Thursday, 25 December 2008

17: A Christmas Coup

Following an enjoyable two-day journey from Bissau to the border town of Gabu, I was eager to cross into Guinea (Conakry) and explore the Fouta Djalon highlands. As I ate my bowl of porridge on the morning of December 23rd, shortly before crossing the border between the two Guinea's, I had Radio France International on in the background. The first story on the eight o'clock news focused on Guinea and through my miserable French I was able to make out 'Conte' (the dictator for the past 24 years), 'dead', and then there was something about the military too. In fact, they kept repeating 'militare' every few seconds. This didn't sound like good news, at least for me. In the larger scheme of things there would be many people who would be relieved to hear of the passing of the dictator, there might now be room for hope in a country that has suffered greatly from the greed of those in power.

Going outside to get a better reception, I switched to the BBC World Service as the skinny-looking vultures clattered about noisily on the tin roof of the hotel. The story was the first item on the news and although everything was reported to be calm in Conakry and throughout the country, the military had indeed seized power. Guinea has been on the verge of implosion for quite some time now and with things having gathered pace there would no doubt now be potential for power struggles. In light of this news and without internet or phones to find out other information, I pulled out my map and chose an alternative route to Mali's capital, Bamako, via eastern Senegal.

So now I'm back in Senegal, in the dusty town of Tambacounda. A young captain in the Guinean army has declared himself president and promises to have elections in two years time! I just received an email from Polish Peter who wasn't able to make it to our proposed rendevous in Guinea either. It's just another day here in Muslim Senegal. This morning I cleaned my clothes, then Rocinante, and then I phoned home and heard what was on the menu for the day. I should at least have waited until I wasn't so hungry to call. But still, I'm sure whatever I get will be fine, hell, I might have two plates of rice. In any case, all the raggedly-dressed and snotty-nosed boys coming up to me as I type, begging for money, helps keep everything in perspective.

I propose a toast for change! Merry Christmas!

Tambacounda, Senegal
Trip distance: 9402 km

Saturday, 20 December 2008

16: Season's greetings from Bissau

Six days until Christmas. If it wasn't for the life-sized Santa Claus who was grinning inanely at me yesterday, as I stumbled past a shop in the late afternoon heat of downtown Bissau, the whole event might have slipped by without me even realising it. Daren and Tatjana, my trusty traveling companions for the past couple of thousand kilometres, presented me with a Christmas gift of a bottle of whiskey last night. Our arrival in the capital of Guinea Bissau marks the end of their mainland Africa stage in their around-the-world-with-a-sore-arse odyssey. Tomorrow morning they fly out to the Cape Verde islands to meet with their families for a couple of weeks, before venturing on to traverse South America. Their company, good humour, and exceptional kindness will be sorely missed by myself and Rocinante, as we prepare to sally forth, further into west Africa.

Tall trees, short cyclist

Over the past few weeks I've been bemoaning to myself and others, how inadequately writing a blog sometimes feels with regard to portraying the experiences that I'm having whilst cycling through the region. So much is lost in translation, so little makes it to the screen. Yet for all that, I guess it's a good way of sharing at least some of the moments and letting all five of you who read this know how I'm getting along.

Ziguinchor, Senegal

After the immensity of the desert regions, everything is once again on a more human scale. Countries have shrunk to the point where it would be possible to cross two or even three international borders in a day's ride. Since leaving the Gambia a few days ago, we crossed back into Senegal's southern province of Basse Casamance. We left behind the more well-trodden tourist trails around the Gambian and Senegalese coast further north, and continued across Casamance to Ziguinchor. Despite some initial foreboding about crossing Casamance due to a rise in banditary earlier in the year, we were reassured by all whom we asked in the Gambia that the region should be fine to cross. While the region has been stable after a cease fire a couple of years ago between the separatist rebels and the government in Dakar, earlier this year some of the former rebels have turned to highway banditary and they continue to intimidate and attack the local population.

