• Rift Valley roads: Mwanza-Arusha August 29th, 2014

    South from Mwanza the tarred road heads into central Tanzania. It’s not a popular destination for visitors as there are no immediate tourist attractions such as national parks, natural wonders, or places given much attention in a guidebook. A lot of Tanzania is like this, as is Africa for that matter, particularly when you see things from a saddle.

    There is however one feature of central Tanzania that this two week tour was focused on. It’s the earth’s most significant visible feature from outer space. It’s also very visible, although perhaps less so, when flying over it between Mwanza and Dar-es-Salaam. This of course is Africa’s Great Rift Valley – the eastern branch of which cuts right through the country.

    On a clear day from a plane it’s easy to see Mount Kilimanjaro and nearby Mount Meru to the north. The pilots rarely mention this, nor do they tell passengers when the plane is flying directly over dramatic escarpments, other extinct volcanoes as well as dazzling white soda lakes.

    Africa's Rift Valley

    The two branches of Africa’s Great Rift Valley.

    Logistically the tour had one hiccup: returning to Mwanza by bicycle was going to be problematic. The Serengeti National Park and Ngorogoro Conservation area cover a vast area of northern Tanzania, but are inaccessible by bicycle. This meant that unless I cycled back the way I came, which was south of the park and clearly not desirable, the only remaining option was to continue north into Kenya before dropping back into Tanzania. Time didn’t allow for this. And so somewhat reluctantly I decided that a bus from Arusha, Tanzania’s third largest town, would provide the easiest option to return to Mwanza.

    In total I cycled just over 900km, with 150km or so on dirt tracks. I’ll let the photos and the captions tell the rest of the story.

    Ready for the road

     No front panniers required for this tour. I packed a tent but didn’t use it. Tanzania is one of the easiest countries in Africa to find affordable accommodation. That said, packing a tent is a reassuring backup. Total load for this tour about 16-17kg.

    Water hole in the dry season

    June and July are typically dry in Tanzania. This means water sources are scarce. Long journeys, particularly in rural areas, are often necessary for both people and livestock. Bicycles strapped with jerry-cans are frequently used to transport water, which is far from clean. Drinking water in Tanzania is best bought in bottles, which is fortunately widely available.

    Goat soup and chapati

    Meat soup (beef/goat/chicken) is a popular breakfast in Tanzania, served with a bowl of lemon and chilli. Chapatis are always available and make a good accompaniment.  Total cost about £0.80.

    Makongoro soup

    Menus in small roadside cafes are rare. On the second day after leaving Mwanza I found out what Makongoro is.

    Cow hoof soup

    Makongoro are cow hooves served in a soup. A little too hearty for my liking, but evidently quite popular. I skipped the soup and stuck to chapatis and tea.

    Peter Shop

    Well I had to stop and have a drink. There are lots of small villages along major roads in Tanzania. Most don’t appear on any map, but reassuringly bottled water and fizzy drinks (usually warm) are available.

    Mr Riverpool mobile shop

    Small mobile phone booths selling calling credit are very popular in Tanzania (there are no contracts here). It was the name of the shop that caught my attention here. Tanzanians have great problems in distinguishing L and R as they sound very similar.

    Accommodation in Shinyanga

    On my second night out of Mwanza I stayed in the small town of Shinyanga. Curious to know what Heavy Tea was I decided to check-in here. The next morning I was served a boiled egg and a cup of black tea. Meat soup would have been much more preferable. Rooms in Guesthouses/lodges in most of Tanzania can be found for between £2-£10 per night.

    Leaving Shinyanga

    Baobab trees provide the most scenic aspect of the semi-arid landscape between Mwanza and Singida. Unlike other trees in Tanzania and Africa, which are most often cut down and used for firewood, Baobabs are considered sacred. They are also providers of fruit, soap, rope, oil and various medicines. Some trees are large enough to be many hundreds of years old and each one seems to have its own special character.

     The altitude ranges from 1100m-1400m above sea level in this part of Tanzania, so days can be hot and dry, but it’s never that hot. There is also none of the coastal humidity. There is however one problem: wind. I had been told that Singida and the area around it is windy all year round. As luck would have it I ended up with an awful headwind for two consecutive days.

    Uncut gemstones

    Tanzania contains a lot of gemstones, but unfortunately I know very little about them. On one afternoon in a quiet village I was shown uncut rubies and another stone. None of them looked that impressive, but there could have been a small fortune sitting in this hand.

    Ruby on the map

    Apparently the uncut rubies came from the area shown on this map of Tanzania (approx 50km west of Singida), so if you happen to be passing through and know more than me, you now know where to go.

    Heading towards Mt Hanang

    Heading north from Singida the landscape became more interesting as I cycled towards Mt Hanang (Tanzania’s 4th highest mountain – 3417m).

    Looking north to Mt Hanang

    For most of the day the mountain-top was covered in clouds, but late afternoon I got a great view of this extinct volcano.

    Climbing the Malbadow escarpment

    Climbing the Malbadow escarpment with Mt Hanang behind me (an ascent from 1500-2100m) provided the best scenery of the tour. This was a detour from the main road and although the climb itself was paved, the rest of the road northwards to Karatu was on a dusty track. This photo was one of the few I took with the Nikon D90 SLR. The rest were shot with the phone’s camera – poorer quality but far easier.

    Enemy on the road

    Enemy on the road! Speeding buses are bad enough on paved roads. On dirt tracks they seem to go no slower and leave clouds of dust in their wake. Flying stones are also a hazard so it’s always best to look away as they pass by.

    High road to Karatu

    Fortunately the dirt track was mostly free of speeding buses as I headed towards Karatu.

    Tripe for breakfast!

    Food options tend to become more limited once dirt tracks replace tarmac. For breakfast one morning I was served a bowl of tripe soup. It qualifies as meat, but I wasn’t that desperate so made do with bananas and chapatis.

