Monday 10 June 2013

I. : The Route

Dear I.,

Thanks for your letter. You asked me, "WHAT ROUTE WILL YOU TAKE ACROSS AFRICA?"

First, I just wanted to let you know that you got my attention and I would have responded even if you didn't write your question in all-capital letters.

We originally had two choices for our route from Europe across Africa to Tanzania: east or west. The main barrier to pan-African travel is the Sahara, which cuts across the whole continent from Morocco and Mauritania to Egypt and the Sudan. The roads through Niger, Chad and especially Mali are generally unsafe and considered closed to travellers, who risk armed robbery or even kidnapping-for-ransom by bandits who wear the colours and shout the slogans of religious extremists. The eastern route, down from Egypt and the Sudan to Ethiopia, is open, and we’ve read about a couple who passed through it, going the other way, just a few months ago. They had no big problems, had no tire punctures and paid no bribes.

But when we began preparing this trip in our heads a year and a half ago, the South Sudan was a new country without any guarantee for survival, and the trouble in the Darfur looked like it was about to spread. Not only that, but Egypt charges a small fortune in import-export fees to anyone passing through by car. So, despite the fact that the eastern route is far shorter, and would have given us the chance to pass through Italy and Greece on the way across the Mediterranean to Egypt, we decided to go west, all around the coast. We will cut from west to east via Angola and Zambia, to avoid the notoriously terrible roads of the DR Congo.

And, not only are we going west, we’re going out of the way to the south as well. It is at the moment too risky to cross from Cameroon through the Central African Republic, or to cross the DR Congo to Uganda, Rwanda or Burundi, or even direct over Lake Tanganyika to Tanzania. The situation all across the eastern DR Congo is dangerous – and tragic, given the conflict is the successor to not only the 1994 Rwandan genocide, but also the 1998-2003 so-called African World War, which was the bloodiest on earth since World War II. We’re steering clear.

Our overall route is fairly fixed, but the specifics could change with the circumstances. For example, there is trouble brewing right now in Nigeria. The Boko Haram (a term that literally means, 'western education is sinful') are a radical Islamic organisation that have been waging a violent campaign against the government since 2009, in an effort to impose sharia law. The group already controls large parts of northern Nigeria, over which it is imposing its harsh religious and ideological standards, and is attempting to increase its sway. Just last month, the Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency and began a military counter-offensive against Boko Haram. So far, the conflict and instability is limited to the northern, and predominantly Muslim, half of Nigeria. But recent reports indicate the conflict could spill south, and become a civil war.

So, we have to keep our eyes on that. Also, we need to be wary of time. We were about two weeks late leaving Morocco, and have made up some of that by bypassing cities like Nouadhibou in Mauritania, and by only making brief stops in places like Saint-Louis and Lac Rose in Senegal. We are currently in the Gambia, the first officially English-speaking African country we will visit. We planned to take a few days here, maybe to go on a bird-watching trip up the famous Gambia River, but we got stuck waiting for the Barra-Banjul ferry for a whopping 24 hours. Unfortunately, we have to cross back into southern Senegal today.

That being said, if there are no more major delays (there will be...) and if we can cover distances as fast as we planned (we won't...), our route from the very start is as follows:

  1. Paris to Algeciras in southern Spain, via San Sebastian, Logroño, Sevilla and Cadiz.
  2. Algeciras to Tanger, via ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar.
  3. Tanger to Dakar, Senegal, via the coastal routes through Casablanca, Agadir, the Western Sahara, Nouakchott and Saint-Louis.
  4. Dakar to Ziguinchor, also in Senegal, via the Gambia.
  5. Ziguinchor to Conakry, Guinea, via Guinea-Bissau, where we hope to visit the Archipelagos dos Bijagos.
  6. Conakry to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, via Sierra Leone and Liberia.
  7. Abidjan to Accra, Ghana.
  8. Accra to Lagos, Nigeria, via Benin where we'd like to see the Royal Palaces of Abomey.
  9. Lagos to Yaoundé, Cameroon.
  10. Yaoundé to Libreville, Gabon, bypassing Equatorial Guinea.
  11. Libreville to Brazzaville, in the Congo.
  12. Brazzaville across the Congo River to Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
  13. Kinshasa to Matadi, on the border with Angola, to get the elusive Angolan visa.
If we get the Angolan visa:
  1. Matadi to Luanda, Angola.
  2. Luanda to Lusaka, Zambia, on a road running mostly parallel with the DR Congo.
  3. Lusaka to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. 
If we do not get the Angolan visa:
  1. Kinshasa to Lumbumbashi, via Africa’s worst road.
  2. Lubumbashi to Lusaka, Zambia.
  3. Lusaka to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. 

We are not quite prepared for the road to Lubumbashi, if it becomes necessary. Even though we would be going in the dry season and the road will be much more passable, we will probably need to fit a winch to the front of Archer, and make a few other modifications and enhancements as they become evident over the next few thousand kilometers. Right now, we’ve got 40 litres of spare fuel, 50 litres of water, sand ladders, three spare tires, several puncture repair kits, two screwdrivers and a nice hammer – but that won’t be enough.

So goes preparing for the worst. Optimistically, however, the above 20,000 km route will be even longer to incorporate a wander around Guinea’s Fouta Djallon Plateau, a visit Ghana’s Digya National Park, and a swing further south to Zambia’s Victoria Falls. Our road might seem long, but we’re only visiting 20 of Africa’s 54 countries, and really just a fraction of this enormous and dynamic continent.

I hope that’s all clear. You might want to put aside the globe and open up Google Maps – some of these places are hard to find.

If you think up any more questions, keep them coming, in whatever CASE you choose.

All the best,


The sum total of our maps.
We are not using GPS, which involves asking everyone for directions
(there are practically no signs).