• Deportation: Mwanza-Muscat Part 6 September 17th, 2015

    Things were going OK until my passport disappeared. Snatched out of my hand by a drunkard wearing a white singlet and combat trousers. I’d only been in the country thirty minutes. Welcome to South Sudan I thought to myself.

    He first approached me moments after I’d crossed the border and gone in search of an immigration official. The newly built office block nearby, with a sign outside reading ‘Immigration Office Tsertenya’, was clearly closed and the flag poles bare. A good enough sign that few people came through this little-used post.

    South Sudan immigration

    I asked a group of men playing dominoes under the shade of an acacia tree where I could find the immigration officer.

    ‘Go and ask for Jacob up there’, pointed a disinterested police officer in the direction of several tin-shacks.

    In doing so I had chosen to brush aside this drunken fool, who in a slurred drawl pumped his fist on a bulging scar in the centre of his muscular torso and claimed to be working for the CID. Criminal Investigation Department perhaps?

    The immigration officer was fortunately sober, but confessed, somewhat embarrassingly while he stamped me into the country, that this fool was indeed a government employee. Without asking much more I got the feeling that if there was any hierarchy of authority out here, unfortunately he was quite senior.

    I was just about to leave, after having filled my water bottles up, when he re-appeared on the track in front of me and demanded to see my passport.

    It would have been wiser to hold onto it firmly for inspection. I recall doing this in certain places in Africa where law and order have little meaning and the person requesting to see my passport probably had little authority to do so, and was most likely, as on this occasion, drunk.

    Well my passport wasn’t even opened before it disappeared in a side pocket and the fool stumbled off out of view. Great.

    As I stood calmly waiting and wondering what to do, it also occurred to me that it would have been wiser to cross the border in the morning – less chance of dealing with a drunken border official. Actually, it would have been wiser not to enter South Sudan at all.

    In the days and weeks leading up to entering the World’s newest country I mostly avoided telling people my plan to cycle there. The day before entering the country there had in fact been another signed agreement for a ceasefire to come into play between government troops and rebel forces loyal to the country’s Vice President. Whether that was going to make much difference to the general atmosphere in a country wracked by years of Civil War I had no idea. What I did know is most of the recent conflict was taking place in regions I would be well away from. Some solace as I looked out into a scenic expanse of green bush in the late afternoon sun.

    I patiently let time pass as various people became involved in either trying to retrieve my passport, or attempting to explain, mostly in a drunken manner, that they worked for another government department and that now I must follow them.

    The passport during this 40-minute time frame moved through various hands. There was plenty of discussion, but eventually it came back to me from the immigration officer, who in leaning towards me while handing it over uttered two clear words. ‘Go now’.

    An abandoned tank appeared in the bush moments later as I rode between high elephant grass towards green mountains. Something in Arabic was written on the front and I wondered when in the past this had last been in use.

    Abandoned tank

    Heading to Ikotos in South Sudan

    There were no villages visible. When I pitched the tent a short distance from the track I assumed it would just be the familiar sound of insects to fall asleep to in the sultry air.

    Wild camping. First night in South Sudan.

    I was wrong. Drumming, singing, voices and several gunshots were audible as I lay still trying to guess how far away this village was. Actually there must have been more than one village or compound of huts as the sounds came from different directions.

    It wasn’t the only night I heard singing and drumming while lying in my tent during the short time I spent in South Sudan. As for the sound of gunshots – well I soon realised that the possession of a gun here was more common than that of a mobile phone. There probably aren’t many countries in the World that can claim that.

    Toposa gun man

    Guns were everywhere – nonchalantly slung over male shoulders from a young age. It was hard not to think how quickly a calm rural setting could change in an instant should one of these guns be in the possession of an angry youth one day, who just so happened to see a foreigner on a loaded bicycle approaching.

    The reality was most people on the roadside looked on with bemusement as I rolled past with a hand in the air to greet them. When I did stop it was clear few people spoke any English, so I just pointed in front of me and named the next known settlement on my map.

    People frequently asked for water, and when I had plenty spare I offered what was left in a bottle. On other occasions when I was running low I did my best to point and explain I had little left.

