Africa, Travel

Salaam Aleikum, My Lover: A Guinean Experience

This piece was first published in the Intrepid Times.

“So, why do you want to come to Guinea?” the man at the border said, fingers intertwined and settling back in his chair for a long explanation.

“Just to see it, really. For tourism”

“Ahh, tourism”, it seemed he was not overly familiar, or at the very least not satisfied with our explanation.

“But why?”

My boyfriend and I shot confused looks at each other. We were well-practiced in denying bribes and shaking off the most persistent of street hagglers, but explaining the concept of tourism to an immigration official was an exciting twist in our daily routine of shit-talking.

“To see…(I struggled to think of a particular sight mentioned in Lonely Planet’s guide to West Africa), the waterfalls?”

A smile flickered on his lips, and quickly disappeared. “You don’t have waterfalls in your country?”

“Well, yes we do. But your waterfalls are different.”

“So you just want to see the waterfalls and then go?”

Panic set in, our Guinea visas, already paid for and sitting proudly in our passports, had been the most expensive of all the West African countries by a long shot. Were we about to get turned away over the intricacies of waterfalls?

“We want to meet the people of Guinea as well.”

A clear mistake.

“I’m from Guinea, you’ve met me. Now you can go”

The tiniest tease of a smile again. Was this guy for real? Ticking boxes and stamping passports was clearly too easy a job for a young, university educated man like him. Was all of this just an antidote to the endless boredom of sitting in a tin shack under the relentless sun waiting for drug traffickers?

“I see white people coming through here, Chinese people and what do they want from Guinea? To take pictures? To look and go home? What is the point? Why do you do it?”

It was not a bad-natured question, he wasn’t angry, but he was….perturbed. Why did we want to come to Guinea? Why did we want to go anywhere? Why are humans hard-wired to feel unsatisfied by the comfort and routine of home to the point where people travel to the other side of the world, look at things for a bit and then go back to the comfort and routine they so despised just a few weeks or months previous? The more I thought about it, the more ridiculous it seemed.

No answer, or at least not a succinct one came bubbling to the surface of either of our heat-addled brains.

“We need to go through Guinea to get to Côte d’Ivoire” we said, defeated.

“Ah, I see” the official said. And with a few ticks and stamps, he shook our hands, wished us well and sent us on our way.

fullsizeoutput_6a4

The jungle, Guinean highlands

In a way, it was the best possible introduction. Guinea doesn’t seem to get much credit as a travel destination by either foreigners or people who live there. Although, admittedly, Conakry might have something to do with that. The writers at Lonely Planet, whose job it is to convince people that even the most diabolical cultural sinkholes are worthy of a visit, describe it as a “mess of crumbling buildings, pollution, rubbish and traffic jams”, which to be honest, is putting it mildly.

There’s nary another African capital that gets as much of a bad wrap as Conakry, and on the surface, it’s easy to see why. Smoke rises lazily from veritable volcanos of burning roadside rubbish. The sound of generators and heavy bass from the city’s many nightclubs reverberate down the streets til the early hours. Power comes and goes as it sees fit, and even high level office buildings and embassies have to deal with the constant strobe effect of the tempestuous power grid. A simple drive around the city is a test of both driving prowess and mental fortitude as you weave your way in and out of traffic jams, past toppled trucks and run the gamut of bribe-seeking gendarmerie. In saying that, it’s an awful lot of fun.

fullsizeoutput_6a2

A rare spot of cleanliness in Conakry

Guinea was the epicentre of the catastrophic 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak.  Now the country has recovered, you get the sense that while people might still feel like things are a bit shitty, it could be a hell of a lot worse. It’s a joy in any country to walk the streets alone as a woman and feel safe, and in Conakry I did. No one tried to drag me into their shop, no one made lewd gestures, I received several jovial ‘bon arrivees’ and a very discreet marriage proposal at a phone shop and that was it. Delightful. At night, the streets of Conakry come alive as people spill out of the myriad nightclubs and start their own parties in the street, sucking on shots of bitter cola, served (like everything in West Africa) in tiny plastic bags. We went for a late night stumble to a burger bar and were swamped with jolly, slightly pissed locals wanting to translate for us. The French word for hamburger is, helpfully, hamburger, so we didn’t really need the assistance, but we appreciated it all the same.

Guinea isn’t big on sights, there are no impressive monuments to tick off, and many of the best things to see are hopelessly under-advertised. (A visit to the Keita Fodeba Acrobatic Cebtre is a guaranteed unforgettable experience, yet the centre receives barely any funding or publicity, definitely check it out if you go). The singular museum we visited in Boké consisted of two rooms, a handful of empty and cracked glass cabinets and some wooden carvings. There were no signs or labels but there were several stickers plastered around the place indicating that the museum has been created with financial help from a German organization, which presumably hadn’t visited for some time. As such Guinea’s real allure is in the highlands, but once you’re there it’s hard to imagine a more idyllic place.

fullsizeoutput_1c0

A performer at the Keita Fodeba Acrobatic Centre

The driving in the highlands is slow. Ruts and potholes are so deep they scrape your side mirrors, but the deep red of the long dirt roads against so many layers of green is pure perfection. Mango trees hang heavy with fruit, villagers nap in the shade of palm-thatched lean-tos, and giant yellow school buses shipped from America reading ‘DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA’ trundle past neighborhoods of traditional round huts.

You’d be hard-pressed to find friendlier or more genuine people than those in rural Guinea. The religious tolerance is such that it’s not uncommon to see a woman in full niqab carrying her shopping past a group of topless breastfeeding mothers. It’s live and let live, an advert in acceptance the West could well learn a few lessons from. If you go, stretch your waving wrist at the start of the day, and prepare to say dozens of bonjours, ca vas and salaam aleikums an hour. People often yelled “les blancs!” or the local phrase for ‘white people’ at us, but it was more out of surprise than anything else. Need to pull over and stretch your legs? Get ready to shake the hand of everyone in a half kilometer radius. Fancy a quick local restaurant meal? Fix that grin on your mug because you’ll be posing for approximately 500 photos with the restaurant owner, who may or may not mistake you for another white woman who visited seven years previous. No one wants money, everyone wants hand shakes, fist bumps, a chance to practice their English, or just to share a joke. It feels like an olden day Africa that barely exists on the rest of the continent, and it’s fabulous.

fullsizeoutput_6a3

Highland hitchhiking

There are half a dozen beautiful waterfalls scattered around the Fouta Djalon region, but we went to the Chutes de Saala. It was at Saala Falls where we met Razak, the joint-puffing, dreadlocked son of the local Imam. Razak had two wives, one in his village, and one, inexplicably in Philadelphia.

There were a few other overlanders parked up while we were at the falls, and one night an acoustic guitar appeared. It soon fell into the hands of a gleeful Razak, who didn’t know a single chord, but was such an enthusiastic musician and on-the-spot lyricist you really couldn’t fault his performances.

There were many songs stretched over a couple of nights, but the most memorable  was a rousing rendition of ‘Salaam Aleikum, My Lover’ a repetitive but highly theatrical 17 minute experience.

It went something like this:

We are the white people. We are the black people.

I have a wife. What is the business.

I gotta get my money baby! You gotta get your money baby!

Salaam aleikum my lover, aleikum salaam.

Razak said he caused a minor scandal in his fathers village every time the two of them were spotted in the same car, conservative elderly locals shocked to see their religious leader sharing airspace with an unapologetic Rasta. I wondered what Razak’s father would have thought of the rasping, jaunty musical masterpiece that was ‘Salaam Aleikum My Lover’, a song which is still stuck in my head to this day.

4BD0B293-6785-4B48-BBC7-4EEB94C335BA

Razak with a polaroid of the Saala Falls gang

There are so many experiences to be had in a place like Guinea that you simply can’t put in a guidebook or rate on TripAdvisor. Generally, ‘washing your undies in the river while the locals laugh at your appalling technique’ does not slide gracefully into a listicle, and yet it’s those experiences on any trip that far outshine any museum, monument or slickly organized group tour.

Why did we want to come to Guinea, and why exactly did we enjoy it so much? I’m pretty sure I still couldn’t sum it up elegantly enough to satisfy Guinea’s most diligent immigration official, but that’s all part of the magic.

Standard
Africa, Travel

Myth-Busting West & Central Africa

DSC_0101.jpg

Keita Fodeba Acrobatic Centre, Guinea

In December 2018, my partner Oscar and I set off on a ten month long journey from Ireland to South Africa (although we didn’t know we would get that far at the time). This is just some of what we learned.

When it comes to long-term traveling through West and Central Africa, there are a few things that will almost certainly happen to you. You will get used to waiting for things, you will see big red sunsets, you will come to view Laughing Cow Cheese as an exquisite delicacy rather than the assault on cheese that it really is, and you will never, ever, be bored. 

But there are plenty of other things that aren’t so certain, things that people who’ve never stepped foot on the continent might have you believe. The journey my partner and I recently finished from Ireland to South Africa took us through many little-explored countries like Mauritania, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Before we left we were informed, often and passionately of the unspeakable dangers that awaited us upon our arrival. 

Speaking of the Congo, a colleague imparted these sage words over the top of a cup-a-soup:

“They don’t value human life in those parts of the world.”

And then,

“They’ll just kill you.”

People don’t tell you things like this if you’re planning a trip to Italy or the Rocky Mountains, so hearing enough of it from enough people is all it takes to turn even the most level-headed individual into a paranoid racist. 

Since finishing the trip, we’ve received heaps of questions from anxious travellers, ranging from the perfectly reasonable to the ridiculous: “should I cut my trip short to avoid getting a disease?”, “how much should I pay in bribes?” and ,”should I bring a gun?”.

If you’re planning a trip to West/Central Africa or even just lightly penciling it on the bucketlist, it might help to know which commonly-held opinions have a nugget of truth in them, and what is unapologetic bollocks. Here are just a few commonly perceived  myths about traveling in Africa which deserve to be challenged:

You will get very sick 

DSC_0691

Fetching facial mozzie nets, Northern Congo

It’s true that a flick through your Health Guide for International Travelers brochure will reveal a dearth of alarming ailments commonly contracted in Africa. Your travel doctor will probably want to immunize you against every single one of these alarming ailments. Your travel doctor may even let out a theatrical sigh for each new country you point out on your itinerary, but that doesn’t mean you need to wrap yourself in an anti-bacterial poncho and tiptoe your way through the continent. 

While it might seem like every second person who’s been to Africa has a harrowing malaria story, it’s entirely possible to travel the length of the continent without so much as a symptom. Neither my partner or I took malaria pills for the length of our journey, and despite being bitten literally thousands of times, we were totally fine. My legs are permanently scarred from mosquito bites, at one point my feet were so swollen with bites they looked like infected Christmas hams with toenails, and still, no malaria. Many Africans who’ve lived their whole lives there have only contracted malaria once or twice.

IMG_7650

IMG_7652

Infected Christmas Hams

That’s not to say you shouldn’t take precautions, malaria can be incredibly serious if you get it, and you should cover up, wear mosquito repellant and bring enough anti-malarial pills for a few emergency doses* but it’s by no means a given that you’ll get it.

Same goes for bilharzia, dengue fever and other scary illnesses, take precautions and you’ll be fine. You’re only likely to get Ebola if you deliberately go to to the heart of an outbreak zone, which is a) silly, and b) very easily avoided. 

Your travel doctor may advise you not to eat street food in Africa to avoid diarrhea and hepatitis. This is ridiculous. To cut out street food is to deprive yourself of the tastiest and most authentic fare in West Africa, not to mention the price and the fact that it’s literally all that’s available in many places. We ate street food almost everyday for most of our trip and got moderately sick once each in ten months. In comparison, we were sick much more often and more violently during a not particularly intrepid five week trip in Thailand and Vietnam. 

