For a detailed trip itinerary, click here or for more info on the company that runs it (African Trails) visit:

Want another perspective? There are now a few other blogs for the trip all listed half-way down on the right-hand side of this page.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Chilling with the lion cubs at Antelope Park, Zimbabwe

We got half an hour inside an enclosure with three playful little lion cubs at Antelope Park in Zimbabwe.

From memory, I think these guys were about 3 months old. They'd bite your arm and not let go and you could just lift them up whilst their jaws were clamped down...

Just another highlight from my Trans Africa overland trip with African Trails.

Read the full story here:

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The Dogon Mask Dance, Mali - Part 3

The third and final vid clip of the Dogon Mask Ceremony/Dance in Mali. Read the full blog entry on the Dogon Region and its people here.


The Dogon Mask Dance, Mali - Part 2

Just another vid clip that never made the blog whilst we were on the road. Read the full blog entry on the Dogon Region and its people here.


The Dogon Mask Dance, Mali - Part 1

One of the many videos that never made the blog whilst we were on the road (as you can imagine, the internet connections aren't the fastest throughout a large part of the African continent). Read the full blog entry on the Dogon Region and its people here.


Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Egypt Part 3 - The Western Desert and its oases (Kharga, Dakhla, Farafra & Baharia)

(...Continued from Egypt Part 2.)

The road that took us out of Luxor and into the Western Desert was incredible. On this trip, there’s been nothing I like more than just staring out of the window (transparent plastic part of the side tarps) and watching the scenery change.  This was the perfect example of why I liked it so much. For what seemed like an hour or more we drove through a rocky canyon with steep faces looming down on us from either side of the road. The high winds that must have channelled their way through this region over centuries had carved out intricate patterns in the gorge walls that when you drove past them at 70km/h looked, for a second, like man-made hieroglyphs. By looking at the elaborate shapes and patterns in some of the boulders that lay at the foot of these walls you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d taken an accidental detour through the middle of a chess game being played out by giant Egyptian gods. 

On the other side of the canyon we were confronted with sand. Lots and lots of sand. This was the desert we’d envisaged - overwhelmingly huge. The Western Desert covers an area of 680,000 square kilometres (2/3rds of Egypt) or to put into perspective, the area is equal to the combined size of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland.

After a long drive through desolate land, Marjane finally decided upon a bush camp just off the main road. The sun set as Paddy and Kimbo Slice started putting some grub together for us and it was at this point we got just a little reminder of how the desert can catch people out: within minutes of the sun setting the temperature dropped dramatically and we’d gone from basking in what was left of the sun, to wearing our thermals and getting in the cook group’s way by huddling around the charcoal burners. To at least take our minds off the cold a little bit, it was a new moon that night, and not long after the sunset, the moon was rising on the opposite horizon. The “moonrise” was stunning and the lunar landscape we were camping on made it even more so.




Ish, Jen and Jules - showing how cold it was once the sun disappeared.

The moon rise over camp.


Early the next day, we set off for Al-Kharga Oasis – the ‘outer oasis’ and southernmost of Egypt’s five western oases. On the way in we were waylaid by some local police who explained that we couldn’t be in this part of the country without a police escort. We’d heard that this might be the case but had tried winging it as far as we could without one.  God-damn 5-0 always harrassin' us...

The truck parked up on a side-street and we all hopped out to see an Egyptian policeman in quasi-military uniform and wielding my namesake – Mr AK47 - at the back of the truck. He was a young fella that took this role pretty seriously and looked unimpressed as we pointed, smirked, laughed and asked to take photos of him standing vigil. A bit unfair really considering he was only looking out for our safety. 

