September 30, 2012 GMT
I’ve packed a two person tent, basic camping gear for one person including a petrol stove. Personal items such as clothes, shoes, pharmaceuticals, and riding gear. Electronics include a Garmin 62S GPS (with Tracs4Africa routes), an Acer Netbook, an old Olympus 770SW camera, and finally, a set of Michelin maps. These items excluding the tent fit into two dry bags and a tank bag. The total weight of the bike and all gear (except me) is 204kgs.
Posted by Ross Davidson at 11:05 PM
September 28, 2012 GMT
Trying to stay with the best roads, my route starts in Cueta and follows the Atlantic coast road south through Morocco, the Western Sahara, turns east in southern Mauritania to Mali, Burkina Faso, then south to the west coast via Togo, then east again through Benin, Nigeria, south through Cameroon, Gabon, The Congos, Angola, Namibia and finally finishing up in Cape Town.
Map of my actual route:
Posted by Ross Davidson at 11:00 PM
September 26, 2012 GMT
September 1, 2012. Watching reruns of "Friends" was not how I expected to cross the Straits of Gibraltar and start my African adventure but there we were, hermetically sealed in the cabin of a "fast ferry" that rushed us from Algeciras, Spain to Ceuta (a tiny Spanish alcove next to Tanger, Morocco). I opted for the gentle introduction to Africa because I had been in Tanger before albeit more than 30 years ago. This way I could do the customs formalities at the land border and it proved a good choice.
Why was I here? The idea first popped up in conversation over fresh palm wine on the deck of a small tour boat in The Gambia in 1972. Having flown along the Atlantic coast of the Sahara on an exceptionally clear day, I was mesmerized by the vast expanse of sand and the sharp contrast of the bright blue ocean. “Wouldn’t it be fun to cross the desert by motorcycle?” A young man’s dream.
40 years later it’s a possibility but now for different reasons. First, motorcycle travel is my retirement hobby. I have been on a few international bike trips but this one has always stuck in my mind. Africa has always been an interest of mine but this is not a sightseeing trip. I want to go to push my brain a bit. I feel I need to challenge myself, to make the countless decisions, the constant focus on the road and traffic, finding a camping spot or hotel every day, crossing borders, getting visas, etc that motorcycle travel requires. I suppose it is the exact opposite of package tour travel which I can also enjoy for different reasons.
Now once I have crossed the desert I hate going back the same way I’ve gone so there isn’t much else to do but keeping going to Cape Town then head home to Canada.
I’m now in Morocco and culture shock is a good term for the strangeness I of it all. However after recent travel in Latin America and Turkey I find it more interesting than strange. Now it is 3:30PM and I need to think about a place to stay. I take the 1st exit to the modern city of Tetouan in search of an ATM and some local currency. My GPS says there is a campground not far from the city and within a half hour I’m at Camping Alboustane in Matril.
There couldn’t be a better introduction to Morocco! Close to a large Mediterranean beach, the place is packed with Moroccan families on a camping/beach holiday. Soon the tent was up on the sandy pitch and I was on the beachfront enjoying my first Tanjine. The diversity of dress on the beach was amazing, from fully covered to bikinis. It’s seems no matter what women decide to wear they always make themselves attractive.
September 2, 2012. Off to a late start as camped next to me was a bearded Austrian man who must be in his 70s riding a vintage military spec 250cc PUCH. A genuine character. I wonder if I’ll look like him in a few years!
The days ride took me to the capital of Rabat where I need to apply for a visa to Mauritania. Luckily I spent time finding the Embassy as it had moved recently. I need to be there at 8:30AM sharp to get my application in process. There is no camping near Rabat and it was now in danger of getting dark. I wandered around the centre of the city until I found a reasonable hotel however without secure parking for the bike. The solution was to lock the bike to an iron railing outside the hotel entrance. It was a busy place as a large mosque was across the street. Would the fear of the divine be enough to keep my bike safe? To be sure I paid a street parking guard to watch over it through the night. To my surprise he was still there in the morning.
Next day I joined the “interesting” to say the least crowd applying for visas. We were the 3 gringos out of about 30 people pushing to get into the little office at the same time. My visa would be ready the following day at 3:00PM.What to do? Not wanting to spend another expensive hotel night in busy Rabat, I rode about 60kms south to Mohommedia to Camping L’Ocean Bleu on not surprisingly, a beach. It was very quiet and a good place to rest up, do a little bike maintenance before commuting back to Rabat for the visa then returning for another night. I finished a great new book on modern African History and gave it to the camp owner as a gift. It turned out his father was in the office and spoke good English. He seemed genuinely grateful saying it was hard for him to find books in English. It also took a kilo off my luggage!
Today took me through the traffic madness that is Casablanca. They demonstrated some really appalling driving there. One habit Moroccans have is to assume motorcycles only require 1/3 of a lane. Even on an empty highway they will pass you in your lane! Cars today are so quiet that you first notice them only as they skim past your elbow. It’s given me a few good starts.
Morocco has been very windy since I arrived but today was particularly gusty. It takes all the fun out what would have been a nice ride along the Atlantic coast. Between 12 and 2 PM the highway passed through little towns that were blanketed in smoke from the outdoor grills of competing roadside vendors of beef and chicken tajine. I couldn’t resist so I stopped and had this delicious lunch.
I thought about pressing on to Agadir after reaching Essaouria but I suddenly felt tired. Was it the wind or the heavy lunch? Either way I followed the first camping sign which led me to Camping Le Calme. Just what I needed! And they had hotel rooms for a few bucks more than camping so I used the opportunity to do laundry and charge batteries. I soon realized it would have been better to camp as the room was very warm. To open the screen-less windows was to invite in the numerous mosquitoes. It seemed ridiculous that after a very hot day you could not enjoy the comfortable evening temperatures! A fan was offered and it did help.
Not needing to break camp got me off to an early start for a very interesting day of riding. After industrial Casablanca the coast road climbs through the foothills of the Atlas Mountians. The curvy roads and dramatic scenery were a welcome change from previous days. As is normal along the coast, mornings are cool and foggy. This made photography difficult (at least for me) so I was unable to capture some beautiful coastal scenery. I sailed through Agadir, the popular tourist resort area. The beaches are great, the hotels huge but I’m not here on holiday.
South of Agadir the geography changed rapidly from scrub brush to looking more like a desert. The population thinned out accordingly with rather long distances between villages. Then there are those biblical looking figures, both men and women, in flowing robes, walking alone seemingly many kilometers from any sign of life. What are they doing there? How far do they have to walk? These are the questions.
By the end of the day I was getting a taste of what was to come - very long, empty roads with my constant companions the sun and the wind.
Just outside of Tan Tan I saw a very professional sign for desert camping. In a fit of poor judgment I decided why not take that rocky road (or piste as they say here) and camp in the desert. Well, as my guidebook later noted, this was a very rough road. I went a couple of kilometers before I hit a series of sandy sections which I managed but then decided to abandon finding the place as the sun was beginning to set and I didn’t see any sign of how far it was away. On the return trip I hit some “bull dust” which is very fine, powdery sand that looks firm but can be deep. Before you know it, I’m on the ground! Well I did learn I can lift the bike up on my own.
