Friday, December 22, 2023

Travel and Trauma: 2023 in Review


Leysin, Switzerland

As I sit here in my friend Julie-Ann’s apartment, looking out at a drab, rainy day, it doesn’t look or seem Christmas-like. I always think back to my childhood Christmases in Thunder Bay in the 1970s and 1980s, which were (in my recollection anyway) always white. Over my decades of travel, I have had a number of Christmases in the tropics or in the Southern Hemisphere which were green, but I love snow and an attractive white covering on the ground, and so to be in a Northern Hemisphere ski resort on December 22 and see green grass and grey drizzle coming down depresses the spirits. Nevertheless, even if the surroundings don’t look like it, it’s a few days before Christmas and time for my end-of-year summary of 2023, with its ups and downs, its travel and its landmarks.

The year began for Terri and me at Bullbush Camp in Uganda, camped on a rapidly-eroding riverbank that had us worried about waking up very wet. We spent most of January exploring Uganda, visiting a number of national parks in search of new animals and birds. Highlights included visiting wild chimps in the Kyambura Gorge in Queen Elizabeth Park, walking in the Ruwenzori Mountains (the fabled Mountains of the Moon), camping amidst the playful monkeys of Lake Nkuruba, and going on safari in fabulous Kidepo Valley National Park in the far north of the country. Uganda was definitely our favourite country and the major highlight of our time in East Africa in 2022-23.

We then retreated to The Haven, a legendary overlanders’ spot outside Jinja, to contemplate our next moves. We had wanted to drive into Kenya and then on through Ethiopia and Sudan to Egypt, but Ethiopia’s new and ridiculous customs rules (which would have required us putting down a deposit of tens of thousands of dollars at the border to guarantee that we wouldn’t sell Stanley inside the country) put the kibosh on that plan. We toyed with the idea of paying an Ethiopian tour agency US$ 1200 to arrange a “tour” of the country to get around the problem, but after due consideration, we thought that it left us too vulnerable and opted against that plan. (This was just as well, as we might well have been in Sudan in April when the civil war kicked off, which would have been the end of our trip, the end of Stanley, and possibly the end of us.) Instead we decided to drive around Kenya and then retreat south to Zambia to store Stanley for a few months.

We had a limited time budget left for Kenya, so we just hit a few highlights of this intriguing country. We started with a white-knuckle drive (with Terri at the wheel) high up Mt. Elgon, one of the highest peaks in the country, for a day of hiking in the Afro-Montane heathland with its distinctive lobelia and giant groundsel plants. We braved the bandit-infested road north of Kitale to reach Lake Turkana, a place famous for its remains of early hominins and for its unruly local herders. I had wanted to visit there for decades, so I really enjoyed our time camped beside the unearthly blue of the lake. We retreated south, then across to wonderful Ol Pejeta Conservancy and its rhinos (including the last two northern white rhinos in existence). From there it was time to begin the retreat south, via lovely Kichaka Camp and into Tanzania.

We sprinted through Tanzania, stopping to visit our Leysin friend Nathalie in Arusha, hike in the Usumbara Mountains and then spend a few days on Zanzibar. In Dar Es Salaam I wallowed in nostalgia at the Sno-Cream ice cream parlour I loved 41 years before, and then we drove to Morogoro, where my family lived for two years in 1981-2. It was my first time back since then, but I still remembered the way to our old house, where we were allowed to look around by the professor living there now. Morogoro had transformed over the past four decades, growing six-fold in population, with houses sprawling far up the forested Uluguru Mountains behind our old house. It was fun to see the places of a formative period in my youth that probably ignited the desire to travel that has consumed my life since then.

From Morogoro, we took six long days of grinding slowly through convoys of heavily-laden trucks to reach Livingstone, Zambia. It was unrewarding, tedious travel, but at least we arrived safely, unlike the hundreds of crashed vehicles that littered the roadside all the way. We parked Stanley at our old faithful home-away-from-home, the Tabonina Guest House, and flew away to wait out the rainy season elsewhere.

I flew to Canada to visit my mother, who had just moved into an assisted-living facility in Ottawa after 18 months of living at my sister’s place in Leysin, Switzerland. She had declined visibly in the eight months since I had last seen her in Leysin, with her cognitive decline, attributed to vascular dementia, evident. She hated living in the assisted living place, surrounded as she was by people in a far more advanced state of dementia who provided her with an unwelcome vision of her future. My brother Evan was visiting her faithfully at her facility, but it wasn’t enough to counteract the depressing reality of her reduced mobility, her confusion and the inevitability of further inexorable decline. She had decided to apply for the MAID (Medical Assistance In Dying) program, and while I was there we had the first telephone consultations to start the application process. It was heart-breaking to see my mother in such distress, and I fully supported her decision to seek a dignified way out of an untenable position.

