For this trip I wanted to avoid public transport as much as possible. The inherent discomfort and inconvenience of it had limited me far too much when travelling in the past. My height was a big factor; I stand 193 cm tall and usually have to squeeze to fit into any sort of public transport seat, which made most trips less than pleasant even when the scenery was brilliant or I had interesting seatmates to talk with. The high accident rate I had seen in buses and minibuses had also turned me off public transport. I’d come to believe that if I routinely rode in these unsafe contraptions with their dangerous drivers, sooner or later I would die in one.
Having decided what not to do, I then had to decide how I would get around. Walking appealed to me, but it was too slow and if I resorted to hitch-hiking I would have safety worries as well as hassles. Driving a Landrover would have been nice, but too expensive and I didn’t want the commitment of taking a partner with me. That left bicycles and motorcycles. I chose the pedal option because I had friends who’d done this before and loved it, and because bicycles can be easily shipped on planes and don’t require any special papers. The physical effort involved never concerned me much. I found at the end of a day riding buses I was exhausted anyway, but if I rode a bicycle at least I would get some fresh air and exercise for my trouble.
I flew to Paris, then left immediately for Lourdes. I’d picked it as an easy destination I could reach in a mad rush out of Paris, and because I knew it had many cheap places to stay. This saved me some cash as I sat for a few days to recover from jet lag. My first day cycling took me a short 35 km down the road. The next day I did 78 km over the Col d’Aubisque. At the time it seemed like a big climb, but later in Pakistan I rode in river valleys which were higher. Those two days went by quietly, cycling on near- deserted small roads through the Pyrenees. Every now and then a farmer would cheer me on, or dogs would pursue me, or the fog would suddenly part leaving me a glimpse of deep mountain gorges. A few more days saw me over the Col du Pourtalet and, partly by train, on to Granada. There I stayed several days, seeing the Alhambra and riding up to the Sierra Nevada, and made one last train jump to Gibraltar before I began riding full-time.
I had visited Gibraltar years before and promised myself I would come back. It hadn’t changed much, still overcrowded and gaudy and wonderful. I climbed the rock again, snapped a few photos of the Barbary Apes, and looked across to Morocco again. The next day I rode to Algeciras and took the ferry to Ceuta, landing back in Africa.
My stay in Ceuta was only hours long, but long enough to ride once all the way around it. The town appealed, with stone streets and steep hills, but the costs frightened me off so I rode across the border and on towards Tetouan. The border crossing went easily, with an amused and interested guard asking me if I had any drugs and making some mysterious gestures and using a French noun I didn’t understand. After a few minutes we worked out that he wanted to know if I was carrying any mace (to use when chased by dogs, presumably). After satisfying him that I wasn’t carrying anything unlawful, I rode off into the dark. The busy Moroccan highway wasn’t much fun at night, and I quickly found a deserted luxury hotel to stop at.
The next day I made it handily to Tetouan, where I had a bit of excitement during my brief stay. A tout attached himself to me for a few minutes too long and a policeman dragged him away for questioning, despite my half-hearted lie that he hadn’t been bothering me. I hadn’t expected this; when I first visited Morocco in 1989 the touts were fierce in their hassling, but things had changed somewhat since then. The government had spent a lot of effort to clean up the tourist business. Without the wild charm it was less fun, particularly in Marrakech, but it was also much less hassle - a mixed blessing.
From Tetouan I pushed on over rolling hills to Chefchaouen, a pleasant whitewashed village. I had planned on a day or two here but had to stay a bit longer; in Gibraltar I had caught up on my Typhoid vaccination, and here the side-effects caught up with me, leaving me dizzy and weak for a weekend. When I’d recovered, I descended from the hills to Ouazzane, also a whitewashed village but not nearly as pleasant. A slick group of con artists met me at my fleabag motel room (which had holes in the walls) and by the end of the afternoon had managed to milk me of several souvenirs and a free lunch. In 1989, a similar group had sold me a carpet for a couple hundred US dollars. I was getting better at handling these people.
The road from Ouazzane led to the main highway and south, 140 km through fertile farmland to Kenitra. There I pitched my tent at a beachside campground, under conditions that resembled a war zone. The campground must have had fairly serious problems with theft, judging from the effort they’d invested in security.
In one more morning after Kenitra, I arrived in Rabat. Morocco’s capital had sights; royal palaces, ancient ruins, impressive bird life and lots of colourful old stone buildings. I had a bit of business to do there, which took a lot of time. Mainly, I wanted to get a visa for Mauritania. I knew it would be difficult if I wanted to go by land, and that I should have done it in Paris or Madrid, but I didn’t care enough to spend the cost to get one in Europe. I didn’t manage to get one in Rabat, and as in Sudan a couple years earlier, I didn’t care to spend my way through the hassles of buying a fake plane ticket. Instead I switched to my backup plan, to ride through Morocco then fly to the Canary Islands and from there travel to West Africa somehow. This didn’t feel like any sort of loss to me; I’d crossed the Sahara before, and was looking forward to seeing Gran Canaria.
