Kenya: The Swahili Coast

Like a worried war-time family gathered around the wireless, we crowded around a small window in a Greek hotel room to see a torrent of protesters surge around the Landie, hurling rocks and abuse at the riot police. In Tahrir Square we ate roasted sweet potatoes bearing inverted impressions of the anti-government pamphlets in which they were wrapped. In Sudan the people marched in anger at the murder and concealment of two student protesters. It has felt to us as we have traveled that the world is in mutinous temper. Kenya revealed itself to be no exception.

While we were discovering Uganda and Rwanda, elections were taking place in Kenya. We had not particularly intended to avoid Kenya during this period but it was a happy coincidence considering their last elections were marred by quite widespread political and intertribal violence.  On our return we crossed Kenya quickly, arriving on the Swahili coast after only the briefest of stops to attend a party that confirmed every rumour we had heard about the Nairobi expatriate scene.

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Our arrival was greeted with the warmest of welcomes from Bas’ parents, William and Lucy Wallace, and their friends Martin and Dawn Whetstone. A wonderful week was spent lounging by the pool, visiting idyllic beaches and mixing with the who’s who of the Malindi social scene. As we sipped cold beers in the Driftwood club we quickly forgot all about our intrepid expedition. We were delighted to be given the opportunity to speak at the Driftwood and tell a few of our tales as part of a cervical cancer screening fundraiser, which was excellent fun.

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On our final night this paradise was sadly a little tarnished. While sitting up late trading safari stories with the Whetstones and Wallaces, conversation was interrupted by the unmistakable sound of gunfire. Five shots echoed from the night and then it was calm. For several minutes we waited for more, hushed, then a crescendo of automatic fire filled the air. The volleys became more regular as shots were traded. It was a pitched battle between two well-armed adversaries and the sound was close by. David, the askari,estimated that the shots were 200 metres away, near the beach. The clash continued for half an hour and then stopped suddenly.

Martin and Dawn were calm and pragmatic as one might expect from old hands in Africa. “We would have heard on the phone if there was something to worry about” said Dawn. We speculated that it might have been Somali pirates fighting the police. Raids on the North Kenya coast were more common a few years previously before the international navy presence in the Gulf of Aden was increased significantly. After a nightcap to settle the nerves we retired to bed.

In the morning, the town was going about business as usual, it takes more than a gunfight to upset the balance in Kenya. It transpired that the police had stumbled across a terrorist militia, training in an abandoned building by the beach. In the resulting battle 4 policemen and 8 militiamen had been killed. The remainder of the militia had scattered. The story at the Driftwood club was that Bob, an 80-year-old ex-pilot and policeman, had spent the night keeping watch on his roof with a rifle, while his two askaris patrolled the grounds. It seems that lessons learned in the Nairobi police force die hard.

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With a fond farewell to the Martin, Dawn, William and Lucy we set off through Tsavo national park on our way towards Tanzania. A few hundred kilometers south and the wet season was in full swing, a mixed blessing. At 6 o’clock in the morning during a particularly miserable camp in the gravel of a petrol station forecourt we found ourselves in the heart of a tropical storm. It became apparent that we had pitched our tents in an almost imperceptible trench, which was quickly filled by the deluge, drowning us and all of our sleeping bags with us. On the other hand, however the recent rains had covered the, normally arid, Tsavo savannah with a lush green blanket. The red dirt track that transected the park was gaudy in its bright contrast to the insufferably verdant plains. The landscape was all the more beautiful, as one is so accustomed to seeing dry African savannah in wildlife documentaries.

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The Tsavo national park was the stage for the story of the infamous Tsavo Lions. In 1898 the Leut. Col. John Henry Patterson led a project to build a bridge over the Tsavo river as part of the Great Kampala to Mombasa railway. During the project two male lions repeatedly broke into the camp by night and dragged the Indian workers away to devour them. In an effort to deter the animals Patterson built huge fires and thorn fences around the camp. For nine months he hunted the cats, wounding them on several occasions. Patterson attempted to trap the lions by equipping a train carriage with steel barred cage in which two workers slept as bait. In the morning he found the carriage destroyed and the workers abducted. After 135 lives had been lost Patterson finally killed the pair and their huge nine-foot skins spent the following 25 years as rugs in his home before they were retired to a museum in Chicago.

The Adventures of Salami Man (Part 2)

 

The sun was almost extinct as we climbed the steps in front of Berbera police station to find an old man in a wicker chair. Two armed men in dusty berets flanked the Police Chief but he himself displayed no military attire. He wore only a swathe of burgundy fabric, richly embroidered and firmly swept around his bent body. His face was scarred and wreathed by steam from the teacup he rested carefully on a saucer. The steam rose beneath his tiny dark eyes and he inhaled as he looked out over the pinkish town. From behind his teacup the Police Chief listened to Captain Paunch then spoke some quiet instructions. A man in a collared shirt appeared and translated for our benefit. We were to come back in the morning. The Police Chief would not see us now.

