• And the winner goes to… A year in reflection December 31st, 2010

    I started the year learning to surf in Morocco and I’m finishing it drinking a lot of beer in Cameroon. Between then I’ve crossed 14 countries in Africa and cycled about 12,000km, collecting more than a few stories along the way. Here is a review of some of the highlights, lowlights and other interesting observations from my year on the road. If there is a category you’d like to add please post a comment to let me know. Happy New year.

    Most atmospheric place: Harper, Liberia. A town full of war-ravaged buildings, surrounded by beautiful palm-fringed beaches.

    North from Harper

    Country I’d most like to return to: Nigeria. Forget the bad reputation, Nigeria is the India of Africa in my opinion. Big, overpopulated, ethnically rich, full of positive energy and immensely rewarding for those adventurous enough to explore it.

    Worst day of the year: March 13th. I was mugged by 5 men in Dakar, Senegal, who slashed my left wrist and left foot with a machete as I attempted and failed to prevent them taking off with my camera and day-sack. Just in case you’re wondering – the foot slash was minor and I was back on my feet walking fine within a week. The injury to my wrist was much more serious as 4 tendons were severed and required stitching together. There remains a slight stiffness, but no real discomfort. I probably ought to have done and ought to continue doing more physiotherapy as I don’t have the same degree of flexibility in my left wrist as I do in my right, but all things considered recovery has been good. No point in adding the category – ‘Place I’d least like to return to’.

    Machete wounds

    Most popular day of traffic to this website: The day I posted an account of the above. Almost 2500 hits, which goes to show bad news travels quickly.

    Worst roads: Leaving Nigeria and entering Cameroon. Steep, full of large rocks, deep gullies and impossible to cycle on.

    Most hassle at a border: Crossing from Guinea-Sierra Leone. Immigration told me the border was closed until the country decided on its new President. I’d have been there for months if that was true. I crossed without paying the bribe.

    Most beautiful women: Senegal and Ivory Coast. Pity my French is poor.

    Least ‘African’ feeling place: Abuja, Nigeria. Clean, well-paved roads and a sterile, but relaxing oasis from the ‘real’ Africa.

    Easiest place to get a beer: Cameroon, which might also be one of the World’s easiest place to get a beer, just don’t assume it will be cold.

    Hardest place to get a beer: Mauritania, unless you’re lucky enough to be staying with ex-pats who like drinking because there is very little else to do when you live in a city like Nouakchott.

    Best place to drink a beer: Overlooking Bakau fish market in The Gambia. Dozens of boats off-loading the day’s catch, which is then sorted and sold beneath you.

    Friendliest country to spend time in: Ghana, followed or possibly matched by Sierra Leone. Kindest, most (on the whole) non-aggressive and generally sincerest people in west Africa.

    Swamped

    Country with the best beaches: Sierra Leone. Unspoilt, palm-fringed and clean white sands.

    Beach in Sulima

    Most generous donation to Against Malaria Foundation: £1450 from American International School of Nouakchott, Mauritania. A great effort for a small school.

    Best ‘African’ food: Senegal and Ivory Coast: Fresh baguettes, good grilled fish/meat and a Francophone mentality that generally dictates ‘quality’ to be more important than quantity.

    Worst ‘African’ food: Sierra Leone and Liberia. The nation seems to survive on rice and cassava leaf with a bit of fish or unidentifiable bush meat thrown in if you’re lucky.

    Lunchtime

    Best ‘on the road’ refreshment/snack: Fresh coconuts along the coast in any country.

    Biggest disappointment: Finding that the jungles of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast have mostly been destroyed.

    Most frequently asked question: Are you not afraid of wild animals?

    Most colourfully dressed people: Togo and Benin. Everyone wears bright wax-cotton cloth.

    Best sleeping place: One of many nights out in the Sahara under the stars.

    Saharan star-gazing

    Worst sleeping place: In an abandoned building in the Sahara full of dry human excrement. I was trying to hide from the wind with little success.

    Desert camp

    Biggest relief: Finding my passport two days after leaving it in a room I stayed in within The Gambia.

