Sep 182015
 

Headed to the airport, and check-in was surprisingly easy. We volunteered to check our bags rather than deal with what was sure to be a mess, and headed off to try and find security/immigration/lounge/gates. That wasn’t easy, because it was down a makeshift corridor that wasn’t marked. We did finally find it, no trouble at all with immigration, and soon were off to the luxury lounge. On the way, we passed this sign warning us about Ebola:

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At least the lounge had AC, and the usual amusing variety of expats, and strange local beers, which predictably were awesome. I mean awful… ūüėČ

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About 45 minutes before the flight we left the lounge and headed to the gate. There we found Jordan who had apparently survived the Ibis Douala. However, we were chastised by the gate agents for leaving the lounge, and they told us they would come get us when it was time to board. So, back to the lounge we went. About 15 minutes later they finally summoned us, and it was time to board.

TAAG Angola flight 527
Douala, Cameroon (DLA) to Bangui, Central African Republic (BGF)
Depart 14:20, Arrive 16:00, Flight Time: 1:40
Boeing 737-700, Registration D2-TBD, Manufactured 2006, Seat 1C

Interestingly, this was the same plane that Jordan and I had taken about 18 months prior from Sao Tome to Cape Verde. I guess TAAG doesn’t have many 737s so it’s not that interesting, but was still mildly amusing to me. The crew was their usual TAAG indifferent, but at least this time they didn’t eat our meals before they could serve them to us.

Shrimps on a plane…no way. I pecked at the rest (and of course at all the cheese and wine), and had to beg for a wine refill. They apparently ran out after my refill, however, because they went into hiding and refused to give Ian one.

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Landing was right on time, bus gate minus the bus, and we were directed to the medical quarantine tent:

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Taking temperatures:

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While waiting for medical check, we got an up close view of “In God We Trust Airlines”

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Immigration was easy, no questions at all, and our bags came out in maybe 10-15 minutes. So far, CAR was seeming very anticlimactic, which was a good thing. Just like getting the visa in DC, it seemed like as long as they got the money they were of the attitude of “whatever you do you do, it’s not our problem.” I like this approach! It’s not like CAR gets many clueless random tourists I’d expect!

As promised, our hotel the Ledger Plaza Bangui was waiting for us, and we were off in a nice chilly air-conditioned van to the hotel. This is where the drama was really to begin. The moment we entered the hotel, the skies opened up, and it was a majorly fierce thunder and lightning storm outside. The hotel lost power several times while we were checking in.

Jordan seemed to have a relatively easy time of it, but despite my printed confirmation, they couldn’t get their minds around the idea of one room, two people, two beds. I get it…people who come to CAR and stay in the nicest hotel are all NGO workers and all want their own room. Well, that’s not us, and that’s not what we reserved, so we want what we reserved. First, they claimed no rooms available with two beds…which was apparently true at least for the first night.

Then, they claimed there was a 50% surcharge for two people in a room. I showed them my printed confirmation, but they could care less, they weren’t going to budge. After nearly an hour negotiating (100% in French because their English was non-existent), we decided on two rooms for the first night and the second night they would give us a room with two beds, but at a 50% surcharge. Ugh. At least they did us the “favour” of giving my corporate rate to Ian as well. What a mess. There was also a price list at the desk, which indicted only about a 15,000 CFA surcharge for a “double” room. But that’s on the “normal” rate. On the corporate rate (which was, in fairness, quite a bit less) they demanded 50%…which was well over 15,000 CFA…and was closer to 40 or 50,000!

So, we went up to the rooms to unpack, and oh, apparently the AC and the internet aren’t working today. The internet has been out for days/weeks, and the AC doesn’t run when the generator is on…which seems to be most of the time. My room the first night eventually cooled to 23C which was acceptable for sleeping, but I don’t think Jordan’s room got below 27 or Ian’s room got below 29. Ugh. Felt bad for them, but at least they had fans?

