• Congo Journal: Part 5 May 5th, 2011

    On the march rain is very disagreeable: it makes the clayey path slippery and the loads heavier by being saturated, while it half ruins the clothes. It makes us dispirited, cold and wet.”(H M Stanley)

    20/04/11 Distance Cycled 27km  03°08.292S    026°00.657E    No name village

    One of those annoying days when you want to hit yourself for being an idiot. I leave my wallet behind on the road – top of a rear pannier more precisely whilst taking off trousers. Only 15-20km further on do I realise what I’ve done. Fortunately not a huge sum of money– 6000CF or so ($7), but it annoys me and I only have my stupid self to blame. Other than money and wallet there were just contact cards with website written on, a key to padlock (have 2 spares). Could have been much worse.

    Back at the beginning of the day things started better. Met Jo -Welsh girl I’d been told was living in Kindu and working for the NGO Merlin. She read my facebook message about doing a book swap. I walk over with Somerset Maugham short stories, A Short History of the World and A Thousand Splendid Sons.

    Jo looks like she might have just arrived in Africa rather than having already spent a year in DRC (6 months in Goma and now 6 months in Kindu). This is second time I’m at the Merlin Compound. First was when I arrived and asked the Logistician (whose number I’d been given) if I could pitch my tent in the compound. He refused.

    There are a few dozen paperbacks to choose from, but not so easy to read all titles and blurbs whilst having first English conversation with a Brit since that backpacker in Kisangani. End up taking 4 paperbacks – About A Boy, Steppenwolf, (read it before) plus some Haruki Murakami book and another by Ian Banks. Quite a score. I leave 2 books as the other – A Short History of the World, I decide to give to Didier – English speaking Congolese I met when I arrived. Walk to his mobile telephone shop after drinking a cup of earl Grey tea at the Merlin compound – very random. He agrees to change a 50 Euro note, which gives me a brick-sized wad of 130 notes. Use Internet for what might be final time in weeks and somewhat rashly buy camera lens and tripod. Have to be quick with Internet – over $2 per hour so no time to read many reviews of equipment.

    Buy 4 tins of sardines on way back to hotel (getting more expensive now) and pack up, wheeling bike down to river after a plate of rice and beans. Shortly after I’m in a motorised pirogue with about 40 other people and crossing the Congo river for the final time. Always somewhat nervous in such places – if it were to capsize that would be it. Somewhat sad to be pedalling away from the river and leaving it for the final time.

    Laterite road heading south is smooth but hard under the sun. Storm clouds soon build ahead. Feels good to be pushing pedals as track undulates and passes the usual village scenes – surely too early to get tired of hearing Mzungu being yelled at me? How many times will I hear this in next several months? No motorised traffic, but lots of other cyclists – most also making the 240km trip to Kasongo with more loads than me. A couple are transporting bottles of Primus – 60 bottles carefully held in place over the rear rack. I ask the price and they tell me 4000CF. Who can afford to pay over $4 for a beer out here? Not me. These poor guys probably don’t even make enough profit from one journey to drink more than 1 bottle, and it would be warm!

    Heavy weather ahead

    Primus man

    Village I stop in to hide from rain is tiny – just 7 huts and nowhere to take good shelter. Feel a bit intrusive, but locals soon relax. When rain stops an hour later I realise the road is a mess. Think about stopping here or shortly up ahead, but there is nowhere decent so foolishly carry on. Soon have mud jammed between rear mudguard and tyre – not enough clearance. Mud is truly like clay and a group of kids help push the bike towards some surface water on the road then ask for money. I have little patience for this after losing my wallet. Manage to free wheel but it soon jams again. Now outside school with corrugated iron roof and it will be dark soon. No sign of teacher or village chief. Kids go when it turns dark. Tent is pitched in the school. Bit nervous without having received permission. An hour later 2 men come – well one man and a boy. They’re on a motorbike and doing some hydrological research. Can’t understand all the French. They too plan to spend night in this classroom, which is a surprise. They take the blackboard down from bamboo pole it’s supported on and use it for a bed. I give them a mosquito coil. Poor bastards will be bitten alive. School Principal comes later who has a bad stutter. He brings food – Ugali and manioc leaves. Rain continuing now as I write this in the tent.

    21/04/11 Distance Cycled 72km   03°33.722S     026°18.826E   Kimbaiyo

    Road still wet and sticky for first few hours. When mud starts to dry it just jams wheel against the mudguard again. Means having to stop every so often to free the wheel. Plenty of other cyclists on the road with me. One has a fan attached to his handlebars, which spins as the front wheel turns – ingenious. I take a picture and this chap – Ramazanni, clings with me for most of the day. I don’t mind so much, but somehow find myself buying food for him – plate of rice and manioc leaves costs very little. There are no other eating options. We stop twice and even at the second place where four different women are selling food each one has the identical dish. I ask why and they laugh.

