• 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.

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

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

    Walking into Cameroon

    River-bed road

    Climbing again

    1st gear all the way

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

    Nigeria/Cameroon frontier

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

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

    Feeling the bumps

    Painful

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Eating the dust

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Followers

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

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

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

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

    Towards Cameroon

  • Nigeria just gets better December 15th, 2010

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

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

    With the Emir of Old Muri

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

    Crossing the Benue River

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

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

    South from Jalingo

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

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

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

    Mambilla Plateua approaching

    Peppers for sale

    Admiring the view on the Mambilla Plateau

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

    Cattle Market

    Cattle Market

    Cattle Market

    Cattle on the Mambilla Plateau

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

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

    Village gangster

  • Baboons at breakfast December 5th, 2010

    Three men in black pin-striped suits delayed my departure from Jos, claiming to be from the ‘State Security Service’ . ID was shown at my request and in hindsight I think they were genuine. At first you can never be sure in Nigeria, particularly when those concerned have just stepped out of a bakery. They laughed and agreed I was right to be suspicious.

    ‘Are you aware of the situation in Jos?’ was the question put to me. I’d just spent five nights cocooned in the secure and peaceful compound of a missionary-run Guest House. Jos and its ethnic/religious tensions seemed a World away, but it’s an issue that simmers close to the surface here, and one unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

    Heading east to Yankari

    Quiet road to Bauchi

    Pause for a paw paw

    The situation partly explains the decline in visitor numbers to Yankari National Park. The traffic had eased and almost ceased as Hiromu and I moved east and descended from plateau state to arrive at the park gates. It was relative bliss by Nigerian standards. Then came the news that cycling into the National Park was forbidden. Most people would regard this as a sensible guideline. Hiromu and I were gutted. West Africa’s oldest National Park might have elephants and possibly the odd lion roaming about, but the chances of encountering one on the 40km road leading into the main camp are probably rare. The Park manager confirmed this when we unloaded the bicycles from a taxi at the main camp, having been driven at a speed that rendered any potential wildlife viewing impossible.

    During the dry season most of the large animals congregate at the Gaji River, so unless we were willing to pay $40 to chart a vehicle, which doesn’t guarantee one will see anything, our wildlife viewing would be restricted to whatever came into the main camp. The answer to which was a lot of baboons and warthogs. The latter are harmless, although I wouldn’t choose to pat one, and mostly concerned with grazing on grass and searching for a muddy patch to wallow in. Baboons on the other hand are a damn right nuisance. Leave anything unattended outside your tent and the chances are it will be snatched and torn apart with the expectation of its contents providing a quick and easy feed. Half a dozen eggs and a litre of honey disappeared in this manner sometime around dawn. It is at this time that the baboons are most active. Once my camping bag containing unused flysheet had been snatched a mere few inches from my head I decided that one night camping in the park was enough. I gave chase with a stick, thankfully retrieving the bag and contents before they’d been torn to shreds.

    Hiromu and I were the only visitors inside the park, which the baboons appeared to be doing a better job of managing, or rather mis-managing, than the staff. Wildlife conservation is not something most Nigerians place a high concern over. Only four years ago a number of new buildings were constructed at the main camp, but they are already showing signs of neglect. The half-finished quarters of one of the ‘conference suites’ has a swimming pool, around which a family of baboons have taken up residence. You can guess the appearance of the water now. The problem with the park appears to be one of good sustainable management. Judging by the scale of new development it’s clear that plenty of money has been invested, but that has now ceased. The Manager printed off and handed me a 10-page document charting the history of the park. It makes for a sad read. Much of Yankari’s large game has fallen victim to poaching over the last several decades – a situation true of many National Parks on the continent, particularly in West Africa.

    The highlight of a visit to Yankari National park are the warm springs, a crystal clear channel of turquoise water flowing from beneath an escarpment of rock. Apart from an ugly man-made concrete platform it feels as close to an image of paradise in the jungle as one could imagine.

    Despite cycling being forbidden in the park we went ahead and pedalled back out the following day. Was there any wildlife to be seen on the way? No. Do I partially regret cycling? Yes. Shortly after I recorded this video a number of Tsetse flies started to give chase and feast on my legs.

    Cycling Yankari National Park: Nigeria from Peter Gostelow on Vimeo.

  • Cheer for Nigeria November 26th, 2010

    Thanks to Hiromu  I was able to get some photos and video clips of a talk I gave at Hillcrest International School here in Jos yesterday. I began the talk receiving a ‘boo’ for saying I felt like I’d been transported out of Africa with my microphone headset plugged in. Fortunately my positive comments about Nigeria won a few cheers back later on.

    Speaking at Hillcrest School, Jos

    Question session

    Speaking in Nigeria from Peter Gostelow on Vimeo.

