In 1974 I joined my best friend John on a trip around the world that we had been planning for over a year. Following the completion of my Master's Degree I boarded a flight to Europe to join John, and a few days later we stepped off the ferry in Tangiers to begin a journey that would take us overland across the African continent. Here we joined the SIAFU expedition that was traveling from London to Nairobi. Our group of 20 fellow travelers was divided into teams to handle the daily chores of cooking, cleaning, loading and unloading of gear, and setup of camp, which included the task of gathering firewood and making the fire for cooking. (So how do you find firewood in the middle of the Sahara Desert? You don't -- but you do find camel dung which makes a pretty good fire.) I was given the job of mechanic, being responsible for checking the fluid levels, tires, and general mechanical condition of our two vehicles, one of which was an old British Army bus named "King Kong". What began as a simple daily routine of checking oil and water levels became a nightmare of mechanical breakdowns. There were broken springs to replace, clogged fuel lines, flat tires to fix, and finally the big breakdown came when a valve dropped through the top of the piston, leaving us stranded in the middle of the Sahara 200 miles from the nearest town!
|"Travels with King Kong: Overland Across Africa" By James Henderson|
It took two weeks for parts to be flown out from London and to rebuild our engine while we were stuck at a refugee camp surrounding the only well for a hundred miles. The camp had no facilities and was a haven for millions of flies that made our existence border on insanity at times. But amid these almost intolerable conditions, the local Tuareg people were most hospitable and delighted in sharing their dishes of traditional food, bartering with us for our empty tins and old t-shirts, and staging camel races for our pleasure. When we finally departed the camp there was a hint of sadness on their part, as well as for us. Further along in our journey the ghost of mechanical mayhem visited us constantly, and when combined with the incredibly muddy roads in the jungles of Zaire, our time seemed to stretch out forever, as Nairobi became a distant vision. But there were also wonderful, often unexpected moments along the way when we were invited to a celebration for a new village chief, bargaining with Pygmies in the Congo during a tropical rainstorm, and hiking to the top of Mount Nyiragongo, an active volcano in the Mountains of the Moon in eastern Zaire.
Most of the time we ate dehydrated meals that we supplemented with fresh fruits and vegetables from local village street markets. The markets were always very colorful, the center of village activity, where everything from beetle nuts to insect larvae were for sale. Nights were almost always spent camped outside, whether under the star studded skies of the Sahara or amid the mosquito ridden jungle of the Congo. But on a very few special occasions some of us found solace in a cheap, local hotel. One of our most memorable and lovely campsites was on a beach along the shores of the Congo River, just downstream from Stanley Falls. Along the way several people left the trip and flew on to Nairobi in order to be home for Christmas with family. Those of us who remained spent Christmas Eve camped at a German Mission in Tanzania and were invited to a small chapel to celebrate Mass in Swahili, along with the local villagers and their music. It was a most memorable Christmas celebration!
Having crossed the equator we arrived on the plains of East Africa and found ourselves in the midst of all the wildlife that we had only seen in a zoo or National Geographic film. Camping on the Serengeti was very special with millions of stars above and the roar of lions in the night. Leaving Serengeti National Park we toured the spectacular Ngorongoro Crater, which is really a world unto its own. As New Year's Eve approached we camped in Amboseli National Park, celebrated with a huge buffet dinner in the lodge, and rang in the New Year singing Auld Lang Syne and sharing a bottle of whiskey. The next morning we awoke to a stunning sunrise at the foot of snow capped Mt Kilimanjaro and headed for our elusive goal, Nairobi. Arriving in Nairobi at last, almost five months after starting our journey, was not only the end of a trip, it was to become the beginning of another.
Author of "Travels with King Kong
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James Henderson currently resides in Redlands, CA. He holds hold his B.S. in Forest Management from the University of Illinois, M.F. in Forest Engineering from Oregon State University, M.S. in Environmental Planning from the University of Washington, and his Ph.D. is Satellite Image Analysis from the University of British Columbia. Henderson has a great love for travel and currently works as a freelance photographer and author. For more information, visit www.jimh325.net or www.nl-se.com
"Travels with King Kong: Overland Across Africa"
By James Henderson
Published Feb 17, 2015