I go searching for him.
He’s nowhere to be found in any of the outside queues, so I walk into the main building. I enter a dark room full of old typewriters, one per desk; it looks like a museum and smells like a toilet. Some of the military orders pasted on the walls have been typed on these old machines. There are bullet holes everywhere, this place has seen some fighting in the past. After a minute or so my eyes adapt to the dark and I make out a couple of doors leading to various offices.
Written above one such doorway are the words commandant da brigade; below, a lace curtain serves as a doorway. I hear shouting inside. I pull the curtain aside and see Oumar and the commandant. The military man throws a big green book at him, the words “Penal Code” are written in big black letters on the cover. This doesn’t look good. I ask what’s going on.
“They say it’s against the law for anyone except the military to wear camouflage pants, I have to go to jail for 15 years,” replies Oumar calmly. My French is petite so I call in our big gun, Deon Schurmann, a former Blue Bulls rugby player who played in France for a few seasons.
While Deon tries to negotiate Oumar’s release, one of the commandos, who has more gear around his waist than an suicide bomber, takes a liking to me, or more specifically, to my Leatherman. I allow him to handle it but when he tries to put it on his belt I tell him no and take it back, pointing out that he already has a knife. He laughs and heads back to duty. After what seems like an eternity, Big D, Oumar and the commandant emerge all smiles. Deon has successfully negotiated Oumar’s release. The fee? A cap. This type of problem solving is common when travelling in Africa.

I know exactly how many African countries I’ve been to; as I type this, the figure stands at 26 which means I’ve visited roughly half the countries on our continent. The prospect of adding another to my list (or revisiting a place and finding new attractions) is what gets my blood pumping faster than the plane I’m in as it swoops over the Congo River to land in Kinshasa for a refuel. What lies below in that seemingly endless green wall of forest? Gorillas with silverbacks or guerrillas with AK47s? When I heard that Captain Morgan were looking for two volunteers to drive Kingsley Holgate’s Defender from CAR through to Ghana, I immediately applied.
One of the volunteers had to be a journalist with some African travel experience and so when they announced I had been selected I immediately unrolled the big African map that stored behind my couch. Truth be told I didn’t know where half the countries were that we’d be travelling through.
The expedition was dubbed “The Return Dash” as we’d be driving Holgate’s Defender 130 back along the route he’d just come. Also, we wouldn’t have the luxury of taking our time, we had less than three weeks to make our way through CAR, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and down to the coast of Ghana. Some days we’d be driving from sunrise to sunset and longer. It was like Amazing Race meets Dakar Rally. Doing it in a Defender 130 wasn’t ideal, but at least we knew that we’d eventually get there.
After almost 48 hours in Bangui, the capital of CAR, we began our dash; the city was in celebration mode, as it was Independence Day, making it an even better time to leave. While we were enjoying a late breakfast of fried eggs, pastries and baguettes at a French-styled café, every soldier and policeman was roaring past with sirens blaring as there were many dignitaries in town.
On TV the celebration was referred to as “Independance Day”, spelling mistake and all, and you could watch some of the Pygmy forest dwellers performing some sort of dance. The six-hour parade was about to start and we didn’t want to get caught in the middle of it. As is customary with any Holgate expedition the plans had changed slightly and our dash had gained a detour. Kingsley and his wife Mashoz needed a lift to Cameroon, from there they’d be flying to Equatorial Guinea, the only African country they hadn’t yet visited – in itself a most remarkable feat.
So instead of heading west we were going south-west to the Dzanga-Sangha Reserve, home of the lowland gorilla and the severely threatened forest elephant. Here we planned to stay at the Sangha Lodge, owned and run by South African conservationist Rod Cassidy. He had sent one of his workers, William, to meet us in Bangui, which is only 500 km from the lodge but a tough 12-hour drive. As is customary in Africa, William takes advantage of the visit to buy spare parts for a stranded guest and fill up a few of the lodge’s gas bottles which further delays our Bangui departure.