    Tomorrow the two of us leave Jos and the cool temperate plateau destined for Yankari National Park. Photos of elephants in the next post perhaps?

  • Journey to Jos November 25th, 2010

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

    Leaving Abuja

    Speed victim

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

    Milestones from Peter Gostelow on Vimeo.

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

    Milestones

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

    Thirsty cattle

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

    Lunch

    Village camping

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

    Up to Plateau state

  • North of the Niger November 21st, 2010

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

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

    All aboard

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

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

    Bike boys

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

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

    Zuma rock and road to Abuja

  • Suffering and Smiling: Entering Nigeria November 3rd, 2010

    Nigeria greeted me with a lot of check-posts. They were simple palm-thatched shacks, of a type more commonly seen with plantain or yams being sold beneath them than places for showing my passport and vaccination certificates. Were it not for the wooden posts spiked with large nails lying across the road I might have thought twice about stopping. There were no signs, no power, and no-one at any of these dozens of check-posts (containing immigration, customs, police, army, or health officers) was wearing a uniform.

    Why there had to be so many check-posts I don’t know. Or perhaps I do. Those manning them claimed it was for security reasons, but I only had to hang around and wait for a motor-taxi to be flagged down to witness the quick money exchange. “Do you have something for me”? one or two might venture to ask. “Yes I do. My smile. It’s priceless so you’re very lucky.”

    Entering Nigeria

    Few people have anything positive to say when you tell them you’re going to Nigeria. “Good luck.” “Be careful.” “You’re mad”. For the past several months I’ve been hearing such comments from both Africans and non-Africans. On this basis I should have been nervous about entering Africa’s most populous country. Perhaps if it had been a French colony I would have been. Dealing with bribe-hungry hopefuls at check-posts is a lot harder in a language you can’t speak fluently. The truth however is I’ve been looking forward to seeing just how Nigeria lives up to its reputation. Could it really be as bad as all those scare stories about scams and crime the Ghanians told me?

    The check-posts have fortunately decreased in number the further I’ve journeyed into the country. A more common sight has been the derelict petrol stations. With their over-grown grass fore-courts and rusted signs there must be hundreds if not thousands of these in Nigeria. Oil is a dirty business in more ways than one. The back-bone of the country’s economy is also the reason for many of its problems. Nigerians still have some cause to be happy though. Petrol costs about £0.30 a litre in stations which sell it.

    Petrol station

    Perhaps that partly explains why no-one rides bicycles, at least in Ogun and Oyo state (there are 36 states in total). I was hoping I could find a shop to install one of the classic dynamo-lights I frequently saw on old Chinese bicycles in Benin. For anyone planning and preparing a bicycle trip in Africa, please take note. A strong front light will be of great use. I try whenever possible to avoid riding in the dark, but night comes so quickly that it inevitably happens. Yes I have a Petzl headlight, but its beam is not strong enough to pick out the cavernous pot-holes waiting to buckle a wheel and throw a cyclist into the bush.

    Benin boys with a bike

    So what other observations does a first time visitor note about the country and its people? One is that Nigerians like to hiss to attract your attention, although their brand of hissing is different from other Africans. They do not “hissss” or “sissss” as such, but pucker their lips as if to kiss, then withdraw air inwards. I suppose it is a bit like a reverse whistle, and needless to say highly irritating. Until you turn to acknowledge the menace doing it, the pitch will increase, possibly culminating in a shout of “Oyibo.” (Yoruba for white man). The shout may come without the hiss, and should you turn to make eye contact there will often be a hand motioning you to stop. The truth is that if I stopped every time someone hissed or yelled “Oyibo” it would take a long time to get anywhere in Nigeria. And I would quickly lose count of the “Do you have something for me”? question whenever I did.

    Most of the time it’s easier, wiser and generally just safer to smile, wave and pedal on. Which is what I did when the traffic suddenly became unpleasantly congested and the market stalls and people spilled onto the streets. Had I been invisible I would have loved to stop, watch, photograph or film it. But alone, white, on a bike, with “steal me” written within my hands. I don’t think so. Photographs taken in urban areas in Nigeria are best done quickly, and I have the feeling that people won’t mind their own business even if you’re taking a photo of something entirely disconnected to them.

    Abeokuta is the first real city I entered. This is the birthplace of several important Nigerians, most notably Fela Kuti, whose music I discovered on my first trip to Africa. These days you sadly won’t hear Afrobeat tunes from the 1970’s played on the streets, but more likely some US-influenced hip-hop and rap. Far less tasteful.

