• And the winner goes to… A year in reflection December 31st, 2010

    I started the year learning to surf in Morocco and I’m finishing it drinking a lot of beer in Cameroon. Between then I’ve crossed 14 countries in Africa and cycled about 12,000km, collecting more than a few stories along the way. Here is a review of some of the highlights, lowlights and other interesting observations from my year on the road. If there is a category you’d like to add please post a comment to let me know. Happy New year.

    Most atmospheric place: Harper, Liberia. A town full of war-ravaged buildings, surrounded by beautiful palm-fringed beaches.

    North from Harper

    Country I’d most like to return to: Nigeria. Forget the bad reputation, Nigeria is the India of Africa in my opinion. Big, overpopulated, ethnically rich, full of positive energy and immensely rewarding for those adventurous enough to explore it.

    Worst day of the year: March 13th. I was mugged by 5 men in Dakar, Senegal, who slashed my left wrist and left foot with a machete as I attempted and failed to prevent them taking off with my camera and day-sack. Just in case you’re wondering – the foot slash was minor and I was back on my feet walking fine within a week. The injury to my wrist was much more serious as 4 tendons were severed and required stitching together. There remains a slight stiffness, but no real discomfort. I probably ought to have done and ought to continue doing more physiotherapy as I don’t have the same degree of flexibility in my left wrist as I do in my right, but all things considered recovery has been good. No point in adding the category – ‘Place I’d least like to return to’.

    Machete wounds

    Most popular day of traffic to this website: The day I posted an account of the above. Almost 2500 hits, which goes to show bad news travels quickly.

    Worst roads: Leaving Nigeria and entering Cameroon. Steep, full of large rocks, deep gullies and impossible to cycle on.

    Most hassle at a border: Crossing from Guinea-Sierra Leone. Immigration told me the border was closed until the country decided on its new President. I’d have been there for months if that was true. I crossed without paying the bribe.

    Most beautiful women: Senegal and Ivory Coast. Pity my French is poor.

    Least ‘African’ feeling place: Abuja, Nigeria. Clean, well-paved roads and a sterile, but relaxing oasis from the ‘real’ Africa.

    Easiest place to get a beer: Cameroon, which might also be one of the World’s easiest place to get a beer, just don’t assume it will be cold.

    Hardest place to get a beer: Mauritania, unless you’re lucky enough to be staying with ex-pats who like drinking because there is very little else to do when you live in a city like Nouakchott.

    Best place to drink a beer: Overlooking Bakau fish market in The Gambia. Dozens of boats off-loading the day’s catch, which is then sorted and sold beneath you.

    Friendliest country to spend time in: Ghana, followed or possibly matched by Sierra Leone. Kindest, most (on the whole) non-aggressive and generally sincerest people in west Africa.

    Swamped

    Country with the best beaches: Sierra Leone. Unspoilt, palm-fringed and clean white sands.

    Beach in Sulima

    Most generous donation to Against Malaria Foundation: £1450 from American International School of Nouakchott, Mauritania. A great effort for a small school.

    Best ‘African’ food: Senegal and Ivory Coast: Fresh baguettes, good grilled fish/meat and a Francophone mentality that generally dictates ‘quality’ to be more important than quantity.

    Worst ‘African’ food: Sierra Leone and Liberia. The nation seems to survive on rice and cassava leaf with a bit of fish or unidentifiable bush meat thrown in if you’re lucky.

    Lunchtime

    Best ‘on the road’ refreshment/snack: Fresh coconuts along the coast in any country.

    Biggest disappointment: Finding that the jungles of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast have mostly been destroyed.

    Most frequently asked question: Are you not afraid of wild animals?

    Most colourfully dressed people: Togo and Benin. Everyone wears bright wax-cotton cloth.

    Best sleeping place: One of many nights out in the Sahara under the stars.

    Saharan star-gazing

    Worst sleeping place: In an abandoned building in the Sahara full of dry human excrement. I was trying to hide from the wind with little success.

    Desert camp

    Biggest relief: Finding my passport two days after leaving it in a room I stayed in within The Gambia.

    Most historically interesting/moving place: Slave Castles of Ghana, particularly at Cape Coast and Elmina. Shame on my ancestors and all other European powers in Africa.