    Self-catering for dinner

    Although I never used the tent, it was a worthwhile decision to bring the multi-fuel stove as well as a single pot, frying pan and a coffee mug that contains its own plunger (great piece of equipment for making decent coffee). Food in Tanzania becomes monotonous quite quickly, particularly in the evening when options are limited to chips and grilled meat. With the multi-fuel stove I cooked-up pasta in my room on several evenings.

    250g of beef for £0.50

    Meat is easy to buy in Tanzania, although the hygiene of places selling it is often questionable. At least when you buy your own meat you can make sure you get the cut you want, rather than lots of bone and fat, and also make sure you cook it well before eating! This 250g of  beef (no idea which part of the cow) cost £0.50.

    Descent to Lake Manyara

    A cyclist’s favourite sign post. About to descend from 1500 metres to 1000 metres in 5-6km. The safari vehicle pictured to the right is a familiar sight on the road connecting Ngorogoro Conservation Area and Arusha. It came as quite a shock to see so many foreign faces behind the window of these vehicles.

    View over Lake Manyara

    It wasn’t the clearest of days, but the descent to Lake Manyara and the accompanying rift valley scenery was another highlight of the tour. Fortunately someone hanging around and trying to sell Masaai jewellery was kind enough to take my picture.

    Masaai encounter

    Masaai villages, or rather model masaai villages, line the road outside Lake Manyara National Park. I assume that as part of a safari package there is an option to stop off and visit one of these villages. Highly voyeuristic and unappealing if you ask me, but they seem to be popular. These young men had walked from one such village to greet me on the roadside. The tallest and oldest spoke reasonable English. ‘Lets chat on WhatsApp?’ he suggested as he spotted my smartphone before showing me his. No idea how he was charging it as these villages have no power supply.

    Giraffe on roadside

    An unexpected sight the day before arriving in Arusha. Most large animals in Africa are contained within National Parks, but National Parks have no fences. This lone Giraffe didn’t seem the least bothered by my presence a few metres away on he road as he/she munched away on some Acacia leaves.

    Serengeti from the bottle

    Tanzania has about half a dozen beers, similarly priced at around £0.80 a bottle. Hard to choose a favourite, so I switch from one to the other every few months and prefer to drink from the bottle – beer stays colder that way. After 920km it felt good to arrive in Arusha and enjoy a few cold ones – truth is I’d been enjoying them on most evenings.

    Bus station food sellers

    It took 9 days to cycle to Arusha and 12 uncomfortable hours on a speeding bus to return. I don’t travel frequently enough on such death-traps to know that the seats over the rear wheels are the worst to book (the only ones available to book the day before). Tanzanian road authorities ensure numerous speed bumps exist in every village en-route. This made the journey particularly unpleasant as the driver never slowed down sufficiently. My bicycle was directly below me, jammed miraculously into a tight space by some idiot who unsuccessfully attempted to solicit the equivalent of an extra seat fare out of me for transporting the bicycle. The passengers sat more or less in silence, until we reached the outskirts of Mwanza and they realised they were probably going to survive. I had more or less cycled the exact same way we returned, so the only point of interest was watching people run to the bus in an attempt to sell food and drink through the window whenever we entered a bus station.

    All in all I was happy to arrive unscathed, and relieved to discover that other than some scuffed handlebar tape, my bicycle was intact too. If nothing else it was a reminder that buses in Africa are the worst forms of transport. Give me a train or a boat any day, but preferably a bicycle.

  • Back on board: Up the Lualaba April 20th, 2011

    The sun sinks fast to the western horizon and gloomy is the twilight that now deepens and darkens.” (H.M Stanley)

    It was worth the effort again. The waiting, the inevitable haggling for the fare, the discomfort, the heat, the mosquitoes, and even the hunger that would accompany my journey by boat further up the Congo River.

    Beyond Ubundu, where the last set of rapids make it once more navigable again, the Congo River is referred to as the Lualaba, which is the greatest headstream of  the mighty river. Over 2000km upstream from where it empties into the Atlantic it is still daunting in scale, a silent powerhouse of a river, which for those who think beyond and below its placid brown surface remains wonderfully mysterious and enchanting.

    This time wood replaced metal and the vessel was far smaller than those barges which took me to Kisangani. The HB Safina looked like it had been put together by a couple of apprentice carpenters, but it floated nonetheless and had a quaint charm as I watched it being loaded with crates of Primus and coke at the port in Ubundu. At least I wouldn’t be stuck for something to drink if we ran aground on a sand bank I thought.

    The cargo far outweighed the number of passengers. There were only ten of us, plus another ten crew. This fortunately meant more space to move, but the HB Safina was no more than 50ft in length and 10ft in breadth.

    HB Safina

    I spent most of my time sitting and sleeping on deck – a foam mattress laid over several dozen plus crates of coca cola proving to be very comfortable, at least when the sun, rain, or mosquitoes didn’t force me to seek somewhere covered.

    Prime position

    Top deck

    At first my intention had been to jump ship half way along the 300km journey from Ubundu to Kindu, and as such I’d only paid for a passage as far as the small outpost of Lowa, where my map depicted a small track heading inland. But the river and everything about the journey won me over again. When we passed Lowa on the second day, which was merely a few shacks lining a muddy riverbank, I told the crew there was no need to stop. I would continue all the way to Kindu.

    There was none of the frenetic scenes of river commerce this time round that had made the first trip so interesting. It was merely being out there on the river as the boat cut velvety smooth ripples through that coffee-coloured expanse of water that was enough.

    The boat often kept close to the riverbank as we motored upstream at a steady 5-6km/hr. This mostly presented itself as an impenetrable wall of tangled greenery. Some people might have looked upon this and the journey as monotonous, for the river just seemed to go on and on, and the jungle was always there. But moving slowly past those overhanging branches, with the brush tops of palms and other exotic trees poking through the twisted and luscious cascade of hanging vines was somehow mesmerising. I could happily stare at the riverbank for hours, for every tree was different, and once in a while the leaves would part and out fly a bird of the forest. Black and white casqued hornbills, African grey parrots, kingfishers, harrier hawks, and all number of other different sized and coloured species. My Congo guidebook tells me the DRC has some 1139 recorded species of birds – the highest count for any single African country. In those four days on the river I probably saw several dozen species – a mere fraction, but it seemed a lot.

