19 February 2000 - Into Africa

Africa! After travelling for 59 weeks, driving 60,000 kilometers, we have finally reached Gibraltar on the southern tip of Spain, the gateway to the continent of Africa. Now, it’s only a matter of crossing the 15 kilometer Strait of Gibraltar, which separates the European and African continents. Paige, my wife, and I have stood several times on the shores looking across the strait at the mighty land we are about to meet head on. This is poised to be one of the longest legs of our trip, a fascinating journey into a land rich with history and culture, a landscape as diverse and unpredictable as the mind can imagine. I drove through Africa on my last two-year trip but the feeling of setting out again on to this mighty continent is nothing if not overwhelming. I am filled with eager anticipation and excitement mixed with a little fear of those things we just cannot predict.

Africa, after all, will be much different than any place we’ve visited so far. Until now, we have always had a pretty good understanding of each country we’ve visited, each city we’ve stopped in. We’ve always had had some sense of where we would be the next day and how we would get there. Driving through Siberia, for instance, was a little tricky but we always knew we would find somewhere to stay, or at least find some civilization to point us in the right direction. Our cellular phones might not have always worked but we knew we were never more than a day away from a land line phone.

In Africa, all bets are off. The Western press does a poor job covering the goings-on in Africa unless there is a nationwide tragedy. We’ve had to do our own research just to put together our route. Our plan is to drive down the western coast of Africa around the horn and back up the Eastern Coast towards Egypt. That’s sounds great on paper but I know it just won’t happen so seamlessly. There are so many factors that constantly make the African landscape and environment an unpredictable terrain. For one, there are wars being waged in various corners of the continent, from Zaire and the Congo to the Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. These regional battles often spill off in all directions, making driving hazardous to say the least.

But wars aren’t the only problem. There are also border disputes between neighboring nations that may make it impossible to cross from one country to the next. The border between Algeria and Morocco, for instance, has been closed for over six years, and no civilians are allowed to pass. (The irony is that there is a gas pipeline which runs across the border, feeding gas between the two countries. Clearly, the powers-that-be have no problem with gas and money crossing, just people.)

In addition, there are other unpredictable events, like epidemics and natural disasters, that may prevent us from getting from one point to the next. Even the Western press has picked up the stories about the terrible floods which have pretty much submerged most of Mozambique, a country in Southeastern Africa. It was so bad I recently heard a story about a pregnant woman who was forced to give birth while caught up in a tree. Officials there are greatly concerned about diseases which may spread as a result of the floods. To make matters worse, mines which had been buried under the ground are floating to the surface making the entire landscape a ticking bomb.

And then there is the basic fact that there simply aren’t roads everywhere you want to go. To the southwest of Morocco, for instance, there is a small territory called the Western Sahara, which is in dispute. Morocco claims and rules the territory but guerilla groups have been fighting this claim for years. The only way we will be able to safely cross it is via a military convoy and that leaves two days a week. Once you reach the country of Mauritania on the other side, though, there are no roads along it’s Western coast. The only way to go is to drive is inland towards central Africa where many of the wars are brewing or drive along the beach which is our plan.

This is the reality we have to accept as we embark into Africa: Whatever plans we make today may be irrelevant tomorrow. In anticipation of our trip, we have spent hours talking to experts, researching the best routes to go through the country but we just can’t know everything. Such unpredictability should make this an exciting and adventure-filled trip but it also has its dangers. It’s enough to make even the most seasoned traveler a bit nervous. I certainly am.

On a basic level, the preparations necessary for a trip to Africa were unlike any we’ve undergone on our trip so far. Paige and I spent hours in consulates and embassies all over Europe, from France to Britain to Belgium, trying to get visas for some of the countries we hope to visit. We’ve discovered that there’s an art to figuring out which country can be the most help in obtaining a visa. It’s important to remember that many African countries are former colonies of Europe and Britain and it’s best to start with the home countries of those former colonies. Since we didn’t have much time in each country, though, we had to rush through the process. In the end, it took us nearly a month to collect only 10 visas.

The problem is that most of these visas last only three months and many will have expired by the time we arrive. I’m hoping we will be able to pick up new visas in neighboring countries but this too could be another obstacle in our travels. Health is a whole other concern to be considered when travelling to Africa. We have an international vaccination card that was pretty empty until we reached Africa. Now there are 23 entries on the card, marks indicating we have been vaccinated for diseases like tetanus, typhoid, and rabies. Who knows whether we will ever be exposed to any of these diseases but it’s far better to be safe than sorry.

The biggest concern, of course, is malaria, the parasitic disease carried by mosquitoes. While we have stocked up on mosquito nets, the real prevention of malaria comes by taking a drug called Larium. In order to properly protect ourselves, we’ve are supposed to take Larium for two weeks prior to going to Africa, during our entire trip, and then continue to take it for two months after we leave the malaria zone. That wouldn’t be such a big deal if it weren’t for the unusual side effects associated with the drug. Like many drugs, the side effects include everything from sleeplessness to sleepiness to nausea. The most talked about side effect, though, is the effect the drug has on one’s brain. Many people have vivid dreams while taking Larium. Others supposedly go a little bit mad. If that happens, you are supposed to go off Larium as quickly as possible. I have a back up drug which is far less effective but will have to do in case Paige or I start to feel a little strange.

