Day 1,425: The Impossible Dream

Sun 25.11.12:

The coach arrived at 9am in an strangely subdued Kampala. Where the hell was everyone? Then I realised it was Sunday and it all kinda made sense – they be at church being told how homosexuals make Baby Jesus cry and therefore should be put to death. The bus office next to the buses back to Dar was advertising overnighters to Juba, South Sudan, leaving at 9pm. I bought a ticket with a strange sense of calm elation. I’ve learnt time and time again not to get too excited about ANYTHING on this journey, just in case something goes horribly wrong.

I set off to find myself a cash machine, a SIM card, some camcorder tapes and Internet access. Only the ATM was forthcoming, everywhere was shut. After wandering around Kampala for a bit too long, I was pointed at the direction of the decidedly down-at-heel Equatorial Hotel, which apparently had wi-fi. They wanted US$10, which was extortionate but I was kinda of desperate to get these YouTube videos online. What I didn’t realise was that the connection would be so agonisingly slow. It took over two hours to just upload one vid, I had another four ready to go. Anna, a journo from Al-Jazeera who I was supposed to be meeting today had she not been ill, texted to say I should use connection at the swanky Serena Hotel on the other side of town. So I went for a walk with all my bags, arriving there at 6pm. Meanwhile, Casey was busy firing out press releases to all and sundry. Thank you Case!!

I managed to get the remaining few vids up online. Okay, everything is set. All I need now is for my bus to the border not to crash/break down/explode and I’ll have done it. I’d be the first person to visit every country in the world without flying. This was really IT.

Take it easy. Keep your head on Graham. I took an over-priced taxi to the bus station. I took my seat, strapped myself in and set off towards The Final Frontier, the culmination of 1,425 days of highs, lows, buses, trains, ships, sunsets, beers, joy, disappointment, hilarity, friendship, frustration, adventure, illumination, stubbornness, self-belief and dogged determination. The End of The Odyssey Expedition.

Day 1,429: Exiting 201

Thu 29.11.12:

It was 5am and I was up and showered, ready to begin my long journey back to the UK. Remarkably, in terms of physical distance, Durban to Khartoum in North Sudan is 3142 miles and Khartoum to Liverpool is 3244 miles, so I should be halfway there, but if only things were that easy. All things being equal I could jump in a car (or a boat if I was feeling fruity) and head on up the White Nile to Khartoum. From there it’s just 10 hours (if that) to Wadi Halfa on the border with Egypt. If there was a road crossing the border (clue: there isn’t) it would be a few more hours by bus to Aswan and an overnight train journey to Cairo. I could be ready to get the ferry across the Med in less than three days. I could be home in a week. Seriously.

But things are not that easy up here in North Africa. Not that easy at all. First up, the border between South and North Sudan is VERY closed, as is the border between South Sudan and Kenya. There isn’t even a road between South Sudan and Ethiopia, so you can forget about that too. The only way out of the country (without flying) is back to Uganda and the only way from there to North Sudan is to wheel around through Kenya and Ethiopia.

Get out of THAT one, Rommel…

Kenya is no problem, you can get a visa on the border. Ethiopia, however. Urgh. Not only can you not get a visa on the border, you cannot even buy a visa anywhere in Africa (with the possible exception of Somaliland). You have to get it in London. Furthermore, a visa for North Sudan almost just as hard to get a hold of. The Sudanese embassy in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, is infamous for its mercurial nature. I can take very little on this portion of the journey for granted.

Nevertheless, I have set a date for my return to Liverpool. By hook or by crook I will be crossing the River Mersey on the ferry and arriving at The Pier Head (in front of the iconic Liver Buildings) at 2.45pm on Saturday 22nd December. Mark my words: BY HOOK OR BY CROOK, I SHALL BE THERE!!!

Everybody reading this is welcome to come along if you can make it. Please bring the flag of your favourite country (or your favourite flag)!! Afterwards we will be heading off to a secret location for booze, music and dancing. You can say you’re coming via Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/events/376044069148554/

I am racing to get to Kampala before 5.30pm today as my gorgeous friend Lindsey has been an angel/star/legend again this week and nabbed me one of ’em pesky Ethiopian visas for my second passport and posted it DHL to Uganda. It arrived a couple of days ago. If I can get there today before it closes, I can continue my journey onto Kenya tomorrow night, thereby saving me a day of travel. Nice!

However, the bus, rather predictably, broke down on the way to the border. Flat tyre. The bus boys spent an hour trying to take the wheel off, but that last nut just refused to budge. So they reattached all the other nuts and we piled back onboard and proceeded to Nimule at a more gentler pace. Thank God for double wheels.