    Never again: Slave depiction, Elmina

    Most used/valued piece of kit: My trustworthy Tilley hat

    Dune-scape

    Least used piece of kit: My Solar charger. I’m rarely away from a power source for long enough to warrant using it, although it’s lightweight and packs easily so I’m holding onto it just in case.

    Solar power

    Best new piece of kit: X-mini speaker. Sound beyond size as the logo says and it fits snugly between bottle cage and my handlebar bag. Nothing like a bit of Led Zeppelin blasting out on a tough road.

    Best books read: The Poisonwood Bible: Mary Kingsolver, French Lessons in west Africa: Peter Biddlecombe and The Grass is Singing: Doris Lessing.

    Most common on-the-road thought: Do I write a book when I finish this journey? There are a few stories/characters I don’t write about here.

  • Journey to Jos November 25th, 2010

    On a quiet road the journey from Abuja to Jos would be pleasant. Once the urban concrete thins out a boulder-strewn landscape takes over as the altitude steadily rises to above 1000m. The problem is the condition of the road; it’s too well-paved. This means traffic, of which there is too much for a 2-lane road, goes as fast as humanely possible. Little wonder the roadside is littered with the remains of car wrecks.

    Leaving Abuja

    Speed victim

    Hiromu called me to stop a short distance out of  the city. His speedometer was reading 25,000km. “I want to make a photo. It is special moment”. I fully agreed. My computer was just approaching 16,000km, which is roughly 10,000 miles.

    Milestones from Peter Gostelow on Vimeo.

    After meeting for the first time in Morocco at the beginning of this year we were back on the road together and sharing similar views about our route through central Africa. Hiromu’s journey started from Istanbul in May 2009 and he too plans to cycle to South Africa.

    Milestones

    The highlight of the traffic-filled 300km journey was watching several hundred cattle drink from a river. It doesn’t sound particularly exciting, but was quite a spectacle. We looked down from a bridge as the bony long-horned beasts moved to the water’s edge, their Fulani herdsmen eyeing us cautiously as we snapped away.

    Thirsty cattle

    Accommodation on the road was back to normal after the comforts of Abuja. Camping next to a Police Station one night and a Church the next. As for the food, Hiromu and I seem well-matched in being as adventurous in trying whatever the locals are dining on.

    Lunch

    Village camping

    For the first time in many months I’m wearing a fleece pullover here in Jos. At 1200m above sea-level it’s as high as I’ve been since the Atlas mountains of Morocco. In fact it was when I was in Morocco that I first heard about Jos. Over three hundred people were massacred here earlier this year. The city has long had a history of  ethnic and religious tension between Christians and Muslims. It’s a pity the climate can’t cool tempers. I wish I could take the weather with me.

    Up to Plateau state

  • Out of Africa: Two weeks in Abuja November 24th, 2010

    Abuja is not a typical African city. To start with I’m not sure there are any poor people living here. The makeshift market stalls, tin-roofed shacks, bare-footed children and street hawkers so characteristic of urban Africa are noticeably absent here. As are the piles of rubbish and other man-made detritus. It is certainly the cleanest city I’ve visited on the continent and the only one that doesn’t feel overpopulated. The fact that living here is so expensive partly takes care of that.

    Any Nigerian living within Abuja is comparatively rich. One only has to observe the kinds of cars being driven along the newly paved roads to get a feel for the city’s wealth, or see the size of the houses. Step into one of the popular western-style supermarkets and take note of the price of foodstuffs: 250g box of Cornflakes (£4), 1 litre tub of ice-cream (£5). This is not Nigerian food, but Nigerians, at least some of the wealthy who reside in Abuja, quite comfortably exchange large sums of money for such items before climbing back into their Mercedes or SUV. For those who can’t afford the western lifestyle, it is something many aspire to.

    Nigeria’s capital city is less than 20 years old and is growing rapidly. Maybe it will become like other African cities in another 20 years time. For now it has an incongruously tranquil, affluent and dare I say safe atmosphere about it. If only all African cities were so easy to navigate and enter into. The roads are so wide here that if the city authorities really wanted to they could put in bike lanes. There would be little point of course; no Nigerian is interested in riding a bicycle. They are much better at getting behind the wheel of a vehicle and driving quickly and badly.