We met downstairs for some beers and dinner to try and forget the heat and annoyance (TIA afterall) and eventually crashed so we could try and tour the next day. I say try, because despite asking several times, they were unable to locate the hotel driver to know for sure if he would do it. But, “don’t worry, he sleeps in the hotel.” Uh, great, so where is he?

Went to bed semi early, looked out my window in the morning, and saw the convoy of aid workers getting ready to leave the hotel for work:

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Breakfast in the hotel was actually quite good, with eggs cooked to order, a great spread of pastries and breads, etc. It was actually really impressive considering where we were. All in all, the hotel definitely did a great job with food.

Going to skip around here a bit, and ignore our day in CAR for now. When we moved rooms the second day to our shared two bed room, at least we had a great view of what looked to be a quite nice pool:

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Dinner both days was in the hotel cafe, which actually had a good mix of French bistro food along with some various international stuff like pasta/etc. I had a croque madame both days which was really quite tasty:

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So, overall, taking into account you’re in a developing country just emerging from a brutal and nasty war, the hotel really does quite good. Is it worth the price? Absolutely not given the lack of AC and internet, but the rooms were clean, the food was good, and the complex was quite safe. Overall, it’s the place to stay in Bangui, but don’t get your hopes up for luxury. There will be serious inconveniences, annoyances, and probably boredom if you travel alone, but hey, it’s all part of the adventure! Next up…what we actually did in CAR!

Sep 172015
 

So, this is going to turn out to be a lot shorter than initially planned. Thanks to the Pullman being such luxurious accommodations, and thanks to Turkish being over an hour late, we didn’t make it to bed until nearly 4am, but somehow managed to sleep until 10am…waking up to what looking to be very ominous clouds. We did manage to hurry up and get out the door to see how much we could explore before the skies opened up.

Headed out the hotel for a short walk, first stop being the Place de Gouvernement about 1km away. The skies were starting to look very ominous at this point, but managed to see the World War One monument, which had changed quite a bit in the three years since I’d been there. The statue that used to sit atop it was gone, but not sure why. Political reasons? Things just falling apart? Regardless, it had seen much better days.

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The Palais de Justice, which had also seen much, much better days. I “littoral”ly could hardly take a pic of it it was so depressing! I was beginning to get the impression after the hotel and a few sites that all was not well in the state of Cameroon…

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Another monument/obelisk on the square…but was unclear what it was…but it looked semi-photoworthy!

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At this point, the rain started, and in five minutes it had become quite a downpour. We opted to bail on the last stop on the walking tour (the cathedral) and hail a cab back to the hotel. Managed to find one, and hit the hotel coffeeshop for something resembling breakfast. By resembling I mean a couple of double espressos each (which turned out to be $8 each…ouch!) and a few biscuits. Since that wasn’t cutting it, and the rain had finally let up by this point, we headed to the poolside cafe for an early lunch. The pizza was surprisingly tasty, and the Castels were ice cold and adequate…

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At this point it was less than three hours until our next flight, so packed up, checked out, and caught the hotel shuttle (which was there this time) to the airport to begin the real adventures…the Central African Republic!

Sep 152015
 

When I was booking this trip, I debated for a long time the merits of getting a hotel in India. I would land in India just before 22:00 and depart the next morning at 06:00. Best case, after immigration, check-in, etc, I knew that meant I’d get four hours of sleep max in the hotel. Was it really worth it? Well, immigration ended up taking nearly an hour, and it was 11:15 by the time I got to the hotel, 11:30 by the time I checked in. I decided to push it as much as possible, and leave for the airport at 04:00, getting there just 90 minutes before an international flight. That meant…4.5 hours at the hotel. By the time you subtract showers, the half bottle of wine the hotel gave me (great sleep aid) I slept a grand total of 3:15.

It was worth every penny…and must have been the perfect long nap to reset my body clock, because I’ve been sleeping amazingly this entire trip. Not a single sign of jetlag. Money very well spent!