At the border there was no time to mess around. I cunningly did the old tourist trick of ignoring the MASSIVE queue and walking straight into the immigration building and then looking a bit lost. It doesn’t always work, but today was my lucky day, not only did I get stamped out of South Sudan in record time, I also got stamped IN to Uganda in record time. I abandoned my wonky bus (I didn’t want to be trundling along at half-speed all the way to Kampala) and clambered onboard whichever bus looks like it was leaving next. We thundered south, arriving at the outskirts of Kampala around 5pm, I was willing us to get into the station straight away, but it wasn’t to be: we got caught in a traffic jam. Possibly karma for me jumping the queue this morning. It was 6pm by the time we got to the bus station. There was a bus leaving for Nairobi at 7pm, but I couldn’t leave without my passport.

Too late to arrange a CouchSurf, I checked into the Kampala Backpackers for the night, caught up on a stack of written interviews (damn my fingers ACHE! Why can’t they just ring meeeee?!) and then crashed out at an embarrassingly early time (for me) of 11pm.

Day 1,430: Call My Bluff

Fri 30.11.12:

Up at 7am and down to DHL for 8.30pm. Passport – avec Ethiopian visa – in hand (praise be to Lindsey!), I bought a ticket for the bus to Nairobi, leaving at 11am. Well, kind of. After finding out what time the bus left I shopped around the bus station for a better deal, timewise – this bus would get into Nairobi at 11pm. I thought it better to get an overnighter. However, I had been told that the buses north from Nairobi to the Ethiopian border left at 6am, and all the other buses I could find left at 7pm this evening, arriving Nairobi 7am tomorrow: my schedule would be all skew-if. Last time was in Nairobi, since I spent the morning getting my Ethiopian AND Djibouti visas (something that would be double impossible now), I was told that the big bus had gone and I would have to take a mini-bus. A minibus covered in Hello Kitty stickers designed to take Japanese kids to school. SURPRISINGLY, it broke down about 17 times on, you know, the roughest highway in the whole of East Africa, costing me at least a day of travel. Won’t be making *that* mistake again.

So I went back to the Spider Bus (the one that left at 11) and asked for a ticket. The woman smiled and told me they were now sold out. I had only been gone 10 minutes!!

A helpful bus guy told me not to worry, they could sort out a ticket for me, but I’d have to sit on a low stool in the aisle. As it wasn’t an overnighter, I figured in for a penny in for a pound and took him up on the offer. I then went on a quick dash around the city, picking up supplies for the last leg: video tapes, wetwipes, handgel, shampoo, deodorant (how hard is it to get spray-on deodorant in hot countries?!), talc and plasters. Kampala is an epic busy city. When I was here last Sunday I was lulled into a false sense of security, I should have noticed it was Sunday in this, a deeply Christian country. (So Christian in fact that they want to introduce the death penalty for homosexuality. Oh I can see Jesus, being a unkempt, unmarried, unemployed 33 year-old who hung out with sailors and prostitutes (sound familiar?), being SO GLAD at this prospect – him being the least chromatically adept member of the pantheon of White-Man’s Gods… *chuckle*)

Anyway, chores completed, I raced back to the bus station and before I knew it we were thundering east towards Kenya at a frightening rate of knots. We got to the frontier in good time, but after that we really started slowing down. Our eta of 11pm became midnight, became 1am, became 2am… I’m a champion sleeper, but even I have my limits, and I think sitting in the aisle on a tiny three-legged stool while being driven through Kenya at night is quite possibly it. It was all I could do to not fall off the damn thing.

Still, managed to do an interview for CNN from the floor of the nightbus to Nairobi. Not a lot of people can add that one to their bragging rights.

We were stopped numerous times by the police, the most hilarious moment being when I was taken off the coach (just me, not the other five people sitting in the aisle) and was told that I had broken the law and that I was going to be arrested and held in the jail cell (pointed out with his baton) until Monday morning.

The usual course of action in these circumstances is to act all shocked and dismayed and ‘see if we can come to some sort of arrangement’. Not me.

‘Sorry about that, officer, I’ll just go get my bag.’

‘Oh no, sir, it’s okay.’

‘No, no, it’s just here by the door, I’ll get it. Hey I’m tired anyway – it’ll be good to get my head down, even if it is on cockroach-infested concrete, and – who knew? – I have a certain fondness for African jail cells.’

‘Sir, please, it’s okay, you didn’t know.’

‘Ignorance of the law is no excuse, officer’ say I, grinning broadly, whilst readying my saved ‘HELP! BEEN ARRESTED!!’ text message to go out on Twitter. You know what they say, no publicity is bad publicity. (Well, unless it involves having sex with children, eh Max?)

‘No no, it’s no problem, you can get back on the bus.’

‘Ah, okay, thanks… goodnight!’

Remarkably, I did manage to get a few minutes sleep on my three-legged stool. However, we didn’t get to Nairobi until 5am.