*all of the African-based doctors we met advised against taking our Malarone pills long-term as they are so hard on the body. An emergency dose is four pills a day for three days. 

It’s dangerous 

DSC_0219

Not very dangerous dudes, Ghana

Many people’s ideas of Africa are still heavily influenced by the World Vision ads of yore, movies about endless civil war, and bleak news stories about famine and disease. It’s the images of Blood Diamond’s camo-clad warlords and people dying of Ebola that stick in people’s minds. For many foreigners, Africa represents an amorphous blob of violence and poverty rather than 54 unique countries with distinctly different cultures and ways of life. Given the amount of negative verses positive media coverage of most African nations, that’s somewhat understandable. What’s important to remember is that, if you go, your lasting impression of any West/Central African country is unlikely to be linked to poverty or war or disease. There’ll be colour and noise and intensity, but not nearly as many forest-dwelling guerrillas as you might expect.

Think abut the amount of danger you might face walking around Paris, London, or Berlin. Statistically, it’s higher, it’s just that those cities are so large, populated and full of tourists, not much gets in the way of day to day business. Just days after deadly terror attacks in major European cities, things are generally back to normal – tourists wander the streets, workers dodge cordons to get back into the office. Compare that to the deaths of four French tourists in Mauritania in 2007, which led to Air France cancelling its flights from Paris to Atar, crippling tourism in the Adrar region for no less than seven years. 

fullsizeoutput_19c

The Mauritanian desert, a tourist-free zone for ages

The amount of ‘danger’ in Africa is hard to quantify because the idea is so vague. What I can tell you is that the only time we felt genuinely unsafe was in our dealings with law and order officials. The everyday people we met were – like people at home – far too busy living their lives to bother with hassling us. On the contrary, in places like Guinea and Nigeria, people are so pleased to see foreign visitors, they go out of their way to make you feel welcome. We were helped out of ditches and welcomed into homes all the way down the continent. Many people are also hyper-aware of the consequences of messing with tourists in countries which are trying desperately to attract tourists. Our pockets weren’t picked, we weren’t threatened by civilians (not sober ones anyway), and the only sour patch was a break-in of our truck in Senegal, which looked to have been carried out by a bunch of kids. 

Africa is super cheap

IMG_7760

Luanda, Angola

One thing people traveling through Africa consistently underestimate is the amount of money they’ll spend – low wages = low cost right? Not always. This is the exact attitude that results in dreadlocked white tourists coming to Africa and living off $1 a day as a ‘challenge’. You should do this under zero circumstances because you won’t last long and you will also look like an absolute dick.

As a New Zealander, visa prices for various West African countries vary wildly and seemingly without reason ($2USD per person for Nigeria and $106 pp for Angola. WTF.) You’ll have to pay for visas in almost every West/Central African country you pass through, and because there are so many small countries along the West Coast, the cost racks up quickly. 

Desperate to get online? Internet prices will also hit you a lot harder than you might expect. Mobile data is insanely expensive in a lot of countries, and with next to no free WiFi options, you can pay up to $10NZD/€6 per gb of data, depending on which country you’re in.

And then there’s your Pringles addiction. While street market shopping is wonderfully cheap, practically everything in African supermarkets is imported, and a big shop of packaged goods and Western treats will likely cost an absolute bomb. The key, always, is to buy local. Buy local food, stay at African-owned establishments, use local services. It’s good for the people and it’s good for you. Win bloody win.

Which brings me to:

Everyone in Africa is poorer than people in ‘the West’

20DA742F-4E29-4BCE-802B-B717F99ADB5B 2

Good looking people in good looking clothes, Benin

While there are plenty of people in Africa who live on next to nothing, extreme poverty of nineties NGO commercial proportions is now largely limited to inland, drought-stricken countries like Niger and the Central African Republic. The vast majority of people you’ll meet in West/Central Africa will be well fed, and dressed much more sharply than you. 

Presentation is important in Africa, and even people in remote villages won’t drive their motorbikes or battered late model cars unless they’re gleaming. You’ll regularly spot people trudging down orange dirt roads in immaculate white outfits. How do they keep them so clean? It’s one of the great mysteries of our time. 

And that’s just in the regions, you’ll be staggered by the amount of glamour and wealth in cities like Lagos, Abidjan, Brazzaville and Luanda. We’re talking cigar cases and $200NZD Pictionary sets in the supermarket wealth. Ferrari, Lamborghini and Sunday brunch at the yacht club wealth. That’s not to say that the money always trickles down, but once you add in West Africa’s growing middle class, you can see why ‘the poor African’ stereotype is starting to become a lot less relevant. 

You have to pay bribes 

IMG_7188

Nigeria: Land of the Bribe

Almost as widespread as the malaria horror story is the exorbitant bribe story, and while it’s true you’ll be asked for money and gifts a lot by police and military in West Africa, that doesn’t mean you have to give them a cent. Answering a request for a bribe with a fistful of cash isn’t doing you, other travellers, or African society at large any favours, so unless you have absolutely no other option (unlikely), don’t pay it. I’d budgeted hundreds of dollars for bribe-paying based on other people’s stories before the trip, but we ended our African adventure having only paid one small bribe to a Congolese cop who had threatened to destroy our car and was in the midst of shuffling Oscar into an overcrowded prison cell when he demanded it. 

All the roads are terrible 

fullsizeoutput_19a

The shiny new road linking Nouadhibou and Atar, Mauritania

Think of an African road and what comes to mind, a rutted dirt track with potholes bigger than dump trucks, or a shiny and unblemished highway? The reality (on main trunklines at least) is increasingly, the latter. A staggering amount of Chinese investment in West Africa means brand new highways, bridges and other infrastructure are popping up at an astonishing rate. While it’s an awful lot more fun to take the truck-swallowing back roads, you could drive into the depths of the Mauritanian desert or almost the entire length of the Congo without ever leaving brand new tarseal. Tackling the wet season on four wheels, even on the dirt roads, is also totally manageable. You’ll need recovery gear (we had a high-lift jack and sand tracks but no winch) and as long as you don’t mind doing a bit of superficial damage to your wagon, you’ll be fine.

You’ll be killed by a hippo/lion/gorilla/crocodile/snake/rabid dog etc

DSC_0054

Akodessewa Fetish Market: where to find wildlife in West Africa

While Southern and Eastern Africa are the home of many a beautiful and potentially deadly creature, the sad reality is there are so few lions, gorillas and elephants living wild in West and Central, it would practically be a miracle if you were killed by one. Deforestation and illegal hunting have decimated wildlife populations in West Africa, and even snakes are hard to spot outside of sanctuaries. After ten months of barefoot and be-jandled trudging through desert and jungle, neither of us were nibbled, stung or otherwise molested by a scorpion, spider, snake, or anything else. Even in Southern Africa, where big hungry creatures are much more plentiful, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be attacked. We camped metres away from hippos, lions and elephants in Namibia, but generally wild animals are too scared of humans to venture too close. 

To conclude…

fullsizeoutput_27f

Cuties, Benin

To conclude, the main point here is that travel in general is dangerous. Leaving your house is dangerous, eating three day old leftover chow mein is dangerous, but there’s absolutely no point in writing off an entire continent because it’s a bit unfamiliar. 

In my years of traveling, I’ve been closer to being killed in a terror attack in central Barcelona, more sexually molested in the historic Japanese city of Kyoto and have had more stuff stolen in my home country of New Zealand than during my time in Africa. 

Almost nowhere else in the world offers the opportunity for adventure like West Africa, widely considered one of the last frontiers of travel. The experiences you’ll have there are so genuine and so uninfluenced by mass tourism, you’ll wonder why you ever queued to get into a museum or battled a sea of selfie sticks to get a glimpse at a fountain, statue or ‘gram-friendly landmark. At times it’s bite-your-nails-to-bloody-stumps frustrating, but the rewards outweigh the misery ten to one. 

There are plenty of myths about traveling Africa, but one absolute truth: you’ll have the time of your life. 

If you want to see what West Africa is like with your very own eyeballs, check out our adventure on Youtube here.

Want more tips on visa costs, borders and all that niggly stuff? Check out our guide to West Africa here.

 

Standard
Africa, Travel

What’s it like in: Nigeria?

‘What’s it like’ is a mini-series of blogs answering the burning questions about African countries which don’t enjoy a huge amount of good publicity in the world of travel and media.

I know what you’re thinking – “Nigeria, really? The source of all my spam emails asking for my bank details in exchange for seven million dollars? Home of systemic government corruption and also Boko Haram? That Nigeria?”

Yes, that Nigeria. 

Nigeria’s reputation as a *place where bad things happen* is notorious, and it’s not just a Western construct. Nigeria is widely and unfairly vilified by other African nations, and many Togolese, Ghanaians and Cameroonians will advise you simply not to go there. But is Nigeria really that bad? Are there places there that are worth seeing? The answers are:  1) no and 2) absolutely. 

Where is it?

Screen Shot 2019-07-13 at 12.19.55 PM

The most populous country in the continent, Nigeria dwarfs neighbouring Benin, and shares its northern borders with equally massive Niger and Chad, with Cameroon to the east.

What can I do there?

For culture: Lagos

Nigeria is big, so it stands to reason that there’s actually a lot of cool stuff to do there, especially in the modern African metropolis of Lagos. Lagos isn’t the capital, but with its shiny malls, bougie neighborhoods and bumper to bumper traffic, it might as well be. There’s some top notch eating and partying to be done and you can get online cheaply and easily (a godsend if you’ve been in Africa for a while). Lagos highlights include but are not limited to:

Lekki Conservation Centre 

fullsizeoutput_591

Guenon monkey, Lekki Conservation Centre

Boasting Africa’s longest canopy walk, a visit to the Lekki Conservation Centre is a perfect half-day activity, and until you spot the high rises peeping over the vegetation, it’s easy to forget you’re in the centre of Lagos. Canopy walks can be an anticlimactic affair, but the walk at Lekki is engineered to allow for a serious amount of wobbling, and there’s a 20 metre high treehouse you can climb to, a delightfully health and safety-free experience. Cheeky guenons swing from the vines overhead, while snakes slither across the wooden platforms and into the marshes below. There also a big old tortoise which ambles around the place at will. 

fullsizeoutput_593

Canopy walk, Lekki Conservation Centre

Nike Art Gallery 

IMG_7270

4 storey glory, Nike Art Gallery, Lagos

The Nike Art Gallery is simply one of the best galleries in West Africa. This four-storey building is so chock full of vibrant works its hard to know where to look first, and you may find yourself still climbing up and down the staircases after a couple of hours. There’s a modern sculpture garden outside, a wooden carvings section on the top floor, and many of the huge paintings are the work of pioneering artist Nike Okundaye, the founder of the gallery and one of the most influential women in African art. 

Lekki Market

IMG_7324

Lekki Market

If the pieces in the Nike gallery are a little out of your price range (and the price tags are high) take a wander through the art section of Lekki Market and support some young Nigerian artists. There’s sections for jewellery, tailoring and plenty of shops selling paintings and prints. The trick is to visit a few shops, try not to be too suckered in by the hard sell and pick out the unique works from the cookie-cutter prints. 

For taking it easy: Calabar 

fullsizeoutput_633

Calabar is the antithesis to Lagos. This quiet, riverside city is the capital of Cross River State, and is clean, green and gorgeous. A perfect night in Calabar would be grabbing some suya fresh off the barbecue at one of the myriad street food stalls, before heading to the Marina Resort, a collection of quiet bars along the riverside. Nigerians are often keen to discuss the country’s colonial and slave history with visitors, so you can get clued up at Calabar’s two slave museums – the Slave History Museum and the National Museum.

