• 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.

  • Beware the Bight of Benin October 29th, 2010

    Beware and take heed of the Bight of Benin. Where few come out but many go in”.

    The distant sound of drums beating late at night was as close as I got to witnessing a voodoo ceremony in Benin. Somewhere in the small coastal town of Quidah people were communicating with the dead. At least that is what I assumed they were doing. What else goes on at voodoo ceremonies?

    I lay in my tent thinking of Sean Connery in the film Live and Let Die; bodies raising themselves out of graves and large snakes coiled around human skulls. My knowledge of the religion, like many others, has of course been distorted by Hollywood films.

    Benin is the birthplace of voodoo, where it’s designated a national religion. Had slaves not exported it to the Americas and the film industry picked up on the scent it may never have gained the cult recognition it now has. Who for one matter knows anything about Benin?

    This small club-shaped country lying to the west of Nigeria used to be called Dahomey. Before the French began meddling in its affairs it was also home to one of the most powerful empires in Africa. Abomey, it’s capital, was where Dahomeyan kings built palaces and seemed to flourish in the acts of slave-trading, human sacrifice and war. That was of course a long time ago. Abomey, some 130km inland from the coast, is now a dusty and dirty place over-run with motorbikes.

    This somewhat bland description could be said about a lot of towns in Benin, and also Togo for that matter. I only stayed two nights in Benin’s other Francophone neighbour. There were too many motorbikes there too. Most of them are used as taxi’s and referred to as ‘zemi-johns’. Roads up and down both countries are lined with makeshift stalls selling petrol in re-used bottles of Pastis, Coca Cola and large demijohns. It’s not uncommon to see three, four or even five or six (mothers with babies or infants strapped on their backs) people on one of these Chinese imported pieces of scrap. They make walking around towns highly unappealing. Other than having to remain constantly vigilant that you’re not run over, there are the fumes and the high-pitched whine of the 125cc engines to contend with. Most annoying though is that every motorbike driver looking for a passenger will hiss at you as a means to attract your attention. For these reasons I took a quiet dirt-track to cross Togo and enter Benin, passing through green coffee and cocoa growing hills.

    Petrol for sale

    On the road in Benin

    Road to Notse

    The central Palace in Abomey, one of the country’s star attractions, was disappointing for three reasons. Firstly photography was prohibited, secondly the guide only spoke French, and thirdly the buildings and exhibits were uninspiring for a city that claims to have been home to one of the greatest empires on the continent and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

    What does distinguish Togo and Benin, positively speaking, is how very colourfully dressed the people are, both men and women. Every village seems to have at least one tailor and seamstress, who sit over age-old singer sowing machines and transform 2-4metre length pieces of bright patterned wax cloth into beautiful items of clothing. At some point when I stop for a few days I shall go out to the market, choose my material and have a few new shirts tailor-made for me.

    One of the thirty dislikes I listed in the previous post was taking detours to places that really aren’t worth it. Ouidah was possibly one of those. It lies south of Abomey on what I soon discovered is one of the main trunk roads in west Africa. To the north of Benin lie the landlocked countries of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali, and it would appear the road north from Cotonou, Benin’s capital next to Ouidah, is a major transport route for fuel and other commodities. Foreign faces who travel it will also suffer that terrible Francophone affliction of receiving constant demands for cadeau and l’argent from children and adults living at the roadside.

    When I arrived in Ouidah the only budget hotel was closed, which is why I decided to persuade the hotel’s caretaker to allow me to pitch my tent on the floor of the restaurant (having a free-standing tent is crucial in Africa).

    Sleeping in Ouidah

    Other than the voodoo connection I was finding hard to unearth, Ouidah is famous for it’s slave trading history. Here, like other sites along the west African coast, thousands of slaves were deported in atrocious conditions to the Americas. A monument stands on the beach to represent the ‘door of no return’, reached after a 4km walk lined with tacky fetish monuments that look like they’ve been stolen from an abandoned theme-park.

    DSC_0133

    More poignantly for me, Ouidah is my last stopping point on the Atlantic coast for a very long time. My journey will now take me east into Nigeria and the mountains of Cameroon. I’m still hoping to team back up with Hiromu, whose last e-mail was to say that he’d recovered from Malaria, but had gone and left his wallet containing credit card and $300 in cash in a roadside cafe and now needed to stop for several days in Cotonou to organise a replacement.

