Got up at 6am. Bus left at 9. If you think there’s a pattern emerging here, THEN THERE IS AND I’M GETTING A LITTLE BIT SICK OF IT.
The journey was uneventful, but was tinged with tension – my visa expires today. I HAVE to leave Angola today or I might well find myself back in jail… The border closes at 6pm. Stupidly, the bus is scheduled to get in at 5pm. Why it didn’t leave a couple of hours earlier (seriously, what difference would it make?) is quite beyond my programming.
So every time we stopped, I found myself jiggling my legs, chewing the inside of my mouth and repeatedly looking at my watch.
After a few hours, I had a thought. What if the border closes 6pm Namibia Time? Namibia is an hour ahead of Angola. That would mean that the border would close at 5pm. Why on earth would a bus running to a border be scheduled to arrive just as the border closed?
Because THIS IS AFRICA.
My spidey-sense tingled and I considered sneaking across the border, going to the British Commission in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, and saying I had lost my passport. I couldn’t hack being detained again. I just couldn’t hack it. Not after Congo. Unhelpfully, the road from Lubango to the border was only decent for the first few miles. After that, it was (yet another) dirt track. Although on a positive note, they are building a new road, so in a couple of years, you’ll be able to run from Windhoek to Luanda in less than twenty-four hours.
Although Luanda to Kinshasa will no doubt remain an unfathomable mess.
The bus arrived (surprisingly) on time at 5:10pm. I got out and my bus buddy Cliff who was returning to South Africa, told me that he was going to take a short cut out of Angola as the paperwork involved in getting a visa to this damn place had confounded him as well. I was tempted to join him, but being a whitey, I’d stick out from the locals like a sore thumb. I ran to the border.
It did close at 5pm!
The man was closing the gate.
I ran through the gate, muttering something about an emergency and pegged it over to the emigration window, slapping my much worn passport against the glass. PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, MY VISA EXPIRES TONIGHT, PLEASE STAMP ME OUT.
The woman wordlessly took my passport, sighed and turned her computer back on.
I could have kissed her.
I got my exit stamp and then strode over the imaginary line that separates Angola from Namibia.
The first country since SENEGAL that I didn’t need a visa to get in to! That’s over twenty countries, two passports full of stickers, stamps and scribble. I quickly filled out a form and the immigration officer stamped me in. The process took less than five minutes.
I met up with Cliff on the other side and there being no night bus to Windhoek, we went for a drink. It cost 75p for 750ml of Carling. That’s more than a pint!
In Angola, you’d be lucky to get a 330ml bottle foreign beer for less than a fiver.
Can I say it?
Okay, I’m going to say it, but please don’t think this makes me racist.
CIVILISATION AT LAST!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I feel wonderful. I feel like I’ve crawled through four months of crap and come out drunk on the other side. I couldn’t be happier to be Out Of Africa. Even though I’m not. Namibia, South Africa and Botswana are the richest, most developed nations in the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa. Here, I may as well be in Europe. But this is just an interlude – before too long I’ll be heading up into East Africa – the night terrors of Rwanda, Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia await.
I may be finished with Africa, but Africa is not finished with me. Not by a long chalk.
Arrrrrrgh! ANOTHER get-up-at-5am-bus-leaves-at-11am day. I tell you, good information is priceless. Cliff and I wound up hanging about for hours before we actually left, but when we did hit the road, it was the sum of bliss.
When I crossed the border into Namibia yesterday, I didn’t just cross into another country, I crossed into another world. The developed world. And God I’ve missed it. A word of clean toilets, hand-dryers, fast-food (I haven’t seen a KFC since Spain), sealed roads, traffic lights, road rules, roadworthy vehicles; roads bereft of hawkers, beggars, goats, chickens, those f***ing police checkpoints and of the ubiquitous mounds of litter and crap that mark the entry point to human settlements.
I guess in hindsight I will look back over my four-month slog through West and Central Africa with affection. But not today. I’m just glad to be out.
Namibia was once a German colony, but after World War I, Germany lost its African possessions and South West Africa, as it was then known, fell under the rule of South Africa. SA clung on to the place until March 1990, making Namibia one of the youngest states in Africa, after Djibouti. Namibia has the highest gem quality of diamonds anywhere in the world and enjoys a mixed economy and a free press – something that their impoverished colleagues in West and Central Africa do not.