Hotel car took me to the airport, and check-in was pretty easy although they had a pretty hard time figuring out how to print my onward boarding pass to Cameroon. No line at immigration and security, and off to the lounge. Oh yes, the lounge. What was really strange at check-in is they had stacks of lounge invites to three different ones, and were just randomly handing them out. There were two colleagues in front of me at check-in who got invites to different lounges…and the check-in agent couldn’t figure out why this was a problem!

I ended up with an invite to the ITC Green Lounge, which was perfectly adequate at 04:30. Not crowded, plenty of power outlets, plentiful ice cold diet coke, and a variety of hot and cold snacks. I had a few samosas which were pretty tasty along with a few diet cokes, and I was ready to go. Off to the gate, and boarding was already underway.

Turkish Airlines flight 717
Delhi, India (DEL) to Istanbul Attaturk, Turkey (IST)
Depart 6:05, Arrive 10:25, Flight Time: 6:50
Airbus A330-300, Registration TC-JOB, Manufactured 2014, Seat 4D

Nice lay-flat seats on this bird, but odd that the foot rest/shelf had no separation from the seat next to it, meaning if you sleep at all angled you could be playing footsie with your seatmate. Awkward. Decided to go with the lemonade welcome aboard drink instead of my usual orange. Tasty!

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What’s for breakfast this morning?

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Champagne brunch. I figured since I was already disoriented timewise, and it was like 21:00 back home, it made perfect sense. Yes, this is how I rationalize things! Nice starter, and the cheeses were quite tasty.

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The “turkish pastry with cheese.” It was rather odd, and I think I might have finished half off it. Just strange, but wasn’t really super hungry anyways so it sufficed.

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Debated a small nap, but instead got sucked into a horrible movie. Something about people bending dimensions and traveling to other solar systems to colonize a new home for mankind. It was three plus hours of my life I’ll never get back, but it did make time go by quickly. Soon we were just an hour outside Istanbul and a small snack was served. I can’t escape the samosas!

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Landed right on time just about 10:00 and headed to the lounge to grab some water and check e-mail. After a detour to Starbucks, of course, to ingest large amounts of caffeine to get me moving. Mission accomplished, around 11:00 I decided it was a waste to sit around the lounge all day and decided to head into the city. The Turkish lounge has nice lockers where you can lock bags up, so I packed a daybag and headed out. Passport, wallet and cell phone and I was good to go.

Had to find my way back downstairs to arrivals, which I finally did, purchased a visa, and found the metro to the city. Decided I would go see the Blue Mosque, which would require a short ride on metro followed by a tram. Fortunately, I remembered how this worked from previous visits and it went off without a hitch. The walking around really helped, and maybe was another secret of why I avoided jetlag this trip. I tried to walk as much as possible and see as much daylight as possible to help my body realize just what time it was. The flight to India had moved me forward 9.5 hours, now I was back 2.5 hours, and the flight to Cameroon would go back another 2 hours. Regardless, it was a gorgeous day in Istanbul:

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Got back to the airport about two hours before the next flight, right after Ian’s flight from Munich had landed. Snacks in the lounge, a well-deserved shower to rinse off the sweat from a 90F sunny Istanbul day, and it was time to head to the final flight of the day…the never-ending 737 flight from hell…nearly seven hours to Yaound√©, Cameroon followed by another short hop on to Douala. Jordan’s insane flight from Houston had just landed and he met us at the gate. Hats off to him, there’s no way I could survive 20 hours in economy!

Our gate area was an interesting mix of folks, but very few from Cameroon. Lots of Ukrainian, American, and South African passports around us, many of whom we’d see the next day on our flight to CAR. Any bets what’s going on there?

