Friday, November 22, 2019

Crisis in St Louis (9909)

Decision point
In the sense of 'an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending' we have just been through a trip crisis.

Mali, Guinea, the desert or the sea
It was always possible that it would happen here. In Senegal we are bordered by Mauritania's desert to the north, Mali to the east, Guinea-Bissau and Guinea to the south and the ocean.

Which way now?
'There must be some way out of here'. Well, yes, but in which direction?

Adding to the tension is the motorcycle's 'Passavant' which gives permission for it to be in the country. Initially, we had five days. Extending it means going into tumultuous Dakar - 80km away. We were variously advised, perhaps by those who might benefit from our confusion, as follows: the bike has to be presented to officials; there's a limited number of extensions; there is a fee payable. And we were unsure.

As for moving on; certainly, going back north does not appeal. It's tough, with little to soften the blow.

Guinea-Bissau offers only a passage into Guinea. We know that Guinea has the worst roads in the region - it would be very hard work for several days to get through it. And, by all accounts, the country offers little by way of hospitality. No one thinks it's a good option.

That leaves Mali.

UK govt. travel advice map
Mali has always been potentially problematic. Since setting off on the trip, the red zone - 'Advise against all travel' - has crept steadily south and west. The yellow zone - 'Advise against all but essential travel' - has become smaller.

Our four reference points for decisions on this are; government, other travellers, the media, local opinion.

Although we travelled through a yellow zone in Mauritania, we never sensed any opinion against it - and always felt safe.

Mali feels different. The Irish government advice is a bald 'Do not travel'. We know, however, that fellow overlanders have recently passed through the south, enthused about its culture, and told us they felt safe. As far as we know, terrorist attacks have not occurred in Bamako, the yellow-zone capital - since 2017.

A leading, locally-based figure in the travel community said it would be OK to travel through the south. She said 'There are safe places to stay'. We wondered about the concept of a region in which 'safe places' should be sought.

But what made the difference was the advice from informed, politically aware locals we met in Senegal. 'Don't go' was the simple, calm advice from French ex-pat hotelier Yves in St Louis. Birhame, our guide in that town, repeated this.

So, regretfully, we're not going. It means the bike goes no further.

There's a sadness to accepting that your many-years-in-the-dreaming plan has to end, but some decisions can't be shirked.

Arrested development
I have never fully come to terms with controlling this heavy bike at slow speeds or on soft ground.

Without Angelika on board, relieved of both weight and responsibility, I'm increasingly confident of pot-holed, uneven, rutted ground - including some off-road terrain. I'd relish The Camel and me taking some on in the future. I might even plan a trip to do so. In these conditions and taking an assertive approach, perhaps standing up on the foot pegs for greater stability (it lowers the centre of gravity), the bike is great. And I can handle it.

Nervous biker coming through
But, slowly or on sand...

Learning theory tells us there is a progression; unconscious to conscious incompetence, then conscious to unconscious competence.

In terms of manoeuvring at slow speeds, that final stage has eluded me. The best I seem to manage is a very, teeth-gritted, 'If I think very hard I can avoid bolloxing this up'. Mostly, I manage it. Mostly.

And sand, I now fully appreciate, is not a friendly medium for a big bike.

Locals here, on 50 and 125cc lightweights and experienced on the surface, look disparagingly as they whizz past me. I was moved to suggest to an impatient, beeping driver behind me yesterday that he should 'try handling this fucking thing on this fucking surface'. He wasn't sympathetic.

What this adds up to is that, as the roads worsened and the sand increased, I gradually stopped enjoying riding the bike. And that's fundamental on a bike trip.

A plan
It seems likely as I write, in order to continue the trip, we're going to change its nature. We can put The Camel on a flight to Heathrow where it can be collected later.

We've done the hard yards to reach sub-Saharan Africa. This is where everyone says the fun begins. We've created for ourselves the opportunity to explore Senegal, The Gambia, Côte d'Ivoire (CI) and Ghana.

