March 24, 2008 GMT
Bamako, 24 March 2008
The last entry saw me waiting in Porto Novo, Benin, for my new wheel to arrive. I had checked in to the Da Silva Museum of Afro-Brazilian culture as they had a couple of rooms and it seemed like an interesting place to stay. In the end though it turned into a form of beningn prison. I've got to say that Africa seems to be turning me into a right Tory as every community project enterprise I've come across with has been sloppily run by couldn't care less staff. And alas the Musee Da S was the same. The room was dirty and staff occassionally tried to stiff me for unwarranted tips. With an immobile bike I had little choice but to stay. It was made less joyfull still by the fact that they refused to let me leave bags and bike there as left luggage whilst I explored the rest of Benin. So when the wheel arrived I was overjoyed.
Or I should say when I went and collected the wheel, for having paid almost as much as to fly home and pick the thing up myself I had to chase Fedex up and they were most surprised at the notion that they should have called me when it arrived and that they might actually be expected to deliver it. Being a Friday afternoon and with the office to close for the weekend I had to hotfoot it to the major city of Cotonou to pick up. So delighted was I that I celebrated in a nice restaurant with a side of beef in roquefort sauce, a pastis and several ales. I arrived back to the room half cut, carrying my large box of wheel in component form and at midnight decided the best thing to do was to build it there and then.
I've never built a motorcycle wheel though I used to work as a cycle mechanic and have laced a few of those together, so thought it couldn't be too difficult. I guess normally it's not but in a mild state of innebriation it was trickier than expected. The difference between a bicycle and a motorcycle wheel build seems to be that the bicycle one is easy to lace up and hard to true whereas the opposite is true of a motorcycle. Several half builds and then dismantlings later it was three am and the wheel was ready to put in the bike to true up.
The next day with beers slept off all was easy and the bike got a good service too. And the next morning after that it was au revoir to my friends at the museum and on the road to Abomey.
All went well on the ride bar a minor starting difficulty. Abomey was one of the ancient kingdoms of Benin and known for their human sacrifices, slave trading and general fearsome ways. Having visited the largest palace and museum there I can attest that they were indeed bloodthirsty, cruel and gratuitous. The king's throne mounted on four skulls of enemy chiefs is one of the famous exhibits there. The Abomey Kingdom also resisted French rule for a number of years which has made them national symbols of resistance to this day. That they killed and enslaved many of their neighbours in modern day Benin seems to pass by unoticed! Sadly though no museum in Benin allows photos, either inside or out, even if it just a mudbrick building so I can bring you no pictures of the treasures therein. I asked why and was told that photography damaged the exhibits; I decided it wasn't an argument worth having. So instead of photos of the great imperial structures I give you two images of the local woodcarving tradition. The chap above with a large member, devils horns and a very simple look on his face is supposed to be placed at the entrance of your house and will ward away evil. Not sure how but I'm told he will. The bird I don't know the function of but it is mildly disturbing and would be more likely to scare me off if I had evil intent.
Riding North the ignition trouble got worse. In the town of Natitingou right in the North, close to the Burkinese border it became evident that carrying on as was was not an option. On top of this the bike was blowing exhaust gas past the piston into the crankcase. I stayed for a couple of days, perplexed and somewhat demoralised having just spent so long in Porto Novo. Then decided to ship back down to Cotonou to sort things out. A couple of days in a nice hotel with a pool and good food and I had inspiration, shifted to a cheapy and fixed the bike. At this point I had been considering shipping home and got Sascha's hopes up that I would be home soon, only to dash them by fixing the bike (sorry Sasch....)
An email to magneto wizard Sean Hawker and the synopsis was weakened magnets and a suggestion for rigging up an auxiliary ignition system through the battery. Thus I created a veritable Frankenstien's monster of an ignition system. Many thanks for the rapid help Sean......
Bike nerds note the exhaust blowing past the piston was caused by a pattern points set with a different to original-profiled cam follower which advanced the timing slightly.
With a fresh sparking plug I headed back up to Natitingou and made it in a day. The longest yet at 540km. One more day and I was in Ougadougou. This was really motoring. A day to get the Mali visa and then on to Bobo Dialosso for a spot of sightseeing. The city is noted for its mud-brick mosque.
