Saturday 25 January 2014

Entering West Africa. From Nouakchott, Mauritania, through Senegal and into Bamako, Mali.

By the time we were ready to leave the sandy, overcrowded filth filled streets of Nouakchott, I wasn't sorry. Riding around on those roads, potholed, covered with sand and filled with cars that looked like they had just driven out of a demolition derby, it never failed to amaze just how shockingly awful the standard of driving was. I basically had to adopt a method of riding which was 'get out of the way or they will hit me.' Its quite amazing how people can pull out in front of you as they stare at your face and then don't look as their car careers into the road whilst people have to pull out onto the pavement to get out of the way, nearly killing a goat that is eating a plastic bag in the process. Indicators are completely ignored in that city and it seems normal practice to just stop dead in the middle of the road when the fancy takes. The dirt and litter too, is staggering. I can't comprehend the complete apathy to living in your own mess. Piles of rotting filth would sit in the sun, spilling into every crevasse of the streets, as goats which are reared among the mess are left to eat what they can find. Last year the government banned plastic bags. Not for any aesthetic reason however, mainly due to people being fed up of having their goats die as a solid ball of plastic accumulated in the stomach. The importance of waste management has certainly been overlooked there.

Still, I rode those streets for the last time in the company of other riders, which was a first for the trip. Stergios and Thanos, two Greek guys who were trying to do a loop of Africa on two Vespas. We had agreed to team up to cross the notorious Mauritania/Senegal border together and then wherever after if all went well. It was strange riding with company for the first time after so many solo hours
on the bike. Refreshing though. We gave it two days to reach the border and planned to camp in the desert in between.

The roads in Mauritania, and most things made out of any mixed stone material usually have sea shells in them.

Just before we decided to search for a place to camp we bumped into another overlander who we first met in Nouakchott; Katerina, a Slovenian girl who's riding a bicycle solo from Slovenia to Madagascar. We all decided to camp together that night, which would be my last wild camping experience in the Sahara desert on this trip. When the sun went down the fires of desert nomads came out and we went to sleep with the sounds of camels roaring in the distance. I woke up that morning to the sound of familiar voices outside my tent for the first time. A pleasant change.

Catching up with Katerina down the road.

The last Saharan sunset.

Thanos and Katerina.

Some of the locals who always inevitably show up every night.

We set off that day with the hope of reaching the Senegalese border. The border between Senegal and Mauritania is known for been the worst border in West Africa, if not the whole of Africa. There are two options; the main border post at Rosso or the smaller, more quiet one at Diama. The issue is, Rosso is on the main, tarmac road and is plainly signposted, whereas to get to Diama you have to turn onto an unmarked road which leads you onto a dirt track through a nature reserve for 60 km. It's generally accepted that Diama is the better out of the two. Rosso is awash with horror stories of bribery an corruption. Its full of touts and local hawkers who sometimes try and pick you up 30 km before the border, following you in a car and not letting you turn around. The police turn a blind eye to the thieves who go through your bags when you're in the several offices getting bribed to have your documents stamped as they take a share of the pickings. Army officials have been known to take you into a hut and physically intimidate you until they get some money. I've even heard of a couple in a 4x4 ramming the main gate to get away. Peter, the Dutch guy I met in Mauritania who's spent most of his life travelling around West Africa lost his temper after he was bribed three times and called them all corrupt. It's a definite 'no no' to get angry at a border, and to make Peter, a very calm man angry after all his travel experience, it must have been bad. In the end he had to pay 230 Euros to get his car through. We decided to opt for Diama.

   We found the turn off with no real issues and rode the dirt track for three hours to the fabled border, the lesser of two evils. Yet 4 out of the 5 officials asked for money. The first one was the douane who takes the passavant and stamps my passport declaring that my vehicle is out of the country. He asked for 10 Euros. I've heard that to pay 10 euros when entering the country is legitimate... although I wasn't sure when I did. I learned from India that people usually do a light sideways smile when they win money from you. That official did the smile. Yet I hadn't heard that you should pay anything when leaving the country. I asked for a receipt and he said he couldn't give one. I said I wouldn't pay if I don't get a receipt. A debate ensued. It seemed quite strange to argue with a man dressed in an army uniform when there was an old Cinderalla clock displaying the wrong time on the wall... In the end I left the office and told Thanos and Stergios that the man wanted money. We sat in the sun for around an hour, talking with different officials trying to get through but with no luck. In the end they produced a receipt. I'm not convinced it was legit.
 Another official who asked for money was the man who issued the entry stamp. He demanded 10 euros off each of us. Stergios and Thanos then went in the their 'we are Greek routine' which mainly consists of talking/shouting rapidly about how they don't have any money because of the financial crisis 'we are looking for work, look at our bikes!' etc. Despite the official holding my British passport I just played along with being Greek and looked around the room wondering who had thrown food all over the walls and why nobody had bothered to clean it up during all the years it had been there. After a while the official got pretty fed up with Thanos and Stergios and told us to just go, waving his arms... but demanded that we should give him a present. Thanos gave him a can of melon milk and a T-shirt.

