• More from Oman: Mwanza-Muscat Part 16 January 29th, 2016

    I shall start where I left last time, which is somewhere in the Omani desert around about Christmas time. No real festive spirit in this part of the World, just a lot more beautiful camping spots, mountain climbs, historical towns and memorable encounters to enjoy as 2015 came to an end.

    Beach camp at nightSunrise in Southern OmanSunrise at campA sandy ChristmasSunrise at camp

    It’s hard to pick a favourite camping spot in Oman as there have been so many. I sometimes pulled off the road before sunset, or waited till I found what was going to be the best place to sleep before it became too dark to see. As the weeks went by I became less concerned about hiding myself from the road. Camping in Oman is as stress free and safe as I recall it to be in Japan, where I first cycle toured over ten years ago, except there I would never be very far away from people.

    Worldbikers

    Eric and Amaya are well-known in the cycle touring community, posting lots of useful information online for fellow cyclists. They’ve been on the road continuously for almost 10 years now and Oman is their 100th country visited to date. Having been in contact over the years it was a great opportunity to finally meet up with them in person, share some stories and camp together for the night before parting in opposite directions (they were headed south) the next day.

    Bedu father and son

    An equally memorable encounter, shortly after saying goodbye to Eric and Amaya, was being invited to stay with a Bedouin family in the desert.

    The Bedouin, or Bedu as they are often referred to in Oman, are the original desert-dwellers of the Middle East and North Africa. In Oman, like elsewhere, many have given up their desert lifestyle by moving to towns. Others prefer to hold onto their nomadic traditions, opting for a lifestyle that combines living somewhere between the two.

    Mubarak, pictured at the front here, was driving back out to the desert from his town house when he passed me on the road. He stopped and we chatted for a short time in simple English. At first I was hesitant to accept his invitation, but then realised such an opportunity might never come again. I was in no rush to arrive anywhere that day. So I loaded my bicycle into his pick-up and off we went into the sands.

    We only drove about 8km from the road to an area which he said had received rain in recent months. It looked pretty barren to me, but apparently there was good grazing for his camels, which numbered about twenty, and a small herd of goats.

    Bedu LunchBedu tent LunchBedu portrait

    I was soon sitting in a traditional Bedu tent, meeting the family and sharing lunch, and wishing that my Arabic extended beyond more than simple greetings.

    Bedu Camp

    A mixture of old and new: a traditional Bedu tent, albeit with metal poles to hold it up, alongside a less traditional portacabin type mobile home and a Toyota Hummer that belonged to Mubarak’s brother. I slept in the tent.

    Camel portraitBedu and their camelDesert camel at sunset

    Later in the afternoon Mubarak showed me his beloved camels, which hold special significance for Bedu. Camels are everywhere in Oman – idly roaming mountain and desert landscapes many miles from any human habitation. Most of these camels, Mubarak explained, would be branded in order to denote the owner. Were a camel killed on the road by a vehicle during the day time the fault would lie with the driver. At night the owner of the camel, whoever he was, would have to accept responsibility. In years gone by camels might have been raided by other Bedu clans, but Oman is a very different country from the time when this man wrote about travelling here.

    Shortly before sunset Mubarak’s camels were herded together by his two Bangladeshi employees. It was they that prepared the food and milked the camels.

    Bedu camp at sunsetNight with the Bedu

    As night fell a fire was lit inside the tent and more family members arrived from a neighbouring camp. Women, long-veiled and wearing traditional Bedu head coverings, sat aside, eating once the men had finished.

    Camel milk for breakfast

    In the morning the fire was lit again and foaming fresh camel milk was brought out. Mubarak later drove me back to the main road. We exchanged contacts and I thanked him for such tremendous hospitality.

    Ferry from Masirah Island to Shannah

    A few hours later I was taking a boat to Masirah Island, which is Oman’s largest Island.

    Masirah Island

    Measuring about 100km from north to south and 15km in width, this truly is a desert island. Windy as well! The beaches here and further north along the Omani coastline are popular sites for turtles to lay their eggs, particularly during the summer months.

    Beach camp on Masirah Island
    Beach shack camp

    Masirah Island camp

    In such open and exposed settings I fortunately found a few makeshift shacks that protected me from the wind. Having camped on sand and been so close to the sea for the previous few weeks my bicycle, and chain in particular, were now suffering somewhat.

    Sand dunes of Oman

    Desert mosque camp

     But the sand and wind were to continue for a few more days as I continued north along the coast, camping outside a desert mosque one evening to shelter myself. It was in actual fact the last day of the year and there was no phone network to wish friends in livelier places a Happy New Year. Just like several other years when I have been cycling on New Years Eve, I was fast asleep long before midnight.

    Seafront at Al-AyjahSurFishing boat in Sur

    A few days later I reached the scenic town of Sur. This was the first sizeable town I had been in since leaving Salalah, although seemed as soporific as everywhere else. Sur, I had read, is the only place in Oman where traditional wooden dhows are still constructed. I had anticipated a bustling boat-yard, but found just two dhows in the process of being built.

    Sur harbour wall

    Sur harbour wallSur harbour wall

    Of more interest, well at least colour, was Sur’s harbour wall, which was in the process of being painted with murals. This was conveniently located opposite the regional police station where my passport was receiving a 30-day visa extension for 20 rial (£35). I returned an hour later to pick up the passport before leaving the coast and heading inland.

    Al Kabil Castle

    I had the pleasure of sleeping inside the courtyard of a restored castle in the small town of Al Kamil a few nights later. The eccentric Omani owner had decided to turn the place into a museum; well worth visiting should you ever visit the town.

    Traditional Omani coffee potsTraditional Omani coffee pots were just some of the many things the Castle museum housed.

    Wadi Bani KhalidCamping at Wadi Bani Khalid

    Then it was onto Wadi Bani Khalid, which is one of Oman’s most photographed and famous tourist spots. Fortunately I arrived late in the day when most tour groups on day trips from Muscat had left. In many places in the World a site like this would either charge for camping or ban it entirely. Such a move would probably evoke a public outcry in Oman. The deep pools of water here were great for swimming.

    Date palms at Wadi Bani Khalid

    Date palms at Wadi Bin Khalid

    On top of the Wahiba sands.Camping beside the Wahiba sandsCamping beside the Wahiba sands

    Equally as popular to visit are the Wahiba Sands, an area of Oman that displays the desert at its most beautiful. Cycling off onto 100m high sand dunes wasn’t really an option, so I made do with camping in a date-palm plantation where the dunes ended. Magical.

    Old Omani doorOmani doorOman doorOmani doorOmani doorOmani doorOmani door

    Omani doorOmani door

    Intricately carved wooden doors remain in many old parts of Omani towns, outlasting the crumbling mud-brick dwellings that have now mostly been abandoned. I started seeing and photographing lots of them.

    Said's farm in the Oman desert.Breakfast with Said

    Another memorable encounter was a night camping beside an Omani farm. The green fields appeared like a mirage in the rocky landscape one late afternoon as I was thinking where I might sleep that night. Slowing to see what was growing beside the road, Said, dressed in the traditional long white dishdash that Omani men typically wear, called me over. After a short tour I was soon pitching the tent nearby and joined by Said’s friends. A fire was lit and then an enormous platter of roasted quails was brought out with fresh vegetables from the farm. Said returned in the morning as I was packing up. After a breakfast of pancakes, local honey and coffee I did my best to explain that it was not possible to carry kilos of tomatoes, aubergine and beetroot that were handed to me by one of his Bangladeshi workers.

     Road to IzkiAway from the coast and desert sands I headed towards the Hajar mountains.

    Mosque in Nizwa

    Nizwa town and mosque

    Nestled at the base of the mountains is one of Oman’s oldest towns – Nizwa, famous for its fort and souk.

    Nizwa souk pottery

    Nizwa Souk

    Both of which appear so clean and almost recreated for the likes of tourists like me that they’ve lost the authenticity that the literature about them evokes. Perhaps I should have arrived on a Friday when there is a weekly livestock market. The souk, like souks and many shops throughout Oman, closes between midday and around 1600, which isn’t very convenient.

    Nizwa souk fish market

    I decided to wait around a few hours for the fish market to open, which was about as lively as the place got.

