• Talking gear: 30,000km March 31st, 2012

    Well I’ve finally reached the 30,000km mark on this journey, making it time for another on-the-road review of my equipment. Sitting with the thundering roar of Victoria Falls just down the road, this seems like a fitting place to mark another big milestone in the life of the Big Africa Cycle. From here I’m briefly heading into Botswana, before following the long and what looks like desolated road through the Caprivi Strip in Namibia. I anticipate arriving in Cape Town in approximately 3 months, but I’ve never been very good at planning things on a timescale.

    The roads in recent months have improved dramatically, when I compare them with what I was cycling through this time last year, but another 10,000km has shown its toll on some of the components. This post may not appeal to some of my armchair travellers, so you will have to wait for the next post for some recent pictures/stories from here in Zimbabwe.

    I frequently get asked questions about the gear I use, and desperately need to update the equipment page of this site, but if there is something I don’t cover here please share your questions in the comments section.

    The Bike: Thorn Raven Tour

    Mrs Thorn still doesn’t have a name, unlike many other bikes ridden similarly-long distances by like-minded individuals, but it seems too late to start referring to her as anything other than my trusty black-beauty. She, at least her main body, remains as strong and sturdy as her first days on the road. Sure there are some scratches, but that goes with the territory and the mileage.

    When I first ordered the bike I was unsure about whether to go for the slightly larger frame, but standing over the bike there is about a 1” clearance between top tube and that part of my body which feels far better than it did about 7 weeks ago. Some people have asked what the foam tubing on the top tube is for. There is no specific reason. I originally put it on to make the bike appear less flashy, and then realised that it became a comfortable cushion when I was standing over the bike and wanted to take some of the weight off my legs by sitting on it. It’s also protected the frame when I’ve leaned the bike against walls/trees.

    Tyres

     A few months ago I gave one of two spare Schwalbe XR tyres to a Japanese cyclist who desperately needed it. This tyre had already taken me 14,000km from the UK-Ivory Coast, and was being carried alongside another un-used Schwalbe XR. The Schwalbe XR’s I was running at the time (both put on as new in Ivory Coast) had done over 15,000km. About 300km after giving away the old spare the front tyre developed a split on the profile. This quickly expanded and I could start to feel the unevenness when cycling.

     In Harare I switched the rear tyre to the front and placed the new Schwalbe on the back. Within another 100-200km this front tyre did the same so I was forced to go in search of another tyre when I arrived in Bulawayo.

    Rather than pay $80 for something imported from South Africa I bought a $10 tyre, which seems of reasonable quality and ‘should’ last the remaining 4000km or so that I plan are left on this tour. It is of course hard to tell. One of the main reasons I have used the now discontinued XRs is that I could almost guarantee at least getting 10,000km out of a new one. A lower quality one like this is a bit of a gamble, but tyres of 26×2.0 dimension (this is actually 26×1.95) can be found very easily in Africa.

     Rims and Spokes

    The ceramic Rigida rims remain strong and almost totally unworn by the effect of the brakes. This is quite remarkable when I remember the wear I came to associate with Mavic rims used on my last tour. As the picture shows there is some rust where the spoke nipples attach to the rims, but it has been a break-free 10,000km with these sapin spokes.

    Brakes and cables

    I changed all 4 brake pads in Malawi, having used the same ones for most of the trip. I tend to use my front brakes far more. The blue ceramic ones pictured here are far more costly than the replacement ones I have put on. I know disc brakes would give me far more control and sensitivity with braking, but for the needs of touring when split-second stopping isn’t usually necessary, I find v-brakes the ideal choice as there is very little that can go wrong. My front and rear brakes are Shimano Deore LX.

    In Uganda last year I managed to break the rear brake cable as it had worn on its way through one of the metal casings on the frame. I easily replaced with another from a local shop.

    Rohloff hub and gearing

     

    Rohloff advise changing the hub oil in their gearbox every 5000km, which should mean I’m about to make the 6th oil change. Perhaps like some other long-term tourers, I’ve taken this 5000km recommendation a bit loosely. After approx 26,000km I made my 3rd oil change, having done the first at 6000km and the second at around 15,000km. The hub and gearing continues to run smoothly with no problem in shifting between 1st and 14th speed. I don’t know if I am lessening the life of the hub by not changing the oil more frequently? As I wrote about in my last gear review, if you are prepared to invest the money then I can only recommend a Rohloff hub for reliability, ease of maintenance, and durability in testing conditions.