    Sticky mud

    Fan man

    Bush meat on a bicycle

    Once sun comes out the road soon starts to dry. Very very hot again and clothes constantly soaked in sweat. Twice in day I pass a stream with enough moving water to cool off and clean.  Must have crossed hundreds like this in DRC. Road and terrain actually quite hard-going – constantly up and down. Villages appear at the top of hills within a clearing in the jungle and the streams at the bottom. The road has a small crew of men working on it to grade and widen – at the moment this mostly seems to consist of slashing and burning the bamboo.

    I sense that having bought breakfast and lunch for Ramazzani he will expect me to buy him dinner. I pedal on ahead, leaving him in some village eating groundnuts. Sun soon sets and shortly after I roll into a small village, spotting a Church which looks like a good place to sleep. A woman nearby is selling manioc, peanuts and bananas – nothing else available here. She tells me that my friend/colleague passed this way earlier. I have to ask again, but sure enough she confirms another foreign cyclist with bags like mine, passed by. Now makes some sense why other people had spoken about my friend being up ahead. The news excites and annoys me. Surely there can’t be another foreign cyclist on this road I’ve chosen? At first I wonder if it’s Hiromu. Maybe he changed his route, or planned to come this way and didn’t want to tell me. When I press the woman for a description of the cyclist she says he had long hair. Well that counts Hiromu out. Who could this be?

    Don’t camp in the Church in the end as the Pastor explains that people will come in the night to pray and drum. Sure enough I hear them. Instead I get shown a place under a palm-thatched roof. Somehow hesitant to break open a tin of sardines. They cost 1300CF out here and so I wait until late when my spectators have gone to bed to eat in silence and darkness.

    22/04/11 Distance cycled 52km 03°52.523S 026°32.660E Kaparangao

    Hello and goodbye again to Hiromu. How very bizarre! Spot him across the road as I’m taking a breakfast of rice and manioc leaves (only ever good when there is chilli). This comes after pedalling 14km. The locals here direct my attention across the road. I watch him wheel his bike onto the road and pedal off. Well if he’s taking the same road I’ll catch him up. Sure enough I do. He’s off the bike walking it thorough a knee-deep trench of muddy water. I too have to push through this 1km long stretch of bog. Actually quite enjoy it – feeling of mud through my toes. Hiromu has someone helping him carry his front panniers, which he’s taken off due to the mud. I plough through with confidence in my waterproof Ortliebs. It is exactly 2 weeks since we parted. He looks to have lost weight and his legs have more ulcers/tropical infections than before. I know how painful these are. We’re not really in a place to chat and do so once we make it through the mud.

    Rice and manioc leaves again

    Knee deep in it

    Bad roads

    Stuck truck

    Hiromu explains that he made it as far as Lubutu, where a driver and then a Doctor from MSF advised him not to continue to Walikale, where there is unrest. So he headed south all the way to Kindu, although didn’t cross the river to enter the town. His plan is to go as far as Kasongo and then head direct to Bukavu, which is slightly different from my route. He also says something about his brake-pads having worn down badly and now he’s walking down hills rather than braking. Looking at the state of his legs and feet I really think he could do with resting off the bike for a week and taking a dose of antibiotics. MSF gave him some but he hasn’t taken them. No point in me telling him to. I don’t think he’d listen. Well we don’t spend long together. About another km further on we both stop to clean the bikes, after which he tells me to go on alone and we’ll meet in Kasongo. Quite glad really. Would be awkward – nice to be moving at my own pace, although I’m not making fast progress on this terrain.

    Road deteriorates and there are lots more hills. Take lunch of ugali and some bush meat. At first apprehensive given its appearance, but it’s actually very good – dark and gamey so take a second piece. Clouds build later in the day, which cools things down and means I can keep going without feeling quite so tired.

    Make it as far as a junction, which is down on my map as Kingombe, but everyone here calls it Kaparangao. There are some Belgian built buildings here – apparently for cotton production.  Like others I’ve seen they’re in a ruinous state. The usual crowd gathers as I stop to rest, then soon decide I might as well stay the night. Well tonight I’m camping in a hospital, which by the sounds of it isn’t going to be all that peaceful as there are several babies here. My host, the Doctor, offered a space on the floor of his room, but it was tiny and not big enough to pitch the tent.

    23/04/11 Distance Cycled 63km  04°15.762S    026°36.541E Sengangenda

    A mistake to sleep in the hospital. My tent is effectively pitched in the waiting room, beside which there is a room with a woman in labour and in the other room someone about to die. Well at least that is what I guess from the wailing of old women right outside my tent. It’s totally dark apart from a palm-oil lamp flickering in the corner. I lie there with my eyes closed hoping it will suddenly stop. Why didn’t the Doctor who showed me this place say something about women in labour and the chance that someone might be rushed in during the night? I feel like a total idiot lying there half-naked in my tent as one person is about to die within metres from me and another is about to give birth. Stupid mzungo they will be thinking. To add to the atmosphere heavy rain pummels onto the corrugated roof and drums can be heard beating loudly in a nearby Church outside. Is this connected with the death I wonder? Fortunately after about 1 hour, although it seems much longer, the noise stops and the hospital is empty again.