    Most historically interesting/moving place: Slave Castles of Ghana, particularly at Cape Coast and Elmina. Shame on my ancestors and all other European powers in Africa.

    Never again: Slave depiction, Elmina

    Most used/valued piece of kit: My trustworthy Tilley hat

    Dune-scape

    Least used piece of kit: My Solar charger. I’m rarely away from a power source for long enough to warrant using it, although it’s lightweight and packs easily so I’m holding onto it just in case.

    Solar power

    Best new piece of kit: X-mini speaker. Sound beyond size as the logo says and it fits snugly between bottle cage and my handlebar bag. Nothing like a bit of Led Zeppelin blasting out on a tough road.

    Best books read: The Poisonwood Bible: Mary Kingsolver, French Lessons in west Africa: Peter Biddlecombe and The Grass is Singing: Doris Lessing.

    Most common on-the-road thought: Do I write a book when I finish this journey? There are a few stories/characters I don’t write about here.

  • North of the Niger November 21st, 2010

    Crossing big rivers in boats with holes in never feels very reassuring. As the water seeps through the wooden hull and runs to the stern of the overloaded vessel you look for signs of alarm from your fellow passengers. There is none. They sit motionless whilst one boy frantically bails out bucketfuls of brown water from Africa’s third largest river.

    The first time I saw the Niger River was in Guinea, a short distance from its origin in the Fouta Djjalon mountains. Here the channel was less than 20 metres wide. Fast forward several thousand kilometres and now it was over 1km in breadth, a silent expanse of dormant energy making its way to troubled regions further south.

    All aboard

    Small roads had brought me to the town of Pategi, which sits on the southern bank of the Niger River and probably sees few visitors. It is on the road to nowhere important, although apparently hosts an annual regatta. I had been told there was a government-run ferry on the river, but like many state-controlled businesses it was not in operation. Unless I headed 100km upstream and took the bridge, a leaky motorised canoe was the only way to reach the northern shore.

    When we arrived at the other side some twenty minutes later the water-baler looked exhausted. ‘Good job‘, I felt like saying, or ‘you really tried’, as Nigerians like to exclaim. There was no road, so I followed the other passengers, many of which had loaded their motorbikes onto the canoe. A narrow track cut through lush green rice fields and there was not a sign of concrete in sight.

    Bike boys

    I was now in Niger state, Nigeria’s largest, which feels a long way from the Yoruba dominated south. Keeping track of changes in ethnicity and language in Nigeria is not easy. There are something like 400. What is obvious is the stronger Islamic influence as you head north; more mosques, more women in headscarves, and lots of goats and sheep at the roadside awaiting slaughter for the forthcoming Muslim holiday. Towns also seem more relaxed. Less of the aggressive calls for attention or the dizzying density of traffic. Savannah grasses start to replace the thick bush of the coastal belt and the temperature  climbs.

    Why was I heading north in Nigeria when I’m riding my bicycle to South Africa? Other than wanting to avoid the environs of Lagos and the busy coastal states, I needed to visit Abuja, which for those who don’t know (I didn’t until several months ago) is Nigeria’s capital. It’s also a capital city like no other I’ve visited in Africa.

    Zuma rock and road to Abuja

  • At the bamboo border July 14th, 2010

    Leaving Guinea required some patience. The border was closed, at least according to one immigration officer. I found him lying on a wooden bench under the shade of a mango tree. Several metres away a bamboo pole acted as a barrier across the dirt track. This was the end of the road for Guinea. And whilst the country waited to hear the results of its Presidential elections I apparently would not be allowed to cross into Sierra Leone.

    Several hundred metres back, beyond the ramshackle dwellings and stalls that made up this border town of Heremakono, the immigration Police seemed only to happy to bid me bon voyage and provide an exit stamp in my passport. Why was I now being told the border was closed?

    I decided to sit down, pull out my journal and wait. After an hour passed I started to wonder if there was an element of truth in this explanation. Perhaps there was. Much more likely is that I was probably expected to have lost my patience and settled on the African way of getting things done – pay a bribe. There was only an hour left of light in the day and 10km of no-mans land on a muddy track lay towards the border with Sierra Leone.