I want to see manatee in The Gambia, slave forts in Ghana and music in Dakar. I'd like to find some good walking and drink more beer (hard to find in fundamentalist Mauritania). Angelika has her own list.

Sail Grimaldi!
We'll probably bypass Mali and fly to Abidjan, in southern CI, and sail home by cargo vessel from Tema, Ghana, perhaps towards the end of January.

(Given global heating, I had wanted to avoid flying if we could. This plan involves the least possible allowed by our situation, I think.)

I'll be sad to see the bike go. Over years of dreaming about trips like this and reading about all those who take on the challenge and overcome it, I liked to think of myself as one of them. It seems my boundaries are a little narrower than that. But it's a wise man who knows his limitations.

And it's been a real adventure. What is to come will be fabulous. No regrets, no apologies.

The Fishermen and the French
As you'll have gathered, we hit a low in St Louis, which is a shame because it's a wonderful place. Possibly my favourite of the trip.

It is comprised of three elements: a mainland ('the continent' our fishing-community-raised guide called it); a seven kilometer, 100 metre-wide spit of land that adjoins Mauritania in the north and, between them, the island that was the first French town in Africa, uninhabited until they arrived.

The fishing community - on the spit - is a humming, smelly, heartening mass of busy humanity with a powerful sense of its identity.

The island conveys its very particular French colonial heritage.

Two very different and strongly idiosyncratic communities, so adjacent, so contrasting.

Saly sojourn
We're currently in a chilled, touristy, but interesting resort in a posh Airbnb for The Pillion's 60th. Her kids arrived last night. It'll be a nice contrast - and, of course, Angelika is thrilled with the visitors.

Further to her comments in the last blog, we both know the other is doing their best for the common good. Sometimes drawing on depleted resources, but doing their best.

I'd say that holding the thing together has been our main achievement. And it's getting easier from here.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Uncertain surfaces ♡

From the Pillion
From Guelmim, a city in Southern Morocco dubbed the 'Gateway to the Desert', it's a gruelling 2,000km to the border between Mauritania and Senegal.

The Sahara sneaks right up to the Atlantic and most of the journey following the coastline involves riding through it. There were sand drifts pushing into the road, long spells of riding through bleak desertscapes of flat terrain with the odd stubborn plant peering through. Suddenly mini dunes of sand would appear right by the roadside. Four to five metres high, small in comparison with their proper cousins inland, but impressive nonetheless. Some of it was energy-sapping.

Bedouin or Touareg camel herders were tending to their flock, colourful turbans on their heads and their faces covered by soft material offering protection from the ever present wind and dust. Once, a white camel stood in the road, alone, and looked at us rather bored as we stopped. Eventually, it trundled off in its haughty camel manner. We passed pungent goat markets and rode through small villages, no more than a few shacks offering their wares and some aged tents nearby. Simon's daughter, Kate asked 'What do you hear' in the desert?

Well, when riding it's the grumble of the engine over the howl of the wind. When you stop and there is no wind, stillness hovers in the air. You hear your inner voice. And that can be scary or inspiring, depending where you are in your inner landscape on that particular day. As the novelty of encountering the desert wore off, we decided to just get on with it and have a few longish days.

Dakhla in Southern Morocco to Nouadhibou in Mauritania was gruelling, mostly because of two hours of relentless wind coming at us when we set off and the five-hour border crossing - see Simon's blog Where the Maghreb meets 'Africa'. What got to me was the chaotic crossing of no-man's-land in the midday heat and trying to keep a cool head. We did it.

I have no desire to ride through the desert again.

If you think Southern Morocco and Western Sahara have wind and dust, Mauritania offers even more of the stuff!

Lonely Planet describes Nouadhibou as 'often by-passed by travellers' and offers its 'sleepiness' as its selling point. That is like the estate agent speak; 'has potential'. Only the arterial roads are asphalted, there is no music in bars and restaurants. Life doesn't seem to offer much joy, it's a hard, daily grind to get by, accompanied by the muezzin's aggressive call to prayer.

But there seems to be plenty of fish to eat.