    I say nothing in the morning when I see the Doctor. Almost like it was a bad dream.  A bare-breasted teenage girl watches me pack up.  Cycle some 12km to small junction where group of women have food prepared. Surprisingly there are beans and aubergine. I fail to get the girl to understand I want a mix of the three and end up with rice and aubergine. Less mud today and the road generally in a better state. Villages just seem to go on and on – one hut deep along the road and I’m constantly calling Jambo and Habari with a hand waving. These villages are really quite monotonous. Hardly anything to distinguish one from another. I often wonder what the history of these places is. At what point and why did someone decide to say lets build a village here? And who was it? This was always on my mind when those villages appeared on the riverbank – completely cut off by dense jungle. And what do the names mean? Doubt anyone could tell me if I asked them. Perhaps the chief?

    Lunch stop

    The road climbs a fair bit and there are patches of savana between the forest, which I don’t expect to see. Lunch is rice and manioc leaves yet again and I plan to rest here and continue a short way in the afternoon. Problem as normal is that it’s impossible to rest. After a few minutes one gets surrounded by children staring. I half feel obliged to entertain them, but really I just want to shut my eyes for an hour or two.

    Break in the forest

    Home made bicycle

    With the road in a better state it would be possible to make Kasongo today, but I prefer to arrive in the morning. Immigration with the normal delays will be waiting for me I’m sure. So I’m in a Church tonight, which so far looks like it will be more peaceful than last night. Made sure I ate before arriving – meat and Ugali on the way into this village. I ask what the meat is – ‘Monkey’ replies the girl smiling.

    Mud girl

  • 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

  • Lung-bursters and drunkards: Walking into Cameroon December 23rd, 2010

    Crossing into Cameroon proved challenging. Aside from the fact that no-one could provide an accurate approximation of travelling time or distance to the border, the road was terrible – really terrible. When unpaved roads in tropical countries aren’t graded to level out the bumps and ensure surface water runs into ditches at the side, heavy rain soon destroys them. Crevasse-deep gullies form between football-sized rocks and the way ahead ends up looking more like a dry mountain river-bed than a road. Such has been the story for much of the past week.

    Walking into Cameroon

    River-bed road

    Climbing again

    1st gear all the way

    A small river at the bottom of a steep palm-forested valley provided the demarcation between Nigeria and Cameroon. This came 40km, or a day’s journey from Gembu, where my passport had been stamped out of Nigeria. Up until this point I’d just about been able to cope with the steep gradients and bone-numbing tracks without descending from the bike and pushing. Entering Cameroon was another matter.

    Nigeria/Cameroon frontier

    It is hard to believe any vehicle other than a tank or 4×4 wishing to break its suspension and chassis would chose to take the road to Nwa, the first large settlement in Cameroon with an immigration post. The fact that I had arrived here 2 days after my passport had been stamped out of Nigeria escaped the attention of the three officers sitting on the verandah and sharing a 5-litre jerry-can of palm wine.

    “Bonjour Monsieur. Bienvenue a Cameroun.” bellowed one as he raised his gourd and took a swig. I paused to catch my breath after another lung-bursting climb and wondered if I’d now crossed into Francophone Cameroon. “Is this the French-speaking part of Cameroon” I replied. “Ah you’re an Anglophone”chirped another. “No, this is north-west Cameroon and we speak English here. This other man is from Doula”.

    Feeling the bumps

    Painful

    Before arriving in Cameroon I had been a little confused as to where the boundaries between the English and French-speaking part of Cameroon lay. What was once a German-administered colony was later divided by Britain and France following WWI, although the majority of the country is Francophone.

    The French-speaking official finished his gourd of palm-wine, poured himself another then took it along with my passport inside his office. “Donnez moi 2000CFA. It is for my boss”. I wanted to ask what it was about Francophone officials in Africa that made them so much more demanding and less polite than their Anglophone counterparts. But it would have been lost on this drunk, just as the whole thing seemed to pass over Hiromu’s head that we were each being asked to pay a $4 bribe.

    I think being Japanese in Africa helps my cycling companion, although everyone assumes he is Chinese. Not only does Hiromu fail to pick up on the nuances of many a situation, atmosphere, tone, or meaning in the voices of people talking to him, but he comes from a country, which far from having an innocent past, has no history  of  wrong-doing from  on the African continent. People regard him much more an alien oddity than me, the white-man from England.

