Tag: Congo

Chapter 11: Central Africa Republic (C.A.R.)

by Kae Lewis

Although the border between Cameroon and C.A.R. was relatively easy to cross, we were stopped at four or five road-blocks in the first 50 km of C.A.R roads. These police checks were thorough and involved the painstakingly laborious task of writing all the details from our carnet, passports and visas, driver’s license, insurance papers and car registration document into a master ledger. This was repeated at each road block.

Map of southern Central Africa Republic. From the border (marked in yellow) with Cameroon in the west, we followed the main road eastward to Bangui, the capital. We the continued northeast, following the southern border with Congo (marked in yellow) towards Bambari.
Source: Michelin Map 741, Africa: North & West.

We were now traveling along with the long-wheelbase Landrover driven by two English people, a Scot and an American, all of whom we had previously met at the quarry in Yaoundé. They had left a day and a half before us, and we had caught up with them. The four-wheel-drive that the Landrover offers is certainly an advantage should the track become really rough or turn to mud. However on the roads that we had met with so far, the VW Kombie can travel faster, more economically and with considerably more comfort than the Landrover.  

While waiting at some roadworks for a bulldozer to clear a track for us, we saw a tiny mouse on a bank. One of the workmen bounded after it,  the mouse froze, and he had it. He proudly brought it back to us as a gift. It seems mouse is a local delicacy, along with monkey and the great favourite, boa constrictor. In the market places, we saw boa constrictor steaks as thick as a man’s waist for sale.

The road workman catches a mouse and presents it to us. We were stopped waiting for the bulldozer to clear a track through the mess so we could pass. There was so little traffic on the roads that road gangs seldom bothered to keep the road open as they worked.
Roadside inactivity
Roadside activity: selling firewood.

The road-making was an European Economic Community project. We spoke to the Belgian foreman who told us that the people of the district are very superstitious. Before he could proceed with the road construction, it had been necessary to carry out a ceremony to appease the spirits of the mountain over which the road would cross. The company had been obliged to buy the salt, sugar and eggs used to placate the gods.

We camped on a riverbank with the English group and were joined later by the Swedish boys who slowly manoeuvred their monstrous bus down onto the parking area that we had found. The bus’s hydraulic system, comprising brakes and clutch were practically non-functional but there were no spare-parts available in Africa for this Swedish-manufactured vehicle. The motor was overheating, and for some reason this also boiled the container filled with waste water from the toilet. We began to realise that the choice of a suitable vehicle is an important factor leading to the success of an expedition in Africa. A wrong decision can lead to months of depressing and futile effort.  

We still had not had any punctures so that carrying five spare tyres was beginning to seem a bit excessive. Although we had a mounting for two of them on the front bumper, we found that carrying them there placed an added strain on the fragile front axle and springs. We now stored all heavy items as far back in the van as possible, and on the whole this meant putting them on our bed. We were satisfied that this definitely improved the ride but was a major inconvenience to us. During the day, our bed was a mountain of heavy tyres and jerrycans which had to be shifted onto the front seats at night. So when an African conveniently had a puncture right outside our camp, we offered him one of our more worn tyres. He was delighted and paid us a good price.

The English couple taking a swim in the river, sharing their shampoo with the local boys who were highly delighted.
Kae watches the swimmers, unconvinced that this river was free of bilharzia and crocodiles.

Soon everyone was swimming in the river. Because it was now extremely hot, it had taken a great deal of will power not to jump in with them. However, I remained unconvinced that this river was free from bilharzia, a disease caused by parasitic fresh-water worms found in tropical rivers such as this one. The worm penetrates the skin and enters the blood stream to migrate to the liver and intestines. Bilhazia is the cause of much misery and sickness amongst Africans. Evan went in briefly to wash off some of the dust and grime he had accumulated when lying on the ground under the van checking the undercarriage several times a day.

We were hustled away early the next morning because we had parked by the river where the road gangs obtained their truckloads of water. We left the others at their morning ablutions in the muddy water. Because we were able to travel much faster than them, this was to be the last time we saw either the English or the Swedish groups. 

In Eastern C.A.R., round houses were the fashion, as we had seen in Cameroon.

Between the stands of stumpy trees, we passed through areas of grassland.  There were many small villages with crowds of children, chickens and goats all over the road. Often the massed pedestrians seemed unaware that it was a road down which they sauntered. We had been warned many times that should a motorist run over and kill a villager, the witnesses feel it is their duty to kill the motorist in return. This had happened to a taxi driver in Yaoundé. Within minutes of causing the death of a pedestrian, he had been dragged from his car and battered to death by an angry crowd of revengeful bystanders. We now passed through villages blasting our raucous air-horns. We hated to disturb the peace and startle people but if they were carrying out such impromptu executions after an accident, then we were leaving nothing to chance.  

Dugout canoes were the main means of transport for villagers living along the river banks.

We were constantly being stopped at police road blocks but their offices were closed for two and a half hours at midday. During this siesta, the barrier across the road was down and firmly locked. We were obliged to sit and wait for their return. The roadblocks were so numerous that we sometimes waited several times during one siesta period.

Towards late afternoon, the air became hotter than ever, the sky blackened and a fierce wind whipped up the dust and dried leaves on the road. We found a place to camp in a roadside quarry just as the sky was being torn apart by fearsome streaks of lightening that decorated the entire sky above us, like tinsel on a Christmas tree. As each flash plunged earthwards, our ears were filled with the agonising roar of the thunder. Finally buckets of water dropped from an inky sky.

The pounding of the rain on the roof and the loud rumbling of the thunder kept us awake for most of the night but in the morning, we reveled in the cool crisp air. The jungle around us looked green and shiny, being no longer covered in red dust. 