    To bring you into the present, it is 8.15am on October 28th and I’m writing this from a dimly-lit guesthouse room in a town called Zangnanadon, although this may not get posted on the Internet for a few days. My room costs 3000cfa (£4) per night (much better value than the rooms advertised at 1000cfa for an hour) and I’m delaying my departure whilst waiting for my clothes to dry that I hand-washed yesterday evening. It won’t take long. It’s probably about 28-30 degrees Centigrade right now, and if like yesterday it will reach 35-36C in the shade come midday. During the last few days I sped through both Cotonou and Porto Novo, Benin’s second city, and headed north away from the busy coastal traffic and cadeau calling. The Nigerian border near the town of Ketou is about 50km to the east of here. All going well I will cross the border today.

    Traffic in Cotonou 

  • Likes and dislikes October 25th, 2010

     

    Inspired by recently watching the film Amelie, I decided it would make for an interesting blog post to list all the things I like and dislike about being on the road in Africa. There is no order of preference, and it’s by no means a definitive list.

    I’m writing this from Ouidah, Benin, which is famous for voodoo and slave trading. It’s also possibly my last stopping point on Africa’s Atlantic coast for a long time. I’m heading east and then north again, crossing the border to Nigeria in the not too distant future. I’ll write more about Togo and Benin in the next post.

    African service station

    Likes

    1. Arriving in a new country and trying a different beer, which reassuringly often comes in a 650ml size bottle.
    2. Receiving new visas in my passport (one day when I’m old I’ll flick through it and the others like favourite books).
    3. Not paying on roads where there are tolls and smiling at the attendant as I cycle past.
    4. Drinking ice-cold bisap (hibiscus flower drink) from children who always smile when they sell it.
    5. Seeing coconuts being sold at the roadside and the sound of them being cut open before tipping the contents down by throat.
    6. Putting new flag stickers on the bike when I cross borders.
    7. Smell of hot fresh bread in Francophone Africa.
    8. Hotels without stairs.
    9. Polishing my Brooks saddle and admiring the way it is aging and conforming to the shape of my bottom.
    10. Being smiled at and greeted by beautiful women.
    11. Blowing kisses at beautiful women who ask for a cadeau.
    12. Running over giant African millipedes every once in a while, which make a satisfying crunching sound on the moment of impact.
    13. Signing my profession in hotel registers as POST COLONIAL BICYCLE EXPLORER or ADVENTURE CYCLIST and imagining guests in the future reading it and laughing.
    14. Never being cold.
    15. The fact that I can gorge on fruit like mangoes, pineapples and avocados (when in season) and pay next to nothing for them.
    16. The fact that I can stay another day almost anytime I want to.
    17. Watching Africans getting heated up in an argument that I usually don’t understand.
    18. The fact that sub-saharan African dogs are much more docile and non-violent than their north African cousins.
    19. When I find the hotel marked in my outdated guidebook to be cheaper than the listed price.
    20. The sensation of smooth asphalt under the tyres after several hundred kilometres of bumpy dirt tracks.
    21. Seeing second hand imported t-shirts with funny prints being worn by people who don’t understand the words written on them. Recent examples include “I’d do me”, worn by an old woman carrying wood on her head and “Will pay for sex”, worn by a street hawker.
    22. Racing boys on bicycles who are more determined and able to beat me despite being on half-broken single speed bikes.
    23. Seeing mountains on the map with roads that go over the top.
    24. Incredulous looks on peoples’ faces when they watch me pitch the tent and inflate the thermarest.
    25. Cycling in the rain, assuming it doesn’t fall all day (it’s usually warm).
    26. Studying my map for long periods of time and trying to find interconnecting and interesting roads that avoid major highways.
    27. Meeting other Brits I can share a joke with (very few so far).
    28. When people leave comments on this website.
    29. When people donate money to the Against Malaria Foundation. It’s a worthwhile cause and motivating to see people supporting it.
    30. The fact that 1 year after telling people I will be in South Africa in about 1 year, I’m still saying 1 year.