    Lualaba river bank

    Storm brewing

    I had hopes that one of those submerged logs that broke the river surface would suddenly reveal a tail or a jaw, but it was not to be. Had we passed a crocodile I rather fear the captain would have cut the engines and done everything possible to capture it.

    The crew told me I was unlikely to see a crocodile in the main channel and occasionally pointed to the tributaries we passed, which drained into the Lualaba. Some of these were still of a scale to make the Thames look like a little stream – the Lowa, Ulindi and the Elila for example. I regarded these in the same way that a mountaineer might do an unclimbed 6000 metre peak, and imagined what it would be like to ascend one of these tributaries in a dugout canoe. Adventure plus plus!

    There were plenty of villages lining the riverbank again, and I wrote down the names of those we stopped at. Dumbadumba, Pene Riba, Katendi. They won’t exist on any map. Forgotten places, like most settlements in this huge country. Children would characteristically yell out ‘Mzungu‘ as the boat motored close by, for that is what I am and will be for the remainder of my time in Swahili speaking Africa. It’s rather frustrating that the word for black person, ‘Mtu Moieusi’, doesn’t roll off the tongue so easily quite yet.

    As we passed women cleaning pots at the water’s edge and men sitting silently under the shade of a tree I kept asking myself the same question I’ve done so many times in Africa – how do people survive out here? The only visible sign of a profit-making activity was that of palm oil production. Middle-aged looking wooden presses existed in a number of villages beside the river. Here several people would walk in a circular motion to squeeze oil out of red palm kernels. The oil would be collected, filtered and emptied into yellow jerry cans to be later transported in dug out canoes and sold at the nearest market.

    The crew and passengers were a good-spirited bunch, although I never felt fully at ease with the Commander. He was effectively the big man, working for the society that chartered the boat and responsible for the safe delivery of merchandise being transported. When I first agreed with him on the fare to travel to Lowa ($15), he did his utmost to solicit extra money by demanding I pay so much for every kilo of my luggage. Well I refused of course. There was plenty of useless clutter on board and an extra 50kg was hardly making a difference. The matter was dropped and brought up again when I explained my wish to continue all the way to Kindu. Really this chap had no interest whatsoever in the river, the villages we passed nor the workings of the boat. His mind was solely on profit, and the only time he seemed to be happy was right after he’d eaten.

    With the Commander

    Crew at the bow

    Well perhaps I should have paid extra. Whenever the crew made food the Commander saw that I ate with him. The fair wasn’t very exciting: fufu (now known as Ugali) provided the stomach-filler, along with smoked fish and perhaps beans or plantain. This act of inclusion and sharing says so much about the true heart of Congolese people, and Africans in general for that matter. Once you get beyond the petty demands for money and gifts that go with being a white face on the continent, the majority of people are far more generous than you might give them credit for at first. No-one was going to let me eat tinned sardines and manioc alone unless I protested that this is what I wanted.

    When I wasn’t watching the river or practicing Swahili with the passengers I was often reading. For an entire year I’ve been carrying two volumes of short stories by Somerset Maugham. I read them first when I lived in Japan. In his tales of colonial life he writes about a time before air travel. Well out on the river as we occasionally passed the crumbling remnants of a red-brick Belgian outpost it was easy to imagine what life might have been like when journeys and news took weeks and months to arrive.

    Like the previous boat the crew possessed absolutely zero navigation equipment. A combination of skill displayed by the Captain and the fact that the river was perhaps naturally deeper meant we never ran aground. I tried to explain what the readings of latitude and longitude from my GPS meant, but the crew were merely interested to know how many kilometres we’d travelled since Ubundu and what our speed was.

    The mood on board became notably livelier when a mobile telecommunications mast came into view in the distance, rising high above the forest canopy. The crew soon had their phones by their ears and even the Commander seemed to hold a smile for more than a brief moment. It signified that Kindu and the end of the journey was close.

    For me the end had come all too soon again. Beyond Kindu the Lualaba continues for another 500km or so, before it rises up to its origins in the Katanga Plateau. There is no regular boat travel, although it would be possible to continue further by dug-out canoe. Now I’m turning my attention east, where another large body of water awaits me.

    For those following my progress on a map, I’m headed south east from here to Kasongo, and then east towards the western shores of Lake Tanganyika. I’ve been unable to update the google map of my journey over recent months due to such terrible Internet speed.

    The plan is to cross into Rwanda at either Bukavu or Goma. If anyone reading this has contacts/friends in either of those towns who wouldn’t mind putting me up for a night or two (and anywhere in Rwanda for that matter) I’d be welcome to hear from you.

    Sunset on the Lualaba

    Pirogue at sunset

  • Upriver: A boat journey April 6th, 2011

    Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the World, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest.” (Joseph Conrad)

    Finding a boat to travel up the Congo River wasn’t easy. Firstly there weren’t many boats on what could and should be a major highway of traffic, and secondly those that did exist had no schedule for when they would depart. But waiting was worth it, for this was a journey like no other.

    The boat itself was essentially a tug, consisting of an engine room, a few small cabins and a rudimentary cockpit for navigation. Nothing spectacular, and had that been it the journey would only have been half as interesting. For it was the barges this tug (so named the MBKALIOPI) was pushing and the scenes upon them that made the vessel what it was: a floating market, a makeshift shanty town and home for hundreds of Congolese.

    The MBKALIOPI

    The barges

    There were two barges being pushed by the tug. Each was approximately 10 metres wide and 50 metres long. They presented a picture of complete chaos as bodies occupied whatever space was available, seeking shade on the hot metal decks with all their baggage and other clutter under a patchwork quilt of tarpaulins. These flat-bottomed barges were merely boxes of sheet metal, the only fittings being the small bollards wrapped with thick steel cables that held the barges and the tug together. Many people had been on board for several weeks. That is how long it had taken the boat to reach Bumba, some 1400km upriver from where it had started in Kinshasa.

