• 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.

  • Out of the desert:Nouakchott-St Louis February 24th, 2010

    I followed a Toyata land cruiser out of Nouakchott. Sidi Ali, who’d been my excellent guide to the city, offered to escort me onto the right road towards Senegal. As we said goodbye he gave me some advice. “Make sure you tie your bicycle chain around your ankle when you get there”. How reassuring I remarked.

    Bad-mouthing the people who live in your neighbouring country seems to be commonplace all over the World. Moroccans will warn you about  being kidnapped in Mauritania , just as Indians will happily tell you Pakistanis are all terrorists and the Chinese might attack the Japanese on the subject of war crimes. I’m  struggling to think of a country I’ve travelled through where someone has remarked about their neighbours “You will love it there. The people are so  kind and friendly”.

    The desert finally started to change as I sped over the shell-speckled tarmac. Trees,  yes trees – small and sporadic at first, slowly became larger and more numerous. The sand was still there, more so than ever in fact with some fantastic wind-whipped dunes to boast, but I could sense the end of the long road through the Sahara was  finally coming to an end.

    Colour at last

    Post card dunes

    Buildings, often just square one-storey concrete grey blocks, dotted the roadside like bits of loose and broken lego waiting to be cleaned up.  It was hard to tell if they collectively constituted a village – so strung out, isolated and lifeless as they appeared. None would have shown on any map and it was hard to delineate where one settlement ended and the next began.

    Desert mosque

    I slept in one of these nameless places during my first night out of Nouakchott. Two teenage boys  had waved me down at the roadside as the light was fading. They pointed to a building when I explained I wanted to rest the night.  Five minutes later, after pushing the bike through the sand, I met an old women dressed in black. The widowed Grandmother I guessed. She took one look at me, muttered something to the  boys then disappeared.

    “You must pay 10,000 ouigaya” one said (30 Euro). I laughed. The door to a concrete box was opened. It was probably about 40C in there. I explained I would sleep in my tent instead, so began to pitch it 50 metres away.  “It is dangerous here. There are goats and donkeys at night”. I was surprised they spoke English. Their school was visible close by so I asked if I could sleep there. A resounding “no” was the answer.

    Word of my presence soon spread. Half a dozen more children showed up. Curiously there were no adults.  They  sat and watched me boil up some pasta, observing the multi-fuel stove like an alien object. To them it was, like most of what was visible beside my tent.

    If I hadn’t just cycled 160km I might have shared some of the pasta out, but there were simply too many stomachs to feed and I was famished. I gave the oldest boy some money to buy biscuits from a nearby tin-shack shop. He returned and obediently handed them back to me. This surprised me. I opened both packets and instructed that they were for everyone. Bodies  quickly rose from the sand and their was babble of shouts  as the eldest boy shared them out.

    Night company

    In the morning these young faces greeted me again. Some were going to the  school. It was a good opportunity to ask me for a pen, some money, a notebook or any cadeau amongst all the foreign objects. I left them disappointed.

    Morning compaany

    These calls of “donnez moi cadeau” continued as the vegetation and settlements increased towards the border with Senegal. I waved, smiled and half-pretended I hadn’t heard them with the Ipod playing. I expect these calls to accompany me throughout much of Francophone Africa.

    The settlements and traffic ceased later in the day when I turned off the main road onto a piste track. This followed the banks of the River Senegal, which acts as the national border between Mauritania and Senegal. The river itself remained invisible, but I could sense it was close. Reeds and small waterways  bordered the road and birds darted their way through the  cloudless sky.

    Into savannah country from Peter Gostelow on Vimeo.

    The desert had finished but the heat had increased. I stopped to rest under the shade of an acacia tree and remained there for a good few hours. This may well become a pattern throughout Africa. Several hundred metres away a small family of warthogs crossed the road.  The following morning I saw one much closer when I stepped out of my tent for a morning pee. It looked vicious and capable of harm. I later passed a sign warning me of ‘animaux savage’, but whenever these small ugly beasts saw me they sped away quickly with their tales held high.

