• And the winner goes to… A year in reflection December 31st, 2010

    I started the year learning to surf in Morocco and I’m finishing it drinking a lot of beer in Cameroon. Between then I’ve crossed 14 countries in Africa and cycled about 12,000km, collecting more than a few stories along the way. Here is a review of some of the highlights, lowlights and other interesting observations from my year on the road. If there is a category you’d like to add please post a comment to let me know. Happy New year.

    Most atmospheric place: Harper, Liberia. A town full of war-ravaged buildings, surrounded by beautiful palm-fringed beaches.

    North from Harper

    Country I’d most like to return to: Nigeria. Forget the bad reputation, Nigeria is the India of Africa in my opinion. Big, overpopulated, ethnically rich, full of positive energy and immensely rewarding for those adventurous enough to explore it.

    Worst day of the year: March 13th. I was mugged by 5 men in Dakar, Senegal, who slashed my left wrist and left foot with a machete as I attempted and failed to prevent them taking off with my camera and day-sack. Just in case you’re wondering – the foot slash was minor and I was back on my feet walking fine within a week. The injury to my wrist was much more serious as 4 tendons were severed and required stitching together. There remains a slight stiffness, but no real discomfort. I probably ought to have done and ought to continue doing more physiotherapy as I don’t have the same degree of flexibility in my left wrist as I do in my right, but all things considered recovery has been good. No point in adding the category – ‘Place I’d least like to return to’.

    Machete wounds

    Most popular day of traffic to this website: The day I posted an account of the above. Almost 2500 hits, which goes to show bad news travels quickly.

    Worst roads: Leaving Nigeria and entering Cameroon. Steep, full of large rocks, deep gullies and impossible to cycle on.

    Most hassle at a border: Crossing from Guinea-Sierra Leone. Immigration told me the border was closed until the country decided on its new President. I’d have been there for months if that was true. I crossed without paying the bribe.

    Most beautiful women: Senegal and Ivory Coast. Pity my French is poor.

    Least ‘African’ feeling place: Abuja, Nigeria. Clean, well-paved roads and a sterile, but relaxing oasis from the ‘real’ Africa.

    Easiest place to get a beer: Cameroon, which might also be one of the World’s easiest place to get a beer, just don’t assume it will be cold.

    Hardest place to get a beer: Mauritania, unless you’re lucky enough to be staying with ex-pats who like drinking because there is very little else to do when you live in a city like Nouakchott.

    Best place to drink a beer: Overlooking Bakau fish market in The Gambia. Dozens of boats off-loading the day’s catch, which is then sorted and sold beneath you.

    Friendliest country to spend time in: Ghana, followed or possibly matched by Sierra Leone. Kindest, most (on the whole) non-aggressive and generally sincerest people in west Africa.

    Swamped

    Country with the best beaches: Sierra Leone. Unspoilt, palm-fringed and clean white sands.

    Beach in Sulima

    Most generous donation to Against Malaria Foundation: £1450 from American International School of Nouakchott, Mauritania. A great effort for a small school.

    Best ‘African’ food: Senegal and Ivory Coast: Fresh baguettes, good grilled fish/meat and a Francophone mentality that generally dictates ‘quality’ to be more important than quantity.

    Worst ‘African’ food: Sierra Leone and Liberia. The nation seems to survive on rice and cassava leaf with a bit of fish or unidentifiable bush meat thrown in if you’re lucky.

    Lunchtime

    Best ‘on the road’ refreshment/snack: Fresh coconuts along the coast in any country.

    Biggest disappointment: Finding that the jungles of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast have mostly been destroyed.

    Most frequently asked question: Are you not afraid of wild animals?

    Most colourfully dressed people: Togo and Benin. Everyone wears bright wax-cotton cloth.

    Best sleeping place: One of many nights out in the Sahara under the stars.

    Saharan star-gazing

    Worst sleeping place: In an abandoned building in the Sahara full of dry human excrement. I was trying to hide from the wind with little success.

    Desert camp

    Biggest relief: Finding my passport two days after leaving it in a room I stayed in within The Gambia.

    Most historically interesting/moving place: Slave Castles of Ghana, particularly at Cape Coast and Elmina. Shame on my ancestors and all other European powers in Africa.

    Never again: Slave depiction, Elmina

    Most used/valued piece of kit: My trustworthy Tilley hat

    Dune-scape

    Least used piece of kit: My Solar charger. I’m rarely away from a power source for long enough to warrant using it, although it’s lightweight and packs easily so I’m holding onto it just in case.