However, all the people we encountered, responded to our greetings and enquiries with the most disarming smiles.

From a Nouakchott taxi
Nouakchott, capital of Mauritania, is only 60 years old and described as 'sleepily idiosyncratic'. Only the last of those adjectives applied to the driving habits.

We stayed in a super-comfy auberge that served croissants and baguettes rivalling any Parisienne establishment. Pascal, the owner, went the extra mile by taking us to the ATMs that would dispense money and generally helping us with travel-related issues.

We also learnt that a caste system exists in Mauritania and the upper echelons of society still use 'slaves'. To clarify, they are called slaves, but their position is more like that of a serf as we understand it.

Your trajectory in life is determined at birth.

We met some interesting people staying at the auberge with whom we'd like to stay in touch.

And so, here we are in Senegal, reflecting on the trip. We are on anti-malarial medication and the beds are covered by mosquito nets. We are in West Africa as I imagined it. There is music!

This is what I've discovered (not speaking for the Pilot):

I am not as hardcore as most of the fellow bikers we are in touch with or whose blogs/books I've read.

We have covered nearly 10,000 miles (16,000 km, sounds more impressive! 😜) and I feel a bit exhausted. Maybe the trip, as initially conceived, has always been too ambitious for us?

I struggle riding in the heat. Fancy that, it's hot in Africa! Normally, you'd strip off, but I don't want to compromise on safety, so I'll have to be sweaty Betty.

Our luggage plus me on this heavy machine makes it harder for Simon to ride, especially on uncertain surfaces - and I haven't eaten that many cakes!!

He shoulders the responsibility for both our 'safeties' and he feels the weight of it. Having come off the bike has made us a bit nervous about any random stretches of sand appearing in the road.

Maybe the African leg of our trip would be more fun with a smaller bike and not two-up?

I've been on the edge of my comfort zone several times.

Ah, I hear my other inner voice say, isn't that the whole point of travelling? Surely, the trip was never about having endless fun, but was an adventure?

Pillion's pals
Anyway, where do we go from here? To reach Côte d'Ivoire means riding through Mali or Guinea. Local people advise against Mali, although fellow bikers have travelled through the southern stretch without problems. We're told there are safe houses to stay in en route. Safe houses?!

Guinea's roads are described as very unsatisfactory, only 16% classed as 'paved, good'. Driving manners are described as dangerous and risky. I have no appetite to experience it.

We've booked a villa in Saly, just south of Dakar, for 10 days. My kids and Bryan are flying out to celebrate my birthday and we'll have time to recalibrate and make decisions.

However, we are not actually in desperate straits, caught up in a civil war or anything. We have options.

To those who are interested in the relationship aspect of the trip (Simon was asked this question by a fellow guest at our previous stay, an interesting and candid guy travelling with his son - and no, the question was not prompted by us sitting in post-row silence!)...

😱 We have discovered all our negative habits and traits that wind the other up - there is nowhere to hide.

😟 Our respective personalities make us, perhaps, not the best-suited pair for a trip like this.

😊 We are still speaking, adult to adult.

😁 We are still playing backgammon and reading stories to each other. Simon still hates to lose! 😡 *

🥰 We remind each other that most of the time we are tired and slightly stressed. We need each other's support, not criticism.

Right Freud, what have you got to say to that??

*Whereas the author of this piece Never. Minds. Losing. At. All. 🙄 (Ed.)

Friday, November 15, 2019

It's inevitable... (9743)

Falling off
We finally did it yesterday. Together once, then me, solo. Left side, right side - for symmetry.

We were told, and repeated to ourselves, that we weren't going get through Africa without a tumble, but I wasn't planning on it yesterday. Although the run to Diama contains a notorious unpaved section, our experience in no-man's-land at the Morocco/Mauri border had made me feel cautiously optimistic about negotiating this road.

From the support vehicle
And, in the event, it wasn't the unpaved that did it. I managed that quite well, sometimes standing on the bike foot pegs for extra balance, as I was taught in my offroad training*. No, what took us off was sand.