For nature and wildlife encounters: Afi Mountain Drill Ranch 

fullsizeoutput_630

Cheeky Chimp, Afi Mountain Drill Ranch

fullsizeoutput_59c

Hiking the mighty jungle, Afi Mountain

Arguably the best eco-initiative in Nigeria, Afi Mountain Drill Ranch is a monkey sanctuary and one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places you could hope to stay in the country. Located deep in the jungle of eastern Nigeria, Drill Ranch is home to hundreds of drill monkeys and nearly thirty orphaned or rescued chimps. You can take a tour around the massive jungle enclosures before embarking on a sweaty, expertly-guided hike up the mountain, through caves once lived in by jungle tribes, past gorilla nests and sparkling waterfalls. The Ranch was founded by Americans, but is staffed almost exclusively by Nigerians, and the project supports the surrounding villages (where you’ll receive a hearty welcome if you pop in for a beer) by purchasing all of the monkey food locally. You can also visit Drill Ranch HQ in Calabar, a much smaller site but a good place to visit if you’re rushing through. 

fullsizeoutput_595

Volunteer Chris feeding ransom the monkey, Drill Ranch Calabar

For scenic drives: Taraba State

IMG_8187

Somewhere in Taraba

With soft, rolling hills, red rutted roads and picturesque villages aplenty, Taraba State feels like a completely different Nigeria. In stark contrast to the evangelical Christian south, where the churches are as big as stadiums and the faces of celebrity pastors beam down from billboards, Taraba is a majority Muslim area. Women and girls in floor-length, day-glo hijabs and equally bright make-up swish down the streets, and local lads in kufi hats are keen to help if you get stuck in the churned up roads during the wet season. In the highlands the expanses of farmland look much more like New Zealand or Ireland than Africa, but the putt-putting of motorbikes up and down the isolated roads and the smoke of the street barbeque reminds you where you are.

DSC_0519

Sunset, Taraba State

Is the food good?

IMG_7458

Jungle bananas and African sweets

If you like it HOT. Nigerians are not afraid of spice, and everything from jollof rice to suya comes with an eye-wateringly generous helping of it. Pepper soup is a classic Nigerian dish, though Nigerians are often afraid to serve a full-force pepper soup to foreigners, so try to sample a legit one and an oyibo (white person) special if you can. Fufu (starchy dough-like paste eaten as a side with your fingers) is ubiquitous and you can find it being served along with tasty soups and sauces in even the teeniest of villages. If you’re heading to the jungle, you won’t find better bananas than the ones that fall straight off the tree in the misty mountains, there are a bunch of other mysterious and colorful fruits to be found too. From the very very bitter ‘bitter kola’ to the impossibly sweet red fruit seemingly known as ‘African sweet’ which grows underground and produces super-sweet, jelly coated seeds. Beware of signs outside chop shops in regional areas which read ‘404 is ready’ – it means they are serving dog. 

Are the people nice?

fullsizeoutput_5a3

John and Victoria, Olum village

If you don’t include the authorities *see below*, YES. Although there are plenty of ex-pat oil and gas workers in Lagos, tourists are easily distinguishable and very welcome in Nigeria. Nigerians tend to overestimate the amount of danger in the country, so they are a) very shocked to see you, and b) very pleased. We were told by many an African not to trust Nigerians on the basis that they were all scammers/criminals/just want money from tourists etc, etc. In reality, some of the most generous people we met were Nigerians, from the Land Rover dealership in Lagos who insisted on repairing our vehicle for free, to the guy in the highlands who loaded us up with bananas, said “Welcome to Nigeria!” and sped off on his motorbike. Nigerians are loud, proud, and fascinating to talk to. You’ll also quickly become enamoured with Nigerian Pidgin English, which substitutes ‘how are you?’ for ‘how far?’ as in, how far have you come? 419 (pronounced four-one-nine) refers to the section of the Nigerian criminal code dealing in fraud, and means scam, as in “don’t trust him, he’s a 419 guy”.

Is it safe?

fullsizeoutput_50d

If you stick to the right places. Due to the insurgency of Boko Haram in the north and the risk of kidnapping in prominent oil areas along the coast, there are a few places in Nigeria where visiting simply isn’t worth the risk, but large chunks of the country are open to travellers, and in places like Lagos, Benin City, Calabar and the Nigerian highlands you’ll feel totally safe.

Nigeria has a serious problem with corruption, and if you’re driving through, you can look forward to being stopped and hassled for cash by any one of the multitude of government bodies stationed along Nigerian highways, but stand your ground, don’t pay a cent, and they’ll soon give up. There can also be problems with bandits, but a bit of deft driving around the DIY road blocks will get you out of trouble. In many places wild camping unfortunately won’t be an option, with either paranoid locals, or military ensuring you move on. You may start feeling very conspicuous after being called ‘oyibo’ for the 60th time in a day, but it’s always meant in a welcoming way.

Where can I stay?

fullsizeoutput_62c

Chillin, Afi Mountain Drill Ranch

Although Nigeria isn’t crawling with tempting budget accommodation options, there are plenty of decent places to stay in Lagos and Calabar, and the welcoming Nigerian spirit means you’ll have no problem finding a Couchsurfing host, if that’s your thing. Our favourite places were Drill Ranch HQ in Calabar, which offers one basic but comfortable room (bonus points for waking up to the sound of monkeys), and the absolutely wonderful Afi Mountain Drill Ranch, which offers camping in the forest, or beautiful open cabins, where it’s just a mosquito screen separating you and the gloriously dense jungle. 

VERDICT: Should you go? If you’re ready for an adventure of a lifetime, Nigeria is the place to be.

Standard
Africa, Travel, Uncategorized

The Rugged As Guide to West Africa

So you’re planning to overland West Africa, you mad bastard. You’re about to have one of the wildest, most frustrating and magical times of your life. This is by no means a complete guide (see below), but includes all of the things we wished we had known before embarking on an epic ten month journey from Morocco to South Africa.

Happy planning!

Kristin, Oscar and Pumba

fullsizeoutput_50d

*Disclaimer: We skipped Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Gabon. Although not officially part of West Africa, we’ve included Morocco, Congo, DRC, Angola, Namibia and South Africa for the sake of ease.

** Double disclaimer: ALL of this info is subject to change, especially when it comes to visas and borders. T.I.A. (This Is Africa)

*** Triple disclaimer: we did this trip without a carnet du passage (CDP), which in hindsight is the one main thing we would have changed. Having a carnet will make life SO MUCH EASIER for you, especially in countries like Senegal, Ghana and the DRC. Trust us, just get one.

Morocco

dsc_0226

Erg Chebbi Desert, Morocco

Visa costs and borders

We arrived from the ferry at Tangier Med which we were told by many people is the most straightforward port to enter. We didn’t need to pay for a visa or a passavant, and bought basic vehicle insurance from a small office just up from the customs post, the border officials can show you where to go. The customs check of our car consisted of an officer asking “do you have drugs and guns?” us saying no, and him waving us through. If you have a drone, they will also want to check this, you can either hide yours away ahead of time, lie and say you don’t have one, or you’ll have to pre-organise a permit for it. There are plenty of highly unofficial alleged ‘helpers’ in the car park who swarm to obviously foreign cars to offer god knows what – don’t talk to them. If you haven’t bought your ferry ticket from Spain well in advance of your trip, go to see Carlos at Viajes Normandie, it’s a poky little office near the Los Barrios shopping complex in Cadiz. If you’re booking only a week or so ahead of your trip, the chances are his prices will be cheaper than those on the ferry company website. He’ll even send you on your way with a packet of biscuits and a bottle of cheap red wine! Staff speak French, English, Spanish and Arabic, and the office always seems to be packed.

Mobile Data

Orange works well in cities but is useless in the country. Maroc Telecom is much more reliable in small towns and villages. Cost is approximately €12 for 15GB.

Food and Prices

As with everything in Morocco, you’re highly unlikely to get a realistic price for anything unless it’s actually stamped on the product. In some very small towns and villages you might find a few honest operators, but most market sellers will try their luck to see if you’ll pay a price of their choosing. Carrefour has a huge range of products and impressive deli sections, and you can find them in most reasonably sized cities in Morocco. You can find Acima supermarkets in smaller towns and these are also pretty good.

Checkpoints and Corruption

The only thing you’re likely to get stung for in Morocco is speeding. This is just about the only country on the whole western route where you’ll regularly see cops with speed cameras, and it’s usually an on the spot fine of about €15 (they’ll happily show you your speed on the camera and write out the ticket, so it’s legit). At checkpoints they’ll just want to check your paperwork and you’re good to go. Bribe-seeking in Morocco in our experience is very rare. As of Feb 2019 the Western Sahara was absolutely no problem to cross into and drive through, we also camped there for a few days. When we visited, Morocco was still on edge after the murder of two Scandinavian tourists in the Atlas Mountains. Police are on patrol in areas frequented by campers and even in quite remote coastal spots they managed to find us. Don’t panic about this, they were literally just there to reassure us and get our passport photocopy and phone numbers in case anything went wrong, and we weren’t moved on from anywhere we camped.

Wild Camping

dsc_0261

Camp visitor Ali (and some octopi) in Mirleft

It’s easier in the interior than on the coast, but Morocco’s wide open spaces means that freedom camping is a breeze. From the High Atlas Mountains to the Sahara and the coastline of Agadir, you’ll find the perfect setting for a campfire under the stars. That’s not to say you’ll be in complete solitude. Word travels fast, and just when you think you’re completely alone, the landscape will likely give birth to some sort of salesman ready to sell you chairs, tea, hashish or a tour. They’re generally less persistent when they’ve wandered into your camping area, so they shouldn’t stick around too long. In remote areas you might be disturbed by a curious local but they will likely just want to chat or wish you well. It’s polite to offer tea, coffee or food if you’re sitting and relaxing yourself. If you’re desperate for a shower and basic facilities, there are quite a few good campsites dotted around the country that cater mostly to French tourists in absurdly large campervans. Non electrical sites usually go for about €5-€7 per vehicle per night and many places will bring you complimentary warm bread for breakfast in the morning. WiFi is generally patchy if it’s available.

If you want to read more about where to go in Morocco, you can read about our tourist trail highlights from 2017 here, and how to avoid getting scammed here.

Our more intrepid Moroccan adventures in video form are here, here, and here.

Mauritania

fullsizeoutput_19b

Following the Iron Ore train, Adrar

Visa costs and borders

Mauritanian visas are €55 per person for one month and it’s one of the few places in West Africa where you can get a visa on arrival at the border. We arrived bang on 9am in the hopes of getting through quickly but found ourselves waiting until 1pm for the visa-issuing officers to actually show up. Not sure if this is the norm (apparently there are often internet issues which affect the visa process) but I’d suggest you bring a book, water and snacks to break up the wait in the hot, dusty and chairless courtyard! One bonus if you’re a woman is that you get to go to the front of the line and get seen first, no matter when you’ve arrived – bonus! (this rule applies elsewhere in Mauritania too). Bring exact change for each person, two lots of €55. If you’re a man and woman traveling together you’ll be split up and have to pay separately. A passavant costs €10 from an office outside of the compound on the right hand side. We didn’t buy insurance and didn’t get asked for it the whole time we were in Mauritania. Our car wasn’t searched at the border, which was a godsend as we had several bottles of booze in the back which we’d forgotten about. We met plenty of people with horror stories of being searched and having to pay exorbitant fees for having alcohol, we’d suggest you either dump it or hide it really well just in case!

IMG_5002

Waiting for a visa, Mauritanian border

Leaving Mauritania – officials may ask for varying amounts for an ‘exit fee’ which is totally illegitimate, don’t pay it! There’s also Parc National Diawling, which you have to drive through part of before you get to the Senegal border – officials may try to charge you €5 per person even if you’re just heading to the border and have no intention of actually seeing anything in the park. Generally, they seem to be betting on tourists taking large amounts of cash to the border to pay Senegal’s bullshit ‘old car’ fee (see below). We told them we had no money left and spent about an hour and a half waiting for them to get bored of our company. The fact that every other car except ours breezed through without paying, and that the guards started asking for our personal belongings in lieu of money suggests it’s probably not legit.