    We retrieved our passports without opening our wallets and continued into Nwa, which was having its market-day. There was nothing remarkable on sale; the usual wooden-stall or empty raffia-mat on the ground with a spread of cooking essentials: maggi stock cubes, sugar, small red onions, tinned tomato paste, re-cycled bottles filled with palm oil. More interesting was the fact that surrounding the market square were a number of small shops filled with people drinking palm-wine. Both men and women.

    I had read somewhere that more alcohol is consumed in Cameroon than any other Africa nation. The small town of Nwa and many others I passed in the days to follow would certainly live up to this theory. I don’t mean to exaggerate, having barely been in the country a week, but it’s hard to find a sober Cameroonian; half the population appears to be continually drunk.

    Lets take Jackson for example, who called himself the living ‘Michael Jackson’ and stumbled out of a lively bar on a Sunday afternoon to wave me down. We had now left behind the lung-bursting ascents and joined the grassfields, or ‘ring-road’ area of Cameroon, which is noted for its scenery. How the Lonely Planet can describe the section of road we were on as ‘decent’ I don’t know. Perhaps the author had also travelled the same road from Nigeria to Nwa and was being ‘relative’ in his/her description. It was comparably horrendous. Not horrendous of the 20% gradient and herculean boulder-type, but horrendous in that a 6” layer of powered dust provided a cushioning over the bumps. Not so bad if there is no traffic on the road. But it only takes one vehicle, of which there is an increasing number as you head south from the town of Ndu, to raise up a thick cloud of red-brown particles, which then slowly descend to fill and cover every surface around. The tea-plantations and slopes of eucalyptus trees would look a whole lot more scenic if they weren’t covered in this film of red-dust. And a touring cyclist could much more appreciate his mountainous surroundings if he weren’t blinking, rubbing his eyes and spitting out mouthfuls of the stuff every time a vehicle went past.

    Eating the dust

    “What you are seeing is a reflection of the roads in your country” is what I told Jackson, who  was laughing at my appearance and as merry as one could be before losing his legs. Why I was asking this drunkard for a safe place to sleep I’m not sure. A minute after propping up the bike at the top of yet another climb and waiting for slow-coach Hiromu, whose speed by 4pm in the day drops below walking-pace, I was entering a dark-filled room thick with the heady sweet smell of palm-wine. A fat woman was standing behind a table, on which an assortment of different sized bottles waited to be filled from a huge plastic jerry-can. “Try our delicious wine” shouted Jackson as he rocked back and forth from across the bar. So I did. And it was good. Fresh tasting and sweet. “How much to fill this 1-litre bottle?” I asked, returning with the spare from my front-rack. “One hundred francs” replied the fat woman. At £0.15 that’s about as cheap as alcohol gets I thought.

    When Hiromu showed up I’d already arranged to pitch our tents on the school grounds, which Jackson miraculously  managed to walk us to, before bidding us a good night and no doubt returning for more palm-wine.

    Travelling alongside someone who doesn’t enjoy a drink at the end of the day is a bit tiring at times. Hiromu belongs to that Japanese/Asian contingent whose face turns a worrying shade of purple after a few sips of alcohol on account of not being able to digest the stuff. Any excuse. I’m not sure alcohol would fit into Hiromu’s budget even if he were occasionally to imbibe anyhow. I thought I was a budget-traveller until I started cycling with Hiromu, who if he returns to Japan and takes back off on his bike, as I did from England, may realise that life is too short to bargain everything down to the lowest denomination of local currency.

    On another evening we met a chap called Felix. He introduced himself as an environmental officer, was dressed in shirt and trousers and had that professional look and manner of speaking that led me to believe he was a man who might help us. The sun was setting again through the harmattan haze and we wanted permission from an authority to camp next to the school or some other such open and neutral place.

    No, that is not permissible. It is not in our custom to allow a foreigner to do that. You will sleep in a room” ,said Felix in a tone of sincerity and authority. It wasn’t until we had sat down in a nearby bar and he ordered me a beer and Hiromu a coke that I realised Felix was drunk. I was annoyed with myself and apologised to Hiromu, who like me was also thinking of his stomache, where he could wash the film of dust from his body and lay his head to rest. Felix had done a good job of hiding his drunkenness through an ability to speak fluently and articulately. “Why do Cameroonians drink so much”? I asked. “Because we are suffering”. Fare enough I thought. Same reason many people drink the World over.

    Felix really had no idea where we would sleep. He was fifty years old and lived by himself in a shoe-box sized room. We found the school a few hours later and slept peacefully, returning into the village for breakfast the following morning (fufu and huckleberry leaf, which is much like spinach) to be joined by Felix. It was 8am and he was taking a 650ml bottle of Guinness, suggesting we join him as there was a big hill ahead and it would provide us with energy. We left him as he started his second bottle and the chop-shop started to fill with other regulars taking their morning beer.

