• Zanzibar revisited September 22nd, 2011

    “”there are certain places, surrounded by a halo of romance, to which the inevitable disillusionment which you must experience on seeing them gives a singular spice”. (Somerset Maugham)

    The village of Kipumwe wasn’t marked on my map, but I was assured there were dhows sailing to Zanzibar from there. The plan had been to reach neighbouring Pemba first, but unless I was going pay a lot and charter a boat alone, this option wasn’t available.

    Following the recent sinking of the overloaded MV Spice Islander, in which some 240 people died in the Zanzibar channel, I really ought to have been more careful in choosing what vessel I took to transport me over the sea.

    A bearded man in a skull cap greeted me with a grin when I rolled into this small coastal village at the end of a dirt track. Unatakwenda Zanzibar, he asked as I looked out at a flotilla of large dhows moored some 50 metres offshore. It seems I had come to the right place.

    Zanzibar arrival

    I met the Captain shortly afterwards. He led me through a dark mud-brick house away from a huddle of women and children. I assumed with all their baggage that they were passengers too. The Captain spoke no English and neither did his ticket collecting mate, who wanted 30,000 shillings ($20) for my fare. I would have paid it if I knew this was the going rate. It wasn’t. I’d already seen 10,000 shillings being exchanged and 3000 shillings returned with a ticket. I naturally wanted the same. The Captain laughed and pointed at my bike. I said I’d pay 10,000 then.

    I never got my ticket. It soon grew dark and I waited beneath a row of tall rustling palm trees on a concrete veranda. Sitting, standing and lying alongside me were dozens of other people. I wondered how many dhows were going to sail that night.

    “Just one”, said Zulu, a Kenyan who was travelling to Zanzibar to see relatives affected by the recent sinking. He was the only English speaker there. I thought the Captain had said we would leave at 1am and that the journey would take 4 hours. Zulu corrected me and said that it would be 4am that we left. As for how long it would take, he used that wonderfully frustrating answer I usually get when asking about distance in Africa (in this case applied to time) – “not long.”

    It was impossible to count how many people were on that dhow. I stood on the moonlit shore and watched as they rushed into a small rowing boat making numerous trips out to where it was moored. I guessed it was no longer than 45ft long. From what I could make out it looked ancient, which at least said that it had been on the seas for some time and hadn’t sunk.

    Without the bike it would have been far easier to travel, but with the help of Zulu and those seeing an opportunity for some loose change I was able to transport my companion from shore to rowing boat to the bow of the dhow, lying it flat with me somehow wedged between back wheel and a wooden beam and my head under the boom. For a moment I contemplated asking the Captain if he had life jackets on board, but I already knew the answer.

    It was only when the seas started to calm and I could see a growing light on the eastern horizon that my nerves started to ease. I assumed that once we were clear of the shore the small outboard engine would be cut and that distinctive triangular white sail hoisted, but we were heading on a south eastwards bearing – straight into the wind. I also assumed that the 4am departure was made because the winds at this time were at their lightest, which was probably true.

    As the sun rose out of the ocean I turned to try and count how many passengers were squeezed into the dhow. It was still impossible – 60-70 maybe, and then there were all the infants clutching onto a chest. There was little conversation amongst that scrum. Some chose to sleep in whatever position they had managed to find themselves when boarding the boat in the darkness, and others looked out vacantly in the direction of Zanzibar. I wanted to take a photo of them all huddled together, but taking pictures of people enduring some hard-ship is always a bit insensitive. Had they been able to afford it most would have happily preferred to travel by high-speed catamaran to the island.

    After about 4 hours of motoring Zulu pointed out a low whitish ridge on the horizon. My nerves eased further. This was Tumbato island, which lies off the north western coast of Zanzibar. The seas, which had fortunately been calm, became even calmer as we slowly approached land, and the dark blueness of the deep channel lightened to a dazzling shade of turquoise. I almost wanted to jump in and swim ashore.