    Girls on the road to Kapoeta

    South Sudan girls

    With the history of conflict it’s little wonder I saw no large animals as I rode through what my map demarcated as Kidepo Game Reserve. Surely nothing edible and valuable, such as elephants, could survive out here.

    Much to my surprise the dirt track here had been recently regraded, although only one vehicle came past me as I headed towards Chukudum. The sky was a deep blue, and despite the many dry river-beds I crossed I guessed rain wasn’t all that uncommon in this part of the country.

    South Sudan landscape

    Road to Chukudum

    Track to Chukudum

    Kidepo River

    ‘Please bear with the situation’ said the local driver cheerfully as he slowed to greet me in a landcruiser with a ‘Norwegian Peoples Aid’ sticker on the side.

    In Chukudum I managed to obtain a local sim card. The mobile tower pointing out of the greenery beside a single street of tin and wooden shacks was the only significant indication of the modern world I had seen since entering the country.

    Sunset in Chukudum

    I enquired about accommodation and got pointed towards a Catholic mission, which in structure and setting turned out to be one of the most impressive I have seen in Africa.

    Mission in Chukudum

    ‘Built in 1947 by the Italians’, I think the Pastor had said. He gave me a brief rundown of the history and life in Chukudum, before I pitched my tent in the shade of some mango trees. I was too tired to remember much beyond him saying that most gunshots I might hear at night were just boys showing off or possibly hunting an animal. It was somehow reassuring.

    The mountainous surroundings continued on my third day in the country as I rode towards the town of Kapoeta.

    Road to Kapoeta

    ‘Be a little careful going through Camp 15’, cautioned the Pastor. ‘The Didinka and Toposa are sometimes raiding each others cattle’. This, for the most part, seemed to be the biggest security problem I had been hearing about. One tribe stealing livestock from another. Camp 15, which wasn’t on my map, but sounded rather ominous, turned out to be as peaceful as the rest of the countryside.

    East from Camp 15 to Kapoeta

    In Kapoeta I pitched my tent in the cool shade of a large campsite called ‘Mango Camp’. If ever there were an oasis of calm in a war-torn country this would be it. Campsite would actually be the wrong description, even if there were a number of large permanent tents in the compound. Aside from a few missionary and NGO groups passing through, I very much doubt anyone else came to stay here.

    Mango camp: Kapoeta

    The owner, who had in fact assisted me with providing an invitation letter to secure a visa for South Sudan, was out of the country. The main business here wasn’t providing accommodation, but running a borehole drilling company. There were also a number of containers belonging to a gold mining company on the compound. It would have been useful to meet him, not only to ask about where I could find boreholes on my route ahead, but information about the condition of the road and the general security. This task fell to the responsibility of a few individuals working for an NGO called the Carter Centre.

    Back in Tanzania, when I hatched the idea of crossing through South Sudan, a former employee of the Carter Centre, working on Guinea Worm eradication in and around Kapoeta, had given me the idea that it would be possible to cross the border from South Sudan to Ethiopia. Until I saw a detailed road map of East Equatorial Province from one of the locally employed Carter Centre staff, I didn’t think it would be possible, but sure enough there were tracks, and more importantly boreholes from which to access water.

    The distance into Ethiopia from Kapoeta would be about 350km, so I calculated around 4-5 days of travel, for which I would need to provision myself with food. There would be nothing to buy en-route and crossing into Ethiopia would involve walking up to a rocky plateau and then into a tribally sensitive no-mans land. It all sounded like pure adventure. My mind was made up.

    I rested in Kapoeta for several more days, which as a settlement turned out to be a sprawling dump of tin-shacks where the smell of human excrement filled the air. The place had no toilets! Kenyans mostly ran small shops and other businesses frequented by the local Toposa tribe, some of whom lived in the town. Others had probably walked in from the bush. With little or no public transport in South Sudan I realised that people here were used to walking for an entire day or more to reach somewhere.

    Central Kapoeta

    My stay just so happened to coincide with some annual Carter Centre meeting. White faces, all American I think, flew in on small charter planes to the nearby airstrip. I only spoke with a few, one of whom happened to be living very close to Ethiopia on the route I had planned out. He clearly thought it was a mad idea for various reasons (security, roads, remoteness) and shrugged my idea off with little encouragement. We didn’t talk much after that.

