March 24, 2008 GMT
Bamako, 24 March 2008

public transport west african style

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.

voudou carving with member of a donkey, horns of a devil and the face of a simpleton

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.

scarey bird fetish

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......

Frankenstein's ignition system. Design Sean Hawker, realisation Richard Miller. Note also the funky air filter.

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.

Bobo Dialousso 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....

Millet beer brewery

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.

witchcraft objects

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 March 24, 2008 06:19 PM GMT

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