Mobile Data

Mauritel is the best network but works only barely even in Nouadhibou and Nouakchott. It’s probably better to save money and just use WiFi where you can find it (only in hotels and the odd restaurant) unless you need to call.

Food and Prices

As in Morocco, you’re likely to get a tourist price in most markets, and given Mauritania receives far fewer tourists, locals really have no idea about what travelers are willing to pay, so will sometimes throw a completely outrageous price at you (eg €10 for two cans of Coke, or €12 for a small bag of fruit) in the hope that you’ll bite. The only real supermarket in the country with a wide selection is Atac El Khair in Nouakchott. Otherwise it’s just small convenience stores in Atar and Nouadhibou. Imported snacks are very expensive, but fruit and veggies are easy to find at city markets. If you’re heading into the desert, make sure you stock up on produce! Be aware that Mauritania changed its currency at the start of 2018, and there’s still a mix of old money and new money floating around. An old 10 Ouguiya coin is now only worth 1 Ouguiya, so if you’re given a price that seems insane, make sure you’re not being given the old price. Knock a zero off and it might be more accurate.

Checkpoints and Corruption

There are a gazillion checkpoints in Mauritania, particularly in the Adrar region, but if you have plenty of passport photocopies (or fiches) you will breeze through. Write down the rego, make of your car and your occupation on the photocopies to make the process easier. We gave away about fifty photocopies over three weeks. Guards may ask for cadeaux (gifts) but just playfully decline or pretend you don’t understand and eventually they’ll give up. Guards are generally friendly and a handshake and ‘Salaam Aleikum’ goes a long way.

Wild Camping

fullsizeoutput_19c

Happy camper, Adrar Desert

Mauritania is huge, there’s a lot of sand and not a lot of people taking up space which means if you’re heading into the desert, you can guarantee absolute silence and solitude. There might not be many attractions in Mauritania, but desert camping as the sun sets along a perfectly flat horizon is pretty spectacular. There are one or two campsites mostly catering to kite surfers in Nouadhibou and a beach campsite called Les Dauphins in Nouakchott, but they’re all expensive for what they are. It’s very easy to camp on the outskirts of Nouadhibou and Nouakchott, and even if you do come across people, they’ll likely be super friendly.

For antics in the Adrar, check out our video here.

Senegal

fullsizeoutput_341

Saint Louis

Visa costs and borders

We got our one month Senegal visas for €30 per person at the Senegal embassy in Nouakchott, Mauritania and picked them up the same day. The visa process is easy, but the major problem with driving through Senegal is the €250 fee you’ll have to pay to obtain a passavant if you don’t have a carnet du passage and you’re driving a car more than seven years old. This is less of a bribe and more of a large scale government racket as everyone is in on it and it’s come to be accepted as the norm. You simply won’t get into Senegal without paying it.

We brought this up at the Senegalese embassy when we were there and even spoke to the consular general about it but he wouldn’t provide us with proof we didn’t need to pay and was generally of the opinion that we were from a wealthy country and therefore shouldn’t be making a fuss.

We went to the Diama border as Rosso is reported to be horrific. In the hopes of getting out of the €250 fee, we spent nearly 10 hours at border and couldn’t manage to argue ourselves out of it. There’s a guy called Zargane who seems to be the only person capable of issuing the passavant, so you’ll have to wait around for him to show up. We ended up paying €200 instead of €250 as we’d been in touch with him via WhatsApp ahead of our delightful stay at the Diama border.

Zargane apparently charges up to €270 sometimes (or perhaps whatever he thinks you can afford), so as much as it sucks having to deal with him it’s probably best just to contact him in advance and do some sort of deal (Zargane WhatsApp: +221772775850, pictures of the so-called passavant are below).

After that ordeal we weren’t really in the mood to pay for insurance, so didn’t get it. To add insult to injury, the passavant from Zargane is only valid for seven days, mercifully you can go to the passavant extension office in Dakar and get it extended for free. This was a breeze and with very friendly officials, thank god!! If we did the trip again we would probably just go north, pay for the very cheap Mali visa (about €15) and enter Senegal from the Mali side. Avoid buying a SIM card at the Diama border, especially from the Orange salespeople. They are wildly overpriced and internet likely won’t work until you’re well outside the border anyway.

Takeaway point: get a carnet (CDP)

‘Passavant’ from Zargane

Mobile Data

Orange works pretty well in most places, even off-road. From a legitimate Orange store it’s approximately €7 for 5gb.

Food and Prices

In Senegal you’re pretty likely to get a local, or very close to local price, especially if you’re friendly and make sure you ask in French (even if it’s crappy French). Dakar has plenty of supermarket chains (Auchans are fairly easy to find and well-stocked) but it’s cheaper to get produce and bread at markets. Saint Louis and Ziguinchor don’t really have supermarkets, just small shops, but street markets are ubiquitous in almost every town and village and usually seem to have a pretty impressive array of fruits, veg, herbs and spices. Street food in Senegal is also delicious and cheap (think filled rolls and deep friend bread with egg and sauce) and you can get delicious local dishes like yassa poulet for as little as 1000cfa (€1.50) at local restaurants.

Checkpoints and Corruption

While getting into Senegal from Mauritania without a carnet is an unmitigated nightmare, generally the police and military in Senegal are friendly. Cops can be a little opportunistic in Saint Louis and Dakar so make sure to pay attention to road signs and don’t let anyone walk away with your documents, as police might try to sting you on one way streets etc. Other than that, we found Senegal to be generally corruption-free and police asking for bribes was uncommon.

Wild Camping

fullsizeoutput_31b

Wild camping at Wassadougou

From palm fringed beaches to the steamy banks of The Gambia river, there’s plenty of gorgeous spots to freedom camp in Senegal. It’s a well-populated country, so it might take a bit of time to find a spot away from a village, but it’s worth the extra effort. There are plenty of good gaps in the forest to tuck away in if you’re doing the beach drive from Saint Louis to Dakar, and in Cap Skirring you can camp on the beach for days with only meandering herds of cows to disturb you. There’s a good selection of campsites scattered across the country too, the most prolific being Zebrabar just out of Saint Louis. At €7 pp/pn it’s got to be one of the most expensive campsites in West Africa, but it’s got a gorgeous location on the edge of Parc National Langue de Barbarie and unlike most, it’s specifically designed for overlanders, complete with a mechanic station and ramp for you to work on your vehicle. Most other campsites in Senegal are hotels with a few spots for camping, but these tend to be cheaper and more likely to have good WiFi.

fullsizeoutput_315

Mechanicing at Zebrabar

To read more about stunning Senegal, click here.

For a visual diary of our Senegal adventures, click here.

Guinea

 

fullsizeoutput_212

Local cuties, Beyla

Visa costs and borders

Our two month Guinea visas were €106 per person (ouch) which we got at the Guinean embassy in Dakar, Senegal and the process was quick and easy. The €106 included a bit extra (approx €30 for two people) to get it done in three hours rather than in a day or two. We crossed the border on the edge of the Niokolo National Park, and the border and control posts were corruption-free on both the Senegalese and Guinean side. You have to do a short interview with IOM (International Organisation for Migration) about what you’re doing in Guinea and why, but the guy we spoke to was friendly, if a little bemused as to why we wanted to visit Guinea as tourists. We got a round stamp in our passports which we were told was a passavant, whether or not this was true, we didn’t get asked for a passavant the whole time we were in Guinea. We also didn’t buy insurance and didn’t get asked.

Mobile Data

Orange is the best network to go with. There’s not much coverage in the highlands but you’ll get a decent connection in towns and cities- approximately €7 for 3gb.

Food and Prices

We found we got very cheap, honest prices at markets in Guinea. The only real supermarkets are in Conakry and are mostly full of imported French/American goods so can be astronomically expensive. Depending on the season, fruits like mango and pineapple are abundant, absolutely massive and very cheap so stock up on those babies. Almost all of the street food you could hope to buy in Guinea is deep fried, usually just basic fried dough with no sugar or seasoning. It’s an alright treat if you’re desperate, but don’t eat too many as the oil is about three decades old.

Checkpoints and Corruption 

Tourists are still a rarity in Guinea, so you’ll have novelty factor in your side. You’ll be pulled over at every available opportunity in Conakry, but if you have your papers in order (or pretend to) and lay on the charm you can get out the other side scot-free. The traffic in Conakry is diabolical and in big jams it can get easy to get into a prang, so be wary of that. Police and military will check for covered shoes, which is completely ridiculous but not worth arguing about, two triangles and a fire extinguisher (although we weren’t searched often). Police and military in Conakry will often ask for bribes but it’s generally done in a cheeky way, and we got through the country without paying any. Regional police and military will mostly just want to say hello and ask where you are going.

Wild Camping

DSC_0148

Fouta Djalon region

Guinea is still discovering its potential as a tourist magnet, and there are very few official campsites, giving you more of a reason to get off the beaten track and camp in the gorgeous forest of the highlands. It’s fairly easy to find a wild campsite in the rural areas, and you’re unlikely to be bothered as people all go back to their villages in the evening. Even if people do stick around (ie if you’re near a waterhole) you’ll be welcomed. In Conakry, Les Palmiers offers camping spaces in the small parking lot for a negotiable fee. Apart from the brutal generator noise at night, it’s peaceful, right on the beach and easily the best-looking spot in Conakry, so it’s worth it. At Guinea’s various waterfalls, the local guardian may ask for a small fee for camping, but where we stayed at Chutes de Saala it seemed very legit with receipts and guaranteed security for your vehicle. Razak the local guardian is also excellent craic/banter.

Keen to get well off the beaten trail in Guinea? Check out our video here.

Côte d’Ivoire

fullsizeoutput_3e5

En route to Abidjan

Visa costs and borders

If you google Côte d’Ivoire visas you’ll be directed to the snedai.com website but we just headed to the embassy in Conakry, Guinea and it was very straightforward to apply from there. It was €60 per person for our three month tourist visas. The staff are super friendly and there’s also a sparkling toilet and incredibly powerful air con which is enough to get you pretty excited if you’ve been in West Africa for a while. The ambassador travelled to New Zealand and really loves Kiwis so he may want to meet you if you’re of the Antipodean persuasion. We paid €20 for a three month passavant which was issued at the embassy. You may not actually need to pay at all, as the guy cheekily asked for €50 but was easily bargained down. We got the passavant from separate office in the embassy after we got the visa. We waited two days for our visas but same day visas can be arranged at a presumably extortionate price.

It was easy to leave Guinea at the border between Nzo and Gbapleu – friendly, quick and no corruption. There’s a very nice new border control office on the Côte d’Ivoire side with friendly officials. After you get your passports stamped you have to go to separate office in same building so a doctor can check your yellow fever certificates and temperature. It looks like you could even get your yellow fever vaccination then and there if you don’t already have one. The passavant check is a few kilometres down the road, and they just wave you through if you already have a passavant. The border control office is in the middle of the jungle so there are no ATMs to get cash out, but there are a few money changers hanging around.

Mobile Data

We didn’t get an Ivorian sim as we spent a lot of time at places with really good WiFi. Orange is absolutely everywhere but data prices are relatively high – €7.6 for 2.5gb. If you’re after a place to do some work online and need a good connection for a couple of days, it’s worth heading to Hotel Jardin d’Eden in Assouinde. You can camp there for free if you buy a meal a day, and you’ll easily recuperate the weight you have lost in the rest of the continent – the meals are massive! They also sell WiFi passes with an excellent connection – 500 cfa (€.0.76) for 3gb which lasts 24 hours.

