Hermann Jagau and his wife, Ulla, of St Francis Bay know all about the art of travelling through Africa successfully. The secret lies in thorough preparation and planning, as they did before embarking on a journey from Germany to the Cape via Africa’s west coast.
It is now 40 years since we first arrived in South Africa. Having travelled extensively through southern, eastern, central and northern Africa, we decided that we were well prepared to tackle what we called the West Coast Trip. It took nine months of detailed planning to cover all requirements of our trip, which would take us 31 000km through 22 European and African countries in 132 days.
Daily e-mail correspondence with possible contacts in each country proved a major task. The official website of the South African Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the United Nations’ website were cursory but helpful. By getting our arrangements into place well ahead of time, we were compelled to stick to a strict itinerary, which worked just fine for us. There were times when we wished we could have stayed in a particular place for longer, but the plan forced us to move on, even when we were dog tired and travel weary.
The first thing we did was draw up a chart showing the rainy seasons and temperature levels in each country we wanted to travel through. We found that September to February would be the most suitable period, although this meant arriving in the two Congos and Angola in the wet season. Anyway, that fixed our timetable. We left Germany on the 24th September 2005 and arrived in St Francis Bay on the 4th February 2006.
The whole route from Hamburg to St Francis Bay was pre-planned and pre-booked.
We shipped our trusty Toyota Land Cruiser VX 100 from Port Elizabeth to Hamburg in a container, and drove back on our own.
Where necessary, we hired local guides with their own transport to follow us and to assist. Sometimes we also hired city guides to make the most of our short stays in the 18 African capital cities we passed through. All the guides were paid in advance, and unbelievably each and every one of them was at the meeting point in time, if not a day early. We met very friendly and knowledgeable guys and thoroughly enjoyed their company. We cannot say the same of their cars, though. Quite often we had to tow them to the next repair shop! Still, it was reassuring to have them around, and it was certainly the main reason we could cover the distance and number of countries we did in such a relatively short period.
Another major task was arranging visas. Even travelling on German passports and being permanent residents in South Africa, we still needed 17 visas – two of them multiple ones. With visa application times of three days to three weeks and validity periods of a maximum of three months, it was almost impossible to arrange most of the visas before we left. What we in fact did was to travel on two passports each. The first set had the visas for Mauritania.
Since we didn’t need visas for Europe, Morocco and Senegal, we left the second set of passports with a visa services company in
Berlin. They obtained most of the visas for us for the countries that followed and couriered the passports to our embassy in Dakar. This arrangement worked well. The only outstanding visas were for the two Congos. These we obtained in Dakar, at a cost of US$50 (R350) each.
That left us with Angola – one of the countries for which we needed multiple visas. We were informed that: one, it would be impossible to obtain multiple visas; two, there are very few Angolan embassies on our route which could issue visas; and three, we would need an invitation to visit that country.
We decided to solve that problem in Libreville, Gabon. It turned out to be no problem at all. We got our multiple visas in two hours, without an invitation, but it cost $90 (R630) for each passport. Without the visa question having been solved mostly in advance we would never have completed the trip as planned, and it could have been much more expensive. From past experience we prepared all other necessary documents with great care. If the local guides and pre-arranged visas were of great help, so were our documents.
For the Land Cruiser we organised an AA “Carnet de Passage”. Although the small print on the carnet says differently, all countries accepted it with the exception of Ghana, where they issued an additional temporary import licence. Although we were continuously asked for car registration papers – which we had copied and legalised by our notary in advance – the carnet normally did the trick. AA also furnished us with an “International Certificate for Motor Vehicles”. We also prepared a car content list detailing whatever we took from South Africa for reimportation purposes. In fact, we never needed that list. Nor were we ever checked – except at the Namibian border post of Omahenene, which made our re-entry into what we consider our “home country” very difficult and unpleasant indeed. Of course, we took our international and South African driver’s licences. Quite often we were also asked for a written route description, which we didn’t have. In future we will have that, too – but not too detailed, in case the information is used for the wrong reasons. Very important was the vehicle insurance. The AXA insurance company was one of the few insurers willing to provide comprehensive cover in Europe as well as all of the African countries, in our case with the exception of Namibia and South Africa, which were already covered.
