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.

Aswan to Wadi Halfa: Half-a Tale of Two Cities

It transpires that Aswan is a tourist hotspot. We discovered this when we tried to buy a kofta roll and paid five times the going rate for it. People visit in order to cruise the Nile and visit the colossal tombs at Abu Simbel. We arrived however to catch the ferry to Sudan. For this reason Aswan is also a focus for African overlanders. We arrived in Adam’s home, an overlander’s campsite, hungry and exhausted as had become the norm. We unloaded our belongings into a mud brick hut and were then given the tour by Mohamed, a Nubian who had spent several years working in Cornwall of all places. In honesty we were reluctant to participate in said tour. It had been a long time since we had eaten and we were anxious to start cooking our late supper. Nonetheless we trailed courteously behind Mohamed as he cheerfully explored various huts and facilities. He led us through the kitchen, which was alive with activity. Six Nubian men were performing a complex food preparation waltz. Some rolled rice parcels; others stirred bubbling pots and shook sizzling pans. We surveyed enviously. We would not be eating for an hour at the soonest, even if we could manage to cook without getting tangled in the gears and limbs of this admirable grub machine.

 

Mohamed herded us into the communal area where a low table was laid for an enormous feast, he explained that they were celebrating the birth a of a baby boy to one of the men. The smiling father earnestly encouraged us to sit with them on the wicker mats and eat, in so doing he proffered a bowl of cabbage leaf domadas. Despite our grumbling stomachs Rich and I tried to politely decline. Our limp refusal was halfhearted however as we were starving and furthermore Bas already had a domada in his hand and two in his mouth. We sat.

 

The table was overflowing with dishes. Bowls of tahina, bean fuul and chili sauce, roasted chickens stuffed with risotto rice, curried sausage casserole and pitta breads. We ate until we could not move and then crumbled back onto plump cushions. We lounged there completely immobilized and reminisced about old England with Mohamed until, conquered by the warm cannonball of food in our bellies, we retired.

 

The next day was all business. We had been procrastinating and the time had come for some serious admin. We drained the rear differential and replaced the leaking gasket, changed the engine oil and filter, changed the fuel filter, washed the air filter, wired in the inverter, split charge relay and second battery. Not bad for a mornings work, we were getting better. In the afternoon we went on individual missions for supplies and food for the ferry. My job was a replacement camping gas canister as I had had trouble with this task in the past and was not willing to hand over the baton to anyone else.

 

I walked out onto the streets of Aswan and could not believe my luck; the first person I asked knew exactly where to find gas, as did the following six people. Strangely all of them brought me to the same tourist market selling the same Chinese-made sunglasses and plastic jewelry. In an effort to escape I crossed a railway bridge to the other side of Aswan. This was like walking into another town all together. All of a sudden tourism was a myth and I was in Egypt proper. I stepped off the overpass and was promptly mobbed, not by churlish tat retailers with a sense of entitlement but by boisterous livestock. Chickens, goats and turkeys waddled and skipped among my feet, grocers shouted their wares and prices. Butchers hacked cuts of meat from hanging hooks and fishmongers lustily slapped their slimy produce on slick steel trays.

 

I continued asking my question, and received an assortment of more honest, but still ultimately useless, answers. I wandered behind the stalls and came across a handful of aged souk vendors sitting on low plastic stools. They were talking and laughing volubly so they did not notice my presence for some time. At length, with the help of a small biro diagram on the back of a cabbage, I was able to make my request understood. I waited while the wise old merchants conferred. Minutes passed and I became restless to continue my search. Presently the man seated opposite me wearing a black turban and eyes shot with pink stood up in a hurry as if he had suddenly cracked the riddle. He began rifling through his many layers of smock and with a broad grin produced a gigantic spliff. The men lit up and continued their cheerful dialogue. This was getting me nowhere so I mumbled excuses and ambled shyly away. As I retreated, black turban yelled something to me in Arabic and pointed to the other side of road at a man on a motorbike. I approached the man who said to me in English, “you look for gas can, yes?” Dumbstruck, I glanced back at the merchants and then nodded agreement. He jerked his head at the pillion seat of his motorbike and I climbed on.

