"Transcontential Africa Tour on a Budget"

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Martin Hash
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"Transcontential Africa Tour on a Budget"

Post by Martin Hash » Thu Mar 03, 2011 6:18 am

Transitions Abroad.JPG
This article was written for a 2009 issue of "Transitions Abroad" magazine. I never received a complimentary copy but I was paid.

For those of you with medium camping experience, lots of patience, an urge to travel, available time, and a cast iron stomach, get ready to tour the whole coast of Africa in the back of a bush truck for ten months with two dozen other people for less than ten thousand US dollars. African Trails’ “Trans Africa – 43 weeks” http://www.africantrails.co.uk/trip_tra ... p=trans-af

The self-revelation and desire to start over that comes with the advent of middle age did not pass me by. I have never lived outside the U.S., I can speak no foreign language, and though I have visited every continent, I am far from being a seasoned traveler. After some aborted plans of extended cruises, out-of-country education, and unsuccessful overseas job applications, we settled on a year long backpacking tour around the perimeter of Africa. The last time my wife, Gwynne, and I rode across a continent on a bus tour with strangers, I was 22. I cannot remember much of the trip from so long ago but, according to my wife, I promised never to do “that” again - but I did…

Going to Africa did not simply spring to the forefront of our thoughts and preparations: it was a gradual process that occurred more to lack of derailing events than a conscious effort on our part. Frankly put, we ended up going to Africa because we did not do anything else. As the time approached, Gwynne and I were conscientious enough to browse outdoor stores and seek medical and dental attention, but we had little comprehension of what living out of a backpack in undeveloped, brutally harsh country would entail. To begin with, it is cold in the fall and winter in Africa. Also, the Sahara desert takes many days to cross and the amount of water per person per day is substantial.

Considering our naivety, we did remarkable well packing for most eventualities: a laptop, iPhone, video camera, writing and drawing supplies, and the accompanying support paraphernalia. Our only suspect item was a MIDI piano keyboard chosen to fit in my pack, but so bulky, complicated to set up, and inaccessible when sleeping on the ground that I would not bring that particular item again. Surprisingly, the complete 24-volume set of Tarzan books, though heavy and bulky, were totally satisfactory, but for personal rather than utilitarian reasons: you see, I have saved my prized Tarzan paperbacks from my childhood, always intending to read them and perhaps recapture that pre-adolescent wonder, but had never found the inclination. When somebody asked what inspired my choice of Africa as a tour destination, Tarzan immediately sprung to mind. Coupling that with the recent passing away of my boyhood Best Friend with whom I shared my love of Tarzan, the symbolic nature of using the various countries of Africa as the final resting place of my beloved library was clear.

But back to traveling with strangers… Before we started, I assumed that only two types of people could be gone traveling Africa for a year: those who through responsible living have completed the productive years of their lives such that no one depends on them and they depend on no one; and those who have not yet become responsible in their lives. This prediction was indeed true: our group consisted of three Empty Nester couples (2 lawyers and an MD), and 20 single people. However, I had expected our tour mates to be seasoned travelers, but was surprised because though both of the older couples were more experienced, the rest of our group were relative novices. It is as though a random sample of people with the time, money, and inclination were dropped into a truck for ten months. The predisposition for travel was not even a requirement – some people simply were not physically or emotionally equipped for the journey, though the very fact that they were on such an expedition was witness to an uncommon level of determination and fortitude.

Another surprise was the presence of so few Americans in our group of 28 – only 3. However, considering the animosity directed towards us, I think the lack of Americans is self-explanatory. Whenever we were stopped at a security post, of which there were plenty, when asked the nationality makeup of our group, every home country was mentioned: Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Norway, Ireland, Canada… Except U.S.A. Our group was actually embarrassed or afraid to admit that Americans were onboard.

Civility and courtesy are exploited in such a large company of people. If someone is not willing or able to say “no,” then whatever music, temperature, campsite, tour opportunity, etc., whatever the loudest and rudest contingent wanted, they got. My personal mission for this extended sojourn was to passively accept whatever fate had to offer, and except for a single lapse while I was ill with a fever, I kept to that intent, and practiced submissivity – my wife was proud of my forbearance… But we did listen to a heck of a lot of bad ‘80s music.