    On the way out of Kapoeta an immigration official caught up with me on the back of a motorbike. I needed to register my passport and details of where I was headed. I did so in a nearby tin shack. All seemed fine and I cracked on.

    Road from Kapoeta to Kenya border

    Toposa girl

    That night I slept beside a Primary School in a small village with a borehole. It was a familiar African scene – schoolteacher and a small collection of other locals watching on as I erected the tent, emitting gasps of surprise and wonder as the sleeping mat was unrolled and inflated.

    Primary School camp

    The track which I’d now turned onto had also been recently up-graded. No vehicles, just a few toposa, walking I knew not where. Other than cow, goat meat and milk I couldn’t work out what people lived on out here. There appeared to be no cultivation of crops.

    Toposa girl

    Toposa girl

    Toposa Shepherd boys

    It was certainly a remote road, as well as scenic. In stretches where dry black cotton mud covered the road, I was thankful the skies stayed clear. Several hours of heavy rain would have been a nightmare out here. When I pushed the bike off the track to reach a borehole I ended up jamming the wheels with thick mud. It took the best part of an hour to get moving again properly.

    On the road north to Boma

    Flowering baobab tree

    Baobab flower

    I camped between thorny acacia bushes the next night and spent half the time while eating a bowl of spaghetti stamping on scorpions. They were obviously attracted to the light from my head-torch.

    I had only been on the road the next morning for 10 minutes when a Toyota Hilux pickup came driving towards me. Two armed police jumped out of the back and a passenger in military fatigues stepped out of the vehicle.

    ‘Where is your document to be travelling on this road’? he asked as I handed over my passport. The visa was expiring in 3 days time, but I calculated I would be out of South Sudan by then.

    There then followed a serious of questions about my mission, where I had slept the previous night and where I was going. I soon learnt that this vehicle, in convoy with another, had driven out the day before under the orders of the Police Commissioner from the town of Narus, some 150km away. I hadn’t passed through this town, where apparently I needed permission from the Commissioner to be where I was.

    It all sounded like rubbish, but I was in no position to argue or defend myself. Moments later, with bike lying flat in the back of the pick-up and me over a wheel arch, I was being driven back in the direction I had just come.

    That journey was one of the most frightening and painful I have ever taken in my life. Moving at speeds of 100km/hr and more on a dirt track while I bounced around in the back had me fearing for my life. The only time we stopped was to pick up two random walkers who jumped in the back with a goat. About 80km further on they were dropped off. Thanks to me I just saved them a 2 day walk.

    Picked up by the Police

    ‘There are many wild animals out there like elephants, lions, rhinos and tigers’, said an older military-clad official who looked through the pages of my passport while my bags were thoroughly searched back in Narus. The journey back here, had taken less than two hours.

    Wild animals sounded as much like bullshit as ‘special permission’ to be where I was. It wasn’t a closed area. There was no rebel fighting. I had a visa.

    Apparently someone in one of the villages had reported seeing a foreigner on a bicycle with bags and the Commisioner, who I never met, decided to deploy two armed vehicles to drive out into the bush to get me.

    ‘You know people out there are backward. They might harm you’, said the immigration official an hour later. Not only had I been driven back to Narus, but I was now at the border with Kenya, 20km away from Narus, and effectively being deported from the country. I couldn’t believe this.

    Well at least I remained unscathed following the journey in the pick-up. And contrary to what I feared when I first arrived back in Narus, no one had made any mention of a fine for having police deployed to drive out and pick me up. Things could have been a lot worse, although I still couldn’t quite figure out what all the fuss was about. I was basically just a random anomaly, attached to no organisation, and the authorities wanted me out of their head-space. Had I gone to the Police Commissioner in the first place to request permission to cycle this road and cross into Ethiopia I rather suspect it would not have been a simple case of agreement.

    Whatever, I would now have to detour 350km through Turkana county in Kenya to reach Ethiopia, another challenge in itself.

    You can view the map route for section of the journey by scrolling to the bottom here.

  • New visas: Mwanza-Muscat Part 3 August 10th, 2015

    A refrigerator box made an excellent container to transport my bicycle on a plane out of Tanzania. Cycling away would have been preferable, were it not for the fact that in order to go north, which is the direction I’m generally going, I’d be re-riding some of the roads I’d already covered. This rarely has much appeal, unless the roads are stupendously scenic, which they weren’t.