 

Soldiers conducted us to a smart hotel, made reservations for us then left. We were told in no uncertain terms by the manager that, should we leave the grounds, the Police would be contacted immediately. As we sipped coffee and contemplated our house arrest Colin came hurrying with news “The owner wants to see us!” From Colin’s tone we could see the coffee would wait and we followed. At a table on the grass outside the hotel restaurant was seated a smartly dressed Somali man. He smiled broadly and addressed us in perfect English, “”My name is Mohammed Kadar and I am the owner. Firstly, I am aware of your situation. Please know that you may stay here, free of charge, and I would like to invite you to dine with me as my guests.”

 

We sat and cautiously ordered meals, while Mohammed Kadar spoke “I am a hotelier and property entrepreneur. Over the years I have seen very few tourists in Somaliland and I would like to extend to you our tradition for warm hospitality. I hope that you will return to your countries with positive experiences and that this will hopefully support the growth of a tourist industry in Somaliland.” He then added that perhaps the national news would be interested in meeting us. We were a little uncomfortable with the idea of being used in the media as symbols of social change. As we saw it, this made us potential targets for any group focused on sabotaging that social change. We mumbled a few non-committal responses, “maybe tomorrow or something”.

 

Barely had we forked a morsel of our fresh fish suppers when we found ourselves staring down the barrel of a camera lens. Considering our being a little stunned by this swift development the group coped well, myself excluded. When my turn came to be interviewed the camera panned to my face. Wide-eyed and sweating I began, “I am delighted to have the opportunity to visit Salami man…I mean Somaliland”. Shit! I froze, mute. My eyes darted to Bas. He was staring back at me. As the silence dragged, he mouthed noiselessly “what are you doing?!!”. My eyes snapped to Rich who had lost interest and returned to his fish. On realizing that this was what most people watching this news segment would be doing, my panic eased and I was able to burble some sentences about how safe it all was here. The little red camera light blessedly went off.

 

The news crew left us. Mohammed Kadar passed his gaze across our faces and spoke, “I am glad you feel that you are safe here. For so many years the international community has been saying that we are not safe. The UK foreign office forbids visiting under any circumstances. I think that many Somalilanders are beginning to doubt themselves. They say to one another “are we safe, if the world says we are not maybe we are not”. On this thought we retired to bed.

 

At 7am our escort took us to meet with the Police Chief a second time. In the police headquarters we sat before a broad mahogany desk with our hands in our laps like naughty school children. The anxiety around the table was palpable, we had no idea how serious our illegally exploring Somaliland would turn out to be. Behind the desk the Police Chief was unrecognizable from the day before. Yesterday’s thin frame was lost in an imposing construction of decorated epaulets, brassy buttons and pomp.

 

The Chief surveyed us, deciding whom he would address. He then barked in Somali “Who is your Chief”. One of the soldiers lining the walls shot a finger at the back of my head dragging the Chief’s eyes to meet mine. It seemed this faded military dinosaur could only operate in a system of clear hierarchy. If previous experience in Africa is anything to go by, rank is assigned in order of beard size and as such I had been designated leader. I was invited to tell our story, which I dutifully did and hoped I was faithfully translated. After a few moments the Chief spoke from beneath wilting grey brows, “You will be taken back to Hargeisa.  We will send a soldier with you. First you must go to the Mayor of Berbera, you will go there now!”

 

We ambled across a hot concrete courtyard to the next stratum of power. We were not in the least bit reassured that our small legal violation seemed to warrant such a high level of appraisal. As we congregated around a similar broad mahogany desk a younger man in a suit greeted us in English, “I have heard about your situation and you will understand that you must go to Hargeisa to see the Minister for Interior”. This engagement had not been made clear to us but we nodded meekly. The Mayor spoke to us, with a detached but reproving air, about the seriousness of this episode and the possible implications of our behaviour. We exchanged frightened glances. Why did we need to see the Interior Minister? Yesterday this was a small bureaucratic faux pas; today it seemed that we were on the cusp of an international incident.With every moment that passed we felt ourselves sinking deeper into a mire of strange politics we did not understand. The Mayor concluded his diatribe with “…of course before you go you will have to visit the Port of Berbera”. This parting shot was a little confusing but we nodded along and allowed ourselves to be lead out.

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Next we were driven to a small port outside Berbera. We were met by a man who lead us among the aging wooden ships and shiny steel liners with the manner of an excited tour guide. “This port was recently refurbished in 2009, it receives 5-10 ships a week importing all manner of things including, electrical goods, food, motor parts, fuel etc. Exports include mainly camel!” As he said this he gestured to an enormous Greek passenger ferry. We peered through the stern and saw that the cavernous hull had been partitioned into thousands of small stables, each filled with hay. It looked as one might expect the Ark to look had the great flood struck during the Greek economic crisis.

 

As our guide proudly discussed his port we came across a surprising realization. The politicians seemed to be attempting to give us a guided tour of Somaliland’s top attractions while keeping us under close arrest. This industrial port seemed to be the Mayor of Berbera’s idea of a holiday highlight. We dubbed this surreal sightseeing as the “Golden Handcuff tour”.

 

The Harbour Master, who also spared some time to meet us, insisted that on our way back towards Hargeisa we stop at Somaliland’s main historic site, Laas Gees. On our departure he said to me “give them this and tell them I sent you”. He passed me a hand written note. With our chit in hand and a soldier in the passenger seat we set off back towards Hargeisa.