On the way to our rendezvous with the scammers (see below), we came to a road works. We were diverted for about 200 metres onto dirt, rocks and sand.

'Be bold on soft, piled sand', they say. I tried, the front wheel became as if possessed by the sand demons and off we went.

Sadly, Angelika's foot broke the bike's fall and it hurt.

As we were gathering ourselves, we had a piece of good fortune that may have transformed the day from a struggle to something manageable. Minutes earlier we had passed the first British vehicle we had seen for weeks, a Beford van towing a trailer. Chris and Sue stopped to see how we were (as did every other driver that passed) and offered to take Angelika, who was clearly in discomfort, to the border - since they were going the same way as us.

It was a great kindness.

The lift was doubly beneficial. Angelika got a ride when she'd have been uncomfortable on the bike, and I was relieved of responsibly for her when I'd have been nervous about this on the difficult 'piste' to the border. The bike being lighter, too, was very helpful.

The 'piste' to Diama
The actual unsurfaced ride I mostly enjoyed. But its length and the heat got to me in the end. Because of the fall, we didn't get to take a break, so it was around five or six hours into the day before I had a rest. That's too long. And I managed to find one more pile of sand to lie the bike in - and that's tiring, too.

But we arrived in the end - in Senegal, proper sub-Saharan Africa. And we're looking after Angelika's foot.

Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation

At the junction that takes you from the Rosso border road (scams, corruption, delays) to Diama (quick, legitimate), a group of crooks wait. They tell travellers they can't go the Diama way, that it's closed, that it's dangerous, etc, etc.

Along the preferred road is a small town on the edge of a nature reserve, Keur-Macene. I thanked the conman for his advice, told him we were visiting the town and reserve for a couple of days and that we'd be going to Rosso after this. He smiled and wished me well. His expression reminded me of the snake, Kaa, in the Jungle Book.

The lad at our hotel found me two local mechanics who bent our luggage rack back into shape today. I probably shouldn't have watched - it made me wince. They even stuck one part of the geometry into a fork in a tree and leaned on it to 'adjust' it.

But we can now get the panniers on the bike, despite the effects of the falls and being rear-ended in No-Man's Land crossing from Western Sahara into Mauritania.

Now we're resting up here for a few days.

* As per my pre-trip birthday treat training-day curated my son Joe. Thanks!

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Living history

Nouakchott fish market & beach
We took an impossibly dilapidated cab a few kilometres out of the city to visit this famous part of its society.

It seemed quieter than I had expected, but nevertheless brim full of life. There were fishermen dragging boats up the sand, rhythmically shouting to coordinate the effort; donkey-carts loaded with plastic bags of fish and the occasional outboard motor; women frying the catch on the beach and boorish uniformed men aggressively piloting four-wheel-drive buggies through the crowds along the shore.

The catch is sold right where it's caught. No long supply chain here. 

We had seen pictures of this in guide books but it looks, feels and smells different in the flesh. I travelled to experience difference and definitely found it here, writ very large. This whole scene felt ages old.

Samba, our driver was waiting for us and I wished he wasn't. I'd have liked to linger. Delighted to have visited, though.*

We leave to cross the Diama border with Senegal this morning. I have to confess to a little apprehension. We're likely to be intercepted by hustlers telling us our intended crossing is unsafe in an attempt to divert us to where we would be subjected to the scams perpetrated at Rosso. Having negotiated that, we'll have 20k of unsurfaced (and - in other seasons - impassable) track to ride. It runs through a nature reserve. We're told we have to watch out for wart hogs. 

Ah well, what doesn't kill you...

I've also realised that trying to conceive of the whole of the rest of the trip in one go is stressful. It's too big. Must compartmentalise more!

*We discovered later that the majority of fishermen here are from Senegal, particularly St Louis. The Mauritanians are desert-dwellers. They don't have any historical relationship with the sea.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Where the Maghreb meets 'Africa' (9571)

Where we've been
We've made 800 miles since the last post and it feels good that we have progressed towards sub-Saharan Africa. It's always felt like an important threshold.