    Edge of Nizwa old townAli the Kiswahili speaking Omani

    While walking through the empty streets of Nizwa’s old town I met Ali, overhearing a conversation he was having at the time with a Zanzibarian. They weren’t speaking in Arabic, but Kiswahili. This language isn’t all that foreign to Oman as it once owned the island of Zanzibar, which now belongs to Tanzania. It was a good opportunity to reacquaint myself with what I would classify as my second language. Ali was born in Tanzania, but has lived in Nizwa much of his life. I ended up being invited to spend the night in his home, which turned out to probably be one of the town’s oldest inhabited buildings.

    Camping in Nizwa

    Despite the offer to sleep inside, I opted for the mosquito free comfort of my tent.

    Bahla FortOutside Bahla FortSulaiman the Warm Showers host

    Beyond Nizwa it was onto Bahla, site of another enormous fort. I visited this the morning after being hosted Suleiman, who is a member of the warmshowers website. Omani’s with an interest in cycling aren’t very common.

    Bahla Fish souk

    Bahla’s souk isn’t as touched-up for tourists as Nizwa’s. Tuna fish seem to be popular in Oman. Around £5 for a kilo. Shame I can’t buy and carry this on the bike.

    Climb to Jebel Shams

    View from Jebel ShamsOn the edge: Jebel Shams

    Not far from Bahla and at just over 3000m in altitude, Jebel Shams is Oman’s highest mountain. It only seemed right that I should have a crack at cycling up it, although the road ends at around 2000m, following a steep 15km climb. I camped half-way up, left my bags in a cave then continued to the top the following morning, cycling back down and camping in the same place the next night.

    Jebel Shams goat

    Goats rather than camels are more at home in this mountain geography.

    Steep descent from Jebel Shams

    Descending from Jebel Shams reminded me just how steep the gradients in a few places were. Riding a bike weighing 60kg up this is something of masochistic pursuit.

    Climbing away from Jebel ShamsTop of a steep one

    As it was on this nearby track, which required some pushing when my back wheel started spinning.

    Rare ominous clouds

    Cloudy skies are rare in Oman. A few spots fell out of these dark clouds, but not enough to stop cycling and seek shelter.

    Wadi Damm CampWadi DammAnother wadi and another great camp/swim spot. This is Wadi Damm – located towards the western side of the Hajar mountains.

    Cycling companion For several days I was joined on the road by a friend who now lives in Oman. This was the first time we had cycled together since I left England and started cycling to South Africa. Some years ago now.

    Omani village

    Geologically gorgeous

    Hard to ask for much more than this: great weather, smooth quiet roads and beautiful scenery. Actually the paved road stopped soon after this – not a problem for me but hard-going on a road bike.

    Wadi campAnother wadi camp

    More wadi camping. When there is wood, which there often is beside a wadi, camp fires are part of the de rigeur camping experience in Oman, where nights can be surprisingly chilly.

    Improvisation

    I somehow left behind a tent pole while packing up my gear one morning. Idiot. Fortunately I can improvise with a stick.

    Evening shadows

    The constant companion. My time spent cycling each day in Oman was rarely very long. This was partly a measure of the sun setting before 6pm and the need to find somewhere to sleep before dark, but also because I was never in a rush to be anywhere, often stopping to charge phone battery for a few hours in a small cafe/restaurant, or look around whatever there might be of interest in the places I went through. With the exception of one rest day in Salalah I kept on the move constantly for over 5 weeks – typically riding 5-6 hours a day and covering 70-100km on average.

    Oman is not quite over. This journey is after all entitled Mwanza-Muscat, so it’s the capital I’m headed to next. My route through Oman can be viewed at the bottom of this page.

    If you have a question about cycling in Oman, or some other aspect of what I’ve covered here, please leave a comment below.

  • Congo Journal: Part 5 May 5th, 2011

    On the march rain is very disagreeable: it makes the clayey path slippery and the loads heavier by being saturated, while it half ruins the clothes. It makes us dispirited, cold and wet.”(H M Stanley)

    20/04/11 Distance Cycled 27km  03°08.292S    026°00.657E    No name village

    One of those annoying days when you want to hit yourself for being an idiot. I leave my wallet behind on the road – top of a rear pannier more precisely whilst taking off trousers. Only 15-20km further on do I realise what I’ve done. Fortunately not a huge sum of money– 6000CF or so ($7), but it annoys me and I only have my stupid self to blame. Other than money and wallet there were just contact cards with website written on, a key to padlock (have 2 spares). Could have been much worse.

    Back at the beginning of the day things started better. Met Jo -Welsh girl I’d been told was living in Kindu and working for the NGO Merlin. She read my facebook message about doing a book swap. I walk over with Somerset Maugham short stories, A Short History of the World and A Thousand Splendid Sons.

    Jo looks like she might have just arrived in Africa rather than having already spent a year in DRC (6 months in Goma and now 6 months in Kindu). This is second time I’m at the Merlin Compound. First was when I arrived and asked the Logistician (whose number I’d been given) if I could pitch my tent in the compound. He refused.

    There are a few dozen paperbacks to choose from, but not so easy to read all titles and blurbs whilst having first English conversation with a Brit since that backpacker in Kisangani. End up taking 4 paperbacks – About A Boy, Steppenwolf, (read it before) plus some Haruki Murakami book and another by Ian Banks. Quite a score. I leave 2 books as the other – A Short History of the World, I decide to give to Didier – English speaking Congolese I met when I arrived. Walk to his mobile telephone shop after drinking a cup of earl Grey tea at the Merlin compound – very random. He agrees to change a 50 Euro note, which gives me a brick-sized wad of 130 notes. Use Internet for what might be final time in weeks and somewhat rashly buy camera lens and tripod. Have to be quick with Internet – over $2 per hour so no time to read many reviews of equipment.

    Buy 4 tins of sardines on way back to hotel (getting more expensive now) and pack up, wheeling bike down to river after a plate of rice and beans. Shortly after I’m in a motorised pirogue with about 40 other people and crossing the Congo river for the final time. Always somewhat nervous in such places – if it were to capsize that would be it. Somewhat sad to be pedalling away from the river and leaving it for the final time.

    Laterite road heading south is smooth but hard under the sun. Storm clouds soon build ahead. Feels good to be pushing pedals as track undulates and passes the usual village scenes – surely too early to get tired of hearing Mzungu being yelled at me? How many times will I hear this in next several months? No motorised traffic, but lots of other cyclists – most also making the 240km trip to Kasongo with more loads than me. A couple are transporting bottles of Primus – 60 bottles carefully held in place over the rear rack. I ask the price and they tell me 4000CF. Who can afford to pay over $4 for a beer out here? Not me. These poor guys probably don’t even make enough profit from one journey to drink more than 1 bottle, and it would be warm!

    Heavy weather ahead

    Primus man

    Village I stop in to hide from rain is tiny – just 7 huts and nowhere to take good shelter. Feel a bit intrusive, but locals soon relax. When rain stops an hour later I realise the road is a mess. Think about stopping here or shortly up ahead, but there is nowhere decent so foolishly carry on. Soon have mud jammed between rear mudguard and tyre – not enough clearance. Mud is truly like clay and a group of kids help push the bike towards some surface water on the road then ask for money. I have little patience for this after losing my wallet. Manage to free wheel but it soon jams again. Now outside school with corrugated iron roof and it will be dark soon. No sign of teacher or village chief. Kids go when it turns dark. Tent is pitched in the school. Bit nervous without having received permission. An hour later 2 men come – well one man and a boy. They’re on a motorbike and doing some hydrological research. Can’t understand all the French. They too plan to spend night in this classroom, which is a surprise. They take the blackboard down from bamboo pole it’s supported on and use it for a bed. I give them a mosquito coil. Poor bastards will be bitten alive. School Principal comes later who has a bad stutter. He brings food – Ugali and manioc leaves. Rain continuing now as I write this in the tent.

    21/04/11 Distance Cycled 72km   03°33.722S     026°18.826E   Kimbaiyo

    Road still wet and sticky for first few hours. When mud starts to dry it just jams wheel against the mudguard again. Means having to stop every so often to free the wheel. Plenty of other cyclists on the road with me. One has a fan attached to his handlebars, which spins as the front wheel turns – ingenious. I take a picture and this chap – Ramazanni, clings with me for most of the day. I don’t mind so much, but somehow find myself buying food for him – plate of rice and manioc leaves costs very little. There are no other eating options. We stop twice and even at the second place where four different women are selling food each one has the identical dish. I ask why and they laugh.

