Made it, Cape Town (supplied)
Made it, Cape Town (supplied)

SocietyDecember 29, 2019

Mid-jungle meltdowns and Angolan ghost-poopers: An epic African voyage

Made it, Cape Town (supplied)
Made it, Cape Town (supplied)

Summer journeys: FOMO drove Kristin Hall to join her adventurous partner on a road trip from Ireland to South Africa, wending their way through the back blocks of some of the least explored countries in the world.

The Spinoff Summer Journey series is entirely funded by The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism, click here.

On my last day in Angola, I woke to a calm and cloudless morning brimming with promise. Scrappy dogs sniffed their way around the dirt carpark and music crackled from distant radios as, all around me, residents of the town of Santa Clara took their morning dump.

There are, as it turns out, a lot of Santa Claras in the world – plenty in Europe, more still in Northern, Central and South America, and two in Asia, although this Santa Clara was in southern Angola, right on the edge of Namibia’s northern border. We’d arrived late at night, cooked some noodles and gone to sleep with the plan of crossing into Namibia in the morning.

The night passed without incident, and at 6.30am I groggily peered out through the fly screen of my tent to assess our surroundings in the light of day. I found the car park we’d camped in scattered with squatting human figures, their shapes casting Quasimodo shadows across the dry dirt. The scene looked a bit like a contemporary art installation, but with more poo.

At that very moment, nature called, quite insistently, and I left my sleeping partner to wander into the dawn in search of a more private ablutions area.

Camping near Luanda, Angola (Photo: Supplied)

Santa Clara was just waking up. The petrol stations, whose bathrooms could typically be relied upon, were all closed. There were people everywhere, selling bread and milling around, waiting for buses or just watching the world go by. A white woman crumpling Bridesmaids-style into the middle of the road in a fit of gastrointestinal distress would attract an awful lot of attention. I shuffled my way back to the carpark.

My partner had woken and was chatting to a Namibian truck driver who was parked up next to us. I explained my situation. He said, “just do what they’re doing”, gesturing towards the squatters, a new lot who had replaced the previous ones.

“Take a towel with you.”

The towel was, allegedly, for preserving my dignity. Many of the locals had bits of traditional print fabric draped over their heads in a “if I can’t see you, you can’t see me” type manoeuvre. Across the dusty expanse of carpark were plenty of exposed butts, attached to shrouded heads, like rude but colourful ghosts. The psychology behind it appeared to be “look, everyone here knows I’m doing a poo, so there’s no point in covering exactly what I’m doing, but I will cover my face in case my ex walks past.”

The truck driver said “just go, it’s what everyone does”, and he was right.

One man leaned against a chainlink fence as he chatted to his friend who was mid-wipe and looking very contemplative. Some accepted the practically non-existent cover of the bare and wizened shrubs, while others just stopped mid-walk and got down to business.

Heartened by the normalcy of the whole thing, I took a towel, and confidently strode to the centre of the carpark, then I strode a bit more to a spot behind a tree, then I strode over to a gutter and considered it for a while, but realised there was a pretty good chance I’d fall into the gutter and need to be pulled out, possibly covered in human faeces. Then I went back to the car.

“Why didn’t you go?” my partner asked. “I couldn’t!” I protested, “there’s too many people around!”.

The truck driver again convinced me that no one cared whether I relieved myself in the middle of a carpark or not, so off I popped back through the dust, stopped, waited for a minute or two, and retreated back to the car. This process repeated itself about four more times until I resigned myself to spending a highly uncomfortable hour completing Namibian immigration formalities before I could use the walled, doored, no-towel-required facilities of the Oshikango border post.

By this point my panic-prone brain had concluded that I had probably given myself bowel cancer, a diagnosis that I later found out, with great distress, was actually scientifically possible.

Me and the Congo River (Photo: Supplied)

Why tell you this story? Well, other than the fact that everyone loves a good poo story (yes, you do) it’s a fairly representative tale of the 10 months I spent driving from Ireland to South Africa with my partner. Nearly but not actually pooing in the middle of a carpark is not even close to the weirdest thing that happened on our trip – in fact, it’s not even the most disturbing in the poo genre.

We did the trip because my partner Oscar, a true adventurer, had long dreamed of exploring West Africa by road, meeting people, doing lots of bad miming in place of actually learning French, and going on some risky but ultimately rewarding back-country jaunts. I had a less planned approach in that, while I was utterly terrified of all the bad things I’d been told would happen to us, I was more terrified of missing out, adding another brick in the road towards being an old person with no cool stories and therefore spending my time abusing TV weather presenters via email instead of reflecting on my cool stories and being grateful.

An awful lot of long-term travel is unremarkable no matter where in the world you are – long waits at borders, the circus show that is trying to obtain a sim card, fighting with your beloved over just how many times they’re prepared to expose themselves to the musical stylings of Pitbull because you came to Africa equipped only with a barely functioning car stereo and a donated Clubland 22 CD. But many other parts are memorable, usually for more complex reasons than a nice sunset.