    Followers

    A sign across the road saying ‘end of tarmac’, which to us read ‘start of tarmac’ as we were travelling the other way, came as a huge relief later in the day. Our clothes, bags and bikes were now caked in dust and I was looking forward to doing more than the 40-50km per day we’d been struggling to make since leaving Gembu. But the Cameroonian Ministry of road construction or whatever has an interesting approach to tarring the country’s roads. It does so in patches, so just as one gets used to rolling smoothly without the  bumps and dust the tarmac disappears again, returns several kilometres later then stops again. And so on.  One might call it a drunkards approach to road construction. I can just imagine the tarmac-crew finishing a stretch, then stopping for lunch and needing to drive 10km to the next town selling beer or palm wine, from which they will continue tarring in the afternoon, or much more likely the next day, week or month.

    Having slept in our tents every night since leaving Gembu we took a room in a Palace one evening. It is the first time I have ever slept in a Palace. This one belonged to the Lamido of Sagba, a Lamido being the name given to a Muslim chief in Cameroon. His Christian counterparts are called Fons. Being a Muslim it was a relief to speak with someone sober for once. One of his ‘errand-boys’ had found us in the village and suggested we could ask the Lamido to sleep in his Palace. To sleep in a Palace. Now who can say they have done that?

    The Lamido – ‘Elhadji Maouda:N.W.P Holder of night’, as his business card on which a picture of him sitting on a throne looking like Santa Claus with a white shawl round his neck and face read, showed us to our room. A healthy-looking horse lay grazing outside on a grass slope and I wondered as the Lamido opened the door to the room if I were looking in on its stable. But the ceiling would have been too low. On tip-toes my head touched the dusty wooden timbers. “Um…It’s perfect” I said as the errand boy Suleiman did a fine job of raising the inch-thick layer of dust from the floor by attempting to sweep it out with a palm-frond brush.

    The following day, yesterday, we climbed again then descended towards the town of Bamenda, where I write this from now. Hiromu took off on his bike this morning headed for Yaounde. It is some 450-500km away. I suggested he take a rest day like me, having travelled continuously for the last 14 days, but he has a package to collect that is being re-sent from Japan (it arrived in Yaounde a few weeks ago and was sent back). I too need to go to Yaounde for onward visa applications and a school talk I had originally thought I’d give before the close of term. Both can wait for the New Year – I’m off to enjoy my last taste of Anglophone Africa in west Africa on the coast at Limbe. I won’t make it for Christmas Day, but I doubt it will be hard to find someone to share a drink with along the way. Happy Christmas to you all.

    Towards Cameroon

  • Nigeria just gets better December 15th, 2010

    The Emir of ‘Old Muri’ took care of us in Jalingo. By this I mean we received a reduced rate at his brother’s Guest House and had breakfast and dinner delivered free of charge to our room by one of his ‘personal assistants’. We had first met the Emir, whose long name I quickly forgot, sitting on a palatial throne and swathed in a white robe several days earlier in ‘Old Muri’ itself. Why this man, (who had obviously received word of two foreigners riding bicycles through his chiefdom) decided to send his messengers out to summon us to his home I’m not sure.

    Old Muri is a small village on the north bank of the Benue River in Taraba state. Between the sandy streets and mud-brick huts there is little to show for what the Emir claimed to be a 450-year history. I missed the details as we sat opposite him on a sofa in his front room whilst a servant crawled across the carpet to bring us bottled water and fresh papaya. There was some mention of warring tribes, which is probably the history of  much of Nigeria from the very beginning.

    With the Emir of Old Muri

    We had used the Emir’s personal ferry to cross the Benue River and been told to contact him when we arrived in Jalingo, which is just what I did. To what extent the Emir was expecting me to ‘dash’ him in some manner for all this hospitality involved I’m not sure. I ought to have asked him to introduce me to one of his many daughters. Perhaps treating and caring for two foreigners foolish enough to ride bicycles through his remote chiefdom was merely a statement of his power and generosity.

    Crossing the Benue River

    During our pampered stay in Jalingo Hiromu and I had clothes made. Having bought the material from a small market somewhere near Yankari National Park the week previously I’d carried the 18 yards of colourfully patterned cotton (purchased for around $20) and was waiting to find a moment where we might rest and locate a tailor. The latter are easy to find throughout Africa and in a little over 24 hours we were exchanging $15 for 4 shirts, 3 pairs of trousers, a kaftan and bag. I thought this might be an occasion for Hiromu to throw away his hole-ridden shirts, but he seems content to wear them until they fall off.

    South from Jalingo the old tarred road quickly deteriorated. In a four-wheeled vehicle this would be a bone-crunching journey over crater-sized pot-holes, but on a bicycle it is merely a case of finding the right line and weaving ones way between the hollows.

