• Old roads and new: Mbeya-Mwanza Part 3 March 18th, 2015

    The tarmac stopped at the Tanzanian border. On the Burundian side the road was under construction. A man wearing a wide-rimmed straw hat was sat in the seat of a road grading machine. I waved at him as I slowly climbed up the steep slope that cut into the green hillside. Either he didn’t see me or pretended not to. I’m sure my bicycle must have been in his vision. I would have asked him many questions given the opportunity, but doubt he’d have understood them, unless I spoke Chinese.

    This was my second visit to Burundi and I was happy to be back. The African mainland’s second most densely populated country is a great place to cycle, so it’s a pity the country isn’t bigger.

    The photos in this final blog post cover the remainder of my journey through Burundi, Rwanda, a day in Uganda and then back to Mwanza in Tanzania. Lots more mountains, smiles, some great scenery and the usual great cycling.

    Chinese road construction

    Another new road in the making. Heading north from the Burundian/Tanzanian border to the town of Makamba, where the tarmac starts again.

    Burundian beer

    Now here’s a beer that’s worth drinking. It might not be African by name, but it’s brewed in Burundi and tastes great.

    Mission beside Lake Tanganyika

    One of the few flat roads in Burundi runs along the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

    North to Bujumbura

    Heading north to Bujumbura. I cycled this road in the opposite direction 18 months ago.

    Sunset over Lake Tanganyika

    Sunset over Lake Tanganyika. The sky wasn’t clear enough to see the DRC on the other side.

    Burundian curiosity

    It’s hard not to draw a crowd when stopping on the roadside in Burundi. Few people travel here and people are curious to get a closer look.

    Bujumbura Coffee factory

    The mountains in Burundi produce some great coffee. By the end of my trip my panniers contained about 4kg of coffee from Malawi, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda. This photo was taken in Bujumbura. I stayed 2 nights and parted ways with Anselm here, who stayed on longer.

    Bicycle cargo

    Bicycles in Burundi are commonly loaded with all sorts of cargo. This is on the road north from Bujumbura to the Rwandan border post near Bugarama.

    House on wheels

    At least 100kg of bricks loaded up here. I discreetly took a picture from behind as I feared photographing from the side or front might cause this poor chap to loose his balance!

    An aged saddle

    An aged saddle with some serious character.

    Weld job on Surly front rack

    During the 7 week tour the brackets on both sides of the Surly front rack broke. It wasn’t hard to find a welder, but the welds broke on several occasions. I have new brackets back in the UK.

    Burundi Map

    Painted up on the wall of a bar. An outline of one of Africa’s smallest and most densely populated countries

    Lake Kivu

    On my first day in Rwanda I briefly passed Lake Kivu.

    Tea Plantation

    Tea plantations on the road east from Cyangugu at about 1700m in altitude.

    Above the morning mist in Nyungwe Forest

    Climbing up through the cool mountain air to 2600m in altitude, Nyungwe Forest remains a rare reminder of what so much of Equatorial Africa must have looked like before man started to deforest it.

    Big day of climbing

    Anything over 1500m of accumulated climbing in a day on a fully loaded bicycle constitutes a challenging one. Day 1 in Rwanda and typically it’s all up and down – mostly up.

    Morning sunlight in Nyungwe Forest

    Morning sunlight in Nyungwe Forest. This was the view from outside my tent, which was pitched on a rare flat space of land, fortunately invisible from the roadside. I had been told it was illegal to camp within the National Park. Had I been seen by Park Rangers I would have been fined and asked to move. The reality was there was no-where else to sleep.

    The Congo and Nile River watershed

    Some interesting African Geography I didn’t know. This was taken in Nyungwe Forest.

    Local bike

    Plenty of local wooden bikes like this on the road in Rwanda. Great for downhills, less so for up.

    Local bike

    Roadside spectators

    Children are everywhere in Rwanda – something that could be said about a lot of sub-Saharan African countries. Here however the population density is so high that stopping on the roadside is almost always associated with a collection of young faces.

    Project Rwanda: Coffee Bike

    I saw a lot of these ‘cargo bikes’ in Rwanda. I think they were designed with the idea of transporting coffee, but any load will do.

    French couple on tour

    They told me their names twice and I still forget. They were headed south towards Burundi – their English as poor as my French, of which I seem to have forgotten lots since west and Central African days on The Big Africa Cycle. When the crowd of kids got too much we bid each other bon voyage.

    Waterfall in Rwanda

    I don’t remember the name of the Waterfall – in fact I almost missed it on the road north from Kigali to Uganda. Fortunately it was only a few hundred metres from the road and easy to reach.

    Terraced slopes north from Byumba

    After climbing north from Kigali on the RN3 – one of Rwanda’s super clean paved roads, you reach a small junction town called Byumba with a lovely view north towards Uganda.