(Photo courtesy of Rob Dark)
We got halfway down the street when I realised I’d forgotten my brand new Lonely Planet Egyptian Arabic phrasebook so I legged it back to the truck grabbed it and caught up with Berbs, Kenji, The Skommel Brothers and Rob D. Our ‘coffee and sheesh’ radars were fully engaged and before long we found a little shisha house (‘ahwa’) atop a building over-looking a schoolyard and a football (soccer) pitch. The sun was out and we had a few hours to kill and get some grub for lunch so I used my phrasebook to help me order some coffees and a sheesha with “tufaaH bahreini” - apple and anis flavoured tobacco. Through luck rather than judgement (I actually just thought I was ordering plain apple tobacco, which is what we’d been smoking regularly) we smoked one of the best sheeshas of the whole trip – the flavour was spot-on and the smoke we inhaled was thick and smooth.  (Incidentally, back in Aswan, a few of the local guys in the markets had told us about “salloum” - not entirely sure how to spell it – which is pretty flavourless, plain but strong tobacco stuff. Apparently a lot of locals smoke this so we gave it a go back on the felucca in Aswan...but it wasn’t to our liking, so we’ve stuck to the flavoured stuff ever since.)

After our fill of flavoured cancerous fumes and a couple of good coffees (at 5 Egyptian Pounds each) we got the bill and had a quick mooch around the town. We were looking for some food and desperately trying to find anything other than ‘falafel sandwiches’ (which we’d been eating a lot of since Sudan) but inevitably ended up having falafel sandwiches. They’re actually pretty tasty and dirt cheap (expect to pay anywhere between 1 and 5 Egyptian Pounds) but we’d just been eating so many of them in recent weeks.

Back at the truck, Paddy and a few others were playing Scrabble on the pavement and we knew better than to interrupt one of these games which were so often the source of heated banter and spelling or definition disputes...especially when Paddy (lawyer in the making) was playing. All in good humour though.

Eager to get going again, we set off as we were still chowing down on our sarnies and with the game of Scrabble still in swing it had to be brought off the pavement and onto the truck. We had to register at the police station before leaving town and after that our escort suggested we try a local “hot spring” just outside of town.

Nothing was going to get in the way of this Scrabble game, so the Esky became a table in the back of the truck

The "spring"
Well the water was hot and it did kind of emerge from the ground (through a large rusty pipe) like a spring. There were brown Malteser-like things floating around the top of the water in clumps and we weren’t sure if the bad smell was the eggy sulphur smell you’d normally associate with volcanic springs or whether it was something else we didn’t want to think about. As if to prove the water was ok, one of the policemen drank from it...besides, it was hot and we hadn’t showered in a couple of days. So one-by-one most of us boys and only two of the girls (Kay and Kimbo) jumped into to what looked like part of a sewage treatment system. Who cares? It felt good. (Hepatiti-what? You say?)

The big, rusty pipe that came out of the ground shot hot water into a deep well immediately below it. The water then flowed into a large rectangular pool where we spent most of the time but it then continued its journey into another pool via a small channel that was overgrown with reeds. Not wanting to be put off by reeds and the unknown, I plunged head first into the channel, swam underneath the reeds and amongst their roots and, like Andy DuFresne in ‘Shawshank Redemption’ emerged the other side in a pool that really wasn’t very sanitary at all. There actually were “floaters" in this part...but I didn’t tell Berbs and Homeless that and let them swim through to join me and find out for themselves.

Enjoying the sewage treatment. CW from front: Gab, Berbs, Kimbo, Paddy, Hendrik, AK, Kenji & Marjane.

Getting ready to dive under the reeds.

Safe on the other side, I'm met wiht some brown surprises. My face says it all.

After getting dry, Hendrik joked about how the alleged ‘magical healing powers’ of the water might cause a big afro to pop out of Berbs’ bald head. I quipped that the same might happen to Hendrik’s upper lip. We sat in silence and watched for a while, but nothing happened. 

Hendrik hadn’t shaved since joining the trip a month earlier in Nairobi. Despite having a month’s head-start on the other fellas there were still no signs of a full on “Mo”. It looked more like a stain a kid might get on their top lip from drinking too much coca-cola. The rest of the fellas had been growing their mo’s for “Movember” and although they failed to raise a single penny (quite difficult fund-raising remotely from Africa) it made for good entertainment and the photos of the fruits of their labour are below for you to laugh at. When the guys registered their team name on the official Movember site, we came up with the name: “African Trails Trans Africa - A Mo-verland Adventure.” (See what we did there?) I’ve taken part in Movember a couple of times before and this year I was growing too fond of my five month beard effort so I refused to crop it. That’s not to say a comedy photo couldn’t be found of me too (see below courtesy of Saffer Rob – Skommel Brother Episode 1). In even more bad taste, Kenji put on some of Kimbo’s discarded sunglasses and upon seeing him in them, Gab (Italian) proclaimed “you look like Down!” Not very PC at all and I don’t think the language barrier helped in the way it was said...but it was no less true.

