28/5/05. Lome, Togo
Let joy be unconfined! At only the second time of asking (if you count the first six-day attempt as one) I am allowed into Togo. The icing on the tin hat is that my Togo visa actually expired five days ago.
I approach passport control, knowing my papers are far from being in order, and try to adopt an air of nonchalance as I hand over my passport. The officer in charge begins to copy the details of my visa into his vast ledger. Luckily, the visa expiry date column is towards the end. From the corner of my eye , as I pretend to study the posters advertising the glory of the new dodgy Prez, I think I see him hesitate as he reaches the critical information. To act now will result in a terribly messy page in the ledger. I catch my breath. He continues. The stamp is raised and *THUNK* I'm in.
Normally this would not be a particularly tense scenario - after all it is possible to buy a Togo visa at the border - but -
a) I bought one in Ghana and I'm sodding well buggered if I'm buying another. Not my fault the sodding border was closed etc etc.
b) I've never tried to enter an African country on an expired visa before.
c) The government of this particular country recently provoked 30,000 of its citizens to flee after an appallingly undemocratic election (featuring violence).
Ghana is improbably difficult to get out of. I feel like yelling "I ONLY WANT TO LEAVE" by the fourth sweaty office. All the while I'm thinking "white people have been attacked in Togo for being (or seeming) French".
Suddenly I'm through the gate (Lome is on the border) and - hello! - it's simply delightful old boy. It's one kilometre from the border to the hotel I've chosen from the guidebook (because it says they do a great steak-frites), and it's palm tree-lined beach boulevard all the way. It's also moped mayhem; at least 20 two-wheelers to every car.
Not Hotel Le Galion
Hotel le Galion ($15 a night) is one of the best places I've stayed in Africa. The food and wine are good, like a good French restaurant in a good part of France. The hotel is maybe 200 yards (that's 200 metres) from the sea, and Togolese people, who I had feared would stab me for being French, are universally friendly, including the police. Lome also has the best-stocked supermarket I've seen since Morocco (malt whisky, camembert, proper gin and camping equipment). No downside so far - apart from trying to remember how to speak French.
Do you have any meaningful conception of how good a song "True" by Spandau Ballet is? Particularly if your iPod allows you to precede it with "The Oxford Girl" by Shirley and Dolly Collins (a woman sings in the voice of a man about murdering a woman), and follow it with "Get Out Of My House" by The Streets?
And what in the name of red-faced sodomy are "seaside arms"? Or have I misheard the words for 20 years?
Disgusting smells of our time #2:
My trainers (which, to be fair, didn't smell that pretty before) after an inadvertent dip in one of Accra's many open sewers. Hooray for typhoid vaccine!
Dropped me bike off at Toni's amazing KTM shop for new tyres, chain, hand-grips (mine had melted into a sticky and frankly dangerous sludge, only slightly improved by my bodge-job of a household duster zip-tied round the left one, and some duct tape round the throttle), and an oil change.
"Pick it up at 2pm" they said.
"Um-hum" I thought, and sidled in at three to find the job only just over the start-line. Left at 6pm. A good job well done though.
Great. What do I owe you?
I took a moped-taxi to Toni's. White-knuckle ride into terror county. Never again.
* "Seaside Arms" would have been a good pun if I could have photographed the massive machine-gun on the beach, but I couldn't.
31/5/05. Cotonou, Benin.
Shortly after departing Lome it becomes clear that there is something wonky about my steering. Anything under 10mph is a bit of a struggle, which makes for some hair-raising filtering on the truck-packed, pothole-strewn Cotonou road.
Something must be done. But what? I left Lome, like Gibraltar, with new Michelin Desert tyres, but I don't remember this much trauma with the last set.
At Toni's my head bearings were adjusted - I think possibly a little too much. Perhaps all I need is the mechanical knowledge to de-adjust them. Oh dear.
The Togo/Benin border is shit. Not as bad as Ghana/Togo, but I do end up shouting a bit after being charged on the Togo side for having my bike paperwork stamped (which should be free) and then being refused a receipt (which means the money is going in the guy's pocket).
The Benin side is better, although at the end of the visa process the uniformed official grins somewhat pathetically and says "what about my beer?"
