• When force matters September 25th, 2010

    In the end it required four of us to remove it. I’d struggled for two hours previously with an adjustable spanner in one hand and chain whip in the other and got no-where. I was in danger of doing myself an injury. The advice I’d been told about removing my bike’s rear sprocket was true. The thing wouldn’t budge without tremendous force. Two men held the wheel, another the spanner and the biggest of the four of us thrust down on the chain-whip. It finally gave and I unscrewed the dagger-edged piece from the hub.

    Replacing it was much easier. I made sure I greased the sprocket thread. In another 5000km or so I’ll remove and reverse it. Or need I do it so soon? Had I read my Thorn manual and done this with the first sprocket I might have prolonged its life. It now dangles from my handlebar bag as a kind of souvenir come weapon/African juju. Together with a new chain, front chain-ring, oil change in the hub and two new tyres I’m all set to continue into Central Africa. I’m even carrying spare tyres, which I rarely do, but these are special and were donated by a generous reader.

    Abidjan would have been very expensive if I hadn’t been given the keys to the apartment of a friend. Across the road in this peaceful suburban area was a supermarket stocked with imported food-goods. People shopping here had plenty of money to spend. Most items were twice the price they’d be found for in Europe, but it was hard to resist a little fromage, pate and vin rouge.

    After collecting my Ghanian visa I left Abidjan and headed to Grand Bassam. The French settled here first when they arrived in Cote d’ Ivoire and a number of colonial buildings, many in ruinous states, survive from that era.

    Grand Bassam

    Sunset paddle

    I visited and spoke to students at an International University here. I’m sure I was something of a curiosity, but don’t think I inspired any of these privileged individuals do undertake something of a similar nature. Anyone with status or money doesn’t ride a bicycle in Africa. One of them asked what the most striking thing was I’d seen in their country. I told them the destruction of their natural environment. “What about the women”? another asked. I confessed they were much better preserved. Cote d’ Ivoire ranks with Senegal in this regard.

    My bike was clean until I arrived in Ghana. When the tarmac ended beside a stretch of French holiday homes some 60km east of Grand Bassam I loaded the bike onto a wooden boat. This was effectively the end of the road in Cote d’ Ivoire, but the border post with Ghana was another 20km away down a sandy track. “Pas possible”, declared the locals when I said I would cycle it. They were right. You can only cycle on sand when it’s compact. So I waited for the tide to turn and sat with an elderly man tending a herd of goats behind the beach. He said he was originally from Niger and beamed a large smile when the Voice of America broadcast a show in Hausa on his small radio. I left him when the tide had sufficiently dropped enough and followed the palm-fringed beach with the sun at my back towards the border.

    Lagoon crossing


  • Deadwood: Road to Abidjan September 22nd, 2010

    A dugout canoe transported me from Liberia to the Ivory Coast. After agreeing on a price with the teenage oarsman the journey took little more than 10-minutes in a vessel that was reassuringly large and under-loaded. This lack of passengers was a good reflection of how many people crossed the border here.

    Crossing the Cavally River

    The river was swollen and fast moving. After two months of almost daily rainfall in the region it was probably about as high as it gets. Had the dugout rolled it would have been the end of the Big Africa Cycle; my bicycle and gear would have quickly disappeared into the murky depths of the Cavally river and I might have been swept down to the Atlantic before being washed up. Fortunately this never happened, but the thought crossed my mind as the wind whipped-up white water somewhere mid-channel and the dugout began to wobble.

    Approaching the far bank the crackle of French being spoken on a local radio station reminded me I was back in Francophone Africa. I found the immigration officer asleep on a bench. When I called to wake him he performed the formalities without engaging in conversation, other than confirming where he was going to place an entry stamp in my passport. African border staff have been surprisingly attentive and considerate in keeping the pages of my passport orderly. By this I mean placing an entry/exit stamp next to the visa of that country rather than at some random point many pages away. I might well make it through the continent without having to replace my passport, assuming it stays in my possession.

    Shortly afterwards a young Mauritanian appeared from the darkness of a nearby shack when I announced to several women frying plantain beside a market stall that I wanted to change money. He was a long way from home and I thought to ask if he missed the desert. Instead we argued over the poor exchange rate he offered against the dollar. There wasn’t much competition so I changed $20 – enough to last until I reached a town with a functioning ATM.

    Heading away from the river I followed a red laterite track into the greenery. The scenery didn’t look all that different from Liberia. Palm and rubber-tree plantations sporadically flanked the road, interspersed by a whole lot of dead wood. Since gaining independence from France 50 years ago Cote d’ Ivoire has lost almost half of its rainforest. Bare-bark trunks and branches now rise above cassava and rice plantations –nothing more than firewood waiting to be slashed. I anticipated something like this having seen it in Sierra Leone and Liberia, but the scale of deforestation still came as a shock.


    Palm plantation sea

    I spent my first night in the country eating western-priced pizza and camping on the manicured garden of a French-owned restaurant. It felt a long way from Africa and dugout river crossings. San Pedro, Cote d’ Ivoire’s second port city, appeared like a bustling metropolis as I approached it in the dark. After Liberia and Sierra Leone street-lights were something of a novelty.