    Fortunately FastJet fly from Kilimanjaro Airport to Uganda and tickets cost all of £20. Well that’s before tax, after which the price quadruples. Even still, with an extra £20 for the bike and several quid for the gear the total price made it an affordable option. I also had good memories of cycling in Uganda.

    Bike in a fridge box

    My 3-week stay at the Arusha Hotel finished with me signing a bill I was very glad I didn’t have to pay. Goodbye full English breakfasts and 5-star luxury. Goodbye bus-loads of safari-clad tourists who always filled the hotel lobby every morning to be briefed by tour-operators about their impending trip to one of the nearby National Parks. None ever seemed to venture onto the streets of Arusha. Well that wasn’t in the itinerary, and being hassled by multi-lingual touts would only mire what were probably very expensive holidays.

    The hotel must have been making an absolute fortune from this lot. Had I cared more I would have told the Indian manager to invest in some better customer service. It’s a concept that remains mostly foreign in Tanzania, even when people pay western prices. Instead I gave one of the security guards the two pairs of trousers I’d bought to work in and pedalled off to a Warmshowers host. Thanks for the fridge box if you happen to be reading this Eric.

    My short teaching contract provided a welcome break, as well as a good opportunity to be back in the classroom interacting with Tanzanian students. If I could live a life of cycle-touring for several months then pick up a 2 or 3-week well-paid teaching contract in an interesting location I might just spend the rest of my life doing that.

    Ugandan immigration had little time for my reasoning that I didn’t need a visa when I arrived. I was in Uganda for a weekend in late May and paid $50 for a visa which I hoped would allow me free re-entry to the country within 90 days. Tanzania and Kenya at least follow this policy. So much for an East African Union making it easier for people to travel freely around the region.

    Painting of President Musuveni

    Uganda now in fact charges $100 instead of $50 (prices changed on July 1st) and I was going nowhere until I paid it.

    ‘Don’t worry.You will enjoy Uganda. There is plenty of food and good security’, said a portly immigration officer as he relieved me of a crisp bill and stamped my passport.

    Ugandan lunch

    As international airports go, Entebbe’s is an easy one to cycle away from, located as it is at the end of a peninsula jutting into Lake Victoria. The main road from here, well pretty much only road, heads to Kampala, just 35km away.

    Kampala

    I hadn’t planned such a long stay here, but then didn’t anticipate the obstacles and delay in acquiring a visa for South Sudan. Fortunately, Kampala, despite the crazy traffic and near death experiences every time one gets on the back of a boda-boda (a motorbike taxi) isn’t such a bad place to pass the time. People are friendly, they speak good English and there seems to be less of the immature ‘Mzungu’ calling that accompanies a stay in Tanzania. There also happens to be a great selection of bars and restaurants. An easy place for a single man to get trapped perhaps, as I’m sure many have…

    Downtown Kampala

    Boda Boda Drivers

    Beer with a view

    Kampala bus park

    Kampala bus park at sunset

    When I first conceived the idea for this current tour South Sudan had never been on the agenda, fraught as the country is with Civil War. A quick look at the FCO website will confirm that the 4-year old country isn’t the safest on the continent to visit right now. But I’ve never used the FCO website as a means to plan where I go, recognising that conflict in one part of a country doesn’t necessarily mean everywhere is actually as dangerous.

           South Sudan FCO travel advice

    A friend in Tanzania had worked in the country a few years back and started convincing me, or rather helped convince myself, that it would be a challenging and adventurous way to enter Ethiopia, which remains the plan.

    A visa for South Sudan isn’t easily obtainable, requiring a letter of invitation from within the country. Anticipating this to be a minor hurdle I decided to write my own invitation letter and forward it to my friend’s colleague in South Sudan, who could then sign it, which he did.

    The problem is self-written invitations don’t look so impressive without official letter-heads and stamps. My application was quickly rejected.

    I returned two days later with what I considered a formal invite, only to be told that I now needed a ‘Certificate of Incorporation’ in order to prove that the company who had invited me were officially registered. The letter could also not be addressed ‘To whom it may concern’ but the ‘Visa section’.