Getting on with it
From Laâyoune to Boujdour, Dakhla, Nouadhibou, Nouakchott. From the capital of Western Sahara to its Mauritanian equivalent. From the Maghreb to the Sahel. And in some ways, from a world rooted in the north and east to one most definitely not.

'You're going to Africa?'
Twice, Moroccans, on hearing that we were heading to Senegal and the south, used this phrase. In some way the word 'Africa' seems to denote a difference between their world and the area below the desert.

Border crossing/Red Zone
The journey described includes the infamous border between Western Sahara and Mauritania. It's a UK government red zone - a do not go there area. But fellow travellers traverse it regularly and in the received wisdom that advice is, to quote Lonely Planet, 'hyperbolic'. And, anyway, you can't get where we're going from where we started by motorcycle without crossing it.

When we were planning the trip we researched copiously. We read widely, attended seminars, met and spoke with many travellers who had been where we were going. By the time we left, we were in touch with several individuals or groups with immediate knowledge of these areas. We still are and consult them daily.

It's heartening to be connected to so many people who help just because they want to.

They include Horizons Unlimited and the West Africa Travellers FB and WhatsApp groups - both curated by the wonderful Chloe Grant. I receive notifications from ACLED, an international 'crisis mapping project' and regularly look at the foreign sections of the Guardian newspaper.

We haven't done this flippantly or casually. And one of the reasons for going was to challenge our embedded aversions to the unknown, the alien. By definition, you can't do that by staying comfortable.

We know there are a few who believe that our trip is irresponsible. It isn't. And our first objective is to be safe and we've come into this with eyes open, fully prepared.

Desert boots
The border crossing took five hours, you can read more in my Visa and Border-Crossing blog - intended as a resource for other travellers.

Some say the 'no-man's-land' in between the two borders is mined. No doubt it once was, but by now the hundreds of vehicles crossing it daily; big trucks, cars, 4x4's, motorcycles, must have found them all. My biggest problems when getting from the Moroccan compound to the Mauritanian was avoiding the other vehicles and staying upright on the uneven, sandy, rocky terrain.

In the process, I got rear-ended by a big van and ran into the side of a huge (staionary) truck when a patch of soft sand took my front wheel. As a result of the former, our pannier now doesn't quite fit.

Running repairs
But we got through it. And although at the time I wished I'd felt a little bolder, looking back I'm proud of us for having taken it on and succeeded. My abiding memory will always be of a plucky little Bavarian in full riding gear, helmet and all, out there ahead of me amongst the sand, trucks, rocks and general mayhem, arms waving, directing her pilot to where he could find traction and avoid the soft stuff. Magnificent.

Desert Running
We decided that we needed to toughen up and put the Sahara behind us. With this in mind we've done a couple of long days recently. It was the right thing to do, but it challenged our stamina.

The scenery
There have been stretches that tested my concentration. The winds are strong and unremitting. Often the sand flows across the road obscuring it. It's hard to focus on the surface to see whether one of the occasional potholes is approaching - or even where the tarmac is. As big lorries pass, the buffeting increases and a fierce cloud of sand, dust and grit pelts us.

It feels challenging. And then, once or twice, we've passed pedal-cyclists following the same route and it puts things in perspective. And, of course, the occasional figure we pass, sitting hunkering by the road, miles from anything, in the desert beeze and heat, waiting for who knows what, reminds us that people live here. And it makes me wonder.

Here's what I said to my friend, Leigh, recently; 'I've never been more aware that I simply cannot understand the experience of other humans. Sometimes the awareness is a little too much for me.There's so little money here, such narrow horizons. But kids play, the mother sweeps the dirt patch outside her house, the shopkeepers stock goods in ramshackle buildings and life goes on.'


Beaucoup d'essence
Mostly, the vehicles in this area are diesel. On the journey to Nouakchott there are few petrol stations. In the one town that has them, all three turned out to have no unleaded, or 'essence' as they refer to it. We knew we couldn't reach our destination without refuelling. As we sat, wondering what to do at the edge of the town amongst a crowd of locals, a young man in desert clothing (closest to camera, above), realising our predicament, took me to the local general store and helped me buy a 20 litre container of it. Another stood by the bike indicating he would keep an eye on it while we were gone.