    Solar power

    Best new piece of kit: X-mini speaker. Sound beyond size as the logo says and it fits snugly between bottle cage and my handlebar bag. Nothing like a bit of Led Zeppelin blasting out on a tough road.

    Best books read: The Poisonwood Bible: Mary Kingsolver, French Lessons in west Africa: Peter Biddlecombe and The Grass is Singing: Doris Lessing.

    Most common on-the-road thought: Do I write a book when I finish this journey? There are a few stories/characters I don’t write about here.

  • Beware the Bight of Benin October 29th, 2010

    Beware and take heed of the Bight of Benin. Where few come out but many go in”.

    The distant sound of drums beating late at night was as close as I got to witnessing a voodoo ceremony in Benin. Somewhere in the small coastal town of Quidah people were communicating with the dead. At least that is what I assumed they were doing. What else goes on at voodoo ceremonies?

    I lay in my tent thinking of Sean Connery in the film Live and Let Die; bodies raising themselves out of graves and large snakes coiled around human skulls. My knowledge of the religion, like many others, has of course been distorted by Hollywood films.

    Benin is the birthplace of voodoo, where it’s designated a national religion. Had slaves not exported it to the Americas and the film industry picked up on the scent it may never have gained the cult recognition it now has. Who for one matter knows anything about Benin?

    This small club-shaped country lying to the west of Nigeria used to be called Dahomey. Before the French began meddling in its affairs it was also home to one of the most powerful empires in Africa. Abomey, it’s capital, was where Dahomeyan kings built palaces and seemed to flourish in the acts of slave-trading, human sacrifice and war. That was of course a long time ago. Abomey, some 130km inland from the coast, is now a dusty and dirty place over-run with motorbikes.

    This somewhat bland description could be said about a lot of towns in Benin, and also Togo for that matter. I only stayed two nights in Benin’s other Francophone neighbour. There were too many motorbikes there too. Most of them are used as taxi’s and referred to as ‘zemi-johns’. Roads up and down both countries are lined with makeshift stalls selling petrol in re-used bottles of Pastis, Coca Cola and large demijohns. It’s not uncommon to see three, four or even five or six (mothers with babies or infants strapped on their backs) people on one of these Chinese imported pieces of scrap. They make walking around towns highly unappealing. Other than having to remain constantly vigilant that you’re not run over, there are the fumes and the high-pitched whine of the 125cc engines to contend with. Most annoying though is that every motorbike driver looking for a passenger will hiss at you as a means to attract your attention. For these reasons I took a quiet dirt-track to cross Togo and enter Benin, passing through green coffee and cocoa growing hills.

    Petrol for sale

    On the road in Benin

    Road to Notse

    The central Palace in Abomey, one of the country’s star attractions, was disappointing for three reasons. Firstly photography was prohibited, secondly the guide only spoke French, and thirdly the buildings and exhibits were uninspiring for a city that claims to have been home to one of the greatest empires on the continent and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

    What does distinguish Togo and Benin, positively speaking, is how very colourfully dressed the people are, both men and women. Every village seems to have at least one tailor and seamstress, who sit over age-old singer sowing machines and transform 2-4metre length pieces of bright patterned wax cloth into beautiful items of clothing. At some point when I stop for a few days I shall go out to the market, choose my material and have a few new shirts tailor-made for me.

    One of the thirty dislikes I listed in the previous post was taking detours to places that really aren’t worth it. Ouidah was possibly one of those. It lies south of Abomey on what I soon discovered is one of the main trunk roads in west Africa. To the north of Benin lie the landlocked countries of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali, and it would appear the road north from Cotonou, Benin’s capital next to Ouidah, is a major transport route for fuel and other commodities. Foreign faces who travel it will also suffer that terrible Francophone affliction of receiving constant demands for cadeau and l’argent from children and adults living at the roadside.

    When I arrived in Ouidah the only budget hotel was closed, which is why I decided to persuade the hotel’s caretaker to allow me to pitch my tent on the floor of the restaurant (having a free-standing tent is crucial in Africa).

    Sleeping in Ouidah

    Other than the voodoo connection I was finding hard to unearth, Ouidah is famous for it’s slave trading history. Here, like other sites along the west African coast, thousands of slaves were deported in atrocious conditions to the Americas. A monument stands on the beach to represent the ‘door of no return’, reached after a 4km walk lined with tacky fetish monuments that look like they’ve been stolen from an abandoned theme-park.