The old quarter is also fascinating with it's Muslim and animist quarters. I was shown the sorgum beer brewery. It looked unpalatable but had a great nutty aroma. Sadly or perhaps luckily a batch wasn't ready for me to sample. In the old quarter I bought the first souvenir since South Africa, a scarey voudou figure of a man with several flat nails through him and bound in cotton. I was told it gave good luck....
I checked the spark plug before I left and found that the electrode had burnt out. I looked at it and realised it was a dodgy fake and I had thrown away my old and worn but still working plugs. So off to the market to find some fresh ones. A Bosch and it looked OK so off we went.
My voudou protector was obviously crap because after a couple of hundred kms the bike made a loud bang and I was hit in the arm by half a spark plug. It was still attached to the HT lead and like a tazer gun the remains of the bare electrode delivered a serious of sharp shocks.
I was worried that the other half of the plug might still be in the engine but a new one fitted and all seemed well. Except then the exhaust gas past the piston problem came back with a vengeance. The next day with a mildly limping bike I was in Bamako. A few days left before my pledge to be home at Easter expired and still a long way to go. I went through it all in my mind. Glazed cylinder bore, dodgey spark plugs and an absolutely worn out chain and sprocket. I would have to get parts from England. Another week at least and then at least four to get back and that if there were no further problems. To set off as it was, even though the problems were minor and easily sorted with a few parts, for a ten day ride across the Sahara would be foolhardy.
The decision arrived at was ship home. I had really looked forward to turning up back at home on the bike but with a pining fiancee on the verge of mutiny, several bike problems and to be honest a real wish to be home myself, flying looked like a good option. Crating the bike up at Bamako airport was a real chore but happened in the end, though not cheap, and I fly home myself tomorrow.
I've been left with a few days to explore Bamako. To be honest there's not a great deal here for the tourist. The Grand Market by the Grand Mosque has a gruesome witchcraft fetish section bizarrely situated right in front of the mosque. The stalls are not for the feint hearted with every variety of animal head and pelt represented along with a fearsome stench that embraces you if you linger too long. Sadly even rarer species are there. It opens a whole debate about conservation, exploitation and preservation. Many of the species are endangered but that doesn't prevent them being there. There're a series of issues around preservation and exploitation and the efficacy of outright hunting bans, but perhaps this is for another time and place. The sad fact though is that hunting obviously goes on extensively, wildlife is diminishing and people resort to traditional medicine because 'scientific modern' medicine in the region is scarce and expensive and counterfeit drugs useless and manifest.
A whole year in Africa, sixteen months on the road and some 30,000 kilometers covered. I shalln't go into a mawkish 'how it has changed me and what I've learnt' diatribe (that can be saved for anyone sharing a beer with me over the next few months!) but it's been an incredible ride, tough at times a real holiday at others and I wouldn't have changed a thing.
Hopefully though the story is not over. I'm treating shipping the bike back to the UK the same as the time it was shipped on from Malawi to South Africa. I'll return sometime in the near future and ride that last 8000kms!
To be continued..........................
Posted by Richard Miller at 06:19 PM
February 27, 2008 GMT
Porto Novo, 27 February 2008
The last entry left me in Limbe, Cameroun, waiting for a boat ride to Calabar in Nigeria. Well, it didn't happen. The service was delayed in Calabar for unspecified reasons, which didn't really sound very positive, and might not be back in Cameroun for another five days. For which you could probably read at least a week..... Then someone at the hotel dangled the carrot of a European style high speed catermaran that plied the same route but did it in three hours rather than overnight. I went to the company's office and found out that the service was temporarily suspended. There had been something romantic sounding about arriving to Calabar by boat, pulling in to a steamy hot tropical harbour....
