When they started preparing for their much-anticipated trip through Europe and Africa, it never occurred to the Eberhards that one of them would return with a scar stretching from belly button to chest, or that they would pay a bribe for the first time in their lives, be arrested four times, or sleep under the stars while armed men with AK-47s protected them! Nor were they prepared for the breathtaking beauty of a hundred whales gliding along the ocean surface, untouched rainforests or the wonderful people they met along the way.
True adventurers at heart, with an undying zest for off-road motorhoming, retired coupled Paul and Maria Eberhard travelled 24 954 km through 22 countries in 11 months, using 4700 litres of diesel and living in a mere ten square metres.
Unlike their previous trips, during which they covered some 450 000 km of African roads relatively uneventfully, this trip through Europe and down the length of Africa did not go without a hitch. The African part of their travels was strewn with difficulties when it came to obtaining visas. ‘When we arrived in Abidjan, in the Ivory Coast, and wanted a visa to enter Ghana, we realised for the first time that new regulations require one to apply for a visa in one’s home country – and that visa is then only valid for three months,’ explains Paul. ‘After a long discussion with the person in charge, he eventually saw the necessity for us to have visas to continue, and he gave us what we needed.’
They had similar problems at Lomé in Togo, when they applied for a Nigerian visa, as well as in Libreville, capital of Gabon, and the Angolan province of Cabinda, despite having all their papers in order, and an invitation letter to enter Angola.
Sharing their adventures Inspired by the movie The Bucket List, their journey started when they left Jeffreys Bay on 13 February 2011, behind the wheel of ‘Monty’, a Mercedes-Benz Atego 4×4 motorhome constructed by TravelStar in Knysna.
Before they could embark on this extensive road trip, which took them through the most beautiful landscapes (and some African cities filled with mountains of rubbish), they first had to make sure that all their plans were in order. ‘It took us more or less a year to plan the route. As we were experienced travellers, packing was the easiest part. So many people ask us how we pack enough food for 11 months. It’s not necessary to stock up with food for every day that you’ll be on the road. We only packed ten tins of food, of which five were chakalaka. My belief is, if the locals can eat it, you can eat it. Some of the most memorable food we enjoyed on the trip included fish in Dakar, camel meat and camel milk in Morocco, paella with rabbit meat in Pisa, a real Bavarian breakfast, porcupine in Lambaréné and the green tea that is customary all over Africa. We now also drink green tea at home,’ says Paul.
All aboard in Cape Town
In Cape Town, Paul and Maria boarded a multipurpose container ship, the Amber Lagoon, along with their overland motorhome, and set off for Europe.
Paul remembers the trip clearly: ‘The most memorable event for us on the boat was our equator baptism, which was celebrated with a braai. We even received an equatorial certificate to take home. On that same night over a hundred whales came past the boat; the captain said he hadn’t ever seen so many at once before. We also experienced the most beautiful sunset and saw flying fish for the first time. The food on the boat was outstanding quality: we learned some top-class Polish cuisine, especially when it came to the meat. It’s little wonder that we both picked up some weight during that trip!’
After landing in Europe, Maria managed to tick off some of the items on her bucket list: enjoying real French wine in an authentic French wine cellar, seeing snow on the mountains in Switzerland, visiting Venice, drinking traditional Weissbier in Bavaria, eating a pizza on the piazza in Pisa, and tasting paella with real rabbit meat.
‘I will never forget the scene that greeted us when we docked in Vigo, in Spain, at 4 a.m. Seeing all the lights of the continent for the first time after being at sea for weeks was truly a special moment,’ recalls Paul. From Vigo they set off for a Spanish camping site. ‘Bursting with excitement at what was yet to come, we decided to have a beer to celebrate our arrival in Europe. Everyone started talking to us and one beer led to another … What a wonderful welcome to the country!’ Two days later they hit the road to France, where they joined up with Werner, whom they had met on an internet trucker forum. He and his family took Paul and Maria all over southern France to experience a variety of wines in genuine French wine cellars.
