• 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.

  • Deadwood: Road to Abidjan September 22nd, 2010

    A dugout canoe transported me from Liberia to the Ivory Coast. After agreeing on a price with the teenage oarsman the journey took little more than 10-minutes in a vessel that was reassuringly large and under-loaded. This lack of passengers was a good reflection of how many people crossed the border here.

    Crossing the Cavally River

    The river was swollen and fast moving. After two months of almost daily rainfall in the region it was probably about as high as it gets. Had the dugout rolled it would have been the end of the Big Africa Cycle; my bicycle and gear would have quickly disappeared into the murky depths of the Cavally river and I might have been swept down to the Atlantic before being washed up. Fortunately this never happened, but the thought crossed my mind as the wind whipped-up white water somewhere mid-channel and the dugout began to wobble.

    Approaching the far bank the crackle of French being spoken on a local radio station reminded me I was back in Francophone Africa. I found the immigration officer asleep on a bench. When I called to wake him he performed the formalities without engaging in conversation, other than confirming where he was going to place an entry stamp in my passport. African border staff have been surprisingly attentive and considerate in keeping the pages of my passport orderly. By this I mean placing an entry/exit stamp next to the visa of that country rather than at some random point many pages away. I might well make it through the continent without having to replace my passport, assuming it stays in my possession.

    Shortly afterwards a young Mauritanian appeared from the darkness of a nearby shack when I announced to several women frying plantain beside a market stall that I wanted to change money. He was a long way from home and I thought to ask if he missed the desert. Instead we argued over the poor exchange rate he offered against the dollar. There wasn’t much competition so I changed $20 – enough to last until I reached a town with a functioning ATM.

    Heading away from the river I followed a red laterite track into the greenery. The scenery didn’t look all that different from Liberia. Palm and rubber-tree plantations sporadically flanked the road, interspersed by a whole lot of dead wood. Since gaining independence from France 50 years ago Cote d’ Ivoire has lost almost half of its rainforest. Bare-bark trunks and branches now rise above cassava and rice plantations –nothing more than firewood waiting to be slashed. I anticipated something like this having seen it in Sierra Leone and Liberia, but the scale of deforestation still came as a shock.

    Deadwood

    Palm plantation sea

    I spent my first night in the country eating western-priced pizza and camping on the manicured garden of a French-owned restaurant. It felt a long way from Africa and dugout river crossings. San Pedro, Cote d’ Ivoire’s second port city, appeared like a bustling metropolis as I approached it in the dark. After Liberia and Sierra Leone street-lights were something of a novelty.

    Luxury camp

    Other than being able to name the country’s most famous footballer and one of its reggae musicians, I can’t confess to knowing a great deal about Cote d’ Ivoire. I’d read that the north of the country is mostly rebel-held territory and has been off-limits for much of the past decade. A good job that I was sticking to the south.

    Some other interesting observations about the country are that the food is a whole lot better than the slop offered in Sierra Leone and Liberia. No surprise there with the French influence. On my second night I stayed in a small town and found the centre dominated by street-side eateries grilling large fresh fish; a welcome change from cassava-leave sauce and bony bush meat. The next morning I pedalled out after stopping for a hot crusty baguette.

    Indeed Cote d’ Ivoire feels a whole lot more Francophone than both Guinea and Senegal, where despite the French history the language is spoken less amongst people in the countryside. Here Pula and Wolof are two of the dominant languages heard in conversation. Cote d’Ivoire seems however to be so linguistically diverse (around 65 different language groups) that French is spoken much more as a means of communication between people. Great news of course for anyone travelling to the country who speaks French fluently. Frustrating for those like me who don’t.

    Bissap is also available again. This ranks alongside coconut milk for being Africa’s most refreshing non-alcoholic beverage. The red juice is made from the hibiscus flower and can be purchased in small bags from teenage boys who pedal between villages selling it out of blue cool-boxes.

    Bisap boy

    Abidjan looked daunting in scale on my map. It didn’t disappoint. Cote d’ Ivoire’s commercial capital is the biggest city I’ve pedalled into on this trip, and about as unfriendly for cycling as they come. It’s not so much the vehicle fumes and density of traffic that make cities like this unpleasant to cycle in, as the fact that the highways leading into them are clogged with sand and debris at the roadside.  If you don’t cycle over this you’re forced to join the main lanes, where the suicidal gauntlet is inevitably in a hurry to get somewhere. It makes Monrovia and Freetown seem like villages in comparison. Preparation for Nigeria methinks. The difference in comparing somewhere like Abidjan to cities I’ve cycled into in Asia, which are often much larger and more crowded, is that the African countryside is comparatively so much quieter that when one enters a large urban centre the effect of traffic on the senses is far greater. That or the fact that I’m becoming wimpy as the years go by. There is no joy or satisfaction whatsoever in cycling into big cities in undeveloped countries, other than being able to claim that you did it, which no-one really cares about anyhow.