I made my way back to the highway and with the help of a Gendarme found a nice little hotel in Tan Tan which let me park my bike in their lobby. I could not find an internet café that was open. That evening, in search of dinner, I walked the crowded main street noticing how almost all of the men are dressed in the long blue robe-like garment draped over both shoulders, open at the sides. It looks like it would take some practice to wear comfortably. Ample ventilation was evident which would prove it’s serviceability. The dark street lit only by the light from the open shops with men and women appearing out of the shadows as they rushed down the street in their robes made for a mysterious exotic setting - at least in my imagination.
Posted by Ross Davidson at 11:08 PM
September 25, 2012 GMT
Next day I made the relatively short trip to Laayoune, crossing the (invisible) border to Western Sahara which is claimed and administered by Morocco but disputed by the UN. You could see the impressive amount of investment in infrastructure the Moroccan government is making to consolidate their claim on this territory. I shortened the day because the heat was both impressive and oppressive and I was ready to stop. My little temp guage read 40C. For a Canadian guy that's hot!
A couple of hours earlier, looking for some lunch I had stopped at a place called Tarfaya. It was a rough looking town which was built around a phosphate mine. From the stares it would seem a stranger hadn’t stopped in for some time. At this time of day it was impossible to get food as the numerous cafes were serving only coffee and tea to men having their morning social. I assume the women are at home preparing the food and tending the children. No street food either. I am missing restaurants.
Anyway, back in Laayoune and hungry I spot a chicken fast food place next to the Hotel Jodesa where I booked a room. I was not really enjoying the over-priced fare when a bubbly young ethnic Chinese woman comes in asking about the bike. Turns out she lives in Toronto but is travelling the West coast of Africa with her Portuguese boyfriend, Pedro, on a 125cc Yamaha. She says we should get together and discuss the trip that evening and I agree. I also found a card on the bike from “Flora” complete with a smiley face over her signature. They had spent the last 3 weeks in town while Flora recovered from a bike spill. They have a blog whichcountry.blogspot.com where you can get all the gory details. Seems Pedro needs to work on his motorcycling skills. They didn’t show up to talk so I took the fatherly approach and sent Pedro an email suggesting he needs to acquire some motorcycle protective gear (they have nothing) especially some boots for Flora and maybe he should be a bit more concerned about crossing the Sahara totally unprepared. But I believe that he is an artist so they should be OK. I wish them luck.
An early start was needed to make the 500km trip along the coast to Dakhla. This was the “real” desert now. Lots of emptiness with a constant crosswind and of course the high temps. The 40C+ range is becoming normal. Although empty with very little traffic the scenery was constantly changing so it was interesting. And in the middle of nowhere where the road passes close to the Atlantic coast you will see the tent-like structures used by fishermen to surf cast from the rocky shore line.
Then a big surprise as a cloud drifts by and it rains for a few minutes.
Dakhla was a welcome site. It is located on the end of a peninsula 40km off the main road. The whole peninsula is sand which made for some pretty spectacular beaches. With the high winds you could see a good crowd out windsurfing and kite flying.
I spent the night at Moussa Camping (actually a row of motel type rooms next to a beach) which was very basic but OK. There seemed to a lot of families living there as well as a few travelers. It cooled off a bit after sundown but fortunately the wind persisted. So we all left our doors half open to allow the breeze through as it would be otherwise unbearable.
So far on this trip security seems to be a non-issue. You can usually tell if the risk of theft is high by how the locals behave. If cars and bikes are not locked, there are no bars on doors and window, etc there is likely a low chance of theft.
The next stage was 310km to the border of Mauritania and another peninsula city, Nouadhibou. Approaching the border the desert became so stark in its emptiness it reminded me of the Mars Rover photos. I don’t think I have ever been in such a lonely feeling place. The border formalities leaving Morocco (claimed) territory were easy enough. You then must cross a no-man’s land of about 3km to get to Mauritania. It was tough going as there had been no effort to make a road. Just the tracks from the cars and trucks struggling through the rocks and sand. For a bike it was not too bad but I did get caught out once by some deep sandy tracks and fell. No problem, I arrived safely at Mauritanian customs and immigration. No photos allowed at the border for security reasons or it could be that they are embarrased at how shabby the place is.
Posted by Ross Davidson at 06:28 PM
September 24, 2012 GMT
What a shock. It was as if Morocco was 1st world and Mauritania was 3rd world. I knew that there would be a difference but the contrast was sharp. It reminded me of the movie Mad Max. The Western Sahara was developed in comparison.
In an area strewn with derelict cars and trucks, garbage and unhappy looking travelers, I had arrived in Mauritania!
However, the officials were friendly. Theyoffered me water (I think they thought I was going to collapse on them) and the paperwork performed manually with ledger books and carbon paper. I bought motorcycle liability insurance for 4286 Ouguiya ($14CDN)
The ride into Nouahibou was not anymore inspiring. The sandy main streets, a tremendous amount of garbage strewn everywhere to be gradually being ground down by the traffic was offensive to my Canadian sensibilities. After a depressing ride around town I finally came across Camping Abba. It was similar to Camping Moussa but without the beach. The sun set quickly but the wind persisted which helped but again everyone’s doors remained open that night. I did walk to the market through the dark streets and didn’t feel the least bit threatened. Everyone was friendly and helpful in stark contrast to their surroundings.
Well, I was getting off to a negative start with Mauritania but I still had a long way to go yet. I laid awake going over what I might expect on the long (one fuel stop in 470kms) run to Nouakchott. From the day before I knew the temps would be high and was expecting the usual wind. I was correct in my assumptions except I didn’t figure on the blowing sand. High wind drifted sand up to about a foot over the road. The sky was hazy and visibility quite reduced from time to time. It reminded me of a blizzard on the prairies.
As the day wore on I started to question my ability to continue. It was so hot (46C), the wind so strong and the blowing sand made me wonder what I got myself into. But there was no option but to continue. There was simply no place to stop before Nouakchott.
I bought fuel from a gas station with no fuel but you could buy it from a back shed in containers. And yes they did spill a lot of fuel over my bike.
With sand embedded just about everywhere, I was happy to stop at Auberge Sahara just outside Nouakchott. It had an air-conditioned room. I felt I deserved the luxury if only to get a good night sleep. I usually don’t like a/c because it is so noisy and often over-chills the room. In this case the large contrast in temps would make my glasses fog over when I stepped out of the room! I met a nice young Dutch couple who were cycling West coast of Africa. They figure it should take a year! How did they manage the desert? I admire bicycle travelers. They are a hardy lot.
I stayed over a day to recover from my trauma of the day earlier and run some errands. That turned into a small adventure. I went to the Capital Marche to exchange money, find a replacement for my broken air pump, and get some photocopies of my “Fiche” (a summary of your particulars) requested by the police at every checkpoint – I had made 30 copies but now had 1 left – that’s a lot of police stops! A “helpful” guy I met at one of the shops took me under his wing and we travelled by taxi all over the city and mission was accomplished and I managed some sightseeing.
Nouakchott seemed just a bigger version of Nouadhibou, sandy and trashy except for the University campus and some areas with government offices. But again everyone was friendly and the place started growing on me. For example, taxis pick up more than one passenger. So when the new passenger arrives he greets everyone individually and shakes hands. They also seem to enjoy talking to each other during the ride. At one point we had a army officer, my guide, and a very poor looking fellow all discussing something together. It seemed very class-less.
