• Jinja and the source of the Nile June 22nd, 2011

    “Though beautiful, the scene was not exactly what I expected…still it was a sight that attracted one to it for hours” (John Hanning Speke)

    If I were to list the 10 worst roads that I’ve cycled on in Africa, which I may well do in a later blog post (along with the 10 best) then the 85km ride from Kampala to Jinja would probably make the cut. Too much traffic for a road which is far too narrow basically. And most of the vehicles characteristically travel too fast.

    As Uganda is a landlocked country any import which hasn’t arrived by plane will be transported by truck along this road. Many will have started their journey in Mombasa, Kenya, east Africa’s busiest port. It is not only goods for Uganda that are transported along this highway, but practically everything for neighbouring Rwanda, Burundi and the whole of the eastern Congo. And so there are a lot of trucks to contend with – plus the ubiquitous east African matatu, or mini-bus, which shuttles people between towns at suicidal speeds.

    The road was in fact so busy that I even failed to grab the attention of two foreign cyclists coming the other way. I’m still not sure how they didn’t see me waving from what was only 4 metres across the road, nor hear me yelling “Hey” as they kept their eyes clued to the tarmac directly in front of them. For a brief moment I wondered if they were purposefully ignoring me, which would have been absurd seeming how few foreign cyclists there are in Africa.

    Had we stopped and chatted about roads, routes and bikes, which is the normal procedure in such circumstances, I would have asked their recommendation for a place to stay in Jinja. Well it didn’t matter. There definitely isn’t a shortage of places to rest one’s head here.

    Jinja is one of Uganda’s principal tourist attractions, but not really for the reason that makes this town famous. When John Hanning Speke, (another one of Africa’s bearded Victorian explorers) stood here on the northern banks of the continent’s largest Lake and proclaimed the river flowing out of it to be the source of the River Nile, he probably didn’t foresee the hoards of fellow Mzungus who would come here a century and a half later. And come they/we do, but less to gaze at a ripple of water flowing past an island that signposts tell you is the Source of the River Nile (a massive anticlimax if there ever was one) but to throw themselves down a series of rapids in an inflatable dinghy.

    Map of Uganda

    Ten years ago I rafted down the Zambezi in Zimbabwe – emerging sun-burnt, stiff and relieved to be alive. It was a lot of fun, but having got the t-shirt so to speak I had little interest to spend $120+ to do the same again on another big African river.

    Rafting is the principal tourist activity here, at least judging by the signs and red rafts sitting in the grounds of a hostel I poked my head into when arriving. This establishment was in fact not a hostel, but a backpackers – a place generally full of mzungus who will have arrived with a backpack on their backs. Quite simple really. Part of me had the idea that staying here would be interesting. I could meet fellow Mzungus and swap travel stories and information over a few beers. This is what travellers usually do in foreign places.  Yet rather than feeling at home the place somehow scared me. The only Ugandans here were the ones selling above-average priced beer and western food. The 8-bed dormitory was clean, but then almost twice the price of what I usually pay for a single room. Even camping was more expensive than a room. And so I realised that the only reason I would be staying in this  western enclave would be to find conversation with someone of the same skin colour and background as myself. Perhaps that’s reason enough, but it struck me as somehow desperate. I was being made to feel like a sheep, and besides, there were no good-looking girls. So I pedalled on into Jinja town and found a hotel with a large room and attached bathroom, where the staff were welcoming and attentive, making sure I had soap, a towel and so forth (you can forget this service in a backpackers).

    Shortly afterwards it dawned on me that over the coming months I’m probably going to read recommendations in my Lonely Planet guidebook for places to stay which are quite similar to this backpackers I turned my back on. Perhaps the book will be a better guide of the places not to stay.

    Well I did meet some more Mzungus – two more cyclists! This means that in the space of several days I’ve seen as many foreign cyclists in Africa as I have on the entire journey. Foreign cyclists in Africa, assuming they have some presence on the Internet in the sense of a blog or website (many but not all do) are quite a close-knit bunch. I’d already heard about these two young Germans from my friend Helen, who finished her solo cycling tour from England to Cape Town earlier this year. They were quite recognisable as I was aimlessly wandering along one of the main streets in Jinja. Tim and Fabian set off from Cape Town several+ months ago and are headed to Cairo. Well at least that was the plan. Both are now flying from Kenya to west Africa and continuing north. They had just taken a bus, perhaps wisely, from Kampala, where they met another cyclist “He was from Japan”, said Tim as we chatted over tea and come chapatis at the roadside.  I thought Hiromu wouldn’t be far behind.