With the only options left of taking a 'stick boat' (narrow and small motorised craft with a dubious reputation for safety even amongst locals) or riding I chose to ride. The road between Mamfe, near the border with Nigeria, and the Nigerian border town of Ekok has a reputation as being one of the roughest on the West Coast route. What no-one said is that the road from Limbe to Mamfe is in fact equally bad in sections. With the back wheel still decidedly oval I tried to arrange to take a dugout canoe down the Cross River, parallel to the road. That also sounded like a nice way to enter Nigeria, in a dugout along a river through the jungle. The previous evening I had been told that there were two boats leaving in the morning, both at ten. I rode down to the riverbank and found out that one had left at nine and the other had decided not to bother after all. Fate was really stacked against me on the boat into Nigeria front so I set off down the road.
It being the dry season the road was a breeze, in fact good fun. The 80 odd km took just over three hours with plenty of photo stops. I got stuck once but only because I took the wrong route - when a track gets too bad people just forge through the jungle and create a better parallel one until they have got past the difficult section. The road is famous for deep potholes and with just cause, there are some that would literally swallow a lorry. They are created each rainy season: a lorry gets stuck, spins its wheels and creates a hole, the crew dig it out and leave the hole behind. The next lorry gets stuck. Repeat the process and before too long the hole can be a couple of meters deep and the length of the lorry. Going down the road in rainy season must be carnage.
Arriving in Nigeria and all was mellow at the border. It had been my intention to spend a while site-seeing in Nigeria to find out what it is all about but the egg shaped wheel put paid to that and I ended up passing through the country in four days. Despite the reputation of Nigeria it was a really easy and friendly place to be. I didn't get stopped at any police checkpoints, asked for any bribes or get any hassle of any sort. What was actually refreshing about Nigeria was how people were very low key about my presence, there was very very little staring and shouting out at me as in most places I've been in the last month or so, but if I went up and asked someone something or greeted them they were warm and helpful.
Despite Nigeria being a pleasant and easy going place I had a fairly unenjoyable time there on account of bike-related woes. At the first hotel I stopped at I found the night watchman, who was to be fair a friendly and well meaning fellow, giving the dirty Enfield a good wash with a hose. When I had loaded the bike up, it wouldn't start and I realised he had given the magneto a thorough dousing resulting in a severe shortage of sparks. A two hour magneto strip later and I was on my way only to have the bike intermitently cut out and refuse to start for most of the rest of the day until I fitted a new HT lead.
Having fixed the sparking problem the next day I had a rear wheel puncture on the motorway. I fixed it and carried on but the rear tyre had now matched the eggy profile of the rim and forward progress was very bumpy. This caused the tyre to overheat and another puncture shortly after was the result. An advantage of Nigeria being so heavily populated and the road filled with unroadworthy vehicles is that you are never far from a puncture repair guy. Repairing punctures is easy but never fun so I utilised the services of these professionals whenever I could. It was clear that I would now have to replace the rear wheel but rather than go to Lagos, the closet large city, I decided to push on to Porto Novo in Benin. Thus began my three day punture-a-thon. For the next 600 km I averaged somewhere around 80 to 100km between puntures and rode along at 50kmh to avoid more.
Being away from home on such a big extended holiday you can't expect that every day will be a bed of roses but these three days were truly miserable and morale sapping.
The day I crossed the border into Benin I thought I could make the 60km on to Porto Novo. I was proved wrong as another puncture drew me to a halt in the dark just outside a small mud-brick residence. Throughout the trip I had assured myself that the hospiality of simple village folk would be forthcoming if ever I needed to stop and couldn't find a hotel. So I explained to the man of the house that I had had a very long day, was exhausted, it was dark and I could repair the bike tomorrow. I had a tent and would not trouble them for anything save a little water to cook with. I was totally wrong, he didn' say no but made it very clear that I could repair the bike and continue to the next town. Which with no choice but to do so I did and found a room at the local bar.
Benin has been somewhere that has held a facination since having a job ten odd years ago in Saville Row and regularly visiting the now disappeared Museum of Mankind at the end of the road. They had an exhibition on of the Dahomey Kingdom and their achievements and riches. At the time it was such an eye opener that there were kingdoms of that wealth and power in West Africa that I had been curious to visit since.