"What about it?" I think as we walk away.
"Pension Souvenir" in Cotonou, at $10 a night, is welcoming and ideally positioned between an internet cafe, a bar, a cafe, an off-licence and a guitar string shop.
I really should put up my mosquito net but *yawwwwwn* I just can't be arsed.
Cut to 2.30 AM
Owch! Bloody mosquitos. Where's my net?
We go in search of the Fetish Market, which apparently is brimming with monkey testicles, dried snakes and er, badger's penises and so on. Having wandered through a huge, extremely hot market selling suits and ties, dried fish, booze and deadly-looking peppers, we decide we can't find it and go for an ice-cream instead.
The theory is that you can find the Fetish Market by following your nose. Unfortunately we smell so bad that we have obscured the olfactory trail.
Found a man with a big spanner. My steering problem seems to be fixed.
3/6/05. Abomey, Benin.
Do not touch.
Now then. The thing about West Africa is that it's very very flat, and the roads tend to be fairly straight. This combination can be a little tedious on a long slog.
The Cotonou-Abomey route, however, has highlands and bends. Now that I think about it of course, highlands mean bends, as it's generally easier to build a road around a hill rather than through it. Anyway today's ride is noticeably more fun than usual. At one point there's even a real-life vista.
No danger. No elephants.
The Benin TV news theme tune is extremely arresting! Maximum rock'n'roll with all the knobs on the graphics machine set to 11, a la "The Day Today". I am completely drawn in, fascinated to see what's happened. The answer is - nothing, in French.
At one point, cruising along some perfect white-lined asphalt, I allow myself to think the words "Mmm. Excellent infrastructure." Exactly four seconds later the road becomes a sandy dirt track.
Abomey is reasonably picturesque, which means it's heaving with touts. Doug arrives first and visits the museum, which I had planned to do as well, but his tale of grumpy-guide-related woe puts me off.
We've decided to hurry to Chad for a flight to Addis Ababa. I'm about a month behind schedule (like it matters) and now the seasons are becoming not quite right for West African motorbikin'. Wet in the south and hot hot hot in the north. I reckon we can make it to Chad in 10 days...
Riding around Cotonou is highly entertaining if you don't mind lungfuls of pollution. At any one time there are six million mopeds on the road, all jostling for position and all ignoring traffic lights. Most of these are piloted by licensed, yellow-shirted moped-taxi riders, which seems to marginally reduce the risk of death.
I just found three fleas in my beer. God knows how many there are up my trouser leg.
4/6/05. Parakou, Benin.
Having been told at 8.30 that there's nothing for breakfast, Doug scoots off hungry while I hang around for a quick Nescafe. The coffee arrives. A pot of proper jam arrives with proper butter. Warm fresh bread arrives. I stuff my face. Ha!
60mph tarmac for 180 miles, and I'm in Parakou, halfway up the country, by early afternoon. Ice cold beer. Ha!
I stop for a fag on the way and, standing in full moto get-up and not sweating, think "Oh-ho. Not too hot today." Then I remember I have a thermometer in my pocket (thanks Aust). It's 90 degrees. When I go back to the UK I am obviously going to die of exposure.
5/6/05. Malanville, Benin/Niger border.
Sitting in the bar of the "Rose Des Sables" hotel. By 8pm there are vast numbers of large, weird insects; luckily quite a lot of toads arrive to eat them.
Another 190 miles of mostly perfect tarmac today, with 30-odd miles of bad potholes in the middle. Potholes are fine when the traffic's light - you simply weave around them. The trouble starts when some twerp in a Peugeot comes round a bend on your side of the road at 70mph to avoid potholes on his side. Luckily my steering problem is a thing of the past. 9000 miles from Islington today and the moto is running like a dream.
And still everyone is smiling and waving as I rumble past. Does this only happen in Africa? Or does it only not happen in Europe? Or has Doug painted the words "I am a clown" on the back of my jacket in an African language?
7/6/05. Niamey, Niger.
The stomach cramps are coming at two-minute intervals. This allows me time to enjoy several mouthfuls of superb, freshly-made vanilla ice cream between gut spasms. Now I've finished and the waiter had better look sharp with the bill or he'll be needing a mop and a bucket of Dettol as well.