Mogues Gallery...

Pat aka Paddy

Kenj aka Hawaiian Brian

Ronaldo aka Big Bad Don

Spence aka Spence

Ish aka Vikram

Rob D aka The Darkman

Gab aka Cannelloni

Berbs aka Berbs

Saffer Rob aka Skommel Bro Episode 1 - The Phantom Moustache

If you look at it side on and in the right light, you can see some whiskers.

Hendrik aka Skommel Bro Episode 2 - Revenge of the Sith Ifrican.

Not so PC Kenj...not so PC.

The afternoon was getting on so – still with escort in tow - we made good headway north for the next oasis. For bush camp that night, Marjane found an electrical/communications tower with big high walls defending its perimeter. In a comedy attempt to lose our tail, he let the police overtake us and drive on down the road in front of us as we stealthily turned off into the desert and tried hiding Roxy (nearly 20 tonnes of truck) behind the walls of the tower. They soon found us and like Egypt’s answer to Richard Dreyfuss and Emilio Estevez, were on stakeout all night as we set up camp, cooked dinner, ate, smoked some sheesha under the stars and finally went to bed.

Homeless takes some time to reflect...
...before having a "Flashdance" moment on the dune.

I slept like a baby that night but over breakfast the next morning, some of the guys said that the police made a hell of a racket when they changed shifts in the middle of the night. There wasn’t much chance to catch up on sleep on the truck as we were at our next destination by 1030hrs.
The Dakhla Oasis is the most remote of all of the Western Desert oases and only offers ‘Mut’ and ‘Al-Qasr’ as towns – Mut being our first stop on this day. By now, we’d already learned that oases aren’t quite the paradise-like places that sweeping epic movies portray or even like William Hanna and Joseph Barbera might have put one of their characters stumbling across in one of their cartoons. No sparkling blue lakes surrounded by palm trees. No reclining Sheikhs in big marquees with five belly-dancing wenches and two more dangling dates in his mouth. No Gallagher brothers. Maybe they were like that once upon a time, but all the oasis towns we’d come across are more like dusty, run-down one horse camel towns with a handful of ahwas and even less falafel stalls. 

Mut was no different, but it did have the added attraction of the old town (Mut al-Khorab): a labyrinth of ancient clay/mud buildings sitting side-by-side with the new town. Some of the old buildings had long been abandoned (and where now dumping grounds) whilst others were still being used. I joined Homeless on one of his photo missions and we went around the old town treading carefully up and down stairs and pathways that might not have been used for hundreds of years.

Son - geared up to go explore Mut's old town.

The chosen one.

After the customary coffee and sheesh we were all aboard Roxy again and heading to the outskirts of town where there was another ‘hot spring’. We were a little bit apprehensive about re-enacting the sewage swim we’d had the previous day, but the set-up looked a little more inviting: there was a massive circular pool, large patio area with tables and chairs and a bar...with beer too expensive to be buy (25 Egyptian Pound a pop...that’s  $4.20). Entry was 10 Egyptian Pounds each but we were fine with that: half of us relished the chance of another swim whilst the other half were more excited about the free hot shower afterwards.

Kay gets some practice handling an Egyptian pipe.

Who peed in the pool?

Everybody gets ready for a group version of Homeless' signature move, "The Spastic Dolphin."

The deep breath before...

...and the aftermath.

Further out of town, we came across Muzawaka” tombs (somewhat by accident) which completely knocked us for six. The site was non-descript aside from a couple of large, flat-top rock formations so typical of this continent. There were no touts, no buildings (ok, maybe one small one), no security, no other tourists and best of all, no entry fee. As I’ve mentioned in previous entries, we were on the verge of tomb overkill (sounds like it should be the name of a goth band) and had already had a good dose of them in Luxor. But. This. Was. Unbelievable...

