Half-way to Cape Town yet? Unless I start pedalling a much straighter route, which is usually far less fun, I can confidently say no. Guinea Bissau, where my speedometer ticked over 10,000km recently, does not appear to be equal distance from England and South Africa. The distance I’ve come does however provide a good opportunity to review the gear that’s got me here. What has lasted, been replaced or sent home. It’s not an exhaustive critique, and if the words Rolhoff, Schwalbe and Ortlieb appear all too unpronounceable, you may wish to stop reading now.
Best to start with the bike. There’s not much to say, other than I’m very content. Apart from a broken front spoke and the occasional clicking from the bottom bracket (any suggestions?) my Thorn Raven has proven steadfast and strong. The rims miraculously show no signs of wear and I’ve yet to change the ceramic brake-pads. The Rolhoff hub hums along after an oil change 5000km ago and all cables seem fine. Yes its heavy (about 16.5kg with the tyres I have, racks, kickstand, 1m long chain lock and that hub) but I’m not trying to break a speed record. I re-oil and occasionally tighten the chain whenever it sags. A simple procedure done by turning the bottom bracket. Unless someone would like to advise me otherwise, the chain receives minimal wear and should last a good while longer?
Somewhere in southern Morocco I switched the rear Schwalbe XR tyre to the front when it developed a small split in the wall. This will develop, but I’m optimistic both tyres will last several thousand more kms+. A great shame they’ve been discontinued. If I can get hold of some more I’ll continue to use them, otherwise their replacement Extremes.
Thorn’s expedition rear rack shows no wear and offers plenty of space for my camping bag. Some of you may have noticed the blue dry-bag on the rear rack has replaced the much larger black Ortlieb one I started the journey with. I swapped this with Jon in Senegal. With an 80L capacity it was too big for Africa. This blue bag fits my tent, sleeping bag and thermarest and is a much more compact set-up. The tent poles neatly strap on one of the rear panniers.
As for the Surly front rack, it provides an enormous and useful amount of space to bungee extra water bottles, flip flops (essential kit for African bucket-showers!) and any other gear that may be needed quickly. The rack may be a little heavy compared to other front racks, but it feels as solid and strong as it looks.
My Brooks B17 saddle is now well broken-in and for the most part comfortable. Keeping it dry now that the rains have started isn’t easy, and I’m not sure tan-coloured shoe-polish is what Brooks would recommend me using, but it brings out a nice mahogany shine when I give her a polish. Non-cyclists and those who’ve never ridden a Brooks often think the solid leather is uncomfortable. The fact is unlike many synthetic-manufactured saddles the leather breathes, and once you’ve broken her in its a bit like giving up a pair of well-worn walking boots. I’m also of the opinion that a Brooks saddle adds a touch of class.
On my last tour I went through at least half a dozen kick-stands. They were those cheap Chinese -manufactured spring stands you see on many mass-produced bikes. This double legged-one is far stronger. The only occasional problem is that I possibly cut the metal a little short so that it has trouble holding itself on soft ground.
My roll-top Ortlieb panniers show no signs of weakness and stay firmly fastened on to the racks. If I was to make a suggestion to Ortlieb it would be to sew in a mesh pocket to the rear of the front panniers. They seem to have successfully done this with the handlebar bag I have and managed to keep it waterproof. The pockets would come in handy for road-snacks, extra water bottles and stuffing things away.
A short while ago I received an e-mail asking about the travel tap that appears on my equipment page. I decided to send it home. I found the bottle had to be squeezed very hard for the water to be filtered through, so it wasn’t like using a regular water bottle. In order for it to be effective it also has to be dried out after each use, which is just a hassle. I found it was sitting in one of my panniers for months. When I am concerned about the safety of the water to drink I have a number of sterilising tablets. I think the travel tap has it’s place in an emergency, but I’m not walking off into the wilderness and needing to collect my water from stagnant ditches and ponds.
My tent needs to pass through the rainy season before I give it a better review, but to be honest I don’t think any tent will keep you really dry in a prolonged African downpour with strong winds. I’m not talking about the tent leaking, more the fact that your belongings will become damp. I’ve pitched the tent over 100 times now. The poles remain strong, the full mesh inner is perfect in hot weather and the tent has no flaws in it other than a small hole that needs duck-taping on the flysheet. This was caused by it rubbing against the inside of a wall when I slept in an abandoned building in the western Sahara. Why MSR have chosen yellow for the flysheet and not a more sensible colour like green or blue I don’t know. The manufacturers probably weren’t thinking of people wanting to wild-camp and be discreet. Jon, who cycled with me in Senegal, was using a one-man hubba hubba. Exactly the same, but half the size. He was able to fit his gear within the vestibule, but it was a tight fit. Personally I would never tour with anything less than a two-man tent. Considering how much time I will stay in it, for an extra kg, I prefer to have the space.
