• Top 5 reasons to cycle DRC December 3rd, 2011

    This was written for and is posted on the World Biking website, which has a great section listing the 5 best reasons for cycling each country on the globe. I was happy to write something for The Gambia, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the last two of which see very few foreign cyclists.

    Rivers run through it

    The River Congo evokes all of the adventure and mystery of African travel, and a journey up or down this mighty serpent will be like no other you have taken before. Barges pushed by tug-boats make the 1800km-long journey between Kinshasa and Kisangani, and are effectively floating markets. Families live aboard them for weeks, as that is how long the journey in its entirety will take (there is no schedule and if you travel the whole way you can be aboard for anything between 2-4 weeks).

    Another barge

    Going up that river today is just as Conrad described it over 100 years ago – ‘like going back in time’. River-side villages totally cut off from the modern World transport what they have from the jungle and river (ground-nuts, palm oil, dried fish, bats, monkeys) on small dug-out canoes – paddling out to tie alongside the barge as it slowly creeps up the river. It is an amazing spectacle and one not to be missed.

    Aside from the main river itself, the DRC has thousands of small streams running through the forest. These make wonderful opportunities for a cool off and break from the sweaty cycling.


    Boldly go: Pick your track

    The bicycle really is the ultimate means of travel in the DRC as there is no public transport in most of the country. Locals load their bicycles with 100kg+ of goods and often walk for days to sell them in the next town. On a bicycle you can pretty much take any track that is marked on your map. Sometimes it will be no more than shoulder-width wide, only to suddenly open and bring you to an old-iron bridge crossing a river. Some of these jungle-tracks used to be actual roads when the Belgians were still in the Congo. Now the jungle has reasserted itself, but because the locals use bicycles to travel along them, you can too. It is an adventure cyclist’s paradise. Should you have a problem you won’t be far from a local with his Chinese-built steed willing to help.

    Through the bamboo tunnel

    Window to the past

    When the Belgians left their only African possession they did so with an impressive network of roads, railways, Catholic Churches and other buildings. Apart from the mission churches, some of which are mighty impressive red-brick edifices, almost everything else is a crumbling and non-functioning reminder of the past. In one sense it is sad, but in another a fascinating window into what life must have been like 60 years ago in the DRC. Uncover some long grass at the roadside and you might find a stone marker denoting mileage to the next town. Poke your head around the cob-web filled rooms of a large mission and you’ll discover old machinery that would be better placed in a museum. Then there are the Portuguese names on river-side warehouses, the rusting train carriages being swallowed by the jungle, and the enormously incongruous houses/palaces where former political leaders such as Mobutu once lived. History is everywhere in this country – a place more developed half a century ago than it is now.

    Cathllic Church in Lisala

    Music and beer

    That’s two things, but they kind of go together in the DRC. Primus beer comes in wonderfully large 720ml bottles and has as good a distribution system as coca-cola (unfortunately they will cost a small fortune in rural areas due to the transport situation). If the beer is cold it means there is electricity, and if there is electricity then there is usually a stereo or TV where Congolese girls hypnotise the drinker and distract him from his beer as they shake their body to the infectious rhythm of Soukous, a music genre listened to far beyond the borders of the country.

    Primus man

    Out in the forest, where there is no electricity and people can’t afford beer, palm-wine and drums make a good replacement. When tapped fresh from the tree palm-wine has a sweet, if somewhat acquired taste. Locals will love it if you drink it (I occasionally filled up a 1.5litre bottle with it). Every village in the DRC will have a church and the rhythmic sound of drums beating in the darkness as you lie sweating in your tent is one that will stay in your memory long after leaving.


    The eastern rift valley

    The eastern provinces of the DRC may be some of the most unstable, but they are also some of the most beautiful. Lush jungle-clad climbs take you up to 2000metres and above, before you descend to the shimmering blue surfaces of Lake Tanganyika and Lake Kivu. If you’ve got the money for it you can climb up a lava-spewing volcano near Goma or hang out with the mountain gorillas before crossing into Rwanda or Uganda. For those doing it on the cheap, swimming in the lakes comes free.