Continuing their travels, Paul and Maria stopped over in Biarritz and Dijon in France, visited family and friends in Switzerland, where Paul was born, camped in Liechtenstein, travelled to Memmingen in Bavaria, and then set off towards Munich, where they were honoured with the International Expedition Truck Festivals trophy. It was also here where a hundred truckers came together to see ‘the crazy man from South Africa,’ says Paul.
Salzburg in Austria was next on their list, and here they drove across the Grossglockner Pass, where South African-born Maria got to see snow up close, the perfect preliminary for the next place they were about to visit: Venice, the city of love. From there they visited Bologna, near Padua, where they enjoyed a delicious plate of spaghetti Bolognese, camped in Florence, visited the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa and travelled via the Côte d’Azur in France all the way down to Valencia in Spain.
From Spain, Paul and Maria set off towards Gibraltar. In the town of Algeciras they visited the Moroccan embassy to obtain a visa for Maria, only to discover the next day that the authorities didn’t want to issue her with one. ‘After visiting the embassy daily for ten days we finally had a breakthrough,’ explains Paul. ‘On 18 May, a day before my 66th birthday, I asked one of the embassy staff for a special present, and one hour later Maria had her visa!’ It’s here that Paul’s bucket list really started: the epic journey from north to south throughout Africa – an expedition peppered with life-threatening experiences, but also one to be forever remembered for its amazing experiences.
Africa ‘We entered Morocco on my 66th birthday. We crossed over to Tangier, drove peacefully down to Rabat and carried on slowly towards Dakhla, the world’s kitesurfing mecca,’ Paul recounts. Their first stop from there was Mauritania, where they saw the longest train in the world: 230 carriages and three locomotives. They also slept under the stars in the desert, while two military men with AK- 47s protected them.
In Senegal they experienced a local jazz festival in Saint-Louis, and got to savour the most wonderful fish in Dakar with people from the German embassy. From Dakar the couple pointed Monty’s nose in the direction of the neighbouring country, Mali, where the capital, Bamako, was on their exploration schedule. As the kilometres passed beneath Monty’s wheels, they ticked off the places they had visited in the Ivory Coast – Yamoussoukro and Abidjan – and in Ghana, Togo and Benin.
And then the real trouble started. ‘At the border post in Nigeria the officials showed us that the ambassador in Lomé hadn’t signed Maria’s visa, but because we were a “nice” couple they would help us. After 30 minutes they came back with her visa, signed with exactly the same signature as at the embassy. ‘We had to go through 99 police checkpoints, of which seven turned ugly; we were arrested four times, Monty was confiscated three times and I had an AK- 47 shoved in my nose. Most of the time we got away by talking big, except for once when they threatened to slash our tyres and dismantle the truck. We had to pay a bribe of R500 before they released us. ‘Somewhere along the road, we were attacked by four robbers, who grabbed the side mirrors. One tried to hit Maria in the face, and there’s still a dent in the driver’s door where they tried to force it open.’ According to Paul, the roads and traffic were an experience in themselves. ‘Traffic in towns in the heart of Africa is absolute chaos, even at four in the morning. It’s just cars, taxis, buses, trucks, bicycles and people walking everywhere you look. Another problem is the rubbish – mountains of it all over the place.’ On their way through Nigeria they travelled through Lagos, Benin City, Aba and Calabar.
‘As we entered Cameroon, we got the shock of our lives. We left the most wonderful road and found ourselves on a 42 km mud track called the Ekok-Mamfe Road, which took us more than four days to negotiate!’ Paul remembers. ‘In Bamenda, at 3 a.m., and without warning, Maria suddenly started suffering extreme abdominal pain, and I had to rush her to the maternity clinic, which was the only medical facility in the area. A day and a half later, on 8 August, I consented to surgery on my wife, which turned out to be just in time. What should have been a half-hour operation to remove her burst appendix took six hours. Having undergone an operation in such a remote area, equipped with only the most basic instruments, Maria was left with a scar stretching from her chest to her navel. Without any nurses there, I had to feed and clean her – with just one roll of toilet paper and a bucket I had bought at the market. Thanks to our travel insurance, it was possible to transport Maria to Douala, where we spent five weeks before taking the road to Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon.’
