BENIN JAIL

By on August 30, 2013 in Adventure, Africa, History, Tusker Legacy with 1 Comment

Anyone who says that youth is wasted on the young must have missed that page in the manual describing how to go out and grab life by the boleros when the call to adventure comes.  For if a youth is well spent, it will not only propel one well into adulthood with a string of misadventures that produce indelible life lessons, but it will also afford an individual a life’s long wealth of tales worth retelling.

Such is the case of Tusker Founder Eddie Frank’s first-ever trans-African overland expedition.  The story – as it was lived and as it gets told – takes us all the way back to the Dark Ages, that long-distant period of time last century known as the 70s.

1975 to be exact.  The world is stuck in the thick of the Cold War.  The United States and the Soviet Union have, thanks to the marvels of advanced nuclear weaponry, taken the entire planet to the insane brink of MAD, that is, Mutually Assured Destruction.  It is against this backdrop that Eddie is heading to Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), behind what was then the “Iron Curtain”, the boundary beyond which poor, godless souls were yoked to the repressions and privations known as Communism, the bastard stepchild of a much reviled and long forgotten political thinker, Karl Marx, whose heart, looking back, seems to have been in the right place: with the little guy.

Far Less Bloodshed

Approaching this Iron Curtain with Eddie is a lithe lathe operator who had fled his native Czech village to find political asylum in the USA, a Slav whose malaprops of English swear words, in some circles, remain legendary to this day.

The Czech’s homeland, he promised, held a bounty of German World War II vintage Mercedes, which once restored in the U.S., would fetch a pretty penny while jumpstarting an exotic automobile import business.  In the same way Cuba is still known for its cache of 50’s era Detroit automotive gems, Czechoslovakia was said to hold the Mercedes motherlode, Nazi bulletproof glass optional.

But Eddie would never get behind the Iron Curtain.  Because the lathe operator had fled his homeland for the enemy – the USA – it was he who was denied re-entry into Czechoslovakia, not Eddie as one would expect, the American.  And so, their restored vintage Mercedes juggernaut fizzled about as quickly as Communism.  And with far less bloodshed.

A Dreamer from Leeds

While the Czech returned to the U.S. to turn his lathe, Eddie, teaming up with some wastrel he met along the way, would drive from Copenhagen to Madrid, including a decadent sidebar to the Balearic Islands, in an old VW Bug, finally finding himself at the American Express in Amsterdam, the brick and mortar Craig’s of the day, where voyageurs would sell stuff they no longer needed for their voyages, especially used automobiles.

Casing out Eddie’s Bug was a chap named Ian, a dreamer from Leeds who was more impressed by Eddie’s driving skills in and around the canals than he was by the vehicle, but he bought it anyway.

One year later, in 1976, the Leedsman pitched up by surprise in Los Angeles where Eddie was climbing the ranks of fashion as a photographer, Blow Up style.  In the form of Ian, adventure had come calling, as he was seeking Eddie’s partnership in a Trans-Africa overland expedition, from London all the way to Nairobi.  In making the offer, all the Leedsman needed to evaluate was Eddie’s driving skills (Amsterdam), and his appetite for beer and adventure, the latter of which at that tender age were near-impossible to allay.

The First Landrover

Needless to say, Eddie answered the call and by the following year, in February 1977, the two would meet in the U.K., purchase a pair of British Army surplus Landrovers, and head south to Spain and then Morocco beginning what would become the first of Eddie’s thirty four (!) Sahara Desert crossings.

Since they had already bought the vehicles, all they really needed were passengers.  Who would pay.  And so, as they started trolling for takers, their roughly 1,400 mile journey from London to southern Spain took more than three weeks.  That fact alone should tell you how much the world has changed.

Never mind that Al Qaeda has made it nearly impossible for Americans to move too far south through the Sahara, (that is, without a traveler’s death wish), anyone thinking of crossing Africa overland today doesn’t just hop on the first Landrover with an empty seat to wheel by.  They’ve probably spent months researching every available option on travel sites, and then at least that amount of time shopping.

Don’t Let the Land Mines Hit You on the Way Out

But strange as it may seem, twelve random adventurers did get on board, including a mother and her teenage son and daughter from Finland.  Today, they’d probably be too busy bribing their way into private school, that is, if Finland is anything like the USA.