 

At the entrance to Laas Gees we were astonished to find that our scrap of paper did not cause the gates to fly open with a trumpet blast and drum roll. There was still baksheesh to be payed. After arguing bitterly for his bribe the sentry jumped happily into our Landie for a lift up to the cliffs. Eight people in the Landie was made possible by the park guard’s sitting in the front passenger seat on our bodyguard’s lap. Watching them manoeuvre themselves awkwardly into position with their AK47s still strapped across their shoulders was quite a pretty picture.

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The anthropological site of Laas Gees is found among a series of caves and bluffs jutting out from the flat desert west of Berbera. On the walls of the caves are preserved 10,000-year-old images of troglodyte life in a warm palette of ochre, red and brown. From the caves one can cast out over the plain where snakeskin riverbeds lie like ghosts of the cirrus threads that streak the sky.  As the sun begins to burn all the yellows of this ageless landscape into the rich reds of the cave paintings it provokes an old contentment, a feeling of fraternity with our distant forebears.

 

Next day in Hargeisa we were collected from our hotel by two men from the, quite Orwellian, Ministry of Information. They lead us to a large government building where a crowd of people was waiting for us. From the depths of the mob a news crew materialized to interview us. We were reeling from our new found celebrity in the capital as we followed our friends from the Ministry of Truth inside the government building. Through several narrow corridors we found a doorway swamped by a mass of bodies. A thoroughfare was made for us and we pushed through it.  As we entered we were instantly petrified before a riot of flashbulbs and lenses. Piecemeal we gathered our wits and realised that the lenses were pointed to our right where a man in white robe stood. One of our guides pointed to the man and said, “Prime Minister”. Strangely we were all, I think, a little disappointed that the fanfare was not for us. It is extraordinary how quickly fame goes to one’s head.

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When the crowd in the room had thinned we were seated around a conference table towards the back of the room and the Minister of Tourism came to sit with us. We exchanged the pleasantries that by now we were very accustomed to. The men from the Ministry for Distribution of Opinion filmed our discussion and prompted us with things we ought to say.

 

What followed was a series of similar conversations with each of a string of dignitaries:

Head of the Army

Head of the Navy

Mayor of Hargeisa

Chief of Immigration

Minister For Tourism

Minister for Information

Leader of the Opposition

Attaché for the People’s Republic of Administration and Liaison Officer

 

We were hungry and little tired of the circus when the white robe of the ringleader swept back into the room. The Prime Minister sat at our table quietly and waited while the cameraman prepared. We also sat silent, star struck. He disposed of the pleasantries quickly and spoke to us with calm conviction of the severe implications for his country of their “unrecognized” status. He described fervently how his endeavours to bring Somaliland forward have been obstructed by this ruling and of the effects these limitations have had on the people of Somaliland. Despite his frustrations his outlook was positive. He was confident of his ability to build a future and his self-belief was infectious. When the Prime Minister left we were moved by his words and more than a little inspired by his ambition.

 

The following day we explored the streets of Hargeisa, tasting the foods and enjoying the bustle of business in the market. As we walked countless people stopped us in the street. “Hey you are the tourists!”, people would shout from cars “I have seen you on the TV”, “Welcome to Somaliland”. We were unable even to hide in a crowd watching football, we were sniffed out by yet another news crew for interviews. Our fame in the capital was growing it seemed.

 

After dinner that evening we were picking our way home through the sandy backstreets of Hargeisa when from the shadows a man appeared. He was wearing torn clothes and his face bore the badges of a brawler. “You are the tourists aren’t you,” he said. “I have seen you in your red Land Rover. You are staying at the Jasmine hotel aren’t you?”. We did are best to appease this friendly, if frightening, character and continued home. At the point at which one’s identity and movements are well known by a city’s disreputables it is perhaps time to leave. We returned to Ethiopia the next day.

 

Although we were a bit arrested and spent the greater part of our trip quite frightened we could not help but depart with a fondness for Somaliland and indeed a strong empathy for their cause. They seem to have done all the right things to earn their independence from Somalia and it must be said that their young and well-educated political class inspires confidence. Perhaps in a few years the international community will change their view and we shall all be passing our summer holidays on the beaches of the Costa del Somalia.

Honesty and Integrity (of doors)

Rudely awakened by the burning sun, we pressed on. We watched the kilometres slide past, the landscape intermittently punctuated by ancient pyramids. Even with a solid road it took three full days to cross the desert, North to South. We arrived into central Khartoum almost unexpectedly. In the dead of night the suburbs gave way to the deserted streets, ramshackle buildings, and clouds of swirling rubbish of the city centre. We were exhausted and underfed, which are sensations never conducive to a positive state of mind. We went to bed with our hackles up, worrying about our car on the street outside.