One of the big flat rocks was pocked with holes which later proved to be tombs. It’s morbid to say it, but we were astonished and excited that we had pretty much unrestricted access to dozens upon dozens of mummified bodies, human skeletons and remains. You could touch them if you felt so inclined. There were two or three tombs that were barred up and all of the others were open for everybody to investigate, so we did just that.

Mummified bodies in the first (barred up) tomb we were shown.

This and all of the other skeletons shown below, were in open tombs.

I wandered on my own to the far side of the rock and it wasn’t long before I was tripping over (literally) human femurs and staring face-to-face with empty eye-ball sockets less than a foot away from me...I tell a lie, they were a foot and a shin bone away from me. The old guy that passed as a guide/crypt-keeper didn’t speak much English so we didn’t really learn much about the place but I’ve since read that the tombs date back to Roman times. If my research is correct, the better kept ones (that were barred up) were the tombs of Petosiris and Sadosiris but they’ve been closed up to keep them safe from humidity and over-zealous tourists.

Kimbo, sitting on the edge of an open tomb with a grisly cadaver mere centimetres away.
Not really sure what this guy (our guide/the crypt-keeper) was playing at...

...that's Hendrik sunning himself in the background by the way.

We left there and found a decent bush-camp just off the road and it was here that our police escort finally left us. That night Berbs cooked up his signature Cottage Pie with garlic bread (UCKING FOURSOME!) and I camped on some higher ground so I could get a good view of the sunrise from my tent in the morning...

The ‘Farafra Oasis’ and the fabled “White Desert” (45km from Farafra) were next on the agenda. The oasis lies halfway between Dakhla (the one we’d just been to) and Bahariya (the oasis closest to Cairo) and is the smallest of Egypt’s Western Desert oases. The White Desert – known to some locals as ‘Sahara el Beyda’ - is the stuff of a million picture perfect postcards sold up and down Egypt.

Egypt's White Desert

As the name suggests, it’s a sea of white unlike the rest of the dirty yellow but more than that, it has thousands of free-standing chalk-rock formations scattered across like giant mushrooms or Easter Island be fair, you could spend hours finding familiar shapes in the rocks. We didn’t. We got out Jen and Jules’ Frisbee (that’s after the Skommel Bros had got their daily fix of destruction) and created a big playing field in between all the wind-carved statues. 


The destruction begins as Skommel Sr. picks up a large rock.

Skommel Jr. goes for the karate kick as Sr. eggs him on.

Must. Break. Stuff.

The destructive streak rubs off on Spence and Paddy...

"Area of outstanding natural beauty."

FRISBEE!!! (Photo courtesy of Rob Dark)

We ventured on til we came across a campsite (of sorts) complete with swimming pool...but it didn’t look like the place had seen a lick of paint (or a tourist) since before Moses was born. We soon turned around and moved on (after hearing the road further ahead was only passable in a 4X4) only to stop at another spot amidst even more impressive natural sand sculptures. This was our bush-camp for the night (which Marjane later referred to as one of his all time favourites)’s up there for me but still doesn’t beat some of the remote ones we’d had in Sudan or Mauritania.

Saffer Rob takes it all in.

Ish takes the walk of shame with the spade...we all know what he was up to.

I made it onto the truck notice board.

The reason why Mark J Kilburn is called "Berber"
It was only mid-afternoon at this point so everybody kind of did their own thing, dispersing into the blinding white desert. A large part of the group (Pat, Rob D, Skommel Bros, Son and Allison) walked off to a rocky plateau and after about 20 minutes, Berbs and I decided to join stealth mode. We spent about an hour rolling and somersaulting through dunes and ducking and diving behind the rocks as we stalked our prey. Once we reached them, we didn’t quite know what to do with them so missed the opportunity for ambush as they walked right by us on their return to the truck. Eventually I was spotted by Rob D and I gallantly took Berbs’ instantly recognisable blue Bedouin headscarf (‘tagelmust’), leaving him to continue the covert pursuit. Despite my claims to the others that it was only me that had been stalking them, they didn’t swallow it and Berbs was soon rumbled too.