    Sticky mud

    Fan man

    Bush meat on a bicycle

    Once sun comes out the road soon starts to dry. Very very hot again and clothes constantly soaked in sweat. Twice in day I pass a stream with enough moving water to cool off and clean.  Must have crossed hundreds like this in DRC. Road and terrain actually quite hard-going – constantly up and down. Villages appear at the top of hills within a clearing in the jungle and the streams at the bottom. The road has a small crew of men working on it to grade and widen – at the moment this mostly seems to consist of slashing and burning the bamboo.

    I sense that having bought breakfast and lunch for Ramazzani he will expect me to buy him dinner. I pedal on ahead, leaving him in some village eating groundnuts. Sun soon sets and shortly after I roll into a small village, spotting a Church which looks like a good place to sleep. A woman nearby is selling manioc, peanuts and bananas – nothing else available here. She tells me that my friend/colleague passed this way earlier. I have to ask again, but sure enough she confirms another foreign cyclist with bags like mine, passed by. Now makes some sense why other people had spoken about my friend being up ahead. The news excites and annoys me. Surely there can’t be another foreign cyclist on this road I’ve chosen? At first I wonder if it’s Hiromu. Maybe he changed his route, or planned to come this way and didn’t want to tell me. When I press the woman for a description of the cyclist she says he had long hair. Well that counts Hiromu out. Who could this be?

    Don’t camp in the Church in the end as the Pastor explains that people will come in the night to pray and drum. Sure enough I hear them. Instead I get shown a place under a palm-thatched roof. Somehow hesitant to break open a tin of sardines. They cost 1300CF out here and so I wait until late when my spectators have gone to bed to eat in silence and darkness.

    22/04/11 Distance cycled 52km 03°52.523S 026°32.660E Kaparangao

    Hello and goodbye again to Hiromu. How very bizarre! Spot him across the road as I’m taking a breakfast of rice and manioc leaves (only ever good when there is chilli). This comes after pedalling 14km. The locals here direct my attention across the road. I watch him wheel his bike onto the road and pedal off. Well if he’s taking the same road I’ll catch him up. Sure enough I do. He’s off the bike walking it thorough a knee-deep trench of muddy water. I too have to push through this 1km long stretch of bog. Actually quite enjoy it – feeling of mud through my toes. Hiromu has someone helping him carry his front panniers, which he’s taken off due to the mud. I plough through with confidence in my waterproof Ortliebs. It is exactly 2 weeks since we parted. He looks to have lost weight and his legs have more ulcers/tropical infections than before. I know how painful these are. We’re not really in a place to chat and do so once we make it through the mud.

    Rice and manioc leaves again

    Knee deep in it

    Bad roads

    Stuck truck

    Hiromu explains that he made it as far as Lubutu, where a driver and then a Doctor from MSF advised him not to continue to Walikale, where there is unrest. So he headed south all the way to Kindu, although didn’t cross the river to enter the town. His plan is to go as far as Kasongo and then head direct to Bukavu, which is slightly different from my route. He also says something about his brake-pads having worn down badly and now he’s walking down hills rather than braking. Looking at the state of his legs and feet I really think he could do with resting off the bike for a week and taking a dose of antibiotics. MSF gave him some but he hasn’t taken them. No point in me telling him to. I don’t think he’d listen. Well we don’t spend long together. About another km further on we both stop to clean the bikes, after which he tells me to go on alone and we’ll meet in Kasongo. Quite glad really. Would be awkward – nice to be moving at my own pace, although I’m not making fast progress on this terrain.

    Road deteriorates and there are lots more hills. Take lunch of ugali and some bush meat. At first apprehensive given its appearance, but it’s actually very good – dark and gamey so take a second piece. Clouds build later in the day, which cools things down and means I can keep going without feeling quite so tired.

    Make it as far as a junction, which is down on my map as Kingombe, but everyone here calls it Kaparangao. There are some Belgian built buildings here – apparently for cotton production.  Like others I’ve seen they’re in a ruinous state. The usual crowd gathers as I stop to rest, then soon decide I might as well stay the night. Well tonight I’m camping in a hospital, which by the sounds of it isn’t going to be all that peaceful as there are several babies here. My host, the Doctor, offered a space on the floor of his room, but it was tiny and not big enough to pitch the tent.

    23/04/11 Distance Cycled 63km  04°15.762S    026°36.541E Sengangenda

    A mistake to sleep in the hospital. My tent is effectively pitched in the waiting room, beside which there is a room with a woman in labour and in the other room someone about to die. Well at least that is what I guess from the wailing of old women right outside my tent. It’s totally dark apart from a palm-oil lamp flickering in the corner. I lie there with my eyes closed hoping it will suddenly stop. Why didn’t the Doctor who showed me this place say something about women in labour and the chance that someone might be rushed in during the night? I feel like a total idiot lying there half-naked in my tent as one person is about to die within metres from me and another is about to give birth. Stupid mzungo they will be thinking. To add to the atmosphere heavy rain pummels onto the corrugated roof and drums can be heard beating loudly in a nearby Church outside. Is this connected with the death I wonder? Fortunately after about 1 hour, although it seems much longer, the noise stops and the hospital is empty again.

    I say nothing in the morning when I see the Doctor. Almost like it was a bad dream.  A bare-breasted teenage girl watches me pack up.  Cycle some 12km to small junction where group of women have food prepared. Surprisingly there are beans and aubergine. I fail to get the girl to understand I want a mix of the three and end up with rice and aubergine. Less mud today and the road generally in a better state. Villages just seem to go on and on – one hut deep along the road and I’m constantly calling Jambo and Habari with a hand waving. These villages are really quite monotonous. Hardly anything to distinguish one from another. I often wonder what the history of these places is. At what point and why did someone decide to say lets build a village here? And who was it? This was always on my mind when those villages appeared on the riverbank – completely cut off by dense jungle. And what do the names mean? Doubt anyone could tell me if I asked them. Perhaps the chief?

    Lunch stop

    The road climbs a fair bit and there are patches of savana between the forest, which I don’t expect to see. Lunch is rice and manioc leaves yet again and I plan to rest here and continue a short way in the afternoon. Problem as normal is that it’s impossible to rest. After a few minutes one gets surrounded by children staring. I half feel obliged to entertain them, but really I just want to shut my eyes for an hour or two.

    Break in the forest

    Home made bicycle

    With the road in a better state it would be possible to make Kasongo today, but I prefer to arrive in the morning. Immigration with the normal delays will be waiting for me I’m sure. So I’m in a Church tonight, which so far looks like it will be more peaceful than last night. Made sure I ate before arriving – meat and Ugali on the way into this village. I ask what the meat is – ‘Monkey’ replies the girl smiling.

    Mud girl

  • Talking gear: 20,000km April 4th, 2011

    Time for another gear review as my cycle computer approaches the 20,000km mark. Some 10,000km ago I wrote this as I waited for the uncertainty surrounding the Presidential elections in Guinea to pass over. Now I’m in the Congo waiting for a boat to transport me up the river here (I was when I wrote this).

    I shall follow the same layout as the last review. If there is a piece of kit or aspect of the journey you’d like me to pass comment on after 20,000km on the road please let me know. Also, any advice, tips or recommendations regarding any aspect of gear is highly appreciated. As I consider myself more a traveller than a cyclist please forgive the lack of specific bicycle terminology and simplicity in some aspects of gear.

    Narrow track

    Bike

    My Thorn Raven continues to prove itself a worthy bike to handle big distances on African roads. The frame remains solid and the paintwork mostly intact with no sign of rust. Any odd creaking from the bottom bracket has ceased since the last review and there is no loose play in the headset.

    After 14,000km I found the rear sprocket and chain had worn so badly that they needed replacing. This was earlier than I expected. The sand and grit from roads in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia during the rainy season certainly speeded up the wear effect.

    Removing the rear sprocket proved a gargantuan effort, requiring the strength of 4 people and a very long 21” spanner. Replacing it with a new one, which was sent to me in Abidjan along with a new chain, rear sprocket, sprocket removal tool and front chain-ring (also replaced) proved much easier. Had I known that it would wear this quickly I would have started the journey with those parts I replaced.

    I also installed a plastic chain-guard over the chain on someone’s recommendation. This is proving to be very useful. Whereas a day splashing through puddles and riding through sand would have required a daily cleaning of the chain, I now find that many days, even weeks pass without more than a few specks of grit finding their way into the chain. This current chain and sprocket might last almost twice the distance as the last, but I probably won’t wait that long to find out. The rear sprocket can be removed and reversed, thereby prolonging it, but given how much of an effort it was last time I’m reluctant to shift it at the moment (although perhaps I should?) I don’t have another chain or sprocket with me, but may have one sent out between here and South Africa.