Kae goes for a walk in the jungle while Evan is doing car repairs.
The jungle of Central African Republic is sparse, dry and extremely hot. A violent thunderstorm provided welcome relief.

We drove on to Bangui, the capital of C.A.R., on a tar-seal road that morning.  We had heard that this city is a haven for thieves and decided against staying the night. We went directly to the carpark of The Rock Hotel which was the meeting place for overlanders in Bangui. It is beside the massive Ubangi (or Oubangui) River where we stood looking over to the Democratic Republic of Congo on the opposite bank. When we were there in 1982, Congo had been named Zaire at the whim of the despot-in-charge, Mobutu. However once he died in 1997, it was decided to revert to the traditional name of Congo. For clarity, I will call the country Congo from now on.

We had been warned that Congo currency should be obtained in Bangui because there would be few other opportunities in the jungle, and it is needed for paying for ferries. We had also been informed that petrol-driven vehicles should buy a few liters of diesel for the ferries who would most likely have none of their own.  

A car ferry operated here at Bangui but we intended crossing over to Congo further upstream at Bangassou. The further north you can travel, the drier the climate, and we hoped to avoid, at least for a little while longer, entering the soggy jungles of the Congo. Also the roads in C.A.R. have apparently been better maintained than those of the Congo. So far, they had been good, thanks in part to the E.E.C.

We went to the central market-place where I bought some tomatoes, a cabbage and some carrots. The local ladies had made little piles of their produce on the rickety outdoor stalls, and since they have no scales, I was supposed to barter for the price of a pile. I usually paid whatever they asked, if I could understand what that was. Vegetables were scarce but not very much in demand. Some people spoke French but even then, I could not always understand. Nothing was written down. There was so little produce available that, if twenty people had bought as much as I had, the entire market would have been emptied. 

Kae bartering for a cabbage in the Bangui Market place. There were some piles of tomatoes on the table that I hoped to get too.

There was absolutely no meat for sale, and I had long since given up even expecting to see it. Bread was very expensive, and there did not appear to be any raw eggs. I always found it difficult, without a common language, to ascertain if the eggs were cooked or raw. Because most are sold hard-boiled as midday snacks, I looked for the scoop of salt which would often be part of the deal in this case. However, despite my vigilance, when we broke an egg into the frying pan, it might be either hard-boiled or, worse still, rotten. With the hens unpenned, the eggs are collected in a very haphazard manner and can be weeks old before they reach the market. However, with our virtually meatless diet, I had to persevere, buying eggs in twos and threes at stalls along the road.  

Houses with stalls set up along the road would sell eggs, and perhaps some bananas, papaya or pineapples.
The houses were now square, usually with a door and two windows.
A village with a round meeting house.

On the way out of town, we stopped to collect water at a village watering place which was a pillbox-shaped fountain from which water could be siphoned. All the water used by the family is carried back to the house on the heads of the mother and her daughters. Little girls of five or six years can balance a heavy bucket of water on their heads, often without even a steadying hand being necessary. 

The village women clustered around the fountain laughed at our efforts to siphon out the water and then kindly helped us to fill our containers. We always added our own chlorine to our water containers, using a bottle of chlorox and a measuring syringe. Then we filtered our drinking water with the dialyser as well (See Chapter 1, Part 5). This kept us healthy throughout the trip, no matter where we obtained the water.

We camped beside the road to Bangassou where the rains had prompted the termites to begin flying, with wave after wave of massed insects passing along the road. On the lookout for a location to build a new ant-hill, they appeared to be attracted to the exposed soil of the road. When they find a suitable place, they descend to the earth and drop their wings. By morning, we were driving on a dense carpet of gossamer termite wings. We saw several large ant-hills constructed right on the road. These are dangerous for vehicles because they are high and baked as hard as rock in the sun.

A termite mound.
A field of termite mounds.

Before we left our camp the next morning, we were visited by a large group of children, each of whom carried a heavy hoe to till the soil. This was 8.00 a.m., and they were returning from the fields where they had been working since dawn. They were on their way to school now but lingered to help Evan grease the front axle, handing him tools and asking complicated questions in French. They were delighted with some elastic we gave them for their slingshots. One of them had a splendid one made with carving on the wooden parts and a leather sling.  

Children returning from weeding the fields with their heavy hoes.
Children on their way to school after working in the fields since dawn.

Later we met two ladies returning from the river with their chopped, washed and dried cassava. This plant, imported from the Americas, now forms the basis of the West African diet and from it are derived tapioca and semolina. Unfortunately the root contains large concentrations of benzoic acid which is poisonous. The women must carefully wash the pieces of white flesh or they will poison their families. 

Cassava root is a staple food in Central Africa Republic but it is poisonous unless it is thoroughly washed before eating. Here they are at the river, washing and drying cassava.
Shredding it finely, thoroughly washing, and then drying cassava in the sun is a time-consuming and very necessary occupation for the women of Central African Republic.
A woman taking her chopped and washed cassava home from the river. She has a machete for shredding the roots balanced on the top of her load.
Not all the children were getting enough to eat. This child shows the distended belly of Kwashiorkor caused by protein deficiency. There is little or no protein in cassava.

We watched the slash and burn farming technique being carried out all along the road as we passed by. The men cleared a patch of forest by lopping the trees and burning the debris. It was then left to the women and children who, it is estimated, carry out three quarters of the farming work in Africa. They plant maize seeds and cuttings of cassava, yams, pineapples and bananas. One clearing can be used for several seasons before the jungle takes it back, and thus restores fertility to the thin leached soil. This form of cultivation can support a small population but should population numbers increase, the fallow periods will not be sufficient to renew soil fertility, and crops will fail. 

The jungle encroaches on this, the main road from Bangui to Bangassou. Unless the dirt road is frequently graded, the jungle quickly takes it back.

