• Around the Green Isle: Pemba October 5th, 2011

    Nowadays everything is kept secret from the Europeans, and even those who have spent most of their lives in the country have only now and then discovered hints of the wide, infinitely ramified cult which still flourishes below the surface. (Evelyn Waugh)

    Not many people make it to Pemba, which is half the charm of this mountainous island. Arabic traders in former centuries referred to it as ‘Al khudra’ – the Green Island, and it’s easy to see why. It is as lush as a tropical destination at 4° degrees south of the equator could be.

    Were neighbouring Zanzibar not to exist, surely more foreigners would make their way here. For those that do, diving dominates the scene. Like the safari and the climb up Mt Kilimanjaro, a diving package doesn’t come all that cheap, but then cheap holidays if you’re coming to east Africa for a short time and want to make the most of it, are a rarity. Budget travellers like me make do with the snorkelling.

    Through Ngezi Forest

    I spent most of my time during the week there hanging out at a place far beyond my budget, which I can only but recommend. The dive owner had also travelled extensively through Africa before making Pemba his home. His guests were naturally here for the diving, and most had flown in.

    Blue blue blue

    Paradise on Pemba

    The island didn’t take long to cycle around. The roads are as equally well-paved as those on Zanzibar, but here one gets the pleasure of smelling cloves – pretty much everywhere! Alongside fishing, clove farming dominates the local economy. Roadsides are lined in rattan mats covered with the small pungent spice.

    Cloves drying

    Pemba is reportedly an east Africa hub for voodoo and traditional medicine, but mzungus who only speak a smattering of Swahili are not likely to witness anything. What is noticeable is how much more conservative the island is. Zanzibar’s mostly Muslim population gets diluted with Tanzanians coming from the mainland to work, and of course all the tourists. Pemba on the other had is all skull-caps, beards,  hijabs and the occasional burqa. I was warned not to go to a few villages as they disliked outsiders and I might have stones thrown at me. There was also some speculation that these same villages had allowed Somali Pirates to refuel. It didn’t make the island any less friendly,but I felt a bit more naked cycling in shorts.

    Runaway girls

    What I saw was a densely vegetated, peaceful and charming place. Want to see tradtitional swahili culture – come here. Not many beaches, but there is only so much white sand you can see before they start to lose their appeal. I’m back on Zanzibar (Unguju as they technically call it) for a few days now before returning to the mainland, hopefully by way of a dhow that doesn’t have an engine. It’s all about the slow travel of course.

    Pemba map

    Sailfish on a bicycle

    Girls on Tumbe beach

    Carrying the catch

    Tumbe fisherman

    Young girls in Tumbe

    Dhows off Tumbe beach

  • Forts and fishing boats September 29th, 2010

    Ten years ago I might have taken the room, but cramped dormitories with narrow beds and the aroma of half-a-dozen young men sleeping off a hangover have less appeal these days. I happily paid the extra Cedi (less than $1) and found a single room away from the beach. Welcome to Cape Coast, capital of the Central region of Ghana and one of the country’s major tourist destinations.

    The ride here was described to me as lovely, but lethal. It was neither, although I wished I’d had metal hands to slam through the window of  a taxi that pulled over in front of me shortly after leaving Takoradi. There is only one coastal road and it is busy.

    Ghana’s coast is littered with a dark history. Between the 16th and 19th Century Thousands of slaves were held in forts along the coast here awaiting transportation to the Americas. Taking a tour of the forts at Elmina and Cape Coast and listening to  how your fellow countrymen were involved in what must be one of the greatest human atrocities in history is a moving experience. The French, Portuguese, Dutch, Danes and Swedes all had a hand in it too I might add. Fortunately the fanti fishing boats, which also dominate the coast, provide a colouful distraction.

    The plan was to leave today, but last night I received a call from Hiromu, the Japanese cyclist I met in Morocco eight months ago. He called to say he would be arriving in Cape Coast today. Hurrah!

    Never again: Slave depiction, Elmina

    Slave Castle: Elmina

    Slave cell

    Canons on Cape Coast Castle

    Cape Coast fishing fleet

    Waiting for the catch

    Sleepy Sunday

  • When force matters September 25th, 2010

    In the end it required four of us to remove it. I’d struggled for two hours previously with an adjustable spanner in one hand and chain whip in the other and got no-where. I was in danger of doing myself an injury. The advice I’d been told about removing my bike’s rear sprocket was true. The thing wouldn’t budge without tremendous force. Two men held the wheel, another the spanner and the biggest of the four of us thrust down on the chain-whip. It finally gave and I unscrewed the dagger-edged piece from the hub.

    Replacing it was much easier. I made sure I greased the sprocket thread. In another 5000km or so I’ll remove and reverse it. Or need I do it so soon? Had I read my Thorn manual and done this with the first sprocket I might have prolonged its life. It now dangles from my handlebar bag as a kind of souvenir come weapon/African juju. Together with a new chain, front chain-ring, oil change in the hub and two new tyres I’m all set to continue into Central Africa. I’m even carrying spare tyres, which I rarely do, but these are special and were donated by a generous reader.

    Abidjan would have been very expensive if I hadn’t been given the keys to the apartment of a friend. Across the road in this peaceful suburban area was a supermarket stocked with imported food-goods. People shopping here had plenty of money to spend. Most items were twice the price they’d be found for in Europe, but it was hard to resist a little fromage, pate and vin rouge.

    After collecting my Ghanian visa I left Abidjan and headed to Grand Bassam. The French settled here first when they arrived in Cote d’ Ivoire and a number of colonial buildings, many in ruinous states, survive from that era.

    Grand Bassam

    Sunset paddle

    I visited and spoke to students at an International University here. I’m sure I was something of a curiosity, but don’t think I inspired any of these privileged individuals do undertake something of a similar nature. Anyone with status or money doesn’t ride a bicycle in Africa. One of them asked what the most striking thing was I’d seen in their country. I told them the destruction of their natural environment. “What about the women”? another asked. I confessed they were much better preserved. Cote d’ Ivoire ranks with Senegal in this regard.

    My bike was clean until I arrived in Ghana. When the tarmac ended beside a stretch of French holiday homes some 60km east of Grand Bassam I loaded the bike onto a wooden boat. This was effectively the end of the road in Cote d’ Ivoire, but the border post with Ghana was another 20km away down a sandy track. “Pas possible”, declared the locals when I said I would cycle it. They were right. You can only cycle on sand when it’s compact. So I waited for the tide to turn and sat with an elderly man tending a herd of goats behind the beach. He said he was originally from Niger and beamed a large smile when the Voice of America broadcast a show in Hausa on his small radio. I left him when the tide had sufficiently dropped enough and followed the palm-fringed beach with the sun at my back towards the border.

    Lagoon crossing