    Hub

    I changed the oil in the Rohloff hub for the second time in Abidjan. This came after 14,000km (the first in Lisbon after about 6000km). Rohloff advise that the oil is changed every 5000km, which is possibly erring on the side of caution. It may well be possible to ride 10,000-12,000km or more with no harm to the hub or noticeable difference in gear changing performance, but given the cost of the hub I don’t think it’s worth finding out, particularly given where I am. As a gear system I find the hub offers a perfect ratio of gears, all of which I use, although an extra lower and upper gear would be useful. There are many times where a sudden shift of several plus gears is necessary to deal with the unexpected terrain here. With a Rohloff I can do this with no need to turn the pedals. Is it worth the price tag you might ask? I think if you’re going to use it over tens of thousands of kilometres, particularly on poor roads, then yes.

    The front Shimano XT hub shows no signs of requiring attention and I hope it will last the remainder of the journey.

    Tyres

    I’m still using the now dis-continued Schwalbe XR and will do until I can no longer get hold of them or another tyre proves equally as durable. Schwalbe created the Extreme as a replacement to the XR, but I found after several thousand kilometres on UK roads that the walls were already splitting. They may just have been from a bad batch, but I decided to switch back to the tried and tested XRs.

    After 13,000km a split developed in the front XR profile (it had been on the rear wheel for about 8000km). I replaced it with a new XR sent to me in Abidjan, and also replaced the rear tyre with a new XR. After 6000km both XRs are still strong and I have two replacement foldable XRs with me. Unless more than one of them suddenly fails these tyres will last the duration of the journey.

    Wheels

    The Rigida rims are proving to be as durable as they appear. No wear in the rim walls nor signs of cracking beside the spoke nipples. Strong wheels are a must for African roads and these heavyweights fit the bill.

    Spokes

    More a reflection of my inability to correctly true a wheel than the strength of the spokes, I’ve now had 4 broken spokes in the front wheel. Fortunately I’m carrying a number of spares (Sapim spokes). The last one was threaded by someone who knew what he was doing and for the last 2000km it has been fine. I’m confident that any more spoke breakages between here and South Africa will be rare.

    Brakes

    The ceramic break pads are proving very durable. I’ve changed both front and rear once and the current pads have plenty of life left in them. I’ve never used hydraulic or disc brakes when touring and find the simplicity of basic V-brakes to be the best system for a long distance tour.

    Racks

    I continue to praise Surly for their wonderful front rack. Another 10,000km on and still no sign of weakening. Having said this my Japanese cycling partner had one of the lower bracket attachments break after 25,000km of use. It was welded then soon broke again, and re-welded only to break again soon after. A new piece of metal was cut and attached, which looks like it will last. He has almost double the load on his front rack (20-25kg). The best feature of the rack is the large flat loading space it offers (spare bottles and flip flops currently occupy this space).

    Someone recently asked me about how the Ortlieb panniers fit on the rack as they are designed to be attached to Tubus racks. In order to provide a tight fit between pannier and rack I’ve wrapped duct tape around the rack so that the panniers clip on with no loose spacing. Thorn’s rear rack is proving equally as durable as the Surly. No problems whatsoever.

    Brooks Saddle

    A few small cracks have developed around the metal studs of my B17, but it continues to slowly age and gain the character of a well-worn saddle. Despite the sun, rain and humidity the leather holds up well. Brooks provide their own wax to protect the saddle, although I’ve been using tan shoe polish. And yes, despite it being very hard it is comfortable.

    On request Brooks kindly sent me some leather bar tape since the last review, which is proving equally comfortable and durable.

    Kickstand

    The ESGE double kickstand continues to be in my view the strongest stand available for a loaded touring bike. The stress and wear it may have on the frame is cushioned by several layers of rubber between stand and frame.

    Panniers

    The equatorial sun is proving to fade the darkness of my Ortlieb panniers, but more importantly they remain strong and waterproof. Unless one disappears in a river or some other unknown destination they will last the remainder of the journey. An extra external mesh pocket would be an added feature to the front panniers, but the simplicity of Ortlieb is their hallmark.

    Ortlieb Handlebar bag

    Equally as strong and waterproof as the panniers, my 10L handlebar bag contains my valuables (passport, SLR camera, compact camera, Ipod, mini-speakers, GPS, mobile phone, money belt, journal and paperback book). It goes with me when the bike is out of sight. I never use the lock that Ortlieb have developed with the bag to attach it to the handlebars. The mesh pockets on the side of the handlebar bag contain my headtorch and water purification tablets. It is this style of mesh attachment that would be worth incorporating onto the panniers.

    The Ortlieb map case, which sits on the top of the handlebar bag, has recently been disposed of – the plastic having ripped beyond repair. I hope to replace it in the coming months.

    Map case finished

    Camping bag

    The blue camping bag (manufacturer unknown) continues to hold my tent, sleeping bag and thermarest. My packing up time in the morning is far quicker with a bag which solely contains my camping equipment and I don’t mind packing the tent away wet as it can be easily removed later in the day to dry.

    Camp Gear: Tent

    My MSR hubba hubba has probably been pitched over 250 times now and remains intact. I occasionally cringe at the creaking of the poles as I bend them into the fittings, but they remain strong. The almost total mesh inner remains the best solution for camping in hot weather (it effectively doubles as a mosquito net) as it allows any air flow to enter the tent. There is plenty of head room and space for all my gear.

    Several weeks ago the tent withstood a prolonged downpour of rain, although the groundsheet could not cope with the surface water, which inevitably caused the floor of the tent to become wet. This is partly due to the lower hydrostatic pressure (1500mm?) but also the surface of land I was camping on. After several hours of rain the bare compact soil had become waterlogged.

    MSR could provide better tent pegs than the tiny ones that come with the hubba hubba. I have long since replaced them with more traditional pegs.  My only other criticism is the colour of the flysheet – yellow is not very discreet. Aside from this I think there are few rivals for a more suitable 2-men tent to tour Africa with. If you know of one, please share your comment.

    School camp

    Sleeping bag

    My Cumulus down sleeping bag (rated to 0 Celcius, weight 450g) continues to get frequent use, even in Central Africa. There are some nights in the tent when the temperature falls enough to warrant a body layer. Tucked down at the bottom of one of my panniers is a silk sleeping bag liner, which would easily suffice for the drop in temperature, but this has hardly had any use since starting the journey. I could probably do without the down sleeping bag for the next several months, but I anticipate camping at altitude again between here and South Africa to warrant keeping it. Even at temperatures of 20C the down sleeping bag doesn’t cause me to sweat. I would say that a similar sleeping bag rated to around 0C such as the Cumulus one is ideal for a long tour through Africa where temperature can fluctuate, but rarely drops below freezing.

    Thermarest

    Still going strong in its 4th year, despite two patches from former punctures (I camped on a bed of thorns in Tunisia during my last trip). Some people opt to use a roll mat to prevent this, but the comfort and compactness of a thermarest makes it more ideal.

    Pillow

    My inflatable Decathlon-purchased pillow is now no more. Small splits developed in the seams several months ago and I got tired of waking up in the night to re-inflate it, only for it to be flat again a few hours later. Repairing it was impossible. I’m hoping to find a replacement in east Africa.

    Camping stool

    Continues to get frequent use and highly recommended if you’re planning a long tour and plan to camp on rough ground. Seeming that it only cost 5 Euros from Decathlon it’s surprisingly strong.

    Primus Stove

    Now in its 3rd year my Primus omnifuel is proving very robust and managing to deal with the dirty fuel I use to power it here in Africa. The half-litre fuel bottle sufficiently provides power (when filled with Petrol) for several hours of high-powered burning, which very approximately is enough fuel for a week’s camping (boiling water for coffee and rice mostly)

    Cooking pots

    I continue to use the two Coleman cooking pots (1.5L and 1.7L) I started the journey with. The frying pan I picked up in Morocco has hardly been used in the last 6 months, but its light and slots into a space easily enough.

    Ortlieb water bladder

    During the first year of this journey I rarely used the 10L water bladder, but in recent months it has been frequently used when camping in the bush. Used sparingly 10L is enough water for two people to shower. I usually look for a water source late afternoon and then strap the bladder onto the top of my camping bag for the final kilometres of the day.