I had to wait about 10 minutes until 7:00AM to buy gas at this station because the owner was still sleeping. He is the blue shape on the ground by the car.
Turning left to head East the next morning, I was pleasantly surprised to see the desert quickly transformed into a more Sahel geography. It had rained recently and there were lots of green patches and scrub brush dotting the landscape. Maybe I was putting the desert behind me now? This also says a lot about my poor knowledge of geography in this region.
My enjoyment was short-lived as the road was closed for re-paving. As there are no alternate roads, traffic was making its own way off-road through the ditch beside the highway. It was pretty rough going, hot and very dusty for about 20km (which took an hour and a half!). I felt bad for the little villages along the road that were being buried in dust by every passing vehicle. It did give me the opportunity to practice riding the Suzuki off-road. I was very pleased with how well the heavily loaded bike handled the rough track.
The remainder of the way to Kiffa was heavily pot-holed which made progress slow and the need for constant focus on the road. Just one missed pothole could bend a rim or worse end the trip. There was not much choice in Kiffa, so I stayed at the Auberge La Maison de L’Hotel a Kiffa. It was an odd place. A lot of half finished construction and a constant stream of visitors coming and going in big SUVs. I was given a room in a grand suite with huge double bed, fancy cabinetry, big screen TV, etc, but on close inspection it was all in poor condition and the power went off just as it got dark. I was able to exchange some money with the owner, a nice fellow.
The next day I was starting to see signs of not just more green areas but also flooded fields and roadside ditches full of water. Here the water covered a section of road.
As in the desert, I saw lots of tent-like canopies that provide shade and a place where people ate, talked and slept. The open sides provided the badly needed ventilation but these were partially covered to block the wind or blowing dust and sand.
You find shade wherever you can...
It was a hot, lonely ride on rough pavement to my next stop, Ayoune el Atrous. After an hour of searching, both the hotels in my guidebook had since closed. I assume because of the huge drop in tourism from Europe likely due to the Euro crisis and terrorist activities in the region. I ended up at another place under construction called Auberge Saada Tenzah and was again the only guest. It did have satellite TV and I was able to catch BBC news and the controversy about the anti--Muslim video. There is such a huge gap in understanding between vulnerable Muslims and the West and politicians and clerics on both sides are always quick to exploit it for their own agendas. Very sad and tragic for the victims.
Of more immediate concern to me was the poor availability of gasoline in Mauritania and specifically Ayoune. None of the 5 or 6 stations had gasoline. It took the help of an army official to convince one station to release their secret 20L stash. It cost me $50US (I didn’t have enough in Ouguiya (local currency) as I had to buy all of it including the container. I could use only about 14L so I gave the rest to an old fellow in a farm vehicle who was waiting to buy some diesel. He seemed very happy with the “cadeaux”.
That settled, I headed due South to the border with Mali. The last traces of the desert slowly disappeared and the landscape started to become quite lush and green. The road became progressively more pot-holed as we neared the border which really kept the average speeds down.
Even a lake had overflowed its banks..
Posted by Ross Davidson at 11:24 PM
September 22, 2012 GMT
The first clue Mali was different was that the border staff had music playing. I realized I had not heard music (except on a TV in a restaurant) since Spain! It was a very relaxed entry. I bought the “Yellow Card” insurance ($80) that provides cover for 15 West African (ECOWAS countries) and the next four countries I will be visiting.
This is what it looks like:
I needed money after border expenses and my big fuel purchase so I stopped in the border town of Nioro de Sahel. It took only minutes to meet a bank security guard who wanted to help (it was Friday PM and everything official had shut down early). A terrifying ride on the back of his little scooter/bike, a meeting with some Arab money changers and I had my West African CFAs (1$CDN=492 CFA (but not the lousy exchange rate I accepted).
It was now getting late and was very warm and the prospect of a few more hours on the road was enough to get me looking for a hotel. And find one I did, the “Auberge Yonki Jinu Palace” that is basically a large villa with a few rooms to rent and you live with the rest of the family. There was a huge, loud rain storm late that night with high winds that scattered most everything outside that was not tied down. They had to bring the portable generator inside as it was getting too wet (there was no municipal electric power that day). It was very loud but it kept the ceiling fan turning and I was happy.
Next day off to an early start with dark clouds on the horizon but they soon vanished and the hot sun took over. The road was slow but steady the 444km to Bamako. Petrol stations were surprisingly scarce. At one station that had “L’essence” had no power so they had modified the pumps to work by pulling manually on a long lever.
However the roadside scenery and activity was the most interesting of the trip so far. The iconic old Baobob trees were evident.
Also, I liked seeing the mud brick construction for all types of structures including mosques as well as houses.
Another type of mosque construction.
Some curious kids at a stop for a cold drink in a small Muslim village. The young girl at the left had to ask permission twice to be in the photo. The boys didn't.
Also, there was a lot of water standing in the fields and ditches and rivers swollen to overflowing their banks in many places. This resulted in a few shallow water crossings and young boys waiting to guide you across.
The human scenery was also lively. Malian women wear in colourful print dresses regardless if they are working in a field or selling in the market. They usually are carrying something large on their head, a pan stacked with fruit or vegetables, firewood or water container. It’s quite the feat to see especially in a crowded market where 4 or 5 women stand together chatting but somehow not knocking anything off each others heads! Also, just seeing women active in public is a big change from Northern Africa despite the fact about half of Malians are Muslim.
Bamako came as advertised with swarms of little Chinese made motorbikes surrounding the car and truck traffic in the big city of 1.7 million, I believe. A hot (isn’t it always?) late afternoon search for two guidebook camping/hotel spots found both of them out-of-business. It was disappointing because one place “Le Cactus” was a regular meeting spot for overland travelers and I was hoping for some company for a change.I was on my own now and cruised along the mighty Niger River when I spotted a sign for a hotel I recognized from something I read. The sign, of course gave no sign as to where the hotel was located off the main road. But I cleverly followed the back streets to get closer to the river and there it was!
It had a new name and, at first glance looked too expensive for my budget. There was a large swimming pool, patio and gardens overlooking the river. Some obviously well-to-do young Malians were playing volleyball in the pool and enjoying drinks on the patio. Better still, the non-climitese rooms were very reasonable (7000CFA). After a quick shower, I was soon admiring the fast-flowing Niger River with a cold Castel beer – the first since Europe.
Off early again the next day but due to some GPS confusion I ended up doing a circle tour of Bamako crossing the river a couple more times than necessary. It was Sunday morning and the roads were fairly quiet. I don’t like cities very much but was glad my enforced sightseeing gave me a better feel for this city.
After about 250km a very large thunderstorm appeared about 2:00PM as I neared Segou. The sky blackened and tremendous gusts of wind blew dust and sand that reduced visibility considerably. I was looking for some sort of shelter from the rain I saw a hotel with a big covered entrance and stopped just as the rain started. You can guess the rest, I ended up staying there (they had WiFi) for the night. This place was also on the banks of the Niger and just as scenic as in Bamako.
