Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Dirty Dozen

This is Savannah's revised and continued blog....
After one week of counting down the days, I had become very anxious to reunite with Bre and Ammon. It got to the point where I was pacing like a puppy at the door, waiting for its master to return. On the night of their arrival Ben and I were reflexively lifting our heads at the sound of each passing car. “Where are those siblings of mine?! I’m sick of being an only child.” As soon as Bre stepped out of the car I attacked her with jelly bean jumps and hugs. I can’t remember the last time I felt so silly, screaming and spinning like little girls together. We practically knocked each other over with our aggressive encounter of love.
“She just wanted me back so I could take her to the bathroom since she’s probably been holding it for the past week!” -Bre.
Bre has taken up residence in Ben’s truck so we don’t see much of her these days. Ben was directly returned to his rightful owner. I have not suffered much from my loss of a husband, for I have already replaced the first with a dashing Dutch man.
If only there was a way of capturing the individuals in this group with words, I’d already have myself a novel! Where do I start?! I find myself constantly in the presence of people who are looking to have a good time and make the best of even the stickiest of situations. Ben is the kind of person who can never sit still. He is up and bustling about at the break of dawn each morning. He is very active in his planning and organizing, taking lots of pride in what he does. He turns everything into a comedy with his witty comments and gung-ho attitude towards life.
Kees on the other hand is a laid back, chilled out guy. Unlike Ben and Alex, he believes in relaxing but never gets the chance as the list of chores goes on and on. He’s up first thing and before we even start the day he’s covered in grease and dirt from being under the truck with the angle grinder then he’s either cleaning, organizing or driving the truck and at the end of the day there’s always something to be fixed and occasionally kitchen duty on top of all this.. At first glance he can be very intimidating. I was scared when I first met him and was going to stay as far away as possible! At the beginning I imagined he would be very anti-social and unfriendly but he’s turned out to be one of the funniest, coolest guys around. He continues to crack me up with his blunt, brutal honesty about things and he is still confused as to why I’m laughing. His usual response is something like, “What? It’s the truth isn’t it?” He doesn’t have to try in order to be funny….he just is and he never cracks a smile at his own “jokes”. He’s so serious that it’s humorous.
He feels so lucky to have us “Crazy Watkins” around and always says “Life just keeps getting better and better. All I need is to be fed grapes and I’m set.” He has his own personal masseuse, veterinarian, hair dresser, chauffeur, chef, DJ, lawyer and house cleaner now. What a spoiled guy. Within a matter of days we had already managed to take over the controls and overthrow his majesty. Attack of the Watkins! He doesn’t seem to mind too much, being able to take advantage of his new status in the truck. For example, at road blocks he tells Dad “You deal with it. I’m just a hitchhiker!” “In your own truck?” I asked with an eyebrow raised.
The more Kees gets to know us, the more we hear him say, “Oh, you crazy Watkins!” He still can’t figure us out. “You don’t swear, drink or smoke and you’re all too smart! You’re just TOO nice.” He is still amazed and is glad to see when we argue “It would be too perfect otherwise.” He is honest. We continue to stump this poor man. He may think we’re the strange ones but he isn’t all that normal himself! For example, when we entered Douala, the biggest city in Cameroon, Kees promptly decided to drive on the wrong side of the road…at rush hour! He takes over the road, easily ignoring the shouts and honks directed at us. As long as the policemen witnessing it don’t complain, we continue to do it when necessary. Can I say “CRAZY Dutchman!” or what? ….and it isn’t the first time we’ve seen him do that! And he calls us nuts! Can you believe that?! At least Ben and Patrick would have an excuse, having their steering wheels on the wrong side (right hand side).
We continued on from Calabar into the wilderness of Cameroon. We managed to get through all of Nigeria with only paying one bribe of half a bag of dried instant noodles that Ben had been eating at the time of crossing a road block.