Between two hurricane-force bowel motions today, I have managed to
1. Acquire a visa for Chad
2. Visit Niger's Musee National
3. Enjoy a light lunch in Chocolat Raffine.
Now it's time to walk quickly and carefully to the safety and calm of the Catholic Mission's excellent lavatories, and hunker down for what may be a long and loud afternoon.
The Musee National is as bad as a museum can get. It consists of a dozen or so pavilions set in a large park with a zoo. In itself, quite tempting, no? Time to lower those expectations...
All the pavilions are shut, and the zoo is an exercise in degradation for both animal exhibit and human viewer. Here, a lion in a cage barely big enough to turn round in. There, a hippo wallows in green filth. Baboons stare blankly, their minds having snapped from boredom and isolation. Four gazelles trip over each other pathetically.
On the upside, it's only a pound to get in. Cameras are banned, not, presumably, to stop you saving money on postcards, but more likely to stop you causing an international wave of outrage by posting your horrific snaps on the internet.
8/6/05. Birnin N'Konni, Niger.
Have you, I wonder, ever had an eagle hit you in the leg at 55mph? No? I won't believe you. You must have.
Actually, up until this morning, neither had I. In this part of the world they like to sit on the road, d'you see, eating roadkill and bugs and so forth, and as you approach them, the thought process tends to be, "I am absolutely certain that those eagles will get out of the way before I get there", and they almost always do.
It's not as painful as you might think. Imagine someone throwing a labrador at you as hard as possible.
THE COWS ARE COMING!
10/6/05. Kano, Nigeria.
Oh bloody brilliant.
"NUMBERS! GIVE US NUMBERS FOR POOL!" shout the armed, black-uniformed cops/soldiers at the checkpoint. I don't know what to say. I don't know what they mean. Everything I've read about Nigeria says I'll have to dish out fat bribes to heavy-handed officials every 10 miles.
But what are these "numbers"? Do they signify a cash handout? I politely request clarification. It transpires that the four of them are avid lottery players and they want me to choose their numbers for next week. I pick 16 digits, even trying to think of lucky ones, and am sent on my way with a promise of a share in any winnings.
Around seven checkpoints today, no bribes, no requests for bribes. The officials, on the border and all the way down to Kano, are as nice as pie, if not nicer. Maybe it's just the south that's tricky?
The people I meet today are all keen to reverse Nigeria's overseas image as a corrupt hellhole. So far, they're right and the guidebooks are wrong.
The carnage on the roads continues. Today a question is answered - what happens when one hits a small goat with a motorbike? Who, if you'll pardon my callousness, comes off worst?
Gratifyingly, it's not me that hits one. I'm overtaking an old geezer on a moped when a goat - as usual - runs across the road. Old geezer hits it as I pass him, allowing me to settle a troubling issue without risk of personal harm. The moped's front wheel ploughs into the hapless beast, and old geezer bumps straight over it, with an amusing expression of sudden alertness zipping across his mug.
Motorbikes - 1. Goats - 0.
Good news for mankind. Next week on "Bike Or Beast?" - the donkey.
13/6/05. N'Djamena, Chad.
BLOODY BASTARD. Hotel Hirondelle is run by Africa's most ungracious, picky, sour-faced git. A lot of bad things happen when I arrive, parched and knackered from the trip across two borders in one day (Nigeria/Cameroon and Cameroon/Chad), but I can't be arsed to describe them. The hotel itself is utter shit and laughably overpriced at $12. But the clincher is this; I explain, on the cusp of expiring from thirst, that I have no Chad money until tomorrow. Can I pay for the room and some beer then?
"Yes" says Git Man.
"Oh joy" I think.
Five minutes later he comes back and says,
"Room OK but no beer."
I begin to stomp about like a tantrum-prone four-year-old. All today's patience budget has been spent on border officials. He can't speak English so I insult him and his ancestors volubly. The red mist begins to descend.
Suddenly a man I take to be his father appears.
"Is good?" he says.
"No" I reply. "No beer, he say", I explain, Pidginizing idiotically.
"Hey!" old timer shouts at Git Man. "Give him beer!".