The last part of money extortion cut into me the most, and that was getting my bike into the country without a Carnet. A Carnet is basically a very expensive document that acts as a passport for your vehicle, showing the relevant authorities that you will not be selling your vehicle in the country as the Carnet is bound to your bank balance and requires both entry and exit stamps to make it complete, and therefore you get your money back when its returned. However, I paid £450 for my bike and had it valued as such, yet the RAC, the only company in Britain which issues a Carnet said they would only value it at £1000. They also inflate import charges of certain countries and don't let you use your own bank as an insurance indemnity... in the end I would have been around £800 down of non-refundable money and £1600 down until I returned my fully completed Carnet or I had to extend it after a year for more ££££. I told them where to go and decided to take my chances without one. £40 down for a temporary import permit at one of Africa's most corrupt and expensive borders isn't bad. We were picked apart as a group though, as Stergios and Thanos both have Carnets (Totally free from sponsors!) and the officials saw this as a weak spot. They made Stergios and Thanos buy a passavant when they didn't need to (but none the wiser at the time) and probably overcharged me for mine. When it was all finished the official said 'Tourism is good for Senegal.' The place is a mess.

After five hours from when we first entered the border we were ready to leave, then my bike played the same trick it did at the Mauritanian border and refused to start. We changed to spark plug, that didn't work. We checked both spark plugs to see if they both would spark and they did.We tried to push start the bike and that didn't work either. By this point the sun was starting to set and we had 40 km to go until we reached the camp site. It became clear that the only thing we could do was for Thanos to tow me. We strapped a cord round by handle bars and set off at tentative and nerve racking 20 mph to the camp site. I was very happy that I was travelling with other people at this time. I would have been in a very difficult situation if I was stuck at the border on my own with a bike that refused to start.
 When darkness came we were still 20 km away from our destination. It wasn't fun been towed, every time Thanos had to slow down for goats, children or police checkpoints it was hard to make the cord not become slack and then jolt the bike forward. On the last occasion the cord slackened and then wrapped around my front basket, Thanos accelerated and it pulled my bike to the ground as I shouted and kicked at the road to stop me crashing. We stopped and agreed it was too dangerous to carry on like this. Cosmically this happened just outside a mechanics who ran over to see if he could help. He did some checks and said there was no compression and that the main piston had gone. A different mechanic who I saw in Nouakchott said the same things and on both time my heart sank and I felt sick. I had a new (well, old, and I don't know how many miles were on it) put in in Spain and for it to go again was a hard blow. He then put in another Spark plug and managed to get the bike going. I was so relieved I called him a fucking bastard and gave him a hug (I hope he didn't take offence) and tried to give him some money but since I only had Euro's he didn't want anything. Which was quite ironic as his name was Euro, Mr Euro.    

We made it to the camp site later that night after been on the road and dealing with the borders for around 12 hours. We were tired and needed to celebrate getting through Diama. It was a place owned by a German couple, Sven and Christine and they gave us a welcome beer each. We ate and drank until the moon passed out of sight through the thatched straw roof. It got until around 1:30 in the morning when I went to the beach hiccuping and had a swim under the stars feeling amazed that I'd managed to ride a moped to Senegal.

The next morning we rode our bikes into the centre of St Louis in search of food and provisions. Thanos was in the lead and came to a halt when we got to the main roundabout. Instantly a policeman came over and demanded us to get to the side of the road. I'd heard of this guy before from the internet, an infamous policeman on the roundabout of St Louis who will charge you with anything to get you to pay a bribe. It dawned on me that I was foolishly riding without any shred of documentation on me. He asked Thanos for his papers and I realised we were going to get fucked. I was a little thankful that Thanos wasn't carrying his passavant too so all the blame wasn't on me. When he came over to me and shouted 'papers!' I just replied

'I do have everything, but they're back at the camp site, just not on me.'