Indeed Benin has many fantastic sights to see and a rich culture. Voudoo is one of the main religions, there are a wealth of artistic treasures to be seen, ancient palaces and African and European slaving relics. But.... a lot of the time the country is just a pain in the arse to be in as the level of attention is pretty relentless. Walking down the street there are endless cries of 'yevo! yevo!' (white man, white man) and request for 'presents'. You have to tell yourself that it is still a minority and the vast majority, even those who shout out to you, are well meaning. It wasn't that long ago that a black man wouldn't have been able to walk the streets of an English town without having paople shout out 'darkie' and worse at him, and like here the majority not really realising how very wearing they are being.
It's been a mystery of the trip how some countries are so relaxed and welcoming and some so much more hard work. I mean, how come I didn't see another white man in the whole of Nigeria but no-one stared at me but come to Benin where folk of my skin tone are a regular sight and there is hassle aplenty. Maybe it is the result of tourism? But then how come Egypt gets a lot of tourists and was a real chore in many places but Jordan also gets a lot of visitors but was friendly all the way. The only theory I have been able to come up with so far is that the hasslesome places are all ex-French colonies but that might not be a popular or provable theory!
So, here I am in Porto Novo waiting for a new rim, hub and spokes to arrive for me to lace together. I had hoped to get in a lot of site-seeing whilst waiting but the place I checked into and committed to with my immobile bike is refusing to offer left luggage so I've been on day trips with just one night spent away from Porto Novo. But an excellent night away- to the stilt village of Ganvie. Most of the coastline of Benin is flanked by an inland lagoon. The lagoon is seldom deeper than six foot deep. When the European slave traders put pressure on local slave trading kingdoms to supply ever greater quantities those fleeing persecution took to a life on the lagoon. The African slave traders had a taboo against entering water so to live in the middle of the lagoon offered sanctuary. As time has gone on the aquatic life has flourished and in Ganvie alone there are more than 30,000 living on the water. I stayed the night in a stilt hotel in Ganvie and then the next day chartered a boat across the lagoon to get back to Porto Novo some 45km away. An exellent adventure.
So, crossed fingers and I'll be mobile again in a couple of days and then heading up to Burkina Faso and Mali. Hopefully with the bike roadworthy once more things will look up and Burkina and Mali will offer more laid back experiences.
Posted by Richard Miller at 12:31 PM
February 12, 2008 GMT
Limbe, 12 February 2008
Brazzaville was an unexpected pleasure of the trip with a nice laid back atmosphere, good food and of course the benefit of a free air-conned room at the 'Hippo Campe' didn't hurt either. In Brazza I met up with the four Norwegian guys who are travelling in a 4wd that I had met first of all back in Windhoek applying for the Angolan visa.
We decided to travel together. Or rather I asked if I could go with them as I knew the route to Gabon would be remote, rough and pretty much traffic free. In return I offered them my services as a French translator. Anyone who knows my French could testify that it wasn't much of a deal.
We set off North to the town of Oyo along the only decent long stretch of tar road in the Republic of Congo. Even the road out to the second city, Point Noire, is a mess. Funnily enough the President of Congo lives in Oyo.... Getting to Oyo it was evident that there was money there and that it had been spent on ameneties. Street lights, pavements, lawns; all quite unfamiliar luxuries in the region. It's a great African leader's ruse though. Misspend the nation's wealth but make sure you look after your own and you'll be OK. Or at least when the rebel troops come in you'll have somewhere safe to hide.
So it was that we had chosen this route through Congo and Gabon as by coincidence President Omar Bongo lives just across the other side of the border from Oyo and there is a good stretch of road around Bongoville too. Separating the two towns lie some 200km of jungle tracks and amazingly this is the best route between the two countries. The other route through Point Noire and North from there is, if you would believe those who had passed through, a mess of bad roads and threat of danger from the 'Ninja' rebel groups in the area.
The track started off fun. A lot more fun than the potholed roads of Angola, light sand across narrow tracks. Easy enough to ride, slightly technical and smooth. Then at the Congo Customs post which was some 100km before the actual border the Officer told us that we had a bad stretch of 5 or so kms and then it was good all the way. As it happened it did indeed get worse, but it stayed worse and then perhaps got worse still. The landscape became more hilly and the track became two deep ruts in soft sand. Keeping up speed I could ride it but every so often the ruts narrowed, I stopped, and then I got bogged. The Norwegian lads really helped me out here, though possible to get out alone, having two pushers was a marvellous luxury.
