• 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.

  • World Malaria Day: A day to act April 25th, 2010

    Roll Back Malaria

    Before I set off on my walk, I wanted to share this excerpt from the Roll Back Malaria website.

    25 April is a day of unified commemoration of the global effort to provide effective control of malaria around the world. This year’s World Malaria Day marks a critical moment in time. The international malaria community has less than a year to meet the 2010 targets of delivering effective and affordable protection and treatment to all people at risk of malaria, as called for by the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon.

    World Malaria Day represents a chance for all of us to make a difference. Whether you are a government, a company, a charity or an individual, you can roll back malaria and help generate broad gains in multiple areas of health and human development.

    Reducing the impact of malaria would significantly propel efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals , agreed by every United Nations member state. These include not only the goal of combatting the disease itself, but also goals related to women’s and children’s rights and health, access to education and the reduction of extreme poverty.

    If there was a good time to pledge your support for The Against Malaria Foundation today would be it. 100% of funds go directly on long lasting insecticidal treated bednets. Click here to make a secure online donation.

    Against Malaria Foundation

  • When the tide turns: St Louis-Dakar March 10th, 2010

    More than 60kg was the consensus. The hostel proprietor and his brother were taking it in turns to lift my bike, now loaded up and ready to roll. They might have been right. A 5-litre jerry-can of water was resting on the front rack – the latest addition to the black behemoth. I’d found it in a nearby market, alongside a pile of other re-cycled containers. It had once held  vegetable oil, but seemed to be well cleaned out now. In Morocco and Mauritania it is common to see empty plastic bottles  and containers at the roadside. Here in Senegal people collect and re-sell them.  It’s a pity they can’t do that with the plastic bags. They’re everywhere.

    St Louis departure

    It was good to get back on the road, although the thefts in St Louis had left me a little paranoid and dis-trustful.  It’s not a good frame of mind to be in when you’re travelling alone and need to depend on the kindness of strangers. I shut myself off for most of the day with the Ipod.  Kids called out at the roadside. I waved and occasionally removed an ear-piece to hear the words  “Toubab, Toubab” (white man).

    Away from the coast the wind died and the temperature increased. Villages slept under the brilliance of the mid-day sun. The landscape appeared harsh and half-desecrated, until late in the afternoon when the shadows began to lengthen and the light softened. By this stage my water finally began to cool down. Contained in plastic bottles and the jerry-can it heats up to an unpleasant temperature under the sun. Someone suggested using hessian sacking to wrap around the containers. I must keep an eye out for this.

    There was little to detain my interest as I pedalled south, until an enormous Baobab came into view. Rising out of the savannah like prehistoric guardians of the land, the Baobab is a distinctly African tree. It’s branches resemble roots –  the African myth being  that when God made the world he gave each animal a tree. The Baobab was given to the hyena, who threw it down in disgust. Hence the reason it’s also known as the ‘Upside Down tree’.

    The trunk of this particular Baobab was hollow. You could walk inside. I wheeled my bike across the sand and woke two nearby curio-sellers. They were dozing in the shade of some make-shift shacks containing  carvings and masks.  Had I arrived on four wheels they might have begun a sales pitch. They regarded me without moving whilst I admired this ugly yet majestic monster.

    Big Baobab

    An hour later a dark mass of moving objects half-blocked the road. A  colony of vultures were feeding on a dead mule. I stopped to watch and listen to their angry squawking. These piranhas of the sky were ravenously devouring the beast. The sound of it’s skull being lifted and slammed back on the road was audible 20 metres away. They paid me scant attention as I slowly wheeled passed.

    Vulture feast

    The road was free of traffic now. I’d turned off the highway in Kebemer and opted to detour west to the sea. My map depicted a small track running south from the coastal village of Lompoul sur mer. The idea was to follow it and re-connect with more minor roads leading into the capital, Dakar.

    The track didn’t exist. Second opinion reached me in French, Wolof and Pular. The latter two languages are spoken widely throughout Senegal and neighbouring west African countries. A few words go a long way. I had 4 hours of practice. It seemed that rather than heading back the way I’d come it was possible to use the beach as a road. I just needed to wait for the tide to turn.

    Lompoul sur mer

    I didn’t think it would be possible to cycle along the beach. Local opinion differed. My Wolof/Pula speaking company were right. The sand and salt might not be good for the bike, but with wide tyres I pedalled south, following the line of the wash.

    For most of the next 40km the beach was wide and empty. Several horse-carts trotted passed,  their passengers waving with looks of bemusement. Pirogues pulled up on the sand and small buildings disappearing into the undergrowth denoted a village. None appeared on my map. Those that do are effectively towns in comparison.

