• Into The Casamance June 9th, 2010

    One more night

    An enormous mosquito with blonde hair helped delay my departure from The Gambia. It circled the air, flying past a red dragon on wheels, a carriage carrying Cinderella and Elvis being pushed in a pram. These were just some of the contenders in the soap-box race at the International School. Students were pedalling laps of the school in a creative array of home-made vehicles.  Funds had been raised for the Against Malaria Foundation, so it was fitting that one of the students had come dressed for the part in wings, head and a nasty looking  antenna and proboscis. The event also provided a good excuse to stay a little longer.

    For those students, teachers and parents reading this, many thanks for your support. I don’t have any photos from the day so please send them to me.

    When I did finally get going I only made it 30km. Peter and Muna, who’d kindly let me doss in their enormous compound for the previous 10 days, suggested having lunch on the beach. Their English friends, visiting Africa for the first time, thought they had read about me back home. “There are quite a few of us. You probably read about that bloke on TVI suggested.

    Pale-faced and green-eyed our lives couldn’t have been more different. Rob worked as a tax-advisor in London and commuted daily from Cambridge at some god-forsaken hour. “You get used to it”, he remarked before I proposed packing it all in for a year and taking off.

    The five of us waited most of the afternoon for a shack within an undergrowth of casuarina trees to serve up grilled fish. When it finally came I decided to ask the proprietor if he minded me sleeping on the beach. “You’re very welcome. There is a night watchman and two dogs”. I trusted the dogs more. All afternoon they’d patrolled the beach, barking at the nearest whiff of an intruder approaching the palm-leaved shack. I noticed they never barked at white people. “You people are good to them” said the owner. I’d already told Peter and Muna, who I waved off shortly afterwards, that if I ever lived in Africa the first thing I’d do would be to get myself a few guard dogs. Less chance of them sleeping on the job.

    Sleeping on the beach

    Feeding Africa

    Bob Marley and Bribes

    “Come stop and have some Bob Marley”, came a drug-induced drawl from under a mango tree. I was half a kilometre from the border with Senegal. Smoking pot with several dread-locked bumpsters was not what I was thinking, although I did need to use up the remaining Gambian Dalasi I still had. Cashew nuts were what I had in mind. I was surrounded by the trees, but there was no sign of the nuts.

    It would have been easy to wave off 100 Dalasi (£2.50) to the immigration officer. She demanded it for a stamp in my passport. “I’ve been to The Gambia before. I don’t pay for stamps”, I calmly protested. “Yes, but you haven’t crossed this border before”. I briefly contemplated paying a compliment to the observational skills of this fat young woman, when another cut in “What is good for me”? I looked her up and down, wanted to say a good spanking for being so rude, before turning my attention back to the other woman who had  been flicking through my passport for the past five minutes, finally embossing a departure stamp before looking up and asking. “What country are you from?”

    Guns and girls

    Proceedings on the Senegalese side in the village of Seleti were a little more serious. A young soldier in tight green fatigues and a blue beret pointed his gun in the direction of the immigration office. He was sat in the back of a pick-up with half a dozen other soldiers.

    For the past few decades the Casamance has been dealing with a separatist movement never far from de-stabilising the region. Heading south I weaved between military road blocks consisting of palm trees and oil drums painted red and white. Vehicles were made to stop, but a call of Bonjour, Nagadef or Kasumai seemed adequate approval for a toubab on a bicycle.

    Other than the beautiful women and military presence, the first thing I noticed about the Casamance was how much greener it is than the Senegal further north. Huge cotton and mahogany trees flanked the roadside, dwarfing the palms, mangoes and cashews that also grow in abundance in the lush surroundings.

    Into the Casamance

    Between the dense thickets of greenery lay open rice fields, awaiting the rain before the planting season.

    Rain fell on my first night in the Casamance. I was camping under a thatched roof and unable to sleep due to  the sound of mangoes thudding as they fell out of  nearby trees and hit the ground. Breakfast for next few months is taken care of.

    Casamance camp

    The principal town in the Casamance is Ziguinchor, where I am now. It derives its name from when the Portuguese founded it in 1645. They called it ‘Cheguei e Charam’ (I come and they cry) to refer to the local people who cried at the sight of European slave masters coming to capture them.

