Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Road to the Skeleton Coast. Desert Elephants, Floods, and Ship Wrecks.

To view more photos from Namibia click on this link. Skeleton Coast, desert elephants, and Namibian Coast.

After spending the night at the border and hearing gunfire, we made our way west through the flooded northwestern section, of Namibia, which had been receiving the same heavy rains as Angola.  It was the most rain fall they have ever had in parts of Namibia

The country side looked more like a lake, in parts covering the main road. The locals were actively fishing the bridges along the road, stocking up on some small fish.

We passed along the western border of Etosha National Park, viewing a lot of giraffes, zebras, and springbok, both inside and outside the park border. It was nice to finally see some African Animals, after seeing only monkeys along the roads in western Africa.

It was fun watching those who have never seen a giraffe before in the wild, stand and stare in amazement. Watching a springbok leap 6 feet into the air as he darts away, from the truck, or a Zebra running at full speed, is much more interesting than just driving down a lifeless landscape.  It's sad that we have spend almost half a year in Africa and it took traveling through over 10 countries to find a place with large wild animals outside of protected fences.  

As soon as I heard that we would be traveling through northwestern Namibia, and eventually making our way to the Skeleton coast, I was as exited as a fat kid blowing out a birthday cake, because it's a hard place to get to.  Trying to make your way there on your own without a dependable vehicle would be suicide.

Only a truck or overland vehicle with a big gas tank, can travel through it. The place is so big, isolated and rugged, that you would be in a world of hurt if you broke down.  It's called skeleton coast because that's all that was left of sailors, if they were shipped wrecked along the coast.

Heading south from Etosha National Park, we headed up and over some mountains.  Even though we were traveling through the rugged desert of Damaraland,  the rains began again. The rains started and never stopped during the day, in the desert this means flash flooding.

Writing this blog, I was told that the flooding is the worst central Namibia has ever experienced. There have been many drownings of school kids, not used water moving fast in the usually dry landscape.

Every river channel we crossed, had water traveling down it.  Many reaching flood levels.   At one river crossing, the water was over three feet deep and rising fast.  Even our huge truck couldn't make it across.  We were forced to camp for the night and wait to see if the water level would go down the next day.

As we waited along the river, a local drove up to the river and waded into the middle to see how deep it was.  Testing to see if he could cross.  Most safari vehicles in the area are made to cross deep waters, so he must have felt confident, even though the river was moving fast.  He kept walking till the river was at his waist, and still rising fast. You could see the water make it's way up the rocks, before your eyes.

Sensing he was about to find himself up shit's creek, I started walking my towards the river.  I've crossed enough rivers back packing in Alaska to understand which can be crossed easily and which can't.

Before I had time to ask if he was OK, he was swept off his feet and was taken down the river. I kicked off my sandals and ran into the river after him, chasing him like some brown bear chasing a salmon swimming down river.   I crabbed his out reached hand's, panic was in his face.  I had to use my height and all my strength, to haul him out of the current, before he was washed down river.

It was the second time, on the trip that we had to rescue a local from drowning. In the Congo, a passenger went surfing with a white South African, we had met hiking Mt. Cameroon.

The waves were huge, and that section of beach had a nasty rip tide. While surfing,  some locals came running up to them and pointed into the ocean where they could see some young kids that were swept out to sea, and in big trouble.

They ran into the ocean with their surfboard, and rescued two of the kids, a third was never found again. They paddled up and down the coast for hours before they gave up because they were exhausted.

Instead of thanking them for saving the other kids, the locals surrounded them some laughing about the situation, others got angry and chased them with logs. We found out later that a kid drowns there every week.

We woke up the next morning to sunshine and just a trickle of what the river was the day before, the water going down just as fast as it went up. So we packed up fast and continued on.

With the rains, the mountains, which usually are dry and lacked much vegetation, had transformed into a green oasis.  From the photos you would never guess we were in a desert.