Additionally we needed third party insurance policies for each country. AXA sold us such a policy for Europe and Morocco, also in advance. For Mauritania we bought a policy in Nouadhibou. Luckily one can buy the Carte Brune, which we obtained from AXA in St Louis, Senegal, covering all of the Ecowas countries (Economic Community of West African States) up to Nigeria, and the Carte Rose, which we bought in Douala for the Cima countries, up to and including the Republic of Congo.
We took two sets of passports and plenty of copies of those and our visas. Also on the list were lots of additional passport pictures.
Of tremendous help were the “Fiche”, of which we took quite a number in English and French. The fiche contains all passport details as well as occupation, present address and the major vehicle details. Instead of waiting for the police or army or customs officials to laboriously copy all these details by hand into big books at the border or at the hundreds of roadblocks, we just handed them the fiche and they were as happy as we were.
Also important are the health certificates, which must show yellow fever inoculations. We also made copies of these certificates, which saved us a lot of money. Speaking about money, we learned that the euro (in cash) was the best currency for the trip. Pre-arranged Western Union transfers cost you 5% of the value of the transaction, and traveller’s cheques were difficult to cash. The rate offered was terrible and a commission was deducted.
You’ll need to install a safe in your car. Keep packets of notes in small denominations, should you ever be forced to part with your money. Although there are two different sets of CFA bank notes in former French and Portuguese-ruled countries, they have the same conversion rate against the rand and cover most countries from Senegal to the Republic of Congo with a few exceptions,which are going to join the CFA (Africa’s version of the euro) shortly. That made the currency question somewhat easier. Being well prepared with all our documents in place and also showing a friendly face when stopped, we never paid a cent in bribes. Being mostly in Muslim countries there were plenty of roadblocks, especially around New Year’s Eve, but the police were very friendly, wishing us Bonne Année and season’s greetings, and shaking our hands.
Later we learned not to stop at all if there was no plank with nails on the road, and to just wave to the police when passing. My wife was convinced we would be shot at any minute but it never happened, perhaps because of the large stickers with Nelson Mandela and “West Coast Trip” on our vehicle, which made it look very official.
In fact, we never had a major problem with the police, although we must say that after the 12th serious road block with document checks within 15 km after entering Nigeria, our nerves were wearing a bit thin. Of course, the vehicle must be well prepared and serviced. You must carry the essential car spares, oils and fluids as well as your camping equipment and a comprehensive medical chest. On our way we had reason to call at several Toyota garages, which we found in all capital cities. We also had our Cruiser serviced twice – in Banjul, Gambia, and Douala, Cameroon. We travelled with three spare wheels.
Our steel rims were shod with BF Goodrich All Terrain tyres, which had acquitted themselves well in the past and also stood up perfectly this time. We saw a lot of mud terrain tyres on local vehicles, but we found ours to be just perfect, because we also travelled long distances on tar, where the mud tyres are much noisier.
Apart from one slow puncture caused by an acacia thorn and one side bubble, the only other puncture we had was on the way home from Cape Town to St Francis Bay, when we drove over a nail.
For us the language problem was real, our school French long forgotten and our command of Portuguese non-existent. In Ghana, Nigeria and, of course, Namibia, English is understood, but the rest of the countries are French-speaking, and in Angola and Sao Tomé, Portuguese is the lingua franca. Having checked our equipment list of some 20 pages for the last time, we got into our vehicle in Germany, shook hands with friends, who wished us a good journey, and started our dream trip south to our home in South Africa – 31 000km away.
Read the account of the Jagaus’ adventure on our website – www.leisurewheel.com