It got worse as 50ish kms before the border the gear change mechanism return spring broke. On most bikes this would mean no gear changes but a fellow Bullet rider will know that the neutral finder can be used to crash into gear in an emergency, though missing the gear is a more likely occurence. The point is that at least you can maintain forward motion after a fashion. So I rode along, kept a pace through the deeper sand sections, then lost pace a bit with a hill, needed to change down, missed the gear, slowed quickly, missed the next down, started to weave and then fell off. Repeat this several times and you get a picture of the journey.
We made it across the border the same day but found that customs had closed, the officer wasn't at home and our planned stop of Franceville was still 100kms away. The customs post was in a nice enough place so we pitched up tents there and waited to the following morning. When the customs guy turned up late in the evening he was charming and let us cook our food on the office veranda and even offered to sort out the paperwork that evening if we wanted. This was the way it went on in Gabon, people were extremely friendly, most waved as I passed by on the bike and all were easy going and helpful.
A short day the next and we stopped at Franceville. I spent the day fixing the bike's gear change issues and giving it a general service. The guest house had a wide, varied and slightly alarming selction of bush meat on offer on their menu. As my French didn't run to exotic species the chef kindly brought out a sample of each to our table. Porcupine, Genet, Boar or Pygmy Deer anyone? I settled for fish. You have to assume that in Gabon there is so much jungle and so few people that away from inhabitation wildlife thrives but anywhere there are people there is not an animal to be seen save hanging on a stick being touted roadside.
We were told in Franceville that the roads onwards to Lobe were in excellent condition and tarred. They were for 100km but after that it was more jungle tracks. Thankfully not deep sand as before but slightly rough none-the-less. We were extremely grateful to make it between tar roads in Congo and Gabon in the rainy season without seeing any rain at all. With a bit of water things could have really turned messy. It was dark when we arrived in Lobe, but riding with a Land Cruiser with multiple 500 watt search lights takes some of the edge off of night riding on the dirt roads.... Arriving late had been caused by another woe for the Bullet. The new chain I had bought in Windhoek (made in Thailand - beautiful country but not exactly noted for manufacture of quality engineered spares) had streched quite radically to the point that it was regularly falling off on bumps. Eventually it mangled the chain guard too. The chain guard was dumped and the following morning the chain shortened with a lot of filing.
After all the excitement of the previous few days the next two to get up to Yaounde in Cameroun were mostly on tar roads. A jungle bush camp saw the Norwegians' roof tents invaded by sandflies with unpleasant results though the 'coffin', as my tent is known, proved to be impregnable. I however had a fly that looked like a housefly on steroids (literally five times as large as) fly up my sleeve and bite me. Though it felt like my arm had been pentrated by a needle made to break through rhino skin nothing more happened than acute pain for the next half hour.
The Norse lads seemed to have a penchant for moving in the dark, maybe they're missing their winters, so instead of stopping before Yaounde we pushed on through and arrived into terrible traffic in the dark. My previous coveting of their GPS was less as were were led in an hour long circuitous route through a warren of stinking, polluted and busy streets to arrive somewhere we could have found using my map within ten minutes.
Though the roads in Cameroun have so far been generally good actual conditions are appalling with some of the dodgiest driving on the trip so far. After a while I came to think that most of those comedy motoring idiocy picture emails that get sent around must have all been taken in Cameroun. Four passengers (two adults, two babies) on a 100cc motorcycle taxi. A small motorcycle carrying an upright fridge freezer on the luggage carrier, a minibus that had been rolled so that the roof was of a level with the dash with a guy driving it managing to poke his head out of the side window which was now at a near horizontal. It's kind of comical but then ludicrously dangerous too.