I was also broke. I spent an hour talking to the Royal Bank trying to find out why I could not get cash advances on my Visa (no debit cards most of west Africa). Nobody seemed to know anything and thought the card should work. A referral to Visa International produced no results. I know European visa cards do work here and it is the best way to get local currency. In the end I had money sent by Western Union and it “arrives” electronically within minutes.
I met an interesting old Dogon artist who spoke good english. Aside from trying to sell me some great artwork he said since the coup 2 years ago the tourist trade has all but disappeared in Mali. Not surprising but a big job loss to a lot of Malians.
From Segou, I headed due south to the border with Burkina Faso. It seemed as if the greenery became more lush with every kilometer and the air more hot and humid.
Then it started to rain, which was nice because it pulled the temperature down to about 25C. I almost felt cold!
The loading of cars and trucks provided a pretty steady source of amazement.
I had read that the border officials try to collect an unofficial departure fee of 10 Euros and I was determined not to pay it. So I had moved my passport from my wallet so they would not see it. Well by doing that my passport managed to get a bit wet from the rain. At the border, the official took my passport to another building and I thought here it comes! To my disgrace he returned my passport in a plastic bag so that it would not get any wetter. No fee.
Posted by Ross Davidson at 11:30 PM
September 20, 2012 GMT
I crossed the border at Faramana with no difficulties and headed to Bobo Dioulasso. The road was terrible for the first few kilometers (which can be normal at border crossings – no votes for paving a road to exit the country!) but then it turned into a long by-pass for road construction. It was rough going but at least the rain had knocked the dust down.
Arriving at Bobo just before dusk I thought I would follow up on a recommendation from Lonely planet forum for an interesting campground with round mud huts, etc. The website also looked good. There were no signs but I followed directions to the turn-off which was soft laterite and led to the edge of a very deep working quarry. The “road” turned into a path and I turned around thinking it must be the wrong road.
But at the nearby police checkpoint they said yes that was the road. A volunteer was assigned to lead me there. Off we went as the sun slowly set. When we arrived the site looked like the website but also it looked abandoned with tall overgrowth between the structures. A telephone call to the owner and I was told to wait and he would be there in 15 minutes. However, it was now dark and I had no desire to camp without water, etc. Also the road back ran on the very edge of the quarry. Not good if it rained. That plan was abandoned and I found a place at the not so interesting “Welcome Hotel” in Bobo. It then rained most of the night.
Next day was off to Ouagadougou, the capital about 350km away. It rained off and on most of the day making me go through the annoying chore of taking my rain suit on and off multiple times.
From the roadside, Burkina did not seem as prosperous as Mali although the landscape was very green with tall foliage that went to the very edge of the pavement. There were not as many people about but that was likely due to the rain.
Flooding was evident in a lot of places.
As had become usual the road was regularly semi-blocked by trucks undergoing repairs. You watch for the trail of branches on the road warning of the obstruction.
I like the mud-walled houses.
I also like the interesting mosque construction.
Breakfast on the road.
Another great Baobob tree.
Ouaga has very long concrete boulevards lined with very tall street lamps at both main roads in and out of town. They seemed like some grand gesture at greatness but led to sandy streets with all the usual traffic chaos and street vendors.
My only GPS reference (I thought) happened to be the Canadian Embassy so why not start there?
A bridge was out at a canal or small river on my route and the local motorcyclists had conjured up a very innovative by-pass (too hard to describe) that I quite enjoyed. The sun was blazing hot when I arrived at the embassy announcing my Canadian citizenship. I was quickly ushered through the prison-like security system into a wonderfully air-conditioned reception area. I was left alone for quite some time which was OK as I enjoyed the cool air. I passed the time reading the notice of Immigration Canada’s new policy of basically not issuing visas except at key locations in far away countries. From Burkina Faso you could try at the Cote d’ Ivoire Embassy if you wanted.
It made me ashamed to complain about my visa problems. The receptionist turned up and was friendly but couldn’t help me find La Pavillion Verte, my hostel of choice.
Back on my bike, my GPS did know about the hostel (duh!) and I quickly found it.
Given the total lack of street signage, the labyrinth of streets and the street vendors who block the view of the establishments behind them, only local knowledge will get you to a specific place or, of course a GPS with the coordinates!
Living up to it’s name, there was a nice leafy courtyard but given the rain (again) it was just very wet and damp. There were a few back packers and a young lady from Canada was at the next table with some friends.
Some strange sculptures around town.
Feeling a little damp and discouraged I decided to leave for Togo in the morning. It’s about a 250km ride to the border at Cinkasse. Leaving the hectic streets of Ouaga was a relief.
Of course there was some road construction but the rain kept the dust down.
Men looking to raise a little cash will sometimes fill potholes and then ask drivers for a donation. Some can get quite agressive but these guys were friendly.
The terrain became very hilly which meant vehicles piled behind slow moving trucks and the resultant crazy hair-raising scramble to get around them. The driving today was appalling to say the least. Lots of crumpled metal along the road bore witness to the carnage. I don't like to take pictures of vehicle crashes but i had plenty of opportunities.
More Burkina Faso scenes.
An innovative way to divide a highway curve.
Posted by Ross Davidson at 11:32 PM
September 18, 2012 GMT
The border formalities went well with 20000CFA for a visa and 5000CFA TIP (vehicle permit). however one little scam is that they will direct you to report to a nearby police station. When I arrived a very young officer seemed nervous and asked me to wait while he called his boss. His boss arrived a few minutes later with his takeout lunch, takes my passport and disappears into his office. The kid comes out and says I should pay 5000CFA but cannot say why or give me a receipt. It was pretty obvious what was going on but for $10 I bought my passport back. I should have just ridden past the station.
The scenery turned to full blown rainforest very quickly and to add the final touch a huge rain fell for about an hour. I enjoyed the ride because the scenery was just so compelling and the rain just added to the atmosphere. Sadly, my travels through the hilly north of Togo had me witness some 10(!) recent large truck collisions in the hilly East. in one case they were still trying to extract the driver. The combination of poor roads, poorly maintained and grossly overloaded trucks and drivers with some very bad habits produces this carnage all over West Africa. I don’t get the economics of it. Are trucks and drivers that expendable? Are shipping costs high enough to accept these losses?
I guess insurance pay-outs are miniscule compared to similar accidents in the west. I didn't take any photos of this.
About 10km before Dapaong the tarmac ended and there was a pretty good dirt road being prepared for paving but the rain made for some real muddy sections. Both the bike and me were a solid red clay colour when we arrived in the town.
Ready to stop for the day, I find the Les Elephants Hotel in Dapaong. After a wash, I head out looking for something to eat. By now it is dark and difficult to see because of there is no street lighting and the headlamps of the swarms of little motorcycles just reflect off the dust. What I do see is that I'm not in Muslim territory any longer. There are bars evrywhere playing loud music.
Now I make a practice of not going to bars in countries where I'm a minority because that is the home of the drunken men who either want to be your friend or are angry with the West which I would represent. If I want a beer I'll take it in daylight at a proper restaurant or take it back to my room.
This time I seem to have no choice. Bars don't serve food but there is a guy cooking chicken out front. It turns out well. There was a lot of loud discussion in the bar but I was politely ignored. Maybe africa is different from Latin America in this respect?