    Under the Acacia tree

    Warthog warning

    A National Geographic documentary on penguins was playing in the immigration office later that day. It was mid-afternoon and the temperature about 40C. The immigration officer was reclined on a foam mattress on the floor and totally absorbed by the TV. Alongside me was a group of sun-burnt middle-aged French tourists.  Their car had passed me by an hour or so earlier. They ignored me so I chose to ignore them.  My passport was soon  stamped in a separate room and the immigration officer made some remark about seeing me the day before.

    The main river channel finally came into view as I pedalled across a dam.  This was effectively the no-mans land. There was no-one manning the barrier at the other end so I ducked on under, expecting to hear a whistle or shout. None came. The tarmac returned and I soon had a Senegalese stamp. No visa needed, no money, no questions. It was a good start to country number six of The Big Africa Cycle.

    If you liked reading this post, don’t forget you can receive it as an e-mail by subscribing to the newsletter. There is also now a re-tweet tab if you know what that is (basically giving you the option to re-post this to people who use twitter) and more photos to be seen on my flickr page that don’t all appear here.

    It’s always nice to receive comments about the posts. Questions, advice, criticism. I do my best to respond to them all.

  • Around town with Sidi Ali February 18th, 2010

    In the desert, the first thing man sees when he opens his eyes in the morning is the face of his enemy – the flaming visage of the sun. The sight elicits in him a reflexive gesture of self-preservation: he reaches for water. Drink! Drink! Only by doing so can he ever so slightly improve his odds in the desert’s eternal struggle – the desperate duel with the sun.” (Rysard Kapuscinski)


    The sea is invisible from Nouakchott. There is not even a hint that it’s 5km away. In any other city this 5km would be prime real estate. In Nouakchott it’s a wasteland. The city dumps it’s rubbish here. Plastic bags find a home against thorny vegetation, until the wind changes direction and they trade places. I can’t think of another capital city in the World that is so close to the sea, yet so detached from it.

    I was asking my driver why this was so. He said he lived by the coast, but really his house was on the fringe of the city, before the 5km buffer zone of wasteland. “We are a desert people, we don’t like the sea. The land is also prone to flooding”. Mr Sidi Ali is a French teacher in the International School here, although he studied English in Edinburgh for 4 years. There probably weren’t many other Mauritanians living there in the early 1980’s.

    This was about the same time that slavery became illegal in the country.  Many say it still exists. It was something I was interested in knowing more about, particularly after staying in Nouadibou and watching the way Abdullah, the pale-skinned hotel owner there spoke to his Liberian employee.

    Mauritania is a country where the caste system is clearly evident. The interaction between shop-keeper and customer reminds me a little of India. In Nouadibou I had stood in a small shop to buy bread whilst a new Mercedes pulled up. The shopkeeper ignored me when the driver, still in his seat, began ordering things. When his phone started ringing he answered it and indicated to the shopkeeper that he could continue serving me.

    Mr Sidi Ali explained something about this as he drove me around the city. It didn’t take long – the drive that is. Nouakchott isn’t likely to feature any time soon on a recommended weekend getaway list. It’s central landmark is a Saudi-financed mosque that sits opposite a sprawling mobile telephone market. The two slender minarets reach higher than the rest of the ugly concrete construction here. There is no park and the only greenery appears to be that surrounding the President’s Palace. What a surprise. Just like Nouadibou the pavements and many of the roads here are filled with sand, although there are less goats, and at least in the centre, less visible rubbish.

    The fish market is probably a highlight of a visit to the capital. Hundreds of colourful pirogues line the sandy beach, along which teams of dark leathery-skinned men are involved in some aspect of transporting the fish to a nearby open-air concrete bunker for sale. There are some monster fish here – 80, 90, 100kg+. I photographed one and a man soon came to tell me I must pay 500 ougiya (1.5Euro). I laughed and asked the dead fish if it minded.