'Bah, this is impossible!'

'No no, its quite true. We can go back and get them all now to show you.'

'No! you need to come back to the station now! All of you! You have to follow me.'

He then got into a taxi which looked to be a few decades past its last MOT and made us ride behind it to the police station whilst his stupid fat head was stuck out of the window glaring at us.
 It was now round two for the 'We are Greek routine' of shouting that we don't have any money until they were sick of us. I never felt I could really join in with pretending to be Greek and financially doomed by a continuing crises, but I played along with it. I was quite surprised by Thanos's reaction though. He's a quiet man, but as soon as we got into the station he started bellowing 'I have Malaria! I need to go to Hospital! We need to go to Dakar!' continuously until the policeman at the desk raised up his hands for him to stop. He didn't, but seeing as I was the one with zero documents and Thanos was only minus one the police decided to let Thanos and Stergios off, literally push them out of the room and demanded that I sit on the bench until I pay. Regardless of the fact that I had no money in my pocket at all, I wasn't going to pay. I have more time than I have money so I was willing to wait it out. I told them that I wasn't going to pay anything and that I was just going to wait until they let me go or stay there forever and then lay down on the bench. It was bad enough to have been arrested on my first morning in Senegal, but all this happened before breakfast... and as my friends and family can vouch, I'm not the most easy going person in the world when I'm hungry.
 After about 10 minutes Stergios and Thanos burst through the doors and demanded that the police come and look at our bikes to prove that we are not rich. The policeman agreed to this, and we all left the station. He took a long look at my bike, the 85cc moped, stolen shopping basket on the front, covered in mud and dust, windscreen snapped off, front fairing scratched to pieces, indicator held on with duct tape. He demanded that I open up my back box. I oblige and reveal a pile of tatty, oil stained and scrunched up clothes.

'Okay fine you can go!' and he turned away with a look of anger and frustration. My bike is an absolute tool for freedom!

For the next two weeks we stayed at the same camp ground. Christmas and New year were on the way and I had my bike to sort out so it made sense to stay in the same place. Budget accommodation is rare in Senegal too, and this place was beautiful and well within our price range.    
 I met some nice people there, other overlanders with tips and stories or occasionally even gifts to 'help out the crazy guy on the moped.' One guy, Jean, gave me a silver cool-bag which fits perfectly into my front basket. This makes unpacking so much easier. Jean was travelling with a group of Dutch people but was originally from Romania and was taken aback when I started speaking in Romanian to him. Him and his Dutch friends bought me dinner on New Years Eve and even bought two of my paintings. So I now have a stash of Euro's. So much more useful out here than the American Dollars that I took with me.
 It was a nice two weeks, even having to have my bike fixed was kind of refreshing as its good to know how easily it can be fixed. But after being on the road for months where every day is intense its easy to slumber down and become slow when you stop moving. Especially when your living right next to a palm tree beach and the temperature mid day can get up to 38c.

To the mechanics. Not the best sight to see on a Christmas morning.

Christmas dinner! A better sight on a Christmas morning was watching a huge Senegalese man walking out of the ocean carrying two huge fish by the gills. This is what we did with one of them. Christmas doesn't really exist in Senegal, nor in the Arab world much, and I have to admit, it was nice to not have Christmas smashed into my face this year. Very refreshing.

New years eve bonfire.

If you don't have fireworks... Just let off a flare instead!

The biggest overland vehicle that I've seen so far. This thing uses 20 litres of fuel per 100 km. On a good road I can use 2.

A typical sunset view from the camp site.

Sven and Christine. Two great people who run the ground, 7 Palava. If there are any people reading this who are thinking about going to Senegal then I'd strongly recommend  to look these guys up. Good budget accommodation is in short supply in Senegal.

The day came when it was time to get back on the road again, and we had our destination - Bamako in Mali. Thanos however, had decided not to join us. I think he didn't want to go further into Africa, for whatever reason, so as me and Stergios headed East into the African bush, Thanos turned his Vespa around and rode back to Greece.