    Rwandan school student

    I was as much impressed by this Rwandan boy’s English as I was his motorcycle side-mirror.

    Kabale at dawn

    I am rarely awake and on the road at sunrise, but during the final days of this tour I was on a mission to reach Bukoba in Tanzania in time for work. And so it was that I pedalled out of Kabale shortly before dawn – a good reminder that this is the best time of the day in Africa.

    Katoro: Ugandan breakfast

    Ugandans consume more bananas per head than any other nationality in the World apparently. Katogo is a common breakfast – plantain, beans – and usually offal, the latter fortunately absent here. Great energy for the road.

    Roasted meat and phone charging

    Just one of those random signs that make you laugh and stop.

    Camping above the Kagera River

    Another special camp spot, of which there were many on this tour. The Kagera River is, for want of argument, the source of the Nile. Its headwaters drain from Rwanda and the river itself flows into Lake Victoria. This whole area on the Uganda/Tanzania border had a remoteness to it. My tent was pitched a hundred metres or so above the river, soothingly audible as I fell asleep early after 135km that day, mostly on a dirt track.

    Re-entry to Tanzania

    This was interesting. My GPS and map was telling me I was now on the border of Uganda and Tanzania, but there was no immigration post nor anyone in sight, just a rusted sign showing the distances to various towns ahead. Fortunately I have a Tanzanian residency permit, so wasn’t fussed that my passport wouldn’t be getting a re-enty stamp into Tanzania. Likewise I was never stamped out of Uganda, having paid $50 for a visa when I was only there 36 hours.

    Back in Tanzania I spent the first week dressed in shirt and trousers to attend a training workshop for Secondary School teachers. The plan after this had been to take a ferry from Bukoba back to Mwanza, but it was out of service and so I cycled the remaining 450km.

    Fish soup, chapati and chai

    Breakfast in a village cafe beside Lake Victoria. Fish soup, chapati and spiced tea.

    Young girl and her mother

    On the road from Bukoba to Mwanza.

    School transport

    It’s very common to see 3 or more people on a bicycle taxi in rural Africa.

    Petelol Station

    Rural Africa has lots of makeshift constructions like this selling fuel by the litre in plastic bottles. This however is the first Petelol Station I have seen.

    Timber being transported

    I wouldn’t want to be turning a sharp corner on this bicycle.

    Charcoal transport

    Charcoal is probably the most common source of fuel for cooking in Tanzania. Sacks such as these are transported from rural to urban areas, very frequently on the backs of bicycles.

  • A short tour of Central Africa: Part 2 August 4th, 2013

    Here is the second photo instalment of my recent short cycle tour through Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. I’m back at work in Mwanza now, but planning an adventurous cycle tour in central Africa at the end of this year.

    Crossing from Rwanda into Burundi at the border post of Kayanza. The road was well paved, as were all the roads I cycled on in Burundi. 

     The first sign I passed in Burundi was an enormous billboard promoting a mobile phone company. Most people here live in homes without electricity, but mobile phone towers provide telephone coverage. The same is true throughout much of sub-saharan Africa. 

    The Akanyaru River divides Rwanda from Burundi, ensuring a descent towards and an inevitable climb away from the border. In such a rural location this enormous billboard seemed ridiculously out of place, although I’m sure everyone was happy to have mobile reception. 

    My first night in Burundi was spent camping beside a Police Station. When packing for this tour I was in two minds about whether bringing a tent was necessary, but having it proved valuable on two occasions. Darkness comes quickly in Africa, so rather than listen to local advice that a guest house wasn’t far away (a wildly inaccurate claim) I decided to stop in the first village. As expected there was an audience until Dave and I retired to our tents and said goodnight. In the morning we were up at sunrise and on the road soon after. My MSR Hubba Hubba tent is still going strong after 400+ nights of use. It’s a much more suitable tent in warm weather than the Hillberg that Dave uses.

    I never tire of stopping to appreciate the artistry and character found within some of the local Chinese and Indian bikes in Africa.

    Like Rwanda, Burundi has one of Africa’s highest population densities. There is almost always someone on the roadside. On day 2 in the country I passed a village bursting with colour and activity as a group of women were selling sweet potatoes.

    A group of young boys looked towards me nervously as I stopped to take a photo of the bananas and drums being sold at the roadside.

    Burundian cyclists are a fearless bunch. At any opportunity to save some energy and time they can be found clinging onto the backs of trucks heading into and out of Bujumbura. The main road out of Burundi’s capital ascends from 700m in altitude to over 2200m. Trucks often tow 4 cyclists or more, all of whom ride side-saddle, nonchalantly whizzing past at speeds of over 50km/h. 