    Nowadays its a sleepy back-water, dotted with colonial relics badly in need of attention. Locals no longer cry at the sight of toubabs. Any reaction is more likely to involve an interest in selling a pirogue trip or a carving. Neither have much appeal. I’m off to Guinea Bissau.

    Ziguinchor water-front

    Pirogues at sunset

  • Return to The Gambia May 31st, 2010

    Cycling out of Dakar is best done quickly. This is something that could be said about cycling out of most cities in poor countries, where pollution, rather than prettiness is what one notices. The only reward is in saying that you’ve done it, if that really matters to anyone else. Fortunately there is only one major road, which makes it difficult to get lost, and no hills or confusing intersections to negotiate. Incidentally there are also no other cyclists on the road, which is interesting seeming that for most of Africa the bicycle represents transport for those who don’t have much money.

    The truth it seems is that the Senegalese don’t ride bicycles at all, if they can help it.“They’re too arrogant to be seen on bicycles”, a white face had told me when I first arrived in Dakar. That now seems like a long time ago. It was.

    Relief from the gauntlet of diesel-spewing trucks and speeding SUVs came after 40km. At this point we pulled off the highway and I felt Dakar was truly behind me. Need I mention that it was good to be back on the bike and finally leaving the city?

    Leaving Dakar with Jon

    At first I worried that my wrist would ache after a few hours. Instead it was my backside, but I could handle a little saddle soreness rather than finding out that my tendons wouldn’t be able to take the strain of riding a loaded bike.

    The bags are in fact much lighter now. I’d left books and shoes in The Gambia and sent my Mum home with a fleece jacket, gloves, woolly hat, thermal underwear and various other odds and ends I no longer needed. Minus water I now have less than 25kg loaded on the bike.

    When the traffic lightened the heat increased. Colourless thorny scrub-land, bleached from months of relentless sun and dust, stretched out to either side of the road. In a few months time rain will transform this burnt expanse into a sea of greenery. For now the land is dormant, awaiting that change of season.

    Jon, my Canadian cycling companion for the first week back on the road, soon regretted bringing a bicycle with narrow tyres. He’d toured with the same kind of tyres in India, Bangladesh, Mexico and across south-east Asia, and said he could count the total number of punctures from all these trips combined. I lost track of how many thorns embedded themselves in his tyres as we slowly rode south towards The Gambia.

    Duck-tape repairs

    The punctures meant we started late and stopped a lot. The rhythm suited me. I hadn’t envisaged being back on the bike until perhaps the beginning of June, so was glad his two-week trip to Senegal had kick-started my journey and that we were going slowly to begin with.

    We followed small roads along the coast at first, accompanied by the distinctive African aroma of dried fish. Coastal villages lay cloaked in smoke as tons of  fish received a char-grilling before being transported inland as far Burkina Faso and Niger.

    Fish smoking along the coast

    Out of the smoke

    Toubab coming through

    If punctures weren’t a reason for stopping, the heat was. Lunchtimes were long and lazy as we waited out the worst of the midday furnace. Ideally we should have been riding from 6am-11am, taking a 5-hour rest, then cycling for another 2-3 hours come about 4pm. In reality this never happened.

    Senegalese food ought not to be judged on appearance. Food during these lunch-time stops had all the finesse of a dog’s dinner, but for between $1-2 it was never too hard to hunt out a roadside shack serving a local dish, typically served by a woman who made sure she never went hungry herself.

    Couscous and fish stew

    On the topic of women, have I commented on the fact that that beauty is in abundance in Senegal? Even some of the smallest villages seem to have a shop selling cosmetic products and the latest off-the-back-of-a-truck bling from Europe. Beautification is a big part of Senegalese culture. People are proud of their appearance, including the men. In a country where the landscape offers few natural sights there is at least something to distract ones attention.

    Senegalese girl

    Mother and child

    It was good to have company on the road again. We frequently rode until it was dark, then laughed at the fact that we still had no idea where we would pitch the tent.  I’m usually stressing out by this stage when alone.