We stopped in Bambari and met a French expatriate family who invited us to camp that night in their garden. The husband was the Manager of a cotton mill, and they lived in a house on the estate. We had seen the mill trucks on the road that day collecting cotton from the villages where each house had its bale or two ready for collection. This gives the family a small cash income to buy the things such as cooking pots, utensils, tools, dishes and clothes that they are unable to make themselves. Their cotton fields are in the jungle clearings up to five km from the road. The factory separates the fibres from the seeds and then bales the cotton for transportation by truck to Bangui. From there, it is taken by riverboat to the coast for shipping to Europe.  

The manager’s house was built in a colonial style with wide verandahs and completely surrounded by wide green lawns, gardens and shady palm trees. The rooms were cool, having extremely high ceilings and many open windows. It was pleasant to sit in this room on a deep comfortable sofa drinking coke with ice-cubes clinking in a crystal glass. After months of camping in the heat and dust, these small luxuries had taken on a new meaning. We realised that we had quite forgotten what we had been missing.

Suddenly our peace was disturbed when their small son came rushing in shouting that the termites were coming. A swarm such as we had seen the previous evening was descending on the house. Everyone leapt to their feet, shutters were crashed to and doors slammed shut to secure the house against invasion.   

Map of the road from Bambari to Bangassou along the southern border with Congo (marked in Yellow).
Source: Michelin Map 741, Africa: North & West.

The next day we were once more traveling on unsealed roads through village communities that were often only five km apart. The chickens and goats, both on the road and beside it, would shy as we approached and in their panic, rush straight into the path of the van. Many of the people too would panic once they saw the van looming towards them as they walked down the road. We were going dead slowly but the trucks and van-taxis travel through the villages at breakneck speeds, forcing the people to leap off the road. In their excitement at seeing our rather unusual vehicle approaching them, the women would spin around and upset their precariously balanced burdens on their heads.

The papaya tree is everywhere in Central Africa and, along with pineapple forms an important part of the diet. They certainly formed an important part of ours as they were usually for sale at most markets we visited.
Palm tree harvesting is hard work.

The houses are all small mud creations with a door and two windows. Each is surrounded by a well-swept beaten-earth yard with the family hearth in the centre. This was Sunday, and the most popular leisure-time occupation was to lounge in the yard in front of the house. Several of the groups were singing and dancing to the accompaniment of drums.  

There are many mission churches, some built with red brick and others in the traditional mud-walled style. Since it was Palm Sunday, there were several church processions along the road. The women parishioners throughout the country wear a uniform of teal-blue and canary-yellow. In some villages, the churches were packed with an attentive congregation while in others, the church had been abandoned to be reclaimed by the jungle. The villagers swing to the traditional power of the Witch Doctor and local Chief when not directly under the influence of the missionary with his powerful white magic.

Towards evening, we crossed the Kotto River on a very large bridge which overlooked the magnificent Kembé Falls. When we stopped on the bridge to view the Falls in the late afternoon sun, we were astonished to see a very blonde European girl standing all alone at the top of the falls. 

The magnificent Kembé Falls on the Kotto River, near Bangassou.
We were astonished to see a very blonde European girl standing alone at the top of the Kembé Falls.
The Kotto River below the Falls.

A rough vehicle track led off the road and around to the edge of the lake that fed the falls. While driving down it, we grounded the bottom of the van on the rocks before reaching the place where we could see two vehicles camped. The four people, three Swiss and the blonde Dutch girl we had seen at the top of the falls came over to help push us from our perch atop a large rock. They then invited us to camp with them in this delightful spot with the falls thundering beside us. The tranquil waters of the lake slumbered in the shade of the encircling jungle, as yet uninfluenced by the cataract down which they would presently be hurtled. 

As the sun set over the water, and the light began to fade, the Dutch-South African girl, Johanna led me back up to her perch at the top of the falls to view the maelstrom. Small fish played in the deep water at the edge of the lake, hopefully keeping a safe distance from the pull of the plunging water.  There was no question of taking a dip in this cool clear water, bilhazia or not.

Johanna and her Swiss-German husband Jürg both spoke excellent English but the other couple, Hubie and Brigitte spoke only their native Swiss-German. Their strong dialect made it difficult for us to understand them in their normal conversation but they could both also speak the more formal High German that we understood somewhat. They were all going to South Africa, crossing through the Congo to Kenya.  

The next morning, the first day of March 1982, we set off in a convoy of three vehicles with this friendly team. They seemed happy for us to join them, and we decided that it would be better to travel with others in the Congo where we expected the roads to be bad.  

Hubie and Brigitte were driving a very large Mercedes Benz Unimog truck, the back of which had been outfitted with their living quarters. Hubie owned several dry-cleaning shops in Switzerland, and they seemed set on traveling the world. Hubie had had many adventures in his attempts to cross Africa, having started out in a VW Kombie. He had come as far as El Oued, a Saharan oasis town and was stopped at a garage to refuel. They were putting petrol into a large drum that he had in the back of the van.  The garage attendant lit a cigarette which resulted in an immediate explosion. Although the vehicle was already on fire, Hubie drove it off the garage forecourt. While trying to retrieve $7000 in cash that he had stowed under the dashboard, he was caught in the van when it finally became engulfed in flames. He was flown back to Switzerland critically ill with burns and required extensive skin grafts. His Swiss insurance company denied liability so that he was not paid any compensation for the loss of his vehicle. He also lost his $7000 cash.  

On his second attempt, he had brought the Unimog from Switzerland. In Tunisia, it was broken into and everything of value removed. This included expensive photographic equipment, a stereo tape recorder and 16 channel short-wave set. However he was able to replace his losses at a nearby shop that miraculously had items in stock that were identical to those he had lost.

