Woman Alone - Around Africa (Book Excerpt 1)

When I awoke the next morning I felt like death warmed up. I was convinced that I had contracted malaria. I had a pounding headache and a fever and all the muscles in my body felt like they were seizing up. I decided I would get out my first aid kit and test myself for malaria. I could test myself and I could treat myself with Coartem. It was still very early and I lay in my tent listening to the rain, still softly falling outside, as I tested myself. It takes a few minutes to get a result, so I started getting dressed. I felt stuck between a rock and a hard place. I felt that I couldn’t remain in my tent on the side of the road and at the same time, didn’t feel like it would be a good idea to be cycling in the rain.

How my day would turn out would soon be revealed. The malaria test showed negative and I figured I just had a bad bout of flu. I packed up camp and decided that I would take it easy out on the road, making whatever progress I could for the day. I had to push on as the expiry date on my visa for Angola was drawing closer.

The rain had stopped and I had just got on the road, when a black Ford pickup truck pulled over and stopped a few meters ahead of me. People stopping on the side of the road and wanting to chat to me had become somewhat of a normality, after all the publicity I received in Luanda, so I thought little of it. Four men got out of the vehicle and approached me. I got this uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach and when they revealed that they were carrying machetes and knives, I knew why. Adrenalin shot through my veins within a split second and a dozen thoughts flashed in my brain, considering every possible outcome. I remained calm and waited for them to make the first move.

The leader of the pack spoke to me in French. I couldn’t understand all of it, but the gist of it was that they wanted me to hand over all my belongings. They were very obviously under the influence of alcohol. I was seriously outnumbered and although I did carry a knife, I knew it would be suicide to try and fight. Scenarios practiced during my self defense training came flashing back and I knew the best possible solution for me would be to make a run for it. I slowly prepared to hand over my bicycle to these guys and planned to grab one of the front panniers off the bicycle, which contained my journals, and make a run for it into the bushveld. I counted to three in my head and then turned around and ran away as fast as my legs would carry me.

It was only when I reached thicker cover that I dared to look back to see if any of them were in pursuit. They weren’t. None of them had even bothered to run after me. I immediately got the feeling that this was more of a practical joke to them than anything else. Of course, I didn’t think it was very funny at all.

On the upside, I still had my Camelbak, within which was my cellphone, passport and bank cards. I had also managed to get away with the pannier bag with all my journals in it. All was not lost!

As I watched the spineless “C-words” disappear over the horizon with pretty much all my possessions in the world, I took a minute to try and process what had just happened. It’s amazing how many thoughts actually go through one’s mind in just a few seconds. Standing there behind some bushes, I thought to myself, well, I guess I could still become the first woman to walk around Africa! Ha! I quickly crunched some numbers in my head and figured out that, at a pace of about 5 kilometers an hour, on average, for 8 hours a day, including rest days and possible delays in requiring visas, it would take me roughly 4 years to complete the journey. And that is when I had the thought that,

“There has got to be an easier way”.

I’m not sure how my brain even came to the next thought but, boom!

“I want to start over on a motorcycle”.

This thought was a bit curious for a number of reasons. Most of all, for the reason that I had never been on a motorcycle in my life before, except that one time when I was allowed to go on the back of my uncle’s motorcycle, when I was a little girl. I’d never ridden a motorcycle before and didn’t even know how to change gears!

It’s hard to explain, but somehow, I just knew that this was what I was supposed to do. It was like everything had led to this fateful point and now I finally knew what it was that I was supposed to do. I wasn’t supposed to travel around the African continent on a bicycle! I was supposed to travel around the African continent on a motorcycle! Hooray! Now I just needed to find the money to buy a bike and learn to ride it and Bob’s your uncle!

After considering all these thoughts for a few minutes, I figured it would be wise to notify someone of what had just happened. As I said earlier, I thankfully still had my Camelbak with me which had my mobile phone in it, so I took it out and sent text messages to my friend Hanret in South Africa, to Pedro in Lobito and Candido in Luanda, explaining to them what had just happened.