    I never planned to stay two weeks, and had it not been for the kindness and company of strangers hosting me again I would have grabbed my Cameroon visa (24-hr service available – cost $100 for a 30-day stay) given the School talk I’d pre-arranged to and sped on out.

    I cycled into the city looking for the Sheraton hotel. No I wasn’t planning to take a $200+ room for the night, but pitch my tent out the back for free. How this arrangement between the hotel’s management and the small contingent of comparatively impoverished travellers overlanding through Africa came about I have no idea. Someone obviously felt pity for us. Abuja is anything but a budget place to reside.

    As it was I never joined the ‘traveller’s camp’ out the back, but spent a week with a British army officer and his wife in a compound complete with swimming pool and squash court. A true oasis of luxury, particularly the Cropwell Bishop Stilton. My host ran a weekly camera club and decided a trans-African cyclist would make for an interesting photo-shoot. Later in the week he lent me a tuxedo for a charity dinner-party. Did I foresee any of this when I was camping in a Nigerian village the night before arriving in Abuja?

    Ex-pat scene

    There are a number of International Schools in the city, which provide a western education to Nigeria’s elite and the growing number of expatriates who live here. I’m not sure many of these children have experienced much life outside the air-conditioned and high-gated environs of their home and school. As far as I can tell most Nigerians and some expats choose to ignore life as it’s lived by the masses in this country. The inequality in wealth is noticeably greater in Nigeria than the rest of west Africa.

    I visited four of these schools, gave a number of talks and was well-received by the teachers and students. To what extent they thought I was crazy I don’t know. People are sometimes too afraid or polite to say. Well I suppose riding a bicycle through Africa is crazy, if only because most Africans don’t know how to drive properly.

    School talk

    Hiromu would agree with me. I rescued him from the Sheraton when he rolled into the city at the end of my first week there. The management had banned him from taking a shower in the squash courts and he looked like he needed a decent feed, as well as a trip to a clothes shop. There I was thinking that my clothes were becoming a little threadbare and old. Hiromu had gone one stage further and taken on the appearance of a tramp. From experience I believe this is in an effort to appear poor in the minds of Africans and well-travelled amongst foreigners. Anyone who can afford to travel overland through Africa with a $1000 camera and laptop can afford to buy a t-shirt for a few dollars. Unfortunately Abuja is not a place where wearing hole-ridden clothes fits in well.

    Hiromu Jimbo

    From the John Lewis furnished interior of my British hosts’ house I moved camp and stayed with a missionary couple for the second week. Mike and Meghan had first come from the states to Nigeria ten years ago, where they were dormitory parents to students from a missionary school in the northern city of Jos, my next destination. Now they were back with 3 young children and responsible for running a centre to provide religious guidance and education. The overwhelming hospitality and generosity continued and by the end of the week I was starting to forget what it was like to take a cold bucket shower and eat with my hand. Once Hiromu had received his Cameroon visa and I’d given my final school talk it was back on the road together. The break and company in Abuja had been a welcome one, but I was looking forward to re-immersing myself into the ‘real’ Nigeria.

  • North of the Niger November 21st, 2010

    Crossing big rivers in boats with holes in never feels very reassuring. As the water seeps through the wooden hull and runs to the stern of the overloaded vessel you look for signs of alarm from your fellow passengers. There is none. They sit motionless whilst one boy frantically bails out bucketfuls of brown water from Africa’s third largest river.

    The first time I saw the Niger River was in Guinea, a short distance from its origin in the Fouta Djjalon mountains. Here the channel was less than 20 metres wide. Fast forward several thousand kilometres and now it was over 1km in breadth, a silent expanse of dormant energy making its way to troubled regions further south.

    All aboard

    Small roads had brought me to the town of Pategi, which sits on the southern bank of the Niger River and probably sees few visitors. It is on the road to nowhere important, although apparently hosts an annual regatta. I had been told there was a government-run ferry on the river, but like many state-controlled businesses it was not in operation. Unless I headed 100km upstream and took the bridge, a leaky motorised canoe was the only way to reach the northern shore.

    When we arrived at the other side some twenty minutes later the water-baler looked exhausted. ‘Good job‘, I felt like saying, or ‘you really tried’, as Nigerians like to exclaim. There was no road, so I followed the other passengers, many of which had loaded their motorbikes onto the canoe. A narrow track cut through lush green rice fields and there was not a sign of concrete in sight.