Later, while crossing a particularly hazardous stretch of desert near Djanet, they found a German couple whose Mercedes Benz saloon car was buried deeply in the sand and broken down. Hubie towed them for several days to a garage, arriving there with a burnt-out clutch himself. At the garage, when the Unimog was hoisted up to repair the damage, the mechanic turned on the electric winch and then left it running when he disappeared for lunch. Unattended, the seven tonne truck rose to the ceiling and when the cable eventually broke, came hurtling to the ground. There was serious damage to the chassis, hydraulics, diesel tanks and electrical system but the garage denied liability. Hubie paid the normal charges for the extensive repairs necessary. Even now, he was still finding damage to parts which had been weakened by the fall.  

Johanna and Jürg were newly married and driving their new Toyota Hiace campervan to South Africa where they had both previously lived. We were to find that the performance of the Toyota was similar to that of our VW although the Toyota was closer to the ground, a distinct disadvantage when the roads were rough. We were pleased to hear that Jürg was an experienced VW mechanic while Johanna spoke seven languages fluently, having worked at a Swiss airport as Interpreter and Information Officer. We were to use her expertise in French many times over the next few months as we grappled with border guards, police, army officers and other officials.  

We discovered during that first day that they traveled more slowly than we normally did. The Unimog with its twisted chassis and heavy weight was slow and lumbering while Jürg had to be more careful about scraping the Toyota’s undercarriage than we did. However we decided that with road conditions deteriorating rapidly, it would be prudent for us to reduce speed in any case.  

On the other hand, they rose earlier than we normally did, and this proved a more difficult adaptation for us to make. We had grown used to making a slow start with a leisurely breakfast before facing the rigours of the day. We had always liked to take this time to enjoy the sounds and sights of Africa that surrounded us. The birds, insects and strange plant life were difficult to see as we drove passed them at speed.

However we soon dropped our bad habits, and on the second day, were ready to leave when they were. We discovered that by rising early and traveling more slowly during the day, there was little difference in our overall distance covered in a day. We had the cooler morning hours traveling and often stopped for lunch in the heat of the day. It was definitely worth it to us to have the company of friends as we faced the journey ahead. All of us were very apprehensive as we were inexorably being engulfed in the vast, dark and mysterious jungle of central Africa. 

At about midday on the day we left the waterfall in convoy, we arrived at Bangassou. It was here that we intended finally crossing the extraordinarily wide Mbomou River to the Congo. The road lead us straight down to the river bank where of course there was no bridge. The muddy and deep waters of the river lapped across the road, bringing us to a rapid halt. As we all climbed out of our vehicles, we could see the ferry berthed far over on the opposite bank of the river, about 1km away. There was no sign of life over there, and it seemed there never was going to be until we went over to consult with them. 

A very persistent man was circling around us, vigorously offering his dugout canoe (called a pirogue) for hire, for this very purpose. After waiting patiently for some time, and still seeing no sign of life across on the other side, we decided that one person from each vehicle would have to go across the river in this fragile-looking canoe to negotiate the business with the Captain. Johanna was to go as interpreter as the negotiations would inevitably be conducted in French. Evan and Hubie went with her while Jürg, Brigitte and I stayed with the vehicles.

Hubie (rear), Johanna and Evan cross the Mbomou River in a hired dugout canoe to fetch the ferry from the Congo side of the river.

It was several hours later before the canoe eventually brought them back safe and sound, much to our relief.  They told us that, after some furious bargaining by Johanna in French, it had been decided that we would pay 6000 C.F.A. (about US$30) for each vehicle. This was extremely expensive, and we recalled that to cross the Straits of Dover with our van recently, we had paid $30 for our return ticket. The Straits of Dover are some 50 km wide while the Mbomou River was 1km wide at most.

Map showing the Mbomou River and our crossing point at Bangassou. Once we had crossed the river, we would be in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (known as Zaire when we were there.) Source of the map: Wikipedia.

The ferry was owned and operated by the government of the Congo and was supposed to be free. The operators allege that the motor would not go, and that we must pay for a team of punters to pole us across. In reality, we suspect that the diesel provided by the government for the operation of the ferry is expropriated to be sold on the black market at a handsome profit for the operators. The punters on the other hand would be lucky if they saw a few C.F.A. of the 6000 we paid. This is an example of the corruption which cripples African economies. 

Now that we had ascertained that the ferry, at a price, was available, we had next to return to the police station to obtain exit stamps in our passports. We discovered that the Customs Office was closed for the day at 1.30 PM. We had only just missed it but now we would have to wait until the next day to have our carnets and passports stamped. This was an important step because it was our only proof that we had exported the van, and without it we would be liable for import duty. We resignedly camped under the trees beside the river to wait.  

The next day, we were all up early to be at the custom’s post when it opened, and were duly stamped out of Central Africa Republic. Later, back at the harbour, some of us had to return to the other side in the canoe to arouse the ferryman. Eventually, he did bring his ferry across to us, more than 24 hours after we had first arrived at the river’s edge to make our crossing. It is not a good idea to ever try to be in a hurry in Africa. We were by now well-adjusted to Africa-time in which a wristwatch is superfluous, and all that is required is great patience and endurance (and, in our case, a good book or two).  

The ferry consisted of three quite small boats lashed together and a wooden platform laid across the top of all three. It was decided that the Unimog would cross first. A ramp of several pieces of rather narrow timber was laid from the beach up to this platform on top of the boats. The ramp looked steep and flimsy but to our amazement, it held the weight of the Unimog. 

The ferry consisted of three quite small boats lasted together and a wooden platform laid across the top. The man in the pink shirt in the centre of the boat is the Captain, shouting and gesticulating at his men as usual.
The Captain, after much shouting finally had the boat moored and ready to load the Unimog.