    I have no idea how many passengers were on board and neither did the crew. More than 300  at a guess. Then there were all the animals – a dozen or so pigs and goats, as well as countless chickens and ducks. There was no guard rail around the barge and it still seems a miracle that one of the many babies or young children didn’t crawl over the edge. I’m sure many have done on other similar barges in the past. Few would survive, particularly during the night.

    The other passengers

    For all these people to eat, sleep, clean and use the toilet in such a confined space presented a challenge, but life on the river was familiar to many. Most were travelling with the specific purpose of buying and selling goods along the way. This wasn’t their first journey. What was cheaper to purchase in or close to Kinshasa would be transported upriver to be sold for a profit, and what was cheaper in Kisangani where the boat terminated would be bought to transport downstream.

    Fish dominated the scene. Stacks of flat wicker-made baskets containing salted and smoked fish filled the barges. What a smell! I assumed they would be cheap on the understanding that the river contained plenty of fish, but as the boat approached Kisangani people came aboard and paid $15-20 for one of these racks, perhaps containing 20 fish. I personally think tinned sardines are a better deal for money – one gets 3 fish for less than $1.

    Salted fish

    Pole man and fish

    These scenes of commerce provided the most interesting aspect of the 8-day journey that was to take me 400km from Bumba to Kisangani, where I am now. For many people who live along the river bank the sight of an approaching barge provides an economic lifeline, for there are no roads to these villages. A barge presents the only opportunity, perhaps for a week or more, for them to buy and sell goods. And so out they paddle in dugout canoes to reach the barge, bringing their goods with them and precariously tying alongside. With them might be any number of things: fish, plantain, manioc, avocados, mangoes, pineapples, tomatoes, wicker-made chairs and tables, wooden pestle and mortars, jerry cans of palm oil or palm wine. And then there are the more curious things: monkeys, bats, crocodiles, tortoises, snakes, antelopes, huge grubs and snails. If it moves and has meat on it then it’s food. In some respects the sight of baby crocodiles, tortoises and monkeys being sold and slaughtered sickened me, but out here it is a means of survival. The people have always eaten what the forest provides and nothing is going to stop that.

    Women power

    Mother and child

    Pirogues tied alongside

    Bats in a bowl

    Palm grubs

    Baby crocodile

    Crocodile head

    Preparing dinner

    Pestle and Mortars

    Village crafts for sale

    Finding a comfortable place to occupy my time on the boat was almost impossible. The bicycle was safely stored below deck alongside sacks of ground nuts and coffee, but my panniers filled a space between two families transporting smoked fish. At first I had planned to rest and sleep here, but the smell, heat and lack of space meant I moved to the roof of the tug-boat for much of the time, returning every so often to be sociable and check my panniers were all intact. It was less likely for something to go missing on the way. Very little could be done in secret with so many people on board. It was on the roof of the tug-boat that Hiromu and I slept under the stars, except when the rain fell, which it did on two nights. Then we got wet, for there was no space under the tarpaulins.

    Coffee grinders

    Sleeping above the Congo

    Walking around the edge of the barges was something I did with great caution, and never at night. There would be charcoal stoves to side-step, babies being breast-fed and washed, fish being dried, animals defecating, spilt palm oil, wire cables waiting to trip you up – basically a health and safety inspector’s absolute nightmare.

    The barge scene

    Making friends on board was easy. The only trouble was that almost everyone wanted some kind of gift. If they didn’t demand it then I sensed the expectation for one. “Pasangani mbongo” (give me money) are two words a foreigner will hear often in the DRC. At least it makes a change from “Donnez moi l’argent”. If I opened a pannier to retrieve something eyes quickly descended on me. As much as I like the DRC and its people, it is perhaps the most demanding of African countries I’ve travelled in.

    Under the tarpaulin

    Hiding from the sun

    The people didn’t hold back in reminding me how much they were suffering. Well that was evident. The well-being of the passengers was not a priority for the boat and its crew. Their concern was the safe delivery of the cargo (cement, several vehicles and sacks of various other goods). I really felt that if someone had fallen over the side the boat would not have stopped. The risk was constantly there.

    The Commander didn’t speak to me much. At first I wondered if he regarded me as a nuisance as I clumsily walked around the boat with my camera, but I came to realise he was just someone whose attention was solely focused on the job. The crew numbered about 10, but he was the only one who really knew the river. His eyes were always on it and when a member of crew did something wrong he would suddenly lose his cool temperament and start shouting. This he would also do when there were too many dugouts tied alongside, effectively hitching a free ride upstream and slowing the speed of the barges. An order would then be given for several of the crew to take machetes and slash the twisted vines which acted as painters for the dugouts. Villagers might be in the process of selling something on board at this point. Some would plead with the crew and others would argue. Amongst this fracas of hollowed out tree-trunks bobbing up and down and banging against each other one or two would occasionally roll over. Then I would look back to see several bodies quickly disappearing from sight in the wash of the tug as they held onto the upturned dugout. Poor bastards I thought. They hadn’t finished their sale and they’d lost their produce in the river.

    It impressed me how passengers were able to remain so calm under the circumstances. Occasionally an argument would flair up and voices would be raised, but in general people accepted their plight and endured the hardship. At night the Commander prohibited the use of torches in case one of his crew at the front needed to flash a signal to slow down. And so the boat and all those hundreds of people moved in complete darkness, until dawn. When the night was too dark or we were traversing a particularly tricky part of the river the Commander would steer the boat towards the river bank and gently run it aground until the first signs of light in the sky. Surprisingly there were far fewer mosquitoes than I imagined. I think they found more meat on offer below the tarpaulins.