    As if holding on to speeding trucks wasn’t dangerous enough, there were also instances of cyclists clinging onto minibuses and cars. 

    The descent towards Bujumbura is the most scenic and exhilarating I have experienced when entering an African capital.

    A number of cyclists carry passengers at over speeds of 60km/hr towards Bujumbura, a descent of around 30km.

    A clean bank note is a rare note in Burundi. Burundian Francs are some of the grubbiest notes issued in Africa. 

    South from Bujumbura a flat road follows the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Beer billboards are as common as those promoting mobile networks.

    Primus is Burundi’s most popular and cheapest bottled beer, but Dave and I agreed that Amstel was far superior.

    Lake Tanganyika is Africa’s longest and deepest lake, dropping to a depth of 1.5km. With waves crashing onto sandy beaches it’s sometimes easy to forget that this is over 1000km away from the sea. 

    I’m always amazed at the loads that are frequently transported by bicycle in Africa.

    Local restaurants are relatively easy to find in Burundi. Palm oil is frequently used in cooking beans and plantain and fresh milk is a popular drink at any time of the day. 

    Perhaps the best meal I had in Burundi was a very simple plate of fish and chips ($4) in the lakeside town of Nyanza Lac (the fish – Sangala was the local name, had probably been caught a few hours earlier). The influence of a Belgian history in Burundi is apparent from the fact that mayonnaise is always available.

    Away from Lake Tanganyika a steep climb awaits (14-15%) ascending from an altitude of 700m to about 1600m.

    A number of Burundians are able to speak Swahili, so I was able to converse in basic conversation with many people at the roadside.

    Tinted glasses seem to be popular in Burundi. When I asked a few people I was told that the lack of vitamins in the diet meant many people had bad eyesight and required glasses. Why tinted glasses I’m not sure. 

    Most of Burundi’s roads are surprisingly paved and blissfully free of traffic. There are also some screamingly steep descents. I clocked 76km/h on one road and Dave hit 84km/h on his fully loaded bike.

    There remains uncertainty as to where exactly the River Nile begins its course (some say Rwanda others Burundi). I doubt there is much information available at either. A broken sign post pointing up a dirt track showed the source to be 26km away from here.

    The condition of saddles probably explains why many people choose to ride their bicycle by sitting on the rear rack, particularly when descending hills. 

    Rambo once was, and still is, a popular figure in Africa. 

    The wall of a Guest House I stayed in one evening was painted with some interesting artwork. 

    Burundi doesn’t see many foreigners, particularly those travelling by bicycle. I found the people welcoming, curious and less demanding than other African countries where calls for money and gifts accompany many interactions.

    African bicycles usually come in just one size, but that doesn’t stop those not big enough trying to ride. 

    Brick kilns are a popular sight on the roadside in Burundi. 

    And how else are most bricks transported from the kiln to town? 

    It was pineapple season when I cycled through Burundi. One pineapple like these pictured cost around (£0.20). Fortunately I had sufficient space to carry at least a few whenever I stopped.  

    My Surly front rack has always been great for transporting fruit. 

    The scenery in Burundi never bored. 

    Like many African borders a river separates Burundi with Tanzania. The border town of Kobero is in the background here. In total I spent just over 1 week in Burundi. 

    Back in north western Tanzania it wasn’t long before the sight of plantain being carried by bicycle greeted me again.

    For the second time on the tour we needed to camp when the sun disappeared and local knowledge proved wildly inaccurate about distances to the next town with a Guest House. I didn’t pack my stove so relied on Dave’s multi-fuel to cook up some basic meals.

    Meat soup is a popular breakfast in Tanzania, but as Dave’s expression shows, a bowl of offal is not really that appetising. 

    Rural roads in Tanzania are mostly free of traffic, but there are some long distances between towns and the cycling can at times be dull. The blue tray strapped to the back of my camping bag is a Primus tray – a small souvenir from Burundi.

    The rock-strewn landscape around Mwanza makes for some good photo backdrops.

    A confident young boy approached me with a head balanced full of bananas. I bought a bunch before he happily posed for the camera.

    A short ferry journey across a southern inlet of Lake Victoria brought us back to Mwanza district.

    Onboard and nearing the end of the tour.

    Approaching Mwanza and what for the time-being is ‘home’. I’m fortunate to have this view on a daily basis as I cycle to work and back alongside the shores of Lake Victoria. Unfortunately there is too much traffic to make it a relaxing ride, and this is the only real scenic stretch. Mwanza is Tanzania’s second largest urban centre, so the tranquil scene pictured here is a little misleading. Nevertheless, it’s a pleasant enough place to be in Africa for a few years. I’m happy to be out on the bike daily – planning another tour and attempting to get back to writing the Big Africa Cycle book.

