Africa

Chapter 1 Part 5: We are Finally Ready to Leave

By Kae Lewis

The van was ready by September, several months before we were due to leave but we expected the first snows to arrive in Erbach in October. Evan was working without a garage so there would be no possibilities for mechanical repairs after that time. For the last few months, we were assembling our equipment and stores. The same do-it-yourself expedition books were very helpful in suggesting the types of stores we should take.  However we had to be extremely careful about weight because all Evan’s efforts with the van suspension would go for naught if we overloaded the vehicle.  Already the spare parts, being such weighty but essential items, were taking up a large part of the available space.  

 First there was the food store, and we had to work on the assumption that there would be few opportunities to buy food along the way. We decided that half our supplies would be dehydrated foods such as rice, dried vegetable and meat preparations, soup mixes, milk powder, flour, sugar and coffee.  The dry goods were light and easy to pack but not very palatable or healthy on a long-term basis.  We also packed about 200 cans of meat, some long-lasting German ‘Stinkwurst’ (a very aptly named sausage) and vaccum-packed very salty (and hence well preserved) ham.

 We assembled a medical kit with remedies for all common and many not so common problems.  We were aided in this by ‘The Traveller’s Health Guide’ (Dr A.C. Turner) which is a comprehensive treatise relating to the pitfalls threatening the health of the traveler.  After reading this book, you cannot help wondering if it would be better to stay in the sterile atmosphere of your own living room, rather than face the possibility of catching one of these most dreadful diseases.  On the other hand, lack of knowledge is often the biggest threat to a traveler faced with a sudden illness in an isolated area,  Then one is at a loss to know just which of all those pills packed carefully in the medical kit is going to do any good.  This had happened to us in central Java several years previously when I had suddenly come down with typhoid fever.  I went rapidly from a healthy and carefree tourist to a feverish, almost comatose state with very rapid dehydration in the humid jungle.  It was fortunate that Evan recognized the signs and got me to a hospital where I spent several days on an IV drip.   

We visited a doctor in Germany who gave us typhoid and cholera vaccines and wrote prescriptions for some emergency antibiotics and a large supply of anti-malarial drugs.  She recommended several different types of the latter, that we were to take daily throughout our time in Africa.  

The other health problem concerning us was our water supply. My bout with typhoid in Java could be safely blamed on my drinking local fruit juices with ice at restaurants. From that time on, whenever we were traveling, we had found that if we drink only bottled water, we can remain reasonably free of the dreaded traveler’s diarrhea which at best can certainly take the enjoyment out of travel.  

To ensure that we would have good water to drink in Africa, Evan fitted a dual filter system in the van.  The first part was a paper filter which would clean large particles from all the water we used so as not to block our pumps and pipes.  This could then be passed through a second ‘reverse osmosis’ membrane filter to provide us with sterile drinking water.   He made use of disposable dialyser units which he was very familiar with at work.  The whole system was operated by a modified battery-powered stainless steel gear-pump and although Evan had built the whole system himself, it worked faultlessly throughout our time in Africa. 

A disposable dialyzer like the one Evan set up in the van to filter all our drinking water.

By writing to the Automobile Association, we obtained a Carnet de Passages en Douane, an essential document which allows the importation and subsequent exportation of a vehicle from each country we were to travel through, without the necessity of paying customs duty or taxes on it.  Instead, a sum of money (an indemnity) is left in the home country to give each host country a guarantee of its customs duty should the vehicle fail to be exported. In our case, the indemnity was obtained using an insurance policy.  Without this Carnet in his possession, a motorist in Africa would be permitted to pass through few, if any, border posts.  To cover any loss or damage to the vehicle in Africa, it is difficult to obtain insurance but we eventually found a company (Lloyds) willing to cover us.

Another essential document is of course a passport and all the necessary visas.  Later we realized that it would have been wise to obtain a new passport with extra pages glued in the back.  The African border-guard, who has a mania for rubber stamps, quickly fills up a passport as he demonstrates his skill with a flourish on a new page.