    National Pornographic 

    Dislikes

    1. Being called ‘mon amis’ or ‘my friend’ by people I don’t know.
    2. Hearing people hissing at the roadside as a way to get my attention.
    3. Seeing wildlife being sold as bush meat on the roadside.
    4. Hearing the sound of chainsaws destroying forests.
    5. Hearing “donnez moi” in Francophone Africa, which is usually followed up by “cadeau” or “l’argent”.
    6. Having to pay more as a foreigner at tourist sites.
    7. Asking how much something is and blatantly being told an inflated price.
    8. Being mis-directed by people who sound so sure they know what they’re talking about.
    9. Being pointed to the opposite side of the road by oncoming traffic on the wrong side of the road.
    10. The way darkness comes so quickly after sunset.
    11. Trying to find food in small towns at night when it’s completely dark and I’m starving.
    12. Eating food in the dark and not knowing what meat it is I’m chewing on.
    13. Arriving back in Francophone Africa and getting frustrated at not being able to communicate fully.
    14. Being told there is no change (almost always) when I don’t have the correct amount to pay for something.
    15. Cycling over glass or metal and worrying I’ll get a puncture.
    16. Being instructed to throw my empty plastic water sachet or any other plastic rubbish on the roadside (do any Africans care for their environment?)
    17. Seeing flies land on my ankles where I’ve removed the skin from scratching mosquito bites.
    18. Seeing children who’ve misbehaved being beaten senseless by their mothers.
    19. Hearing bad music being played very loudly out of terrible sounding speakers.
    20. Finding that the only ATM machine accepting foreign visa cards in town is not working.
    21. Wondering if my visa card will be ejected by the same ATM machine which is holding on to it for an unusually long period of time.
    22. Forgetting to take my Tilley hat with me if I go walking out in the midday sun.
    23. When people shout at me for taking photos of things entirely disconnected to them.
    24. Taking rides in large white SUVs belonging to NGOs.
    25. Putting on wet sweaty cycling shorts and getting a rash down there as a result.
    26. When the hotel receptionist/manager takes issue with me bringing the bicycle into my room.
    27. Leaving something behind in the hotel (rarely happens, but both my remaining Buff headwear in Ghana)
    28. Not finding the mosquito that is dive-bombing my ears inside the tent.
    29. Opening a tin of sardines and finding the quality and/or quantity below standard.
    30. Taking detours or paying a lot to see tourist sites that really aren’t worth it (Ouidah in the former here).

    Spotting breakfast

  • Faking it: Visas in Accra October 14th, 2010

    The best thing about the journey from Cape Coast to Accra is the fruit being sold at the roadside. Lines of stalls overflowing with pineapples and watermelons, and carts filled with fresh coconuts. Forget the glutinous starchy fufu and oily soups, I reckon I could survive on fresh fruit alone in Ghana, and many other African countries for that matter.

    Coconut sellers

    The worst thing about this same road is the traffic. There is a worrying frequency of signs stating how many people died at that specific spot. I usually try to find alternative routes in such cases, but here there were none, at least according to my map. This is proving to be one of the worst country maps I’ve ever used. Whoever was responsible for producing the International Travel Map for Ghana needs to improve their cartography skills. Not only does their map not include simple road distances between places, but they have drawn roads which don’t exist and have depicted what are in fact large sprawling towns to be villages. Ghanians would agree with me if they could read maps.

    I broke the two day cycle from Cape Coast to Accra by stopping over in the fishing village of Apam. It was a worthwhile detour, mostly because I got to sleep in a 300-year old slave fort. It was originally built by the Dutch, but handed over to British control 100 years later. This was about the only information I could decipher from Grace, the fort’s female caretaker. I highly recommend it for those making the same journey. You sleep with the sound of the waves crashing below you and wake up to a view worth far more than the £2 it costs to stay here. There is no electricity or running water, but anyone overlanding in Africa ought to be familiar with this minor inconvenience. Candle-light is far more appropriate in such places.

    Apam fising village

    Apam

    The ride into Accra was hot; the kind of heat that turns your Tilley hat stiff with salt stains. Fortunately filtered water is very cheap in Ghana (like £0.02 for a 500ml sachet) and frequently available, usually sold chilled in blue cool-boxes at the roadside. I never remember water being sold like this when I first went to Africa 10 years ago. I have no idea to what extent this water has been tested or approved by any regulatory body, but my stomach seems to be coping OK.