    Through lack of other options it looked like we would end up in an enclosure reeking of donkey turd on one night. That was until the chief’s son from a nearby hut had seen our torchlight and greeted us with a large wooden baton. Shortly afterwards we were led into a compound of several thatched mud-brick dwellings and shown where it was safe to pitch the tents. Evening entertainment for a dozen faces. I envisage a similar scenario for myself in the months ahead, preferably avoiding the greeting with a baton.

    On another night we took a fancy to an establishment that served up an enormous plate of couscous, fish stew and had cold beers. The proprietress waited for us to digest our meals before informing us that it would cost $20 to sleep on the floor. Bargaining failed, so we set off at 9pm and pedalled off into the darkness, pitching the tents an hour later beside several baobab trees.

    At camp

    Savana camp

    Other than the punctures the frustration came with the frequent calls of ‘Donnez moi’ from the roadside. Young and old, male and female – it didn’t matter. It is clearly a matter of course that as a toubab (white person) in Senegal there will be constant demands for your possessions. Eventually, and it didn’t take very long, they became repeated so often I ended up receiving them like greetings. I won’t miss this aspect of Senegal.

    Donnez moi toubab

    Meeting the locals

    The plans to cycle much of the route I’d initially walked in The Gambia changed when Jon decided it just wasn’t fun riding on dirt roads with narrow tyres. We arrived in the village of Aljamdu, where I’d stayed several weeks before, camped in a compound full of animals (pigs, goats, ducks, chickens, dogs) and left early the next morning for the ferry to Banjul.

    Ferry crossing to Banjul

    Two days later Jon took a shared taxi back to Dakar. That was after meeting Peter and Muna, an English couple who’d driven down to The Gambia six months ago. “We saw your bikes on the beach and thought you must have a story”. Good time to get a beer I suggested.

    Tripod set-up

  • Meeting with a machete March 15th, 2010

    I’m typing this using my right hand. The other is swollen and my arm is bandaged. There is a large gash just above my wrist and another on the side of my left foot. I don’t think this is so deep, but at the moment I can’t put any weight on it.

    I probably would have walked away unscathed had I not put up some resistance. It was a natural reaction to hold onto my camera bag and ruck-sack as they were being pulled out of my hands. I let go when the machete slashed through my wrist.

    I ought to start at the beginning. This post was going to be about my impressions of Dakar and the nearby island of Goree, instead it is a description of how I was attacked by five men, two of whom were wielding rather large machetes.

    It happened around 8pm last Saturday night, right outside the International School I’d been speaking at the previous week here in Dakar. I was walking along the corniche – a large, well-lit and usually busy road that runs along the coast.

    My assailants were wearing flip-flops.  It was  the sound of their footwear along the pavement that I heard first. When I turned round the five bodies had surrounded me. They were all black, young and two were wielding large machetes. The blades looked old and rusted. There were shouts, possibly in Wolof, as hands began to tug at my bags. I was wearing a small black day-sack on my back and an SLR camera was in a bag across my shoulder.

    Those first few seconds were surreal. I didn’t accept it was a reality until I’d  moved backwards into the road and fallen onto the tarmac. I watched  car headlights approaching and wished they would come quicker. When they did the horns sounded and the vehicles swerved around me. I thought the vehicles would stop and deter the five. At first none did.

    The bags were still in my possession at this moment. It was when the machetes started slashing in front of my face and one connected with my wrist that I let go. It was probably at this moment that my wallet, buried deep within a zipped pocket of my trousers, was taken too.

    Within seconds the five had run across the road and jumped over a wall on the sea-ward side of the corniche. I got to my feet in an attempt to chase them. One of the attackers had yet to jump the wall. I cried out from several metres away. He turned and looked at me nervously, then threw the empty camera bag back, before disappearing over the wall.

    It was then that I looked down at my arm and saw the gaping slash. My left foot had also slipped out of my sandle. I thought it was sweat that had caused this, but a pool of blood was collecting here too.

    By this time (about 30 seconds later) a number of cars had stopped. A French woman opened the car door and yelled for me to get in. She said she had seen everything.

