Cycling out of Dakar is best done quickly. This is something that could be said about cycling out of most cities in poor countries, where pollution, rather than prettiness is what one notices. The only reward is in saying that you’ve done it, if that really matters to anyone else. Fortunately there is only one major road, which makes it difficult to get lost, and no hills or confusing intersections to negotiate. Incidentally there are also no other cyclists on the road, which is interesting seeming that for most of Africa the bicycle represents transport for those who don’t have much money.

The truth it seems is that the Senegalese don’t ride bicycles at all, if they can help it.“They’re too arrogant to be seen on bicycles”, a white face had told me when I first arrived in Dakar. That now seems like a long time ago. It was.

Relief from the gauntlet of diesel-spewing trucks and speeding SUVs came after 40km. At this point we pulled off the highway and I felt Dakar was truly behind me. Need I mention that it was good to be back on the bike and finally leaving the city?

Leaving Dakar with Jon

At first I worried that my wrist would ache after a few hours. Instead it was my backside, but I could handle a little saddle soreness rather than finding out that my tendons wouldn’t be able to take the strain of riding a loaded bike.

The bags are in fact much lighter now. I’d left books and shoes in The Gambia and sent my Mum home with a fleece jacket, gloves, woolly hat, thermal underwear and various other odds and ends I no longer needed. Minus water I now have less than 25kg loaded on the bike.

When the traffic lightened the heat increased. Colourless thorny scrub-land, bleached from months of relentless sun and dust, stretched out to either side of the road. In a few months time rain will transform this burnt expanse into a sea of greenery. For now the land is dormant, awaiting that change of season.

Jon, my Canadian cycling companion for the first week back on the road, soon regretted bringing a bicycle with narrow tyres. He’d toured with the same kind of tyres in India, Bangladesh, Mexico and across south-east Asia, and said he could count the total number of punctures from all these trips combined. I lost track of how many thorns embedded themselves in his tyres as we slowly rode south towards The Gambia.

Duck-tape repairs

The punctures meant we started late and stopped a lot. The rhythm suited me. I hadn’t envisaged being back on the bike until perhaps the beginning of June, so was glad his two-week trip to Senegal had kick-started my journey and that we were going slowly to begin with.

We followed small roads along the coast at first, accompanied by the distinctive African aroma of dried fish. Coastal villages lay cloaked in smoke as tons of  fish received a char-grilling before being transported inland as far Burkina Faso and Niger.

Fish smoking along the coast

Out of the smoke

Toubab coming through

If punctures weren’t a reason for stopping, the heat was. Lunchtimes were long and lazy as we waited out the worst of the midday furnace. Ideally we should have been riding from 6am-11am, taking a 5-hour rest, then cycling for another 2-3 hours come about 4pm. In reality this never happened.

Senegalese food ought not to be judged on appearance. Food during these lunch-time stops had all the finesse of a dog’s dinner, but for between $1-2 it was never too hard to hunt out a roadside shack serving a local dish, typically served by a woman who made sure she never went hungry herself.

Couscous and fish stew

On the topic of women, have I commented on the fact that that beauty is in abundance in Senegal? Even some of the smallest villages seem to have a shop selling cosmetic products and the latest off-the-back-of-a-truck bling from Europe. Beautification is a big part of Senegalese culture. People are proud of their appearance, including the men. In a country where the landscape offers few natural sights there is at least something to distract ones attention.

Senegalese girl

Mother and child

It was good to have company on the road again. We frequently rode until it was dark, then laughed at the fact that we still had no idea where we would pitch the tent.  I’m usually stressing out by this stage when alone.

Through lack of other options it looked like we would end up in an enclosure reeking of donkey turd on one night. That was until the chief’s son from a nearby hut had seen our torchlight and greeted us with a large wooden baton. Shortly afterwards we were led into a compound of several thatched mud-brick dwellings and shown where it was safe to pitch the tents. Evening entertainment for a dozen faces. I envisage a similar scenario for myself in the months ahead, preferably avoiding the greeting with a baton.

On another night we took a fancy to an establishment that served up an enormous plate of couscous, fish stew and had cold beers. The proprietress waited for us to digest our meals before informing us that it would cost $20 to sleep on the floor. Bargaining failed, so we set off at 9pm and pedalled off into the darkness, pitching the tents an hour later beside several baobab trees.

At camp

Savana camp

Other than the punctures the frustration came with the frequent calls of ‘Donnez moi’ from the roadside. Young and old, male and female – it didn’t matter. It is clearly a matter of course that as a toubab (white person) in Senegal there will be constant demands for your possessions. Eventually, and it didn’t take very long, they became repeated so often I ended up receiving them like greetings. I won’t miss this aspect of Senegal.

Donnez moi toubab

Meeting the locals

The plans to cycle much of the route I’d initially walked in The Gambia changed when Jon decided it just wasn’t fun riding on dirt roads with narrow tyres. We arrived in the village of Aljamdu, where I’d stayed several weeks before, camped in a compound full of animals (pigs, goats, ducks, chickens, dogs) and left early the next morning for the ferry to Banjul.

Ferry crossing to Banjul

Two days later Jon took a shared taxi back to Dakar. That was after meeting Peter and Muna, an English couple who’d driven down to The Gambia six months ago. “We saw your bikes on the beach and thought you must have a story”. Good time to get a beer I suggested.

Tripod set-up