Next, I had to start making my way back to the nearest town, which happened to be N’zeto, about 8 kilometers away. And so, with my hydration pack on my back and pannier bag in hand, I started walking towards N’zeto. My phone rang and it was Hanret. She offered her condolences and support in whichever way she could give it. She has also experienced some horrific attacks on her person and told me that I needed to get rid of some of the adrenaline running through my body and that the best way to do this would be to stomp like a wild animal and scream at the top of my lungs. I’m not a screamer and don’t easily show my emotions unless I feel comfortable doing so, but I figured I didn’t have anything to lose , so I gave it a try. I jumped up and down on the side of the road and screamed until I didn’t have any air left in my lungs. And then I burst out laughing at myself as I could only imagine what I must have looked like!

Both Pedro and Candido called me and expressed how sorry they were for what had happened. Then, another call, unidentified Angolan number. I answered. On the other end, a man’s voice greeted me in Portuguese. He then switched to broken English and introduced himself as Pedro Sebastião, Governor of the Zaïre province of Angola and former General in the Angolan Army. He told me that he had just been informed of what had happened to me and asked that I remained where I was as he had instructed the local Chief of Police from N’zeto to fetch me. He informed me that he was on his way from his home in M’Banza Congo and would meet me in N’zeto. That was it.

Sure enough, about half an hour later, a police vehicle arrived to pick me up and took me back to N’zeto. There were three police officers in the car and, at first the driver took off in a northerly direction, away from town. I realized that he probably intended to go after the perpetrators, but I explained to him, in my best English with a Portuguese accent, that they’d be long gone by now. He seemed to understand and turned around, heading back to N’zeto.

Once back in town, I was taken to the Police Station. It seemed like everyone had heard the news as, seemingly, every Police Officer in the near vicinity was standing outside the Station, wanting to get a look at the girl on the bicycle who had been robbed. I was led to a small room inside the Police Station. The Chief of Police offered me a seat and asked if I’d like something to drink. He sent for a translator and started writing on a notepad. When the translator arrived, the Chief asked him questions, to be translated to me in English, and the answers relayed back to him.

“What did the vehicle look like?”

“How many people were there?”

“What did they look like?”

“What were they wearing?”

“Did you manage to catch the vehicle’s license plate?”

Yeah right.

With the adrenalin wearing off, I could feel the flu settling back into my bones again. For a moment there, I had completely forgotten about the flu. I realized that I was suffering from on almighty headache and felt terribly exhausted, all of a sudden. When the Chief seemed content with my answers, he spoke to the translator, who, in turn, told me that I would be taken to a hotel in town and was to remain in the hotel until the Governor arrived. He had left M’Banza Congo in his airplane and should arrive within the next two hours or so. With that, I was taken to the hotel and shown to a room. Two guards were to remain outside my door at all times. It felt a bit like I’d been enrolled into a witness protection program.

I stood outside on the balcony for a minute, just taking it all in, I guess, when two men on the opposite side of the street called out to me,

“Hey, aren't you that girl who’s cycling around Africa on her bicycle?”

“Not anymore”, I answered back. I told them that,

“I’ve just been robbed of my bicycle and gear”.

“Assholes!” they exclaimed and then told me that they’re from South Africa and doing some contract work in Angola and that they were on their way to Luanda. They wished me good luck and then they were on their way.

I welcomed the silence as I lay down on the bed and almost immediately fall asleep. I only woke up when one of the guards knocked on the door to tell me that the Governor had arrived.

Outside, a whole procession of police vehicles and officers are lined up to meet the Governor on arrival. It’s pretty obvious that he’s a very important man in these parts and suddenly, I felt nervous again. I was shown to a table in the hotel’s restaurant and watched as the officers stood in line outside, saluting as the Governor arrived. For a moment, I felt like perhaps I should get up and salute as well, but remained seated.

Governor Pedro Sebastião is a tall man with a strong frame and well-kept moustache. His presence demanded respect and I could sense, from the get go, that he is not a man to be messed with. He walked up to me and shook my hand and the first thing he said is,

“I am sorry”.

He apologized for the behavior of his people and expressed that this is not the way of the Angolan people. He told me that something like this had never happened before and assured me that he will do everything within his power to return me to safety. He then informed me that two helicopters had been dispatched from the Angolan capital to search for the perpetrators and requested that I accompanied and stayed with him at his home in M’Banza Congo, until the end of the weekend. If by then the search turns up empty handed, I could choose to where I would like to be transported and he would make sure an airplane is made ready for me. He then ordered a burger and a Coke for each of us and started interrogating me.