    By this point I was close to giving up, which wouldn’t have been a huge issue as I can just cross back into Kenya and enter Ethiopia that way.

    The certificate was soon emailed to me with the necessary letter changes. I returned once again. This time the Consular wasn’t in the office, but I was assured the visa would be processed, which indeed it was. Same day service as well (normally it takes 3 working days). Another $100.

    I have until September the 6th to enter the country. Well I assume that the 1-month duration of my visa is from the day I enter the country rather than the day the visa is issued. Such trivialities shouldn’t matter in Africa. I have northern Uganda to explore first.

    South Sudan Visa

  • Around Mt Elgon July 1st, 2011

    “After your first day of cycling, one dream is inevitable.  A memory of motion lingers in the muscles of your legs, and round and round they seem to go.  You ride through Dreamland on wonderful dream bicycles that change and grow. “ (H G Wells)

    Leaving busy highways is always a relief on a bicycle. When you hear your own tyres rolling over tarmac rather than the continuous drone of engines and exhaust pipes it’s one good measure of a cycle-friendly road.

    In my last post I described the road from Kampala-Jinja as being one of the worst  I’ve cycled on in Africa. Now I’m going to say something about one of the best roads. This one involves mountains, (the best always do) waterfalls, forests,  lots or smiling children, almost zero traffic and villages free from the garish colours of corporate advertising I’ve seen so much in Uganda.

    Colourful characters: Ugandan school children

    This road runs east from the town of Mbale and loops over the northern slopes of Mt Elgon (4321m), Uganda’s second highest mountain, It is an obvious route choice for anyone travelling in eastern Uganda and wanting to see some of the country’s best scenery.

    Sipi Falls, a series of three waterfalls, is the main draw-card to this region. I was told the place would be crawling with tourists, but unless I was staying in the wrong place it appeared I was about the only foreigner enjoying the sublime views from the porch of my tent. It’s the first time I’ve camped in Uganda and campsites don’t come much more scenic than Moses’ Campsite in the village of  Sipi (take note cycle tourers).

    Sipi falls

    Monkey at camp

    Moses' campsite: Sipi

    Around Sipi: Eastern Uganda

    The tarmac stopped beyond Sipi, but the scenery remained spectacular as a traffic-free track wound its way around the green fertile foothills of Mt Elgon towards the Kenyan border. If the reaction of children is any measure of how many Mzungus come out this way it’s fair to say this far eastern region of Uganda sees far fewer than other places I’ve come through.

    Climbing away from Sipi

    Through Mt Elgon National Park

    Mt Elgon National Park

    Village life

    Off to School

    Young boys: Eastern Uganda

    At some point as I was heading towards the Kenyan border it dawned on me that with only several dollars worth of Ugandan Shillings left in my wallet I didn’t have enough money to pay for a Kenyan visa. I needed $25, which I didn’t have. How I hadn’t thought and planned for this I’m not sure. Now I was faced with the decision of either leaving my bike in a village and waiting for transport back to Mbale to use a bank, or continuing to the Kenyan border and hoping the immigration officer would be friendly enough to allow me to take a bus into the first town in Kenya. I opted for the latter.

    Had this been any number of border crossings in west or central Africa I feel the demand for a bribe of sorts would have been on the agenda. But not here. The only concern after leaving my bike at the immigration post was surviving the mini-bus journey on a treacherously slippy track between the border and the town of Kitale.

    Well that’s where I am now, after having found a bank, returned to the border to pay for a visa and cycled back here. Next week I’m off to distribute a few thousand mosquito nets. Never too late to donate a few.

    Goodbye Uganda

  • Rwanda for a week May 22nd, 2011

    “The eyes of the stranger are wide open, but he sees only what he knows” (African proverb)

    Leaving the Congo was a whole lot easier than entering it. No delays, questions, form-filling or money requests. Surely there should have been one more bout with a bored immigration official? The procedure that had taken over an hour when entering the country was taking a few minutes as I left. Having prepared myself for such an interrogation it almost came as a disappointment to be on my way so quickly. As I wheeled the bike over a wooden bridge towards the Rwandan border I double-checked my passport had been stamped and looked over my shoulder. All clear.