  • The Kilimanjaro Loop August 30th, 2011

    “I went out to Mount Kilimanjaro, which I thought was very beautiful, but there were a lot of people there”. (Ralph Fiennes)

    One of those new Chinese roads provided my exit from Kenya. There are a lot of these in Africa. In fact there probably isn’t a country on the continent that hasn’t had some Sino-African road-building agreement signed. Well Africa needs better roads, and the Chinese do a good a job at providing them. I think you could travel most of the length of Africa if you wanted to on Chinese built roads, but dirt tracks are always more interesting.

    The Chinese influence in Africa is an interesting one. It still amazes me that even in those small Congolese towns, which were surrounded by awful roads and hundreds of square kilometres of dense jungle, that there would be a Chinese shop run by Chinese people. I wondered at the time how these people got here. When, by what means and why did they come? I was surely as much of a stranger in this deep pocket of the World as the people whom the kids called ‘Ching-chong’ were, although some might have been there for decades. They would have been able to speak Lingala or Swahili, but I’m sure probably still ate rice with chopsticks everyday.

    Well there were no Chinese on this 100km stretch of road connecting Emali with the border town of Loitokitok (not the easiest town name to pronounce), but their presence had left a mark on the children who still yelled out a ‘hee-hor’ and giggled as I rode past.

    This road was in fact one of the smoothest and quietest stretches of tarmac I’ve been on for a very long time. Most of what traffic there was consisted of safari vehicles transporting sleeping tourists to one of two nearby National Parks – Amboseli or Tsavo West. As they sped by I’d get a glimpse of the white faces and try to guess at the nationality. I think I’ve seen more white faces behind the window of a moving vehicle in Kenya than I have in all other African countries combined. Well it’s high-season, which is another reason I avoided the coastal towns like Mombasa and Malindi.

    To give those sleeping tourists credit the scenery was fairly monotonous. A flat arid expanse of thermarest-puncturing bush stretched out either side of this new road, the only colour being the occasional maasai herdsman staring vacantly at me as I contemplated stopping to ask and take a photo.

    It was also windy, and I had forgotten how much I hate head-winds. The harder you push to combat them and hit double figures for speed (10km/hr) the stronger they come at you. I sought refuge for a night in a wooden hut on the outskirts of a dusty village inhabited by drunken maasai. The hut was in fact the chief’s office, and quite a change of scenery from that western furnished apartment with swimming pool complex in Nairobi. That really was a dose of luxury.

    Chief's office

    Into Tanzania

    Tanzania welcomed me with a 90-day visa, (when I only asked for 60) and the reassurance that I would only pay $50 for it when the Kenyan immigration official on being stamped out said that British passport holders paid $100, of which I didn’t have.

    That said my visa was disappointing. As I’m sure many other globe-trotting nomads do, I’m fond of sitting down every once in a while and thumbing through my passport at the interesting stamps and visas I’ve collected from seldom-visited countries and infrequently used borders. The Tanzanian immigration official merely gave me a smudged blue stamp including date, and a messy biro scribble next to it saying ‘Paid $50’. It was the same when I first came to Tanzania 11 years ago. ‘Don’t I get a sticker?’ I asked as he handed it back. ‘You should have gone to the embassy for one of those. Our machine is broken’.

    Tanzanian visa

    One of the reasons I crossed into Tanzania where I did was to see Mt Kilimanjaro up close. Africa’s highest mountain and one of the continent’s most iconic landmarks was right next to me. An awesome spectacle – at least it would have been if it wasn’t in the clouds.

    I rode south from the border along a scenically undulating road to the town of Marangu, a popular starting point for those who’ve paid the $1000 or so for the 6-7 day climb. I wonder if this mountain rakes in more money per year from climbers than any other on the planet? People climb it year round, whereas Everest for example is only climbed in 3-4 months of the year, I think?

    Well I couldn’t leave without seeing it, so decided to cycle around it. And just as I google-searched and found a website connected with cycling and the mountain I received a face-book message from the same author.

    Elvis (yes that is his real name, he says) is possibly/probably the only black African cycle-tourer I’m likely to meet. Several years ago he contacted me from his home in Arusha, Tanzania and explained his plan to tour solo through Southern Africa, which is just what he did. Earlier this year he was involved as an organiser in the Tour d’ Afrique – a popular bike race/tour from Cairo to Cape Town.

