Text: GG van Rooyen
Photography: Jean and Hannelie Visser
“Looking back on your journey through Africa and Europe, what event immediately stands out in your mind?” we ask Jean Visser.
“The Wimpy burgers we had in Oshakati, Namibia,” he replies, without hesitation.
He isn’t joking. After travelling 65 000km and visiting nearly 30 countries, the Wimpy burgers and milkshakes they enjoyed in the north of Namibia signalled their homecoming. They had returned to a place and culture they were familiar with.
Understandably, it was an emotional moment.
“It’s strange how a silly thing like a hamburger can bring tears to your eyes. The other people in the restaurant probably thought we were crazy,” says Jean.
The moment not only confirmed that they were nearing home, but also closed a particularly difficult part of their long trek. In the preceding months they had travelled through the west of Africa, specifically Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, the Congo and Angola.
“On the way home, it took quite a bit of guts to leave Ghana and travel further south into Africa. We had heard horror stories about places like Nigeria. We didn’t know what to expect,” says Jean.
ONWARDS AND UPWARDS
We are visiting Jean and Hannelie at their home in Vanderbijlpark. Their living room is filled with trinkets and photographs from the countless places they visited. Their two sons, Jean-Pierre and Wilhelm, feature in most of the pictures.
“One of the main reasons we took the trip was for them,” says Hannelie. “We wanted to expose them to other places and cultures.
“Seeing the African continent changes you. We definitely encountered a very different Africa from the one we had expected. We were warned that the trip would be dangerous, but we only encountered friendly and helpful people. We never felt threatened,” adds Jean.
Rwanda, for instance, was a far cry from what most people might imagine. Despite the country’s violent history, it turned out to be a wonderful place to travel through.
“Rwanda was fantastic. The landscape was beautiful, the cities were clean and ordered, and people were very polite,” says Hannelie.
Libya was another big surprise.
“We didn’t really know what we might find in Libya, but it turned out to be a great holiday destination,” says Jean.
While travelling through the country, the Vissers camped on a deserted beach one evening. Not long after setting up camp, they were approached by three Libyan men. Understandably, they were a bit worried, but they quickly relaxed when it became clear that the men merely wanted to offer them some tea and find out if they needed any assistance.
“Our whole trip through the country was like that. Libyan citizens are some of the friendliest people we met,” says Jean.
Originally, Jean and Hannelie hadn’t planned on journeying as far north as Egypt, Libya or even Rwanda. Their initial plan had been to spend three months traversing Mozambique, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia. But, as they studied their intended route on a map, they found their fingers tracing farther and farther northwards. Soon places like Kigali, Awash and Lake Turkana were added to their list of destinations.
“We kept saying, while we are there, we might as well keep going. By the time we decided to head for Egypt, we couldn’t resist visiting Libya and Tunisia. And then it seemed like a shame not to cross the Mediterranean to Europe,” recalls Jean.
They eventually decided to end their trek north by visiting friends in Luxembourg. Of course, they would also need to find a way home.
“Shipping the Land Cruiser and trailer home turned out to be extremely expensive, so we chose to drive home instead,” Jean says. “We decided to take a ferry from Spain to Morocco and travel home through west Africa.”
Countries such as Mauritania, Mali, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon were added to their list.
Deciding to take such a long trip wasn’t easy. Jean and Hannelie had to put their lives on hold for a year and leave friends and family behind. But it was an opportunity they couldn’t resist.
“I had just quit my job and we were preparing to relocate. We had sold our house but hadn’t yet bought a new one, so we realised it was the ideal opportunity to take an extended trip.”
They also had the two children, Jean-Pierre (then four) and Wilhelm (two) to keep in mind. Would they be able to adjust to life on the road?
“We weren’t too worried about the kids,” says Hannelie. “We’d already taken them on trips, so they were used to travelling. But still, we had to make sure we would have things like milk, canned food and nappies for Wilhelm.
“We ended up taking too much. If I had to do it over again, I’d take much less. Nappies are hard to get hold of in Africa, but in most main cities you can find a shop that supplies foreign consulates. There you can buy pretty much anything you need, including nappies.”
Although they had their sights vaguely set on Europe, they decided to assess their situation as they travelled.
“Our first goal was Dar-es-Salaam. We decided that if everything was still in order when we arrived in Tanzania’s largest city, we would push on to Cairo. Ghana was another important checkpoint. On the way back, we would assess things there before heading farther south,” says Jean.
They also decided not to stick to a strict schedule and to give themselves time to explore the various countries.
“You’ll break yourself by trying to stick to a schedule. I’d advise people to relax and take things as they come. Sometimes it takes 10 hours to do 200km, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You’ll also end up visiting places you didn’t intend to, so don’t spend too much money on equipment. Buy only what you really need and save the rest for those unexpected detours.”