     Front Hub

    No problems from the Shimano XT hub, but I allowed a very capable bike mechanic in Nairobi to clean and re-grease the ball-bearings as there was some noise when I free spun the front wheel.

    Sprocket and chain

    One should learn through experience and mistakes. After 14,000km on this tour I changed the rear sprocket after it had become so badly worn from the use of a single chain. Removing that sprocket was a massive effort requiring 4 people. After another 15,000km that second sprocket became worn again. I should have carried or bought another chain to place on that sprocket after the first 5000km or so, but foolishly have kept the same chain on the sprocket, allowing it to wear so much that the chain now slips when under force.

     In Bulawayo last week I attempted to remove that sprocket, having had another one sent out to me along with a chain and front chain-ring. Seeming that I removed one before, I should have known that the direction the sprocket needs to be turned is in an anticlockwise direction. Well the idiot writing here was telling himself just this, as well as every Zimbabwean who attempted to help, but still applying force to the sprocket removal tool in an anticlockwise direction with the aid of a long-arm spanner inserted into a metal pole for leverage. I know this will probably only make sense to someone familiar with the hub and the removal of the sprocket.

    The end result of perhaps half a ton of pressure in the wrong direction not only tightened the sprocket, but sheared the metal into which the sprocket removal tool inserts.

     I decided to place the new chain back on this old sprocket and cycled some 400km+ from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls. At first the chain seemed to groove into the old sprocket, but it soon started to sporadically slip, which didn’t make for the most comfortable of rides. I attempted to remove it again here in Victoria Falls, this time in the right direction, but the sheared metal means that the sprocket removal tool doesn’t hold when I place ANTICLOCKWISE pressure on the chain-whip attached to the sprocket itself.

    After admitting defeat I wondered if I would have to complete the rest of this trip with a chain that slips, but decided to send an e-mail with photos to Rohloff. Within 15 minutes a reply came back to say they had a tool that fits into the sprocket holes and can be attached to a compressor/air-gun in a garage workshop that removes nuts/bolts with the force that would be necessary to get this sprocket off. One of these special tools is now on its way by fed-ex to me here in Victoria Falls, but I’ve just discovered that there is no garage here with such a power tool. And so the plan is to cycle onwards to Botswana and Namibia and call in at every large garage/workshop/vehicle repair to find such a machine that does. Well it’s my fault, and I continue to kick myself for not applying force in the right direction from the beginning, having already been in this situation before.

    The lesson is now finally learnt. Carry two chains and periodically change them so to not wear out the sprocket so quickly.

     As for the front chain-ring, that is less worn out, but I have changed it with a new identical Surly chain-ring here in Victoria  Falls.

    Chain guard

    I have received a number of e-mails from people asking about the plastic chain guard that encloses my chain-set. I had hoped that it would prevent the previous chain and sprocket from wearing as quickly as it has done, but I have possibly become careless in cleaning, oiling and checking the chain regularly since it is not visible beneath the guard, and I assume that no water or dirt gets in. This said, I have found it to be a tremendous help in protecting the chain from most dirt.

     SJS cycles, from where I bought my bike, do not include the Hebie chain-guard with the Thorn models when sold as their own front chain-ring is too thick for the chain-guard to fit over. For this reason I have been using a Surly 38T front chain-ring, which requires some washers between the chain-ring nuts and chain-ring itself, to be held in place tightly.

    Handlebars and tape


    Another question I’m occasionally asked refers to the butterfly handlebars I use. These I bought and put on my old bike in Thailand, and I have always appreciated the extra hand-positioning that butterfly bars provide. The bar tape has covered up what particular company manufactured them, but I don’t remember them being expensive and they have taken me over 60,000km. Incidentally the leather bar tape is manufactured by Brooks, and provides a soft, but firm grip.

     

    Side mirror

    For the past several months I have been using a Zefal side mirror, which attaches simply to the side of my butterfly bars. This proves useful on a number of narrow roads, but can be a little cumbersome when leaning the bike against a wall as I have to remember turning the mirror inwards. It has already become scratched, but will continue to provide good use for the remainder of the trip.

     At various stages over the years I have bought cheap Chinese-branded mirrors, but found these either too large and difficult to attach or more likely to be move/vibrate as I cycle along.