    Elvis the Tanzanian tourer

    We met mid-way round the mountain, and rode together for a day. He plans another big trip, starting in Chile next year and finishing back in Tanzania (ChiletoKili.com I think?).

    Kids on the chase

    Looping around Kilimanjaro was a great idea. The clouds cleared for a few days to reveal the majesty of the 5895m peak, and the landscape and scenery was constantly changing from dry-arid savanna dotted with masaai villages to thick forested slopes. No surprise several companies organise tours around the mountain, although I saw very few tourists and no-one on a bicycle.

    Below Kilimanjaro

    Rough road descent

    Northern side of Kilimanjaro

    Maasai family

    Maasai woman

    Masaai sandles

    Maasai boy

    Masaai walking home

    Evening wood collection

    Young maasai girl

    Girls near Kilimanjaro

    Camera-shy kids

    I left Elvis just before descending another 500m in altitude to Lake Chala. This tiny Crater Lake straddles the border between Tanzania and Kenya. It also came up in a google-search of cycling around Kilimanjaro, alongside another link to the story of a young English girl who’d been eaten by a crocodile here some 10 years ago. The owner said the crocs were no longer there now, but I decided to avoid taking a dip and instead watched the elephants grazing below on the plains that extend into Tsavo west National Park.

    Lake Chala

    An elephant was here

    Bush camp

    Leaving Kilimanjaro shrouded in clouds again I hit the highway south. I’m now typing this from the town of Same, which wins an award for having the slowest Internet connection in Africa. I had hoped to post this with photos, but when it took the best part of 30 minutes to open up my e-mail I gave up.

    The town sits directly beneath the Pare mountains, which unless you’ve been to you’ll probably never have heard of.

    One of those inviting white lines on the map that wiggles between the contours leads away from the highway here and says ‘follow me, no-one comes this way much and I’m off the beaten-track.’ Well this is far more appealing than sticking with the trucks to the coast. Assuming the tracks on the map do exist I can continue behind the Pare and Usambara mountains and find my way to the Indian Ocean north of the town of Tanga. I’m looking forward to hitting the coast again. Cameroon, Limbe and the Atlantic Ocean seem a long way away.

    Alone on the highway

  • 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

  • A vote for Guinea June 27th, 2010

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

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

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

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

    After the rain 

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

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

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

    Rifle boy and friends 

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

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

    Climbing through the Fouta Djalon mountains

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

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

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

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

    Road to Labe 

  • Over the High Atlas: Demnate – Ouarzazate December 17th, 2009

    It felt strange to be by myself again after leaving Demnate. One thing I hadn’t mentioned in the previous post is how a guest in a Muslim family is rarely left alone. I knew that for my hosts it would have been rude to do so. There must be something written in the Koran about this. It’s really about time I picked up a copy, if there’s a light paperweight version that is. It was a similar story staying with locals in other Muslim countries, such as Pakistan, Syria and Libya. In the face of such hospitality all these experiences have left me feeling overwhelmed and indebted. At the same they’ve been complete contrasts to the comparative solitude of my normal life on the road.

    The concept of independent travel is a confusing one for many people here. Why anyone would chose to travel away from home without the company of a friend or member of their family, let alone ride a bicycle to South Africa, is hard to comprehend.

    These thoughts were occupying my mind as I sat eating a re-heated plate of couscous (I was spoilt with home-cooked food in Demnate) whilst a family at  a nearby able in the restaurant were sharing what looked like a much more appetizing tagine, and from time to time appeared to be making comments about me. They’d probably driven out from Marrakesh for the day to visit what is one of Morocco’s most popular tourist destinations.

    In a country with so little rain I didn’t have high expectations for Morocco’s largest waterfalls. In fact I almost didn’t bother with the 16km detour off the main road to reach them. Yet even with the water of the Oued Ouzoud way below its normal level the 110m drop into the red-walled canyon was a sight worth seeing. More impressive was the fact that I could pitch the tent a mere 50 metres away in view of them.