Along the roads we saw large herds of Oryx, Kudu, and Springbok, obviously enjoying the gift of fresh green grass. Even a huge troop of black baboons crossed the road, with what looked like a sigh of relief on their faces.

I sat on the roof of the truck and scanning the lush landscape, with my camera.   Even though we weren't in protected lands,  there were animals everywhere.   Deep down I was hoping for a chance to spot the rare desert elephants or even more elusive  black rhino.  As the day went by, I realized it was going to be like finding a regular coke in the refrigerator of a pageant girl's house.

Then I started seeing piles of elephant dung on the roads.   It didn't take a tracker to know they were fresh.   Everyone's energy spiked in a second.   From my lookout on top of the truck,  a safari vehicle was spotted driving across the road, and before I had time to connect the two,  there they were. A herd of ten rare desert elephants just off the road, I couldn't believe our luck.

The desert elephants of Namibia are smaller than normal elephants, have bigger feet, and can go longer without water. They have adapted to the dry life of the desert.   It's an amazing biological adaptation, because elephants usually need lots of water to drink a day.

The safari vehicle following them was from a lodge, where people can spend a thousand dollars a night, hoping to be taken out to find them. There are a few located in northern Namibia.  Only two people where in the vehicle, and probably spent as much money in a week as our whole trip cost for 6 months.

Our driver pulled to the side of the road and I jumped up on the roof and started snapping pictures.  Skeleton Coast, desert elephants, and Namibian Coast. I was told only 30 desert elephants are estimated to exist, in that area.

The tour leader and driver climbed up onto the roof and excitedly said, "they do exist, I can't believe it."    They had spend over twenty years driving through Namibia.

After a long time watching them make their slow march across the landscape and out of view, we continued on completely jazzed. Hopefully I will see them again someday.
The luck summed up this trans African trip, you just never know what you will see.

The road to the Skeleton Coast got more and more rugged as if we were over landing a thousand years from now,  over the red landscape of Mars, except with no breathing apparatus.

That would be one hell of an adventure! To be the first person to summit the largest mountain in our solar system, Olympus Mons? Which is located on Mars, is 25 km high, and almost three times taller than Mt.Everest.

On planet Earth if you want a rugged adventure, go to the Skeleton Coast. It's named that for a reason. If you die here, you bones  will mix in with the thousands of seal, whale, and dolphin bones already scattered all over the beach. A few ship wrecks can still be seen, some still in tack, but the wooden boats, only a skeleton is left.

Like ghosts, lions used to be found along the coast but rarely seen.  They survived by scavanging on dead sea life.   Brown heyenas, and jackals,  are now the most common animal to see along the coast.

To travel through the Skeleton Coast, you need a permit, possibly because it's so rugged and also because diamonds are still mined in the area. You are not allowed to drive off the one, lonely path that takes your down the coast, or even walk off the road. Your permit is to just transit through the area.

Not knowing this, we stopped for a break and a group of us went to body surf in the rough seas, couldn't pass the chance at swimming along the most unforgiving coastline in the world. The fallen sailors would have rolled in their graves, seeing us play around on the coast with no worries, since we had a truck loaded with food and water.

One of the passengers asked me while traveling down the coast, if anybody lived out here. I said, "yes, the Fuckarewe people do."

 "Who are they she said?"

" Well, they have small heads and brains, large feet, and every morning when looking for food to eat and water to drink, they look at themselves and say, Why the Fuck Are We living out here?"

For more photos of Namibia click on this link.  Skeleton Coast, desert elephants, and Namibian Coast.

Angola Now Open

View Photos trip through Angola
For 27 years Angola ripped itself apart in Civil War, which recently ended in a cease fire in 2005. The borders opening up in 2008 for foreigners.

Today overlanders are experiencing an area, unknown to even Africans, for the past quarter century, since the bloody war was all people knew or cared about.