My alternative plan didn’t get off to a brilliant start. On the way out of Rabat I stopped by the side of the road to piss and fainted over into a ditch. The problem was nothing more than a bit of a cold, but I was discovering that cycle touring required a high level of fitness. I still managed 145 km that day, all the way to Meknes, but it went slowly and I didn’t arrive until after dark.
Meknes looked nicer than the other cities I’d passed through in Morocco, with its walls and fortresses. Farther north the villages had been small walled and whitewashed towns. From Meknes on the cities were all big brown-walled citadels, often with stone streets. Another tourist there told me how he’d been stopped at night on the road I’d taken, then sold a load of hashish at gunpoint - an interesting form of banditry but banditry all the same. This caused me to think twice about riding at night, but didn’t stop me from a short day trip to the ruins of Volubilis, just north of Meknes. I found this old Roman city thoroughly disappointing compared to the ruins I’d seen in Syria and Jordan. It had reached a much lower state of repair, consisting of little more than a few old pavements with grass growing everywhere.
From Meknes my route took me to Fes, an easy ride through countryside that grew steadily more rugged and hilly. Fes had a convenient new town with hotels and restaurants, and a very scenic old town , with canyon-like cobblestone lanes winding around the bottom of a valley. and swarming crowds of people. The occasional cart forced its way through the masses and back lanes led into picturesque hidden markets and mosques.
From Fes I had to choose between a couple interesting routes, and opted to ride south through the Middle Atlas rather than go east and around through the desert. The climb up from Fes to Ifrane was easily accomplished, with the road not too steep and the green hills easy on the eye. I ended the day at Azrou, another village which has surely graced the front side of many postcards. However, I picked a bad place to eat that night and didn’t get enough food as a result.
This was a serious mistake. The next day I picked a road up through the mountains and past the Sources of the Oum Er Rbia. The hotel manager had said it was an easy ride and I had foolishly believed him, then found myself riding 120 km up and down over three mountain passes. By the end of the night at Khénifra, I had worked up a nice case of hypoglycemia to the point where I could hardly ask for a hotel room. I did eventually manage to find one, and stayed a couple days. I particularly enjoyed this singularly normal town. It had little in the way of special sights, but lots of good food, friendly people and a good climate.
The road from there to Marrakech was flatter but no easier. The next day’s ride south was perhaps the worst of my trip. An unwise short cut brought me my first flat tire, followed by several more as I wound my way down a tortuous back road which the government was busy rebuilding, in the process making it completely unusable. At night I stopped in a dingy hovel in Beni Mellal. The next two days I spent crossing near-desert, complete with wandering camels, to Marrakech.
Marrakech had been a hippie Mecca in the past but it certainly was not in 1995. The cleanup I had noticed in Tetouan showed even more here, The Jemaa Fnaa had supposedly bustled with drug dealers and hippies and hawkers in the sixties but in the nineties it was tidy and orderly and all the food dealers had to wear white coats and get licences. It still presented quite a sight, with rows of glaring torches at night illuminating the carts of food hawkers. Like Fes, Marrakech had an old section and a new section. The old town also had winding narrow streets, with red walls all around.
I headed south, ascending from the plain around Marrakech into the High Atlas. Shortly after leaving the city, I ran into the most annoying of many annoying people I met in Morocco. I was used to stone throwers and beggars but in a small village I met one boy who was both. He chased me down the street shouting “give me give me give me” and when I had to walk my bike around a giant mound of rocks he began to pull at things on my rack, trying to carry them off. I kicked at him and he jumped back, then picked up two fist-sized missiles. I dropped the bike and he dropped the rocks as I advanced on him but my bike effectively glued me to the road so I let him escape. Later I ran into another boy, perhaps the first one’s brother, who cycled along next to me telling me which way I was going, then demanded money. When he didn’t get it he wished me a pleasant accident.
Asni was the usual stop on the route up to the Tizi’n’Test but I only had to stop there for five minutes to realize five minutes was enough. Everybody there seemed to want to sell me something, before I’d even stopped my bike.I kept going to Ouirgane. This had a few fewer touts and annoying people. When the only restaurant in town tried to overcharge me by two hundred percent I lightened my load by firing up my small camp stove and cooking my remaining food in the toilet of my hotel room.
From Ouirgane to Taroudannt the next day was my longest ride ever, 175 km over the Tizi’n’Test, a famous pass. The view up in the High Atlas would have made it worthwhile by itself but the 30 km downhill stretch, coasting through 1800 m of altitude was still better. My muscles started working again at the bottom and I pedalled into Taroudannt feeling quite sufficiently stiff and sore. I stayed on another day there to recover from fatigue and look around town. Like most I had visited in Morocco, it had a high wall and other fortifications, left over from days when there must have been many enemies thereabouts.
