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.


  1. Absolutely sounds like the right decision, you'll be much freer to go where the will takes you

  2. Smart decision. Maximise the joy. You've both earned it x

  3. 10,000 miles on two wheels is a great achievement, and your decision sounds not just sensible but a way of adding another layer to your trip. And there is greater strength of character in accepting changes to your plan than in simply forging ahead regardless. Enjoy what follows! x

  4. Have been following your adventure with great interest and a healthy amount of jealousy :) to steal a phrase from a gambling ad, ‘when the fun stops, stop’. Enjoy the next phase of your journey and keep up the blog - love it x

  5. P.S. unknown is Luke - for some reason it wants me to remain anonymous


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