Dry season, Congo (Photo: Supplied)

The Congos were memorable. On our drive through the Republic of Congo from Ouesso to Brazzaville, we stopped in a tiny town for lunch and ate boiled catfish. We walked past a small wooden shop which had a sign reading “Pharmacie” and a collection of desiccated animal skins hanging in the window. Then we went to a cake shop to eat tiny and delicate mousse cakes, which clashed a little with the remnants of catfish. The young woman working at the cake shop served us as a curious baby monkey hung from her arm. I hoped the monkey wasn’t destined for the pharmacie. The woman was young and beautiful and watched a fashion channel on the TV as we sat and ate our cakes. It was impossible not to wonder what life must be like for a young fashion-lover in a town where cheetah skin is sold as a pharmaceutical.

Leaving the Republic of Congo and entering the Democratic Republic of Congo is confusing in both a grammatical and practical sense. On our first attempt to enter the DRC, a bribe of US$100 was demanded, a figure we both did not physically have and weren’t likely to part with if we did. After being essentially chased back out of the country by a very angry man with a stick, we drove back into the Republic of Congo, and headed south to try another DRC border. This border post was even more remote – a grass-thatched roof sheltering a couple of benches and a smouldering fire was the only feature in the bare hills. Here, a bribe of US$50 was demanded. I did a very unconvincing job of pretending to be pregnant as an emotional ploy. It did not work.

Border crossing attempt two, DRC (Photo: Supplied)

Our third border was accessed by what was really no more than a walking track though grass that was taller and only slightly less robust than our vehicle. When we arrived at the border village, there was no office, just a plank of wood blocking the track, and a man who was very excited to use his desperately under-utilised passport stamp. He dragged a wooden desk and chair out of a nearby hut and the immigration process began. The 50 or so people who lived in the village gathered around to watch. They found us very amusing.

The man stamped our passports with some difficulty as his ink pad had dried to a crisp. A faint blue smudge confirmed that we had officially entered the DRC via a tiny forgotten outpost that no one seemed to be able to tell us the name of. We bumped out of the village to the tune of several “bon chance, les blancs!” (good luck, white people!) and drove in the dead of night down a wet clay river bed. The ruts were so cavernous even a commercial truck hadn’t managed to make it out – its stripped carcass sat half sunk in orange mud, its rusted engine lying beside like a broken heart.

In the sixth hour of driving, as our ancient Land Rover clunked ominously and teetered on the edge of collapsed banks, I was starting to get the notion that I might die there in the river bed. By the 14th hour, I was pretty much certain. There was no one and nothing except jungle and mud, and for the first time in my life I found the capacity to sit and stare directly ahead of me, thinking of absolutely nothing at all. Occasionally, I had to get out and guide the car away from certain peril, which I did morosely at best. My partner said I needed to change my attitude. I did that thing that Bilbo Baggins does in the first Lord of the Rings movie where he has a demon face for like a second, but mine lasted a lot more seconds and was accompanied with incoherent screaming.

Of course, we made it out of the jungle eventually, and the DRC, although upon exit we had a tough time explaining to the border control officials how exactly we had gotten into the country, given all we had was a blue smudge from a border post that they had all long forgotten about. I hope our friendly jungle border man got a new ink pad.

Battling the mozzies in Congo (Photo: Supplied)

Now that the trip is over, I have a whole lot of memories floating in my brain which don’t neatly fit into the “Inspirational Travel Moments” filing cabinet, so they’re just hanging out at the forefront of my consciousness, taking out a long lease on a penthouse apartment and getting in the way of things. Trying to persuade the Countdown self-checkouts to do your bidding with images of mid-jungle meltdowns and Angolan ghost-poopers clouding your judgement is quite difficult.

So often we look to travel, and travel stories, for insights into the true meaning of life, and people often ask me what life-changing experiences I had in Africa. Do I now spend my days in a zen-like trance because a poor villager cured my anxiety with her smile? Did I watch a lion cub being born and discover my true purpose as a sole tear rolled down my cheek? No, I did not. I met incredible people and saw incredible things, but that is a given, because there are incredible people and incredible things everywhere, even in places where we don’t usually look.

Does travel have to be worthy to be worth it? Has driving through the back blocks of some of the least explored countries in the world changed me as a person? The evidence is yet to emerge. Other than learning a lot more about African culture and geography, and becoming skittish around dense shrubbery and open-plan carparks, I can’t immediately point to any major developments in my psyche.

But it was a great adventure, and sometimes, that’s enough.

The Spinoff Summer Journey series is entirely funded by The Spinoff Members. For more about becoming a member and supporting The Spinoff’s journalism, click here.

This story was made possible thanks to the generous support of our members. If you value what we do and believe in the importance of independent and freely accessible journalism – tautoko mai, donate today.

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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