In Yaounde we split company. Though we had a great time together we had plans to head in different directions. They are heading North and I to the Southern border with Nigeria. I'm hoping for another boat journey as I seem to have developed something of a fetish for getting the Bullet onto boats it should not really go on. The plan is to take it on the ferry from Limbe, here on the Camerounian coast, to Calabar just up the water in Nigeria. The decision to take the boat has been pretty much sealed by the fact that, with all the crashing potholes of late, my rear rim and hub have started to disintegrate and the road to the border is notoriously rough.
Next stop Nigeria. There's a nice chap I've been in touch with I've been meaning to meet for a while. His late father was a Colonel in the previous regime and he's been having terrible difficulties getting the money out of the country.
Hopefully Nigeria will in fact prove to be an extemely pleasant place populated by friendly folks. Will let you know...
Posted by Richard Miller at 11:24 AM
January 29, 2008 GMT
Brazzaville, 29 January 2008
After what feels like it has been the hardest section of the trip so far I've made it through Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and am into the Republic of Congo.
Although Luanda wasn't the easiest of places to like I had gotten used to hanging around the Club Nautico and frequenting the bar there along with the regulars. Leaving Luanda though and there was a further and grottier side to it as one passed through a shanty town of truly demoralising grimness. Getting out was almost as bad a getting in. Traffic was awful and even a bike couldn't squeeze through most of it.
The first 50 or so kms up the road were fine and then we reverted to the roads that had once been tarred and still are on my Michelin map. Clinging fairly close to the coast there wasn't much around in the way of inhabitation. I got off to have a rest and a munch on some dried fruit and within seconds I was being buzzed by tetsi flies (kind of like Horseflies for those at home unfamiliar..) and within a minute I was being positively swarmed. So that was why no-one else stops here or even lives here. I escaped with just the one bite on the finger.
Heading inland and the road actually got better. I stopped at the town of Tomboco and found the Catholic Mission there (they usually have a bed for passing travellers). It was positive luxury, Papa Paul and Marcelo were very welcoming, I got an en-suite room, fresh made pumpkin soup and sat and watched the Zambia - Cameroun game with the guys. Next morning was Sunday, their work day so no-one was around but a loaf of fresh bread, a plate of local jamon and a pot of fresh coffee awaited me. I stitched up the panniers which had split again whilst waiting for the lads to return from Mass. Though you can stay for free and there is no obligation it seems very wrong to expect to stay as a tourist for free and divert their resources away from their good work. Whatever your opinions on the Catholic church and the AIDS / contraception debate the bottom line is that they are often the onle people concerned with welfare and education work in really remote areas. So with a donation left I continued on my way.
Papa Paul had recommended a route North that crossed the less used Matadi border. I always ask for local knowledge and though given in good faith often find it to be none-too-acccurate. I should have been suspect when Marcelo claimed it was 80 kms to the border, Papa Paul 130 and then the signpost said 180. After about 25 kms down a narrow jungle path I encountered a spot where it had rained recently and things where starting to get nasty so rather than risk getting stuck alone I turned back.
Onwards to Mbanza Congo was 150kms of good road and then you turn off. Then I realised that maybe the advice of the lads at the mission might have been good. For if this road to Songololo in DRC was the better one then the other must have been truly shocking. At least there were plenty of other people around who were also stuck to lend a helping hand. Here the local bus service is in massive 6 wheel drive converted army lorries.
Though I was lucky and there hadn't been a heavy rain for a couple of days there were still massive puddles across the width of the road. Some you could go around but if you had to go through extreme care was to be taken. Some could literally swallow the bike. It was only 50kms or so and given the situation 3 hours wasn't a bad time to make it in.
I arrived at the border at dusk. I think I made the quickest crossing ever between Angola and DRC as Angola were playing Senegal in the cup and were unexpectedly ahead. I asked how far to Songololo and if the road was better. It's not far and the road is good was the answer. So armed with the power of local knowledge again I found myself riding in first gear in the dark for 25kms along a rough potholed and puddled road....
The chaps at the Songololo mission didn't provide quite the same quality of accommodation as at Tomboco but they were very hospitable and a bed is a bed. Onwards the next day and I aimed to ride straight through DRC and Kinshasa to catch the boat to Brazzaville on the other side of the Congo River.