    The hospitality I’d received in Takoradi a few weeks previously was extended in Accra. My host here was director of the Accounts department for the country’s National Audit Service. In other words a Ghanian of some rank. Not so long ago he was a night security guard in central London, a job which allowed him to study through his shift. This was the real reason he’d gone to the UK. He told me this after I’d followed his chauffeur-driven SUV way out of Accra to a large hotel by the sea. We’d only just met, I’d pulled him out of his busy job and now he was buying me lunch.

    The following 5 days in Accra were centered around applying for visas and giving presentations about my journey(s) by bike. Almost half of that time seemed to be spent in traffic, where armies of street hawkers brush past your window selling anything that can feasibly be carried by hand or head. “This is nothing compared to Nigeria”, remarked my host George, who lived some 20km east of the city centre. His daily commute, which we did for the remainder of the week in his newly re-sprayed Mercedes, took between 1-2 hours each way. It would certainly have been faster on a bicycle, which would naturally have been my mode of transport had it not been for the convenience of having a driver assigned to take me to the necessary embassies.

    Nigeria was up first and I arrived at the new address (20/21 Roman Ridge road, just off Achimota road for those who might need it) lacking the necessary documents to secure a visa. Up until now west African visas have been a doddle to apply for. This one required an invitation from the country, although in reality I just needed a hotel reservation from Nigeria, plus photocopies of my insurance details and vaccination certificates.

    Visa requirements

    I went away to find an Internet Cafe and returned an hour later with a printed online booking. It was totally false, and handing it in felt a bit like playing a Nigerian trickster at his own game. Does anyone ever fall for those bogus e-mails saying a relative has recently died and left a huge sum of money that can only be released if you agree to be guarantor?

    The reservation was merely a formality, along with the other bits to be handed in with the $130 (West African visas don’t come cheaply) before being told to return at 14.30 the following day.

    I opted to take a tro-tro (Ghana’s version of an overloaded and uncomfortable mini-bus) back into the centre, (even though I probably could have telephoned for a driver) and found the city’s National Museum. This is the first I’ve been to on this trip and a welcome diversion from the city’s shadeless streets. I was the only visitor that afternoon and had to wake the Museum’s shop assistant to buy some postcards. She shuddered when I told her I’d been at the Nigerian embassy to apply for a visa. “Why are you going there? It is full of crooks”. Her reaction and remark is one echoed by many Ghanians, who consider their nearest Anglophone neighbour in west Africa to be something of a big bully. It is a little daunting to think that 1 in every 5 Africans on the continent is a Nigerian, and there have been very few people in recent months who’ve responded with anything positive to say when I’ve told them I’m going to cycle across the country.

    The embassy of Benin was equally as hard to find the next morning (19 Volta street, 2nd close Airport Residential district), although the visa cost one third the price of the Nigerian and didn’t necessitate the paperwork nor the overnight wait. Rumour is it I could probably get the visa at the border, which is what I’m hoping for with the Togolese visa (I was reluctant to part with 25,000 west African francs at the embassy when I heard it is 10,000 at the border). I realise all this information is beyond the interest of most readers, but for the few overlanders google searching ‘Nigeria visa Accra’ or ‘Benin visa cost Accra’, perhaps this blog post will be of help.

    Mid-way through my stay in Accra George had taken it upon himself to get the media onto my story. Several journalists and a camera crew turned up in his office trying to figure out what the connection was between an English cyclist and the country’s National Audit Service. The interview went ahead, I struggled to keep a straight face and my voice was failing having already given two talks to an American International School in the morning. But George had also arranged for me to speak to the Audit Service team in the boardroom. This was my first all-African audience and typically they wanted to know why I wasn’t afraid of all the wild animals.

    Talk to National Audit Service

    As a parting gift to George and his wife I decided to print out two of my photos and have them framed . They were delighted and hoped I’d stay for Sunday Service at Church. I had the Lake Volta weekly ferry that departs on Monday as an excuse.

    Mother Africa and Princess Thorny