Turkish Airlines flight 69
Istanbul Attaturk, Turkey (IST) to Yaoundé, Cameroon (NSI)
Depart 18:15, Arrive 23:05, Flight Time: 6:50
Airbus 737-900, Registration TC-JYE, Manufactured 2012, Seat 3F

Two pieces of good news on this flight. First, these were the longhaul 737 seats, which meant there was approximately 18 extra inches of legroom over a standard “domestic first” configration. Even better, business was only booked to 3 of 16 seats tonight, so we had tons of space to spread out. We must have been exhausted, because we were still both too exhausted to think about logically switching rows to have more space, and stayed in 3E and 3F. Switched from the lemonade to the orange juice this time for a welcome drink…and water.

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Takeoff from Istanbul at sunset…

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So, what’s for dinner tonight?

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This is where it got ridiculous. Turkish decided that since there were only three people in business class, they would order exactly one of each main course. One fish, one beef, and one vegetarian green beans. I was second to order, and got my request of beef. Ian, unfortunately, was asked if he “would mind having the green beans.” Ugh, yes, I’m pretty sure he minded. They promised they would find something else…

As usual, a fantastic starter from Turkish:

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The beef, however, was tough and pretty much inedible. They found Ian some other beef dish that looked much, much better. Was probably a crew meal…

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Passed the flight trying to nap unsuccessfully, and watching episode after episode of Scandal. About an hour before landing a small snack was served, including a delicious raspberry cake of some sort.

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This is what we call “avoiding Libyan airpace” and no-fly zones. It must have added at least an hour to the flight.

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Then, we noticed we appeared to be circling. Turned out the airport at Yaound√© was closed due to being fogged in and below minimums for landing. Um, after nearly seven hours in flight how much fuel can be left on a 737? After about 20 minutes circling, the captain announced we were landing. He didn’t, however, announce that minimums had been met. Entirely possible there wasn’t enough fuel for an alternate?

Turkish Airlines flight 69
Yaoundé, Cameroon (NSI) to Douala, Cameroon (DLA)
Depart 00:05, Arrive 01:05, Flight Time: 1:00
Airbus 737-900, Registration TC-JYE, Manufactured 2012, Seat 3F

After about 45 minutes on the ground, we took off for the 35 minute flight to Douala and arrived about an hour late at nearly 2am. Ugh! Fortunately, immigration was a breeze and we were out to find the hotel shuttle around 2:15. Except, the hotel shuttle was nowhere to be found, and the ATMs at the airport were all broken. The taxi mafia settled on 10 euros to drop Jordan at his hotel first, and then take Ian and I to our hotel. It was a ripoff, but at 230am there wasn’t much choice.

The hotel. Ugh. I’d stayed here about two years ago when it was the Le Meridien, and it was…adequate. Now it was the Pullman, and reviews online weren’t great. First off, I’d screwed up and booked a locals-only rate, so we ended up having to pay about 50% more than expected. Then, they couldn’t understand the concept of a room with two beds. Once that was finally sorted we got to the room…which was a sauna. The second room was marginally better, but not great. I left Ian to see if it would cool down, and I went and checked out another two rooms which were even worse.

Then, there was no water in the room. I went to the front desk three times to ask water to be brought up, but it never happened. Fortunately, I’d saved a bottle from the plane to brush my teeth, and Ian (being the fancy one he is) ended up using the minibar Perrier to brush his teeth. Finally, around 4am the room cooled down just enough to consider sleep, but I was thirsty and had to settle for the only option in the minibar…beer. I threw a bit of a fit at checkout the next morning about not being able to get water, and they did kindly comp the Perrier and beer. But ugh, this property has gone from adequate to dismal…and for the price recommend avoiding it at all costs.

We got up at a semi-reasonable hour, and decided to head out exploring just a bit to get some walking in before the adventure was to really begin!

Jan 092014
 

After a late lunch, the hotel shuttle dropped me at the airport early evening, about 3 hours in advance of my flight. The airport was absolute chaos, with lines that weren’t lines, and it was incredibly difficult to figure out where check-in was. Finally I found the South African counter, which seemed to just have a disorganized mass of people congregating in front of it. I pushed my way to the front of the scrum, saying “Classe Affaires, Classe Affaires” and that seemed to do the trick. Soon I was checked in, and off to the gate.