    Bike boys

    I was now in Niger state, Nigeria’s largest, which feels a long way from the Yoruba dominated south. Keeping track of changes in ethnicity and language in Nigeria is not easy. There are something like 400. What is obvious is the stronger Islamic influence as you head north; more mosques, more women in headscarves, and lots of goats and sheep at the roadside awaiting slaughter for the forthcoming Muslim holiday. Towns also seem more relaxed. Less of the aggressive calls for attention or the dizzying density of traffic. Savannah grasses start to replace the thick bush of the coastal belt and the temperature  climbs.

    Why was I heading north in Nigeria when I’m riding my bicycle to South Africa? Other than wanting to avoid the environs of Lagos and the busy coastal states, I needed to visit Abuja, which for those who don’t know (I didn’t until several months ago) is Nigeria’s capital. It’s also a capital city like no other I’ve visited in Africa.

    Zuma rock and road to Abuja

  • Where I sleep on the road November 11th, 2010

    Not knowing where to sleep at night can be a stressful experience when it starts to get dark and you’re out on the road. The suitably discreet spots for camping you saw earlier in the day have now gone and you have no idea how far it is until the next village or town because your map is rubbish. Do you keep looking in the dying light for somewhere to secretly pitch the tent, or continue to the next inhabited place where there might be a guest house or someone to safeguard your security in camping? It’s an all too familiar scenario these days.

    South of the Sahara I’ve camped wild very rarely on this journey. By camping wild I mean pitching the tent in the open without anyone knowing. The last time was in a palm plantation in Cote d’Ivoire and before that the dry Senegalese sahel. I have on the other hand sought permission and pitched my tent numerous times within the compound of someone’s property, or inside/beside police stations, immigration offices, schools, churches and occasionally within mosquito-infested hotel rooms lacking bed-nets or fans. People rarely have a problem with it and are usually just shocked, amused and entertained to see a white man set up his small mobile home for the night. Do I leave money? Sometimes, but not always. It depends where I sleep and whether I share someone’s food. I sometimes think how a landowner in my own country might react if a foreign stranger were to suddenly appear on his property and ask to pitch a tent.

    My Long Ride Home from Japan was different. I think I was a little more afraid to ask people for a place to pitch my tent and occasionally sought comfort from the solitude of sleeping in some of the dramatic locations I found myself in. And there were days, thinking back to India in particular, where I just wanted to shut myself away from the intensity of it all. India is possibly one of the hardest countries to camp wild in.

    I anticipated pitching my tent in the grounds of the Sheraton hotel when I arrived here in Abuja earlier this week, which believe it or not allows trans-continental travellers with their own vehicles to camp for free, but I’ve ended up somewhere a bit different. More on that and Abuja itself in the next post.

    I occasionally take photos of some of the places I’ve slept in over the years. Here is a selection starting right back from Seoul in 2005, where I ended up swimming out of my tent at 3am in the morning, to more recently in a Nigerian church last week.

    For those who wonder how I go about finding safe places to camp wild, here are a few guidelines. If you feel like adding to it from your own experience, comments would be much appreciated.

    1) Look for paths/tracks which deviate from the road and ensure you can leave the road quickly without having to push/lift the bike.

    2) Make sure no-one sees you leaving the road. This is perhaps the most important guideline. If you are seen you run the chance of being visited later.

    3) Make sure your tent is invisible from the road or any other human-habited place. Behind/within thick vegetation or small mounds of land are obvious places.

    4) Ensure you have enough water and food to see you through the evening, night and morning.

    5) Start looking with an hour left of light left in the day. Finding good spots becomes very hard when there is no light.

    6)  Lock the bike close to the tent. If there is no tree and you’re worried about security lock the bike around a tent pole. If the bicycle happens to be moved at night, so will you.

    7) Unless you’re really wild (ie you know with certainty there is no-one around for many kilometres) don’t start a fire.

    8) Don’t camp close to large towns/cities where there is evidence of people recently using the land.

    9) If someone sees you camping and they are close by, make contact rather than ignore them. Trying to remain invisible may arouse more suspicion.

    10) Try to avoid pitching the tent in low-lying areas if you think it might rain. Camping in wadis in the desert for example