We stopped at service stations that were fully stocked with everything a growing boy needs. I saw Warthogs, Antelopes and Water Buffalo. As night fell, an electrical storm reared up ahead. I love lightning. It quickens my blood. The landscape was beautiful and vast.
This was the Africa I wanted to see up north. This is the Africa of 2030, if the Bottom Billion can get its act together. This is the Africa people pay to come and see. There is such thing as normal, and whatever I feel about the individual countries, Mauritania, Senegal, Cape Verde, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea-Conakry, Mali, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Benin, Togo, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Sao Tome, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola are NOT normal. I know. I’ve been there.
They need help. But ultimately, the only people who can help Africa are the Africans themselves. Aid is critical in helping with the day-to-day business of staying alive, but these places have a growth rate of just 1%. And it’s been that way since the 1970s. A mixed economy, a manufacturing base, an educated workforce and a strong and sustained investment in infrastructure is the only way out of this mess – look at India, China, Latin America, the Tiger Economies; in the last twenty years, they have really started digging themselves out of the heap. They are developing nations. Africa isn’t developing. To call African states ‘developing nations’ is a misnomer. They are not. They are stagnant nations. Calling them the now-derisory title ‘The Third World’ is closer to the mark.
We have Developed Nations, Developing Nations and Stagnant Nations. The world is, indeed, split into three. And while there are a few nations outside of Africa that one could consider Stagnant – Paraguay and Afghanistan are examples, the vast majority are here in Africa. 350,000,000 Africans live on less than a dollar a day.
A mere 1% increase in world trade from Africa would be the equivalent of five times the foreign aid currently received by the entire continent. But Africa is not making anything we want to buy, the raw materials she produces are processed elsewhere. I mean, you might know someone who really digs crude oil or desperately wants an unfinished diamond on their finger, but they are few and far between.
No cars, no iPods, no computers, no televisions, no cameras, no textiles, no kettles, shows, dishwashers, bobby pins, tin-openers, grand pianos, computer games, no chocolate-flavoured body paint. In short, nothing that anybody in the rest of the world wants to buy other than BP and DeBeers. A billion people working for a handful of companies – how on Earth is that supposed to work?
Africans are not slackers. They work just as hard, if not harder, as anyone in the First World. Their lands are mostly rich and fertile and they possess immense quantities of raw materials that the Developed World could only dream of owning. There is nothing to stop Africans from clambering out of this cesspit of disease, misery and death.
Nothing, that is, but the dreadful, inept, thieving clowns that are (sadly) still in charge.
But there is hope. All of the Africans I chatted politics with, know it. One day, my friends, one day. I just hope I’m still around to see it. I’ll drive my electric car along the Pan-African freeway from Tangier to Cape Town to Cairo and back to Tangier. You see if I don’t.
We reached Windhoek at around 9pm. I made contact with Tashia, whose couch I would be surfing for the night. Namibian born and bred, she works in real estate since the diamond industry (her former employer) took a nose dive after the Credit Crunch. She also presents the sports bulletins on Namibia television, which is pretty darn cool.
Wonderfully, she went to DHL during the day to pick up my new hard-drive, so I can get some more videos edited (wouldn’t that be a fine thing?) and tomorrow hop on the overnight bus to Botswana and South Africa tomorrow evening.
My passport is almost full, so I’m going to have to pick up a new one in Pretoria. I’ve still got a LONG way to go, baby. A long way.
It was a comfortable night on Tashia’s couch, interrupted only by the once-an-hour shrill of my mobile phone waking me to change the video tapes that I was uploading onto my laptop. I would be going to DHL later to send the tapes to Australia and I didn’t want to let them go (especially after what happened to me in Congo) without making sure I had a back up.
In the morning, Tashia left me to my own devices. Soon I had all of my tapes uploaded and I was ready to go. The bus for South Africa left in the evening, so there was no rush. Tashia came back around lunchtime – her kid had fallen ill and had been admitted to hospital. Nothing too serious, but it looked like he had a bout of food poisoning and the doctors wanted to keep him in for observation. Tashia’s dad (a HUGE Liverpool FC fan) dropped me off at the coach offices on the way to the hospital.