Barring that the trip was run like a United Nations on wheels – meaning that everything they did had to be voted and agreed upon, including meals – Morocco delivered on the promise of exotic, freewheeling adventure.  There is much to recommend about the concept if not the practice of democracy, but as a form of governance on a long and dangerous African adventure it is perhaps the least intelligent fit.

As if to prove the point, things turned a tad more ominous at the Algerian border.  When asked about the quality of the roads ahead, a Moroccan official said the roads were fine, but “watch out for the land mines”.  Morocco and Algeria were at war.

Not on the Map … Anymore

Despite the lurking hazards, everyone including Eddie, the Leedsman and the family Finn survived to tell the tale, proving yet again that youth and a prayer are still the world’s most reliable mine sweepers.

By June of that year, the group had arrived in In Salah, Algeria, where later, in his very next epic misadventure, Eddie would suffer a near catastrophic calcium deficiency while trying to hone a rusted engine block with a wire brush and a paint scraper (“Dining With Despots, Tusker Geografica, Vol 9, Issue 4).  As if foretelling this outpost as the seat of Eddie’s automotive curse, In Salah is exactly where one of the Landrovers would blow a cylinder head.

As far as breaking down in the Sahara goes, one could do far worse.  In Salah, at the very least, was “the end of the road” and not a millimeter beyond, and so, with enough persistence Eddie was able to trade a messed up old camera for a messed up old Landrover cylinder head, which got them up and running again.

After passing through neighboring Niger without event aside from a few warm beer hangovers, Upper Volta was next.  If you try to find Upper Volta on a map, you won’t.  It has since been renamed Burkina Faso.

I’ll Take Ten

It was now July.  The motley U.N.-on-wheels made camp in Upper Volta’s capital, Ouagadougou, a name that defies being said fast ten times drunk, just outside the center of town.  With the area plagued by notorious thieves, the U.N. delegation voted to stack all their gear, backpacks included, in the center of camp, while roping off the perimeter.

Eddie thought that exposing everything worth stealing to the thieves was plain dumb, and so, as the lone dissenter, slept with all his gear in one of the vehicles, waking up in the A.M. to find everything he owned gone – stolen, of course, by thieves.  Making matters worse, he was the only one they hit.  Everyone else in the U.N. had been spared.  It seems that membership, though embarrassing in retrospect, had its privileges.

Lacking now even a change of clothes, Eddie went off to the local market, bought some colorful material for $1.50, got a quote from a shirtmaker for .50/piece, and at that price bought ten, much like Moses on Mt. Sinai who by some subversive humorous accounts took all ten commandments when learning the price of one: free.  The world has not been the same since.

A Fateful Decision

The now colorfully-bedecked Eddie and his traveling U.N. made their way from Upper Volta to Kumasi, Northern Ghana, where needing to refuel, they found the nation in the grips of a dire fuel shortage.  What they also found was the one gas station without any of the tortuous lines that had become a grating deterrent at every other station.  Turns out, the place had gas all right, 5,000 gallons’ worth, but the pumps were broken.

Out came Eddie’s tool kit, including screwdrivers and vice grips, equal parts ingenuity and grit, and pretty soon the floating U.N. was hand cranking their needed 30 gallons.  Simultaneously appreciating their efficiency and seeing his fuel prices starting to rise, the proprietor soon realized that his gasoline was more valuable to him in the ground, and tried to stop Eddie’s jury-rigged flow.  But as he would soon learn, to separate an overlander from his fuel is like separating a mother from her newborn child.  Didn’t happen, possession in this case being ten-tenths of the law.

Next on the floating democracy’s to-do list were visas for Nigeria.  Only three on the expedition chose to get them while still in Ghana.  The other nine would rather wait for neighboring Togo, or even later as they moved east, in Benin.  The three lone dissenters, Eddie among them, got their visas immediately, and as events would later reveal, it would prove to be a fatefully opportune decision.

Third Time’s A Charm

The ‘70s, by any account, were not Benin’s finest hour.  There had been five military coups that decade, the most recent earlier that year, during which notorious French mercenary Col. Bob Denard – known in some old guard circles as “the last pirate” – led a group of about 80 mercenaries in what would ironically be called Operation Crevette (shrimp).  Denard’s force, including 30 Africans, shot up the Presidential Palace, and when local “assets” did not materialize as expected, they quickly fled the country, adding yet a new meaning to the word shrimp (as in puny).