It is now open to explore and after spending 7 days traveling through the country I encourage people to visit, since I am hoping to return myself.
Everything is huge about Angola. The country(4 percent of the African Continent0, coastline(1,650 km), rivers(Congo and Kubango) trees (baobobs), waterfalls(Kalandula)3rd highest in Africa) and even it's diamonds. But sadly the amazing huge landscape is empty of wildlife. Where once roamed huge herds of elephants, giraffes, and antelope such as elands, roan, bushbuck, and steenbok, now is open grasslands scattered with leftover land mines.

Almost all the wild animals were killed for fun and for food during the war. Not many survived the bloody conflict that, also killed and injured over one million people. Even the Cristo Rei, (Christ statue similar to the one in Rio and Lisbon) which stands above Lubango, has missing fingers, and damage to his face from bullets .

< Traveling through Angola you see evidence of the war everywhere, buildings with bullet holes and collapsed walls, ship wrecks scattered along the beaches, armored vehicles, tanks , and even helicopters lay rusting along the roads, where they where destroyed in the war.

View Photos trip through Angola
The largest tank battle since World War Two, was fought in Angola, both sides financed by the two world powers at the time, Soviets and USA.
Just because the landscape is empty of lions and leopards, doesn't mean it's safe to explore. Landmines are still scattered about the country, in some places in large numbers.

A red mark on trees or rocks often is the only warning that active mines still exist that haven't been cleared. Landmines can stay functioning for up to 80 years after they are layed so it makes bush camping a little more exciting.
Work has been done to clear certain areas, mostly along major roads, others have been left to the wild donkey's that were imported, to clear the rest. African conservation at it's best.

The country and even the customs agents haven't gotten used to tourists entering the country. Crossing the border from the DRC, the only tourists they see are die hard over landers, that have survived the trip through the DRC.
Our Angola Visa numbers, which were issued to us outside the country, where still only in the lower double digits. But I predict Angola being the new overland playground in the future.

Traveling from the north to the south, you see not only a change in scenery, but with the people as well. There is still a lot of struggle going on with the people in Rural areas. Just now, feeling safe to come out of hiding and build back their lives, like sand crabs at night, on Waikiki beach, after having to hide all day, as mobs of tourists flood the beach.

Outside one town, we stopped to have lunch. Our tour leader climbed into the back of our truck and had just enough time to say, " OK this looks like a good place to have lunch..... oh shit." As she looked back behind us, and hundreds of locals were running towards us down the road, like the beginning of the Boston Marathon, carrying anything they could sell.

Our truck was completely surrounded, with a flood of people, holding bananas, chickens, even kids, for sale. We stayed long enough to buy some stuff, but no kids, (leave that up to Madonna and Angelina),then headed off down the road to have lunch.

As long as the country avoids heading back into conflict, the future looks bright for Angola. It has a wealth of oil and diamonds, and lots of western money in the country, so it's wasting no time transforming the major cities into some of the more modern ones in Africa.

Walking the cities of Luango and Luanda, you could convince yourself you have been transported back to Europe by some vortex. You see lots of mixed people, mostly Portuguese, other European, and Asian blood mixed in with Africans.

Conservation in Angola is also on the upswing, since they can't go anywhere but up. Animals are being re-introduced to National Parks, where they were completely wiped out. Operation Noah's Arc, is transporting giraffes, elephants, lions, and other game from southern African countries.

One bright light!

The Giant black sable, with it's 5 foot arching antlers, which is only found in Angola and is a national symbol of pride for the country, was thought to have been put into extinction by the war. Conservation groups and the government, spent years searching by foot and by helicopter to see if any individuals remained.Years later, a hidden camera placed in one of the more remote sections of the country documented nine individuals. Only time will tell if they save the species.

This year, the rains in the mountains of Angola where the heaviest in over 20 years. Every day we were hammered with a down pour, which flooded the cities we passed. The water that falls in the mountains head into the Kubango and flows south into Botswana, forming the famous Okavongo Delta. The largest inland river delta in Africa. This made the roads muddy and torn up, slowing our progress through the country.