    Blood was oozing out of the wounds as she drove me to a hospital. “This is the best one in Dakar. Don’t worry”. I didn’t really register the words so clearly. I soon started to feel dizzy and was moved onto a bed in an operating room.

    I don’t know how much time past  before I woke up. The Director of the International School, who’d arrived shortly after me at the hospital, was still there. It was good to see an English-speaking face.

    The hospital discharged me yesterday. My wrist and foot have been stitched up and I have a course of antibiotics and painkillers to ease the discomfort. I can’t put any weight on my left foot and know it will be some time before I get back on the bike.

    Very fortunately I’m being well looked after by an American couple from the school. I entered their house as strangers last week and they now feel like the closed people around me.

    Now that I’m out of the hospital and reflecting back over the incident I realise things could have been much worse. I know I should have let go of my bags instantly. It is what my host, who was also mugged with a machete along the corniche last year did. Judging by the looks of their faces I don’t think it was their intention to really use the machetes. They were possibly as scared as me.

    There was a moment, whilst I was awaiting the anesthetic and looking up at the fluorescent strip-light above me in the hospital bed, that I said to myself – “now would be a sensible time to quit”. What the hell am I doing riding a bike through Africa when in the space of two weeks I’ve had both my cameras stolen, all my money taken and my arm and foot slashed with a machete? Sure there were incidents of theft when I cycled from Japan-England, but nothing like this.

    The truth is I’ve put a lot of thought and energy into The Big Africa Cycle. I’m determined to complete what I set out to do at the start, and continue fund-raising for the Against Malaria Foundation. Senegal has dealt me some blows, but to quit in the face of them is something I feel I’ll regret down the line.

    Tomorrow I will see the Doctor and hopefully get a better knowledge of how long I’m looking at for a full recovery. My mum has booked a holiday to see me in The Gambia in several weeks. It is not far from here, but I don’t think I will be riding my bike there somehow.

    Thank you to all who continue to follow this website. It is really motivating to read your comments and support, both here, here and here. I may be down for the moment in terms of cycling, but I’m definitely not out.

  • When the tide turns: St Louis-Dakar March 10th, 2010

    More than 60kg was the consensus. The hostel proprietor and his brother were taking it in turns to lift my bike, now loaded up and ready to roll. They might have been right. A 5-litre jerry-can of water was resting on the front rack – the latest addition to the black behemoth. I’d found it in a nearby market, alongside a pile of other re-cycled containers. It had once held  vegetable oil, but seemed to be well cleaned out now. In Morocco and Mauritania it is common to see empty plastic bottles  and containers at the roadside. Here in Senegal people collect and re-sell them.  It’s a pity they can’t do that with the plastic bags. They’re everywhere.

    St Louis departure

    It was good to get back on the road, although the thefts in St Louis had left me a little paranoid and dis-trustful.  It’s not a good frame of mind to be in when you’re travelling alone and need to depend on the kindness of strangers. I shut myself off for most of the day with the Ipod.  Kids called out at the roadside. I waved and occasionally removed an ear-piece to hear the words  “Toubab, Toubab” (white man).

    Away from the coast the wind died and the temperature increased. Villages slept under the brilliance of the mid-day sun. The landscape appeared harsh and half-desecrated, until late in the afternoon when the shadows began to lengthen and the light softened. By this stage my water finally began to cool down. Contained in plastic bottles and the jerry-can it heats up to an unpleasant temperature under the sun. Someone suggested using hessian sacking to wrap around the containers. I must keep an eye out for this.

    There was little to detain my interest as I pedalled south, until an enormous Baobab came into view. Rising out of the savannah like prehistoric guardians of the land, the Baobab is a distinctly African tree. It’s branches resemble roots –  the African myth being  that when God made the world he gave each animal a tree. The Baobab was given to the hyena, who threw it down in disgust. Hence the reason it’s also known as the ‘Upside Down tree’.

    The trunk of this particular Baobab was hollow. You could walk inside. I wheeled my bike across the sand and woke two nearby curio-sellers. They were dozing in the shade of some make-shift shacks containing  carvings and masks.  Had I arrived on four wheels they might have begun a sales pitch. They regarded me without moving whilst I admired this ugly yet majestic monster.