I’m low on funds again and I have a deposit at Western Union but I need the internet to access the codes. Pas d’internet is all I’m hearing from the few internet cafes that exist. I must press on anyway.
It’s a nice run the next day to Atakpame. I’m enjoying the ride, the scenery and the people I’m meeting along the way. This is the Africa I want to know. The desert was a challenge but this is a much richer experience.
The Hotel Le Sahelian, Atakpume took the last of my CFAs but I managed to get a tasty street dinner of rice, okra, noodles, meat and a spicy sauce for 350CFA. For take-out this is served in a small black plastic bag. But if you want to dine in, you sit at a small bench with other male customers and eat with your right hand from a bowl. I have tried this a few times if only to provide some amusement for the other patrons watching a white guy eat with his hands.
In the morning I went to the recommended internet shop but again “pas d’internet’. When? Just a shrug of the shoulders. Hmm…I start searching and do find another that has one computer working. There is a guy on this computer trying to do an on-line course and it is painfully slow.
I wait. He is bothered I’m waiting. Finally I ask if I can use my portable and they agree. I plug in and presto I get the info I need!
The fellow, Bouka Kwami, speaks some English and we chat. He works for foreign NGOs helping to implement projects and he invites me to his office. He rides a Honda XR250 Chinese clone which is a large bike here. After the brief visit, I’m off to Western Union and back on the road.
I had decided to take a short cut from Notse due East to the Benin border at Touhoun. Get my 48 hour transit visa and continue East Abomey, Benin to the Nigerian border at Ketou (supposedly less corrupt than the busy coast border. The road from Notse was really a dirt track not a road and it gave me a chance to see how the loaded bike would handle on the many kms of dirt to come.
The road was badly eroded from run-off and slow but I really enjoyed the 65km to the border. The only other vehicles I saw on the road were small chinese motorcycles carrying big loads. Along the way there were various checkpoints by police and customs officials I assume to control smuggling. They showed a lot of interest in the bike and my trip which was nice but very time-consuming.
Here's a photo of one customs stop.
I get stamped out of Togo and visit the Benin immigration post. “We do not issue visas at borders any longer’ says the official and he shows me a directive dated May 23, 2012. “You have to go to Lome and get a visa from the Embassy there”. All my subsequent whining, complaining and hints of a bribe had no effect. Now what to do?
Fortunately, the more laid back Togo officials kindly reversed my exit documentation which would never have happened at a busier border. As I headed back it was almost dark and a light rain started to fall. So I stayed the night at an empty hotel (just 3 years old) in a small village near the border. Someone had to come and turn the power and water on! I had the impression it was built in anticipation of road improvements that haven't happened yet.
The next day there were lots of surprised looks from locals as I reversed my journey on the dirt track but again the ride was enjoyable and a nice change from the asphalt.
I was in Lome by noon on Saturday and it was great to see the coast again.
I went directly to the Benin Embassy which, of course, was closed for the weekend. Next a search of the hotels along the beach turned up “Le Galion” which at 7500CFA was a bargain.
I used the weekend to catch up on bike maintenance. Well I just lubed the chain. Worked on this report and a number of assorted tasks required to keep this show on the road. Traveling is a lot of work! Hopefully I can get my visa in one day (Monday) as I just realized that my Togo visa expires on Tuesday!
There is a nice looking beach here but there is no swimming due to a dangerous undertow and pollution from the city. It is also just too hot and very windy to be on the beach without substantial protection and shade.
My Sunday off passed quickly and I was at the Benin Embassy for the 8:00AM opening. By doubling the visa fee I “persuaded” the official to issue the visa the same day.
I went back to the hotel, packed up, had couscous in the restaurant (a treat) and back to pick up the visa at 3:00PM. While waiting outside, I noticed a fellow taking passport photos and printing them out on a tiny portable printer. Another convenience unavailable in Western countries but common here. This supports my theory that as poorer economies force a majority of the population to become “entrepreneurs” almost every street corner has just about anything someone might need. No need to trek to a strip mall as it is all available on the street or delivered to your door. A valuable convenience that disappears (except for the wealthy) with an advanced economy.
Visa in hand I headed due East to the Benin border from Lome. Disregarding the heavy traffic, the dusty road diversions and pot-holes, it was a very pleasant but short ride along the coast highway with kilometers of sandy beaches and swaying palm trees.
Posted by Ross Davidson at 11:41 AM
September 12, 2012 GMT
The border was quick with no extra fees to pay. It was rapidly getting dark and I soon reached Aneho and started looking for a hotel. I could not see one sign for a hotel and now it was really dark. It was almost impossible to see because with no street lighting the lights from motos and cars were blinding as they reflected off the clouds of dust from the road.
Finally, I saw a soldier in front of an army facility and asked him for the nearest hotel. Being a soldier, he ordered another fellow on a moto to take me to “the Hotel” which he did after a lengthy ride through the sandy back streets. The hotel was likely a brothel during the day which is normal for lesser hotels in West Africa although once again I appeared to be the only but grateful overnight guest.
Continuing along the coast road the next day, I passed through Benin’s centre of commerce, Cotonou, with a large container port. It lived up to its reputation for traffic jams, countless swarming motorcycles and general chaos with lots of dust thrown in the mix. It was not a pleasant experience.
I was really glad to turn north on the less traveled road through Porto Novo, the designated capital of Benin (although the government is located in Cotonou), leaving busy Cotonou behind. It doesn't take long to get somewhere in Benin because the country is only 121km wide at the coast!
There were some flooded areas away from the coast.
I passed through the historic city of Ouidah.
Like most African countries Benin has gone through multiple changes due to European influences. Benin was part of what was known as the "Slave Coast" during the slave trading years then became a French colony (Dahomey) followed by a Marxist regime after independance to a model African democracy today. The economy is struggling and most of the country lives on subsistence farming.
The production and sale of charcoal seemed to be popular.
The roadside has many uses including the drying of vegetables.
My second night and last night in Benin was spent in Pobe from where I could get a good start to the Nigerian border in the morning. As I neared the border the road, predictably turned to dirt and this was obviously not a major crossing point. The roadside had countless vendors selling cheap gasoline (smuggled from Nigeria) in various size containers. It was a good deal so I filled up because ironically I understood there is a shortage of gasoline in Nigeria!
Here is a moto gasoline tanker. What does a full 45gal barrel of gasoline weigh?
Posted by Ross Davidson at 04:00 AM
September 10, 2012 GMT
I opted to cross at Ketou because all advice was to avoid the main crossing on the coast highway and I really wanted to find a way to avoid the roads leading through Lagos. Lagos is the largest city in Africa with over 8 million people. With a population of 180M 1/3 of all Africans on the continent live in Nigeria. So this is going to be a very different country from any I have traveled so far.
Well I got my wish. It was very quiet at Ketou as I had to wake up the customs officer from his mid-day nap. We then had to travel about a kilometer to a customs building that was no where near a road of any sort. Doors were unlocked and shutters opened and the proceedings began. No problems but it was painfully slow in the mid-day heat.
What really took time was the gauntlet of national police, gendarmes, immigration, military and health officials each with their own roadblock complete with tire shredders (all within sight of each other). All the same basic information was collected by hand in larger ledger books. How this information is utilized is anyone’s guess. It was a long hot process. Of course, no photos allowed.