    Electronics: Laptop

    I’m still updating this website using my Eee PC 901. Shortly after the last review a number of keys on the keyboard stopped working (possibly trapped moisture?). A kind reader sent out a replacement keyboard to Liberia, which has functioned fine since. For its size and price it is hard to be too critical, but I miss having extra hard-drive space stored within the netbook and it could be quicker. The battery continues to give 3-4 hours, which is great considering its use.

    Portable hard-drive

    I store all my photos, music, videos and films on a 1tb hard-drive. In Nigeria I sent home the 500GB hard-drive I set off on the journey with. This one still has plenty of space, although I’d like to do another back-up between here and South Africa. I keep the hard-drive within a cushioned zip-case, which then slots into one of the pockets in the rear pannier.

    Cameras

    Still using the Nikon D90 and Lumix compact. I miss having extra focal length with the 18-105 lens that I bought with my second D90 of this trip. The 50mm lens rarely gets used as there is no space for it in the handlebar bag. I have 2 Nikon batteries, which provide enough power when fully charged for 600-800 shots at a guess.

    The Lumix compact is what a compact should be and takes very good macro shots. I use a 8GB SD card in the D90 and a 4GB SD card in the compact. When the cards are full I transfer pictures onto the portable hard-drive. I have several more SD cards of various sizes as a back-up.

    Ipod and mini speaker

    Touring without music would be hard for me. I try to collect new music as I travel, but most local music is not available digitally and download speeds are far too slow. My Ipod continues to get regular use nonetheless and several months ago I bought an X mini-speaker, which for its size and price tag produces great quality sound for music and films.

    GPS

    Since the start of this year I’ve been travelling with a small GPS, which was kindly donated to me by a South African traveller. There are no maps loaded onto the GPS and I merely turn it on every evening to record my position. At some point in the future I’ll put these coordinates into some kind of mapping software to track where exactly I stayed each night. I’m looking forward to tracking my progress across the equator.

    Solar charger

    My Freeloader Solar panel continues to spend most of the time in a pocket within a front pannier. What does get used is the solar battery. This can be charged by itself from my laptop and acts as a battery to provide a full charge to either my mobile phone or Ipod. Using the solar panel to fully charge this battery when on the move is not easy for a number of reasons (angle of the panel, tree cover, bumps on the road, which ause the battery to disconnect from the panel).

    Clothes

    I’m now so far into my trip that many of the original clothes I set off with are now no more. I still have my original craghopper zip-off trousers, which rarely get worn as it is too hot now, as well as a long sleeve and short-sleeve craghopper shirt. My craghopper fleece pullover resides at the bottom of a pannier, but will be necessary for the next place at altitude (eastern Congo, Rwanda?) Cycling clothes consist of one of two pairs of padded shorts and either the Against Malaria cycling jersey, or as I’ve been wearing more recently, a sleeveless shirt with the colours of the Central African Republic flag on.

    In Ghana I gave away what waterproof clothes I had as I found I was never using them. I also replaced my Karrimor sandles with a fake pair of Tevas here (still going strong) which I wear when cycling.

    Flip-flops get daily use off the bike and I continue to carry a pair of lightweight cross trekking trainers for colder weather or possible hiking.

    In Nigeria I bought wax-cotton material to be made into two pairs of shirts and trousers for off-bike wear.

    I think that’s almost it, other than my precious Tilley hat. One doesn’t need many clothes around the equator.

    There are various other bits and bobs in my panniers, such as the first Aid kit, which fortunately receives little use other than being opened to take out my weekly malaria pill preventative. Books wise I have several paperbacks with me, which might get finished if I end up waiting much longer for this Congo boat. All in all it’s about 25kg of luggage, minus the fluctuating quantities of water and food I carry.

    That just about covers it. Let me know your thoughts. In another 10,000km I should be quite close to South Africa, I think.

  • Journal entries from the Central African Republic February 12th, 2011

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    ” A traveller who has just arrived in a new country where everything is new to him is held up by the difficulty of making up his mind” (Andre Gide: Travels in the Congo)

    I continue to keep a hand-written journal of my journey and may include a few more of these excerpts as blog posts over the coming months. Here are several entries from the last 10 days.

    02/02/11: Distance cycled 44km.

    Location Godeambole:   04°04.274N  016° 05.157E

    Don’t get moving till after midday on account of Hiromu disappearing to buy a new shirt. Someone stole his green Cameroon football shirt from the clothes line outside the hotel last night. I made sure to bring my washed clothes inside before going to bed – dry or not. Could tell the place wasn’t 100% secure.  Management unable to do much, but surprisingly they pay or half pay for another. More than an hour before Hiromu returns with a new outfit – red short-sleeved top and matching sweat pants with the Central Africa Repub flag and colours on. I use the time that he’s away to read more of the hardback I’ve been lugging from Limbe and trying to finish – Congo Journey.

    We now have a clearer route for Bangui planned out. Spoke with the British Consul  in Bangui on the phone last night. He seems to know the minor road I’m looking at on the map and gives good advice. There is a much shorter way to Bangui – 450km rather than 600km.

    Buy a few more supplies before leaving – maggi stock cubes and sugar. Wanted to get pepper, but unavailable. Very little to buy here.Take lunch of maize couscous and groundnut sauce before leaving Berberati. Also have CAR flag painted onto the bike – pretty amateur looking, but somehow original. Like this flag – distinctive from the usual red, green, yellow striped ones from west/central Africa.

    Young kid follows us barefoot for several  kms out of the town – determined that we give money. I have no small change, but find a 25CFA coin – only because he follows us for so long that I give in – quite sad.

    Short way out of town comes first check post – passports and vaccination cards and a call for 5000CFA. Again we manage to get away without paying – me saying something to the effect of our visas costing 50,000CFA and Hiromu being his usual clueless self.

    There is no traffic on this laterite track, just locals transporting wood in push carts back towards Berberati. All look very poor and I feel CAR displays more signs and a sense of poverty than any other country to date on this trip.

    We continue to pass many small villages which line the road – all identical palm-thatched huts in front of which people sit. Most peoplelfull of smiles and waves. Incredibly friendly and curious. Somehow the smiles make me feel more sympathy and sorrow. They have nothing and I’m just passing by pretty much carefree.

    Another check post down the road has a large officer in green combat trousers and a vest top that reads ‘Certified Muff Diver’ with a picture of a man going down on a woman. Well that just sets the tone. I can’t take what might be another 5000CFA demand seriously and we’re on our way again.

    Hard to spot a suitable place to pitch the tent, but I sight a football pitch behind a row of huts. Soon have permission from chief and set up camp with usual crowd of onlookers. Lightening breaking in the sky above as I write this – rains not far away. Still not completely sure when rainy season is here?

    Painting the flag

    03/02/11 Distance cycled: 59km

    Location: Wodo: 03° 49.551N 016° 26.860E

    Rain comes during the night. All that lightening being followed by rolls of thunder then a steady rain that stops and starts all night. No downpour as I feared and tent holds out  water well. Makes the night cooler and when I wake the sky is still overcast. As expected Hiromu has the idea that he will dry all his gear before we leave, which is ridiculous as there is too much moisture in the air. He is always so methodical, meticulous and slow when it comes to packing up and loading the bike, taking twice as long most of the time. I use this ‘Hiromu time’ in the morning to read and write journal. Eventually he decides to pack his stuff away wet like me (easier to bring it out to dry when sun is stronger later). Children and few elders come to watch us pack up, including the chief, whom we greeted last night. Sense there is an expectation for a gift, which we don’t have. Nothing said. Must remember to buy Kola nuts when I see them.

    After the rains the roadside vegetation is refreshingly green – dust having been washed from the leaves. Track also without dust, but there is hardly any traffic anyhow. After 10km we arrive in Bania, which is on the map. There is a small market here, but practically no food. I buy a plate of boiled manioc, having already eaten bread and last of laughing cow cheese earlier. Hiromu takes rice, which has clearly been cooked the previous day and looks as appetising as he says it is. Cafe owner seems to regard us with distain. I sense it is Hiromu’s tone of ordering stuff – the “donnez moi l’eau” sounding harsher than “avez vous”.  I say nothing.

    On we go, descending from this small town and crossing a large river (Mambere) with a bridge showing it to have been constructed by a German engineering company – no date. On the map this is but another mere tributary of the Ubangui. It is massive at 100m plus in breadth.