    Fishing beach in Nouakchott

    Boats on the beach

    Boat brushwork

    Nouakchott fish market

    Further along the coastal road is the city’s port. It was built by the Chinese 30 years ago after the French said it was impossible to do so. The Chinese have a crew of workers who maintain it, just like the city’s stadium. Whilst European financiers may invest money into a project then leave it to the local population to manage, it appears the Chinese favour a different approach.

    An overloaded truck carrying refrigerators came passed us on the road. One of many that transport second-hand goods coming from Europe to Africa. Nearby the port was a small black hill. On closer inspection it was an enormous mound of car batteries. “These will go to Japan for recycling”, explained Sidi. There were also dozens of cars, or rather parts of cars being cut up by crews of Senegalese men and loaded into containers. “They will also go to Japan. The Senegalese sell the metal to them for recycling”. It seemed resourceful and I wondered why the Mauritanians weren’t doing this. “They don’t want to. It is hard work”.

    Alongside the road leading away from the port were small piles of what just looked like sand. Several women were sweeping the road. “They are collecting grain from the trucks”. This was a desperate scene. Wind-blown grain off the back of trucks coming from the port was being sieved and then loaded into sacks. I assumed it was for re-sale, but Sidi asked the elderly women who said it was for them. They lived in small wind-torn tents at the roadside.

    Other than visiting the coastal fishing market, most of our tour was done within the security and comfort of Sidi’s landcruiser. I wanted to explore on foot – walk through the central market area and get a better feel for the city. The problem is that Nouakchott, like Noaudibou, is strung out along roads that have little shade. Here you will see men standing or sitting and holding packs of cards. At first I thought they were lottery tickets, but somehow I don’t think there is a lottery in Mauritania. These cards are mobile phone top-up cards. There are hundreds of men in the city selling them on the street. The cards are pre-paid – 500 ouguiya, 1000, 2000. I assume they must buy them in bulk at a discount price because you can also buy them in any shop. It makes little sense.

      Mobile card sellers

      There are several larger roads where you see lots of tools – shovels seem to dominate. Alongside them are teams of dark faced and ragged-clothed men. They sit in the sand waiting. Some might play a game with the shells that are easy to find on the roadside – a version of chequers perhaps? They are tradesmen – unskilled labourers or builders, plumbers, plasterers etc. They are waiting for a man much lighter-skinned than them to drive up and employ them – maybe for a few hours, maybe for a few days. None of them know. I saw this in Libya too.

    Unemployed tradesmen

    Yesterday I had lunch with an Algerian man. I didn’t know he was Algerian until he sat down at the same table as me in a small open-air eaterie and he told me a plate of rice and fish was 300 ouquiya. He introduced himself as Carlos, then explained he’d lived in Madrid before. He said he was a traditional Doctor and I asked why he had chosen to live in Nouakchott for the last 14 years. “Don’t use the word choice. There was no choice”.

    We continued eating in silence for a few minutes before he looked up at me again. “I want to tell you something about Africa. It is a dangerous place”. I looked at the people at the tables around me. There was a young white moor wearing a starched white bou bou and listening to music from his phone. At another table two black men in shirts and ties looked like they might be on a lunch break from one of the nearby offices. A fat woman, the proprietor I guessed, was looking at me from behind. Moments later Carlos stood up, thanked me for the opportunity to speak with a ‘real English man’ and paid the woman before walking on out. How random I thought.

    Nouakchott backstreet

    Pink, white and blue

    Fancy a date?

    Colourful mulafas

    Tomorrow I’m leaving Nouakchott. The border with Senegal is comparatively close after the last 2000km of desert that has brought me thus far in Africa. Before leaving I must thank the teachers from the International School here, where I gave a presentation to students about my travels and the Against Malaria cause. They’re rather incredulous that I can ride a bicycle through the desert and sleep in the middle-of-nowhere by myself. For me it feels strangely normal.

      Staff and students from the American International School in Nouakchott
      I almost forgot to mention the visa. The passport disappeared for several hours along with 15 Euros. No questions were asked. Should I be inclined to remain in Mauritania until 15th March I can. Something tells me African bureaucracy won’t always be such a smooth road on the way to South Africa.