Once freed from the clutches of bureaucracy I raced to the first place with hotels, Abeokuta. The most noticeable sight entering Nigeria is the large number of evangelical churches all recruiting members with huge roadside billboards. And not surprisingly there were lots of people everywhere.
Once again I found myself looking for a hotel in the dark. Abeokuta is a fair sized city and the darkness (at 6:00PM) seemed to coincide with the rush hour commute here. I had no hotel information on my GPS. After an hour of getting nowhere I asked a couple of guys who were talking in front of their cars. Yes, they knew where one hotel was, just follows us. So follow I did and ended up at the Daktad Suites and Conference Centre. It looked hugely expensive. I also only had a handful of Niara, the Nigerian currency. The good news was they accepted credit cards but my card was declined for some reason. They did accept US$ as a deposit until I could get to a bank the next day.
Nigeria was also obviously more prosperous than previous countries but with the usual huge gap between the middle class and the poor. It reminded me of Brasil in many respects including the geography.
One of the first situations you encounter in Nigeria is the frequent (daily) power outages. Electrical power is rotated around the country because the demand far exceeds their generating capacity. Business and home owners spend an estimated 14 billion $US/yr running generators to supplement the uncertain supply. This is a big drag on the economy.
Ilorin was to be my next stop on the road to Abuja to collect a Cameroon visa. The road conditions deteriorated the further north I went mainly due to flooding along the Niger River. It was quite serious in the Lokoja region and the main highway to the capital was closed. My only option was to continue up to Mokwa then turn east to Abuja.
Lots of poor roads. Some potholes cause trucks to fall over.
Nigerian road scenes.
Collecting water from a well.
Driving in Nigeria means always keeping an eye out for stations that have gasoline. Most have little signs they put on the road to say yes or no. Some stations with presumably little supply will only serve motorcycles. There is always a cue at gas stations but almost every time drivers would wave me to the front as a courtesy to a visitor. Nigerians seemed slightly surprised but grateful that a foreigner would visit their country as a tourist.
The government has no real interest in tourism as demonstrated by the onerous visa process. You must have an invitation from a Nigerian, police check, bank statements,etc.
I overnighted in Ilorin and then Bida before arriving at the Cameroon Embassy in Abuja at noon on a Friday. I was hoping to get there earlier but all the usual road situations continued to keep movement frustratingly slow.
Approaching Abuja you see the famous Zuma Rock seemingly rising from a flat plain.
Ithought I would have to wait until Monday to pick up the visa. However, because Monday was a national holiday it would be Tuesday Pm! And as always there is a solution. Pay a higher fee and get it in few hours.
My daughter had a university friend in Abuja whom I contacted and was quickly invited to stay at their very new home in one of the satellite cities just outside Abuja. Sylver Nwankwo had nice family with 3 children 6 years and under. The plumbing was not finished yet and the power was off most of the time but it was still very comfortable and gave me a priceless peek into the life of a Nigerian family. It was also a big boost to my spirits to take a break and spend some time with them after more than a month on the road. A big thank you to the Nwankwo family!
Sylver's New Home.
Not wanting to wear out my welcome I decided to leave after 2 nights and head in the direction of Cameroon. I was also very low on funds (again!) and could not access Western Union until Tuesday because of the national holiday. The day started off with rain but turned into a nice ride to Ogoja where I spent the night.
Nigeria turned out to be a lot friendlier than I expected and I had no problems with anyone from one side of the country to another. To me, Nigeria is like the Texas of Africa. Everything, good or bad, is bigger, louder and crazier here. My only complaint is the crazy driving style of some Nigerians. It is bad everywhere in Africa but Nigerian drivers take it to new suicidal levels of madness. The resulting carnage on the roads can be seen daily. I was forced off the road by oncoming traffic passing in my lane 3 or 4 times and had many near misses. Gory “safe” driving signs and pleas to “think of your family” seem to have no noticeable effect on these drivers.
The Nigerian countryside is very beautiful. Ethnically it is very diverse with some 800 different languages spoken here (English is the official language but a pidgin version is spoken on the street. You can identify the Muslim areas just by seeing how women dress. I'm glad I had a chance to visit.
Posted by Ross Davidson at 05:19 AM
September 08, 2012 GMT
I awoke the Monday morning at the Ogoja Hotel to a major rainfall. It got me thinking that I was at a crossroads of sort. I could end the trip here or take the plunge and continue on to Cameroon and be committed to the roads Lonely Planet describes as being “only for the hardcore”. Once I left Nigeria I would not be able to return unless I applied from Canada for a new visa. Nigerian tourist visas are single entry only. I enjoyed Nigeria for the most part and the thoughts of spending a few days in nearby Calabar (“the nicest city in Nigeria”) was tempting while I sorted shipping the bike back home from a major airline hub like Lagos (which also operates in English).
If go to Cameroon, then I pretty much have to go to Kinshasa, DRC for manageable air freight according to my research. That’s a lot of bad roads. I am getting a little tired of the so-called “good” roads with all the potholes and washouts and construction but then why did I come to West Africa if I was expecting good roads all the time? These were the contradictory thoughts dancing through my helmet as I got closer and closer to the Cameroon border at Ekok along the same road that leads to Calabar. Well, I could look to my left and see the gorgeous rainforest covered hills of Cameroon, the sun was now shining and why did I work so hard to get here and not experience the “heart of darkness” Africa. So across the border I went.
I knew the upcoming border short section of road (85km) was notorious for being impassable after big rainfalls so I asked every official on both sides of the border about the condition of the road. All answers were similar; “Well, there are a few bad spots in the first few kilometres but with that bike you can get through OK”.
As I headed down the dirt road it was rough but I soon passed a settlement where some motoboys called out to me. They said you cannot get through the bad sections by yourself, you will need some pushers. OK, how much? We want 10,000CFA each. They seemed sincere so I offered 5,000CFA. They declined but advised me to follow the tracks used by the motoboys. Now I was starting to get worried. A few kilometres later there were some deeply rutted sections but I was able get through.
I soon learned a couple of things about the red dirt. A laterite road when damp becomes a kind of sticky clay that in a contradictory way can provide a lot grip if it is not too wet but then is too thick for the bike to push through a track. When I needed to I couldn’t get the back wheel to break loose and spin. It just gripped forcing me to slip the clutch to get moving. Giving lots of power and fully releasing the clutch would just stall the engine. I needed a much lower 1st gear ratio for this stuff.
I arrived at a huge hole in the road that had a fairly large overloaded truck stuck deep down in it. There was a crew busy digging the hole even deeper so the truck could free itself (which of course is why the hole gets even deeper for the next vehicle).