    South from Jalingo

    Our celebrity status continued as we passed through villages and sought permission at the end of the day to pitch the tents besides schools or churches. This has rarely been a problem anywhere in Nigeria, other than having to convince dumbstruck locals that we will not be cold or uncomfortable sleeping on the ground. Crowds of children and men will often gather to watch in fascination as the foreign objects are erected. Many refuse to believe that anyone would wish to travel by bicycle and not be profiting directly from an employee or government for doing so. Wearing a shirt with ‘Against Malaria Foundation’ written on the back often involves extra explanation, which is usually a case of saying ‘no’ I don’t carry mosquito nets to distribute and nor does the charity financially support me.

    Having company on the road helps to disperse all the attention one receives for travelling in a region that sees few foreigners. Hiromu and I have different cycling speeds, which is partly because his bicycle is far too heavily laden with unnecessary things like an extra sleeping mat and large rucksack, which gets rarely used. When I first met Hiromu in Morocco his panniers had the words ‘Running w. E’ written across in large white paint. Since Ghana the words have been taped over, for it seems Emily, the long-term girlfriend whom he left behind in Japan and whose name he dedicated his trip to, calling it ‘Running with Emily: Dreams do come true’ has decided that a 5-year wait for her loved one’s return is a bit too long. ‘Running w. E’ continues to be written on the bicycle frame and mudguards and Hiromu asked me whether transferring the meaning of the letters ‘w’ and ‘e’ to ‘wandering’ and ‘Earth’ would now be more appropriate. I explained that ‘Running wandering Earth’ makes little sense. How about ‘Running without Emily’ I suggested. Hiromu is yet to be convinced.

    The scenery becomes more mountainous as one heads south through Taraba state towards Cameroon. Behind thatched huts and harvested fields of maize, yams, and peppers rise green boulder-strewn slopes. The quiet and now better-paved road begins to undulate and it is at this point that locals seriously shudder with disbelief that you intend to cycle up onto the Mambilla plateau. This is a high grassland area of rolling green pastures, unlike most of the rest of Nigeria. And it is indeed a challenge to reach; 16km of mostly steep gradients and sharp bends bring you out of the familiar lowland heat to a cool alpine freshness somewhere above 1500m in altitude. Here cows graze and wild flowers grow at the roadside. Tin-roofed farm houses lie sheltered and hidden within gentle valleys where wooden picket fences divide the land. To look at the landscape you would never guess it was African. I could quite happily pass more time here.

    Mambilla Plateua approaching

    Peppers for sale

    Admiring the view on the Mambilla Plateau

    A few days ago we were lucky enough to pass a weekly cattle market where hundreds of cows had been walked from miles around by their Fulani and Hausa owners to be bought and sold on a hillside. There was no fenced enclosure. The animals stood huddled together whist young boys waited on guard with sticks in case one decided to wander or charge off. The cows here look much better fed and healthier than the anorexic-looking animals one sees throughout much of west Africa.

    Cattle Market

    Cattle Market

    Cattle Market

    Cattle on the Mambilla Plateau

    The tarred road on the Mambilla plateau ends in the town of Gembu, which is where I’m writing this from now. Distances of 40, 80, 300 and 1000km have been given to me when I’ve inquired how far it is to the border with Cameroon. It is much better, although not always anymore accurate, to ask the travelling time in such situations. Two hours by motorbike seems the consensus, which on an untarred mountainous road probably puts the distance somewhere between 40 and 80km. All going well we should cross the border later today or tomorrow.

    Before leaving the 16th country on this journey I want to say a few parting words. During the months leading up to my arrival in Nigeria very few people had anything positive to say about the country. I now wish to say how very misinformed their impressions were or misguided their experience in Nigeria was. My time here and the broad spectrum of people I’ve met have proven the very opposite. From the stranger who disappeared with my $100 note to change on the black market, to the farmers who’ve given me free fruit, school teachers, chiefs and pastors who’ve provided safe places to sleep in my tent at night and the many other Nigerians who’ve been full of energy, generosity and a sense of humour no matter what circumstance they found themselves in. They have all made the last seven weeks a very memorable one in the life of the Big Africa Cycle. I wonder how Cameroon will fare in comparison.

    Village gangster

  • The long and sandy road December 7th, 2010

    There are a lot of roads in Nigeria, and much of Africa for that matter, that don’t show up on maps. To call them roads is going a bit far. They are unpaved tracks, often no more than a few feet in width, which depending on the geology may be composed of sand, mud or stones, and sometimes a combination of the three. The occasional passing motorbike will be the only real vehicle using one of these by-ways, which connect small villages surrounded by farmland. Only the largest of such villages might show up on a map, and it is by referring to their name that incredulous locals will point the traveller in the right direction – hopefully. In the rainy season many of these tracks will be impassable, or at least take twice as long to travel.