After camping up close to the Gambian/Senegalese border, we entered Casamance early in the morning and reached the capital, Ziguinchor, later that afternoon. The ride across the province was punctuated by friendly encounters with people in the villages, over which hung a huge variety of tropical trees, including mango and the ubiquitous palm. The only reminder of the trouble in the province came from passing army patrols and soldier's observation posts, hidden in the dense growth along the roadside. We were first made aware of the posts when we stopped for a break and some camoflaged figures emerged from the tall grass. The young soldier, along with the others, were from Dakar and had been based in the region for a few months. After a friendly discussion about our trip, we headed down the road to find somewhere else to stop. Later on a soldier, whom had been engrossed in a book when I sailed past, challenged Daren and Tatjana about why they were there and asked to see their weapons. After a few more moments of silly questions that only egotists in a uniform would think to ask, he let them go.

Leaving Ingore, Guinea-Bissau

After a night in Ziguinchor, the region's capital, we continued south to the border with Guinea Bissau and after a reasonably thorough search of our bags and ourselves by the Senegalese police, looking for samples of Casamance's economically vital, but illegal, cannabis crop, we entered our third country in one week. Left in a dreadful state by the Portuguese colonists, Guinea Bissau has struggled to escape from the yoke of it's cashew nut dependent economy and political instability has characterised the country for much of its existence, the most recent coup attempt occuring less than a month ago. Yet despite the threat of instability, the country has been a joy to cycle through. Border guards and uniformed officials at police checkpoints have been very welcoming. We stopped over in the small town of Ingore on our first night in the country and wandered around the stalls in the dark looking for ingredients to add to our pot of pasta. The strain on infrastructure is not simply confined to the small towns, however, as we found out when we arrived into Bissau.

It appears that there is currently no electricity grid or running water in the city, with shops and guesthouses having to rely on generators to produce the electricity they need. This collapse of essential services has meant that epidemics, such as a cholera outbreak earlier this year, have greatly affected the population. Amidst this situation, and the energy sapping climate, it's hard to imagine the relentless consumerism that is no doubt gathering pace further north, and yet once again, the ability of people to survive, smile, and laugh, despite the circumstances that they find themselves living in, continues to astound me. I'm not sure yet where I'll be on Christmas day, although there is a tentative arrangement to rendevous with Peter, a Polish cyclist whom we first met in Mauritania, across the border in the Fouta Djalon mountains in the Republic of Guinea. I might not rise to a turkey, but at least I can now manage a toast with some of my Scotch.

I love sunsets. Bissau, Guinea-Bissau

Wishing everyone a very happy festive season and New Year from Bissau!

Bissau, Guinea-Bissau
Trip distance: 8959 km

Sunday, 14 December 2008

15: Sunny days in Senegambia

A morning audience, Mauritania

The couple of hundred kilometers south of Nouakchott, into southern Mauritanian saw a continuous shrinking in distances between settlements and a transition in landscape from desert to savannah to the fertile banks of the River Senegal. On our first night out of Nouakchott we had to leave our selection of camping site until the last glimpses of light settled in the west. Even then we found ourselves pitching our tents in sight of households on either side of us. As we cooked dinner a moonlit shadow strolled past, whistling to himself. The following morning we had a smiling audience of young boys, who stopped by on their way to school to and were fascinated by the packing of the tents and bikes.

St. Louis, Senegal

In an effort to avoid the Rosso border post, Mauritania's notoriously difficult crossing point into Senegal, we opted instead to follow the 90 km piste along the river and cross over at Diama, near the old French colonial capital of French West Africa, St. Louis. After a couple of days of doing as little as possible in St. Louis, and enjoying the now freely available and reasonably priced cold beer, and funky music, we were back on the bikes heading south again through a landscape dominated by baobab and tamarind trees. Avoiding the main road south to Senegal's capital, Dakar, we chose an alternative route that looked perfectly acceptable on my Michelin 741 map of west Africa. However by midday of Tabaski, one of the largest Muslim festivals in the year, we found ourselves pushing our bikes along a sandy piste for almost 10 kilometres when my 'secondary road' deteriorated into a single path of deep sand. In our haste to reach Mbour, a fishing town 80 km southeast of Dakar, we ended up refusing many offers of hospitality to join families as they ate mutton, the traditional meat for the day.