There were a number of motoboys on their tough little 125cc Chinese bikes waiting to get by. I assumed that they provide a taxi and freight service to the villages along the road. They travel together too in order to push each others bikes through the rough spots. I was now struggling. My tires, nice grippy TKCs are about twice as wide as the motoboys bikes so in following their trail I was pushing through a lot of the sticky mud. Also my side cases were catching on the sides of the ruts. These tough sections were pretty consistently about 100 meters apart. After a few kilometres of this in the 33C heat and I was exhausted and I was worried about the abuse the clutch was taking. By now the motoboys had included me in their collective pushing group (calling me Papa) but I’m more of a liability than an asset. I finally had to tell them I ccouldn’t continue. I needed to rest. Being clever industrious lads they make an offer that I don’t want to refuse. For some compensation (5000CFA) each they will get me and the bike past the nasty sections (to just the poor sections) and I will be good to go. With little choice I swallow my pride and let one guy ride my bike and I follow as a passenger on another. It works well, the young man loves the bike and can ride circles around me on this road that he knows so well. Being a passenger was a little hair-raising at times and we had a few very muddy spills but with a little more pushing we all made it to a town. We stopped here mainly because it had started to rain pretty hard. The clutch on the Suzuki was now slipping badly.
That night in the little hotel I pondered how I can get parts for the clutch or even get the bike to Manfe (60km away) where I could pull the clutch and see the disc condition. I was also feeling strangely good about the day. It was challenging to say the least and we had endured and that was satisfying. In the morning I found the wear on the clutch and a displaced clutch lever due to the falls had taken up all the cable free play. By using up all the adjustment available I was able to get the clutch to fully engage. So with that problem sorted albeit temporarily, I headed to Manfe.
The road proved only slightly better with a new twist. In the wet hard-packed sections it was deceptively slippery. It looked OK until my rear wheel just gently started slipping sideways until I was sliding backwards down the road. It reminded me of the invisible “black ice” we can get on the roads in Canada. So that’s why the motoboys put both feet down when going through this stuff! I could also see that the Chinese contractors were building a totally new road but it will still be a few years away. They can only work during the shorter dry season.
From Manfe the road to Bamenda was brand new excellent tarmac winding through the mountainous region but strangely empty. I had read to beware of empty roads because it usually meant a closure further ahead. Sure enough a landslide covered the road but there was a diversion but only for two-wheelers. I was glad to follow a guy who obviously new the trail which included a rocky stretch up a mountain stream!
Arriving in Bamenda about 3:00PM after only 150 km, I found a hotel and got organized to clean and service the mud-packed bike, to get my phone activated and to change some money. All this was accomplished by noon the next day and I was off to Yaounde. I was in Bafoussam by late afternoon for the night. The ride through the low mountains was fun but the dreaded pot-holes kept progress slow as usual. The rain was almost a constant now with breaks of blistering hot sunshine. I prefer the rain.
An early wet start the next morning and I managed the 324km to Yaounde by 1:00pm with better roads with the only delay a wait for the annual Chantel Biya cycling race to pass. Watching the chaotic driving by the support vehicles and police escorts was better than the race itself.
I went straight to the Gabon Embassy and completed the visa application (70,000CFA) for “fast’ next day service. Finding a reasonably priced hotel was more of a task and I ended up in Clamantis Hotel on the Nlongkak roundabout. Pricey at 25,000CFA but very nice and with wifi access. The rain late afternoon rain arrived just as I had unloaded the bike.
View from my hotel, Yaounde
As I write this, there is no water (a bucket of water was supplied) but the promise of a hot shower vanishing was disappointing. Also the internet worked for a few hours but is now mysteriously unavailable. The hotel staff seem to think this is a normal situation and don’t get that guest might resent paying for services not delivered. Why do I expect things to work here as they do in North America (as if there are not plenty of screw-ups there)? I wanted to use this time to research my next steps and need the internet so I hope it is back soon.
Both water and the internet appeared the next morning, a Friday. I fired off some e-mails to get an idea what my options were in shipping the bike home from various countries. I also made contact with two Canadian CUSO/VSO International volunteers who were working in Cameroon and we had a nice dinner that evening. It was interesting to hear about their work in Cameroon (both were on 2 year assignments) and I admire their dedication to their work. Of course it was good to have relaxed conversation with fellow Canadians.
Watching the rain outside my window early the next morning made it easy for me to take a couple of days off, catch up with the laundry, etc and just rest. The very French Boulangerie across the street was a constant temptation to which I had no resistance.
Well fed, I was anxious to leave Monday and got off to an early start with my rain gear on as a heavy misty rain fell. An hour later the sun came out and it became easy to spot the water-filled potholes as they reflected the light. I reached the border after the many road blocks by various agencies for document checks. The process repeated itself on the Gabonese side with passport and travel information laboriously recorded in large ledgers by hand while you wait in the heat.
Posted by Ross Davidson at 06:16 AM
September 06, 2012 GMT
Almost instantly after crossing into Gabon the rain forest became even more dense, humid and exotic (at least to me). The curvy road through the rolling hills was in excellent condition and a motorcyclists dream. I tried to capture some of this on my GoPro video camera but the result seemed much less interesting. It was missing the closeness of the forest and the dank smells. Once again I was taken back to my childhood watching my first ever movie in a theatre “African Queen” with Bogart and McCall totally fascinated with the whole notion of traveling on a river through the jungle. So you can tell my impressions of Gabon are not exactly objective. From the perspective of Google Earth, Gabon is one huge green impenetrable carpet of rain forest. It looks pretty much the same from the ground too.
My first impression of Gabon was that this was a much more developed and affluent country than any I have experienced yet on this trip. The homes in the roadside villages were better constructed and often with modest landscaping around them. There were very few motorcycles on the road and the cars were newer and in better condition. I think the driving was a notch or two less crazy as well. Actually there was very little traffic of any kind on the road leading to Lambarene except for the big logging trucks carrying huge trees out of the forest.
Accident scenes and the resulting death count are marked with these signs:
It was a short hop to Oyem a rough and tumble kind of town about 1000 meters above sea level which made for cooler nights. The economy is based on coffee and cocoa which is exported through Cameroon. It has a bit of a shady history. Some Peace Corp volunteers were murdered here in the early 90’s then a typhoid outbreak killed a number of residents and a bizarre siege by rabid dogs killed 5 in the town.
All was quiet during my stay except for a loud thunderstorm. It was this storm that determined my hasty selection of a hotel. On closer inspection it was once a nice hotel but maintenance had been allowed to slip a bit. An example would be the string that replaced the bathroom door handle and various items left by previous tenants. But it was dry inside. I have stayed in about 40 hotel rooms so far on this trip and they have all been remarkably different. I couldn't say that about the last 40 hotel rooms I've experienced in North America. Too much sameness in our North American lives because of multinational corporation efficiencies.
The morning found me, bright and early heading south from Oyem in the now persistent rain, and it soon became apparent that logging was a big business here. The trucks would pop out of muddy logging trails all along the highway leaving substantial amounts of red clay on the road.
Sometimes the logs would fall off the trucks on curves.
Around mid-morning I stopped at village that was obviously a sort of hub for the logging truck drivers. Wherever you see a few trucks parked, there is likely a place to get some food and sure enough there was a small crowed restaurant. I sat at one of the long benches shoulder to shoulder with these rough, tough drivers. I say this because it is a very dangerous job anywhere in the world. They must drive these heavily loaded trucks down temporary logging roads cut through the bush without any of the normal safety measures.
To their credit they paid little attention to the old white guy wearing a bright yellow rain suit (it was still raining). I had a delicious omelette and (Nescafe) coffee and absorbed a little insight into the daily life of these guys as we shared the steamy room.