    Make way

    When Hiromu and I rolled onto such a track a short distance from Yankari National Park, and soon began having to push the bikes when the tyres sunk into the sand, neither of us expected another 250km and five days of travel would lie ahead before re-connecting us with tarmac south of the Benue River in Taraba state. I had been searching for quiet back roads away from the busy highways and here they were.

    River crossing

    A helping hand

    The reward for our struggles came from the people. It seems the more time I spend in Nigeria, the more my experiences contradict the negative reputation the country and its people have. The kindness of strangers over the last week, be they Muslim or Christian, farmers, school teachers, village chiefs or even district ruling emirs, ensured we always had a safe place to sleep (mostly camping beside schools) and were well received in places, that judging by the reaction of the children, rarely, if ever, see a foreign face. Even the armed and non-uniformed ‘road tax’ collectors manning check-posts in the forest savannah put on a smile and relaxed their brusque attitude at the sight of us coming through.

    Village women in Plateau state

    A few days ago we arrived in Jalingo, the capital of Taraba state. To the south of the city a range of mountains are clearly visible. They extend several hundred kilometres and more towards and into Cameroon. Judging by local reports of the road condition it might well be another long slog to the border, assuming we can find it. Good preparation for what lies ahead in Central Africa I think.

    Observing the Benue River

    Pied Piper

    Back roads of Bauchi state

    River crossing

    Cow crossing

    Fulani hat

  • Journey to Jos November 25th, 2010

    On a quiet road the journey from Abuja to Jos would be pleasant. Once the urban concrete thins out a boulder-strewn landscape takes over as the altitude steadily rises to above 1000m. The problem is the condition of the road; it’s too well-paved. This means traffic, of which there is too much for a 2-lane road, goes as fast as humanely possible. Little wonder the roadside is littered with the remains of car wrecks.

    Leaving Abuja

    Speed victim

    Hiromu called me to stop a short distance out of  the city. His speedometer was reading 25,000km. “I want to make a photo. It is special moment”. I fully agreed. My computer was just approaching 16,000km, which is roughly 10,000 miles.

    Milestones from Peter Gostelow on Vimeo.

    After meeting for the first time in Morocco at the beginning of this year we were back on the road together and sharing similar views about our route through central Africa. Hiromu’s journey started from Istanbul in May 2009 and he too plans to cycle to South Africa.

    Milestones

    The highlight of the traffic-filled 300km journey was watching several hundred cattle drink from a river. It doesn’t sound particularly exciting, but was quite a spectacle. We looked down from a bridge as the bony long-horned beasts moved to the water’s edge, their Fulani herdsmen eyeing us cautiously as we snapped away.

    Thirsty cattle

    Accommodation on the road was back to normal after the comforts of Abuja. Camping next to a Police Station one night and a Church the next. As for the food, Hiromu and I seem well-matched in being as adventurous in trying whatever the locals are dining on.

    Lunch

    Village camping

    For the first time in many months I’m wearing a fleece pullover here in Jos. At 1200m above sea-level it’s as high as I’ve been since the Atlas mountains of Morocco. In fact it was when I was in Morocco that I first heard about Jos. Over three hundred people were massacred here earlier this year. The city has long had a history of  ethnic and religious tension between Christians and Muslims. It’s a pity the climate can’t cool tempers. I wish I could take the weather with me.

    Up to Plateau state

  • Out of Africa: Two weeks in Abuja November 24th, 2010

    Abuja is not a typical African city. To start with I’m not sure there are any poor people living here. The makeshift market stalls, tin-roofed shacks, bare-footed children and street hawkers so characteristic of urban Africa are noticeably absent here. As are the piles of rubbish and other man-made detritus. It is certainly the cleanest city I’ve visited on the continent and the only one that doesn’t feel overpopulated. The fact that living here is so expensive partly takes care of that.

    Any Nigerian living within Abuja is comparatively rich. One only has to observe the kinds of cars being driven along the newly paved roads to get a feel for the city’s wealth, or see the size of the houses. Step into one of the popular western-style supermarkets and take note of the price of foodstuffs: 250g box of Cornflakes (£4), 1 litre tub of ice-cream (£5). This is not Nigerian food, but Nigerians, at least some of the wealthy who reside in Abuja, quite comfortably exchange large sums of money for such items before climbing back into their Mercedes or SUV. For those who can’t afford the western lifestyle, it is something many aspire to.

    Nigeria’s capital city is less than 20 years old and is growing rapidly. Maybe it will become like other African cities in another 20 years time. For now it has an incongruously tranquil, affluent and dare I say safe atmosphere about it. If only all African cities were so easy to navigate and enter into. The roads are so wide here that if the city authorities really wanted to they could put in bike lanes. There would be little point of course; no Nigerian is interested in riding a bicycle. They are much better at getting behind the wheel of a vehicle and driving quickly and badly.

    I never planned to stay two weeks, and had it not been for the kindness and company of strangers hosting me again I would have grabbed my Cameroon visa (24-hr service available – cost $100 for a 30-day stay) given the School talk I’d pre-arranged to and sped on out.