Or so I thought.

First I had to get past the immigration folks, who kept saying “stamp, stamp, stamp.” Seems there was a booth in the check-in area where you had to by an airport tax stamp, which got put on your boarding pass. 10 minutes and 10,000 CFA later I had my stamp, and it was off to try and find the lounge. Managed to find it without too much trouble. A few sad sandwiches and cookies on offer, but also a decent bar selection. I ended up having a couple of Castels over the two horus I was there, and found a power outlet which was nice for keeping the i-Devices charged up.

The amusement came about an hour in, when a small group of American oil workers (Louisiana based on their conversation) came in. One of them loudly announced to the whole room and the bartender “I ain’t seen women in months” followed by “throw down that whole bottle of Johnny walker!” They were refused the entire bottle, but pretty much polished it off shot by shot in the next 15 minutes. Keep it classy Amurika! Soon, it was to the gate, security, and time to board.

South African flight 87
Douala, Cameroon (DLA) to Libreville, Gabon (LBV)
Depart 21:20, Arrive 22:20, Flight Time 1 hour
Airbus A319-100, Registration ZS-SFN, Manufactured 2005, Seat 2A

Boarded right on time, and South African has an odd business configuration on these birds – 2 seats on one side of the aisle, and three on the other. Seriously, middle seats in business class? There were 25 seats, but only 4 of us in business for this short hop, so didn’t make much different. Fantastically friendly crew, but then things started to go tits up. All the captain would tell us is we were waiting “for a technical reason.” This stretched on for over two hours, and I was convinced we were going to cancel. They cycled the power completely on and off at least three times, and finally around midnight announced we were ready to go. It didn’t fill me with confidence.

But, no problems.  Flight was short and uneventful, maybe an hour.  There was even a small snack:

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This is where things got fun. ¬†I’d asked for the hotel shuttle, but of course being nearly three hours late it was nowhere to be found. ¬†Got a cheap taxi to the hotel no problem, and arrived to find out I’d been upgraded…to the Presidential Suite! ¬†SCORE! ¬†In the end, my two nights here turned into four for reasons I’ll go into later, but it turned out to be the best upgrade I’ve ever received from Starwood. ¬†Several shots of the suite:

The living room:

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Continue reading »

Jan 082014
 

Driver was waiting for me right outside the airport, to drive me to my hotel, the Le Meridien Douala. Big bonus points to them – they arrived with a cooler full of cold scented moist towels and cold bottles of water. Definitely a huge plus in my book! The trip to the hotel took maybe 15 to 20 minutes, and we were there. I was upgraded to a slightly larger room, but really nothing too special.

First order of business was to get some lunch, since I hadn’t had anything to eat yet that day. ¬†Went to the poolside hotel restaurant, Le Madiba:

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…and had what was actually a surprisingly tasty pizza along with a Castel.

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Properly fueled, it was early afternoon and time to head out on a walk.  I had a rough idea of where I wanted to go, so off I went down the road.  Headed out of the hotel a few blocks, and took a left on Avenue General Charles de Gaulle and walked to the Place du Gouvernement.  Voila the Palais de Justice:

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Continue reading »

Jan 082014
 

Quick ride from the Hilton in their shuttle bus, and I was at Malabo ready to check in. ¬†The only problem was, the check-in area was total chaos. ¬†Dozens of Chinese everywhere, each with several bags, busy saran wrapping them, tying them up with twine, you name it. ¬†The room was chaos. ¬†Since I couldn’t see a line, I just pushed my way to the front of the mass of humanity, and eventually found a check-in desk. ¬†Yes, it was for Ethiopian, and yes, I could check in. ¬†No checked bags, so should be a piece of cake. ¬†I had tried online checkin, but it said it didn’t work, however, the seat I’d selected took. ¬†Bulkhead aisle…not bad for a 30 minute flight.