    Big Baobab

    An hour later a dark mass of moving objects half-blocked the road. A  colony of vultures were feeding on a dead mule. I stopped to watch and listen to their angry squawking. These piranhas of the sky were ravenously devouring the beast. The sound of it’s skull being lifted and slammed back on the road was audible 20 metres away. They paid me scant attention as I slowly wheeled passed.

    Vulture feast

    The road was free of traffic now. I’d turned off the highway in Kebemer and opted to detour west to the sea. My map depicted a small track running south from the coastal village of Lompoul sur mer. The idea was to follow it and re-connect with more minor roads leading into the capital, Dakar.

    The track didn’t exist. Second opinion reached me in French, Wolof and Pular. The latter two languages are spoken widely throughout Senegal and neighbouring west African countries. A few words go a long way. I had 4 hours of practice. It seemed that rather than heading back the way I’d come it was possible to use the beach as a road. I just needed to wait for the tide to turn.

    Lompoul sur mer

    I didn’t think it would be possible to cycle along the beach. Local opinion differed. My Wolof/Pula speaking company were right. The sand and salt might not be good for the bike, but with wide tyres I pedalled south, following the line of the wash.

    For most of the next 40km the beach was wide and empty. Several horse-carts trotted passed,  their passengers waving with looks of bemusement. Pirogues pulled up on the sand and small buildings disappearing into the undergrowth denoted a village. None appeared on my map. Those that do are effectively towns in comparison.

    Waiting for the tide

    Children played football along the beach beside these villages. There were hundreds of them – children that is. It is something any visitor to Senegal will notice very quickly. Approximately 45% of the population of this country is below 15 years of age. Children are everywhere and there appears to be no limit on the size of families. It is the same in many African countries. In St Louis I had spoken with a man who wanted me to buy him some milk . He had explained he had 3 wives and more than 10 children. Your decision I told him. It doesn’t sound very sympathetic. It wasn’t.

    Occasionally the game of football was more interesting than the Toubab cycling along the beach. At other times it seemed more interesting to chase the toubab and pull on his bike. The children did this until a nearby adult shouted something at them.

    I left the beach shortly before sunset. I would have happily carried on, and  I later heard it was possible to travel all the way to Dakar itself  this way. Better to be on a road than stranded on the beach at high-tide with no fresh water though.

    A solitary acacia tree had been company for my tent the previous night, but this time I ended up in a small Pular speaking village. The headman had been standing on the road as I passed. A simple meeting of eyes,  a small smile on  his face as we observed each other – it was enough for me to decide that I would ask his permission to pitch the tent in the village.

    It was less a village and more a  small compound of  about ten straw huts. No electricity, no water. There are thousands of places like this in Senegal alone.

    Excitement ran through the air. Children ran to watch the sweaty toubab pitch his tent. I expected yells and demands for gifts. None came. Tea was served in the headman’s hut, and dinner later served to me in my tent – rice with fish.

    Morning company

    A cockerel woke me in the morning, along with several donkeys. The headman was dressed in a long blue kaftan (boubou) and explained he was leaving for  the day. I offered a few thousand francs. At first he seemed shocked and half -embarrassed to accept, but soon took them.

    My camera provided much amusement with the children, before I finally pulled myself away and was given a big wave-off.

    Mother and children

    Pular girl: Mboro Nden

    Saying goodbye

    Dakar soon began to sweep me into her bosom. The city lies on the tip  of a peninsula that stretches west into the Atlantic. I’d hoped  that the smaller roads would avoid the throng of traffic that people had pre-warned me about. They didn’t.Villages merged into suburbs of the city and the roads filled with cars, trucks and colourful mini-buses. There are few driving rules.

    I’m staying with teachers from an International School here.  The hospitality of people never ceases to amaze me at times. Their world is different from mine, and different of course from the Senegal I’ve experienced to date.

    I’ve spoken to a number of classes here about my two-wheeled travels. It’s  been an opportunity to share the experience, and promote awareness for the Against Malaria Foundation.  One of the presentations was filmed. I ‘ll share some of the footage here in the next few days.

