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Thursday, 23 August 2012

Belgium, the UK and Stage 1 Summary


Belgium

Day 1 – 19/7/12
The rain continued as we drove into Belgium. Our primary purpose in travelling here was to meet David & Julia, who we had met in CAR and travelled with for a couple of days. www.driveagainstmalaria.org. We got to their home just outside Antwerp in the early afternoon. We chatted, had a few beers etc for the remainder of the day.

Avril driving; 142 km; 4 hrs; N 490 52’ 55.2’’ E 0040 46’ 32.1’’

Day 2 – 20/7/12
Julia prepared a big brunch and we spent most of the day chatting. We went for a drive to look at a local chateau (and have a beer) and in the evening celebrated Julia’s birthday with some of their friends at a local restaurant.

Day 3 – 21/7/12
After another delicious brunch, Dave drove us into Antwerp to have a look at the old city. There is a nice pedestrian area along the river and near the cathedral. We stopped at a well- known restaurant/bar for a beer (has lots of religious and other statues inside) – and were treated quite poorly. We heard a number of people complaining about the service - we ordered food which was not delivered. We had experienced poor service at the restaurant the night before, so it may be an Antwerp thing to be off hand with tourists.  Still, the main thing was the company and the beer was cold. Eventually we went to a Thai restaurant (run by Hong Kong folks) for a great feed and decent service.

Day 4 – 22/7/12
We drove to Bruges and spent a wonderful day with Olivier and Chantal friends from work times. We began with some snacks at their home and a visit to Olivier’s amazing scooter collection. We then drove to the centre of Bruges and were treated to the local delicacy of mussels – delicious! And the service was 1st class. We then walked around the historic centre of Bruges and ended with a beer/pancake (you can guess who had what).

Day 5 – 23/7/12
After a sad farewell to Dave & Julia (and we will hold them to their promise to visit us in Oz) we drove to Dunkirk to get the ferry to the UK.

Belgium Summary
We enjoyed visiting friends and relaxing in Belgium.
 

UK
23/7/12
We arrived safely at Steve & Ing’s in north London.
Ray driving; 356 km; 8 hrs (including ferry crossing); N 520 36’ 54.8’’ W 0000 25’ 09.0’’

 London turned on a fantastic event with the Olympics. Our son was working here when the Olympic tickets went on sale - we applied for lots and were lucky enough to get lots. Also, we bought extra tickets from the official internet site, thanks Marie.

We attended a number of sessions at the London 2012 Olympics. The Brits absolutely earned Gold for their performance. The main venue was outstanding and the individual stadiums great. The transport system has held up well with the record number of passengers – oh that Melbourne could have such service even at normal times.

The most impressive aspect was the people running the event and the Londoners everywhere. They were all super friendly and helpful. The event management was amazing, even with full airport security; we never had to wait more than a couple of minutes to get into grounds. In general this was run by the military, who always had a bit of a joke etc – unlike the airport security.

10/10 to the Brits.

 After the Olympics we took the opportunity to visit some “old” friends. Unfortunately, time did not permit us to see everyone we wanted to see. We did have a wonderful time at Kate and Jason’s wedding! The good news is that we will be back to the UK again.

We also set about preparing for the return trip to Africa. We had the vehicle serviced at Overland Cruisers, a specialist Overland and Landcruiser garage in Herefordshire. The good news was that generally the vehicle is in good nick. They confirmed that the repair done in Morocco is OK and fixed up all the little items we had let go for a few months.

We stocked up the vehicle with dry food. However, we think we will not need as many provisions on the north and east sides of Africa.

Stage One Summary

Apologies to those who have seen this before.
With our arrival in London, stage one of our African odyssey is now over.

Vital statistics include:

·         More than 51,000 km
·         30 countries. We had initially intended to try and visit every country in Africa, but this took an early hit. We decided it was too hard to get visas for Equatorial Guinea, there was nothing really to see there and apparently the authorities are not all that welcoming to Overlanders. We gave Nigeria a miss as we wanted to drive around Lake Chad. Also, there were security issues there. There was a coup in Guinea Bissau just before we were due to go there and they shut the borders.
·         We left Australia on the 14th August 2011 and went via Singapore to RSA. We arrived in London on 23rd July 2012.

The trip has been totally awesome. We would prefer not to pick highlights etc, but if forced to, it would be the people – the friendships, interest in our trip, helping hands and generosity have been stunning.