The crossing went well, and the ferry was back to get us within about half an hour. The Captain of the ferry was a short stout man, in contrast to the long lean African we had become used to. He decided that he would take both our van and the Toyota together in one run. As Evan drove the van up the ramp, the back end of the vehicle grounded and scrapped on the river bank. We were all shouting and waving instructions to Evan to try to keep all four wheels on the narrow pieces of timber which wobbled and buckled precariously as they took the weight. Then with one last lurch, the van was safely up on the deck of the ferry. 

Our van being loaded on to the ferry at Bangassou. The photo taken was by Hubie with our camera over on the Congo side of the Mbomou River.

We then started the procedure again with the Toyota, and soon both vans stood side by side on the boat. In his preoccupation with the launching proceedings, Jürg dropped his car keys which slipped between the timbers of the platform and disappeared forever into the deep muddy waters of the Mbomou River. We were pleased to hear that they had a spare key. 

The Captain cast off and steered us upriver at first so that we could catch the current down when we reached the fast-flowing centre of the river. At least this was normally the procedure. Then a brisk wind sprung up, and with the two vans acting very efficiently as sails, the boat was pushed further and further upstream. The Captain berated the punters unpityingly to encourage them to an all-out effort. Several times, the boat gave a terrible lurch as we hit rocks in the centre of the river, threatening to precipitate us all into the muddy waters beneath us. 

Here is an eye-witness account of what happens when you fall into a river here, in this case an African had dived off a boat into the River Congo, not far from where we now were:

Actually the swimmer was now quite close to the shore, but apparently he could not find a place in the dense thicket where he could land. The boat was quickly gaining on him, the whole pursuit would be over in two minutes. At that moment, two dark shadows suddenly emerged from the reeds. A trail like that left by a submarine appeared on the surface of the water. Another loud cry broke out on board. Everyone knew what those lines of of furrows meant – crocodiles! The swimmer heard the wild cry and looked behind him. He raised his arms and opened his mouth to utter a last cry for help. At that same moment, he disappeared straight under the water as if he had been drawn down with a cord. For a few seconds, little waves and bubbles rose from the spot where the negro had disappeared. Then all was quiet again.”

From Through the Sahara to the Congo by Louis D.C. Joos 1961.
With the two vans acting as sails, the wind pushed us further and further upstream, and it was obvious that the Captain had lost control of his boat.
Although the punters were using very long poles, they could not always reach the bottom in the centre of this deep river, and we circled helplessly for over an hour. 

With the men tired and mutinous and several of their poles broken, the Captain began to head back to the bank from which we had come. His performance in the centre of the River had us wondering if this “Captain” had much prior experience. 

We circle around helplessly for several hours.

We were told that we would wait until the wind dropped which sounded to us to be a splendid idea. However, inevitably, when they had obtained some more very long and stout bamboo poles from the river bank, we set off once more for the opposite bank. This time, the poles were long enough to reach the bottom, and, inch by inch, we approached the other side. We had by that time been afloat for two and a half hours which in fact compared favourably with the time taken to cross the Straits of Dover. 

After the broken poles were replaced with longer ones, we slowly began to make headway against the current and the headwind.
Unloading the van on the other side was fraught with more problems. First the Captain (standing at the bow) had to moor the boat. This apparently was easier said than done.
Then the two flimsy planks of wood had to be aligned so that the tyres would fit on them. Evan is at the wheel while Kae and Jürg are trying to make sure that the tyres were going to stay on the narrow planks. Once the front wheels were on the planks, it was too late to try to align the back wheels. So we had to make sure that all four wheels were aligned before we started.
With the back wheels still on the timber ramps, the van was grounding both at the back and the front. If the front of the van had grounded before we got the back off the boat, we could have been in real trouble. It missed hitting the ground in front by less than a mm. These photos were taken by Hubie with our camera.

Once both vans were again on terra firma, the busy little Captain immediately presented himself for his 6000 C.F.A. from each of us. He made it known that he felt that this was not enough, no doubt because of the fiasco in the middle of the river. Hubie had had the foresight to bring some old clothes which he had in a storage box on the roof of the Unimog. He climbed up and began tossing down trousers and shirts until eventually the Captain indicated rather grudgingly that he was satisfied.

By the time we had unloaded the vans up onto the steep bank, there were three more vehicles waiting to cross. We heard later that 1000 vehicles a month pass this way. Once the rainy season started in a few weeks, the river would be much higher and faster flowing, making crossing with these flimsy poles even more dangerous than it had been for us.

Dugouts moored on the Mbomou River, on the Congo side.

Letter from Evan Lewis to his father in New Zealand.


Central African Republic

                                                                        27th Feb 1982

Dear Dad and family,

We have been driving frantically for the last six days trying to get ahead of the rainy season. We met a group in a Landrover in Yaoundé, and they left on Sunday morning, a day before us. After we had driven for two days, we met them again. Their Landrover actually travels at the same speed as us but they start late, stop early and stop for lunch. We spent an afternoon and evening with them and a bus owned by seven Swedish students.  

We get up about 6.00 am, have a cooked breakfast (eggs which are plentiful here) and leave about 8.30 am. We then seldom stopped until about 6.00 PM which is just on dark. We generally camp on our own, on the roadside or in a clearing in the jungle.  It’s a bit spooky but seems safe enough. Better than in the cities where people get robbed. 

When we were traveling with the Landrover, we met a French-speaking Belgian who was working for a German construction company financed by the EEC to maintain the roads in the Central African Republic. He told us about a river where we could camp, swim, wash and get water. He claimed it was free of bilharzia so I went in for a dip with the local boys. Later the Belgian and his Thai wife joined us, bringing along some welcome wine and cool beer. Soon the busload of Swedish boys arrived too, so we had quite a party by the river.  