     Racks

    My Thorn expedition rear rack and Surly Front rack continue to be strong and show no signs of weakness. To provide a tighter fit between pannier clips and rack, and also to protect the racks from rust, I have applied duck tape, as pictured here, to where the panniers attach. Many a pineapple and watermelon, besides extra water bottles, have made use of the large platform on the front rack.

     Pedals

    The original pedals from the start of the trip are still on. When I had the bearings cleaned and re-greased in the front hub I did so for the bearings within the pedals. The toe-straps provide the protection and grip I need, and despite occasionally thinking of trying out SPD pedals, I think the use of trekking-type sandals is a much better choice for touring in Africa. Crossing water and pushing through sand really would not have been suitable over a long period of time for any SPD shoe, and I’m comfortable walking around in Teva sandles, which I don’t feel I would be with shoes that click on hard surfaces.

     Saddle

     Do I blame my Brooks B17 leather saddle for causing my testicular torsion? At first I felt it was the cycling and friction between me and saddle that was to blame, but in hindsight I almost certainly now know that it was a cold shower totally un-related to the cycling that caused it. Many non-cyclists often tap the saddle and remark how rock hard it is, the reply to which is that my saddle is like a good pair of walking boots, once broken in they are moulded to you and uncomfortable for anyone else. Very long days on the bike (more than 8 hours) do make for a sore posterior, but I’m not sure any saddle is really that comfortable after such a period of time.

      I’ve not been great at following Brooks’ guidelines for looking after my saddle. For the past 2 years I’ve been carrying some kiwi brown shoe polish to protect it and give it a nice shine, but a number of cracks have developed around the rivets which run around the back of the saddle. These are also well-rusted.

    Cycle computer

    As a free gift for joining the CTC club magazine some years back, I received a cordless Trek cycling computer, which proved marvellous on this tour until about 2000km ago. I changed batteries in both computer and sensor, but there is something still not working so I decided to replace it with a spare Cateye velo 8 computer (corded), which I was using at the end of my last tour. On my last tour I had several computers disappear when foolishly leaving them on the bike, even only for a short moment when walking into a shop. This time it has become a matter of habit to remove the computer, along with my handlebar bag, every time I leave the bike unattended.

     Kickstand

    I’ve never understood people who manage to tour in remote places without a kickstand. There are too many places where there is nothing to lean the bike against and so having a kickstand is invaluable in preventing the bike from being laid down on the road when nature calls in the middle of nowhere. I’m sure there are many strong kickstands out there, but the ESGE double kickstand I’ve been using from the start of this trip continues to be reliably strong.

     Camping Equipment


    MSR Hubba Hubba tent


    After more than 250 nights in my tent, I can say with high assurance that the MSR Hubba Hubba is a great tent for cycle touring in Africa. I believe MSR are now even selling the tent with a green flysheet, which is much more suitable than the bright yellow it has been sold with for a number of years. Several small holes have developed in the inner-mesh (possibly through mis-care when packing away) over which I’ve used duck-tape to prevent any insects from ruining my night’s sleep. New tent poles had to be sent out to me when the last ones disappeared with many other things in that Kenyan theft last year, but there was no sign of weakness in them. I think the comments I have made in previous gear reviews about the tent still stand.

    Sleeping mattress and Sleeping bag/pillow

    The Thermarest mattress which I started the trip with died shortly after writing my last gear review. De-lamination is what Thermarest referred to it as. The mattress lining came away from what maintains its rigidity and one bubble soon expanded to make the entire surface balloon-like. Thermarest responded promptly to my e-mail and sent a replacement air-mattress out, but I found it too heavy and bulky and asked for the prolite version, which is the thinnest and lightest that thermarest sell in that range, and almost identical to the one that eventually died after 4 years of regular use. This new one I have been using since Kenya inflates and deflates quickly, and packs away very tightly.

     I make regular use of my Cumulus Sleeping bag and the comments I provided in the last review still stand. A few small holes have occasionally developed in some of the seams, which have been hand-sown to prevent the feathers falling out.

     I have been using a cheap Gelert inflatable sleeping pillow, but like previous inflatable pillows I find that it is susceptible to developing minute holes on the seams that cause it to deflate overnight. My current pillow has 3 puncture repair patches keeping it from deflating.


    Stove and cooking equipment

    Everything remains functioning as it was in my last review. The Primus Ominifuel stove needed serious cleaning after the DRC, which is no doubt down to the dirty fuel I was running it on then. I stripped it apart and soaked each part in white spirit over night, which seemed to do the trick. There have been no problems running it since then.