Tall trees, Senegal

Leaving our bikes in Mbour we headed into Dakar for the day to collect some visas and have a look around town. The city was still in a lazy stupor after the festivities of Tabaski and failed to live up in any way whatsoever to its reputation as a potentially hostile and hassle-filled place. Back in Mbour we had two options to continue around the coast to The Gambia. The first was to take the busy main road via Kaolack. The second was to hire a pirogue and catch a lift across the Saloum Delta. Once deposited on Toubakouta's muddy shores we would be just a 50 km ride from Banjul, Gambia's capital. Still wearied from the journey down and the Great Push of Tabaski, there was no contest as to which way we would go.

Four hours into what was meant to be a three hour voyage across the mangrove-lined Saloum Delta, all of those aboard, at least all the paying passengers, were wondering why we had chosen the pirogue option. Until an hour after departure it had all gone rather smoothly. The tense negotiations with the mafia-like pirogue owners had whittled the sum down from astronomic to acceptable at the small beach in the village of Ndangane. Half an hour out we were passed by a rather well-equipped boat ferrying other tourists through the delta. The tourists were sporting lifejackets and had a shaded tarpaulin overhead. In contrast, our barefooted crew, the youngest two of whom were aged 11 and 9, had set off on our adventure with just their t-shirts and shorts and the best we could hope for in the event of an accident was to use the inner tubes from the bikes as lifebelts. The two boys were the apprentices of our early twenties looking captain who was instructing them in the rules of the trade. One of the first rules that I noticed him casually pointing out to the 11-year old, was not to hold his lighted cigarette too close to the petrol tank that he was hooking up to the engine. One hour into our journey and everything was going swimmingly well. At this point in many of my boating adventures the engine dies - and this time was no different. Bobbing silently about in the tidal creek, our captain set to work with my Swiss army knife to fix something with the engine. For the next few hours we crept slowly towards Toubakouta, every so often the engine giving up and then being brought back to life after more work with the penknife and swearing at the engine. Occasionally progress stopped completely when we got stuck on sandbanks. Seven hours after our departure we arrived in the little village of Toubakouta, relieved to be off the boat and back on the bikes. Concerned about the fate of the crew who were turning around to venture back to Ndangane during the night, the 11-year old replied that yes, it was dangerous to travel through the delta at night, but it would be ok.

The border formalities from Senegal into Gambia were painless. For the first time since leaving Ireland in July I'm traveling through a country where English is an official language. I continued to greet people in French though. Our passing through villages continued to the shrill cries of toubab from children. Arriving at the ferry point at Barra it appeared that most of Banjul's population was attempting to return across the River Gambia to the city after the Tabaski break. Finally making it onto the boat, which was crammed well beyond capacity, we slowly ventured across the river to Banjul chewing on some fresh oranges.

Bakau, The Gambia
Trip distance: 8638 km

Monday, 1 December 2008

14: Sun, sand and tinned fish

Following our sojourn in Dakhla we hitched back down to the bikes. Originally we had intended to camp out near the border, but the risk of mines, and an offer of a free floor in the hotel where we had left our gear, kept us in the small settlement of Dakmar for our final night in Morocco. Discussions about the fate of Western Sahara with a Saharwi living in the village shed more light on the situation. In a final flamboyant display of hospitality from our hosts we were fed locally caught lobster for dinner. We're certainly not slumming it in the desert!

An early morning start brought us to the border with Mauritania. After clearing the Moroccan side, after a couple of hours of formalities, we crossed the several kilometres of no-man's land to reach the Mauritanian border gate. Our arrival coincided with the guards' lunch and siesta and while life swung slowly back into action, we were instructed to wait outside the raised barrier. The shadow of the barrier provided an 8-inch wide strip of shade that the three of us shared in the glaring sunlight of mid-afternoon. Finally naptime was over and we were stamped into Mauritania.

Until three years ago the journey on from the border would have entailed taking a ride on the iron ore train to Choum, in the interior, followed by a difficult crossing along a sandy piste to Atar and then a sealed road to the capital, Nouakchott. Now there is a sealed road linking Nouadibhou in the north, with Nouakchott, 470 km south. Avoiding a detour to Nouadibhou, and therefore forsaking a stock up on supplies, we headed directly to Nouakchott. Initial impressions of Mauritania was of a country that appeared substanitally poorer than its northern neighbour, at least if the appearance of the sparsely scattered roadside settlements were anything to go by. Ironically, costs for very basic supplies (water and yet more tinned fish) in the small, delapidated shacks at the roadside were double that of Morocco.