The day after that I cycled on to Agadir, my last stop in Morocco. Agadir may as well have been a beach resort in France. It was a pleasant stop but an expensive and unmemorable one. My cycling in Morocco wasn’t quite over; I started riding to Agadir airport and discovered my map was out of date, and the airport was now 30 km out of town. Still, I made it on time and flew to Gran Canaria with only minor trouble; the airline check-in attendants were convinced I needed a visa for the Canary Islands because the Canadian government had just concluded a bitter diplomatic feud over fishing rights with Spain. A few weeks earlier Canadians had needed visas to visit Spain, but it was no longer true then.
At the other end of that flight I didn’t have much better luck. My bike arrived safe and sound and passport control was no problem, as I had expected even if the Moroccans hadn’t. A friendly woman behind a desk at the tourist office handed me a map and a few leaflets, from which I quickly located the few campsites on the island and zoomed off.
Unfortunately, the road largely followed the coast so instead of the 20-30 km it looked on the map, I found myself cycling over 60 km in the hot sun in my dress clothes. Still, there were convenience stores where I could buy cold drinks and the view of the rocky volcanic coastline was spectacular, so I didn’t complain too much as I bumbled along. I passed a few small old stone towns and a few more modern concrete tourist villages, and finally settled at a campsite in Tauro, on the south side of the Island, where I set up my tent and fell asleep exhausted.
My plan here was to find either a boat or a flight, to Mauritania or as close to it as I could get. My ideal boat ride would have been on a yacht going south but I had arrived just in time for the trans-Atlantic crossing so everyone was going the wrong direction. My next option was to try to find a ride on a freighter. There were many of these and they did follow the routes I liked. There was a practical problem, though. Although you wouldn’t know it to look at the tourist areas, Gran Canaria was part of Spain and as elsewhere in Spain the majority of people spoke only Spanish. I quickly assessed my chances of finding a ride on a freighter and decided it would take far too long given that I didn’t speak the language well enough to discuss “business.” Other people have managed this, but they must have had more tenacity or better connections than I did, or maybe just spoke better Spanish.
Then I began to look at flights. It didn’t take me long to find out that there were few direct flights. Worse, what flights there were cost too much money, for example a ridiculous $700 US regular one-way fare to Dakar. Continuing on in my hunt, I found a return fare for a more reasonable $450. After a couple weeks I had about decided on that when a last-minute scouring of every travel agent in Playa del Ingles turned up a small company which ran one-day tourist excursions to Dakar and Banjul. Their next trip happened to go to Banjul so I decided to go to Banjul, booked my ticket and settled my plans. This flight cost me all of $250 US.
Was it reasonable to spend three weeks there trying to save $450 US? Yes, it was. My cost of living there was only about $10-15 per day and it was a worthwhile destination. Between trips into town to hunt down cheap fares I enjoyed myself on the beach and toured the island a bit as well. The south coast of Gran Canaria is a developed concrete jungle but convenient. The interior is more wild country, in and around the eroded ruins of a giant volcano.
It was a worthwhile stop for people-watching as well. Foreigners there divided into several subspecies; ordinary sun-worshippers, English lager louts, expatriate fetishists who filled leather bars at night, yachties, young people of all sorts working odd jobs and a few oddities such as myself and most of the people camping around me. One was a Scottish beach bum who worked as a chef in a hotel all summer, then spent the winter on the sand in the sun. Others were two Saharan refugees running a camel-ride business and a German youth counsellor working on a special project to get troubled kids out of their home environment and onto a new start.
After three weeks there I was ready to move on to Africa. I wasn’t ready for the cycle ride back to the airport, however. Leaving at 2 AM I expected a nice night-time ride on an empty highway, which I got. I didn’t expect a 50 kph wind blowing in my face for half of the distance, but I got that also. I managed anyway despite being blown off my bike twice.
A year or so before I went to the Gambia, there had been a coup d’etat, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I landed. It looked pretty peaceful. Passport control went smoothly and the porters were more than happy to help me with my luggage, even despite my protests that I wanted them not to help. The ride into town this time turned out to be some thirty kilometres long, but not difficult. The country was flat as a pancake.
Finding a place to stay in Banjul was rather more trouble. For years the standard place for backpackers to stay had been Uncle Joe’s, but it had gone out of business. Other famous old places looked undesirable, so I looked for some place new. This required a lot of looking. Gambians weren’t fond of advertising. Pretty soon I figured out the local way of finding things and just asked someone. He asked someone else who asked someone else who found a place promptly.