    Abidjan

    Needless to say I made it, and the cold Flag beer tasted sweeter than if I’d just arrived by plane in the city (another reason for the punishment?) Fortunately the bike and that worn sprocket held out too. The next challenge would be in removing it. Not an easy task either it turned out.

  • Lost Jungle: Into the interior August 28th, 2010

    ‘If you cross this line you may be engaged by fire’, read the sign behind the barbed wire fence. It was almost dark and I had no idea where to sleep the night. “Salaam Aleikum”, I called out to a soldier looking down at me from a watchtower. “Aleikum Salaam” came the reply.

    I was outside a Pakistani UN compound some 120km from Monrovia and looking for a safe spot to pitch my tent. A short distance back down the road the overweight proprietress of a roadside restaurant had refused me permission to camp, preferring instead that I take a room. The place had no electricity or running water. She wanted $50 and wasn’t very interested in bargaining.

    “Are you a Muslim?” asked the moustached soldier after he climbed down from his post and we shook hands across the barbed wire. “No, but I like your country” I replied with a smile.

    Several minutes later I  was introduced to several officers, seated with a cup of tea and shown my private room for the night. The commander came forward to introduce himself, gave a brief history of the battalion and probably wondered what the hell I was doing riding my bicycle through Liberia. He would have thought the same thing had we met in Pakistan.

    “You cycled through Pakistan in 2007?” one of the officers later exclaimed as I scooped up a mouthful of chana masala with a hot fresh chapati.“That was a very bad year for us”. Citing the recent floods I politely asked what year in recent history hadn’t been a bad one for Pakistan, and thought it a far less secure country to be in right now than Liberia. They might have agreed, but the conversation moved on and I was soon showing them pictures of cycling up the Karakorum Highway. What I wouldn’t give for some of that mountain scenery right now.

    On the Karakorum Highway, Pakistan

    Breakfast was served the following morning at 7.30am sharp. I had been asked several times the night before what time I would eat, how I wanted my eggs cooked and whether I preferred chapatis or parathas. The officers didn’t join me. I think they took breakfast at 4am, before the first prayer of the day and the fasting that would follow. I had been reminded that as a non-Muslim I didn’t have to observe Ramadan. Thank God for that.

    Camp for the night

    My over-dose of Muslim hospitality left me feeling a bit disorientated when I said goodbye. As with the ex-pat company in Monrovia it had been easy to forget I was in Liberia. This was another World transplanted into Africa. Organizations working for the people, but often so far away from them. And here I was slipping from one World to another as a matter of choice..

    The next night I chose to stay in a brothel, although I was very tempted to call in at a Bangladeshi UN compound and see how they fared with the Pakistanis in the hospitality stakes. I say brothel in as much as it was the cheapest guest-house around ($7 for a single room in which I could touch all four walls when lying on the  hollow foam mattress) light bulbs in the place were red and it was in a border town. It’s often enough to go on. A few kilometres up the road was Guinea.

    The town of Ganta wasn’t such a bad place though. It had women grilling fresh fish and kebabs on the street at night, people smiled at me and I could drink cold beer without receiving any hassle. Cold beer disappears quickly after cycling 140km, and club beer, Liberia’s own, isn’t too bad.

    The tarmac ends in Ganta, and it’s where I thought the real jungle would begin. My Michellin map of north-west Africa shades Liberia in a pale green, with a key denoting the colour as ‘dense jungle’. How very inaccurate. Some stretches of land outside Monrovia appear more like moorland than tropical jungle – an apocalyptic landscape of bare brown slopes. Very sad. Where there is forestation it is often in the form of rubber and palm plantations. Pretty monotonous on the eyes after a while. I haven’t taken many photos recently.