    Experience, advice and common-sense would dictate that giving $100 to a stranger to go and change money on the black-market is an unwise thing to do, particularly somewhere like Nigeria. Which is what I explained to the owner of the Internet Cafe in Abeokuta, who entrusted his friend with my money to disappear to some part of the city that was allegedly too dangerous for me. “Don’t worry my friend. It is only small money so he won’t steal it”. I thought I ought to explain that this would be my budget for 1-2 weeks, and should it disappear I would have to place my visa card in a Nigerian bank, which would possibly be even less wise. Thankfully this friend returned and asked if I knew what Nigeria’s motto was. “In the words of Fela Kuti, ‘suffering and smiling‘”, I suggested. “No, it is ‘good and great’, and this action has just proved it”.

    The traffic, crowds, filth and chaos of Abeokuta were but a warm-up for Ibadan, where I arrived the next day. At one time this was West Africa’s largest city, and several people I met there were adamant it still is (in terms of population I think Lagos is). My country map conveniently showed a road that would by-pass it, but I had already realised that the ITM map of Nigeria is about as accurate as that of the one for Ghana. The road took me straight into the centre as there is no other road. When I have more time I will write a letter to ITM and kindly tell them just how terrible their maps of Africa are (Togo and Benin was poor and I have Cameroon still to test). I could easily manage without these maps, but despite their inaccuracies they give a better spatial awareness than the Michellin map of North and West Africa, which seems better updated.

    At first I thought to just put my head down, ignore the “Hey Igbo” calls and focus on not being hit by one of the thousands of white mini-buses, motorbikes and large cars with Nigerians who somehow give the impression of being aloof or oblivious to the mess they live in. But I realised it would take me hours to pedal beyond the crowds, traffic and tin-roofed skyline, so went about looking for a cheap place to stay before darkness fell.

    Ibadan

    Ibadan 

    Now the trouble with being a white face in Nigeria, or much of Africa I guess, is that people often assume you need accommodation accustomed to how they imagine you live back home. You are white and therefore rich. So I have to say that 10,000 Naira ($65) is not cheap and that I don’t need air-conditioning and satellite TV, nor to be directed to a hotel where ‘my people stay’. This will be a 4 or 5 star hotel, where people who have jobs and whose company most likely pay for their lodging stay. All I need is security and cleanliness. After a good amount of being directed and mis-directed by various people, most of whose faces read ‘don’t trust me’ (“You can stay with my friend, let me just call him”), I ended up in a brothel. Well a brothel in as much as it was a place that usually rents rooms by the hour. The proprietor seemed nervous, a little confused, yet over-joyed that a white face arriving on a bicycle should want a room in his establishment, so went about making sure I was comfortable. “You people cannot shower with this well water. Look at the colour of it. Let me go and fetch cleaner water. You will need soap as well. I will buy some from the shop. Just make sure you lock your room if you go out. You will be safe here, but bad people come to stay”. Not overly reassuring, but I was taken care of, only leaving the premises to buy rice, beans, fish and plantain from a stall across the street by a woman who seemed equally incredulous that an Igbo was eating her food in an area that few whites probably venture.

    The traffic finally eased once I cleared the northern outskirts of Ibadan. It was Sunday and the Churches were full. I have lost count of how many different ones exist here. Beyond the Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Baptist and other major denomination Churches comes a plethora of signs for evangelical/new-age missions, prayer camps and miracle healing events. Some look as shady as the banks, of which there are also a large number. Do I trust my visa card in a Nigerian ATM? I might have to in Abuja.

     With God 

    I’m writing this from the town of Oshogbo, where I arrived in a downpour and followed a sign to the first Guest House that didn’t have ‘fully air-conditioned’ or ‘satellite TV’ etc advertised on it. Thankfully its somewhere I’ve felt comfortable enough to relax in for a few days. After surviving the traffic of Ibadan and incessant oyibo calls I feel I need it.

  • Faking it: Visas in Accra October 14th, 2010

    The best thing about the journey from Cape Coast to Accra is the fruit being sold at the roadside. Lines of stalls overflowing with pineapples and watermelons, and carts filled with fresh coconuts. Forget the glutinous starchy fufu and oily soups, I reckon I could survive on fresh fruit alone in Ghana, and many other African countries for that matter.

    Coconut sellers

    The worst thing about this same road is the traffic. There is a worrying frequency of signs stating how many people died at that specific spot. I usually try to find alternative routes in such cases, but here there were none, at least according to my map. This is proving to be one of the worst country maps I’ve ever used. Whoever was responsible for producing the International Travel Map for Ghana needs to improve their cartography skills. Not only does their map not include simple road distances between places, but they have drawn roads which don’t exist and have depicted what are in fact large sprawling towns to be villages. Ghanians would agree with me if they could read maps.