    I was contemplating either a bribe or finding somewhere to sleep in the town when it appeared that the novelty of this tight-fisted white man with his bicycle must have worn off. The nod came and the bamboo pole was lowered.

    I had anticipated something like this after leaving Labe several days previously. The elections had fortunately passed quietly, but a military presence remained clearly evident on the road. Instead I found nothing but a continuation of waves and greetings in Fula as the road undulated through the green forested hills of the Fouta Djalon. Forested is perhaps not the right description. Many of the slopes have been cleared for cultivation and firewood, thereby leaving a wasteland of slashed tree-trunks. Unless land is placed under some National Park status or given special protection, people living in palm-thatched huts with no other source to cook their food are given a free reign to hack away at the vegetation around them. Guinea is no different from dozens of other poor countries in this regard.

    Road to Southern Guinea 

    Returning home from the fields 

    Once I dropped out of the Fouta Djalon mountains the road diverged in two directions – right on what I guessed would be an increasingly busy road towards the coast and the capital, Conakry, and left towards the south of the country. Conakry sounded as appealing and scenic as Dakar, and given the uncertain political situation and the fact that I had no need to go there, the decision wasn’t very difficult to make.

    Two days later I was at the border and back on a dirt track, making my time in Guinea shorter than I’d originally thought. I’d by-passed the waterfalls the guidebook had made much mention of, but I wanted to be involved in the distribution of mosquito nets that was taking place in the south of Sierra Leone. First there was Freetown to contend with.

    Goodbye Guinea 

    As I write this Guinea is yet to announce it’s new President. No candidate won a clear enough margin of votes, thereby necessitating a second round of voting.

     

     

  • A vote for Guinea June 27th, 2010

    Greetings from Guinea. This post, like the previous one, has been written from my hotel room in the town of Labe. There is Internet connection here, albeit very slow, which is the first I’ve come across since leaving Bissau two weeks ago. Not in the hotel I should note. I’m surprised there is even electricity. There isn’t much of the time. My room and the rest of the hotel give the impression that there have been very few people staying here in recent months. It has that musty airless smell of an attic. If there ever was a cleaner, he or she has not been working for a while. A family of large cockroaches has moved in during the interim. Most have now disappeared under my foot, except the largest, who is particularly nimble. I realised last night he is actually a mouse.

    At least my room has a window. It overlooks what at first glance appears to be a car scrap-yard. This is Labe’s public transport hub. Battered seven-seater Peuguot and Renault estates dominate. Typically there would be a hive of activity out there on that red-laterite forecourt, but at the moment it is eerily quiet.

    Today is an important one for the country’s 9.5 million population. They get to vote for a new President. I’m told there are 24 candidates. How about that for choice! I almost cycled straight into a political gathering when I crossed the border a week ago. It’s not the safest place to be. Young men waving flags and banners were speeding around town on their motorbikes, whilst a swelling crowd of people vociferously awaited whoever it was that was arriving. I decided it much wiser to lay low until it had finished, later emerging from my hotel to watch England in another unconvincing display against Algeria.

    I escaped into the mountains soon after. The Fouta Djalon isn’t one of the World’s great mountain ranges, but with the humidity, heat, incessant flies and pretty dire roads they make for a challenging ride. Oh, and the rains have begun, which adds an extra level of interest. After many months seeing lifeless shades of brown and yellow, nature is now positively exploding in a riot of greenery at the roadside.

    After the rain 

    The rain doesn’t come unannounced. One gets the pleasure of seeing and hearing an orchestra in the sky first. Usually there is a light show in the distance to begin with, followed by a series of drum rolls. This is merely a rehearsal before the main act and can go on for hours. Late afternoon and early evening are currently the favoured times for the performance to commence. The best seat in the house is one with a covered roof. I don’t have great confidence in my 3-season yellow spaceship withstanding a serious African downpour.