  • Hold ups: Entering DRC March 8th, 2011

    “A major disadvantage of taking this route is that you must pass through awful customs officials who demand stiff matabribes (bribes) and often delay travellers for hours on end.” (Geoff Crowther: Lonely Planet, Central Africa 1991)

    The information might have been twenty years old, but it was still accurate. In hindsight I’m not sure which was more of a hassle: leaving the Central African Republic, entering the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), or leaving the first town in the DRC? We were, as I feared, delayed for hours.

    Our problems, like many in Africa, could have been resolved with money. A middle-aged woman with a terrible wig, and her younger hot-headed male accomplice expected $7 each for the privilege of having our passports stamped at the immigration shack in Bangui. As normal I politely refused. Time passed. They then telephoned their superior. He arrived, seized our passports, more time passed and he disappeared. We continued to wait. I tried to remain calm by watching the tranquil surface of the Ubangui river behind me, but without my passport worry crept in. Where had it been taken? I called one of the many young men eagerly waiting to ferry us across the Ubangui river to DRC to fetch me a beer. “You drink a beer now?” Hiromu exclaimed. “I’m stressed” I replied.

    Well the beer changed the atmosphere. The woman with the wig and her accomplice naturally expected me to buy them one too. Show and return my passport to me and you’ll get your beer I reluctantly replied. It seemed a fair trade-off. Hiromu decided to donate a stainless steel thermos flask; “Pas Chinois” he stressed. It was one of many gifts that was bestowed on him by his Japanese contacts in Bangui.

    Two hours later we were off – loading the bikes into a motorised pirogue and crossing the river. With so many eager oarsmen and so few people crossing the river here bargaining for a cheap fare was in our favour. But then came round 2.

    What made the officer in charge at the immigration post in Zongo so angry I’m not sure. We sat silent as he delivered a 20-minute long soliloquy on DRC and the formalities of entering and travelling through the country. At first I couldn’t take him seriously. His face looked like it had been treated with some kind of whitening cream, which made his cheeks shine with a chestnut gloss. Was this man real or a wax-work? His waistline matched his level of importance, but I sensed even before he refused to shake my hand that we were in for a long round.

    We were to pay $50 each to enter DRC on the basis that if he were to visit Europe he would have to do the same. I politely pointed out that this was not true. ‘Was I challenging his word?’ he retorted. “Have you visited England?” I asked.

    The sparring continued for sometime, but in French I do a better job of looking dumb and innocent than providing a coherent and comprehensible challenge to the authority of Francophone bureaucracy.

    “You are corrupt” I told him. “Your country has a bad reputation because of people like you. You are the first person people meet when they enter DRC and look what impression you are creating”. I continued using this thread with French dictionary in hand. He disappeared and time passed.

    It was now almost sunset and our passports were back in the hands of the chap who’d previously spent 20 minutes examining each one. The DRC is the 19th country I’ve visited with this passport. For Hiromu it is 30-something. We have a lot of stamps and visas and he studied each one like it were a complex equation that needed solving before turning the page. Well now he was reaching for the ink-pad and providing the entry stamps that we needed. This wasn’t the script as I foresaw it. Weren’t we meant to plead and offer a lower sum? The shiny-faced shit had obviously exhausted his efforts and disappeared. Had this all been a game to scare us?

    I too was exhausted and I’d only cycled 6km since leaving the Guest House in Bangui 7 hours previously. But we weren’t quite in the clear. Someone who’d been lingering around the immigration shack like a hungry puppy now pursued us and said he was from the Zongo Tourist Bureau. He pointed at a non-descript concrete block. I laughed. A tourist office in Zongo, DRC? With what remaining ounce of politeness I had left I kindly said we’d finished for the day and ignored him.

    We spent the night at the Catholic Mission in Zongo. It was an oasis of tranquility to pitch the tents on lush grass in an orchard of mango and avocado trees. The white-bearded Italian priest said he’d been in Zongo 15 years and in the country 46. Nothing was said about the problems we’d encountered at the immigration office a few kilometres away. I’m sure he knew, or rather didn’t want to involve himself in any dealings with two foreigners who’d arrived unannounced. I was grateful he’d given us permission to camp with the mission compound.

    The problems continued the next day. FBI would you believe? They found us drinking coke in the market. We’d previously just taken breakfast there (rice and beans) and quickly discovered from all the name-calling that both Jet Li and The Transporter are equally as famous in DRC as they are in CAR. Word had obviously spread quickly that there were two foreigners in town.