    As always, if anyone has recommendations, advice, criticisms, questions – about this post or whatever, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

    Don’t forget you can receive this update as an e-mail, by subscribing to the newsletter, as well as follow me through twitter and facebook.

  • The night thief March 1st, 2010

    It sounded like a rat at first. A cooking pot beside my bed scraped across the floor then a bottle of coke toppled over. It was 4am. I didn’t know this until the thief had gone. He shot out of the room and jumped off the 5 metre-high balcony before I’d barely thrown the mosquito net out of the way to  pursue him. For a brief moment I watched this dark figure run through the  sandy street below, my cries of “THIEF, THIEF” lost in the night.

    When I turned the light on I realised my wallet had gone.  It had been right beside the bed, inches away from my head. Cash (fortunately not much),  and credit card had now disappeared into the streets of St Louis.

    Having had my compact camera stolen the day before, this came as a double blow. “Make sure you tie your bicycle chain around your ankle”. Those words of advice given to me a week before in Mauritania were now coming back to haunt me.

    The theft of the compact camera could be attributed to carelessness. It was visible within a zipped mesh pocket of my day-pack whilst out walking. The wallet however was right beside my head in a room on the second floor of a hostel. The door to the balcony outside had been left open to keep the room cool. Perhaps this was careless too?

    C’est bizarre, c’est bizarre, muttered the hotel proprietor the next morning. We were standing on the terrace of the hostel and looking down to the balcony and adjoining buildings. How the thief had reached the balcony remained a mystery.

    He might have been one of the three prisoners I later saw in the police station. They were sat behind bars in the entrance way and had been caught the night before. Two were sleeping, or at least pretending to sleep on the stone floor, and the other was watching TV.

    Chelsea were about to kick-off against Manchester City. The TV was resting on the front desk next to an expressionless face who sat in command of a large registry book. He too was interested in the football, although his attention was distracted by a fat woman. She was lying on the floor having just fainted. Moments before she had been yelling at one of the prisoners. I guessed she was  his mother.

    I’d come to make a declaration, for no other purpose than to receive some documentation for an insurance claim. Another officer turned his attention away from the TV and asked me to identify the thief. It was too difficult to say for sure. They looked pretty much alike – black, shaven-headed, torn jeans  t-shirts.

    My GSCE level French didn’t help. “J’ai mon portefeuille volés la nuit dernière”. “J’ai besoin d’une déclaration de ma compagnie d’assurance”. Conversation went back and forth between hotel proprietor and various officers. I listened, waited, looked at the prisoners again, checked the football score.

    An hour or so later I was led into another room in a separate building. A dusty PC was resting upon  an old wooden desk, along with several stacks of paper. It wasn’t until I sat down that I noticed my wallet was also on the desk.  I picked it up and opened it. Empty. No surprise there.

    Come back on Monday, explained the officer after typing in the declaration.  It now needed the Commissioner’s stamp. I decided to ignore the fact that my name had been spelt incorrectly.

    It’s Monday as I write this now and I have my declaration, handed over with the cautionary words “Vous devez être vigilant“. I couldn’t agree more. After a week here in St Louis I can think of no better escape than the open road.

    Room in St Louis

  • St Louis in pictures February 26th, 2010

    I like places with history and St Louis has plenty of it. The French have been fond of the town for over three hundred years and still are.  I rolled  onto  this  time-warped island shortly after crossing the border with Mauritania and soon realised it was somewhere worth stopping for a few days.

    If you’ve been following the twitter updates you’ll know my compact camera was stolen yesterday. It was visible in the mesh-pocket of my day-sack  whilst I was out walking. A lesson quickly learnt. I still have my main SLR, the camera used to take the photos in the slide-show below,  but the theft has certainly put a dampener on my impressions of the place. Time to move on south.

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

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

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

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

    Colour at last

    Post card dunes

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

    Desert mosque

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

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

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

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

    Night company

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

    Morning compaany

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

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

    Into savannah country from Peter Gostelow on Vimeo.

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

    Under the Acacia tree

    Warthog warning

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

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

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