Drunk driving is such a problem in Africa, since Africans consume more beer per capita, than most other countries. It's scary to think that a lot of the truck drivers that pass you, are intoxicated or high on a plant (forgot it's name) that puts them into a zone, where they can drive for days.  We just drink coffee in the States.

We have had drivers, pull up and try to talk to us, but nothing comes out because they are so drunk, so they just bang on their head trying to spit something out.  The few loose wires left in their head don't re attach.   Others get out and start dancing around their truck, waving to us like a circus performers.  We just laugh.

Evidence of how great the drivers are in Angola, are the crashed and mangled vehicles lines along the road.  It reminded me of Nigeria.    I would hate to drive the roads for a living in Angola. So many wrecked cars litter the sides of the roads that we started counting them, some turns had 8-10 wrecks. We stopped counting at 210 after only a half a day. After 7 days traveling, through the country the number could easily be over a thousand.

Even more numerous than wrecked cars is the number of Chinese you see in Angola. Africans call them the next, invasion to hit Africa since the white man. Though they don't want slaves, they employ their own people, they just want the natural resources. The booming Chinese economy needs somewhere to quench it's thirst.

It was a shame we had to race through Angola, since we only had a 5 day visa to cross almost 2,000 kms on some of the shittiest roads along the trip.   As we expected, we were still two days late arriving at the Namibia border.

We tried to get an extension in Lubango, but the customs office said we were fine and didn't need one. ( Never trust officials in Africa)   But wouldn't give it to us in writing. So when we arrived at the border with Namibia, we weren't surprised to find out they wanted to fine us $150 dollars a day per person for every day we were over our limit. That meant that we were going to have to cough up, $7,500 as a group.

Finally, realizing that we weren't going to be bullied by their threats,  they did what they could to delay our progress leaving the country.   They kept us at the border until it was just about to close and let us through. Knowing that the customs agents in Namibia had already closed. So we were forced to camp for the night on the border of the Namibian side, and spend the night joking around with the police officers from Namibia who were much more friendly with tourists. View Photos trip through Angola

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Democratic Republic of Congo

In one day we crossed into three countries, that are viewed as being some of the most dangerous countries to visit in the world. We left the Congo, entered Cabinda (a tiny providence controlled by Angola), which took a half day to cross, and then crossed into the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire. You won't find any of these on the top vacation destinations, anytime soon.

Cabinda is a tiny, but important province of Angola. Rich in oil, the place is crawling with the military, who have been fighting anti government rebels. Just last year the Togo national soccer team had it's bus ambushed by anti- government rebels, along the same road we travelled down, killing three and injuring many others.

The DRC is one of those countries that doesn't really need an introduction. You always read about it in the world news, but non of it is positive, well not since 1974, when Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman, in the famous " rumble in the jungle" boxing match in the capital city, Kinshasa.

The headlines are always about mass killings, some outbreak of some nasty disease like Ebola, government corruption, cannibalism, or the largest UN mission in history, trying to stabilize the country. This mixture makes the country the ultimate overland experience, but one you will have to accept paying the ultimate price. The heart of the Africa is lawless, unmapped, and will swallow the unprepared whole.

For weeks before we have been preparing ourselves, to travel across the country, even had safety talks about what to expect. People even had to buy special travel insurance to pass through it. We were lucky to even be allowed to enter the DRC. A week before we entered the country, there was an assassination attempt on the President. If it was successful, all hell would have broke lose in the country.

The Customs agents on the Border of the DRC , was overwhelmed by our truck. They said they rarely see tourists, so it took forever crossing it, as they filled out forms. At the border we had our first taste of the ruthless life of those living in the Congo's.

Across parts of Africa, stealing can mean a death sentence, as a mob of people will usually chase the thief until they catch him and then beat him to death. If you travel long enough in Africa you will witness this horrible event.

