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Driving across Africa calls for more than just a do-it-yourself repair manual . . . . Having someone watch out for lions can be a help, too

By Edward GirardetSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 26, 1985

Mombasa, Kenya

``You do know how to repair cars, don't you?'' the expatriate Australian painter asked, wiping his hands with an oil-smudged 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.

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``I mean, you wouldn't go knocking around Africa without knowing some of the basics, would you?''

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 apparently no way I could start it up again. For one embarked on a ``trek'' across Africa, the situation was more than a little disconcerting.

The Australian, who lived, traveled, and painted out of his vehicle, 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 a reserve tank -- and it was empty.

Embarrassing as it was, the incident did bring home the urgent need for boning up on 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.

As it happened, less than a week later, my Land-Rover did break down in the wilds of Tsavo National Park about 100 miles southeast of Nairobi. I recalled the accounts of Col. J. H. Patterson, in his book ``The Man-Eaters of Tsavo,'' of lions plauging construction of the Mombasa-Uganda railway at the turn of the century. Prompted by those recollections I struggled to fix a faulty fuel line while my companion scanned the surrounding savannah for predators -- lions or otherwise. It was with no uncertain re lief 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 African 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.

He took a few moments to make himself comfortable and then turned to me and asked, ``What tribe are you from?''

Somewhat taken aback, I said, ``American.''

He nodded thoughtfully. ``That's a very big tribe, isn't it?''

A breakdown, however, is but one happenstance of many that can make overland expeditions in Africa a hazardous or at best a 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 in Africa.

This network of obstacles is illustrative, perhaps, of the lack of unity or economic cooperation throughout much of the continent. For example, it is virtually impossible to obtain a single automobile insurance policy that gives coverage everywhere, from Angola to Zimbabwe. 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, manager of a Danish company operating 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 legislative buildings in downtown Nairobi -- can suddenly seem dangerous when security men appear and grab your camera.

As a traveler in Kenya will quickly discover, personal security and protection against theft are overriding concerns, if not obsessions, among many residents. Not only in Nairobi, but in the countryside, too. The daily newspapers are peppered with stories of murders, muggings by machete gangs, and burglaries. Just how tense feelings are is suggested by the extremely violent, impromptu form of mob justice meted out to those who are caught.