As part of our preparation for going to Africa, we’ve also had to buy additional supplies. We don’t know the next time we’ll be able to stock up so we’re assuming we will need to have a least a couple of weeks of food and medical supplies while we travel. Our medical bag has a far more extensive collection than we’ve had yet—hypodermic needles, antibiotics, bandages as well as medicine for diarrhea and fever. We have also packed a water purification kit which comes with filters and with pills, an absolute necessity on this trip. All the water we get in Africa will certainly need to be purified; there’s no drinking straight out of the tap.

We’ve also needed to put together a fairly comprehensive set of camping equipment, with everything from tents to sleeping bags to cooking equipment to blankets. We certainly won’t be able to stay in hotels every night and these supplies are essential. My hope is that we will find smaller shelters like missionaries and buildings that are under construction to stay in. There may be a few times, though, when we simply have to set up a tent on the side of the road.

Within our camping pack, we’ve also got dry food as well as lithium batteries for our flashlights. Lithium batteries are quite expensive and difficult to find but they last much longer. The last thing you need is to discover that your battery has burned out in the middle of nowhere.

Of course, we’ve packed a great deal of maps and guidebooks for the trip, most of which we picked up in Britain because they were written in English. The best maps of Africa are made by Michelin, a French company that has extensively surveyed the area. The French, after all, colonized many countries in Africa so they have an extensive knowledge of the landscape and roads. Plus, Michelin is a tire company and it’s in their own interest to find the best roads on which to drive.

For our car, we’ve bought extras of everything, from jacks to tires to tow bars. We’ve installed a host of new security features, such as extra burglar alarms as well as a special immobilizer, which won’t stop someone from taking our car, but it will prevent them from driving away with it.

Two of the most important items we are carrying—which we’ve carried throughout our trip—are a couple of bottles of Western whiskey and a couple of cartons of Marlboro cigarettes. We’ve situated these items prominently in our bags so that any border patrol person or inspector will stumble—ahem—across them quickly if they search us. Hopefully, the guard will ask us why we have them and we will simply be able to pass them along as a gift. This kind of friendly bartering has already opened up a number of doors for us on our trip.

As far as communication equipment, we have a wide variety. We have two Iridium phones—one for the car, one handheld—but we’re very uncertain as to how much these will work in all parts of Africa. To make sure we can always contact someone, I also have GSM phones, which will certainly work in more westernized countries, like Morocco and South Africa. Best of all, these phones allow me to receive data such as e-mails as well as voice communication, a feature that is particularly useful given that we don’t know where or how often we will be able to hook up to the Internet. If none of these phones work, we may consider getting an INMARSAT phone, the satellite phone system organized by an international consortium of companies. Those phones, though, are very expensive and conspicuous. For the meantime, we are hoping to get by with what we have.

In London, we attended the international boat show where we purchased a new global positioning system (GPS) for our car. Our old GPS system was made by Alpine and it worked splendidly. Unfortunately, it only works in Europe. I’m not certain how well the new one will work or how up-to-date it’s information is but I always have my Michelin maps should we lose our way.

Lastly, we have three portable short wave radios, plus an additional one for the car. These are crucial for our trip because they are really the best way for us to stay on top of the news in Africa. To get insights on our route, I visited the BBC African staff who produce the definitive broadcasts to and about Africa. I know we will be listening to Focus on Africa and their other shows daily, getting updates and more information as we travel on border squabbles as well as larger wars. (Listening to local radio programming, of course, is useless. More than likely it will be in languages we can’t understand and most of it is government propaganda anyway.)

Equipped and ready to go, I am cautiously excited about our trip and scared to death. While I am concerned about our route (and our safety), I am also very intrigued by investment opportunities I may discover along the way. I have been investing in African countries like Ghana, Botswana and Zimbabwe for years now, and much to my delight, these investments have been successful. Faithful readers know that I believe there is a coming bull market in raw materials and Africa is one of the world’s greatest sources of such resources.

The key to understanding how to invest in any African country is first to know what resource it produces. Most of these countries have one or two products that account for the majority of its economy. Botswana, for instance, depends on diamonds; Ghana on cocoa and gold. For Morocco, it’s phosphates. In other words, a smart investor need not only understand the political, economic, and sociological situation in any one country but must also know what resource makes its economy tick. That’s key because if you know that cocoa prices are going to suffer, it doesn’t matter how bullish you are on Ghana, a country whose economy lives and dies by the price of cocoa.

What you won’t find in Africa are computer or car companies. The reality is that most of these countries have little to no manufacturing base. Why? It’s difficult to sum the history of these nations in one broad stroke but certainly freedom has had its price for African nations. Remember: most of these countries were colonies of countries like Britain and France and Portugal well into the 20th century. Ghana was the single most successful colony in the British empire back in the mid 1950s. Nigeria was a rich and prosperous land then as well.