I've heard stories of foreigners yelling, "thief' at someone who just pick pocket them, only to have a mob of people beat the person to death, leaving the person who yelled thief, so dramatized they stopped their travels and went home. In all my travels through Africa, I've only seen a man being chased once, but in two days traveling through the Congo's we saw it happen twice.

In Pointe Noire, Congo, a guy was being chased by a group of people, and when he was caught he was hog tied with his arms and legs behind his back. While he kicked and screamed, another person picked up a huge rock and was about to crush his skull when a police officer stopped him at the last second. The thief was lucky because in most cases the police don't intervene. Passengers were pulling the girls away so they didn't have to see the gruesome reality of mob justice.

The second time it happened in front of us, was at a border to the DRC. One of the passengers on our truck was pick pocketed. He caught the guy stealing his camera, and yelled "thief." The thief ran off being chased by a few guys with rocks. The pick pocket ran for his life, because he knew if he was caught, he would probably be killed. The last I saw of him was him picking up bottles as weapons on the way down the street.

We just made it threw the border, before it closed. Our passports stamped just as the border guards were lowering the DRC flag, everyone standing in silence as it happened. We made our way through the closed border,they locked the gate behind us and raced the setting sun, down what seemed like a road but weren't sure, and camped for the night, next to an oil well. The area near the mouth of the Congo is full of outdated oil wells, ones you would see in Texas in the early 60's. Oil pipelines zig zag, crossing the roads, some not even buried, but laying on top of the ground, in some spots you drove on top of them like water hoses in your yard.

The next day we made our way east paralleling the Congo, but not yet able to see it. It wasn't till the following day that we arrived in the town of Boma, that we got our first view of the Congo River. Only one other river,(Amazon)captures my imagination like the Congo, the second longest river in Africa. So few westerns have travelled along the river that it's one of the most raw places, one can travel to on the face of the planet. A section of the river is over 700 feet deep, making it the deepest river in the world.

In Boma, it was a amazing site to see huge container ships speeding past, old ships that had been wrecked in the river, heading up river along the lower flat section, to the port town of Matadi, the furthest up the river they can go before coming upon the first huge rapids.

In the town of Boma a police officer stopped a few of us and ask what our intentions were. We said, we were "tourists." He responded," why would you want to come here for tourism."

We camped just outside Boma in a small village. The town gathered around our truck
as we pulled behind a bar to park for the night and set up our tents.

Along the trans African trip, it has been my job to lift electrical wires that are too low, up over the truck with a plastic broom handle, so they don't snag. Some more intense then others, only once have we actually hooked a line, and ripped the whole power line pole down. It was one hell of an entrance to a village.

The electrical wire from the bar, across the drive way, was too low to even lift it over the truck, but before we could try and think of a plan B, a local climbed onto the roof and took apart the wire, the live wire sparked, sending the crowd running and me standing their completely shocked, pun intended. The guy was completely fearless.

Like most villages we have camped in along the trip, we had to ask the permission of the chief to stay the night in the village. So he stopped by and greeted us. Other chiefs have demanded some money, smokes, or beer as payment to stay. The only thing he wanted was a can of beans.

I was sitting at the bar drinking a beer when the chief came up to me to greet me with a firm strong hand shake, that surprised me, because he was an older man. I responded with a handshake of an Alaskan commercial fisherman. My competitive side coming out, and his competitive side came out of him. For the next minute he tried to submit me, with a hand shaking war, which I finally gave up and let him win to be respectful.

He laughed, and pulled me towards him, grabbing my biceps and telling me, "strong man" and then hugged and kissed me, causing me to spill a beer town his back, since I wasn't ready for the jerk forward. I didn't know how to respond to his sign of respect towards me, it was one of those awkward moments.

After leaving Boma, we continued through beautiful rain forest, passed an old rusty tank along the road, and made our way to the largest port in DRC, Matadi. Even before entering the town, I was forced to put my camera away. The tour leader knowing I wouldn't be able to resist taking a picture of the Congo River, with the country's largest port, and biggest and only bridge that spans the Congo River.
The military guard the bridge and patrol the area, and any bridge or military building in Africa cannot be photographed. Our tour leader didn't want to risk us having our truck ripped apart and all of us interrogated.