Meanwhile an African came asking the Landrover people and then us if we had any inner tubes for sale. I suggested my oldest spare wheel. I started bartering at £30 which is what I paid for it new three years and 34,000 miles ago. After haggling with the help of a Scotsman for about an hour, we came down to £16 and a liter of wine. Then he wanted the bottle back and some valves and patches thrown in. Meanwhile his friends immediately went back to their Japanese van, which had a flat tyre, and fitted my wheel directly on. I was rather surprised that it fitted.  

The following evening, we camped in a disused quarry on our own. We parked in a deep trench they had carved with a bulldozer, in order to get out of sight from the road. At about sunset, a vigorous thunderstorm circled around us and then kept us company for the night. It was the first heavy rain we have seen and signals the beginning of the rainy season. It poured all night, and I thought we would be stuck in this trench filled with water.  Fortunately it had all disappeared into the dry clay ground by the morning.  

Tonight, we arrived in Bambari at 5.00 PM, and as usual had to stop and ask someone where to go. There are no signposts anywhere, so asking people is the only way to navigate in Africa. Meanwhile a French family came and asked us if we had a problem. They then invited us to park for the night in the spacious grounds beside their colonial bungalow. On the other side was a noisy cotton factory.  We have just been in for a beer and a coke. He is an agronomist employed by the French government to aid the cotton industry.  His wife’s father is the Director of the nuclear reactor at Grenoble. They also live in Grenoble and seem to know a lot about New Zealand.

Suddenly our hosts all leapt up to shut all the doors and windows against a hoard of flying termites. We had seen a similar swarm the night before, when we were camping in the jungle. They explained to us that the termites always fly the first night after rain.  As soon as they land, they drop their long wings. I started writing this letter under the lights in their summerhouse but gave up because I was surrounded by these termites, spiders, centipedes and other creepy crawlies all trying to eat each other.  

We have seen two snakes in the last few days. Both were slim shiny black things between 1 and 2 meters long. One appeared to have grey stripes across it and a small head held above the ground level. Both slithered across the road as we approached in the van. You can buy 8 inch diameter pythons in the market for eating – a delicacy apparently.  The Belgian road engineer told us that they pulled one several meters long out of the bulldozer tracks recently.  

The people eat anything and everything here, including the termites which live either in anthills up to 5 meters high or in structures that look like huge mushrooms about 50 cm high. The Africans are basically hunter-gatherers although they have permanent houses, a few cotton fields and sometimes a herd of cattle. I could not understand why we keep seeing small bush fires that burn for a km or so and then stop. Apparently they do this deliberately just to get an easy supply of ready-cooked snakes, birds, rats and other small animals.  After the fire, the fertile soil can be used to cultivate some crops or banana palms before the soil is exhausted. Then it quickly reverts back to jungle again.  

In the villages, which are almost continuous through the jungle in this area, we often see carcasses hung up for sale beside the road:  things that look like opossums, small deer or gazelles and often monkey. No wonder we have not seen any wildlife in the jungle so far. Near rivers, you see fish, fresh, dried and/or smoked and many other indescribable objects for sale.  They also sell woven baskets, wooden stools etc.

The people all live in mud or straw huts of various types. We often see children with swollen bellies which I thought was caused by malnutrition.  This is very surprising considering the abundance of food all through this area. The land is very fertile but could be used much more productively. There is very little evidence of cultivation, or of work of any kind for that matter. There are only the cotton fields here, and they are not visible from the main road. There is the occasional coffee or banana plantation or rarely rubber trees. You can buy pineapples and bananas everywhere so we have been living on them. We bought four pineapples one day for about $1 each and are busy trying to eat them. They are very sweet and juicy. Tomatoes, cabbage and eggs are also relatively easy to buy although the chickens are free-ranging (all over the road!) and consequently we have had some rotten eggs.  

It is rather dangerous driving through the villages because people, children and animals are liable to run in front of you. If you kill one of them, they assume it was deliberate and attack you with machetes, killing the driver and possibly the passengers too. They all carry these big knives, even the small children. They also often carry spears, bow and arrows or slingshots.  None-the-less, everyone drives like madmen, including African, Arab and French taxi and truck drivers. But they are not as bad here as in Niger and Nigeria. Apparently the drivers are often drunk and are very frequently killed in numerous crashes – either head-on collisions during overtaking or failing to take corners. Back in Nigeria, on one bad winding stretch, we saw a rolled, burned out petrol tanker on nearly every corner. Life is cheap in Africa. 

                                                                                    3rd March 1982

After Bambari, it took us two days instead of the expected one to get to Bangassou. In the first evening, we came across a fantastic waterfall on a big river, and beside it were camped two Swiss vehicles. We had already been told about them by a German traveling in the opposite direction. We drove down the track and grounded on big rocks twice in 200 meters. 

We have been traveling with these two Swiss couples ever since. They are nice friendly people, and all help each other. One couple have a Mercedes Benz Unimog  which is a 7 tonne, 4 wheel drive, short wheelbase military-type vehicle which has at least 0.5 meter ground clearance. It is ideal for trans-Sahara travel except for the high fuel consumption:  about 4 mpg for the petrol version and 12-14 mpg in the sand with diesel. They cost 135,000 Deutsche Mark new for the chassis only but he got his with a 4 tonne caravan conversion. The owner, Hubie, is very kind-hearted, ‘sehr lustig’ (enthusiastic) and a lot of fun. 