    Sunrise

    When the night was clear the waning moon provided the only source of light, silhouetting the river bank and the edge of the jungle. Occasionally a torch-light would shine out – most probably a night fisherman in a dugout. Essentially what I was seeing was no different to what men like Stanley and Conrad had seen some 130 years ago, and other than the western clothes most of the villagers were wearing I don’t think their life has changed much at all.

    Village on the River bank

    Island village

    This wearing of second-hand western clothes in the DRC presents something of a cruel reminder of the haves and have nots in this World. Many second-hand clothes sent by charities to the DRC originated in America. Well the problem is that the waist and chest sizes of most of these clothes being sold are far too big for the sinewy torsos of many Congolese. It is not uncommon to see a man with a waist size of say 26” wearing trousers made for someone far larger. Acting as a belt will be a piece of string to bunch up the loose material.

    Despite being given the liberty to sit and sleep on the upper deck of the tug-boat (something the crew would have restricted most people from doing) I too endured my own share of suffering. Throughout the journey I had diarrhoea worse than I can ever remember. Squatting over the edge of the tug-boat amidst clouds of diesel fumes didn’t ease matters. After a few days the engineer gave me access to the crew’s toilet. It could have been any number of things that upset my stomach. After eating sardines and manioc on the first night I was soon invited to eat with a number of people.

    Travelling upstream meant moving very slowly. My GPS recorded the speed at around 4km/hr. What navigation equipment did exist on board wasn’t working. The captain had no chart and received information about the depth of the river from two men standing at the front of the barges with wooden poles. These they lowered into the river until they hit the bottom, after which they would yell out a number. As far as I could understand the draught of the boat was about 2.5m, but as the captain didn’t know exactly what load was on board I think this was very approximate. On a number of occasions the barge ran aground on sandbanks, which often meant several hours or more of reversing and even disconnecting the two barges to move them separately.

    I never tired of watching the river from the top deck of the tug boat. This offered the most commanding viewpoint, and when there was any wind it was also the coolest place to be. All that metal reflecting the sun’s heat made the conditions on those barges cruelly hot. The jungle remained constant, where it had not been cleared to make way for a village of huts, but the river changed its course, narrowing as we passed between large islands before widening again. Some of these islands continued for many kilometres. This was untouched Africa and it was a truly amazing spectacle.

    Pirogue on the Congo

    Sunrise on the Congo

    Signs of life beyond those mud-thatch dwellings slowly came into view as the boat approached the town of Kisangani. This is the furthest navigable point for a boat travelling from Kinshasa. For the next 100km a series of rapids prevent onward travel on the river. It was a shear contrast from the jungle to see large brick buildings lining the riverbank. Arabs and Europeans fought over and developed the town, and as elsewhere in the Congo I could sense even before setting foot that the place has seen much better days.

    Mission on the River bank

    As much as I was looking forward to stepping on terra firma after a week on that boat, I was also sad that the journey was about to end. For many people who’d started from Kinshasa this had meant 1 month on the river. Despite the hardships on board I was slightly envious that I had not travelled the whole way. For a brief moment I even thought of waiting for the boat to head downstream to Kinshasa. I don’t imagine I will ever take a boat journey quite like this again.

    I stayed on board once it docked. As expected their were frantic scenes as people scrambled to get off and others rushed to come aboard. “Watch your bags. There are thieves here” someone cautioned me. There were several other boats and barges moored alongside a muddy stench of a riverbank. To call it a port would be misleading.

    I had to take a second look when up above the moving masses of bodies on another boat I spotted a white face. The first tourist I’ve seen in months, and he was English. He said he’d been waiting in Kisangani 3 weeks for his boat to head downstream and had been sleeping aboard for 10 nights, having paid for a cabin (his boat was twice the size of the one I’d come on). And there I was thinking that a 5 day wait in Bumba was a long time! He had been told daily that his boat would be leaving the next day. I was impressed with his patience. He recommended a cheap hotel in the town and I told him he was about to take the trip of his life.

    The next morning after saying goodbye to familiar faces and the crew I lifted the bike out of the hold and wheeled it off. Kisangani awaited me, but I didn’t get very far. Within minutes of stepping ashore an immigration official seized my passport. It was going to be a long morning.

  • Congo Journal: Part 2 March 20th, 2011

    10/03/11 Distance cycled 71km Mbata 02°19.031N 020°12.263E

    “There is something primordial about Congolese villages. The villagers themselves wear modern clothes, often in tatters, but modern nonetheless in that they are factory-made and delivered by the occasional trader who ventures along the river. But the houses are at the base level of simplicity. There is not a single pane of glass, metal hinge, cement plinth or fitting that connects the place with the modern era. There is no litter, no plastic bags, empty cans or cigarette butts. Without any painted signs, it is a place of browns, greens and duns, a settlement built in the jungle and out of the jungle, utterly separate from the modern world.” (Tim Butcher: Blood River)

    Start day finishing last night’s rice, of which there is still too much and I give away to crowd of waiting children. It disappears quickly. Pineapple follows. Bought it yesterday for 500Franc ($0.50) and it’s large enough to feed 5 people.

    Nothing new today on the road. Track is sandy, but follow path that other bicycles have made and makes going easier. A few cyclists ride alongside until we reach town of Dondo – it is on my map as a village, but was clearly something more significant in the past. Pass an enormous shell of a building which looks like a warehouse. Says it is a University for Agriculture and Science. I ask a local when it closed, but he tells me it is still open – can’t quite believe this.

    Stop to take lunch close by of lotoba and manioc (they are becoming a staple although latter is highly un-nutritious) as well as avocados that I bought on way in. A local drunk tries to help us then follows us out asking for a reward – his persistence and desperation gains 2 cigarettes, which he seems very happy about.

    12Km further on we reach Akula, which sits beside a large river – the Mongola – just another tributary of the Congo. Kinshasa is navigable from here, so I guess most of what arrives by truck in say Gemena must be unloaded by boat in Akula after a 2 week journey by river from the capital. No wonder beer costs 3 times the price in Gemena as I heard it does in Kinshasa. Yet to try Congo’s famous Primus.