    The track continues to pass some small stunted huts, often strung out on the road for several kms before the bush returns. Early in the afternoon we reach a junction where the road heads left towards Bangui, although it is still another 370km. There is a large check post here although to begin with none of the surly looking army fatigued guys sitting on the wooden veranda do anything. This is the 9th check post I’ve counted since entering CAR – we passed another this morning on way into Bania, but surprisingly no problems – hard to predict. Try to find water at this junction but there is no pump – hasn’t been all day and none ahead as far as I can tell. I sense this will be a problem as we head into DRC.  People use river water, which is fine for washing and cooking, but have to be more careful regards drinking.

    I take coffee and avocado puree in a small shack here. The coffee actually very good and from CAR. Avocado is mixed with a maggi stock cube – odd combination – people use it here for everything – discovered it actually makes good soup. Manage to get a little water here, also I’m able to break a 5000CFA note across the road from buying just 100CFA of groundnuts. Finding small change has been almost impossible – now that I have it the idea is to hold onto it as long as possible – breaking 1000CFA notes first before the coins are used. Impossible to get change from a bunch of bananas in a village – these though are about the only things being sold along the road, along with plantain and manioc.

    Once we pedal off on what is a smoother sand track heading east the jungle starts to assert itself more distinctly. Butterflies are everywhere – many different colours. They settle on the sand then fly up as I pedal past. And lots of small black birds dart across road in late afternoon. There is also occasionally a very strong scent of a flower – not sure what. Later in afternoon we pass pygmy camps – tiny little huts for tiny little people. Expect to see more in DRC too.

    Sight of 2 fresh papayas on roadside brings me to a stop. Buy both for 100CFA and Hiromu goes off with my 10Litre water bladder to fill it – water source is some distance and a local goes with him. I sit alongside an elder (drunk?) with a map of the Congo. At some point in the conversation, which I do well to follow with his French being comprehensible, I explain that the papaya I just bought from him for 50CFA would cost upwards of 1000CFA in England, but that tomatoes and veg are cheaper there than here. Later I hear him relaying this info to other locals– probably wishing he had charged me closer to the UK price.

    When Hiromu returns it’s not far off sunset, so we arrange to camp by the school, a few hundred metres away. I enjoy these camps, but sometimes feel that we’re distancing ourselves from the people by doing so. On the other hand I know that interesting as the local company would be, it would also be anything but relaxing and relaxation is what I yearn for at end of the day. There would also be an added onus/expectation of gifts/payment. Now in my tent I realise I’ve pitched it over termites – they’re vibrating under me. Too much hassle to move now.

    12/02/11:  Location: Bangui: 04 ° 22.124 N 018 ° 34.709E

    Things are changing here. When we arrived 4 days ago I planned to be ready to leave CAR by this stage  – pirogue across the river to Zongo, DRC. All the kit is washed, collected DHL parcel (containing spare tubes, pump, Blood River book, packet soups, multi vitamins, maps of Kenya, Tan and Uganda) updated website and feel well rested. But yesterday Hiromu returns from an outing to find a Japanese NGO in the city to say he has been offered work – not with NGO, but a Japanese construction company – wtf! He was keen to leave earlier than me and now he has the idea to stay 2 weeks until the end of our CAR visa to gain what he calls ‘experience’. He was a travel agent before starting his journey. This Jap company are bulding a number of schools in Bangui and require an assistant/translator (Hiromu barely speaks any French). He claims it to be a rare offer and that they will employ me too. That was yesterday. Today I spent 4 hours standing with a hard hat on and holding a tape measure as some Jap guy who speaks zero English or French goes about taking measurements. This was after re-entering Japanese officialdom by sitting in an office in Bangui. Those silent 30 minutes in a room of 7 male Jap  employees took me all the way back to that staff room in Japan where nobody spoke but sat staring at screens – so formal and utterly surreal here in chaotic CAR. Hiromu instantly becomes Japanese again – sitting like someone has shoved a poker up his arse and telling me to not sit cross-legged or use my mobile phone. This transformation is shocking – he left his culture and country nearly 2 years ago but switches straight back into it with a Jap company around him. There I was thinking that he had started to reject the system. Annoys me as he later agrees that this atmosphere is stressful.

    Plan is to move from Giovanni’s pad (Italian EU guy I got put in contact with for a place to stay) tomorrow. This Jap company supposedly going to arrange accommodation for us. I told Hiromu this evening that me staying and waiting in Bangui for 2 weeks is 90% so that we head to DRC together, which was the plan. In two minds about whether I want to be taken on by the company, which will involve wearing a stupid boiler suit uniform and a hard-hat (the latter totally unnecessary).  I suggested the option of helping on an irregular/part-time basis – but this is totally un-Japanese – it is all or nothing – one cannot be part of the team one day and not the next. I find this conformity suffocating. Whether they pay money at the end of two weeks or not (Hiromu won’t ask as it is rude to according to him) is not particularly important (although if I knew it would be a lot there would be some incentive).

    Other stuff that happened this week: Met the Brit honorary consul for drinks here. Been in the country since 1978 –  said he got bitten by the mosquito and ended up with a black magic woman. Director of a diamond company now. Worked with a mission when he was first here – coffee export for some years after that. Man with stories to tell I’m sure – few secrets in there too. First real social connection with UK diplomat on this trip.

    Last night ended up dancing till 2am in a club full of prostitutes – well they all are in Africa. Went with several MSF peeps – their working regulations seem strict as well – curfews often in place – what I’m doing must break every rule in the book. Had been put in contact with this English guy by various people on facebook – he used to work in DRC and gave me some good advice, particularly regards the check-posts. Will be big advantage to have an ordre d’mission letter – something more specific to state what I’m doing and where I’m travelling between. He disappears early and leaves me on dance floor with a woman whose hands are all over me. Don’t mind at first – then the demands for drinks come and when I move to dance with another girl I’d spotted earlier she comes over and gives me some abuse.

    Tonight I’d been invited to a party by a woman from World Bank, but after last night as well as stress from day and mixed head about whether to work here or push on alone to DRC  I decide to stay in.

    Bike junk

  • Where I sleep on the road November 11th, 2010

    Not knowing where to sleep at night can be a stressful experience when it starts to get dark and you’re out on the road. The suitably discreet spots for camping you saw earlier in the day have now gone and you have no idea how far it is until the next village or town because your map is rubbish. Do you keep looking in the dying light for somewhere to secretly pitch the tent, or continue to the next inhabited place where there might be a guest house or someone to safeguard your security in camping? It’s an all too familiar scenario these days.

    South of the Sahara I’ve camped wild very rarely on this journey. By camping wild I mean pitching the tent in the open without anyone knowing. The last time was in a palm plantation in Cote d’Ivoire and before that the dry Senegalese sahel. I have on the other hand sought permission and pitched my tent numerous times within the compound of someone’s property, or inside/beside police stations, immigration offices, schools, churches and occasionally within mosquito-infested hotel rooms lacking bed-nets or fans. People rarely have a problem with it and are usually just shocked, amused and entertained to see a white man set up his small mobile home for the night. Do I leave money? Sometimes, but not always. It depends where I sleep and whether I share someone’s food. I sometimes think how a landowner in my own country might react if a foreign stranger were to suddenly appear on his property and ask to pitch a tent.

    My Long Ride Home from Japan was different. I think I was a little more afraid to ask people for a place to pitch my tent and occasionally sought comfort from the solitude of sleeping in some of the dramatic locations I found myself in. And there were days, thinking back to India in particular, where I just wanted to shut myself away from the intensity of it all. India is possibly one of the hardest countries to camp wild in.

    I anticipated pitching my tent in the grounds of the Sheraton hotel when I arrived here in Abuja earlier this week, which believe it or not allows trans-continental travellers with their own vehicles to camp for free, but I’ve ended up somewhere a bit different. More on that and Abuja itself in the next post.

    I occasionally take photos of some of the places I’ve slept in over the years. Here is a selection starting right back from Seoul in 2005, where I ended up swimming out of my tent at 3am in the morning, to more recently in a Nigerian church last week.

    For those who wonder how I go about finding safe places to camp wild, here are a few guidelines. If you feel like adding to it from your own experience, comments would be much appreciated.

    1) Look for paths/tracks which deviate from the road and ensure you can leave the road quickly without having to push/lift the bike.

    2) Make sure no-one sees you leaving the road. This is perhaps the most important guideline. If you are seen you run the chance of being visited later.

    3) Make sure your tent is invisible from the road or any other human-habited place. Behind/within thick vegetation or small mounds of land are obvious places.