William is the right man to have with us as CAR is not the easiest country to get out of and he knows the route from the capital to the lodge better than anyone. It seems that every time you get up to some sort of speed another roadblock pops up. William would then be dispatched to go and negotiate while we stayed in the Landy. At times these negotiations became heated, and then I, Deon Schurmann and Ross Holgate would climb out of the vehicle to give our five cents worth.
In one extreme case Kingsley himself had to get out of the vehicle to try and negotiate our safe passage. He scolded the official and said that we were on official duty with the blessing of the CAR government and had a letter to prove it, but when he reached to his pocket to get the letter, it was empty and we couldn’t help but laugh. It was one of those classic travel moments where the officials were flummoxed and soon we were on our way again. Caps, t-shirts and the like helped us through all the checkpoints.
I was sitting in the dog box of the Landy with Oumar Camara, our French-speaking expedition guide from Conakry in Guinea, who had previously travelled with Kingsley during the Outside Edge Expedition. At one stage a green Land Cruiser with a mounted light machine gun pulled up behind us. The barrel swivelled in our direction, the man with the finger on the trigger was wearing what Top Right looks like a pair of swimming goggles. I make as if I’m listening to music on my Nokia N80 phone, but I’m actually shooting an HD video clip of the soldiers. I wave when they eventually overtake us but they are stone faced. One of them makes the effort to raise his middle finger.
Sitting in the back of the big double-cab is new way of travelling for me, you can’t see anything coming, merely what you’ve passed. The sour smell of cassava fills my nostrils as we make our way through this lush green Eden with towering trees on both sides of the road. Locals take advantage of this abundance of forest and we see many sweaty men transporting logs on a small trolley. The logs must weigh a ton and it takes major effort to push the trolley forward.
We stop at an empty Catholic church where a statue of Joan of Arc keeps watch over our Land Rover while we enjoy a lunch of baguettes and bananas. There are too many people in the Landy to unpack the tucker box but tomorrow we’ll pack more wisely – a little honey or peanut butter will make those banana baguettes taste much better.
The tar becomes a red dirt track, slowing us down considerably; we start seeing an alarming number of logging trucks from the Cameroon; they’re here to plunder the forests of the CAR. The people in the town of Boda are also celebrating Independence Day and they’re full of smiles and maybe something else too.
There are signs everywhere indicating diamonds for sale but the doors to these stores are closed today. We’re told that the diggers sell the gems to government-contracted buyers, so I’ll have to look elsewhere. While the vehicle is refuelled I walk about through the quiet market. Two gentlemen invite me to buy some fly-covered meat. They say that they’ve been inspired by Bill Gates and named their butchery after him – it’s named Boutique Bill Get. We push on past sunset as we have no alternative.
At around 22h00 we reach the town of Nola and the village of Bayanga and the park is still three hours away. We’ve been on the road for over 12 hours and I feel like a Himba with all the red dust. Mashoz books us a couple of rooms at Hotel Kaloss, the kind of place where you fear the bed bugs and sleep with a knife under your pillow. Locals are quick to notice this hillbilly band of travellers and the only other white guy in town saunters across to ask if we’re looking for diamonds. We say no so he downs his beer and moves on to his next victims.

The sticky heat is overwhelming so we order some cold Kastel beers. There’re posters on the wall advertising the use of condoms, while outside on the TV Private Ryan is trying to free France from German occupation. Suddenly the heavens open, steam rises off the red dust of the courtyard and everything smells like fresh lettuce. Surprisingly most of our group sleep well – it seems as if the bedbugs had already checked out before we arrived.
A café across the road serves us bread and eggs for breakfast, we take along our own peanut butter and jam plus throw some oats into the mix – all in all a champion breakfast. One of the keys when travelling to lesser-known parts is to take a couple of home comforts; familiar treats such as Marmite, peanut butter, Nandos chakalaka sauce and Mrs Balls Chutney. They can turn just about any bad meal into a gourmet treat and if you can’t find decent food then some bananas on bread will usually fill the tummy.