 

We bounced over speed bumps and zipped amongst market stalls, skillfully circumnavigating tuk tuks and articulated lorries. After a few minutes of winding lanes I was completely lost and I suddenly had a thought that brought me sharply back to previous memories of traveling. I dwelt on the fact that at that time I was completely at the mercy of this Egyptian stranger. He had only to take me to a group of his mates, somewhere out of town to rob me, or worse. This feeling of vulnerability is a daily concern when traveling alone but I had forgotten about it while traveling as a group. Thankfully, as is often the case, my concerns were not realized. My guide brought me to a small shop far out of town. We crept through a dark tortuous entrance to find a grisled man hunched, smoking a water pipe. My guide spoke to him and the old man pointed to a high shelf where I could see a gas bottle, bright and blue. My heart leapt. I asked to get it down but the old man shook his head. My translator explained that this was because the bottle was empty. Excellent thought I. Well that was a fun waste of time. Deflated I explained that this was not useful to me. My guide seemed more disappointed than me that he could not help, he brought me back to the souk.  I was so close but ultimately foiled again. Perhaps in Wadi Halfa we would get gas. *

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The ferry was a scrum. It was Christmas day and we were lead up the gangway by our perpetually soused fixer Mahmet. We followed as his momentous bulk swung neatly through the crowd tearing a path. We hurried so as not to be caught and lost in the sweating wall of bodies. On the bridge, a few notes in the Captain’s hand secured us a few square feet of deck to rest on. We lay in the sun, lazily burning and watching while the boat slowly filled. Multitudes passed into the hull during the course of the day, each dragging several times his body weight in luggage. The majority were Sudanese traders and their families. Their luggage was produce and electrical products bought in Egypt to sell in Sudan. Countless items were roughly tied or bagged, then hauled up to the deck. Perhaps the significant proportion of goods that are lost to the depths, as a result of absent-minded handling, is written off by the traders as acceptable losses. Indeed no one batted an eyelid when a man next to me turned to speak to a friend and let loose a rope carrying eight magimix blenders allowing them to fall 20 ft, smash apart on the concrete pier and then bob gently away on Lake Nasser.

 

The ferry was a sociable experience. The route from Egypt to Sudan runs weekly and was cancelled the week prior to our arrival. As a result it formed a bottleneck for all the travelers heading south. These consisted of two Swiss overlanders, two Croatian journalists, a Canadian family, an English cyclist and a couple of Germans. The last westerner we had seen was in Turkey so this glut was quite a novelty. Furthermore we had to drink any alcohol we had about us before arrival in Sudan where one receives 40 lashes for possession. A penalty we were, needless to say, keen to avoid.

 

We popped open dusty bottles of beer that had watched our progress from the roof of the Landie since Perranporth. The first drop of Betty Stoggs dragged us back to a Cornish beach and shanty singing on warm September nights. As the ferry pulled us through the still water to Sudan we sang old pirate songs and swigged our ales. The Captain only rarely interrupted our merriment by stepping from the bridge to make his prayers. At these points we would carefully conceal our beer and impose a brief intermission on our raucous shantying. Spirits were high among the traders as well, they were happy to be on their way home. All on the poop deck had a jolly time.

 

We are getting used to not being in on the joke

We are getting used to not being in on the joke

We sang and swapped stories long after the sun had set. We did not understand the naiveté of this behavior until it was time to bed down for the night. More judicious passengers had realised much earlier that a boatload of people occupies a lot more space lying down than they do standing up. As such, on scanning around for a few square feet to lay down our sleeping bags we found none. Rob, our English cyclist from Preston, had flash of an idea. Bag in hand; he darted off for the lifeboats. He strode surely through the marsh of shrouded bodies. In the gloom he aroused frequent sleepy protests when his waivering bare sole found purchase on an unsuspicious face or groin. Sadly Rob’s search was fruitless. Each lifeboat was a snoring can of Sudanese sardines. Rob shambled back disheartened, his feet carefully sparing his earlier victims in favour of a new path of faces and groins. Eventually, we each found a small corner of deck to curl up in and the snug sleeping conditions kept us warm for the few remaining hours before the sun.