    Africabybike.de

    Later in the day, having said our goodbyes with a few photos, I realised who it was I had passed on the road between Kampala and Jinja. This cycling duo. They’re facebook friends of mine – like many other cyclists on that site I’m happy to call a friend even if we’ve never met.

    Well I’m hoping that the road east from here quietens down a little once I branch off the main thoroughfare to Kenya. In about ten days I will helping with a distribution of mosquito nets in western Kenya. Is this another request for a donation? Well yes, but I’m not asking you contribute much – the equivalent to a couple of cups of coffee or a few beers would be great.

  • Journey to Jos November 25th, 2010

    On a quiet road the journey from Abuja to Jos would be pleasant. Once the urban concrete thins out a boulder-strewn landscape takes over as the altitude steadily rises to above 1000m. The problem is the condition of the road; it’s too well-paved. This means traffic, of which there is too much for a 2-lane road, goes as fast as humanely possible. Little wonder the roadside is littered with the remains of car wrecks.

    Leaving Abuja

    Speed victim

    Hiromu called me to stop a short distance out of  the city. His speedometer was reading 25,000km. “I want to make a photo. It is special moment”. I fully agreed. My computer was just approaching 16,000km, which is roughly 10,000 miles.

    Milestones from Peter Gostelow on Vimeo.

    After meeting for the first time in Morocco at the beginning of this year we were back on the road together and sharing similar views about our route through central Africa. Hiromu’s journey started from Istanbul in May 2009 and he too plans to cycle to South Africa.

    Milestones

    The highlight of the traffic-filled 300km journey was watching several hundred cattle drink from a river. It doesn’t sound particularly exciting, but was quite a spectacle. We looked down from a bridge as the bony long-horned beasts moved to the water’s edge, their Fulani herdsmen eyeing us cautiously as we snapped away.

    Thirsty cattle

    Accommodation on the road was back to normal after the comforts of Abuja. Camping next to a Police Station one night and a Church the next. As for the food, Hiromu and I seem well-matched in being as adventurous in trying whatever the locals are dining on.

    Lunch

    Village camping

    For the first time in many months I’m wearing a fleece pullover here in Jos. At 1200m above sea-level it’s as high as I’ve been since the Atlas mountains of Morocco. In fact it was when I was in Morocco that I first heard about Jos. Over three hundred people were massacred here earlier this year. The city has long had a history of  ethnic and religious tension between Christians and Muslims. It’s a pity the climate can’t cool tempers. I wish I could take the weather with me.

    Up to Plateau state

  • Suffering and Smiling: Entering Nigeria November 3rd, 2010

    Nigeria greeted me with a lot of check-posts. They were simple palm-thatched shacks, of a type more commonly seen with plantain or yams being sold beneath them than places for showing my passport and vaccination certificates. Were it not for the wooden posts spiked with large nails lying across the road I might have thought twice about stopping. There were no signs, no power, and no-one at any of these dozens of check-posts (containing immigration, customs, police, army, or health officers) was wearing a uniform.

    Why there had to be so many check-posts I don’t know. Or perhaps I do. Those manning them claimed it was for security reasons, but I only had to hang around and wait for a motor-taxi to be flagged down to witness the quick money exchange. “Do you have something for me”? one or two might venture to ask. “Yes I do. My smile. It’s priceless so you’re very lucky.”

    Entering Nigeria

    Few people have anything positive to say when you tell them you’re going to Nigeria. “Good luck.” “Be careful.” “You’re mad”. For the past several months I’ve been hearing such comments from both Africans and non-Africans. On this basis I should have been nervous about entering Africa’s most populous country. Perhaps if it had been a French colony I would have been. Dealing with bribe-hungry hopefuls at check-posts is a lot harder in a language you can’t speak fluently. The truth however is I’ve been looking forward to seeing just how Nigeria lives up to its reputation. Could it really be as bad as all those scare stories about scams and crime the Ghanians told me?

