Into Africa
by Klaas van der Burg 1997

 In 1993, Klaas van der Burg and his girlfriend, Lean van Eekelen, traveled in an adapted four-wheel drive ambulance from Amsterdam to West Africa. The journey took them 10 months, but the experience will last them a lifetime. Write Klaas at: klaas.burg@pi.net

I'm Klaas from the Netherlands and I am sitting in a wheelchair for almost 25 years because of a bike accident. In 1993, I and my girlfriend, Lean van Eekelen, traveled in a four-wheel drive truck from the Netherlands to West Africa, and stayed there for almost a year.

The preparation for our trip to West Africa took almost two years. We read as many books as we could about Africa, and talked with many travelers who had been there. We read a lot about how to travel in Africa in Lonely Planet's African Travel Guide, Sahara Handbook by Simon Glen and Africa Overland by David Brydon.

The best way to travel in Africa is by a four-wheel drive truck. Because of my handicap, I depended on a car with an automatic transmission. The best car we could find was a 16-year-old American Army Ambulance (Dodge W200). The advantage of this car, besides 4WD and an automatic transmission, was a small, closed cabin at the back (2.50mrt by 2mrt)In this cabin it was possible for two persons to sleep and to build an inside toilet, water tank, wash facility, storage and a little kitchen. A specialist company of hydraulic elevators for big trucks and trailers, built a hydraulic elevator at the rear end of the ambulance. So I was able to go inside at rear end of the car. There was no space for turning my wheelchair inside of the cabin. The only possibility was to turn my wheelchair on the platform of the elevator.

At the top of the roof of the cabin, we installed a water tank that we used as a shower. So we could shower in the open air at the side of the car. By building this, we were able to stay everywhere we wanted because we had all the basic facilities we needed. We were not dependent on hotel facilities or campsites. This was not only for our own convenience, but also necessary. There are no or very little facilities in West Africa for handicapped travelers. So the best way to do West Africa and also to see a lot of the countryside is when you have your own transportation and basic facilities.

To stay and to travel in West Africa is not so expensive. We could live from $15000 dollars a year, which was enough for refill our gas tanks and for the daily eating and drinking.

Before you leave it is wise to have a passport with a lot of blank pages for all the stamps you get by entering or leaving a country. It is also wise to arrange many visas if you can for all the African countries you want to visit. Also it is important to have a big supply of medicine and all kinds of medical stuff, and that you know what to do when your are ill with malaria and other tropical diseases.

And you have to know what to do if your car is broken or doesn't work, because there are not many repair shops in Africa like Europe or America. Those available know nothing of American cars, and have no parts. So you have to bring your own spare parts with you! For the car you need a lot of papers to import and export your car in all the different African countries.

After two years of preparing and building we were ready to go. In the summer of 1993, we left the Netherlands for a round trip through Africa. After a couple of weeks of staying in France, we went further down to the south of Spain. We stayed there mostly in camping sites and sometimes we camped wild. We took the ferry from Spain to Morocco, and stayed there for almost one month. We also stayed mostly in camping sites with about the same facilities as in Spain. Until the border of Mauritania there is an asphalt road. We didn't know then that is was possible to cross the border to Mauritania. So we shipped our car from Casablanca to Senegal and we flew in. After all the paperwork to get the car out of the harbor, we drove further into Senegal and Mali.

We then understood what it is like to drive on the roads in Africa. Mostly with the speed of 20 miles per hour we moved through the country. If asphalt roads existed, it was better to drive off the road than on, because of all the holes in the asphalt. But it was very exciting and thrilling. After three months of traveling through Mali, Burkina-Faso, Ivory Coast and Ghana, we decided to return to Europe. We had too many electric problems with our car and we were too heavy loaded for all the way through Zaire to go to Kenya.
On the Ivory Coast, we met a German couple who also wanted to go back to Europe by car, so we decided to travel together. We planned our trip back carefully. It took us more than three months to go up from Ghana to Mauritania and from there we crossed the Morocco border, which is officially closed. After a lot of troubles by crossing this border, we entered Morocco. In April of 1994, we crossed the border of Spain. We moved on and stayed for another three months in the south of Europe and in Turkey and other Eastern European countries. After 10 months of traveling, we were back in the Netherlands.

We learned a lot about Africa and how to travel there. It is not an easy country and some parts of Africa are very unstable. So it is very important to have frequent contact with your embassy and to try to talk with any tourist or whoever you meet to get your information about the next 100 miles or so. But what we saw of the culture and the people of Africa was unforgettable!

The most difficult part of our trip? Well, there were several difficult parts on the trip, it not so easy to say "this" is the most difficult part. But I will mention two types of difficulty we experienced in Africa. The first, was that we never had the experience of traveling on bad roads. The southern road, between Keyes and Bamako (the capital city of Mali) exist on the map, but in reality it is a vague track, through little villages and dry rivers. No signs on the road, no nothing, just vague and crossing trails. The only thing we knew was to stay between a railroad and a river and to go on this for the next 300 kilometers. We entered this road just after the rainy season. After one day and 70 kilometers later we got stuck with our car for the third time that day. With one side of the car we stood on solid ground, the other side we were standing with our wheels deep down in the mud. The pool we were stuck in was 30 meters long. The front and rear axle were blocked by the solid ground. The winch we had on the front of the car was not powerful enough to pull us out. The last three hours we didn't meet anybody on this road. So, we were there all alone. It took Lean and I two hours of digging in the ground to get out of this pool. After this, we had the experience of how to travel on bad roads and we learned that our car was too heavy loaded for roads like that.

We also had a lot of technical problems, mostly electric, with this car. Garages were not common in Africa and if they did exist they mostly didn't look so reliable (just a tree, with some ripped cars around it) and they know nothing about American cars. We hadn't much experience with fixing a car. And the electric part was very essential for getting the car started and for using the electric elevator.

Before we left the Netherlands, we bought a big manual for this car, so the only thing I could do was to read, how the car works and try to repair it. We had our own spare parts with us. Lean and I had to sit for many hours under the hood of the car, fixing wires and other things, because for example, the generator burned through about 10 times. Because of my handicap, it was not always possible for me to do on my own and so Lean helped me repairing the car. And after some time we were a hell of a team.

We brought a lot of food with us - mostly hydrated food. Along our route, we bought a lot of vegetables and fruit for our next meal. We bought our drinking water in shops where they sell mineral water. We ate a lot of pasta which was easy to prepare on camping gas. Sometimes we ate local food, but that depended on how it looked and was stored.

We did not get seriously ill. We had some wounds and in the tropics these kind of wounds can get infected very quickly. We had our own medication with us and a book, Where Is No Doctor with us. So we stayed well and we lost some pounds!

For insect bites, we had Lariam profilax with us for malaria, the biggest concern in this part of Africa. We took that for almost five months. But the best thing to do before nightfall is to dress well for protection against insect bites and to sleep under a mosquito net.

We met a lot of other disabled people. We still contact one of them in the city of Bobo-Dioulosso (Burkina Faso). We are helping him since then with all kinds of things; wheelchairs etc. And things to start a writer's office for himself.

We took a lot of pictures, and did bring some souvenirs with us, but not so many. We already had a lot to carry and we did not have enough room in our car to store it.

The most memorable experience was to be in Africa and experience it and see it with our own eyes. The most exciting thing was to travel back from Mauritania to Morocco. This border is officially closed, so we had to cross this border illegally with a guide through a minefield.

Shall we do it again? Yes, it was the best time we ever had, and we still want to see East and South Africa! So,...we are now preparing for that trip in 1998!

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