It was against this backdrop of instability that Eddie and his crew rolled into town.  From their lovely beach encampment hear Benin’s capital, Cotonou, the non-Nigeria visa holders were forced to make not one, not two, but three trips in as many days to the Nigerian embassy, passing all three times the very Presidential Palace that Col. Denard, months prior, had aerated.  First trip they picked up the visa application forms.  Second, they handed in the applications, and third they got the actual visas.

By the third passage the entire group was arrested under suspicion of plotting a coup.  The evidence?  The former British Army Landrovers they were using to “case out” the Presidential Palace.

In His Undies

It didn’t help that none of the expeditioneers spoke French, Benin’s assumed language, and soon they all found themselves in prison, in a compound of decrepit old French colonial buildings, where – what else? – they set up camp.  Prison culture in Benin, and in vast swaths of sub-Saharan Africa, varies from our own.  While the haranguing of prisoners is near universal, there you must provide your own food, for which most inmates rely on family.

With these new inmates lacking any semblance of family, by blood or marriage, near or far, the Leedsman found himself voted food ambassador, and improbable as it sounds, marched from the prison through an open, unlocked door, and upon returning with victuals for the rest of the group, had to bribe his way back in, an act which must truly be a first in prison lore.

What follows is a cautionary tale for all travelers jailed in an unstable country with scant knowledge of tourist norms: when asked by your jailers for your passport, demur.  Knowing that a French national had died of dysentaaery in this same prison when the jailers refused the French Consul permission to see him, and knowing that in situations like this the Consul is definitely your new BFF, Eddie decided that he must at all cost trick these people into letting the U.S. Consul into the prison.

Concealing his passport in his undies, he lied to his jailers saying that the U.S. Consul had it.  The gambit, of course, in order to avoid the Frenchman’s messy fate, was to draw the Consul to the prison.  And it worked.

Direct Passage

The jailers took the bait by seeking Eddie’s passport from the U.S. Embassy, and when the Consul arrived a few days later looking for “Mr. Frank,” Eddie slyly backhanded him his passport, which was his way of letting the Consul know that he had surreptitiously summonsed him to ensure his safety and secure his release.

Unskilled as they were in international diplomacy, the jailers then to tried arrest the Consul, who was not having any of it, and secured Eddie’s release within three days, along with the other Nigeria-visa owners, one Canadian and another American, the logic being that with visas they could guarantee their direct passage from Benin to neighboring Nigeria.

Those floating U.N. members who earlier chose not to get their visas were stuck in this phantasmagoric prison for yet another three weeks, proving yet again that the majority isn’t always right.

Déjà vu, All Over Again

Nigeria would offer its own set of challenges.  For reasons that remain obscure to this day, Eddie and the two other visa-owning overlanders released from the Benin jail had ran afoul of the local constabulary in Nigeria, and on the same day they were released from the Benin prison, once again found themselves being frogmarched to a Nigerian prison.

They admitted guilt for whatever infraction of which they were accused, and were sent on their way, faring better than the farmer who had let them camp on his land, for he was beaten mercilessly, and thrown in jail without the benefit of timely ambassadorial intervention.

Three weeks later, the entire group reassembled in Nigeria, and six months after they had started their eventful journey, decided (by vote) to disband.

Reeking of Folly

One vehicle went on with the Leedsman and a few passengers to Nairobi , the rest flew home, and Eddie took his proceeds from the sale of the remaining Landrover, and hitchhiked back north through the Sahara for yet another improbable string of misadventures (see “If His Majesty Has Counted, Tusker Geografica, Vol 9, Issue 7).  And so would begin his love affair with Western Cameroon, and the seaside town of Victoria, now known as Limbe.

Incredible as it was long, challenging as it verged on the ridiculous, this seminal, epic expedition would soon become the fodder of many a campfire and dinner table dissertation.  In no sense, under any scrutiny, could it ever be considered “wasted”.

Though reeking of folly and bristling with bravura – including that abortive foray to the Iron Curtain – it was in the living and the telling a larger-than-life narrative to be appreciated by all, including the perpetrator, who was fearless, passionate, and yes, young.

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