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Ancient pyramids rise out of the Sudanese desert. (Photo: RWH)

Until now our experiences in Sudan had been universally positive. In fact, we had relaxed more in this country than any other since Greece. More than once we had been lax. On the first such occasion, a member of the team who shall remain nameless (Rich) managed to leave the ‘People’s Folder’ containing three passports, carnet de passage, US dollars, immigration documents, and generally everything we hold dear in a market stall in northern Sudan. On the second such occasion, a member of the team who shall remain nameless (Rich) managed to leave the ‘People’s Toolbox’ by the car on a busy street. On all such occasions we had had our missing items returned to us within hours, or frantically retraced our steps only to find our precious belongings in the grinning hands of the stall owner, with offers of tea and chewing tobacco (generous, but sadly a futile offer in the case of the latter!). Our arrival to Khartoum in such a state sowed the seeds of doubt in our minds, and we wondered if all the doubtful looks and raised eyebrows when we mentioned Sudan in conversation at home had been justified.

We were pleasantly surprised when we awoke in the morning. Bustling and colourful, the streets had transformed into a melee of trade and commerce which felt positively relaxed after the ruckus of central Cairo. We breathed a sigh of relief and went about our business feeling safe and welcomed. We were up and on a mission: car repairs. After a small fiasco where our GPS entertained the belief that it resided in Mali, we made our way to the industrial car area. Here shacks baring the emblems of every car manufacturer imaginable tripped over each other into the compacted earth street. Cannibalised skeletons lined the roads, their stripped chasses serving as benches for overall clad mechanics methodically putting the world to rights over chai. A donkey passed, pulling a cart piled high with modern plastic car body panels, the cart its self supported by a Land Rover Series II axle with hand-made wooden wheels. Nothing is wasted in this country.

After much well-meaning small talk, we found Abdullah, an angle grinder enthusiast with hands made of elephant hide, who happened to also have talents in the area of bodywork reconstruction. Explaining to him the concept of repairing significant portions of our rotten bulkhead required two rounds of incredulously sweet tea, three separate interpreters, much pointing, and most of the morning. It requires a hearty amount of trust, desperation, or perhaps stupidity to let an overly zealous Sudanese man with a blowtorch anywhere near your belov’d Land Rover, even if it does look like a rusty shack. We sat in the sun for two nail-biting days, watching Abdullah slowly reconstruct the wounds he had inflicted on the car, affirming the faith that we had placed in him as he did so.

Landy Patching (Photo: RWH)

Landy Patching (Photo: RWH)

Our doors were giving up the ghost, and even our complex system of plywood, brackets, and bolts was struggling to hold them together. We found an old Land Rover in the back of a garage who had sadly passed on, and with Abdullah’s help negotiated the salvage of her two back doors. Rust doesn’t exist as a concept here, and they were solid. A further days work saw them hanging proudly on our steed, brightly discordant but gloriously unyielding to rain or rascal.

We were invited to stay with three young employees of the French Embassy in Khartoum. Manicured gardens and tasteful buildings lined the streets of the expat district, and we felt uncouth as we growled our way towards their house in our newly piebald monster. We were ushered into a cool, spacious flat with soft accents and a hint of perfumes long forgotten. We had stepped into a world of saussison, rich chocolate, and Pastice. Conversation was animated, company excellent, and accommodation luxurious. We couldn’t believe our luck.

The expatriate scene in Khartoum turned out to be a close-knit international community. Given Sudan’s political instability, the majority are young workers without families. Alcohol is strictly illegal in Sudan, with the disobedient facing fourty lashes* as punishment. However, a strange agreement exists where embassies arrange regular imports of liqueur for their employees while the authorities look the other way. These two factors results in a strange and vibrant social scene which harks back to the era of American prohibition. The gatherings are highly lubricated, all the more fun because they are forbidden.

Despite the fact we have managed to talk our way across two of the hardest borders of our trip with only half a vehicle identification plate and no chassis number, our apprehension grows that at some point we may encounter a competent border guard. As such, we spent a memorable morning hunting out the shadier car mechanics in Khartoum and trying to persuade them to engrave our car. We were surprised at their absolute refusal. Residents seem to be terrified of the government’s retribution here, giving the country a very safe yet slightly stifled feel. After much hushed discussion we recruited a local chap and set off in a tuk tuk in search of our own equipment. We eventually found a set of roman stamps imported from Germany. We would have to do it ourselves, and soon, before Ethiopia.

*Interestingly the original Aramaic words for ‘fourty’ and ‘many’ were the same, leaving this particular punishment open to interpretation.

The Road to Khartoum

It was with nervous excitement that we made our way from the village of Wadi Halfa, Sudan’s northern frontier town to the port, although we had come to the conclusion that this was a rather grand title for what was in fact a single jetty and crumbling customs building. Wedged into the back of a tuk tuk we watched Africa’s biggest man-made expanse of water consume the visible horizon as we approached. I tried to imagine what the ancient kingdom of Nubia, long drowned by Nasser and his controversial Aswan dam, would have looked like. Suddenly I understood the sadness of these people. Their heyday more than two millennia past, the Nubians were more recently divided by the arbitrarily drawn international border of Egypt and Sudan, and then drowned by Egypt’s developmental progress. The strength of identity both sides of the border had surprised us, and reminded me of my home and the fight to maintain the Welsh culture and language.

