SINGING ‘SARIE MARAIS’ IN N’DJAMENA!

I’m kicking my heels in N’Djamena, the Harmattan-hazed capital of the Republic of Chad with expedition member Brad Hansen, as we wait to board a small plane for a three-hour flight to Zakouma National Park in the east of the country, close to the border with Sudan.  So it feels quite apt to share an extract from our upcoming book ‘Africa – a Love Affair with a Continent’ on how things were when we were last in Chad seven years ago, whilst on a Land Rover expedition called ‘All Afrika’ during which we adventured through Ghana, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, the Central African Republic and Equatorial Guinea.

After leaving Accra in Ghana (surely the friendliest country in all of West Africa) we make our way north to Burkina Faso, dodging thousands of Chinese motorbikes.  Nowhere in Africa have I seen so many mopeds – as if the donkey carts, bicycles, overloaded trucks and taxis aren’t enough!  These ‘buzz bikes’ are like bees and everybody, it seems, is on one; mothers, babies, families – three to four on a bike – and not a crash helmet in sight.  Chickens, coke crates, beer, bananas, pineapples, firewood, goats, sheep, trade goods and charcoal are all carried on two wheels.  Motorbike taxis dart in and out of the traffic at breakneck speed and it’s not uncommon to see a robed, head-scarfed Tuareg sporting sunglasses and racing through the southern Sahara dunes of the Sahel – not on a camel but on a Chinese motorbike.

We head east through the Sahel, the northern zone of hot, scrubby land that borders the Sahara Desert (Sahel means ‘shore’, referring to the ‘shore of the desert’) and cross in Niger.  The 4,180-kilometre-long Niger River is flowing at its highest since 1929.  It’s market day and everyone is carrying sheep for the mutton feast of Tabask – I count 18 big-horned sheep tied down onto the roof rack of a bush taxi, a minibus has trussed-up sheep as passengers and there’s a saloon car with four in the back.  In our expedition Landy, we are part of a three-kilometre-long moving market of sheep-laden trucks and cars trying to cross on the ferry that eventually wobbles us across the swollen river to Niamey, capital of the République du Niger.  Then it’s on to the Tuareg capital of Agadez – a fascinating labyrinth of flat-topped mud-brick houses, a vast camel market, artisanal and silversmith stalls and a grand mosque that dates back to 1515.

A few days later, we find ourselves in a nomadic Tuareg tent made from bent saplings draped in cloth and woven doum palm mats in the beautiful, high shimmering dunes in an area of the Sahel known as the White Desert.  The sand floor is covered in colourful mats and carpets and there’s a raised platform of sticks serving as a bed.  In typical nomad-style, the Tuaregs readily share what they have with us.  We sit cross-legged on the carpets and cushions drinking sweet green tea and using thumb and forefinger to scoop up a lunch of fatty mutton, rice and beans from a tray, all washed down with camel milk.  That night, we sleep under the desert stars at the base of the high dunes.  In the morning, in low ratio and with tyres deflated, we grind through the soft desert sand and cross over to landlocked Chad, which is bordered by Libya to the north, Sudan to the east, the Central African Republic to the south, Cameroon and Nigeria to the southwest, and Niger to the west.  Chad – due to its distance from the sea and its largely desert climate – is sometimes referred to as the ‘Dead Heart of Africa’.  It’s also considered bloody dangerous.

Getting to N’Djamena across the south Sahara from Niger will be a hard-to-forget Landy adventure.  Here, in the capital city, there are lots of French military on alert in case of further rebel attacks from Sudan.  We arrive in the night – it’s been a bit tense – lots of military roadblocks and the slight fear of the unknown.  But as always, what would we do without fellow South Africans – salt-of-the-earth people whom we meet all over Africa and become part of our journeys?  In N’Djamena, jovial Gert du Preez, who speaks perfect French, becomes our ‘ambassador’ to Chad.  He’s a bit disappointed that the Boks lost to Scotland, so we ‘urgently’ need to grab a drink at the Club Carnivore.  It’s Saturday night and the place is chock-a-block with short-back-and-sides French military types eyeing up the talent and chomping giant hamburgers.

Gert is joined by Gill who works for an NGO in the Sahel to promote non-fanaticism and extremism, good governance and women’s rights – in Chad, that’s a challenge!  “More Gala!” beams Gert, who’s now well over the Boks’ defeat.  A tray of long green bottles of Gala arrives; brewed here in N’Djamena, it’s an excellent beer.  Piers Temple joins us.  He’s a full-of-nonsense Pommie mate of Gert’s and works in the oil business.  “My great-great grandfather,” says Piers, “was the Governor of Sierra Leone, but shortly after taking up his post he died from malaria.  My forebears fought in the Anglo-Boer War and my father was a prisoner of war in Korea.  He met a South African pilot in the prison camp who’d made a guitar, and he taught my old man to sing Sarie Marais.”  Piers launches into a rendition of this well-known Afrikaans song at the top of his voice.  Later we search N’Djamena for an open pub – fail – and end up at Piers’ bachelor pad.  Every time he opens his deep freeze for another cold Gala, we pinch our noses at the overpowering smell of rotten cheese!

By this time, Piers has added ‘Ag please Daddy won’t you take us to the drive-in’ to his repertoire and shares with us the story of the 2008 rebel attack on N’Djamena.  “It was frightening.  Suddenly the rebels were in the city and to think that they’d come all the way from the Sudan – that’s nearly 800 kilometres overland.  It was chaos.  The president and his guard were held up in the palace; the French were offering logistical support, which it seems included the odd rooftop sniper; Moroccan and Russian pilots hired by the Chadian government were shooting the shit out of everything, and the French military were airlifting foreigners out to Libreville in Gabon.  That’s why all the beautiful big trees that once lined the city centre boulevard have been cut down – now there’s no place for snipers to hide behind,” he continues, offering me a wedge of the suspect-smelling cheese with another beer.  “It was the last time I leopard-crawled,” said Gert with a grin, as another Gala opens with a pop – no twist-offs here.

It’s after 3am by the time Gert drops us off at the salubrious, but aptly named, Hotel Sahel.  Africa is never as you expect – whoever would have thought that we would have such an interesting time in war-torn N’Djamena!