Banjul was a tremendously run-down town. At the time I arrived they were in the middle of a road renovation project. This meant that they had dug up all the potholed roads a couple years before but had yet to replace them with anything else. They finally started on the day I left. Power was on 16 hours per day for two days out of three and 24 hours for one day, in theory. In practice it didn’t quite reach those numbers. The buildings came in two styles, old colonial architecture and shacks. Out in the suburbs the look of town improved somewhat. This was the expatriate area, naturally. With my bike it didn’t matter where I stayed, so I stayed in town where I had first arrived, and cycled the 16 km out to the beach and the suburbs whenever I wanted.
In town I found myself eating mainly at the African Heritage Cafe, an upmarket place run by a Danish woman. It had great food and a balcony where I could sit and watch people on the street. There I met a character named Jack, an old Danish hippie who had moved to the Gambia after his divorce and opened a bar. While running it he had enjoyed life a bit too much and somebody had reported to the police that he liked to smoke marijuana. He had spent many months in jail waiting to go to trial and finally got out on bail. His business had failed meantime. He trusted a European friend to run it for him and his friend stole all the money. At the time I met him he was still waiting through continuations in his trial as the prosecutor failed to find his key witness. Jack’s lawyer was confident that eventually they would have to drop the case but meanwhile he lived in an unpleasant state.
All across Africa I met people who liked drugs and particularly who liked marijuana. Many African countries had very harsh penalties for drug use, and the Gambia is not by far the worst. However, most of these people seemed not to be concerned about it, as they seemed not to be concerned about many things that could make a big mess of their lives there. When I told them Jack’s story it failed to make any dent as well. Would it have more impact if I knew the outcome?
My main business in Banjul (aside from seeing the city) was to collect visas, and this proved easy enough once I gave up trying to do things the “normal” way and started doing them through connections and guides, their way. The Mali consul was a businessman but the Mauritanian consul had a real consulate. For Senegal I didn’t need a visa and Guinea I ruled out early on; geography more or less forced me to decide between a coastal route and an inland route, and I unwisely chose the inland road.
In between visa expeditions I talked with people and made day trips around the west end of the country, to Abuko Nature Reserve in particular. This small park preserves a dense bit of green jungle with a good variety of birds. I laid in enough food to see me to Senegal and finally headed off. The first day I had hoped to make it to Tendaba Camp, some 145 km upstream, but road conditions made that unfeasible. Also, although I didn’t realize it till much later, my bicycle seat had been knocked down somehow during the flight to Banjul so that I didn’t have quite enough leg room, and that centimetre or two difference caused me a very large amount of knee trouble over the next week. Towards the end of that first day out I met a German businessman who had stopped by the side of the road and he invited me to stay with a contact of his at a nearby fish factory. This was a fantastic stroke of luck. I got a free bed for the night and all the shrimp I could eat, with watermelon and safe water to wash the food down.
Reaching Tendaba camp the next day was easy enough despite the ever-worsening road. At the camp I met a large group of management students from Canada on some sort of educational tour, and chatted with their professor. The students seemed uninterested in anything outside their group. They had seen a bit of the country, listened to official bullshit from various government officials, spent a lot of time talking with each other without seeing anything of the country beyond the veneer presented to them, and would soon go home having gained no more than superficial knowledge of the country. It seemed a sad comment on some aspect of education. I stayed a couple days, enough time to tramp around the bush and watch monkeys and the very large variety of colourful local birds.
The bad road continued to Soma, the halfway point and junction with the north-south trans-Senegal highway, then turned into smooth blacktop going east. Monkeys and baboons abounded but places to stay didn’t and that night I roosted at a semi-derelict tourist camp where I cooked my own food rather than rely on the dubious local eatery. The next day I made it easily to Georgetown and almost rode past as well. The Gambian distaste for signs extends to highway markings, too, and the turnoff for Georgetown was completely unmarked. However,as always I just had to stop somebody and ask them where the road went.
Georgetown has one of the Gambia’s few real “sights”; the stone circles at Wassu, north of town. These were something like Stonehenge but not nearly as impressive. Their origin, however, is more mysterious; nobody seems to have much clue at all who built them or why. The ride out to see them was better than the destination, particularly as our bush taxi was an off-duty (I hoped) ambulance. Georgetown’s other major attraction is its position on the river, which makes it a good base for day-long river trips. Local fisherman caught barracuda. That surprised me until I remembered that the River Gambia was not really a river at all but a long tidal estuary. Even hundreds of kilometres upstream you can still see it rise and fall with the tides and still find salt-water fish.
Once Georgetown was a bustling colonial town. By 1995 it was well on its way to becoming a ghost town. I saw little reason for it to exist any more. It didn’t sit at a useful crossroads and if the Gambia merged with Senegal it would become even more of a backwater than it already was. This wasn’t likely to happen because Gambians were proud of being “English” instead of “French” and so doomed themselves to poverty by remaining semi-isolated in their little sliver of land. This was silly because they were substantially the same mix of people as in surrounding Senegal and many of them spoke French anyway.