Thankfully the soft sand only causes a brief hitch in the desert! (Photo: RWH)

Thankfully the soft sand only causes a brief hitch in the desert! (Photo: RWH)

In the distance we could see the two cars perched atop a rusty barge, barely visible under a huge mound of assorted goods covering every inch of the deck. My Swiss companion and I perspired our way down the jetty after much prevarication and tea drinking in the customs building. We slowly cooked in the early morning sun while the mountain of fragile wares covering our cars was unloaded by a squadron of unconcerned jumper-wearing locals. Eventually we were called upon to unload our cars. There was much frantic gesticulation and as we teetered our cars precariously down narrow metal ramps several meters above the water. A score of Arabs yelling passionate directions and waving limbs only served to make things worse. Wheel by wheel, we crept to safety. The rotten concrete of the jetty moved an impossibly large amount as the barge was slammed against it by the chop, yet it felt solid and secure to us.

Departure was a joy. We had read many accounts of the treacherous and difficult road through the 1,000 km of Nubian desert to Khartoum. There were historical reports of travellers perishing having strayed miles off the supposed route and becoming stranded in soft sand. We were almost disappointed to find a perfect strip of newly laid tarmac leading us south, another African highway transformed thanks to the Chinese. We soon consoled ourselves however, remembering the challenges of desert driving, and how they are wonderfully satisfying to tackle when optional. Driving in convoy with the Swiss for the first time, we drifted past terracotta dunes, gravel plateaus, jagged hills, and towering stacks of jet black rock. Steering was an intermittent occupation for the driver, required only to avoid the odd donkey and cart. Occasional puffs of diesel smoke on the horizon gave testament to the seekers of the rich resources of the desert, where gold, gypsum, and a whole host of other treasures lie in abundance.  Suddenly the laying of a thousand miles of asphalt seemed a cheap way of acquiring extensive mining rights in this resource rich desert.

The temperature climbed with the sun. Windows agape, air conditioning a concept of the distant future, we forced the Landy on through the wall of heat. We thanked our fortune as we watched the mercury climb to balmy thirty seven that we were here in winter. Occasionally a green line appeared on the horizon, and we knew the road had drifted close to the nurturing moisture of the Nile. The longest river in the world, this huge body of water provides an artery of life blood to thousands of miles of barren moon-scape.

Through the mirage we saw a hunched figure drawing nearer. Emaciated, caked in dust, we recognised Rob, our friend from the Aswan-Wadi Halfa ferry, sitting head in hand in the midday heat. Made of true Lancashire grit, this 23 year old man had cycled his Grandfather’s bicycle from Rotterdam to his current location, 600km shy of Khartoum. Two days ride and 200km away from the nearest town, he was battling a worsening knee injury and dwindling supplies.

Exhaustion bites in the midday sun; Rob Lowe, British cyclist struggles on in the Nubian desert. (Photo: RWH)

Exhaustion bites in the midday sun; Rob Lowe, British cyclist struggles on in the Nubian desert. (Photo: RWH)

We hopped out water in hand and held an impromptu orthopaedic consultation in the shade of the car. It sounded to us as though rest was going to be needed before he could continue riding. His eyes flashed defiantly as we suggested he jump in the Landy with us until Khartoum. We prized his bike from his reluctant hands as he begrudgingly caved to our persuasions. We consoled him with promises of food and camaraderie as we emptied the car onto the road in an effort to repack. Rob’s bike Alan, named after his original owner, was absorbed by the roof rack and we were on our way, our ranks bolstered.

The realisation that this journey would encompass New Year sent us looking for supplies in Dongola, a market town shielded from the heat of the desert by the cooling embrace of the Nile. We negotiated our way through the forest of cardboard-roofed market stalls, first wondering at the cost of bread, then perplexed at an apparent run on the price of the tomato. An investment of £1 at the Lord Hotel paid dividends in sleep, and we set off early in light of this windfall. On a particularly remote stretch of road we set a bearing and bounced and slid our way into the wilderness. Overloaded, top-heavy, inappropriately shod with comically small tyres, the Landy powered on defiantly. We were moved with pride.

Eagle-eyed, Bass led us towards a caravan of wild camels in the distance. We followed their path to a small oasis of stunted trees, impossible in their stereotypical perfectness. Safe in our desert bowl, we made an extravagant camp. Logs were set ablaze, blankets unrolled, cauldrons filled. We lost Dan for a time; he was found burrowing in the back of the car with a screwdriver. He emerged triumphant, having produced the last of our single malt from the recesses of our subwoofer, safe there against the inquisition of the customs officials. We made merry and under the brightest of stars, welcomed in the New Year.

New Year's Eve Camp

New Year’s Eve Camp (Photo: RWH)

We wish you all the best in 2013!

Land Rover Defender Buying Guide

This is specifically aimed for those buying Land Rover Defenders, but certain points are applicable to other vehicles. It is skewed towards those buying a Defender for an overland expedition, but is applicable to all potential buyers.