    A few nights ago I was lucky enough to watch it from a Primary school. The clouds had been darkening all afternoon and wherever the sun was behind them it was soon going to set. A plaque on the wall of the school showed it had been built in 2004 by a German-financed project. The building was locked and apart from a few nearby huts it appeared to be in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by dense jungle. Judging by the insect-life in the outside latrine I also guessed it hadn’t been open for some time. I peered through an iron-grill window and saw the date May 12th written on a blackboard. Summer holidays must start early here.

    The school was visible from the road and it had been the wide concrete and corrugate-covered veranda that I wanted to stake my claim on for the night. Not wishing to set up camp without permission I asked two nearby women walking on the road. Unfortunately the Pula for “Where is your chief” is not in my note-book. It ought to be for I didn’t feel 100% safe without the headman’s permission. I assumed the torch that shone out between downpours in the darkness several hours later would be my man. Instead it was a teenage boy wearing a Chelsea football shirt with a rifle across his back. I should note that guns are not that uncommon out in the mountains here, where young men head out into the jungle for the day to hunt. Regardless of that, meeting a nervous teenager in the dark with a gun does not make for the most restful of nights. Fortunately it passed without incident and my friend returned the next morning so I could take a better look at his gun.

    Rifle boy and friends 

    Out in the Guinean countryside there appears little political tension. People, mostly women, are out preparing and planting the land with manioc, lifting themselves up from this back-breaking work to greet, wave, laugh, and question the white man who is riding a bicycle. My progress with speaking Pula wins far more smiles than it does with French out here. Say hello (‘jarama’, ‘tanala’), ask how their family is (Nuk ben guri ma?), their work (Nu lee gima?), complain that it’s hot (Heeno wooli), riding a bicycle is difficult (Nosati), that you’re tired (Meetampi) and anything else you can remember and you’ll soon make friends. Gone are the demands for cadeau. People here don’t see many white faces. It’s very refreshing after Senegal and gets my vote for friendliness.

    There is next to no traffic on the roads in northern Guinea. I say roads, but much of the time they are merely tracks through the jungle or resemble the surface of a river-bed, often both. I spent a good amount of time pushing my bike for the first few days as I climbed up to 1500m and the town of Mali-ville. On a clear day you can look down into Senegal and the upper reaches of the River Gambia from here.

    Climbing through the Fouta Djalon mountains

    By all accounts and appearances Guinea is as economically crippled, undeveloped and unstable as it’s Portuguese speaking neighbour. Hardly any electricity, no running water and what concrete fabric exists is in serious decay and disrepair. The only construction I have seen taking place in the last week was that of an enormous mosque, impressive not just because of its size, but the fact that the entire edifice was being supported by an intricate scaffolding of wooden poles. I’m guessing it is Saudi-financed.

    Several Policemen stopped me as I rode into the outskirts of Labe. Following nothing but smiles and waves from people further north, their demeanour was altogether different. They weren’t smiling. It’s the first sign that all may not be safe for me at this time in the country. After one scrutinised my passport then demanded to see my vaccination certificates, another (drunken) wanted to search through my bags. I steered the conversation to football and began speaking in English, telling them I was a teacher. The mood changed as each vied for my attention in showing off what they could say. I congratulated them, apologised for having no reward for their efforts, before putting my vaccination cards away (the first time I’ve ever had to show them) and being given the nod that I could pedal off.

    Something makes me think this may be more common on the road from here to the capital – Conakry. It’s hard to predict what the post-election mood will be like, and my French is far from fluent to confidently gauge the topic. Plotting a straighter course to Sierra Leone may be a better option. Whichever way I go there’s sure to be more mountains and rain.

    On an additional note, next month I will be helping to distribute the mosquito nets which many of you kind people have paid for. First I have to get myself to southern Sierra Leone. Right in the middle of the country’s rainy season malaria is at it’s most prevalent during this time. The roads are also likely to be at their worst. I can hardly wait. If you would like to make a donation and see your nets distributed, please show your support here.