We crossed the Nigeria/Cameroon border at noon, entering a route bound for trouble and full of potential chaos. Having been forewarned by many Overlanders before us, we were expecting the road from Hell! And so it proved…. to be a lumpy, bumpy, muddy ride! There was visible contrast in the roads; the difference between night and day. The smooth tarmac road suddenly transformed into a thin, winding track through dense African woodland. We sat at the gates, peering through to the other side; this was the adventure we’d all been waiting for! The land seemed to blend together, no division between earth and sky. We had been washed up in a whirl of green. All signs of civilization smothered by the overpowering strength of the jungle. We were really struggling to conquer each stretch of gooey, overflowing mud. We were at the mercy of the muck pulling us deeper and deeper, dragging us into the depths of the earth. Our tires were packed down and filled, windows splattered and trucks smeared with rusty-red paste. "This is a nice intro to the country!”-Ammon
Our vehicles were in a convoy from smallest to biggest. James in the South African truck and Bre in Ben’s were thrilled and so excited. They almost immediately jumped out of their windows and climbed onto their roof racks. James and Bre had their cameras rolling from the top, cameraman filming cameraman filming camera man. I felt like we were driving our convoy across the lands of Jurassic Park. It was almost a dreamlike collage of bamboo, fern and palms sprouting from the mesh of weed infested grounds. Any random onlooker would assume we were a part of some sort of film school. We have more film being shot than in the Oscars and will easily be able to make an awesome video in the end.
We send our guinea pig, Ben off each time to take on every slip and slide. After his test run he would radio back to the rest of us to give advice on the next step.
“You want to keep to the right but not too much right because it’s extremely steep on that side. It gets soft in the middle and you’re going to slide to the left so try to stick to the right as much as possible.” “Is this the time I use The Buttons?”-Kees has found a new love for those buttons! These “Magic three buttons”, as he calls them, are located on the side of the driver’s seat. The best traction you can get to prevent slipping is with the diff locks engaged. “I don’t know what they’re for but they sure come in handy!”-Kees
In preparation everyone would line up on the opposite side of a huge puddle, waiting for the upcoming event, cameras in hand. The most amusing part was watching the faces of our audience. “Look at all of my fans!” -Kees “Look at Patrick’s face!”-Mom
We couldn’t fully understand what all the commotion was about until we saw the videos that night and how close we came to losing control. We have one shot where our back wheel’s hanging entirely off the edge, dangerously dangling over a steep pool of mud. Yikes! Kees turned to Alex, putting on a serious face, “What were you doing girl?! You’re supposed to jump left when that happens! We almost fell over right!” He joked, as if it would make any difference.
Holding on for dear life, arms tight around my legs, toes wiggling like mad, I held my breath and forced myself to keep my eyes open. Meanwhile Kees’ forehead was glued to the windshield and his jaw was practically hitting the dashboard.
“I was scared!” Said Kees, knuckles white with strain from the death grip on his steering wheel! It isn’t everyday you get to hear a tough guy admit to such things, hehe. All the while Bindhi just sits in her seat uncaring and not realizing what the heck is happening.
Kees had been thrown back into command for this huge mission, Dad not being prepared for this kind of thrashing. Hhaha, little did we know that Kees was a novice and didn’t actual have the experience we thought he had.. This discovery became quite evident with his repetitive, “UNBELIEVABLE!!” He was shocked; if not more than we were, with the condition of the road and ability of his truck. “If you knew how little confidence I had in this truck you’d be terrified! If I had seen pictures of this beforehand I would’ve stayed home! I never would’ve expected to survive this.”-Kees Gee, thanks Kees that makes us feel a million times better….
“We’re going to get lost in Cameroon and get eaten by head hunters,” -Dad said with excitement as we got bashed around like ping-pong balls!
It seemed as though we had already been swallowed up into the heart of Africa. Branches were overhanging the road, coming down on us in a shower of leaf and vine.
“As long as they aren’t these horrible little flies I’m okay. I’ll take the head hunters!” He was right; they were extremely annoying and persistent. There were hundreds of them swarming us and buzzing around. They were little eyeball sucking pests!!
We were struggling the most in our big, bulky truck so we were lagging behind. There was a little bit of motorbike traffic all day and we saw only one car; broken and rusted in the ditch. “I really don’t think trucks are meant to go through these parts, haha; especially not in a beasts like this!”…but they certainly do!
Slowly but surely we made our way through the muck and grime of 8ft. deep craters. It was like the aftermath of a blown up battlefield. Splashing mud and spinning wheels caused quite the scene. Obstacles were thrown in our path at every bend! Finally after great effort and nearly drowning in the process we’d catch up to the others. Around almost every corner they’d come into view, stopped in their tracks…..