Top tips:

–          Buy early, ideally 6-12 months before your trip. This gives you loads of time to get to know your vehicle and iron out any problems

–          Have a read of the basic anatomy of a Defender before you go and look at one. Better still, get someone to show you around one that you’re not intending to buy

–          Make a list of things to look at and tick them off as you go along

–          Go and look at a couple of vehicles before going to see ‘the one’ – the advert that sounds like it’s the perfect car

Vehicle Identification & Paperwork

Check the DVLA Vehicle Registration Document (V5) details are correct. Compare the chassis number on the V5 with the vehicle its self. On Defenders, you can find the vehicle identification number (VIN)/’chassis number’ in two places: on the VIN plate, located on top of the brake master cylinder at the rear left of the engine compartment on RHD models, and stamped into the chassis on the driver’s side. Look at the chassis under the front wheel arch; it should be in front of the wheel and behind the towing eye. You may need to use a wire brush!

Also check the engine number on the V5 matches the vehicle. This number should be punched in to the engine block.

Ask about service history. These are often non-existent on old Land Rovers as many owners service themselves. Engine oil and filters should be changed every 6,000 miles, differential and gearbox oils and brake fluid changed every 20,000 miles. When was the timing belt last changed? Have the universal joints been replaced on the drive shafts? Does it have the original brake/clutch lines? When were the brake pads last replaced? A good service history/working knowledge of the car implies it’s been well taken care of.

Outside Inspection

–          Is the car level? Sounds obvious, but unladen, it shouldn’t tilt to one side!

–          Look for any leaks on the tarmac under the car (oil drips etc)

Engine Compartment

–          Start from COLD

–          Does it idle OK?

–          Is the engine block very clean? If it looks as though it has been wiped clean recently, it may an attempt to conceal an oil leak

–          Oil leaks, sprays, drips

–          Air filter. Take it out and have a look. If it’s full of oil, this implies the engine is running at too high a pressure, suggesting work piston rings or other major issue. If it’s dirty and clogged, it’s a good indicator that the car hasn’t been looked after.

–          Inspect all the pipes in there – radiator pipes, oil pipes, fuel lines, fuel injector lines, intercooler pipes. Check for leaks.

–          Check the oil level. If it’s low, again this implies the car hasn’t been looked after.

Gearbox

–          Check for smooth gear selection

Transfer Box

–          Test both the High and Low Ranges. Do they select easily, do they jump out gear at all?

–          Check for correct selection of the differential lock

–          Make sure the diff lock light works on the dash board

Clutch

–          With the car stationary, put the clutch in and select 5th gear. Bring the clutch up slowly. It should stall the car. If now, it implies the clutch is slipping.

Handbrake

–          Test the handbrake on a hill

Steering

–          Look for play in the steering wheel

–          Turn the wheel to the extremities – listen for any new squeaking. This implies the steering pump is on the blink

–          Veering on driving implies poor tracking/laxity in the track rods

Brakes

–          Inspect the brake lines as already mentioned

–          Does the pedal feel spongy? Implies old brake fluid or master cylinder fault.

–          Have a look at the condition of the brake disks

Underneath the car

–          Lubricant leaks – from plugs, gaskets, brake or clutch lines, or oil seals (big job).

–          Chrome swivel balls – rust, oil seals

–          Play in steering mechanisms – pull hard on the track rods looking for any play

–          Lubricated drive shaft? Well greased universal joints implies a well looked after car

–          Check for play in the universal joints. To do this, put the car on the flat and chock a wheel, put the car out of gear and take off the handbrake. Use a flat headed screwdriver or similar to rotate the UJs. There shouldn’t be any play/give in the joints.

–          Condition of brake lines and clutch line, including flexible brake hoses (one at the back, two at the front)

–          Chassis. Classically rusts on Land Rovers! Have a really good look at the front cross member, outriggers, and inside edge of the rear cross member. Use a brush and don’t be afraid to scrub away dirt! Tap with a hammer on any suspicious areas.

–          Exhaust. Make sure it isn’t loose, look for leaks (puffs of smoke on starting the engine)

Bodywork & Chassis

Land Rovers rust. Despite their aluminium body panels, the framework is steel, as is the chassis and the bulkhead (the large vertical divider between engine and passage compartments). They classically rust through the bulkhead or on the chassis cross members (horizontal bits connecting the left and right main parts). Any serious rust/holes require major welding, which is going to cost an absolute minimum of £100, much more if serious. Galvanised chasses are amazing if you can find them, but bear in mind they won’t have a chassis number which is a problem for African borders!

–          Bulkhead. Remove carpets, look under the bonnet, check for paint bubbling

–          Chassis. Inspect rear cross member, tap along with a hammer. Look the whole way along either side, especially in the wheel arches.

–          Doors. Big security issue. I would recommend removing the door cards and inspecting the internal framework. Replacing a door costs £100 or more each.

Wheels

–          Tyres are expensive. Five new BFGoodrich Allterrains cost ~£625! Factor this in to the total price – if the car’s going to need new tyres immediately, it’s a considerable amount on top of the asking price

–          Ideally you should jack up each wheel individually and check for vertical and horizontal play in the wheel baring

 

Electrics

Any Land Rover over 10 years old is at risk of electrical problems. They’re renowned for being very simple circuits (pre TD5) that often fail.