    Waiting for the tide

    Children played football along the beach beside these villages. There were hundreds of them – children that is. It is something any visitor to Senegal will notice very quickly. Approximately 45% of the population of this country is below 15 years of age. Children are everywhere and there appears to be no limit on the size of families. It is the same in many African countries. In St Louis I had spoken with a man who wanted me to buy him some milk . He had explained he had 3 wives and more than 10 children. Your decision I told him. It doesn’t sound very sympathetic. It wasn’t.

    Occasionally the game of football was more interesting than the Toubab cycling along the beach. At other times it seemed more interesting to chase the toubab and pull on his bike. The children did this until a nearby adult shouted something at them.

    I left the beach shortly before sunset. I would have happily carried on, and  I later heard it was possible to travel all the way to Dakar itself  this way. Better to be on a road than stranded on the beach at high-tide with no fresh water though.

    A solitary acacia tree had been company for my tent the previous night, but this time I ended up in a small Pular speaking village. The headman had been standing on the road as I passed. A simple meeting of eyes,  a small smile on  his face as we observed each other – it was enough for me to decide that I would ask his permission to pitch the tent in the village.

    It was less a village and more a  small compound of  about ten straw huts. No electricity, no water. There are thousands of places like this in Senegal alone.

    Excitement ran through the air. Children ran to watch the sweaty toubab pitch his tent. I expected yells and demands for gifts. None came. Tea was served in the headman’s hut, and dinner later served to me in my tent – rice with fish.

    Morning company

    A cockerel woke me in the morning, along with several donkeys. The headman was dressed in a long blue kaftan (boubou) and explained he was leaving for  the day. I offered a few thousand francs. At first he seemed shocked and half -embarrassed to accept, but soon took them.

    My camera provided much amusement with the children, before I finally pulled myself away and was given a big wave-off.

    Mother and children

    Pular girl: Mboro Nden

    Saying goodbye

    Dakar soon began to sweep me into her bosom. The city lies on the tip  of a peninsula that stretches west into the Atlantic. I’d hoped  that the smaller roads would avoid the throng of traffic that people had pre-warned me about. They didn’t.Villages merged into suburbs of the city and the roads filled with cars, trucks and colourful mini-buses. There are few driving rules.

    I’m staying with teachers from an International School here.  The hospitality of people never ceases to amaze me at times. Their world is different from mine, and different of course from the Senegal I’ve experienced to date.

    I’ve spoken to a number of classes here about my two-wheeled travels. It’s  been an opportunity to share the experience, and promote awareness for the Against Malaria Foundation.  One of the presentations was filmed. I ‘ll share some of the footage here in the next few days.

    As always, if anyone has recommendations, advice, criticisms, questions – about this post or whatever, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

    Don’t forget you can receive this update as an e-mail, by subscribing to the newsletter, as well as follow me through twitter and facebook.

  • Around town with Sidi Ali February 18th, 2010

    In the desert, the first thing man sees when he opens his eyes in the morning is the face of his enemy – the flaming visage of the sun. The sight elicits in him a reflexive gesture of self-preservation: he reaches for water. Drink! Drink! Only by doing so can he ever so slightly improve his odds in the desert’s eternal struggle – the desperate duel with the sun.” (Rysard Kapuscinski)


    The sea is invisible from Nouakchott. There is not even a hint that it’s 5km away. In any other city this 5km would be prime real estate. In Nouakchott it’s a wasteland. The city dumps it’s rubbish here. Plastic bags find a home against thorny vegetation, until the wind changes direction and they trade places. I can’t think of another capital city in the World that is so close to the sea, yet so detached from it.

    I was asking my driver why this was so. He said he lived by the coast, but really his house was on the fringe of the city, before the 5km buffer zone of wasteland. “We are a desert people, we don’t like the sea. The land is also prone to flooding”. Mr Sidi Ali is a French teacher in the International School here, although he studied English in Edinburgh for 4 years. There probably weren’t many other Mauritanians living there in the early 1980’s.

    This was about the same time that slavery became illegal in the country.  Many say it still exists. It was something I was interested in knowing more about, particularly after staying in Nouadibou and watching the way Abdullah, the pale-skinned hotel owner there spoke to his Liberian employee.

    Mauritania is a country where the caste system is clearly evident. The interaction between shop-keeper and customer reminds me a little of India. In Nouadibou I had stood in a small shop to buy bread whilst a new Mercedes pulled up. The shopkeeper ignored me when the driver, still in his seat, began ordering things. When his phone started ringing he answered it and indicated to the shopkeeper that he could continue serving me.

    Mr Sidi Ali explained something about this as he drove me around the city. It didn’t take long – the drive that is. Nouakchott isn’t likely to feature any time soon on a recommended weekend getaway list. It’s central landmark is a Saudi-financed mosque that sits opposite a sprawling mobile telephone market. The two slender minarets reach higher than the rest of the ugly concrete construction here. There is no park and the only greenery appears to be that surrounding the President’s Palace. What a surprise. Just like Nouadibou the pavements and many of the roads here are filled with sand, although there are less goats, and at least in the centre, less visible rubbish.