    Arriving in Zanzibar

    I first came to Zanzibar 11 years ago on a much larger, but no less reassuring boat, from Dar es Salaam. Then, like most people who come by boat to the island, I had arrived in Stone Town. As with many tourist destinations in poor places there was an eager crowd of young touts and hangers-on waiting to whisk me away to the best/cheapest Guest House. I used to hate this aspect of travel. I rarely witness it now.

    My over-loaded dhow arrived safely in the quiet fishing village of Mkokotoni, some 20km south of the northern tip of Zanzibar. There was not a mzungu in sight, and the young immigration official naturally seemed surprised I had arrived on the island in such manner. “I think you like the adventure”. I told him I was happy the seas were calm. I too was equally surprised that my passport was getting an entry stamp. Zanzibar belongs to Tanzania, but is a semi-autonomous state.

    Mkokotoni at low tide

    Small islands are always a pleasure to cycle on. The sea is never far from sight and traffic is usually light. Well this is the case on Zanzibar, where the roads are also well-paved.

    From Mkokotoni I headed to Nungwi, the northern most point of the island. This is an interesting destination. On one side of the village here there are veiled women walking between narrow sandy streets and local fishermen mending nets, while a short walk along the beach brings you to a stretch of sand and rocky outcrops where sun-worshipping Italians mingle with Italian-speaking Maasai tribesmen. I don’t remember this from Zanzibar before. Half the children here, and in other parts of the island where large resorts fly the green, red and white flag, one gets greeted with a ciao. There are several direct weekly flights I think between Italy and Zanzibar.


    With all the Mzungu money coming to Zanzibar finding a cheap hotels is not easy. Guest Houses offer basic rooms for around $20 and beach-front restaurants advertise catch of the day at around half that price. For those in Africa for a few weeks, finishing their Safari and/or Kilimanjaro ascent, such prices are a continuation of what they will have spent on the mainland. Zanzibar in actual fact might seem cheap if you’ve done a safari in the Serengeti. For the long-termers like me it’s an expensive destination, unless you’re willing to side-line the sunset views and al-fresco on-the-beach dining. There is usually someone around with a spare room you can rent for less, and then there’s camping, which is supposedly illegal on Zanzibar.

    Nungwi beach

    Beached dhow

    Morning catch: Tuna

    Sunset at Nungwi

    From Nungwi I headed south along the east coast. Here the tide retreats a long way from the blinding white sand, and the south east monsoon winds carry the roar of the surf, visible some kilometres away as it breaks on the reef. It provides a perfect opportunity for beach cycling, which is what many of the locals do.

    Morning swim stop

    Seaweed drying

    In the somnolent village of Bwejuu I pitched the tent for a few nights before continuing south past Paje and Jambiani. I stayed in one of these villages before, but can’t remember which one. I saw many foreigners but spoke to very few. It might be a measure of how long I’ve been on the road that I often don’t have the energy to strike up a conversation from scratch, which often brings with it all the questions associated with why I would want to and how could I cycle from England to Tanzania.

    East coast Zanzibar

    East Coast Zanzibar

    Beach cycling at low tide

    Pause on Paje beach

    Jambiani, Zanzibar

    At the southern end of the island the locals thought I’d come to see the dolphins and whales that can supposedly be viewed off the coast. The sunset camping and beach swimming were enough, before I turned north to Stone Town, which is where I am now.

    Sunset Kizimkazi

    Beach camp Zanzibar

    With it’s warren of narrow labyrinthine alleyways Zanzibar’s old Stone town is really the heart and soul of the island. Here is the history, the architecture and the atmosphere that evokes all that is exotic about this location. I wheeled my bike inside, asked a random shop-keeper where I could find a room and was soon shown a place that with a bit of bargaining matched what I wanted to pay. I’m here until Saturday, when I hope to continue by boat to Pemba.

    Zanzibar island

  • 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.


    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.


    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


    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.

  • 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


  • 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.

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