      If you enjoyed reading this post don’t forget you can receive it as an e-mail by subscribing to the newsletter, and can also follow shorter updates with my tweets. As I approach malarial Africa it would also be a great motivation to have some more support for the Against Malaria Foundation.

  • The heat is on February 14th, 2010

    “Dawn and dusk – these are the most pleasant hours in Africa. The sun is either not yet scorching, or it is no longer so – it lets you be, lets you live.” (Rysard Kapuscinski)

    “This visa has expired”. The green-uniformed Police officer removed the wooden twig he’d been using to clean his teeth with and looked up at me. “It finished on February 3rd. Today is the 9th”. He spoke calmly and his English  was surprisingly fluent. As he thumbed through the other pages of my passport I proceeded to question whether February 3rd was  not the last day on which I could enter Mauritania and that my entry stamp to the country would give me another 30 days. The passport was handed to an older officer who was sitting on a wrought iron bed and drinking tea. He studied it upside  down for  half a minute and muttered something in Arabic. “You must make an extension in Nouakchott. It is 470km exactly” said the first officer. “Bon route“.

    Over-staying a visa in some countries can be a big problem – an opportunity for under-paid immigration officials to make some extra cash. Pushing the  bike back onto the road I hesitated for a moment and wondered whether  it would be better to take a bus to the capital. Sand was blowing across the tarmac like an evil vapour and the northerly wind was against me.  In 40km I would be changing direction though – east for 50km then south to the capital. I decided to forget about the visa and just start turning the pedals.

    Red road to Nouakchott

    The sea was close by but mostly out of vision as I pedalled back along the peninsula that had brought me to Nouadibou. To my left a railway line  ran parallel  to the road, cutting across the sand like an artery into a vast emptiness. This is Mauritania’s only railway line – a 704km single track that reaches deep into the desert and is used to transport Iron ore to the coast. At over 2.5km  in length the train is one of the World’s longest. I watched it slowly roll past several hundred metres away. The final few carriages are reserved for passengers. Several months ago I considered using it to venture to the town of Atar, from where another road leads back to the capital, but then I imagined my bike slung on top of a heap of dirty ore and lost the inclination.

    Mauritanian Iron Ore Train

    There can’t be many other countries in the World that rival Mauritania for having so little traffic passing between the two largest cities. I expected big diesel-spurting trucks, speeding mini-buses and even quicker cars to be racing passed me all day. I wasn’t on the road long before realising it would be mostly me, with the now familiar sand and wind as company.

    The tarmac beneath me was in fact super smooth and very new. Before 2005 the only way to travel between Nouadibou and Nouakchott was by either driving along the beach at low-tide or truly through the desert on a piste road. I’m not sure it would have been possible in anything other than 4-wheeled drive vehicles or off-road motorbikes.

    On the subject of which I was passed sometime later in the afternoon by a familiar looking bike. I  knew the driver as he’d been staying in the same hotel as me in Nouadibou. He had introduced himself as Tango from Lithuania. I never learnt his real name. He left Lithuania (a country I know as much about  as Mauritania) 6 months ago with the plan to ride through Europe then find a boat to South America. I’ve met similiar foreigners whose pre-departure planning before a big trip doesn’t venture much beyond looking at a World map and saying to themselves “I’ll go to the port and find a boat to take me across that ocean”. Tango had been hanging around Bilbao and Layounne for weeks and had now realised that it was a bit of an illusion, unless you are lucky or have contacts, to simply find a boat and think you can get a free ride to another continent. The reality is that sea travel on container ships is actually far more expensive than air travel. His problem of course is that he is on a Motorbike.

    Tango the Lithuanian

    “You forgot this”. He pulled over ahead and handed me a copy of a poem that he’d found on a popular website (I’ve added it here at the bottom). Tango was now planning to ride all the way to South Africa with 1600 Euro to get him there. He will have to budget hard, but this is a man quite happy to eat sardines for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We got on well. He offered to tow me, but I reminded him of my experience the previous week with the dogs. Fortunately I had no canine encounters of a similar nature on this stretch of road.