I felt like I should click my heels or that I needed to be pinched or something. My head was spinning, this was all too much for me. Inside, I am laughing deliriously but I do not dare show it on the outside because I somehow didn’t think that the Governor would get my twisted sense of humor. Or maybe I’m just in denial. Either way, the flu is really starting to act up on me.

I wasn’t feeling very hungry and after the Governor had finished questioning me, he told me that I would be returning with him in his private airplane to his residence in M’Banza Congo, where I was to remain for the next two days. I told him that I wasn’t feeling very well and that I thought I might have the flu. As we got into the plane, he got out his radio and spoke into it in Portuguese. For the next two hours, I silently stared out of my window, trying not to vomit from the pain as the change in air pressure made my ear drums hurt something terrible! When we touched down in M’Banza Congo, three vehicles waited for us on the runway. One for the Governor, one for his bodyguards and one for the doctor he called for over the radio. The Governor opened the door of one of the cars for me and apologized as he suddenly realized that there were two semi-automatic rifles lying on the floor of the car on the passenger’s side. I simply replied saying that I’d handled such weapons before and that they didn’t bother me, and then got in the car. He looked at me for a few seconds with a slight smile and then closed the door to get in on the driver’s side. He obviously preferred driving himself. Without knowing anything about him, this man had my trust and respect.

Not surprisingly, he lived in a mansion of a house and the only paved road in the town happened to run from the front of his mansion to the airport. He showed me to a room up the stairs on the first floor, where the doctor then took a look at me. I told the doctor that I had tested myself for malaria, it was negative and he also suspected that it was the flu. He gave me some medication and told me to get some sleep. When he left, I followed doctor’s orders and lay down on the bed to take a short nap. I woke up the next morning as the sun was rising and birds were chirping outside my window.

I felt embarrassed for not having had the decency to at least thank the Governor and say good night. I had a quick shower and headed down the stairs, to find the Governor sitting with a newspaper at his breakfast table. I offered my apologies for having disappeared during the night and explained that the medication the doctor gave me must have knocked me out. He doesn’t make a big deal of it and asked me to sit down and have some breakfast. The next two days were spent waiting for news from the search parties which were out looking for the criminals who stole my Luna. The Governor asked me to come up with a figure of how much it would cost to replace all that which had been taken from me.

I had no idea what to tell him and messaged Hanret later on, when I was back in my room, asking her what she thinks I should say. She advised me to grab the opportunity with both hands as the Angolan government has lots of money and advised that I should say it would cost $20 000 to replace what had been stolen.

“I can’t say that!” I tell her, to which she simply replied, “of course you can”.

Sunday morning arrived and still the search party turned up no leads to the perpetrators. The Governor sat me down and asked me for a figure. I felt panicked and could hardly look him in the eye.

“Say $20 000. Just say it!” I said to myself, in my head.

My heart was racing and my mouth was dry. I counted to three, took a deep breath, looked him in the eyes and said,

“$20 000”.

He didn’t even blink, merely called his Assistant over and whispered something in her ear and then she disappeared through the front door. In my mind, I was seeing images of my being thrown in jail, never to be heard from again. The Governor’s facial expression wasn’t giving away anything and I felt panicked. Only minutes later, his Assistant returned with a white envelope and a piece of paper.

The Governor read over the piece of paper, signed it and then handed it to me, asking me to please sign it as well.

“In order for you to be able to take this money out of the country, you will need to declare it. This document is to state that it is a gift from me so you will not have any trouble from Angolan Customs”.

He handed the envelope over to me and I nearly fell off my chair when I looked inside. $20 000 in crisp $100 bills. I was speechless! I could hardly believe my own audacity and that I’d actually just been handed $20 000! I couldn’t say thank you enough! What’s even more is that an airplane was ready and waiting for me on the runway to take me to Lobito. I had mentioned to him the previous day that, should my belongings not be found, I’d like to return to Lobito. I felt like I had a bit of a support structure there with Pedro and Lu and my South African friends and I could use a day or two to just take it all in and decide on a course of action.

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