·         This started with our wonderful relations in Cape Town and Pretoria
·         Continued with our friends Steve & Ing in Namibia.
·         Koos & Jose were total professionals and wonderful leaders of the trip in Angola. Our fellow travelers there were tremendous and we hope to visit them when we return to RSA. Many thanks to the police and officials in Angola, who despite their reputation, proved super helpful. Giving us a visa extension in 3 hrs (and rejecting our offer of money for all the effort), the police at the Congo border who assisted us in getting our carnet stamped.
·         M. Michael the great and generous mechanic in DRC/Kinshasa. Bruno Baert, who provided us advice prior to arrival and a backstop when we had our accident and Mary at the Protestant mission, a real friend.
·         In ROC, the folks at African Safaris & Christelle at Odzala NP. Tomo Nishihara for helping with advice and directions. Thomas and the staff at NNNP –seeing the gorillas is a once in a lifetime experience.  Peter & his group were great travelling companions in NNNP. It was the 1st time in a while we had someone other than each other to talk to – so, hopefully their ears recovered.
·         We met the wonderful/fantastic Didier in Gabon and he assisted with advice for the rest of our trip. Thanks to David and the folks at BHPB. Thanks also to the Director of the Mayumba NP who sorted out the mess and got us into the NP where we saw the leatherback turtles nesting - way up there in the wildlife highlights of the trip. Along the way, the Catholic mission in Mouila for letting us stay and the charming young students there. Also to the people who stopped what they were doing in many towns to show us the way.
·         In Cameroon the WWF folks (Mark & Bridgette) helped with fellowship and advice. Big thanks to all the people in Nth Cameroon who assisted with flat tyres, bits falling off the vehicle and repairs. Big thanks to Fr Patrick who welcomed us into his home in Batouri and Yaoundé and to Sr Susan and Sr Frieda for food, beer and fellowship.  And of course our kids who made a huge effort to come all the way from Oz for Christmas and New Year.
·         Tim and Anne and the crew at the Swedish Baptist Mission (no Swedes and no Baptists!) in CAR who looked after us royally. In CAR we met David and Julia from ‘driveagainstmalaria’, truly inspirational people. We stayed with them for a few days in Belgium.
·         Chad was one of the biggest surprises of the trip and we can thoroughly recommend a trip to Eneddi Deserti and the fantastic Zakouma NP. Many thanks to Lorna at Zakouma for guiding us to Chad and settling our fears and to Jean and the staff for looking after us whilst there. Do yourself a favor and go to Zakouma!! Big thanks to the Tunisian civil engineers who towed us into Mongo and the Catholic mission. Denis made sure we had a comfortable bed and looked after us in N’djamena and provided us with advice along the way. Many thanks.  All along the way CFAO (responsible for Toyota in most of west Africa) assisted. In N’djamena Pierre was super helpful. He looked after our vehicle whilst we went to Ennedi , the mechanics took delight in servicing the vehicle etc. They also put us in contact with folks in Niger (including the Col responsible for security).
·         In Niger it was fantastic to be welcomed by Tim & Barbie, who also provided us with contacts and advice along the way. And to the Col in the Niger army (whose details went with Rays phone issues!) who contacted us almost daily to ensure we were OK.
·         All the people of Burkina Faso, a really cheerful lot. In particular the customs official who sorted out our carnet after we were stopped at the border..
·         Our visit to Mali was constrained due to the security situation in the north. There was a military coup ~ the week after we left.
·         In Benin, the policeman we paid our one and only bribe to. What a charming fellow who also paid to have a taxi take us to our accommodation. The policeman in Cotonau who stopped directing traffic to take us to the French embassy. The Ivory Coast consulate staff who seemed to fill in the forms for us and may have had to bend some rules to get us a quick visa. 
·         In Togo, the Islamic teacher, who, through a communication mess up, took us all the way to the Ghana border (turned out he was going nowhere near there!!).
·         In Ghana the police who gave Avril bananas at the border. Thanks to Sunil, Hannah and Kate for including us in their travel plans. So nice to see friends. Great to meet some more overlanders: Luke & Shelly and Jan & Marisca.
·         In Ivory Coast, again Didier. In Yamoussoukro, Charles from the UN who went out of his way to sort out a communication mess with the Catholic mission and find us alternative accommodation
·         Liberia, many thanks to the folks at the BHPB compound in Monrovia. Great luxury for a few days and wonderful to meet such friendly people.
·         We were not long in Sierra Leone, but it was relaxing to chat in English to the volunteers camping at the beach where we stayed. It restores your faith in the future to see the younger folks out trying to help.
·         Guinea was a lot easier than we were led to believe. It has a lot of green on the Michelin map
·         In Senegal we were welcomed by Pierre, Didier’s best mate. Patrice and Picky welcomed us into their home for 3 days of relaxation.
·         In Gambia the chap from the Malik, who worked to get us some a/c accommodation for the night.  Jen & Laura from the Horse and Donkey refuge. Wow, all that heat and no fridge! Thanks for the bed.
·         The officials (once you left the south) of Mauritania. They were always helpful and did not insist on silly registration etc. General people in the street who went out of their way to show us where things were.
·         In Morocco, well it is really very similar to Europe. Thanks to Ali, who stopped to give us his business card and then repaired our vehicle.
·         Spain – well you know our thoughts!
·         France, people everywhere. Thanks to Pierre and Coco for treating us like kings/queens!  Also Nicolas for showing us Champagne.

