• 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.

  • Into Mauritania February 8th, 2010

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

    Land mine victim

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

    Mauritanian border post

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

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

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

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

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

    Down town Nouadibou

    Nouadibou

    Popcorn sellers

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

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

  • Gone with the wind: South to the border February 6th, 2010

    “I always loved the desert. It sits on a sand dune. You see nothing. You hear nothing. And yet something shines in silence.” (Antoine St Exupery)

    “The desert is a true treasure for him who seeks refuge from men and the evil of men. In it is contentment. In it is death and all you seek.”
    (Ibrahim- al-Koni)

    “Now there was a grey insect-like vegetation everywhere, a tortured scrub of hard shells and stiff hairy spines that covered the earth like an excrescence of hatred.” (Paul Bowles)

    It is a long road that leads from southern Morocco towards the Mauritanian border. Cutting its way through the World’s largest desert there are few towns or service stations to break up the monotony of sand, or more commonly rocky scrub-land, that define the Sahara. Images of picture post-card dunes may romanticize the idea of travelling across this vast landmass, but in reality it is a harsh and inhospitable place, much like other deserts I’ve cycled across.

    Dune-scape

    Having spent almost two-and-a-half months slowly meandering way my through Morocco I had little more than two weeks to traverse the remaining 1500km before both my Moroccan and Mauritanian visas would expire.

    My French neighbours at the camp-site in Sidi Ifni were quick to point out that I would need more water bottles than the four that were currently on my bike. “Il n’ya rien, rien ici”, they exclaimed pointing at various empty expanses on the map. It was more constructive advice than that voiced by an Austrian man, who laughed when I explained my intention to cycle to Cape Town and replied “I try not to be racist, but those niggers will kill you.” With that kind of attitude I’m surprised he was still alive himself.

    They were all part of the elderly fraternity, mostly French and German, who escape the European winter to drive their shiny white, satellite-dish-installed motor homes along the Moroccan coastline. The camp-sites are full of them and many had started passing me the moment I’d neared the coastline a few weeks before. Behind the security of their tinted-window and air-conditioned interiors these grey-haired nomads were seeing the country with somewhat more luxury than me. I found their vehicles a bit of an intrusion upon the landscape – the way they glistened under the sun like alien and unobtainable objects for the Moroccans who enviously watched them pass. Maybe when I’m old, tired, and in need of comfort and adventure in moderation I’ll view them differently. I suppose it’s not a bad way to spend a retirement through the winter.

    The desert didn’t begin in earnest until I rode south from the town of Guelmim. By this stage I’d bought a few more water bottles and bungeed them on to the front rack. Ten kilometres out of town I stopped on a bridge over a dry riverbed to watch a caravan of camels being led into the desert. It was a tranquil and timeless scene except for the traffic speeding passed. Apart from tourists crossing the desert most other drivers see the straight roads that stretch to the horizon as an opportunity to kill time by putting the  accelerator pedals to the floor.

    Camel march into the desert

    The further south I went the lighter the traffic became, but cycling on anything other than the main road through the Sahara would have been a recipe for death.

    Far more important than the traffic was the wind, both its direction and strength. It is the single most critical issue in determining whether a desert crossing will be boring and fast, or boring, tediously slow and painfully exhausting. On the back of your neck you won’t feel it as the tarmac flies by beneath you at anything between 25-35km/hr. Head on and it can be a gruelling experience as your speed is more than halved and your energy expenditure doubled.

    Fortunately for me the predominant winds blow from the north west. I was soon making serious dents into the map with 150km days, pedalling for 6-7 hours and stopping whenever there was a service station. Occasionally the road ran close to the coast, revealing wild and wind-swept cliffs that dropped  vertically to wide and empty beaches below. The breaking waves and deep blue of the Atlantic threw life into the oppression of colourless hamada that dominated the roadside. Fishing huts and tents sat perched on cliff-tops many miles away from anywhere. I wondered if the lonely souls standing with their rods were catching fish to sell or merely subsist on?

    Cliff top scenery from the edge of the Sahara

    Lunch-stop

    I stayed in another motor-home dominated camp-site in the beach-side town of El Ouatia, (Tan Tan Plage) but mostly pitched the tent out in the wilderness. When the winds continued to blow at night, which they did on several occasions, I searched for an abandoned building, but soon realised they were human shit-pits for passing motorists. Hollows or slight rises in the land were better options for shelter and invisibility from the road. When the night was still and clear, the stars shone and the moon beamed down it was easy to forget the hardships of the day.