    The fish market is probably a highlight of a visit to the capital. Hundreds of colourful pirogues line the sandy beach, along which teams of dark leathery-skinned men are involved in some aspect of transporting the fish to a nearby open-air concrete bunker for sale. There are some monster fish here – 80, 90, 100kg+. I photographed one and a man soon came to tell me I must pay 500 ougiya (1.5Euro). I laughed and asked the dead fish if it minded.

    Fishing beach in Nouakchott

    Boats on the beach

    Boat brushwork

    Nouakchott fish market

    Further along the coastal road is the city’s port. It was built by the Chinese 30 years ago after the French said it was impossible to do so. The Chinese have a crew of workers who maintain it, just like the city’s stadium. Whilst European financiers may invest money into a project then leave it to the local population to manage, it appears the Chinese favour a different approach.

    An overloaded truck carrying refrigerators came passed us on the road. One of many that transport second-hand goods coming from Europe to Africa. Nearby the port was a small black hill. On closer inspection it was an enormous mound of car batteries. “These will go to Japan for recycling”, explained Sidi. There were also dozens of cars, or rather parts of cars being cut up by crews of Senegalese men and loaded into containers. “They will also go to Japan. The Senegalese sell the metal to them for recycling”. It seemed resourceful and I wondered why the Mauritanians weren’t doing this. “They don’t want to. It is hard work”.

    Alongside the road leading away from the port were small piles of what just looked like sand. Several women were sweeping the road. “They are collecting grain from the trucks”. This was a desperate scene. Wind-blown grain off the back of trucks coming from the port was being sieved and then loaded into sacks. I assumed it was for re-sale, but Sidi asked the elderly women who said it was for them. They lived in small wind-torn tents at the roadside.

    Other than visiting the coastal fishing market, most of our tour was done within the security and comfort of Sidi’s landcruiser. I wanted to explore on foot – walk through the central market area and get a better feel for the city. The problem is that Nouakchott, like Noaudibou, is strung out along roads that have little shade. Here you will see men standing or sitting and holding packs of cards. At first I thought they were lottery tickets, but somehow I don’t think there is a lottery in Mauritania. These cards are mobile phone top-up cards. There are hundreds of men in the city selling them on the street. The cards are pre-paid – 500 ouguiya, 1000, 2000. I assume they must buy them in bulk at a discount price because you can also buy them in any shop. It makes little sense.

      Mobile card sellers

      There are several larger roads where you see lots of tools – shovels seem to dominate. Alongside them are teams of dark faced and ragged-clothed men. They sit in the sand waiting. Some might play a game with the shells that are easy to find on the roadside – a version of chequers perhaps? They are tradesmen – unskilled labourers or builders, plumbers, plasterers etc. They are waiting for a man much lighter-skinned than them to drive up and employ them – maybe for a few hours, maybe for a few days. None of them know. I saw this in Libya too.

    Unemployed tradesmen

    Yesterday I had lunch with an Algerian man. I didn’t know he was Algerian until he sat down at the same table as me in a small open-air eaterie and he told me a plate of rice and fish was 300 ouquiya. He introduced himself as Carlos, then explained he’d lived in Madrid before. He said he was a traditional Doctor and I asked why he had chosen to live in Nouakchott for the last 14 years. “Don’t use the word choice. There was no choice”.

    We continued eating in silence for a few minutes before he looked up at me again. “I want to tell you something about Africa. It is a dangerous place”. I looked at the people at the tables around me. There was a young white moor wearing a starched white bou bou and listening to music from his phone. At another table two black men in shirts and ties looked like they might be on a lunch break from one of the nearby offices. A fat woman, the proprietor I guessed, was looking at me from behind. Moments later Carlos stood up, thanked me for the opportunity to speak with a ‘real English man’ and paid the woman before walking on out. How random I thought.

    Nouakchott backstreet

    Pink, white and blue

    Fancy a date?

    Colourful mulafas

    Tomorrow I’m leaving Nouakchott. The border with Senegal is comparatively close after the last 2000km of desert that has brought me thus far in Africa. Before leaving I must thank the teachers from the International School here, where I gave a presentation to students about my travels and the Against Malaria cause. They’re rather incredulous that I can ride a bicycle through the desert and sleep in the middle-of-nowhere by myself. For me it feels strangely normal.

      Staff and students from the American International School in Nouakchott
      I almost forgot to mention the visa. The passport disappeared for several hours along with 15 Euros. No questions were asked. Should I be inclined to remain in Mauritania until 15th March I can. Something tells me African bureaucracy won’t always be such a smooth road on the way to South Africa.

      If you enjoyed reading this post don’t forget you can receive it as an e-mail by subscribing to the newsletter, and can also follow shorter updates with my tweets. As I approach malarial Africa it would also be a great motivation to have some more support for the Against Malaria Foundation.