The African Queen Pt.1

Everyone recognises a smile. All around the world, the one human constant is humour. Through airports, border crossings and police checkpoints from Stansted to Senegal, two prosthetic legs protruding from a dog eared backpack, you can always rely on humour to get you through. The juxtaposition of unshaven sweaty backpackers, charitable medical equipment, and a limited grasp of local languages creates a lot of confusion, fascination and laughter. Are they drug smugglers , or just insane? Few would guess our real motivations, a charity mission blasting across a wild and unforgiving desert, doing something good while having a damn good time doing it.

So, a little about the mission. When a knock on my door carries two prosthetic legs and asks ‘Want to drive these to West Africa?’, my mind races frantically for leg puns. Coming up with none, I agree.

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We would bring the legs from the UK, to the charity Legs4Africa, based in Banjul, Gambia. We plotted our route, from Agadir Morrocco to Banjul in Gambia, with just the right mix of organisation and gormless naiveté. We’ll drive some of the world’s least travelled regions like Western Sahara and Mauritania, where the ill founded fears of ebola and terrorism scare off all but the most ardent petrol heads.

Our road experience and mechanical knowledge consists of a year of licensed driving and a copy of Auto Repair for Dummies. We did at least know (the theory of) changing a tyre, but under the bonnet remained a mysterious and exotic landscape.

We set off from Agadir, Morocco on New Years day. Full of fear, excitement, and sugar from the expired snickers and dusty cokes that comprise our daily breakfast.

The first day’s long drive brings us to the southern tip of Morocco, to villages culturally and atmospherically alien to the more touristy north. Our plucky, ageing pickup truck (The African Queen) chugs through the vast empty highways, as we push away thoughts of desert breakdowns. We savour the friendly people, expansive landscape, and faintly post-apocalyptic vibe; stopping occasionally for posed photos with our prosthetic companions.

The only sign we’d crossed into Western Sahara (the disputed zone south of Morocco), was an increase in roadside paperwork and further degradation of road quality. The police stops are frequent but inconsistently thorough. Sometimes they demand our passports and all paperwork, other times just a nod, sometimes a shakedown for a ‘gift’. A friendly offer of a handful of peanuts, results in the officer taking our 1kg bag as ‘un cadeaux’. Another takes our hand sanitizer, after being denied our phones, binoculars, and anything else of value on the dashboard. We hide everything shortly after.

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Our truck comes unstuck in Laayoune, Western Sahara’s capital, where we spend five days awaiting a replacement gearbox from Marrakech. The bumpy roads and our ill fitting tyres have scuppered The Queen, so we prop up the only bar in town. Soulless and empty, dry countries nightlife is nothing to write home about. We’re ecstatic when the mechanics deliver us from travel purgatory and we hit the road to The Gambia.

Back on the road, and with time to reclaim, the mood is manically ebullient, flooring it across Western Sahara and into Mauritania. The border crossing is a chaotic swirl of corruption, noise, and haggling. An unescorted drive across mine filled no mans land resembles a remote controlled car navigating someone’s rock garden. The guards at the first checkpoint take their time admitting us, conducting spurious and excessive drug checks with their over eager sniffer dog. They finally admit us to the second tier of checks, a dystopian nightmare of hucksters, ununiformed ‘officials’, and labyrinthine stamping offices. Around this time, we realise we’ve run out of cash, having only enough to pay for a car transit, but not our visas. So our truck can go through, but there will be no one behind the wheel…