    Rather than backtrack the next morning I followed the canyon upstream as a narrow and little-used road climbed between pine trees, then descended into a patchwork plain of brown fields. Now that the harvest of crops is over much of the land here lies dormant, awaiting the onset of winter. Other than the shaking of olive trees and the occasional farmer shouting at his mule as it begrudgingly pulls a plough through hard dry soils there is very little activity at the roadside. Several Moroccans have remarked that March and April are the best months for visiting the country – before the summer heat when the landscape is at its freshest and most colourful. To be here then however would have involved a mid-winter departure from home. The fields may be a  little bleak and monotonous, but when the skies are clear, the daytime temperatures around 20C and the tourist sites generally quiet, I’m all in favour of coming here in December.

    Warm clothes are a necessity though. The mornings and nights became increasingly cold as I continued east and began climbing into the High Atlas. I’d wanted to cycle this part of Morocco with Tim, but time had run out and rather than push on south into the desert, thereby leaving the only real mountains I’ll encounter in Africa behind, I decided to detour yet again,  lured by those minor white lines on the map.

    Roads that run alongside bodies of water usually make for scenic rides. Against the arid brown slopes the deep blue surface of Bin el-Ouidane reservoir provided just that. It was the only real colour for miles around, although it’s levels looked low – a reminder that water, or lack of it, is becoming an ever more critical issue in this part of the World.

    A steep 15km climb took me way above the reservoir the following morning. I was only several kilometres into it when up ahead a familiar face  came free-wheeling down the other way. The shirt was different, but he was still lugging a useless spare tyre on the back of his bike. It was quite a shock to see Ian again, having said goodbye several weeks before in Chefchaouen. That this was a minor road made the encounter even more surprising. He was on his way to Marrakesh and now had a flight booked out of Morocco in January. We chatted at the roadside for a few hours, Ian explaining that after returning to Bangkok in the New Year he would be cycling in Vietnam, China and Japan during 2010. Yet more new roads pedalled in countries he’s visited numerous times.

    There was more I wanted to probe behind the purpose of it all. Was it love of new landscapes, meeting people, the fact that staying in one place for too long became boring, or that living any other life than a nomadic one on two-wheels was now, after over a decade and a half, too difficult to imagine or begin? He might have wondered the same thing about my motivations for being on the road. At that moment the view behind was as good an answer for both of us I’m sure.

    I considered suggesting he share some of his experiences and photos on the Internet. Yet like other full-timers I thought if he’d wanted to bother with a website or blog he would have done so now. I would have been the first to tell him that they can be time-consuming to maintain.

    Later that day I reached the small town of Tagleft. It’s easy to recognise a place that sees few outsiders pass through when the locals regard you with curious and cautionary stares from the roadside. More climbing ensued after a cold night camping in woodlands, and when the paved road ended and the piste began I had the feeling that the local shepherds thought I’d lost my way.  I too thought this when the piste involved walking though a river. Not a single vehicle passed me all day. The trees thinned out above 2000m and what villages there were didn’t exist on my map.

    I stopped by a natural spring to fill the water bottles and make my daily sardine sandwiches (there are going to be a lot of these consumed in Africa – lunch could be far less healthy) and was soon called over by an old woman and a teenage boy from a nearby field. It was the first of many invites for tea along this piste track and I was glad to have biscuits, tangerines and a bag full of dates (my new energy food) to offer as some form of gift and exchange.

    To give or not to give, what to give and how much to give is often an issue in these situations. Is there an expectancy in the mind of the host that by stopping to share tea this comparatively super-rich foreigner will provide some exotic gift, that he usually doesn’t have, from his home country? And if there is no expectancy then does the act of giving create a dependency and an association in the host’s mind with the next foreigner passing through? It’s never an easy one to call, whether you’re receiving a simple cup of tea, a meal or a bed for the night. I’ve probably made the wrong decision, either giving too little, too much or sometimes none at all after my host has refused to accept my offering of a gift or money. The great irony is that those who possess the least are frequently the ones most wanting to give. Later that day I pedalled into another bedraggled village and asked if there was a shop to buy food. Ten minutes later I was sat in a dingy mud-brick room and being force-fed warm bread with fresh butter and fig confiture. An enormous second round loaf was packed in a bag and my protests for them to accept some Dirham were refused.