 

To be continued…

 

 

 

 

 

 

* 8/1/13 – We still have not found gas.

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas everyone!

You can find our Christmas video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a56bHM4hfMM&list=HL1356340210&feature=mh_lolz

Yesterday we manoeuvred our car onto the Aswan ferry barge, at great cost to our nerves and some cost to nearby freight products that were crushed and mangled in the process of clambering onto the tiny area of roof space allocated for our car. An ordeal I think every African overlander must be familiar with. It was with a fair amount of trepidation that we allowed ourselves to be say goodbye to the Landie for the first time, trusting that it would arrive at the other end of lake Nasser for us to collect in a few days.

We will be taking the passenger ferry into Sudan on Christmas day. Indeed a wonderful Christmas day it will be, spent huddled in sleeping bags and coats on the deck of the ferryboat attempting to conserve warmth and the meager food supplies that we had the foresight to pack. There are of course less bitter ways to spend Christmas than cold and hungry on a ferry but I can’t think of any at the moment.

Well, that is probably enough from the misery violin. Consequently we will be having the back-up Christmas to end all understudy Christmasses on the 27th Dec. By this time we will have arrived in the warmth of the Sudanese desert. We have joined forces with a pair of Swiss overlanders, with whom we have made big plans for Christmas dinner in the desert. We will build some sort of clay oven in which to roast a turkey (ambitious perhaps?), cook roasties in the embers of our fire, and Bas has big plans for making a Sudanese version of bread sauce. Most importantly we have coloured party hats in which to drink whatever beer we can find in Sudan. It is going to be quite the shindig.

If anyone would like to call us on (Deferred) Christmas Day 27th Dec we will hopefully be available on  (002) 01026445667

This number will likely be updated with a Sudanese one in the next couple of days so check here for the new one.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all our friends, family and readers.

Disorders on Borders Part 2

Two things stood out from our brief visit to Albania, the cars on the road and their drivers. I read somewhere that in Albania 80% of cars are Mercedes. Although this seems ridiculous, our experience told us it couldn’t be far from the truth. This is apparently due to a large scale smuggling operation after the government collapsed in the 90s. Thousands of Albanian economic refugees were given asylum in Western Europe. Once they were there they stole lots of Mercedes and drove them back home to Albania to sell them. We saw evidence of this practice when we investigated a scrap yard for Land Rover parts. All we found there was an elephant graveyard of Mercedes Benz carcasses with Italian and German number plates.

The roads in Albania are not too bad but broadly single carriageway, they are full of freight and as a result the Albanians have become, shall we say, very confident bordering on psychotic when overtaking. The sheer consistency of this behavior was impressive. Throughout our drive through Albania we were being overtaken more than we weren’t, when we came round a corner or over a hill it was unusual not find two sets of headlights coming towards us at frightening speeds. The Albanians overtake with blind faith in the compliance of the person being overtaken. The whole system would become a 20 car fireball if ever just one person failed to obey this rule. The ominous bouquets that lined the road implied this was not necessarily an exceptional event.

Next we crossed Albania to Kosovo, another less than textbook border. Rich was driving when we pulled up to a crush of burning brake lights and jarring horns. The other drivers informed us that the road into Kosovo had been barricaded by anti-government protests. This was a serious blow to morale, we were all tired, hungry and still a long way from our destination in Macedonia. We sat while many Albanians turned and sped off the wrong way up the motorway. We were contemplating this as our only remaining option when a helpful man with a thuggish air approached our car from the shadows of the central reservation and tapped on the window. He was also heading into Kosovo and willing to show us a route around the barricaded tunnel. Our team was divided, half wanted to take the man at his word and follow, the rest were convinced that this was a Kosovan rebel and we were imminently going to find ourselves reading a poorly translated script into a camera-phone with four armed men looming behind us. In our sleep starved state we were all a bit edgy.