From Georgetown I pushed on to Basse Santa Su, the new traffic hub near the east end of the country. This tiny town had a bustling market with traders from Mali, Guinea, Mauritania and everywhere else in west Africa. Locally-based expatriates suggested that a lot of the goods for sale there would ultimately be smuggled to different places. Most things for sale seemed to be Chinese-made so I gathered they were shipped up from the coast. There were also many refugees in the area, from Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mauritania, and other places.
The main highway ran south from Basse and then around to Tambacounda in a big curve through Casamance. I didn’t want to ride this so I asked around about the roads and some Peace Corps volunteers told me to ride straight out east, through the village of Fatoto where they worked. I did so, stopping a night to stay with them. Their tales of official corruption and incompetence were enlightening and interesting but not surprising. I had heard similar things from similar people before in Africa and would hear them again and again.
A very large number of people in these agencies seemed disillusioned with the work they did. This is not noteworthy, perhaps, but it impressed me that the people most disillusioned seemed to be the ones doing the most useful work (for example, teaching in local schools or working in local clinics). They usually could give me clear and believable answers to the most detailed questions I could think to ask about local people and customs. They lived with local people and talked to them every day. They knew most people in their towns and everyone there knew them. At other times I talked to the upper echelon of volunteers, typically working for the UN or government aid agencies, and heard only vague generalities that one could get from a book. Some of these people I saw but never met at all as they stayed only in hotels too expensive for me (and I was far from being a penny-pincher) and huddled together in small clans whenever they ventured outside to eat in expensive restaurants. What’s the real story? An outsider will maybe never know all that goes on with these groups but I think I can safely claim that being disillusioned is the rational and realistic response. The good work done by people at the bottom seems too often to be misdirected by their superiors, or hijacked for personal gain by a clique of corrupt and self-enriching middlemen.
From Fatoto I crossed the border, stopping to wait while the Gambian passport officer tried to find enough ink to stamp me out. On the Senegalese side I had to search to find the border post, and it became quite clear how smuggling could be the main business of Basse Santa Su; sneaking across the border was so easy that anyone who could carry anything saleable could earn money smuggling. I did eventually find the border post and continued down the excellent road to Tambacounda. When I arrived, the contrast with the Gambia struck me immediately. The countryside hadn’t changed, still flat and dry scrub, but the standard of living had gone up about 50 percent in a few kilometres. This wasn’t saying much, to be sure, but Senegal had power almost all the time and many more things to buy, even in an outpost like Tambacounda. It also had more bureaucracy. Coming into town a policeman stopped me. He checked my passport, looked at the time stamp and shook his head in amazement that I could cycle so quickly. I added to his awe by telling him how I had stopped to watch monkeys and snakes. He welcomed me to Senegal and I went to town.
The next day I cycled on towards Mali. The road started out not too badly but quickly deteriorated. It was a dirt road and had giant potholes two metres deep with ruts and mud patches. I pushed on and it got steadily worse. Numerous people had told me that this road was OK till the border and very bad after that. This sort of road advice is unreliable when it doesn’t come from other cyclists, but with even the gross details and a quick calculation I saw that I had little chance of reaching Bamako for Christmas if I insisted on cycling. After 30 km I turned around and headed back.
Re-entering town, I met another policeman who asked to see my passport. This one seemed suspicious of me and asked me to open a couple bags. Then he asked if I had any guns. When he asked to see my vaccination card I decided he was fishing for a bribe. He didn’t get one and gave up. Back in town I made a train reservation. This took some work; the ticket clerk didn’t want to admit I could do it but a platform worker told me I could and led me to the right person at the right time. I relaxed in town for a day then got on the train when it arrived, several hours late as usual.
I had a first class seat on the good train on this route but it didn’t do much to increase comfort. I found myself in a cabin with a couple men and a family of Gambian bumpkins. One of the men took my cycle bags from the overhead rack and re-arranged them, piling them higher up on top of his sack despite my protests. When my bags later fell down on top of the family I got several angry glares. I guess they thought since the bags were mine, it must be my fault they fell.
At the border, Senegalese passport control was a chaotic mess. In Mali a man came around to each cabin. He told me my “visa,” actually a letter, was not a visa but just a temporary substitute and that I would have to go to Immigration in Bamako to replace it with a real visa. This was no surprise but it was a surprise when the other man in the cabin quietly wrote me a note asking his friend in Immigration to help me quickly - it turned out the man was an immigration official himself.
The road looked nice from the train and I was sorry not to have cycled it. What I saw was a dry dirt track wandering up and down over small hills next to the riverside. I was even more sorry when I couldn’t manage to call my family from Bamako for Christmas anyway, and when I saw what the other side of Mali was like. Arrival in Bamako was a hassle. I couldn’t retrieve my bike until the next day. When I did retrieve it that wasted so much of my time that I had to give up all hope of getting my paperwork done quickly. It took many days despite the letter from the man on the train, which saw me through Bamako immigration in fifteen minutes and saved me days of waiting.