    Naturally we had no reason to believe these plain-clothed chaps without ID were anything close to who they said they were. So we pedalled off. Five minutes later they caught us up on motorbikes. We stopped, showed photocopies of our passports and asked to see their ID whilst a large crowd of locals gathered. They produced no ID, so off we pedalled again. They followed, motored ahead to what was clearly a check-post at the end of the town and returned. It was quite obvious we would not be leaving this town. Finally someone arrived with a badge. It wasn’t much more convincing, but there was confirmation that registration at their office was ‘gratuit’, so we reluctantly turned back to the town escorted by several motorbikes.

    The Director of this so-called FBI office spoke English. He wanted to know my mission. I showed him my magic letter, plus my ‘Ordre De Mission’, which puts me as ‘chef’ of ‘The Big Africa Cycle’, explains in brief about the Against Malaria Foundation, and gives me authority to travel throughout all provinces of DRC. It would seem this Ordre de Mission, that I wrote myself, is a vital piece of armour for lessening the problems one encounters when travelling through the DRC. To say one is a tourist is not sufficient. “And where is your Ordre De Mission?” the Director asked Hiromu. “He’s my assistant” I explained, as Hiromu tried to provide a convincing explanation to why he was in the DRC.

    Forms were filled out with our passport details and thumb-prints. This was indeed official, I think, and I felt a little foolish for not knowing so in the first place. There was no call for a bribe. “Tell your men to carry ID next time” I told the Director. It would have saved us all several hours.

    Finally we pedalled out of Zongo under the midday sun. Had there been jungle there might have been shade. Instead an open rolling expanse of green hills and waist-high elephant grass provided my first scenes of the DRC – Africa’s third largest country, or to put things in perspective, a country 77 times larger than its former colonial ruler – Belgium.

    The red laterite track was easy going at first, and we shared it with many other cyclists. Let me introduce you to the Congo bicycle. It is to this country what trucks are to most others. People transport enormous loads on these reinforced Chinese antiques and cover huge distances. Motorbikes are rare and 4-wheel motorised transport even rarer. Bicycles represent the economic lifeline of commerce in rural DRC, which is as good an example as one needs to illustrate the state of infrastructure here. The loads transported on these single-speeds make my 25-30kg of luggage look like I’m going out for a day cycle. For example, two 50kg bags of maize will commonly be purchased in the town of Gemena for 20,000 Congolese Francs ($22), loaded onto the back of a bicycle and pushed/pedalled/freewheeled (depending on the topography – fortunately mostly flat) some 240km to the town of Zongo, where it will be sold for around 25,000 Congolese Francs ($27). This is a round trip journey of 4-5 days for a back-breaking profit of $5. Other common items being transported along these jungle tracks include palm oil, petrol, groundnuts, and seasonal fruits (lots of avocados at the moment).

    Congo cyclist

    And so really the bicycle is the perfect form of transport for an outsider to truly see the Congo. Where there is a broken iron bridge, of which there are two within the first 80km from Zongo, it presents no problem for a bicycle. Should one want a conversation in French, or an opportunity to learn some Lingala, there will be no shortage of willing candidates on the road with you.

    The problems for the outsider in the DRC are the authorities, whoever they may be. Petty police in ragged uniforms occasionally stopped us on the road. They were usually drunk – the little money they did have would have been used to buy whatever cheap alcohol was available (palm or casava wine). With the usual patience and firm but polite refusal to hand over money we would be on our way again, perhaps in exchange for a few cigarettes. The bigger problems exist in the larger towns. Men claiming to be from an immigration or security bureau wish that foreigners register their details with them and pay. It is unnecessary, and merely an opportunity for them to present something official and then expect payment.

    In the town of Libenge we reluctantly paid the $4 each for this process. To have made a fuss would have been embarrassing. We had been taken to this immigration office by nuns from the Catholic mission where we were staying. It seems that towns throughout the Congo have missions dating from the colonial period, which are about the only colonial enterprises still functioning.

    Libenge sits on the banks of the Ubangui river and at one time was perhaps a thriving and prosperous place. Direct flights used to connect the town with Brussels, and along many of the mango-lined avenues can be found street lights. These, like most things that depend on electrical power have not been working for decades. And so the colonial buildings and rusted remains of long-abandoned trucks and machines sit like ghostly reminders of another era.

    Were it not for the small population of people who survive here the town would have been swallowed by the jungle. Once we left the mission and pedalled out the track narrowed to become little more than shoulder-width wide. There were lots of villages out here, one-hut deep from the jungle, and they often stretched for many kilometres with no discernible centre. Few contained anything for sale beyond bananas, groundnuts and manioc, and finding fresh water wasn’t always easy.

    Bamboo jungle

    On my map Gemena looked like the first real town of any size. Well I guess it is. There is an airport here providing direct flights to Kinshasa twice a week. But the streets and pace of life are more like a village than a city. We’ve sought refuge in the Catholic Mission again (not sure there is even a hotel) which almost guarantees the authorities can’t come knocking on the door, or tent as is the case (the mission charge $25 per night for a basic room). South from here lies the town of Lisala, where with a bit of luck and perhaps patience I might be able to find a barge heading up the Congo River towards Kisangani.