    4) Ensure you have enough water and food to see you through the evening, night and morning.

    5) Start looking with an hour left of light left in the day. Finding good spots becomes very hard when there is no light.

    6)  Lock the bike close to the tent. If there is no tree and you’re worried about security lock the bike around a tent pole. If the bicycle happens to be moved at night, so will you.

    7) Unless you’re really wild (ie you know with certainty there is no-one around for many kilometres) don’t start a fire.

    8) Don’t camp close to large towns/cities where there is evidence of people recently using the land.

    9) If someone sees you camping and they are close by, make contact rather than ignore them. Trying to remain invisible may arouse more suspicion.

    10) Try to avoid pitching the tent in low-lying areas if you think it might rain. Camping in wadis in the desert for example

  • A well-worn weapon September 4th, 2010

    The end of the road in Liberia is close. Another 20km from here and a river divides the country from it’s Francophone neighbour – Cote d’ Ivoire.

    Stretching to either side of me are two long palm-fringed beaches and I’m surrounded by the ghostly remains of large war-ravaged buildings. The town of Harper here in the far south of Liberia is now a sad shadow of what before the war must have been a prosperous place, for a minority anyhow.

    Harper: Liberia

    Getting here wasn’t easy. Impassable roads as the guidebook warned – no. Mud-slick slopes, crevasse-sized gullies and knee-deep trenches of water – yes. Plenty of them. Coupled with the rain, biting mango flies between downpours and unidentifiable bush-meat lunches in villages and towns that don’t appear on my map has altogether made the last 300km a memorable and challenging one. I slept in a mud-hut on stilts in the jungle one night and pitched my tent in a police station to hear stories of ritual killings that involved hacking off body parts on another.

    Getting stuck-in

    Hut on stilts

    Bush-meat for sale

    The front tyre replacement thankfully survived, but my attention has now been drawn to other parts of the bike.

    A few blog posts ago I described how my trojan of a Thorn was coping admirably after its first 10,000km. It still is, although all that mud, sand and water in Guinea, Sierra Leone and now Liberia have done a good job in creating a deadly weapon out of the rear sprocket.

    Ouch!

    There I was thinking I could ride most of the way to Cape Town and not have to worry about parts of the bike I have a limited knowledge of fixing. How very wrong. Had I known more, apparently I could have reversed this sprocket to prolong its life. Next time.

    On their way to me in Abidjan, Cote d’ Ivoire is  a new rear sprocket, sprocket removal tool, chain whip, chain, front chain-ring, Rohloff gear cables, Rohofff hub oil, chain protector and tyres.  My confidence in removing and replacing the rear sprocket isn’t great.

    Interestingly another trans-African cyclist, whom I hoped to catch up at one stage, (unlikely now) has suffered almost identical problems, although she managed a few thousand more kilometres. I personally think my rear sprocket is more deadly in appearance than hers.

    I can still ride the bicycle. Abidjan is 450km away on what I hope are better roads than those that brought me here. Time to unearth that French dictionary and phrasebook from the bottom of one of the panniers. I’m not sure how to ask a mechanic for an adjustable spanner.

    Liberian road sign

  • Talking gear: 10,000km in June 30th, 2010

    Half-way to Cape Town yet? Unless I start pedalling a much straighter route, which is usually far less fun, I can confidently say no. Guinea Bissau, where my speedometer ticked over 10,000km recently, does not appear to be equal distance from England and South Africa. The distance I’ve come does however provide a good opportunity to review the gear that’s got me here. What has lasted, been replaced or sent home. It’s not an exhaustive critique, and if the words Rolhoff, Schwalbe and Ortlieb appear all too unpronounceable, you may wish to stop reading now.

    The Big Africa Cycle

    Thorny

    Best to start with the bike. There’s not much to say, other than I’m very content. Apart from a broken front spoke and the occasional clicking from the bottom bracket (any suggestions?) my Thorn Raven has proven steadfast and strong. The rims miraculously show no signs of wear and I’ve yet to change the ceramic brake-pads. The Rolhoff hub hums along after an oil change 5000km ago and all cables seem fine. Yes its heavy (about 16.5kg with the tyres I have, racks, kickstand, 1m long chain lock and that hub) but I’m not trying to break a speed record. I re-oil and occasionally tighten the chain whenever it sags. A simple procedure done by turning the bottom bracket. Unless someone would like to advise me otherwise, the chain receives minimal wear and should last a good while longer?

    Tyres

    Somewhere in southern Morocco I switched the rear Schwalbe XR tyre to the front when it developed a small split in the wall. This will develop, but I’m optimistic both tyres will last several thousand more kms+. A great shame they’ve been discontinued. If I can get hold of some more I’ll continue to use them, otherwise their replacement Extremes.

    Racks

    Thorn’s expedition rear rack shows no wear and offers plenty of space for my camping bag. Some of you may have noticed the blue dry-bag on the rear rack has replaced the much larger black Ortlieb one I started the journey with. I swapped this with Jon in Senegal. With an 80L capacity it was too big for Africa. This blue bag fits my tent, sleeping bag and thermarest and is a much more compact set-up. The tent poles neatly strap on one of the rear panniers.

    As for the Surly front rack, it provides an enormous and useful amount of space to bungee extra water bottles, flip flops (essential kit for African bucket-showers!) and any other gear that may be needed quickly. The rack may be a little heavy compared to other front racks, but it feels as solid and strong as it looks.

    Mrs Brooks

    My Brooks B17 saddle is now well broken-in and for the most part comfortable. Keeping it dry now that the rains have started isn’t easy, and I’m not sure tan-coloured shoe-polish is what Brooks would recommend me using, but it brings out a nice mahogany shine when I give her a polish. Non-cyclists and those who’ve never ridden a Brooks often think the solid leather is uncomfortable. The fact is unlike many synthetic-manufactured saddles the leather breathes, and once you’ve broken her in its a bit like giving up a pair of well-worn walking boots. I’m also of the opinion that a Brooks saddle adds a touch of class.

    Kickstand

    On my last tour I went through at least half a dozen kick-stands. They were those cheap Chinese -manufactured spring stands you see on many mass-produced bikes. This double legged-one is far stronger. The only occasional problem is that I possibly cut the metal a little short so that it has trouble holding itself on soft ground.

    Panniers

    My roll-top Ortlieb panniers show no signs of weakness and stay firmly fastened on to the racks. If I was to make a suggestion to Ortlieb it would be to sew in a mesh pocket to the rear of the front panniers. They seem to have successfully done this with the handlebar bag I have and managed to keep it waterproof. The pockets would come in handy for road-snacks, extra water bottles and stuffing things away.

    Water filter

    A short while ago I received an e-mail asking about the travel tap that appears on my equipment page. I decided to send it home. I found the bottle had to be squeezed very hard for the water to be filtered through, so it wasn’t like using a regular water bottle. In order for it to be effective it also has to be dried out after each use, which is just a hassle. I found it was sitting in one of my panniers for months. When I am concerned about the safety of the water to drink I have a number of sterilising tablets. I think the travel tap has it’s place in an emergency, but I’m not walking off into the wilderness and needing to collect my water from stagnant ditches and ponds.

    Camp gear

    My tent needs to pass through the rainy season before I give it a better review, but to be honest I don’t think any tent will keep you really dry in a prolonged African downpour with strong winds. I’m not talking about the tent leaking, more the fact that your belongings will become damp. I’ve pitched the tent over 100 times now. The poles remain strong, the full mesh inner is perfect in hot weather and the tent has no flaws in it other than a small hole that needs duck-taping on the flysheet. This was caused by it rubbing against the inside of a wall when I slept in an abandoned building in the western Sahara. Why MSR have chosen yellow for the flysheet and not a more sensible colour like green or blue I don’t know. The manufacturers probably weren’t thinking of people wanting to wild-camp and be discreet. Jon, who cycled with me in Senegal, was using a one-man hubba hubba. Exactly the same, but half the size. He was able to fit his gear within the vestibule, but it was a tight fit. Personally I would never tour with anything less than a two-man tent. Considering how much time I will stay in it, for an extra kg, I prefer to have the space.

    I’ve kept hold of my down-sleeping bag, although could possibly make do with the silk-liner that I’ve only used several times. The latter weighs 100g so I’m not fussed about this. Despite the heat and humidity there have been occasions when I require the warmth of the down, such as recently in the mountains of northern Guinea. Up in the High Atlas mountains in December I was camping at temperatures below freezing. Bringing a down with a temperature rating of 0C was a good choice.