    Desert camp

    Saharan star-gazing Morning in the Sahara

    Even on a bicycle you move too quickly to notice the real details in the landscape. Yes you see and smell the rotting carcasses of unlucky camels and dogs that lye in various stages of slow decay at the roadside, or a small snake that so very nearly made it across, but only when I stopped to leave the tarmac and pitch the tent did I see the many fossil shells embedded within the rocks and scattered amongst the sands of this former ocean floor, or some prehistoric arthropod whose home I’d disturbed.

    RIP

    Fossilised shells

    Prehistoric Anthropod

    My days were very simple. I’d wake at around 7am, boil water for a coffee and make an omelet (tomato, onion and laughing cow cheese) to eat with bread, then slowly pack up my gear and be on the road at around 8.30am. Within an hour I’d usually be bored of listening to the wind or sound of rubber on the tarmac, so would plug in my Ipod and have it playing for most of the day. It was a total saviour and I can’t remember how I crossed the long desert roads of Egypt and Libya without music to accompany me. The Rolling Stones for an hour might be replaced by a recent Giles Peterson podcast or the soothing vocals of Serge Gainsbourg. Most of the time I’d put it on random and when the battery ran low I’d attach my solar panel to a pannier to ensure it would be fully-charged again the following day.

    Morning breakfast

    A police check-post might appear at the roadside before a service station or town. There were many of these and the formalities were always the same. “Destination Monsieur?” (Mauritania), Profession? (it must have seemed odd for them to hear a sweaty cyclist say Professeur d’anglais). My passport details would then be written down before being wished “Bon route” and continuing on my way. If my water bottles needed filling (I occasionally carried 10-12litres when there was a big distance on the map with no marked settlement or knowledge of a service station) I’d do it here, else wait until I passed a service station or town. If it was lunchtime when I passed through  the latter I might search out a cheap eaterie  and on several occasions I’d get a plate full of fresh fried fish for 10Dirham (1Euro). When not eating in a town I’d make sardine sandwiches at a scenic spot (shade a bonus) and wash it down with a litre of coke. I never drink coke in England but on the road it breaks the monotony of water and is a great energy fix. I also have a theory that the acid helps kill any nasty bacteria in the stomach.

    Fish and chips

    I might have cycled anything from 50-80km by this stage and would aim to do the same in the afternoon, perhaps stopping once or twice to eat a packet of biscuits or some fruit (tangerines are very cheap and in season at this time) or dates. I’d wait until sunset before looking for a suitable spot to pull off the road and pitch the tent, by which stage I’d be famished again. Water would go on the boil whilst I chopped up some tomatoes, onions and garlic (bought if possible in the last town) and then enough pasta for two servings would be thrown into the water. When the pasta was done I’d put it on the side and fry the vegetables in olive oil, adding some tomato paste and water to make a sauce. A tin of tuna or a beaten egg would later be added to the sauce before seasoning it and throwing it over the gargantuan quantity of pasta. I’d demolish this within 10 minutes, belch with gleeful satisfaction then light a cigarette and cast my mind back over the day and the think about the road ahead. If I wasn’t asleep soon after I might read a little, listen to music or write in my journal.

    After several days of desert camping I reached Laayoune. This is the unofficial capital of the disputed western Sahara, but governed like the rest of the vast swathes of desert around, by Morocco. There is little to denote one is in an a disputed zone other than the large UN presence in the city. Nor does it feel that you’re surrounded by desert. Moroccans get to work here tax free and there is money being invested in new buildings and shops to ensure central control over this distant outpost.

    I rested for a day here before pushing on south, the traffic now lighter and the service stations and towns much further apart. Boujdour looked like a village on the map, but in reality it was a sizeable town, at least by Saharan standards. A Dutch man approached me on the street as I was stocking up on supplies from a small shop. He’d driven north from The Gambia and told me about meeting a Japanese cyclist crossing into Mauritania the previous day. I knew it was Hiromu san whom I’d met several weeks previously. I was hoping to catch him up, but had received an e-mail a few days before that said he didn’t have time to wait for me. His girlfriend would be in South Africa in one and a half years so he had to go quickly to keep to his schedule.

    The Dutchman wondered how I dealt with boredom on the road as he found it taxing just driving across the Sahara. I told him I thought of food and sex a lot. He laughed and said “In Holland we have a saying. Keep the mind on zero and the side on infinite” . That might work as well I thought.