Riding through DRC was a strange experience. Whenever I stopped to ask directions people were incredibly friendly and in towns I drew a huge crowd. In the countryside I almost got the impression that people didn't know how to receive me. I usually waved, some waved back, some looked confused and a small minority hostile. If I stopped in the countryside people on foot would stay their distance and wait till I had left before moving on. It seems that really most of their experience of white faces is from passing UN armoured cars with guns trained out of the windows..
The ride through Kinshasa was a relative breeze. After the communications problems in Angola it was good to be somewhere I could communicate with people again and ask directions, albeit in my shakey French. I reached the ferry crossing to Brazzaville and as expected was crowded out by hustlers, ripped off on the ferry price and had plenty of arguments. I was told that the last ferry had left which could have been true as I was led to believe that 3pm was the last one. So I had to pay more for the 'VIP' ferry and pay extra for my bike and then pay extra to dockworkers to manhandle it onto the boat....
Arriving in Brazzaville all was a lot calmer and passing customs was a breeze. I had a tip for somewhere to stay (the Hippo Campe) and asked a customs guy who got in a taxi and led me there. I landed on my feet as being the first motorcyclist they have had arrive at the Campe I've got a nice room for free which leaves me cash to scoff good food at their excellent Vietnamese restaurant. Thank you guys.
Finally a couple of apologies.... Sorry for the lower quality of pictures. Another camera has rattled itself out of focus. Looks like I am going to have to live with it rather than cough up for a new one only to have it bust as well. Also the entries are suddenly coming thick and fast which some may like, some may not. It's just that I wanted to try and do one for each country and as I am suddenly upping the pace so out pour the blogs.
Next one Gabon or maybe Cameroun!
Posted by Richard Miller at 12:46 PM
January 22, 2008 GMT
Luanda, 22 January 2008
A 3 day palm blistering marathon ride through Angola and Iīm in the capital Luanda. All those `land of contrasts` cliches apply here more than anywhere. It has the worst roads Iīve encountered in Africa and the best. Terrible poverty and incredible wealth.
My Angolan visa appeared and it seems I was lucky as a couple of foreigners were rejected at the same time. I even got a full month instead of the usual five day transit. It seems a waste to head through the country quickly given this stroke of fortune, but if I am to get home as planned for Easter Iīve got to press on. Iīve decided that with ten odd weeks to make it back whilst hopefully enjoying myself and seeing some sights as well Iīll have to concentrate on some countries and skip through others. So, the plan is to ride quick until Nigeria where Iīll do a spot of sight seeing away from the Niger Delta to hopefully disprove some of the stereotypes the country has and then amble through Benin, Togo, Burkina Faso and Mali and then gas it again ītill I reach home....
I headed off from Windhoek and ran up into the rainy season just as it began in the North of Namibia. In Tsumeb I waited one day and then gave up and got a thorough day long soaking the next. The Angolan border was easy and someone senior helped me through. I had thought it was in the hope of a tip but it was just in the name of helpfullnes in the end. Iīve decided to make another challenge of the trip a mission to see if I can go through all Africa without paying a single bribe!
The road up to the first major town of Lubango was truly a shocker. Monsieur Michelinīs īmost recently updated map of Africaī has it down as an asphalted major highway. He lies! If having the odd spot of lumpy asphalt every few kilometers which does no more than bottom out the suspension when you run into it qualify a road as a paved one then OK, M. Michelin you are right. A ten hour bone crunching ride and I fractured the poor Bulletīs sub-frame, bent the rear wheel rim, split a pannier and wore out the swinging arm thrust washers (yes really bike nerds!). I had GPS coordinates for the Catholic Mission to pitch my tent up at but Lubango was somewhat larger than expected and just asking didnīt give me a location. Angola is the first time Iīve wished I had a GPS on the whole trip and this not because I canīt find the roads but that all other travellers seem to only give coordinates when they pass on tips for places to stay now rather than addresses. In the end I tipped the security guard at a 24 hour garage and pitched my tent up on their lawn next to their diesel generator. Not that it mattered, dead to the world as soon as my head hit the pillow.