“They’re getting out of their trucks...”-Kees
Ben and Patrick would be out of their trucks again with sticks measuring the puddles, inspecting and calculating our odds. Sometimes it looked doubtful but our group has high morale. “Not again!”-me “Patrick’s getting out his boots. You guys ready for the next leg of the journey?”-Mom
It was a never ending quest of masterminding and figuring out which of the few routes to commit to. At the most extreme black diamond runs, we always had to get out the cameras. “Lights, camera, crew, we need you over here!”-Ben. I mostly stayed inside to feel the ride, bumping and sliding….and to watch the others’ faces cringe with terror as they witnessed our thrilling escapade. ”Magic, all it needs is a little magic.”-Kees would mumble as he referred to his trusty three buttons.
A few times we doubted and worried, our odds looking exceedingly slim. “I can’t believe this truck made it through!!” Said Kees astonished. Wide eyed and flabbergasted, mom says, “We almost didn’t.”
The unknown kept us on our toes. There was never a moments rest. No matter the challenge, I always seemed to be surrounded by jolly, happy people. Ben’s voice crackled over the radio singing, “Mud, mud glorious mud. There’s nothing quite like it for cooling the blood. So follow me, follow, down to the hollow and there let us wallow in glorious mud.” Jolly indeed!
Our first day in Cameroon we covered only 14km in 6hours! We bush camped that night, prepared dinner under the stars and enjoyed the mysteriously silent lightning. Fireflies flickered in trees and tall grass. We threw a hose out the truck window and connected it to the sink in order to have a shower….more like a mud bath by the end, hah. We all spread out around a small camp fire sitting on our trucks, chairs and on dirt mounds, eating our supper. Kees looked around, baffled by our state and finally concluded that, “We’re sitting here in an ugly mud hole and yet we’re all happy, so happy.”
The next morning we woke and continued on our way, prepared to be abused some more!
Our initial setback for the day involved a bribe, camera, bridge and cops. Cameroon ended up being much worse with the bribes. We got busted for taking pictures of a bridge which was later described to us as a “military instillation”. We were delayed an hour, trying to negotiate with the stern official. We were lucky to get away with only giving four beers and a small bag of rice away, our cameras and chips still in our pockets. Major Charles, the arrogant, ostentatious man had complained about the puny bag of rice given to him. Ben had insisted in a very serious and matter of fact way, that “This is special English rice! It fluffs up into six times its original size, comfortably feeding your platoon of four men.” This was a little white lie on his part, to allow our passage to continue smoothly.
We didn’t get far before encountering our huge mission of the day. We came to a stop in the road where there were four tracks….our choices were 1) bumpy, tilted trail too narrow for cars and used for motorcycles 2) straight shot down and into a massive slop filled crater 3) twisted, sharp angled, less muddy with high, narrow walls or 4) up a steep hill into the woods and around and down with another steep, sharp hill…Hmm, I think we’ll do option 3… and so this is where the Dirty Dozen comes into the plot.
Bre managed to get her shoe sucked right off her foot as she was leaping out of the way of the trucks. As Patrick came sliding past he ran right over it. We thought it was a goner but James was stubborn and snatched the shovel from Bre until he retrieved the flip flop or “slip-slop” as he would call it. James is a cool guy who turns complaining into an art whenever he is disgruntled. Much like us, Watkins, his idea of a shoe repair is duct taping it together. I knew I liked him for some reason, hah.
We knew we had a serious problem when Ben and especially Patrick’s trucks had difficulty in passage. We had to stop to rethink and reroute for The Beast. We tried option #4 to no avail. We contemplated filling #2 with rocks, branches and logs but resulted to widening the path of #3 before attempting it.
Next thing we know the boots come out and the boys were all ripping their shirts off, grabbing shovels and breaking into a sweat. Kees and I would make a perfect gum boot couple, haha. It was our job as the women to wait on our men, distributing food and water as they worked, bare backed in the scorching sun. Alex was running around barefoot in her little pixy dress, ribbon in hair in the middle of jungle. “There is something not right abut this scene, haha.” Alex is a typical, witty, brash Australian chick. If there’s something to be done in the camp; she’ll be on top of it, thinking it’s her job.