    The check-posts have fortunately decreased in number the further I’ve journeyed into the country. A more common sight has been the derelict petrol stations. With their over-grown grass fore-courts and rusted signs there must be hundreds if not thousands of these in Nigeria. Oil is a dirty business in more ways than one. The back-bone of the country’s economy is also the reason for many of its problems. Nigerians still have some cause to be happy though. Petrol costs about £0.30 a litre in stations which sell it.

    Petrol station

    Perhaps that partly explains why no-one rides bicycles, at least in Ogun and Oyo state (there are 36 states in total). I was hoping I could find a shop to install one of the classic dynamo-lights I frequently saw on old Chinese bicycles in Benin. For anyone planning and preparing a bicycle trip in Africa, please take note. A strong front light will be of great use. I try whenever possible to avoid riding in the dark, but night comes so quickly that it inevitably happens. Yes I have a Petzl headlight, but its beam is not strong enough to pick out the cavernous pot-holes waiting to buckle a wheel and throw a cyclist into the bush.

    Benin boys with a bike

    So what other observations does a first time visitor note about the country and its people? One is that Nigerians like to hiss to attract your attention, although their brand of hissing is different from other Africans. They do not “hissss” or “sissss” as such, but pucker their lips as if to kiss, then withdraw air inwards. I suppose it is a bit like a reverse whistle, and needless to say highly irritating. Until you turn to acknowledge the menace doing it, the pitch will increase, possibly culminating in a shout of “Oyibo.” (Yoruba for white man). The shout may come without the hiss, and should you turn to make eye contact there will often be a hand motioning you to stop. The truth is that if I stopped every time someone hissed or yelled “Oyibo” it would take a long time to get anywhere in Nigeria. And I would quickly lose count of the “Do you have something for me”? question whenever I did.

    Most of the time it’s easier, wiser and generally just safer to smile, wave and pedal on. Which is what I did when the traffic suddenly became unpleasantly congested and the market stalls and people spilled onto the streets. Had I been invisible I would have loved to stop, watch, photograph or film it. But alone, white, on a bike, with “steal me” written within my hands. I don’t think so. Photographs taken in urban areas in Nigeria are best done quickly, and I have the feeling that people won’t mind their own business even if you’re taking a photo of something entirely disconnected to them.

    Abeokuta is the first real city I entered. This is the birthplace of several important Nigerians, most notably Fela Kuti, whose music I discovered on my first trip to Africa. These days you sadly won’t hear Afrobeat tunes from the 1970’s played on the streets, but more likely some US-influenced hip-hop and rap. Far less tasteful.

    Experience, advice and common-sense would dictate that giving $100 to a stranger to go and change money on the black-market is an unwise thing to do, particularly somewhere like Nigeria. Which is what I explained to the owner of the Internet Cafe in Abeokuta, who entrusted his friend with my money to disappear to some part of the city that was allegedly too dangerous for me. “Don’t worry my friend. It is only small money so he won’t steal it”. I thought I ought to explain that this would be my budget for 1-2 weeks, and should it disappear I would have to place my visa card in a Nigerian bank, which would possibly be even less wise. Thankfully this friend returned and asked if I knew what Nigeria’s motto was. “In the words of Fela Kuti, ‘suffering and smiling‘”, I suggested. “No, it is ‘good and great’, and this action has just proved it”.

    The traffic, crowds, filth and chaos of Abeokuta were but a warm-up for Ibadan, where I arrived the next day. At one time this was West Africa’s largest city, and several people I met there were adamant it still is (in terms of population I think Lagos is). My country map conveniently showed a road that would by-pass it, but I had already realised that the ITM map of Nigeria is about as accurate as that of the one for Ghana. The road took me straight into the centre as there is no other road. When I have more time I will write a letter to ITM and kindly tell them just how terrible their maps of Africa are (Togo and Benin was poor and I have Cameroon still to test). I could easily manage without these maps, but despite their inaccuracies they give a better spatial awareness than the Michellin map of North and West Africa, which seems better updated.