Crossed the Equator.
The road was in good condition and I made good time so by 4:00pm I was crossing the first bridge into Lambarene. The last place of any size before the border with the Republic of Congo (on this southerly route) Lambarene covers the north and south shores and an island in the middle of the mighty Ogooue river all connected by two bridges. The north shore is where Albert Schweitzer (famous Nobel Prize recipient for his work with leprosy victims) established his hospital and research clinic in 1913 that survives today focusing on malaria research.
I chose the Soeurs de la Imacculate Conception mission from my guidebook and it was a good decision. The mission buildings overlooking the river are red brick surrounded by beautifully landscaped gardens. The Sisters like to garden. The hostel is really a few spotlessly clean rooms attached to classrooms for the young children who attend school here.
It had a very nice vibe and I enjoyed my 2 day stay there. For almost the only time on this trip, I took a day to do some sightseeing. I went to the Schweitzer hospital, toured the historic grounds along the river and visited the museum. It was great.
Plan to restore original buildings.
I had a tasty lunch at the staff canteen. Manioc "stew" and rice.
Not far south of Lambarene the finished road ends making it tough going especially if it has been raining. This road continues south to Dolisie in the Republic of Congo then heads East to Brazzaville, the capital. This last section is famously difficult.
My personal preference was to take a different route from Ndjole to Franceville on a good gravel road. From Franceville it is just a few kilometres to the Congo border at Lekoni Here the road ends but there is a sandy track to Okoyo then a dirt track to Obouya. This is also considered a difficult route. From Obouya there is a newish paved road the 450km south to Brazzaville.
But for now I was back-tracking for 70km from Lambarene to take the road West to Libreville, the capital of Gabon located on the Bay of Guinea.
Crossed the Equator again on the road to Libreville.
One of the old single lane bridges is still in use.
It was a pleasant ride until about 40km from Libreville when the road went from seriously pot-holed to a heavily traveled construction diversion. It was hot, very dusty and pretty tough going for everyone. However, the moment you reach the marine drive you can see a beautiful beach on one side of the road and a rather modern city on the other.
Oil money gave Gabon a head start over its neighbours years ago and you can see the infrastructure it has built in Libreville The oil is almost exhausted now so Gabon has embraced eco- tourism in a big way. It certainly has the natural resources, the forest, the animals, and the foresight to create national parks that account for 10% of the country.
I stopped at the La Tropicana hotel because it was on the beach and close to the airport.
It was nice to be on the beach but the rooms were pretty shabby and expensive. The restaurant/bar was very good. It seemed to be a favourite of the young French ex-pats. However, the room was only available for 2 nights. Not wanting to be homeless, I went further into town and reserved a room at Maison Liebermann, another Catholic mission with rooms for travelers. The rooms were large and very clean with free wifi for less than half of the cost of La Tropicana (8000CFA).
ML is also referenced in the Lonely Planet guide so I was hoping to perhaps meet some fellow travelers but I was the only tourist during my stay.
Here is a rainy photo of Maison Leibermann from my room.
After a few days in Libreville, I found I liked the city although other than the beach there was not much to see. It was "developed" enough to have a choice of restaurants, supermarkets and even a little strip mall that cater to the middle class Gabon residents. Gabon has a lot to offer a tourist, namely the multiple national parks that boast the best eco-tourism value on the globe for those that can afford the high fees.
I had to start thinking about my options for continuing my trip. My limited experience with unimproved roads so far told me that my chances of getting to Brazzaville by motorcycle on my own while it was still raining every day seemed pretty slim. Also my Angola visa had expired October 9th and I would have to re-apply in Canada. Both of these realities were show stoppers. I could attempt the roads but I was taking a chance of getting stuck (literally) with a long and difficult return trip to Gabon or limited and very expensive bike shipping options.
I pondered the notion of continuing my travels by bus and train. Technically, it would be difficult to separate myself from the motorcycle as I need to be present for customs clearance, etc. And I would much prefer to do that type of traveling with family or friends.
I also assessed my feelings about the trip so far. I was very content! I had accomplished my two main goals by crossing the Sahara and by riding through the equatorial rain forests. But they were not important to me now I had completed them. I had gained much more satisfaction just experiencing the sights and people of the countries I had traveled. My head was full of memories that will last me for the rest of my life. I think I can now, in a small way, understand and assess much better the media reports (I'm a bit of a news junkie) from the region and form my own opinions.
So, I started inquiring about bike shipping from Libreville and within a couple of days had some options although all of them were expensive taken out of the context of the trip. Air France was the only carrier that had flights to Europe and would carry a motorcycle classified as "dangerous goods" Once I had the information making the decision was not difficult. I was missing my family after 2 months on the road and now could not wait to get back.
I took the bike to Air France Cargo next to the Libreville airport and we started the shipping process. First we needed to weigh the bike but they did not have a drive on scale so we needed to lay the bike on its side on a wooden pallet.
Ready to tie down on an air pallet.
After getting the Carnet signed out of Gabon by customs, I walked over to the passenger terminal and waited about 7 hours for my flight via Paris to Toronto. My motorcycle took the same aircraft on both flights so we arrived home together.
Canada customs wanted to do an "agricultural inspection" costing $48.50 before they would release the shipment so collected the bike a day later and rode it to my home. The trip was now officially over.
Some final thoughts:
A number of people apparently believe that a trip like this is very difficult, even a dangerous and daring thing to attempt. I must respectfully disagree. I think the idea of traveling by motorcycle along the West coast of Africa seems exotic because most of us only get negative information about the region from the media or charity fundraising commercials. I don't pay attention to government travel advisories as they are so heavily biased to protect themselves from liability.
The reality is that this is a region that lacks "Western" infrastructure, economic development, human rights, and accountable governance but that makes it different but not "dangerous". 99% of the roads I traveled were paved all-weather roads in varying states of repair. No special skills are needed to drive a vehicle on these roads except the sections I have mentioned earlier. Hotels were available everywhere. Food and water was available everywhere. I didn't need to take my camping equipment but did use it in Europe and Morocco to save money.
The biggest impediment to travel in the region is the necessity to get visas - a lot of visas! Border crossings were surprisingly (to me) professional, computerized and easy. My experience at borders in Latin America last year was very different with obvious corruption and manual processes.
Most importantly, the people along the road I met seemed genuinely interested/amused/confused with the travelling foreigner or they just ignored me. I really never felt any animosity. The lack of tourism in the region also means very few people try to make a living off visitors (helpers, beggars, etc). I believe that most people are busy enough with their own lives not to pay me much attention. They, like all of us, are honest, empathetic, generous and reasonably happy from what I could tell. A goood number of strangers went out of their way to provide directions or assistance along the way without any expectation of payment.
The biggest danger is the same one we have in North America and that is the likelihood of a traffic accident.
The toughest part was specific to motorcycle travel. You are fully exposed to the elements most of the day. Heat, dust, rain, exhaust fumes are what have you tired at the end of the day.
Therefore the benefits far outweighed any difficulties. I took the "easy" route and stopped before it became too challenging. I'll enjoy reading about the true adventurers who tackle the "impassable" roads.
Thank you for your interest.
Posted by Ross Davidson at 07:49 AM