    DSC_0133

    More poignantly for me, Ouidah is my last stopping point on the Atlantic coast for a very long time. My journey will now take me east into Nigeria and the mountains of Cameroon. I’m still hoping to team back up with Hiromu, whose last e-mail was to say that he’d recovered from Malaria, but had gone and left his wallet containing credit card and $300 in cash in a roadside cafe and now needed to stop for several days in Cotonou to organise a replacement.

    To bring you into the present, it is 8.15am on October 28th and I’m writing this from a dimly-lit guesthouse room in a town called Zangnanadon, although this may not get posted on the Internet for a few days. My room costs 3000cfa (£4) per night (much better value than the rooms advertised at 1000cfa for an hour) and I’m delaying my departure whilst waiting for my clothes to dry that I hand-washed yesterday evening. It won’t take long. It’s probably about 28-30 degrees Centigrade right now, and if like yesterday it will reach 35-36C in the shade come midday. During the last few days I sped through both Cotonou and Porto Novo, Benin’s second city, and headed north away from the busy coastal traffic and cadeau calling. The Nigerian border near the town of Ketou is about 50km to the east of here. All going well I will cross the border today.

    Traffic in Cotonou 

  • To go or not to go to Togo? October 20th, 2010

    That was the question I was left asking myself. My passport had been stamped out of Ghana and now at the Togolese border post I had a problem. Obtaining the visa I needed to enter  was not going to be such a simple procedure. It wasn’t helping matters that the burly officer on duty refused to accept my handshake nor look me in the eye as he stood chewing and spitting a stick of cane sugar. A nice welcome back into Francophone Africa.

    If I wanted a visa I would have to take an overpriced taxi and be unnecessarily escorted at great cost to a town inside Togo. Where this town was and how long it would take before coming back to the border post (where I would unhappily be leaving my bicycle an hour before sunset) I couldn’t ascertain. The officer-in-charge merely shouted “Do you want the visa or not” and had no time for my pathetic questions in French. So I decided to go back to the Ghana post, where I’d made friends with the welcoming and polite guards, and explain I didn’t want to cross this border and grease the hands of the idiot on the other side.

    I would be curious to know what a Frenchman’s experience of travelling through west Africa is. Does he get shouted at, interrogated and treated with zero respect when entering an Anglophone country, where his proficiency in English is somewhat basic, and then get warmly welcomed with utmost courtesy when entering Francophone Africa where he can be confident and fluent in conversation? I wonder. I’m coming to the conclusion (I’d reached it a long time ago) that Anglophone Africa is basically a lot friendlier than the Francophone part, at least when it comes to matters of officialdom. Perhaps this sounds bias coming from England. I need a neutral party to chip-in here.

    I discussed all this later that evening after pitching my tent in a dis-used room of the immigration office. Dickson, the officer-in-charge, agreed that I should continue the next day to the town of Shia, where he believed the Togolese were issuing visas on the border. Had he wanted to he was within his means to fine me for remaining in Ghana beyond the 30-day stay, but thankfully the press cuttings about the journey and my remarks about hospitality and kindness in his country steered the conversation away from my passport.

    The border town of Shia didn’t look all that far away on my map, but what should only have been a 50km journey ended up being closer to 100km. The map totally failed me again and the instructions and directions from local Ghanians along the way were equally as inaccurate and misleading. At least I was seeing a bit more of what has been Ghana’s most scenic region.

    Wli Waterfall

    Eastern Ghana

    DSC_0019

    School girls at break

    Pineapple stop

    By the time I’d reached Shia and explained myself to immigration the day was getting on. They too could have issued a fine, but agreed to let me spend another night within Ghana and cross into Togo the next morning. If only all border officials were as understanding as these ones.

    Double exit stamp

    As it turned out the Togolese visa is not issued on the border here either, but 5 kms away. I was given a motorcycle escort by the Ghanians to smooth the way. No money was exchanged, other than paying for the visa, but the Ghanian officer-in-charge will now be donning matching waterproof jacket and trousers when on patrol in the rain. I needed a good excuse to off-load these clothes I haven’t worn since Morocco and this seemed like a good time.

    My visa here in Togo is only valid for seven days. A short time, but the country is tiny and I’m less than 100km away from crossing into Benin, a country that claims voodoo as it’s national religion. A Sunday service there might be one with a difference.