Kyle and Gab cooked up some bruschetta followed by stew that night which we washed down with cups of tea and whatever flavour tobacco we’d bought for our resident sheesha. After that we set off for a small animal den which the Skommel Bros had discovered earlier that day. Despite taking a broom and some powerful torches, we couldn’t lure whatever was inside out and after such an anticlimax went to bed feeling a little bit defeated. Before hitting the sack, I couldn’t help but notice how, under the moonlight, the entire landscape looked as if it was covered in a blanket of snow...ironic given that at about the same time back home the folks in Guernsey (and indeed the UK) were freezing their butts off at night and waking up to a blanket of real snow. 

Friday 26th November was our last day of our Western Desert detour and our last oasis (Bahariya) before reaching GizaPyramids. There were a few things to see here and we stopped off a couple of times: once at ‘Crystal Mountain’ to marvel at all of the quartz speckled hills; “The Oasis Heritage Museum” at Bawiti – with a clay town sculpted by Bedouin artist Mahmoud Eed.” This place could have been quite impressive but there were no signs, no information and barely anybody around to tell you more about it. There was also no entry fee (as far as we could see). A few of the guys tried buying some of the artefacts which were on sale but were told by a local that nothing was for sale. Needless to say, as we were all on the truck and ready to leave, an entry fee was suddenly brought up...but this local guy could eat our dust for all we cared. We were gone.

It was a similar story at some old Roman ruins further down the road: unrestricted, unmarked and free-standing and by all reports free to visit but as soon as the whiff of the tourist dollar was windborne, the locals were creeping out the woodwork like something out of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. We were all a bit disappointed to not visit ‘The Valley of the Golden Mummies’ – they’d only been discovered in 1996 and we could now see why; Ronald had the exact co-ordinates on the GPS on his phone but Marjane couldn’t find it for the life of him.

It was another communications tower bush-camp that night and this one had lots of solar panels attached to it. Amazingly, one of the perimeter walls had collapsed allowing us free (but probably somewhat illegal) access to the power-points within, giving our laptops, phones and camera batteries some much needed charge after nearly a week in the desert. (I’ll say it again as I’ve said it before on previous blog entries:  I can’t knock technological advances for connecting the world but it’s sad how it has taken away the remote and distant romanticism of supposed off the beaten track travel...easy for me to say as I type this on my laptop to publish at a later date on my blog!)
Son and Jen cooked up the leftovers of the previous night’s stew as well as Son’s now world famous chocolate pudding. As they were cooking up, the aspiring photographers (too many on the truck to list...or should that just be too many on the truck?!) ventured over to a nearby train track and waited for a train to come, brandishing their cameras and tripods like nomadic bandits with their saifs. Eventually, a freight train with too many carriages to count came chugging through, silencing the expectant fans but not for long; As quickly as the f-stop, I.S.O. and aperture conversations ceased...the clicking began.  

Or at least, that’s how I imagine it happened. I wasn’t actually there I just saw some of the awesome photos afterwards. I was too busy playing a childish prank with the Skommel Bros: we found a broken stool, set it up to look like the working stools and then waited patiently for an unsuspecting backside. Paddy was first up but my sympathetic streak nearly gave the game away as I tried to take his hot drink off him before his ill-fated ass bit the dust. Paddy took it well and joined us as we set the trap for the next victim. We nearly got Gab and it would have been amazing had the trap not fallen apart mere seconds before he went to sit down...he walked over singing gleefully and with a swing in his stride like one of those big crows in the Kia-Ora adverts of the 80’s. Not to be beaten, we set it up again and got Yoich a beauty...After that, there was an air of paranoia for the rest of the night - which I like to think I played a big part in creating: If we had to get up again after dinner we returned to our stools with double and triple checks of their sturdiness before sitting back down. 

Ah well, enough of this laddish behaviour in the desert. From geezers to Giza, the next day we were off to The Great Pyramids – a fitting symbol for the looming end of the African part of the trip and the climactic pinnacle of an epic adventure for a few of our co-passengers...Even better, Marjane told us that the campsite at Giza was to be the venue of our next truck clean. Aces.