 It was exciting to set off on the road again, especially with a travel partner. I considered myself to be in the 'real Africa' from the first day that we hit road. We would ride past Baobab trees, little villages dotted around the countryside with little huts made out of sticks with thatched straw roofs. It was always easy to find a camping spot in the bush. Every time we found a place we would inevitably bump into some locals, but all they were interested in doing was shaking our hands with a smile. I'd never felt so welcomed by a country before. Practically every person we saw by the side of the road or every settlement that we passed people would wave. Sometimes children would run along side the bikes waving and screaming. Peoples smiles were infectious. Yet after a long day on the bike in the sun we preferred to find somewhere out of the way to camp and settle in for the night in quiet.
 On one night we found a camp that was around 1 km away from a village. The place was dotted with shrub bushes which were infested by locust. All you had to do was to walk near the bush and a cloud of insects would spring into the air and glide around until they dropped into another bush, or into your tent. We went to sleep that night with the sound of the village chanting rhythmic songs into the night. The sound of the singing was gorgeous, and accompanied with the sound of chirping crickets and the occasional locust banging against my tent it was hard not a have a smile on my face when I went to sleep that night.
 In the morning a man came over from the village with his family, from what I could gather he was collecting wood to make new doors for his house, which explained the huge machete. He was very happy to meet us and managed to shake my hand eight times in around ten minutes. Impressive.

During the week of making our way through Senegal the landscape changed from the dry, arid and dusty land that I'd been used to travelling in for the last two months into a more semi tropical lush green environment. After a week of constant days of riding in the heat, packing and unpacking and living without a shower we decided it would be good to have a break. We found a river on the map that was in our direction and headed to it with the thought of cold water to spare in our minds. It wasn't quite the Gambie river I had in mind. More like a tributary, but our little jungle camp was like a place of boyhood dreams about visiting the jungle. We stayed there for two days, washing, eating, painting and resting.
 On each evening a Senegalese man on a bicycle came to our camp with a net, said hello and then followed the track down to the river to fish. He didn't have any luck on the first night but on the second he scored big. He came back up the hill with a 4 ft catfish with a huge gaping mouth with whiskers and a sack with 5 other fish in. I went over to have a look at the catfish and he indicated if we wanted the other small ones. I tried to give him some money but he didn't want any... just a handshake.
 With all the good things that came with jungle camp, the comfort, free food and flowing water, each night was pretty restless. I thought we were going to get attacked on one occasion as a troop of monkeys on the other side of the river would go absolutely mental during the nights. They sounded big too. On the day we left the camp we rode through a nature reserve and stopped for a break. Each car that drove past beeped their horn and we got the feeling that it probably wasn't a good idea to stop... then we noticed the baboons massing on the other side of the road. I really didn't realise we were in baboon territory.

Mr hand shake man.


Sleeping by a Baobab tree.

Jungle camp tent.

Senegalese hospitality.

I think that may have been my first hot meal where no money at all was spent on making it.

The end of the tarmac.

Not many traffic lights in Senegal but these make for frequent stops.

After eight days on the road we had made our way through Senegal. Aside from the borders and the policeman on the St Louis roundabout I've never felt so welcome in a country before. The place is stunning in a lot of ways. Its a shame about the politics though. The country has very little natural resources and has a huge potential for tourism, yet even though the president went on state television recently promoting tourism for the country they still do nothing to make it easier for tourists. With the corrupt borders and the nonsensical policies for bringing your own vehicle into the country such as only issuing a vehicle permit for 5% the length of your visa (which we managed to swindle) it does make travelling there a challenge. Its expensive too. I can pay more buying general items when I go food shopping in Senegal than what I do in England as everything is imported. What doesn't make sense about this though is that petrol is cheaper in Mali than what it is in Senegal, yet all the fuel that gets imported to Mali goes through Dakar. So someone's getting rich somewhere whilst the food prices sore above the reach of most of the population. Senegal is ranked in the top ten of the most corrupt countries in the world. The former president is now in prison as he was found to have over one billion euros in foreign bank accounts, whilst children of his country wander the streets shoeless and begging for money. It's sad. Its looking like this will be the general theme during my time in Africa though.

So as Senegal came to an end we were preparing to cross into my ninth country of the journey so far, Mali
I must admit, it was exciting to be entering a country which came with a big red warning box this big on the wikitravel website.