    At first I thought to just put my head down, ignore the “Hey Igbo” calls and focus on not being hit by one of the thousands of white mini-buses, motorbikes and large cars with Nigerians who somehow give the impression of being aloof or oblivious to the mess they live in. But I realised it would take me hours to pedal beyond the crowds, traffic and tin-roofed skyline, so went about looking for a cheap place to stay before darkness fell.

    Ibadan

    Ibadan 

    Now the trouble with being a white face in Nigeria, or much of Africa I guess, is that people often assume you need accommodation accustomed to how they imagine you live back home. You are white and therefore rich. So I have to say that 10,000 Naira ($65) is not cheap and that I don’t need air-conditioning and satellite TV, nor to be directed to a hotel where ‘my people stay’. This will be a 4 or 5 star hotel, where people who have jobs and whose company most likely pay for their lodging stay. All I need is security and cleanliness. After a good amount of being directed and mis-directed by various people, most of whose faces read ‘don’t trust me’ (“You can stay with my friend, let me just call him”), I ended up in a brothel. Well a brothel in as much as it was a place that usually rents rooms by the hour. The proprietor seemed nervous, a little confused, yet over-joyed that a white face arriving on a bicycle should want a room in his establishment, so went about making sure I was comfortable. “You people cannot shower with this well water. Look at the colour of it. Let me go and fetch cleaner water. You will need soap as well. I will buy some from the shop. Just make sure you lock your room if you go out. You will be safe here, but bad people come to stay”. Not overly reassuring, but I was taken care of, only leaving the premises to buy rice, beans, fish and plantain from a stall across the street by a woman who seemed equally incredulous that an Igbo was eating her food in an area that few whites probably venture.

    The traffic finally eased once I cleared the northern outskirts of Ibadan. It was Sunday and the Churches were full. I have lost count of how many different ones exist here. Beyond the Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Baptist and other major denomination Churches comes a plethora of signs for evangelical/new-age missions, prayer camps and miracle healing events. Some look as shady as the banks, of which there are also a large number. Do I trust my visa card in a Nigerian ATM? I might have to in Abuja.

     With God 

    I’m writing this from the town of Oshogbo, where I arrived in a downpour and followed a sign to the first Guest House that didn’t have ‘fully air-conditioned’ or ‘satellite TV’ etc advertised on it. Thankfully its somewhere I’ve felt comfortable enough to relax in for a few days. After surviving the traffic of Ibadan and incessant oyibo calls I feel I need it.

  • Faking it: Visas in Accra October 14th, 2010

    The best thing about the journey from Cape Coast to Accra is the fruit being sold at the roadside. Lines of stalls overflowing with pineapples and watermelons, and carts filled with fresh coconuts. Forget the glutinous starchy fufu and oily soups, I reckon I could survive on fresh fruit alone in Ghana, and many other African countries for that matter.

    Coconut sellers

    The worst thing about this same road is the traffic. There is a worrying frequency of signs stating how many people died at that specific spot. I usually try to find alternative routes in such cases, but here there were none, at least according to my map. This is proving to be one of the worst country maps I’ve ever used. Whoever was responsible for producing the International Travel Map for Ghana needs to improve their cartography skills. Not only does their map not include simple road distances between places, but they have drawn roads which don’t exist and have depicted what are in fact large sprawling towns to be villages. Ghanians would agree with me if they could read maps.

    I broke the two day cycle from Cape Coast to Accra by stopping over in the fishing village of Apam. It was a worthwhile detour, mostly because I got to sleep in a 300-year old slave fort. It was originally built by the Dutch, but handed over to British control 100 years later. This was about the only information I could decipher from Grace, the fort’s female caretaker. I highly recommend it for those making the same journey. You sleep with the sound of the waves crashing below you and wake up to a view worth far more than the £2 it costs to stay here. There is no electricity or running water, but anyone overlanding in Africa ought to be familiar with this minor inconvenience. Candle-light is far more appropriate in such places.

    Apam fising village

    Apam

    The ride into Accra was hot; the kind of heat that turns your Tilley hat stiff with salt stains. Fortunately filtered water is very cheap in Ghana (like £0.02 for a 500ml sachet) and frequently available, usually sold chilled in blue cool-boxes at the roadside. I never remember water being sold like this when I first went to Africa 10 years ago. I have no idea to what extent this water has been tested or approved by any regulatory body, but my stomach seems to be coping OK.