 Of course the biggest thanks go to The Home Office who look after all the annoying paper work and administrative drudgery.
And of course to Peter M - without his efforts, most of this would have been much more difficult.

 
Route

We are reasonably happy with the route and timing we took. We seemed to have seen most of the highlights etc. We were a bit worried about the wet season as we went north and maybe rushed a bit from Ghana to Senegal.

We maybe should have left RSA/southern Africa a week or so earlier and missed all the wet season in the Congos. In hindsight, we spent way too long in southern Cameroon. It would have been better for the kids to join us in Chad rather than Cameroon (which from a tourist perspective was disappointing).  We would have had a better time with the kids and had more time further north.

It seems from the issues other travelers have had, south to north is easier from an officialdom perspective than north to south.

The big issue is the lack of reliable information – guide books are generally hopelessly out of date. Worse still are the maps: German Reise know-how paper maps, Michelin maps, other French Maps etc. All these maps are basically useless. On GPS we have T4A and Garmap (Garmin RSA affiliate), generally these have been OK. When confronted with a conflict between T4A and Garmap, we tend to believe T4A.

Bribery.

We did not start out with any plan not to pay bribes, rather to resist to a sensible point. By our standards we paid one bribe to a policeman in Benin (we were 100% in the wrong, it was late in the day and we did not want the hassle of messing around for a few hours). The experience was so nice; we would do it again – for Avril, just to gaze upon the handsome officer!

Ray had money grabbed from his hand by the police in DRC – but this does not count. We had to pay the officer who took our statements after the crash $ 20, but apparently this is standard practice. Note: all requests for a bribe start at $ 250 in DRC!

We did give the immigration police in Togo a can of coke to rush us through.

Normally we would plead ignorance, make them repeat the request e.g. we could not hear, speak French etc at which point the request normally fades. Entering Burkina Faso from Mali we sat for 3 hours refusing to pay a charge until the manager gave way - but, only because they annoyed us.

Best examples: the look on the Cameroon officer’s face when he said he needed money for food and Ray took him some bread. But even better, in Senegal, Ray was in the passenger seat talking on the phone. The police officer stopped us and came to the window and with full indignation said “ you were talking on the phone”. Ray said” yeah, but look where the steering wheel is”! Absolute devastation on the officers face. He then tried to say Avril was speeding, but somehow Ray found a 35 km/hr number on the GPS. We all knew it was wrong, but what could he say?? BTW, she was speeding!!

 Health

We were fortunate to only have one incident of “food poisoning” during our trip (from a freshly killed goat left out in the sun all day in Chad). This maybe because we were taking doxycycline for malaria for much of the trip and being an anti-biotic, a side benefit was that it killed other nasties.

The water filters held up well and we were fastidious about drinking water. We also were fortunate to be able to shower most days. We were probably less fussy about hand washing during the day, but survived anyway.

Ray did get some vertigo for a while, but hopefully this has cleared up again.

Accommodation

The nightly stops are recorded in our blog. We were probably a bit more cautious than most other overlanders who prefer to “wild camp”. Mostly we found places with facilities to shower – from a brothel (?) in Angola to luxury camping in Marrakech.  However, we did wild camp quite often and enjoyed the experience

 Personal Security:

We tried to avoid places where white tourists are targeted, but to use common sense and up to date information. Probably DRC was our worst experience.

We did not go to:
·         Nigeria; others have driven through the north of Nigeria and had no issues
·         Nth Niger. You can go to Agadez but need a full escort to go to the Air Mountains. We saw no need to see another desert town but would have loved to have seen the mountains, however we had tyre issues at this time plus the $$ of course. Next time.
·         the road out of Niger to Gao (we drove 60% of the way up it),
·         Nth Mali including Timbuktu;
·         Guinea Bissau and
·         Sth Senegal.

 Theft
We had 2 towels stolen when we left them out to dry in Angola.
Our camera was stolen by a game ranger who we had allowed to ride in the cab in CAR
A collapsible shovel and wheel brace was stolen in the market in N’Djamena
Don’t mention Spain.

So, not too much. Only the camera with the pictures of Dzanga Bai hurts. Maybe this was because we had good systems in place and were careful, or maybe because most folks are fundamentally honest.