A traditional dugout canoe. Photo taken near Bangassou in 1906

© Copyright Kae & Evan Lewis 2020. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1 Part 2: Plans To Go To Africa

By Kae Lewis

The key to trans-African travel for us was Zaire.  (Today it is called the Democratic Republic of Congo but for us, in 1982, it was Zaire.)  This country is so large and occupies such a central position on the map of Africa, that to try to plan a route around it is almost impossible.  There was a route passing through Chad but we had been told at the time that this is definitely the worst road in Africa, and like most others in central Africa, would be closed during that April to November rainy season as well.  To add to the difficulties, the newspapers at the time were full of stories of Colonel Gaddafi’s relentless move southwards into Chad and the continuing civil war.  The Chad embassy in Paris was understandably not issuing visas for tourists either.

At this stage, the jungles of Zaire seemed to be the obstacle in our path but all we could do was plan to be there at a time when the elements would not be working against us and hope for a more stable political situation.  Many previous expeditions had foundered here because the Zaire Government had a tendency to close the border at short notice. In any event, when we enquired at a Zaire Embassy in Europe about the possibilities of trans-Zaire travel, we were told that all borders are closed at all times and the only entry port is via Kinshasa airport.  This is the kind of obstacle that douses the hopes of even the most determined traveller.  

In the following months of 1981, using often sketchy newspaper reports, we attempted to piece together information about the political climate of all the countries we intended passing through.  We felt this was important, to avoid blundering into an out-of-control situation. At the time, we knew that these can flare up overnight as some would-be empire-builder touches his torch to the tinder dry chaos that is the everyday state throughout most of Africa.  However, we could try to be aware of the possibilities, which at the time seemed to be a reasonable approach.  However, with hindsight, we realise that no Westerner reading his newspaper can possibly understand all the undercurrents, crosscurrents and outright torrential floods which make up life on the African scene.

We had already owned a 1974 Volkswagen Kombi campervan for several years and had had the inside fitted to make a tiny living space for two. We had spent seven months the previous summer circling around the European side of the Mediterranean from Spain and Portugal through France, Italy and the Balkans to Greece.  During this time, we had come to love the van and the life she allowed us to lead.  We camped high on the bald rocks of the Pyrenees mountains and amongst the cork plantations of Portugal, on the cliffs and beaches of the broody blue Mediterranean or on the edges of timeless Greek villages with the tangy scents of wild thyme drifting in the  door.  We camped in the hills and passed an hour with an old goatherd or in the yard of a tiny white-washed Greek Orthodox chapel, built for whom? . . .  by whom? . . . for it had stood alone in the solitary hills for generations. We camped deep in the forests beneath the majestic red cliffs of the Dolomites in Italy, among the apple trees of an ancient French farmyard, and in the green mountain pastures of the Swiss Alps, listening to the tinkle of cowbells as we ate our evening meals.  It was little wonder that we were now making plans to start a journey which would allow us to camp endlessly in the wild once more. 

The first important decision to be made was whether to use the Kombie for Africa.  The alternative was to buy a four-wheel drive vehicle, like a Landrover, which would presumably be able to handle the bad roads more successfully.  However this would mean that we would be sleeping in a tent each night, and this rather daunting prospect quickly tipped the balance back to taking the Kombie.  Besides, she, our Katy, was like home to us.  We had already owned her since 1978 and lived in her on the road with no other home for nearly a year.  We felt we knew Katy well enough to know she would give of her best.  The big advantage was that we were already well aware of where her weaknesses lay and could attend to them before setting out. 

We had already spent a good deal of time and thought in designing the interior of the van the previous year, before our trip through Europe and while we were living in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in northern England.  Evan had cut away most of the solid floor-to-ceiling steel wall that separated the front cab from the back of what had originally been a delivery van when we bought it in 1979. This left enough steel wall on each side to support the new front seats but opened up the entire van as one space and left us with an access hatch so that we could move forward and jump into the front driving seats without going outside.

The original delivery van had a hard bench 3-person seat across the front cab. Evan removed this and utilized the space to make a large water storage tank. He welded thick sheets of PVC plastic into a tank with very odd shapes to make use of every available space under the seats for water storage. Once it was complete and no longer leaking, he mounted two very comfortable bucket seats, second-hand from a Fiat car, on top. I sewed tough new woven fabric seat covers which would not heat up in the sun or become sticky like a plastic one would.

We had a carpenter who specialised in camper conversions fit the rear with a comfortable bed which folded up into a seat during the day. We had a tiny cooker with two propane top burners, a grill and an oven. Running along beside the stove was a work bench and tiny sink with running cold water coming up from the sixty litre storage tank under the front seats. In a side compartment, we had enough bottled propane gas to last us about five months. I sewed fabric covers for the bed and thick curtains, including mosquito nets. 

We had a tiny cooker with two propane top burners and an oven. Beside that was a tiny sink, with a work bench and storage cupboards above and below.

There was about one square metre of standing space in front of the cooker and sink bench.  Many people would feel cramped in such a tiny space but we found this unimportant when we had a grand dining room and living room always just where we chose and decorated to perfection by Mother Nature herself.

From the rear of the van, looking across our bed, to the sink bench and stove, with the new access to the front seats completed.

We had designed the van to have plenty of storage areas, because, even when we built it back in 1979, we had planned to take the van on long safaris.  The bed base lifted up, and there was a large storage compartment underneath.  As well, we had fitted a fixed high fiberglass roof so that there was a circle of storage cupboards above our heads. This had the advantage that there was headroom in front of the sink bench so we could stand in front of it without the necessity of raising a pop-top roof.  All this original part of the van, which we had used in 1980 to tour of Europe, was now very familiar and homey to us and needed very little work doing on it. 