I’ve kept hold of my down-sleeping bag, although could possibly make do with the silk-liner that I’ve only used several times. The latter weighs 100g so I’m not fussed about this. Despite the heat and humidity there have been occasions when I require the warmth of the down, such as recently in the mountains of northern Guinea. Up in the High Atlas mountains in December I was camping at temperatures below freezing. Bringing a down with a temperature rating of 0C was a good choice.
As for the Thermarest, it is the same one that was given to me by a Dutch woman in a hostel in Estafan, Iran, back in 2007. I think she felt sorry for me when she saw me having trouble repairing the one I set off with from Japan. This one has been punctured and successfully repaired twice, and despite the hassle of having to blow it up (why it is called self-inflatable I don’t know) it is often more comfortable to sleep on than a number of hotel beds I’ve found myself on.
Equally important camping-wise is my inflatable pillow. Some people choose to bundle their clothes together into a bag, but I consider my 5-Euro Decathlon head-rest to be money well-spent.
Another Decathlon product frequently used is the camping chair, kindly donated by Tim when he returned from Morocco. This draws much applause and occasionally envy from Africans who have no idea what it is until I sit on it. When not in use its home is strapped down on top of one of the rear panniers.
Cooking-wise I continue to use the Primus Omnifuel that was with me for the remaining 6 months of my last tour. It’s currently running white-gas, another of Jon’s donations, which is clean and efficient, but any time soon I will be filling the fuel can with dirty African petrol. This will require the stove’s jet to be cleaned frequently. I’m using it less often at the moment as I find myself either eating cheap street food (invariably rice with manioc or some sauce) or sharing meals with people. I do carry filter coffee and when alone often boil up water in the morning for a cup. The filter coffee has its home in the tupperware box that also holds camera-film canisters of salt, pepper, mixed spices and at one time olive oil.
The Coleman cooking pots I set off with have proved adequate size (2.0L and 1.5L) for boiling pasta in or mixing vegetables. In Morocco I picked up a small frying pan – perfect for fried eggs and omelets.
Are there any other tourers who manage without a towel or a pair of underpants? Now that I no longer need to use my buff headwear as a neck-scarf, I find it makes a good towel. I don’t think Buff markets this as one of the dozen ways in which they can be used. As for underpants, when I’m cycling I alternate between wearing one of the two pairs of padded shorts I have, over the top of which I have my baggy blue altura’s – faded but still strong. Up top I’m wearing the cycle-jersey, as modelled in recent pictures. The Craghopper shirts (2 short sleeve, 1 long sleeve) and trousers that were kindly donated are still going strong and worn off the bike. As is the wonderful Tilley hat. I have no doubt I would still be wearing the first one if the machete-wielding savages hadn’t taken off with it. It’s on my head almost all day everyday. As the label inside the hat rightly states ‘THE FINEST IN ALL THE WORLD’. Even if it is only a hat, I love my Tilley. Perhaps there is a reader who will share my enthusiasm?
Washing the clothes I do by hand. I don’t envisage seeing a machine for a long time. For this the Ortlieb 10L wash bowl has come in handy, although on many occasions I end up using a bowl or bucket when staying in a hotel.
On my feet I still have the same Karrimor sandles I set off in. They have been repaired more than a dozen times and the soles are wearing very thin. I shall continue to wear, repair and cycle in these until it is no longer possible. They blend in rather well with the condition of most peoples’ footwear here. If I was ever to replace them with a decent pair it would only solicit many requests for me to give them away as a gift.
I recently purchased a pair of flip-flops. Now these make for essential gear in Africa. You do not wish to take a bucket-shower (I have not had a shower with running water since leaving Senegal and don’t anticipate having one soon) in Africa without wearing flip-flops. They weigh next to nothing, happily strap onto the front rack and get worn at the end of the day.
As for the cross-trainer/trekking shoes I used to wear in the mountains of Morocco, they reside at the bottom of one of my panniers along with a single pair of socks. They may not have had a huge amount of use in recent months, but if I ever do some serious trekking or my sandles totally fail on me it is worth keeping hold of them.