    As the sun kissed the horizon later that day I scanned the roadside for somewhere to camp. The landscape could not have been flatter. No sign of a hummock, a mound or some  small shrubbery to pitch my tent behind. I only feel safe if I’m out of sight from  the road. I reminded myself of the FCO warnings for the country – “We advise against all travel”, and had earlier wondered whether it was irresponsible to be travelling here, as well as naive to think that riding a poor man’s form of transport put me at a lesser risk of being kidnapped?

    An indistinguishable wooden building soon came into sight ahead. It looked like it had been put together from various scraps of material salvaged over the years. Planks of  different sized wood had been nailed together and fishing nets draped over the roof. The doors were locked with large padlocks, but the sand-floored envrions in front of the building provided shelter from the wind. A truck was parked alongside and a young man was talking into his mobile. When the conversation ended he greeted me in Arabic with a smile. He certainly didn’t look like he was about to kidnap me and was more interested in getting the small pile of charcoal that he’d thrown onto the sand nearby properly lit. Within minutes the dying wind did the rest of the work in keeping the embers glowing. The small tea-pot of water soon came to the boil. He filled two small glasses and I offered him a cigarette.

    By this stage he knew my intention to spend the night here. I’d asked in French and gesticulated with my head leaning on raised palms. There was little other conversation between us that evening. I later boiled up some pasta and mixed it with sardines, tomatoes, onion and cheese. He rejected the fork, took several mouthfuls with his right hand, then thanked me and disappeared into his truck to use the phone. That’s my breakfast sorted for tomorrow I thought.

    Night shelter

    He was gone when I got up the following morning. The  sound of the engine starting then warming had stirred me from my sleep earlier. It was 6.30am and another hour before the sun would begin it’s daily journey through the big blue overhead.  This was a good time to be starting on the road too – great light for photography and cool temperatures before the midday assault. I was too lazy and snug in my cocoon.

    At the first police check post a few hours later the officer was curious to know where I’d spent the night. I told him a service station I’d passed the previous afternoon. I could have said the truth, but sensed this would have displeased him. He asked for my passport then scribbled the details down on the back of an empty packet of Marlboro reds that he picked up from beside his left foot.“Où vous dormir ce soir?” I said the next service station. It was a good answer. I felt reassured by his concern for my security, but the last thing I wanted was for him to become paranoid and provide me with a police escort all the way to Nouakchott. After a few hours of looking over your shoulder and seeing a police vehicle tailing you it becomes quite irritating.

    The temperature increased on the second day and by mid-morning I’d already drunk several litres of water. I seem to be collecting more bottles the further south I go. I totted up the total volume to 12 Litres, 8 of which were bungeed onto the front rack. It’s perfectly designed for this and will happily hold another 2-4 litres, which will be necessary in the months to come. Shade at the roadside was minimal. From a distance the sight of small trees  teased me with such a possibility, but they were impossible to reach without walking through deep and un-rideable sand.

    Lone tree

    The map showed no marked settlements so I made sure I always had around 10 Litres of water. Police check-posts offered one possibility to fill up, as did the rare service stations (3 in total I think). There were also small buildings and tents advertising camel milk for passing motorists or even calling themselves ‘Auberges’. Most appeared abandoned.

    Desert dwellings

    I stopped in a typical road-side tent to shelter from the midday sun. An old man in a blue kaftan entered the tent. I greeted him in Arabic and pointed to the sun “Il fait chaud. Puis-je me reposer ici pendant trente minutes”? He agreed, then asked for 2000 ouguiya (7 Euro). I laughed then he laughed and the price dropped to 1000. I thought it was a joke. I merely wanted to rest, eat my lunch and continue. Tea was offered for an equally absurd price, by which time a woman and child had appeared.  “Cadeau?” I know I’ll here this word a lot in Francaphone Africa. I produced a packet of biscuits. It was a minor distraction whilst I went about making a sardine sandwich.