    Congo truck

  • Talking gear: 10,000km in June 30th, 2010

    Half-way to Cape Town yet? Unless I start pedalling a much straighter route, which is usually far less fun, I can confidently say no. Guinea Bissau, where my speedometer ticked over 10,000km recently, does not appear to be equal distance from England and South Africa. The distance I’ve come does however provide a good opportunity to review the gear that’s got me here. What has lasted, been replaced or sent home. It’s not an exhaustive critique, and if the words Rolhoff, Schwalbe and Ortlieb appear all too unpronounceable, you may wish to stop reading now.

    The Big Africa Cycle

    Thorny

    Best to start with the bike. There’s not much to say, other than I’m very content. Apart from a broken front spoke and the occasional clicking from the bottom bracket (any suggestions?) my Thorn Raven has proven steadfast and strong. The rims miraculously show no signs of wear and I’ve yet to change the ceramic brake-pads. The Rolhoff hub hums along after an oil change 5000km ago and all cables seem fine. Yes its heavy (about 16.5kg with the tyres I have, racks, kickstand, 1m long chain lock and that hub) but I’m not trying to break a speed record. I re-oil and occasionally tighten the chain whenever it sags. A simple procedure done by turning the bottom bracket. Unless someone would like to advise me otherwise, the chain receives minimal wear and should last a good while longer?

    Tyres

    Somewhere in southern Morocco I switched the rear Schwalbe XR tyre to the front when it developed a small split in the wall. This will develop, but I’m optimistic both tyres will last several thousand more kms+. A great shame they’ve been discontinued. If I can get hold of some more I’ll continue to use them, otherwise their replacement Extremes.

    Racks

    Thorn’s expedition rear rack shows no wear and offers plenty of space for my camping bag. Some of you may have noticed the blue dry-bag on the rear rack has replaced the much larger black Ortlieb one I started the journey with. I swapped this with Jon in Senegal. With an 80L capacity it was too big for Africa. This blue bag fits my tent, sleeping bag and thermarest and is a much more compact set-up. The tent poles neatly strap on one of the rear panniers.

    As for the Surly front rack, it provides an enormous and useful amount of space to bungee extra water bottles, flip flops (essential kit for African bucket-showers!) and any other gear that may be needed quickly. The rack may be a little heavy compared to other front racks, but it feels as solid and strong as it looks.

    Mrs Brooks

    My Brooks B17 saddle is now well broken-in and for the most part comfortable. Keeping it dry now that the rains have started isn’t easy, and I’m not sure tan-coloured shoe-polish is what Brooks would recommend me using, but it brings out a nice mahogany shine when I give her a polish. Non-cyclists and those who’ve never ridden a Brooks often think the solid leather is uncomfortable. The fact is unlike many synthetic-manufactured saddles the leather breathes, and once you’ve broken her in its a bit like giving up a pair of well-worn walking boots. I’m also of the opinion that a Brooks saddle adds a touch of class.

    Kickstand

    On my last tour I went through at least half a dozen kick-stands. They were those cheap Chinese -manufactured spring stands you see on many mass-produced bikes. This double legged-one is far stronger. The only occasional problem is that I possibly cut the metal a little short so that it has trouble holding itself on soft ground.

    Panniers

    My roll-top Ortlieb panniers show no signs of weakness and stay firmly fastened on to the racks. If I was to make a suggestion to Ortlieb it would be to sew in a mesh pocket to the rear of the front panniers. They seem to have successfully done this with the handlebar bag I have and managed to keep it waterproof. The pockets would come in handy for road-snacks, extra water bottles and stuffing things away.

    Water filter

    A short while ago I received an e-mail asking about the travel tap that appears on my equipment page. I decided to send it home. I found the bottle had to be squeezed very hard for the water to be filtered through, so it wasn’t like using a regular water bottle. In order for it to be effective it also has to be dried out after each use, which is just a hassle. I found it was sitting in one of my panniers for months. When I am concerned about the safety of the water to drink I have a number of sterilising tablets. I think the travel tap has it’s place in an emergency, but I’m not walking off into the wilderness and needing to collect my water from stagnant ditches and ponds.