All the real cold-weather clothes – fleece jacket, gloves, thermal underwear and hat I sent home. Now what does that leave? Waterproofs. Ironically I’m in two minds whether to keep them. Wearing them in the rain under such humidity would be like wearing a boiler suit. I would pour with sweat. I do envisage being so soaked to the skin and possibly cold that putting them on dry after seeking shelter may not be a bad thing.
My Asus netbook continues to withstand bumps and heat and offers superb battery-life. I keep it in a neoprene sleeve, over which goes a plastic zip-lock and several layers of bubble-wrap. It slots into one of the pouches that Ortlieb have incorporated in the inside of their panniers.
The Nikon D90 camera and Panasonic Lumix compact stay in my handlebar bag. I alternate between using both, but rarely like to display the two at the same time. The compact gorilla-pod tripod is a fraction of the weight and size of the Velkon model I set off with, although I do at times miss having the height from the legs. It has a home in the top of one of my front panniers and is easily reached.
In a separate bag I keep an audio-recorder, small radio, separate camera lens and a number of chargers. Besides the latter, each of these hardly get any use. Tuning-in to BBC World Service is proving impossible for some reason. I do envisage being surrounded by new and evocative sounds, for which the audio device would be useful. I already am. The truth is my mind is usually thinking through the camera lens rather than through my ears. As for the camera lens, it’s a small 50mm fixed focal length. If I intend to use it, which as I write this I feel I will, it should find a home in my handlebar bag.
Sitting un-used for much of the time in the inside sleeve of a front pannier is my Freeloader Solar charger. I did use it on occasion in the desert, but never found that if offered the full charge to both my mobile phone and Ipod that it promised. Perhaps it wasn’t receiving enough direct light. Rarely do I go so long without some electrical source (generators dominate in countries where there is no national grid) that the battery of my phone dies on me. At some point in the future I may need it, but I wouldn’t list it as an essential piece of kit.
I think I’ve almost covered the entire contents of my bags, other than the maps, books and first-aid kit. I have the two main Michelin maps for North West Africa and Central/Southern Africa, plus country maps as far as Ghana. Several times over the past 10 months I’ve debated whether a GPS would be useful. On a few occasions it would have been, but to be honest I’m much more enthused to look at a map than a little screen, and unless I pre-programmed data into the GPS I don’t think I would get any detail, other than the location of rivers, the sea and possibly land borders? I already feel I’ve gone over-kill on the technology front as it is.
As for books, I try to ensure I have several with me. I recently finished The Poisonwood Bible and am about to re-read Things Fall Apart. Two volumes of Somerset Maugham’s Short Stories (so good I’m also reading a second time) and Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps await my attention. Oh, and I also have a French Dictionary, which should have received more use than it currently has.
Fortunately for the moment my First Aid Kit only gets opened once a week. This is to swallow one of those foul tasting Larium tablets. I did intend to use Doxyclyclone as an anti-malarial, but taking them daily seems tedious so I’m keeping them as an anti-biotic. Besides, I believe Larium is stronger and supposedly provides more interesting dreams.
The only thing I’m forgetting is my weapon. He resides in a small wooden box and frightens the life out of any African who attempts to release him. If I can record on film the reaction of an African when he/she sees a snake you will see what I mean. He was kindly given to me by my English hosts in The Gambia. I think they picked him up from one of those snake charmers in Marrakesh.
Ok, this post is far longer than I intended it to be, and re-reading it when I take stock of my surroundings here in Guinea seems somewhat self-indulgent. I’m attempting to travel light and simply, but many of the people I meet on the road have little more material wealth than the clothes on their back. Most of my belongings are entirely alien and unattainable to them. I’ve often wondered what the reaction of many people would be if they knew the value of my bicycle. Probably collapse in a fit of laughter and tell me I could have bought 4 motorbikes instead. The difference is I can choose and they can’t. I was born in a different World, and frequently imagine as I pedal past all those other lives what it would be like to have grown up in this one. The fact that much of Africa is poorer now than it was 50 years ago seems absurd. I remember passing a sign in The Gambia that read ‘The development of a country depends on its leaders and own people’ and thinking how very true. Yes, the mosquito nets I ask people to donate money for help. The effect is tangible and its a worthwhile cause, like many charitable missions, but a short-term solution and drop in the ocean when pitched against the many other problems that make countries like Guinea one of the poorest in the World. The answer and solution has to come from within the countries themselves.
It’s a relevant topic with the Presidential elections that have just taken place here, but I’m diverging from the original purpose of this post onto something far different. This is a gear review. If you have a comment, about anything mentioned here, please post it, although I’m not sure when I’ll next have Internet.