According to the Lonely Planet we’re using as a guide, some of the dangers and annoyances in the CAR include aggressive rebels, unruly soldiers, heavily-armed poachers and highway bandits who target foreigners. This is in stark contrast to all our encounters to date though most of our time in the CAR was spent in the capital and south which is pretty much government controlled. Yes, the soldiers at the many roadblocks are annoying and we had to hand over a couple of caps and t-shirts to keep moving, but on the whole we felt safe and accepted.
After a day and a half of driving we had covered the 500 km from Bangui to the Dzanga-Sangha Reserve where we were met by Rod Cassidy, the South African who manages the Sangha Lodge (look out for an article on this reserve in a future issue). After a day-long break at the lodge the dash continued south-west towards the border of Cameroon.
First we had to backtrack to the town of Nola then head west towards the Cameroon border, the next country on our tight itinerary. The closer we got to the Cameroon border post of Yantchi, the worse the roads became and the slower our progress. Light rain turns the red clay roads to snot, and it takes all our skills to keep the big Landy on the road. It’s almost dark when we reach the red “Stop Douane” sign which marks the border post. Officials are just packing up but say they will help us. It’s a Friday evening and all seem in good spirits and so we ask where we can buy some beers. “Right here of course,” comes the reply from the official, but only if we buy him one too. We oblige.
By the time we reach the Cameroon side of the border it’s closed. Someone goes to call one of the officials. After a good half an hour the official shows up but says that we have to pay for a stamp; we argue that we already have visas and that we won’t pay. He relents and after meticulously going through our passports allows us to proceed. In exchange for a lift a local offers to guide us to Yakadouma where we plan to overnight. You can never have too many guides I suppose, and so he hops on the back and takes us in the dark to the Hotel Elephant.
From Yakadouma it’s only 200 km as the crow flies to Bertoua, where we’ll say goodbye to Kingsley and Mashoz as they head on to Equatorial Guinea. The going is slow in this south-eastern part of Cameroon and the roads are in a bad way. This is the wild and untamed part of Cameroon where thick green forests dominate and logging trucks own the red laterite earth roads. It’s mid-afternoon when we reach Bertoua, the bustling capital of the eastern province, and while the surrounds might lack development we find tar roads, yellow MTN buildings and places to draw and exchange money.
We have to cross the whole of Cameroon as we make our way to Chad and as we don’t have much information on road conditions we opt for an early start after a comfortable night at the Hotel Hansa. Kingsley comes outside to the Landy in his pyjamas – it’s still dark. He wishes us well and our party of four heads north. The first 250 km to Garoua-Boulai is on world-class tar, the kind you would find on an autobahn on the outskirts of Berlin. We don’t stop at Garoua-Boulai, a rough frontier town renowned for its whores, trucks and bars.
If the road stays like this we might be able to cross the whole country in a day, but then in true African style road conditions take a dramatic turn. After 30 km the tar ends and then we’re onto some really bad dirt tracks. They’re full of buses and other types of vehicles, who’re reluctant to move over for us to overtake. The next 300 km are a real struggle as we’re unable to get into any sort of decent driving rhythm as the heat, road conditions and locals slow us down. There are many broken-down heavily-loaded trucks along the way, some with thousands of plastic kettles strung on top of the regular cargo. This is the Africa I know, where road conditions are as unpredictable as the leaders.
In Cameroon football is a national religion and the mood of the nation is affected by the form of the national squad. Samuel Eto, the national team captain who’s currently playing for Inter Milan, is a god here and his name adorns millions of football jerseys worn by locals. So I was somewhat surprised when we saw a guy in Ngaoundere with a rugby ball under his arm. When I asked him where he was going he answered that he had to go and play a game with some mates.
The landscape changes as our Landy climbs higher and higher. To the east of us lies the Benoue National Park where we could’ve maybe seen eland, buffalo and even lion from the road. We have no such luck and only manage to see a couple of stray dogs. We don’t have time to stop or turn into the park as our schedule is pretty tight. We drive until after sunset and decide to camp wild as we’re in the middle of nowhere, although there always seemed to be villages and people about.