    Camp gear

    My tent needs to pass through the rainy season before I give it a better review, but to be honest I don’t think any tent will keep you really dry in a prolonged African downpour with strong winds. I’m not talking about the tent leaking, more the fact that your belongings will become damp. I’ve pitched the tent over 100 times now. The poles remain strong, the full mesh inner is perfect in hot weather and the tent has no flaws in it other than a small hole that needs duck-taping on the flysheet. This was caused by it rubbing against the inside of a wall when I slept in an abandoned building in the western Sahara. Why MSR have chosen yellow for the flysheet and not a more sensible colour like green or blue I don’t know. The manufacturers probably weren’t thinking of people wanting to wild-camp and be discreet. Jon, who cycled with me in Senegal, was using a one-man hubba hubba. Exactly the same, but half the size. He was able to fit his gear within the vestibule, but it was a tight fit. Personally I would never tour with anything less than a two-man tent. Considering how much time I will stay in it, for an extra kg, I prefer to have the space.

    I’ve kept hold of my down-sleeping bag, although could possibly make do with the silk-liner that I’ve only used several times. The latter weighs 100g so I’m not fussed about this. Despite the heat and humidity there have been occasions when I require the warmth of the down, such as recently in the mountains of northern Guinea. Up in the High Atlas mountains in December I was camping at temperatures below freezing. Bringing a down with a temperature rating of 0C was a good choice.

    As for the Thermarest, it is the same one that was given to me by a Dutch woman in a hostel in Estafan, Iran, back in 2007. I think she felt sorry for me when she saw me having trouble repairing the one I set off with from Japan. This one has been punctured and successfully repaired twice, and despite the hassle of having to blow it up (why it is called self-inflatable I don’t know) it is often more comfortable to sleep on than a number of hotel beds I’ve found myself on.

    Equally important camping-wise is my inflatable pillow. Some people choose to bundle their clothes together into a bag, but I consider my 5-Euro Decathlon head-rest to be money well-spent.

    Another Decathlon product frequently used is the camping chair, kindly donated by Tim when he returned from Morocco. This draws much applause and occasionally envy from Africans who have no idea what it is until I sit on it. When not in use its home is strapped down on top of one of the rear panniers.

    Cooking-wise I continue to use the Primus Omnifuel that was with me for the remaining 6 months of my last tour. It’s currently running white-gas, another of Jon’s donations, which is clean and efficient, but any time soon I will be filling the fuel can with dirty African petrol. This will require the stove’s jet to be cleaned frequently. I’m using it less often at the moment as I find myself either eating cheap street food (invariably rice with manioc or some sauce) or sharing meals with people. I do carry filter coffee and when alone often boil up water in the morning for a cup. The filter coffee has its home in the tupperware box that also holds camera-film canisters of salt, pepper, mixed spices and at one time olive oil.

    The Coleman cooking pots I set off with have proved adequate size (2.0L and 1.5L) for boiling pasta in or mixing vegetables. In Morocco I picked up a small frying pan – perfect for fried eggs and omelets.

    Clothes

    Are there any other tourers who manage without a towel or a pair of underpants? Now that I no longer need to use my buff headwear as a neck-scarf, I find it makes a good towel. I don’t think Buff markets this as one of the dozen ways in which they can be used. As for underpants, when I’m cycling I alternate between wearing one of the two pairs of padded shorts I have, over the top of which I have my baggy blue altura’s – faded but still strong. Up top I’m wearing the cycle-jersey, as modelled in recent pictures. The Craghopper shirts (2 short sleeve, 1 long sleeve) and trousers that were kindly donated are still going strong and worn off the bike. As is the wonderful Tilley hat. I have no doubt I would still be wearing the first one if the machete-wielding savages hadn’t taken off with it. It’s on my head almost all day everyday. As the label inside the hat rightly states ‘THE FINEST IN ALL THE WORLD’. Even if it is only a hat, I love my Tilley. Perhaps there is a reader who will share my enthusiasm?

    Washing the clothes I do by hand. I don’t envisage seeing a machine for a long time. For this the Ortlieb 10L wash bowl has come in handy, although on many occasions I end up using a bowl or bucket when staying in a hotel.

    On my feet I still have the same Karrimor sandles I set off in. They have been repaired more than a dozen times and the soles are wearing very thin. I shall continue to wear, repair and cycle in these until it is no longer possible. They blend in rather well with the condition of most peoples’ footwear here. If I was ever to replace them with a decent pair it would only solicit many requests for me to give them away as a gift.

    I recently purchased a pair of flip-flops. Now these make for essential gear in Africa. You do not wish to take a bucket-shower (I have not had a shower with running water since leaving Senegal and don’t anticipate having one soon) in Africa without wearing flip-flops. They weigh next to nothing, happily strap onto the front rack and get worn at the end of the day.

    As for the cross-trainer/trekking shoes I used to wear in the mountains of Morocco, they reside at the bottom of one of my panniers along with a single pair of socks. They may not have had a huge amount of use in recent months, but if I ever do some serious trekking or my sandles totally fail on me it is worth keeping hold of them.