    Travel in Africa would be boring if all borders were so easy to cross as this one. On the Rwandan side I joined an orderly queue, filled out an arrival card and watched my passport details being logged onto a computer before being welcomed and stamped into the country. No questions. And the visa? What visa? Rwanda lets British Nationals in the country for free – the first country in Africa I’ve enjoyed this privilege since entering The Gambia.

    The terrain on the other hand presented more of a challenge. Rwanda is dubbed the country of 1000 hills and it’s easy to see why. This small land-locked pocket of Africa is surely one of the most mountainous countries in the World. I could have tackled the contours on tarmac, for there are plenty of paved roads in the country, but instead followed a dirt track along the eastern shores of Lake Kivu.

    Welcome to Rwanda

    And it was scenic – incredibly so. One of the most scenic countries I think I’ve cycled through. From a traffic-free track green terraced slopes fell beneath me towards the shimmering blue surface of the lake. In the distance more mountains rose up from the western shores. The Congo might still have been close, but my surroundings were different. No longer was every hut composed of mud-brick walls and palm-leaved roofs. Villages had power and buildings made of concrete. Here the shops actually sold food and had signboards advertising coca-cola. Children remained curious and called Mzungu as I rode past, but there wasn’t the same amazement when I stopped.

    Looking down to Lake Kivu

    Lake Kivu

    Beside Lake Liku

    Bike taxi

    Young Rwandan face

    Young Rwandan boy

    Between villages the land was neatly tilled and heavily cultivated. A lush patchwork quilt of crops and plantations of tea covered the slopes, and I wondered why the land, equally as rich and fertile, was never like this in the Congo?

    Tea plantation at dawn

    Green Rwanda

    Tea plantation

    Tea pickers

    Tea picker

    Almost every village or town I went through had a memorial to the genocide. Given the level of development in terms of infrastructure and the comparative sense of peace and order that characterised the places I passed through, it was hard to fathom that 17 years ago some 1 million people, or approximately 20% of the country’s population, were brutally killed in the space of just 100 days.

    I wanted to ask those old enough to remember the genocide where they were and what they had to say about this terrible chapter in history, but it always seemed too sensitive a subject to bring up with a stranger. To be a Hutu or a Tutsi is not talked about now. Everyone is a Rwandan, but surely tribal differences must remain strong.

    Well a week in the country was just skimming the surface. I didn’t visit the capital, Kigali, which is reportedly one of the cleanest and most orderly of African capitals there are. Instead I continued to the far northern shores of Lake Kivu, where if I was travelling on a far different kind of budget I might have considered doing what many visitors to this part of the country do. To be honest though, $500 is a lot of money to hang out with a family of gorillas for a few hours, for that is what it costs for a permit to track mountain gorillas, and apparently there is no shortage of people willing to pay this sum. I briefly considered heading back across the border to the DRC and visiting Goma. For $200 one can climb up the volcano that put Goma in the World headlines in 2002 for blowing its top. But overall a week cycling Rwanda was reward enough. I’d happily come back for more calf-crunching punishment here.

    Primus time again

  • The Grand trunk road January 21st, 2011

    Should you want evidence that central Africa’s jungles are being destroyed I highly recommend driving between Douala and Yaounde in Cameroon. Actually I don’t recommend driving, even less so cycling. Just stand on the roadside, but not too close, and observe. This is a highway dominated by trucks. Trucks transporting enormous tree trunks – their 20-metre long trailers loaded as they hurtle towards you and the coast and empty as they journey back towards what remains of the continent’s equatorial rain forests. It’s a sad and scary sight, these speeding monsters helping to bleed Africa of its lungs, but it’s been going on for years and seems unlikely to stop or be reduced any time soon.

    This 300km highway between Cameroon’s two largest cities needs to be wider. Better still another road should be built, but that would only destroy more forest.  With its location on the coast Douala is the end point for traffic coming not just from the capital Yaounde, but northern Cameroon, as well as landlocked Chad, the Central African Republic and probably the jungles of Congo and parts of Gabon. So it’s an important road, and needless to say a busy one.  It’s also well-paved, at least by African standards. This is a problem for the cyclist – traffic moves as fast as humanely possible. One stays in the hard shoulder, when it’s there.