    UN bridge

    Fortunately, like Sierra Leone the spirit of the people goes a long way to make up for the dull-ness in the landscape. I feel little threat or insecurity out on the road here, although it’s slightly disconcerting when a convoy of UN trucks passes me by. People smile, wave, laugh and look-on with incredulous faces from outside their huts. If I stop or slow down they’ll be sure to ask ‘What is your mission?‘. A few days ago I heard someone announcing that I was an evangelist. People cheered and clapped as I waved back in hysterics. I was actually trying to say I was on an adventure. I guess the words aren’t that dissimilar in sounding.

    The usual suspects

    Road to Zwedru

    I’m writing this from the compound of an NGO in the town of Zwedru. Approximately 200km over an undulating red-laterite road, more dusty than muddy, has brought me here from Ganta. Another 300km lie ahead to the coastal border with the Ivory Coast. This, according to various sources, is a terrible stretch of road. I’m glad the rains have lessened. It will be interesting to see how my new $4 tyre I bought in the market here copes. After 12,500km the front tyre developed a large split several days ago. It’s a pity Schwalbe tyres aren’t available in this part of the World. Anyone wish to donate a spare?

    Tyre spilt

  • Sailing, squash and sushi: Another Monrovia August 17th, 2010

    The sushi was surprisingly good. Not cheap, but then sushi never is. A healthy dose of natsukashii as they say in Japan. As was the game of squash preceding it. Not a bad way to spend yesterday evening.Who would have thought that Liberia had a squash club? The annual tournament winners board dates back to 1976, but since 1995 the names no longer appear. Playing squash probably didn’t figure in the minds of many club-members when gun-fire ruled the streets of Monrovia.

    Liberia Squash Club

    Squash and sushi, surreal as they still sound to me here in Monrovia, were an unexpected way to celebrate a year on the road. On the evening of August 16th 2009 I was enjoying a few farewell drinks before wheeling my bicycle off the south coast of England and onto a ferry bound for France. At the time I envisaged being a little closer to South Africa than here in Monrovia. Anyone reading this website over the past 6 months will know other unforeseen events have slowed my progress.

    I don’t think my wrist has been mentioned in recent posts. It’s five months now. There remains a slight stiffness and swelling around the scar, and I don’t have the same amount of flexibility as I do in my right wrist. I possibly never will, but all things considered, things could have been a lot worse. I’ve wisely stopped walking alone in African cities at night.

    I almost forgot to mention the sailing. More ex-pat surrealism. One hour’s drive south from Monrovia lies the town of Marshall. There is little to denote that it is a town – thatched huts and a few concrete buildings line the 15km dirt track that ends at a palm-fringed lagoon. The ocean surf is audible, but out of sight from the pink villa that sits by the calm water’s edge. A Lebanese family relax on the wooden veranda enjoying the view. In front of the villa a small catamaran lies moored alongside a laser dinghy, whilst out on the lagoon dug-out canoes glide by, transporting local villagers to some invisible village. It is a tranquil scene, the sound of the distant surf broken only by that of an engine. Out on the lagoon a young Lebanese man is speeding across the water on a jet-ski. ‘It’s a lot of fun’ remarks one of the Germans I’ve joined for the afternoon. So is sailing I say, something else I haven’t done for a long time.

  • Poolside in Monrovia August 12th, 2010

    “To the casual visitor at any rate Monrovia is a more pleasant city than Freetown. Freetown is like an old trading port that has been left to rot along the beach, it is a spectacle of decay. But Monrovia is like a beginning.” (Graham Greene: Journey without maps)

    The air conditioning in this apartment is constantly on, even when nobody is here. “It helps stop the mold from coming on the walls” my host tells me. He doesn’t mind it running all day. The bills for the apartment, like the rent, are covered by his employer. It’s not cheap. The cost of staying one month here would take the average Liberian more than 5 years to earn. That is assuming he had a regular job. Most Liberians don’t. It is a sobering thought. I would feel better if I knew the money was staying in Liberia. It’s not. The landlord is Lebanese.

    If it wasn’t raining I might sit outside on the balcony. It overlooks a pool and the pounding surf of the Atlantic. I have to step out of the high-walled compound to be reminded I’m in Liberia, West Africa, one of the poorest countries in the World.

    A number of other ex-pats live in similar western-furnished apartments, most without this view, here in Monrovia. This city is awash with UN organizations and NGO’s. More than anywhere else I’ve been. Before arriving here I imagined that living and working in the city would be considered as a ‘hardship’ post. Perhaps it is on paper. From the ex-pats I’ve met in the past few days I would say it is anything but.