    There is very little to show for the town’s important location – merely a line of wooden shacks along a single street. I spot the small DRC flag I’ve been wanting to buy and as I’m in process of bargaining for it some chap from immigration comes along. He seems angry and agitated at first, perhaps because I half ignore him, but when we go into his shack he’s kind, taking down the passport details without asking for money. Shortly after we’re in a precariously narrow piroque crossing the river (750CF each) and immigration are waiting for us on the other side. I expect problems, but again nothing – definitely calmer here than further north.

    Cycle on a short way and the jungle immediately encloses the track to a single-file. We stop early again on account of needing to find water. There is a source close by and most of the village inhabitants follow us. Camp beside a nearby school, although I move the tent inside when the rain suddenly starts to fall.

    Pushing through the sand

    11/03/11 Distance cycled 72km Mbokutu 02°11.542 N  020°42.041E

    Touring the Congo is an unforgettable experience. One may sit in an air-conditioned cocktail bar of an ultra modern hotel in Leopoldville or Elizabethville and yet within a few hours witness primitive dances deep in the virgin jungle” (Belgian government tourist brochure 1951)

    Am up early (6am) before school starts and the classroom I’ve hi-jacked for the night is invaded by dozens of children. We stop shortly after for coffee amidst scenes of frenzy as huge crowds gather. Really get the feeling that few foreigners pass along this road. For many children, and adults, it is surely the first time they’ve seen foreigners, something which is confirmed by some of the older adults, who possibly remember an era (1960s and 70s) when there was a trickle of overland traffic coming through central Africa. It is hard to imagine what that must seem like as I cycle past – a mixture of great curiosity and fear. Do children hear stories of how white men used to come to the jungle and chop off the hands of their ancestors who were ordered by Belgian colonial officials to collect rubber?

    Zero 4-wheel transport today and only a few motorbikes. No water pumps again and hard to find good quality water. Hard to believe this single-track lane is/was a principle route in DRC. In many villages hoards of children run through with us and there are calls for handouts, both from them and their parents. There is no shame here – life seems cheap and people in this country have been so embedded with the nature of foreigners coming to plunder and pillage the resources that asking for money/gifts is partly a reflection of this and partly a reflection of how acute the poverty is here. Congo definitely not somewhere I would want to land in for the first time visiting Africa.

    Day ends finding and filling up with water from a not particularly clean source – really in the jungle here. The village we end up in has no chief or visible sense of authority. Surrounded by vociferous kids and teenagers all evening until we retreat into our tents. The sky is clear but I put the rain sheet on so as to create some privacy. Our local friends will be outside the tent come daybreak.

    Local curiosity

    13/03/11 Distance cycled 54km Lisala 02°09.121N    021°30.757E

    Certainly there is a Congo River, a capricious serpent which unrolls its black, green and greenish yellow rings over six thousand kilometres of mines and plantations, forests and virgin islands, obese cities and brush outposts…” (Helene Tournaire: Livre Nois du Congo)

    Day seems to start earlier and earlier – 5am when voices start outside tent. The usual scenes play out as we pack up. Wild hysteria when camera comes out and they realise they can see their faces in the screen. Decide to delay eating the pineapple I bought yesterday. Instead carry it 15km to Mondele, where we’re directed to what is a large mission with cows grazing outside – a marvel that they survive in the heat. There are at least 2 dozen and they all look healthy – no shortage of lush grass here. There is no real market here as instructed, and nowhere to buy coffee or lotaba. Sit outside the mission eating pineapple and listening to the Sunday Mass service inside.

    It is another 30km to Lisala. I go ahead as usual and although we stop to swim twice in one of the many small streams that bisect the road, I’m alone – cycling at own speed. Track becomes more sandy as the Congo River comes into view from the crest of a hill for the first time. Surely there should be a sense of awe at seeing this enormous beast that defines the country, but it is midday, the sun is beating down and the sandy track starting to piss me off.

    I look for a place to wait for Hiromu as I approach Lisala, but there is none. Instead I take a small track branching off from main road and get semi-lost. Ask lots of children where the route Principal is, but apparently I’m on it. Two young kids show me the way to the mission and don’t seem very grateful when I buy them some sweets – finding the people persistently demanding on a daily basis, which makes hanging around anywhere outside of the missions quite challenging. Everyone wants some kind of handout.

    Mission provides the tranquility I need so wait for Hiromu. There is even a bar here with beer for 1500Francs – might be cheapest I find. Someone here directs me to another building with room for $15. Instead we opt to camp. It seems a good set-up at first but chap who was friendly to me when I arrived tries to extract $10 each for security. This would clearly be going in his pocket rather than to the underpaid chaps who actually work as night security. I think the fact that he has seen me drinking beer and eating spaghetti and sardines (all luxury) is enough to know he can demand something. Doesn’t make for relaxing atmosphere.

    Jungle at dusk

  • Hard roads ahead: Crossing Central Africa January 6th, 2011

    Up until quite recently I’ve not given much thought to how I will cross Central Africa. By bicycle obviously, but on what roads and through which borders and countries.? There aren’t many roads, which kind of simplifies things, and those shown on maps are probably no more than muddy tracks through the jungle. Not so simple.

    The road condition is far less of a concern than my personal security though. Bring on the mud, sand, river crossings, sweat, flies; if locals can navigate jungle tracks on a Chinese made bicycle loaded with 100kg+ then so can I, I think. But they’re local, they speak the native dialect and their bags and jerry-cans loaded on their bikes do not contain a laptop, camera, Ipod, cash and other desirables. Mine do, and the countries I’m about to talk about make me rightly hesitant about the roads ahead.

    Finding a recent account of someone travelling through the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is rare. Most people who know anything about the region will say don’t go. Too much insecurity and danger. But it is a vast region I’m talking about, and the reports one hears might be outdated, second-hand or refer to a region thousands of kilometres away from the one I’m intending to go to. It wasn’t until I arrived here in Limbe, Cameroon that I actually met someone who’d been to CAR.