As a result of the “we are about to be kidnapped!” party not being able to come up with an alternate plan we followed our furtive guide. He climbed into his 90s Italian Mercedes and set off on a mud track down the side of the motorway embankment. We followed as he deftly negotiated an abandoned building site and continued through infinite murky backwaters. As we distanced ourselves from the lights of the motorway the “we are about to be kidnapped” party was garnering support. In our caffeine addled state we watched the Merc scramble up an impossible trail of soil and loose rocks. We followed. Just as we were all mentally selecting the photo our parents would give to the BBC to accompany the headlines we reached the apex and emerged on an expanse of deserted motorway. Our guide strolled over to us from his car and explained in broken English that his Samaritan favour would cost us 50 euros. The relief in the car was palpable, this man was merely a crook not a saber rattling revolutionary. I have never been so pleased by an attempted fleecing. We gave him 10 euros and sent him on his way disgruntled but thankfully not militant.

We arrived in Skopje, Macedonia in the small hours, located a hostel and slept. The next day was uneventful except for a brief comic interlude for everyone but me. I was interrupted from the call of nature and chased scurrying back to the Landie by an enormous stray dog with the build and attitude of a Millwall fan.

We crossed into Greece and drove along the Aegean coast to Athens where we would pick up two more temporary teammates bringing our number to a magnificent seven in the Landie. Ambitious?

At the height of our power we were many.

At the height of our power we were many.

Austria: hospitality, sarcasm and the dangers of group psychology

We left Bratislava across the Danube. I was excited to cross this great river that has always formed one of history’s most significant borders. Looking across the misty banks, I could picture anxious  roman legionnaires at the limits of civilisation, surveying the dark, endless unknown  from their walls. As we crossed over the space-age soviet bridge, I imagined we were spies being traded by the superpowers  like chess pieces, across the iron curtain.

Our impressions were immediately set on a positive course as we stopped for coffee in a fortified town where a kind bystander furnished us with a landrover part dealer’s details . As we drove the surprisingly short hour to Vienna the sun came out, the warm air flooded through our recently smashed window and we were soon distracted by a picturesque riverbank. After an impromptu picnic, we basked, threw a ball around and took photos before realising we were now drastically late to meet our friends in Vienna.

This is a good opportunity to  write about our travelling ‘fiascos’ and how they occur.  Dan, Rich, my brother Guy and I would like to think of ourselves as functioning, relatively efficient adults, capable of solving problems and making autonomous decisions. We have all individually travelled in Europe and Africa before. However, as a group, we repeatedly seemed to run late, drive off with equipment unattached, forget key times or overlook important requirements for borders. Admittedly, the speed we were travelling, the complicated transfer of our equipment from car to tent to hostel as well as the huge amount we tried to fit into each day left us exposed to mistakes. However, every mistake seemed to follow a similar pattern. Analysis of each fiasco revealed that each group member had  assumed that someone else was on top of it. Often we had discussed the emerging problem beforehand but had not quite reached the point of preventative action. Furthermore the group had a tendency to exaggerate the prevailing mood. For example, when the mood was jovial everyone would read from the other that there was nothing to worry about, even as the car was towed, we became lost etc.
I can candidly criticise in the past tense because I feel there is a story in how we have become a functioning team, fit (hopefully) for Africa. From Bratislavan break ins to being stranded on the Serbian/Bosnian border without any currency, Europe has been a much needed teacher.

The four of us are all Generals. We are quick to take charge and delegate rolls. However none of us mind being absolved from decision making and simply given orders. The group member with the most vision or energy at the time tends to become team leader. We realised that one person with a set task such as shopping, works far more effectively then the four of us standing around debating the choice of cheese or passionately arguing the ingredients of a carbonara. We developed a dynamic whereby each person volunteers or is quickly assigned a role or responsibility. Arrival and departure have become particularly slick. The car pulls into a new destination and almost without a single word one person will stride off to negotiate a hostel (or pitch the tent) one person will climb onto the roof, one person will unload the inside luggage and then one person  will cook supper whilst the others securely park and lock the car. The golden rule being that if you mention an idea or spot a developing problem it is your responsibility to act on it until you delegate it to a specific person.