I paid a visit to Toronto for a few days to visit a number of friends there; Toronto is the sort of city that attracts people from all over Canada for work, and a number of friends from high school and university have ended up there. After a packed social schedule, I flew up to my hometown of Thunder Bay for my first visit since my father’s death six years previously. It was another nostalgic visit, seeing old friends for the first time in years, and visiting my father’s grave for the first time since the funeral. Late March was a fun time for outdoor activities in Thunder Bay, and I got out cross-country and downhill skiing. It was a poor time for visiting a grave, as the small headstone is level with the ground and hence under a layer of melting snow, covered with mud once I had shoveled it out. I left Thunder Bay in a pensive mood, wondering when I would return to a town that had been my pole of stability for decades in my peripatetic existence.

From Thunder Bay I flew to Bali, where two months of intensive rest and relaxation awaited. With Thunder Bay and Ottawa no longer really “home”, Bali is now where I consider my home to be, although I don’t actually spend that much time there. Terri and I took advantage of the perfect weather to swim, snorkel, dive, kayak, trek and cycle, and the two months passed in a flash. Before I knew it, we were on an airplane again, bound for Cape Town.

Terri flew directly to Livingstone from there, but my plans had changed. I had a sad duty to perform first, so I jumped onto a plane bound for Ottawa, where my mother’s application for MAID had been accepted and she had chosen the date of June 9th to end a life that had become intolerable to her. My sisters and I gathered at my brother’s apartment for a couple of last days with my mother, celebrating her 82 years. Our childhood friends Hans and Jiska, along with my cousin Chris, joined us, and we visited my mother’s sister who was declining in a nearby nursing home for a sisterly farewell. On the appointed day we four children gathered in my mother’s room and held her hand while the MAID doctor administered the drugs that ended her suffering. It was almost unendurably sad for us survivors, but it was the way my mother wanted to go, with dignity. We stayed on for a few days in Ottawa, talking things over, having a wake and generally trying to process what had just happened; I will always be grateful to Hans and Jiska for their support in a difficult time. I got onto a plane for Livingstone in a very subdued mood.

Our time in Livingstone was a flurry of activity, getting Stanley in shape for a long road trip and working on projects at the Olive Tree Learning Centre, the community elementary school that has been Terri’s focus since 2007. We saw new construction projects get underway, new textbooks and shoes get delivered and an air of comparative calm envelop the school. We also had a chance meeting with a member of the Tony Robbins organization which resulted in a completely unexpected fundraising appeal and substantial donation to the school.

On June 28th we loaded up Stanley and drove west into Namibia to begin our long drive up the west coast of Africa. It began well, with a fun time visiting old haunts in Namibia (Ngepi Camp and Etosha National Park) followed by a month in Angola, which ended up being our favourite new country of the entire West Coast trip. We loved the Namib Desert in the southwest, the dramatic escarpments near Lubango, the stark cliffs of the Atlantic Coast, the central highlands around Morro de Moco, and the magnificent Calendula Falls. We spent days in Luanda collecting visas for upcoming countries, and more days waiting for Godot (or for the ferry to Cabinda, which was much the same thing) in the dismal oil port of Soyo.

When we finally got to Cabinda, the northern bit of Angola, an oil-producing enclave nestled north of the mouth of the Congo River next to DRC and the Republic of Congo, it was time to start moving more quickly. We had been warned to be out of Gabon before the elections on August 26, and it was already August 5th, with two full countries to go before the deadline. The Republic of Congo was enjoyable, as we spent a couple of days at the Dimonika Biosphere Reserve and a couple more at the Lesio-Louna Wildlife Reserve. Lesio-Louna was particularly memorable as we visited some lowland gorillas being rehabilitated for life in the wild after years in captivity, either as pets or as zoo inmates. The roads in the Republic of Congo were also in spectacular shape, with most of the country being traversed by a four-lane divided highway almost devoid of traffic.