Food and Prices

King Cash’s are everywhere and it’s a good place to buy cheap beer and other dry/packaged goods. They even sell machetes if you’re needing to do a bit of bushwhacking. Local maquis (informal open air restaurants) do delicious eat-in poisson or poulet braise with attieke or aloco for about 1000cfa (1.50 euro). Barbecue meat, corn and fried fish stands are also everywhere and generally delicious.

Checkpoints and Corruption

While there is a huge military presence in Côte d’Ivoire, this is unlikely to cause any headaches and most roadside cops/soldiers seem more interested in napping and checking their phones than doing anything that resembles work. Some may ask for a souvenir from home if you’re from a far away place, but that’s about the extent of it.

Wild Camping

fullsizeoutput_634

Beach camping in paradise, San Pedro

Côte d’Ivoire is notoriously pricey when it comes to accommodation, so hunting out a nice camp spot where you can spend a few days is essential. Deforestation and the copious amount of palm plantations along the roadside means, unfortunately, there are plenty of recently cleared lots just off the main road where you can park up. There are also a lot of beautiful beaches along the coast where you can park up for the night without hassle. In Côte d’Ivoire’s resort towns of Grand Bassam, Assouinde and Assinie, many nice hotels offer free camping and use of the beach, showers and WiFi in exchange for buying a meal at the restaurant. Hotel Jardin d’Eden in Assouinde, as mentioned above,  is particularly perfect.

Ghana

fullsizeoutput_36c

New co-driver, Wli

Visa costs and borders

Our one month Ghana visas were €60 each from the embassy in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire and were a bit of a process to obtain. We were first told the Ghana embassy was no longer issuing visas for non Ivoirians, and that we’d have to go to border and pay up to $250USD each for an on-the-spot visa. The young guy at the front desk was clearly enjoying toying with us and told us that if we could get a letter of invitation and the scanned passport of the person inviting us by the next day, he would issue us a visa in four business days. He was a little gobsmacked when we showed up with the required documents the next day (provided by the manager of a hostel in Ghana) and we got our visas. The Elubo border where we crossed was an eight hour ordeal, mostly because there had been a law change that came into force that very day which meant all drivers of foreign cars needed a carnet du passage. They also said we needed an international drivers license to enter Ghana and that it had always been that way. We had neither the carnet nor the license which meant a lot of waiting, begging and being told off by various authorities. It all seemed legit as we were never asked for money by anyone in uniform, although there is a fixer at the border who told us he’d magic us into Ghana for €530. Eventually, because we had arrived on the day of the law change, we were let in, but I doubt they’ll be as lenient from now on. We paid a customs duty/passavant fee of 50 cedi (€8.30) at the bank adjacent to customs. We were told it all would have been a five minute process if we had had a carnet and international license.

Takeaway point: get a carnet

Mobile Data

MTN seems to be the most reliable network and it works in most areas. Data is about €4.40 for 2gb.

Food and Prices

Supermarkets are easy to come by in big towns and there are a tonne of chains like Game and Shoprite in Accra, although these tend to be expensive. As always, markets are a better bet for everything that isn’t packaged. You’ll have to bargain a bit more here, as Ghana is very touristy compared to the rest of West Africa, and locals know the drill. Try to pay at markets in exact change or small notes, or you might find that people suddenly have no change, or they want you to buy a chicken kebab for them and their whole extended family. Other times you’ll get your change back but minus 1 cedi (it’s only €.17 so it’s not worth making a fuss). Street food from stalls and small chop houses is incredibly cheap and delicious. Women stallholders are likely to give you a bang-on price and a massive portion to boot. A 10 cedi (€1.70) tray of chicken and jollof rice with salad, egg, plantain and sauce is likely to last two meals unless you’re absolutely starving. More basic street meals like red red or kenkey with fried fish will only set you back about 1.50 – 2 cedis. (€.25- €.35) In terms of street snacks, big slabs of deep fried yam are also common, along with pastries, spring rolls and grilled meats, yuuuuuuumm.

Checkpoints and Corruption

Generally, Ghana’s police force play by the rules, which means its best to have your papers in perfect order for checkpoint stops. English is the national language which means you definitely can’t fling any old bit of official looking paper at them and hope for the best. International drivers licenses are required, and drivers of right-hand drive vehicles can expect extra hassle, give them your documents (CDP/passavant) to prove you were let into the country as is, and they should give up . Drivers must wear covered shoes or face a fine. Ghana, unlike most West African countries, also has speed cameras.

Wild Camping

fullsizeoutput_370

Beachfront camping at the Stumble Inn

While there are plenty of stunning potential camping spots in Ghana, the key is finding one where people won’t be constantly hassling you for cash. Ghana is West Africa’s most tourist-saturated country, full of German volunteers and Americans finding themselves, and the locals (particularly in the coastal areas) have no qualms with seeking you out and begging persistently. You might find somewhere peaceful off a side road, but you simply can’t pitch your tent in a semi-public beauty spot and expect to be left alone. Fortunately there are plenty of incredibly good value campsites which can accommodate you. Stumble Inn on Elmina’s beachfront is a laidback paradise, and the atmospheric and super friendly Sleepy Hippo Hostel in Accra allows free camping in the car park in exchange for a dirt cheap and delicious meal at the restaurant.

For more about Ghana, click here.

For our time running from the wet season in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, watch our video here.

Togo

fullsizeoutput_37d

Kpalimé region

Visa costs and borders

Our one month Togo visas were €38 each at the Togo embassy in Abidjan. They cost just €15 if you get a VOA at the Togo border, but the guy issuing our Ghana visas in Abidjan was a bit of dick and insisted we needed proof of exit from Ghana before he’d issue us a visa, so we had to go with the pricier option. The lady at the Togo visa office was initially pretty grumpy about the fact we don’t speak French, but softened up a bit. We just filled out one simple form and picked the visa up a few hours later. We crossed the border from Wli in Ghana and the process on both sides was super fast and easy. You pay for the laisseur passé/passavant (7000cfa or €10) at the border post, they give you a handwritten receipt and then you get your laisseur passé at the customs post. The customs post is about 14kms from the border post through winding and beautiful mountain roads. The whole process took about half an hour but only because they’d just chopped down a mango tree that cut off the border post road.

Mobile Data

We went with Floov which was €7 for 3.5gb but had really patchy reception. Togocel mught be a safer bet as it’s the most popular network.

Food and Prices

The only supermarket chain appears to be Le Champion which is for high rollers only, think cigars in glass cases and five litre bottles of Belvedere vodka. As usual, street markets are ubiquitous, friendly and cheap. You’re likely to get a local price in most places, and there are plenty of cheap local chop shops that do takeaway style food, or plates of grilled meat and spaghetti or rice for 1000 cfa or less.

Checkpoints and Corruption

Fortunately Togo doesn’t seem to have the affinity for checkpoints obvious in many other West African countries, and the military you do come across tend to be friendly and professional. What a relief!

Wild Camping

fullsizeoutput_381

Coco Beach

Togo’s wafer thin slice of coastline (and general size compared to the population) means it can be tricky to find a people-free wild camping site, but it’s perfectly possible in the mountains of the Kpalimé area, and probably easier still if you’re planning on heading quite far inland. Once on the coast, there are dozens of beachside resorts and campsites where you can park right on (or very near) the beach for as little as €2.50 pp/pn. We ended up staying at the delightful Chez Antoine Coco Beach for two weeks and didn’t want to leave.

For more on cute wee Togo, read our article here .

Benin

20DA742F-4E29-4BCE-802B-B717F99ADB5B 2

Dankopta Market, Cotonou

Visa costs and borders

Our Benin e-visas were €50 each and by far, the the most easily obtained visa in our whole trip through West Africa. You complete a super quick online application, print out the completed form once you’ve made the online payment, hand it in at the border and in 15 mins you’re stamped in and good to go. We crossed between Aneho and Grand Popo and didn’t get told we needed a passavant/laisseur passé so didn’t get one.

Mobile Data

MTN is the most reliable network – €3.80 for 2gb.

Food and Prices

Street food is everywhere in Benin, from barbecue to spaghetti and slightly more exotic local dishes of mystery meat and a slimy green sauce (the official name is gombo). You’ll get a local price almost everywhere, although if you’re getting barbecue it’s worth it to get a small sample before buying a slab as it’s often so covered in spices you don’t know whether you’re getting meat or gristle. There are plenty nice upmarket supermarkets in Cotonou, and if you’re heading to Porto-Novo you can stock up on delicious locally made jams, cordials and spice mixes at the small supermarket at Centre Songhai.

Checkpoints and Corruption

According to locals, corruption used to be widespread in Benin, but a recent crackdown means it’s now virtually non-existent, at least towards tourists. Checkpoints are few and far between, and you can look forward to a friendly welcome and zero demands for cash.

Wild Camping

fullsizeoutput_589

Wild camping on the Route des Peches

Like Togo, coastal Benin is fairly densely populated, but you can easily camp on the beach at Grand Popo or along the stunning Route des Peches between Ouidah and Cotonou without any hassle.

For more about the best of Benin, read the article here, or watch our video from Togo and Benin here

Nigeria

IMG_8187

Taraba State, Nigeria

This is the visa that makes most people turn around and flee back north, and for good reason. While the online visa application system should make the process seamless, it’s the approval letter issued by someone somewhere in Abuja that often proves elusive if not impossible to obtain. Visa fees vary dramatically depending on your nationality – while Brits have to fork out a minimum of $160 USD per person, us lucky New Zealanders get away with $2USD per person. Because the bulk of the application is done online, you’ll also need to pay a somewhat ridiculous $20USD processing fee per person. You can read about the nightmarish Nigerian visa ordeal on more detail here, but essentially you can no longer (easily) get a tourist visa for Nigeria outside of your home country.

We had to invent a business, and apply for a business visa on arrival. You’ll also need a letter of invitation from a local business and a passport photocopy from the person issuing the letter. Once you’ve submitted the forms and paid, you then need an approval letter to enter the country, which can usually only be obtained with the help of an official at the Sémé-Krake border between Benin and Nigeria. They will generally only do this if you agree to pay a bribe. The official we got the most ‘help’ from was a guy called AP Livinus (WhatsApp: +234 7038993345) and the only reason we got away without paying him is that said he would be able to help us get an approval letter within a couple of days, and it ended up taking more than a week, so we refused to pay. If you’re wanting a VOA, it has to be a business VOA, and AP is now offering to arrange these in a few days at a cost of $60USD per person, on top the online visa fee for your country and $20USD processing fee. It is totally ridiculous that the only way to get a visa is to pay cash to someone who’s already being paid by the Nigerian government to do the exact same thing, but everyone in that Sémé-Krake office has their own little rackets running, and as far as we can tell it’s literally the only way you’ll get into the country.

Alternatively, if you just can’t bring yourself to pay the border officials directly, you can contact Chloe Grant from West Africa Travellers (see bottom of article), who has a contact at a third party company which arranges Nigerian visas.

Once we’d completed the hellish visa process, our passavant was issued in the same building at the Sémé-Krake border.  Again, the officials will make you think you need to pay for this, you don’t. If officers threaten to refer you to their boss, let them, as it’s just a tactic, and ‘the boss’ won’t charge you a thing. Make sure you get your passavant, especially if your vehicle is right-hand drive, as officers at checkpoints will claim right-hand drives are illegal, and you’ll need the passavant to help with your argument.