There is a certain advantage for shy people when traveling in a group when it comes to interacting with the locals. Where one white face may illicit a quick smile and a wave, a group of white faces attracts a party, and there is usually someone in the group who strikes up a rapport with the gathering throng. Also, a group of guys with a soccer ball will immediately attract a scrimmage with every teenager in the vicinity. These opportunities are common, free, and rewarding.

Whenever our Australian touring companions: Phil, and MD, and his nurse wife, Annie - both who have spent a lifetime providing medical services to indigenous peoples - went into a village, the mothers with young babies would gather around them. I could never tell how the villagers knew but they would dutifully hand their children over to Annie’s knowledgeable inspection. Afterwards, she would declare something like: “besides the prevalence of umbilical hernias, the babies of Bozo village are in good health.” Phil was fond of claiming he was “on vacation” but at least once a week he would announce “the clinic is open” and tended to impacted toenails, persistent infections, and irritated eyes; doling out pills and prescriptions from three fully-packed medical cases.

I am more circumspect with my friendliness, almost introverted, but occasionally found myself the focus of a gang of burgeoning-adolescent boys, probably attracted by my grey hair and beard, apparently a signature of a respected elder in many African cultures. At first the boys would chant “cadeau” (“gift” in French) or “usa” (after the U.S. dollar), and try to take my watch or hat or whatever I was holding, but if I simply shook my head and smiled, soon their avarice was replaced by curiosity and they attempted to have a conversation. Apparently, the most common way for them to identify an American is to say, “Barack Obama.” If you repeat that back then they assume you are from the U.S., and the Barack Obama fans are your friends. Whatever your political affiliation is at home, be thankful of President Obama’s appeal in Africa. I have seen taxis, buses, and even a boat named after him, and Obama posters and tapestries are available in the market at some of the most remote locations – there were “Obama” children’s school packs for sale in Timbuktu.

As example of the other extreme: while semi-lost in the Sahara desert, stuck in the sand, and dark enough for the stars to fill the sky, one of the ubiquitous truckloads of locals going back to their villages for the weekend came rumbling up to our campfire, headlights blazing. I walked out to greet the silhouettes I could see closest to me – as always, the most exuberant of the visitors were teenagers, who held out their hands with great smiles on their faces and said greetings in every language they knew. When the boy shaking my hand said “hello, how do you do?” I said, “very well, thank you,” and he asked, “where from?” I answered, “America.” Without changing expression, my new friend said, “Islam,” took his hand away and got back into the truck.

Africa is as poor, unclean, and chaotic as it is portrayed in the movies. I suppose every big city has a wealthy section where the four-star hotels will cater to western needs, but in our capacity as backpackers, toilet paper was a luxury. By the way, this is European-style backpacking where our worldly possessions are in a backpack but we travel by vehicle, staying in the occasional Youth hostel but mostly spending the night in tents. You and your cook team of four people shop once-a-week in the local markets for produce and meat enough for the whole group, and prepare dinner and breakfast over a hand-built fire. Lunch is mostly on your own. Meat is often goat, lamb, and camel -cooked separately so the vegetarians can skip that course. Every night, you and your tent partner constructs an easy-to-setup, spacious shelter from the wind, rain, and cold, and every morning you fold it up again for packing in the back of the truck. We also had the option to sleep in hostels in some cities, where privacy and semi-clean showers renewed our vigor, but most people choose to remain in their tents to save money. (Often our tents were more sanitary than the hostels.)

Our group ranged in age from 20 to a 62. Our driver had made the trek three times before and was well versed in the intricacies and inanities of visa procurement and border crossings. Some drive days were long but most were only a couple hours seated on padded benches. The main road along the coast of Western Africa is almost untraveled as compared to roads in America & Europe: for example, we met only a dozen motorcyclists at the border-crossing into Mauritania, and a few locals setting in a bar.

Cell phone coverage, and even 3G, is quite common. I was able to maintain email contact, and often had Internet access. (Make sure to add foreign travel to your cellular plan first.) Internet cafes are also very prevalent but free WiFi is rare. I had an iPhone, and used it for phone, pictures, Internet, and email. Having this little luxury kept us in contact with our loved ones, combined with using free video & image blogs and Facebook for keeping everyone up-to-date with our everyday doings.

Dr. Martin D. Hash, Esq.

Dr. Hash, a scientist and attorney, and his wife, a nurse, and their iPhone are on the road in Africa, reading Tarzan, and thoroughly enjoying themselves.
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