Couldn’t figure out where to go next….tried one door, there was a woman at what looked like a passport check…nope, this is domestic flights…she waved her hands and pointed in another direction. ¬†After wandering around looking lost for several more minutes, I finally found the right passageway, leading to international passport control and security. ¬†Piece of cake, and soon I was in a large waiting room. ¬†Time to have a seat.

There was a hallway marked “VIP lounge” but there was a security guy guarding it. ¬†He wouldn’t let me past. ¬†So, when he disappeared a few minutes later I just went down the hall, and followed some stairs upstairs….and did a little plane spotting:

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Found the door to the VIP lounge, and it was unlocked…so I went in. ¬†Nobody was in there. ¬†Hmmm…there was a flight board though!

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Dec 312013
 

“Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness. He had summed up ‚ÄĒ he had judged. ‘The horror!’ He was a remarkable man. After all, this was the expression of some sort of belief; it had candor, it had conviction, it had a vibrating note of revolt in its whisper, it had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth ‚ÄĒ the strange commingling of desire and hate.” – Joseph Conrad, the Heart of Darkness

Africa. The more I go, the more I learn about myself. But as Conrad noted, it’s just a peep. Enough to know these people are tougher than me, they endure way more that I could. I come into their world for a brief couple of days, usually via some Lufthansa first class flight, and only glimpse at the reality that is Africa. But it’s enough to know that given enough time…Africa would win most likely ūüėČ

This trip came just 7 days after returning from three weeks in Tajikistan, Moscow, Montenegro, and Serbia. I left exhausted, to take on probably the most difficult group of countries I’d set out to do to date. For some foolish reasons, I combined many of them into one trip. The visas themselves, well, they were a mix:

Cameroon: easy, but sketchy. Made me wait around there embassy for two hours, but then $140 in cash later I had it on the spot.

Gabon: drop it off, two days later it was ready. Piece of cake.

DRC: ugh, letter of invitation, notarized with three different stamps in the DRC, etc. Once I had that, however, it was a piece of cake.

Congo: well, there’s a story here. I’ll tell that when we get to it.

Angola: eight trips to the embassy. Lots of confusion, forms, cash, stamps, emails, angry people. But I got it. I still can’t believe I got it.

The rest were no visa, or visa on arrival. I’ll detail more when I get to the individual posts.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to keep up not TOO delayed. The flight routing is:

Trip Map

…first post coming soon. First thought on parts:

Part I: Minneapolis to Malabo, Equatorial Guinea on US Airways and Lufthansa
Part II: Malabo, Equatorial Guinea
Part III: Malabo to Douala, Cameroon on Ethiopian
Part IV: Douala, Cameroon
Part V: Douala to Libreville, Gabon on South African
Part VI: Libreville, Gabon
Part VII: Libreville to Kinshasa, DRC on ASKY
Part VIII: Kinshasa, DRC
Part IX: Kinshasa to Brazzaville, Congo by boat
Part X: Brazzaville, Congo
Part XI: Brazzaville to Pointe-Noire, Congo by train
Part XII: Pointe-Noire, Congo
Part XIII: Pointe-Noire to Cabinda, Angola by taxi
Part XIV: Cabinda, Angola
Part XV: Cabinda to Luanda, Angola on TAAG
Part XVI: Luanda, Angola
Part XVII: Luanda to Sao Tome, Sao Tome e Principe on TAGG
Part XVIII: Sao Tome e Principe
Part XIX: Sao Tome e Principe to Praia, Cape Verde on TAGG
Part XX: Praia, Cape Verde
Part XXI: Getting home – TBD!

I already know this isn’t how it will happen. It’s Africa. Things change, and break, and don’t happen, or go places they don’t expect to. It’s gonna be an adventure!