    The hospitality I’d received in Takoradi a few weeks previously was extended in Accra. My host here was director of the Accounts department for the country’s National Audit Service. In other words a Ghanian of some rank. Not so long ago he was a night security guard in central London, a job which allowed him to study through his shift. This was the real reason he’d gone to the UK. He told me this after I’d followed his chauffeur-driven SUV way out of Accra to a large hotel by the sea. We’d only just met, I’d pulled him out of his busy job and now he was buying me lunch.

    The following 5 days in Accra were centered around applying for visas and giving presentations about my journey(s) by bike. Almost half of that time seemed to be spent in traffic, where armies of street hawkers brush past your window selling anything that can feasibly be carried by hand or head. “This is nothing compared to Nigeria”, remarked my host George, who lived some 20km east of the city centre. His daily commute, which we did for the remainder of the week in his newly re-sprayed Mercedes, took between 1-2 hours each way. It would certainly have been faster on a bicycle, which would naturally have been my mode of transport had it not been for the convenience of having a driver assigned to take me to the necessary embassies.

    Nigeria was up first and I arrived at the new address (20/21 Roman Ridge road, just off Achimota road for those who might need it) lacking the necessary documents to secure a visa. Up until now west African visas have been a doddle to apply for. This one required an invitation from the country, although in reality I just needed a hotel reservation from Nigeria, plus photocopies of my insurance details and vaccination certificates.

    Visa requirements

    I went away to find an Internet Cafe and returned an hour later with a printed online booking. It was totally false, and handing it in felt a bit like playing a Nigerian trickster at his own game. Does anyone ever fall for those bogus e-mails saying a relative has recently died and left a huge sum of money that can only be released if you agree to be guarantor?

    The reservation was merely a formality, along with the other bits to be handed in with the $130 (West African visas don’t come cheaply) before being told to return at 14.30 the following day.

    I opted to take a tro-tro (Ghana’s version of an overloaded and uncomfortable mini-bus) back into the centre, (even though I probably could have telephoned for a driver) and found the city’s National Museum. This is the first I’ve been to on this trip and a welcome diversion from the city’s shadeless streets. I was the only visitor that afternoon and had to wake the Museum’s shop assistant to buy some postcards. She shuddered when I told her I’d been at the Nigerian embassy to apply for a visa. “Why are you going there? It is full of crooks”. Her reaction and remark is one echoed by many Ghanians, who consider their nearest Anglophone neighbour in west Africa to be something of a big bully. It is a little daunting to think that 1 in every 5 Africans on the continent is a Nigerian, and there have been very few people in recent months who’ve responded with anything positive to say when I’ve told them I’m going to cycle across the country.

    The embassy of Benin was equally as hard to find the next morning (19 Volta street, 2nd close Airport Residential district), although the visa cost one third the price of the Nigerian and didn’t necessitate the paperwork nor the overnight wait. Rumour is it I could probably get the visa at the border, which is what I’m hoping for with the Togolese visa (I was reluctant to part with 25,000 west African francs at the embassy when I heard it is 10,000 at the border). I realise all this information is beyond the interest of most readers, but for the few overlanders google searching ‘Nigeria visa Accra’ or ‘Benin visa cost Accra’, perhaps this blog post will be of help.

    Mid-way through my stay in Accra George had taken it upon himself to get the media onto my story. Several journalists and a camera crew turned up in his office trying to figure out what the connection was between an English cyclist and the country’s National Audit Service. The interview went ahead, I struggled to keep a straight face and my voice was failing having already given two talks to an American International School in the morning. But George had also arranged for me to speak to the Audit Service team in the boardroom. This was my first all-African audience and typically they wanted to know why I wasn’t afraid of all the wild animals.

    Talk to National Audit Service

    As a parting gift to George and his wife I decided to print out two of my photos and have them framed . They were delighted and hoped I’d stay for Sunday Service at Church. I had the Lake Volta weekly ferry that departs on Monday as an excuse.

    Mother Africa and Princess Thorny