 We wrote to all the European embassies of the countries we intended to visit but many did not reply, while those that did put up miles of red tape in our path.  It was becoming apparent that we would not be able to obtain visas very much in advance or they would expire long before we arrived at the border of the country. Postal applications seemed to take up to six weeks each, and they needed to keep our passport for that long, meaning we could only do one at a time. In the end, we decided that we had no choice but to make personal applications for visas along the way.

Many of the embassies required the applicant to be in his country of citizenship to apply for a visa and, since we hold New Zealand passports, we could not obtain them from Germany before we left.  Fortunately we had a permanent residence permit for Britain and concluded that we would have to take a trip to London immediately before we left.  This was convenient in any case because our good friend Jerry in London had agreed to allow us to store our household effects in his attic while we were away. Within a relatively short period of time, as a result of all these enquiries, we had a mountain of papers relating to the official aspects of the trip.

At nearby Munich, we visited Darr’s Expedition shop which specializes in outfitting expeditions like ours.  Apart from maps and a light-weight aluminium shovel, we bought some sand ladders.  These were aluminium plating designed to form artificial runways during World War II and would provide a hard surface if our wheels became bogged in sand or mud.  They were large, heavy items which were difficult to pack conveniently, but we decided on the advice of our books, that they were essential equipment.  We also bought eight metal jerrycans for petrol and several plastic water containers to supplement the fitted water tank we had under the front seats of the van.

 Evan pondered for months over his choice of tires.  My brother, Brian, who had experience of driving in the Australian Outback, told the yarn about the time he had five punctures in one day.  It was with this story in mind that we equipped ourselves with five spare tires, making a total of nine top quality steel-belted radial truck tires, each with a loading capacity of over a ton. Steel belted radials were new, and even when Evan called the Head Quarters of the tire manufacturers in England, he was unable to get any useful advise about their use in the Sahara.  We were to discover later that it is the quality and not the quantity of the tires that is important.  One spare would have been enough.

Evan, Kae and Katy at Aachen, Germany in the summer of 1981, just before we left for Africa.

 As our departure date drew near, we began to pack the storage compartments in the van, packing light goods, such as the dehydrated foods, spare wires and cables, gaskets and other light spare parts and clothing in the roof storage compartments.  The heavier supplies likes tools, spare parts, canned goods, bottled gas in the large compartment under our bed.  The more bulky spare parts were bolted underneath the chassis.  In this way we hoped to prevent the van from becoming top heavy and tipping on a rough track.  We still had to find places inside for books, maps, pens and writing material, radio, tape-recorder, binoculars, cameras and bags of film. The list was endless but, as with the food supplies, we had to assume that there would be few opportunities to replenish supplies of such things as film, toothpaste or even toilet paper along the way.  Each article was included only after a long debate on its merits but we remained fully convinced that we would be unable to manage without these things, rejecting only a tiny proportion. 

Just before we were due to leave, I received another letter from Brian in New Zealand.  The very thought of his sister wandering aimlessly around the Sahara, perhaps never to be seen again, had spurred him into action.  He had researched Saharan navigation methods in the library, and we carefully packed the resulting thesis to consult in our hour of need.  He sent his valuable compass with the caution that it probably would not work in the Sahara, recommending that we learn to use a sun clock.  A parting gift from our German schoolgirl neighbor was a carefully drawn cardboard clock face for our sun navigation.  Also out of concern for us, she had carefully followed the instructions from my brother who lived half a world away.  We knew there would be anxieties ahead for our family and friends, especially if the postal services were, as we expected, unreliable.  We resolved to send them as many letters as possible.

There was no possibility of storing away eight jerry cans, two water containers and five spare tires in our lockers.  So they were stacked on the floor, blocking our access to the camper.  The sand ladder lay across the stove and sink so we had no access to that either.  We packed the rest of our belongings in the apartment into wooden tea-chests which we planned to leave in London.  By this time we had fitted these in,  the van was packed to the roof.   But everything was ready, and the months of anticipation were over.   We were Africa-bound at last.

© Copyright Kae & Evan Lewis 2019. All rights reserved.

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