After Yaounde they set off to Gabon, where they visited Dr Albert Schweitzer’s famous hospital in Lambaréné. From there they continued to Libreville, where the Angolan embassy refused them a visa. They had the same bad luck at Pointe-Noire in Congo- Brazzaville.
They were forced to spend ten weeks on a single parking site while waiting for their visas to enter Angola. They only managed to secure these after being offered assistance by friends back in Jeffreys Bay, and by an 80-year-old lady from Pointe-Noire, who took their passports with her to Pretoria and later returned them with the visas in place. On their way to Pointe-Noire they came across three Portuguese men with a Renault A4 who had managed to cross the muddy Mamfe Road – by being carried over! As Paul put it, ‘This just shows that crossing Africa is an adventure, no matter how you’re travelling.’ They faced yet another setback when arriving in Cabinda, an Angolan enclave surrounded by the Democratic Republic of the Congo: they were not allowed to go through the DRC, so they had to find an alternative way of getting to Angola proper. ‘We managed to secure an Ilyushin-76 aeroplane to fly us, with Monty, to Luanda. When we arrived at the army airport in Cabinda, technicians came from Luanda to help load Monty and remove parts of his top structure. With tyres deflated and only millimetres to spare, Monty, 40 passengers, 20 drunken army personnel and a 3.5 ton truck with chicken and vegetables were soon 5000 metres up and on the way to Luanda.’ Because of their frustrations with Angola in general, and with the unfriendly people, Paul and Maria decided to take the most direct route they could find to Namibia. After driving many kilometres, they spent Christmas under the stars in the magnificent isolation of Spitzkoppe. They finally made it back to Cape Town on 31 December 2011.
Paul and Maria arrived back in Jeffreys Bay on 13 January 2012, without having had a single flat tyre. ‘Despite all the dangers and setbacks, travelling through Africa is an adventure of a lifetime. It’s left us with wonderful, unforgettable memories of people, landscapes and experiences. We will not let a few negative incidents cloud our journey through 22 amazing countries,’ says Paul. And just how much did all of this cost? Paul and Maria lived on a budget of no more than R15 000 per month, which included transport costs. They had a separate budget of R1000 per border post set aside. On average they budgeted €50 a day.
‘Would we ever again embark on such an adventurous, yet dangerous, journey, crossing Africa from north to south? Yes, without a moment’s hesitation … but then, perhaps not,’ says Paul, a note of sadness in his voice. ‘With all the new strict regulations in place to obtain a visa at the various border posts, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to embark on a similar journey again. In my heart I’m convinced that Maria and I are among the last few people fortunate enough to have had the rare privilege of crossing this wonderful landscape that screams with contrasts between rich and poor, dangerous and friendly, beautiful and horrifyingly dirty.’
Where next? ‘Well, life is an endless bucket list,’ concludes Paul. Although this might have been their last major trip through the continent of Africa, Paul and Maria still plan to explore South Africa extensively behind the wheel of Monty, including a visit to Nelspruit and the Kruger National Park in the near future.
Advice from experienced travellers
When in Rome, do as the Romans do. In order to experience people and places as they truly are, and not get only a superficial impression, the first and most vital thing is to rid yourself of the tendency to judge people. If you’re not able to do this, you’ll constantly underestimate many people and circumstances, and always be a victim of your old prejudices. Always treat people with respect. Always consider those around you, as well as the conditions in which they live. Don’t braai a large juicy steak in the vicinity of poor people who can see you. Rather put the steak away for another, more appropriate, time and place that will not offend the locals. Never just park your vehicle when you want to stay over. Always ask for permission.
Don’t believe all the stories you hear while travelling. Don’t travel the west coast of Africa if you don’t speak French! Never travel without travel Insurance.