I bought a ticket for the Intercape Mainliner bus to Jo’burg/Pretoria, but they were sold out. The lady who was serving me suggested that I got the first bus as far as Uppington (the first major town over the South African border) and then chanced my luck that there’d be a spare seat on the connecting bus. Would it be okay if I left my bags here for a bit? Sure! I then asked where DHL was and one of the other ladies offered to drive me over there.
I nearly fell over.
This level of customer service was not something that I was expecting. It doesn’t exist in America, it certainly doesn’t exist in the UK. What wonderful, wonderful people!! Intercape Namibia gets a gold star and a jelly baby from me, seriously.
So the tapes were mailed off to Australia (a little cheaper than sending them from Sierra Leone, but I didn’t get much change from my $100) and after thanking the Intercape ladies profusely, I headed out for my afternoon mission – to buy a new charger for my Nokia mobile phone. My own one had blown a fuse the night before.
Easier said than done. I spent a good hour traipsing around a shopping mall trying to find one. In most African countries you can pick up a Nokia charger on every street corner, but I was not in luck – everywhere was sold out. I ended up buying a new phone. Ah well, I probably needed it, my old mobile was on its last legs – it’s fiddly to charge, the screen has a big black splodge in the middle, it takes 20 minutes to load up when you turn it on, the batteries barely last a day and it keeps crashing in the middle of conversations – put simply, it’s been Africa’d.
One thing they did have in the mall – a Wimpeys burger joint. Crikey – remember them? Way too much ketchup, though. I got back to the Intercape offices and jumped the overnight bus to country 113 – South Africa.
So… into the tenth month on the road and I finally, finally reach South Africa, what had, in my original estimation, been the half-way point for this adventure. That was before the Cape Verde Fiasco, the Gaff in Gabon and the Crisis in Congo. Now I’ll just have to settle with seeing Mandy again sometime next year – you’ve no idea how much that I would like to wake up in the morning with her beside me. To say it’s been too long, is an understatement.
Africa, sorry, you’ve been a bitch. A real bitch. But now I’ve made it to South Africa I’m feeling good, no injuries, no countries that I couldn’t get into (one way or another) and best of all, I still haven’t had a day off ill. My main task here is to get a new passport, as although mine has a good two pages left (as well as copious amounts of space around solitary entry stamps), Africa has conspired to fill my little maroon book with as much ink as it possibly could. Seriously, I have no less than EIGHT different stamps for Gabon – considering I only (officially) entered that country once, that’s some feat.
I have a strong suspicion that the wives of African border officials have to make do with the couch while their husbands spend the night cuddling up to their little stamps. The obsession is as bizarre as it is homogeneous. If it was just one country, they’d get a let, but when I enter Togo for just three hours and lose three good pages of my passport in the process, one can only hum in amused disbelief.
But, hey, if Africa wasn’t TOTALLY LUDICROUS, then it wouldn’t be Africa now, would it?
The morning began as early as it possibly could on the overnight bus from Windhoek in Namibia. We crossed the border around 4am, getting into the pleasant town of Uppington later that morning. I didn’t have a ticket for the connecting bus and (after being told that all the buses were full until next Monday) proceeded to beg for a space on the bus. Luckily, somebody hadn’t turned up, so I managed to snag a seat to Pretoria.
The Intercape bus service seems to be run by a Brian Souter-esque evangelical Christian, which made the choice of on-board movies rather less than compelling. If I want to be preached at, I’ll go to a church thank you very much, I have little time for people who abuse a captive audience to proliferate their own world-view. I found the whole experience, erm… rude. It’s not like I can shut off my ears, and after an entire day of this glurge, I was ready to set up my own chapter of the South African Satanist Society.
I was particularly embarrassed when the hostess thanked God for getting us to Pretoria safely, rather than, you know, the driver who had ACTUALLY got us there. It reminded me of those egomaniacs who thank God for curing their cancer, when in reality it was a small army of specialised doctors, surgeons, oncologists, radiologists, scientists and researchers who saved their life. I doubt too many people bother to track down all the people they should be thanking, but it would make a good television show.