    There are few towns or even villages along this highway. It cuts through the jungle, which is the only interesting thing about it. But with the deafening roar of a logging truck approaching you there is little opportunity to hear or look into that twisted tangle of greenery. The jungle feels close around you, yet distant at the same time. Why could there not be a cycle lane winding its way through that other World where engines don’t exist? That comes in the Congo perhaps. Everyone using the highway wishes to leave it as quickly as possible. In a vehicle the journey is a 3 hour drive, or less, on a bicycle 3 days.

    I stayed in unadvertised rooms along this road. They were small and and cheap ($5-10 US) and I found them behind roadside bars, of which there are many in the small towns that do exist. In the day time such establishments might get used by the hour – “for a siesta” as one truck-driver told me. Very convenient if you want to get drunk and, well, I think you know what I’m talking about.

    I don’t have any photos from this stretch of road. Partly the traffic, but also the dust-filled skies provided little inspiration. I just wanted to arrive in Yaounde, like everyone else, and after that long and relaxing stay in Limbe the road was tiring – both physically and mentally.

    And so here I am, passport back in my hands this morning with a visa from the Embassy of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Two days ago I also collected a visa for the Central Africa Republic. I had anticipated problems of the ‘letter of introduction/invitation’ type, but it appears money is all that really matters. Neither visa is cheap, particularly if you request a 90-day stay, which I have done for DRC. I don’t anticipate spending 3 months there, but I want time on my side in what will be Africa’s largest  and most challenging country on this journey.  Just for the record, a visa for CAR costs 55,000 CFA ($110) and is issued in 48 hours, and a 90-day visa for DRC is 105,000 CFA.

    Central Africa Republic visa

    DRC visa

    Hiromu is here. I met him outside the Central Africa Republic embassy in his favourite hole-ridden shirt. I made some comment to how suitably addressed he was, but translating sarcasm often doesn’t work. On his head was a new sun hat with “kiss me quick, squeeze me slow” written across the front. ‘Why did you buy this hat?’ I asked. Well I already knew the answer.

    He is staying over at the Foyer Presbyterian, which is a Church run guest-house/camp site,  along with several other overlanders, whereas I’m surrounded by more western furnishings in a teacher’s apartment belonging to the International School I spoke at yesterday. I hardly seem to have gone anywhere in the last several weeks. Really keen to start moving. There is however, one problem remaining. My Cameroon visa expired earlier this week, which will present problems if I don’t do something about it when I arrive at the border. More about that in a future post.

    Hiromu  at the camp

    Overlanders in Yaounde

    Beer o clock

  • 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.

  • Thank You Mr President: Visas and biscuit throwing June 1st, 2010

    The Guinean Embassy in The Gambia is not where my guidebook says it is. Readers Google searching for an address may now end up here, or here, which is where I found its new location. Attempts at asking shopkeepers and traffic police directly outside its former address met with limited success. One person told me one thing and the other another. I think a lot of useless information can be gathered this way in Africa. Thank progress for the Internet.

    I arrived at the correct address just as the Consular was opening his office. It was 9.30am. My search to find the place had begun at 7am, so at least I’d killed time in one way. I’d cycled up to Banjul early to wave Jon off on the ferry. That is where my guidebook, published eight months ago, located it to be. Instead it was 15km away in Serrekunda, which is really the economic hub of the country.

    Embassies consisting of a single room and just one member of staff seem to have a habit of changing addresses on a frequent basis. At least in a number of countries I’ve cycled through. It was only a matter of time on this trip before I found one. It was in fact not an embassy, but a consulate – the latter dealing with all matters pertaining to granting visas.

    On a wall above the only desk in the room hung a map of the country, alongside a picture of ‘Captain Moussa Dadis Camara’, the country’s former military leader who was shot in the head by one of his presidential guards last December. At least I assumed this was a picture of him. For the past several months some other general has been running the show. The country is planning to undergo elections this June. Perhaps not the wisest of times to be applying for a visa.

    I filled out the application form and handed over a wad of cash, opting to pay extra for a double-entry visa that will allow me to travel back into the country from either Sierra Leone or Liberia. Given the usual bureaucratic delays that define such matters I expected to be told to return in a few days.“Come back at eleven”, said the voice behind the scattered pile of paperwork. I clarified that he meant eleven the same day, although in reality he could have done it there and then. We were two in the office and I doubted many more people would be coming to apply for a visa.