898a229d-630b-4152-bce1-69c1dc3a2b25

Victor – our friendly government issued chaperone

Once you’ve got all the required documents, you’ll need to be escorted to Murtala Muhammed airport in Lagos, which, for mysterious reasons, is the only place you can be officially stamped into Nigeria. An immigration official will need to ride in the car with you (about a 4-5 hour drive from the border depending on traffic) and escort you to where to go in the airport. Once in the airport, you may need to wait an hour or so in a small, glass-walled waiting area while airport immigration stamps your passport (the bonus is good free wifi). Then, finally, you are free to go. You have to arrange return transport to the border for your escorting immigration official. You can either find a taxi and make a deal, or give your official a pre-arranged amount of cash. We paid €30, which seemed like a small price to pay for the ordeal to finally be over. Whether the official in question actually uses the money to taxi back to the border or not is an unknown, but you’ll likely be beyond caring at that point.

If all of this is sounding too much like hard work, just remember there are plenty of things worth seeing in Nigeria, and shipping around is hella expensive.

NOTE: Helpfully, the Benin officials and the Nigerian officials share the same building at Sémé-Krake, so it’s a good idea NOT to get stamped out of Benin until you’re absolutely sure you are going to be let into Nigeria. That way at least you have the option to head back to Porto-Novo, instead of waiting for countless days at the border.

Mobile Data

In Nigeria’s cities, you’ll be able to enjoy some of the fastest and cheapest internet in West Africa. If you’re heading into jungle areas there will understandably be little to no reception, but you can often get a fairly good connection even in rural towns and villages. We paid 3500 naira (€8.60) for 10gb with MTN, which is the most popular and reliable network.

Food and Prices

Fruit and veg markets aren’t as abundant in Nigeria as in other West African countries, but meat lovers will be stoked as you can get suya (thinly sliced spicy meat and fat on a stick) just about everywhere for 100-300 naira (€0.25-0.75 cents) per skewer. There are plenty of supermarkets in Lagos – chains like Shoprite and Game have a larger selection but local ones like Prince Ebeano are cheaper. There’s also a well-stocked Spar in Calabar.

Checkpoints and Corruption 

Nigeria is synonymous with corruption and nothing can really prepare you for the sheer amount of checkpoints you’ll be stopped at. In total we were stopped at 229 checkpoints during our three weeks in Nigeria, and we were asked for money or goods at almost every single one. Here are just some of the outfits you’re likely to be stopped by:

Police

Military

Drugs

Customs

Immigration

Strike Force Team 

MOPOL

Operation Zenda 

Police anti-crime division

VIO – Vehicle Inspection Officer 

Highway Safety 

Highway Response 

Nigerian Navy

Police Mobile Force 

Federal Operations Unit 

Nigeria security and civil defense 

Operatiob Wuta-Wuta

IMGH security

Special Force Police 

Anti-robbery team

Anti-kidnapping team

Anti-corruption team

Federal Road Safety 

The most problematic are generally the Federal Road Safety Officers (beige uniforms with red hats) and VIO – Vehicle Inspection Officers, who wear white. Generally the police and army will cheekily ask for a gift, but it’s the road safety and VIO officers that will really put the hard yards in to extort bribes out of you for some ridiculous reason like an expired tyre or an allegedly ‘overloaded’ vehicle. They’re likely to threaten a trip ‘back to the office’ or a fine, but keep going with the charade and they’ll eventually give up seeing as they have no legal grounds to fine you or detain you. Despite wasting a hell of a lot of time at these checkpoints, we didn’t pay a single cent and neither should you. Ultimately, all of the officials trying to bribe you know that it’s wrong, so there’s only so far they can take it. We came across at least one group of fake VIO officers in shabby uniforms who stopped us and demanded our paperwork, so ask to see identification if you’re suspicious.

Wild Camping

fullsizeoutput_62c

Jungle chillin’ – Afi Mountain Drill Ranch

Unfortunately, most of our attempts at wild camping in Nigeria ended with angry locals threatening us, or heavily armed police moving us on for our own safety. Many Nigerians are completely bewildered by tourists in their country, as they see it as very unsafe. We camped in the carparks of hotels a lot of the time, and staff wouldn’t even let us go out for food without a chaperone. Fortunately Drill Ranch in the Afi Mountains provides absolutely gorgeous camping opportunities for a good price.

Don’t believe us about all those checkpoints? Check out the video here.

*Potentially awesome and very helpful thing in Lagos*

There’s a workshop called Range Rover Doctor in Lekki, Lagos. They are a high-end Range Rover dealership but they are super awesome and generous guys who offered us free parts and service when we had brake problems in Nigeria. They are apparently now offering this service for all international overlanders driving Land Rovers and Range Rovers through Nigeria, amazing!

IMG_7541

The Range Rover Doctor team, Lagos

Cameroon

DSC_0597

The aftermath of the Banyo border

We applied for our Cameroon visas at the Cameroon embassy in Calabar, Nigeria and paid €81 per person which is supposed to be about €20-€30 cheaper per person than in Lagos. The process was friendly and took just a few hours (although we did have to stay at the office for those few hours). We had to have a short interview with the consular-general about our itinerary, as foreigners are currently banned from the Ekok border due to instability. According to the Cameroon officials, previous overlanders have lied about their route, told the visa-issuing officers they were going to Banyo, and then tried Ekok, only to be denied and have their Cameroon visas revoked completely. You’ll either have to buy a ferry ticket to bypass the Ekok border, or head north to the Banyo border which is what we did. While the drive to Banyo can be challenging particularly in the wet season, you’ll be rewarded with some of the best mountain scenery Nigeria has to offer on the way north, and equally stunning scenes once you cross into Cameroon. Border posts on the Nigerian and Cameroon side are friendly, informal, and most importantly, corruption-free. We got our laisseur-passé/passavant form at the office where we got our passports stamped, then handed that in at the douane post in Banyo where they confirmed our itinerary and printed out a new version, this was free.

Mobile Data

Went with Orange but the network seems to be prone to outages and we couldn’t use our data for most of the period we paid for. Prices sit at around €10 for 3gb.

Food and Prices

One thing you’ll be able to get plenty of in Cameroon is delicious food, particularly bread and other patisserie fare. Santa Lucia supermarkets are abundant in Yaoundé and have amazing bakery and deli sections. There are also a couple of well-stocked Mahima supermarkets. Restauranteurs may try to cheat you on prices (eg telling you the price for an item on the menu is incorrect once you’ve already eaten it), BUT you can get potatoes as a side in many places, a welcome deviation from rice and yam.

Checkpoints and Corruption

Corruption isn’t as common in Cameroon as it is in Nigeria, purely because there aren’t as many checkpoints or different branches of government trying to get money out of people, but the police and military will still try it on. If you’ve got a right-hand drive vehicle you can expect a bit of hassle, but stand your ground, show your passavant (proof that you can get stamped into the country with a right-hand drive vehicle without a problem) and you shouldn’t be delayed too much.

Wild Camping

DSC_0613

Road building = empty dirt pits = happy campers

The Anglophone/Francophone conflict in Cameroon means tourists are discouraged from traveling to or camping at a lot of places which would once have been prime spots for wild camping. We wild camped a couple of times but were often moved on by villagers in the early morning, meaning cheap hotels were our go-to for our short time there.

Congo

IMG_8300

Somewhere near the Equator

We went to the Congo embassy in Yaoundé, Cameroon and paid 30,000 fcfa pp (€45) for our fifteen day visas to the lovely woman at the front desk. We had to fill out a basic form, provide proof of accommodation in Congo and a scan of our yellow fever certificates, but no letter of invitation was needed. The visa took three days to be issued. Stamping out of Cameroon and into Ntam, Congo was easy, but the officer at the Congo Gendarmarie post wanted 20,000 fcfa for a passavant. Don’t pay this! You get your Cameroon passavant stamped at the border and then drive 330kms east to Ouesso to get a new one, which is free. Just outside of the town of Ouesso, there’s a large building called the Douaniere de la Sangha, go there and ask for a passavant, it should take no longer than half an hour.

Mobile Data

€9 for 3gb on MTN which works well in cities and even fairly small towns.

Food and Prices

There isn’t much in the way of supermarkets in Congo, except in Point-Noire and Brazzaville. In Brazzaville, you’ll find large and very fancy Casino and Park n Shop supermarkets. These are incredibly expensive but have an impressive selection of French cheeses and cured meats if you’re hanging out for a treat. Beer is more expensive than in most of the countries further north, and can go for as much as 2000 fcfa (€3) a bottle in hotel bars. As usual, street food is your best bet to keep the budget down, and vendors will usually give you an honest price. The grilled street chicken in Congo was the best we had in Africa!

Checkpoints and Corruption

Officials in the Congo LOVE having a thorough look through your passport and may often insist on handwriting all your details down even if you give them a photocopy. We found they even wanted to look at all our expired visas from previous countries, but that may have been more out of boredom than anything. Other than the 20,000 cfa we were asked to pay at the border for a passavant (don’t pay this) we were also asked to pay 5000 cfa at a checkpoint just outside of Ouésso for them to stamp our Cameroon passavant (also don’t pay this.) Sadly, we DON’T recommend getting the police involved if you find yourself in a dispute with a local as they will likely only make things worse.

Wild Camping

DSC_0671

Magical jungle camping in Northern Congo

Wild camping in Northern Congo is easy with beautiful scenery and low population density. It gets a bit trickier as you head south. If you need to be in Brazzaville for a few days, Hotel Hippocampe provides free camping and use of bathroom/showers for overlanders, and you don’t even need to pay for anything at the (very expensive) restaurant in exchange, score!

DRC

IMG_7678

Struggle Street, DRC Border

Visa costs and borders

We applied for our DRC transit visa in Cotonou, Benin as it’s said to be cheaper than in other countries**. It cost 15,000 cfa (€23) per person for 8 days, we picked it up the same day as we applied and the staff were friendly, helpful, and spoke good English. There were a lot of overlanders being held at the Cabinda border at the time, because their visas hadn’t been issued in their home countries. As New Zealand doesn’t have a DRC embassy we asked if the issuing officer could write us a small note explaining our situation for the border control officers, but he couldn’t.

We knew we’d need to go to a small, rural  border post in the DRC to try and avoid being held at the border over the origin of our visas.

We had to try three times at three different borders to get into the DRC, because we were asked for $100USD and then $50USD at the first two borders for a form called an Authorization de Traverser de Frontiere. This appeared to be because we didn’t have a carnet, but we had never heard of the form before and didn’t have $50-$100USD on us even if we had wanted to pay it.

On our third attempt, we took the treacherous road from Dolisie to the Londela-Kaye border and the even more treacherous RN12 road out to Tshala, but the border itself was a breeze – just a guy in a tiny village who pulled a desk out of storage, stamped our passports and didn’t even seem to have the very expensive form in his possession.  Lwozi is where you’re supposed to get a passavant issued, but as we were intending to drive right through the DRC in a day, we took the risk and went straight to the border in Boma.

In Boma, there was confusion about where exactly we had crossed (the officer who stamped us in had barely had any ink left) and further confusion when they saw that we had no passavant. They let us off the hook because we had crossed at such a small border, but told us we should have a carnet to avoid these sorts of issues. They probably won’t be as lenient in the future if you’re considering doing the same thing! We saw people getting Authorization de Traverser forms stamped but we were never asked to produce one. We suspect it might be for people who are driving vehicles which don’t belong to them, meaning we never needed to pay it anyway.

Takeaway point: GET A CARNET

**UPDATE: as of September 2019, Benin has apparently stopped issuing visas to non-residents, Cameroon is said to still be issuing slightly more expensive DRC visas to tourists.

Food and Prices

Street food in the DRC is incredibly cheap, and you can load up on grilled chicken, fruit, veges, beer and a couple of soft drinks for €5 or less. If you’re buying bottles of Coke or other soft drink, make sure you check the seals on the caps as it seems to be a common trick to refill Coke bottles with the cheaper local alternative.

Checkpoints and Corruption

We didn’t pass through many checkpoints in the DRC as we crossed through in less than a day and we mainly drove at night. The checkpoints we did pass through generally waved us right through, often without even asking to see our paperwork. All the corruption we experienced in DRC happened at the entry borders.