I moved from the expensive hotel I had stayed in on arrival in Bamako to the Pension MS, a cheap hotel/brothel. From there I got out and around town, enjoying excellent food and not enjoying the horrible traffic. Bamako sat on the banks of the river Niger, surrounded by low hills and bluffs. The climate was dry and the air dusty at the best of times, and the environment wasn’t improved by the rickety contraptions travelling up and down the streets belching toxic fumes everywhere. It had a few low-rise buildings in the centre of town and a few nice hotels scattered here and there. A more modern eastern strip held the embassies and supermarkets and other foreigners’ haunts.
A few days before Christmas I started to develop a mysterious fever. It got slightly worse every day and much worse at night until one night I had a delirious nightmare and woke up while sleepwalking around the room. At that point I took my quinine and the fever went away within a day. Malaria? My best guess but that’s not worth much. I didn’t want the hassle of visiting a local doctor to make sure. Looking back, this was not too smart. Quinine has nasty side-effects of its own, including hearing damage and possible heart trouble.
Christmas dinner was a giant watermelon and Lebanese food, shared with a South African couple. Bamako had a lot of people who prey on foreign tourists and they regularly pestered us when we sat down in cafes for dinner. One particularly aggressive pest sprinted up to me outside a restaurant and I immediately waved him off. This was a mistake. For three days this guy shouted abuse at me every time he saw me outside, calling me a racist. I might perhaps have guessed wrongly about what he had wanted but didn’t see any evidence later to change my mind.
East of Bamako the road was blacktop highway, very smooth and flat and easy and utterly boring. I saw no sights. The scenery gradually got drier and dustier, angling through the Sahel in the vague direction of the Sahara. Villages were pleasant enough but not visibly different from any of the dozens I had passed before. Also, I was still weak from my mystery fever and found the hot sun made it tough to cycle so I stopped pedalling and took the bus to Ségou.
New Years’ in Ségou was a big improvement over Christmas in Bamako. I bought a large pile of fireworks and had fun tossing them around and giving them to local boys to toss. Segou was much more rural and friendly than Bamako and didn’t produce as many tourist parasites. One still managed to attach himself to me and to other foreigners and pester us constantly to go with him to see small villages, till we told him flatly to go away. That earned us the racist label again. I didn’t care. One night there I met a crazy kid who I’ll name Clive, a recently-graduated lawyer who had run off to Europe to meet the woman he loved, then got dumped and decided to continue running across Africa. He ran off in the middle of our conversation and ran in and out of similar conversations during the couple days we saw him in the hotel. He seemed to hate Mali, as did lots of visitors. The country was expensive to visit and not easily negotiated in English.
From Segou I continued by bus to Mopti, a big tourist centre complete with teeming schools of touts and tourist leeches. I liked it anyway because it was almost the other side of the Sahara from Morocco, and the thought of that appealed to me in some way, as did the rugged semi-desert scenery. On the outskirts of town were Tuareg refugee camps and in town people from everywhere.
Djenné, in contrast, was a nightmare. I made a day trip and shortened it to a brief afternoon stroll. When I turned down a local “guide” he followed me around all afternoon shouting abuse. This made me determined not to hire any guides, on principle, but it also made for an unsatisfying day. The famous mud-brick mosque there may be the biggest in the world but it was no better looking than were others I had seen or saw later, and Djenné was no more interesting a town than others nearby.
On that day trip I had some trouble with police because I hadn’t registered when I’d arrived in Djenné. Registration was no longer officially required but the police pestered you anyway. I escaped that time by pointing out that I had only been in town for two hours. When I left Mopti later I ran into another checkpoint and told them I would register when I returned to Mopti. This translated to "never" but they didn’t ask far enough to discover that so I didn’t tell them.
The trip to Timbuktu was impractical at that time of year, by bicycle, so I cycled south through the Dogon country instead. I made a small mistake and left Mopti too late, at seven a.m. instead of six, which meant I got caught out in the afternoon sun. My progress stopped almost completely. I rode for twenty minutes then spent forty resting under a tree. I kept on that way all the way to Bandiagara anyway, because I had no choice. My rule was never to cycle after dark if I could avoid it. I did make it to Bandiagara an hour before sunset and rewarded myself with a cold Coke just outside of town with time to spare.
Bandiagara didn’t have a huge selection of hotels so I accepted an invitation from two French volunteer aid workers to stay with them. This required two nights as I registered and looked around. They told me the road I had taken was infested with bandits and that they had been held up on it just after sunset one day, most likely with police connivance as it happened very near a checkpoint. This second near-miss with bandits confirmed my no-cycling-after-dark policy doubly in my mind and when I left I made sure to get out as early as possible.