Gabon was a country of extremes. We started off camping in the spectacular badlands of the Red Canyon near Lekoni. From there we continued to the wildlife reserve of Lekedi Park, where we were lucky to see a troop of habituated wild mandrills, an animal that is very hard to see in the wild, and whose colours make it look like a cartoon character. From here we drove west towards Lope National Park, and the travelling became a lot harder.

The road through the centre of Gabon was (and is) in dreadful shape. It’s a dirt track full of projecting cobbles and boulders that bashed Stanley’s undercarriage without mercy. Terri drove skillfully, but there was no escaping the relentless back-and-forth swaying and solid impacts, and Stanley’s entire structure creaked and groaned. We managed to make 100 hard-won kilometres before camping in an old road-construction site in the middle of a vast rainforest full of tiny stingless bees, monkeys and colourful birds. The next day we jolted a further 100 dreadful kilometres, with the noises coming from the car becoming steadily more alarming, until, just outside the village of Lope, we heard a terrible crack and discovered that we had suffered every overlander’s worst nightmare: a broken chassis. We limped into town, found a welder and had the crack welded, crossing our fingers that it would hold.

It didn’t. After a slightly underwhelming safari the next day through Lope National Park, we drove off the following morning towards Libreville. We barely made it 30 kilometres before more dramatic sound effects notified us that we had cracked the other side of the chassis. We settled in at a train station and tried to summon the welder over the non-existent phone network. We ended up staying there for three days, with me hitchhiking back and forth to Lope, before we finally got the car moving again. We were running out of time, so we were relieved when we made the final 70 bumpy kilometres to the tarmac. After a beautiful campsite beside the Ogoue River, we set off to the Cameroonian border, making it with a day to spare.

Our hurry to leave Gabon was vindicated when the country sealed its borders for three days during and after the election, trapping several overlanders within the country. The borders re-opened for a day before the army staged a coup d’etat and the borders were re-sealed. When the new military junta opened the borders again, they promptly arrested the first few groups of overlanders who crossed into the country, holding them almost incommunicado for over a week. We were glad to have escaped this fate!

In Cameroon we spent almost a week getting Stanley repaired at Didier’s Garage, a legendary institution among West Coast overlanders. We got various problems resolved and met several other groups of overlanders: Cor and Grietje, Bruno (all three were among those detained in Gabon the following week) and Mark and Benjamin, who would accompany us through Nigeria, saving us numerous times. We drove out of Yaounde keen to get to the infamous Banyo-Nguroje “crossing”, the only practicable route into Nigeria for overlanders, as a low-level civil war further south in Cameroon has seen the main road closed to foreign tourists, while Boko Haram makes the far northern route too risky. The drive north was pleasant, if not spectacular, with the Ekom-Nkam waterfalls and the peaceful Koutaba Monastery the highlights. The road deteriorated steadily as we approached the town of Banyo, and we rendezvoused with Benjamin and Mark at a quarry just to the south of town.

The driving from this point on became extremely difficult, between ruts, rocky sections, mud wallows and river crossings. It was easily the longest stretch of hard-core 4x4 driving that we ever did in Stanley, and it was mentally and physically taxing on Terri, who drove all of it. We were incredibly fortunate to have Benjamin and Mark travelling with us in their indestructible powerhouse of a Toyota Landcruiser, the Codiwompler. They had to haul us out of the deep mud several times with their winch and their tow rope. Stanley’s welded chassis was put through an extreme test by the rough road and the side-to-side jolting, and it eventually failed, cracking through at the site of the first fracture just after crossing into Nigeria. We also had our radiator crack, probably due to a severe impact at the front, and we had to keep refilling it every few kilometres. We limped into Nigeria hoping that the worst was behind us, only to find another 80 incredibly rough kilometres ahead of us. It took us three full days to get to Nguroje, plus another half-day of driving followed by an afternoon of welding and repairs.

After this rough introduction, Nigeria continued to be hard going. Team Codiwompler stuck through us through thick and thin, including two more radiator repairs and a failed pair of U-bolts that saw the truck fall right off its rear axle, pulling out the drive shaft in the process. We braved a notorious kidnapping-prone stretch of road together, slaloming at speed between potholes and getting waved through checkpoints so that we could arrive before dark. After the U-bolt incident, we left a repaired but frail Stanley parked at a friendly local man’s house and climbed into the Codiwompler to visit the most interesting place we went to in Nigeria, the Drill Ranch, established as a safe haven for endangered drill monkeys. It was a spectacular place, but the experience was somewhat diminished by being chased along the track to the ranch by three drunk hooligans, representatives of the “Youth Development Council” who demanded large sums of money and who threatened to slash the Codiwompler’s tires. Benjamin did an exemplary job of talking our way out of this situation, and we ended up un-robbed with tires un-slashed.