When the liberation movements came along after the 1950s, though, many of these countries were left to fend for themselves, often under the heel of dictators. These dictators put tight restraints and controls on industry and the economy, often stealing money for their own profit. In the end, the economies suffered and any manufacturing bases that had been established were destroyed or irreparably damaged.

Thankfully, many Africans these days have a new and open-minded attitude. While there are still ethnic and political and social disputes cropping up, many of the new leaders understand that the old methods—communism and socialism—just don’t work. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1990, there were about three open markets in all of Africa. Today, there are dozens. Many countries want to start stock exchanges. Forward thinking leaders want to attract Western capital and open the country up to the global prosperity. Don’t forget that Africa is a continent of 800 million people; that’s hardly a force to be ignored.

So what do I hope to find on my trip? Africa is certainly an enormous place and I can’t possible presume to know what I will encounter. But I do have some thoughts on a few countries that I will be visiting in the coming months.

Morocco. Morocco has been the darling of European investors for the last few years. In particular, the Moroccan stock market has been doing very well. If you ask me, though, I think it’s a bit of a rigged game. That’s because local Moroccans are not allowed to invest money outside of their own country. Instead, they invest everything in their own stock exchange. While that’s helped float the stock market for the past few years but I’m not certain it’s something that can go on forever. Still, the country is rich in phosphate, used to produce fertilizers. I would really like to find a way to invest in this resource, which Morocco has in abundance.

Nigeria. The largest African nation in terms of population—130 million—Nigeria is one of the world’s leading producers of petroleum. In fact, it’s a member of OPEC. That’s a major boon to the economy, particularly as oil prices stay high as they are now. On the downside, there is, and always has been, tension between the Christian and Muslim populations and a great deal of corruption in the government. But a new president has come into power and I think he’s doing just the right things to set this country on the proper track.

Uganda. Winston Churchill called Uganda the pearl of Africa. Of course, it was later ruined by dictator Idi Amin. Still, this country has huge cotton resources and the current leader has been saying all the right things. There’s even talk about opening a stock market. I can’t wait to see if all this talk is real. If so, that’s a place I’ll certainly want to put my money.

Zimbabwe. I’ve had investments in Zimbabwe for quite a while and the stock market there has been doing very well. They’ve got one advantage over many of the countries—85 percent of the population is from the same ethnic group. That’s rare in Africa. The problem is that the man who runs the country has a habit of going a little crazy every once and a while. I will be curious to see how long the populace puts up with him.

Egypt. Unfortunately, I might arrive a little late to take advantage of investments in Egypt. The stock market there has been on a tear and as faithful readers know, I am not one to buy at the height of the market. Still, I’m excited about the discoveries of hydrocarbons—essentially natural gas—under their land. That’s a resource that all countries will need more of as we move into the new millennium. If engineers can find a way to produce enough for themselves as well as enough to export, hydrocarbons could turn out to be a key profit making resource for Egypt.

South Africa. Although it’s the most industrialized of all African nations, I’m leery of South Africa on several levels. It’s tough to tell what is overstated in the press, but it certainly sounds as if crime is rampant there. From an investment point of view, I’m just not convinced that South Africa is going to make it as a viable society or economy. There are eleven official ethnic groups (and countless other “unofficial” ones) many with opposing views about where the country is headed, many at odds with each other. Gold and diamonds are the country’s primary exports and the economy would certainly get a boost if the price of either started to move. Still, I’m not that bullish on gold or diamonds. That said, I hope to be surprised. Unlike most of Africa, South Africa has the infrastructure to build an even more powerful industrialized nation. I just hope they can get over their differences and focus on making the country as economically, politically and socially sound as possible.

There are many other countries I am eager to visit and revisit like Zambia (known for its emeralds and copper), Botswana (and its famed diamond mines) and Cameroon (oil). I can’t wait to visit some of the places I was unable to reach on my last trip, like the small country of Malawi in southern Africa and the city of Timbuktu in Mali. Most Americans have heard of Timbuktu but I bet they didn’t know it was actually a place that exists!

I’d love to visit countries like the Sudan and Ethiopia and Libya but I don’t think I will make it there on this trip. The U.S., after all, doesn’t have very good relations with many of these nations. After all, we dropped bombs on the Sudan trying to flush out the terrorist Osama Bin Laden back in 1998. In the end, we simply destroyed an innocent pharmacy company’s plant; Bin Laden was nowhere to be seen. Not surprisingly, it’s quite difficult for Americans to get visas to visit.

Most important, though, I hope and expect to be surprised. I hope to discover things I didn’t expect, to find new places with lucrative, untapped resources. I hope to stumble into countries that I thought were doing poorly only to discover that they’ve turned the corner and are headed in the right direction. In the end, that’s what a hands-on tour of a place as giant and unpredictable as Africa is all about. And we hope to survive.