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Into Africa

Africa! After driving 60,000 kilometers in 59 weeks, we have finally reached Gibraltar, the gateway to the continent of Africa on the southern tip of Spain. 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 to this mighty continent is nothing if not overwhelming. I am filled with eager anticipation and excitement mixed with a little fear of the things we just cannot predict.

Africa, after all, will be much different than any place we've visited. Until now, we'e always had a pretty good understanding of each country we've visited and each city in which we've stopped. We've always had had some sense of where we would be the next day and how we would get there. Although driving through Siberia was a little tricky, 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.

But 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 around the horn and back up the eastern coast towards Egypt. That’s sounds great on paper but I know it won’t happen so seamlessly. So many factors 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. Border disputes between neighboring nations often may make it difficult, if not impossible, to cross from one country to the next. The border between Algeria and Morocco, for instance, has been closed for more than six years, and no civilians are allowed to pass. (Ironically, a gas pipeline 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, other unpredictable events, like epidemics and natural disasters, 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. I recently heard a story about a pregnant woman there 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 are floating to the surface making the entire landscape a ticking bomb.

More basic but just as problematic, roads simply don't go everywhere you want to go. Southwest of Morocco, for instance, lies 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 is via a military convoy that leaves two days a week. Once you reach the country of Mauritania on the other side, though, no roads run along it's Western coast. The only way to go is to drive inland towards central Africa where many of the wars are brewing or drive along the beach, which is our plan.

We have to accept this reality as we embark into Africa: Whatever plans we make today may be irrelevant tomorrow. In anticipation, we've spent hours talking to experts and researching the best routes, but we just can't know everything. Such unpredictability guarantees excitement, adventure and certainly enough danger to make even the most seasoned traveler a bit nervous. I certainly am.

The preparations necessary for a trip to Africa were unlike any we've made 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. Figuring out which countries can be the most help in obtaining a visa is an art. It’s important to remember many African countries were 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.

But even after all our efforts, most of these visas last only three months and many will have expired by the time we arrive. I hope we will be able to pick up new visas in neighboring countries but this, too, could be an obstacle in our travels.

Health is yet another concern. Our international vaccination cards were pretty empty until we reached Africa. Now the cards are filled with 23 entries, 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. To properly protect ourselves, we're supposed to take Larium for two weeks prior to going to Africa, during our entire trip, and 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, including everything from sleeplessness to sleepiness to nausea. The most talked about side effect, though, is on the 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.

Because we don't know when we might be able to stock up again, we've bought additional supplies, including at least a couple of weeks of food and medical supplies. Our medical bag has a far more extensive collection -- hypodermic needles, antibiotics, bandages as well as medicine for diarrhea and fever -- than we've carried before. Another absolute necessity is a water purification kit which comes with filters and pills. 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 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. I hope we will find smaller shelters like missionaries and buildings that are under construction to stay in. A few times, though, we simply may 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 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, as a tire company, it's in Michelin's best interests to know 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 already has opened up a number of doors for us on our trip.

We also have a wide variety of communication equipment, including two Iridium phones -- one for the car, one hand held -- but which we're not certain 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, and voice communication, a particularly useful feature since we don't know where or how often we will be able to hook up to the Internet. If these phones don't 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 so we hope 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 works splendidly. Unfortunately, it only works in Europe. I'm not certain how well the new one will work or how current its 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. Crucial for our trip, the radios really are the best way 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 as we travel daily, getting updates and more information 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 both cautiously excited and scared to death about this leg of our journey. 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, and much to my delight, these investments have been successful. Faithful readers know I believe a bull market is coming 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, in addition to understanding the political, economic, and sociological situation in a country, a smart investor also must know what resource makes its economy tick. For instance, if you know 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. In fact, most of these countries have little to no manufacturing base. Why? It's difficult to sum up 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 ethnic and political and social disputes still crop up, many of the new leaders understand the old methods of communism and socialism just don't work. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1990, three open markets existed 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 to global prosperity. Don't forget Africa is a continent of 800 million people, a force hardly to be ignored.

So what do I hope to find on my trip? Africa is certainly an enormous place and I can't possibly presume to know what I will encounter. But I do have thoughts on a few countries I will visit 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. But I think it's a bit of a rigged game, because Moroccans are not allowed to invest money outside of their own country. Instead, they invest everything in their own stock exchange. That's helped float the stock market for the past few years but I'm not certain it can continue 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. With 130 million people, Nigeria is the largest African nation in terms of population. More importantly, it's 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 if oil prices stay high. On the down side, there is, and always has been, tension between the Christian and Muslim populations and a great deal of corruption in the government. I think the country's new president is 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 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 but I am not one to buy at the height of the market. Still, the discovery of hydrocarbons -- essentially natural gas -- under their land is cause for excitement because that's a resource all countries will need as we move into the new millennium. If engineers can find a way to produce enough for their country 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 South Africa is going to make it as a viable society or economy, especially with 11 official ethnic groups (and countless other 'unofficial' ones), many of which are at odds with each other about where the country is headed. 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 its people can get over their differences and focus on making the country as economically, politically and socially sound as possible.

I'm eager to visit and revisit many other countries such as 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 existed!

I’d love to visit countries like the Sudan and Ethiopia and Libya but I don’t think I will make it 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 Asama 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 I thought were doing poorly only to discover 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.

Updates are available at www.jimrogers.com.


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