The border was the easiest one I've done outside of Europe. No bribery, no chaos, in and out within an hour. The guys at the border post were amazed that I'd managed to ride a moped from England to Mali. I was more amazed that the border post was just a hut made out of sticks which didn't even have a light bulb.

I think Mali is turning out to be one of my favourite countries of the journey so far. It might be because of all the warnings and the media scare stories which gives the place a powerful sense but makes it all the better when you realise its just fine here. My embassy says I shouldn't going out into Bamako without an armed escort. In reality I shouldn't go out into Bamako without been prepared to shake uncountable hands and to be greeted with many welcomes. You really can't tell that there is trouble going on in the North of the country... not by any signs of hostility anyway. However, the place which we are camping in is next door the the German embassy which has recently further fortified its walls and even set up anti-tank blockades. On the other hand there's a French guy here who's cycled from Norway and a local tried to give him money as a thanks for what the French military have done with fighting the extremists in the North.
 This place is very relaxed, the roads are hilarious, very friendly people and there's always some form of good music blasting out from a corner somewhere.

 My welcome meal into Mali which has become my staple on most days. Around 60p!

First camp site in Mali. A barren, burnt landscape dotted with strange insect made structures. In the morning a wild bull came into the camp and nearly charged us down.

Overlander village. Greek, French, Dutch, German, Slovenian and an English all on two wheels. I've discovered that motorcyclists and cyclists have more in common than motorcyclists and 4 wheeled travellers. Mainly due to the fact that we are always outside. I'm proud that out of all these modes of transport, including the bicycles that mine is still the cheapest, even with all my repairs.

I've been staying at a place called the 'Sleeping Camel' for the best part of the last two weeks, sorting visas, onward travel details, making friends and contacts and fixing my bike. I'm getting bored now of writing about my bike problems, but one thing has become clear over the too oft issues is that, although I perhaps left England naively thinking that my bike won't have any major problems, I am now fully confident that the thing can fixed very easily and cheaply out here. Its good that I'm riding on a bike which started a legacy of two wheeled, easy and economic travel around the world, as now the Chinese have flooded the market with bikes that are based on mine. I can find parts anywhere and can even bolt on a new engine if it came to it. For this reason I'm glad that I chose this bike, even with Stergios comment ' of course your going to have problems... you left England on a 24 year old bike to travel over the hardest terrain in the world on a bike that was designed to do your shopping on around town.' If you put it that way its a poor choice. But as Sven said on Christmas morning as we drove the bike to the mechanics in the back of a Toyota pickup 'Any vehicle travelling over land like you will have a problem eventually, no matter how big or expensive it is, everything breaks... but the bigger the vehicle the bigger the problem, the smaller the vehicle the smaller the problem.' 

We ride for Burkina Faso in the beginning of next week, then Ghana, Togo and Benin. Then its into the progressively real and ever more daunting prospect of crossing that looming obstacle, Nigeria.


  1. What an interesting read. Greetings from Arizona! Yesterday, I was visiting an auto exhibit and saw a Honda Motorcycle that had been ridden around the world. It had the look of a road warrior. However, it was a touring bike not a Honda 90. I did a web search tonight to read about it and stumbled across your site. Wow. Embarking on a journey of this magnitude and relying on a minimalistic vehicle - actually a handicap that makes the attempt harder than traveling on a bicycle (easier to support in remote areas).

    My comments:

    I would find it fascinating to hear about the logistics and the planning aspects of the trip. Also, the expectations of the different legs of the trip and the differences you saw as to what you expected.

    Your comment about "the smaller the vehicle - the smaller the problem", I'd like to get some feedback in your blog about the recurring mechanical problems and how you learned to overcome them. This trip is a learning experience on several levels. You will acquire an education in areas that the University education you received never covered. You will encounter the worst and best in people. You will see things that you could never have thought of. You will experience the "edge" of life.

    Feel free to document it. Share your thoughts and education. I've bookmarked your site.

    Stay safe and trust your gut feelings.

    Best, Dave

    1. Hi Dave. Have you got an email address? I've written you a reply but its longer than 4,096 characters so I cant publish it.


    2. Hi Liam,
      Been busy and just got back to read about your adventures. Interesting reading. My E-mail? You bet. It's . I'm on Google+

  2. Hi mate. Thanks for that.

    I'm currently writing a book about my African experience which is basically one giant elaboration. But if you want to know something specific about something you can send me an email with a question (s) and I'll be happy to answer.