Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Lost Routes

Trans-Africa overland routes are constantly evolving ;  unfolding onto a new section of the Michelin map ; always paving a route North, South, East or West.  A route gets blocked, and another opens up...

A quick example from the diary of Graham Jackson and myself:
A year apart we crossed the same remote Gabon / Congo border.  Graham's Land Rover was the first overland vehicle in years, followed by our Land Rover a year later.  Graham journals the following:

Graham got his bolt cutters and cut the lock on the Gabon side of the gate, having decided that was easier than digging up the dead guy to retrieve the key. We drove through 100m of tall grass to reach the Congo side of the border. The officials stamped our passports at the border, then we followed the pickup 10km to Mbinda. The road was very slow and there were many deep mudholes filled with water from last night's rain. Toki got mired once as the dead spot in the steering makes for some tricky driving. A quick tug from the Pinzi got us moving again.

Our journal a year later related a similar experience.  We eventually crossed the border at 9pm.  I remember patiently waiting to be escorted to the village school where we would be allowed to camp for the night. The relatively short drive along a rough track was slightly harder due to the lights on the Defender failing.
Our route, however, is now a well known route and definitely not part of the Lost Routes.

From Cas & Grahams Tran-Africa Map

The Lost Routes across Africa overflow with adventure, myth and beauty.
Currently the Lost Routes across Africa are mainly Algeria (exiting the Southern Borders) and the large central African region. The map above, photographed by me in 2004 show the route Cas and Graham did in the early 1990's. Typically, the route entered Cameroon, crossed the border into Central Africa Rep. before turning South through the DRC (then called Zaire) and finally East into Uganda.  Mysterious cities, known to most by name only,  linked all these routes - Bangui, Bangassou and Kisangali.

View Overland Routes in a larger map

In 1991 Derek Tearne (Flickr) crossed Algeria heading South.  His route crossed the Sahara before heading East to Central African Republic, Zaire (DRC) and into Uganda.  This is one of the Lost Routes.
His website reads: "A few kilometres down the road, in Mambas, we meet two tour trucks full of tourists driving from East Africa to Europe. Usually when any travellers met on the road they would stop and talk. Some of these tours last for over six months and the trucks seemed to be very self contained. Often the passengers didn't seem to have the same need to communicate as other travellers. The passengers on these two trucks seemed particularly subdued and uninterested in talking. We found one passenger who didn't mind chatting and discovered that the main road route to Beni was closed due to repairs and they had taken the short cut. This road was particularly narrow and had proved difficult for their large trucks. It had taken them four days to drive from Beni. They were already feeling worn down by Zaire. Little did they know how much more Zaire there was to come."

Following a similar route was Derick Lean.  Heading to Kisangani he journals:

Day 126 Wednesday 17th February 1993 60 Km
Get up and go. Road of similar quality all the way to Kisangani, boring but not fast. Pass one small town, perched on the banks of a Congo tributary, beautiful setting but basically in ruins. Arrive in Kisangani about 09:30. Checkpoint into town is a mere formality.

Central Africa, with her red soil, gigantic jungles, offers snaking roads which zigzag the dozen or more rivers.  The rainy season brings mud, and ruts, whilst the dry season bring broken bridges, red dust and humidity.
Her cities are a maze of ex-colonial development, UN investment and African politics.  Tourism does not exist.

It's been almost two decades since these Lost Routes have been used.  I am certain a few brave overlanders have completed the Central Africa route.

The one trip that I know of, in French, is the following website:

Red Bird Dream - unfortunately his journal is no longer available on his website.

In concluding my thoughts, I long for more information about these routes and the early overland trips.  Perhaps one day the current routes will close and Central Africa will re-open.  When that happens, hopefully I will be there meeting people, finding routes and crossing Africa.


  1. In 1991 I travelled north from Cape town to london and crossed through Zaire and also Algeria. Borders seemed to open as we arrived and close as we left. Ruth Thomsen Not got a website but a few photos survive.

  2. in 1992/3 we travelled on an Exodus truck from London to Harare. I think this was one of the earliest runs to use the Western Mauritania route with Algeria being closed only the year before. This particular trip was intended to get off the beaten track and away from the usual routes. Other unusual parts were Senegal to Gambia and on from there into Mali (tough roads, often walking pace). Further on when everyone else headed into CAR we turned south to Gabon before crossing into northern Congo near Odzala. Between Gabonese and Congolese customs was 60km of road no wider than a bicycle track. Those 60km took us 10 days including four stuck in just one giant mudhole. I believe that this road has since been upgraded in order to allow access to Odzala from Gabon. BUT the road onto Brazzaville from Odzala apparently deteriorated badly during the civil war and may now be impassable.

    In 1993 though it was fine and so we continued south to Brazzaville and Kinshasa where we picked up the mining permit needed to cross southern Zaire. This is Zaire's M1 and connects the capital to the diamond mines, to the copper belt and to many of the country's biggest cities, Kananga, Mbuji Mayi, Kamina and Lubumbashi. So of course it was rubbish, not far off impassable in places. The bridges were the biggest problem and quite a few needed serious rebuilding (more than a day's work). There was often no other traffic on the road. From Kinshasa to Ndola took 23 full days of driving. Food was difficult to come by and we were half starved by the time we emerged in Zambia.

    But for a major breakdown in Morocco which cost us a week (and a medivaced out Tim Makin) we'd have gone to both Guinea's too. Overland companies more a bit more adventurous back then. kenny dalgleish kdalgleish@gmail.com

  3. A fantastic trip report from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa in the DRC - http://goo.gl/A978


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