Friends we have met have been surprised by the blunt, businesslike way we behave toward each other when on the move. There is indeed a military feel to our economy of words and lack of pleasantries. We talk in a staccato series of orders, ‘affirmatives’ or ‘negatives’. In actuality there have been very few arguments and the level of trust runs high. The famous cry of ‘eyes’ when pulling into the outside lane, for example, confers responsibility to check for overtaking cars to the navigator.

We had been put in contact with Tanja, a medical student, via a friend from Cornwall. She kindly offered to put us up in her room in the centre of Vienna where she lived with three other students. We arrived in a blur of frantic activity. I can only imagine the first impression we made. Our vast mass of luggage was hauled out of our insecure vehicle into Tanja’s room. We then divided into cooks and mechanics. Guy and Dan somehow, through continuous bickering and infighting produced a masterpiece in the kitchen, whilst Rich and I splayed our tools out across the pavement, donned head torches and busied ourselves creating a new Perspex window. Unfortunately Tanja had to leave for the weekend but left us in the excellent company of her housemates Ruth and Shiva (? Spelling). I can only imagine what they thought about our sudden invasion but they certainly did a good job as hosts. Soon the beer and wine were flowing and we were well prepared for the rigors of a Viennese night out.

The Viennese  were  friendly, laid-back and witty. Our British tendencies for ironic insincerity, self-deprecation and plummy wordplay were all matched. Their English was embarrassingly good compared to our rough collection of broken languages.

We stayed for three brilliant days, the second being a large national holiday. Vienna is an impressive sprawl of grand baroque and neo-classicist buildings. Marble columns rise up and deities gaze down on every street. Palaces and universities dominate orderly squares. This imperial city  was fittingly adorned by the large scale military parades that were taking place.

The addition of four chaps and a car full of luggage was clearly demanding on the house, especially the plumbing. Despite our best amateur plumbing efforts, first the kitchen sink,  then the bathroom and finally the shower became blocked (this is probably due to a central fault rather then any misuse of the facilities). Matters reached a head one morning as Dan was showering, plunger in hand, in order to force the water down a reluctant plug hole. Guy was brushing his teeth the other side of the curtain when the washing machine began to empty. This regurgitated water up into the bathroom sink which began to brim. Guy grabbed a small paper cup, sounded the alarm and began to bail. Poor Ruth, who came to investigated was greeted by the sight of my brother frantically sloshing dirty water into the shower, all over a desperately plunging and naked Dan. A flood was narrowly avoided.

The following night, Shiva took us to a party to which he himself had a tenuous invitation. We were early to arrive and were greeted at the door by the host. After we explained that we weren’t the band and that we were actually temporary lodgers of a friend of a friend, we were asked to take our shoes off, add our beers to the communal stash and come in. It was an intimate party and we were quite conspicuous and awkward. However, we soon got to know some of the partygoers. We met Natascha, a curator from the Viennese MuseumsQuarter. Despite the late night, she kindly promised to show us around the following day before we set off. We were only slightly late.

We had our own expert guided tour of the modern art exhibitions and installations, meeting some of the artists themselves. The museum offers the opportunity for international artists to live for free within the complex for up to three months whilst they work on a project. For more than a moment I considered taking up a post and living the exciting life of an artist in Vienna. As I currently have relatively few ideas for a large scale modern art project that the world is ready for, I decided to continue on our journey.
The weather was changing for the worse. We planned to head for the city of Graz that evening. Ruth worked hard phoning around the people she knew in order to find us a place to stay. We we’re to be the guests of Melissa and Karin, two sisters studying at the university. Our tour of Vienna’s art had made us a little late. We drove on to Graz in the dark being battered by a tremendous storm. Water flooded into out leaky vehicle as we shivered onward. Our electrics continued to misbehave with the the indicators failing and the headlights having sporadic tantrums. Having studied the wiring diagrams and checked throughout for short circuits it appeared there was no easy explanation for the problems and that they were either multi-factorial or due to a malevolent evil spirit that now possessed our vehicle. Having the car exorcised remains on the to do list.