Evan was excited by the technical challenge of coaxing a standard two-wheel-drive vehicle across the African continent. He has always been an enthusiastic amateur mechanic who had grown up in a small town called Te Puke in New Zealand where his father was the local High School engineering and mechanics teacher.  When he was a teenager, Evan had worked with his father on many engineering projects at home, including the complete restoration of a vintage 1935 Austin 7 car. This had taught him all the mechanical skills that were to stand him in good stead in Africa.

During each and every spare weekend during 1981 in Ulm, southern Germany, Evan prised off every nut, bolt and moving mechanical part on the van.  In most cases, he replaced all the vulnerable parts, packing the old original part amongst our ever-growing pile of equipment to take with us.  We could not afford to buy too many new spares to take with us but in many cases, the original still had plenty of life left in it.  As it was, our spare cash was all disappearing into the local VW agency who must have wondered why our van needed so many repairs, and why we did not just give up on it.  

Evan and I did not speak much German. We had had four months of full-immersion instruction in the German language at the Goethe Language Institute the previous year, followed by a year of living and working in Ulm. This meant that everything we needed to buy was obtained with great difficulty using very basic German, our trusty dictionary and punctuated with exuberant sign language. This situation was not helped by the fact that much of what we needed to buy for a long-term expedition was not your every-day supplies. Evan had to learn all the German jargon for car parts and vehicle maintenance. Trying to explain our particular requirements to baffled German shopkeepers and car-parts dealers certainly taxed our poor abilities with the German language to their fullest.  

For about 18 months, our neighbours in the immaculate streets of Erbach, near Ulm, bore with us as Evan clanged and banged at rusted suspension bolts well into the night, spreading his greasy tools in front of our house and onto the footpath. They called him the ‘black devil’ (‘Schwarzer Teufel‘) because as they strolled past taking their Sunday constitutional, they invariably saw him covered in grease peering from under the van.

Evan replaced the engine with a factory-reconditioned ‘short block’, just to give us that extra margin of safety.  With the help of our kindly neighbour, Herr Wilderotter, he welded on some strengthening to the chassis and fitted a thick stainless steel plate over the gearbox to protect it should the vehicle ground underneath. Other standard VW plates were obtained from wrecked vehicles and bolted under the long steel girders of the chassis.  This left a convenient space where long heavy spare parts were secured with U-Bolts.  These parts included axels, springs, constant velocity joints and shock absorbers.  He constructed another steel chamber in the rear engine compartment for small heavy parts.  

There are in fact several manuals which instructed the amateur expeditioner in matters mechanical, and Evan knew their contents almost by heart. He often had to weight the merits of their excellent advice with the size of our ever-diminishing bank balance and try to find a compromise.  At the end of that summer, we really felt that the van could face anything put in front of it.  Little did we know what that would be.

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

Why a Blog? Why Now?

In 1982, Kae and Evan Lewis set off from Europe to travel the length of Africa in their 1974 VW Kombie campervan with two wheel-drive. This blog includes the photos we took and excerpts from travel diaries and letters we wrote at the time. We left London in early January 1982 and reached a beach in Capetown in South Africa nine months later, after a journey of 20,600 miles. We averaged about 10-20 miles/hr and were seldom out of first gear.

Why choose to publish a blog now, so long afterwards? Much of the route we took, through the Sahara Desert, Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic and the Congo (called Zaire in 1982) and on to Uganda and Kenya, has been closed off to overlanders since the 1990s due to various rebel and Islamic insurgencies with their associated terrorism, kidnappings and wars, the random terror acts and lawlessness of despot dictators, the terrifying increase in Ebola and Cholera in the Congo, and finally, because the road through Central Africa is now more impassable than it ever was, having returned to the jungle it came from only a few years after we passed that way.

In 1982, there was no web, no google searches for up-to-date information, no blogs, no cellphones or emails, no GPS or satellite communications and most of the post offices were not functioning or sending out mail only on a quarterly basis, if at all. Even international phone calls on public landlines were unavailable at these post offices. Once we left Europe, our family and friends had no idea where we were for months on end. Also, without GPS or even large scale maps, we ourselves often did not know where we were. We navigated by compass and degrees of latitude and longitude, calculated when we arrived at a city large enough to appear on the wall map of the entire continent of Africa that we had. There were few, if any signposts, and most of the locals we asked had very little idea in which direction you had to go to reach another town, even one only 20 or 40 miles away. We were on our own.

The free life and self-dependence, together with the fact that we never knew what tomorrow would bring, had an attraction of its own that can only be understood by those who have had similar experiences

Kae Lewis

Assekrem, near Tamanrasset, Central Algeria

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


This book is dedicated to my husband Evan who somehow gave me the courage to accompany him from one end of Africa to the other. His superb technical skills in driving and keeping our van mechanically sound was the key to our progress through the endless sands, jungles and bogs of Africa. 

This book is also in memory of Katy, our brave little 1974 Volkswagen Kombie campervan, registration number (GB) KTY494P. Despite her lack of 4-wheel drive and being grossly overloaded, she had the uncanny knack of rising up and over the deepest hole, the softest sand, the stickiest mud or the steepest incline like a ship rising above a wave. It broke our hearts after eight years of adventures with Katy to sell her and say goodbye.  

It is also dedicated to Johanna and Jürg, those other ‘crazy’ tourists who taught us so much about travel in Africa. This book has come about as the result of a reunion between Evan, Kae, Johanna and Jürg on a Swiss mountainside in August 2003, twenty years after we had first met beside a beautiful waterfall in the middle of Central African Republic in 1982.

And mostly it is dedicated to our son Craig in the hope that it will inspire him, not only to dream impossible dreams, but to actively and relentlessly carry them through.  In this way, and only in this way, will he be able to say at the end:

“I made the most of my life.” 

Kae Lewis              

Evan, Craig and Kae Lewis 1993, California USA

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