    Oh, but I’ve forgotten to mention the flies. There were hundreds of them – small, lively and the kind that land in the same spot within a few seconds of being waved away. With my right hand holding the sandwich my left hand was needed to constantly circle the space in front of me. It might have appeared comical. It wasn’t. The old man later returned and asked for my sardines, then pointed at my clothes. It was pretty desperate. I left him with the flies and headed back into the sun.

    It wasn’t the reception I’d expected out in the desert. When I later found another tent and asked a woman dressed in a black mulafa (veil) if  I could rest the night here she used her big right toe and wrote 2000 on the sand beneath. I was more willing to pay and bargained her down to 1000 ouguiya. She refused then accepted when I started to walk away. I wondered if this was inappropriate, but knew she would never ask for this kind of money from a passing local motorist.

    On one side of the tent several camels were being fed and on the other a herd of scrawny goats had come to rest. I later realised one of the small buildings was a shop. I never investigated what was inside. The family living here paid me scant attention. Maybe they would have been friendlier had I not deprived them of the 1000 ouguiya?

    Room for the night

    The heat was on again the next day and I was drinking like a fish. My clothes were salt-stained and my head started to hurt. I drank more but knew I needed to replenish my body with salts. Similar headaches had occurred when I cycled through India. I rested again in a tent. This time it was women and children who followed me inside. They were as irritating as the flies. I unearthed another packet of biscuits and watched them watching me eating the last of my bread and sardines. They seemed oblivious to the flies that were landing on their face. An older women came to shout at them for taunting me. By this stage I’d been defeated so moved on a kilometre down the road where a small wooden building offered enough shade. I drank a can of coke and could hear a distant roar. The sea was close by and soon after came into view. It was a tonic to my eyes.

    The capital was close now. A French man in a 4-wheel drive told me 90km as we both waited for our passports to come back from the police at another check-post. He had several passengers in the back – pale-faced and curious to know how I could cycle through the desert. “What time did you leave Nouadibou this morning”?, asked one as he lowered the tinted window and looked out at me. Nouadibou was 350km away. It’s a bit far for one day I remarked. “Is this your holiday”?, he then asked. I laughed. “Kind of yes”. They assumed I was cycling to the World cup when I said I would continue to South Africa. Many people have asked this. It will be long finished by the time I arrive.

    At times the desert here was more scenic than the vast swathes of hamada that had accompanied me in Morocco. Dunes met the road, their velvety sides and wind-crested peaks making me think of an enormous tub of half-eaten vanilla ice-cream. When the sun had less strength they were at their most scenic.

    Dream desert

    Desert talk from Peter Gostelow on Vimeo.

    On the last night in the desert I slept 45km outside the capital. The lights from the city were visible in the night sky, but the stars still shone with a brilliance. It was an unremarkable spot and I slept peacefully until a screaming sound woke me an hour before day-break. It wasn’t a dog and when I later got up for my morning pee I watched a long-eared animal surveying me from a distance. It was a jackal.

    Entering capital cities can be a mission on two-wheels. In Nouakchott there are no huge industrial or residential districts to navigate through. I pulled over at the first well-stocked shop. An overweight woman was shouting at the shopkeeper who seemed to not notice my presence. A darker skinned assistant was removing food items from a shelf and seemed incapable of serving me. I helped myself to a can of coke, put the correct amount of money on the counter and walked back outside to sit on a step and drink it. A smug sense of satisfaction ran through me as I watched the scenes in front of me. A light-skinned man wearing a starched white kaftan was instructing several black Mauritanians to push start his pick-up. Nearby a several goats crossed the road and a camel with its hind leg roped to a stake was drinking water from a bowl. I looked down at my shirt and shorts .They were stiff with salt. I was in need of a good shower and rest. After that I was interested to find out more about this city. Oh, and my visa needed extending.

    Self timing

    Why go?