    Let me introduce you to Dave Robertson, who by all accounts is quite a remarkable man. For the past two decades he has devoted his time and energy on the continent to preventing malaria, clocking up almost 200,000 Kilometres in his white land rover. An impressive distance, particularly if you only have one leg and one arm to drive with. How is it possible you ask yourself? Well it’s true.

    Dave Robertson and Drive Against Malaria

    I first stumbled across the Drive Against Malaria website a few years ago, but wasn’t aware until a fellow overlander had contacted me that Dave, who is English, had settled with his Dutch partner, Julia, in Limbe. The missing arm and leg had nothing to do with being in CAR, he lost them in a motor accident before he ever started his travels in Africa.

    I spent an afternoon with them, finding out more about Drive Against Malaria and their views on the most effective means to prevent, cure and tackle the huge problem of malaria on the continent. I also wanted to know more about one of the least visited countries in the World.

    “You went to CAR”? I asked.
    “Yeah, in February this year. No problem, although they’re more aggressive than the Cameroonians. You should be OK on the bike, at least in terms of travelling the roads. Best way to do it.”
    “What about DRC and the road to Kisangani? I want to travel east across northern DRC towards Uganda or Rwanda.”
    “That I haven’t done since 89”, said Dave, thinking back. “Or was it 88? Kisangani had lots of travellers then. No idea what it’s like now. I’ll be really interested to hear how you get on.
    “So will I”, I said.

    The second person I met who’d been to CAR was also staying in Limbe, although for a much shorter time. It was another Dave, also driving a white land rover, but he had his limbs intact. His vehicle had also clocked up a fair bit of mileage, which he’d rescued from the South African embassy in Lagos.

    Dave, also South African, had travelled as far as Nigeria from his home in Cape Town on a motorbike and decided he’d had enough, so bought the bullet proof vehicle, which had been unused for years, then drove it back to South Africa. And now he was travelling north again with his friend, (I wasn’t quite sure what the relationship status was) an older French woman who’d decided to rent out her Paris apartment and give up on European life. As far as I could tell it was the money from this monthly rent that was keeping them both on the road. “The people work work work in my country. And for what”?

    Dave and Marion were an interesting couple. I met them having a clean out of their land rover, which was packed and surrounded with a ridiculous amount of clutter: musical instruments (several drums and a guitar) plastic crates full of books, pots, pans, various cooking stoves and bags and other containers of all sizes. Underneath an enormous marquee awning, held up by drainage pipes salvaged from somewhere, Dave launched into his travel stories with gusto.

    “I have presents for you by the way”, he said after I’d heard the story of his ‘Manic Mission’, a 10-week tour of 10 countries in southern and east Africa. “Here take this, and these, and you will definitely want these”. Within 10 minutes I’d just become owner of a handheld GPS (he was using another that was given to him free by tracks4africa), two hard back books on the Congo and a pair of foot-straps for my pedals. What a score!

    “I miss DRC man, but don’t do it. They’ll fuck you up.”

    Dave had ridden his motorbike up through DRC, taken one of the famous Congo River barges, then exited the country into CAR quicker than planned when he got malaria. Why is it so many travellers in Africa opt to not take malarial prophylactics to protect themselves?

    “I think you should fly from Doula to Nairobi. Leave the Congo man. Those guys are drunk and armed.”

    Despite the bout of malaria and problems with corrupt police, the DRC turned out to be Dave’s favourite country, but here he was recommending I avoid going.


    “I miss it man”,
    he repeated again as he asked me to plot a route  for them through Nigeria. Dave and Marion had no idea where they were going, Dave literally flipping a coin to decide on a route. The next day they were packed up and leaving. I have no idea where they are now, and I doubt they know much more.

    Fellow overlanders

    Back at research HQ, which is the enormous and empty house that I’m staying in here in Limbe, I began to read accounts of people travelling the DRC, as well as putting questions on forums to see what the travelling community had to say. As I expected, adventure and danger featured highly. But there have been others – DRC travel agents and the odd adventurous aid worker, who’ve gone a bit further, which one needs when we’re talking about a country 80 times larger than the country that colonised it – Belgium. When one starts to get names of specific towns, the roads between them and advice pertaining to one or the other (some positive, others negative) progress can be made in determining what level of danger/risk is involved.

    Of course I won’t be alone. Hiromu, my Japanese colleague as I introduce him, will be alongside, or somewhere behind bargaining over the price of a handful of ground-nuts or bunch of bananas. I told him to come to Limbe rather than stay in Yaounde, where I imagine his room resembles a prison cell, but being Japanese (read stubborn) he has been unable to check-out, throw his bike on a bus or arrange to leave it in the Guest House.

    Well it doesn’t matter now. He called yesterday to say his parcel from Japan had finally arrived (the reason we’d split from Bamenda and he rushed ahead). I’d been waiting to hear this news before leaving Limbe and starting on the road to Yaounde, some 350km east of here.

    The last of the third crate of beer is currently in the fridge. Other than sharing one or two bottles with the guard during the past 10 days I’ve drunk them by myself. I never did find that drinking partner. It has been an odd situation to find myself in here. Big empty house, four semi-wild dogs (read good security dogs) and an attention-seeking cat have been my surroundings. I won’t meet the tenant who invited me here, unless he gets on his motorbike and continues the journey to South Africa, where I’ll happily buy the rounds.

    For those scratching/shaking their heads thinking why does he want to travel these difficult and uncertain/troubled roads the answer is twofold. Firstly I want to reach east Africa overland, rather than fly. It just so happens that there is no easy/safe/recommended route to do so by. And secondly I have a natural curiosity, like any adventurous spirit, to see just what that huge swath of equatorial Africa that few people get to visit is actually like.  In the words of someone who travelled this part of Africa long before people were riding bicycles in it:

    “Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look like that) I would put my finger on it and say, When I grow up I will go there”.