    There are a number of large supermarkets close to where I’m staying. Most foodstuffs are far more expensive than in supermarkets back home – almost everything is of course imported and then whacked for tax. The cashier seemed surprised when I handed over a small bundle of Liberian dollars to pay for my items. Here most people (foreigners) pay in US $. I can even withdraw them from an ATM, which came as a surprise.

    I planned to only be here a few days. Long enough to get a visa for the Ivory Coast and pick up a package being sent out from the UK. It seems however that I’m going to be here a little longer. I have the visa (they issued it the same day – $75 for 30 days) but the package (a replacement keyboard for my laptop) is taking a while long. ‘Approximately’ next Tuesday I’m told. I can think of worse places I’ve stayed in and had to wait. When that rain stops I might go and read by the pool.

    Poolside in Monrovia

  • Journey without maps August 10th, 2010

    “It would have been easier if I had been able to obtain a map. But the republic is almost entirely covered by forest and has never been properly mapped, mapped that is to say even to the rough extent of the French colonies, which lie on two sides of it”. (Graham Greene: Journey without maps)

    Eighty years on from when Graham Greene travelled on foot through Liberia (in actual fact he was carried much of the time) it appears some things don’t change. I don’t think there is a road map for the country. But then there aren’t many roads. As for the forest, much of that appears to have gone the same way as Sierra Leone – slashed and burnt. What one sees, at least on the 120km journey from the Sierra Leonean border to the capital, Monrovia, is a continuation of secondary growth – unremarkable bush interspersed by toilet-brush palms.

    The road is a good one however, and the people equally as shocked and friendly to greet a white man riding a bicycle past the door step of their mud-thatched abode.

    One of the Liberian immigration officers informed me that a “colleague” of mine crossed through this way several months ago. We continent-crossing cyclists are of course employed by our governments (at least in the minds of many Africans) and receive huge compensation for our efforts. “He was from China.” “Are you sure he wasn’t Japanese?” I questioned. The immigration officer thought for a moment. “Yes maybe”. My colleague I guessed was Hiromu, whom I’d cycled with for a day some 7 months ago. He’d recently e-mailed to say he was in Niamey, Niger, and would be heading to Ivory Coast within the next few months. There is a good chance we’ll meet again. Company on the road would be much appreciated.

    Before riding into country number 11 (12 if I count Western Sahara) on this journey I changed my remaining Leonean currency into Liberian dollars and dined on a plate of ochre soup, unidentifiable meat (goat maybe) and rice, washing it down with several cups of Sierra Leonean palm wine. I’d bought 2.5 litres in Sulima and brought it across the border with me, much to the satisfaction and amusement of several immigration officers.

     Palm wine, it must be said, is an acquired taste. The first time I tried it in Sierra Leone I almost vomited, but subsequent samples of the stuff were either better, or else I just became hardened to the taste. Tapped fresh from the tree this sweet milky-white beverage isn’t all that bad considering it sells for about $0.25 a litre.

    Without a decent map it was difficult to ascertain the distance to Monrovia. In Sierra Leone I found that people were often very accurate in quoting me the distance from their village to the next. Someone might say 7 miles, then another would step forward and say no, it’s 8 miles. Others might then agree with the second speaker that yes, the distance was 8 miles. Much to my surprise they were often right. This goes against the norm in Africa, where time and distance have little measure.

    Well in Liberia it appears no-one knows anything about distances, not even police check-post officers. They will look at their watch, say 3 miles and tell you it will take 40 minutes to drive there.

    One interesting feature about Liberians is that they have their own particular brand of handshake, which involves flicking the middle-finger with the thumb as you release your grip. This Americanism, if that is what it is, complements the calls of “Hey man, what’s up”, that is often called as a greeting from the roadside. Liberia is after all a nation that can point its history to the Americas rather than Europe. During the mid 19th Century thousands of freed slaves from America settled back in what is now Monrovia.

    Liberia these days shares a greater similarity with its northern neighbor. It too suffered a long civil war. Two in fact. There is still a large UN peace-keeping presence here and tourists aren’t likely to be sunning themselves on Monrovia’s beaches any time soon.

    It was almost dark when I entered Liberia’s capital. Much like Freetown, and most African capitals in fact, there is little light on the street at night. This makes seeing the cavernous holes, which can be anything from 1ft-6ft deep, somewhat difficult. A strong dynamo-light would be a useful addition for cycling through Africa.