    “‘Why do you do it?’ friends often ask, perplexed,
    Brows raised, minds sorely vexed.
    ‘The world out there is dangerous!
    Aren’t you scared? Why do this?
    You need steady work, a house, two cars!
    You have only a motorbike, and sleep under stars!’

    Dear friend, if you must ask, you cannot know
    This curiosity that drives me so.
    To you it is hidden; in me rises unbidden!
    But one day the world I’ll have ridden
    By iron steed, then perhaps this need
    Will have vanished, finally vanquished!
    That day will find me on deathbed,
    With no regrets for the life I led.

    Will you be able to say the same?
    Or will you despair a life worn plain?

    I will stake my Himalayan memories
    Against your estate of a thousand trees.
    Pit my Thai sunset
    Against your private jet.
    Weigh my horse rides at sunrise
    To your Italian suits and ties.
    I’ll rejoice in friends before I go,
    Not the figures of my stock portfolio.

    And, amazingly, there are more like me;
    They reject slavery, and are truly free.
    They took the chance we all had,
    And honestly it makes me sad
    That you didn’t.
    You thought you couldn’t…
    What?
    Live without the luxuries
    Of all our modern amenities?
    You choose the bonds of mortgage, but claim to be free,
    Wasting a lifetime absorbed by TV.
    Why watch it? but live it!
    One life’s all you get!
    Don’t put off ’til morrow and continue to borrow
    The lives of strangers; ’tis the greatest of dangers
    To the soul
    Which grows old
    Before its time.

    Hercules, Columbus,
    Guevara, Odysseus,
    Champlain, Agamemnon,
    The list goes on…
    What have they in common?
    Regardless man or god,
    The soil of continents they trod,
    Not in search of gold but adventure!
    Not growing old ’cause they ventured
    Far from safety; but far be it from me
    To Judge…
    ——————–
    The pitiless pity us
    With souls black pitted.
    Pray! save it for those less spirited.
    For us… our horizons are unlimited.”

    by James Richmond, Canada, in India

  • Into Mauritania February 8th, 2010

    The tarmac abruptly stopped beyond the Moroccan border post. Ahead lay a wasteland of abandoned vehicles and chassis – rusting victims from the land mines that litter the several kilometres of no-mans-land separating Morocco and Mauritania. I felt like I’d been thrown into an army training obstacle course as a series of corrugated piste tracks traversed this war-zone. There was little indication of which one to follow, nor anyone to ask. Cycle off in the wrong direction for 50 metres and I might have joined the unlucky souls who’ve perished here before me. It seems a ridiculous situation that neither country can agree to lay down a few kilometres of tarmac in this disputed and troubled region of the Sahara.

    Land mine victim

    When I spotted the green flag with its golden crescent fluttering up ahead I breathed a sigh of relief. A tall and burly guard laughed as I bumped my way back onto the asphalt and handed over my passport. Ten metres ahead several eager-eyed money-changers waited for an opportunity to make a commission. They didn’t get it. I briefly considered resting at the border for the night having already cycled 140km, but one look at the signposted Auberge and I decided to push on for the remaining 50km to Nouadibou.

    Mauritanian border post

    If I’d followed the FCO guidelines for travelling to Mauritania I wouldn’t have come here at all. In summary it advises against almost all travel to the country based on the threat of terrorist kidnappings that have taken place in the last year. It’s quite a contrast from the Lonely Planet guidebook,  which describes it as a “gentle introduction to sub-Saharan Africa.. a magnetic playground for mystical types” and a country with “a lot to love”.

    Having seen dozens of sponsor-emblazoned 4x4s trumpeting some west African rally/challenge and various ostentatious overland vehicles making their way south through Morocco I really had few fears about entering Mauritania. Their drivers might have seen me as being more vulnerable on a bicycle, but surely any would-be-terrorist would recognise richer rewards behind the windows of one of these vehicles?