That early departure was a particularly good idea that day as the road turned out to be the worst I ever saw anywhere in the world. I had a flat tire within an hour, then another and another. The flats stopped as I carried my bicycle over a “road” paved with boulders the size of bowling balls. Even so, I found time to look at Dogon villages on the way, and time to fend off a few touts and large crowds of children begging for pens. Dogon country is famous around the world for its exotic customs but like most other places I went in Mali, it showed the worst effects of mass tourism. When I reached the edge of the escarpment I gave up on the road altogether and headed down on the bare rock and on small footpaths. At the bottom people were more friendly and less trouble so I stopped for a drink of Indian Tonic and rested an hour or two. Then I pushed on, literally: the next twelve kilometres of road were one long trench of soft sand and I had run out of spare tubes for my tires, which were now both flat. I couldn’t have cycled anyway so didn’t care much.
At sunset again, I arrived in Bankass and found the Campement. When I went out for dinner that night I found the local “upmarket” bar and restaurant, “Bar Ben” occupied by two overland trucks, local guides and an Australian motorcyclist I’ll call Fred. I met Fred several times farther on down the road. Both of us were aiming for Capetown, as indeed were lots of foreigners I met there. Like the trans-Atlantic yacht crossing the trans-Africa trip had a season and January was its peak.
Next morning Fred and I went back to Bar Ben for breakfast. We ordered toast, tea, butter and jam but nothing came. We waited and waited and finally prodded the manager. Then we got tea and butter but no toast. We changed our order to beef and French fries and waited some more. A girl came in from the street selling home-made pastries, which we bought and devoured. Around lunch time we asked where our order was and discovered they had forgotten about it. I ordered the same thing again and the waiter told me they had no beef and no French fries. As he said this I watched somebody behind him serving up a plate of just that and lost patience. Standing up I dragged him, figuratively speaking, back to the kitchen and pointed to a pile of potatoes. “There - chips.” I pointed to a slab of meat. “There - beef. Now get us beef and chips.” After another half-hour we finally got them.
We paid and went to look at my tire problem. Our estimate was that the back tire had been mashed flat back in Morocco, the last time I had used those dirt tires, causing the tube to slosh and destroying the valves. That left me with no spare tubes and only one spare tire for the rest of the trip. Fred headed off on his motorcycle to visit villages while I fixed my gear as best I could, took photos and rested up for the next day’s cycling.
For dinner we went back to Bar Ben and ordered beef and chips again, and drinks. They had no drinks. While we were waiting for food the owner presented a bill for the breakfast we had never received. I heard from others later that the owner was drunk most of the time, perhaps explaining this performance. For whatever reason, this place must rate near the top of the list of worst-run restaurants in the world.
Cycling south the next day, I hit soft sand again. While trudging through it, Fred passed me on his motorcycle and advised me a Dutch overland truck would be coming my way sometime that day. This was a comforting reminder as the soft sand stretched on for eighteen exhausting kilometres. Finally I saw the normal rocky and corrugated dirt road start again and stretched out under a tree to relax a bit before pressing on to the border at Koro.
Koro had an easy-going border post where nobody cared about my lack of registration stamps. It also had a Campement and a bar with cold drinks and a helpful owner named Hady Guindo. Hady had a strong entrepreneurial bent and questioned pretty much everyone who went by, trying to make overseas contacts and drum up business. While I chatted with him the Dutch truck arrived and I happily accepted a ride onto Ouahigouya, the next decent- sized town down the road in Burkina-Faso.
Ouahigouya had nothing so I continued on the Dutch truck to Ouagadougou. There I found spare tubes without any great problem. I got to know the people on the truck; they were a mix of different singles, all on their way to Cameroon. We stayed in Ouagadougou a few days, stuffing our faces with good food and getting visas and dancing the night away. Fred arrived and left again. The Dutch group offered to take me along with them as far as I wanted, and I accepted a ride to Kumasi in Ghana. What I had seen of the countryside so far was, except for the Dogon country, much the same as on that first day riding out of Bamako; flat, hot and boring with no wildlife or sights.
The truck ride turned out to be a good deal, as the road indeed continued to bore me all the distance to Kumasi. We stopped for a couple days at Mole National Park on the way. From a comfortable viewing deck on a hillside we watched elephants coming to drink at a crocodile-infested pool. A few baboons wandered in and out of the tourist area, and the occasional elephant. Fred had passed through here, too, pitching his tent in the wrong place and almost getting trampled during the night. A couple boys came by the restaurant one afternoon, carrying a biggish lizard they had killed to eat. Conservation didn’t seem to be the top priority of park management.
The truck rolled on, crossing the Volta a few times and stopping for drinks every now and then, and finally arriving in Kumasi. We put up there at a mission guesthouse, some of us taking rooms and some of us camping on the lawn. Kumasi had a bit to offer, keeping us all busy for a couple days. It looked more modern than the other cities I’d passed through in West Africa, but had crime problems. Most places in Ghana one could wander freely and safely (except during occasional tribal scuffles). In Kumasi you had to be more careful, especially after dark.