    The remaining motor homes that were now on the road were all heading to Dakhla. This is the last town of any significance in Morocco and sits perched at the end of a windy peninsula. It’s earning a name as a top kite-surfing destination. Sure there is beauty in the sense of isolation and remoteness down here, but like most other Saharan towns it lacks character. It’s a very long way to drive your motor-home for a holiday that’s for sure.

    Sunset in Dakhla

    The winds, which had mostly been in my favour for the previous ten days, now started blowing from the south. Once I left Dahkla and rejoined the main road to cycle the remaining 350km to the Mauritanian border I was confronting them head on. There was practically no traffic now other than a few shared taxis, army trucks and the odd overland vehicle driven either by westerners or possibly Mauritanians or Senegalese.

    Relief from the elements came in the form of two cans of a beer and an Italian man insistent on cleaning and re-oiling my sand-filled chain. He was driving a motor home alone and had just returned from the Mauritanian border thinking that he could get a visa issued on the spot (you could before November 2009). “I love people like you. It is great what you are doing”. With 100km in my legs I wasn’t really thinking of beer at 2pm in the middle of nowhere, but as he went about removing the sand from my chain I gulped down the warm beer and thought what a pleasant surprise that someone in a motor-home should stop and offer help.

    Beer in the Sahara

    He was telling me about riding a motorcycle across Australia when a white transit van pulled up alongside. Three Senegalese emerged (one man and two scantily-clad women) saying they had no fuel and could I give them some. Sure enough the last service station I passed was over 100km back, although I’m sure they must have made this journey before and known when to fill up. The Italian reluctantly siphoned-off 5 litres and made some off-the-cuff remark about this being Africa and that I’d face lots of challenges ahead.

    I had one of my most frightening on-the-road experiences early the next day. Having just downed a bottle of coke and scoffed a packet of chocolate biscuits from a fly-filled forecourt of a service station, I was pursued by a pack of ten dogs. They had been dozing in the shade of the petrol pumps minutes before, but now decided to join me on the road as I pedalled off. Had there been one or two I would have followed the standard procedure of picking up a stone and motioning to throw it at them (works 50-70% of the time) else squirted them with water from my water bottle (a new and surprisingly effective, if somewhat wasteful tactic whilst on the move). Ten was just too many though and they were rather cunning at surrounding the bike. I started to walk, thinking they would lose interest, but twenty minutes later none had given up the game. Finally a car approached from behind and I waved it down to stop. The driver was French and had long dreadlocks. Half his teeth were missing and his eyes were bloodshot. I guessed he’d spent a long time in Africa and taken a lot of drugs. He explained that I should hold onto the roof rack so he could tow me along to out-speed the dogs.

    At 30km/hr they were happily running alongside the car. Up to 40km/hr and it was the same. I tried to explain that he should lower his speed a little and maintain a constant pace, but amongst the cacophony of barking and wind he continued to accelerate to 50km/hr. Most dogs had given up the chase now, but several were still in pursuit. By this stage my bike was leaning into the side of the car and I was losing balance. He continued to accelerate and the bike started wobbling. I glanced down at the computer reading 58km/hr and had a flash-before-my-eyes vision of skidding across the tarmac before being mauled by these hungry canine monsters.

    I let go and managed to regain my balance whilst the Frenchman disappeared ahead of me. Two remaining dogs ran alongside as my speed dropped to 30km/hr. After another kilometre they finally stopped. I felt victorious but wished I was carrying some weapon. Nothing would have pleased me more than to put a bullet in the heads of every one of these foul creatures.

    I reached the border feeling like I’d ridden to the end of the earth. For the last few hundred kilometres the map and road signs had been little use in telling me exactly how far the Moroccan immigration post was. Only the increasing number of soldiers standing at random outposts in the desert and signs warning me of land-mines indicated that I couldn’t be far.

    Treading carefully

    I hadn’t left myself much time to enter Mauritania before the 30-day validity of my visa expired. In fact it was valid until the 3rd of February and it was now 3pm of the same day. Before entering Mauritania however I had several kilometres of no-mans-land to traverse. I’ll save that experience, as well as my journey into Mauritania for the next post.

    If you’ve enjoyed reading this and would like to receive future posts via e-mail, you can do so here. I also use Twitter for  short updates. Many thanks for those who’ve made recent donations to the Against Malaria Foundation, although it seems you don’t have to cycle a big distance to raise a lot of money for an important cause.

    The long road