    My outdated guidebook to west Africa provides scarce detail on Liberia, and like the FCO website, warns against travel outside of Monrovia. Personally I always feel safer in African villages than I do in any of their cities. How long I’m here for I don’t know. Several weeks ago a number of keys on my laptop decided to stop working. Efforts to remove and clean the keyboard have proven unsuccessful. I could of course continue without, but writing a blog update using the on-screen keyboard is really a test of one’s patience (this is being typed on a good old-fashioned Internet Cafe PC). So I’m here waiting in Monrovia whilst a replacement keyboard makes its way from the UK to me. This may also require some patience.

     

    First night in Liberia 

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  • House of God and heavenly beaches August 1st, 2010

    At this time of year a day without rain in Freetown is a rare one. The clouds don’t so much as roll in off the ocean, but hang ominously over the mountainous peninsula like a dark dirty blanket, capable of soaking the city and its overpopulated residents at any given moment. There is no longer any thunder or lightning display as a pre-warning, and the question is not so much if it will rain in the day, but when.

    The capital was in fact dry for a few days on my return from Sahn Malen, and had I not been suffering with a cold and toothache I would have made my escape. The latter became worrying for a short time, so much so that the thought of undergoing dental treatment within Freetown’s government hospital had me seriously considering a return trip home. Fortunately the toothache subsided with the cold, but when I was ready to leave the state of Freetown’s streets were more suitable for surfing out of than riding a bicycle.

    My hosts were optimistic that it would brighten up later, but the Lord clearly wasn’t answering their call on this occasion. Having originally stayed in the compound of a Sierra Leonean family, the premises of which might better have been described as a student squatter house, I found myself taking refuge in the company of missionaries on my return to Freetown. A friend from University put me in contact, although there was no mention of religious denomination when I e-mailed or spoke on the phone.

    It was following grace at the table one evening that I was asked what church I belonged to. For a moment I thought of replying with something to the effect of ‘the Church of free thinkers’, but a pause in my response, and some kind of affirmative “um” to the question “Are you an Anglican like us”? seemed to settle matters.

    Mike and Vi were in actual fact the kindest of hosts, and if they’re reading this they can be rest-assured that I’ve made it safely to Monrovia.

    For the past decade they’ve been in Freetown to teach and spread the Lord’s word. Other assignments/missions have included living in remote Irin Jaya in the 1980’s. “I remember an English adventurer who made a name for himself mentioning us in one of his books”, remarked Mike. I thought for a moment – “maybe Benedict Allen”? “That’s the one. ‘From the crocodile’s mouth’ or something like that, was the name of the book.”

    Conversation at the table often touched on religion. About so and so who was a Muslim, but had converted to Christianity. How Islam has grown in Sierra Leone since the war (all the Bangladeshi peace-keepers apparently) and how Christmas isn’t celebrated like it should be in Freetown. I did more listening than talking on these occasions.

    When I finally left Freetown I didn’t get very far. The beaches more than the weather were to blame. I also met an interesting chap who’d recently returned from the states and built an ugly but idyllically-located concrete bungalow right on the beach. At the suggestion of this man – Mr James Sharp (it seems the Krio minority in Sierra Leone take very English names) I pitched my tent on the veranda and joined him in dining on the day’s catch.

    Beach company: Tokeh 

     Sierra Leone’s claim to having some of the finest beaches in Africa is no overstatement. What makes the miles of palm-fringed white sand special is that its largely unspoilt. James pointed to a helicopter pad a short distance out in the sea and told me some history about Tokeh village. “That pad used to be connected to the beach by a wooden bridge and lit-up at night with lanterns. The owner of Africana wanted to create an impression for his guests.” Africana I later learnt used to be an enormous French-owned tourist resort, catering to 500 people and employing over 400 members of staff. James handed me a faded brochure showing photos of white tourists mingling round a pool in swim-shorts and bikinis. The place closed in 1995 and all that remains now are a few roofless concrete blocks. The jungle has taken over the rest.

    “I was accounts manager for seven years”, explained James as he walked me over the site. “This is where I used to sit with a Mackintosh”. We were standing on the moss-covered foundations of the complex, behind which was a second helicopter pad, the remains of a discotheque and two overgrown tennis courts.

    Africana remains 

    The beach now, like most of them on the Freetown peninsula, is devoid of tourist development. The war is naturally to blame, but I still imagined that someone with a bit of money and entrepreneurial spirit would have done something with the land in the past decade. The road around the peninsula is half-paved now, and it’s surely only a matter of time before the secrets of Sierra Leone’s beaches are re-discovered by mainstream tourism? Or maybe not.