    It was all too easy, and got easier the following day when I cycled to the Guinea Bissau embassy. Guinea Bissau, which borders Guinea (or Guinea Conakry for clarity) to the north, points to Portugal for its colonial history, whereas Guinea Conakry was French controlled. Confusing I know.

    The Guinea Bissau embassy was far easier to locate, and its visa, at a mere $10, far cheaper. My passport disappeared for little more than 10 minutes before coming back with the correct stamp. Only the Sierra Leonean embassy requested I return after the weekend and provide the address of the hotel I will be staying at in Freetown, the answer to which I have no idea. I was about to make one up on the application, but decided it wiser to ask the Consular for a recommendation. This seemed more important than knowing the particulars of my yellow fever vaccination, which I think is mandatory for entering the country.

    Of far greater interest than applying for visas was an evening in the country’s national stadium. “Rediscovering the Mystical Roots Of Our African Heritage” read the billboards advertising the World’s first ever Michael Jackson tribute concert. It seemed like an event not to miss. For $4 Gambia showcased some big local artists, before everyone’s attention turned to the procession of black Hummers entering the stadium. The President appeared from one of the two limousine-sized behemoths and stood through the skylight as several army generals flung packets of his own Presidential branded biscuits to the crowd. I’d been told this was common during public appearances.

    The biscuit throwing spectacle was possibly the highlight of the evening. That and when his Excellency stood up later on to dance. Jermaine Jackson was finally on stage at this time and the doors to the stadium had been open for free. Bare-footed children scavenged for empty plastic bottles to be re-used whilst women balancing cashew nuts on their heads wandered gracefully through the crowds. How the babies tied to their backs were sleeping when the music blasted away I don’t know. It was after 1am.

    This was also after a Gambian group had sung a thank-you tribute to his Excellency’s work in the country’s health-care programme. The words caught the attention of the  audience and we all listened. “Thank you Mr President for curing HIV and Aids. Don’t listen to the west and their ways”. This was repeated several more times before the next act came on. The word is that natural herbs of some kind are used in this special medicine.

    Why and how Jermaine Jackson came to be performing in The Gambia I have no idea. A personal Presidential invite perhaps. It was his Excellency’s birthday last week and The Gambia is currently celebrating some ‘Roots’ festival, which is a word I hear often here. In the words of another popular billboard in this small African nation, ‘Thank you Mr President’.

    Back To Our Roots

  • The wacky contenders January 7th, 2010

    There was a sizeable crowd waiting outside the embassy at 8.30am on Monday morning. Considering recent news I  expected to be the only western face who would be applying for a Mauritanian visa. Instead a colourful bunch of characters, mostly with their own vehicles,  (equally colourful) had lined the road of this Rabat address. Camper-vans, land rovers, trucks, motorbikes – is driving through Mauritania really that popular? It was a comical scene and had me thinking of a cartoon I remember watching as a child.

    There was no queue. Application forms were distributed, or rather snatched out of an embassy employee’s  hand on the street and for the next few hours I joined the scrum of increasingly impatient people (French, English, Swedish, Polish, Moroccan, Senegalese..) who surged forward whenever the door to the street opened for a brief moment before  being promptly slammed shut again. Having just arrived off an 8-hour bus journey without a wink  of sleep my energy levels were lacking.

    Mauritanian embassy

    When my passport and €35 were taken from me I was told to return at 8pm. What embassy is open at this time? Sure enough the same characters were waiting again later that evening and out of a letter-box sized hole in a tiled wall appeared my passport, complete with a 30-day visa.

    My other reasons for visiting Rabat have been to speak at the International School here, where I’m hoping the students and teachers will get involved with some fund-raising for the Against Malaria Foundation. Over £5000 has now been raised, which is nearly enough to fund 2000 bed-nets. There is a long way to go, both with fund-raising and cycling.

    It’s quite daunting to look at the map and the distance through the western Sahara and Mauritania. Endless kilometres of stony desert I imagine. My bike is still in Tamraght and I’m headed back there tomorrow. A bit more surf might be called for before hitting the road.