After some time digging we put Kees in the truck and sent him through. He had so much pressure on him. It all depended on him and his skill to make it out but he takes it well. In true African fashion Kees would insist, “five minutes. We’ll be out in five minutes.” It’s unbelievable to me how, even as his tires were spinning helplessly, stirring up dust, only getting deeper and deeper and all hope was lost, he still had a smile on his face. Ben frantically guided and instructed, while Kees simply hung out the window laughing and singing away. “He’s lost it, hahah.” He simply goes with the flow and trusts our judgement. It seemed as though no matter how sticky the situation got…nothing fazed him. The company you have makes all the difference in the world. We turn the mess into a fun and exciting experience that we can look back on and smile.
“Left, left go left. Not TOO much leeeftttt!” “Careful! Not too fast!” The truck went slipping and sliding, with the pedal to the floor until it got jammed and stuck. Each time we attempted to get anywhere the situation only got worse until the entire front right tire was swallowed up in mud and the truck was at a 40 degree angle! “I guess we’ll be sleeping on an angle tonight, Kees!”-me. It was beginning to look like we’d be setting up camp on the side of the road. I couldn’t imagine how we would possibly get the thing vertical ever again. We had to send in the crew of diggers several times before finally resorting to the winch. We spent hours and hours in the mud, chopping logs, hauling wood and trying to get ourselves out of the dilemma. Each time Kees climbed back in to try again, my heart rate sped and we were all stiff with suspense. The whole thing was exhilarating to say the least. We sent scouts venturing into the bush to find a nice big tree, but unfortunately there weren’t any extremely sturdy, big trees. On our final effort to release ourselves, we were all praying the tree would hold as it practically hit the forest floor with strain. After 7 hours of stress and effort we hooted and hollered in celebration as we pulled free from our temporary earthly prison. We came out of that as the true Dirty Dozen that we are, covered in scrapes and cuts, mud oozing between our toes and clumping in their leg hair. They were more mud than men by the end of the day... It took us a grand total of 9 hours to travel 12km!! The aftermath of a day like this for the truck is intense. All of the bags are thrown around, things have fallen off shelves, and the amount of dirt from everyone going in and out with muddy boots is painful to see. I obviously didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I signed up to be the designated sweeper!
As the sun was setting; we rolled into the nearest village and set up camp on a big grass field laced with fireflies. I must say that after all my experiences and travels, Africa wins the award for the best sunsets ever. One of the villagers took the lot of us through the bush until we came to a little stream tucked away in the jungle. That must’ve been quite the sight for villagers who so rarely even see tourists, let alone share their bath with them.
It’s not uncommon to find us stopped on the side of the road by a river/small water fall taking a dip. It is the best sensation to rinse off in cool, clean water after so long in the bush, eating Ben and Patrick’s dust.
The very next day we ran into a huge traffic jam of trucks and cars digging out of a big obstacle. They had been digging for two days straight before our arrival so it was great timing. What a disaster! Luckily we were only stuck waiting for two hours before they got everyone out. As we waited, Kees entertained half of our group by taking down his motorbike and giving James and Alex a lesson on how to ride. Dad smoked them by hopping right on and zipping back and forth on the dirt track. “You coming for a ride?!” Kees said in a tone that made me hesitate before answering. “Hhaha, I don’t know, Should I trust you on that thing?” I hopped on the back and we took off. Wow, I have a new love for motorbikes! So much FUN! We did go down in the mud and came back with matching brown legs but I forgive him for it, hah. Every chance I get, I’m on that thing. Wind in my face, sky overhead and dirt track doing by in a blur! Once we were through, Ben handed out cool roll out sunglasses to all of the locql diggers. They were super pleased with their little rewards.
Driving past all of the villages the little children come running out, chirping “white, white” as they chase the vehicles. They’re like reincarnations of the seagulls in “Finding Nemo “mine, mine”.
The days are generally very long, starting from 6:00-7:00 a.m. until dark when we either arrive in a town or find a place to bush camp. In the end we are just an exhausted, filthy happy bunch of people trying to reach South Africa. Things couldn’t have worked out better and I’m so pleased with how this trip has taken off. I constantly find myself turning to Kees to thank him when I see people crammed on local transport. “I love you, I love you. I’ll give you my soul. for saving me from that!!” He smiles and laughs…..


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