People are fantastic if you give them the chance.

In Nouakchott

Injured camel
We're currently staying in an excellent auberge in Nouakchott, guests of Mauritanian-Frenchman Pascal and his wife. We have safe storage for the bike and Pascal helped us get our Malian visas this morning. We have begun to expect the people we meet to help beyond European norms. It's what they do.

And perhaps later I'll tell you of the enthusiastic seminar Pascal delivered to me on the subject of his country's ethnicities and social structures when I asked him about his genetic roots. It was gripping and revelatory.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Symbols (8961)

There seems to be an inversely proportionate relationship between the degree of security felt by a political regime and the number of its flags it flies.

As you know, we're currently in Western Sahara, the former Spanish Sahara. It's also known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. The king and government of Morocco do not recognise it as a separate entity, claim it as their own and hold sway in 80% of its territory.

In Laâyoune, its capital, I met a man in a bar while I was watching the rugby world cup final. He lives in Bristol with his English wife and spoke the language well. When he referred to his nation by name, I moved closer and asked about that. Yes, he said, it's illegal to say it, he could be arrested if heard doing so. He told me he is Sahrawi - one of the people of this region - and his opinion of the occupation of his country, as he would have it, was clear.

A walking symbol
The Moroccans, for their part, believe the region is rightfully theirs and claim that the Algerians are after it.

The phosphates here and rich fishing off the coast may be factors in all this.

As we've travelled south, more and more Moroccan flags have appeared - especially along roads when entering towns. At the 'Half-Marathon of Morocco' in Laâyoune recently, a very tall man paraded up and down wearing the flag. There are also very many poster-sized pictures of the king displayed.

I noted that, from the balcony of our hotel room here in Dakhla I could, without straining, see six Moroccan flags flying.

Desert road
The desert run
The ride through southern Morocco, Western Sahara and Mauritania is infamous in motorcycling lore. It's not beautiful, it's seemingly endless and the winds are unremitting. It's a bikers' rite of passage.

I like to ride with my visor up. Down feels a little claustrophobic. With the wind coming diagonally from our front right, I was unable to inhale through one nostril which was closed by its strength. I rode visor down. Resisting the wind is physically tiring. It feels like constantly supporting a heavy, falling wardrobe.

Angelika has stamina, and she's showing it on this leg of the trip. Before we met, she had no experience of motorcycle riding, but after this section of our journey she need bow to no one in terms of her pillion experience.

We stopped to take photographs. By chance it was by a marked stone. I wondered what its significance is.

The Pillion in context
The road is mostly new. I think this is a statement of control on the part of the authorities. We entered long sections where it had lost its markings. It's surprising how much harder this makes concentrating on piloting the bike in otherwise featureless landscape. I felt I had to make a deliberate effort to focus. I was glad when they returned.

Often, by the roadside, we saw nomad camps. The tents are the colour of the sand, the places they occupy, to our eyes, bleak and hostile.

How to understand the lives of others?

Considering the now likely turning point of our journey, I began to sketch out a possible new itinerary. The next two to three months could look like this. There's a part of me that feels I will have let myself down by not making Cape Town. There's another that knows the original plan was not feasible.

We live and learn.

And then we have to decide on a route home.

In Laâyoune we finally decided to abandon the package stuck in Casablanca. It's been dragging us back for three weeks now and we both feel better about being free of it. We'll buy a sleeping bag in Dakar.

I've worked out how to get the GPS to navigate the last mile. Previously, town to town, city to city has been no problem. But I've had difficulty getting it to find specific addresses. Four months into the trip and I've twigged it. It'll make life easier.

Angelika has become a much better backgammon player during the trip. Our 'trip handicap' (4 points in 11) is proving too much for me. She tells me she got fed up with being nagged. I liked to think of it as 'teaching'.