–          Check all the lights.

–          Dashboard dials

–          Diff lock light

 

MOT

Potentially costly little things can be worth looking out for if the MOT is about to expire!

–          Seat belts. Do they retract independently?

Test Drive

–          Vibration – can be expensive and difficult to find and correct!

–          Temperature – make sure your test drive is long enough to weed out any overheating issues.

–          Wheel hub temperature. A hub that is hotter than the rest can imply a failing baring.

–          Have another look under the car after it has stood for a while post test drive. With the lubricants warm, a leak might be more obvious.

Istanbul, Street Dancing and Otoparking

We drove from the Turkish border to Tekirdag, a slightly grisly port town on the south coast. We arrived late and went in search of food. In a café at one o’clock in the morning we met Tayfur. Tayfur is a French language student studying in Tekirdag who very kindly offered to accommodate all six of us on the floor of his shared flat for the night. His housemates were a little surprised when he brought six bedraggled foreigners back having only gone out for soup.  In the morning washed and fed we embarked on the two-hour hop to Istanbul. We arrived six hours later and collapsed into a small hotel in the Old Town after a smog-choked traffic marathon through Istanbul’s outer sprawl.

The following day we walked the streets and lunched on Kokorec, a delicious spit-roasted kebab of sheep intestine seasoned with chili and oregano. We enjoyed aromatic Turkish coffee and munched endlessly on Turkish delight. As we gawped at our surroundings through dust-speckled sunshine, I was struck by a palpable appreciation of the fantastic age of the city. 2,600 years ago the Romans called it Byzantium and made it the capital of an Empire that spanned most of the known world. It has been a bustling, important metropolis for as long as such things have existed.

I will try to draw an analogy between Istanbul and a lovely, moulding onion. Bear with me! As one explores, one finds hundreds of years of history layered on top of one another. Everywhere Byzantine arches can be seen holding strong under the weight of neon emblazoned phone shops, Baroque facades flaking away to reveal older stone beneath. As the city grows, the older layers of the onion decay leaving their remnants amongst the new and shiny features of a modern city. This protracted decomposition colours the otherwise energetic and youthful city with an air of melancholy.

Aya Sofya is a perfect example of this. It was built in AD 537 as an eastern orthodox Christian church; it was subsequently converted to a Catholic church, back to eastern orthodox, a Muslim mosque and latterly a museum. For over a millennium it was the largest building in the known world. If one walks around under the cavernous dome one can see great circular placards painted in Arabic symbols, beneath them peeling paint reveals intricate gilded murals of Christian themes. If you look closer you will see graffiti scored into the marble walls by conquering Vikings. The ancient history that we learned in school and perhaps remember as being slightly mythical is represented in Istanbul as concrete and real. I think it is this direct linkage that makes the city so magnetic.

Sunset in Istanbul (Photo SW)

The following evening we walked through the streets of Taksim to gauge what the kind of nightlife Istanbul had to offer. What we found was that the Turks have taken something people enjoy as part of a good nightlife and applied the rule that more equals better. This is a rule that seems to be implemented more frequently and to a greater degree the further you get from home. On this occasion the subject to which this rule has been applied is live music.

As we wandered the side streets of Taksim we found a zoo of tiny little bars, each with a captive musician. Every bar pumped out a fusion of Turkish music and western covers through super-amplified PA systems, each of which seemed louder and more distorted than the last. Furthermore the volume at which these poor caged musicians were forced to play their cataclysmic turkopop was exaggerated by the total lack of audiences. Perhaps it was the time of year but there appeared to be far more bars than punters. We chose one at random and sat down for a beer. The music was fun and lively, a word of warning though for anyone drinking in Istanbul. The bars have a tendency to include pistachios in their mixed nuts. In the dark of the bar I found myself on more than one occasion fishing shards of broken pistachio shell from the recesses of my mouth. You may well argue that after the first time it happened I should have learned, but, I mean really!  pistachios in the mixed nuts… what are they thinking, it is health and safety nightmare.

We left the bar a little excitable and strolled down onto the busy Taksim high street to see what mischief we could find. While passing a shop pumping out trademark loud Turkopop Alki and Bas began a bit of an impromptu body-popping street dance. Then something quite surreal developed. I am not sure if it is something to do with the percentage concentration of dance enthusiasts in a given crowd but this crowd had certainly reached action potential. Rich and I started clapping along to Bas and Alki’s dancing, a handful of passers by joked with us and clapped along. Next, a few people started watching and then a few more. Within 2 minutes a crowd of about two hundred people had formed a circle around Bas and Alki. The surface tension of this bubble was eventually unable to hold against the weight of the crowd and the whole scene burst into a street dancing free for all. It was amazing; everyone was bouncing around to Eastern house music, us with more enthusiasm than anyone, buoyed by our 30 seconds of fame. When it comes to nightlife in Istanbul more apparently is better.

The next day fond farewells were said to Alki, Kali and the Boy. It was a real shock to the three that remained to be finally alone. We were now fending for ourselves and about to embark on the tough bit. The romp that Europe had been was over and we were staring down the barrel of Africa. We anticipated some difficulties and we knew that the fun would be much more spread out. I think we were all a little apprehensive but a few of days spent organizing, planning and buying supplies for Africa gave us confidence and a little wanderlust for the challenge of the Dark Continent.