The view arriving into Matadi was one of the most beautiful pictures I could have taken along the trip. Which was difficult to not photograph, like a black lab I had to sit their salivating while my owners ate a juicy steak dinner.

The town of Matadi sits along a hillside, besides the Congo River, now flowing fast down from the mountains, and carving a twisting channel by the town. The moment we crossed the impressive suspension bridge, a huge ship passed just below, a ship that you would never expect to see so far up a fast moving river.

We stopped in this town long enough to buy some supplies and drink some Primus beer. I wanted to take a taxi down to the river, but was told the taxi driver might try to rob me.

The third and last night in the DRC we camped at the border of Angola, and had a local keep us up all night breaching god and Jesus Christ, to us through a loud speaker. One of the passengers answered,"even Jesus slept." I sat in my tent waiting to make a break for it, thinking the guy had bad intentions. The border just two years ago was closed, because an outbreak of Ebola in the DRC, scarred Angola into closing it. So crossing through the rarely used border we made our way into the recently opened country of Angola. A country that for the last 27 years has ripped itself apart in civil war.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Tough Life Being a Truck Driver On The Muddy Roads of The Congo

We are currently the city of  Point Noire in the Republic of Congo.  We have a few days to relax, before continuing on to the Democratic Republic of Congo.  The next few countries have a bad reputation of being harsh and ruthless, a place where over landers get held up by gunpoint or even worse.

It took us about 5 days to travel from the Gabon border to Point Noire, as wet muddy roads, and lots of rain slowed our progress to a crawl.  The roads are basic as best.  One lane dirt roads, build by loggers, exploiting the forests,  and built with no safety standards.

 What once was mountains covered in rain forest. Is now clear cut grass lands.

Amazing log bridge spanning river valley.  But every rainy season brings floods so it must be rebuilt when ever the logs collapse.

 I won't be surprised if most of the Congo's rainforest is clear cut, within my lifetime.

While heading through the Congo mountains, we came across a log jam, pun intended, of logging trucks backed up because a tanker truck was blocking the road.  The muddy roads had grabbed a hold of a full size tanker truck around a sharp turn and made it impossible to get around it.

 As the loggers began piling up on both sides behind the jam, drivers impatiently would try and be hero's and just force their truck around the tanker in the deep mud.   After all, "time is money".   It was entertaining to watch each logging truck try and squeeze their trucks through a bottle neck in the road.     Engines being pushed to the max with heavy loads,  tires and axles, bending at such a sharp angles,  you waited for them to break.

After a bunch of arguing and getting to the point where fights were about to about to break out.  The loggers finally agreed to work together.

At first they used one truck to try and pull the tanker free but failed to budge it, then they used two. Black smoke fillings the air as the huge diesel engines, pulled with all their might, but still failed to budge it. Finally they hooked all three trucks together like Clydesdale horses, to try and pull out the stuck tanker. Even using three logging trucks, the thing they managed to do was break chains and tow ropes and dragging the tanked deeper in the mud.

But what was accomplished was creating just enough of a gap to squeeze through.   Like a broken gate, the logging trucks all made a race through the opening.  Not wanting to get stuck behind another truck getting stuck around the turn, our driver made a run for it as well.

Spending four days in the mountains with the logging trucks, I got to get a sense of how dangerous their jobs are. Like the Nigerian truckers, who's mangled trucks lay scattered on the sides of the road, the step mountainous valleys had trucks that lost control and lay mangled in river beds.  Other trucks which showed signs of damage were still being driven. Like this truck below.

The life of a logger in country of Congo is tough.   To make things worse, you often see the truckers drinking beer, then pass you on narrow slippery roads, at high speeds, waving out the window, with an intoxicated smile. But this is Africa, there are no rules it's everyman for himself.