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

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*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

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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

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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

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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!

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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Mechanicing at Zebrabar

To read more about stunning Senegal, click here.

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

Guinea

 

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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!

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The Range Rover Doctor team, Lagos

Cameroon

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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Africa, Travel

What’s it like in: Togo?

‘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.

Teeny-tiny Togo is often overlooked because of it’s size, but there’s plenty to do even along the wafer-thin sliver of coastline. The beaches are often postcard-perfect, the mountains serene and the Rasta-infused culture is one of love and laughter.

Where is it?

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Togo’s location between Benin and English-speaking Ghana means the locals tend to speak more English than in most Francophone countries. Burkina-Faso is the northern border country, but the rise of terrorism in Burkina, which has recently leaked into Benin, may mean you’ll want to stick to the south.

What can I do there?

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Coco Beach, Lomé

Relax. The Togolese are never in a rush, reggae is a way of life, and ganja, combined with a tasty and potent Awooyo beer, (6.2%!) is the relaxant of choice, so find a beach chair and kick back. Lomé may well be the most relaxed capital city in West Africa, and there are plenty of resorts with private beaches where you’re guaranteed a clean spot to swim and sunbathe. Sunday is the big party day, and huge family groups set up on the beach with their own food, drink and speakers. It’s the perfect way to hear a range of West African music without even leaving your seat, and if you brush up on your French or Ewe you may well be invited to join.

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Mountains of Kpalimé

Kpalimé is the pride of many Togolese, the mountain-ringed city has plenty of character, with art shops, a 1913 German church, a strong rasta culture and gorgeous waterfalls just a short moto-taxi away. A drive or hike through the winding mountain roads and tiny villages is the perfect way to spend an afternoon. 

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Togoville

Further to the east, Togoville is the historic centre of Togo, and you can drive or take a pirogue across Lac Togo to the atmospheric town. Once, there, take a guided wander around the village, bathing in the light of the stained glass windows at the 100-year-old Catholic Church, and learn about voodoo in the area.

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Lion’s head, Akodessewa Fetish Market, Lomé

N.B. Curiosity may lead you the Akodessewa Fetish Market in Lomé, but it’s worth considering the implications before you go. Voodoo is a huge part of the culture in Togo, and many of the animal parts on display are used by locals hoping to fix anything from a stomach ache to fertility problems. The thing is, many of the dead animals on display are critically endangered (think the bodies of pangolins, baby cheetahs, and the heads and feet of lions). Some news articles about the market, and indeed the stallholders themselves will have you believe the critters on display all died of natural causes, but common sense (and a bit of persistent questioning), soon reveals that this is not the case. It costs to visit the market with a guide and take pictures, and it’s believed some stallholders seek out items with more shock value, to attract foreigners and their cameras. Of course Western tourists are in absolutely no position to question the importance of animal sacrifices to this ancient and important religion, but to avoid a case of the traveler guilts, it’s worth considering whether, as a non-believer, you’re willing to contribute to the practice financially.

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Baby cheetahs, Akodessewa Fetish Market, Lomé

Are the people nice?

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Koffi and Angel

Super duper nice. The Togolese love cracking jokes and taking it easy, so even if you don’t  speak French, you’ll make friends quickly. People practise Christianity, Islam and voodoo, sometimes intermingled and many Togolese will be able to tell you about the voodoo vaccinations (small incisions rubbed with animal bone powder) they received as kids. Family is important in Togo, so if you make friends with one person you may well be invited to the family home to meet wives, brothers and sisters, a guaranteed fun and potentially raucous experience. Hand shakes are the same as in Ghana, with a hearty hand clap and finger snap.

Is the food good?

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Lunch at Chez Vivien

Not too bad. Togolese cuisine isn’t the most famous fare in West Africa, but there are plenty of perfectly tasty starch staples like fufu (cassava or yam dough) and ablo (cornmeal bread) available, as well as delicious poulet braise, chicken grilled right on the street-side. The Ivorian dishes attiéké and aloco (granulated cassava and fried plantain) are also popular and delicious with fish. Djekoume is a classic Togolese dish, a polenta like cornmeal cake mixed with tomato and red palm oil. Most of the beach resorts are catering to French expats and offer a fairly uninspiring menu that’s almost entirely European-influenced. To get a real deal Togolese meal, your best bet is to hope you’re invited home to dine with a local. At our friend Vivien’s place we feasted on small fried fish, huge roasted tuna, rice and fufu, delicious!

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Lunch with Kevin, Vivien and Koffi

Is it safe?

Yes. We felt totally safe walking around Lomé at all hours of the day and night, and you’re highly unlikely to come into trouble in villages and regional areas. Police and military are generally helpful and kind. As long as you stay away from the Burkina border, you’ll be 100% sweet as.

Where can I stay?

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Chez Antoine Coco Beach

Of all the places we stayed in West Africa, Chez Antoine Coco Beach was the hardest to leave (and that was after two weeks), think coconut palms, crashing waves and a super relaxed vibe all for the absurdly low price of 1500cfa pp/pn ($3.90/2.30 euro) for camping. The only potential downside is that you might arrive and find yourself still parked up there 17 years later. In the city of Lomé, Hotel Le Galion offers the best value rooms in the capital with a sophisticated restaurant downstairs.

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Our little pal Eurish, Coco Beach

VERDICT: Should you go? Absolutely. ONE LOVE JAH RESPECT.

PS. You can check out our visual diary from Togo and Benin here.

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