    Luxury camp

    Other than being able to name the country’s most famous footballer and one of its reggae musicians, I can’t confess to knowing a great deal about Cote d’ Ivoire. I’d read that the north of the country is mostly rebel-held territory and has been off-limits for much of the past decade. A good job that I was sticking to the south.

    Some other interesting observations about the country are that the food is a whole lot better than the slop offered in Sierra Leone and Liberia. No surprise there with the French influence. On my second night I stayed in a small town and found the centre dominated by street-side eateries grilling large fresh fish; a welcome change from cassava-leave sauce and bony bush meat. The next morning I pedalled out after stopping for a hot crusty baguette.

    Indeed Cote d’ Ivoire feels a whole lot more Francophone than both Guinea and Senegal, where despite the French history the language is spoken less amongst people in the countryside. Here Pula and Wolof are two of the dominant languages heard in conversation. Cote d’Ivoire seems however to be so linguistically diverse (around 65 different language groups) that French is spoken much more as a means of communication between people. Great news of course for anyone travelling to the country who speaks French fluently. Frustrating for those like me who don’t.

    Bissap is also available again. This ranks alongside coconut milk for being Africa’s most refreshing non-alcoholic beverage. The red juice is made from the hibiscus flower and can be purchased in small bags from teenage boys who pedal between villages selling it out of blue cool-boxes.

    Bisap boy

    Abidjan looked daunting in scale on my map. It didn’t disappoint. Cote d’ Ivoire’s commercial capital is the biggest city I’ve pedalled into on this trip, and about as unfriendly for cycling as they come. It’s not so much the vehicle fumes and density of traffic that make cities like this unpleasant to cycle in, as the fact that the highways leading into them are clogged with sand and debris at the roadside.  If you don’t cycle over this you’re forced to join the main lanes, where the suicidal gauntlet is inevitably in a hurry to get somewhere. It makes Monrovia and Freetown seem like villages in comparison. Preparation for Nigeria methinks. The difference in comparing somewhere like Abidjan to cities I’ve cycled into in Asia, which are often much larger and more crowded, is that the African countryside is comparatively so much quieter that when one enters a large urban centre the effect of traffic on the senses is far greater. That or the fact that I’m becoming wimpy as the years go by. There is no joy or satisfaction whatsoever in cycling into big cities in undeveloped countries, other than being able to claim that you did it, which no-one really cares about anyhow.


    Needless to say I made it, and the cold Flag beer tasted sweeter than if I’d just arrived by plane in the city (another reason for the punishment?) Fortunately the bike and that worn sprocket held out too. The next challenge would be in removing it. Not an easy task either it turned out.

  • A well-worn weapon September 4th, 2010

    The end of the road in Liberia is close. Another 20km from here and a river divides the country from it’s Francophone neighbour – Cote d’ Ivoire.

    Stretching to either side of me are two long palm-fringed beaches and I’m surrounded by the ghostly remains of large war-ravaged buildings. The town of Harper here in the far south of Liberia is now a sad shadow of what before the war must have been a prosperous place, for a minority anyhow.

    Harper: Liberia

    Getting here wasn’t easy. Impassable roads as the guidebook warned – no. Mud-slick slopes, crevasse-sized gullies and knee-deep trenches of water – yes. Plenty of them. Coupled with the rain, biting mango flies between downpours and unidentifiable bush-meat lunches in villages and towns that don’t appear on my map has altogether made the last 300km a memorable and challenging one. I slept in a mud-hut on stilts in the jungle one night and pitched my tent in a police station to hear stories of ritual killings that involved hacking off body parts on another.

    Getting stuck-in

    Hut on stilts

    Bush-meat for sale

    The front tyre replacement thankfully survived, but my attention has now been drawn to other parts of the bike.

    A few blog posts ago I described how my trojan of a Thorn was coping admirably after its first 10,000km. It still is, although all that mud, sand and water in Guinea, Sierra Leone and now Liberia have done a good job in creating a deadly weapon out of the rear sprocket.


    There I was thinking I could ride most of the way to Cape Town and not have to worry about parts of the bike I have a limited knowledge of fixing. How very wrong. Had I known more, apparently I could have reversed this sprocket to prolong its life. Next time.

    On their way to me in Abidjan, Cote d’ Ivoire is  a new rear sprocket, sprocket removal tool, chain whip, chain, front chain-ring, Rohloff gear cables, Rohofff hub oil, chain protector and tyres.  My confidence in removing and replacing the rear sprocket isn’t great.

    Interestingly another trans-African cyclist, whom I hoped to catch up at one stage, (unlikely now) has suffered almost identical problems, although she managed a few thousand more kilometres. I personally think my rear sprocket is more deadly in appearance than hers.

    I can still ride the bicycle. Abidjan is 450km away on what I hope are better roads than those that brought me here. Time to unearth that French dictionary and phrasebook from the bottom of one of the panniers. I’m not sure how to ask a mechanic for an adjustable spanner.

    Liberian road sign