    I cycled into the city looking for the Sheraton hotel. No I wasn’t planning to take a $200+ room for the night, but pitch my tent out the back for free. How this arrangement between the hotel’s management and the small contingent of comparatively impoverished travellers overlanding through Africa came about I have no idea. Someone obviously felt pity for us. Abuja is anything but a budget place to reside.

    As it was I never joined the ‘traveller’s camp’ out the back, but spent a week with a British army officer and his wife in a compound complete with swimming pool and squash court. A true oasis of luxury, particularly the Cropwell Bishop Stilton. My host ran a weekly camera club and decided a trans-African cyclist would make for an interesting photo-shoot. Later in the week he lent me a tuxedo for a charity dinner-party. Did I foresee any of this when I was camping in a Nigerian village the night before arriving in Abuja?

    Ex-pat scene

    There are a number of International Schools in the city, which provide a western education to Nigeria’s elite and the growing number of expatriates who live here. I’m not sure many of these children have experienced much life outside the air-conditioned and high-gated environs of their home and school. As far as I can tell most Nigerians and some expats choose to ignore life as it’s lived by the masses in this country. The inequality in wealth is noticeably greater in Nigeria than the rest of west Africa.

    I visited four of these schools, gave a number of talks and was well-received by the teachers and students. To what extent they thought I was crazy I don’t know. People are sometimes too afraid or polite to say. Well I suppose riding a bicycle through Africa is crazy, if only because most Africans don’t know how to drive properly.

    School talk

    Hiromu would agree with me. I rescued him from the Sheraton when he rolled into the city at the end of my first week there. The management had banned him from taking a shower in the squash courts and he looked like he needed a decent feed, as well as a trip to a clothes shop. There I was thinking that my clothes were becoming a little threadbare and old. Hiromu had gone one stage further and taken on the appearance of a tramp. From experience I believe this is in an effort to appear poor in the minds of Africans and well-travelled amongst foreigners. Anyone who can afford to travel overland through Africa with a $1000 camera and laptop can afford to buy a t-shirt for a few dollars. Unfortunately Abuja is not a place where wearing hole-ridden clothes fits in well.

    Hiromu Jimbo

    From the John Lewis furnished interior of my British hosts’ house I moved camp and stayed with a missionary couple for the second week. Mike and Meghan had first come from the states to Nigeria ten years ago, where they were dormitory parents to students from a missionary school in the northern city of Jos, my next destination. Now they were back with 3 young children and responsible for running a centre to provide religious guidance and education. The overwhelming hospitality and generosity continued and by the end of the week I was starting to forget what it was like to take a cold bucket shower and eat with my hand. Once Hiromu had received his Cameroon visa and I’d given my final school talk it was back on the road together. The break and company in Abuja had been a welcome one, but I was looking forward to re-immersing myself into the ‘real’ Nigeria.

  • Malaria bites October 11th, 2010

    He was lying on the hospital bed with his hands on his forehead and a drip protruding from his wrist. Thirty minutes previously I’d received a phone call from a man to say “your friend collapsed in the Internet Cafe and is now in hospital. Please come!”.

    Hiromu had seemed fine the night before. After saying goodbye 9 months ago in Morocco, we met again the previous evening and had plenty to talk about. He too is cycling to South Africa, having started his journey in Istanbul last year, so I’m hoping we can make a plan together. Now he looked pale and in pain as I tried to decipher his Japanese in the accident and emergency ward.

    Sure enough he had malaria, and when the nurse rolled him over and jabbed him up the backside with two injections of quinine I was glad it wasn’t me. Not even my joke about this being her first Japanese bottom to deal with produced any response, apart from her asking me to leave the room. I went in search of food and found what you see below.

    Hiromu with Malaria

    Hiromu hadn’t been taking any prophylactics to prevent himself from the disease. What did he expect after cycling through the rainy season in west Africa (we followed similar routes as far as Liberia, after which he went inland to Mali and Burkina Faso)? Now he was paying for it. And would do for the next several days as I delayed my departure and nursed him back to some semblance of life, whilst he ached, groaned and sweated it out from a shoe-box-sized room in a guest house.

    Despite the pain and his foolishness for not taking any prophylactics, Hiromu is one of the lucky ones. He paid the £40 hospital fees and received the necessary treatment to get better. For millions of other Africans (often pregnant women and children) malaria is a step into the grave. Lack of funds and access to treatment means many people die. An insecticide treated mosquito net, such as the ones I’m raising money for in support of the Against Malaria Foundation, is a simple and cost-effective way to prevent the disease. Your support is much appreciated.

    I’m happy to say Hiromu made a slow, but sure recovery, although I left him after several days and journeyed on alone to Accra. It will now be Togo, Benin or Nigeria that we meet again.