On our last day we went to collect our car from the Otopark in which we had left it for the previous few days. We found, on arrival, that our Landie was tucked in the back of a tiny car park behind about 30 cars bumper to bumper with only a narrow one-way street as access. We would have been a little downhearted had we not previously born witness to the sorcery of the “Otopark Boys”. The two lads that managed the otopark had skill in parking and moving cars that verged on the telekinetic. Only 20 minutes and hundreds of Rubik’s cube-like manoeuverings later our car was freed and we set off for the Turkish interior with a wave and an awestruck doff of the cap for Osman and Imman.

The Otopark boys after extracting the Landy. (Photo: RWH)

The Otopark boys after extracting the Landy. (Photo: RWH)

Greece’s Woes

Protests agains new austerity measures in Thessaloniki, Greece

It was with a reluctant parting of eyelids and a woollen head that I surfaced. My slumber had been prematurely interrupted by shouted chants and sounds of a ruckus in the street below. I stumbled woodenly to the open window, squinting in the sharp morning sunlight. At length my eyes focussed on the Thessaloniki magistrate’s court not fifty yards away, and I saw a large angry crowd jostling against a hard wall of riot police and army personnel. There was a tangible tension in the air, even from my lofty viewpoint. The crowd rallied. They surged forwards against the silent black line. They were repelled. This cycle was repeated for a time, until three official looking men emerged amidst roars and jeers to address the throng.  Whatever was said seemed to have a deflective effect, as the group re-organised in the form of a march. Their shouts gradually faded as they turned the corner, leaving me with a breakfast for thought, and a lingering sense of sadness.

Greece is a favourite topic of the media at the moment, and rightly so. Having heard so much about the current difficulties, I was looking forwards to the prospect of being able to form my own perspective. Even better, Dan’s girlfriend Alki and her family were to welcome us in Athens. They were able to give us insight into the local people. Discontent is evident even to the unobservant, with political flyers and graffiti widespread even in rural areas. Public transport and bicycling has seen a new resurgence. The affluent areas of many Greek towns now boast a multitude of empty neglected buildings, some completely derelict. Given that two thirds of Greece’s 11 million people have clustered into its cities, this dilapidation is a worrying sign.

We travelled hard and long to reach Athens, our arthritic engine straining against a hull devoid of any aerodynamic concept. Evidently wind resistance wasn’t much of a concern to the be-wellied Land Rover designers of yore. One of the most concrete deadlines of our trip was all too big in the window. For Dan, arriving late to meet his girlfriend at the airport was unthinkable. She was flying home from Australia after four months apart. Uncharacteristically, and despite Bass’ best efforts, we arrived early. Our timely arrival definitely wasn’t made possible by the delay in Alki’s flight…

What ensued was Greek hospitality at its best. Alki’s mother, Annie, had arranged an airy and futuristic flat for us bang in the middle of the city, and went to a lot of trouble to feed us Mother’s traditional home cooking. I watched with quiet awe as Dan engaged in a cycle of eat-until-you’re-full-and-have-your-plate-refilled which in true Mediterranean fashion lasted most of the day. Our thanks to Alki and her family for making our stay here amazing!

When Katy, a friend from Cornwall with huge charisma arrived, we were seven. We spent a pleasant evening in the cool Athenian air watching Dan running around like a hamster in its ball, trying to fit us and our luggage in/on our Landy. A childhood champion at Tetris, no one is allowed to interfere with this battle between man and the constraints of dimension. We generally leave him to it and try and employ ourselves in other manly activities such as kicking the tyres, and grunting about the local beer.

Somehow this impossible task was achieved, mainly to the further detriment of our aerodynamics, and we departed for Alki’s father’s house in the misty mountains of Paranasos. Off the main arteries Greece’s roads are poorly maintained, and we were glad of our ample suspension. We spent a wonderful few days in holiday-mode, exploring the area around Delphi on terrifying mountain tracks, and we were glad of our state-of-the-art power assisted brakes.

Sunrise: stowing our bags on the roof in preperation for a long drive

Sunrise: stowing our bags on the roof in preperation for a long drive

Our passage to Turkey was via the rural East of Greece. On this road, each kilometre takes you back in time by roughly a year – provided that you drive at 88 miles per hour – ending in 1952, give or take. Luckily our car is angular enough to look as though it has its origins in the fifties, so it didn’t look too out of place. Helped on our way by a number of caricatured wizened farmers astride their grandfather’s tractors, we eventually found our way to the delta of a large river. Here we made camp, and spent our time swimming and constructing a latrine with an impossibly complex trail of signs so that we could find it in the dark. Hobbling back from nature’s call bruised and scratched, I couldn’t help but think that a hundred paces in any direction before doing my business might have been a better solution.

The sun awoke us bright and early, and we were on our way, towards the border and the Bosphorous. Despite the troubles, we had a fantastic experience in Greece, and we really hope that a solution can be found so that this wonderful country can turn the corner towards economic recovery.