    Tokeh 

    Heading south from Tokeh the peninsula mountains became lusher and wilder. Water gushed out over boulder-strewn river-beds on its steep descent to the ocean and sign-posts on the road displayed names that seemed very out of place – York, Kent, Waterloo.

    York town: Sierra Leone 

    Freetown Peninsula 

    My plans had been to take a boat south from the peninsula and access one of two hard-to-reach coastal settlements, (Shenge or Bonthe) but the over-loaded wooden vessel that was about to depart in choppy seas didn’t inspire confidence. That and the fact that I would have to wade chest-deep to reach it.

    Instead I followed the railway-line, or at least a route along which there used to be a railway-line. There has been no train running in Sierra Leone since the 1970’s. That was when the President at the time, Siaka Stevens, decided to pay off some of his mounting debts by selling the nation’s entire railway track. All that remains now are eery station posts  (Hastings, Bradford, Levuma, Mano), station houses (abandoned or else converted into clinics or government buildings) and the occasional bridge over some of the country’s major rivers.

    Old railway sign

     

    Colonial remains  

    There is little of interest in the countryside between these old settlements and their colonial past. Mile after continuous mile of slashed and burnt slopes stretch to either side of red-laterite tracks. No-where  does the ground rise high enough to give a really good lie of the land. Between the slashed stumps palm trees rise above cassava and rice plantations, their trunks and branches sticking up like toilet-brushes. If there ever was any wild animals, as all the locals like to warn me about, they either escaped during the war or else have been hunted down during this slash and burn blitz.

    Rough red road 

     DSC_0003 

    Most of the villages along these tracks are almost as monotonous and dull. Mud huts are fronted by bamboo posts, erected like goal posts, onto which clothes dry. In some of the dwellings hammocks hang under the eaves of roofed thatch. Here elders may muster a wave from their lethargic repose as you pedal by. In other villages (most come to think of it) swarms of children run towards, and sometimes away from you, screaming “pomoi” (foreigner). There is little to distinguish one settlement from another.

    Village life 

    If the women aren’t washing clothes, pounding something, collecting water or preparing a fire for cooking, their chief pastime appears to be plaiting one another’s hair. As for the young men, those not laboring in the fields might be sat in the village meeting hall – a thatched gazebo, which is a centrally located feature of most settlements. They may have a radio switched on and be listening to the BBC World Service or a local station. Questions usually come forth whenever I stop to greet, take in my surroundings and occasionally ask for directions and distances.

    “What is your mission?” one will ask after hearing that I’ve ridden a bicycle from England. It is a question I’ve been asked more in Sierra Leone than anywhere else. If I’m not an NGO worker, a missionary, a diamond-prospector or a tourist then what am I?  “An adventurer” I’ll say for want of a response. “What about the wild animals?” another might then ask. “It is the wild people I’m more afraid of” I’ll say. I could point to my wrist at this stage, but don’t bother. Some go on to ask whether the government pays me. Why else after all would a white man be riding a bicycle through Africa? If a small crowd hasn’t by this time formed around the bike it soon will, and unless there is something I need to do in the village (get water, food, ask for a place to stay) I’ll say my farewells and go. I ought to mention that there is no hostility or threat in any of these encounters. The friendliness of Sierra Leoneans  more than makes up for the monotony of much of their country’s landscape.

    Having only visited one beach in Sierra Leone I decided on a small detour to see whether others were equally as beautiful. Sulima didn’t disappoint. My guidebook tells me it was once an important trading post (a chap from Liverpool was buried here – his lonely grave dating to 1879) and that Siaka Stevens built his holiday villa here. It’s war-ravaged shell remains beyond the collection of shacks. But it is the long white beach that separates the ocean on one side from the mouth of the Moa river on the other that defines this remote outpost. Zero development yet again, but then the road to get here requires some effort. I walked the beach and spent a lot of time imagining what it would be like to build a guest house here. The river on one side, sea on the other, fresh fish, river and jungle trips. I’d have it built from local materials, employ the villagers, power it with solar and wind. Travelling cyclists would stay for free, although I’m not too sure all that many pass this way. For anyone else, Sulima is a long drive from Freetown. Nine kilometers along the beach and you’re in Liberia, which is where I was headed to next.

    Beach in Sulima