Once we find what seems like an appropriate spot to camp we head about 200 metres into the bushes, away from the road. That night all were in agreement that it’d been a rather challenging day with really bad road conditions; never before had we been subjected to so many different types of bad tar. Still it was great adventuring into areas unknown to us and there is not much that beats four blokes having a good old natter around the fire. We’d been warned about bandits in the area so we locked away all valuables and slept in a sort of perimeter around the Landy. That night no-one bothered us.
As we’re about to leave, two gents on bicycles stop at our campsite. They have big, brown bags of freshly-picked cotton with them. We ask them if they want our old water bottles and they gladly accept. An impressive bridge takes us over the Benue River and into Garoua. A pod of hippos play in the water below the bridge while a few long river boats keep a safe distance. A lady approaches us with two impressively-sized tiger fish she’s trying to sell. A quick re-fuel and money exchange and we head north again.
About three hours later we’re in Maroua, the last of northern Cameroon’s big towns. We find ourselves on the edge of the Sahara Desert and the place has a drab, grey look about it. The people who inhabit the town give it some colour with the yellow, blue and red robes they wear. We buy some fruit and bread, refuel the Landy at a Total garage and take to the northern highway again. It’s still about 250 km to the Chad border and we’re all harbouring hopes of reaching it by early afternoon.
It soon becomes clear to us that we’ll be lucky if we make the border by nightfall as the road disintegrates into a complete mess and we’re barely able to average 30 km/h. Conditions like this test your sense of humour but there is nothing one can do so we keep Gert Du Preez, the South African diplomat in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, updated on our progress as he’s expecting us. A wetland full of birds appears to our right and soon we’re driving alongside the Waza National Park, one of the most accessible parks in Cameroon. Once again it’s a great pity that we don’t have much time to go and explore it, but we’ve spent too much time in the CAR and Cameroon and we still have four countries to drive through in about 10 days. We see some antelope and vultures as we drive past the park.
The landscape changes again and this time it reminds me of Damaraland with hills seemingly constructed of hundreds and thousands of red rocks. It’s late afternoon when we arrive at the border post and I’m given car guard duties while the other three go and try and clock us out of Cameroon which doesn’t take too long.
From here we cross the Cheri River into Chad. The paperwork here takes well over an hour and I entertain myself by playing football with some youngsters and browsing the shops near where our Landy is parked. One of the first things I notice is that there are many more police and soldiers in attendance than in the other countries we’d driven through. Hundreds of scooters move to and fro past the border buildings, carrying people and cargo. Suddenly a policeman blows hard on his whistle and everybody stops what they’re doing. The sun is about to set and it’s time to lower the flag that stands next to the immigration buildings. There’s a massive traffic build-up as the policeman takes his time getting the flag down and all those that are arriving at the border have to stand at attention too. Eventually he blows the whistle again and everyone continues as normal.
By the time we’re free to go it’s dark and the traffic is terrible. Intersections and traffic circles are manned by police and soldiers to help ease the flow and lookout for suspicious characters. One can understand the heavy military presence in the capital as it was as recent as 2008 when rebels drove all the way from Sudan to launch an attack on the city. Government and French soldiers helped repel the attack while foreigners had to be evacuated from the city. We just wanted a cold beer, shower and good food after a few long days on the road and Gert had arranged for us to stay in a large house belonging to someone from the American embassy. These comfortable nights are priceless on an expedition as it helps to recharge the batteries. But we didn’t get much time to enjoy the white sheets and comfortable beds as our hosts entertained us deep into the wee hours.
From tomorrow we’d be heading west towards Lake Chad and the great Sahara Desert. Before I could start to thinking about what lay ahead I had already fallen asleep. Kingsley had warned us that it’d be tough and like nothing else we’d ever seen: camels, sand, crazy desert transport, colourful markets and no tourists. I couldn’t wait. Look out for the second part of this story in next month’s issue.