A combination of factors, including the limited availability of fresh food, strong winds, and hot days, made the last section of the desert crossing the hardest yet of our journey. Currently listed as a country where only 'essential travel' should be undertaken by the ever cautious British foreign office, we were slightly more vigilant since entering the country. Our only negative experience occured on the second day in the country when a group of men disembarked from a van and flagged us down. A particularly belligerent fellow, who appeared to be under the influence of something stronger than mint tea, ed a bottle of water from my rear rack. Not a nice thing to do, particularly to a cyclist crossing the desert. Fortunately this experience paled in comparison to the kindness and hospitality that we have been shown since arriving here. At one point on the final day to Nouakchott, with bread supplies running periliously low, we discussed the situation as we ate the remainder of our sandy food. Two minutes later a gleaming Volkswagen pulled up and two freshly baked baguettes were handed out of the window. After the car left I said aloud that I would really like some bacon and a bottle of cold beer, but unfortunately that car never arrived.

The larger issue that the country is attempting to grapple with is that of Islamic fundamentalism. The country was recently identified by the head of the German intelligence agency as the next training ground for militant Islamic fundamentalists that have been displaced from Afghanistan and Pakistan. In reality, radical beliefs are only held by a very small section of the population and recent attacks against Mauritanian soldiers by fundamentalist militants have only further angered and alienated the general population from this radical segment of society. A recent military coup that ousted the President has been viewed with apparent widespread approval by many Mauritanians, as the military advocates a hardline approach against the militants.

On our second night in the country, we found ourselves camped in an open plain with no shelter, having already decided to move on after our initial choice of campsite had clearly been spotted by a passing vehicle. After another meal of pasta with fish (sometimes we have fishy pasta instead), we had gone to our tents when I saw that the stiff breeze had already allowed a fine layer of sand to uniformly cover everything in the tent. By midnight the deafening noise of the flapping flysheet had me concerned enough to clambour out and survey how the only partially submerged tent pegs were coping. Much to my relief all but one had held. Back in the sandy tent I fell asleep for another couple of hours. When I woke at 4am, however, it felt as though the tent was going to go airborne at any moment. A mist of fine sand was billowing through the ventilated sides of the tent. Outside the wind seemed considerably less fearsome, but still more than sufficient to force more sand into my eyes, nose, and ears. A hasty discussion in the inky black darkness led us to decide to wait until first light to break camp. The wind continued all morning. During our snack break we stood to attention, backs to the wind, sand exfoliating our legs, as we crunched through our pasteurised cheese sandwiches. With the prospect of shelter and supplies at a petrol station that lay 20 km further on, we got back on the bikes. Our arrival at the station was heralded by a group of applauding Frenchmen fishermen who had passed us earlier in the day. Chilled rose and some magnificent cheese was pulled out of a cooler and grinning stupidly, we eagerly scoffed it down, only gradually becoming aware of our filthy appearance. As the fishermen drove off we descended on the remnants of plates of fried mutton like vultures, having been eyeing them up all too obviously no doubt.

Nouakchott. Someone has suddenly turned up the heat. I attempt a midday walk and I have to intersperse my hunt for peanut butter with regular stops for a cold drink. Designated as the site for the new capital in 1956, the sandy city feels calm and relatively relaxed. I pitch my tent on top of the place we're staying in and fall asleep looking at the stars and listening to the waning of sounds of the city.

Today I'm up at sunrise having drifted in and out of consciousness whilst the muezzin chanted in the hour before dawn. I stroll through the sand-lined streets until it's time to go to the Malian embassy to get a visa. It's Monday and the city is wakening up to a new week. A kaleidascope of skin colours make up the city's population. Light skinned Moors, dark skinned southerners, and the odd toubab or European, the latter normally in a diplomatic or UN-labelled vehicle. Ragged young boys prepare to make a pittance washing cars. Large four-wheel drives roar past. Clapped out taxis lurch along, stocked well above the vehicle's intended loading capacity. A herd of fine looking goats graze through a pile of rubbish at the corner of the Senegalese embassy. Diesel fumes, the aroma of fresh bread, and the smell of the desert (or more likely the rising dust) mingle in the air. It's a heady and hypnotic fusion of sights and sounds at the gateway to west Africa.

Nouakchott, Mauritania

Trip distance: 7970 km