For our Central African highlights, check out our video here.

Angola

DSC_1041

Lost, Calulo

Visa costs and borders

We got our Angola visas at the Angola embassy in Brazzaville, Congo. The guards at the entrance are very friendly but we were turned away when we arrived at 2pm as we were told the staff inside had finished for the day, make sure you get there early! The next day we arrived just after 9am but still had to wait for 2 hours to be seen. They asked for a printed bank statement to prove we had the funds to support ourselves, which we could print off at the office. It’s $103USD for a one month visitor visa. The visa must be paid for in USD and the process for paying it isn’t exactly straightforward. You need to get cash out, exchange it to USD (unfortunately you’ll lose quite a bit of money doing this as the banks, hotels and black market guys in Brazzaville centre all seem to offer the same rate of 690 to $1USD, meaning you’ll lose 110 cfa – €0.16) for every dollar), pay the visa fee at the Credit du Congo bank and get a receipt to show at the Angolan embassy as proof of payment, which will in all likelihood be closed but he time you get there. Does this all seem unnecessarily complicated? Yes. T.I.A.

Crossing into Angola was easy, but be aware that they want an awful lot of colour photocopies on both the Congo and Angola side at the Boma border. There is a small outdoor photocopying office on the DRC side. To avoid multiple trips get 3 colour copies per person of your passport details, DRC visa, Angola visa and drivers license (they can squeeze all into one double-sided page). After your visa has been stamped, ask about a passavant and you’ll be guided to a different part of the office. It’s 6000 kwanza (15 euro) for a passavant which you can pay in USD or kwanza.

Leaving Angola at the Santa Clara/Oshikango border was easy, and the woman stamping our passports didn’t even notice that we’d overstayed our visas by two days. Be wary of overstaying if you’re planning on re-entering the country, as the fees are said to be pretty astronomical if you overstay and then re-enter.

Mobile Data

Unitel is the main network and it’s 2000 kwanza (€5) for 1gb, ouch! Unfortunately, the network also seems to be incredibly patchy and prone to outages even in the cities.

Food and Prices

Angola has a reputation for being incredibly pricey, but we found it to be totally reasonable if you go to the right places. A big shop at Intermarket or Shoprite might cost you a lot, but Nosso supermarkets sell everything from produce to chocolate for a much lower price. Beer is also dirt cheap at around €.30-€.35 a can.

There’s not nearly as much street food in Angola as there is in West Africa, but you can still find grilled meat, bread and fruit being sold. There are a lot of high-end restaurants in Luanda catering to oil execs and ex-pats, but there are also a lot of local barracas where you can get freshly grilled fish, rice and beans and a few beers for 2000 kwanza (€5) a head.

The absolute best way to get bang for your buck in Angola is to bring in USD and exchange it on the street. There’s high demand for it, because of all the international business that goes on there, but not enough of it going around. The official rate is 36,000 kwanza for $100USD, but on the street you can get up to 50,000, meaning you can get up to $30 USD of free money for every $100USD you bring. Black market money changing is illegal, so you’ll have to be discreet about it. We exchanged $400USD in three lots in Angola, the first time we went to a hotel in Luanda and asked some guys selling phone cards on the corner, the second time we were waved down while walking around the city. Our third lot we changed in Lobito with some guys hanging around near the market.

Checkpoints and Corruption

Angola isn’t nearly as enthusiastic about checkpoints as many countries further north, and you can look forward to driving for hours at a time without being stopped at a single one. In Luanda you may come across the odd cop asking you for money for cafe or gazosa (coffee or soft drink), but they don’t tend to get aggressive about it if you say no. We were stopped by a police officer in central Luanda and told we had to pay 15,000 kwanza (€37.50) for an alleged illegal turn, but he ended up letting us go after we made it clear we couldn’t speak Portuguese. Everywhere else we were often waved through without any document checks at all.

Wild Camping

DSC_1124

Cuca Time, Namib Desert

With its 1.2 million square kilometres and comparatively small population, Angola is a wild campers dream. We wild camped all through the country, from mountains to desert to beaches and were barely ever disturbed by anyone. When you do come across locals, they generally just want to introduce themselves, then go on their way, you can even camp for free right in the centre of Luanda at Club Naval. Luanda has a large and very friendly ex-pat population, and we made some awesome friends there who invited us into their homes and on heaps of awesome outings.

Check out the best of Angola’s incredible nature and most challenging trails here.

Namibia

DSC_0123

Big Lad, Etosha National Park

Visa costs and borders

Congratulations, you’ve made it to the part where everything stops being hard for no reason! Entering Namibia was as simple as expected, we didn’t need a visa to enter. You just get your passport stamped in one queue, then pay the road tax (305 Namibian/€18) at the adjacent booth, you can even pay with card, easy peasy! We didn’t get a passavant and didn’t get asked for one at any checkpoints during our month and a bit in the country.

Mobile Data

MTC is the main network, but if you want to mostly use mobile data, you have to make sure you get the Super Aweh bundle. It’ll give you 3gb for one week for 53 Namibian dollars (€3.20), otherwise the data prices are astronomical.

Food and Prices

Compared to the rest of Africa’s west coast, entering Namibia is like entering another world, with huge malls, supermarkets, resorts and restaurants aplenty. You’re finally in a place where basic snack foods cost a normal (and probably cheaper than home) price. Yay!

The downside of this is that streetfood is basically non-existent, but you can still eat out on the cheap at small local places. Dishes like beef stew or chicken and pap with cabbage are dirt cheap and super tasty. Meat is said to be cheaper inland and in the north than on the coast, but is generally pretty cheap everywhere!

Checkpoints and Corruption

Police and military in Namibia are wildly different from their northern counterparts. Friendly and fair, you won’t ever come across a police officer asking for money, and as a tourist, they are very interested in your safety. While broken down in Oshakati we had two lots of police officers coming to check we were safe, even though the area seemed like a perfectly normal inner-city street. In the same town, hotel staff went out looking for us when we went out to get dinner on our own. Without wanting to jinx anything, people seem to be a lot more worried about crime and safety than is completely necessary.

Wild Camping

DSC_1306

Camping at Kunene

Lots of people bemoan the lack of free wild camping spots in Namibia, but we found that between the lots of fenced off farmland, there are plenty of perfectly fine places to camp if you drive around for long enough and just need somewhere to rest for the night. In the north, along the Kunene River you’ll find plenty of gorgeous wild camping spots, and if you absolutely can’t find anything, Namibia’s vast range of campsites, from five-star resorts to tiny community run camps should do the trick. Be aware that the cost of these campsites are twice or even three times more than what you’d expect to pay in West Africa, so allow for that in your budget. On the plus side, this is first world camping, flushing toilets, showers with hot water, electricity, your own personal braai and even Wifi that usually works….weird.

Oppi Koppi in Kamanjab is one of the very few campsites in Namibia that offers free camping for international overlanders. The staff are friendly, the facilities are awesome and you’re not even expected to buy anything at the restaurant/bar, although they do have ice cold Jagermeister…..just saying.

If you want to see just how close you can get to Namibia’s amazing wildlife, check out our video here

South Africa

fullsizeoutput_63c

Knysna, Western Cape

Visa costs and borders

Of all the borders we crossed on our African journey, we were probably most worried about South Africa, as it’s not really a country you can avoid if you’re hoping to reach the bottom of the continent. South Africa had only just changed it’s visa laws for New Zealand citizens, making us visa exempt, but we weren’t sure if there would still be issues. On top of that, we had a rusty, falling apart truck and not all of our correct paperwork. Luckily for us, it couldn’t have been easier. We crossed at Woolsdrift and had our passports stamped within five minutes. Whoever’s driving needs to fill out a short form with their personal details and car registration, then you’re given a white slip which you take to customs. In our case, customs simply asked us what we had and didn’t ask to look inside the truck at all, then we were out! No one at the border mentioned that we needed a temporary import permit for the vehicle, so we didn’t get one, and weren’t asked to produce a TIP or a carnet during our two weeks driving in South Africa.

Mobile Data

It is a complete mystery why mobile data in one of Africa’s developed nations is so expensive, but it’s a killer. Costs run at about 110 rand/€6.60 per gb across the networks, so your only solution is to spend a lot of time at free wifi spots. Fortunately most cafes and restaurants offer it, and it’s likely you’ll be having to spend a lot of time at paid accommodation anyway.

Food and Prices

Much like Namibia, street food is not all that common, but what South Africa lacks in street snacks, it makes up for with braa-ing, a national obsession. There are braai spots at most public parks (and ALL paid campsites) and meat from the supermarket is likely much cheaper than what you’ll get back home. You’ll never be far away from a Spar, Pick n Pay or Shoprite, and drinking is also pretty cost-efficient compared to New Zealand and Europe. Chin chin.

Checkpoints and Corruption

We were only stopped at one very friendly checkpoint while in South Africa, where they mentioned our faded rear license plate but let us go. It’s pretty rare to see checkpoints in general, although you should keep an eye out for speed cameras, there are way more here than in just about every other country on our trip combined.

Wild Camping

fullsizeoutput_63a

Wild camping near George

Although there are quite a few gorgeous spots along the Garden Route in the Western Cape, it can be pretty tricky to find a decent freedom camping spot in South Africa. Like Namibia, paid campsites have all the facilities you need, so you won’t feel too shafted if you can’t find a wild camp. Because so many South Africans have camping vehicles, campsites can fill up and prices can skyrocket over the school holidays, so be aware of that. The South Africans we met were pretty gobsmacked that we had wild camped in the country at all, but if you can mange to find a quiet spot with no foot traffic, you’re safe as!

If you want to see the Grand Finale of our 10 month Connemara to Cape Town overland adventure, check it out here.

General notes

Rubbish

fullsizeoutput_636

Saint Louis Beach/Dump, Senegal

West Africans are obsessed with plastic bags and bottles, and the environment has suffered a great deal for it. Many beaches, roadsides and rivers are literally ankle-deep in plastic waste, and from Mauritania down anything you might hope to consume is generally served in plastic, from street food to the fresh water sachets that seem to blanket every available surface. Try to take your own reusable bags with you to the market, supermarket and street food stalls. You might be met with bewilderment or even mild aggression as the local baker passionately insists that you absolutely need a plastic bag inside your reusable bag to carry your baguette 10 meters from the shop door to the car, but try to resist whenever possible. When it comes to water, there are plenty of public wells in Morocco and Mauritania. Further south, look out for camp grounds with potable water or ask at local restaurants if you can fill up your water tank/canister if you buy a meal and flick them an extra few bucks.

We bottled river or sea water for washing our dishes and ourselves to cut down on our fresh water consumption. Locals drinking bottled or packaged water isn’t always an indication that the tap/bore/well water is undrinkable, just that they’re picky. In the vast majority of countries, many of the locals drank bottled water, but we found the tap or well water tasted totally fine and didn’t make us sick at all. Use your smarts. If the water’s got mysterious floaties and tastes horrible, don’t drink it. If seems fine, it probably is. After filling up our tank from taps or wells, we’d drink a cup of water and if we were still ok after 24 hours, we’d keep the lot.

Many market vendors sell diesel, nuts or locally made drinks out of old plastic bottles, so consider keeping your old Coke and juice bottles separate from the rest of your rubbish and passing them on. Otherwise, you may come across roadworkers, people fixing a broken down vehicle, or people walking between villages far from a water source who would really appreciate some fresh water. So fill up a few small bottles and keep them handy.

Women Travellers

fullsizeoutput_365

Me, Dorothy and Prisca, Wli, Ghana

Although not part of West Africa, Morocco is where you’re most likely to face harassment as a woman, especially if you step out alone in big cities like Tangier or Marrakech. It’s wise to cover up as much as possible when traveling in Morocco and Mauritania, especially if you happen to be there during Ramadan. Covering your hair completely isn’t necessary, but you may want to tie it up or wear a hat to avoid unwanted attention.