    All the real cold-weather clothes – fleece jacket, gloves, thermal underwear and hat I sent home. Now what does that leave? Waterproofs. Ironically I’m in two minds whether to keep them. Wearing them in the rain under such humidity would be like wearing a boiler suit. I would pour with sweat. I do envisage being so soaked to the skin and possibly cold that putting them on dry after seeking shelter may not be a bad thing.

    Electronics

    My Asus netbook continues to withstand bumps and heat and offers superb battery-life. I keep it in a neoprene sleeve, over which goes a plastic zip-lock and several layers of bubble-wrap. It slots into one of the pouches that Ortlieb have incorporated in the inside of their panniers.

    The Nikon D90 camera and Panasonic Lumix compact stay in my handlebar bag. I alternate between using both, but rarely like to display the two at the same time. The compact gorilla-pod tripod is a fraction of the weight and size of the Velkon model I set off with, although I do at times miss having the height from the legs. It has a home in the top of one of my front panniers and is easily reached.

    In a separate bag I keep an audio-recorder, small radio, separate camera lens and a number of chargers. Besides the latter, each of these hardly get any use. Tuning-in to BBC World Service is proving impossible for some reason. I do envisage being surrounded by new and evocative sounds, for which the audio device would be useful. I already am. The truth is my mind is usually thinking through the camera lens rather than through my ears. As for the camera lens, it’s a small 50mm fixed focal length. If I intend to use it, which as I write this I feel I will, it should find a home in my handlebar bag.

    Sitting un-used for much of the time in the inside sleeve of a front pannier is my Freeloader Solar charger. I did use it on occasion in the desert, but never found that if offered the full charge to both my mobile phone and Ipod that it promised. Perhaps it wasn’t receiving enough direct light. Rarely do I go so long without some electrical source (generators dominate in countries where there is no national grid) that the battery of my phone dies on me. At some point in the future I may need it, but I wouldn’t list it as an essential piece of kit.

    I think I’ve almost covered the entire contents of my bags, other than the maps, books and first-aid kit. I have the two main Michelin maps for North West Africa and Central/Southern Africa, plus country maps as far as Ghana. Several times over the past 10 months I’ve debated whether a GPS would be useful. On a few occasions it would have been, but to be honest I’m much more enthused to look at a map than a little screen, and unless I pre-programmed data into the GPS I don’t think I would get any detail, other than the location of rivers, the sea and possibly land borders? I already feel I’ve gone over-kill on the technology front as it is.

    As for books, I try to ensure I have several with me. I recently finished The Poisonwood Bible and am about to re-read Things Fall Apart. Two volumes of Somerset Maugham’s Short Stories (so good I’m also reading a second time) and Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps await my attention. Oh, and I also have a French Dictionary, which should have received more use than it currently has.

    Fortunately for the moment my First Aid Kit only gets opened once a week. This is to swallow one of those foul tasting Larium tablets. I did intend to use Doxyclyclone as an anti-malarial, but taking them daily seems tedious so I’m keeping them as an anti-biotic. Besides, I believe Larium is stronger and supposedly provides more interesting dreams.

    The only thing I’m forgetting is my weapon. He resides in a small wooden box and frightens the life out of any African who attempts to release him. If I can record on film the reaction of an African when he/she sees a snake you will see what I mean. He was kindly given to me by my English hosts in The Gambia. I think they picked him up from one of those snake charmers in Marrakesh.

    Secret weapon 

    Ok, this post is far longer than I intended it to be, and re-reading it when I take stock of my surroundings here in Guinea seems somewhat self-indulgent. I’m attempting to travel light and simply, but many of the people I meet on the road have little more material wealth than the clothes on their back. Most of my belongings are entirely alien and unattainable to them. I’ve often wondered what the reaction of many people would be if they knew the value of my bicycle. Probably collapse in a fit of laughter and tell me I could have bought 4 motorbikes instead.  The difference is I can choose and they can’t. I was born in a different World, and frequently imagine as I pedal past all those other lives what it would be like to have grown up in this one. The fact that much of Africa is poorer now than it was 50 years ago seems absurd. I remember passing a sign in The Gambia that read ‘The development of a country depends on its leaders and own people’ and thinking how very true. Yes, the mosquito nets I ask people to donate money for help. The effect is tangible and its a worthwhile cause, like many charitable missions, but a short-term solution and drop in the ocean when pitched against the many other problems that make countries like Guinea one of the poorest in the World. The answer and solution has to come from within the countries themselves.

    It’s a relevant topic with the Presidential elections that have just taken place here, but I’m diverging from the original purpose of this post onto something far different.  This is a gear review. If you have a comment, about anything mentioned here, please post it, although I’m not sure when I’ll next have Internet.