The bus journey was made more tolerable by the fact the bus was comfortable, the roads were, well… roads and we stopped a good number of times for food and drink, which was provided by various clean, snack-filled service stations along the way.
Something that I think is much more shocking than what you see in much of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is what you don’t see – and South Africa, being a developed nation, really drove this home. In most of the countries that I’ve travelled through in this continent, you see no industry, no manufacturing (when did you last buy something with ‘Made In Gabon’ stamped on it?), no farms bigger than subsistence-level plots, no farm equipment, no decent housing, no decent hospitals, no decent schools (at least not for the locals) and, most horrifying of all, hardly any elderly people. In fact, thanks to Malaria, AIDS, war, malnutrition and road accidents, over half of the population of SSA is under the age of 18.
Luckily for South Africa, it has all the mod cons associated with modern life (which, having just struggled through the last vestiges of the 17th century, I can quite honest say is not rubbish), and the journey was similar to one you would take across the USA.
I got chatting to a couple of South African guys on the bus. One of them, Jared, filled me in on the beat of modern South Africa. Apparently, Pretoria is the capital of the ‘Boarvost Eaters’ (the Afrikaans), Johannesburg is just as dangerous as everyone thinks it is and Cape Town is the best bit (shame I won’t be seeing it on this trip).
By the time we got to Jo’burg, it was dark and the first thing that greeted us in the murder capital of the world was, yes, a murder. A body bag at the side of the road, police cordon and two police cars, their lights flashing. I’ll be pressing on to Pretoria, if it’s all the same to you, thank you.
Arriving at around 9pm, I jumped a taxi to the Backpackers on Glyn Street (right next to the British High Commission). A little tired after my marathon coach journey from Windhoek, I was planning for an early night – but first I wanted something. I wanted something more than the desert wants the rain… I wanted KFC.
You really, really don’t miss something until it’s gone. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a country that has no KFC, (according to The Onion, Islamic, Jewish and Christian leaders hold a symposium each year celebrating their mutual love of chicken) but West and Central Africa have not a single outlet of the Colonel’s Finest in like 25 different countries. And as much as I bemoan American fast food culture, there are times when only a KFC will do.
After four months of Africa throwing everything it has at me, I felt I deserved it.
After devouring three pieces of original recipe like the Kraken (just three pieces, no coke and no fries thank you), I was walking back to the hostel when I realised I could also do with a drink. So I dropped in to ‘Cool Runnings’, a log-cabin style affair with good music playing. Now drinking on your own is sad. Even when I’m travelling on my tod, it is a very rare occasion that I’ll go into a bar without company, if I do, I’ll always be armed with my laptop or a book to read. The same rule applies to restaurants and cinemas. Although in a cinema, having a book doesn’t help.
In this case, I just intended to swig down a bottle of the local grog and then return to the Backpackers and go bo-bos.
The cute barmaid asked where I was from, I said Liverpool, she said she wanted to ask me something and before I knew it, I was knee-deep in conversation with the barstaff and barflies of Cool Runnings. The bar closed at god-knows o’clock and I was invited to join the staff on a good old-fashioned student night out.
In for a penny, in for a pound.
By the time we got to the place with the juke box and pool table (that’s pretty much all I remember of it), I was well and truly tanked-up and ready to take on the world. The barmaid, Mary Jane (or MJ – finally, I get to meet a chick called MJ) and her mate Eileen looked after me, eventually we ended up taking the party back to Eileen’s flat in the middle of town.
Ah, the beer vortex. I can’t recommend it enough.
Eileen’s flat was the stuff of all things that you’d expect to see if you went home with a girl from the Krazy House – vampire books, fairy tales, kick-ass CDs and DVDs, a hundred different ways of predicting the future… and, of course, a poster of Jack and Sally.
Eileen and I sat up arguing about nothing important until daybreak, while the others mooched around doing whatever it is you do in situations that you know you won’t remember properly in the morning. The whole shebang was a breath of fresh air – reminded me of a quality night out in Liverpool. These guys weren’t charity workers, they weren’t here to do a job, the conversation didn’t centre on the horror and futility of modern Africa – they lived here, this was their life, their home.
After 40 minutes kip, I headed out to the High Commission to get myself a new passport.