The next day and on to Lobito and more of M. Michelin`s asphalt. Not as bad as the previous day but still not great. On the way I had a chance encounter on the road with a bunch of 5 guys on bikes who gave me a great tip for a place to stay in Lobito. So towards dusk I rocked up to Lobito having enjoyed the last 50kms or so on new glass smooth road and got lost again. Then a kindly guy on a bike stopped, asked where I was going and then led me all the way to the īZulu Beach Barī where owner Louis let me put up my tent. A couple of beers and dorado and chips later and once again lights out.
Another great surprise in Angola is that prices are just about on a par with Switzerland or indeed higher. Common with a lot of other African countries there seem to be two parallel economies going on. Those who havenīt who live at subsistance level and those who have who really do have, and tons of it. The next day riding out of Lobito in the morning light and I was amazed by just how many luxury villas there are dotted amongst the bombed out and decaying Portugese relics. There must be more Hummers per square mile than almost anywhere else, Arnie would be proud and George Bush delighted that the commies are so eagerly buying into civilianised American war machines. Angolaīs national flag is a take on the hammer and sickle with a 3/4 cog wheel replacing the sickle and a machete the hammer. Luandaīs streets are unusual in that every one is named after a revolutionary hero. There are absolutely no Bougainvillea Boulevards or Rue de Christosīs just Commandante Che Gueveras and Friedrich Engels Streets. My favourite is Commandante Dangereux though. Donīt mess with him gringo! So, Angolaīs regime is dedicatedly Communist and has one of the greatest disparities in incomes around where some can pay 3 US Dollars for a bottle of water and some donīt earn that in a week. Nice one lads! Still, in the tried and tested formula for keeping the masses happy of dictatorships worldwide, beer, bread and petrol are cheap.
If Lobito had a funky vibe to it with its Havana style architecture and beach culture then Luanda is just funky and thatīs in the nasty funky rather than hip funky sense. Angolaīs infrastructure is still in early days of recovery after years of war. Remnants of mined armoured personel carriers and tanks dot the roadside, almost every brick structure in each village bears the scars of gun battles and traffic signs are non-existant. Meaning, when I reached Luanda I got very lost again. To my relief the journey here had been a smooth one, with a beautifully surfaced new road almost all the way. I did have the address of a campsite about 100kms before Luanda but couldnīt find it so pushed on. Yes, again I arrived at dusk and got very lost. Traffic was terrible, roads crap and dust and pollution closed visibility down to about 100 metres. On the verge of losing the will to live altogether I asked a motorcycle cop for directions. Seeing the despair in my face he then led me to my destination with blue lights flashing. Despite all that has happened to them Angolan people have been fantastic, overwhelmingly friendly and helpful.
Iīm sleeping at another freebie (youīve got to when even a grotty hotel charges at least 50 US), the Club Nautico. A few fellow travellers had recommended this highly. In terms of facilities it doesnīt quite hit the hype as it is essentially a pitch in a car park but itīs a nice mellow place and you canīt knock the hospitality of the guys there who have been great. The view from my tent is wonderfully Angolan with the yatch clubīs gin palaces in the foreground and guys fishing in dug-out canoes in the background.
Itīs quite hard to like Luanda but Iīm trying. Humidity must be near 100% and every action is accompanied by profuse sweating. To get to the Gabon Embassy for my visa application I walked along the Marginal (harbour / beach road) and almost wretched from the fetid stench coming up from the waters whilst a middle aged woman in a vest and hot pants speed walked past me for her daily exercise routine and a vagrant lay on the pavement next to his own filth. But after coughing up a steep 150 US for my Gabon visa I had a tortilla and coffee in a nice cafe and then strolled to the commercial centre and admired the crumbling colonial architecture, modern high rises and the sights and sounds of the folk from the barrios in town to hawk their wares and earn a kwanza or two.
Iīll be here a couple of days to recover and patch the bike and then on through DRC and Congo to Libreville in Gabon to get the Camerounian visa. It looks like being a tough week or two but Iīm assured that from Gabon on itīs smooth going all the way if thatīs what I want....
Posted by Richard Miller at 02:08 PM