From Khartoum to Cape Town/AFRICAN JOURNEY. How the glamour of a trans-Africa trek by Land Rover can begin to wear thin
YOU do know how to repair cars, don't you?'' the Australian expatriate painter asked, wiping his hands with an oily rag. A weathered Land Rover, scratched, battered, and with a roomy canvas tent affixed to one side, stood parked beneath the baobab trees overlooking the Indian Ocean. ``I mean, you wouldn't go knocking around Africa without knowing some of the basics, would you?''Skip to next paragraph
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I wasn't going to tell him that I barely knew where the fuel pump was located or that my sole source of mechanical know-how was a do-it-yourself manual. The fact was, my vehicle had mysteriously conked out and there was no way I could start it up again. For one embarked on a ``trek'' across Africa the problem was more than a little disconcerting.
The Australian, who lived, traveled, and painted out of his car, gave my Land Rover a quick once-over. The problem was simple enough, he concluded. No gas. I had accidentally switched from the main fuel tank to one of the empty reserve tanks.
Embarrassing as it was, the incident did bring home the urgent need for boning up on car repair methods, particularly for someone used to the convenience of airplanes, rental cars, horse caravans, or one's own legs when reporting in the third world. Mechanics are few and far between in the middle of the Somali outback or the Kalahari Desert. Maneaters of Tsavo
As it happened, less than a week later, I did break down in the wilds of Tsavo National Park about 100 miles southeast of Nairobi. Recalling tales of the Maneaters of Tsavo -- lions which plagued construction of the Mombasa-Uganda railway at the turn of the century -- I struggled to fix a faulty fuel line while my companion scanned the surrounding savannah for predators. It was with no uncertain relief that I saw a group of park maintenance men, casually clinging to the back of a tractor, rolling up to help me.
Traveling in one's own vehicle is undoubtedly one of the most exciting ways of roaming the continent. Apart from the personal freedom of movement, one can penetrate areas otherwise inaccessible and meet people more easily. Recently, driving along the coast road south of Mombasa, I picked up a hitchhiker.
``What tribe are you from?'' he asked.
Somewhat taken aback, I said ``American.''
He nodded thoughtfully. ``That's a very big tribe, isn't it?''
Breakdowns, however, are but one of many impediments that can make overland expeditions in Africa a hazardous or at least thoroughly complicated venture. With so many facilities taken for granted in the United States or Europe, one can hardly imagine some of the drawbacks that seem specifically designed to frustrate even the most patient and determined traveler. Insurance pitfalls
This network of obstacles is illustrative, perhaps, of the lack of unity or economic cooperation throughout much of Africa. For example, it is virtually impossible to obtain a single automobile insurance policy which gives coverage everywhere in the continent. The only option is to purchase new coverage at each border post and hope for the best.
``Apart from Kenya and a few other countries, you'll find the insurance pretty useless,'' said Benny Jorgensen, a Danish company manager based in Uganda. ``Should anything happen, you'll be lucky if they reimburse you. And even if they do, it is usually in a worthless, inconvertible currency.''
The romantic notion of driving from Africa's north to its south is further tarnished by raw political realities: Civil wars, bandits, spy paranoia, road permits, border controls, corruption. A surprising number of countries require special travel documents for certain ``security'' areas, or forbid visitors outright.
Even the most innocuous of activities -- photographing the parliament buildings in downtown Nairobi -- can suddenly turn dangerous when security men appear to grab your camera.