Further south, things are much more relaxed. In Guinea, women in full burkas stroll past topless, breastfeeding women and as a foreigner you can generally wear short sleeves and mid-length skirts/shorts without causing a scandal. European women get a lot of attention in places like Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire and you can prepare to be immediately approached by young men wanting a photo with you or just a chat if you head out on your own. These interactions are generally very harmless and carried out in a charming rather than leery way. Shake hands, pose for a selfie or two and feel free to mention your husband, real our imaginary, if things get out of hand.

In my experience, Congo was the only place in sub-Saharan Africa where I began to feel uncomfortable going out on my own, but that depends on your own personal tolerance towards being called ‘baby’ or ‘mami’ every 10 seconds.

Photography

fullsizeoutput_582

Schoolkids in Porto-Novo, Benin

Despite its many charms, most of West Africa is still well off the tourist trail, and people aren’t used to having cameras pointed at them by strange people. In every country, you should always ask before taking someone’s photo, but be particularly cautious in Morocco, Mauritania and Guinea. In Morocco and Mauritania their aversion to photos is part of their religion. In Guinea, people simply don’t like being photographed, and even very wide street scenes might get you in a bit of trouble. The further south you get, people generally love having their pictures taken, especially kids and young men, but you should still ask as a courtesy. If you’re passing through a particularly poor village, be aware the locals may be extra averse to pictures.

Language

fullsizeoutput_3a0

Our mate Koffi in Togo who spoke English, and his pet monkey Angel, who did not

While it’s important to learn basic phrases in French and Portuguese before you venture down the West side of Africa, it’s by no means essential to be fluent, and you may actually find it occasionally works in your favour to be a bit ignorant. Interactions with corrupt officials are essentially a waiting game, so if all you can give them in return for repeated demands for cash is a ‘je ne parle pas Francais’ they tend to get sick of it pretty quickly. There’s also (understandably) not a lot of love towards the French in many former French colonies, so if you can distinguish yourself as a non-French person, you’ll often be treated better by the locals.

Time

fullsizeoutput_334

The slow lane, Cap Skirring, Senegal

The number one thing you need before tackling West Africa is time. Everything will take longer than you expect, from crossing borders, to getting visas issued, to exchanging money, to getting a SIM card for your phone (and then getting it topped up). One of the wonderful things about Africa is that no one’s in a rush, and one of the terrible things about Africa is that no one’s in a rush. You absolutely need to factor this into your travel planning, so it’s best to book as little in advance as possible. There’s nothing that will ruin your trip quite like the prospect of having to cross an entire country (or countries) in a week because of expiring visas or things which have been already booked and paid for. With the exception of our DRC and Angola visas, we applied for our visas in the country before (Côte d’Ivoire in Guinea, Cameroon in Nigeria etc) which is a much safer way of doing it than guessing where you might be several months in advance. Bring books, cards, or other forms of entertainment with you whenever you think you might have to wait for something, as it’ll likely take three times longer than seems reasonable. Even a little thing like getting a police report for stolen belongings could be a full one or two day process.

Medicine

One thing we wish we knew before we’d spend €300 on malaria pills was that you absolutely don’t need to take them for your whole journey. While European travel doctors might advise a pill a day, it’s bad for your body and it’s expensive to boot. Any African doctor will rightly tell you that all you need is enough for an emergency dose or two (12 pills – 4 a day for 3 days) if you start getting symptoms. It’s also by no means guaranteed that you’ll get malaria while in Africa, you could get hundreds of bites over several months (like we did) and still never contract it.

In saying that you should still take precautions so stock up on plenty of deet-heavy bug spray before you go. It’s expensive and hard to get once you’re in Africa.

For upset stomachs, we found Smecta (available at most African pharmacies) worked better than the Imodium we’d brought with us. It’s a chalky powder you mix in with water which tastes just as bad as it sounds, but it really works. It’s commonly used to treat kids but two sachets for adults will do the trick.

General help

  1. Download maps.me for all your offline navigational requirements.
  2. Use iOverlander for tips and exact locations for wild camping.
  3. Join West Africa Travellers! West Africa Travellers is a forum for overlanders created by Côte d’Ivoire based ex-pat Chloe Grant and it’s the place for the latest info on traveling through West Africa (it also includes Morocco and Angola). Join up on Facebook and WhatsApp and you’ll easily be able to get help or tips. Chloe herself seems to know everything there is to know about traveling through West Africa and is incredibly helpful, she also owns a newly opened hostel in Grand Bassam, Cote d’Ivoire called Elephants Nest. It wasn’t open when we were in CI but it’s probably/definitely awesome haha.

Any questions? Any info you’d like to see added to this blog? Flick us a message on WhatsApp: +353 0876203170, or to see more from our West African route, head to our Facebook, Instagram, or Youtube.

CHUR FROM RUGGED AS xxx

DSC_2053

 

Standard
Africa, Travel

What’s it like in: Senegal?

‘What’s it like’ is a mini-series of blogs answering the burning questions about African countries which don’t enjoy a huge amount of good publicity in the world of travel and media.

There’s just something about Senegal, it oozes charm and elegance. There’s a wonderfully diverse range of things to see, the food is fantastic and the people are impossibly good-looking. What’s not to love?

Where is it? 

Screen Shot 2019-06-09 at 5.48.08 PM

Senegal is a coastal West African country which shares its borders with Mauritania and Mali to the north and east, and Guinea and Guinea-Bissau to the south. That means it enjoys a bit of the dry heat from the desert in the north, and starts getting greener and steamier the further south you head.

What can I see there?

So much stuff! There’s a lot going on in Senegal, whether you’re a city person, prefer to get amongst untouched nature or sprawl on an empty beach, you’ll find a place you could happily linger for weeks on end.

fullsizeoutput_303

Saint Louis

In the former colonial capital of Saint Louis, the pastel paint of the old French-style buildings is peeling, and Saint Louis is ushering in a new era of vibrant African art and music. There are myriad shops selling locally made art, (I particularly loved the women-run La Liane l’atelier des femmes), and wildly painted pirogues cram the river’s edge. There’s an incredibly relaxed vibe in the UNESCO protected old town of Ile de N’Dar, and you can sit down to a delicious traditional Senegalese meal at a cozy restaurant for a ridiculously low price. Taking a lazy stroll down the lanes is a delightful and hassle-free experience, and on the wider streets you’ll dodge yellow taxis, horse drawn carts and the kaleidoscopic local buses called car rapides (rapidity not guaranteed). All things considered, Saint Louis has got to be one of the most atmospheric cities in West Africa.

fullsizeoutput_304

Saint Louis

fullsizeoutput_319

The Gambia River, Wassadou

The interior of Senegal can be unbearably hot and humid at certain times of year, but it’s time to embrace all the aesthetic problems that come with 38 degrees, because a trip to Wassadou is absolutely worth it. Look for hippos on the edge of The Gambia river, or spend an afternoon watching a 200-strong gang of baboons play in the afternoon sun. There’s a huge array of bird life in Senegal, so you’ve got a perfectly good reason to crack open a glistening La Gazelle beer, sit back and do nothing on the pretext of ‘important wildlife research.’

fullsizeoutput_31d

The Gambia River, Wassadou

fullsizeoutput_31f

Cap Skirring

Yes, the town of Cap Skirring is a smidge touristy (by West African standards, forget about battling crowds), but get yourself a kilometre or so away from the fishing boats and you’ve got miles of perfectly clean beach patrolled only by herds of cows who traverse the sand in their hundreds and always seem to know exactly where they’re going. Gaps in the pines provide perfect spaces for wild camping, so you can nod off with the sound of the waves just metres away.

fullsizeoutput_334

Cap Skirring

Just a few minutes drive away from Cap Skirring is the tiny village of Diembéring, which boasts a huge and majestic Kapok tree smack bang in the village square, welcoming locals and lively festivals.

fullsizeoutput_321

Diembéring

Are the people nice?

fullsizeoutput_32d

Boys in Diembéring

Yes! They’re also some of the sharpest dressers in West Africa, men strut the streets in traditional-style suits made from the brightest possible prints, while women rock tailor-made dresses and matching head wraps fitted to perfection. Aesthetics is everything in Senegal, they are sport obsessed, with football, basketball and traditional Senegalese wrestling being the most popular, and you can spot Adonis-like figures pounding the pavement or doing endless amounts of crunches on the beach at all hours of the day. A traditional wrestling match is absolutely worth seeing, boys as young as four square off against each other to see who’ll hit the dirt first, but it’s all in good fun and sportsmanship.

fullsizeoutput_324

Wrestling at the Diembéring Music Festival

The Senegalese, particularly men and boys, love having their photo taken, and if you walk around with a camera for a few minutes you’ll likely be asked to take a few lads pictures while they pose the house down. Women and girls are a bit more shy and might hang around curiously until you ask them yourself. The vast majority of  Senegalese are Muslim (around 92%), but it’s practised in a much more relaxed way than in Morocco or Mauritania, meaning there are still plenty of opportunities for beer and booty-shaking.

fullsizeoutput_30e

Schoolgirls in Saint Louis

Is the food good?

fullsizeoutput_338

Thieboudienne in Ziguinchor, 1000 cfa

Hell. Yes. Senegalese food is straight up delicious. Like a lot of African meals, sometimes it doesn’t look like much, but what you lose in pretentious plating is made up for with delicious flavours. Yassa poulet (braised chicken with lemony onion sauce), mafe (peanut based sauce with rice) and thieboudienne (fish with vegetables and tomato sauce) are all incredible and available at just about every restaurant and local chop shop for as little as 1000 cfa (NZD $2.60/1.50 euro). Other than the local beers, the best way to beat the heat is with a frozen bissap juice, small plastic sachets of icy purple liquid, made from hibiscus leaves, sugar and water. They taste better than just about any ice block on the market, and you can pick them up for next to nothing.

Is it safe?

fullsizeoutput_33b

Moody evening, Cassamance

 

Yes. Some governments still warn against travel to the Cassamance region, and while the gun mounts and soldiers are still there, the separatist conflict of the 80s seems very much in the past. Senegalese men are charmers, and will invariably try and chat/inquire about your marital status if you are travelling alone as a woman, but they are usually very respectful, and often want nothing more than a selfie with you. Your biggest risk is petty crime in Dakar. 

Full disclosure, our car was broken into while we spent the night in an auberge in Yoff, but judging by the loot that was stolen and the way they cleaned up after themselves, my guess was that it was carried out by a group of nervous and somewhat remorseful teenagers.

Where can I stay?

fullsizeoutput_313

River beach at Zebrabar

It’s far from the cheapest camping option in West Africa, but a stay at Zebrabar is an experience in its own right, and you don’t even need to leave the grounds to view pelicans floating on the river Senegal, or cheeky monkeys hovering in the trees. A half hour drive from the centre of Saint Louis, Zebrabar is on the edge of the Parc de la Langue de Barbarie, so you can emerge from your bungalow or tent and head straight to a hammock overlooking the water, or climb to the top of the viewing tower for a 360 degree sunset. For overlanders, it’s the perfect meeting point to hook-up with other travellers, and there’s even a mini-garage with a ramp where you can work on your vehicle. Further down country, it’s super easy to camp just about anywhere, and if you’re daring enough, you can drive almost all the way from Saint Louis to Dakar along the beach at low-tide, and pull over for an idyllic night of wild camping along the way.

fullsizeoutput_317

Beach en route from Saint Louis to Dakar

VERDICT: Should you go? Oui, Waaw and Ha (yes, yes and yes in French, Wolof and Mandinka)

PS. You can check out our visual diary from Senegal here.

fullsizeoutput_33d

Local cutie, Diembéring

Standard