    As for the Thermarest, it is the same one that was given to me by a Dutch woman in a hostel in Estafan, Iran, back in 2007. I think she felt sorry for me when she saw me having trouble repairing the one I set off with from Japan. This one has been punctured and successfully repaired twice, and despite the hassle of having to blow it up (why it is called self-inflatable I don’t know) it is often more comfortable to sleep on than a number of hotel beds I’ve found myself on.

    Equally important camping-wise is my inflatable pillow. Some people choose to bundle their clothes together into a bag, but I consider my 5-Euro Decathlon head-rest to be money well-spent.

    Another Decathlon product frequently used is the camping chair, kindly donated by Tim when he returned from Morocco. This draws much applause and occasionally envy from Africans who have no idea what it is until I sit on it. When not in use its home is strapped down on top of one of the rear panniers.

    Cooking-wise I continue to use the Primus Omnifuel that was with me for the remaining 6 months of my last tour. It’s currently running white-gas, another of Jon’s donations, which is clean and efficient, but any time soon I will be filling the fuel can with dirty African petrol. This will require the stove’s jet to be cleaned frequently. I’m using it less often at the moment as I find myself either eating cheap street food (invariably rice with manioc or some sauce) or sharing meals with people. I do carry filter coffee and when alone often boil up water in the morning for a cup. The filter coffee has its home in the tupperware box that also holds camera-film canisters of salt, pepper, mixed spices and at one time olive oil.

    The Coleman cooking pots I set off with have proved adequate size (2.0L and 1.5L) for boiling pasta in or mixing vegetables. In Morocco I picked up a small frying pan – perfect for fried eggs and omelets.

    Clothes

    Are there any other tourers who manage without a towel or a pair of underpants? Now that I no longer need to use my buff headwear as a neck-scarf, I find it makes a good towel. I don’t think Buff markets this as one of the dozen ways in which they can be used. As for underpants, when I’m cycling I alternate between wearing one of the two pairs of padded shorts I have, over the top of which I have my baggy blue altura’s – faded but still strong. Up top I’m wearing the cycle-jersey, as modelled in recent pictures. The Craghopper shirts (2 short sleeve, 1 long sleeve) and trousers that were kindly donated are still going strong and worn off the bike. As is the wonderful Tilley hat. I have no doubt I would still be wearing the first one if the machete-wielding savages hadn’t taken off with it. It’s on my head almost all day everyday. As the label inside the hat rightly states ‘THE FINEST IN ALL THE WORLD’. Even if it is only a hat, I love my Tilley. Perhaps there is a reader who will share my enthusiasm?

    Washing the clothes I do by hand. I don’t envisage seeing a machine for a long time. For this the Ortlieb 10L wash bowl has come in handy, although on many occasions I end up using a bowl or bucket when staying in a hotel.

    On my feet I still have the same Karrimor sandles I set off in. They have been repaired more than a dozen times and the soles are wearing very thin. I shall continue to wear, repair and cycle in these until it is no longer possible. They blend in rather well with the condition of most peoples’ footwear here. If I was ever to replace them with a decent pair it would only solicit many requests for me to give them away as a gift.

    I recently purchased a pair of flip-flops. Now these make for essential gear in Africa. You do not wish to take a bucket-shower (I have not had a shower with running water since leaving Senegal and don’t anticipate having one soon) in Africa without wearing flip-flops. They weigh next to nothing, happily strap onto the front rack and get worn at the end of the day.

    As for the cross-trainer/trekking shoes I used to wear in the mountains of Morocco, they reside at the bottom of one of my panniers along with a single pair of socks. They may not have had a huge amount of use in recent months, but if I ever do some serious trekking or my sandles totally fail on me it is worth keeping hold of them.

    All the real cold-weather clothes – fleece jacket, gloves, thermal underwear and hat I sent home. Now what does that leave? Waterproofs. Ironically I’m in two minds whether to keep them. Wearing them in the rain under such humidity would be like wearing a boiler suit. I would pour with sweat. I do envisage being so soaked to the skin and possibly cold that putting them on dry after seeking shelter may not be a bad thing.

    Electronics

    My Asus netbook continues to withstand bumps and heat and offers superb battery-life. I keep it in a neoprene sleeve, over which goes a plastic zip-lock and several layers of bubble-wrap. It slots into one of the pouches that Ortlieb have incorporated in the inside of their panniers.

    The Nikon D90 camera and Panasonic Lumix compact stay in my handlebar bag. I alternate between using both, but rarely like to display the two at the same time. The compact gorilla-pod tripod is a fraction of the weight and size of the Velkon model I set off with, although I do at times miss having the height from the legs. It has a home in the top of one of my front panniers and is easily reached.

    In a separate bag I keep an audio-recorder, small radio, separate camera lens and a number of chargers. Besides the latter, each of these hardly get any use. Tuning-in to BBC World Service is proving impossible for some reason. I do envisage being surrounded by new and evocative sounds, for which the audio device would be useful. I already am. The truth is my mind is usually thinking through the camera lens rather than through my ears. As for the camera lens, it’s a small 50mm fixed focal length. If I intend to use it, which as I write this I feel I will, it should find a home in my handlebar bag.

    Sitting un-used for much of the time in the inside sleeve of a front pannier is my Freeloader Solar charger. I did use it on occasion in the desert, but never found that if offered the full charge to both my mobile phone and Ipod that it promised. Perhaps it wasn’t receiving enough direct light. Rarely do I go so long without some electrical source (generators dominate in countries where there is no national grid) that the battery of my phone dies on me. At some point in the future I may need it, but I wouldn’t list it as an essential piece of kit.

    I think I’ve almost covered the entire contents of my bags, other than the maps, books and first-aid kit. I have the two main Michelin maps for North West Africa and Central/Southern Africa, plus country maps as far as Ghana. Several times over the past 10 months I’ve debated whether a GPS would be useful. On a few occasions it would have been, but to be honest I’m much more enthused to look at a map than a little screen, and unless I pre-programmed data into the GPS I don’t think I would get any detail, other than the location of rivers, the sea and possibly land borders? I already feel I’ve gone over-kill on the technology front as it is.

    As for books, I try to ensure I have several with me. I recently finished The Poisonwood Bible and am about to re-read Things Fall Apart. Two volumes of Somerset Maugham’s Short Stories (so good I’m also reading a second time) and Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps await my attention. Oh, and I also have a French Dictionary, which should have received more use than it currently has.

    Fortunately for the moment my First Aid Kit only gets opened once a week. This is to swallow one of those foul tasting Larium tablets. I did intend to use Doxyclyclone as an anti-malarial, but taking them daily seems tedious so I’m keeping them as an anti-biotic. Besides, I believe Larium is stronger and supposedly provides more interesting dreams.

    The only thing I’m forgetting is my weapon. He resides in a small wooden box and frightens the life out of any African who attempts to release him. If I can record on film the reaction of an African when he/she sees a snake you will see what I mean. He was kindly given to me by my English hosts in The Gambia. I think they picked him up from one of those snake charmers in Marrakesh.

    Secret weapon 

    Ok, this post is far longer than I intended it to be, and re-reading it when I take stock of my surroundings here in Guinea seems somewhat self-indulgent. I’m attempting to travel light and simply, but many of the people I meet on the road have little more material wealth than the clothes on their back. Most of my belongings are entirely alien and unattainable to them. I’ve often wondered what the reaction of many people would be if they knew the value of my bicycle. Probably collapse in a fit of laughter and tell me I could have bought 4 motorbikes instead.  The difference is I can choose and they can’t. I was born in a different World, and frequently imagine as I pedal past all those other lives what it would be like to have grown up in this one. The fact that much of Africa is poorer now than it was 50 years ago seems absurd. I remember passing a sign in The Gambia that read ‘The development of a country depends on its leaders and own people’ and thinking how very true. Yes, the mosquito nets I ask people to donate money for help. The effect is tangible and its a worthwhile cause, like many charitable missions, but a short-term solution and drop in the ocean when pitched against the many other problems that make countries like Guinea one of the poorest in the World. The answer and solution has to come from within the countries themselves.

    It’s a relevant topic with the Presidential elections that have just taken place here, but I’m diverging from the original purpose of this post onto something far different.  This is a gear review. If you have a comment, about anything mentioned here, please post it, although I’m not sure when I’ll next have Internet.