    The question is at what point does a road, feared dangerous because of  reports of instability in the area, become safe? I can’t imagine many people would  have recommended the route I followed in Nigeria, Liberia or even Guinea, given my time there during the elections last year. Was I lucky? Maybe. Nothing is definite in terms of my route and I don’t want to put myself in ‘extreme danger’, just to say that I did it. I will apply for a visa for CAR and DRC in Yaounde and continue to seek advice as I proceed eastwards.

    New GPS

  • Out of money October 17th, 2010

    After paying for a second boat across Lake Volta I was short of money. It wasn’t that the boat was expensive, merely I miscalculated how much money would be needed for the remainder of my time in Ghana. This is something I deal with in every country; calculating how much money is needed until I reach another ATM machine? The trouble is not every ATM machine I find accepts my card or works, and I sometimes naively assume that in more developed countries, like Ghana, ATMs will be available in small towns in the provinces. A currency like the Ghana Cedi is pretty valueless once you cross a border, so having a lot left over is a bit of a schoolboy error in the traveller’s manual.

    Approaching Dumbai

    There is of course the back-up US dollars that I carry for such occasions. But then you are dependent on finding someone who will change them. Wheeling my bike up the single-street lake-side town of Dumbai was a case in point. I was looking for a Mauritanian, Indian or Lebanese shop-owner, of which there are a surprising number hidden behind boxes of foodstuffs in west African wooden shacks.  These chaps are usually willing to take dollars, albeit sometimes at unfavourable rates. Here however there were none. So I went to the bank, which might seem obvious, but there was no currency exchange booth, and my sweat-soaked skin and dishevelled appearance wasn’t going to do me any favours when I told the clerk I had ran out of money and needed some help.

    He pointed me to a closed door. I knocked, entered and instantly noticed the air-conditioning was set at a more suitable temperature for someone preparing a trip to the south pole. The manager was fat, which is not really saying anything. It is hard to find a man of rank in Africa who does not display his wealth by adding several inches to his waistline. Goosebumps had now crystallized the sweat beads on my arm as I kindly asked if he would change the crisp $20 note I was holding before him.

    It took several more minutes, during which he telephoned a number of people and received negative responses. Finally I explained that I would have to sell some of my belongings in order to eat and sleep that night (I needed a good reason to sell my waterproof clothes that I never wear). That seemed to clinch it. The money came, I apologized again and cycled off in the rain.

    Owing to this stupidity of mine I decided to cycle south to the town of Hohoe, where there is a bank with an ATM. The road to bring me here has been the quietest and most scenic I’ve cycled in Ghana, but also the worst in shape. A Korean company is in the process of repaving it. Whilst they get called ‘ching chong’ (Africans assume that anyone from eastern Asia is Chinese) children in this part of Ghana have taken to calling me ‘father’ (as in a Roman catholic priest) as I wave my way past their mud-brick abode or school.

    Swamped

    Primary School girl

    There are more people on bicycles in this part of the country, which can only be a good thing. I even met three of my own on the road yesterday (Dutch). They were cycling from Accra to Burkina Faso and agreed that the map we were both using was terrible. Other than Hiromu, a German I briefly met in The Gambia, and Mick the underfed wiry Englishman (also in The Gambia) they’ve been the only foreign cyclists I’ve met in  sub-Saharan Africa. Speaking of Hiromu, he e-mailed to say he’s made it to Accra. I wish he would buy a mobile phone.

    Dutch trio

    A balancing act

    My visa for Ghana expires tomorrow, which is a pity. My time here and the hospitality I’ve received will be hard to beat. If I can find the road taking me into Togo I will be there the same day. I wonder if the French left a legacy of bread-making during their short occupancy there? Here in Ghana it’s been bloody terrible.

    In case you’re not exactly sure where Ghana is, I passed this map on the wall yesterday, alongside some more interesting wall art.

    Ghana in Africa

    Local art

    Local art

  • 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

  • Great Cyclist Arrives In Ghana October 7th, 2010

    Such a modest headline don’t you think? In an exclusive interview I took time out of my ever so busy schedule to speak to Ghana’s National Newspaper – the Daily Guide. Not sure I will reach South Africa by the middle of 2011.

    Ghana press 

  • A well-worn weapon September 4th, 2010

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

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

    Harper: Liberia

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

    Getting stuck-in

    Hut on stilts

    Bush-meat for sale

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

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

    Ouch!

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

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

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

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

    Liberian road sign

  • An extended rest stop August 31st, 2009

    Eight continuous days on the bike and eight continuous days off. It wasn’t the plan to take such a long rest stop so early into the trip. French hospitality is partly to blame and my time here in the small village of Massac might be one of the most relaxing I’ll have on the road. Eating and socialising seems to  consume half of the day and the only difficulty, or rather frustration, has been my inability to converse in a language I regret not paying more attention to at school. It woud have made more sense during the months leading up to departure to have invested more of my time into studying French rather than researching what equipment to take with me, particularly as I plan to cycle through a lot of Francophone Africa. It’s never too late to learn of course, but Spain and Portugal come between here and another French speaking country.

    The French are a little  like the English when it comes to speaking a second language. They do it badly and generally don’t like it. A lot of my time here has been spent meeting the family and friends of my two hosts, Xavier and Nathalie, who’ve been kind enough to translate conversation I often just follow fragments of. I spent last Saturday at a party clinging to the few English speakers present. I really wanted to be out on the road taking in more sights. Towards the end of the day someone wheeled out a curious old bicycle. I gave it a spin, which seemed to gather much applause from those around.

    One of the reasons I’m delaying my departure here is to wait for a friend to arrive. Tim and I cycled together in India, Pakistan and China. He’ll join me for just a few days here in France, but I’m hoping to plan something longer when I make it to Morocco. At the current rate this will be some time yet.

    Cycling the old fashioned way from Peter Gostelow on Vimeo.