I cycled south from Kumasi. The scenery now was hilly jungle and much more interesting, green with small shack villages. While stopped by the side of the road for a drink, I idly watched a squirrel run across the road. A truck hit it and immediately all traffic in sight screeched to a halt. The drivers got out and ran to see who could get the squirrel first. The winner carried it off for dinner with a happy smile on his face. Later that day I saw people proudly showing off bush rats they had caught and killed, also. In some parts of West Africa they call these Grasscutters, and they are apparently a delicacy.
The coast was quite a different area again from the interior, with its gigantic whitewashed slaving forts and different peoples. I quite liked it but by now I was in a hurry to push on to Accra and collect my mail, so I took a last truck ride to avoid crazy dangerous traffic on the coast highway, all the way to Accra.
My mail hadn’t arrived yet in Accra, so I waited. While I waited the Dutch truck arrived and we went out for more nightlife. They continued on towards Cameroon a few days later and offered to take me with them. I would have liked to go but by then had busywork to do with visas and mail so had to say no. I thought I would never see them again but was completely wrong. We both stayed in Accra and Ghana much longer than expected.
I had a major problem here: I found it impossible to get a Nigerian visa. I had tried and failed in Ouagadougou. I tried again and failed again in Accra. The Dutch truck failed in Lomé. Other people we knew tried and failed in Cotonou. The only nearby place where I knew I could get one was Abidjan but I wasn’t willing to head off in the wrong direction to do it. The news was full of stories about Cameroon and Nigeria shooting at each other in the Bakassi peninsula so it wasn’t clear that I could cycle on from Nigeria to Cameroon even if I got into Nigeria. I soon gave up on the land route to Central Africa.
Next in line was the possibility of moving by boat from Ghana to Cameroon. This was possible but looked to be quite expensive and possibly time-consuming as well. It still left the problem of getting through CAR and Congo and obtaining visas which would cost still more money. The cost finally convinced me to leave out Central Africa. I didn’t want to. When I bought my bicycle, I had in mind specifically those areas, where a bike would bring the biggest advantage. I consoled myself with thoughts of cycling into central Africa from Uganda.
All this took a couple weeks. While I was checking these things out I looked around Accra and bought souvenirs and gifts for home and met people. One night after I had all my souvenirs in the mail and a rough plan in mind, I went out to dinner. On the way home I walked across the road and stepped over a divider in the middle only to discover there was nothing on the other side. The resulting tumble twisted my ankle so badly I couldn’t walk and couldn’t sleep properly for a few days, prolonging my stay in Accra still more.
The day after my accident the Dutch truck returned, having failed to make it any closer to Cameroon than Lomé. Their group split up here. When I’d first met them in Mali I got along well with all of them but they’d seemed to hate each other. By the time we’d made it to Ouagadougou, the driver had been fired and two or three passengers had left. On their first pass through Accra a couple more had gone, and now they all went their separate ways. Is this sort of friction inevitable on these long-haul trucks? I don’t think so - some groups seem to manage well. However, it does seem a common problem. Their relationships with each other became magnified way beyond their real importance, and there was always a hint of sex in the air. Some of the men picked up African women any time they stopped for the night in town, which also caused them some social problems.
The truck owner was headed back north to park his truck until some future return, taking a couple of their group with him. They invited me to come along back to Kumasi, or even Ouagadougou, but this time I had to say no as moving was simply too much trouble and (literally) too painful. My own stay here wound down over the next couple weeks. Gradually my foot improved till I could walk again. I booked a ticket to Nairobi, then spent a few days touring the coast by bus with one of the women from the truck. Two things happened before I left Ghana. First was the funeral of the chief who owned the hotel where I stayed. This was a big colourful party. Second, the government published a notice in a paper one day saying that many hotels and restaurants had failed licensing requirements and were ordered to shut down by March first. I saw many of the places I had stayed on the list but thought the announcement just bureaucratic noise. Then on March first I came back to my room after lunch and found a squad of uniformed policemen closing the hotel down. If they closed every place on the list, it must have caused the backpackers and low-budget visitors in Ghana infinite trouble. I managed to find a room in a hotel across the street, because I remembered it had not been on the list I had seen, and there I ended my stay.
The day before I left I came downstairs in my new hotel and found Clive, the crazy kid from Ségou, asking his father for money over the telephone so he could get into the Ghanaian “entertainment industry.” I silently wished him luck. He seemed much happier in Ghana than Mali, at least. When I did leave, on the walk to the airport I met two Irish lawyers who saw my less than desirable condition and lectured me to go home and settle down. The last couple weeks had been particularly stressful and I was looking unusually bad, so I didn’t pay much attention to this advice, but I was happy to fly out of Ghana although I had enjoyed my time there.
© 1997,2004 Stephen Bougerolle - all rights reserved