There were a number of occasions when there was opportunity and nothing went missing and on at least one occasion, a stolen item was returned.

 

Vehicle
The vehicle has held up reasonably well. Though, we were disappointed when the rear axle housing cracked.

·         Suspension: the old man emu suspension has held up very well, particularly with the extra stress placed on them with the failure of the Firestone air bags. The Firestone airbags installed by OppositeLock at Mile End in Adelaide failed very early in the trip. We think this contributed massively to the ongoing brakes and tyre issues we have had. In Morocco we had to have some serious work done to fix cracks in the rear axle housing.

·         Tyres have been an ongoing hassle. Our original BFGoodrich 4x4, LT tyres failed after a short time in Angola. From then on we could not buy new tyres and the 2nd hand car tyres were not really to the task (they do not have the wall strength necessary to support our heavy vehicle). The Dunlop tyres held up very well, until the steel was showing through the rubber.

·         Brakes; we have used 4 sets of rear brake pads. Maybe due to the weight, using brakes originally designed for 3 tonnes to stop 4 tonnes.

·         ARB Diff Lockers; both front and rear. Actually, we hardly used these. Maybe it is our driving technique, but even when both the front & back are locked, the power still goes to the end of least resistance and so you still get some wheel spin.

·         Diff and gear box breather extensions seemed to have worked well

·         The vehicle winch. Peter is correct, we have not used it in anger

·         Vehicle electrics: Ctek D250S battery isolator and charger. 2nd (Optima) battery. Hella driving lights. No issues with any of these.

·         Kenwood GPS and general entertainment system, a big disappointment. It is very temperamental and often disconnects the iPod.

·         Rear parking sensors do not like the mist and wet and so give a false reading under these conditions

·         Reversing camera works well. It has suffered from a loose connection from time to time.

·         Tyredog tyre monitoring system worked well until recently. One of the sensors started to massively under read the pressure. Tyredog has said they will send a replacement & new batteries. Thanks very much. .

·         Bonnet & head light protectors and side window windshields all well worth while. They have a few chips, but have protected the lights.

·         Internal roof console is good, but we installed way too many 12 V cigarette lighter points. 2 would have been plenty.

·         Seat covers are essential but are now very dirty

·         Window tinting we should have been darker. 

·          150 litre long-range fuel tank is really not needed. The standard 90 + 90 would be plenty and we met some folks who did most of this trip with just 90 l and no jerry cans. The trick is to ask around to find the people who have fuel. Often it is not obvious. The installation of the 150 l tank may have been faulty and caused the many fuel leaks we had. The mechanics in Guinea where we had the final (we hope) leak said that the return line was pinched. This may have caused back pressure and hence the leak

·         The fridge in the front cabin is a real winner. However, it seems to work best when there are some frozen items in it. Fortunately, we have a freezer in the other fridge.

·         ARB roof rack is great

·         Custom steel tray and compartment has held up very well. It protected us in the DRC crash and when we slipped in the mud in Gabon, so that is great. However, it is probably massively heavy and has contributed to the tyre and suspension issues. The theft issue has not been as big as we imagined. We could probably cut out a few 100 kgs by reducing this aspect. The caches that hold the under tray draw were a weak point and have all failed. We did a modification on this in Morocco.

·         Honda generator has been used in anger for the accommodation (when we had earthing issues after the DRC crash) but has not been needed for the vehicle,

·         The water treatment system worked well. We needed to replace the coarse 1 ɥ filter a couple of times and the carbon/silver filter once. We also replaced the Seagull filter in London.

·          4 x underslung tool boxes, we lost one on the DRC crash. The 2 permanently wired ARB compressors in one of the tool boxes have been OK, but this may not be the best configuration. The diff lockers squirt oil into the compartment when engaged and this gives an oily environment.   

·         Trayon camping unit has overall been good. We have been fortunate that the weather has only forced us to spend time in the unit on 2 or 3 occasions. We spend most of the time outside.

Accommodation: Ctek M300 battery charger, 1,000 W inverter, marine quality circuit breaker panel, 120 amp hr deep cycle battery have worked well. The only issue was the earthing connection after the DRC crash.

The additional hold down points we installed have been successful. The unit has not moved substantially on the tray.

We have not really used the accommodation unit sound system (iPod, radio, speakers etc)

Secure compartment with safe has worked

The canvas has not held up all that well and remains very hard to pin down when it is wet

The water storage system is not user friendly at all. The inlet is way too small and hard to put a hose in. The outlet is plastic and the design means it needs to be bent every time it is used and so it fails.

The chemical toilet has yet to be commissioned!

·         Solar panels, unfortunately, we seemed to have purchased panels that need direct sunlight to perform well. We should have researched this a bit better before we started. 

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