    Road to Labe 

  • Thank You Mr President: Visas and biscuit throwing June 1st, 2010

    The Guinean Embassy in The Gambia is not where my guidebook says it is. Readers Google searching for an address may now end up here, or here, which is where I found its new location. Attempts at asking shopkeepers and traffic police directly outside its former address met with limited success. One person told me one thing and the other another. I think a lot of useless information can be gathered this way in Africa. Thank progress for the Internet.

    I arrived at the correct address just as the Consular was opening his office. It was 9.30am. My search to find the place had begun at 7am, so at least I’d killed time in one way. I’d cycled up to Banjul early to wave Jon off on the ferry. That is where my guidebook, published eight months ago, located it to be. Instead it was 15km away in Serrekunda, which is really the economic hub of the country.

    Embassies consisting of a single room and just one member of staff seem to have a habit of changing addresses on a frequent basis. At least in a number of countries I’ve cycled through. It was only a matter of time on this trip before I found one. It was in fact not an embassy, but a consulate – the latter dealing with all matters pertaining to granting visas.

    On a wall above the only desk in the room hung a map of the country, alongside a picture of ‘Captain Moussa Dadis Camara’, the country’s former military leader who was shot in the head by one of his presidential guards last December. At least I assumed this was a picture of him. For the past several months some other general has been running the show. The country is planning to undergo elections this June. Perhaps not the wisest of times to be applying for a visa.

    I filled out the application form and handed over a wad of cash, opting to pay extra for a double-entry visa that will allow me to travel back into the country from either Sierra Leone or Liberia. Given the usual bureaucratic delays that define such matters I expected to be told to return in a few days.“Come back at eleven”, said the voice behind the scattered pile of paperwork. I clarified that he meant eleven the same day, although in reality he could have done it there and then. We were two in the office and I doubted many more people would be coming to apply for a visa.

    It was all too easy, and got easier the following day when I cycled to the Guinea Bissau embassy. Guinea Bissau, which borders Guinea (or Guinea Conakry for clarity) to the north, points to Portugal for its colonial history, whereas Guinea Conakry was French controlled. Confusing I know.

    The Guinea Bissau embassy was far easier to locate, and its visa, at a mere $10, far cheaper. My passport disappeared for little more than 10 minutes before coming back with the correct stamp. Only the Sierra Leonean embassy requested I return after the weekend and provide the address of the hotel I will be staying at in Freetown, the answer to which I have no idea. I was about to make one up on the application, but decided it wiser to ask the Consular for a recommendation. This seemed more important than knowing the particulars of my yellow fever vaccination, which I think is mandatory for entering the country.

    Of far greater interest than applying for visas was an evening in the country’s national stadium. “Rediscovering the Mystical Roots Of Our African Heritage” read the billboards advertising the World’s first ever Michael Jackson tribute concert. It seemed like an event not to miss. For $4 Gambia showcased some big local artists, before everyone’s attention turned to the procession of black Hummers entering the stadium. The President appeared from one of the two limousine-sized behemoths and stood through the skylight as several army generals flung packets of his own Presidential branded biscuits to the crowd. I’d been told this was common during public appearances.

    The biscuit throwing spectacle was possibly the highlight of the evening. That and when his Excellency stood up later on to dance. Jermaine Jackson was finally on stage at this time and the doors to the stadium had been open for free. Bare-footed children scavenged for empty plastic bottles to be re-used whilst women balancing cashew nuts on their heads wandered gracefully through the crowds. How the babies tied to their backs were sleeping when the music blasted away I don’t know. It was after 1am.

    This was also after a Gambian group had sung a thank-you tribute to his Excellency’s work in the country’s health-care programme. The words caught the attention of the  audience and we all listened. “Thank you Mr President for curing HIV and Aids. Don’t listen to the west and their ways”. This was repeated several more times before the next act came on. The word is that natural herbs of some kind are used in this special medicine.

    Why and how Jermaine Jackson came to be performing in The Gambia I have no idea. A personal Presidential invite perhaps. It was his Excellency’s birthday last week and The Gambia is currently celebrating some ‘Roots’ festival, which is a word I hear often here. In the words of another popular billboard in this small African nation, ‘Thank you Mr President’.

    Back To Our Roots