Our hosts had patiently waited up for us to cook for them. We arrived cold and damp to a welcome of warmth and hospitality. After a hearty meal, we were given the option of a nearby house party. It was Saturday night and despite the lingering fatigue Vienna had induced, we headed out. The party was friendly, buzzing and crowded. At one point there was a power cut and to fill the silence we all began to sing the shanty, ‘South Australia’. This seemed to go down well apart from the fact that everyone now thought we were from Australia and had decided to sing some kind of alternative national anthem.

The following day was crisp and autumnal as we walked up to a viewpoint to gaze over the beautiful, small city and the mountains behind. It began to snow.
After a goulash, we packed, said a fond goodbye to our hostesses and departed. Ahead of us across the mountains and the oncoming blizzard awaited Slovenia.

Czechsas Chainsaw Massacre (Dan’s Adjective-Saturated Masterpiece)

Well what is there to say about Prague? I suppose most of what went on in Prague must inevitably stay in Prague. There was our first burglary, brilliant Belgians, pedunk-a-dunk, free beer and two midgets in a cage. The rest is unutterable.

Weary, bleary eyed and slightly sheepish we left the capital of Czech and struck out towards Bratislava in Slovakia. We made it deep into sparsely inhabited Czech countryside before the sky began to darken forcing us to search for a camp. Among the indistinct pixels of our SatNav we noted a big blue splodge nearby and set a bearing for it. As the roads narrowed and tarmac gave way to root and mud we found our small car symbol within touching distance of the blue splodge but could see nothing resembling water and our way was blocked by padlocked barriers, fire pits and recently hewn trees. It was apparent that this area was actively being logged and strictly “verboten”. With the sniff of adventure in our noses we cut off the track into the woodland and with some careful driving we managed to pick a path through the tree stumps and thicket down to the edge of our target.

Brushing aside some low foliage we at last burst out onto a spellbinding scene. The lake we had found stretched out before us silver and endless in the mist. The cold sun shone off its surface and rose in a polished haze to veil the distant highlands. We made camp quickly and furnished our roof platform with chairs and table.

From our lofty perch, Czech beer in hand, we sat to soak up the dying light. Then in the subsequent gloom we cooked and ate by the light of our fire. Fed in ambitious style with an excellent lentil curry masterminded by Bass we decided to scout the area to see if the tiny town we had driven through held a pub. We bundled into the landie, the sleeping platform was erected in the back forcing Bass and I to travel into town like a couple of stiffs in the back of a jolly red hearse. After a little maneuvering out of the woods we soon found just the place. Heads turned as we entered. The sleepy spot clearly had not entertained tourists for some time.

Despite its being Wednesday night the pub was buzzing with conversation, grand gesticulation and bawdy laughter. I made my way to the bar. I ordered four beers from the barmaid, a thick set, weathered woman with the surly Slavic affect we had come to expect from the Czech service industry.  All French and German words useless here, I did so using the traditional method of jabbing one finger at the tap whilst holding up and waving four more fingers from my other hand. This appeared to work.

 I waited for my drinks but was waved away with an irritable gesture. Apparently our barmaid prefers to bring our beers to the table. This she did by deftly dancing her way through a gauntlet of ribald shouts and hearty slaps that shook her stalwart behind. She responded to her friendly hazing with smiles, winks and wiggles. Next time I order a round in Czech I must remember to accompany it with a firm clout across the rear, as this local custom seemed to be received far better than my attempted politeness.