Git Man concedes. Result!
I'd love to be able to tell you about the mysterious north of Cameroon, but actually it was just 80 miles of sun-baked clay and sandy track. I absolutely loved it. It was good enough for 30mph most of the way, and once or twice 50. At 40+ mph you get a proper plume of dust off the back wheel. The most enjoyable off-tarmac day so far.
Time to correct some lies that appear in the guidebooks about Nigeria.
Firstly, having ridden 550 miles across the north, I paid exactly nothing in bribes. I was only asked for "something" (never money) twice in maybe 20 conversations with officials. All of them were smiling. On those two occasions where I was asked, an apologetic refusal ended the conversation amicably.
Secondly, we are led to believe that all Nigerian hotels are "squelched" - no water, electricity, door locks etc. Only one of the three I stayed in had no running water. It was $5 a night for a bedroom, a bathroom (admittedly a useless one), and a lounge (!) with a TV that worked (!).
I was even allowed pets
Finally, getting in and out of Nigeria overland is no harder than most other West African countries. Definitely easier than Ghana.
At the border on the way in, the vaccination-card-checking-guy said something like, "People say bad things about Nigeria and it's not true." I held my breath for 3 days - and it turned out he was right.**
No they're not
Er... I stopped taking it in Morocco. Don't like it. Haven't got Malaria yet.
I couldn't pick it up
A horrible moment today: halfway along the clay track in Cameroon, I pulled up under a shady tree and the bike broke. It was around 100 degrees, I had 0.5 litres of water left, and I was parked on some kind of Ant Theme Park.
A couple of weeks ago, I borrowed "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" from Doug. It says, more or less, "when it breaks, do something else. Think about something else. Do not act."
I was ready to flag down a lorry (one every hour on this road). But after 10 minutes tree-contemplation, I remembered a similar problem in Mauritania. A grain of dirt in the carburettor. Then, staggeringly, I remembered how to fix it. Three minutes later I was on my way, with the moto running better than ever. At least that's what it felt like.
If you find yourself in Chad, you will be faced with the choice of Gala or Chari beer. Go for Gala! It's great.
DISCLAIMER: I haven't tried Chari, and I was extremely thirsty.
Two milestones this week - I left the UK 9 months ago, and I'm also 10,000 miles from Islington.
I have taken to keeping one t-shirt for riding only. I have now been wearing it unwashed for 10 days and 5 countries. There's enough visible salt encrusted on the front to season a roast dinner for five. I know - I've just licked it. Nature's peanuts!
This week, clutch cables.
Nigerian fella: "You should have brought a spare."
Doug: "That is the spare."
"No of course not. She's in the kitchen."
** DISCLAIMER - Southern Nigeria is supposed to be a bloody nightmare.
18/6/05. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Several years of my life roll by as we try to arrange shipment of the bikes from Chad to Ethiopia. The budget also takes a vicious beating. To fly a person will cost 400 quid. A motorbike is 500. The "crate" for the bikes is 145 (haggled down from 220. For "crate" read "lash-up".) Dangerous Goods form - another 40. Oh blimey.
By the time you arrive in Chad there are no real options left.
Sudan - forget it.
Go back down through Cameroon and ride down the west coast - don't want to thanks. I want to go to East Africa - the Africa off the telly.
So the bullet is bitten, and at 8pm yesterday we hit Ethiopian soil. It's cool and clear, a huge relief after the oven heat of Chad and the humidity of Ghana.
Oh grow up
The next day the weather is like a British spring day. The average annual temperature in Addis is 16c, and it rarely gets above the high 20's. Blankets on the bed and hot showers! The afternoon of the first day turns into the proverbial wet weekend in Margate. It's fantastic.
Think I'm gonna get a soaking
The bikes, however, are still at the airport. Ethiopian Airways staff are extremely helpful but the customs fellas don't work at the weekend, so we must return, with our 5 litres of petrol and 6 of oil, on Monday.
The airport is huge and brand new, in airport-modern glass and white-painted steel. There's only one "this wouldn't happen at Heathrow" moment, when a security man suggests we put our leaky, brimming petrol can through the X-ray machine. We don't. The airport cost millions and it would be a shame if it exploded.
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