    Panniers and bags

     The original bags are still going strong, albeit quite well sun-faded. I’ve written before about my fondness for the simplicity of Ortlieb panniers and would use them again on another tour. The same goes for my spacious 10-litre handlebar bag, sufficiently large enough to fit almost all of my most valuable possessions in. As for camping gear, it remains neatly stuffed into the rear dry-bag.

    Electronics

    Following that clean sweep of most of my electronic goods last year in Kenya, the gear I had in the last review has been replaced with new equipment, some of which is the same as before, other items are new.

    Camera: Nikon D90 + 18-200mm lens and Velbon Ultra maxi L tripod

    I have stuck with the same camera model, albeit not the same one, from the start of the trip. There are times where I feel a smaller more discreet camera would be more suitable for occasions where drawing excess attention to oneself isn’t desirable, but overall the D90 fits somewhere in the middle price ground for people keen on photography. As for the lens, the wide focal range provides coverage for most situations on the road.

     The tripod I now have is perhaps the ideal tripod for touring. Finding a balance between weight and strength is hard, but the Velbon maxi weighs less than 1kg and happily supports the 1.5 kg or so of camera that goes onto it. It also folds up to less than 40cm in length and fits nicely across the front rack. For some months I had used a gorilla-pod, which is a great little tripod, but there were occasions when I wanted the extra height. I think the Velbon extends to 170cm.

     Laptop and hard-drive


    My current Asus EEC netbook is almost identical to the one that was stolen. It’s compact at just over 1kg and offers superb battery life, which is the main reason I bought it.

    I m currently carrying a 1 terabyte hard-drive, having sent home a 500gb hard-drive with photos backed up in Malawi. Both laptop and hard-drive slot safely and securely into a side pocket with one of the rear panniers.

     Ipod and speaker

    On the road music is provided for by an Ipod touch, along with an X mini-speaker. The latter is cheap, compact and highly recommended for tourers as it boosts good quality sound for its size, and rests comfortably and fairly securely on the handlebars between my water bottle cage and handlebar bag.

     

    Phone: Samsung Galaxy Next

    I recently joined the smartphone World of technology by purchasing a phone which allows me to check Internet on the go. This is a great advantage as it allows me to reply to e-mails much more quickly, rather having to do it all together on my laptop. Since my last gear review I have been using USB dongles in some countries to have Internet on the go (using mobile signals), but in Zimbabwe the cost is too high and although I had hoped to just purchase one dongle and have it unlocked to use with different sim cards in other countries, the reality has often been having to purchase a new dongle. Spending $180 on a new phone seemed like a good investment.

     Clothes

    Unsurprisingly not much remains from the list of clothes I set off with some 2.5 years ago. The North Face cross trainers are still intact, but get irregular use, as does my long sleeve Craghopper fleece for cold mornings and evenings. The Craghopper zip-offs I set off with are now just shorts since one of the zippers broke.

     In one of Uganda’s many second-hand clothes markets I purchased a cheap pair of jeans, something which wouldn’t feature in the panniers of many cycle-tourers, but I came to miss wearing jeans in the evenings (when in towns) and haven’t found them particularly heavy to carry.

     Thanks to Rohan I now have a wonderfully comfortable pair of zip-off trousers and a short-sleeve shirt, which were sent out to me in Malawi.

     I continue to wear the same blue sleeveless shirt for cycling in, which miraculously hasn’t faded in all that sun. Padded cycling shorts also continue to offer at least some cushioning, which are worn beneath a pair of Patagoinia-branded swim shorts I found in a market in Tanzania.

     On my feet when cycling is a pair of imitation Teva sandals I bought in Ghana. They have been stitched and repaired dozens of times, but they might just make it to Cape Town. A few weeks ago I bought a pair of leather slip-on sandals, which I wear most of the time when not cycling.

     Perhaps my most trusted piece of clothing remains the Tilley hat, a distinguishing feature of the Big Africa Cycle. More than slightly faded and almost lost on a number of occasions this has prevented my ever so bald head from burning under the African sun.

    Other than a few t-shirts I’ve picked up along the way and my Nigerian-made colourful pants that’s almost it clothes wise. Not much really is it?

     Conclusion

    There are various bits of equipment I may have left out here, but I’ve covered the essentials. Weight wise it’s about 25kg all combined, minus water and what food I might be carrying. Comments as always are welcomed and appreciated, as well as advice regarding gear, maintenance etc.

  • 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.

  • 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.