Around us was a range of professions; mechanic, postman, farmer, all in their uniforms, straight from work. The farmer, a boxy man with hands of wood, took to investigating our presence in his pub. At least I imagine that is what he was doing as the conversation consisted simply of a smiling patter back and forth of Czech and English statements equally mysterious to one party as to the other. Despite the cheapest beer of the trip so far we soon ran out of Czech crowns and headed back to our glass lake for sleep.

At 8 the following morning we were awoken all at once by the distant sound of diesel engines. All four of us leapt from our sleeping bags and stood in silence trying to determine from which direction the sound came. Rich quickly noted, “it is getting louder, they are coming towards us”. We paused a moment longer; he was right. We set about frantically packing up the camp, table chairs, tools, stove.  Half finishing jobs and changing to another, we weren’t going to make it, the rattling of engines was upon us, less than 30 yards away and it stopped. Silence followed. We too stopped, Czech voices barked from the other side of the thicket and the groan of engines was replaced with the whir and buzz of chainsaws. We quietly but quickly put out the fire and packed the remains of our camp then sat in the car to plan our escape. It would be necessary to drive out past the lumberjacks. These were big Czech men with chainsaws and we were trespassers. We had to plan our escape to the finest detail to avoid death or mortal injury at the hands of these crazed woodsmen.

We waited through several pauses in the whine of blade on bark before starting our engine and making a frenzied break for it. We crashed though the thicket, bumping and rolling over the stumps and bracken. The Czechs shouted furiously as we passed and we yelled incoherently back at them. We skidded back onto the dirt track and made off as fast as the road would allow. We breathed a sigh of relief as we hit the first stretch of tarmac road and sped towards the Slovakian border, the whirr of steel still ringing in our ears.

Daniel Nuth

Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany

“It was the best of times, it was the würst of times” Daniel Nuth

That day we arrived in the city of Brugge in time for lunch and a wander around. The weather was melancholy, the indicators still didn’t work and the wobble we had noticed since replacing our transfer box was worryingly present.  On the plus side, the architecture was mind-blowing. We pushed on to Brussels and checked into a nice warm hostel to raise morale.