The rest of Nigeria, which we drove on our own after our routes diverged, was a grim slog of mud, closed roads, potholes and endless police checkpoints manned by larcenous cops. The last day, coming through Lagos, we had an hour-long standoff with ten Lagos State Police officers who threatened to impound the car, and then survived some of the most brutal traffic of the trip, followed by 50 checkpoints in 50 kilometres, to finally reach the promised land of Benin, where we met up again (by chance) with the Codiwompler to camp together on the beach.

Benin and Togo were oases of civilization after Nigeria, and we spent some time getting visas for Ghana and visiting sites sacred to vodun (aka “voodoo”). It was culturally interesting, but a bit grim to contemplate the vast numbers of animals, some rare and protected, whose dried cadavers were for sale in the vodun marketplaces. We had another series of breakdowns, including rebuilding our main drive shaft, throughout Benin and Togo, before limping into Ghana.

Ghana was the last country where we really had some fun. We camped on the beach in the east, nearly getting swept away in the middle of the night by a rampaging king tide. We stayed with my childhood friend from Morogoro, Alex, and his wife, reconnecting after not having seen each other for 41 years. We flew out to Sao Tome for a week of rest and relaxation, birdwatching and hiking, before returning to Stanley. We were seriously considering shipping him back to South Africa from Accra, but after some overpriced car repairs, we decided to limp onwards as far as we could, returning to Ghana only if necessary. An enjoyable couple of days of visiting slave castles along the coast and birdwatching at Kakum National Park was followed by our clutch failing and another three days of stressful repairs, this time on the surfing mecca of Busua Beach.

We drove off from Busua with a rebuilt clutch and a determination not to deviate too far off the direct road to Morocco. Ivory Coast was a blur of good roads, the amazing and extravagant Yamoussoukro Cathedral and a panic about no diesel in the border town of Danane. From there we entered the last long stretch of bad roads, across the length of Guinea. We had five days on our visa, and we made it by the skin of our teeth, late on the afternoon of the fifth day, after some grim driving and dodging around trucks mired in mud. It would have been nice to stop and see more, but the clock was ticking and the roads were dismal.

Once we were in Senegal, we were more confident that we would likely make it to Europe. We left the car for a couple of days of an ill-advised side-trip into Guinea-Bissau, then returned to enter the tiny riverine strip that is Gambia. Here we encountered more tourists in an hour than we had in four months since leaving Namibia; Gambia is a package-holiday destination with charter flights direct from numerous European cities. A further sprint across Senegal and we were in Mauritania, where we would have loved to explore the Sahara if we had had a reliable car. As it was, we headed to the capital Nouakchott, where Terri came down with both amoebic dysentery and falciparum malaria, spending three full days in hospital.

From there it was a final long grind, along paved roads, through northern Mauritania, Western Sahara (illegally occupied by Morocco) and Morocco proper to the ferry at Tanger. Two days on the ferry to Barcelona, two days of chilly, windy driving to Leysin, two more to Rotterdam, and Stanley was safely delivered to a container to be shipped back to South Africa. Just like that, after 21,000 kilometres, the final leg of Stanley’s Travels was over. I visited with family in the Netherlands and friends in Germany and then retreated to Leysin to relax and do some planning and administrative tasks, as well as to attend a big fund-raising event put on by Regina and Stacey, two of OTLC’s biggest fundraisers without whom the school would struggle to survive.

This past year, with months and months of hard travel, interspersed with grief and emotional upheaval, was by turns exhilarating, saddening and exhausting. I am hoping for a slightly less demanding 2024! The plan is for me to work from January to June at my old school in Tbilisi, filling in for a mid-year opening. Then: who knows? There will be travel involved: stay tuned! This year’s odyssey brings my lifetime country count up to 149 countries visited, so I’m starting to get up towards the goal of 203 countries or semi-countries, but with a lot of harder destinations still left. I was sad to have to skip a number of countries along our route (Equatorial Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and the whole Sahel belt) because of visa and/or security issues; I felt I was leaving a job unfinished.

I hope that this update finds you all well, happy and enjoying the holiday season. May 2024 live up to all your hopes and plans! Peace and Tailwinds.

Click here for a map of our East Africa trip.

Click here for a map of our West Africa trip.