    I broke the two day cycle from Cape Coast to Accra by stopping over in the fishing village of Apam. It was a worthwhile detour, mostly because I got to sleep in a 300-year old slave fort. It was originally built by the Dutch, but handed over to British control 100 years later. This was about the only information I could decipher from Grace, the fort’s female caretaker. I highly recommend it for those making the same journey. You sleep with the sound of the waves crashing below you and wake up to a view worth far more than the £2 it costs to stay here. There is no electricity or running water, but anyone overlanding in Africa ought to be familiar with this minor inconvenience. Candle-light is far more appropriate in such places.

    Apam fising village

    Apam

    The ride into Accra was hot; the kind of heat that turns your Tilley hat stiff with salt stains. Fortunately filtered water is very cheap in Ghana (like £0.02 for a 500ml sachet) and frequently available, usually sold chilled in blue cool-boxes at the roadside. I never remember water being sold like this when I first went to Africa 10 years ago. I have no idea to what extent this water has been tested or approved by any regulatory body, but my stomach seems to be coping OK.

    The hospitality I’d received in Takoradi a few weeks previously was extended in Accra. My host here was director of the Accounts department for the country’s National Audit Service. In other words a Ghanian of some rank. Not so long ago he was a night security guard in central London, a job which allowed him to study through his shift. This was the real reason he’d gone to the UK. He told me this after I’d followed his chauffeur-driven SUV way out of Accra to a large hotel by the sea. We’d only just met, I’d pulled him out of his busy job and now he was buying me lunch.

    The following 5 days in Accra were centered around applying for visas and giving presentations about my journey(s) by bike. Almost half of that time seemed to be spent in traffic, where armies of street hawkers brush past your window selling anything that can feasibly be carried by hand or head. “This is nothing compared to Nigeria”, remarked my host George, who lived some 20km east of the city centre. His daily commute, which we did for the remainder of the week in his newly re-sprayed Mercedes, took between 1-2 hours each way. It would certainly have been faster on a bicycle, which would naturally have been my mode of transport had it not been for the convenience of having a driver assigned to take me to the necessary embassies.

    Nigeria was up first and I arrived at the new address (20/21 Roman Ridge road, just off Achimota road for those who might need it) lacking the necessary documents to secure a visa. Up until now west African visas have been a doddle to apply for. This one required an invitation from the country, although in reality I just needed a hotel reservation from Nigeria, plus photocopies of my insurance details and vaccination certificates.

    Visa requirements

    I went away to find an Internet Cafe and returned an hour later with a printed online booking. It was totally false, and handing it in felt a bit like playing a Nigerian trickster at his own game. Does anyone ever fall for those bogus e-mails saying a relative has recently died and left a huge sum of money that can only be released if you agree to be guarantor?

    The reservation was merely a formality, along with the other bits to be handed in with the $130 (West African visas don’t come cheaply) before being told to return at 14.30 the following day.

    I opted to take a tro-tro (Ghana’s version of an overloaded and uncomfortable mini-bus) back into the centre, (even though I probably could have telephoned for a driver) and found the city’s National Museum. This is the first I’ve been to on this trip and a welcome diversion from the city’s shadeless streets. I was the only visitor that afternoon and had to wake the Museum’s shop assistant to buy some postcards. She shuddered when I told her I’d been at the Nigerian embassy to apply for a visa. “Why are you going there? It is full of crooks”. Her reaction and remark is one echoed by many Ghanians, who consider their nearest Anglophone neighbour in west Africa to be something of a big bully. It is a little daunting to think that 1 in every 5 Africans on the continent is a Nigerian, and there have been very few people in recent months who’ve responded with anything positive to say when I’ve told them I’m going to cycle across the country.

    The embassy of Benin was equally as hard to find the next morning (19 Volta street, 2nd close Airport Residential district), although the visa cost one third the price of the Nigerian and didn’t necessitate the paperwork nor the overnight wait. Rumour is it I could probably get the visa at the border, which is what I’m hoping for with the Togolese visa (I was reluctant to part with 25,000 west African francs at the embassy when I heard it is 10,000 at the border). I realise all this information is beyond the interest of most readers, but for the few overlanders google searching ‘Nigeria visa Accra’ or ‘Benin visa cost Accra’, perhaps this blog post will be of help.

    Mid-way through my stay in Accra George had taken it upon himself to get the media onto my story. Several journalists and a camera crew turned up in his office trying to figure out what the connection was between an English cyclist and the country’s National Audit Service. The interview went ahead, I struggled to keep a straight face and my voice was failing having already given two talks to an American International School in the morning. But George had also arranged for me to speak to the Audit Service team in the boardroom. This was my first all-African audience and typically they wanted to know why I wasn’t afraid of all the wild animals.

    Talk to National Audit Service

    As a parting gift to George and his wife I decided to print out two of my photos and have them framed . They were delighted and hoped I’d stay for Sunday Service at Church. I had the Lake Volta weekly ferry that departs on Monday as an excuse.

    Mother Africa and Princess Thorny