    Nouadibou is Mauritania’s second city and it sits on a peninsula of land reportedly surrounded by some of the most densely stocked fishing quantities in the World. The wind was behind me again as I raced to reach the place before sunset, but 10km out the rear tyre went flat. I stopped to fix the second puncture of this journey so far, trying in vain to ignore the sand filling my ears.

    A Mercedes heading towards the city slowed to stop and the driver shouted something out of the window about owning a hotel. He was waiting for me thirty minutes later at a police check-post. The light was now fading and I was entering the city at the worst time. I was too tired to find my orientation so followed him down various sand-filled streets into a residential district. The electricity in the city was down. For a moment I felt a wave of paranoia as I stepped into a dark room and an empty hotel whilst the owner spoke in a mixture of French and English that was more comical than comprehensible.

    It wasn’t until the next day that I began to take stock of my surroundings. I walked the 3km into what is classed the centre and quickly realised what a complete mess this city is. Goats scavenge on heaps of rubbish that lie upon the sand and shell-filled road-side, whilst rusting ship containers  and make-shift wooden shacks make convenient homes for a diverse range of west Africans (Senegalese Gambian, Liberian, Malian, Nigerian) who’ve made their way here. Most see the city as a spring-board to the Canary islands and Europe. It’s a desperate scene and for the first few hours came as something of a culture-shock. The streets resemble a building site, a refuse dump and a vehicle scrapyard at the same time, and apparently I’m in one of the more affluent suburbs.

    Down town Nouadibou

    Nouadibou

    Popcorn sellers

    The owner of my hotel is called Abdullah. He greets me saying “How are you fine” every time we meet. There is a recent picture of him sitting alongside the Mauritanian president and Colonel Gaddafi, and another of him in more youthful days shaking hands with Francois Mitterrand. He says he has a government job yet drives to the border every day looking for possible guests for this hotel. I’m trying to make sense of it all. A Liberian man works here and speaks fluent English. He came by invitation to play football for FC Nouadibou, but was thrown out of the squad for refusing to become a Muslim. Now he works for Abdullah, who hasn’t paid him in 6 months. He wants to return home and was excited to hear that I plan to visit Liberia. “You will be very welcome. The people in my country are not racist”.

    I hasten to use the expression ‘the real Africa’, but I feel a marked difference in crossing the border from Morocco. I expect my surroundings to be cleaner, calmer and a little more familiar as I prepare to cycle the 500km of desert that separate me from the capital – Nouackchott. Or maybe not.

  • The wacky contenders January 7th, 2010

    There was a sizeable crowd waiting outside the embassy at 8.30am on Monday morning. Considering recent news I  expected to be the only western face who would be applying for a Mauritanian visa. Instead a colourful bunch of characters, mostly with their own vehicles,  (equally colourful) had lined the road of this Rabat address. Camper-vans, land rovers, trucks, motorbikes – is driving through Mauritania really that popular? It was a comical scene and had me thinking of a cartoon I remember watching as a child.

    There was no queue. Application forms were distributed, or rather snatched out of an embassy employee’s  hand on the street and for the next few hours I joined the scrum of increasingly impatient people (French, English, Swedish, Polish, Moroccan, Senegalese..) who surged forward whenever the door to the street opened for a brief moment before  being promptly slammed shut again. Having just arrived off an 8-hour bus journey without a wink  of sleep my energy levels were lacking.

    Mauritanian embassy

    When my passport and €35 were taken from me I was told to return at 8pm. What embassy is open at this time? Sure enough the same characters were waiting again later that evening and out of a letter-box sized hole in a tiled wall appeared my passport, complete with a 30-day visa.

    My other reasons for visiting Rabat have been to speak at the International School here, where I’m hoping the students and teachers will get involved with some fund-raising for the Against Malaria Foundation. Over £5000 has now been raised, which is nearly enough to fund 2000 bed-nets. There is a long way to go, both with fund-raising and cycling.

    It’s quite daunting to look at the map and the distance through the western Sahara and Mauritania. Endless kilometres of stony desert I imagine. My bike is still in Tamraght and I’m headed back there tomorrow. A bit more surf might be called for before hitting the road.