Brussels is a fun and laid-back city. I am continually amazed at how late people go out on the continent, and stay up all night. The locals only start heading out at midnight and everywhere seems open until dawn. What seemed like a reasonable check out time the evening before arrived seemed draconian when it arrived. Nevertheless we drove on to the city of Maastricht.   Here we were to experience the splendid hospitality of an old travelling friend of Rich’s.
Andrea and her boyfriend put us up in their living room. The four of us took up a huge amount space. Like a napoleonic army, we decamped over their living room with luggage, damp towels, tools and bedding. Fortunately, the house was warm and there was no need to make  a fire. We spent the evening and following day in  this  charming city with good food and company. With spirits high and the weather clearing we decided to camp in the Eiffel national park in Germany, famous for its sweeping wooded hills and unexploded minefields. It seemed like the perfect place to disappear.
Car preparations had taken on the feel akin to a ship in port, bound for the new world. Songs were sung as men climbed up onto the frame, bedding was flung from the balcony and boxes and bags were ratcheted down. We left our maastricht camp more or less as we found it save for a pair of boxer shorts left in the bathroom.
We drove all day. The sky was beginning to bruise and the temperature drop as we drove up into dense wooded hills. We chose an arbitrary small road and then a track. We drove a long way down this logging track until we arrived at what can only be described as a large stone watchtower. A quick scout around revealed there was nobody around save for two walkers that we spied through binoculars a long way down a track and a lot of deer. We didn’t deviate too far into the thick woodland. This was largely because of the large tracts of unmarked WWII minefields, most of which were the sinister glass mines: Impossible to detect and very effective at wounding unsuspecting walkers.
We made camp. Despite the damp, a fire was soon roaring and we made a mean spaghetti bolognaise and dined around the table with wine. The illuminated pine trees closed in on us and the stars came out directly above. We sat around the fire with some ale and stories before retiring to bed. Two people in the sleeping platform of the car and two in the tent.
We had inadvertently chosen the best time of year for camping in the vast tracts of forest which cover southern Germany. We camped the following two nights in the forests of Bavaria. Autumn was in full swing and the whole country swept by under a canopy of auburns, golds and greens . The area of Germany we transected seemed fabulously preserved. Every town we stopped for supplies had a gingerbread arrangement of eaved houses, clocks and painted gothic churches. The clean streets and friendly people were jealously contrasted with our own dowdy isle. We refrained from using the word ‘utopia’ as this word has inexplicably fallen out of fashion.
There was a sleepy feel to the towns. One particular night, well fed and beered, four figures emerged from the forest onto an alarmingly suburban street. They had merrily strode down from the camp, head torches shining and smelling of wood smoke. They were confident that to find the fun all they had to do was follow the sound of the umpa band. However not a light was on in any house and the only bar was very much closed. The four crept back along their pre-marked path to the hidden camp without beer, song or fräulein.
A further problem had developed. Not only were we without indicators but now our headlights did not work. This limited us to only driving during  the shortening daylight hours. We made camp in a forest and began to try and fix our car. In our mossy garage we fixed a door, replaced the oil and changed the oil filter, however we dramatically exacerbated the electrical fault. We suspected that one of the relays was faulty and we set about replacing it. Unfortunately we had acquired the incorrect relay. This sent a huge charge down through the headlight circuit. There was a hissing sound and the car filled with acrid smoke. Dan managed to dive in and tear the relay out but not before the earth wire had fried itself.
Disheartened and with no lights of any description we drove to the stunning cathedral city of Limburg. It was here, whilst looking for parts  in an industrial estate car park, that we were to meet a guardian angel. This particular manifestation of a guardian angel had a shaved head, pierced ears and long plaited beard. His name was Eric and he was a landrover expert. Eric lead us in his own landrover to his house in a nearby village. After showing us around his farm house and giving us beer he helped us fix the problem. Not only did we drive off with functioning headlights, he also gave us a whole crate of Bavarian cider in return for a bottle of Betty Stoggs.
The following day we drove the ‘romantic road’ to Munich. The day was sunny as we engaged in an ambitious, efficient 400km of back to back site seeing. Not a single site was left unseen, not a single view Un-photographed and not a single box on our checklist un-ticked as we drove from one breathtaking town to the next. Würzberg, the extravagant seat of the prince-bishops and the fortified town of Rottenbach were particularly impressive.
We were meeting a friend for a drink in Munich so we had to push on.  We arrived in Munich late from traffic, wrong turns on the autobahn   and some less efficient seeing of sites than I had earlier lead you to believe. We did a rapid turn around before heading out. We met Feli an hour late at Robinson’s bar. It became quickly apparent that our lateness didn’t matter. Everyone in the crowded bar knew each other and the atmosphere was excellent. It was like a house party. Curiously no money ever seemed to be exchanged for the drinks flying across the bar.
That night during the revelry I managed to use ‘eurowallet’. Eurowallet is our collective and only source of money. This hard line communist system quickly developed upon leaving England partly because we opened a joint account with good exchange rates and partly because we all seem need feeding, resting and watering at similar times. Eurowallet has removed all idevidual decisions, as to remain equal and fair, the whole group must share your desires. For example : if one wants a coffee, they must say,
“Do we want coffee?”
If a positive answer is gained the next question  is,
“Who has Eurowallet?”
Before we all shuffle of to have team coffee, beer, food etc. It is still working well, to the point that we all had a clothes budget to spend in Munich.
The following day was hot and clear. We checked out late again. As we loafed around the city, we began to realise that perhaps Robinson’s bar wasn’t so unique. Everyone appeared healthy, well dressed, cheerful and friendly as if we were visiting a small town which rarely received outsiders.
As we prepared for departure to Prague, basking in the afternoon sun, we were approached by a film crew who made a short documentary about us. We spent a bleary-eyed hour or so posing over African maps, changing unnecessary wheels and fielding questions before we left, wanting to stay longer in this wonderful place.