    What is less of a decision process but more of a frustration is dealing with the cries of donnez-moi donnez-moi which sound out at the roadside from children. It was a pleasant surprise that up until this moment I’d encountered very little of such hassle in Morocco (in the rif mountains it was non-existent), but once you join the axis of tourism, which the Dades valley I headed towards after leaving this particular piste is, people (mostly children, but also young adults) consider it common practice to ask for sweets, money, pens, cigarettes, your sunglasses, hat, shoes,  the socks drying on your panniers,  the bike – anything that can be seen or thought of in the period of time they have before you pedal away.

    In one village I stopped to ask directions from an elderly man, then leaned the bike up against a mud brick wall to take a photograph. Several children ran over to jump into the photo frame, followed by their friends. Palms quickly turned upwards and a cacophony of calls for bonbons ensued. I decided to reach into my pannier to hand out some dates. By this moment I was smothered with a dozen more hands and ended up having to drag my bike away, almost running over those who decided to stand in the way. I realised the next morning that my bicycle lock, which was attached to one of the rear pannier straps and I knew was there shortly before entering this village, was now missing. It would have given me more satisfaction if they’d actually stolen something useful.

    I resolved myself to the fact that this will probably be a common occurrence, the expectancy of a handout that is, throughout many parts of Africa where either tourists or aid-agencies have unknowingly created a sub-culture that probably hinders more than helps African communities to stand on their own two feet.

    Said the shepherd seemed offended about this. It was in his hole-in-the-roof red mud brick shelter where I discovered the lock was missing, and that I acted out the behaviour of children in the nearby village  harassing me. He’d seen me bumping my way along another piste track later that afternoon as I was headed up to the Tizi-n Ouano. At 2906 metres this is one of the highest ride-able passes in the Atlas mountains. A few years ago I would have scoffed at the claim that anything below 4000m is high altitude, but I’m not going to find much higher to cycle in Africa. With a little more than an hour left of light in the sky he pointed to the collection of small red-brick buildings that were almost camouflaged against the valley walls. “Dormir ici” Why not I thought.

    They were more suitable sleeping quarters for his sheep, and judging by the surface of the floors it looked like they had a free rein over where they rested at night. Having been invited I was hardly going to complain. And over a basic potato and lamb tagine (he seemed less impressed with the remaining macaroni cheese I cooked up for starters) he re-installed my faith in the hospitality of strangers.

    I woke the next morning to find the bottom of my sleeping bag had turned white. Snow was falling through the roof. Said was laughing when I found him making bread over an open fire in the next building. He seemed unperturbed and said it would stop. I decided it wasn’t worth waiting to see if he was right.  A couple of hours later I was still pushing the bike up the remainder of the pass as the wheels continually slipped in the snow. Another shepherd, who had been practically invisible until the last minute in his white jellaba, greeted me near the top of the pass. He seemed to be in high spirits, as was I . I wanted to tell him that in the months to come I’d probably be dreaming about having a dose of snow in my day as I cycled through the equatorial heat of Africa.

    Even in the reduced visibility the views and descent down the other side were pretty stunning. Wild and windswept craggy slopes led into the Dades valley, the joy of free-wheeling and occasionally sliding only lessened by having to stop every 10 minutes to run on the spot and swing my arms in an effort to restore some feeling into my numbing fingers and toes.

    The children were up to their usual palm-outstretched antics as I continued through the bleak and colourless villages of Tilmi and Msemrir. Here the piste ended again, but the landscape became no less dull as I continued to descend alongside the Dades river, passing crumbling Kasbahs and red-walled valley sides. Judging by the number of Auberges, cafes and restaurants this place must be full of tourists at other times of the year.

    Out of the mountains I joined the Highway and headed west. Where there were olive trees north of the Atlas I was now passing clusters of palm trees and a desert landscape that will become much more familiar over the next few months. My plan was to reach the city of Ouazarzate, leave the bike and catch a bus up to Rabat. I’d made provisional arrangements to visit a school there, talk about the journey and charity and also collect a Mauritanian visa. But after 9 days of riding a 12-hour bus journey didn’t seem so appealing, particularly with an ankle that was oozing pus when I rode into town here.